Jan. 6, 2010


by C.K. Williams

All night, snow, then, near dawn, freezing rain, so that by morn-
           ing the whole city glistens
in a glaze of high-pitched, meticulously polished brilliance, every-
           thing rounded off,
the cars submerged nearly to their windows in the unbroken drifts
           lining the narrow alleys,
the buildings rising from the trunklike integuments the wind has
           molded against them.
Underlit clouds, blurred, violet bars, the rearguard of the storm,
           still hang in the east,
immobile over the flat river basin of the Delaware; beyond them,
           nothing, the washed sky,
one vivid wisp of pale smoke rising waveringly but emphatically
           into the brilliant ether.
No one is out yet but Catherine, who closes the door behind her
           and starts up the street.

"SNOW: I" by C.K. Williams, from Love About Love. © Ausable Press, 2001. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Today is the Feast of the Epiphany. The word "epiphany" comes from an ancient Greek word meaning "manifestation" or "striking appearance." Before Christianity, the word was used to record occasions when Greek gods and goddesses made appearances on earth.

In the Eastern Church, which includes the Russian and Greek Orthodox Churches, today is a general celebration of God's becoming man. It includes celebrating a whole host of things: the birth of the baby Jesus, the revelation of Jesus' divinity to the rest of the world — like to the Magi visiting from Persia — and most importantly in the East, Jesus' baptism in the Jordan River.

Centuries after the Eastern Orthodox Church began celebrating the Epiphany, the Roman Catholic Church decided to start doing so too. But for some reason, the Western Church really latched on to this image of the Persian priests bringing gifts of frankincense, myrrh, and gold to the infant Jesus, guided from their homeland of Iran by a shining star. The Magi are mentioned only in Matthew's Gospel and he never specified how many magi there were — just that there were three gifts. In 1857, the Reverend John Henry Hopkins Jr. wrote some lyrics for a seminary Christmas pageant, a song that begins: "We three kings of Orient are / Bearing gifts we traverse afar / Field and fountain, moor and mountain / Following yonder star."

Around the time that Irish writer James Joyce (books by this author) was defecting from the Roman Catholic Church, he was investing secular meaning into the word "epiphany." In his early 20s, he drew up little sketches, sort of like "prose poems," in which he illustrated epiphanies. He explained to his brother Stanislaus that epiphanies were sort of "inadvertent revelations" and said they were "little errors and gestures — mere straws in the wind — by which people betrayed the very things they were most careful to conceal." He also wrote that the epiphany was the sudden "revelation of the whatness of a thing," the moment when "the soul of the commonest object ... seems to us radiant."

It was a literary device that James Joyce would use in every story in his collection Dubliners (1914), a technique that he would become known for and that many modern writers would emulate. Joyce's Dubliners ends with a story set at a party for the Feast of the Epiphany, "The Dead," and the story ends: "His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead."

It's the birthday of the author of the best-selling book in Alfred A. Knopf's publishing history: Khalil Gibran, (books by this author) born in the mountain village in Bsharri, Lebanon (1883). When Gibran was a boy, his mother decided to leave her alcoholic husband and take her four children to America. They settled in Boston, where they had relatives, and it was there that a charity worker noticed that Gibran appeared to be artistically gifted. Members of the aristocratic Boston society found him charming, and they began inviting him to social gatherings, where he discussed philosophy and poetry.

One day, a man named Alfred A. Knopf was invited to a gathering at Gibran's apartment. Knopf was just starting up a publishing company, and when he saw how fascinated people were with Gibran, he decided to offer the man a publishing contract. Gibran's first two books with Knopf weren't very successful, but his third was a book called The Prophet (1923), which eventually was translated into 30 languages and has been read all over the world since.

It's the birthday of novelist, critic, and photographer Wright Morris, (books by this author) born in Central City, Nebraska (1910). In 1940, he set out on a 15,000-mile tour around the United States, taking photographs along the way. He focused on capturing the inanimate objects of rural America. He took pictures of tiny churches, grain elevators, and farm implements as well as the clothing in closets, the objects in dresser drawers, and the decorations on mantelpieces.

Morris eventually began to use his photographs to inspire his fiction. In 1946, he published The Inhabitants, a collection of photographs of American houses with a series of stories written in the voices of people who might have lived in those houses. He went on to publish more than 30 books of both fiction and photography, and he won the National Book Award twice, for his novel The Field of Vision in 1956 and his novel Plains Song for Female Voices in 1980.

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




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