Aug. 16, 2011

The Ordinary Weather of Summer

by Linda Pastan

In the ordinary weather of summer
with storms rumbling from west to east
like so many freight trains hauling
their cargo of heat and rain,
the dogs sprawl on the back steps, panting,
insects assemble at every window,
and we quarrel again, bombarding
each other with small grievances,
our tempers flashing on and off
in bursts of heat lightning.
In the cooler air of morning,
we drink our coffee amicably enough
and walk down to the sea
which seems to tremble with meaning
and into which we plunge again and again.
The days continue hot.
At dusk the shadows are as blue
as the lips of the children stained
with berries or with the chill
of too much swimming.
So we move another summer closer
to our last summer together—
a time as real and implacable as the sea
out of which we come walking
on wobbly legs as if for the first time,
drying ourselves with rough towels,
shaking the water out of our blinded eyes.

"The Ordinary Weather of Summer" by Linda Pastan, from Carnival Evening: New and Selected Poems 1968-1998. © W.W. Norton & Company, 1998. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Today is the birthday of English philosopher and playwright Catharine Trotter Cockburn (1679) (books by this author), born in London. Not much is known of her childhood, except that her father, a sea captain, died of the plague when Catharine was four, and the family struggled to get by. She was a precocious child and taught herself to read and write at an early age. Her first novel, Adventures of a Young Lady (1693), was published anonymously when she was 14. She also learned French and Latin, and was a moderately successful playwright; her first play, Agnes de Castro, was produced when she was just 16, and she wrote and staged four more in the next few years. When she wasn't writing plays, she was reading philosophy, mostly the work of John Locke. She published her first philosophical essay, The Defence of Mr. Lock's [sic] Essay of Human Understanding (1702), at the age of 23, and Locke was so impressed that he sent her money and books. She married clergyman Patrick Cockburn in 1708, and gave up writing until 1726. She went on to publish two more works of moral philosophy; these, along with her letters, were published as her collected works after her death in 1749.

It's the birthday of "Lawrence of Arabia," T.E. Lawrence (1888), born in Tremadoc, Wales. Thomas Edward was the second of five sons born to Sir Thomas Chapman and Sarah Junner. The problem was that Sarah was not Sir Thomas's wife; he was married to someone else and she had been his daughters' governess. The two began an affair and then ran off together, moving to Wales from Ireland and living together as "Mr. and Mrs. Lawrence." T.E., as he liked to be called, was an archaeologist and scholar and military strategist. His book The Seven Pillars of Wisdom (1926) was an account of his exploits as a military advisor to Arabs in their revolt against the Turks, and was the basis for the film Lawrence of Arabia (1962).

It's the birthday of novelist and editor William Maxwell (1908) (books by this author). He was born in Lincoln, Illinois, and his writing features small-town, middle-American life in the early 20th century. He joined the staff of The New Yorker in 1936, and he worked there for 40 years, first in the art department and later as a fiction editor. He was beloved by such contributors as John Cheever, J.D. Salinger, Vladimir Nabokov, and John Updike. Working with their manuscripts had a side benefit: "I came, as a result of being an editor, to look for whatever was unnecessary in my own writing," he said in a 1995 interview. "After 40 years, what I came to care about most was not style, but the breath of life."

Today is the birthday of Charles Bukowski (1920) (books by this author), born Heinrich Karl Bukowski in Andernach, Germany. His father was an American soldier, and his mother was German. They moved back to the States when the boy was two years old, and he grew up in Los Angeles, a scrawny kid who was frequently bullied. He had his first drink at 13: "It was magic," he later wrote. "Why hadn't someone told me?"

He dropped out of college, where he'd been studying journalism, at the beginning of World War II and moved to New York to become a writer. He published his first short story when he was 24, but the rejection slips outnumbered the publications by a wide margin and, discouraged, he quit writing in 1946 and drank his way across the country. Back in Los Angeles, he wound up in the hospital with a bleeding ulcer. He held a wide variety of jobs — at a pickle factory, a dog biscuit factory, and a slaughterhouse, among others — and at 35 he began writing again. He published his first book of poetry, called Flower, Fist, and Bestial Wail, in 1959. Volumes followed almost annually after that, and he published more than 45 books of prose and poetry. In 1969, he left his job at the post office when he received an offer from the publisher of Black Sparrow Press to write full time at a salary of $100 a week. He once said that his work was 93 percent autobiographical; it featured his alter ego, Henry Chinaski, a writer who works at a variety of unskilled jobs, drinks heavily, and takes up with loose women. Time called Bukowski the "laureate of American lowlife." He died of leukemia in 1994.

