MONDAY, 24 JULY, 2006
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Poem: "Benediction" By Stanley Kunitz from The Collected Poems. © W. W. Norton & Company. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)


God banish from your house
The fly, the roach, the mouse

That riots in the walls
Until the plaster falls;

Admonish from your door
The hypocrite and liar;

No shy, soft, tigrish fear
Permit upon your stair,

Nor agents of your doubt.
God drive them whistling out.

Let nothing touched with evil,
Let nothing that can shrivel

Heart's tenderest frond, intrude
Upon your still, deep blood.

Against the drip of night
God keep all windows tight,

Protect your mirrors from
Surprise, delirium,

Admit no trailing wind
Into your shuttered mind

To plume the lake of sleep
With dreams. If you must weep

God give you tears, but leave
you secrecy to grieve,

And islands for your pride,
And love to nest in your side.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of French novelist Alexandre Dumas (books by this author), born in Villers-Cotterêts, France (1802). He wrote swashbuckling adventure novels like The Three Musketeers (1844) and The Count of Monte Cristo (1844). He started writing fiction at a time when publishers used fiction to sell newspapers. When his first novel appeared in a newspaper, it generated five thousand new subscriptions.

It's the birthday of mystery novelist John D. MacDonald (books by this author), born in Sharon, Pennsylvania (1916). He's famous for novels such as The Deep Blue Good-By (1964) and Nightmare in Pink (1964), featuring Travis McGee, a beach bum detective who lives on a houseboat that he won in a poker game.

It's the birthday of Robert Graves (books by this author), born in Wimbledon, England (1895). Over the course of his life, he wrote almost one hundred and fifty books of fiction, essays and poetry. He's best known for his World War I memoir Goodbye to All That, which he published in 1929. That same year, his marriage began to break up when he met an American poet named Laura Riding, and fell completely in love. He loved her so much that when she tried to commit suicide by jumping out the window of an apartment building, he jumped out the window after her. They both survived. His marriage ended, and he moved with Riding to the Spanish island of Majorca.

It's the birthday of the famous aviator Amelia Earhart, born in Atchison, Kansas (1898). She was a tomboy. Her parents let her wear pants when she was growing up, even though it was not acceptable yet for women to do so. She spent her childhood hiking, fishing, and exploring caves. She built a small wooden roller coaster in her backyard and practiced riding on it without falling off.

She had been studying medicine when she went to her first air show in California, and it was then that she decided to become a pilot. She was the first person to fly from California to Hawaii, and she tried to fly around the circumference of the globe. She was photogenic and well-spoken, so the aviation industry used her as a symbol to improve its image and to reassure women that flying was safe. Unfortunately, on her second attempt to fly around the globe she was lost somewhere over the Pacific. Her body has never been recovered.

It's the birthday of Zelda Fitzgerald (books by this author), born Zelda Sayre in Montgomery, Alabama (1900). She met F. Scott Fitzgerald at a military dance, and he stood out from the crowd in his fancy Brooks Brothers uniform and cream-colored boots. Zelda said, "He smelled like new goods."

They married in 1920. Their marriage was difficult. Scott struggled with alcoholism and Zelda struggled with schizophrenia, but they were the quintessential literary couple of the Jazz Age. They were so famous that William Randolph Hearst hired a reporter whose only job was to cover their activities.

Dorothy Parker said, "[They] looked like they'd just stepped out of the sun."

It was on this day in 1847 that the Mormon leader Brigham Young led his people into the Valley of the Great Salt Lake. He was leading a group of Mormons from Illinois to find a new settlement in the West where they might not be bothered. Brigham Young had gotten sick during the journey and was being carried prostrate in a wagon. But when they reached the edge of the Valley of the Great Salt Lake, the wagon stopped as it came to a natural lookout point. According to legend, Brigham Young was able to describe the scene below without looking. Then he sat up and looked out at the valley and said, "This is the right place. Drive on."

