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Archive for November, 2009

Gottfried Benn (1886-1956)

They Are Human After All

They are human after all, you think,
as the waiter steps up to a table
out of sight of you,
reserved, corner table—
they too are thin-skinned and pleasure-seeking,
with their own feelings and their own sufferings.

You’re not so all alone
in your mess, your restlessness, your shakes,
they too will be full of doubt, dither, shilly-shallying,
even if it’s all about making deals,
the universal-human
albeit in its commercial manifestations,
but present there too.

Truly, the grief of hearts is ubiquitous
and unending,
but whether they were ever in love
(outwith the awful wedded bed)
burning, athirst, desert-parched
for the nectar of a faraway
mouth,
sinking, drowning
in the impossibility of a union of souls—

you won’t know, nor can you
ask the waiter,
who’s just ringing up
another bock,
always avid for coupons
to quench a thirst of another nature,
though also deep.

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Frans Eemil Sillanpää (Finland, 1888-1964)

The following is from the book Christmas in Scandinavia, edited by Sven H. Rossel and Bo Elbrond-Bek and translated by David W. Colbert:

A Farm Owner’s Christmas Eve

Finnish novelist Frans Eemil Sillanpää received the Nobel Prize in literature in 1939. Sillanpää gained international recognition with the naturalistic novel from the bloody Finnish civil war of 1918, Hurskas Kurjuss (1919: Meek Heritage). His following novels are characterized by a more poetic mood. They are set in the countryside, and the narrative, often focusing on love and sexuality as the ruling forces of human life, is framed by sensitive descriptions of nature.

Visti-Mina, an elderly woman and mistress and owner of the freehold farm Visti, assessed at 0.003 of a holding, had been awakened by the cat’s mewing, and in letting it out she noticed that it was rather cold in the room; even without looking she could tell that the water was frozen in the water cask by the door. And how might the poor little girl be doing, then? But she was still sleeping soundly in the middle of the bed under half the quilt. It had been necessary to move her sleeping space farther down, away from the right side of the bedstead. If Mina had her lying right alongside her, then she would kick all night against Mina’s sensitive midriff. She is Ida’s daughter, Mina is the child’s maternal grandmother. God only knows where Ida herself is gadding about …

These dry sticks and twigs up in the chimney vault were really true treasures on a winter’s morning; they were almost like edible delicacies. When you put them on the hearth under the trivet, they caught fire at once, and with their help you could then also get the damp firewood smoldering. And the coffee simmered, its fragrance filling the room, which was warmed bit by bit. The windowpanes, which just now were coated with a thick crust of ice, were already beginning to thaw on their uppermost edges; while the coffee was settling Mina could peer through the thawed-out spots to the yard, where a reddish-yellow December morning had just dawned. From the farms the smoke was rising straight up to the sky, and she thought she heard the crunch of sleigh runners. Now look how long I’ve slept.—Well, and then it’s Christmas Even, too, by golly!—Up with you in a hurry lass!

From under the covers two little eyes were opened and aimed at the room and at Mina, whose familiar features quickly dispelled the memory of the tangled splendors of the child’s dreams. The blazing fire in the fireplace, the frozen windowpanes, and the confidently puttering old woman gave the child’s mind full compensation, auguring a long, clear day with thousands of adventures.
………………………………………

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Archibald MacLeish (1892-1982) won the Pulitzer for his book: Conquistador

From Conquistador

Dedication

“O frati,” dissi, “che per cento milia
Perigli siete giunti all’ occidente.”

(“O brothers,” I said, “who through a hundred thousand/Perils have reached the West.” The speaker is Ulysses, encouraging his shipmates to continue with their last voyage of exploration from Ithaca westward, as reported by himself to Dante in hell. They ultimately discovered a new land in the west, but were wrecked before reaching it.)

The Divine Comedy
Inferno, canto XXVI, lines 112-113

Prologue

And the way goes on in the worn earth;
and we (others)—
What are the dead to us in our better fortune?
They have left us the roads made and the walls standing:
They have left us the chairs in the rooms:

What is there more of them—
Either their words in the stone or their graves in the land
Or the rusted tang in the turf-roof where they fought—
Has truth against us?
(And another man

Where the wild geese rise from the Michigan the water
Veering the clay bluff: in another wind. . . .)

