Dec. 16, 2004

Mutterings over the Crib of a Deaf Child

by James Wright

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Poem: "Mutterings over the Crib of a Deaf Child" by James Wright, from Above the River, © Noonday and University Press of New England. Reprinted with permission.

Mutterings over the Crib of a Deaf Child

"How will he hear the bell at school
Arrange the broken afternoon,
And know to run across the cool
Grasses where the starlings cry,
Or understand the day is gone?"

Well, someone lifting curious brows
Will take the measure of the clock.
And he will see the birchen boughs
Outside sagging dark from the sky,
And the shade crawling upon the rock.

"And how will he know to rise at morning?
His mother has other sons to waken,
She has the stove she must build to burning
Before the coals of the nighttime die;
And he never stirs when he is shaken."

I take it the air affects his skin,
And you remember, when you were young,
Sometimes you could feel the dawn begin,
And the fire would call you, by and by,
Out of the bed and bring you along.

"Well, good enough. To serve his needs
All kinds of arrangements can be made.
But what will you do if his finger bleeds?
Or a bobwhite whistles invisibly
And flutes like an angel off in the shade?"

He will learn pain. And, as for the bird,
It is always darkening when that comes out.
I will putter as though I had not heard,
And lift him into my arms and sing
Whether he hears my song or not.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of Jane Austen, born in Steventon, Hampshire, England (1775). She began to write stories as a young girl to entertain her family, inventing satires that poked fun at the great 18th-century novelists, including an essay called "The History of England... By a partial, prejudiced and ignorant historian."

She is best known for her novels about women yearning to get married, including Sense and Sensibility (1811) and Pride and Prejudice (1813). But she never got married herself. She did fall in love as a young woman, but the man she loved had no money for marriage. Later, she got a proposal from an older wealthy gentleman. She said yes, but then found herself unable to sleep that night. In the morning she told him that she'd changed her mind, because she did not love him.

But she didn't seem to mind the single life. In her letters, she often wrote about the many women she knew suffering from and often dying from childbirth. Of her niece, who had just gotten pregnant for the second time, she wrote, "Poor animal, she will be worn out before she's thirty." In another letter, she wrote, "Mrs. Hall of Sherbourn was brought to bed yesterday of a dead child, some weeks before she expected, owing to a fright--I suppose she happened unawares to look at her husband."

She spent most of her life relatively poor and dependent on her older brothers. She decided to try publishing fiction in order to get herself some money. She wrote on a table in the family drawing room, hiding her notebooks whenever she heard someone come through the door.

Sense and Sensibility (1811) and Pride and Prejudice (1813) were great successes in her lifetime, but after that her readers grew less enthusiastic. Neither Mansfield Park (1814) nor Emma (1816), were as popular. Austen's relatives suggested she try writing another kind of novel, such as historical romance. She replied, "I must keep to my own style and go on in my own way; and though I may never succeed again in that, I am convinced that I should totally fail in any other."

It was only after her death that she became one of the most popular novelists from the 19th century. After the First World War, Jane Austen novels were prescribed to shell-shocked English soldiers for therapy, because the psychologists found that Austen helped them recover their sense of the world they'd known before the war. Rudyard Kipling said, "There's no one to touch Jane [Austen] when you're in a tight place."

She is the only novelist who published before Charles Dickens whose books still sell thousands of copies every year. All of her novels have been made into movies at least once in the last ten years.

Jane Austen said, "For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbors and laugh at them in our turn?"

And, "A person who can write a long letter, with ease, cannot write ill."

And, "I think I may boast myself to be, with all possible vanity, the most unlearned and uninformed female who ever dared to be an authoress."

It's the birthday of the science fiction novelist Arthur C. Clarke, born in Somerset, England (1917). He was obsessed with outer space from an early age, and built his first telescope when he was thirteen. During World War II, he served in the air force and also sold his first stories.

In 1945 he wrote an article called "Extra-Terrestrial Relays: Can Rocket Stations Give World-Wide Radio Coverage?" The article explored the possibilities for a satellite that could broadcast signals while orbiting the earth, an idea that would eventually come to fruition as the communications satellite.

