Nov. 24, 2010

Upon Discovering My Entire Solution to the Attainment of Immortality Erased from the Blackboard Exce

by Dobby Gibson

If you have seen the snow
somewhere slowly fall
on a bicycle,
then you understand
all beauty will be lost
and that even the loss
can be beautiful.
And if you have looked
at a winter garden
and seen not a winter garden
but a meditation on shape,
then you know why
this season is not
known for its words,
the cold too much
about the slowing of matter,
not enough about the making of it.
So you are blessed
to forget this way:
a jump rope in the ice melt,
a mitten that has lost its hand,
a sun that shines
as if it doesn't mean it.
And if in another season
you see a beautiful woman
use her bare hands
to smooth wrinkles
from her expensive dress
for the sake of dignity,
but in so doing trace
the outlines of her thighs,
then you will remember
surprise assumes a space
that has first been forgotten,
especially here, where we
rarely speak of it,
where we walk out onto the roofs
of frozen lakes
simply because we're stunned
we really can.

"Upon Discovering My Entire Solution to the Attainment of Immortality Erased from the Blackboard Except the Word 'Save'" by Dobby Gibson, from Polar. © Alice James Books, 2005. Reprinted with permission.

It's the birthday of writer Arundhati Roy, (books by this author) born in Shillong, Meghalaya, India (1961). She is often called a "writer-activist," a label that she said reminds her of "a sofa-bed." She was raised by a single mother who had separated from her alcoholic husband when Arundhati was two. She said: "I grew up in a little village in Kerala. It was a nightmare for me. All I wanted to do was to escape, to get out, to never have to marry somebody there. Of course, they were not dying to marry me. I was the worst thing a girl could be: thin, black, and clever." When she was 16, she moved into a squatter's village in Delhi and made her living selling empty beer bottles. She worked as a baker and an aerobics instructor, and studied architecture, before moving into the film industry, and from there, into writing fiction. She said: "When I decided to write The God of Small Things, I had been working in cinema. It was almost a decision to downshift from there. I thought that 300 people would read it."

Instead, The God of Small Things (1997) sold more than 6 million copies. It was the first Indian novel to win the Booker Prize, and suddenly Roy was a media and literary darling, rich and famous. Then, in 1998, India conducted nuclear tests, which were generally viewed as a triumphant symbol of India's new status as a rising world power. For Roy, they were a wake-up call. She said, "I was just this fairy princess of the rising Indian middle class and then the nuclear tests happened and it was obvious to me that keeping quiet was as political as saying something." And so she said something — she wrote an essay called "The End of Imagination," totally denouncing the testing of nuclear weapons by India and Pakistan. She wrote: "I am filled with foreboding. In this country, I have truly known what it means for a writer to feel loved (and, to some degree, hated too). Last year I was one of the items being paraded in the media's end-of-the-year National Pride Parade. Among the others, much to my mortification, were a bomb-maker and an international beauty queen. Each time a beaming person stopped me on the street and said, 'You have made India proud' (referring to the prize I won, not the book I wrote), I felt a little uneasy. It frightened me then and it terrifies me now, because I know how easily that swell, that tide of emotion, can turn against me. Perhaps the time for that has come. I'm going to step out from under the fairy lights and say what's on my mind."

And she's been saying what's on her mind ever since then, with book after book of essays about Indian politics and global issues. Her most recent book is Field Notes on Democracy: Listening to Grasshoppers (2009).

She said, "I really worry about these political people that have no personal life. If there's nothing that's lovely, and if there's nothing that's just ephemeral, that you can just lie on the floor and bust a gut laughing at, then what's the point?"

And, "As a writer, a fiction writer, I have often wondered whether the attempt to always be precise, to try and get it all factually right, somehow reduces the epic scale of what is really going on. Does it eventually mask a larger truth? I worry that I am allowing myself to be railroaded into offering prosaic, factual precision when maybe what we need is a feral howl, or the transformative power and real precision of poetry."

It's the birthday of architect Cass Gilbert, born in Zanesville, Ohio (1859). His father was a surveyor who got a job in St. Paul, Minnesota, and so when Cass was nine years old, he and his family moved to Minnesota to join him. But his father died shortly after the family arrived, and so the boy had to go to work. But his mother also wanted him to continue his education, so he became an apprentice to a draftsman in an architecture office, and worked as a carpenter's assistant.

