Nov. 21, 2011


by Mary Mackey

One November
a week before Thanksgiving
the Ohio river froze
and my great uncles
put on their coats
and drove the turkeys
across the ice
to Rosiclare
where they sold them
for enough to buy
my grandmother
a Christmas doll
with blue china eyes

I like to think
of the sound of
two hundred turkey feet
running across to Illinois
on their way
to the platter
the scrape of their nails
and my great uncles
in their homespun leggings
calling out gee and haw and git
to them as if they
were mules

I like to think of the Ohio
at that moment
the clear cold sky
the green river sleeping
under the ice
before the land got stripped
and the farm got sold
and the water turned the color
of whiskey
and all the uncles
lay down
and never got up again

I like to think of the world
before some genius invented
turkeys with pop-up plastic
in their breasts
idiot birds
with no wildness left in them
turkeys that couldn't run the river
to save their souls

"Turkeys" by Mary Mackey, from Breaking the Fever. © Marsh Hawk Press, 2006. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of anthologist and writer Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch (books by this author), born in Cornwall in 1863. Quiller-Couch published fiction and literary criticism under the pen name "Q" and was best known at the time for his publication of the Oxford Book of English Verse (1250-1900), a book that remained the most popular anthology of its kind for nearly 70 years.

But Q is remembered by writers today — or rather, not remembered — for one of the most enduring but non-attributed pieces of writing advice ever given. He wrote in his 1916 book On the Art of Writing, "Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it — whole-heartedly — and delete it before sending your manuscript to press: Murder your darlings."

Now a popular catchphrase among editors especially, "murder your darlings" admonishes writers to refrain from being too precious about their prose and to trust in the values of simplicity and efficiency. It also has a certain writerly ring — perhaps the very thing, some suggest, that Q was warning against. As Roy Blount Jr. noted in his book Alphabet Juice (2008), "Sir Arthur's pen name was Q. Some frills trimmed there. But don't you suspect that after rejecting Kill your pets as too mean and Eliminate your sweeties as ambiguous, then hitting, bingo, upon Murder your darlings — don't you suspect that he thought to himself, Q, you are cooking?"

It's the birthday of French satirist, philosopher, and social revolutionary François-Marie Arouet, better known as Voltaire (books by this author), born in Paris (1694). The son of an influential lawyer, Voltaire from an early age showed little interest in toeing the line or respecting authority. His father's attempts to remove him from the bad influence of freethinkers and libertines — periodically sending him abroad and promising that the next trip would be to prison — had little effect.

In fact, his father hadn't needed to threaten jail time; others followed through on the idea soon enough. Voltaire was just 21 when he was expelled from Paris for writing a satirical poem about the decadence at Versailles; within months of his return he offended another member of the royal family, which landed Voltaire in the Bastille. He was reportedly delighted, having visited a friend there many times, and hoped he would not be set free before completing some work. His wish was granted, and he wrote his first play, Oedipe, behind bars.

The tragedy was a great success, and it helped establish his career in the theater. It was there, several years later, where his biting wit got Voltaire into trouble yet again with a nobleman. This time his cleverness was repaid with a beating and a direct order from the king to be thrown back in the Bastille. Voltaire secured his release by promising to leave the country altogether. He fled to England, where his involvement with the country's leading intellectuals helped shape his future philosophy. Upon his return to France in 1733, Voltaire wrote Letters Concerning the English Nation, an ironic criticism of the French religious and political establishment. This time, the book's publisher was sent to the Bastille, and Voltaire hightailed it to Lorraine, where he lived and wrote for the next 15 years, until the death of his mistress, when he began yet another cycle of relocating, offending someone in power, and fleeing. He returned to his hometown of Paris only months before he died, in 1778, a hero among the common people.

Voltaire was not as logical or systematic a philosopher as most in the Age of Reason, which is in part what made his writing the most influential. His were not the standard philosophical treatises, but instead relied heavily on satire and humor to make his case, and used forms like fiction, poetry, and plays to reach a broad audience, despite being widely censored and banned. Voltaire's views on religion, for example — that Judaism and Christianity were essentially corrupt and superstitious, and that any cosmic Designer or Creator was very possibly amoral — were radically polarizing, but he expressed them with such wit and irony that his writing was immensely popular. (Some consider Voltaire the founder of modern anti-Semitism because of his arguments against Judaism, which were cited to prevent Jews from becoming citizens during the French Revolution.)

The novel Candide, Voltaire's most famous work, argues against the prevailing philosophy of the time: that this is the best of all possible worlds, and that everything that happens is ultimately for the best. The book's laughably naïve protagonist, Candide, trusts his corrupt and insufferable teacher despite every imaginable evil, believing that it must all be for the best despite all appearances, until at last he retreats to spend the rest of his life tending his garden. Looking on the bright side was simply an excuse for those in power to remain in power, Voltaire argued — a way to ignore injustice and shirk responsibility.

Voltaire said, "If God did not exist, man would have to invent him."

He said, "As long as people believe in absurdities they will continue to commit atrocities."

It's the birthday of author Isaac Bashevis Singer (books by this author), born in Leoncin, Poland, in 1904 — or is likely his birthday; Singer long claimed it was several months previous, but that was probably a fabrication he invented to avoid the draft. He came from a family of rabbis — his father, as well his maternal grandfather — and grew up in a Jewish quarter of Warsaw. Although he broke away from his Orthodox upbringing and immigrated to the United States in 1935, he composed his dozens of short-story collections and novels, his memoirs and many children's books, almost exclusively in Yiddish — and did so on a Yiddish typewriter that was no longer manufactured by the '70s. Most of his work became known from its English version, which he translated, edited, and referred to as the "second original" — like his short story "Yentl the Yeshiva Boy," which Barbra Streisand adapted for an Oscar-winning film that Singer himself despised, in part because of its happy, hopeful ending.

When Singer received the Nobel Prize in 1978, he delivered part of his acceptance speech in Yiddish, and said, "Yiddish has not yet said its last word. It contains treasures that have not yet been revealed to the eyes of the world."

It's the birthday of writer and director Harold Ramis, born in Chicago in 1944. One of the least-recognized but most influential screenwriters of the last century, Ramis cowrote of some of America's most beloved comedies, including National Lampoon's Animal House (1978), Caddyshack (1980), Stripes (1981), Ghostbusters (1984), Groundhog Day (1993), and Analyze This (1999). Ramis is lauded for a sense of humor that rejected the slick, packaged Hollywood comedies of the past and channeled the anger and disaffection of his generation at the country's sacred institutions, like fraternities, country clubs, and the Army.

By the late '60s, Ramis — who had avoided the Vietnam draft by claiming to suffer from every malady on the medical-history form — was writing and performing with the fabled Chicago improv troupe Second City. He eventually became the head writer for the group's television show, SCTV, before leaving to write the screenplay Animal House. His reputation among his contemporaries — comedians like John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, and Bill Murray — was as the smart, responsible one; the one, Aykroyd told The New Yorker, likeliest to announce after an all-night party, "That was fun, but now we've got to take the car out of the pool."

Ramis said: "When you're young and you first see the extent and depth of the world's hypocrisy, it's fun to go after it. But by the time you're 60, it's so commonplace. What's the point in ridiculing these people anymore? Their existence itself is a sort of sick joke. Which is different from joining it or being completely co-opted by it. Even though I live in the suburbs, I pride myself in being the guy who will refer to an unpleasant reality in polite, mixed company."

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




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