Nov. 2, 2009

The Accolade of the Animals

by Maxine Kumin

All those he never ate
appeared to Bernard Shaw
single file in his funeral
procession as he lay abed
with a cracked infected bone
from falling off his bicycle.
They stretched from Hampton Court
downstream to Piccadilly
against George Bernard's pillow
paying homage to the flesh
of man unfleshed by carnage.

Just shy of a hundred years
of pullets, laying hens
no longer laying, ducks, turkeys,
pigs and piglets, old milk cows,
anemic vealers, grain-fed steer,
the annual Easter lambkin,
the All Hallows' mutton,
ring-necked pheasant, deer,
bags of hare unsnared,
rosy trout and turgid carp
tail-walking like a sketch by Tenniel.

What a cortege it was:
the smell of hay in his nose,
the pungencies of the barn,
the courtyard cobbles slicked
with wet. How we omnivores
suffer by comparison
in the jail of our desires
salivating at the smell of char
who will not live on fruits
and greens and grains alone
so long a life, so sprightly, so cocksure.

"The Accolade of the Animals" by Maxine Kumin, from Selected Poems 1960-1990. © W.W. Norton & Company, 1997. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It was on this day in 1950 that Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw (books by this author) died, at the age of 94. But it was not old age that he succumbed to, nor disease — the nonagenarian fell off a ladder while pruning trees in his garden and died later from complications of his injury.

Shaw outlived most of his friends, among them many literary luminaries, but he did not seem particularly sentimental about this. Once, he was asked whether he missed any of his contemporaries, and he responded, "No, I miss only the man I was." And he once proclaimed, "Do not try to live for ever. You will not succeed."

While he was still alive, devoted fans wanted to start a Shaw society to promote his ideas. He was adamantly against the whole thing, writing the people who contacted him about it.

But he sort of gave up resistance, and a Shaw society was founded in 1941, on his 85th birthday. The effort was led by a Jewish refugee from Germany. Shaw wrote: "Go ahead, but don't bother me about it. I am old, deaf, and dotty. In short, a Has Been." The Shaw society is still going strong; it gathers one Friday evening a month at Conway Hall in London for lectures and readings of his plays.

George Bernard Shaw said: "What is life but a series of inspired follies? The difficulty is to find them to do. Never lose a chance: it doesn't come every day."

And he said: "I want to be thoroughly used up when I die, for the harder I work, the more I live. Life is no "brief candle" for me. It is a sort of splendid torch which I have got hold of for the moment, and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to future generations."

It's the birthday of critic and novelist Thomas Mallon, (books by this author) born in Glen Cove, New York (1951). He said, "[I had] the kind of happy childhood that is so damaging to a writer … where our fathers were all World War II veterans and our mothers were always at home."

He was the first member of his family to go to college, and he became a professor of literature. He had been teaching for several years, writing academic essays on the side, when he decided to write a book about diaries. He assumed it would be an academic work, with a small audience, but as he read the personal diaries of many important writers, he began to develop his own personal writing voice. The book he wrote, called A Book of One's Own (1984), included diary entries from Virginia Woolf, Dostoyevsky, pioneer farmers, and even Thomas Mallon himself. It became a big success, and Mallon was suddenly able to quit teaching and become a literary journalist.

His other novels include Henry and Clara (1994), Dewey Defeats Truman (1997), Bandbox (2004), and most recently, Fellow Travelers (2007), about a gay couple living in Washington during the McCarthy era.

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




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