Dec. 23, 2011

Waking on the Farm

by Robert Bly

I can remember the early mornings—how the stubble,
A little proud with frost, snapped as we walked.

How the John Deere tractor hood pulled heat
Away from our hands when we filled it with gas.

And the way the sun brought light right out of the
It turned on a whole hill of stubble as easily as a single

Breathing seemed frail and daring in the morning.
To pull in air was like reading a whole novel.

The angleworms, turned up by the plow, looked
Uneasy like shy people trying to avoid praise.

For a while we had goats. They were like turkeys
Only more reckless. One butted a red Chevrolet.

When we washed up at noon, we were more ordinary.
But the water kept something in it of the early

"Waking on the Farm" by Robert Bly, from Eating the Honey of Words. © Harper Flamingo, 1999. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

On this day in 1893, German composer Engelbert Humperdinck's opera Hansel and Gretel premiered in Frankfurt. When it opened to the public, Hansel and Gretel was a hit and from its first performances quickly became associated with the Christmas season. Today, it is still performed as a part of winter holiday celebrations more than at any other time of year.

Norman Maclean (books by this author), who was born in Clarinda, Iowa (1902), was a fisherman, firefighter, scholar, and teacher, but it is as the author of his autobiographical novella, A River Runs Through It, that he is best known. Just as he described in his book, Maclean grew up at the junction of two great trout rivers in Missoula, Montana, in a family that didn't draw a clear line between religion and fly-fishing. His father was a Presbyterian minister, and his rowdy younger brother, Paul, like the sibling in the book, was in fact murdered under mysterious circumstances. Maclean did not publish the story of his last summer with his brother until he was in his 70s, but after it appeared in 1976, it very quickly became a classic of American literature.

After A River Runs Through It, Maclean wrote about a Montana wildfire that had claimed the lives of 13 firemen and smokejumpers decades before. Part mystery, part investigation, and part autobiography, Young Men and Fire (1992) would be Maclean's final book, posthumously published two years after his death in 1990.

It's the birthday of Calder Willingham (books by this author), born in Atlanta, Georgia (1922). As a boy, Willingham attended the Citadel — the South Carolina military academy — which he wrote about in his first book, End As a Man (1947).

Willingham had a successful career as a playwright and screenwriter, collaborating to bring the novel The Graduate to theaters (1967) and adapting the novel Little Big Man for the silver screen (1970); both were critical and commercial successes. Although Willingham considered his film work to be of lesser literary value than his fiction, he continued screenwriting for the rest of his life, earning credits on such films as The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) and Malcolm X (1992), as well as the screenplay for his own original novel Rambling Rose (1972), which was made into a film of the same name (1991).

Today is the birthday of poet and author Robert Bly (books by this author), born in Lac qui Parle County, Minnesota (1926), and known for the collections Silence in the Snowy Fields (1962), and Iron John: A Book about Men (1990).

Bly once said, of growing older: "I was very surprised to find out, as my poems pick up more and more of the past of human beings, the ancient culture, more and more of the grief and the suffering of human beings — the poems become funnier! I don't understand that, but I love it. I feel that there's some way that as the mind gets more mature, in the midst of a lot of grief, it's able to dance a little!"

It is the birthday of one of the great champions of poetry, Harriet Monroe (books by this author), founder of Poetry Magazine, born in Chicago (1860). She said, "The people must grant a hearing to the best poets they have, else they will never have better."

Tonight in Oaxaca, Mexico, folks will be celebrating the Noche de Rábanos, the Night of the Radishes, and the zócalo [public square] will become the scene of a huge exhibition of figures carved from radishes. These are not the familiar little round vegetables that are eaten in salads — these are heavy, long, contorted roots that grow up to two feet in length and can weigh as much as 10 pounds. For three days, artists will have been transforming their freshly dug radishes into religious tableaux and village scenes, historical events and mythical tales. There will be animals and saints and conquistadors, the Virgin Mary and infant Jesus, and even the revolutionary hero Emiliano Zapata.

The origin of this festival is unknown, although historians have noted that vendors in the Christmas Eve markets in Oaxaca would decorate their stands with radish figures embellished with other vegetables and that housewives would seek out the most interesting to buy for their Christmas tables. In 1897, the mayor of Oaxaca inaugurated the first official Night of the Radishes, and it has since become a unique and important part of Christmas in that city.

On this day in 1823, a poem entitled "A Visit from St. Nicholas" was published anonymously in the Troy Sentinel in New York City. The unsigned poem began, "'Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house / Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse."

For a long time, "A Visit from St. Nicholas" was attributed to New York seminary professor and poet Clement Clark Moore, who was said to have written it as a Christmas gift for his children, but in recent years it has been argued that Major Henry Livingston Jr. was the true author. The poem is largely responsible for the conception of Santa Claus as a tubby, bearded man in a red suit who travels in a package-laden sleigh pulled by eight flying reindeer.

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




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