Jul. 2, 2009

Terms of Endearment

by Sue Ellen Thompson

Sweet biscuit of my life,
I've been thinking of your smile
and how I'd steal a little bite
of it if you were here; of the delights

I've known in the alleyway between
the whitewashed storefronts of your teeth;
of how I've pressed one smithereen
after another of mille-feuille, mousseline

of late-night conversation upon your lips,
forever poised at the brink of kissdom,
their slightest sigh enough to lift
a tableskirt. Perfectest pumpkin

in the patch, your heft on mine
is what I crave, your brows so fine
I could not carve them with a steak knife.
You have the acorn eyes

of the football season, the ass
of an autumn afternoon, of boys en masse
in soccer shorts. Yours is the vast
contained candescence of a Titian under glass,

it is the gold leaf laid
by February sun, the lemonade's
pale wash in August. Should you fade,
like sun on windowsills crocheted

with shadow, then suddenly gone dark,
your face will leave its watermark
upon this page, which is already part
of love's confection, our little work of art.

Terms of Endearment" by Sue Ellen Thompson, from The Leaving: New and Selected Poems. © Autumn House Press, 2001. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of Nobel Prize-winning author Hermann Hesse, (books by this author) born in Calw, a village in the Black Forest of Germany (1877). He's the author of the novels Siddhartha (1922), Steppenwolf (1929), and The Glass Bead Game (1943), as well as a large body of poetry.

His family moved to Switzerland, and then back to Germany, and Hesse enrolled in a Protestant seminary there. But he was miserable and would run away from school and hide out overnight in nearby fields. He tried to commit suicide, and was transferred from one psychiatric ward to another. Eventually, he got a job at a bookshop, where he spent 12 hours a day sorting through volumes of philosophy and theology, shipping some out and putting others in archives. At night, he went home and wrote poetry. He got his first collection of poems, Romantic Songs, published in 1898, but it was a dismal failure, selling only 54 copies over two years. But the publisher saw potential in the 22-year-old Hesse and encouraged him to keep writing.

At 27, he published his first novel, Peter Camenzind, and from then on, he was able to earn a living entirely from writing. He took a trip to India and started studying Eastern religions, and ancient Hindu and Chinese cultures. This knowledge and interest are evident in his novel Siddhartha (1922), a story about Buddha's rebellion against tradition and his quest for enlightenment. The novel was translated into English and published in the United States in 1951, and it soon was incredibly popular among beatniks and others who subscribed to the American counterculture of the decades that followed. In Siddhartha, Hesse writes:

And he found: "It was the self, the purpose and essence of which I sought to learn. It was the self, I wanted to free myself from, which I sought to overcome. But I was not able to overcome it, could only deceive it, could only flee from it, only hide from it. Truly, no thing in this world has kept my thoughts thus busy, as this my very own self, this mystery of me being alive, of me being one and being separated and isolated from all others, of me being Siddhartha! And there is no thing in this world I know less about than about me, about Siddhartha!"

During World War I, Hesse's life was in constant turmoil. He had written an essay urging German intellectuals to not succumb to the propaganda of patriotism, and now found himself the target of hate mail. Friends denounced him, his wife became schizophrenic, his father died, his son became seriously ill, and his marriage dissolved, all within the span of a few years. Hesse started going to psychotherapy sessions with one of Carl Jung's assistants, and Hesse became acquainted with Carl Jung himself.

After the War, Hesse remarried and wrote Steppenwolf (1927). The current pope once listed Steppenwolf as one of his favorite books, saying it "exposes the problem of modernity's isolated and self-isolating man." Hesse became a Swiss citizen, and in 1931 he got married to a woman who had first written him a letter 20 years before, when she was only 14. They'd kept in touch and met by coincidence several years later. She was an art historian, and 23 years younger than he, and after they married and moved in together, he led a peaceful and happy life, although he was placed on the Nazi blacklist for helping political refugees during World War II. He won the Nobel Prize in 1946 and quit writing novels. But he did continue to write poems and newspaper articles until he died in his sleep at the age of 85 from leukemia, which he did not know he had.

Hesse said: "There is no reality except the one contained within us. That is why so many people live such an unreal life. They take the images outside them for reality and never allow the world within to assert itself."

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




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