You would think one might plow through books during a pandemic, making the most out of quarantine and isolation. Truth be told, that’s not what this reader found to be the case. I stalled. I plodded. Mostly, I couldn’t.
While I didn’t stop reading all together, I find I have read far less books than I might have in more normal years. Hardly a day goes by where I don’t consider that, wondering what it will take to get back up to a speed to take on all the beloved unreads on my bookshelves. There’s lots of learning to do and make useful.
The way I described it early on was that I had ‘lost my metaphysics’. I couldn’t, out of habit and reflex, rely on things the way I had before. I was in a mindfog. Others described ‘languishing‘. The reliable patterns of how life was lived and days were made was gone, and something of identity and well-being along with it. Forced into the very present moment, words seem to lose their heritage, meaning and purpose. They ceased to connect. The dependable way things were failed as normal gave way to the behavior change the lethal spread of Covid demanded (and, alas, still warrants).
The very moment of quarantine shutdown, I was writing an article about an artist whose work is often commissioned for public spaces, the cover story on Katherine Tzu-Lan Mann for an issue of Little Patuxent Review. I had just finished interviewing the artist, and had the piece settled in my head. It only wanting typing out. It should have been an easy thing to do as lockdown started and I would have some time, but I started to realize that I had to write a completely different piece than what was in my mind — how does one visit and view public art when one can’t, what does that say about art and experience, what of public art and place in particular? I began to realize that the underlying foundation to what I wanted to say no longer held sway. The piece became an altogether different consideration. I was stifled and it took me a while to ‘come to terms’ and write it.
Words have definitions that come from long development and understanding (agreed upon, or not). In a sense, they are The Past, and our reliance on the past in the way we now live. They connect us in this way. Along comes the pandemic and the every day way things used to be is no longer the way things are. For me that was particularly unsettling. Pushed into the present moment, the present room, disconnected from a reliable, collective understanding/participation, I lost a structure to the way things were. I lost my metaphysics, the way I understood the world.
I balked at reading. If you know me, you know that reading has a large part to do with who I am, how I become, how I give back. That sort of stopped at the pandemic’s beginning.
Wonder-fully, it was a book on gardening that started me up again. That first summer of the pandemic, when the numbers had settled, we took a road trip to an AirBnB on the side of a Fingerlake in New York, a way to get out of our own house and the dull rigor quarantine had imposed. We picked a place we were familiar with, knew enough about to know we could keep our pandemic-safe practices, and headed out. I packed a stack of books, of course, though I probably wondered why at the time. I wasn’t reading. One of those books was Katherine White’s Onward and Upward in the Garden.
Clifftop overlooking Seneca Lake, the rustic house we stayed in had a garden, and in that a metal table surrounded by chairs. It was there I cracked open this book. I fell into its pages, its way of seeing and saying. It is a marvel. A New Yorker editor writes reviews of seed catalogues in their heyday. How could that be interesting, and why is it three hundred some pages? Every season as the catalogues came to her, Ms. White would read and review the writing, which had a literary pedigree back then. Gardeners of the world delighted; readers of the New Yorker were charmed. It is charming, bewitching, settling, especially if you look up from its pages into a garden surrounding you as you read, realizing you are in the midst of a season and its beauty and being: things are doing what they are supposed to do. Count on them. The repeating cycles of Nature. Reassuring.
Reading through the book, the years of seed catalogues, the pattern of one season after another, I shifted into a kind of Taoist appreciation of what was going on in my moment. Life from one year to the next no matter what is going on, the cliched ‘going with the flow’. Life energy moving through time, maybe not unconcerned with its particular season, but carrying on and through it, doing what life does: being and becoming. Rising to the occasion. This really was reassuring. The dread at being in the beginning of a pandemic, illness and death sweeping through, a steeped uncertainty with everything on hold, abated, and I looked to the larger patterns of Nature, the persistent force that moves through time.
It was the right book at the right time, and it helped me settle back into words, into reading, and rely on patterns of understanding that we carry along even through strife. I look to books in a know-that-you-know-nothing kind of way, hoping to learn something about being, place, and existence. This book helped me regain a sense of possible again. Odd, but there you go.
