Feb. 18, 2011

What Did We See Today?

by Robert Bly

Some days we are passive, listening to the incoming waves.
On other days, we are like a light that sweeps
Out over the husky soybean fields all night.

What did we see today? Horses at the end
Of their tethering ropes, the wing of affection going over,
Flying bulls glimpsed passing the moon disc.

Rather than arguing about whether Giordano Bruno
Was right or not, it might be better to fall silent
And lose ourselves in the curved energy.

We know how many men live alone in their twenties,
And how many women are married to the wrong person,
And how many father and sons are strangers to each

It's all right if we keep forgetting the way home.
It's all right if we don't remember when we were born.
It's all right if we write the same poem over and over.

Robert, I don't know why you talk so confidently
About yourself in this way. There are a lot of shady
Characters in this town, and you are one of them.

"What Did We See Today?" by Robert Bly, from Talking Into the Ear of a Donkey. © W.W. Norton & Co., 2010. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of novelist Toni Morrison, (books by this author) born Chloe Anthony Wofford in Lorain, Ohio (1931). Both of her parents had moved up from the South, seeking a better life. In Lorain, her family moved around a lot, often living in tiny apartments above grocery stores. They didn't live in a black neighborhood so much as a poor one, filled with immigrants from all over the world. Despite the poverty, she said: "My parents made all of us feel as though there were these rather extraordinary deserving people within us. I felt like an aristocrat — or what I think an aristocrat is." Her mother — Who came from a family of musicians — sang while she did chores, everything from opera arias to the blues. Her parents told her ghost stories and folklore and stories of life in the South, and they encouraged her to read everything — she devoured Jane Austen, Gustave Flaubert, and Leo Tolstoy. And she listened to the radio. She said: "I was a radio child. You get in the habit of gathering information that way, and imagining the rest. You make it up. It was horrible to see pictures of Hamlet and Cinderella — it was awful. I hate to see pictures of my characters, good or bad — although I always compliment the artists."

She went to Howard University and then to Cornell for graduate school. She got a teaching job at Texas Southern University, and then at Howard, where she met a Jamaican architect named Harold Morrison. They fell in love, got married, and had a son named Ford. She kept teaching part time, but mostly stayed home and cared for her son. Her marriage started to unravel — she and her husband realized they didn't have much in common. She missed being able to talk about literature with someone. Feeling bored and isolated, she joined a writing group. She brought in some of her more academic work, but then she ran out of that, and it was her turn to bring in a piece. So she wrote a quick draft of a short story about a young black girl who wanted blue eyes. Everyone thought it was great.

When she got divorced, she had a three-year-old son and another on the way. She went home to Lorain for a while, then accepted a job as an editor with a division of Random House. She was working full time and caring for two young sons, but she decided to work on a novel on top of everything else. She said: "I was in a place where I knew I was not going to be for a long time; I didn't have any friends and didn't make any, didn't want any because I was on my way somewhere else. So I wrote as a thing to do. If I had played the piano, I think I would have done that — but I didn't have a piano and don't play. So I wrote." She expanded on the story she had written for her writing group. She said: "I was quite content to be the only reader. I thought that everything that needed to be written had been written; there was so much. I am not being facetious when I say I wrote The Bluest Eye in order to read it. And I think that is what makes the difference, because I could look at it as a reader, really as a reader, and not as my own work. And then I could say, 'This doesn't make me feel right,' and I could change it. That's what I mean by the distance. People always say that to be a good writer you have to read; that sounds like they're collecting ideas and information. But what it ought to mean is that you have to be able to read what you write critically. And with distance. And surrender to it and know the problems and not get all fraught."

She published The Bluest Eye in 1970. By the time it was published, she had already started working on her second novel, Sula (1973). She has been writing ever since, and her novels include Song of Solomon (1977), Beloved (1987), and most recently, A Mercy (2008). She won the Nobel Prize in 1993.

A Mercy begins: "Don't be afraid. My telling can't hurt you in spite of what I have done and I promise to lie quietly in the dark — weeping perhaps or occasionally seeing the blood once more — but I will never again unfold my limbs to rise up and bare teeth. I explain. You can think what I tell you a confession, if you like, but one full of curiosities familiar only in dreams and during those moments when a dog's profile plays in the steam of a kettle. Or when a corn-husk doll sitting on a shelf is soon splaying in the corner of a room and the wicked of how it got there is plain. Stranger things happen all the time everywhere. You know. I know you know."

