A Poem for a Thursday #8

Most summers for the last ten years or so we have rented a farmhouse in New York for a week during the summer. (A post I wrote about it is here.)  We love it. It is on 70 acres with fields, woods, a stream, and a pond. It is a week of quiet and nature and peaceful joy. We weren't able to go this year but today's poem reminds me of just how wonderful it is and of the early morning joy of a walk up by the pond. Maybe next year...

At Great Pond
the sun, rising,
scrapes his orange breast
on the thick pines,
and down tumble
a few orange feathers into
the dark water.
On the far shore
a white bird is standing
like a white candle --
or a man, in the distance,
in the clasp of some meditation --
while all around me the lilies
are breaking open again
from the black cave 
of the night.
Later, I will consider
what I have seen --
what it could signify --
what words of adoration I might
make of it, and to do this
I will go indoors to my desk --
I will sit in my chair --
I will look back 
into the lost morning
in which I am moving, now,
like a swimmer,
so smoothly,
so peacefully,
I am almost the lily --
almost the bird vanishing over the water
on its sleeves of night.

At Great Pond
Mary Oliver

Books to Read in the Winter

It snowed the other day so I pulled The Long Winter by Laura Ingalls Wilder off my shelf. Obviously. It is the book I think of when I think of a winter story. When I was a child I was fascinated by the idea of twisting hay into sticks to burn in the stove, by snowstorms so deep they had to tunnel their way to the barn, and by Cap Garland and Almanzo Wilder's expedition to find wheat for the starving town. No matter how bad our winter is it will never be as bad as the one the Ingalls family lived through. The worst that will happen is that I will be stuck at home for a day or so, curled up on the couch with a stack of books by my side. And honestly, that sounds blissful. I browsed through my shelves yesterday trying to pick my next book and pulled a pile of books off that I would like to read over the next little while. Winter is the perfect time to read big, fat books that require a little more dedication.

The first book I selected is Prairie Fires:  The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder by Caroline Fraser. This won the Pulitzer Prize for biography and I have wanted to read it for a while. The Little House books are a huge part of my reading identity and I love them dearly. I was concerned Fraser would tear apart the books I love so much but an article in The New York Times said:

Rather than driving "Little House" fans to distraction by diminishing or disparaging the literature they treasure, Fraser declares her respect and affection for it. As the "most unnerving, original, and profound of all her books," Fraser declares, "'Little House on the Prairie' endures as a classic work." "The Long Winter," in Fraser's judgement, was "Wilder's hard-won, mature masterpiece in which expertise accumulated over a long apprenticeship was paying off.

 I said winter is the perfect time for big, fat books and A Notable Woman:  The romantic journals of Jean Lucey Pratt definitely qualifies as a big, fat book. I love reading diaries and this is described as "a unique slice of living breathing British history and a revealing private chronicle of life in the twentieth century."  Jean wrote over a million words over the course of her life and no one knew until after her death. Don't you wonder about who else is a secret diarist who has written gripping accounts of their own lives that no one ever reads?

The Heat of the Day by Elizabeth Bowen is one of those books I have been saving for just the right time. I have read nothing but rave reviews of it. It is supposed to perfectly capture the atmosphere of London during the Blitz and is regularly referenced as one of the great wartime novels. It sounds like it should be absolutely perfect for me and I am almost afraid to read it in case it isn't as good as I expect.

A cold winter's day can be the perfect time to sink into a family saga and R.F. Delderfield is so good at family sagas. I have read a few of his books now and have been caught up in every one. God is an Englishman is the first in a trilogy about the Swann family. Adam Swann is "the scion of an army family, who has seen active service in the Crimea and India, and who determines to make his fortune and found his own dynasty in the ruthless world of Victorian commerce." I don't own the third book in this series and I probably should buy it right away. I know once I start the first one I am just going to want to keep going.

The last book in my stack is The Marches: Border Walks With My Father by Rory Stewart. This is an account of the 600-mile long journey Rory Stewart and his father took along the Marches--the border between England and Scotland. It seems to be about relationships, history, and the landscape. It sounds like the perfect thing to read when it is too cold outside to do anything. I can sit on the couch, sip tea, and pretend I am getting exercise.

I have about 25 pages left in the book I am currently reading which is An Open Book:  Coming of Age in the Heartland by Michael Dirda. This is about his life, reading and personal, instead of being specifically about books but I am enjoying it. As usual, I am left feeling singularly uneducated but anything Dirda writes has that effect on me. One of his chapter headings is a quote by Henry James. I liked it so I am sticking it in this post.

Remember that every life is a special problem, which is not yours but another's; and content yourself with the terrible algebra of your own. 

Twenty-five pages won't take me very long and I am going to have to pick another book from this list. Any guesses which it will be?

