Wednesday

Oct. 28, 2009

The Sum of A Man

by Norah Pollard

In autumn,
facing the end of his life,
he moved in with me.
We piled his belongings—
his army-issue boots, knife magazines,
Steely Dan tapes, his grinder, drill press,
sanders, belts and hacksaws—
in a heap all over the living room floor.
For two weeks he walked around the mess.

One night he stood looking down at it all
and said: "The sum total of my existence."
Emptiness in his voice.

Soon after, as if the sum total
needed to be expanded, he began to place
things around in the closets and spaces I'd
cleared for him, and when he'd finished
setting up his workshop in the cellar, he said,
"I should make as many knives as I can,"
and he began to work.

The months plowed on through a cold winter.
In the evenings, we'd share supper, some tale
of family, some laughs, perhaps a walk in the snow.
Then he'd nip back down into the cellar's keep
To saw and grind and polish,
creating his beautiful knives
until he grew too weak to work.
But still he'd slip down to stand at his workbench
and touch his woods
and run his hand over his lathe.

One night he came up from the cellar
and stood in the kitchen's warmth
and, shifting his weight
from one foot to the other, said,
"I love my workshop."
Then he went up to bed.

He's gone now.
It's spring. It's been raining for weeks.
I go down to his shop and stand in the dust
of ground steel and shavings of wood.
I think on how he'd speak of his dying, so
easily, offhandedly, as if it were
a coming anniversary or
an appointment with the moon.
I touch his leather apron, folded for all time,
and his glasses set upon his work gloves.
I take up an unfinished knife and test its heft,
and feel as well the heft of my grief for
this man, this brother I loved,
the whole of him so much greater
than the sum of his existence.

"The Sum of Man" by Norah Pollard, from Death & Rapture in the Animal Kingdom. © Antrim House, 2009. Reprinted with permission.

It's the birthday of John Hewitt, (books by this author) born in Belfast (1907) to a Methodist family. Born the same year as Louis MacNeice, he was one of the most important Irish poets from a generation that followed W.B. Yeats's and preceded Seamus Heaney's. He directed an art gallery for most of his adult life, and it wasn't until he retired and was in his mid-60s that he became an intensely productive poet.

He was a peace activist, a socialist, a dissenter, and a romantic lyricist. He was particularly interested in exploring Ulster (Northern Irish) identity, in finding threads that were common to Catholics and Protestants, Scottish, English, and Irish, by virtue of their shared region: the six counties that make up the northern part of the island of Ireland. He said that "regionalism is based on the conviction that as man is a social being, he must, now that the nation has become an enormously complicated organisation, find some smaller unit to which to give his loyalty."

His poetry collections include Conacre (1943), The Day of the Corncrake: Poems of the Nine Glens (1969), The Rain Dance (1978), and Loose Ends (1983). There's a pub named after him in Belfast, and it's run by the Belfast Unemployed Resource Centre, which Hewitt founded.

On this day 133 years ago (in 1876), author Lewis Carroll (books by this author) wrote the following letter from Christ Church, Oxford:

My Dearest Gertrude:
You will be sorry, and surprised, and puzzled, to hear what a queer illness I have had ever since you went. I sent for the doctor, and said, "Give me some medicine, for I'm tired." He said, "Nonsense and stuff! You don't want medicine: go to bed!"

I said, "No; it isn't the sort of tiredness that wants a bed. I'm tired in the face." He looked a little grave, and said, "Oh, it's your nose that's tired: a person often talks too much when he thinks he nose a great deal." I said, "No, it isn't the nose. Perhaps it's the hair." Then he looked rather grave, and said, "Now I understand: you've been playing too many hairs on the pianoforte."

"No, indeed I haven't!" I said, "and it isn't exactly the hair: it's more about the nose and chin." Then he looked a good deal graver, and said, "Have you been walking much on your chin lately?" I said, "No." "Well!" he said, "it puzzles me very much. Do you think that it's in the lips?" "Of course!" I said. "That's exactly what it is!"

Then he looked very grave indeed, and said, "I think you must have been giving too many kisses." "Well," I said, "I did give one kiss to a baby child, a little friend of mine." "Think again," he said: "are you sure it was only one?" I thought again, and said, "Perhaps it was eleven times." Then the doctor said, "You must not give her any more till your lips are quite rested again." "But what am I to do? I said, "because you see, I owe her a hundred and eighty-two more." Then he looked so grave that the tears ran down his cheeks, and he said, "You may send them to her in a box."

Then I remembered a little box that I once bought at Dover, and thought I would some day give it to some little girl or other. So I have packed them all in it very carefully. Tell me if they come safe or if any are lost on the way."

Lewis Carroll first met Gertrude Chataway when she was nine years old, at an English seaside resort on the Isle of Wight. She was fascinated with the delightful stories that he told her while they sat on wooden steps above the seashore. His book The Hunting of the Snark was inspired by Gertrude Chataway and dedicated to her. It opens with an acrostic poem that spells out her name:
Girt with a boyish garb for boyish task,
Eager she wields her spade: yet loves as well
Rest on a friendly knee, intent to ask
The tale he loves to tell. Rude spirits of the seething outer strife,
Unmeet to read her pure and simple spright,
Deem, if you list, such hours a waste of life,
Empty of all delight!

It's the birthday of British satirist Evelyn Waugh, (books by this author) born in London (1903). He came from a literary family: His father was the managing editor of an important British publishing house, and his older brother was a distinguished writer. But Waugh didn't do well in school, and he left Oxford without receiving a degree. He tried working as a teacher, but he got fired from three schools in two years. He said, "I was from the first an obvious dud." He was seriously in debt, without a job, and had just been rejected by the girl he liked, so he decided to drown himself in the ocean. He wrote a suicide note and jumped in the sea, but before he got very far, he was stung by a jellyfish. He scrambled back to shore, tore up his suicide note, and decided to give life a second chance.

He didn't know what else to do, so he wrote a novel about a young teacher at a private school where the other teachers are all drunks, child molesters, and escaped convicts; and the mother of one student is running an international prostitution ring. His publishers forced him to preface the book with a disclaimer that said, "Please bear in mind throughout that it is meant to be funny." The novel, Decline and Fall, was published in 1928, and it was immediately recognized as a masterpiece of modern satire.

It's the birthday of poet John Hollander, (books by this author) born in New York City (1929). He originally wanted to be a humor writer, and he's known for the quirky themes he chooses for his poetry collections. His book Reflections on Espionage: The Question of Cupcake (1976) is a long poem about a master spy who transmits coded messages to other secret agents. His collection Types of Shape (1968) is a series of poems that are arranged on the page so that the words form pictures of things, like a key, a cup, or a swan reflected in water. His 13th collection of poems was Powers of Thirteen (1983), which is broken up into thirteen sections of 13 poems. Each poem has 13 lines and each line has 13 syllables.

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

 









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