TUESDAY, 25 JULY, 2006
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Poem: "Top of My Lungs" by Natalie Goldberg from Top of My Lungs. © The Overlook Press. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Top of My Lungs

Even though I am unhappy
I come home singing at the top of my lungs
Shovel off the new snow and shove it on the old
Open the useless screened porch door
and take off my big boots
There are fried eggs
yellow as pearls
The old bed I dive into like a warm whale
The phone ringing
that duck on the wall
And even though I am unhappy
I sleep with the peace of flying angels
And even though I am sad
my wallet's empty
I buy the best soap
And even though my heart is hurting
out of sure will
I come home singing with the last night wind
and the first morning star
and the canary
and the summer that was killed below our house

I walk down to the Rainbow Café
call my Catholic friend Mary to come
have a drink and eat a turkey sandwich
The down coat I wear all winter still has the goose feathers
from a hundred flying birds
They let us smoke at our small table
Mary will always meet me here
They fill your glasses with the most sparking water
for free
and the cold moon rises over the marquee
of the Suburban World theater

So even though I am unhappy
I throw back my old goat throat
and sing slowly
"Oh my darlin' Clementine"
by the beautiful lake in Minnesota
as the pressure of the black night cold
moves in on us from all ten directions
I sing to the moon above the lake
"You are lost and gone forever"
calling the pure beast of loneliness down from the sky
with the old American song haunting city lights
"Dreadful sorry Clementine"
and though the very earth has swelled up
like an elephant with pain
I stand on its back singing
in this sad universe
where one lover leaves another for all time
and nothing to say with your feet on the ground

Literary and Historical Notes:

It was on this day in 1897 that the novelist Jack London left for the Klondike to join the gold rush. He was only twenty-one and had to borrow money from his stepsister for the voyage. Winter came before London could look for gold. He spent the winter in an abandoned fur trader's cabin the size of a tool shed, living on beans and bread. He wrote of that winter, "[It was] a world of silence and immobility. Nothing stirred. The Yukon slept under a coat of ice three feet thick." He read the books he'd brought with him, including Dante's Inferno and Milton's Paradise Lost.

In the spring, London realized that all the good claims had already been made. Instead of looking for gold, he talked to everyone he could and soaked up all their stories. On the way home, he almost died of scurvy, and he barely survived a huge swarm of Alaskan mosquitoes, but he knew he had great material for fiction.

He went on to write about his experiences in books like The Son of the Wolf (1900) and Call of the Wild (1903), and he became one of the most popular writers of his time.

It's the birthday of writer and philosopher Eric Hoffer (books by this author), born in New York City (1902). He spent most of his life working on the docks as a longshoreman, and he wrote philosophy in his spare time, including The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements (1951). Eric Hoffer said, "When people are free to do as they please, they usually imitate each other."

It's the birthday of the painter Maxfield Parrish, born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (1870). During the early twentieth century, he was one of the most popular commercial artists in the United States. He is known for his many illustrations on the covers of magazines and books, paintings of dreamlike landscapes full of beautiful young women.

It's the birthday of Elias Canetti (books by this author), born in Ruse, Bulgaria (1905). He's best known for his novel The Tower of Babel (1935). He grew up in an area of Bulgaria that was so ethnically diverse that his grandfather had to speak seventeen languages in order to succeed as a grocer.

It was on this day in 1814 that a man named George Stephenson made the first successful demonstration of the steam locomotive in Northern England. His engine pulled eight loaded wagons of thirty tons' weight about four miles and hour up a hill.

But though the locomotive was invented in England, it had its greatest impact on the United States, where there was so much wide-open space and so many natural resources to take advantage of. By 1840, the United States had 2,800 miles of railroad track. By 1872 that number had increased to 52,000 miles of railroad track.

