Apr. 21, 2004

Slow Children at Play

by Cecilia Woloch

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Poems: "Slow Children at Play," by Cecilia Woloch, from Late. © BOA Editions, Ltd. Reprinted with permission.

Slow Children at Play

All the quick children have gone inside, called
by their mothers to hurry-up-wash-your-hands
honey-dinner's-getting-cold, just-wait-till-your-father-gets-home
and only the slow children out on the lawns, marking off
paths between fireflies, making soft little sounds with their mouths, ohs
that glow and go out and glow. And their slow mothers flickering,
pale in the dusk, watching them turn in the gentle air, watching them
twirling, their arms spread wide, thinking, These are my children, thinking,
Where is their dinner? Where has their father gone?

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of John Clifford Mortimer, born in London (1923). He's best known as the author of the mystery novels featuring the lawyer Rumpole of the Bailey. He wrote his first novel when he was in law school, and he's continued to practice law his entire life, writing plays, novels, and screenplays in his spare time. He once boasted "with no particular vanity, of being the best playwright ever to have defended a murderer at the Central Criminal Court." He published several novels in the early '50s, and then he turned to radio dramas and plays, including The Dock Brief (1957), What Shall We Tell Caroline? (1958) and The Wrong Side of the Park (1960). He became well known in Great Britain, but most Americans hadn't heard of him until the BBC's adaptation of his Rumpole books aired on PBS in the early '80s.

As a lawyer, Mortimer developed a reputation for fighting for civil rights and free speech. In the 1960s, he defended the Nigerian playwright Wole Soyinko, as well as several publishers of books and magazines that were charged with obscenity.

Mortimer once said that comedy is "the only thing worth writing in this despairing age, provided the comedy is truly on the side of the lonely, the neglected and the unsuccessful, and plays its part in the war against established rules."

It's the birthday of writer and naturalist John Muir, born in Dunbar, Scotland (1838). When he was eleven years old, he immigrated with his family to Fountain Lake Farm in Wisconsin. He went to college, but left after three years to travel through the northern United States and Canada, working at odd jobs to earn a living. In 1867 he was working at a carriage parts shop in Indianapolis when he almost lost one of his eyes in a freak accident. He later said, "I felt neither pain nor faintness, the thought was so tremendous that my right eye was gone—that I should never look at a flower again." He was so affected by the incident that he decided to quit his job and walk across the country, living as close to nature as possible.

He walked for a thousand miles, from Indianapolis to the Gulf of Mexico, and then he sailed to Cuba, Panama, and finally California, which would become his home for the rest of his life. He fell in love with the Sierra Mountains in California, and spent much of his time hiking and camping there. He also visited Alaska, South America, Australia, Africa, China, Europe, and Japan, studying plants, animals, rocks, and glaciers. He came up with innovative theories of glacial formation that contradicted the theories of earlier scientists and that have proven to be mostly correct.

In 1889, he wrote a series of articles arguing for a national reserve to be created in the Sierra Mountains. The next year, Yosemite National Park was created, and Muir became known as the "Father of our National Parks." In his final years, he wrote most of the nature books for which he is known—The Mountains of California (1894), Our National Parks (1901), The Yosemite (1912), and many others.

Muir said, "When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe."

It's the birthday of Charlotte Bronte, born in Thornton, Yorkshire, England (1816). She's the oldest of the three famous Bronte sisters, and the author of Jane Eyre (1847) and Villette (1853). Her mother and two older sisters died when Charlotte was young, and she was brought up by her father, an Anglican clergyman. She and her two younger sisters, Emily and Anne, began writing stories when they were still children. Charlotte spent several years at various teaching jobs, but she hated the monotony of the work. She tried to found a school, but only two students applied, so she abandoned the idea.

Then, in 1845, Charlotte accidentally discovered some poems that her sister Emily had written. She said, "They stirred my heart like the sound of a trumpet. . . . I know no woman that ever lived ever wrote such poetry before." Charlotte decided that the three sisters should publish a book of poems, under the pseudonyms of Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell. The book sold only a few copies, but the sisters were inspired to try writing novels. Anne wrote Agnes Grey (1847), Emily wrote Wuthering Heights (1847), and Charlotte wrote Jane Eyre (1847), about a smart, passionate governess working for a mysterious man named Mr. Rochester. At one point in the book, Mr. Rochester addresses Jane as an angel. Jane responds, "I am not an angel. . . and I will not be one till I die: I will be myself. Mr. Rochester, you must neither expect nor exact anything celestial of me,—for you will not get it, any more than I shall get it of you; which I do not at all anticipate."

Charlotte Bronte said, "It is in vain to say human beings ought to be satisfied with tranquility: they must have action; and they will make it if they cannot find it."

It's the birthday of humorist Josh Billings, born Henry Wheeler Shaw in Lanesboro, Massachusetts (1818). He spent years roaming around the American West, working as a coal operator, a farmer, and a steamboat operator. When he was forty years old, he settled down with his family in Poughkeepsie, New York, where he started writing articles for New England newspapers. His articles weren't very popular until he started writing a humor column full of aphorisms and advice, all in phonetic spelling. He became known as a down-home philosopher and humorist, and he started giving lectures across the country. He also published several books, including Josh Billings on Ice (1868) and Josh Billings' Farmers' Allminax (1870).

Billings said, "There are many people who are always anticipating trouble, and in this way they manage to enjoy many sorrows that never really happen to them."

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