Tuesday Mar. 29, 2016

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Early Hominids Slept in Trees

This was before they slipped into caves
and painted the drama of the hunt, before
their stone tools and splendid fires,
when early hominids filled the trees
like night. They climbed a ladder
of branches into evening where they
arranged themselves beneath
the applause of leaves. There were
wind storms and lightning and somehow
babies were held and people snored
or turned over. Surely someone was
afraid of heights? And someone
must have secured a place at the bottom,
or slept on the ground, demonstrating
how it might be done? Balanced up there,
in the mythic beginning, they were
safer from predators that walked
on four legs, swishing tails.
They clung to the trunk: felt the world
growing colder, the new power in their thumbs.
Trees were like houses and going home
meant climbing into the sky where words
appeared inside them like stars.

“Early Hominids Slept in Trees” by Faith Shearin from Orpheus, Turning. © The Broadkill River Press, 2015. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

It was on this day in 1944 that Anne Frank made the decision to rewrite her diary as an autobiography. Almost two years earlier, in June of 1942, Anne’s parents had given her a red-and-white-checkered diary as a 13th birthday present. A few weeks later, Anne’s sister, Margot, received a notice to report for a forced labor camp. The next day, the family went into hiding, moving into rooms above the business office of Otto Frank, Anne’s father. Otto’s business partner came too, along with his wife and son, as did a dentist. From the beginning, Anne recorded her daily thoughts and feelings in her diary, which she nicknamed “Kitty.” Once she filled the original checkered Kitty, she wrote in a black-covered exercise book, given to her by the non-Jewish friends who also took food and supplies to the families in hiding.

On March 28, 1944, the group who lived in hiding together gathered around a contraband radio to hear the news broadcast from London by the Dutch Government in Exile. The Education Minister, Gerrit Bolkestein, encouraged ordinary Dutch citizens living under the Nazi occupation to preserve documents for future generations. He said: “If our descendants are to understand fully what we as a nation have had to endure and overcome during these years, then what we really need are ordinary documents — a diary, letters from a worker in Germany, a collection of sermons given by a parson or priest. Not until we succeed in bringing together vast quantities of this simple, everyday material will the picture of our struggle for freedom be painted in its full depth and glory.”

The next day, Anne wrote in her diary, describing Bolkestein’s speech. She wrote: “Of course, they all made a rush at my diary immediately. Just imagine how interesting it would be if I were to publish a romance of the ‘Secret Annex,’ the title alone would be enough to make people think it was a detective story. But, seriously, it would be quite funny 10 years after the war if people were told how we Jews lived and what we ate and talked about here.”

Frank went back through two years of entries and painstakingly rewrote them. She assigned pseudonyms to her family and the other members of the Secret Annex, and she edited for clarity, character development, and background. She decided that after the war, she would write a memoir called Het Achterhuis, which translates as “the house behind,” or “the annex.” She would use the diary as its basis. She wrote: “I know that I can write, a couple of my stories are good, my descriptions of the ‘Secret Annex’ are humorous, there’s a lot in my diary that speaks, but whether I have real talent remains to be seen.” She wrote again and again about her desire to become a published writer — a journalist or novelist — and questioned whether she would succeed. At one point she wrote: “Everything here is so mixed up, nothing’s connected any more, and sometimes I very much doubt whether anyone in the future will be interested in all my tosh. ‘The unbosomings of an ugly duckling’ will be the title of all this nonsense.”

Even while she rewrote her original diary, Anne continued to add to it, now with an audience in mind. In the spring and summer of 1944, she filled more than 300 pages of loose paper with this revised work. She was still working on it when the Nazis raided the secret annex in August of 1944, acting on an anonymous tip, and sent all of the inhabitants to concentration camps. Anne died of typhus in Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in 1945; of the eight members of the secret annex, only Anne’s father, Otto Frank, survived.

Miep Gies was one of the Franks’ friends who had helped them during their years of hiding — she and her husband were active in the Dutch resistance. After the annex was raided, Gies found Anne’s writing and kept it in her desk, hoping to return it to Anne herself. When she learned that Anne had died, she passed it on to Otto, who edited and eventually published his daughter’s story.

