Oct. 9, 2010

The Signature Mark of Autumn

by Gary Young

The signature mark of autumn has arrived at last with the rains: orange of
pumpkin, orange persimmon, orange lichen on rocks and fallen logs; a copper
moon hung low over the orchard; moist, ruddy limbs of the madrone, russet
oak leaf, storm-peeled redwood, acorns emptied by squirrels and jays; and
mushrooms, orange boletes, Witch's Butter sprouting on rotted oak, the Deadly
Galerina, and of course, chanterelles, which we'll eat tonight with pasta, goat
cheese, and wine.

"The Signature Mark of Autumn" by Gary Young, from Pleasure. © Heyday Books, 2006. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of the writer Ivo Andrić, (books by this author) born in the village of Dolac in what is now Bosnia and Herzegovinia (1892). His father died when he was two years old and he grew up with his mother's relatives in the town of Višegrad. It was a small Bosnian town near the Serbian border, on the edge of a river, with a beautiful bridge that was built during the Ottoman Empire. And it was Andrić who made the town famous, with his novel The Bridge on the Drina (1945). The novel covers almost four centuries, beginning with a boy taken from his village as part of the devshirme system, the system in which every few years the Ottoman Sultan rounded up a bunch of Christian boys from rural areas in the Balkans, made them slaves, converted them to Islam, and used them for the military. This boy eventually becomes the Grand Vizier to the Sultan, and he decides to build a great bridge as a monument to the place where he was taken across the river and separated from his family. The rest of the novel is the story of that bridge, the people who cross it, and the politics and ethnic tensions that they talk about. The Bridge on the Drina continues all the way up to World War I.

Ivo Andrić won the Nobel Prize in literature in 1961.

He said, "When I am not desperate, I am worthless."

It's the birthday of poet and politician Léopold Sédar Senghor, (books by this author) born in 1906 in the town of Joal, Senegal, when Senegal was still a French colony. He was educated at a Catholic seminary and he grew up wanting to be a priest. But he ended up far away, studying philosophy and poetry at the Sorbonne in Paris, achieving the highest honors possible. He held a series of teaching jobs, and he was teaching near Paris when he was drafted into the French army. He served in an all-African unit, and in June of 1940 they were captured by the Germans. All the men were lined up against the wall to be executed, but Senghor had them all call out "Vive la France, Vive l'Afrique Noire" — "Long live France, Long Live Black Africa." The Germans were confused, and a French prisoner convinced them that executing so many black men like that would be shameful, and would dishonor the German race. So they let them live and put them in prison camps, where Senghor was held for almost two years. He wrote poem after poem, and learned German well enough to read Goethe in the original.

After his release, he went back to teaching and to writing. He moved slowly into politics, first representing Senegal in the French National Assembly, where he became convinced that Senegal needed its own government. He took more and more active political roles, and when Senegal gained its independence in 1960, Senghor was elected its first president, a role that he held until 1980. His books of poetry include Shadow Songs (1945), Nocturnes (1961), and Major Elegies (1979). He died in 2001 at the age of 95.

In the poem "Noliwe," he wrote:
The weakness of the heart is holy ...
Ah! You think that I never loved her
My Negress fair with palmoil, slender as a plume
Thighs of a starlet otter, of Kilimanjaro snow
Breasts of mellow rice-fields, hills of acacias under the
East Wind.
Noliwe with her arms of boas, lips of the adder
Noliwe, her eyes were constellations there is no
need of moon or drum
But her voice in my head and the feverous pulse of the
night ...

It was on this day in 1635 that Roger Williams (books by this author) was banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony for spreading "newe and dangerous opnions." He left and founded what is now the city of Providence, Rhode Island.

These days Williams is considered a hero for the very reasons that got him banished. He was an extreme believer in the separation of church and state, in the rights of individuals, and he befriended and admired the Narragansett people, the local Native Americans, and spoke out against their persecution. Now he is admired as a radical, for his progressive religious and cultural tolerance.

But Williams' position was more complicated than that. The reason he believed in the separation of church and state was because of his extremely conservative thinking about Christian scripture, his belief that Christianity was always the ultimate authority and shouldn't be tangled up in the flawed decisions of human laws. He was adamant about religious tolerance, and other outcasts fled to Providence, including Quakers and even some of America's first Jews. He published A Key into the Language of America (1643) in which he wrote out dialogues, essays, and poems in both English and Narragansett, and in which he made the Natives generally sound a lot smarter and more moral than their colonizers. It is this work that gave us English words like squash (from the Narragansett askutasquash), succotash (from msíckquatash), papoose (from papoos), and pow-wow (from powwaw). He was a big advocate for the Narrangansett, the Quakers, and other religious dissidents who the Puritans thought should be persecuted for their beliefs. But he didn't question that they were all left out from the Kingdom of Heaven to which he himself was bound.

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




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