Sep. 8, 2011

The Orchid Flower

by Sam Hamill

Just as I wonder
whether it's going to die,
the orchid blossoms

and I can't explain why it
moves my heart, why such pleasure
comes from one small bud
on a long spindly stem, one
blood red gold flower

opening at mid-summer,
tiny, perfect in its hour.

Even to a white-
haired craggy poet, it's
purely erotic,

pistil and stamen, pollen,
dew of the world, a spoonful

of earth, and water.
Erotic because there's death
at the heart of birth,

drama in those old sunrise
prisms in wet cedar boughs,

deepest mystery
in washing evening dishes
or teasing my wife,

who grows, yes, more beautiful
because one of us will die.

"The Orchid Flower" by Sam Hamill, from Almost Paradise. © Shambhala Publications, 2005. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It was on this day in 1952 that Ernest Hemingway published The Old Man and the Sea (books by this author). For years, he had been living in Cuba and working on an epic novel about the sea, but he couldn't quite get it right. So he decided to publish a small piece of it, just 27,000 words long, which he called The Old Man and the Sea. He released it in the September 1st issue of Life magazine, which cost 20 cents. That month, it was published by Charles Scribner's Sons for $3.

The Old Man and the Sea was a big comeback for Hemingway. His last major work had been For Whom the Bell Tolls, published 12 years earlier in 1940. In 1950, he published Across the River and Into the Trees, a novel about a 50-year-old colonel dying of heart disease who is on his final duck hunt and thinking about his romance with a beautiful 18-year-old Italian countess. It sold fewer than 100,000 copies, all the critics panned it, and there was a general feeling that maybe Hemingway's best days as a writer were passed.

The Old Man and the Sea changed all that. The Life version sold more than 5 million copies in two days, and it was a best-seller in book form, as well. Hemingway said: "I'm very excited about The Old Man and the Sea, and that it is coming out in Life so that many people will read it who could not afford to buy it. That makes me much happier than to have a Nobel Prize." The Old Man and the Sea won the Pulitzer Prize, and two years later, Hemingway won the Nobel. He was unable to attend the ceremony because he had been injured in two plane crashes on a hunting trip in Africa, but he sent a speech to be read aloud. In it, he wrote: "Writing, at its best, is a lonely life. Organizations for writers palliate the writer's loneliness but I doubt if they improve his writing. He grows in public stature as he sheds his loneliness and often his work deteriorates. For he does his work alone and if he is a good enough writer he must face eternity, or the lack of it, each day. For a true writer each book should be a new beginning where he tries again for something that is beyond attainment. He should always try for something that has never been done or that others have tried and failed. Then sometimes, with great luck, he will succeed. How simple the writing of literature would be if it were only necessary to write in another way what has been well written. It is because we have had such great writers in the past that a writer is driven far out past where he can go, out to where no one can help him."

The Old Man and the Sea was the last book that Hemingway published during his lifetime; in 1961, with his physical and mental health deteriorating, he committed suicide.

Hemingway wrote: "The shark swung over and the old man saw his eye was not alive and then he swung over once again, wrapping himself in two loops of the rope. The old man knew that he was dead but the shark would not accept it. Then, on his back, with his tail lashing and his jaws clicking, the shark plowed over the water as a speed-boat does. The water was white where his tail beat it and three-quarters of his body was clear above the water when the rope came taut, shivered, and then snapped. The shark lay quietly for a little while on the surface and the old man watched him. Then he went down very slowly. 'He took about forty pounds,' the old man said aloud. He took my harpoon too and all the rope, he thought, and now my fish bleeds again and there will be others. [...] It was too good to last, he thought. I wish it had been a dream now and that I had never hooked the fish and was alone in bed on the newspapers. 'But man is not made for defeat,' he said. 'A man can be destroyed but not defeated.'"

