May 11, 2004

Standing Deer

by Jane Hirshfield

TUESDAY, 11 MAY, 2004
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Poem: "Standing Deer," by Jane Hirshfield, from The Lives of the Heart. © Harper Perennial. Reprinted with permission.

Standing Deer

As the house of a person
in age sometimes grows cluttered
with what is
too loved or too heavy to part with,
the heart may grow cluttered.
And still the house will be emptied,
and still the heart.

As the thoughts of a person
in age sometimes grow sparer,
like a great cleanness come into a room,
the soul may grow sparer;
one sparrow song carves it completely.
And still the room is full,
and still the heart.

Empty and filled,
like the curling half-light of morning,
in which everything is still possible and so why not.

Filled and empty,
like the curling half-light of evening,
in which everything now is finished and so why not.

Beloved, what can be, what was,
will be taken from us.
I have disappointed.
I am sorry. I knew no better.

A root seeks water.
Tenderness only breaks open the earth.
This morning, out the window,
the deer stood like a blessing, then vanished.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of novelist Stanley Elkin, born in Brooklyn, New York (1930). He's the author of many comic novels, including George Mills (1982), The Magic Kingdom (1985) and The Living End (1979), which was just brought back into print this year. Elkin said, "[Writing is] fine, precise, detailed work, the infinitely small motor management of diamond cutters and safecrackers that we do in our heads."

It's the birthday of songwriter Irving Berlin, born Israel Baline in Mohilev, Russia (1888). He wrote more than 1,500 songs, including the classics "Blue Skies," "Puttin' on the Ritz," "God Bless America," "White Christmas" and "There's No Business Like Show Business."

His family immigrated to New York City's Lower East Side when he was five years old. He once said, "Everybody ought to have a Lower East Side in their life." He only went to school for two years before he started singing on the street for spare change to help support his family. His first song, "Marie from Sunny Italy," (1907) was published when he was nineteen years old. He started writing songs at Tin Pan Alley, and in 1911 he had his first big hit, "Alexander's Ragtime Band," one of the first of many patriotic songs he wrote. It included the lines, "They can play a bugle call like you never heard before / So natural that you want to go to war." The sheet music for the song became the number-one seller of the year.

Berlin never learned to read or write music, and he only used the black keys on the piano, which meant that he wrote almost all of his songs in F sharp. He used a specially built piano with a hand clutch to change keys. He called it his "Buick" and he took it with him on trips to Europe. When he wrote a song, he would play it or sing it to an assistant, who would then transcribe it into musical notation. He said, "I feel like an awful dope that I know so little about the mechanics of my trade."

It's the birthday of Mari Sandoz, born near Hay Springs, Nebraska (1896). She wrote realistic books about pioneers and Indians, including The Buffalo Hunters (1954), The Battle of the Little Bighorn (1966) and Crazy Horse (1942), a biography of the Sioux Indian chief.

She grew up in rural Nebraska, and she had a hard childhood. She quit school after the eighth grade, and spent most of her time helping out with farm and household chores. Her fingers became crooked from holding a hoe for hours at a time, and she suffered from cramps in her arms her entire life. When she was thirteen, she and her brother spent a day digging their cattle out of a blizzard snowdrift, and it left her blind in one eye.

Her father would host soldiers, traders, Indians, and miners from the Black Hills; and she would stay up late at night listening to them tell stories about the West. She became obsessed with the people and places of the Old West, and she decided she wanted to write about them. She went to the University of Nebraska in Lincoln, and a dean there allowed her to take classes even though she didn't have a high school diploma. She weighed about seventy-five pounds, wore old country clothes, and lived on the tea, sugar, and crackers that she got for free at the dining hall. She would spend hours reading old newspapers in the basement of the State Historical Society, collecting research for the books she was planning to write.

In 1933, Sandoz went back home to live with her mother on the family farm. She had written a manuscript for a book about her father, but it wasn't accepted by any of the publishers she had sent it to. She had sold a few articles to newspapers and magazines, but not enough to make any real money. She was thirty-seven years old, it was the middle of the Depression, she was malnourished and suffering from migraines, and so she decided give up writing. She burnt her manuscripts and settled in with her mother.

But just a year later, she got word that a publisher had decided to publish the book about her father, Old Jules (1935). It became a Book-of-the-Month club selection and a bestseller, and it allowed Sandoz to go on to write many more books about frontier life.

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