Friday

Jun. 20, 2008

I Knew a Woman

by Theodore Roethke

I knew a woman, lovely in her bones,
When small birds signed, she would sigh back at them;
Ah, when she moved, she moved more ways than one:
The shapes a bright container can contain!
Of her choice virtues only gods should speak,
Or English poets who grew up on Greek
(I'd have them sing in chorus, cheek to cheek).

How well her wishes went! She stroked my chin,
She taught me Turn, and Counter-turn, and Stand;
She taught me Touch, that undulant white skin;
I nibbled meekly from her proffered hand;
She was the sickle; I, poor I, the rake,
Coming behind her for her pretty sake
(But what prodigious mowing we did make).

Love likes a gander, and adores a goose:
Her full lips pursed, the errant note to seize;
She played it quick, she played it light and loose;
My eyes, they dazzled at her flowing knees;
Her several parts could keep a pure repose,
Or one hip quiver with a mobile nose
(She moved in circles, and those circles moved).

Let seed be grass, and grass turn into hay:
I'm martyr to a motion not my own;
What's freedom for? To know eternity.
I swear she cast a shadow white as stone.
But who would count eternity in days?
These old bones live to learn her wanton ways:
(I measure time by how a body sways.)

"I Knew A Woman" by Theodore Roethke, from The Collected Poems of Theodore Roethke. © Anchor Press/ Doubleday, Garden City, New York, 1975. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of poet and novelist Vikram Seth, (books by this author) born in Calcutta, India (1952), the son of a successful shoe salesman and the first woman chief justice on the High Court of Delhi. Like many other sons of affluent Indian families, he was sent to boarding school in England. After studying philosophy, politics, and economics at Oxford, he moved to California and did a master's degree in economics at Stanford. He was particularly interested in Chinese culture, and started a dissertation called "Seven Chinese Villages: An Economic and Demographic Portrait."

Then one day, after he had spent the morning entering economic data of Chinese villages into a computer database, he decided he "couldn't stand it anymore" and walked into the Stanford bookstore and pulled a few volumes of poetry off the shelves. One of them was an excellent translation of Eugene Onegin, Pushkin's novel written in verse. Seth said, "I was so astonished by it, and so affected by it, that I decided that rather than continue working on my dissertation I would take time off to write a novel using the same stanza form, but set in California. I didn't realize then that I would never finish my dissertation; I thought it was a temporary time out."

The work he set out to write became The Golden Gate, published in 1986, a masterpiece that was 1,300 pages long and consisted of more than 8,000 tetrameter rhymed lines. Set mostly in San Francisco, it was called by Gore Vidal "the great California novel" and gave a sort of poetic analysis of the 1980s young urban professional — "yuppie" — culture.

In it, he wrote:

"... Silicon Valley
Lures to ambition's ulcer alley
Young graduates with siren screams
Of power and wealth beyond their dreams,
Ejects the lax, and drives the driven,
Burning their candles at both ends.
Thus files take precedence over friends."

He finished Golden Gate while living in California, then returned home to India to write his next novel. He thought it would take him a year to finish, but the project expanded and spanned on for several years, and he spent most of his 30s living in his childhood bedroom at his parents' house in India. He said, "I'm not sure my parents were comfortable with me coming home. But they put up with it." He said his mother told him, "You can eat with us. ... You can have a bed. And we will try to fend off our neighbours' curiosity. And in the evening, you and your father can have a glass of whisky."

In 1993, he published his first novel in prose, another huge and ambitious volume, A Suitable Boy, about an intelligent independent Hindu girl who is determined to marry a man of her own choosing rather than be part of an arranged marriage. At 1,349 pages long, it's one of the longest novels to have been written in the English language, and in the opening dedication, Seth playfully inscribed, "Buy me before good sense insists / You'll strain your purse and sprain your wrists."

It's the birthday of American playwright Lillian Hellman, (books by this author) born in New Orleans (1905). Her first big success was The Children's Hour — which premiered on Broadway in 1934 — about a pompous boarding school child who damaged the reputations of the two school directors by accusing them of being lesbians. The play was banned in many places, including Boston and Chicago. Hellman later adapted the play for film, changing the scandalous relationship into a love triangle, and it came out as These Three in 1936.

She wrote several volumes of memoirs, including An Unfinished Woman (1969), about her New Orleans childhood; Pentimento (1973), which inspired a film; and Scoundrel Time (1976), which included an account of her testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee.

Hellman said, "People change and forget to tell each other."

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®

 









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