He went on to become the author of many non-fiction books about science, but he's best known for his many science fiction novels, including Childhood's End (1953), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), and Rendezvous with Rama (1973).

Arthur C. Clarke said, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."

And, "When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong."

It's the birthday of science fiction novelist Philip K. Dick, born in Chicago (1928). He was one of the first novelists to explore the idea of virtual reality, and his work has influenced a generation of science fiction writers and filmmakers.

He started writing science fiction in the 1950's, when publishers wanted made-to-order science fiction, full of formulaic plots about aliens and gadgets. Dick churned these novels out rapidly, sometimes finishing a whole novel in a single night. But he grew frustrated with conventional science fiction, and he began to write more ambitious novels, hoping they would win him a broader audience. He was jealous of writers such as Ray Bradbury and Ursula Le Guin, who were accepted by mainstream readers.

In the late 1950's, his marriage was falling apart, he was abusing alcohol and drugs, and then he began having visions. He thought he saw a face in the sky. He wrote, "It was a vast visage of evil with empty slots for eyes, metal and cruel, and worst of all, it was God." He wasn't sure if his visions were authentic or if they were symptoms of drug abuse or insanity. He was fascinated that he could no longer tell what was real and what wasn't. He started writing a series of increasingly strange novels about the nature of reality. His novel Time Out of Joint (1959) is about a man who believes he's living in 1950's America, when in fact he's living in an artificial replica of the 1950's, constructed as a kind of prison.

Dick's novels were highly regarded in science fiction circles and in Europe, but they didn't make any money, so Dick wound up on welfare in a seedy California neighborhood. He began to suffer from paranoid delusions, believing the FBI and the CIA were keeping tabs on him.

Someone broke into Dick's house and destroyed his papers. He found the incident strangely comforting, and wrote in his diary, "At least I'm not paranoid." But he also briefly considered himself a possible suspect. It was during his period that he wrote some of his most important novels, including Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968) and A Scanner Darkly (1977).

After Dick finally got off drugs, his visions only grew stronger. Over the course of a few weeks, he believed God was speaking directly to him through flickering colors, voices coming from an unplugged radio, and a beam of light that conveyed knowledge directly to his brain. He spent the next eight years writing about the experience in his diary, as well as a novel called Valis (1981). He studied hundreds of TV advertisements and record albums, looking for evidence of the God who had spoken to him. But even though he thought it was the most important experience of his life, he also constantly wondered if it had been real, or just some weird drug flashback, or a stroke.

He wrote, "They ought to make it a binding clause that if you find God you get to keep him... Finding God (if indeed [I] did find God) became, ultimately, a bummer, a constantly diminishing supply of joy sinking lower and lower like the contents of a bag of [drugs]."

Since his death in 1982, many of his novels and short stories have been made into movies, including Blade Runner (1982), Total Recall (1990) and Minority Report (2002). He's been called one of the most influential science fiction writers of the 20th century.

Philip K. Dick said, "Insanity is sometimes an appropriate response to reality."

It's the birthday of the philosopher and poet George Santayana, born in Madrid (1863). He was the man who coined the famous phrase, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." Santayana's father was Spanish and his mother was Scottish. He spent almost his entire life in the United States, though he never wanted to become a citizen. For many years he taught philosophy at Harvard, and his students included T.S. Eliot, Gertrude Stein, Conrad Aiken, Robert Frost and Wallace Stevens.

Santayana wrote a great deal about art and the importance of creative thinking. He once said, "Cultivate imagination, love it, give it endless forms, but do not let it deceive you. Enjoy the world, travel over it and learn its ways, but do not let it hold you." As he grew older, he became tired of teaching and what he called the "thistles of trivial and narrow scholarship," so he left Harvard and spent the rest of his life writing. His books include many philosophical works, as well as collections of poetry. He also spent about 20 years working on a novel, The Last Puritan (1935), about a young man's struggles in Boston high society just before World War I.

He said, "The lover knows much more about absolute good and universal beauty than the logician or theologian, unless the latter, too, be lovers in disguise."

And, "There is no cure for birth and death save to enjoy the interval."

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




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