The poem "16-bit Intel 8088 chip" from Bukowski's You get so alone at times that it just makes sense (1986):

with an Apple Macintosh
you can't run Radio Shack programs
in its disc drive.
nor can a Commodore 64
drive read a file
you have created on an
IBM Personal Computer.
both Kaypro and Osborne computers use
the CP/M operating system
but can't read each other's
for they format (write
on) discs in different
the Tandy 2000 runs MS-DOS but
can't use most programs produced for
the IBM Personal Computer
unless certain
bits and bytes are
but the wind still blows over
and in the Spring
the turkey buzzard struts and
flounces before his

It's the birthday of Mohawk poet Maurice Kenny (1929) (books by this author). He was born in Watertown, New York, and when he was 16 he ran away from home to New York City. He also spent time in Mexico, the Virgin Islands, and Chicago, where he spent a year writing obituaries for the Chicago Sun. He published his first chapbook, The Hopeless Kill, in 1956; his first major collection, Dead Letters Sent, and Other Poems, was published in 1958 under the guidance of poet Louise Bogan, with whom Kenny worked extensively. His work is frequently inspired by nature and Iroquois oral tradition, and the strawberry — which has spiritual power in the Mohawk culture — is a recurring motif in his work. He's been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize twice: in 1982, for his epic poem Blackrobe; and in 1987, for his collection Between Two Rivers. The Mama Poems won the American Book Award of the Before Columbus Foundation in 1984.

Today is the birthday of Nigerian poet Christopher Okigbo (1932) (books by this author). He was born in Ojoto, Nigeria, and entered college at the University of Ibadan with plans to become a doctor. It wasn't long before he'd switched to studying Latin and Greek. His first poems were published in student literary magazines; he didn't become widely known until his work appeared in Black Orpheus magazine in 1962. He held jobs in business, civil service, and publishing. There was no single moment that he realized he had to be a poet; there was just the moment that he realized he couldn't do anything else: "It's just like somebody who receives a call in the middle of the night to religious service, in order to become a priest in a particular cult, and I didn't have any choice in the matter. I just had to obey." In 1966, he was awarded the Langston Hughes award for African poetry at the Festival of Black African Arts in Dakar, but he turned down the award, believing that racial considerations had no place in determining whether a poem had merit.

In 1966, as civil war was breaking out in Nigeria, Okigbo began making plans to open a publishing house, Citadel Press, with his friend, novelist Chinua Achebe. He abandoned these plans to take up arms in the fight for Biafran independence, and he was killed in action in September 1967. He published only three volumes of poetry in his short lifetime: Heavensgate (1962), Limits (1964), and Silences (1965). He is nevertheless one of Africa's most celebrated and widely anthologized poets.

It's the birthday of children's fantasy author Diana Wynne Jones (books by this author), born in London in 1934. Her parents were both teachers and weren't especially warm or nurturing; as the oldest of three daughters, Diana often looked after her younger sisters. She was dyslexic, but she did well in school. She started making up stories for her sisters when she was 13. In 1953, she entered St. Anne's College, Oxford, where she attended lectures by C.S. Lewis ("a superb lecturer") and J.R.R. Tolkien ("almost inaudible"). She married a Chaucer scholar in 1956 and had three children of her own, all boys. In reading to them, she was introduced to the world of children's literature for the first time; she had been a precocious reader herself and had skipped children's books, reading things like Malory's Morte d'Arthur at a young age. She wasn't satisfied with the current state of children's literature, so once her boys were all at school, she decided to write her own. She began as a playwright, producing three plays in London in the late 1960s, and though she's best known as an author of children's fantasy, her first published novel (Changeover, 1970) was a satire for adults. She wrote nearly 40 books, and she's best known for her series The Chronicles of Chrestomanci and Howl's Moving Castle (1986). She often parodied her own genre, as in her The Tough Guide to Fantasyland (1996), written as a guidebook to a foreign land.

She was a friend and mentor to author Neil Gaiman, and when she died this past March, he wrote, "She was the funniest, wisest, fiercest, sharpest person I've known, a witchy and wonderful woman, intensely practical, filled with opinions, who wrote the best books about magic, who wrote the finest and most perceptive letters, who hated the telephone but would still talk to me on it if I called, albeit, always, nervously, as if she expected the phone she was holding to explode."

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




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