Surely the will of God in the earth alters:
Time done is dark as are sleep’s thickets:
Dark is the past: none waking walk there:
Neither may live men of those waters drink:

And their speech they have left upon the coins to mock us:
And the weight of their skulls at our touch is a shuck’s weight:
And their rains are dry and the sound of their leaves fallen:

(We have still the sun and the green places)
And they care nothing for living men: and the honey of
Sun is slight in their teeth as a seed’s taste—

What are the dead to us in the world’s wonder?
Why (and again now) on their shadowy beaches
Pouring before them the slow painful blood

Do we return to force the truthful speech of them
Shrieking like snipe along their gusty sand
And stand: and as the dark ditch fills beseech them

(Reaching across the surf their fragile hands) to
Speak to us?
as by that other ocean
The elder shadows to the sea-borne man

Guarding the ram’s flesh and the bloody dole . . . .
Speak to me Conquerors!
But not as they!
bring not those others with you whose new-closed

(O Brothers! Bones now in the witless rain!)
And weeping eyes remember living men:
(Not Anticlea! Not Elpenor’s face!)

Bring not among you hither the new dead—
Lest they should wake and the unwilling lids
Open and know me—and the not-known end! . . . .

And Sándoval comes first and the Pálos wind
Stirs in the young hair: and the smoky candle
Shudders the sick face and the fevered skin:

And still the dead feet come: And Alvarádo
Clear in that shadow as a faggot kindled:
The brave one: stupid: and the face he had

Shining with good looks: his skin pink:
His legs warped at the knee like the excellent horseman;
And gentleman’s ways and the tail of the sword swinging:

And Olíd the good fighter: his face coarse;
His teeth clean as a dog’s: the lip wrinkled:
Oléa—so do the winds follow unfortune—

Oléa with the blade drawn and the clinging
Weeds about him and the broken hands:
And still they come: and from the shadow fixes

Eyes against me a mute armored man
Staring as wakened sleeper into embers:
This is Cortés that took the famous land:

The eye-holes narrow to the long night’s ebbing:
The grey skin crawls beneath the scanty beard:
Neither the eyes nor the sad mouth remember:

Other and nameless are these shadows here
Cold in the little light as winter crickets:
Torpid with old death: under sullen years

Numb as pale spiders in the blind leaves hidden:
These to the crying voices do not stir:
So still are trees the climbing stars relinquish:

And last and through the weak dead comes—the uncertain
Fingers before him on the sightless air—
An old man speaking: and the wind-blown words

Blur and the mouth moves and before the staring
Eyes go shadows of that ancient time:
So does a man speak from the dream that bears his

Sleeping body with it and the cry
Comes from a great way off as over water—
As the sea-bell’s that the veering wind divides:

(And the sound runs on the valleys of the water: )

And the light returns as in past time
as in evenings
Distant with yellow summer on the straw—
As the light in America comes: without leaves . . . .

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At work this week we were discussing Christmas movies. Many came to mind: Christmas in Connecticut with Barbara Stanwyck, The Bishop’s Wife with Loretta Young, White Christmas with Rosemary Clooney, The Bells of St. Mary’s with Ingrid Bergman, Holiday Inn, Miracle on 34th St., It’s A Wonderful Life.

Something about the final scene in A Christmas Memory by Truman Capote captures memories I have about Memphis and the woman who helped raise me and places and people there I still feel connected to even though I will never see them again. She was just as kind and loving to me as the character of Geraldine Paige is in Capote’s story and just as much fun to be with.

When my family and I would decorate the Christmas tree each year, I’d pull out all our old Christmas albums. Songs by Barbara Streisand, Bing Crosby and Doris Day filled our living room as we scooted around boxes to wind strings of lights around the tree. My mother made cinnamon cake, while my father and I loaded the tree with ornaments and silver tinsel and made runs to and from the drugstore for replacement bulbs.

Years later after I left home and was divorced, I celebrated Christmas one year by placing an ornament on a tree by an open space trail I hiked on in Boulder. Over the next few weeks, more ornaments began to appear, all angels. The local paper wrote a story about The Angel Tree, and there were debates and editorials about whether the ornaments should be allowed and the defacement of public land and who started it. The controversy even made a blip on national news.

Rosemary Clooney and Bing Crosby in White Christmas

One night the ornaments were stolen. They were found later in a garbage can on the downtown mall. Since The Camera had been covering the story, the ornaments were left at the newspaper and people could retrieve them there if they wanted. My ornament was a porcelain silhouette of my own face my mother had made of me as a child, so I went down to the paper to claim it.

When I sat at the reporter’s desk, he asked me if I knew who started the tree, and I told him no and then he asked if I believed in angels. I hesitated at first. I was working as a journalist myself then at a local magazine and had a sense whatever I said was going to appear as a pullquote in the story the next morning. I finally told him I believed people were angels. There are people walking around who look human but are really angels in disguise, I said. I don’t remember what chapter and verse that comes from in the Bible anymore, but that was the pullquote that appeared in the story the next day.

Donna Reed, Jimmy Stewart and Karolyn Grimes in It's a wonderful Life

This year as Christmas approaches, I’d do anything to decorate a tree with my parents again and listen to a 1967 version of Streisand sing I Wonder As I Wander. When I watched Geraldine Paige in this final scene of A Christmas Memory last night talk about seeing the Lord, I realized something about Christmas I never have before. The holiday is more about the faces and occurrences in our everyday lives than it is about the silver tinsel and traditions of our childhoods.

