Saturday Feb. 13, 2016

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In your next letter,

                                             please describe
the weather in great detail. If possible,
enclose a fist of snow or mud,

everything you know about the soil,
how tomato leaves rub green against
your skin and make you itch, how slow

the corn is growing on the hill.
Thank you for the photographs
of where the chicken coop once stood,

clouds that did not become tornadoes.
When I try to explain where I’m from,
people imagine corn bread, cast-iron,

cows drifting across grass. I interrupt
with barbed wire, wind, harvest air
that reeks of wheat and diesel.

I hope your sleep comes easy now
that you’ve surrendered the upstairs,
hope the sun still lets you drink

one bitter cup before its rise. I don’t miss
flannel shirts, radios with only
AM stations, but there’s a certain kind

of star I can’t see from where I am—
bright, clear, unconcerned. I need
your recipes for gravy, pie crust,

canned green beans. I’m sending you
the buttons I can’t sew back on.
Please put them in the jar beside your bed.

In your next letter, please send seeds
and feathers, a piece of bone or china
you plowed up last spring. Please

promise I’m missing the right things.

“In your next letter,” by Carrie Shipers from Cause for Concern. © Able Muse Press, 2015. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

Today is the birthday of true-crime writer William Roughead (books by this author). Born in Edinburgh, Scotland (1870), Roughead was a lawyer who was so fascinated by murder cases he became an expert criminologist by researching and writing narrative accounts of the trials he witnessed at the High Court of Edinburgh.

He published his first anthology, Twelve Scots Trials, in 1913. Although hard facts and meticulous reconstructions of evidence were the foundation of Roughead's tales, he was also known for pulpy, ironic prose, and he drew admiration from writers like Henry James and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. President Franklin D. Roosevelt had reserved a special shelf near at hand to the Oval Office just for his books.

Despite his dry humor and use of irony, Roughead's long study of criminal depravity never turned him pessimistic. As he explained it, "The study of criminology has by no means made me a cynic; it has encouraged my admiration for the ingenuity of the human race."

It's the birthday of landscape painter Grant Wood, born near Anamosa, Iowa (1891), who is known for the iconic portrait of a farmer and his spinster daughter, American Gothic (1930), which, along with the Mona Lisa, is one of the most recognizable paintings in the world.

Wood grew up in Cedar Rapids, attended art schools in Minneapolis and Chicago, then traveled to Europe to study Impressionist and Post-Impressionist painting. There he first encountered the work of Jan Van Eyck, the 15th-century Flemish artist, and was struck by how the painter achieved great depth and detail in his works by layering thin glazes of color. When Wood returned to Iowa, he was determined to incorporate that kind of clarity into his own work, which is evident in the stylized fields and rolling hills of paintings like Midwest Vineyard and in the lit scenes and elongated shadows of Death on Ridge Road (1935) and The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere (1931).

Returning to Iowa had really been the formative experience of Wood's life. He'd cast himself in the role of a Midwestern farmer from the mythical farmland he was creating, always posing for photographs in a pair of overalls and becoming a champion of regionalism in the arts, explaining that, despite his travels and European training, he'd "realized that all the really good ideas I'd ever had came to me while I was milking a cow. So I went back to Iowa." In a recent biography Grant Wood: A Life, R. Tripp Evans presents Wood as a closeted homosexual who adopted Midwest regionalism as a shield for his own bohemianism, and who, when he died of pancreatic cancer at the age of 50, was planning to leave Iowa for California.

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