Toni Morrison said: "I read all the reviews of my work, collect them in fact. I am very interested in the responses I get to my work, not only because it reflects my own work's reception, but also because it reflects the way in which women's and African-American literature is received and discussed."

And, "The Nobel Prize is the best thing that can happen to a writer in terms of how it affects your contracts, the publishers, and the seriousness with which your work is taken. On the other hand, it does interfere with your private life, or it can if you let it, and it has zero effect on the writing. It doesn't help you write better and if you let it, it will intimidate you about future projects. But the downside is very small compared to the upside."

And, "My books are always questions for me. What if? How does it feel to ...? Or what would it look like if you took racism out? Or what does it look like if you have the perfect town, everything you ever wanted? And so you ask a question, put it in a time when it would be theatrical to ask, and find the people who can articulate it for you and try to make them interesting. The rest of it is all structure, how to put it together."

It's the birthday of novelist Wallace Stegner, (books by this author) born in Lake Mills, Iowa (1937). Although he's most often associated with the West, he himself has lived many places and written about all of them. His father moved the family around in search of the newest thing — they lived in North Dakota, then Washington, and from there his father's goal was Alaska, where he hoped he could find gold. But young Wallace got sick and his father decided he had missed his chance on Alaska, so he went to Saskatchewan. The rest of his family joined him there eventually.

In Saskatchewan, Wallace went to school for the first time — first the school was a room above the pool hall, then a makeshift building downtown, and finally a real schoolhouse. They had a house in town, and a homestead, where Stegner and his brother helped their father farm in the summers. Their homestead was a big, featureless expanse of land. He said later that he and his brother "read everything in the shack 10 times, had studied the Sears Roebuck catalog into shreds, had trapped gophers in increasing circles out from the house until the gopher population was down to bare survivors, had stoned to death the one badger they caught in a gopher trap, had lost in a big night windstorm their three captive weasels and two burrowing owls, and had played to boredom every two-man game they knew." After six years in Saskatchewan, and a failed attempt at farming wheat, the family moved to Great Falls, Montana. He said, "I left Saskatchewan mourning what I had left behind and scared of what we were going toward, and one look at my mother told me she was feeling the same way. My father and brother were leaning out of the car, exhilarated by how the fenceposts flew by on the smooth dirt road along the South Bench. They leaned and watched the roadside as if they were afraid Great Falls might flash by at any second, and they might miss it. But I was at heart a nester, like my mother. I loved the place I was losing, the place that years of our lives had worn smooth."

But Great Falls wasn't all bad; for the first time, Stegner lived near a public library. He started to read, but, he said, "It wasn't until Salt Lake City" — where the family moved a few years later — "that I began to be a real addict. I would go down to the library two or three times a week to bring away three or four books each time, without any direction."

Stegner wrote many novels, including All The Little Live Things (1967), Angle of Repose (1971), The Spectator Bird (1976), and Crossing to Safety (1987). He won a National Book Award and a Pulitzer Prize. And he started the creative writing program at Stanford and was a beloved professor — his students included Edward Abbey, Ken Kesey, Larry McMurtry, and Wendell Berry.

In his semi-autobiographical novel The Big Rock Candy Mountain (1943), he wrote: "He was a strange child. Now he clung to her skirts so closely that he hampered her walking, and she laid her hand on his head and kept it there because she knew that somewhere deep down in his prematurely old mind he lived with fear."

From the archives:

It's the birthday of writer Sholem Aleichem, (books by this author) born Solomon Rabinowitz in Pereyaslav, Ukraine. He's known as the Mark Twain of Yiddish literature. He wrote five novels, many plays, and more than 300 short stories.

In the 19th century, most European Jewish writers wrote in Hebrew, so many people disapproved of Aleichem's decision to write in Yiddish. He first gained widespread recognition in the 1890s with his humorous "Menakhem-Mendl" stories, about a stockbroker and a dairyman. He wrote for Yiddish magazines around the world, publishing stories as fast as he could write them to support his large family. His collected writings fill 40 volumes.

His popularity has increased since his death. His son-in-law translated much of his writing into Hebrew, and English translations of his short stories began to appear in the 1920s. None of his novels were translated into English until 1982, when the publication Marienbad helped to spark a new wave of interest in his writing, especially in America.

Aleichem said, "No matter how bad things get you got to go on living, even if it kills you."

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




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