Sunday Apr. 16, 2017

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Returning Home in Winter

I open the door as my wife steps
from the bath into the cold air,
goose bumps on her skin.
She wraps a towel around herself,
sees me watching, and unwraps it.
When she smiles, her breath rises.

The shadow of the bamboo sweeps
across the steps without stirring
the dusting of snow and we leave
no tracks as we climb the stairs
and fall into bed. The blackbird too
has a shadow. It crosses the sky
on winter afternoons, the sharp light
in the icicles hanging from the eaves.

In the lower corner of the old Chinese paintings,
a hermit or wandering monk sits at the base
of a mountain, his long hair dirty and his clothes torn.
Before him, the leafless branches of the trees wave.

Such a painting hangs near the stove
where my wife, now dressed,
sits brushing her hair.
I add wood to the fire.

“Returning Home in Winter” by David Romtvedt from Dilemmas of the Angels. © Louisiana State University Press, 2017. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

Today is the day millions of people around the world celebrate Easter, when it’s believed that Jesus was resurrected from the dead after his crucifixion at Calvary. The New Testament says this happened on the third day of his burial. Easter is preceded by Lent, a 40-day period of fasting, penance, and prayer.

It’s the birthday of Irish author John Millington Synge (books by this author), born in Rathfarnham, near Dublin, in 1871. He completed only six plays before his untimely death of cancer at the age of 37.

He considered it his first serious work, and he came to believe that under their Catholic exterior, the Irish rural poor still maintained a healthy dose of old-fashioned paganism. His time in the islands inspired his later plays, including In the Shadow of the Glen (1903), Riders to the Sea (1904), and The Well of the Saints (1905).

He’s perhaps best known for The Playboy of the Western World (1907). It’s the story of a peasant boy who becomes famous in his village after he boasts of killing his father, but ends in disgrace when it turns out his supposed victim is very much alive. Synge wrote the play in English, but used the rhythms and structure of Irish Gaelic. The play opened to riots at the Abbey Theatre; Irish nationalists didn’t like the image of their countrymen celebrating a murderer, braggart, and buffoon, nor did they think that Irish plays should be written in English, the language of the oppressor. Catholics were offended at the Protestant playwright’s portrayal of Catholic peasants. Nationalists called it “a vile and inhuman story told in the foulest language we have ever listened to from a public platform.” The Irish Times wrote: “It is as if a mirror were held up to our faces and we found ourselves hideous. We fear to face the thing. We scream.” Irish Americans also rioted at its openings in New York, Boston, and Philadelphia.

In 1909, Synge learned that the Hodgkin’s disease — which he had first been diagnosed with in 1897 — was no longer treatable. He began his seventh play, Deirdre of the Sorrows, as he was recovering from his last surgery. He died before it was finished.

Five years ago today, in 2012, the Pulitzer Prize committee announced that it would award no fiction prize. The three-member fiction jury reviewed more than 300 novels and story collections, but first they agreed on a few parameters, as described by jury member Michael Cunningham: “We would not favor writers for their obscurity (who doesn’t love an undiscovered genius?), or penalize them for their exalted reputations. We would tend to favor the grand, flawed effort over the exquisitely crafted miniature. We preferred visionary explorers to modest gardeners, and declared ourselves willing to forgive certain shortcomings or overreachings in a writer who was clearly attempting to accomplish more than can technically be done using only ink and paper.” The jury presented the committee with their three finalists: The Pale King by David Foster Wallace, Train Dreams by Denis Johnson, and Swamplandia! by Karen Russell. The committee has always had the option of requesting a fourth book, if they don’t like any of the three finalists, but they did not do so in 2012. Their deliberations are sealed, so no one knows exactly why they opted not to award the prize. It was the ninth time that a fiction prize has not been awarded.

It’s the birthday of writer and teacher Carol Bly (books by this author), born in Duluth, Minnesota (1930). Bly set her stories in her own home state of Minnesota, where she lived for some time with her husband, the poet Robert Bly.

During their marriage, which lasted from 1955 to 1979, the Blys’ farmstead became an international destination for writers. Carol raised their children at home, but kept notebooks the whole time. After the couple’s divorce, she moved to St. Paul to begin writing more seriously. According to Robert, Carol “was a light, a fire, for all those people wandering around the prairie.”

She claimed to write fiction “because people touched her,” and nonfiction “because the world was too mean, and needed fixing up.” Aside from her writing, Carol Bly kept up with a myriad of hobbies. She studied Icelandic, knit, played the violin, and planted hundreds of oaks for her grandkids.

Bly’s writing often tackled moral and social issues. In 2004, she and a friend began producing booklets under their own press about issues like violent TV programming, idle clergymen, and the peer review process of creative writing.

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