Tuesday Dec. 22, 2015

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Low clouds hang on the mountain.
The forest is filled with fog.
A short distance away the
Giant trees recede and grow
Dim. Two hundred paces and
They are invisible. All
Day the fog curdles and drifts.
The cries of the birds are loud.
They sound frightened and cold. Hour
By hour it grows colder.
Just before sunset the clouds
Drop down the mountainside. Long
Shreds and tatters of fog flow
Swiftly away between the
Trees. Now the valley below
Is filled with clouds like clotted
Cream and over them the sun
Sets, yellow in a sky full
Of purple feathers. After dark
A wind rises and breaks branches
From the trees and howls in the
Treetops and then suddenly
Is still. Late at night I wake
And look out of the tent. The
Clouds are rushing across the
Sky and through them is tumbling
The thin waning moon. Later
All is quiet except for
A faint whispering. I look
Out. Great flakes of wet snow are
Falling. Snowflakes are falling
Into the dark flames of the
Dying fire. In the morning the
Pine boughs are sagging with snow,
And the dogwood blossoms are
Frozen, and the tender young
Purple and citron oak leaves.

“Snow” by Kenneth Rexroth from The Complete Poems of Kenneth Rexroth. © Copper Canyon Press, 2004. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

It’s the birthday of composer Giacomo Puccini, born in Lucca, Tuscany, Italy (1858). He is responsible for creating some of the most popular and recognizable operas of all time. Puccini’s four greatest works are all tragic love stories centering on a female lead: the seamstress Mimi of La bohème (1896), the singer Floria of Tosca (1900), a Japanese teenager who goes by the nickname Butterfly in Madame Butterfly (1904), and a Persian princess in Turandot, which was left incomplete at the time of Puccini’s death in 1924.

Today is the winter solstice in the Northern hemisphere, when we mark the beginning of winter. It is the shortest day and longest night of the year. The winter solstice occurs in the moment when the Earth’s tilt away from the sun is at its maximum. Today the sun is directly over the Tropic of Capricorn, which runs through Australia, Chile, and northern South Africa. The noontime position of the sun is very low, and that position at noon barely changes in the days preceding and after the solstice. This gives us the word solstice, from the Latin solstitium sol, the sun, and sistere, to stand still. Down in the Southern hemisphere they are celebrating the summer solstice today.

Christina Rossetti wrote: “In the bleak mid-winter / Frosty winds made moan, / Earth stood hard as iron, / Water like a stone / Snow had fallen, snow on snow, / Snow on snow, / In the bleak mid-winter, / Long ago.”

Today is the 59th birthday of Colo, the first gorilla born in captivity. She was born at the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium in Columbus, Ohio (1956). Colo’s birth was front-page news. Breeders across the country had been trying to mate their gorillas, but with no success. Colo’s parents were Mac and Millie, a pair of wild gorillas captured in 1950 in what was then known as French Cameroon. Their captor was “Gorilla Bill” Said, an Ohio gorilla-hunter who supplied zoos with gorillas. His usual tactic was to brutally kill the alpha male gorilla in a group, and sometimes all the adults, in order to capture a couple of baby gorillas, since once they were adults they were too strong to handle. Mac and Millie ended up at the Columbus Zoo, where the zoo’s director was afraid they would hurt each other so ordered them to be put in two separate cages.

A 25-year-old veterinary student named Warren Thomas was convinced that the two gorillas should be allowed time together, so without permission, he began putting them together at night and separating them again in the morning. It wasn’t long before Millie was pregnant, but no one knew how long a gorilla’s gestation period was. Eventually Thomas shared the news, and on this day in 1956 Thomas was doing his morning rounds and found a baby lying in an amniotic sac. He resuscitated the baby gorilla and transferred her to an incubator. Colo, and by extension the Columbus Zoo, became famous. The mayor of Columbus handed out “It’s a girl” cigars. The zoo ran a nationwide naming contest, and the winning name was named “Colo,” a combination of “Columbus” and “Ohio.” Colo went on to become a mother, grandmother, great-grandmother, and even great-great-grandmother. At age 59, Colo is currently the oldest gorilla living in captivity, and possibly the oldest in the world, since the average age of gorillas in the wild is about 35.

The primatologist Dian Fossey said, “The more you learn about the dignity of the gorilla, the more you want to avoid people.”

It’s the birthday of American poet, translator, and critic Kenneth Rexroth (books by this author), born in South Bend, Indiana (1905). His parents were indulgent of the arts, taking him to Europe at the age of seven and paying for private dance and French lessons. He was reading the classics before the age of 10. But they both died suddenly, and by the time he was 14, he was orphaned and living with an aunt in Chicago. He was restless, and curious. And when he was expelled from high school, he decided to hitchhike around the U.S., working variously as a soda jerk, fruit picker, and wrangler, experiences he would collect for his memoir, The Autobiographical Novel (1966).

He attended the New School in New York for a time, but dropped out to live as a postulant at the Holy Cross Monastery upstate. There, he immersed himself in meditation, silence, and artistic creation. He later said this period was the happiest of his life.

He also traipsed through Europe, where he met Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot, and, always a quick study, learned several languages at once. He was in San Francisco by 1927, writing poems and beginning his first forays into translation, concentrating on works by Chinese and Japanese poets. His antiestablishment and pacifist leanings were strong. He applied for a membership to the Communist Party (1930) but was turned down because his anarchist leanings wouldn’t have made him a good follower.

When his first collection of poetry, In What Hour (1941), was published, Poetry Magazine compared the sparse language of his poems to license plates made by convicts and suggested he find another occupation. William Carlos Williams disagreed, saying, “His ear is finer that of anyone I know.” Rexroth said, “There is no place for a poet in American society, no place at all for any kind of poet at all.”

An early champion of civil rights, he was a conscientious objector during World War II, going so far as to aid Japanese-Americans in escaping from West Coast internment camps. By the late 1940s, Rexroth was the host of a popular poetry show on KPFA in San Francisco, promoting the poets who would form the nucleus of the San Francisco Poetry Renaissance, a movement that would morph into what came to be known as “The Beat Generation.” Rexroth helped introduce the work of Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Denise Levertov, LeRoi Jones, and Philip Whalen. He introduced his own poetry readings by telling the audience, “I write poetry to seduce women and to overthrow the capitalist system. In that order.” He was married four times, once to two women simultaneously.

Rexroth wrote more than 50 collections of poetry, essays, and translations, including Bird in the Bush: Obvious Essays (1959) and Sacramental Acts: The Love Poems (1997). At the end of his life, he was considered one of the finest love poets in world.

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