Wednesday

Sep. 3, 2014

North Star

by Sheila Packa

In Hanko, Finland
a young woman boards
the vessel in the Baltic
for a ship across the Atlantic.
The North Star shines in the sky.
She's carrying in her valise
a change of clothes
a packet of seeds
and the sauna dipper.
Distance pours between constellations
between English words on her tongue
through storms and sun.
In New York City, she buys
a one way ticket
boards the train going
across the continent
arrives on an inland sea.
The winter ground underfoot
is familiar with frost
as she transfers to a northbound
along the Vermilion Trail
in Minnesota.
Ahead of her waits a man
a house to be built
and a fire that burns it down.
Ahead, eleven children
to bear, a few she must bury,
the cows in the barn
needing to be milked.
Unbroken ground only hers to till.
Above her, the North Star
inside the aurora borealis, northern
banners waving welcome —

"North Star" by Sheila Packa, from Night Train Red Dust: Poems of the Iron Range. © Wildwood River Press, 2014. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It was on this day 212 years ago that William Wordsworth (books by this author) wrote his sonnet "Composed Upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802."

Most of his poems were about nature and the joy of open spaces without people. So this sonnet is surprising, because it is written about a busy city — London had about 1 million inhabitants at the time.

He wrote:
Ships, towers, domes, theatres and temples lie
Open unto the fields and to the sky,
All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.
Never did the sun more beautifully steep
In his first splendor, valley, rock or hill;
Ne'er saw I, never felt a calm so deep!

Wordsworth was on his way to France from his home, Dove Cottage, in the Lake District. He was passing through London on his way to visit Annette Vallon, the French girl with whom he had fathered an illegitimate daughter when he was a young man traveling there.

It's the birthday of best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell (books by this author), born in Fareham, England (1963), and raised in Canada, the son of a Jamaican psychotherapist and a British engineering professor.

Parts of what would become his first book first appeared in The New Yorker magazine, where he started as a staff writer in 1996. He received a million-dollar advance for that first book, published in 2000 as The Tipping Point. Since then, he's written Blink (2005) and Outliers (2008). He said about his books: "The hope with Tipping Point was it would help the reader understand that real change was possible. With Blink, I wanted to get people to take the enormous power of their intuition seriously. My wish with Outliers is that it makes us understand how much of a group project success is."

His most recent book is called David and Goliath (2013).

It's the birthday of short-story writer Sarah Orne Jewett (books by this author), born in South Berwick, Maine (1849). Her family had been living in Maine for generations, making a good living as shipbuilders and seafarers. She was often sick as a child, and her physician father felt that the best medicine for her was to be outside in the fresh air. Instead of attending school, she accompanied him on his rounds, traveling between homes in rural Maine. She met all sorts of people, and the conversations inspired her writing.

She published a short story in The Atlantic Monthly when she was 19 years old, and spent the rest of her career as a writer. For a few months of each year, usually in the winter, she lived with her companion Annie Fields in Boston. This type of romantic friendship and living arrangement was known as a "Boston marriage." During the winters, Jewett and Fields enjoyed a lively social life on Charles Street in Boston — reading to each other, going out in society, and running a famous literary salon, entertaining guests from Henry James to Willa Cather.

During the rest of the year, Jewett lived in Maine, in the beautiful old house where she had grown up. It was filled with dark mahogany wood, elegant furniture, and curios from all over the world, many of them brought by her seafaring ancestors. She did her best writing at home in Maine, upstairs in a room with books, pictures, fresh flowers from her garden, and a writing desk in front of a big window looking down at the trees. She tried to write five pages a day, although she seldom achieved that. She wrote in a letter: "I get almost no time for my writing and that is a sorrow. I amused Mary very much this morning while we were driving together by saying a certain apple-tree in a field was just like me. It hadn't been pruned and was a wilderness of 'suckers' and unprofitable little scraggly branches — I said; 'I wish I grew in three or four smooth useful branches instead of starting out here, there and everywhere, and doing nothing of any account at any point.' [...] It's hard for me to know what to do: I don't like to shut myself up half of every day and say nobody must interfere with me, when there are dozens of things that I might do." Sometimes, though, she was struck so strongly by an idea that she was able to write an entire story in one sitting and barely alter it before sending it off to the publisher. When she wasn't writing, she loved to work in her garden, ride her horses, go for long walks, or take her boat out on the river.

Willa Cather wrote of her: "There was an ease, a graciousness, a light touch in conversation, a delicate unobtrusive wit. You quickly recognized that her gift with the pen was one of many charming personal attributes. [...] She had never been one of those who 'live to write.' She lived for a great many things, and the stories by which we know her were one of many preoccupations."

Jewett wrote to a friend: "Sometimes, the business part of writing grows very noxious to me, and I wonder if in heaven our best thoughts — poet's thoughts, especially — will not be flowers, somehow, or some sort of beautiful live things that stand about and grow, and don't have to be chaffered over and bought and sold."

She wrote 20 books, including A White Heron and Other Stories (1886), Strangers and Wayfarers (1890), and The Country of the Pointed Firs (1896).

She said, "You must find your own quiet center of life, and write from that."

It's the birthday of the American architect Louis Henry Sullivan (1856), born in Boston. He worked in Chicago in the 1880s and '90s, when the city was teeming with immigrants, grain trading, and railroads. Sullivan designed more than 100 buildings for the city, including its early steel-frame skyscrapers — innovations in their day for using a kind of experimental skeleton construction on the inside and intricate, subtle ornamentation outside. He is remembered for his influential words, "Form follows function."

It's the birthday of novelist Alison Lurie (books by this author), born in Chicago and raised in White Plains, New York (1906). She's best known as a novelist; her books include Imaginary Friends (1967), The War Between the Tates (1974), and Foreign Affairs (1984), for which she won the Pulitzer. Her books tend to feature highly educated protagonists — often academics — negotiating the perils and pitfalls of their personal relationships.

In her novel Real People (1969), she wrote: "... you can't write well with only the nice parts of your character, and only about nice things. And I don't want even to try anymore. I want to use everything, including hate and envy and lust and fear."

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

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