Feb. 17, 2009

The Twelfth Year

by Mary Jo Salter

That autumn we walked and walked around the lake
as if around a clock whose hands swept time
and again back to the hour we'd started from,
that high noon in midsummer years before
when I in white had marched straight to my place
beside you and was married and your face
held in it all the hours I hoped to live.
Now, as we talked in circles, grim, accusing,
we watched the green trees turning too and losing
one by one every leaf, those bleeding hearts.
And when they all had fallen, to be trod
and crumbled underfoot, when flaming red
had dulled again to dun, to ash, to air,
when we had seen the other's hurts perfected
and magnified like barren boughs reflected
upside-down in water, then the clouds
massed overhead and muffled us in snow,
answered the rippling lake and stopped the O
of its nightmare scream. The pantomime
went on all winter, nights without a word
or thoughts to fit one, days when all we heard
was the ticking crunch of snowboots on the track
around the lake, the clock we thought we either
were winding up or running down or neither.
Spring came unexpected. We thought the cold
might last forever, or that despite the thaw
nothing would grow again from us; foresaw
no butter-yellow buds, no birds, no path
outward into a seasoned innocence.
When the circle broke at last it wasn't silence
or speech that helped us, neither faith nor will
nor anything that people do at all;
love made us green for no sure cause on earth
and grew, like our children, from a miracle.

"The Twelfth Year" by Mary Jo Salter, from Sunday Skaters. © Alfred A. Knopf, 1994. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of the Queen of Crime, novelist Ruth Rendell, (books by this author) born in London, England (1930). Her career as a writer did not start out on a promising note — she was fired from her first job as a journalist after she wrote a story about a Tennis League dinner without actually attending it, which was obvious since she failed to mention in the story that the keynote speaker had died in the middle of the speech.

But she went on to become a best-selling author of more than 50 books, many of them under the pseudonym Barbara Vine. Her novels include A Judgment in Stone (1977), King Solomon's Carpet (1991), and her most recent, Portobello (2008). Every morning she writes for four hours, and then she eats the exact same lunch: bread, cheese, salad, and fruit.

It's the birthday of the rabbi and novelist Chaim Potok, (books by this author) born in the Bronx, New York (1929). When he was a teenager, he read Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited and James Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and he decided to devote his life to writing. He wrote many novels about Orthodox Jews raised in New York City, including The Chosen (1967), The Promise (1969), and The Book of Lights (1981).

It's the birthday of the poet, journalist, and songwriter Banjo Paterson, (books by this author) born Andrew Paterson in Narrambla, Australia (1864). He was a lawyer who wrote poetry on the side — his family and friends called him "Barty," and his readers knew him as "the Banjo." For a while, he was the second-most popular poet writing in English in the world, after Rudyard Kipling.

But we remember him best for writing the lyrics to "Waltzing Matilda." The words have changed slightly in the years since he wrote these original lyrics:

Oh there once was a swagman camped in the billabong,
Under the shade of a Coolibah tree,
And he sang as he looked at the old billy boiling,
Who'll come a waltzing Matilda with me?

Who'll come a waltzin' Matilda my darling,
Who'll come a waltzin' Matilda with me?
Waltzing Matilda and leading a water bag,
Who'll come a waltzing Matilda with me?

A "swagman" is someone who travels around the countryside, looking for work — the name comes from "swag," the big bundle of cloth or blanket a swagman would keep his belongings in. To "waltz Matilda" meant to travel around with a swag.

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




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