Wednesday

Jun. 2, 2010

Peonies

by Jeanne Lohmann

Grandma called them pineys, and I didn't know why.
They smelled so good, the full lush petals
crowded thick, the whole flower heavy on its stem,
the leaves dark and rich and green as shade in Chatauqua Woods
where each spring I hunted for violets. What could there be
to pine for on this earth? Now I think maybe it was Missouri
she missed, and maybe that was what somebody she knew
called peonies there, before she traveled to Ohio,
a sixteen-year-old bride whose children came on as fast
as field crops and housework. Her flowers saved her,
the way they came up year after year and with only a bit of care
lived tender and pretty, each kind surprising,
keeping its own sweet secret: lily-of-the-valley, iris,
the feathery-leaved cosmos, lilacs in their white and purple curls,
flamboyant sweet peas and zinnias, the bright four o'clocks
and delphinium, blue as her eyes, and the soft peony flowers
edged deep pink. In her next life I want my grandmother
to walk slowly through the gardens in England and Kyoto.
I want to be there when she recognizes the flowers
and smiles, when she kneels and takes the pineys in her hands.

"Peonies" by Jeanne Lohmann, from Calls from a Lighted House. © Fithian Press, 2007. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of novelist Barbara Pym, (books by this author) born in Oswestry, England (1913). Growing up, she wanted to be a writer. She went to Oxford, and then she settled back home in Oswestry and wrote a novel, Some Tame Gazelle, the story of two middle-aged spinster sisters. She tried to publish it, but it was widely rejected. So she wrote more stories, and another novel, but she couldn't get those published either.

During World War II, she worked for the censorship office and for the Women's Royal Naval Service, who sent her to Naples. Then she moved back to London and got a job with the International African Institute, and in 1950 she finally published Some Tame Gazelle, which got great reviews — everyone was impressed that she had so perfectly captured life as a middle-aged woman even though she was only 22 when she wrote it. For a few years after that, she was incredibly prolific — she published Excellent Women (1952), Jane and Prudence (1953), Less than Angels (1955), A Glass of Blessings (1958), and No Fond Return of Love (1961), all quiet, funny novels where not much happens. She gets compared to Jane Austen because the novels are comedy-of-manners stories and social satire.

In 1963, she submitted An Unsuitable Attachment, but her publisher told her that her style of writing was out of date. She tried revising it and sending it to 20 other publishers, but they all rejected it. She wrote another novel, and that, too, was rejected by everyone, as was a third. In 1970, she wrote: "I get moments of gloom and pessimism when it seems as if nobody could ever like my kind of writing again."

And for 16 years she didn't publish any novels. She had a small but very loyal following, which included the poet Philip Larkin, and the two of them started writing letters in 1961. Larkin wrote to her: "It seems such a sad state of affairs if such tender, perceptive and intelligent work can't see the light, just because it won't 'go' in America, or some tasteless chump thinks it won't 'go' in paperback."

But then he got the chance to make a big difference for Pym. In the January 21, 1977 edition of the Times Literary Supplement, writers and scholars were asked to nominate the "most underrated writer of the century." Pym was the only living writer who got two nominations — one from Larkin and one from biographer and scholar Lord David Cecil. And suddenly, she was famous. In the next three years, she published two novels, she was the subject of a BBC program, and Quartet in Autumn (1977), which had been rejected the year before, was nominated for the Booker Prize. Her early novels came back into print, she was published in the United States, and her work was translated into many other languages. But she had cancer, and she died just three years later in 1980.

It's the birthday of the man who said, "Try to learn something about everything and everything about something." That's the novelist and poet Thomas Hardy, (books by this author) born in Dorset, England (1840).

He considered himself a poet first and foremost, even though he couldn't get a book of poems published until he was 58. He's best known for his novels Far from the Madding Crowd (1874), Tess of the d'Urbervilles (1891), and Jude the Obscure (1895), all set in his fictional county of Wessex in southwestern England. His novel A Pair of Blue Eyes (1873) might be the origin for our term "cliff-hanger," because Hardy ended the February 1873 installment of his novel with one of the main characters, Henry Knight, literally hanging off the side of a cliff.

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

 









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