It's the birthday of writer Terry Tempest Williams (books by this author), born in Corona, California (1955). After her father finished two years serving in the Air Force in California, they moved back to Salt Lake City, where Williams' Mormon family had lived for six generations. She spent her childhood surrounded by family — aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents. They attended services in the Tabernacle, told lots of stories, and went hiking and exploring in the mountains surrounding Salt Lake City. She said: "I spent much of my youth walking mountain trails, imprinting on the diffused light of quaking aspens, anticipating the ritual of a quick dip in the cold waters of alpine lakes. Columbine, lupine and Indian paintbrush are not simply the names of wildflowers, but dear friends."

When she was a young girl, her grandmother read aloud Rachel Carson's Silent Spring and asked her granddaughter to fill the bird feeder and try to imagine a world without the sound of birds. Williams studied English and biology, and after graduating, she worked in a bookstore and taught at a science school. She published a handful of books, mostly children's books.

In 1983, the Great Salt Lake experienced an unusual, massive flood, which flooded the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge, one of Williams' favorite places. That same year, she learned that her mother was dying of cancer. Both of Williams' grandmothers, six of her aunts, and her mother had all had mastectomies, and now her mother had ovarian cancer.

After her mother's death, Williams' father told her a story about how the whole family had watched a nuclear bomb test on the drive from California to Salt Lake City. For the first time, she made a connection between her family's high cancer rates and atomic bomb testing in Utah throughout the 1950s. So she wrote a memoir about cancer, Mormonism, her mother's death, and the rising Great Salt Lake. Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place was published in 1991 to rave reviews. Since then, Williams has published The Open Space of Democracy (2004), Finding Beauty in a Broken World (2008), and many more books.

She said: "I live in a very, very quiet place. I have a sequence to my creative life. In spring and fall, I am above ground and commit to community. In the summer, I'm outside. It is a time for family. And in the winter, I am underground. Home. This is when I do my work as a writer — in hibernation. I write with the bears."

And she said: "I love the immediacy of writing for newspapers. It is a way of creating a conversation within community, a way of calling attention to an issue at hand that is still open for discussion. I appreciate the ephemeral nature of newsprint. One day your words appear, the next day they are gone. The paper held in hand around a breakfast table is now being used to house-train a puppy. Your words are not precious. In contrast, a book is a sustained exploration of ideas that can meander, circle, and deviate through story. They can rise and fall and wrap themselves around our imagination and create worlds unknown before. A book becomes a companion. The words between covers create an intimacy with the reader, change them, transform them and they can seep into the bloodstream of a culture if we are lucky."

It was on this day in 1504 that Michelangelo unveiled his sculpture David. The project was first imagined more than 30 years earlier, in 1463, when the sculptor Agostino di Duccio accepted a commission to sculpt a biblical figure for one of the buttresses of the Santa Maria del Fiore, a cathedral in Florence. Duccio was given a block of marble more than 19 feet high, but he gave up after a rough attempt at the feet and legs. The commission was passed to another sculptor, Antonio Rossellino, who also gave up.

The piece was forgotten for a while, and the hunk of marble sat in a courtyard until 1501, when the Church authorities revived their project. It was about that time that they started referring to the sculpture as David. The Church settled on awarding the commission to 26-year-old Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni. Michelangelo was undaunted by the huge piece of marble, even thought it had the mistakes of the two previous sculptors already carved into it. He began sculpting in the fall of 1501 and finished less than two years later, in the summer of 1503. A group of artists — including Botticelli, Filippino Lippi, and Leonardo da Vinci — assembled to decide where to move the statue, since the idea of using it as a buttress for the cathedral seemed less practical now that the marble was weakened from years of exposure to the elements, and because the statue was 17 feet tall and weighed several tons. It took a huge effort to move David to its new location outside the Palazzo della Signoria. The diarist Luca Landucci wrote about the David, which he called 'the giant,' in his diary: "During the night stones were thrown at the giant to injure it, therefore it was necessary to keep watch over it. It went very slowly, being bound in an erect position, and suspended so that it did not touch the ground with its feet. There were immensely strong beams, constructed with great skill; and it took four days to reach the Piazza [...] It was moved along by more than 40 men. Beneath it there were 14 greased beams, which were changed from hand to hand; and they labored till the 8th July, 1504, to place it on the ringhiera."

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