Walt Whitman called the locomotive "Emblem of motion and / power—pulse of the continent." But some people weren't too happy about the introduction of the locomotive and the faster pace of life it brought. Henry David Thoreau wrote, "This world is a place of business. What an infinite bustle! I am awaked almost every night by the panting of the locomotive. It interrupts my dreams. There is no Sabbath. It would be glorious to see mankind at leisure for once. It is nothing but work, work, work."

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Poem: "Days We Would Rather Know" by Michael Blumenthal from Days We Would Rather Know. © Pleasure Boat Studio. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Days We Would Rather Know

There are days we would rather know
than these, as there is always, later,
a wife we would rather have married
than whom we did, in that severe nowness
time pushed, imperfectly, to then. Whether,
standing in the museum before Rembrandt's "Juno,"
we stand before beauty, or only before a consensus
about beauty, is a question that makes all beauty
suspect ... and all marriages. Last night,
leaves circled the base of the ginkgo as if
the sun had shattered during the night
into a million gold coins no one had the sense
to claim. And now, there are days we would
rather know than these, days when to stand
before beauty and before "Juno" are, convincingly,
the same, days when the shattered sunlight
seeps through the trees and the women we marry
stay interesting and beautiful both at once,
and their men. And though there are days
we would rather know than now, I am,
at heart, a scared and simple man. So I tighten
my arms around the woman I love, now
and imperfectly, stand before "Juno" whispering
beautiful beautiful until I believe it, and—
when I come home at night—I run out
into the day's pale dusk with my broom
and my dustpan, sweeping the coins from the base
of the ginkgo, something to keep for a better tomorrow:
days we would rather know that never come.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of Aldous Huxley (books by this author), born in Surrey, England (1894). Huxley's own grandfather, Thomas Henry Huxley, was one of the great scientists of the previous century, a man who helped popularize Darwin's theories of evolution. Huxley's grandfather is believed to be the man who coined the word "agnostic," and he argued that all areas of knowledge would one day come to be understood through science.

Huxley considered becoming a scientist himself, but when he was seventeen years old, he came down with a disease of the eyes, which rendered him almost blind. He learned to read Braille and said he loved it because he could read in bed without getting his hands cold. But since most of his schoolbooks had never been translated into Braille, he had to finish his education by reading everything with a giant magnifying glass. Despite that, his friends all agreed that he was the best-read guy they knew.

His first successful novel was Point Counter Point (1928), about a group of artists and intellectuals who don't realize that one of the men in their company is a budding fascist revolutionary. Point Counter Point was Huxley's first best-seller, and since it had been so ambitious a book, Huxley decided that his next book would be something light. He had been reading some H.G. Wells, and thought it might be fun to try to write some science fiction.

The result was Brave New World (1932), about a future in which most human beings are born in test-tube factories, genetically engineered. It was one of the first novels to predict the future existence of genetic engineering, test-tube babies, anti-depression medication, and virtual reality.

Aldous Huxley said, "An intellectual is a person who has discovered something more interesting than sex."

It's the birthday of Carl Jung (books by this author), born in Kesswil, Switzerland (1875). He was the founder of analytic psychology. He noticed that myths and fairy tales from all kinds of different cultures have certain similarities. He called these similarities archetypes, and he believed that archetypes come from a collective unconscious that all humans share. He said that if people get in touch with these archetypes in their own lives, they will be happier and healthier.

He said, "Show me a sane man and I will cure him for you."

It's the birthday of playwright George Bernard Shaw (books by this author), born in Dublin, Ireland (1856), one of Britain's greatest playwrights. His most famous play is Pygmalion (1913), about a cockney girl who learns to pass for a lady.

It was on this day in 1942 that William Faulkner (books by this author) took a job writing with Warner Brothers pictures. His novels had not sold well. He'd just bought a big old house with no electricity or plumbing, and the cost of restoring it immediately began to drain what little income he had. Hollywood helped him pay the bills.

Faulkner was such a character in Hollywood that people in the movie industry were telling stories about him for years after he had gone. There was one story that after he had moved back to Mississippi, someone went through Faulkner's old writing desk and found a piece of paper with just the words "boy meets girl" typed over and over again.

