Mar. 14, 2007

The Stones at Callinish, Isle of Lewis

by Roger Mitchell

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Poem: "The Stones at Callinish, Isle of Lewis" by Roger Mitchell, from Half/Mask. © The University of Akron Press. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

The Stones at Callinish, Isle of Lewis

A boarded-up hotel beside
a fishing pier, a pub. Above them both,
a church crouched on a hill. Whoever brought
Christ to this desolate coast did it
with sword and fire, and it's not clear today
whether it took, or whether the slow seep
of centuries, the long winter nights,
would ever let anything be that wasn't
as sullen as the hill. The village
is that way, too. When you step outside,
there it is, the universe, all of it,
the glare of it pure, God's unshaven face
so close your skin rasps. Whoever raised
the stones did a good job of vanishing, too,
though the longer I stand here, the more
it seems it was deeper into the genes
they went, not just into the air.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of the photographer Diane Arbus, (books by this author) born Diane Nemerov in New York City (1923). She's known for her photographs of prostitutes, transvestites, the deformed, and the mentally disabled. She said, "A photograph is a secret about a secret. The more it tells you the less you know."

It's the birthday of the playwright and screenwriter Horton Foote, (books by this author) born in Wharton, Texas (1916). He's best known for writing the screenplays for movies such as To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) and Tender Mercies (1983). He also won a Pulitzer Prize for drama for his play The Young Man from Atlanta (1995).

It's the birthday of the novelist and humorist Max Shulman, born in St. Paul, Minnesota (1919). He grew up during the Great Depression, and he said, "I turned early to humor as my branch of writing ... [because] life was bitter and I was not."

It's the birthday of Sylvia Beach, (books by this author) born in Baltimore, Maryland (1887). She founded an English-language bookstore and lending library on Paris's Left Bank called Shakespeare & Company. It became a central feature of the Parisian literary scene of the 1920s, as it opened just as the "lost generation" discovered Paris. It became "the unofficial living room" of the expatriate artists there. Writers used it as a meeting place, a post office, and a place for guidance with their writing.

She met James Joyce in 1920, just as he as finishing his novel Ulysses. When all the major publishers in Europe and America decided that it was too obscene to publish, Sylvia Beach said she'd publish it, even though she'd never published a book before.

Beach had to contact a printer and get people to buy advanced copies to fund the cost. Because she had no editors, she edited the enormous manuscript herself, and managed to get the novel published before James Joyce's birthday, February 2, 1922.

It's the birthday of the physicist Albert Einstein, (books by this author) born in Ulm, Germany (1879). He was home-schooled for the early part of his life, and when he finally went to school with the other children, his teachers thought he was developmentally disabled. He refused to study any subject he didn't find interesting. The only subjects he did find interesting were math and philosophy. One teacher tried to have him expelled because all he did in class was sit in the back of the room smiling. He finally dropped out at the age of 16.

He went to a technical college in Zurich to study physics, but he often missed classes and only passed his final examination because his friend let him borrow all his lecture notes and was the only member of his class not to receive an assistant professorship. He was planning to get married, and suddenly he didn't have any way to make a living. So he took a job at the Swiss patent office.

His job was to evaluate patent applications and determine whether the inventions described would actually work. He found that it was the perfect job for him. He didn't have to bring any work home at night, when he was free to work on his own theories about physics. He was removed enough from the scientific community that he didn't worry about whether his theories were fashionable or important. He just worked on the problems he found most interesting. Above all, he was interested in finding some law that could explain all the forces in the universe.

One night the spring of 1905, Einstein went to bed feeling extremely frustrated because he hadn't been able to solve any of the problems he'd been working on for weeks. The following morning, he woke up and suddenly everything made sense. He said, "It was as if a storm broke loose in my mind."

Einstein spent the next several weeks writing a paper on his theory, which came to be called the Special Theory of Relativity. That same year, 1905, Einstein published three more papers, each of which was just as revolutionary as the first, including the paper that included his most famous equation: E = mc2.

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