Friday Nov. 21, 2014

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The Shoulders of Women

Bored by the featureless speeches at the fundraising dinner,
I scan the hotel ballroom for something to look at
and discover (thank God for sleeveless dresses!)
the shoulders of women, pale moons aglow
above the linen-covered tables. Smooth and rounded
like the neighboring breasts, they are less obvious
and more complex, their inner mechanism
of muscle, tendon, cartilage, and bone
giving detail and highlights to their contours,
making more exquisite the way the skin
is pulled taut across the clavicle’s diagonal ridge
then dips into that shallow well above it,
the way it curves down, then up again unseen
into the nether hollow of the underarm,
that tender pocket, the shoulder’s hidden nest.
The speaker patters on about how there has never
been a more important time than now, and I
have to agree, because when will I ever see
a collection of shoulders as marvelous as this?
I feel blessed to have been let in on this
open secret: all over the room, women revealing
the rounded upper corners of their nakedness.
And when the speeches finally end, I applaud
not for what was said, but for these women,
for the shoulders they have so generously given.

"The Shoulders of Women" by Jeffrey Harrison, from Into Daylight. © Tupelo Press, 2014. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

It's the birthday of anthologist and writer Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch (books by this author), born in Cornwall in 1863. Quiller-Couch published fiction and literary criticism under the pen name "Q" and was best known at the time for his publication of the Oxford Book of English Verse (1250-1900), a book that remained the most popular anthology of its kind for nearly 70 years.

He is remembered by writers today for one of the most enduring but non-attributed pieces of writing advice ever given. He wrote in his 1916 book On the Art of Writing, "Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it — whole-heartedly — and delete it before sending your manuscript to press: Murder your darlings." Now a popular catchphrase among editors especially, "murder your darlings" admonishes writers to refrain from being too precious about their prose and to trust in the values of simplicity and efficiency.

Today is the birthday of Voltaire (books by this author), born François-Marie Arouet in Paris (1694). He was one of history's great thinkers and satirists — and he spent much of his time annoying people in power. His father wanted him to become a notary, but he refused, and the two quarreled about it into Voltaire's adulthood. Sometimes he would pretend that he was serving as a notary's assistant, but he was really writing. He was thrown out of Paris for the first time when he was only 21, for writing a poem critical of the king. After he returned, he wasted no time in insulting the royal family again, and this time they had him thrown in the Bastille for almost a year. It was there that he adopted his pen name. Voltaire made good use of his time behind bars; he wrote his first play, the tragedy Oedipe, which was a great success when it was staged in 1718. In 1733, his Philosophical Letters on the English — a critique of the French establishment — landed his publisher in the Bastille. He spent much of his life fleeing or being sent into exile, where he would manage to offend someone in his new home, forcing him to flee again. His work, and the work of other Enlightenment philosophers, influenced the American and French revolutions.

Voltaire finally returned to Paris just a few months before he died in 1778. He wrote a final farewell, saying, "I die adoring God, loving my friends, not hating my enemies, and detesting superstition." Though he believed in a higher power, he had long been deeply critical of organized religion, so he was denied a church burial, but friends found an abbey in Champagne that would accept him. Thirteen years later, the revolutionary French National Assembly ordered his body moved to the Panthéon in Paris. It's estimated that a million people turned out to watch his procession.

It's the birthday of author Isaac Bashevis Singer (books by this author), born in Leoncin, Poland, in 1904 — or is likely his birthday; Singer long claimed it was several months previous, but that was probably a fabrication he invented to avoid the draft. He came from a family of rabbis — his father, as well his maternal grandfather — and grew up in a Jewish quarter of Warsaw. Although he broke away from his Orthodox upbringing and immigrated to the United States in 1935, he composed his dozens of short-story collections and novels, his memoirs and many children's books, almost exclusively in Yiddish — and did so on a Yiddish typewriter that was no longer manufactured by the '70s. Most of his work became known from its English version, which he translated, edited, and referred to as the "second original" — like his short story "Yentl the Yeshiva Boy," which Barbra Streisand adapted for an Oscar-winning film that Singer himself despised, in part because of its happy, hopeful ending.

When Singer received the Nobel Prize in 1978, he delivered part of his acceptance speech in Yiddish, and said: "Yiddish has not yet said its last word. It contains treasures that have not yet been revealed to the eyes of the world."

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