Jan. 6, 2011

The Lovers Leave By Separate Planes

by Maxine Kumin

She is going back
to the cash register of an old marriage.
He sees her ringing up days
letting the drawer fly open
on her half-grown sons
and breaking the rolls of nickels and dimes
in their proper dividers.

She thinks of him tomorrow at his desk
exploring an old translation
prying apart the brittle glue
between two languages to take out words.
She sees him lecturing gently to
an amphitheater of students
all of them taking useful notes.

Meanwhile the lovers have climbed into
the same sky, going east and west.
Clouds solid as the Arctic Pole billow
beneath them. Whole counties of ice floes
are underfoot. At this point
the appearance of polar bears
would not surprise him
one holding a walleyed fish in its paws
one chewing the flipper of a stranded seal.

For that matter she is prepared
to see him well booted and fur capped
icicles in his beard striding over the snow field
breaking through gauze and violet gels
running abreast to knock at her window.
They would tell each other.
They would speak in large gestures
like deaf mutes
keeping nothing inside.

"The Lovers Leave By Separate Planes" by Maxine Kumin, from Bringing Together: Uncollected Early Poems 1958 1988. © W.W. Norton & Company, 2003. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Today is the Feast of the Epiphany in the Christian Church. The word "epiphany" comes from an old Greek word meaning "manifestation" or "striking appearance." In ancient Greece, before Christianity, it was a term used to document occasions when Greek gods and goddesses manifested themselves to human beings on earth.

In the modern Greek Orthodox Church, the Feast of the Epiphany is a broad and encompassing celebration of God becoming man: the birth of the baby Jesus, the Magi visiting from Persia, and, especially, Jesus' baptism in the Jordan River. In the Roman Catholic Church, however, the focus is on the image of the wise men bringing gifts of frankincense, myrrh, and gold to the infant Jesus, guided from their homeland of Iran by a shining star.

Around the time Irish writer James Joyce (books by this author) was defecting from the Roman Catholic Church, he was investing secular meaning into the word "epiphany." In his early 20s, he drew up little sketches, sort of like "prose poems," in which he illustrated epiphanies. He explained to his brother Stanislaus that epiphanies were sort of "inadvertent revelations," and said they were "little errors and gestures — mere straws in the wind — by which people betrayed the very things they were most careful to conceal." He also wrote that the epiphany was the sudden "revelation of the whatness of a thing," the moment when "the soul of the commonest object ... seems to us radiant."

It was a literary device that James Joyce would use in every story in his collection Dubliners (1914), a technique that he would become known for and that many modern writers would emulate. In his biography of James Joyce, Richard Ellmann writes: "Arrogant yet humble too, [the epiphany] claims importance by claiming nothing; it seeks a presentation so sharp that comment by the author would be an interference. It leaves off the veneer of gracious intimacy with the reader, of concern that he should be taken into the author's confidence, and instead makes the reader feel uneasy and culpable if he misses the intended but always unstated meaning, as if he were being arraigned rather than entertained. The artist abandons himself and his reader to the material."

Joyce's Dubliners ends with a story set at a party for the Feast of the Epiphany, "The Dead," and that story ends: "His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead."

It's the 80th birthday of National Book Award-winning novelist E.L. Doctorow, (books by this author) born in New York City (1931). He said that his parents named him after Edgar Allan Poe, because his dad was a big fan. As an adult, he once confronted his mom: "Do you realize that you and Dad named me after a paranoid, drug-addicted alcoholic with necrophiliac tendencies?" His aging mother replied, "Edgar, that's not funny."

His mother was a pianist — classically trained and highly accomplished. His dad owned a high-end music shop in New York City, on 43rd Street, and was a connoisseur of classical music. But Doctorow seemed to not inherit their musical talent, and said that his whole family was hugely relieved when he quit taking piano lessons, since they felt like he'd been torturing them. But his musical background had a big effect on his writing process. He said, "Somewhere along the line the rhythms and tonalities of music elided in my brain with the sounds that words make and the rhythm that sentences have."