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Poem: "One Lonely Afternoon" by Russell Edson from The Rooster's Wife. © BOA Editions, LTD. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

One Lonely Afternoon

Since the fern can't go to the sink for a drink, I graciously
submit myself to the task, returning with two glasses of water.
    And so we sit, the fern and I, sipping water together. ...

    Of course I'm more complex than a fern, full of deep
thoughts as I am. But I lay this aside for the easy company of
an afternoon friendship.
    Yet, had I my druthers, I'd be speeding through the sky for
Stockholm, sipping bloody marys with wedges of lime. ...

    And so we sit one lonely afternoon sipping water together.
The fern looking out of its fronds, as I look out of mine. ...

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of Joseph Mitchell, (books by this author) born in Fairmont, North Carolina (1908). He wanted to be a reporter, so he moved to New York City after college, arriving in town the day after the stock market crash in 1929. He got a job covering crime stories in Brooklyn, and he especially enjoyed writing about gangster funerals. He eventually got a job writing for The New Yorker.

In 1965, Mitchell published Joe Gould's Secret, about a man who claimed to have learned the language of seagulls and was translating the poetry of Longfellow into their language. It was Mitchell's last book. He kept going to his New Yorker office every day for the next thirty years, but he never published another word.

It's the birthday of Elizabeth Hardwick, (books by this author) born in Lexington, Kentucky (1916). She is the author of novels such as The Ghostly Lover (1945) and The Simple Truth (1955). In the early 1960s, she and some of her literary friends decided over dinner to found a book-reviewing journal called The New York Review of Books. She said it was dedicated to "the unusual, the difficult, the lengthy, the intransigent, and, above all, the interesting."

Elizabeth Hardwick said, "The greatest gift is a passion for reading. It is cheap, it consoles, it distracts, it excites, it gives you knowledge of the world and experience of a wide kind. It is a moral illumination."

It was on this day in 1940 that Bugs Bunny made his debut in a short animated film called "A Wild Hare". He was modeled on Groucho Marx, with a carrot rather than a cigar. Mel Blanc gave him a Brooklyn accent. The story line of the cartoon involved Elmer Fudd hunting rabbits, only to have Bugs thwart him at every turn. Bugs Bunny's first line in the cartoon, when he meets Elmer Fudd, is, "What's up, doc?" It was a phrase that one of the writers remembered people saying where he grew up in Texas.

It was on this day in 1793 that Maximilien de Robespierre, became the head the Committee of Public Safety, which led to the Reign of Terror in France.

Robespierre had started out as an idealistic lawyer and judge. He was well known for representing poor people in court, and he often spoke out against the absolute authority of the king. Even after he became a public figure in Paris and Versailles, he lived an extremely frugal life. He lived as a lodger in the house of a carpenter. He worked on the first French constitution and fought for universal suffrage. He opposed all forms of religious and racial discrimination, taking the unpopular view that that even Jews and black slaves should be granted full citizenship.

After the French Revolution broke out, Robespierre was elected to the new National Convention, where he called for the execution of the king. He then worked to unify the various splinter groups within the revolution. At the time, France was being threatened by war with Austria. There was also a great fear of civil war breaking out between the various revolutionary factions. In his diary, Robespierre wrote, "What is needed is one single will."

And so, a man who had fought for constitutional democracy and universal citizenship found himself helping to organize a military dictatorship. On this day in 1793, he took his place on the Committee of Public Safety, which would rule France for the next year. And in order to keep French citizens in line, Robespierre advocated the use of the guillotine, a new machine that was supposed to make all executions efficient and humane. The guillotine was set up in the Place de la Révolution, which later became the Place de la Concorde, and over the next year more than 2,000 people were beheaded for having opposed the Revolution.