A Poem for a Thursday #7

Photo by Chris Lawton on Unsplash

Czeslaw Milosz was a Polish poet who won the Nobel prize for Literature in 1980. He wrote in Polish and then he and others translated his poetry into English. He "wrote of the past in a tragic, ironic style that nonetheless affirmed the value of human life." His poem "And yet the books" will appeal to any book lover.

And yet the books will be there on the shelves, separate beings,
That appeared once, still wet
As shining chestnuts under a tree in autumn,
And, touched, coddled, began to live
In spite of fires on the horizon, castles blown up,
Tribes on the march, planets in motion.
"We are," they said, even as their pages
Were being torn out, or a buzzing flame
Licked away their letters. So much more durable
Than we are, whose frail warmth
Cools down with memory, disperses, perishes.
I imagine the earth when I am no more:
Nothing happens, no loss, it's still a strange pageant,
Women's dresses, dewy lilacs, a song in the valley.
Yet the books will be there on the shelves, well born,
Derived from people, but also from radiance, heights.

And yet the books
Czeslaw Milosz

A Poem for a Thursday #6

I mentioned in my last post that I was reading The G.I.'s: The Americans in Britain, 1942-1945. When I was looking for a poem for today's post I started wondering about the poets who were writing during WWII. E.E. Cummings was an American poet who wrote almost 3,000 poems. He used unusual syntax and a lot of lower-case spelling. Norman Friedman, who wrote a book about Cummings, said that Cummings' innovations "are best understood as various ways of stripping the film of familiarity from language in order to strip the film of familiarity from the world. Transform the word, he seems to have felt, and you are on the way to transforming the world." Cummings was of fighting age during WWI.  He did write poetry during WWII. The poem I am using here was written in July 1943 and has a feeling of dread about it that must have been common at the time.

what if a much of a which of a wind
gives the truth to summer's lie;
bloodies with dizzying leaves the sun
 and yanks immortal stars awry?
Blow king to beggar and queen to seem
(blow friend to fiend:  blow space to time)
--when skies are hanged and oceans drowned,
the single secret will still be man

what if a keen of a lean wind flays
screaming hills with sleet and snow:
strangles valleys by ropes of thing
and stifles forests in white ago?
Blow hope to terror; blow seeing to blind
(blow pity to envy and soul to mind)
--whose hearts are mountains, roots are trees,
it's they shall cry hello to the spring

what if a dawn of a doom of a dream
bites this universe in two,
peels forever out of his grave
and sprinkles nowhere with me and you?
Blow soon to never and never to twice
(blow life to isn't:  blow death to was)
--all nothing's only our hugest home;
the most who die, the more we live

what if a much of a which

e.e. cummings

A Peaceful Afternoon

It is late Tuesday afternoon and pouring down rain outside. I have a fresh cup of tea by my side and a cheesy ham and potato soup in the crockpot. My husband is sitting on the couch reading the news and feeling a little bored which I view as a good sign. Boredom is an indication he is getting better. My daughter is home from school with a cold and she has dragged her brother downstairs to play video games with her. Not all of that sounds good--the cold, my husband's accident-but somehow it is all contributing to a peaceful afternoon. I have to go out again later but for now, I am just going to revel in the peace and quiet.

I am currently reading The G.I.'s: The Americans in Britain, 1942-1945 by Norman Longmate. I have an ongoing interest in life during WWII. Most of the books I have read have been about life on the Home Front in Britain. This is a fascinating account of the arrival of the Americans in Britain and how the two countries reacted to one another. Two million American soldiers were stationed in Britain during the war and the two countries learned a lot from each other. I find the differences in the cultures absolutely fascinating. The book is full of reminiscences and first-hand accounts from the G.I.'s and the  British people who encountered them. I am about halfway through it right now and highly recommend it. I have also read How We Lived Then by Longmate which is just as interesting.

I ordered a couple of books at the beginning of the month, I always do, and I just got a notification that one book is no longer available and my money is being refunded. Obviously, that means I need to buy another book to replace it. At least books are cheaper than the perfect wool dress coat for under $200.00 that I am currently looking for. It can't be black, it needs to be knee length, and it has to look modern and fun while still being classic. I don't ask too much, do I? Maybe I should just go back to buying books.

Isn't the teapot in the photo pretty? A friend showed up with a gift bag full of goodies for me--the teapot and cups, chocolate, cocoa mix, cookies, tea, and an entire flourless chocolate cake. She said she knew my husband was the one who was hurt but she thought I needed some comfort too. It was so sweet of her. I did share the cake with my family but the chocolate bar I hid away and I don't intend to share it though I should probably eat it soon before someone finds my hiding place.

We might get snow on Thursday. Maybe it will be another afternoon of books, tea, chocolate, and soup. I wouldn't mind that at all.

A Poem for a Thursday #5

Photo by Jordan Bauer on Unsplash
Carol Ann Duffy is a Scottish poet and playwright. She was appointed Britain's Poet Laureate in May of 2009. In describing her own writing she says she "likes to use simple words, but in a complicated way."  Here is a poem about Anne Hathaway, Shakespeare's wife, to whom he willed his second best bed.