He said that he thought of himself as a writer a long time before he actually got around to writing anything. As a kid reading stories, he said, he identified "as much with the act of composition as with the story." He said: "I seemed to have two minds: I would love the story and want to know what happened next, but at the same time I would somehow be aware of what was being done on the page. I identified myself as a kind of younger brother of the writer. I was on hand to help him figure things out." He said that for him the act of reading was his early writing. And he said, "It's not a bad way to begin ... to blur that distinction between reader and writer."

He went to the Bronx High School of Science. In college he studied poetry with John Crowe Ransom, who founded the school of New Criticism, an approach to analyzing texts. Doctorow said that studying with him was invaluable training in learning the "powers of precision in the English language." He could read an eight-line poem by Wordsworth and be able to write a 20-page paper about it.

After college, he worked as an editor and as a script-reader for Hollywood studios. He read lots of bad scripts, which he found encouraging, since he was pretty sure he could write something better. In particular, he'd been reading a lot of awful Westerns. So he wrote a parody of a Western, and that became his first novel, Welcome to Hard Times (1960). He went on to write Big as Life (1966), The Book of Daniel (1971), which won the National Book Award, and Ragtime (1975), a big best-seller. He's also the author of Loon Lake (1980), World's Fair, (1985), Billy Bathgate (1989), The Waterworks (1994), City of God (2000), and The March (2005).

He said he works for about six hours a day, "although the actual writing might take fifteen minutes or an hour." He said: "If I do one page I'm very happy; that's my day's work. If I do two, that's extraordinary. But there's always a danger to doing two, which is you can't come up with anything the next day."

He said that when he begins a story, he has no idea how it's going to end. He compares his composition process to "driving at night in the fog. ... You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way." It's a hazardous way to write, he admits, but says there is a terrific advantage to it, which is that "each book tends to have its own identity rather than the author's. It speaks from itself rather than you." He does at least six or eight drafts of anything he writes.

He is careful not to speak with anyone about the stories he is writing for fear of "losing the story," and once said in an interview that to sit at a dinner party and talk about what the story you are currently writing is "a very reckless thing to do." He said that by talking about it out loud, "you're sending it out into the air, it's finished, it's gone [...] It's over, it's done, you'll never be able to use it." And he once said, "A writer's life is so hazardous that anything he does is bad for him. Anything that happens to him is bad: failure's bad, success is bad; impoverishment is bad, money is very, very bad. Nothing good can happen. Except the act of writing."

His most recent novel is Homer & Langley (2009).

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




  • “Writers end up writing stories—or rather, stories' shadows—and they're grateful if they can, but it is not enough. Nothing the writer can do is ever enough” —Joy Williams
  • “I want to live other lives. I've never quite believed that one chance is all I get. Writing is my way of making other chances.” —Anne Tyler
  • “Writing is a performance, like singing an aria or dancing a jig” —Stephen Greenblatt
  • “All good writing is swimming under water and holding your breath.” —F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • “Good writing is always about things that are important to you, things that are scary to you, things that eat you up.” —John Edgar Wideman
  • “In certain ways writing is a form of prayer.” —Denise Levertov
  • “Writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia.” —E.L. Doctorow
  • “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” —E.L. Doctorow
  • “Let's face it, writing is hell.” —William Styron
  • “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” —Thomas Mann
  • “Writing is 90 percent procrastination: reading magazines, eating cereal out of the box, watching infomercials.” —Paul Rudnick
  • “Writing is a failure. Writing is not only useless, it's spoiled paper.” —Padget Powell
  • “Writing is very hard work and knowing what you're doing the whole time.” —Shelby Foote
  • “I think all writing is a disease. You can't stop it.” —William Carlos Williams
  • “Writing is like getting married. One should never commit oneself until one is amazed at one's luck.” —Iris Murdoch
  • “The less conscious one is of being ‘a writer,’ the better the writing.” —Pico Iyer
  • “Writing is…that oddest of anomalies: an intimate letter to a stranger.” —Pico Iyer
  • “Writing is my dharma.” —Raja Rao
  • “Writing is a combination of intangible creative fantasy and appallingly hard work.” —Anthony Powell
  • “I think writing is, by definition, an optimistic act.” —Michael Cunningham
Current Faves - Learn more about poets featured frequently on the show