Feb. 1, 2011
Women in peignoirs are floating around
the landscape well out of eyesight
let alone reach. They are as palpable
as the ghost of my dog Rose whom I see
on long walks, especially when exhausted
and my half-blind eyes are blurred by cold wind
or sleet or snow. The women we've mistreated
never forgive us nor should they, thus their ghostly
energies thrive at dawn and twilight in this vast
country where any of the mind's movies can be played
against this rumpled wide-screened landscape.
Our souls are travelers. You can tell when your own
is gone, and then these bleak, improbable
visits from others, their dry tears because you were
never what you weren't, so that the world
becomes only what it is, the unforgiving flow
of an unfathomable river. Still they wanted you otherwise,
closer to their dreamchild, just as you imagined
fair maidens tight to you as decals to guide
you toward certainties. The new pup, uncrippled by ideals,
leaps against the fence, leaps at the mountains beyond.
It's the birthday of the man who said of himself: "I like Tristan, goat's milk, short novels, lyric poems, heat, simple folk, boats and bullfights; I dislike Aida, parsnips, long novels, narrative poems, cold, pretentious folk, buses and bridges." That's the poet Langston Hughes, (books by this author) born in Joplin, Missouri (1902). His parents got divorced when he was a baby and he was sent to live with his grandmother, Mary Leary Langston, in Lawrence, Kansas. His grandmother's first husband was Lewis Sheridan Leary, a harness maker and abolitionist. Leary joined John Brown in the raid on Harper's Ferry, and he was killed there. Mary kept Leary's bloodstained shawl, and when her grandson was a baby she wrapped him in it. After she died, he inherited the shawl. Many years later, his apartment in Harlem flooded, and the shawl was the only item that he salvaged.
Mary Leary Langston was a proud, college-educated woman. Even though she could barely afford her mortgage payments, she did not want to work as hired help, like so many black women did in those days. Instead, she rented out rooms to university students. She was a stern old woman who was unsure how to relate to her little grandson. But she made sure to raise him as a proud young man. When he was seven, she took him to see Booker T. Washington speak — even though he didn't understand what was going on, he said, "I was very proud that a man of my own color was the center of all this excitement." Mary also gave young Langston copies of The Crisis, a magazine edited by W.E.B. Du Bois.
Langston was fascinated by the streetcars in Lawrence, and he wanted to be a streetcar conductor when he grew up. But he also loved books. The Lawrence Public Library was one of the only integrated public buildings in the city, and he spent as much time there as possible, trying to make sense of his extreme loneliness, a combination of feeling abandoned by his parents and feeling left out of fun things that most boys could do, because of segregation laws. He said, "Then it was that books began to happen to me, and I began to believe in nothing but books and the wonderful world in books where if people suffered, they suffered in beautiful language, not in monosyllables, as we did in Kansas."
When Langston was 12 years old, his grandmother died, and he went to live with some of his grandmother's friends — they weren't relatives but he called them Auntie and Uncle Reed. They had paid off their house, and Uncle Reed had a steady job laying sewer pipes for the city. There was always plenty of food. They kept cows and chickens and sold milk and eggs to neighbors, and they taught the boy how to care for the animals. He helped out by collecting maple seeds to sell to a seed company, delivering newspapers, and cleaning toilets in a hotel. He had a good life with the Reeds — he said, "For me, there have never been any better people in the world."
When he was 14, Langston's mother sent for him. She had gotten remarried, had another son, and lived in Lincoln, Illinois. When he was graduating from eighth grade, Hughes was elected class poet by a unanimous vote. He had never even written a poem before. He was one of two African-American students in his class, and he said: "In America most white people think, of course, that all Negroes can sing and dance, and have a sense of rhythm. So my classmates, knowing that a poem had to have rhythm, elected me." His classmates might have elected him for the wrong reasons, but they made the right choice. He continued writing poetry throughout high school, as well as plays, fiction, and essays.
