May 13, 2010

Crossing the Loch

by Kathleen Jamie

Remember how we rowed toward the cottage
on the sickle-shaped bay,
that one night after the pub
loosed us through its swinging doors
and we pushed across the shingle
till water lipped the sides
as though the loch mouthed 'boat'?

I forgot who rowed. Our jokes hushed.
The oars' splash, creak, and the spill
of the loch reached long into the night.
Out in the race I was scared:
the cold shawl of breeze,
and hunched hills; what the water held
of deadheads, ticking nuclear hulls.

Who rowed, and who kept their peace?
Who hauled salt-air and stars
deep into their lungs, were not reassured;
and who first noticed the loch's
phosphorescence, so, like a twittering nest
washed from the rushes, an astonished
small boat of saints, we watched water shine
on our fingers and oars,
the magic dart of our bow wave?
It was surely foolhardy, such a broad loch, a tide,
but we live—and even have children
to women and men we had yet to meet
that night we set out, calling our own
the sky and salt-water, wounded hills
dark-starred by blaeberries, the glimmering anklets
we wore in the shallows
as we shipped oars and jumped,
to draw the boat safe, high at the cottage shore.

"Crossing the Loch" by Kathleen Jamie from Waterlight: Selected Poems. © Graywolf Press, 2007. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of one half of the Gilbert and Sullivan opera writing team, Arthur Seymour Sullivan, born in London in 1842. He began collaborating with William Gilbert in 1871, and the pair would go on to write 14 enormously popular comic operas, including Trial by Jury (1875), The Mikado (1885), and The Pirates of Penzance (1879), and others.

It's the birthday of Greek doctor Georgios Nicholas Papanikolaou, born in Kimi, Greece (1883), who gave us the Pap smear, the highly effective, inexpensive, and widely used screening test for detecting signs of cervical cancer and other diseases of the female reproduction system.

It was in 1928 at a conference in Battle Creek, Michigan, that he first reported his method of detecting cancer: a spatula and brush are used to swipe cells from the outer opening of the cervix, and then the cells are positioned on a glass slide, and examined for abnormalities using a microscope. But at first other doctors were extremely skeptical that such a seemingly simple test could really be effective for detecting cancer, and it took more than a decade and half for his method to catch on. In the early 1940s, he co-authored with an esteemed gynecologist a paper about the test, and then a big case study was published with accompanying illustrations. It was then that doctors around the world began to use the Pap test regularly.

These days, about 55 million Pap tests are performed in the U.S. each year.

It's the birthday of poet Kathleen Jamie, (books by this author) born in Renfrewshire, Scotland (1962). She's not particularly well known, but many critics consider her to be one of the best living poets in the U.K.; and the London Times has called her "the leading Scottish poet of her generation." Her poetry books have received about a dozen major prize nominations, including three T.S. Eliot Awards, two Faber Memorial Prizes, and two Forward Poetry Prizes. The Treehouse (2004)won the 2005 Scottish Book of the Year Award.

When she was 19, she was given a writing award and she used the money to go travel around the Himalayas. The next year, when she was still in college studying philosophy, she published her first book of poems, Black Spiders (1982). But says she never really intended to be a writer. She kept writing because all other job prospects seemed "appalling." She thought, "No, I don't want an office job for 30 years, thank you. There must be a way of getting around this ... there must be a way to live another life." She scraped by on various writer-in-residence posts in her 20s.

She usually writes about nature. In "The Whale-Watcher," she wrote, "And when at last the road gives out, I'll walk — harsh grass, sea-maws, lichen-crusted bedrock — and hole up the cold summer in some battered caravan, quartering the brittle waves."

She said: "When we were young, we were told that poetry is about voice, about finding a voice and speaking with this voice, but the older I get I think it's not about voice, it's about listening and the art of listening, listening with attention. I don't just mean with the ear; bringing the quality of attention to the world. The writers I like best are those who attend." She says that Seamus Heaney, Annie Dillard, Elizabeth Bishop are writers who "attend."

Her books include The Queen of Sheba (1994), The Way We Live (1987), Jizzen [which is the Scottish word for "childbed"] (1999), Mr & Mrs Scotland Are Dead (2002),and Among Muslims: Meetings at the Frontiers of Pakistan (2002). Her most recent collection, Waterlight: Selected Poems (2007) was the first of her books to be published in the United States.

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