Feb. 18, 2003

As If to Demonstrate an Eclipse

by Billy Collins

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Poem: "As If to Demonstrate an Eclipse," by Billy Collins from Nine Horses (Random House).

As If to Demonstrate an Eclipse

I pick an orange from a wicker basket
and place it on the table
to represent the sun.
Then down at the other end
a blue and white marble
becomes the earth
and nearby I lay the little moon of an aspirin.

I get a glass from a cabinet,
open a bottle of wine,
then I sit in a ladder-back chair,
a benevolent god presiding
over a miniature creation myth,

and I begin to sing
a homemade canticle of thanks
for this perfect little arrangement,
for not making the earth too hot or cold
not making it spin too fast or slow

so that the grove of orange trees
and the owl become possible,
not to mention the rolling wave,
the play of clouds, geese in flight,
and the Z of lightning on a dark lake.

Then I fill my glass again
and give thanks for the trout,
the oak, and the yellow feather,

singing the room full of shadows,
as sun and earth and moon
circle one another in their impeccable orbits
and I get more and more cockeyed with gratitude.

It is the birthday of Nobel Prize winning author Toni Morrison, born Chloe Anthony Wofford, in Lorain, Ohio in 1931. She was an editor in New York when she wrote her first novel, The Bluest Eye (1970) -- the story of a black girl who wanted to be white. Morrison said, "I wrote [it] because I wanted to read it." Seventeen years later, she wanted to read a book about the true story of Margaret Garner, a black slave woman who killed her own child to free him from slavery, but "was annoyed and worried that such a story was inaccessible to art." She proved herself wrong with the publication of what many consider her greatest masterpiece, Beloved (1987). She said, "When there is pain, there are no words. All pain is the same." She also said, "We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives." She won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1993.

It is the birthday of the Greek poet who gave us Zorba the Greek (1946) and also The Last Temptation of Christ (1955), Nikos Kazantzakis, born in Iraklion, Greece (1883). He wrote in Greek, French and English.

It's the birthday of novelist Wallace Stegner, born in Lake Mills, Iowa in 1909. His family moved to Montana when he was young. Stegner had always enjoyed outdoor activities, and he joined the Boy Scouts while in Montana. The boys of the troop would sneak on board train-cars headed up into the mountains and spend entire days hunting, climbing, and fishing. He moved to California after the war and founded the creative writing program at Stanford University, where he taught until his retirement in 1971. He wrote dozens of novels, over fifty-five years worth, including The Big Rock Candy Mountain (1943), and the Pulitzer Prize-winning Angle of Repose (1971). Wallace Stegner said, "It is something -- it can be everything -- to have found a fellow bird with whom you can sit among the rafters while the drinking and boasting and reciting and fighting go on below."

It's the birthday of Surrealist writer André Breton, born in Tinchebrai, France in 1896. In his Manifesto of Surrealism (1924), he defined the movement as "pure psychic automatism, by which an attempt is made to express, either verbally, in writing or in any other manner, the true functioning of thought."

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