Oct. 22, 2003

The Man Splitting Woods at Daybreak

by Galway Kinnell

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Poem: "The Man Splitting Wood in the Daybreak," by Galway Kinnell, from Three Books (Mariner Books).

The Man Splitting Wood in the Daybreak

The man splitting wood in the daybreak
looks strong, as though, if one weakened,
one could turn to him and he would help.
Gus Newland was strong. When he split wood
he struck hard, flashing the bright steel
through the air so hard the hard maple
leapt apart, as it's feared marriages will do
in countries reluctant to permit divorce,
and even willow, which, though stacked
to dry a full year, on being split
actually weeps—totem wood, therefore,
to the married-until-death—sunders
with many little lip-wetting gasp-noises.
But Gus is dead. We could turn to our fathers,
but they help us only by the unperplexed
looking-back of the numerals cut into headstones.
Or to our mothers, whose love, so devastated,
can't, even in spring, break through the hard earth.
Our spouses weaken at the same rate we do.
We have to hold our children up to lean on them.
Everyone who could help goes or hasn't arrived.
What about the man splitting wood in the daybreak,
who looked strong? That was years ago. That was me.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of the British writer Doris Lessing, born in Kermanshah, Persia, in present-day Iran (1919). She grew up in southern Africa, and later wrote many novels and stories about the legacy of British colonial rule. But she is most famous for The Golden Notebook (1962), a novel that looks at the complicated psychology of an English woman in the 1960s. When she was a small child, Lessing moved with her parents to the British colony of Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). They took a covered wagon far out into the country and built a house with a thatched roof. They started a farm, but their life there was filled with hardship and disease. Growing up, Lessing noticed that the British settlers were often cruel to the native people who worked as laborers and servants, and these memories later became material for her books.

Lessing had little formal education. She learned to read by looking at cigarette packets and the Army and Navy Catalogue. When she was fifteen, she left home and went to work as a nursemaid for another family. She said she found the work so boring that she thought, "Well, let's try and write a novel." She began to write, but it took many years before her first book was published. At the age of nineteen, she married a man named Frank Wisdom. She lived with him in the African city of Salisbury, and they had two children. But she became unhappy, divorced her husband, and left her family. For a time, she considered herself a communist, though she later rejected those beliefs. She married and divorced a second husband, Gottfried Lessing. She later said, "Let's put it this way: I do not think that marriage is one of my talents."

In 1949, Lessing moved to England with her young son from her second marriage. The same year, she published her first novel, The Grass is Singing , which drew on her childhood in Africa. The authorities didn't like her criticism of the colonial society, and she wasn't allowed to go back to Southern Rhodesia or South Africa. She's written books about colonialism, life in England, science fiction and cats. She published a group of novels called the Children of Violence series in the 1950s. This was followed by The Golden Notebook (1962), which became an important part of the feminist movement. In the late 1970s she wrote a series of books called Canopus in Argos: Archives . She published her autobiography in two volumes, beginning with Under My Skin (1994). She continues to write, and her latest novel is The Sweetest Dream (2001). Lessing said, "What's terrible is to pretend that second-rate is first-rate, that you don't need love when you do or that you like your work when you know quite well you're capable of better."

It's the birthday of Ivan Bunin, born near Voronezh, Russia (1870). He was a novelist and poet who wrote about life in the Russian countryside. He opposed the communist revolution and spent the last part of his life in Paris. His books became known for their portraits of an older Russia before the time of violence and change. In 1933, he became the first Russian writer to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature. Bunin's parents were aristocrats, but the family struggled after his father wasted their money on gambling and wine. He published his first poem at age sixteen. In 1889 he left home, worked odd jobs, and almost committed suicide after a love affair that fell apart. He became friends with Leo Tolstoy and Anton Chekhov. In 1910 he published one of his most acclaimed novels, The Village , which was followed by Dry Valley in 1911. In these books, he tried to portray Russian peasants in a realistic way, even though most intellectuals of the time were idealizing them.

Bunin fled to France in 1920 so he could escape the Russian Revolution, and later wrote books such as Mitya's Love (1925). He became a leader of Russian expatriates in Paris. His books were celebrated by British writers like D.H. Lawrence and Virginia Woolf. He wrote many books, but he never thought the critics appreciated him enough. In public, he often seemed awkward or rude. His friends called him "Ivan the Terrible." He was a lonely man, and he often thought about death. He said he was "offended by everything and everybody." But sometimes he wrote lyrically about the joy of being alive. He once said, "If I had no arms or legs, if I could only sit behind the gate at a shop and look at the setting sun, I would be happy."

It's the birthday of John Reed, born in Portland, Oregon (1887). He was a journalist, a poet and a radical social activist. He's best known for the book Ten Days That Shook The World (1922), about the Russian Revolution in 1917. He graduated from Harvard and found his way to New York, where he wrote for political magazines. He was called "the wonder boy of Greenwich Village." Later he was arrested for taking part in a silk workers' strike in Paterson, New Jersey. He went to Mexico to travel with the revolutionary leader Pancho Villa, and wrote the book Insurgent Mexico (1914). In 1917 he married the journalist Louise Bryant. The two of them went to St. Petersburg, and he covered the Bolshevik revolution. Reed became more and more involved in communist politics. He made a second trip to Russia in 1919, where he met Lenin. Reed died of typhus and was buried in Moscow in 1920. The journalist Max Eastman said, "Poetry to Reed was not only a matter of writing words but of living life. We were carrying realism so far in those days that it walked us right out of our books."

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