"Item I gyve unto my wief my second best bed...'
(from Shakespeare's will)

The bed we loved in was a spinning world
of forests, castles,, torchlight, cliff-tops, seas
where he could dive for pearls. My lover's words
were shooting stars which fell to earth as kisses
on these lips; my body now a softer rhyme
to his, now echo, assonance; his touch
a verb dancing in the centre of a noun.
Some nights I dreamed he'd written me, the bed
a page beneath his writer's hands. Romance
and drama played by touch, by scent, by taste.
In the other bed, the best, our guests dozed on,
dribbling their prose. My living laughing love -
I hold him in the casket of my widow's head
as he held me upon that next best bed.

Anne Hathaway
Carol Ann Duffy

In Which I Cope With Life by Buying Books

Some people have practical reactions to stress. They go for a run. They clean their house. They garden. I, however, buy books. Actually, I buy books and eat sweets. My friends and family have been providing a steady stream of sweet treats since my husband was injured. In the last two weeks, we have been given multiple boxes of chocolate, lots of cookies, lemon bars, apple pie, flourless chocolate cake, carrot cake, and chocolate-covered fruit. Maybe I should go for a run instead of sitting on my couch and ordering more books. Maybe tomorrow...

In the meantime, I have been doing an excellent job comforting myself with books as you can see from the photo above. I have a few more ordered that have not shown up yet. I know it isn't particularly easy to see the titles in the photo but the weather is not cooperating for photos and, to be honest, I just gave up. I'll list them for anyone interested.

A Kind of Magic by Edna Ferber. This is the second volume of her autobiography. I read the first volume a month or so ago.

Darkness Falls From the Air by Nigel Balchin. I listened to a Backlisted podcast about this and the enthusiasm was so contagious I immediately bought it. I think the episode was from a while ago but I just got around to listening to it. Books set during WWII are definitely my thing.

A Woman's War by Frances Donaldson. The diaries of a woman during WWII. Of course I bought it.

A Soldier's Letters by Jack Donaldson. This is a very slim volume but it is the letters of Frances Donaldson's husband. It seemed necessary.

Pastoral by Nevil Shute. I read A Town Like Alice earlier this year and loved it. I  have gone on to read a few other books by Shute and this is up next.

The Go-Between by L.P. Hartley. I read The Boat by Hartley a while ago and enjoyed it. This is a book that everyone seems to know about but somehow I never heard of it. I am making up for lost time.

What Matters in Jane Austen? Twenty Crucial Puzzles Solved by John Mullan. Because if you are stressed and tired then obviously the only thing to do is read Jane Austen. Which I did. I just finished rereading Northanger Abbey for the five millionth time. When you have done that the next step is to buy a book about Jane Austen. If that doesn't help with stress then I don't know what will.

The Murrow Boys: Pioneers on the Front Lines of Broadcast Journalism by Lynne Olson. I read Citizens of London by Olson recently and found it fascinating. I wanted to read more about Edward Murrow and the other journalist who became famous for their coverage of WWII.

An Open Book by Michael Dirda. I have loved everything I have read by Dirda. His bookish enthusiasm is a joy and a pleasure.

That is it. For now. My husband is doing better but his recovery is going to take a while. I see more stress--and more book purchases--in my future.

A Poem for a Thursday #4

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Wislawa Szymborska was a Polish poet and essayist who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1996 among many other honors. An article in The New York Times described her as living "a life of quiet amazement, reflected in poems that are both plain-spoken and luminous." This poem, a lovely description of the joy of writing, is a wonderful example of the imagination and deft touch evident in  so much of her work.

Why does this written doe bound these written woods?
For a drink of written water from a spring
whose surface will xerox her soft muzzle?
Why does she lift her head; does she hear something?
Perched on four slim legs borrowed from the truth,
she pricks up her ears beneath my fingertip.
Silence - this word also rustles across the page
and parts the boughs
that have sprouted from the word 'woods.'

Lying in wait, set to pounce on the blank page,
are letters up to no good,
clutches of clauses so subordinate
they'll never let her get away.

Each drop of ink contains a fair supply
of hunters, equipped with squinting eyes behind their sights,
prepared to swarm the sloping pen at any moment,
surround the doe, and slowly aim their guns.

They forget that what's here isn't life.
Other laws, black on white, obtain.
The twinkling of an eye will take as long as I say,
and will, if I wish, divide into tiny eternities,
full of bullets stopped in mid-flight.
Not a thing will ever happen unless I say so.
Without my blessing, not a leaf will fall,
not a blade of grass will bend beneath that little hoof's full stop.

Is there then a world
where I rule absolutely on fate?
A time I bind with chains of signs?
An existence become endless at my bidding?

The joy of writing.
The power of preserving.
Revenge of a mortal hand.

The Joy of Writing
Wislawa Szymborska