Jul. 20, 2004

Morning News in the Bighorn Mountains

by William Notter

TUESDAY, JULY 20, 2004
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Poem: "Morning News in the Bighorn Mountains," by William Notter, from More Space Than Anyone Can Stand. © Texas Review Press. Reprinted with permission.

Morning News in the Bighorn Mountains

The latest movie star is drunk in spite of rehab,
two or three cities had extraordinary killings,
and expensive homes are sliding off the hills
or burning again. There's an energy crisis on,
and peace in the Middle East is close as ever.
In Wyoming, just below timberline,
meteors and lightning storms
keep us entertained at night. Last week,
a squirrel wrecked the mountain bluebirds' nest.
I swat handfuls of moths in the cabin
and set them out each day,
but the birds will not come back to feed.
It snowed last in June, four inches
the day before the solstice. But summer
is winding down—the grass was frosted
this morning when we left the ranger station.
Yellow-bellied marmots are burrowing
under the outhouse vault, and ravens have left the ridges
to gorge on Mormon crickets in the meadows.
Flakes of obsidian and red flint
knapped from arrowheads hundreds of years ago
appear in the trails each day,
and the big fish fossil in the limestone cliff
dissolves a little more with every rain.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of the poet Francesco Petrarca, better known as Petrarch, born in Arezzo, Italy (1304). He's usually considered to have lived just before the Italian Renaissance movement in art and literature began, but he was one of the most important influences on Renaissance artists and writers. More than anyone else from his age, he advocated for the restoration of classical Roman literature and politics. He read Cicero and Virgil obsessively, and he spent his adolescence traveling through Europe in search of old Latin manuscripts. His father became so fed up with his interest in Roman literature that he threw all of his books by Latin authors into a fire. In 1347, Petrarch supported a failed attempt to establish an ancient Roman-style republic.

He wrote epic poems in Latin that he hoped would make him famous—and they did: in 1341 he was crowned Poet Laureate of Rome. It had been hundreds of years since Roman officials had given anyone that title, and in his acceptance speech Petrarch gave what some historians call "the first manifesto of the Renaissance," about the revival of interest in classical culture.

By the end of his life, Petrarch was one of the most famous men in Europe. People made pilgrimages from all over southern Italy and France to see him. When he stopped off in Arezzo on the way from Rome to Padua, he was invited to visit the house of his birth, which had already been converted to a memorial in his honor.

After Petrarch's death, a book of sonnets was published about a woman named Laura—the Canzoniere (1374), or "Song Book." He wrote the sonnets in his free time during the last forty years of his life. They were the only poems he wrote in Italian, and he didn't consider them very important, but they're what most of us know him by today.

The kind of poems he wrote have come to be known as Petrarchan sonnets, poems of fourteen lines divided by their rhymes into one section of eight lines and one section of six. Thanks in large part to Petrarch, writing sonnets became all the rage in Elizabethan England, when poets like Sir Walter Raleigh, Michael Drayton and, most famously, William Shakespeare composed sonnet sequences.

It's the birthday of novelist Cormac McCarthy, born Charles McCarthy, Jr., in Providence, Rhode Island (1933). He's best known as the author of the "Border Trilogy"—All the Pretty Horses (1992), The Crossing (1994) and Cities of the Plain (1998). He spent four years in the air force, went to the University of Tennessee, and then dropped out after just a couple years. He spent the next few years working on what would become his first novel, The Orchard Keeper. In 1964, Albert Erskine, who also edited the novels of William Faulkner and Ralph Ellison, got a hold of the manuscript, and he liked it enough to publish it.

Over the next twenty-five years, McCarthy wrote four more novels. Most of them were set in rural Tennessee, and he was known for filling them with violence and bloodshed. In the late '70s, he moved to El Paso, Texas, and he set his next book, Blood Meridian in the Texas of the 1850s. It was his most violent book yet, about a fourteen-year-old boy who roams around the West with a band of killers. The New York Times called it "the bloodiest book since the Iliad."

It wasn't until the publication of All the Pretty Horses in 1992 that McCarthy finally became widely recognized. None of his first five novels had sold more than 2,500 hardcover copies, but All the Pretty Horses won the National Book Award and sold almost 200,000 copies in less than six months. It's since been made into a Hollywood movie. It's about a sixteen-year-old Texas rancher who leaves his family and rides into northern Mexico looking to make his fortune.

McCarthy said, "There's no such thing as life without bloodshed. I think the notion that the species can be improved in some way, that everyone could live in harmony, is a really dangerous idea. Those who are afflicted with this notion are the first ones to give up their souls, their freedom. Your desire that it be that way will enslave you and make your life vacuous."

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