While I won’t say I am reading again at pace, I am reading more each month. I am a few books into the year already. At the moment, I am in the midst of the appropriately named Begin Again (Eddie S. Glaude Jr., 2020), what James Baldwin has to tell us about our particular time (what a book it is! but that is a different post — hoping to find the words soon to write it, but it is sending me off to read more and all of the Baldwin, and it may be a awhile).
We are still in the midst of the pandemic’s waves — they do drag on, and enough already — but we do seem to be adapting to the situation, carrying on like gardens do and remind us to do, relying on that kind of structural knowing and persistence. What a privilege reading is. While it is a frustration not to be in a mind to read for me, it is also a bit selfish and a whine to go on about it — apologies for that. Know that I am grateful for your attention. Dear reader, what books have helped you settle through these unsettling years and why?
Board Co-chair, HoCoPoLitSo
I’ll point out that Onward and Upward in the Garden deserves another kind of look, one less sentimental, the privilege of property and place offering a different, more critical regard. A post for another day. I talk of words and language as connective above, but Begin Again looks at how they do quite the opposite, as well. It is one of the reasons I put these two together here — there is so much more to reading than just the book you are in, than the perspective you bring to it, all things considered.
Rachel Eliza Griffiths is obsessed with beauty. Not in the way that Vanity Fair or Hollywood are fixated on the way a person’s body or face looks.
Instead, she says, her relationship with beauty is “complicated.”
One of her favorite quotes is from Bohemian-Austrian poet Ranier Maria Rilke: “For beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror that we are still able to bear, and we revere it so, because it calmly disdains to destroy us.”
Griffiths’s poetry, her photography, even her film-making and visual art circles around the idea of beauty warily, both drawn to it, and shy of its terror.
“For me, beautiful things involve asymmetrical words and language,” Griffiths said. “I interrogate [beauty], I ask questions. Particularly as a photographer, I’m quite adamant and vigilant about constant questioning and revising and expanding of what it means to invoke the word, and also the practice of it, and the way that it works in language and visuals will be a lifelong trial, I think.”
This Poetry Moment features an excerpt from her longer poem, “According to Beauty.” The poem is dotted with imagery not usually associated with the beautiful, and with words such as “crawled and staggered,” “shattered,” and “splattered.” Pretty is not the same as beautiful. And in Griffiths’ poem, the beautiful is equally terrifying and gorgeous.
Her poem even interrogates the random distribution of beauty: “Luck fell silently/ through the earth. / Luck crawled wherever beautiful things lived.”
With her line, “the burden of the I within/ a flawless landscape,” the poet questions even the validity of beauty.
Featured in a fashion shoot for O Magazine in 2011, Griffiths wore a canary yellow ruffled blouse and salmon-colored pencil skirt and smiled while she mimed painting words on a wall with a javelin-sized brush.
“Gazelle you are mine. Your corpse pounds into me like music,” the words on the wall read, from her poem “Ode to a Gazelle While I Bathe on Sunday Evenings.” Beautiful and terrible, just like Rilke said.
Susan Thornton Hobby
Producer, The Writing Life
For Reference only:
According to Beauty
Under midnights you came, a hunter through memory.
It was memory that could please and betray. It was memory
that crawled and staggered, staging the deaths of beautiful words.
It was memory, distressed as a mirror, which shattered smoke. Face.
It was memory that bewildered the alchemy of the real.
I could never escape midnights or the remembering.
It was memory, a voice said. The voice belonged to everyone,
which made it into thunder. It was memory waiting in a corner
like a riff of selves in the dark. I am an outlaw woman
shadow-dancing. My life too quick to bruise. What is the name for those who collect the beautiful.
My life too fast to burn. It was memory
that killed my loves, my children, shamed the old country.
The moon was involved wherever wolves hunted.
Stars were gathered. Arrows piercing my shoulder. Luck fell silently
through the earth. Luck crawled wherever beautiful things lived.
Through fields of water I wandered. Ishmael,
as I fled the whale-skull. What salt gave me at dawn.
There were colors, textures. Under the hood of irreparable delight,
adorned in moths, I arrived. What is the name
for those who collect the beautiful?
The word for the gesture of seeing
but not possessing eyes? Sight ghosted or exorcised. An eye
that blurs as the selves, the burden of the I within
a flawless landscape.
Starlings, from a dark cluster.
I stare at the way bars lengthen in moonlight
upon my bedroom floor where I danced in a wind
for your lungs. You held solace, a small yellow bird,
to my cheek until it stopped breathing.
