Mar. 5, 2010

Birthday Cake

by Hayden Carruth

For breakfast I have eaten the last of your birthday cake that you
had left uneaten for five days
and would have left five more before throwing it away.
It is early March now. The winter of illness
is ending. Across the valley
patches of remaining snow make patterns among the hill farms,
among fields and knolls and woodlots,
like forms in a painting, as sure and significant as forms
in a painting. The cake was stale.
But I like stale cake, I even prefer it, which you don't
understand, as I don't understand how you can open
a new box of cereal when the old one is still unfinished.
So many differences. You a woman, I a man,
you still young at forty-two and I growing old at seventy.
Yet how much we love one another.
It seems a miracle. Not mystical, nothing occult,
just the ordinary improbability that occurs
over and over, the stupendousness
of life. Out on the highway on the pavement wet
with snow-melt, cars go whistling past.
And our poetry, yours short-lined and sounding
beautifully vulgar and bluesy
in your woman's bitterness, and mine almost
anything, unpredictable, though people say
too ready a harkening back
to the useless expressiveness and ardor of another
era. But how lovely it was, that time
in my restless memory.
This is the season of mud and thrash, broken limbs and crushed briers
from the winter storms, wetness and rust,
the season of differences, articulable differences that signify
deeper and inarticulable and almost paleolithic
perplexities in our lives, and still
we love one another. We love this house
and this hillside by the highway in upstate New York.
I am too old to write love songs now. I no longer
assert that I love you, but that you love me,
confident in my amazement. The spring
will come soon. We will have more birthdays
with cakes and wine. This valley
will be full of flowers and birds.

"Birthday Cake" by Hayden Carruth, from Toward the Distant Islands: New & Selected Poems. © Copper Canyon Press, 2006. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of novelist Leslie Marmon Silko, (books by this author) born in Albuquerque, New Mexico (1948). She grew up on a Pueblo reservation, where her community was made up of matrilineal families. Her first novel, Ceremony (1977), was one of the first novels ever published by a Native American woman, and many critics consider it a masterpiece.

It's the birthday of novelist Frank Norris, (books by this author) born in Chicago, Illinois (1870). He's the author of McTeague (1899), about a dentist who loses his job, murders his wife for money, and runs away to Death Valley in California.

It's the birthday of a playwright and folklorist who was also W.B. Yeats's early patron, long-term and most loyal friend, a woman G.B. Shaw called "the greatest Irishwoman." Lady Gregory (books by this author) was born Isabella Augusta Persse on this day in 1852 (some sources say March 15) in Roxborough, County Tipperary, Ireland. She helped lead the Irish Literary Revival in the early 20th century and she co-founded, along with Yeats, the Abbey Theatre.

At age 28, she married a man who was 35 years her elder — he was 63, well-educated with a large library and art collection, a former member of the Irish parliament, and once the governor of British-controlled Ceylon (Sri Lanka). He'd also been knighted by the British Empire. So when they got married, she took the title "Lady" along with his last name, Gregory.

She moved into his estate at Coole in County Galway and spent a lot of time exploring her new shared library. During their marriage, she sat and worked on a memoir and wrote some short stories and poems, but she published almost none of them. They had a house in London too, and they spent a lot of time there entertaining in their living room poets Robert Browning and Lord Tennyson and writer Henry James. But then her husband died just 12 years into their marriage, around her 40th birthday, and she was grief-stricken. She returned to their Coole Park home in Galway and spent the next year editing the autobiography he'd written, getting it ready for publication.

She started Irish classes, and she began collecting tales and folklore from along the countryside; she was especially interested in what she called "Kiltartanese," English spoken with a Gaelic syntax, and prevalent in Kiltartan, an area of Galway. She would end up publishing several volumes of this folk material, including A Book of Saints and Wonders (1906), The Kiltartan History Book (1909), and The Kiltartan Wonder Book (1910).

It was through a neighbor of hers at Coole that she met W.B. Yeats, and began a friendship that would last for nearly 40 years, for the rest of her life. Yeats was also very interested in folklore of the Irish peasantry, and like Lady Gregory he hailed from a landed Protestant family. They decided to start an official movement dedicated to reviving Irish folklore. It first took shape as the Irish Literary Theatre in 1899 and a several years later morphed into the Abbey Theatre. The first play to have its premier at the Abbey was one that Lady Gregory herself had written, Spreading the News. She wrote about 20 plays of her own, and she did so much working and rewriting of some of Yeats's plays for the Abbey Theatre — coming up with peasant dialogue, and such — that some scholars suggest she essentially co-authored some of Yeats's early plays for the Abbey, including The Countess Cathleen.

Irish historian R.F. Foster has said that W.B. Yeats's friendship with Lady Gregory was "the great enabling relationship of his life." In his early years, she was his patron, and even after he'd become rich and famous, he continued to spend summers at her Coole estate in western Ireland. Her place provided inspiration for a number of his poems, including "The Wild Swans at Coole," "I walked among the seven woods of Coole," "In the Seven Woods," "Coole Park, 1929," and "Coole Park and Ballylee."

"The Wild Swans at Coole" begins:

The trees are in their autumn beauty,
The woodland paths are dry,
Under the October twilight the water
Mirrors a still sky;
Upon the brimming water among the stones
Are nine-and-fifty swans.

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




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