Feb. 13, 2012
Meditation from 14A
And what if the passage out of this life
is like a flight from Seattle to St. Louis—
the long taxi out of the body, the brief
and terrible acceleration, the improbable
buoyancy, and then the moment when,
godlike, you see the way things fit
together: the grave and earnest roads
with their little cars, stitching their desires
with invisible thread; the tiny pushpin houses
and backyard swimming pools, dreaming
the same blue dream. And who but the dead
may look down with impunity on these white
birds, strewn like dice above the river whose name
you have forgotten, though you know,
having crossed the Divide, that it flows
east now, toward the vast, still heartland,
its pinstriped remnants of wheat and corn
laid out like burial clothes. And how
you would like to close your eyes, if only
you could stop thinking about that small scratch
on the window, more of a pinprick, really,
and about yourself sucked out! anatomized!—
part of you now (the best part) a molecule
of pure oxygen, breathed in by the farmer
on his tractor; by the frightened rabbit
in the ditch; by a child riding a bike
in Topeka; by the sad wife of a Mexican
diplomat; by a dog, digging up a bone
a hundred years in the future, that foreign city
where you don't know a soul, but where you think
you could start over, could make a whole
new life for yourself, and will.
Today is the birthday of true-crime writer William Roughead (books by this author). Born in Edinburgh, Scotland (1870), Roughead was a lawyer who was so fascinated by murder cases he became an expert criminologist by researching and writing narrative accounts of the trials he witnessed at the High Court of Edinburgh.
He published his first anthology, Twelve Scots Trials, in 1913. Although hard facts and meticulous reconstructions of evidence were the foundation of Roughead's tales, he was also known for pulpy, ironic prose, and he drew admiration from writers like Henry James and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. President Franklin D. Roosevelt had reserved a special shelf near at hand to the Oval Office just for his books.
Despite his dry humor and use of irony, Roughead's long study of criminal depravity never turned him pessimistic. As he explained it, "The study of criminology has by no means made me a cynic; it has encouraged my admiration for the ingenuity of the human race."
It's the birthday of landscape painter Grant Wood, born near Anamosa, Iowa (1891), who is known for the iconic portrait of a farmer and his spinster daughter, American Gothic (1930), which, along with the Mona Lisa, is one of the most recognizable paintings in the world.
Wood grew up in Cedar Rapids, attended art schools in Minneapolis and Chicago, then traveled to Europe to study Impressionist and Post-Impressionist painting. There he first encountered the work of Jan Van Eyck, the 15th-century Flemish artist, and was struck by how the painter achieved great depth and detail in his works by layering thin glazes of color. When Wood returned to Iowa, he was determined to incorporate that kind of clarity into his own work, which is evident in the stylized fields and rolling hills of paintings like Midwest Vineyard and in the lit scenes and elongated shadows of Death on Ridge Road (1935) and The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere (1931).
Returning to Iowa had really been the formative experience of Wood's life. He'd cast himself in the role of a Midwestern farmer from the mythical farmland he was creating, always posing for photographs in a pair of overalls and becoming a champion of regionalism in the arts, explaining that, despite his travels and European training, he'd "realized that all the really good ideas I'd ever had came to me while I was milking a cow. So I went back to Iowa." In a new biography Grant Wood: A Life, R. Tripp Evans presents Wood as a closeted homosexual who adopted Midwest regionalism as a shield for his own bohemianism, and who, when he died of pancreatic cancer at the age of 50, was planning to leave Iowa for California.
Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®