Jul. 30, 2006

Light, at Thirty-Two

by Michael Blumenthal

SUNDAY, 30 JULY, 2006
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Poem: "Light, At Thirty-Two" by Michael Blumenthal from Days We Would Rather Know. © Pleasure Boat Studio. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Light, At Thirty-Two

It is the first thing God speaks of
when we meet Him, in the good book
of Genesis. And now, I think
I see it all in terms of light:

How, the other day at dusk
on Ossabaw Island, the marsh grass
was the color of the most beautiful hair
I had ever seen, or how—years ago
in the early-dawn light of Montrose Park—
I saw the most ravishing woman
in the world, only to find, hours later
over drinks in a dark bar, that it
wasn't she who was ravishing,
but the light: how it filtered
through the leaves of the magnolia
onto her cheeks, how it turned
her cotton dress to silk, her walk
to a tour-jeté.

And I understood, finally,
what my friend John meant,
twenty years ago, when he said: Love
is keeping the lights on
. And I understood
why Matisse and Bonnard and Gauguin
and Cézanne all followed the light:
Because they knew all lovers are equal
in the dark, that light defines beauty
the way longing defines desire, that
everything depends on how light falls
on a seashell, a mouth ... a broken bottle.

And now, I'd like to learn
to follow light wherever it leads me,
never again to say to a woman, YOU
are beautiful
, but rather to whisper:
Darling, the way light fell on your hair
this morning when we woke—God,
it was beautiful
. Because, if the light is right,
then the day and the body and the faint pleasures
waiting at the window ... they too are right.
All things lovely there. As that first poet wrote,
in his first book of poems: Let there be light.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of one of the most mysterious writers in the history of English literature, Emily Brontë, (books by this author) born in Thornton, Yorkshire, England (1818). She grew up in a family of eccentrics. Her father was a minister who took an appointment to a church out in the rural moorland. His wife died a year after they arrived at his new post, and he responded by completely withdrawing from his family. When he came home from work each day, he immediately went to his study, and he stayed there until he went to sleep at night. He even took his meals in his study. The one way he chose to communicate with the family was by firing a shotgun out his window every morning, to announce that he was waking up.

So the Brontë children grew up in an extremely isolated community, with virtually no one to talk to other than themselves. As a comfort, Emily and her siblings invented a series of imaginary worlds to write stories about. The Brontës lived like this for years, educating themselves, making up their own private stories and writing their own poetry. It was finally the oldest sister, Charlotte, who decided that they should grow up and find something useful to do. She persuaded Emily to go to a finishing school with her so that they could open a school together. But Emily hated being out in the real world so much that she eventually stopped eating and returned home.

Back at her father's house, she began to look after her brother, Branwell, who had recently been fired from a tutoring job. It was rumored he had an affair with the mother of the children he was supposed to tutor. He was also suffering from alcoholism and addiction to laudanum after a failed attempt at becoming a painter in London. Scholars aren't sure what transpired between Emily and her brother, but some believe that Branwell began to tell his sister about all his life experiences, his addictions, his love affairs, and his thwarted hopes as an artist.

It's one of the only theories of how she could have gotten the idea for the tragic love story at the heart of Wuthering Heights. No one knows exactly when she wrote the novel, or how long she worked on it. She might never have even published it if her sister Charlotte hadn't come up with the idea of all three sisters publishing their work. They released a combined book of poems, and then each came out with novels, Charlotte's Jane Eyre (1846), Emily's Wuthering Heights (1847), and Anne's Agnes Grey (1847).

At the time, Wuthering Heights was the least successful of the three novels. People found it shocking. Just after it came out, Emily's brother began to fall ill. She took care of him for the next several months, until he died in September 1848. She came down with a cough a month later and she died before the end of the year. She was only thirty years old.

Emily Brontë remains mostly a mystery. Few of her letters were saved and she kept no diary. Almost all the writing she left behind concerns imaginary places and imaginary people.

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