Jun. 6, 2004

Games with God

by Virginia Hamilton Adair

SUNDAY, 6 JUNE, 2004
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Poem: "Games with God," by Virginia Hamilton Adair, from Beliefs and Blasphemies. © Random House. Reprinted with permission.

Games with God

I played, a child both wild and meek,
with God at games of hide-and-seek.
I searched in vain the usual places
and found a thousand saddened faces.

"Your God is hidden in heaven," they said;
"You'll see him only when you're dead."
How could I make them understand
God often took me by the hand?
Then as my tears began to fall
I felt his touch and heard his call,
"I never hid from you at all."

I played with God a game of tag,
his mantle flying like a flag.
I gave my God a good head start
but caught him running in my heart.

I played with God the game "I Spy,"
but lost him with my fading eye,
till playmate God in his pure kindness,
printed his image on my blindness.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of poet Maxine Kumin, born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (1925). She grew up in an affluent Jewish family. Her father owned the largest pawn broking business in the city. Even though she was Jewish, her parents sent her to a Catholic school, because it was so close to her house. She said, "Jesus entered my life casually but insistently and some of that sanctified passion has stayed in my bones."

She wrote poetry in secret from the time she was a child, and when she was a student at Radcliff she finally got the courage up to show her poems to a professor. The professor read the poems and then told her that her work was awful and not worth pursuing. She didn't try to write another poem for six years. Instead, she married an engineer, had children, and became a housewife in a Boston suburb.

One of her friends in the neighborhood was another housewife named Anne Sexton. Kumin and Sexton were both unhappy without careers, and they confided in each other that they'd both always wanted to be writers. They both began writing poems, as a sort of therapy, and they shared everything they wrote with each other, critiquing each other's work. Kumin is now the author of many poetry collections, including Up Country (1973), which won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, and The Long Marriage (2001).

It's the birthday of Aleksandr Pushkin, born in Moscow (1799). He's been called the father of modern Russian literature. He began writing at a time when most upper-class Russians saw their language as vulgar, and they preferred to read and write in French. Even those writers who wrote in Russian tended to imitate French writers in their plot lines and metaphors. Pushkin was the first Russian writer who not only wrote in Russian, but who tried to write about Russian life from a distinctly Russian perspective.

He lived off his family's allowance as a young man and spent all his time going to parties. He was a hard drinker, a frequent gambler and an ambitious lover. He once made a list of all the women he had ever loved, and the total came to 113. He only wrote poetry when sickness prevented him from leaving the house. He specialized in political and satirical verse, and he grew popular among radical young readers for poking fun at the Tsar and other governmental officials. Eventually, he was sent into exile in Southern Russia, and it was only in exile, away from the social scene he loved so much, that he began to write the serious poetry for which he is remembered, including his masterpiece, the verse novel Eugene Onegin (1833), about a man who kills his friend in a duel, and loses the one woman he loves.

Pushkin eventually gained the favor of Tsar Nicholas I, moved back to St. Petersburg, and married a woman who was described at the time as the most beautiful woman in Russia. Unfortunately, she never returned his love, and spent her evenings going to balls and flirting with military men. Pushkin finally challenged one man to a duel over his wife's honor. Pushkin was fatally wounded in the duel and died two days later. The government initially tried to cover up the death, because Pushkin was so popular among common Russians that they thought his death might spark an uprising. When word of his death finally did get out, people all over the country went into mourning. One man, weeping openly in the street, was asked by a newspaper man if he had known Pushkin personally. He replied, "No, but I am a Russian."

Most Russians today have read Pushkin, and almost everyone can quote him. People bring flowers and burst into tears at the field by the Black River where he was killed in the duel. In every Russian town, there is a street or a square or a school named after him. It's common for parents say to their children, "Who do you think is going to close that door after you, Pushkin?" There is a famous story about Josef Stalin presiding over a contest to create a national monument to Pushkin. Stalin rejected sculptures of Pushkin at his writing table, Pushkin in a birch forest, and Pushkin dancing with gypsies. The sculpture he finally declared the winner was a sculpture of Stalin reading Pushkin.

The novelist Vladimir Nabokov, who spent twelve years translating Eugene Onegin into English, wrote, "Russians know the conceptions of 'homeland' and 'Pushkin' are inseparable. . . . To be Russian means to love Pushkin."

It's the birthday of novelist Thomas Mann, born in Lubeck, Germany (1875). He had a long and happy life; he never struggled with his writing, with money, or with recognition. He published his first novel, Buddenbrooks (1901), when he was twenty-six years old. The novel was about the decline of a family, and it took place in an old mansion that Mann based on his grandfather's house. The book was so popular that the house Mann had used as his model became a national monument. It was destroyed during World War I, and the German government paid for it to be rebuilt.

Mann went on to publish many novels, including Death in Venice (1903), about a man who falls in love with a teenage boy, and The Magic Mountain (1924), about a tuberculosis sanitarium. He spent World War II living near Hollywood, where he became friends with many other exiled artists, including the composers Schoenberg and Stravinsky, who inspired him to write his last great novel, Dr. Faustus (1947), about a composer who sells his soul to the devil. Mann fell in love with the movies and tried to write screenplays, but he never had any success. When Harvard and Princeton offered him jobs in academia, he wrote to his son, "I'd really prefer [to stay with] the movie mob." He only left the United States because he feared that Joseph McCarthy's anti-communist investigations were a sign of growing American neo-fascism. He spent his last years in Switzerland, where he died in 1955.

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