Oct. 22, 2012

Sojourns in the Parallel World

by Denise Levertov

We live our lives of human passions,
cruelties, dreams, concepts,
crimes and the exercise of virtue
in and beside a world devoid
of our preoccupations, free
from apprehension—though affected,
certainly, by our actions. A world
parallel to our own though overlapping.
We call it 'Nature: only reluctantly
admitting ourselves to be 'Nature' too.
Whenever we lose track of our own obsessions,
our self-concerns, because we drift for a minute,
an hour even, of pure (almost pure)
response to that insouciant life:
cloud, bird, fox, the flow of light, the dancing
pilgrimage of water, vast stillness
of spellbound ephemerae on a lit windowpane,
animal voices, mineral hum, wind
conversing with rain, ocean with rock, stuttering
of fire to coal—then something tethered
in us, hobbled like a donkey on its patch
of gnawed grass and thistles, breaks free.
No one discovers
just where we've been, when we're caught up again
into our own sphere (where we must
return, indeed, to evolve our destinies)
—but we have changed, a little.

"Sojourns in the Parallel World" by Denise Levertov from Sands of the Well. © New Directions Books, 1994. Reprinted with permission of the author. (buy now)

It's the birthday of novelist and columnist John Gould (books by this author), born in Brighton, Massachusetts (1908). Gould and his wife settled in Lisbon Falls, Maine, on the farm where his great-grandfather had homesteaded. In the 1960s, Gould was working as the editor of the Lisbon Enterprise, and one day the local high school called him up and said they were sending over a student who had gotten in trouble; the student was supposed to be the editor of the school paper, but he was so bored by the job that he had written and published a satirical version called The Village Vomit, mocking all his teachers. As punishment, the school ordered him to go work at the Enterprise and find out what real newspaper work was like. The first day, Gould taught the young man how to shape up his writing and get rid of unnecessary words. The student later said: "Gould said something else that was interesting on the day I turned in my first two pieces: write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open. Your stuff starts out being just for you, in other words, but then it goes out." That high schooler was Stephen King. King wrote later: "This editor was the man who taught me everything I know about writing in 10 minutes."

In 1942, Gould wrote his first weekly column for The Christian Science Monitor, and he continued that column for more than 60 years, until his death in 2003. He wrote about baseball, nighttime sleigh rides, fly fishing, a 100-year-old woman riding on a fire truck for the first time, his mother's homeland of Prince Edward Island, molasses cookies, and how you should never forget to tell your bees if there has been a birth, wedding, or death in your family.

One of his earliest books, Farmer Takes a Wife (1945), was a big best-seller. He went on to write 30 books of fiction and nonfiction, including The Fastest Hound Dog in the State of Maine (1953) and Tales from Rhapsody Home; Or, What They Don't Tell You about Senior Living (2000).

He said: "Writing a good essay isn't that easy. You can't do it with a pointing stick. I try to make a point obliquely, adroitly, and whenever possible, with humor. It must always be a surprise. The surprise is what makes people laugh."

It's the birthday of novelist Doris Lessing (books by this author), born in Kermanshah in what is now Iran (1919). Her father had lost a leg in the British army and was a clerk in the Imperial Bank of Persia. When Lessing was five years old, she moved to Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), where her father was convinced he would strike it rich farming maize. In fact, the family never made much money. Lessing said: "I was brought up in what was virtually a mud hut, thatched. This kind of house has been built always, everywhere where there are reeds or grass, suitable mud, poles for walls — Saxon England, for example. The one I was brought up in had four rooms, one beside another, and it was full of books. Not only did my parents take books from England to Africa, but my mother ordered books by post from England for her children. Books arrived in great brown paper parcels, and they were the joy of my young life. A mud hut, but full of books."

Lessing's mother sent her to an all-girls convent school in the capital city, but she dropped out after one year and never went back to school. Instead, she continued to read everything she could. She left home to work as a nursemaid, then a telephone operator. She was married at age 19, had two children, divorced, married a second time, had another child, and divorced again. When she was 30 years old, she moved to London. She said: "I felt as if my real life was beginning when I at last arrived in war-torn, grubby, cold England. And of course, it was. Since then, I have written, that has been my life." A year after she moved to London, she published her first novel, The Grass is Singing (1950), set in the Rhodesia of her youth. She has written more than 40 books since then, including the novels Martha Quest (1952), The Golden Notebook (1962), Briefing for a Descent into Hell (1971), The Good Terrorist (1985), and Alfred and Emily (2008). In 2007, she won the Nobel Prize in literature.

The Golden Notebook was proclaimed a feminist manifesto and the bible of the women's movement.

In 2008, a critic wrote: "Nobel or not, some people still think of Lessing as either a one-book wonder, famous for her 1962 feminist classic, The Golden Notebook, or a literary version of a crazy bag lady, writing books about her cats and novels set on other planets."

Doris Lessing said, "A writer falls in love with an idea and gets carried away. A critic looks at the finished product and ignores the rush of a river that went into the writing, which has nothing to do with the kind of temperate thoughts you have about it. If you can imagine the sheer bloody pleasure of having an idea and taking it! It's one of the great pleasures in my life."

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




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