Feb. 16, 2013

The Woodstove

by Jennifer Grotz

The woodstove is banked to last the night,
its slim legs, like an elegant dog's, stand obediently
on the tile floor while in its belly a muffled tumult
cries like wind keening through the hemlocks.

Human nature to sleep by fire, and human nature
to be sleepless by it too. I get up to watch
the blue flames finger soft chambers in the wood
while the coals swell with scintillating breaths.

What made Rousseau once observe that dogs will not
build fires? (And further, that in the pleasing warmth
of a fire already started, they will not add wood?)
What is it to be human? To forge connection,

to make interpretations of fire and contain them
in a little iron stove? And what is it to be fire?
To burn with indifference, to consume
the skin of the arm as easily as the bark of a log.

Sleepy warmth begins to fill the room in which
life wants to live and fire wants to burn,
the room which in the morning
will hold a fire changed to cooling ash.

Outside, smoke escapes and for an instant
mirrors nature too, the way falling snow
reveals the wind's mind, and change of mind,
before world and mind grow inscrutable again.

"The Woodstove" by Jennifer Grotz, from The Needle. © Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of Henry Adams (books by this author), born in Boston (1838). His grandfather was John Quincy Adams and his great-grandfather was John Adams. He wasn't too thrilled about coming from such a prominent family, but he was encouraged to follow in the footsteps of his father, who was a lawyer, historian, and Massachusetts legislator. Like the three generations before him, he went to Harvard, and then to law school, but decided to become a political journalist, and wrote smart and sometimes nasty political editorials. He particularly disliked Ulysses S. Grant, whom he described as "pre-intellectual, archaic, and would have seemed so even to the cave-dwellers." He became increasingly more frustrated with political life and decided to be a historian instead. His books included a nine-volume History of the United States During the Administrations of Jefferson and Madison and biographies of George Cabot Lodge and Albert Gallatin. But he is best known for his autobiographical The Education of Henry Adams.

It's the birthday of novelist Richard Ford (books by this author), born in Jackson, Mississippi (1944). When he was a boy, his mother told him that their neighbor across the street was a writer. He wasn't really sure what that meant, but he could tell it was something important from the way she said it. It turned out that neighbor was Eudora Welty. Ford went to the same elementary school as Welty, and they even had some of the same teachers. But he didn't meet her until many years later.

When he was eight, his father had a heart attack, and he died from a second heart attack when Richard was 16. For much of his childhood, Ford went back and forth between Mississippi and Little Rock, Arkansas. His grandmother and her second husband, a former prizefighter, ran a hotel in Little Rock, and Ford said, "I did everything in the hotel. I worked in it and I played in it. A lot of things go on in great big hotels, behind closed doors, and I saw behind those doors. Recklessness and mistakes." After college, he tried to work for the Arkansas State Police, but he was rejected. Then he got discharged from the Marines because he had hepatitis. He tried law school — his plan was to be a lawyer for the Marine Corps, and then work for the FBI — but he didn't like it, and he dropped out. Unsure of what to do next, he decided to give writing a try.

His first novel was A Piece of My Heart (1976), his only novel set in the South. A few years later, he was teaching at Princeton, and Eudora Welty came to do a reading there. He was nervous about meeting her because he was sure she disliked his novel — he said, "I had a feeling she probably knew about it; that it was full of dirty words and sex and violence." He introduced himself and said that he was from Jackson; she said, "Oh, you are?" and nothing else. He was depressed, convinced that she hated his book and disapproved of him.

Ten years after A Piece of My Heart, Ford published The Sportswriter (1986), the first of his trilogy about Frank Bascombe, a novelist-turned-sportswriter-turned-realtor from New Jersey. Ford did a book signing for The Sportswriter at Lemuria Books in Jackson, and not many people turned up. He said: "Suddenly I looked up and there was Eudora. She'd driven over to the bookstore. She had a deep voice — and I'm making her sound more imperious than she was; she was very sweet — but she said, 'Well, I just had to come pay my respects.'"

Ford and Welty became good friends. Ford shared an anecdote about his writing mentor: "One hot spring day, I was walking with Eudora Welty through a little shopping mall. It was her birthday, April 13th. There was a surprise party waiting at a bookstore down the way. She was 86. As we walked rather slowly along the glass storefronts, we came to where a wide, smiling, pink-faced man was inflating colorful balloons. As each balloon filled and fattened, the cylinder emitted quite a loud whoosh of air. Eudora looked about to find the sound. 'Balloons,' I said. I had her hand. 'Someone's apparently having a do.' 'Oh,' she said. Those luminous, pale blue eyes igniting, her magical face suppressing once again an amused smile. 'I just thought it was someone who saw me, sighing.'"

When Welty died in 2001, at the age of 92, Ford was a pallbearer at her funeral, and he was her literary executor. He co-edited Welty's Library of America: Collected Writings.

Ford's sequels to The Sportswriter were Independence Day (1995) and The Lay of the Land (2006); Independence Day won both the PEN/Faulkner Award and the Pulitzer, the first novel ever to do so. His most recent book of short stories is A Multitude of Sins (2002).

He said, "The thing about being a writer is that you never have to ask, 'Am I doing something that's worthwhile?' Because even if you fail at it, you know that it's worth doing."

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




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