He went to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to study architecture, he traveled through Europe to see the great buildings there, and then he worked at a firm in New York. But he went back to Minnesota to start his own business. At first, business was slow — his first major piece of architecture was his mother's house in St. Paul — and he sold watercolor paintings to supplement his earnings as an architect. But after he was invited to design the Minnesota State Capitol, he started getting commissions, and he went on to design many prominent buildings like the U.S. Custom House, the St. Louis Art Museum and its Public Library, the United States Supreme Court building, and the Woolworth Building in New York City, which was 792 feet tall, making it, at that time, the tallest building in the world.

He said, "Public buildings best serve the public by being beautiful."

It's the birthday of novelist Nuruddin Farah, (books by this author) born in Baidoa, Somalia (1984). He grew up in Kallafo, a town in a mostly Somali region of Ethiopia. He said: "I found adults lacking in originality, incapable of providing answers to the pressing questions which I had; with them, it seemed, most human activities were devoid of sense. When I wondered how children were born and why; when I asked how come my mother was pregnant or why a neighbor had aborted; when I saw meaning in the movement of a vulture's head; when I inquired as to the significance of the quick descent of a hawk on its prey; when I asked about a crow hopping about as though something was the matter with one of its feet; when I lighted on a new idea — when I asked such things I was told to be quiet. My parents loved me but I got no solace from them; so I sought answers elsewhere, in books. One of my elder brothers was fond of remarking that books were friendlier, wiser, and more humane. After all they didn't hit you when they could not answer your questions."

After Somalia gained its independence in 1963, this border region erupted in violence and Farah left to go to college in India. He had already learned Somali, Arabic, Amharic, and Italian before he learned English, but he had a good American typewriter so it was in English that he chose to write his first novel, From a Crooked Rib (1970), which he wrote as a student. He went back to Somalia and started work on his second novel, A Naked Needle. It was published in 1976 while he was studying in England, about to return to Somalia. He called up his brother to arrange a ride from the airport, and his brother told him, "Apparently you haven't heard — you are enemy #1 now. We suggest you find something else to do, and that you forget about Somalia." Apparently the Somali government had heard that the novel was hostile to its regime, and it threatened to put him in prison if he returned.

And so Nuruddin Farah went into exile, an exile that lasted more than 20 years. Besides India, he has lived in the Gambia, Nigeria, Uganda, Germany, the United States, England, and South Africa. He said, "All the things I know about all the other places I've lived can be put into an article of about a thousand words, no more than that." But he has written 10 novels about Somalia, including Sweet and Sour Milk (1979), Maps (1986), Secrets (1998), and most recently, Knots (2007). He has a new novel scheduled to be published next fall.

He said: "A woman who is trampled on, who is unable to speak her mind is not worthy of becoming a character in a novel written by an ambitious writer who thinks he or she knows what he or she is doing. [...] I am happily married to a strong woman. I love it when my wife holds her ground and says, 'You are out of line.' One must be able to say that to one's parents, one's spouse, the president of one's country. For me that is democracy."

From the archives:

It's the birthday of novelist Laurence Sterne, (books by this author) born in Clonmel, Ireland (1713). He became an Anglican priest, and he worked in two parishes to make a living. He tried to supplement his income by farming, but he was sick with tuberculosis, so it was hard to run a farm. He was married, but it was an unhappy marriage, and his wife also had tuberculosis, and suffered nervous breakdowns.

During one of his wife's breakdowns, he was feeling seriously depressed and he started writing a novel. It became The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (1760), which was a big success throughout Europe. It was funny, it was bawdy, and it had some serious ideas, too. But it's most famous for being the first novel about writing a novel. The main character keeps interrupting himself, and having imaginary conversations with readers. Because of this, it was very influential about 200 years later to writers who used a stream-of-consciousness style, writers like Virginia Woolf and James Joyce.

Laurence Sterne wrote, "Digressions, incontestably, are the sunshine; — they are the life, the soul of reading; —take them out of this book for instance, —you might as well take the book along with them."

And he wrote, "I wish either my father or my mother, or indeed both of them, as they were in duty both equally bound to it, had minded what they were about when they begot me."

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




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