Dec. 13, 2006

The Ice House

by James Wright

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Poem: "The Ice House" by James Wright, from Above the River: The Complete Poems. © Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

The Ice House

     The house was really a cellar deep beneath the tower of the old
Belmont Brewery. My father's big shoulders heaved open the door
from the outside, and from within the big shoulders of the ice-man
leaned and helped. The slow door gave. My brother and I walked
in delighted by our fear, and laid our open palms on the wet yellow
sawdust. Outside the sun blistered the paint on the corrugated roofs
of the shacks by the railroad; but we stood and breathed the rising
steam of that amazing winter, and carried away in our wagon the
immense fifty-pound diamond, while the old man chipped us each
a jagged little chunk and then walked behind us, his hands so calm
they were trembling for us, trembling with exquisite care.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It was on this day in 1577 that Sir Francis Drake set out on a three-year-long journey around the world. At that time the Pacific was controlled by the Spanish and it was forbidden to all but Spanish ships. But Queen Elizabeth I commissioned Drake to undertake a top-secret mission to sail around the southern tip of South America and explore the Pacific Coast of the Americas. Drake left for the voyage on this day in 1577. He set sail from Plymouth, England, as captain of the Pelican, with four other ships and more than 150 men. Two of the ships were abandoned along the way, and the third returned to England after a storm in the Straits of Magellan. Drake was left with only one ship, which he renamed the Golden Hind.

Drake sailed all the way up the coasts of South and North America, surprising the Spanish along the way. They'd never seen a hostile ship in their waters before. He captured ports and ships, plundered gold and silver, Spanish coins, precious stones and pearls. He sailed as far north as Vancouver hoping to find the Northwest Passage, and then turned west and crossed the Pacific. He eventually returned to England in 1580 via the Cape of Good Hope, making him the first Englishman to sail around the world.

It's the birthday of German poet Heinrich Heine, (books by this author) born in Dusseldorf, Germany (1797). He's one of the most popular German poets of the 19th century. His father wanted him to become a businessman, and got him a job at a bank, but he lost the job when his father tried to involve him in an embezzlement scheme. He set out to study law instead, but he was the victim of rampant anti-Semitism. He eventually had to convert to Protestantism in order to complete his law degree.

Around the same time, he started writing a series of love poems, each one of which ended with an ironic, witty twist. These poems were collected in The Book of Songs (1827), and they became extremely popular. Many of them were set to music by composers like Schubert, Schumann, Mendelssohn, and Brahms.

He's considered one of the wittiest German writers of all time. He once said, "The Romans would never have found time to conquer the world if they had been obliged first to learn Latin."

It's the birthday of American poet James Wright, (books by this author) born in Martins Ferry, Ohio (1927). Wright's hometown was located in a heavily industrialized area of the state that Wright called "my back-broken beloved Ohio." There was a coal mine and a steel mill near his house, and he grew up surrounded by blast furnaces and smoke stacks. During the winter, all the snowdrifts in his town turned black from soot.

His father worked at the Hazel-Atlas Glass Company, and Wright took a job at the same factory when he got out of high school. After working there for a few months, he decided that he had to get out of his hometown or it would kill him.

He served in World War II and used the GI Bill to study at Kenyon College. He got a job teaching English at the University of Minnesota, and published two books of poetry, but he suffered from depression and alcoholism, and he lost his teaching job for missing classes.

Wright's poetry hadn't attracted any attention, his marriage had broken up, and he wasn't sure what to do next when, one day, he read an issue of Robert Bly's literary magazine, The Fifties. It impressed him so much that he wrote Bly a 16-page single-spaced letter. Bly wrote back and invited him to a farm in western Minnesota, and the two became great friends.

Wright had been writing all of his poetry with formal meter and rhyme, but Bly encouraged him to write free verse, and the result was his first important book of poetry, The Branch Will Not Break (1962). It got great reviews and contained many of his most famous poems, including "Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio," "A Blessing," and "Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy's Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota."

It's the birthday of the mystery novelist who wrote under the name Ross Macdonald, born Kenneth Millar in Los Gatos, California (1915). He wrote a series of mystery novels featuring a detective named Lew Archer.

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