Whispers uttered between memorize and believe.
It was memory that gave me faith then unleashed termites
in my house, my body. It was memory that held
the faces quiet. It was memory that marched and saluted
my useless authority, mocking my splattered skin.
It was memory that cried for blood
and vengeance. Against the midnights
where the shutters of the law remained latched.
And it was impossible to know whether God was
I told you once about the woman
I met, huddled by a river. Stained yet polished
by rain and music. I always wondered why
she waited for the moonlight to disappear
before she revealed her face,
pronouncing our name.
Miracle Arrhythmia, 2010.
Stanley Kunitz, the lauded poet who read and wrote and gardened until he was 100 years old, spoke truth about the world—that while we’re in the midst of being alive, we’re also on the path to our graves.
“The deepest thing I know is that I am living and dying at once, and my conviction is to report that self-dialogue,” Kunitz wrote.
This week’s Poetry Moment captures Kunitz, at age 88, reading “The Long Boat,” his poem about a Viking funeral ritual of setting the dead on a boat and sending it adrift. He visited HoCoPoLitSo audiences during the term of his second national poet laureate appointment and recorded an interview and reading.
In Norse mythology, boats represented the Vikings’ life at sea, so the dead were sometimes placed on ships and sent out to sea, or buried in grave mounds shaped like ships, outlined in stones.
At the end of a year replete with mourning, this poem seems apropos.
“The Long Boat” hovers on the perimeter between life and death, touching on what is precious about life and also what is inevitable, even peaceful, about death. By beginning with the boat leaving the shore, and speaking in the voice of the dead man, the poem allows readers to feel great nostalgia and reluctance on leaving the world of the living, but also the contentment of slipping into death. The Viking’s burial ship is also his cradle, rocked by the waves.
Kunitz, who won the Pulitzer at age 54 and a National Book Award for work published when he was 90, said he believed the secrets to his longevity were writing poetry, being curious, digging in his garden, and drinking martinis. But it’s through his writing that readers understand the deep beliefs he held about the importance of poetry, but also the sacred nature of life.
“The poem comes in the form of a blessing—‘like rapture breaking on the mind,’ as I tried to phrase it in my youth,” Kunitz wrote in his preface to Through: Later Poems, New and Selected. “Through the years I have found this gift of poetry to be life-sustaining, life-enhancing, and absolutely unpredictable. Does one live, therefore, for the sake of poetry? No, the reverse is true: poetry is for the sake of the life.”
Susan Thornton Hobby
Producer, The Writing Life
For reference only:
The Long Boat
by Stanley Kunitz
When his boat snapped loose
from its mooring, under
the screaking of the gulls,
he tried at first to wave
to his dear ones on shore,
but in the rolling fog
they had already lost their faces.
Too tired even to choose
between jumping and calling,
somehow he felt absolved and free
of his burdens, those mottoes
stamped on his name-tag:
conscience, ambition, and all
that caring.He was content to lie down
with the family ghosts
in the slop of his cradle,
buffeted by the storm,
To be rocked by the Infinite!
As if it didn’t matter
which way was home;
as if he didn’t know
he loved the earth so much
he wanted to stay forever.
From Passing Through, 1995.
“Oseberg Ship III” by A.Davey
Caption: In 1904, just a year before poet Stanley Kunitz was born, this Viking burial ship was discovered in a burial mound with two female skeletons and ritual funeral goods on board. It dates from before the year 800. The oak ship is displayed at the Viking Ship Museum in Norway.
“On Stanley Kunitz” by ChrisL_AK is licensed under Creative Commons.
Whenever winter shakes itself awake and sheds the first snowflakes, the myth of Persephone comes to mind.
Kidnapped by Hades and imprisoned in hell, Persephone is pursued by her mother, who searches ceaselessly until she finally finds her daughter.
Though she has tried to refuse, the hungry Persephone has eaten six seeds of the pomegranate Hades has given her. The rules of hell say that if you eat or drink of the underworld’s produce, you must remain underground. But Persephone’s mother, called Demeter or Ceres, negotiates with Hades so that for half the year, her daughter emerges to stroll through the fields of flowers with her mom on Earth, and spends six months as Hades’ wife below ground, when nature sleeps and the Earth is cold. And that Greek myth explains the seasons.
