Oct. 24, 2010
Gold Horse, Brown Horse
In the pasture behind
the house, an island of berries
ripens in the summer
heat. They will grow
plump, darker than garnets, then shrivel
away, or rotting, fall
to the brambles, tasted only by birds,
field mice. Two horses graze
here. They watch from a distance as you
whistle, their ears shifting with each
variation. One morning they reward
you and stand at the fence, flies
clinging to the moist corners
of their eyes. They know
how to take the offered
apple, even from a child's hand. Brownie
shies from the gold one. She comes
only when he moves on, and then
with hesitation. You stroke her forehead's
blaze, give her your palm to smell,
to nuzzle. Late August,
two horses rolling in the afternoon dust.
It's the birthday of writer and explorer Alexandra David-Néel, (books by this author) born in Saint-Mandé, France, in 1868. She had an unhappy childhood, the only child of bitter parents who fought all the time. She tried running away over and over, starting when she was two years old. As a teenager, she traveled by herself through European countries, including a bike trip across Spain. When she was 21, she inherited money from her parents, and she used it all to go to Sri Lanka. She worked as an opera singer for a while to finance her travels. She was especially interested in Buddhism.
She disguised herself as a Tibetan woman and managed to get into the city of Lhasa, which at that time was off-limits to foreigners. She became fluent in Tibetan, met the Dalai Lama, practiced meditation and yoga, and trekked through the Himalayas, where she survived by eating the leather off her boots and once saved herself in a snowstorm with a meditation that increases body temperature. The locals thought she might be the incarnation of Thunderbolt Sow, a female Buddhist deity. She became a Tantric lama in Tibet when she was 52 years old.
And she wrote about it all. Her most famous book is Magic and Mystery in Tibet (1929), in which she wrote: "Then it was springtime in the cloudy Himalayas. Nine hundred feet below my cave rhododendrons blossomed. I climbed barren mountain-tops. Long tramps led me to desolate valleys studded with translucent lakes ... Solitude, solitude! ... Mind and senses develop their sensibility in this contemplative life made up of continual observations and reflections. Does one become a visionary or, rather, is it not that one has been blind until then?"
She died in 1969, at the age of 101, a few months after renewing her passport. She was a big influence on the Beat writers, especially Allen Ginsberg, who converted to Buddhism after reading some of her teachings.
It's the birthday of the poet Denise Levertov, (books by this author) born in Ilford, England (1923). She knew from the time she was a kid that she wanted to be a writer. And she said, "When I was 12 I had the temerity to send some poems to T.S. Eliot, even though I had not shown most of them even to my sister, and certainly to no one else. Months later, when I had forgotten all about this impulsive act, a two- or even three-page typewritten letter from him arrived, full of excellent advice. (Alas, the letter, treasured for many years, vanished in some move from one apartment to another in the 1950s; I've never ceased to hope it may one day resurface)."
When she was 17, she had her first poem published in Poetry Quarterly. She worked as a civilian nurse during World War II in London, and in 1946 published her first book, The Double Image. Then she moved to America and became very involved in American political causes as well as American schools of poetry. By the 1960s, she was helping to found the Writers' and Artists' Protest Against the War in Vietnam, and publishing regularly, books like With Eyes at the Back of Our Heads (1959), O Taste and See (1964) and The Sorrow Dance (1967), and she was considered a thoroughly American poet, and an important one at that. She published more than 30 books, mostly poetry, but also essays and translations. And she remained prolific until the end of her life — in 1997, the year she died, she published two books of poetry: The Life Around Us, a collection of nature poems written over the course of her career; and The Stream and The Sapphire, a selection of poems with religious themes.
She wrote, "One is in despair over the current manifestation of malevolent imbecility and the seemingly invincible power of rapacity, yet finds oneself writing a poem about the trout lilies in the spring woods. And one has promised to speak at a meeting or help picket a building. If one is conscientious, the only solution is to attempt to weigh conflicting claims at each crucial moment, and in general to try to juggle well and keep all the oranges dancing in the air at once."
And, "I'm not very good at praying, but what I experience when I'm writing a poem is close to prayer. I feel it in different degrees and not with every poem. But in certain ways writing is a form of prayer."
It's the birthday of the writer Sarah Josepha Hale, (books by this author) born in Newport, New Hampshire (1788). She had no formal education, but her family encouraged her to read, especially her brother who went to Dartmouth. Her father opened up an unsuccessful tavern, and she was married in that tavern and had five children. Her husband died when she was 34 years old, and his Freemason group provided for her, first setting her up in a millinery business, and then paying for the publication of her first book of poems, The Genius of Oblivion (1823).
A few years later, she published Northwood (1827), a novel about slavery and its harm to every part of society. In Northwood, she described the abundance of a Thanksgiving dinner: "The roasted turkey took precedence on this occasion, being placed at the head of the table; and well did it become its lordly station, sending forth the rich odor of its savory stuffing, and finely covered with the froth of the basting. At the foot of the board, a sirloin of beef, flanked on either side by a leg of pork and loin of mutton, seemed placed as a bastion to defend innumerable bowls of gravy and plates of vegetables disposed in that quarter. A goose and pair of ducklings occupied side stations on the table; the middle being graced, as it always is on such occasions, by that rich burgomaster of the provisions, called a chicken pie. This pie, which is wholly formed of the choicest parts of fowls, enriched and seasoned with a profusion of butter and pepper, and covered with an excellent puff paste, is, like the celebrated pumpkin pie, an indispensable part of a good and true Yankee Thanksgiving; the size of the pie usually denoting the gratitude of the party who prepares the feast. The one now displayed could never have had many peers. [...] Plates of pickles, preserves and butter, and all the necessaries for increasing the seasoning of the viands to the demand of each palate, filled the interstices on the table, leaving hardly sufficient room for the plates of the company, a wine glass and two tumblers for each, with a slice of wheat bread lying on one of the inverted tumblers. A side table was literally loaded with the preparations for the second course, placed there to obviate the necessity of leaving the apartment during the repast. [...] There was a huge plum pudding, custards and pies of every name and description ever known in Yankee land; yet the pumpkin pie occupied the most distinguished niche. There were also several kinds of rich cake, and a variety of sweetmeats and fruits."
It may come as no surprise that Sarah Josepha Hale was a vocal supporter of Thanksgiving, and along with a litany of other social causes and campaigns, the campaign to make Thanksgiving a national holiday was her dearest cause. She wrote letters to one president after another — Zachary Taylor, Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan, and finally Abraham Lincoln, who did, in fact, listen to her. On October 3, 1863, he issued a proclamation, saying, "The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible." He proclaimed Thanksgiving a national holiday, celebrated that year on the last Thursday of November.
So we have Sarah Josepha Hale to thank for Thanksgiving, as well as for writing the nursery rhyme "Mary Had A Little Lamb."
Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®