Mar. 23, 2013

Fishing in the Keep of Silence

by Linda Gregg

There is a hush now while the hills rise up
and God is going to sleep. He trusts the ship
of Heaven to take over and proceed beautifully
as he lies dreaming in the lap of the world.
He knows the owls will guard the sweetness
of the soul in their massive keep of silence,
looking out with eyes open or closed over
the length of Tomales Bay that the egrets
conform to, whitely broad in flight, white
and slim in standing. God, who thinks about
poetry all the time, breathes happily as He
repeats to Himself: there are fish in the net,
lots of fish this time in the net of the heart.

"Fishing in the Keep of Silence" by Linda Gregg, from All of It Singing. © Graywolf Press, 2008. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of writer Louis Adamic (books by this author), born in Blato in what is now Slovenia (1899) to a family of farmers. In his autobiography, Laughing in the Jungle (1932), he wrote: "One day — I was then a little over 10 — I said to Mother: 'Someday I am going to America.”

His mother wanted him to become a priest, not take off for America. But he was a poor student, and as a teenager he was expelled from school for causing trouble with his support of the Yugoslav nationalist movement. So at age 14, he decided that he was grown up enough, and he immigrated to the United States.

Throughout his career, he moved all over the country, fought in World War I, wrote for newspapers, and worked manual jobs. He wrote about travel, the labor movement, immigrant life in America, and Eastern European politics in books like The Native's Return (1934), Cradle of Life (1936), and Two-Way Passage (1941).

Louis Adamic said, "My grandfather always said that living is like licking honey off a thorn."

It's the birthday of the writer Josef Čapek (books by this author), born in Hronov in what is now the Czech Republic, in 1887. His brother Karel was the famous writer, but Josef will go down in history as the man who invented the word robot. Karel Čapek wrote a play called R.U.R., or Rossum's Universal Robots (1921), a dystopia about mass-produced human substitutes who are employed as cheap labor. But Karel Čapek couldn't think of a good word for his artificial laborers — he was going to go with laboři but decided that was too obvious. Josef suggested roboti, and the name stuck. Josef was arrested and sent to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, from which he wrote Poems from a Concentration Camp (1946). He died there in 1945.

It was on this day in 1775 that Patrick Henry gave a famous speech which probably included the line, "Give me liberty or give me death!"

Henry spoke at the Second Virginia Convention, a meeting of American colonial leaders held at St. John's Church in Richmond, Virginia. There were 120 delegates, including George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Patrick Henry. The 39 year old Henry was representing Hanover County, Virginia. The four-day meeting turned into a fierce debate about whether or not to raise a militia and arm Virginia in the fight against the British.

Henry was an attorney with a knack for turning a phrase and a commitment to American independence. Twelve years earlier, he had stood up in court and called King George a tyrant, and he had been fighting against English laws and rule in the courts ever since.

There was a problem with Henry's speeches. They were wonderful and charismatic and everyone was entranced by them, but afterward, no one could remember what he had said. Thomas Jefferson said of Henry: "His eloquence was peculiar, if indeed it should be called eloquence; for it was impressive and sublime, beyond what can be imagined. Although it was difficult when he had spoken to tell what he had said, yet, while he was speaking, it always seemed directly to the point. When he had spoken in opposition to my opinion, had produced a great effect, and I myself had been highly delighted and moved, I have asked myself when he ceased: 'What the devil has he said?' I could never answer the inquiry."

So although Henry's speech at the Second Virginia Convention is so famous, no one is sure what he said. It wasn't written down until 1816, by Henry's biographer, William Wirt. Wirt talked to people who had been present at the speech and had them reconstruct it from memory.

According to one of Wirt's sources, in what has become the accepted text of Henry's speech, he ended with these famous words: "It is in vain, sir, to extenuate the matter. Gentlemen may cry, Peace, Peace — but there is no peace. The war is actually begun! The next gale that sweeps from the north will bring to our ears the clash of resounding arms! Our brethren are already in the field! Why stand we here idle? What is it that gentlemen wish? What would they have? Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!"

It's the birthday of science fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson (books by this author), born in Waukegan, Illinois (1952). He's the author of stories set in the past and future, stories set on Pluto, Mercury, the slopes of the Himalayas, and the ice of Antarctica, including the Mars trilogy and the Orange County trilogy.

It's the birthday of the man who won the 1937 Nobel Prize in literature, French author Roger Martin du Gard (books by this author), born in Neuilly-sur-Seine, France (1881). His life's work was chronicling the fictional Thibault family in a series of novels known as Les Thibault, which he published over the course of two decades, from 1922 to 1940. It's considered a roman-fleuve, a French term that literally means "river-novel." It refers to a series of novels written by one author that are about the same few characters (often family members) — usually a saga where the historical backdrop plays a prominent role in the fiction, and the author often provides a sort of running commentary on the era.

It's the birthday of Fannie Merritt Farmer (books by this author), born in Boston (1857). She's known for publishing the first cookbook in American history that came with simple, precise cooking instructions.

She compiled all the recipes she had ever learned, along with advice on how to set a table, scald milk, cream butter, remove stains, and clean a copper boiler. At first, all the publishers turned her down because they reasoned that these were all things young women could learn from their mothers. Finally, Little, Brown agreed to publish the book if Fannie Farmer would pay for the printing of the first 3,000 copies. It has sold millions of copies since.

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