Feb. 10, 2013

The Presence

by Maxine Kumin

Something went crabwise
across the snow this morning.
Something went hard and slow
over our hayfield.
It could have been a raccoon
lugging a knapsack,
it could have been a porcupine
carrying a tennis racket,
it could have been something
supple as a red fox
dragging the squawk and spatter
of a crippled woodcock.
Ten knuckles underground
those bones are seeds now
pure as baby teeth
lined up in the burrow.

I cross on snowshoes
cunningly woven from
the skin and sinews of
something else that went before.

"The Presence" by Maxine Kumin, from Selected Poems 1960-1990. © Norton, 1997. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of playwright and poet Bertolt Brecht (books by this author), born in Augsburg, Germany (1898). In 1922, he won a drama prize for his first two expressionist plays, Drums in the Night and Baal, and followed those with Man is Man (1926). Brecht was a Marxist, and he regarded his plays as social experiments, requiring detachment from his audience, not emotional involvement. His theory of "epic theatre" asks the audience to acknowledge the stage as a stage, the actors as actors, and not some make-believe world of real people.

With Hitler's rise to power in 1933, Brecht sought asylum in Denmark, Sweden, and Finland, journeyed across Russia and Persia, and in 1941, settled in Hollywood. In Germany, his books were burned and his citizenship was withdrawn. It was during this period that he wrote most of his major essays, his poetry, and his great plays, including Mother Courage (1941), The Good Woman of Setzuan (1943), and The Caucasian Chalk Circle (1948).

It's the birthday of the man who wrote Doctor Zhivago (1957), Boris Pasternak (books by this author) born in Moscow (1890). From 1934 to 1943, he published no original work because of his fear of censorship under the government of Joseph Stalin. Around 1945, Pasternak began to work in secret on his masterpiece, Doctor Zhivago, an epic novel that follows the lives of more than 60 characters through the first half of 20th-century Russia. He finally finished it in 1955 and smuggled it out of the Soviet Union to a publisher in Italy. Pasternak said at the time that he knew he was signing his own death warrant, but he felt he had to go through with it. The novel came out in 1957. It was immediately banned in the Soviet Union, but it became an international best-seller, selling 7 million copies worldwide.

It's the birthday of Norwegian journalist Åsne Seierstad (books by this author), born in Oslo (1970). She's best known for her work The Bookseller of Kabul (2003), which was an international best-seller.

After college in Norway she began a nomadic existence. She went to China to study Chinese and to Berlin to learn German, Moscow to work for a news agency, and to Belgrade to live in an artists' colony. She also lived in Mexico, France, and Italy. She's fluent in five languages, and is "okay," as she puts it, in four more languages.

After September 11, 2001, she spent six weeks in rural parts of Afghanistan with the commandos of the Northern Alliance, traveling on the back of trucks and in military vehicles, and sleeping on stone floors and in mud huts. She rode into Kabul with the Northern Alliance in November 2001. She found a great bookstore, a place owned by an Afghan man who was well-educated and loved to talk about politics and writing. After weeks spent in the war-torn countryside, "among gunpowder and rubble, where conversations centered on the tactics of war and military advance," she said, "it was refreshing to leaf through books and talk about literature and history."

So she stopped by that bookshop often to peruse the books and to chat with the owner, a man so passionate about books that he'd hid them from police to prevent them from being burned during different sieges — and had gone to prison.

The bookstore owner invited her to a meal with his family. She said, "The atmosphere was unrestrained, a huge contrast to the simple meals with the commandos in the mountains. ... When I left I said to myself this is Afghanistan. How interesting it would be to write a book about this family."

She visited him the next day to tell him about her idea of writing a book about his family. She asked if she could live with him and his family, and follow them around, in order to write this book. He agreed, and she moved in with his extended family in February 2002. She stayed for three months.

The book she wrote about his family, The Bookseller of Kabul, was a huge success. The New York Times called it "the most intimate description of an Afghan household every produced by a Western journalist."

But the thinly disguised bookseller of Kabul, Shah Mohammed Rais — "Sultan Khan" in the book — was not happy about the way he had been portrayed, and flew to Norway to launch his own publicity campaign. He wrote his own book, called Once Upon a Time There Was a Bookseller in Kabul (2007). It's about how two Norwegian trolls visit Afghanistan with preconceived notions, and then abuse his family's hospitality in order to frame a colorful, detail-oriented portrait to fit those preconceived notions.

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




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