Feb. 18, 2012


by Jane Hirshfield

Each night you come home with five continents on your hands:
garlic, olive oil, saffron, anise, coriander, tea,
your fingernails blackened with marjoram and thyme.
Sometimes the zucchini's flesh seems like a fish-steak,
cut into neat filets, or the salt-rubbed eggplant
yields not bitter water, but dark mystery.
You cut everything into bits.
No core, no kernel, no seed is sacred: you cut
onions for hours and do not cry,
cut them to thin transparencies, the red ones
spreading before you like fallen flowers;
you cut scallions from white to green, you cut
radishes, apples, broccoli, you cut oranges, watercress,
romaine, you cut your fingers, you cut and cut
beyond the heart of things, where
nothing remains, and you cut that too, scoring coup
on the butcherblock, leaving your mark,
when you go
your feet are as pounded as brioche dough.

"Cook" by Jane Hirshfield, from Of Gravity and Angels. © Wesleyan University Press, 1988. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Today is the birthday of Greek writer Nikos Kazantzakis (books by this author), born in Heraklion, Crete (1883). Kazantzakis made his international reputation as a writer fairly late — when he was 56 — with the publication of his best-known work, Zorba the Greek (1946). The book was semi-autobiographical, based on a man Kazantzakis had known, George Zorbas, who in the novel was an uneducated man who pursues experiential rather than book learning, and who drinks, works, loves, and lives like a force of nature, the perfect embodiment of vital energy.

Kazantzakis's other well-known work is The Last Temptation (1953), which was condemned and banned by the Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox churches for presenting a Christ who wants to cast off his divinity. The work reached a new level of notoriety after Kazantzakis's death when director Martin Scorsese adapted it for film, and book and movie alike were attacked for what many church leaders said were blasphemous implications. Kazantzakis, on the other hand, felt his revisionist look at Jesus was in fact a reverent one and that "every free man who reads this book, so filled as it is with love, will more than ever before, better than ever before, love Christ."

When Kazantzakis died, the church refused him burial in consecrated ground, and he was laid to rest in a tomb outside the walls of his ancient home town, his grave marked by a stone that reads: I hope for nothing. I fear nothing. I am free.

It's the birthday of writer Wallace Stegner (books by this author), born in Lake Mills, Iowa (1909). Wallace's father had what Wallace called "the pioneering itch in his bones," and moved his family around hoping to strike it rich in a Western boomtown. They moved from North Dakota, to Washington state, then Montana, California, Saskatchewan, and finally settled in Salt Lake City, where Stegner got into the University of Utah when he was just 16. He was finishing his dissertation when his brother died suddenly of pneumonia. Not long after, his mother died of cancer and, finally, his father committed suicide. By the end of the 1930s, Stegner had lost his entire family.

Stegner wanted to write about the American West, but instead of a novel about cowboys and heroic pioneers, a novel "about what happens to the pioneer virtues and the pioneer type of family when the frontiers are gone and the opportunities are all used up." His first big success was The Big Rock Candy Mountain (1943), loosely based on the experiences of his own family.

Stegner wrote many novels and started the creative writing program at Stanford, where he taught Edward Abbey, Larry McMurtry, and Wendell Berry.

Not only did he write about the American Western experience and the need to preserve those spaces, Stegner also actively fought for preservation and became involved with the conservation movement of the 1950s. He said, "Something will have gone out of us as a people if we ever let the remaining wilderness be destroyed ... We need wilderness preserved — as much of it as is still left, and as many kinds — because it was the challenge against which our character as a people was formed ... We simply need that wild country available to us, even if we never do more than drive to its edge and look in. For it can be a means of reassuring ourselves of our sanity as creatures, a part of the geography of hope."

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
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