Sunday Dec. 21, 2014

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A Dialogue of Watching

Let me celebrate you. I
Have never known anyone
More beautiful than you. I
Walking beside you, watching
You move beside me, watching
That still grace of hand and thigh,
Watching your face change with words
You do not say, watching your
Solemn eyes as they turn to me,
Or turn inward, full of knowing,
Slow or quick, watching your full
Lips part and smile or turn grave,
Watching your narrow waist, your
Proud buttocks in their grace, like
A sailing swan, an animal,
Free, your own, and never
To be subjugated, but
Abandoned, as I am to you,
Overhearing your perfect
Speech of motion, of love and
Trust and security as
You feed or play with our children.
I have never known any
One more beautiful than you.

“A Dialogue of Watching” by Kenneth Rexroth, from Sacramental Acts: Love Poems. © Copper Canyon Press, 1997. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

In the Northern Hemisphere, today is the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year and the longest night. It’s officially the first day of winter and one of the oldest-known holidays in human history. Anthropologists believe that solstice celebrations go back at least 30,000 years, before humans even began farming on a large scale. Many of the most ancient stone structures made by human beings were designed to pinpoint the precise date of the solstice. The stone circles of Stonehenge were arranged to receive the first rays of midwinter sun.

Some ancient peoples believed that because daylight was waning, it might go away forever, so they lit huge bonfires to tempt the sun to come back. The tradition of decorating our houses and our trees with lights at this time of year is passed down from those ancient bonfires. In ancient Egypt and Syria, people celebrated the winter solstice as the sun’s birthday. In ancient Rome, the winter solstice was celebrated with the festival of Saturnalia, during which all business transactions and even wars were suspended, and slaves were waited upon by their masters.

Henry David Thoreau said: “In winter we lead a more inward life. Our hearts are warm and cheery, like cottages under drifts, whose windows and doors are half concealed, but from whose chimneys the smoke cheerfully ascends.”

It’s the birthday of a writer described by Time magazine as “indisputably the world’s number one woman writer”: Rebecca West (books by this author), born Cicely Isabel Fairfield in London (1892). As a teenager, she began writing for a radical feminist journal. She didn’t want to embarrass her mother, so she used a pseudonym, taking the name of the heroine in Henrik Ibsen’s play Rosmersholm.

Her journalism soon extended to reviews. She described T.S. Eliot as “a poseur,” Tolstoy as “overrated,” George Bernard Shaw as “a eunuch perpetually inflamed by flirtation,” and said of Somerset Maugham: “He couldn’t write for toffee, bless his heart.” She wrote: “Writers on the subject of August Strindberg have hitherto omitted to mention that he could not write.” At the age of 19, she wrote of H.G. Wells: “Of course he is the old maid among novelists; even the sex obsession that lay clotted on Ann Veronica and The New Machiavelli like cold white sauce was merely an old maid’s mania.” After he read the review, Wells asked to meet West, and the two became lovers, and had a son. West was frustrated that so much attention was given to this scandal and her laissez-faire parenting.

In the 1930s, West took three trips to Yugoslavia. She wrote, “Nothing in my life had affected me more deeply than this journey through Yugoslavia [...] the country I have always seen between sleeping and waking.” She wrote a book about her experience there, part travelogue, part political and social history, part essay-like meditations. Black Lamb and Grey Falcon (1941) was more than 1,000 pages long.

West continued writing right up until her death at the age of 90.Her books include The Return of the Soldier (1918), The Meaning of Treason (1949), and The Fountain Overflows (1956).

It’s the birthday of the man who said, “Country people do not behave as if they think life is short; they live on the principle that it is long, and savor variations of the kind best appreciated if most days are the same.” That’s Edward Hoagland (books by this author), born in New York City (1932), who began his literary career as a novelist but is best known for his nature and travel writing. His first books were what he called “documentary novels,” books like Cat Man (1956), which was based on what he had seen working as a lion keeper for a traveling circus, and The Circle Home (1960), about a washed-up boxer.

Hoagland refers to himself as peripatetic and happy when going about with Mississippi muskrat trappers or riding mules down the Rio Grande. So in the mid-1960s, he set out for British Columbia to ride the rivers, follow the trails, and talk with old-timers about the heyday of the homesteaders and prospectors. He began keeping a journal of his trip, which became the nonfiction book Notes from the Century Before (1969) and led him to writing essays instead of novels.

For Hoagland, the essay was a freer form than fiction and he wrote on everything from tugboats and taxidermy, jury duty and suicide, to go-go dancers and the time he mailed his mutilated draft card to President Johnson. His first collection was The Courage of Turtles (1971), followed by Walking the Dead Diamond River (1973) and numerous others. His most recent novel is Children Are Diamonds, which was published last year.

He said: “Many divorces are not really the result of irreparable injury but involve, instead, a desire on the part of the man or woman to shatter the setup, start out from scratch alone, and make life work for them all over again. They want the risk of disaster, want to touch bottom, see where bottom is, and, coming up, to breathe the air with relief and relish again.”

It’s the birthday of Irish revolutionary Maud Gonne, born in Tongham, England (1866). She is famous as the muse of poet W.B. Yeats — he said that when he met her, “The troubling of my life began.” They remained close friends throughout their lives, and Gonne inspired many of his greatest poems.

Gonne grew up in a wealthy family. Her father was a military attaché who traveled all over Europe. She went to boarding school in France, and she was well-traveled, cosmopolitan, confident, and beautiful — six feet tall with red hair. One contemporary described her: “She has a beauty that surprises one — like the sun when it leaps above the horizon. She is tall and like a queen out of a saga.” She returned to Ireland to keep house for her sick father, and after his death she returned to France. There she fell in love with a married right-wing politician, a French nationalist who hated England and encouraged Gonne to join the Irish nationalist cause. The cause soon became her passion, as she traveled the countryside witnessing the persecution of the Irish by the English landowners. She started a newspaper to support the Irish cause, campaigned tirelessly for the release of political prisoners, and organized the Daughters of Ireland, a group of revolutionary women.

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