In 1926, when he was 24 years old, he published his first book of poetry, The Weary Blues, and an essay, "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain," which thrust him into the national spotlight. He warned: "This is the mountain standing in the way of any true Negro art in America — this urge within the race toward whiteness, the desire to pour racial individuality into the mold of American standardization, and to be as little Negro and as much American as possible. [...] Then there are the low-down folks, the so-called common element, and they are the majority — may the Lord be praised! The people who have their nip of gin on Saturday nights and are not too important to themselves or the community, or too well fed, or too learned to watch the lazy world go round. They live on Seventh Street in Washington or State Street in Chicago and they do not particularly care whether they are like white folks or anybody else. Their joy runs, bang! into ecstasy. Their religion soars to a shout. Work maybe a little today, rest a little tomorrow. Play awhile. Sing awhile. O, let's dance! These common people are not afraid of spirituals, as for a long time their more intellectual brethren were, and jazz is their child. They furnish a wealth of colorful, distinctive material for any artist because they still hold their own individuality in the face of American standardization. And perhaps these common people will give to the world its truly great Negro artist, the one who is not afraid to be himself."
For the next 40 years, Hughes kept writing — he wrote 16 books of poetry, more than 20 plays, 10 collections of short stories, a couple of novels, children's books, essays, radio scripts, and even song lyrics. He died in 1967, from complications of prostate cancer.
He said: "Through my grandmother's stories always life moved, moved heroically toward an end. Nobody ever cried in my grandmother's stories. They worked, or schemed, or fought. But no crying. When my grandmother died, I didn't cry, either. Something about my grandmother's stories (without her ever having said so) taught me the uselessness of crying about anything."
It's the birthday of novelist Meg Cabot, (books by this author) born in Bloomington, Indiana (1967). As a kid, she hated the heat in Indiana, so she spent all her time in the library because it had air-conditioning. She realized that she actually loved to read, and decided that when she grew up, she would either be a writer or illustrate comic books.
After college she moved to New York and discovered that being an illustrator or a writer was not easy. So she worked as the manager of a dorm at NYU. Then her father died, and that changed two things. First, she decided that life was short and she might as well do what she wanted, so she sent a publisher one of the novels she had written for fun, and eventually she got it published. It was a historical romance called Where Roses Grow Wild (1998). Second, her mom started dating again. She dated one of Meg's college professors, and Meg was upset by it even though she felt like she shouldn't be, so she wrote a story about a teenage girl whose divorced mother starts dating the daughter's algebra teacher. The story didn't have much of a plot, so Cabot added a twist — the girl finds out that her father is the prince of a small European country, and that she is his only heir, and she has to go learn to be a princess. Before Cabot even published her first novel, Disney optioned the book for a movie starring Julie Andrew and Anne Hathaway. In 2000, Meg Cabot published The Princess Diaries, and the film version came out in 2001. The Princess Diaries is a best-selling series, with 10 books in all.
It's the birthday of poet Galway Kinnell, (books by this author) born in Providence, Rhode Island (1927).
"The Stone Table"
Here on the hill behind the house,
we sit with our feet up on the edge
of the eight-by-ten stone slab
that was once the floor of the cow pass
that the cows used, getting from one pasture
to the other without setting a hoof
on the dirt road lying between them.
From here we can see the blackberry thicket,
the maple sapling the moose slashed
with his cutting teeth, turning it
scarlet too early, the bluebird boxes
flown from now, the one tree left
of the ancient orchard popped out
all over with saffron and rosy,
subacid pie apples, smaller crabs grafted
with scions of old varieties, Freedom,
Sops-of-Wine, Wolf River, and trees
we put in ourselves, dotted with red lumps.
We speak in whispers: fifty feet away,
under a red spruce, a yearling bear
lolls on its belly eating clover.
Abruptly it sits up. Did I touch my wine glass
to the table, setting it humming?
The bear peers about with the bleary undressedness
of old people who have mislaid their eyeglasses.
It ups its muzzle and sniffs. It fixes us,
whirls, and plunges into the woods —
a few cracklings and shatterings, and all is still.
As often happens, we find ourselves
thinking similar thoughts, this time of a friend
who lives to the south of that row of peaks
burnt yellow in the sunset. About now,
he will be paying his daily visit to her grave,
reading by heart the words, cut into black granite,
that she had written for him, when they
both thought he would die first:
I BELIEVE IN THE MIRACLES OF ART BUT WHAT
PRODIGY WILL KEEP YOU SAFE BESIDE ME.
Or is he back by now, in his half-empty house,
talking in ink to a piece of paper?
I, who so often used to wish to float free
of earth, now with all my being want to stay,
to climb with you on other evenings to this stone,
maybe finding a bear, or a coyote, like
the one who, at dusk, a week ago, passed
in his scissorish gait ten feet from where we sat —
this earth we attach ourselves to so fiercely,
like scions of Sheffield Seek-No-Furthers
grafted for our lifetimes onto paradise root-stock.
Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®