Dec. 31, 2004


by Gail Mazur

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Poem: "Ice" by Gail Mazur, from The Common. © The University of Chicago, 1995. Reprinted with permission.


In the warming house, children lace their skates,
bending, choked, over their thick jackets.

A Franklin stove keeps the place so cozy
it's hard to imagine why anyone would leave

clumping across the frozen beach to the river.
December's always the same at Ware's Cove,

the first sheer ice, black, then white
and deep until the city sends trucks of men

with wooden barriers to put up the boys'
hockey rink. An hour of skating after school,

of trying wobbly figure-8's, an hour
of distances moved backwards without falling,

then twilight, the warming house steamy
with girls pulling on boots, their chafed legs

aching. Outside, the hockey players keep
playing, slamming the round black puck

until it's dark, until supper. At night,
a shy girl comes to the cove with her father.

Although there isn't music, they glide
arm in arm onto the blurred surface together,

braced like dancers. She thinks she'll never
be so happy, for who else will find her graceful,

find her perfect, skate with her
in circles outside the emptied rink forever?

Literary and Historical Notes:

Today is New Year's Eve. Tonight there will be parties all across the country in celebration of the coming new year, and at the stroke of midnight millions of people will sing "Auld Lang Syne." The lyrics to the song were first written down by the poet Robert Burns, but the song actually comes from Scottish oral tradition. The Scottish title can be translated to mean "old long ago" or "time long past" or simply "the good old days."

The writer Thomas Mann said of New Year's Eve, "Time has no divisions to mark its passage, there is never a thunderstorm or blare of trumpets to announce the beginning of a new month or year. Even when a new century begins it is only we mortals who ring bells and fire off pistols."

Alfred, Lord Tennyson wrote, "The year is going, let him go; ring out the false, ring in the true."

It's the birthday of the painter Henri Matisse, born in Le Cateau, France (1869). Matisse is best known for his use of vivid colors in his paintings, but Matisse also enjoyed sculpture. He is one of the few painters to earn widespread fame during his lifetime.

Matisse originally intended to become a lawyer, and in 1887 he moved to Paris to study law. He completed his course work and became a court administrator before a bout of appendicitis changed his life. Matisse began to paint while recovering from his illness. He never returned to law, and in 1891 he attended a prestigious art school, where he studied under Gustave Moreau.

Matisse was not very successful when he first began exhibiting his work. It wasn't until 1905, while Matisse lived at a Mediterranean village called Collioure, that he perfected his now-famous practice of using bold, primary colors in his paintings. He began exhibiting with a group of painters called fauvists, who also favored bold colors, and Matisse eventually became a leader of that group. The fauvist movement was brief, but Matisse's success continued throughout his lifetime.

Matisse was afflicted with cancer in 1941 and needed surgery, and then found himself restricted to a wheelchair, unable to use an easel. He began to cut paper collages, some of them large. When bedridden, Matisse attached charcoal to long poles, and he drew on the walls and ceilings of his room. Late in life he was able to decorate the Dominican nuns' chapel in St. Paul de Vens in Southern France, and when he completed the work in 1951, he declared it his masterpiece.

It's the birthday of the novelist Nicholas Sparks, born in Omaha, Nebraska (1965), eighty minutes before the new year. He is the author of A Walk to Remember (1999), Message in a Bottle (1998) and The Notebook (1996), which have all been made into movies.

Sparks's passion as a young man was running, and he earned a scholarship to run track at the University of Notre Dame. He was injured in his freshman year, and spent the summer months moping around his parents' house until his mother told him to write a book to pass the time. He wrote a novel that was never published. Sparks said of it, "In all honesty, it's a wonderful story-except for the writing." He wrote another novel that went unpublished before deciding to do something else. He appraised real estate, bought and restored houses, waited tables, sold dental products by phone, and started his own business. Eventually Sparks sold that business and became a pharmaceutical representative. Then he wrote The Notebook.

Nicholas Sparks said, "Writing the last page of the first draft is the most enjoyable moment in writing. It's one of the most enjoyable moments in life, period."

It's the birthday of the poet Alexander Smith, born in Kilmarnock, Scotland (1830). He is best known for collaborating with Sydney Dobell on War Sonnets (1855), inspired by the Crimean War, and for being one of the Spasmodic poets.

Smith's father was a lace-designer, and his family was too poor to send Smith to college. Smith was supposed to follow in his father's footsteps and he began working at a linen factory, but he also wrote poetry. His earliest published work appeared in the Glasgow Citizen, and Smith eventually became friends with the editor, James Hedderwick. Smith published A Life Drama and Other Poems in 1853, and the success of it led to Smith's appointment of secretary to Edinburgh University the following year.

In 1854, Smith and others were dubbed "Spasmodic" poets by a critic who did not care for their writing, which reflected discontent and unrest through a jerky and strained writing style. This criticism did not stop Smith and Dobell from meeting each other that same year in Edinburgh, and the next year publishing War Sonnets.

Alexander Smith said, "I would rather be remembered by a song than by a victory."

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