May 25, 2013
For a Dying Tomcat Who's Relinquished His Former Hissing and Predatory Nature
I remember the long orange carp you once scooped
from the neighbor's pond, bounding beyond
her swung broom, across summer lawns
to lay the fish on my stoop. Thanks
for that. I'm not one to whom offerings
often get made. You let me feel
how Christ might when I kneel,
weeping in the dark
over the usual maladies: love and its lack.
Only in tears do I speak
directly to him and with such
conviction. And only once you grew frail
did you finally slacken into me,
dozing against my ribs like a child.
You gave up the predatory flinch
that snapped the necks of so many
birds and slow-moving rodents.
Now your once powerful jaw
is malformed by black malignancies.
It hurts to eat. So you surrender in the way
I pray for: Lord, before my own death,
let me learn from this animal's deep release
into my arms. Let me cease to fear
the embrace that seeks to still me.
It's the birthday of poet Theodore Roethke (books by this author), born in Saginaw, Michigan, in 1908. He grew up working with his father and uncle in his family's greenhouses, and later said, "They were to me, I realize now, both heaven and hell, a kind of tropics created in the savage climate of Michigan, where austere German Americans turned their love of order and their terrifying efficiency into something beautiful." His uncle committed suicide in 1923, and his father died of cancer that same year.
Roethke kept notebooks, lots of notebooks, more than 200 of them over the course of his life, jotting down random thoughts, scraps of phrases, conversations, and criticisms (of himself as well as others). Some of these notes eventually found their way into his poetry, but not many of them did; his biographer Allen Seagar estimated that only 3 percent of the lines he jotted down were ever published.
He was a dedicated and exuberant teacher, but sometimes resented the intrusion teaching made into his own work. He wrote, "It's no way to live — to go from exhaustion to exhaustion." He suffered from bipolar disorder and in his manic phases would work himself so hard that he ended up hospitalized. He died of a heart attack in 1963.
The greenhouses and plants of Roethke's youth often served as a central image in his poems, like "The Geranium":
When I put her out, once, by the garbage pail,
She looked so limp and bedraggled,
So foolish and trusting, like a sick poodle,
Or a wizened aster in late September,
I brought her back in again
For a new routine —
Vitamins, water, and whatever
Sustenance seemed sensible
At the time: she'd lived
So long on gin, bobbie pins, half-smoked cigars, dead beer,
Her shriveled petals falling
On the faded carpet, the stale
Steak grease stuck to her fuzzy leaves.
(Dried-out, she creaked like a tulip.)
The things she endured! —
The dumb dames shrieking half the night
Or the two of us, alone, both seedy,
Me breathing booze at her,
She leaning out of her pot toward the window.
Near the end, she seemed almost to hear me —
And that was scary —
So when that snuffling cretin of a maid
Threw her, pot and all, into the trash-can,
I said nothing.
But I sacked the presumptuous hag the next week,
I was that lonely.
It's the birthday of novelist Robert Ludlum (1927) (books by this author), born in New York City. He wrote paranoia thrillers, and he's best known for The Bourne Identity (1980) and its sequels. He started out as an actor and producer for the stage and TV, and didn't turn to writing until later in life; his first novel, The Scarlatti Inheritance (1971), was published when he was 44. Working in the theater gave him some strong opinions about plot: "I get annoyed when a self-indulgent writer just shows off what he knows but doesn't really tell a story. To me storytelling is first a craft. Then if you're lucky, it becomes an art form. But first, it's got to be a craft. You've got to have a beginning, middle and end."
Ludlum died in 2001, but his brand lives on. His estate has encouraged the publisher to continue the Bourne franchise and other series using other authors. "People expect something from a Robert Ludlum book, and if we can publish Ludlum books for the next 50 years and satisfy readers, we will," said Jeffrey Weiner, Ludlum's executor.
It's the birthday of the man who said, "Live in the sunshine, swim in the sea, drink the wild air." That's Ralph Waldo Emerson (books by this author), born in Boston (1803). His father, who died when he was eight, was a Unitarian minister, as were many of Emerson's family members before him. He was a quiet and well-behaved young man, not an exceptional student. He graduated in the middle of his class, studied at Harvard Divinity School, and got a job as a ministerial assistant at Boston's Second Church. Not long after his ordination, he was married. He was happy at home and in his work, and soon he was promoted to senior pastor.
Two years after Emerson was married, his wife, Ellen, died of tuberculosis, at the age of 19. He was devastated. He began to have doubts about the Church. A year after Ellen's death, he wrote in his journal: "I have sometimes thought that, in order to be a good minister, it was necessary to leave the ministry. The profession is antiquated. In an altered age, we worship in the dead forms of our forefathers." He took a leave of absence and went on vacation in the mountains of New Hampshire. By the time he returned, he had decided to resign from his position as minister.
Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote: "Finish every day and be done with it. You have done what you could; some blunders and absurdities no doubt crept in; forget them as soon as you can. Tomorrow is a new day; you shall begin it serenely and with too high a spirit to be encumbered with your old nonsense."
Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®