Nov. 4, 2009

A Pair of Barn Owls, Hunting

by David Wagoner

Now slowly, smoothly flying over the field
Beside the orchard into the after-light
Of the cold evening, the ash gold owls come sailing
Close to the branches, gliding across the arbor
Where the bare grapevines ripen only shadows
In the dead of winter, and at the end of a garden
Suddenly flare their wings, hover,
And swerve, claws first, down to the grass together.

"A Pair of Barn Owls, Hunting" by David Wagoner, from Traveling Light: Collected and New Poems. © University of Illinois Press, 1999. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of the poet Charles Kenneth Williams, C.K. Williams, (books by this author) born in Newark, New Jersey (1936). After graduating from college, he sat down and tried to read everything he'd ever heard of. He read Homer, Shakespeare, Dante, Chaucer, Whitman, Yeats, Eliot, Auden, Shelley, Tolstoy, Hawthorne, Miller, Frazer, Jung, Plath, and Ginsberg. He said: "I'd fall asleep every night over a book, dreaming in other people's voices. In the morning I'd wake up and try, mostly fruitlessly, to write acceptable poems."

It's the birthday of historian and novelist Tamim Ansary, (books by this author) born in Kabul, Afghanistan (1948), author of the memoir West of Kabul, East of New York (2002). He's of Arab, Mongolian, and Finnish descent, and according to Contemporary Authors, he's "the son of the first Afghan ever to marry an American woman who was also the first American woman ever to live in Afghanistan as an Afghan." His dad was a literature and science professor at the University of Kabul, and his mom taught English at Afghanistan's first school for girls. When he was a teenager, he won a scholarship to a high school in Colorado, immigrating to the United States.

He majored in literature in Oregon and then, as he describes it, "plunged into the sixties counterculture like a dog into surf." He wrote for alternative newspapers, waited tables, lived in communes, penned experimental fiction, and spent a lot of time backpacking and road-tripping. He traveled in 1980 through Turkey and North Africa, he said, to "explore Islam" but "found Islamism instead."

He returned to the U.S. and promptly got a job as a school textbook editor, working for Harcourt Brace Jovanovich all through out the 1980s. Then he started writing his own juvenile nonfiction, especially for kids in elementary school. He's written a picture book series on American holidays, a series on Native American tribes, and one on starting hobby collections.

Then, in the late 1990s, he decided that he was going to write about the road trips he had taken in his life, focusing on a few of them, and make it into a book he'd call "The Journey of a Life." For the next year, whenever he could sneak time away from the writing that paid the bills, he sat down and wrote whatever he could remember about his life before America, his childhood and adolescence in Afghanistan. Pretty soon he had written a thousand pages about his childhood in Afghanistan — none of which he had read over. And then 9/11 happened, and his agent said, "You should write something. Don't you have something to write about Afghanistan?" He had more than a thousand pages, in fact — and so Ansary began to shape those pages of memories he'd written into a book.

The result was a highly acclaimed memoir, West of Kabul, East of New York (2002), which begins:

"In 1948, when I was born, most of Afghanistan might as well have been living in Neolithic times. It was a world of walled villages, each one inhabited by a few large families, themselves linked in countless ways through intermarriages stretching into the dim historical memories of the eldest elders. These villages had no cars, no carts even, no wheeled vehicles at all; no stores, no shops, no electricity, no postal service, and no media except rumors, storytelling, and the word of travelers passing through. … People lived pretty much as they had eight thousand years ago."

Tamim Ansary has two new books that came out just this year: Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes (2009) and The Widow's Husband (2009), a novel.

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




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