Aug. 8, 2011

Crossing the Gap

by Travis Mossotti

Try asking Ernie Watts, a local bricklayer,
to explain how after a long day of work
and league night at the Lucky Strike
he can glide across the kitchen floor,
Old Style hovering like a ghost on his breath,
bowling shoes slung over one shoulder,
singing fly me to the moon to his wife Cheryl.
And when he dips her over the linoleum
like it was their first homecoming all over again,
ask him to put into words what that sinking is,
that shudder in his chest, as he notices
the wrinkles gathering at the corners of her mouth.
He'd rather tell you about the time they rode
the Tail of the Dragon the year after they'd married,
crossing Deals Gap at the Tennessee state line
on his '77 Triumph Silver Jubilee.
How they heard talk of a young couple
dying on that same stretch of road a week before,
and how hard she held onto him that day—
curve after potentially deadly curve.
Afterwards, in bed, she'll reach for the Virginia Slims
on the nightstand, and he'll open
the windows behind the headboard
as a summer breeze creeps past the lithesome curtains—
wild grass and honeysuckle mixing with the tobacco.
If the drone and flicker of a gathering storm should disrupt
the silence of the room, she'll tighten the wing nut
of her body behind his, so close that when her lips
brush against the nearly imperceptible hairs
on the back of his neck he'll be convinced
there is no other life but this.

"Crossing the Gap" by Travis Mossotti, from About the Dead. © Utah State University Press, 2011. (buy now)

It's the birthday of writer Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings (books by this author), born in Washington, D.C. (1896). As a girl, she loved to write, and she published stories and essays in the children's section of newspapers. As a young wife, she moved to Rochester, New York, where she wrote for a society magazine. She suggested to the editor of the Rochester Times-Union that she write a daily column in versecalled "Songs of a Housewife." The editor was unconvinced, but he finally agreed to let her try. Her column was extremely popular, syndicated in 50 newspapers. She wrote poems about cooking, being a mother, gardening, neighbors, housework, and the weather. Her first column was called "The Smell of Country Sausage," and it began: "I let the spiced aromas / Call up the kitchen stair / Before I have my table set / The family all is there." She wrote 495 columns of "Songs of a Housewife."

Then she and her husband purchased an orange grove in Cross Creek, Florida. She spent the rest of her life there, even after her marriage ended because her husband did not like rural life. A few years after her divorce, she published her best-known book, The Yearling (1938). It's the story of Jody Baxter, a lonely Florida farm boy, and Flag, his adopted orphaned fawn. Jody grows up along with Flag, but when Flag eats the family's corn crop, his parents tell Jody that he has to shoot the deer. Although The Yearling is now marketed as a children's or young adult novel, at the time of its publication it appealed to a general audience. It was the best-selling novel of the year 1938, and Rawlings' editor was Maxwell Perkins, who was most famous as the editor for Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald. The Yearling won the Pulitzer Prize, and like several of Rawlings' other novels, it was a Book-of-the-Month Club selection.

In her memoir Cross Creek, she wrote: "We at the Creek need and have found only very simple things. We must need flowering and fruiting trees, for all of us have citrus groves of one size or another. We must need a certain blandness of season, with a longer and more beneficent heat than many require, for there is never too much sun for us, and through the long summers we do not complain. We need the song of birds, and there is none finer than the red-bird. We need the sound of rain coming across the hamaca, and the sound of wind in trees — and there is no more sensitive Aeolian harp than the palm. The pine is good, for the needles brushing one another have a great softness, and we have the wind in the pines, too. We need above all, I think, a certain remoteness from urban confusion, and while this can be found in other places, Cross Creek offers it with such beauty and grace that once entangled with it, no other place seems possible to us, just as when truly in love none other offers the comfort of the beloved. We are not even offended when others do not share our delight. Tom Glisson and I often laugh together at the people who consider the Creek dull, or, in the precise sense, outlandish."

It's the birthday of poet Sara Teasdale (books by this author), born in St. Louis (1884). She grew up in a wealthy family. Her mother was 40 when Sara came along, and her parents had not planned to have another child. They doted on their daughter, and were always anxious about her — if she had even a mild cold she was put in bed for days. So Sara grew up thinking of herself as sickly, even an invalid, when in reality she was probably no sicker than the average child. She didn't go to school until the age of nine because her parents thought she was too delicate. Her three brothers and sisters were all in their teens when she was born, and she wasn't allowed outside to play with other children. She was often lonely, and she made up stories and poems to amuse herself.

She attended a series of girls' schools, and eventually began to submit poems for publication. Her parents paid for the publication of her first book, Sonnets to Duse and Other Poems (1907).She received enough positive feedback to continue writing, and she eventually became a well-loved poet. Her collection Rivers to the Sea (1915) was a best-seller, and Love Songs (1917) won several major awards, including the award that would become known as the Pulitzer Prize.

Despite her success, Teasdale remained insecure and convinced that she was frail. Her marriage to a wealthy St. Louis businessman fell apart. In 1931, an old suitor, the poet Vachel Lindsay, killed himself. Teasdale was devastated. In 1933, she committed suicide with an overdose of sleeping pills; later that year her collection Strange Victory was published.

She wrote "The Broken Field":
My soul is a dark ploughed field
In the cold rain;
My soul is a broken field
Ploughed by pain.

Where windy grass and flowers
Were growing,
The field lies broken now
For another sowing.

Great Sower, when you tread
My field again,
Scatter the furrows there
With better grain.

It's the birthday of physicist Ernest O. Lawrence, born in Canton, South Dakota (1901). He was a curious child — at age two, he tried to figure out how matches worked and ended up lighting his clothes on fire. His best friend in Canton was a boy named Merle Tuve, who would go on become a famous geophysicist. The boys built gliders together and constructed a crude radio transmitting station.

Lawrence worked his way through college — he received an undergraduate degree from the University of South Dakota and graduate degrees from the University of Minnesota and Yale. He accepted a position at the University of California, Berkeley, and in 1930 he became the youngest full professor there. Lawrence put in 70-hour weeks at the Berkeley Radiation Lab, and he expected everyone else to do the same. The Lab was open 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

It was there that he invented a machine that he called a "proton merry-go-round," better known as the cyclotron. Lawrence's first version of the cyclotron was very makeshift — it involved a kitchen chair, clothes racks, and a pie pan — but eventually he produced a more sophisticated device. The cyclotron was a machine that could accelerate particles and then hurl them at atoms to smash the atoms open. This allowed scientists to discover radioactive isotopes of elements and sometimes new elements. In 1940, Lawrence won the Nobel Prize for his invention.

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