Jan. 30, 2005

Calf Born in Snow

by Patricia Gray

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Poem: "Calf Born in Snow" by Patricia Gray, from Rupture. © Red Hen Press, L.A. Reprinted with permission.

Calf Born in Snow

I can still hear the loud moan
in my grandfather's kitchen,
where the woodstove was open
for the failing fire's warmth, and
on the oven door, wrapped
in an old quilt, lay the new Charolais calf-
a twin that survived its snowy birth
that morning, though its brother died-
both of them the color of muddy snow,
this one too weak to stand.

We tried to feed him his mother's milk,
but he seemed to forget he was eating
and slept, so that by ten that night, when
he raised his head suddenly, making
a loud maa-a-a-a sound, I could scarcely
believe it. "He's getting better!"
Dad put his hand on my shoulder.
"Quiet. He's dying," was all he said-
old knowledge, deep as the Blue Mountains.
Still, I'd witnessed that final, wonderful
rallying, as if every ounce of life pulled
together to raise the calf's head,
to leave his sound so indelibly there.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of the 32nd president of the United States Franklin Delano Roosevelt, born in Hyde Park, New York (1882). He was the only president to be elected to four terms. He was also the first president to regularly address the nation over the radio, through weekly speeches he called "fireside chats." He appointed nine Supreme Court Justices while in office, more than any other president except George Washington. He said, "Human kindness has never weakened the stamina or softened the fiber of a free people. A nation does not have to be cruel to be tough." He also said, "I think we consider too much the good luck of the early bird and not enough the bad luck of the early worm."

He was an only son and tutored at home until he was fourteen years old. He watched and collected birds as a child and was convinced of the importance of forests and the environment from a young age. The first eight years of his presidency saw the biggest effort on the part of any president before or since to stress the importance of protecting our natural resources.

He said, "Remember you are just an extra in everyone else's play."

It's the birthday of Australian-born novelist and short story writer Shirley Hazzard, born in Sydney, Australia (1931). She's best known for her novel The Transit of Venus (1980), which won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1981.

It's the birthday of humorist and novelist (Frank) Gelett Burgess, born in Boston, Massachusetts (1866). He wrote more than 35 books of fiction and nonfiction, as well as several plays, including the satirical book Are You A Bromide? (1897). He was the co-founder and editor of Lark, a humor magazine that was usually printed on expensive Chinese bamboo paper, always without page numbers and uncut, with fancy drawings and poster art in addition to writing. His well-known quatrain about a Purple Cow appeared in the first issue of Lark. It reads, "I never Saw a Purple Cow; / I never Hope to See One; / But I can Tell you, Anyhow, / I'd rather See than Be One." The fame of the poem followed him for a long time, and years later he wrote, "Ah, yes, I wrote the Purple Cow; / I'm sorry now I wrote it; / But I can tell you, Anyhow, / I'll Kill you if you Quote it."

Burgess went to MIT and after graduating worked as a draftsman with the Southern Pacific Railway for three years. He later taught topographical drawing at the University of California, and later got a job as a designer of a magazine called The Wave and started contributing to magazines himself. He was so successful that after only twenty-five issues he left California for New York to become a professional writer.

Burgess had a habit of making up new words to make fun of people's quirks. His best known term is the much-used word "blurb," which he defined as "self-praise; to make a noise like a publisher." Burgess said, "If in the last few years you haven't discarded a major opinion or acquired a new one, check your pulse. You may be dead."

It's the birthday of poet and novelist Richard (Gary) Brautigan, born in Tacoma, Washington (1935). He was an important cult and literary figure in the counterculture movement of the 1960s. He was called a "hippie author," but most of his writing was about death, anxiety, and change. He said, "It's strange how the simple things in life go on while we become more difficult."

Brautigan reportedly never knew his real last name until he graduated from high school. He had been going by the last name "Porterfield," which was his mother's second husband's last name. His own parents never married. He said, "I didn't know the full dimensions of forever, but I knew it was longer than waiting for Christmas to come."

Brautigan moved to San Francisco, where he wrote his best-selling novel, Trout Fishing in America (1967). The back cover has only the word "Mayonnaise" in white letters on a solid red background. It's a tradition to flirt in coffee shops by showing someone the back cover from far away and then refusing to explain. Brautigan said, "If you get hung up on everybody else's hang-ups, then the whole world's going to be nothing more than one huge gallows."

He committed suicide in 1984 at the age of forty-nine. He said, "Probably the closest things to perfection are the huge absolutely empty holes that astronomers have recently discovered in space. If there's nothing there, how can anything go wrong?" He also said, "All of us have a place in history. Mine is clouds."

It's the birthday of historian and author Barbara Tuchman, born in New York City, New York (1912). She's best known for her book The Guns of August (1962), a history of the outbreak of World War I, and Stilwell and the American Experience in China, (1970). She won Pulitzer Prizes for both books.

Tuchman's father was a one-time owner and publisher of The Nation, as well as the founder of the Theatre Guild. Her maternal grandfather was the ambassador to Constantinople under president Woodrow Wilson, and her uncle was the Secretary of the Treasury under President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. She said, "The unrecorded past is none other than our old friend, the tree in the primeval forest which fell without being heard."

Tuchman never went to graduate school, and never took a single course in writing. In deciding to write, she said, "The single most formative experience, I think, was the stacks at Widener Library where I was allowed to have as my own one of those little cubicles with a table under a window, queerly called, as I have since learned, 'carrels,' a word I never knew when I sat in one. Mine was deep in among the 940's (British History, that is) and I could roam at liberty through the rich stacks, taking whatever I wanted. The experience was marvelous, a word I use in its exact sense meaning full of marvels. It gave me a lifelong affinity for libraries, where I find happiness, refuge, not to mention the material for making books of my own."

Tuchman said, "Nothing sickens me more than the closed door of a library."

She also said, "Books are the carriers of civilization. Without books, history is silent, literature dumb, science crippled, thought and speculation at a standstill."

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