Aug. 12, 2006

Where We Are (after Bede)

by Stephen Dobyns

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Poem: "Where We Are (after Bede)" by Stephen Dobyns, from Velocities. © Viking Penguin, 1994. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Where We Are
(after Bede)

A man tears a chunk of bread off the brown loaf,
then wipes the gravy from his plate. Around him
at the long table, friends fill their mouths
with duck and roast pork, fill their cups from
pitchers of wine. Hearing a high twittering, the man

looks to see a bird—black with a white patch
beneath its beak—flying the length of the hall,
having flown in by a window over the door. As straight
as a taut string, the bird flies beneath the roofbeams,
as firelight flings its shadow against the ceiling.

The man pauses—one hand holds the bread, the other
rests upon the table—and watches the bird, perhaps
a swift, fly toward the window at the far end of the room.
He begins to point it out to his friends, but one is
telling hunting stories, as another describes the best way

to butcher a pig. The man shoves the bread in his mouth,
then slaps his hand down hard on the thigh of the woman
seated beside him, squeezes his fingers to feel the firm
muscles and tendons beneath the fabric of her dress.
A huge dog snores on the stone hearth by the fire.

From the window comes the clicking of pine needles
blown against it by an October wind. A half moon
hurries along behind scattered clouds, while the forest
of black spruce and bare maple and birch surrounds
the long hall the way a single rock can be surrounded

by a river. This is where we are in history—to think
the table will remain full; to think the forest will
remain where we have pushed it; to think our bubble of
good fortune will save us from the night—a bird flies in
from the dark, flits across a lighted hall and disappears.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of English poet Robert Southey, (books by this author) born in Bristol, England (1774). He was one of the leading poets of his day, along with Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth, and was poet laureate of England. Today, we've forgotten almost everything he wrote except for one short children's story he published anonymously called "The Story of the Three Bears" (1837). He said his uncle had told him the story as a child. It was about an old woman who invades the house of three bears, tries out their porridge, their chairs, and their beds, and then jumps out the window when they come home.

At the end of the story, Southey wrote, "Out the little old woman jumped; and whether she broke her neck in the fall, or ran into the wood and was lost there, or found her way out of the wood and was taken up by the constable and sent to the House of Correction for a vagrant as she was, I cannot tell. But the Three Bears never saw anything more of her." The story was rewritten many times by other authors. In the later versions, the old woman became a little girl, and she was named "Goldilocks."

It's the birthday of comic novelist Wallace Markfield, (books by this author) born in Brooklyn (1926). He's best known for his first novel, To An Early Grave (1964), about four men who spend the day driving across Brooklyn to their friend's funeral. He also wrote Teitlebaum's Window (1970) and You Could Live If They Let You (1974). For most of his writing life, he felt that he was writing in the shadow of his literary idol, Saul Bellow.

It's the birthday of the woman who invented the characters Dick and Jane to help teach children how to read, Zerna Sharp, born in Hillisburg, Indiana (1889). Sharp's idea was to use pictures and repetition to teach children new words. She took her idea to Dr. William S. Gray, who had been studying the way children learn to read, and he hired her to create a series of textbooks. She didn't write the books, but she created the characters Dick, Jane, their sister Sally, their dog Spot, and their cat Puff. Each story introduced five new words, one on each page.

It's the birthday of classics scholar Edith Hamilton, (books by this author) born in Dresden, Germany (1867). Her parents were both Americans, and she grew up in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Hamilton started learning Latin and Greek when she was seven years old, and she went on to study classics in Europe. She was the first woman admitted to the University of Munich. After college, Hamilton moved back to the United States and worked for years as the head mistress of a prep school. In her spare time, she read Greek philosophy and literature. It wasn't until after her retirement that she began to publish books about Greek civilization like The Greek Way (1930).

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