Dec. 13, 2004

My Grandmother's Ghost

by James Wright

Monday, 13 DECEMBER, 2004
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Poem: "My Grandmother's Ghost" by James Wright, from Above the River: The Complete Poems, © Noonday and University Press of New England. Reprinted with permission.

My Grandmother's Ghost

She skimmed the yellow water like a moth,
Trailing her feet across the shallow stream;
She saw the berries, paused and sampled them
Where a slight spider cleaned his narrow tooth.
Light in the air, she fluttered up the path,
So delicate to shun the leaves and damp,
Like some young wife, holding a slender lamp
To find her stray child, or the moon, or both.
Even before she reached the empty house,
She beat her wings ever so lightly, rose,
Followed a bee where apples blew like snow;
And then, forgetting what she wanted there,
Too full of blossom and green light to care,
She hurried to the ground, and slipped below.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It was on this day in 1577 that Sir Francis Drake set out on a three year long journey around the world. Queen Elizabeth I originally commissioned the voyage hoping that Drake could disrupt Spanish trade. She decided on Drake partly because of his skills as a pirate.

He set sail from Plymouth, England, as captain of the Pelican, with four other ships and over 150 men. Storms battered the fleet through the Straits of Magellan, and one of the ships even turned around and went back to England. He was left with only one ship, which he renamed the Golden Hind. He returned to England in 1580 via the Cape of Good Hope, making him the first Englishman to sail around the world.

The Queen ordered that all written accounts of Drake's voyage be classified top secret, and everyone involved with the trip had to swear silence or risk penalty of death. She wanted to keep what he'd learned out of the reach of rival Spain. She knighted him the following year.

It's the birthday of mystery novelist Ross Macdonald, born Kenneth Millar in Los Gatos, California (1915). He also published under the names John Macdonald and John Ross Macdonald. He is most known for a series of novels starring Lew Archer, a private investigator. Macdonald named his character after Sam Spade's dead partner in Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon (1930).

Macdonald spent most of his early life in Canada, where his father worked for a time as a harbor pilot. His parents separated when he was three. His mother suffered from typhoid fever and couldn't support the both of them, so he moved in with many different relatives during his childhood. He wrote, "I counted the number of rooms I had lived in during my first sixteen years, and got a total of fifty."

He read a lot growing up, even climbing the fire escape of the town library at night so that he could read the authors who were off limits to young people during the day.

Macdonald published his first story in 1931 in his high school newspaper, and he said it was a parody of Sherlock Holmes. He graduated from high school in 1932 and worked for room and board as a farm laborer for a year before going to college.

His wife, Margaret Millar, also wrote mystery novels, and was the first of the two of them to make any money from their writing. Her first book was The Invisible Worm (1941), and the money they made from that allowed Macdonald to quit his job teaching high school and attend the University of Michigan.

He wrote, "Never sleep with anyone whose troubles are worse than your own."

Macdonald served as president of The Mystery Writers of America organization in 1965. In his later years, he spent three or four hours a day writing. He used spiral-bound notebooks, filling about three pages a day while sitting in the same bedroom chair where he wrote all of his books for three decades. He worked on several books at once, sometimes getting ideas for his plots by sitting in on local criminal trials.

Macdonald spent his free time bird watching with his wife. He was a very private man, but also a dedicated conservationist. He sometimes came out of hiding to take part in protests for preserving the environment. He and his wife were particularly active in the efforts to save the California condor from extinction.

His later novels include The Underground Man (1971) and Sleeping Beauty (1973) and both have environmentalist themes.

It's the birthday of poet James (Arlington) Wright, born in Martin's Ferry, Ohio (1927). Wright's whole youth was aimed at leaving his small hometown. His father worked at the same glass factory for fifty years, and his mother left school at fourteen to work in a laundry. Neither went to school past the eighth grade. He was the middle of three sons.

He started writing poetry when he was eleven, when a friend tried to teach him Latin and also gave him a copy of the collected works of Lord Byron.

Wright suffered a nervous breakdown in 1943 and missed a year of high school. He graduated a year late in 1946 and joined the army. He was stationed in Japan, and when he retuned to the States, he went to Kenyon College on the G.I. Bill. He graduated Phi Beta Kappa in 1952. After college, Wright married his high-school sweetheart, Liberty Kardules. She had worked as a nurse and a teacher in Texas. He depended on her to get around because he never learned how to drive.

He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Washington, where he worked with Theodore Roethke. When Wright finished his Ph.D., Roethke gave him a ticket to the world heavyweight championship fight of 1957 as a graduation present. He was also friends with Robert Bly, and their friendship began as Wright's first marriage was ending.

Wright taught at the University of Minnesota and then at Macalester College in St. Paul until 1966. He later joined the Department of English at Hunter College of the City University of New York, where he taught until he died.

Wright had a knack for impressions and would often be overheard entertaining children with his voices and jokes, but he'd always go back to the lower class, undeserving Ohio poet around his colleagues. He said, "To speak in a flat voice is all that I can do."

Wright's first book of poetry was The Green Wall (1957). His Collected Poems (1971) received the Pulitzer Prize in 1972. He said of the award, "It'll fade, and I'll be a footnote in some high-school anthology." He also said, "I didn't believe it; I thought I didn't deserve it. I still don't think I deserve it."

Wright suffered from a chronic sore throat, and in 1979 he was diagnosed with cancer of the tongue. He died in 1980 just after finishing his last book, This Journey (1982).

He said, "I have learned violence makes no sense. Maybe it did once--as when we fought the Nazis--but it doesn't make sense now. You wouldn't hit anybody, would you? Neither would I."

It's the birthday of rock critic Lester Bangs, born Leslie Conway Bangs, in Escondido, California (1948). He is known as America's greatest rock 'n roll critic. He was famous for his habit of confronting and insulting the musicians he interviewed. His rough style got him dismissed from Rolling Stone Magazine by Jann Wenner in 1973 for being "disrespectful to musicians."

Bangs is sometimes credited with inventing the terms "punk rock" and "heavy metal." He wrote for publications such as Creem and The Village Voice, as well working as a freelance writer for Rolling Stone. In all the time he wrote for them, he was never officially on their staff. He also sang with The Delinquents, as well as other bands, before dying of a drug overdose in 1982. He said, "The first mistake of art is to assume that it's serious."

He also said, "The ultimate sin of any performer is contempt for the audience."

It's the birthday of painter and writer Emily Carr, born in Vancouver Island, Canada (1871). Her parents died when she was young, and she was raised by her older sisters. She's best known for her landscape and native themed paintings. By the time of her death, she was considered the Canadian Van Gogh. She was also known as the "little old woman on the edge of nowhere." She kept a household of animals, which included a monkey, a pet rat, parrots, dogs, and other various wild creatures she had tamed.

She began writing after a heart attack restricted her ability to paint. She wrote Klee Wyck (1941), which won a Governor General's Award, and The House of All Sorts (1944). Most of her life stories, journals, and letters were published after she died in 1945.

Carr said, "It is not all bad, this getting old, ripening. After the fruit has got its growth it should juice up and mellow. God forbid I should live long enough to ferment and rot and fall to the ground in a squash."

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




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