Mar. 16, 2005

To N, in absentia

by Robyn Sarah

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Poem: To N, in absentia" by Robyn Sarah, from A Day's Grace. © The Porcupine's Quill. Reprinted with permission.

To N, in absentia

I do not know how you went out of my life
or when exactly. The leaves of the Norway maple
are beginning to turn yellow, fall has come.
I last saw you on an evening at the end of July
but I think you were already gone then,
I think by then you had been gone for a long time.

And so it seems meaningless to count the days
yet still I count them, August, September,
October now half over, terrible days,
And I do not know where you are
or when I may have news of you again.
But I remember as if yesterday the day
you came out of my body into this world,
a fine splash in full midsummer, a small cry
like the meow of a Siamese cat,
your eyes wide open and looking all around;
remember how in the early hours of that morning,
before you arrived, I heard pass down our street
(as I had heard each morning that summer
of my thirtieth year) the clopping sound
of a lone horse pulling a calèche,
his sleepy driver bound for the road
that climbs Mount Royal's slope.

No one can take away that morning
or the exactness of its place in time.
I go there often.
I visit it like a temple.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of poet César Vallejo, born in a small town in northern Peru (1892). He was mistakenly thrown in jail as a young man after a riot in his hometown, and he wrote his first collection of poetry while behind bars.

Once he was free, he moved to Paris and tried to find a job, but he wound up on the street, sleeping on park benches and in subways. He wrote to his brother, "My will veers between the point at which one is reduced to the sole desire for death and the intention of conquering the world by sword and fire."

He kept writing poetry for the rest of his life, but none of it was published until after his death. He died relatively unknown, but today he is regarded as one of the great poets of the Spanish language.

It's the birthday of novelist Alice Hoffman, born in New York City (1952). She's the author of many novels, including Practical Magic (1995) and Local Girls (1999). Her most next book, Ice Queen, will come out next month.

It's the birthday of the fourth president of the United States, James Madison, born in Port Conway, Virginia (1751). He did more than almost any of the founding fathers to help write the United States Constitution, establishing our nation's federal government, with all its checks and balances. He believed the government needed to be checked and balanced because, he said, "The truth is that all men having power ought to be mistrusted."

It was on this day in 1850 that Nathaniel Hawthorne published his novel The Scarlet Letter. He was forty-six years old, and had been writing for more than 20 years, with little success.

He was living at a time when there was almost no such thing as American literature, in part because the American publishing industry was so behind the times. In order to publish a book, a single printer would edit the manuscript, set the type, operate the printing press, bind the pages into books, and then sell them. It was remarkably inefficient, and so it was almost impossible to produce a best-seller, since so few copies were available to be sold.

But by 1850, books were being printed by machines. Long, continuous sheets of paper were fed into steam-powered printing presses, and factories of workers folded, pressed, and stitched the pages into books. The Scarlet Letter became the first great American novel in part because could reach a large audience.

When he started writing the novel, Hawthorne was working as a political appointee at the Salem Custom House. He'd long been fascinated by America's Puritan history, especially since one of his own ancestors had been a judge in the Salem witch trials. 10 years before starting The Scarlet Letter, he had read a historical account of a woman who had to wear the letter "A" on her chest as a punishment for adultery. He used that woman as the main character of the novel, and he named her Hester Prynne.

When he finished the last chapter, he read it aloud to his wife. He said the tragic ending broke her heart and sent her to bed with a terrible headache, which he considered a great success. But he worried that it might be too bleak a book, and he thought he might try to publish it along with some lighter short stories.

His publisher thought it was good enough to stand alone, and he was right. The first printing sold out in 10 days and went on to become a big best-seller. Henry James would later call it, "The finest piece of imaginative writing yet put forth in this country."

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




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