This day in 1865 marked the beginning of the Appomattox Campaign, the final campaign of the Civil War. As the fighting got started in Virginia — at Quaker Road and Gravelly Run — Ella Gertrude Clanton Thomas, of Georgia, wrote in her diary: “I may perhaps be glad hereafter that I have lived through this war but now the height of my ambition is to be quiet, to have no distracting cares —the time to read — leisure to think and write — and study. Country, glory, and patriotism are great things, but to the bereaved hearts of Mrs. Stovall and Mrs. Clayton, each moaning for the death of their first born, what bitter mockery there must be in the words. Thus it is — I strive to get away, to forget in reading or in writing or in talking the ever-present, the one absorbing theme of war. I make no plans for the future.”

It’s the birthday of the politician and author Eugene McCarthy (books by this author), born in Watkins, Minnesota (1916). When he retired from Congress, he became a writer, penning several books about politics, and many poetry collections, including Ground Fog and Night (1979) and Other Things and the Aardvark (1970).

It’s the birthday of novelist and screenwriter Judith Guest (books by this author), born in Detroit in 1936. She was a public school teacher for several years, but had been writing since the age of 10, mostly starting projects and sticking them in drawers, unfinished. After reading a book called One Way to Write Your Novel by Richard Perry, she resolved to start — and finish — a novel, and three years later, Ordinary People was completed. Though it had begun as a short story, she kept exploring the characters’ pasts and following them into their futures, and then it was 200 pages long. She didn’t find a publishing home for Ordinary People right away, but she persisted, and eventually Viking Press bought it, the first time in 26 years they had accepted an unsolicited manuscript, and published it in 1976. The book won a Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize for “best first novel.”

The novel explores the lives of a Midwestern family trying to rebuild their lives after the drowning death of their oldest son, Buck, and the subsequent suicide attempt of younger son, Conrad. Robert Redford, looking for a project with which to make his directorial debut, literally turned up on the doorstep of Guest’s Twin Cities home. He chose wisely, and Ordinary People won the Oscar for Best Picture in 1980. Redford also took home Best Director, beating Martin Scorsese, who was nominated for Raging Bull.

Though Ordinary People remains her most famous work, she’s written four other books (her latest, The Tarnished Eye, based on a real-life unsolved murder in Michigan, came out in 2004), an essay, “The Mythic Family” (1988), and numerous screenplays. She hates doing book tours that take her away from the meditative practice of writing: “The fame part doesn’t nourish in that way,” she said in Twin Cities daily culture digest Secrets of the City. “The problem is that it feels kind of good for a few minutes a day, so you keep wanting more of it. But it’s like eating carbs. The more you eat them, the more you want to eat them.”

Today is the birthday of the poet Ronald Stuart Thomas (books by this author), published as R.S. Thomas, born in 1913 in Cardiff, Wales. He was an only child, and his father, Huw (pronounced "Hugh"), was in the merchant navy, so the small family moved from seaside town to seaside town, until Huw eventually got a steady job with a ferry company that ran between Wales and Ireland and they were able to settle in one place. The Thomas household was an English-speaking one, and Ronald didn’t learn to speak Welsh until he was 30, which troubled him, because he regretted not being fluent enough to compose poetry in what should have been his native tongue.

His mother suggested he enter the Anglican priesthood after he finished school. “Shy as I was,” he wrote, “I offered no resistance.” His first posting was as a curate in Chirk, in northeast Wales, and this is where he met the woman who would be his wife for 51 years, Mildred Eldridge, known as Elsi. She was an artist, and this inspired him to write poetry. They had one son, Gwydion, born in 1945, and lived a simple life in a small cottage with few modern conveniences — largely by Thomas’s choice.

He retired from the clergy in 1978, and became a passionate and outspoken advocate of Welsh nationalism, and a harsh critic of the English, whom he viewed as conquerors. He was often just as contemptuous of his countrymen, however — bitter and angry with them for letting their culture slip away. He called them “an impotent people / sick with inbreeding / worrying the carcase of an old song.” He wrote his autobiography — titled Neb, meaning “nobody” — in Welsh.

Nearly all of his work focused on the landscape and people of Wales, usually with a political or religious subtext; his poems are stark and spare, as unforgiving as the Welsh landscape. “Austere” is a word that comes up frequently in reviews. He wrote: “A recurring ideal, I find, is that of simplicity. At times there comes the desire to write with great precision and clarity, words so simple and moving that they bring tears to the eyes.” In poems like “A Marriage,” written on the death of his wife, he succeeds: “We met / under a shower / of bird-notes.” Thomas died in 2000 at the age of 87.

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