At first Robespierre executed people who had supported the monarchy. But then he began to execute revolutionaries who were too moderate. And finally, he began to execute people who had merely opposed him on one issue or another. Eventually, members of the National Convention began to realize that no one was safe, and even they could be the next victims. So they turned on Robespierre. Exactly one year, to the day, after he had taken control of the Committee of Public Safety, he was arrested, and the day after his arrest he went to the guillotine himself.

For more than a year Robespierre had been executing people in the public square to cheering crowds. When Robespierre went to his own death at the guillotine, onlookers said the crowd cheered just as loudly as ever.

FRIDAY, 28 JULY, 2006
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Poem: "Ozymandias" by Percy Bysshe Shelley. Public domain. (buy now)


I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: "Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And the pedestal these words appear:
'My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!'
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of British poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, (books by this author) born in Stratford, England (1844). His parents were Anglicans, and they were horrified when Hopkins informed them that he was converting to Catholicism. So he went into a kind of exile, joined the Jesuits, and traveled to rural Wales to be ordained as a priest. Those months in Wales would be one of the happiest periods of his life. He especially loved the beautiful rural landscape. It was while he was there, in 1877, preparing for his ordination, that he wrote most of the poems for which he is remembered today, poems like "God's Grandeur" (1877), "Pied Beauty" (1877), and "The Starlight Night" (1877). He wrote in his diary at the time, "This world is ... a book [God] has written ... a poem of beauty."

But after his ordination, the Jesuits sent him to teach the poor children of industrial cities in Northern England, Scotland, and Ireland. Hopkins had looked forward to a life of hard work and sacrifice, but he had no idea how much he would hate living in these polluted, ugly cities. In a letter in 1878 he wrote, "Life here is as dank as ditch-water. ... My muse turned utterly sullen in the Sheffield smoke-ridden air."

He wrote less and less, and finally, at the age of forty-four, he died from typhoid, which he'd caught from the polluted water in Dublin. His poetry might never have been remembered, since he published very little of it, except that he had kept up a lifelong correspondence with a friend from college, the poet Robert Bridges. Hopkins had sent Bridges many of his poems, and after Hopkins's death, Bridges began to publish Hopkins's poetry. In 1918, Bridges edited the first Collected Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins. It wasn't until 1930, when a second edition of Hopkins's poems was published, that people began to recognize that he was one of the greatest poets of his generation.

It's the birthday of poet John Ashbery, (books by this author) born in Rochester, New York (1927). He was raised on a farm near Lake Ontario, where he worked in the orchards every summer. He did well in school and became a contestant on "The Quiz Kids," a popular 1940s radio program that starred gifted children.

He went on to Harvard, where his two closest friends were the aspiring poets Kenneth Koch and Frank O'Hara. Along with another poet, James Schuyler, they became known as the founders of the New York School of poetry. They believed that poetry of the 1950s was too academic and they wanted it to be looser, funnier, and more colloquial.

In 1976, Ashbery won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award for his book-length poem Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror (1975).

John Ashbery said, "To create a work of art that the critic cannot even begin to talk about ought to be the artist's chief concern."

It's the birthday of the novelist William T. Vollmann, (books by this author) born in Santa Monica, California (1959). After his college graduation, he traveled to Pakistan and then illegally crossed the border into Afghanistan so that he could help the rebels there fight the Soviet Army. He had the idea that it would be the chance to do something good, to fight for a righteous cause. Unfortunately, he caught dysentery, and he was a terrible solider. He spent most of his time there terrified and exhausted. Though he did befriend some Afghan rebels, they often had to carry him around on their shoulders. Finally, an Afghan general wrote him a letter that said, "You have the brain—but you are not physically fit and you have no money—hence forget about the Afghans. Get down to a serious profession."

Vollmann moved back to the States and took a job as a computer programmer in Silicon Valley, and wrote his first novel, You Bright and Risen Angels (1987).

One of Vollmann's most recent works is Rising up and Rising Down (2004), a seven-volume, 3500-page investigation into the nature of violence.

