Feb. 27, 2005

The Marsh in Winter

by Timothy Walsh

Outside Richmond, Virginia, Sunday

by Deborah Slicer

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Poems: "The Marsh in Winter" by Timothy Walsh, from Wild Apples. © Parallel Press, 2004. Reprinted with permission. And "Outside of Richmond, Virginia, Sunday" by Deborah Slicer, from the white calf kicks. © Autumn House Press. Reprinted with permission.

The Marsh in Winter

If you stand and listen,
you will hear the voice.
Reeds sharp as rapiers rasp the wind.
Frost creaks in the trees.
Sunlight, ice-bright, falls from the sky.
Scattered cedars and junipers loom like shadows.
Sheathed in ice, a willow droops heavily
     Across the path.
Driven snow packs the creviced bark of cottonwoods.
Once-hidden bird nests now plainly marked
     by a white cap of snow...

Out on the marsh, blue water shows through shifting ice.
Tall brown reeds, slim as dancers, bend in the breeze.
A hundred thousand cattails, each one lit
     by the low-angled light of a westering sun,
each brown seed head blazing
     like the head of a saint.

Outside of Richmond, Virginia, Sunday

It's the kind of mid-January afternoon—
the sky as calm as an empty bed,
fields indulgent,
black Angus finally sitting down to her chew—
that makes a girl ride her bike up and down the same muddy track of road
between the gray barn and the state highway
all afternoon, the black mutt
with the white patch like a slap on his rump
loping after the rear tire, so happy.
Right after Sunday dinner
until she can see the headlights out on the dark highway,
she rides as though she has an understanding with the track she's opened up in
     the road,
with the two wheels that slide and stutter in the red mud
but don't run off from under her,
with the dog who knows to stay out of the way but to stay.
And even after the winter cold draws tears,
makes her nose run,
even after both sleeves are used up,
she thinks a life couldn't be any better than this.
And hers won't be,
and it will be very good.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, born in Portland, Maine (1807). He was a student at Bowdoin College at the same time as Nathaniel Hawthorne, and went on to teach at Harvard where he became friends with James Russell Lowell. Longfellow wrote many long, narrative poems that are still well known to this day, including Evangeline (1847) and The Courtship of Miles Standish (1858). He also translated Dante's Divine Comedy.

It's the birthday of Lawrence Durrell, born in India of English parents (1912). Durrell traveled widely during his life, living in Cairo, Belgrade, and on many small islands in the Mediterranean Sea. He worked as a diplomat and information officer for the British government, and also he lectured at universities.

Durrell is best known for The Alexandria Quartet (1957), four linked novels set in Alexandria, Egypt, around the time of World War II.

It's the birthday of Irwin Shaw, born in the Bronx, New York City (1913).

Shaw was the child of Russian Jewish immigrants, and they changed their family name from Shamforoff when they moved to Brooklyn when Shaw was a boy. Shaw attended Brooklyn College but was expelled after his first year, for failing calculus. And so, Shaw worked in New York City, in a cosmetics factory, a furniture house, and a department store. Then he returned to Brooklyn College, where he became the quarterback of the football team.

Shaw played football professionally for a short time, but he needed to support his family, and so he began to write radio scripts for programs like "Dick Tracy" and "The Gumps." Of this, Shaw said, "Even when I was writing the junk, I knew it was junk; but I did it the best way I could [...] and I make no excuses for eating. Or feeding a family. Or fighting for the freedom to write all these short stories, all these plays, all these novels."

Shaw wrote his play Bury the Dead (1936) for a contest for new playwrights held by the New Theatre League. Shaw missed the deadline, but he impressed them anyway, and they gave his play two off-Broadway performances. During this time, Shaw also began publishing his short stories in the Paris Review and the New Yorker.

Shaw enlisted in the military during World War II, and he worked with a camera crew. His crew traveled to Normandy two weeks after D-Day, and Shaw helped photograph battles for the liberation of French cities and towns, and this gave him the idea for his novel The Young Lions (1948). After the war, Shaw was blacklisted for a time, because he was mistakenly accused of being a Communist. Shaw claimed the blacklist "only glancingly bruised" his career. Still, he moved to Paris in 1951, and would remain abroad for 25 years, writing many stories, novels and plays.

Irwin Shaw said, "If you organize chaos, you organize as much as you can to show that it's chaos. It's the way I do it. To pretend it's not chaotic is a lie."

It's the birthday of John Steinbeck, born in Salinas, California (1902). He is the author of the epic novel The Grapes Of Wrath (1939), and also Of Mice and Men (1937).

Steinbeck enrolled at Stanford in 1919, but he did so only to please his parents. He dropped in and out of the university for six years, only taking classes he thought were interesting, and he never finished a degree. Then he worked construction and tried to make it as a reporter in New York City, but he disliked that job and returned to California. Then, Steinbeck became a caretaker for an estate near Lake Tahoe. The job lasted for three years, and it was during this time that he wrote many drafts of what would become his first novel, Cup of Gold (1929).

Steinbeck's most productive period as a writer was the 1930s. He wrote several books, including the two for which he is most famous today, Of Mice and Men and The Grapes of Wrath. His wife edited his prose, typed his manuscripts and suggested titles, which may explain why Steinbeck was so productive and successful. When The Grapes of Wrath was first published, the first printing of nearly 20,000 copies sold out quickly, and by May the book was selling 10,000 copies per week. Steinbeck won the Pulitzer Prize for the novel the following year.

As he grew older, Steinbeck became increasingly jaded by what he saw as American greed and waste. So he traveled across the country in a camper truck and then wrote the book Travels with Charley in Search of America (1962), where he celebrated what he found so admirable about his country: its individuals.

John Steinbeck said, "A book is like a man—clever and dull, brave and cowardly, beautiful and ugly. For every flowering thought there will be a page like a wet and mangy mongrel, and for every looping flight a tap on the wing and a reminder that wax cannot hold the feathers firm too near the sun."

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




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