Aug. 10, 2011

Evening Star

by Charles Goodrich

Fork down hay
for the white-face steers.
Sit in the hay mow door
watching the horses graze,
chewing myself a dry clover sprig.

Long day over.
No evening plans.
Dust motes drift
on the ambering light.
Pigeons flap and coo in the rafters.

First star now
low in the east.
Sweat cools
and crusts on my face,
muscles lean back on their bones

and all thoughts heal down
to a low whistling.

"Evening Star" by Charles Goodrich, from Insects of South Corvallis. © Cloudbank Books, 2003. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It was on this day in 1912 that the novelist Virginia Stephen (books by this author) married Leonard Woolf, a quiet wedding at the St. Pancras Registry Office.

Leonard Woolf was friends with Virginia's beloved brother, Thoby, who had recently died of typhoid; and also with one of her closest friends, Lytton Strachey. Strachey had proposed marriage to Virginia in 1909, and she had accepted. Strachey was gay at a time when it was illegal to be gay in England, Virginia was hesitant about her sexuality, and they liked and respected each other as intellectual equals. But Lytton quickly changed his mind — he wrote to Leonard: "I was in terror lest she should kiss me" — and Virginia admitted that she didn't love Lytton.

Instead, Lytton campaigned for his old friend Leonard to marry Virginia. Leonard Woolf was stationed in what is now Sri Lanka as a civil servant in the Colonial Service, but when he came home after seven years of service, he reacquainted himself with Virginia and fell in love. He was smart, and a writer, and he knew enough to be cautious with her — they went on walks and talked. He proposed to her in January of 1912, and she didn't accept. But she continued to see him and agonized over why she did not want to get married. She wrote to Leonard in May of 1912: "All I can see is that in spite of these feelings which go chasing each other all day long when I am with you, there is some feeling which is permanent, and growing. You want to know of course whether it will ever make me want to marry you. How can I say? I think it will, because there seems to be no reason why it shouldn't — But I don't know what the future will bring. I'm half afraid of myself. I sometimes feel that no one ever has or ever shall feel something — It's the thing that makes you call me like a hill, or a rock. Again, I want everything — love, children, adventure, intimacy, work. (Can you make any sense out of this ramble? I am putting down one thing after another.) So I go from being half in love with you, and wanting you to be with me always, and know everything about me, to the extremes of wildness and aloofness. I sometimes think that if I married you, I could have everything — and then — is it the sexual side of it that comes between us? As I told you brutally the other day, I feel no physical attraction in you. There are moments — when you kissed me the other day was one — when I feel no more than a rock. And yet your caring for me as you do almost overwhelms me. It is so real, and so strange. Why should you? What am I really except a pleasant attractive creature? But its just because you care so much that I feel I've got to care before I marry you. I feel I must give you everything; and that if I can't, well, marriage would only be second-best for you as well as for me. If you can still go on, as before, letting me feel my own way, as that is what would please me best; and then we must both take the risks. But you have made me very happy too. We both of us want a marriage that is a tremendous living thing, always hot, not dead and easy in parts as most marriages are. We ask a great deal of life, don't we? Perhaps we shall get it; then, how splendid!"

At the end of May, Virginia had made up her mind; she told Leonard that she loved him and wanted to marry him. She sent a letter to her friend in which she misspelled her future husband's name and said, "I am going to marry Leonard Wolf — he is a penniless Jew." But her sister Vanessa thought they seemed happy.

Virginia was overwhelmed by Leonard's large Jewish family, who lived in Putney, a suburb of London. She wrote: "Work and love and Jews in Putney take it out of me." When she and Leonard did get married, his family was not invited — it was a small and simple wedding, but of course they were still offended.

