Oct. 27, 2011

After Ritsos

by Malena Morling

You know that moment in the summer dusk
when the sunbathers have all gone home to mix drinks
and you are alone on the beach

when the waves begin to nibble
on the abandoned sand castles—
And further out, over the erupted face

of the water stained almost pink
there are a few clouds that hold
entire rooms inside of them—rooms where no one lives—

in the hair
of the light that soon will go
grey and then black. It is the moment

when even the man who mops the floor
in the execution room of the prison
stops to look up into the silence

that grows like smoke or the dusk itself.
And your mind becomes almost visible
and you know there is nothing

that is not mysterious. And that no moment
is less important than this moment.
And that imprisonment is not possible.

"After Ritsos" by Malena Mörling, from Ocean Avenue. © New Issues Press, 1999. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Today is the 98th birthday of Joseph Medicine Crow-High Bird (books by this author), best known as Joseph Medicine Crow, who was born in 1913 into the Apsáalooke people — the children of the large-beaked bird — near Lodge Grass on the Crow reservation in southern Montana. Joseph Crow is the oldest living man of the Crow tribe and the last traditional Crow chief. As a writer, he has produced seminal works on Native American history and reservation life. But it is for Medicine Crow's writings on the victory of the Cheyenne and Lakota warriors led by Crazy Horse and Chief Gall over the U.S. Cavalry and George Armstrong Custer that he is best known.

Joseph was the first member of his tribe to attend college and was in the middle of graduate studies in anthropology when World War II began and he joined the Army as an infantry scout. He'd learned from his grandfather that a warrior must have the strength and intelligence to carry out four traditional military acts, a process called "counting-coup," in order to qualify as a chief, and Medicine Crow completed all four during the war. One highly prestigious act was to make physical contact with an enemy and escape unharmed, and on one occasion, he fought and grappled with a German soldier whose life he then spared when the man screamed out for his mother. On another, Medicine Crow led a war party to steal 50 Nazi SS horses from a German camp, singing a Crow song of honor as they rode away.

After the war, Medicine Crow returned to Montana where he was appointed his tribe's historian and anthropologist. He began writing academic works, collections of Crow stories and the Crow creation cycle, nonfiction books for children, and his memoirs, to mention just a few. Medicine Crow's step-grandfather had been a scout for George Armstrong Custer and an eyewitness to Custer's Last Stand along the Little Big Horn River, and as a boy Joseph had heard many stories of the battle; today, Medicine Crow is the last living person to have received direct oral testimony from a participant of Little Bighorn, which he has written about in Keep the Last Bullet for Yourself (The True Story of Custer's Last Stand) and other works.

Medicine Crow has been awarded the American Bronze Star as well as the French Legion of Honor. A White House press release naming Medicine Crow as a recipient of the 2009 Presidential Medal of Freedom praised him for his "contributions to the preservation of the culture and history of the First Americans," saying that those achievements are only matched by "his importance as a role model to young Native Americans across the country."

It's the birthday of the poet Sylvia Plath (books by this author), born in Boston, Massachusetts in 1932. She went to Smith, and while she was there she struggled with bipolar disease, she attempted suicide, but she made it through and won a Fulbright Scholarship to England. And in England she met another poet, Ted Hughes, and they got married. She published her first book of poems, Colossus (1960), and gave birth to two kids. She wrote the poems in Colossus slowly, deliberately, and constantly looked up words in her beloved thesaurus. But then her husband left her for another woman, her depression came back in force, and that winter after he left she wrote almost all the poems that would eventually become the book Ariel. She was seized with creative energy, and she wrote feverishly, sometimes completing several poems in just a few hours before her kids woke up.

In 1963, she published a novel, The Bell Jar, and two weeks later she committed suicide. She had only published one book of poetry during her life, but she had written enough poems to fill three more books, which were all published after she died, including Ariel (1965),whichwas filled with personal poems about marriage, motherhood, and depression. The poems in Ariel are usually considered Sylvia Plath's best work—poems like "Daddy" and "Lady Lazarus."

It's the birthday of Dylan Thomas (books by this author), born in 1914 in Swansea, Wales. He wrote poems, and he wrote short stories and scripts for film and radio, which he often read aloud himself. People loved his deep voice with its Welsh accent.

Dylan Thomas left school at age 16 to work for the local newspaper, then moved to London, and published his first book of poems when he was 20, a book called 18 Poems (1934). He Thomas had been sick a lot as a child, and he was exempted from active duty in the army, so instead he served in World War II by writing scripts for the government. But he didn't like the fact that all his friends were leaving to fight while he was stuck in London, so he started drinking heavily and writing even more. He wrote, he published, he went on book tours. He traveled through America reading his work, and he helped popularize poetry readings. People flocked to see Dylan Thomas, to hear his voice — he was extremely theatrical and often drunk. He died from alcoholism on a book tour at age 39, but he had already written many books, books of poetry, short stories, and plays, including the poems Deaths and Entrances (1946), the short stories The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog (1940), and the radio play Under Milk Wood, which he helped perform in 1953, just before his death. His most famous poem is a villanelle, a type of poem which uses repeated lines in a certain formula, a poem written for his dying father called "Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night."

It's the birthday of Zadie Smith (books by this author), born Sadie Smith in London in 1975. She grew up in a working-class suburb with her Jamaican mother and English father. She wanted to be a tap dancer but she decided she wasn't skinny enough; then she wanted to be a jazz singer but she decided she wasn't as good as Aretha Franklin. She said, "Slowly but surely the pen became mightier than the double pick-up timestep with shuffle." So she went back to writing, which she'd always liked anyway. She says she was a badly behaved teenager, but she managed to get into Cambridge. She worked hard on writing fiction in college, and one short story got too long to be a short story, but she didn't like novellas, so she just kept writing and writing and eventually she wrote White Teeth (2001).

She said, "I express myself with my friends and my family. Novels are not about expressing yourself, they're about something beautiful, funny, clever and organic. Self-expression? Go and ring a bell in the yard if you want to express yourself."

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




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