Jan. 6, 2014
We start by fanning out the money, colored
like Necco wafers: pink, yellow, mint, gold.
From the first roll of the dice, differences widen:
the royal blues of Boardwalk and Park Place
look down their noses at the grapey immigrants
from Baltic and Mediterranean Avenues.
My grandparents coming from Italy in steerage
measured their gold in olive oil, not bank notes
and deeds. The man in the top hat and tuxedo
always holds the good cards. The rest of us
hope we can pay the Electric Company.
We know there is no such thing as Free Parking,
and Bank Errors are never in our favor.
In the background, Johnny Mathis croons
Chances Are from the cracked vinyl radio.
We played for hours, in those years
before television, on the Formica table,
while my mother coaxed a chicken,
cooking all day on the back burner, to multiply
itself into many meals. The fat rose to the surface,
a roiling ocean of molten gold.
Today is the Feast of the Epiphany in the Christian Church. The word "epiphany" comes from an old Greek word meaning "manifestation" or "striking appearance." In ancient Greece, before Christianity, it was a term used to document occasions when Greek gods and goddesses manifested themselves to human beings on earth.
In the modern Greek Orthodox Church, the Feast of the Epiphany is a broad and encompassing celebration of God becoming man: the birth of the baby Jesus, the Magi visiting from Persia, and, especially, Jesus' baptism in the Jordan River. In the Roman Catholic Church, however, the focus is on the image of the wise men bringing gifts of frankincense, myrrh, and gold to the infant Jesus, guided from their homeland of Iran by a shining star.
Around the time Irish writer James Joyce (books by this author) was defecting from the Roman Catholic Church, he was investing secular meaning into the word "epiphany." In his early 20s, he drew up little sketches, sort of like "prose poems," in which he illustrated epiphanies. He explained to his brother Stanislaus that epiphanies were sort of "inadvertent revelations," and said they were "little errors and gestures — mere straws in the wind — by which people betrayed the very things they were most careful to conceal." He also wrote that the epiphany was the sudden "revelation of the whatness of a thing," the moment when "the soul of the commonest object ... seems to us radiant."
It was a literary device that James Joyce would use in every story in his collection Dubliners (1914), a technique that he would become known for and that many modern writers would emulate. In his biography of James Joyce, Richard Ellmann writes: "Arrogant yet humble too, [the epiphany] claims importance by claiming nothing; it seeks a presentation so sharp that comment by the author would be an interference. It leaves off the veneer of gracious intimacy with the reader, of concern that he should be taken into the author's confidence, and instead makes the reader feel uneasy and culpable if he misses the intended but always unstated meaning, as if he were being arraigned rather than entertained. The artist abandons himself and his reader to the material."
Joyce's Dubliners ends with a story set at a party for the Feast of the Epiphany, "The Dead," and that story ends: "His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead."
It's the birthday of National Book Award-winning novelist E.L. Doctorow, (books by this author) born in New York City (1931). He said that his parents named him after Edgar Allan Poe, because his dad was a big fan. As an adult, he once confronted his mom: "Do you realize that you and Dad named me after a paranoid, drug-addicted alcoholic with necrophiliac tendencies?" His aging mother replied, "Edgar, that's not funny."
His mother was a pianist — classically trained and highly accomplished. His dad owned a high-end music shop in New York City, on 43rd Street, and was a connoisseur of classical music. But Doctorow seemed to not inherit their musical talent, and said that his whole family was hugely relieved when he quit taking piano lessons, since they felt like he'd been torturing them. But his musical background had a big effect on his writing process. He said, "Somewhere along the line the rhythms and tonalities of music elided in my brain with the sounds that words make and the rhythm that sentences have."
He said that he thought of himself as a writer a long time before he actually got around to writing anything. As a kid reading stories, he said, he identified "as much with the act of composition as with the story." He said: "I seemed to have two minds: I would love the story and want to know what happened next, but at the same time I would somehow be aware of what was being done on the page. I identified myself as a kind of younger brother of the writer. I was on hand to help him figure things out." He said that for him the act of reading was his early writing. And he said, "It's not a bad way to begin ... to blur that distinction between reader and writer."
He went to the Bronx High School of Science. In college he studied poetry with John Crowe Ransom, who founded the school of New Criticism, an approach to analyzing texts. Doctorow said that studying with him was invaluable training in learning the "powers of precision in the English language." He could read an eight-line poem by Wordsworth and be able to write a 20-page paper about it.
After college, he worked as an editor and as a script-reader for Hollywood studios. He read lots of bad scripts, which he found encouraging, since he was pretty sure he could write something better. In particular, he'd been reading a lot of awful Westerns. So he wrote a parody of a Western, and that became his first novel, Welcome to Hard Times (1960). He went on to write Big as Life (1966), The Book of Daniel (1971), which won the National Book Award, and Ragtime (1975), a big best-seller. He's also the author of Loon Lake (1980), World's Fair (1985), Billy Bathgate (1989), The Waterworks (1994), City of God (2000), and The March (2005).
Today is the birthday of poet Kahlil Gibran (books by this author), born in the mountain village in Bsharri, Lebanon (1883). He lived in Boston, and that was where Alfred A. Knopf met him, who published Gibran's book The Prophet in 1923. It didn't sell well at first, but gradually gained a readership, becoming especially popular in the 1960s; it was eventually translated into more than 30 languages. Gibran is now the third-best-selling poet in history, after William Shakespeare and Lao-Tzu.
The Prophet is often quoted at weddings ("Love one another, but make not a bond of love: / Let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls"), and baptisms ("Your children are not your children. / They are the sons and daughters of Life's longing for itself. / They come through you but not from you, / And though they are with you they belong not to you"), and funerals ("When you are sorrowful look again in / your heart, and you shall see that in truth / you are weeping for that which has been / your delight").
Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®