May 12, 2006

Mother Night

by Jim Harrison

FRIDAY, 12 MAY, 2006
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Poem: "Mother Night" by Jim Harrison from Saving Daylight. © Copper Canyon Press. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Mother Night

When you wake at three AM you don't think
of your age or sex and rarely your name
or the plot of your life which has never
broken itself down into logical pieces.
At three AM you have the gift of incomprehension
wherein the galaxies make more sense
than your job or the government. Jesus at the well
with Mary Magdalene is much more vivid
than your car. You can clearly see the bear
climb to heaven on a golden rope in the children's
story no one ever wrote. Your childhood horse
named June still stomps the ground for an apple.
What is morning and what if it doesn't arrive?
One morning Mother dropped an egg and asked
me if God was the same species as we are?
Smear of light at five AM. Sound of Webber's
sheep flock and sandhill cranes across the road,
burble of irrigation ditch beneath my window.
She said, "Only lunatics save newspapers
and magazines," fried me two eggs, then said,
"If you want to understand mortality look at birds."
Blue moon, two full moons this month,
which I conclude are two full moons. In what
direction do the dead fly off the earth?
Rising sun. A thousand blackbirds pronounce day.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of the man who has been called "the father of nonsense," Edward Lear, (books by this author), born in London, England (1812). He was the twentieth of his mother's twenty-one children, almost half of whom had died in infancy. He was raised by his sister Ann, who taught him at an early age how to paint birds and flowers. He went to school only briefly, and then, as a teenager, began to support himself painting shop signs for local merchants and sketching diseased patients for medical textbooks.

At the time, there was a fad for books of illustrated birds, so Edward Lear got into that business and became one of the most successful bird illustrators in the industry. Unlike other painters, he refused to paint stuffed birds, and tried only to work from living specimens, which made his paintings more anatomically accurate. Among his clients was Charles Darwin, who had Lear illustrate the specimens he brought back from his trip on the H.M.S. Beagle.

Lear suffered from periodic depression as an adult, along with terrible eyesight and epilepsy. Most scholars also believe he was a homosexual. Despite all his success as a painter and illustrator, he felt like an outcast in respectable British society. He wrote in his diary, "Nothing I long for half so much as to giggle heartily and to hop on one leg ... but I dare not."

Then in 1832, the Earl of Darby invited Lear to come to his estate and paint all the animals in his private zoo, the largest private zoo in the world at the time. Lear agreed, and when he arrived at the estate, he wound up spending most of his free time with the Earl's grandchildren. Lear had never spent any time with children before, and he found that they brought out a whole different side of his personality. He began acting like a clown for them, singing songs, drawing cartoons, and making up humorous poems. The children loved the poems so much that he wrote them down and they became his Book of Nonsense (1846).

There had long been an oral tradition of nonsense poetry in the English language, from nursery rhymes to schoolyard chants and drinking songs. Shakespeare had drawn on that tradition when he wrote the dialogue for fools and madmen. But Edward Lear was the first English writer to make nonsense poetry into an art form: something worth writing and publishing in its own right.

It's the birthday of actress Katharine Hepburn, (books by this actor), born in Hartford, Connecticut (1907). She became a Hollywood star by not doing anything that Hollywood stars were supposed to do. Her looks were unconventional: she had red hair and freckles and sharp cheekbones. She didn't wear make-up or dresses, she didn't cooperate with the media, and she had a habit of insulting other people in the business. She played smart, sexy, independent women who were always able to get the guy in the end.

She won her first Oscar for her role in Morning Glory (1933). After that she hand-picked each of her movies, and she often had a say in who the other actors in the movie would be. Sometimes she rewrote her own lines, something almost no other actress would have dared to do at the time.

In 1991, Hepburn published her autobiography, titled Me, and it was a best-seller. She wrote about her twenty-seven-year affair with Spencer Tracy, her career, and life in her brownstone in the middle of Manhattan, where she lived for more than sixty years.

Katharine Hepburn said, "If you obey all the rules you miss all the fun."

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




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