Feb. 6, 2013

Great Plains

by Bruce Willard

I could drive for days without fear
of outrunning these patchwork clouds,

bridge lines of cumulus
this way or that towards the horizon,

midway between one place
and another, standing up
to the administrations of wind.

I like a destination which pulls
true, deliberate,
but at great distance. Like

I like the slow, imperceptible
progress of knowing
but not knowing
how far I'll travel today,
where I'll find gas
for the next leg
or when.

"Great Plains" by Bruce Willard, from Holding Ground. © Four Way Books, 2013. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of the man who wrote, "Come live with me and be my love / And we will all the pleasures prove" — Christopher Marlowe (books by this author), born in Canterbury, England (1564). He's the author of plays such as The Jew of Malta (c. 1590) and Dr. Faustus (c. 1594), and he was one of the most prominent playwrights of his lifetime.

He was a child prodigy and managed to get in to Corpus Christi College in Cambridge, even though he was the son of a shoemaker. His school records show that he was frequently absent from class because he was working for Queen Elizabeth's secret service. There is some evidence that he continued to work as a secret agent for the Queen for the rest of his life. In the 1590s, while he was producing his plays, church officials began to accuse him of espousing atheism, a charge that was punishable by torture. On May 18, 1593, a warrant was issued for his arrest, but he died in a fight over a bar bill before the police could find him.

It's the birthday of poet Deborah Digges (books by this author), born in Jefferson City, Missouri (1950), one of 10 children of a doctor and a nurse.

She studied art in college, got married at the age of 19 to an Air Force pilot who went to Vietnam, and had a child when she was 20. It was then that she first began to write poetry. She said, "Kids keep you very close to experiences. You're kind of constantly thrown off track and that's good for a poet."

She went back and finished college, and then went on to the Iowa Writers' Workshop. She taught at several universities and published four poetry collections: Vesper Sparrows (1986), Late in the Millennium (1989), Rough Music (1995), and Trapeze (2004) — all of them winning major prizes. She wrote two memoirs, Fugitive Spring (1989) and The Stardust Lounge: Stories from a Boy's Adolescence (2000).

She died in April 2009, after falling from bleachers at a stadium. Police ruled it a suicide.

Once, she and her husband had been out driving and saw a cow on the side of the road struggling to give birth. The calf was coming out the wrong way — and probably wouldn't have survived, so she and her husband jumped out of the car to help deliver the calf. She wrote a poem about it, "The Birthing," which appeared in The New Yorker magazine in October 2006. She wrote:

"With his whole weight he pushed the calf back in the mother
and grasped the other leg tucked up like a closed wing
against the new one's shoulder.

And found a way in the warm dark to bring both legs out
into the world together.

Then heaved and pulled, the cow arching her back,
until a bull calf, in a whoosh of blood and water,
came falling whole and still onto the meadow."

It's the birthday of one of the earliest self-help writers, Walter B. Pitkin (books by this author), born in Ypsilanti, Michigan (1878). Despite dropping out of college, he was offered a position as a professor at Columbia University, and he taught psychology, philosophy, and journalism there for about 40 years.

His books include The Psychology of Happiness (1929), Life Begins at Forty (1932), A Short Introduction to the History of Human Stupidity (1932), and Road to a Richer Life (1949).

He wrote: "Life begins at forty. This is the revolutionary outcome of our New Era. Today it is half a truth. Tomorrow it will be an axiom."

It's the birthday of journalist Michael Pollan (books by this author), born on Long Island, New York (1955). He's the author of best-selling books about food: The Botany of Desire (2001), The Omnivore's Dilemma (2006), In Defense of Food (2008), and Food Rules (2010). His nutrition philosophy is: "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants."

It's the birthday of poet Victor Hernández Cruz (books by this author), born in Aguas Buenas, Puerto Rico (1949). His parents moved to New York City when he was six years old, and he grew up on the Lower East Side. He started writing poetry when he was a teenager.

When he was 17, he and some friends found an old mimeograph machine and carried it up six flights of stairs to print 500 copies of Cruz's first book of poems, Papo Got His Gun (1966). He distributed the book to local bookstores and asked them to sell it for 75 cents each. An editor of a New York literary magazine happened to see the book, and he published several of the poems in the Evergreen Review.

Cruz was so excited about the publication that he dropped out of high school and joined a theater group that wrote and performed plays in the streets. He went on to become an important member of the group of writers known as the Nuyorican poets — poets from Puerto Rico who grew up in New York City and who write about the blending of the two cultures. He has published many books of poetry, including Snaps (1969), Tropicalization (1976), and most recently, The Mountain in the Sea (2006).

He said: "Exile and political upheaval have intervened with the lives of great writers and confronted them with the reality that they might have to express themselves in a language other than their mother tongue."

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




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