Jan. 4, 2006

The Doctor

by Howard Levy

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Poem: "The Doctor" by Howard Levy from A Day This Lit. © CavanKerry Press. Reprinted with permission.

The Doctor

After days of healing,
he would get away to fish.
Curator of fluff and feathers,
he tied his own flies,
designed his own waders
and up to the lake country
for trout and walleye.

I would ask him, what is it
out there on the water,
and he would say, all week
I swim lead for my school of patients,
take this, take that,
don't eat this, don't eat that,
I tell them swim away from the hook,
don't take that bait, that bug there
has sharp metal innards,
that worm glints steel,
but we are such dumb fish,
such sorry things that we all get pulled
from our lives.
So, weekends,
I choose to be the redresser of balances.

I know that he hid behind this facile
diagnosis because I went with him once
and as we stood thigh-deep
in the cold and clear lake,
he began his meticulous detailings,
the striations of the bottom rocks
and how each different sediment
reflects the light, the distribution
of firs along the shore,
the speckling of the speckled trout
and each thing, he said,
is a symptom and so a clue
into the fevered chemistry of beauty.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of Jacob Grimm, born in Hanau, Germany (1785). He and his younger brother Wilhelm, who was born a year later, collected and published Grimm's Fairy Tales in 1812 which led to the birth of the study of folklore.

They grew up the sons of an affluent lawyer and as boys they loved to collect all kinds of things: plants, birds' eggs, butterflies, and unusual stones. But their father died when Jacob was eleven and Wilhelm was ten and the family had barely enough money to send them to school. They were both brilliant students, though, and they managed to finish high school and college in only four years.

They both went on the study law, and it was one of their law professors who introduced them to the idea of studying the songs and stories of ordinary people. At the time, most German intellectuals were interested in the future of German literature, but the brothers Grimm became obsessed with the neglected epics and ballads, stories and poems of Germany's past. Jacob began to spend all his time at antiquarian bookstores and he began learning as many languages as possible. He then followed his professor to Paris where he spent all his spare time in the National Library reading medieval manuscripts.

But Jacob and Wilhelm missed each other terribly while Jacob was in Paris. They wrote each other dozens of letters and when Jacob returned home they vowed never to be separated again. They shared a household for the rest of their lives.

European writers had long drawn on fairy tales for inspiration, but what Jacob and Wilhelm wanted to do was to collect and publish fairy tales as they were actually told, with no high literary embellishments. No one had ever done that before.

At first the project did not go well. Jacob sent Wilhelm out to the countryside to find storytellers but the peasants found him intimidating and refused to talk to him. They ultimately found more success when they began to ask friends and neighbors to help in the collecting. The six daughters of their next door neighbor proved to be great researchers and one of them ended up marrying Wilhelm.

But their most important discovery was a woman whose husband had died fighting as a mercenary in the American Revolution. She had memorized dozens of stories in her lifetime and she had a gift for telling them in a lively style. The brothers were amazed that when she told the stories more than once she altered very few words. It was she who gave the Grimms some of their most popular and enduring fairy tales including "Sleeping Beauty," "Little Red Riding Hood," and "Snow White."

The first edition of Grimm's Fairy Tales came out just before Christmas in 1812 and it was a huge success, though people wondered right from the start whether the stories were appropriate for children. The stories were full of child-eating witches and psychotic stepmothers. Cinderella's sisters chop off parts of their own feet in hopes of fitting into the golden slippers. When the wolf first sees Little Red Riding Hood he says to himself, "What a tender young creature! what a nice plump mouthful—she will be better to eat than the old woman." But despite the controversy Grimm's Fairy Tales became Germany's most widely read book after The Bible.

Jacob went on to devote himself to the study of German language and culture. He wrote first study of German grammar and his work helped German to become the accepted language for German universities replacing Latin and Greek.

Then, when he was dismissed from his job by a new ruler of his province Jacob Grimm decided to undertake the task of writing the first German dictionary. The brothers struggled with the project for most of the rest of their lives and the result is still considered the greatest dictionary of German, and one of the greatest dictionaries of all time. It was the precursor of the Oxford English Dictionary as well as many other similar works.

Jacob Grimm said, "The Lord made small things as well as big ones, and everything man looks at closely is full of wonder."

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




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