Sep. 9, 2007

The Book of Hours

by Joyce Sutphen

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Poem: "The Book of Hours" by Joyce Sutphen. Used with permission of the author.

The Book of Hours

There was that one hour sometime
in the middle of the last century.
It was autumn, and I was in my father's
woods building a house out of branches
and the leaves that were falling like
thousands of letters from the sky.

And there was that hour in Central Park
in the middle of the seventies.
We were sitting on a blanket, listening
to Pete Seeger singing "This land is
your land, this land is my land," and
the Vietnam War was finally over.

I would definitely include an hour
spent in one of the galleries of the
Tate Britain, looking up at the
painting of King Cophetua and
the Beggar Maid, and, afterwards
the walk along the Thames, and

I would also include one of those
hours when I woke in the night and
couldn't get back to sleep thinking
about how nothing I thought was going
to happen happened the way I expected,
and things I never expected to happen did—

just like that hour today, when we saw
the dog running along the busy road,
and we stopped and held on to her
until her owner came along and brought
her home—that was an hour well
spent. Yes, that was a keeper.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy (books by this author), born on his family's estate in the province of Tula, near Moscow (1828). As a young man, he loved to drink and gamble, but he always felt guilty about it. He started keeping a diary, and wrote his first diary entry about his fear that he had contracted a venereal disease. He wrote pages and pages wondering why he couldn't help breaking all the rules that society had made for him, and he became fascinated by the idea that people are always trying to stop themselves from doing what they really want to do.

He volunteered to fight in a war against the Chechen mountain tribes, and went on to fight in the Crimean War. He wrote stories about the battles he witnessed, and he was one of the first writers to describe battles as chaotic and insane and meaningless. At the end of one story, he wrote that none of the characters in the story were heroes; the only hero in the story was the truth.

In the 1850s, Russia was still operating under a medieval economic system with most of the peasants enslaved as serfs. Tolstoy opened a school for peasants on his family's estate, and helped open more than 20 schools in surrounding villages. He even liked to live like a peasant, with no upholstered furniture and no carpets on the floor, something that disturbed his wife when she first married him. But it was in those early happy years of his marriage that Tolstoy wrote his first masterpiece, War and Peace (1868), about Russian war against Napoleon's invasion. It was the longest and most ambitious novel he'd ever written, and he was only willing to attempt it because he now had his wife to work as his secretary. He would scribble corrections all over a rough draft, and she was the only person who could decipher what his corrections said. She ultimately copied by hand the 1,400-page manuscript four times.

In 1872, Tolstoy heard about a woman who had thrown herself in front of a train after the end of an affair, and he went to view the body at the train station. He never forgot what he saw that day, and it gave him an idea for a novel about a woman whose life is destroyed by adultery. That novel was Anna Karenina (1875), about a beautiful, highly respected married woman named Anna who arrives at her brother's house to help him reconcile with his wife, only to find herself falling into an adulterous affair with a dashing military man named Count Vronsky. It begins, "All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."

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