I think that’s what struck a nerve in people about The Angel Tree. It was  such a simple gesture. I put that angel on the tree as a possibility of hope or love in my life during a time I felt very alone, separate from the living rooms and Christmas trees I saw through the windows I passed, full of colored lights and wonder and permanence.

When the other angel ornaments began to appear in their various shapes and sizes, they looked like fellow travelers, strays left at the bottom of the box who were also looking for a home. I imagined children hiking with their parents who wanted to place an ornament on the tree or people like me who lived alone and wanted to feel part of a larger community effort.

Christmas, I’m reminded again, is not the elaborate traditions we celebrate with our families each year either joyfully or reluctantly. It is something much more ordinary and plain. It is that person we find in life who knows us and listens to us and accepts us for who we are. That is the most enchanting thing in the world. So many people are searching for that. There’s something so pure and childlike in that need. It shines like a star in the tops of all our trees. It is the angel we are all looking for.

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Pearl S. Buck (USA, 1892-1973) The truly creative mind in any field is no more than this: A human creature born abnormally, inhumanely sensitive. To them... a touch is a blow, a sound is a noise, a misfortune is a tragedy, a joy is an ecstasy, a friend is a lover, a lover is a god, and failure is death. Add to this cruelly delicate organism the overpowering necessity to create, create, create -- so that without the creating of music or poetry or books or buildings or something of meaning, their very breath is cut off... They must create, must pour out creation. By some strange, unknown, inward urgency they are not really alive unless they are creating."

Pearl S. Buck (1892-1973) is the first American woman to win the Nobel Prize and the first woman to win both the Nobel and Pulitzer prizes. She won both awards for her book The Good Earth, published in 1931, which revolves around family life in a Chinese village before the 1949 Revolution.

Here are two quotes from the novel: “There was only this perfect sympathy of movement, of turning this earth of theirs over and over to the sun, this earth which formed their home and fed their bodies and made their gods…Some time, in some age, bodies of men and women had been buried there, houses had stood there, had fallen, and gone back into the earth. So would also their house, some time, return into the earth, their bodies also. Each had his turn at this earth. They worked on, moving together-together-producing the fruit of this earth.”

“As he had been healed of his sickness of heart when he came from the southern city and comforted by the bitterness he had endured there, so now again Wang Lung was healed of his sickness of love by the good dark earth of his fields and he felt the moist soil on his feet and he smelled the earthy fragrance rising up out of the furrows he turned for the wheat.”

Buck is also known for her humanitarian work: “In 1949, outraged that existing adoption services considered Asian and mixed-race children unadoptable, Pearl established Welcome House Inc., the first international, interracial adoption agency. In nearly five decades of work, Welcome House has placed over five thousand children. In 1964, to support children who were not eligible for adoption, Buck established the Pearl S. Buck Foundation to ‘address poverty and discrimination faced by children in Asian countries.’ In 1965, she opened the Opportunity Center and Orphanage in South Korea, and later offices were opened in Thailand, the Philippines, and Vietnam. When establishing Opportunity House, Buck said, “The purpose…is to publicize and eliminate injustices and prejudices suffered by children, who, because of their birth, are not permitted to enjoy the educational, social, economic and civil privileges normally accorded to children.” (source Wiki). The Pearl S. Buck International Web site can be found at www.psbi.org.

Here are the opening paragraphs from her biography, Pearl S. Buck, A Cultural Biography, written by Peter Conn and published in 1996: In April, 1899, six-year-old Pearl Sydenstricker wrote a letter from Chinkiang, China, to the editor of the Christian Observer, in Louisville, Kentucky. It was her first published writing, and it appeared under the headline “Our Real Home in Heaven”:

‘I am a little girl, six years old. I live in China. I have a big brother in college who is coming to China to help our father tell the Chinese about Jesus. I have two little brothers in heaven. Maudie went first, then Artie, then Edith, and on the tenth of last month my little brave brother, Clyde left us to go to our real home in heaven. Clyde said he was a Christian Soldier, and that heaven was his bestest home. Clyde was four years old, and we both love the little letters in the Observer. I wrote this all myself, and my hand is tired, so goodbye….’

As an adult, she would completely reject the religion in which she was raised, but it was the source of everything she learned about values as a child. Living in a small Chinese city, she was separated from her own country and its culture almost from birth….In the end, Pearl was inevitably shaped by both her parents. She rejected her father’s religious beliefs and his narrow-mindedness, but she inherited his evangelical zeal, his sense of rectitude, his passion for learning. Though she stopped believing in Christian ideas of salvation, she became, in effect, a secular missionary, bringing the gospels of civil rights and cross-cultural understanding to people on two continents.