The wedding had been originally planned for August 12th but it was moved to August 10th to suit the schedule of Virginia's sister and brother-in-law, Vanessa and Clive Bell. The ceremony was at the registry office, and several things went wrong. There was a bad thunderstorm. The registrar couldn't see very well and kept stumbling over parts of the service, especially over the names Virginia and Vanessa. Then, in the middle of the service, Vanessa interrupted to say that she had a question: She remembered that she would like to change her son's name, and she wondered how to legally do so. They made it through the ceremony eventually, and Virginia Stephen became Virginia Woolf.

After the ceremony, the Bells hosted a midday wedding breakfast. Virginia's half-brothers were there, George and Gerald Duckworth, dressed in their finest; as well as Roger Fry, Vanessa's lover; and Duncan Grant, soon to become Vanessa's lover. Virginia's aunt Mary attended, as did a couple of other members of the Bloomsbury group — Saxon Sydney-Turner and Frederick Etchells.

That evening the Woolfs set off on a two-month honeymoon through France, Spain, and Italy. They had a wonderful time as companions, and Virginia wrote to a friend: "We've talked incessantly for seven weeks, and become chronically nomadic and monogamic." But she wrote to another friend: "Why do you think people make such a fuss about marriage and copulation? Why do some of our friends change upon losing chastity? Possibly my great age makes it less of a catastrophe; but certainly I find the climax immensely exaggerated. Except for a sustained good humor (Leonard shan't see this) due to the fact that every twinge of anger is at once visited upon my husband, I might still be Miss S."

It's the birthday of crime writer Dorothy B. Hughes (books by this author), born in Kansas City, Missouri (1904). She was also a literary critic and a poet — her first book was Dark Certainty (1931), a book of poems, which won the Yale Series of Younger Poets Award. She turned her hand to crime fiction, and published 14 novels, including In A Lonely Place (1947). It's the story of Dix Steele, a World War II vet who shows up in LA and moves in with a police detective friend, Brub Nicolai, and his wife. Dix helps Brub talk through an ongoing case involving a serial killer who is strangling women, and slowly it becomes obvious to the reader that Dix is the psychopathic murderer. Hughes wrote: "He scraped through the dark sand to the center house, two stories, both pouring bands of light into the fog. There was warmth and gaiety within, through the downstairs window he could see young people gathered around a piano, their singing mocking the forces abroad on this cruel night. She was there, protected by happiness and song and the good. He was separated from her only by a sand yard and a dark fence, by a lighted window and by her protectors. He stood there until he was trembling with pity and rage. Then he fled, but his flight was slow as the flight in a dream, impeded by the deep sand and the blurring hands of the fog. He fled from the goodness of that home, and his hatred for Laurel throttled his brain. If she had come back to him, he would not be shut out, an outcast in a strange, cold world."

It's the birthday of poet and memoirist Mark Doty (books by this author), born in Maryville, Tennessee (1953). He said: "I was bored very early on by what seemed to me the plain nature of the clothes and toys and roles handed out to little boys. I saw no future for myself there. The sort of stuff my sister kept in her special drawer of souvenirs was redolent of something else — exuberance, playfulness, permission. They appeared beautiful to me because they evoked other possibilities, something secretive and forbidden and rich with life. I grew up in a very disconnected suburban landscape, in town after town, and it seems to me that there was very little that existed in order to enchant, to instruct us in our larger possibilities, to engage the spirit. There was, in other words, little art, and a great deal of practicality, of ways of life determined by social and economic necessity, or social and economic ambition. My love of that shiny stuff in the drawer was, I think, a kind of early outbreak of longing — a wish for life to be something more. That took other forms later on, of course, or I'd simply have become a drag queen rather than a poet!"

Doty did become a poet, and he has written many award-winning books of poetry, including My Alexandria (1993), Atlantis (1995), and Fire to Fire: New and Selected Poems (2008).

He said, "Not every experience lends itself to poetry, and one doesn't live in that lyric intensity all the time — so it's very good to have something else to do, and for me nonfiction is that other thing." He has written several memoirs, including Heaven's Coast, about his partner's death from AIDS; and most recently, Dog Years (2007), about the life and death of his dogs, Beau and Arden.

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