Oct. 25, 2013

Nursery, 11:00 p.m.

by Robyn Sarah

Asleep, the two of you,
daughter and son, in separate cribs,
what does it matter to you
that I stand watching you now,
I, the mother who did not smile all day,
who yelled, Go away, get out, leave me alone
when the soup-pot tipped over on the stove,
the mother who burned the muffins
and hustled bedtime, tight-lipped.
You are far away,
beyond reach of whispered
amends. Yet your calm
breathing seems to forgive,
into the air to mesh
like lace, knitting together
the holes in the dark.
It makes of this dark
one whole covering
to shawl around me.
How warm it is, I think,
how much softer
than my deserving.

"Nursery, 11:00 p.m." by Robyn Sarah, from Questions About the Stars. © Brick Books, 1998. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Today is St. Crispin's Day, dedicated to the patron saint of shoemakers, who was martyred by the Roman Emperor Maximian on this date in 287 A.D. St. Crispin and his brother, St. Crispinian, lived at Soisson in France, where they preached during the day and supported themselves by making shoes at night. It was on St. Crispin's Day in 1415 that English troops, commanded by King Henry V, engaged the French army near the village of Agincourt in France. Despite being outnumbered nearly six to one, the English pulled off one of the most brilliant victories in English military history. In Shakespeare's Henry the Fifth, King Henry addresses his troops on the eve of battle with a memorable speech:
This story shall the good man tell his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne'er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered —
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he today that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition:
And gentlemen in England, now a-bed,
Shall think themselves accurs'd they were not here;
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon St. Crispin's day.

Today is the birthday of novelist Anne Tyler (books by this author), born in Minneapolis, Minnesota, in 1941. She's written 19 novels, most of them set in Baltimore, where she's lived since 1967. Her family moved around a lot when she was small, and they finally settled in a Quaker commune in the mountains of North Carolina. Certain myths have sprung up about her childhood, probably because she doesn't give many interviews and people have drawn their own conclusions. Some say she didn't wear shoes or go to school until she was 11. She did, in fact, attend a one-room school for all the children who lived on the mountain. There weren't a lot of books, though, so she read Little Women 22 times. Living in the relative isolation of the commune was good training for a fledgling novelist; she says it gave her a bit of distance from the rest of the world, training her to be a slightly detached observer of it.

She published her first novel, If Morning Ever Comes (1964), when she was 23. In her early days as a writer, John Updike reviewed her, saying she was "not merely good, but wickedly good." But she wishes she could go back and eliminate her first four books; she didn't really believe in revising in those days, preferring to keep her writing spontaneous. She's changed her opinion since then, and now says, "Spontaneity is not always a good thing." Her best novel — at least in her opinion — is her ninth: Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant (1982). She published it when she was 40, and it was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award and the Pulitzer Prize. Her 10th novel, The Accidental Tourist (1985), was also a finalist for the Pulitzer, and she finally took home the coveted award for her next novel, Breathing Lessons (1988).

Tyler keeps a card file in which she's written snatches of ideas or scenes on hundreds of index cards. When the time comes to start a new novel, she turns to her file and flips through the cards, pulling out the ones that resonate with her. Then she enters a monthlong planning phase. When she's ready to begin, she writes in longhand on unlined white paper. Then she types each section as she completes it, and rewrites it again in longhand. Finally, she reads the whole novel aloud to a tape recorder, to see if the dialogue rings true.

In the case of her most recent novel, she told the Guardian: "I was still in the very beginning, the month of looking at that sheet of white paper and saying what can I possibly do? And I heard a voice say in my brain very clearly: 'The strangest thing about my wife's return from the dead was how other people reacted.' A few minutes later the voice said: 'I have a couple of handicaps. I may not have mentioned that.'" That voice was the voice of Aaron, her protagonist, and the book that arose from it was her 19th, The Beginner's Goodbye (2012).

Unlike many novelists, she says she usually doesn't draw from her own life when coming up with ideas: "Writing is all about getting to do more. It would be very boring for me to have to live my life over again, I just want to live somebody else's," she told The New York Times. "I hate to travel, but writing a novel is like taking a long trip. This way I can stay peacefully at home."

Anne Tyler is currently at work on her 20th and (she says) final novel, which is to be titled A Spool of Blue Thread.

The birthday of Geoffrey Chaucer (books by this author), the first great English poet and author of The Canterbury Tales, is unknown, and so we instead remember him on the anniversary of his death, this day in the year 1400.

He was buried in the south transept of Westminster Abbey in London, where he was a tenant and a member of the parish. Chaucer's fame increased after his death. He was called the "father of English poetry," and many other British poets began to be buried in the south transept of the abbey, which is now known as Poets' Corner. Lord Tennyson, Robert Browning, Charles Dickens, Samuel Johnson, and Rudyard Kipling are all buried here; and William Wordsworth, John Keats, Jane Austen, and William Shakespeare all have memorials.

Chaucer was born in the middle of the 14th century, to a wealthy merchant family. He joined the king's army and took part in a large-scale invasion of France in 1359. He came back to England, got married, and became a high-ranking royal official. He ran errands for King Edward III in France and Italy, where he read the classic literature of those countries. He began writing poetry and became a favorite of the king's, who in 1374 granted Chaucer a gallon pitcher of wine each day for the rest of his life. Not much poetry was being written in English during Chaucer's time, but almost everything he wrote was in his mother tongue. His most famous work is The Canterbury Tales, a series of stories told by an assortment of English men and women on their way to a pilgrimage site.

The Canterbury Tales begins:
"Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
Whan Zephirus eek with his sweete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
The tender croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the Ram his half cours yronne,
And smale foweles maken melodye,
That slepen al the nyght with open ye
(So Priketh hem Nature in hir corages),
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages ..."

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  • “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
  • “I want to live other lives. I've never quite believed that one chance is all I get. Writing is my way of making other chances.” —Anne Tyler
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