Here is a clip from the 1937 film:

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Pearl S. Buck (USA, 1892-1973) The truly creative mind in any field is no more than this: A human creature born abnormally, inhumanely sensitive. To them... a touch is a blow, a sound is a noise, a misfortune is a tragedy, a joy is an ecstasy, a friend is a lover, a lover is a god, and failure is death. Add to this cruelly delicate organism the overpowering necessity to create, create, create -- so that without the creating of music or poetry or books or buildings or something of meaning, their very breath is cut off... They must create, must pour out creation. By some strange, unknown, inward urgency they are not really alive unless they are creating.

Pearl S. Buck (1892-1973) is the first American woman to win the Nobel Prize and the first woman to win both the Nobel and Pulitzer prizes. She won both awards for her book The Good Earth, published in 1931, which revolves around family life in a Chinese village before the 1949 Revolution.

Here are two quotes from the novel: “There was only this perfect sympathy of movement, of turning this earth of theirs over and over to the sun, this earth which formed their home and fed their bodies and made their gods…Some time, in some age, bodies of men and women had been buried there, houses had stood there, had fallen, and gone back into the earth. So would also their house, some time, return into the earth, their bodies also. Each had his turn at this earth. They worked on, moving together-together-producing the fruit of this earth.”

“As he had been healed of his sickness of heart when he came from the southern city and comforted by the bitterness he had endured there, so now again Wang Lung was healed of his sickness of love by the good dark earth of his fields and he felt the moist soil on his feet and he smelled the earthy fragrance rising up out of the furrows he turned for the wheat.”

Buck is also known for her humanitarian work: “In 1949, outraged that existing adoption services considered Asian and mixed-race children unadoptable, Pearl established Welcome House Inc., the first international, interracial adoption agency. In nearly five decades of work, Welcome House has placed over five thousand children. In 1964, to support children who were not eligible for adoption, Buck established the Pearl S. Buck Foundation to ‘address poverty and discrimination faced by children in Asian countries.’ In 1965, she opened the Opportunity Center and Orphanage in South Korea, and later offices were opened in Thailand, the Philippines, and Vietnam. When establishing Opportunity House, Buck said, “The purpose…is to publicize and eliminate injustices and prejudices suffered by children, who, because of their birth, are not permitted to enjoy the educational, social, economic and civil privileges normally accorded to children.” (source Wiki). The Pearl S. Buck International Web site can be found at www.psbi.org.

Here are the opening paragraphs from her biography, Pearl S. Buck, A Cultural Biography, written by Peter Conn published in 1996: In April, 1899, six-year-old Pearl Sydenstricker wrote a letter from Chinkiang, China, to the editor of the Christian Observer, in Louisville, Kentucky. It was her first published writing, and it appeared under the headline “Our Real Home in Heaven”:

‘I am a little girl, six years old. I live in China. I have a big brother in college who is coming to China to help our father tell the Chinese about Jesus. I have two little brothers in heaven. Maudie went first, then Artie, then Edith, and on the tenth of last month my little brave brother, Clyde left us to go to our real home in heaven. Clyde said he was a Christian Soldier, and that heaven was his bestest home. Clyde was four years old, and we both love the little letters in the Observer. I wrote this all myself, and my hand is tired, so goodbye….’

As an adult, she would completely reject the religion in which she was raised, but it was the source of everything she learned about values as a child. Living in a small Chinese city, she was separated from her own country and its culture almost from birth….In the end, Pearl was inevitably shaped by both her parents. She rejected her father’s religious beliefs and his narrow-mindedness, but she inherited his evangelical zeal, his sense of rectitude, his passion for learning. Though she stopped believing in Christian ideas of salvation, she became, in effect, a secular missionary, bringing the gospels of civil rights and cross-cultural understanding to people on two continents.

Here is a clip from the 1937 film:

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George Dillon (1906-1968) won the Pulitzer for his book: The Flowering Stone. Here he is in Paris, 1944, after he broadcast news of the liberation of the Eiffel Tower.

One Beauty

I

One beauty still is faultless; not
Deflowered in the bed of thought:
It is a sound of sunken seas.
It is an avid wish for ease.
It is the earth, it is the sky
When passion is a lute put by
And life a dancer out of breath.
It is the lovely face of death,
Adored and guessed at—never once
Beheld in chrysoprase or bronze;
Not in the temple or the grove,
Not in a hundred nights of love.

This was the morning sun, the wild
Daybreak of anguish in the child.
This is the sun at noon no less,
Deep in the dome of nothingness.
Wherefore, impoverished heart, be proud
To wear the purple of the shroud.
If you are friendless, take for friend
The noble wave, the affluent wind.
If you are homeless, do not care:
Inhabit the bright house of air.

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