Jul. 3, 2013


by Stephen Dobyns

Trying to remember you
is like carrying water
in my hands a long distance
across sand. Somewhere people are waiting.
They have drunk nothing for days.

Your name was the food I lived on;
now my mouth is full of dirt and ash.
To say your name was to be surrounded
by feathers and silk; now, reaching out,
I touch glass and barbed wire.
Your name was the thread connecting my life;
now I am fragments on a tailor's floor.

I was dancing when I
learned of your death; may
my feet be severed from my body.

"Grief" by Stephen Dobyns, from Velocities. © Penguin, 1994. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of playwright Tom Stoppard (books by this author), born Tomas Straussler in Zlin, Czechoslovakia (1937). He produced his first one-act play in 1965 and went on to write a series of radio plays and a few television scripts. And then, he decided to write a play that would tell Hamlet from the point of view of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. In Stoppard's version, they spend the play worrying that their lives have no meaning, and it's only by participating in Hamlet's story that they find any purpose. The play was called Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (1967), and it made Stoppard the youngest playwright ever to have a play staged by the National Theatre in London. He was just 29 years old. When it premiered in New York, Stoppard was asked what the play was about. He said, "It's about to make me rich."

It's the birthday of Franz Kafka (books by this author), born in Prague (1883). At the time, Prague was part of the Hapsburg Empire of Bohemia. His family's apartment in the Jewish ghetto in Prague was tiny, noisy, and subject to the rule and whims of his tyrannical father. Kafka stuttered around his father, but no one else.

In that noisy claustrophobic apartment with his parents and three sisters, he would hypnotize himself to get in a frame of mind to write. He said, "Writing ... is a deeper sleep than death ... just as one wouldn't pull a corpse from its grave, I can't be dragged from my desk at night."

Kafka had a number of psychosomatic illnesses. To cure his perceived ailments, he tried all sorts of herbal and natural healing remedies. He went through a phase where he chewed each bite he put into his mouth a minimum of 10 chews. And he became vegetarian, eating mostly nuts and fruits, and followed a regimen of doing aerobics in front of an open window. He confessed that he had "a boundless sense of guilt," and one of his friends wrote that Kafka was "the servant of a God not believed in."

He was engaged to a woman in Berlin for five years, then broke it off with her. He wrote to her, "After all, you are a girl, and you want a man, not an earthworm."

Kafka died of tuberculosis in 1924, a month shy of his 41st birthday. All of his sisters later died at concentration camps in the Holocaust. Not much of Kafka's work was published during his lifetime. He had instructed his friend Max Brod to set his manuscripts on fire upon his death, but Brod refused, and instead edited and published Kafka's work.

His best-known work is The Metamorphosis, which begins, "As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning after disturbing dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into an enormous bug."

Kafka once wrote in a letter to a friend: "The books we need are of the kind that act upon us like a misfortune, that make us suffer like the death of someone we love more than ourselves, that make us feel as though we were on the verge of suicide, or lost in a forest remote from all human habitation — a book should serve as the ax for the frozen sea within us."

It's the birthday of M.F.K. Fisher (1908) (books by this author), born Mary Frances Kennedy in Albion, Michigan. She's the mother of the "food essay" and always viewed cuisine as a metaphor for culture.

She found an Elizabethan cookbook at her public library and was inspired to try her hand at food writing. Her first book, Serve It Forth (1937), was full of sensual, evocative prose, and some critics assumed that a man had written it. Her next book, How to Cook a Wolf (1941), was addressed to Americans and Europeans dealing with rationing and food shortages during World War II. In it, she wrote, "When the wolf is at the door, one should invite him in and have him for dinner." It has a few recipes, but it mostly contains meditations on the role of meals in relationships, and on sharing limited resources with spiritual abundance. Her chapter titles include, "How to Distribute Your Virtue," "How to Greet the Spring," "How to Be Cheerful Through Starving," and "How to Have a Sleek Pelt."

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




  • “Writers end up writing stories—or rather, stories' shadows—and they're grateful if they can, but it is not enough. Nothing the writer can do is ever enough” —Joy Williams
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