It's the birthday of children's author Beatrix Potter, (books by this author) born in South Kensington, England (1866). She is best known for her twenty-three illustrated storybooks about Peter Rabbit.

It's the birthday of English novelist Malcolm Lowry, (books by this author) born in Cheshire, England (1909). His masterpiece is Under the Volcano (1947), set on the Day of the Dead in Mexico, 1938. It's about a former British consul who has drinking problems and a troubled marriage.

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Poem: "I Want to Say" by Natalie Goldberg from Top of My Lungs. © The Overlook Press. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

I Want to Say

Before I'm lost to time and the midwest
I want to say I was here
I loved the half light all winter
I want you to know before I leave
that I liked the towns living along the back of the Mississippi
I loved the large heron filling the sky
the slender white egret at the edge of the shore
I came to love my life here
fell in love with the color grey
the unending turn of seasons

Let me say
I loved Hill City
the bench in front of the tavern
the small hill to the lake
I loved the morning frost on the bell in New Albin
and the money I made as a poet
I was thankful for the white night
the sky of so many wet summers
Before I leave this whole world of my friends
I want to tell you I loved the rain on large store windows
had more croissants here in Minneapolis
than the French do in Lyons
I read the poets of the midwest
their hard crusts of bread dark goat cheese
and was nourished not hungry where they lived
I ate at the edges of state lines and boundaries

Know I loved the cold the tap of bare branches against windows
know there will not be your peonies in spring
wherever I go
the electric petunias
and your orange zinnias

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of French aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville, (books by this author) born in Paris (1805). He was just twenty-five years old when he got the idea to go to America. His father had gotten him a boring bureaucratic job when he was twenty-one, and he decided to get out of France for a while, and so he came up with a plan to travel to America. He claimed that the trip would be a public service, since he would be studying recent American prison reforms. But secretly, Tocqueville thought that he would try to write a book about the American form of government, in hopes of improving the government in France.

He went with his best friend, Gustave de Beaumont, and after a brief stop in Newport, they arrived in Manhattan at sunrise May 11, 1831. Over the course of the next nine months, Tocqueville and his friend traveled more than 7,000 miles, using every vehicle then in existence, including steamer, stage-coach, and horse, going as far west as Green Bay, Wisconsin, and as far south as New Orleans.

Tocqueville interviewed everyone he met: workmen, doctors, professors, as well as famous men, such as Daniel Webster, Andrew Jackson, John Quincy Adams, and Charles Carroll, the last surviving signer of the Declaration of Independence and the richest man in America. At the end of nine months, Tocqueville went back to France, and in less than a year, he had finished his masterpiece, Democracy in America (1835).

More than anything else, Tocqueville was impressed by the fact that American democracy actually worked. He wrote, "America demonstrates invincibly one thing that I had doubted up to now: that the middle classes can govern a State. ... Despite their small passions, their incomplete education, their vulgar habits, they can obviously provide a practical sort of intelligence and that turns out to be enough."

It's the birthday of the poet Stanley Kunitz, (books by this author) born in Worcester Massachusetts (1905). He was a poet who spent most of his life bouncing around, farming and teaching, working various jobs. He finally settled down to a life of writing until he was almost fifty. His real breakthrough didn't come until his mother and sisters had all died. He said, "The disappearance of my family liberated me. It gave me a sense that I was the only survivor and if the experiences of my life, whatever it meant, were to be told, it was within my power to do so."

It's the birthday of newspaper columnist, playwright, and short-story writer Don Marquis, (books by this author) born Donald Robert Perry Marquis in Walnut, Illinois (1878). Marquis created the characters Archy the cockroach, and Mehitabel the alley cat.

It's the birthday of novelist Newton Booth Tarkington, (books by this author) born in Indianapolis, Indiana (1869). He wrote The Magnificent Ambersons (1918) and Alice Adams (1921). In 1921, Publishers Weekly polled booksellers, who rated Tarkington number one, above Edith Wharton, Sinclair Lewis, Robert Frost, and Carl Sandburg.

