Tuesday

Dec. 8, 2009

Starlings in Winter

by Mary Oliver

Chunky and noisy,
but with stars in their black feathers,
they spring from the telephone wire
and instantly

they are acrobats
in the freezing wind.
And now, in the theater of air,
they swing over buildings,

dipping and rising;
they float like one stippled star
that opens,
becomes for a moment fragmented,

then closes again;
and you watch
and you try
but you simply can't imagine

how they do it
with no articulated instruction, no pause,
only the silent confirmation
that they are this notable thing,

this wheel of many parts, that can rise and spin
over and over again,
full of gorgeous life.
Ah, world, what lessons you prepare for us,

even in the leafless winter,
even in the ashy city.
I am thinking now
of grief, and of getting past it;

I feel my boots
trying to leave the ground,
I feel my heart
pumping hard, I want

to think again of dangerous and noble things.
I want to be light and frolicsome.
I want to be improbable beautiful and afraid of nothing,
as though I had wings.

"Starlings in Winter" by Mary Oliver, from Owls and Other Fantasies: Poems and Essays. © Beacon Press, 2003. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of the Roman poet Horace, (books by this author) born on this day in Venusia, in southern Italy (65 B.C.E.). His father was a former slave, but by the time Horace came along, he was well-off and had a lot of money to spend on his talented son. He sent him to Rome as a boy, and then to Athens to learn philosophy and literature.

He is probably best known for his Odes, which he began publishing in 23 B.C.E., often considered the best lyric poetry ever written in Latin. He also coined some famous phrases that we still use, like Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori, which roughly translates as "It is sweet and honorable to die for one's country," and carpe diem, "seize the day."

It's the birthday of cartoonist and short-story writer James Thurber, (books by this author) born in Columbus, Ohio (1894). He went to Ohio State but never graduated, worked in the State Department, then settled into a career at The Columbus Dispatch. And he might have stayed in Columbus, except that he had married a very ambitious young woman who thought they should get out of Ohio, so they went to Paris and then wound up in New York City. He sent a story to The New Yorker, and it was rejected; he tried again and was rejected again, and so on. But after 20 rejections, he finally got an acceptance letter, and The New Yorker ended up hiring him for a permanent staff position. They didn't have a lot of room, though, so he shared a small office with E.B. White, and the two men were good friends, and they wrote a book together, a parody of sex manuals called Is Sex Necessary? (1929), featuring James Thurber's illustrations. It became a best-seller and launched Thurber's career in cartooning as well as writing.

About pieces he was working on, he said: "I often tell them at parties and places. And I write them there too. … I never quite know when I'm not writing. Sometimes my wife comes up to me at a party and says, 'Dammit, Thurber, stop writing.' She usually catches me in the middle of a paragraph. Or my daughter will look up from the dinner table and ask, 'Is he sick?' 'No,' my wife says, 'he's writing something.'"

It's the birthday of novelist Mary Gordon, (books by this author) born in Far Rockaway, New York (1949). She went to college at Barnard, got a master's in writing and then went to work on a Ph.D. on Virginia Woolf. She was almost finished with it but she felt like it was compromising her fiction writing. And eventually it was actually Virginia Woolf who inspired Gordon to quit her dissertation. She said she would take notes on Woolf's writing and "the rhythms of those incredible sentences — the repetitions, the caesuras, the potent colons, semicolons. I knew it was what I wanted to do."

Since then she has published many novels as well as short stories, memoirs, and essays, including Final Payments (1978), The Company of Women (1980), Temporary Shelter (1987), Pearl(2005), and most recently, Reading Jesus (2009), which came out in October. In it, she writes about the story Jesus tells of the Prodigal Son.

It's the birthday of Bill Bryson, (books by this author) born in Des Moines, Iowa (1951). He went to college for a couple of years, then decided to backpack across Europe before coming back to school. Eventually, he went back to the U.S. to finish college, but then he came back to Britain and worked as a copy editor and started writing books. He's the author of many books of nonfiction — some travel books like Notes From a Small Island (1995), about Britain, and A Walk in the Woods (1998), about hiking the Appalachian Trail; books about language, like The Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way (1990); and about science, like A Short History of Nearly Everything (2003).

Bill Bryson wrote:

Is there anything, apart from a really good chocolate cream pie and receiving a large unexpected check in the post, to beat finding yourself at large in a foreign city on a fair spring evening, loafing along unfamiliar streets in the long shadows of a lazy sunset, pausing to gaze in shop windows or at some church or lovely square or tranquil stretch of quayside, hesitating at street corners to decide whether that cheerful and homey restaurant you will remember fondly for years is likely to lie down this street or that one? I just love it. I could spend my life arriving each evening in a new city.

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

 









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