Dec. 23, 2010

Toward the Winter Solstice

by Timothy Steele

Although the roof is just a story high,
It dizzies me a little to look down.
I lariat-twirl the rope of Christmas lights
And cast it to the weeping birch's crown;
A dowel into which I've screwed a hook
Enables me to reach, lift, drape, and twine
The cord among the boughs so that the bulbs
Will accent the tree's elegant design.

Friends, passing home from work or shopping, pause
And call up commendations or critiques.
I make adjustments. Though a potpourri
Of Muslims, Christians, Buddhists, Jews, and Sikhs,
We all are conscious of the time of year;
We all enjoy its colorful displays
And keep some festival that mitigates
The dwindling warmth and compass of the days.

Some say that L.A. doesn't suit the Yule,
But UPS vans now like magi make
Their present-laden rounds, while fallen leaves
Are gaily resurrected in their wake;
The desert lifts a full moon from the east
And issues a dry Santa Ana breeze,
And valets at chic restaurants will soon
Be tending flocks of cars and SUV's.

And as the neighborhoods sink into dusk
The fan palms scattered all across town stand
More calmly prominent, and this place seems
A vast oasis in the Holy Land.
This house might be a caravansary,
The tree a kind of cordial fountainhead
Of welcome, looped and decked with necklaces
And ceintures of green, yellow , blue, and red.

Some wonder if the star of Bethlehem
Occurred when Jupiter and Saturn crossed;
It's comforting to look up from this roof
And feel that, while all changes, nothing's lost,
To recollect that in antiquity
The winter solstice fell in Capricorn
And that, in the Orion Nebula,
From swirling gas, new stars are being born.

"Toward the Winter Solstice" by Timothy Steele, from Toward the Winter Solstice. © Swallow Press, 2005. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of best-selling novelist Donna Tartt, (books by this author) born in Greenwood, Mississippi, on this day in 1963. She's the author of two large prize-winning novels published a decade apart: The Secret History (1992) and The Little Friend (2002).

She grew up in a mansion, the daughter of a local politician, and hung around mostly older people. Her great-grandpa gave her concoctions of whiskey, lemon, sugar, and codeine cough syrup — sometimes when she was sick, and sometimes when she was not at all sick — and she spent a couple of years of her childhood, she said, "submerged in a pretty powerfully altered state of consciousness," a sort of "languorous undersea existence ... of long drugged afternoons." She would sit and watch Peter Pan over and over again, and she also wrote poems and stories. When she was 13, she published a sonnet in a Mississippi literary journal.

She went off to college at Ole Miss, where she studied with writer-in-residence Willie Morris, and then she transferred to Bennington in Vermont. While in college there in the mid-1980s, she began work on her first novel — a story about six students studying classics at a small liberal arts college in Vermont, and a secret cult, and a mysterious murder. She worked on the book for eight years.

She acquired a famous agent, and her 850-page manuscript set off a bidding war among publishers. She was 28 years old when that book, The Secret History (1992), was published. It received rave reviews from critics. Its popularity also spread by word of mouth. It spent 13 weeks on the New York Times best-seller list, sold millions of copies, and was translated into two dozen languages.

Vanity Fair magazine ran a long profile of the glamorous, brainy, and articulate young author. She traveled for nearly a year on promotional book tours. And then she kept a low profile, moving from New York City to a 120-acre plantation in Virginia, where she spent lots of time alone in an old farmhouse. She told people: "My dog has a number of acquaintances of his own species — as do I — but it is abundantly clear to both of us that there is little company in the world which we enjoy as much as each other's." She said that "it gets into one's blood, this long lonely way of writing, like a long sea-voyage."

She worked on a single book for the next decade. That book was her second novel, The Little Friend (2002), set in a small Mississippi town in the 1970s, about a girl named Harriet and the unsolved mystery of her older brother's death. It won the prestigious British W.H. Smith Award, and was short-listed for another prestigious British award, the Orange Prize for Fiction. The Little Friend begins:
"For the rest of her life, Charlotte Cleve would blame herself for her son's death because she had decided to have the Mother's Day dinner at six in the evening instead of noon, after church, which is when the Cleves usually had it. Dissatisfaction had been expressed by the elder Cleves at the new arrangement; and while this mainly had to do with suspicion of innovation, on principle, Charlotte felt that she should have paid attention to the undercurrent of grumbling; that it had been a slight but ominous warning of what was to come; a warning which, though obscure even in hindsight, was perhaps as good as any we can ever hope to receive in this life."

Novelist Donna Tartt said, "When I'm writing, I am concentrating almost wholly on concrete detail: the color a room is painted, the way a drop of water rolls off a wet leaf after a rain."

From the archives:

It is the birthday of one of the great champions of poetry, Harriet Monroe, (books by this author) founder of Poetry Magazine, born in Chicago (1860). She said, "The people must grant a hearing to the best poets they have, else they will never have better." In 2002, Ruth Lilly, the pharmaceutical heiress, gave Poetry Magazine a gift of stock worth more than $100 million. Lilly had sent poems in to the magazine for years without getting published. But she kept no hard feelings, and she gave the gift because she wanted to make sure that magazine could continue well into the future.

It's the birthday of the poet Robert Bly, (books by this author) born in Madison, Minnesota (1926). He said: "One day while studying a [William Butler] Yeats poem I decided to write poetry the rest of my life. I recognized that a single short poem has room for history, music, psychology, religious thought, mood, occult speculation, character, and events of one's own life."

It's the birthday of author Norman Maclean, (books by this author) born in Clarinda, Iowa (1902). He grew up in Montana. He taught English at the University of Chicago for many years, and built a cabin in Montana, near the Big Blackfoot River, and he spent every summer there.

After he retired from teaching, at the age of 70, he wrote his famous autobiographical novella, A River Runs Through It, which was published in 1976 by the University of Chicago Press. It was the first work of fiction the press ever published, and it was a huge best-seller and was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.

It begins: "In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing. We lived at the junction of great trout rivers in western Montana, and our father was a Presbyterian minister and a fly fisherman who tied his own flies and taught others. He told us about Christ's disciples being fishermen, and we were left to assume, as my brother and I did, that all first-class fishermen on the Sea of Galilee were fly fishermen and that John, the favorite, was a dry-fly fisherman."

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




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