SUNDAY, 30 JULY, 2006
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Poem: "Light, At Thirty-Two" by Michael Blumenthal from Days We Would Rather Know. © Pleasure Boat Studio. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Light, At Thirty-Two

It is the first thing God speaks of
when we meet Him, in the good book
of Genesis. And now, I think
I see it all in terms of light:

How, the other day at dusk
on Ossabaw Island, the marsh grass
was the color of the most beautiful hair
I had ever seen, or how—years ago
in the early-dawn light of Montrose Park—
I saw the most ravishing woman
in the world, only to find, hours later
over drinks in a dark bar, that it
wasn't she who was ravishing,
but the light: how it filtered
through the leaves of the magnolia
onto her cheeks, how it turned
her cotton dress to silk, her walk
to a tour-jeté.

And I understood, finally,
what my friend John meant,
twenty years ago, when he said: Love
is keeping the lights on
. And I understood
why Matisse and Bonnard and Gauguin
and Cézanne all followed the light:
Because they knew all lovers are equal
in the dark, that light defines beauty
the way longing defines desire, that
everything depends on how light falls
on a seashell, a mouth ... a broken bottle.

And now, I'd like to learn
to follow light wherever it leads me,
never again to say to a woman, YOU
are beautiful
, but rather to whisper:
Darling, the way light fell on your hair
this morning when we woke—God,
it was beautiful
. Because, if the light is right,
then the day and the body and the faint pleasures
waiting at the window ... they too are right.
All things lovely there. As that first poet wrote,
in his first book of poems: Let there be light.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of one of the most mysterious writers in the history of English literature, Emily Brontë, (books by this author) born in Thornton, Yorkshire, England (1818). She grew up in a family of eccentrics. Her father was a minister who took an appointment to a church out in the rural moorland. His wife died a year after they arrived at his new post, and he responded by completely withdrawing from his family. When he came home from work each day, he immediately went to his study, and he stayed there until he went to sleep at night. He even took his meals in his study. The one way he chose to communicate with the family was by firing a shotgun out his window every morning, to announce that he was waking up.

So the Brontë children grew up in an extremely isolated community, with virtually no one to talk to other than themselves. As a comfort, Emily and her siblings invented a series of imaginary worlds to write stories about. The Brontës lived like this for years, educating themselves, making up their own private stories and writing their own poetry. It was finally the oldest sister, Charlotte, who decided that they should grow up and find something useful to do. She persuaded Emily to go to a finishing school with her so that they could open a school together. But Emily hated being out in the real world so much that she eventually stopped eating and returned home.

Back at her father's house, she began to look after her brother, Branwell, who had recently been fired from a tutoring job. It was rumored he had an affair with the mother of the children he was supposed to tutor. He was also suffering from alcoholism and addiction to laudanum after a failed attempt at becoming a painter in London. Scholars aren't sure what transpired between Emily and her brother, but some believe that Branwell began to tell his sister about all his life experiences, his addictions, his love affairs, and his thwarted hopes as an artist.

It's one of the only theories of how she could have gotten the idea for the tragic love story at the heart of Wuthering Heights. No one knows exactly when she wrote the novel, or how long she worked on it. She might never have even published it if her sister Charlotte hadn't come up with the idea of all three sisters publishing their work. They released a combined book of poems, and then each came out with novels, Charlotte's Jane Eyre (1846), Emily's Wuthering Heights (1847), and Anne's Agnes Grey (1847).

At the time, Wuthering Heights was the least successful of the three novels. People found it shocking. Just after it came out, Emily's brother began to fall ill. She took care of him for the next several months, until he died in September 1848. She came down with a cough a month later and she died before the end of the year. She was only thirty years old.

Emily Brontë remains mostly a mystery. Few of her letters were saved and she kept no diary. Almost all the writing she left behind concerns imaginary places and imaginary people.



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