But who could blame Persephone? Who could resist the gift of a pomegranate? Assertively red and juicy, almost the antithesis of winter, a pomegranate stores up all that delicious summer into a beautiful package. Greeks still hold pomegranates in high esteem, hanging them above their doors for the twelve days of Christmas, and cut the fruit for the Christmas feast table.
Eavan Boland’s poem, “The Pomegranate,” is built on the heart-breaking myth of Persephone and her mother, and the choices that teenage girls make that their mothers have to stand by and watch.
“This poem is just to register my surprise at having a child who turned into a teenager,” Boland said during the full interview with Linda Pastan.
At first, Boland’s speaker in the poem enters the myth as a daughter, but when she becomes a mother and loses a daughter at twilight, her frantic search recalls Ceres’ hunt for Persephone. “When she came running I was ready/ to make any bargain to keep her” the poem explains.
Then, when her daughter grows into a teenager, Boland’s speaker focuses on how the daughter will enter a different world as an adult, just as her mother did. These “rifts in time” allow a woman to remember what it was like to be both a daughter and a mother, gripped by the ineffable love and fear for a daughter. And by the end of the poem, readers understand what the mother has grown to know, that she cannot protect her daughter with bargains or gifts, or even words.
Susan Thornton Hobby
Producer, The Writing Life
Girl with a Pomegranate, By William-Adolphe Bouguereau, in Wikimedia Commons
An Opened Pomegranate: by Fir0002, in Wikimedia Commons
If we’re lucky enough, we remember elders reading books to us as children. And then, if we’re doubly lucky, we become readers, and pass the literary love down to successive generations.
In this week’s Poetry Moment, Li-Young Lee distills this moment of everyday parenthood into a poem that transforms the act of reading into something sacred. A mother reads to her child in the next room. A listener can hear the cadence, the love in the voice, but not discern the story.
Lee explains the origin of the poem in the full Writing Life interview from 1995.
“I was waking up every morning and listening to my wife read to our son in the other room, morning after morning after morning,” Lee said. “Every morning I woke up experiencing that, I realized I was in the presence of something really magical and wonderful, and on the one hand, eternal, and on the other hand, very impermanent. I didn’t know how much longer he would allow his mother to read to him like that. I knew that somehow I was in the presence of poetry, and it was up to me to find the place in myself where I could pay attention enough to write this.”
And by paying attention to this moment, Lee calls readers of his poem to attend as well.
“It’s unconscious when I’m writing,” Lee said. “I’m hearing a story being read, I never hear the story, I just hear the voice. The poem is trying to enact the voice. I’m really interested in, not so much the particular stories that are being told, but I feel as if there’s a greater telling that goes on in the universe. That there’s a telling voice that is telling all the time. Everything is discourse–leaves, trees, clouds–it’s all discourse, not only language. Or we can say everything is language. I’m curious about what that other language is. Sometimes it’s clearer when you don’t hear the words, because of the wall that separates you, but you hear the intonation of the voice, so you know you’re in the presence of a telling, but not necessarily what is being told. So it’s the telling voice that I’m really just in love with.”
Lee had a harrowing early start to his life. His father had been Mao Zedong’s personal physician, but his parents fled China as political exiles. After settling in Indonesia, anti-Chinese sentiment rose in that country and his father was arrested and held as a political prisoner for a year. After a five-year trek through Macau, Hong Kong and Japan, the family finally settled in America. But he does remember his father reading to him, even during their flight, and how later his father required him to memorize literature and recite it.
The poetry Lee writes has a quality of mysticism to it, a way of taking a sacred look at everyday events, such as reading a story to a child. He compares writing poetry to praying. In an interview with Poets & Writers, Lee said that part of the mission of poetry was to help build heaven on earth.
“The condition of prayer is a state wherein we have a kind of focus and yet we have a wide peripheral attention, and somehow it seems to me that good poems enact that kind of condition, where we are very focused, very concentrated, on the one hand, and on the other hand, we have a very wide periphery, a wide awareness,” Lee said in The Writing Life interview.
Lee’s memoir of his early childhood, The Winged Seed, is an amalgamation of his memories, his father’s sermons, dreams, prayers, and lyrical moments: “My father asleep at a train window is a member of the rain fallen momentarily out of favor. And only he and God know he’s changed his name again to flee yet another country. And the child singing beside him is me. And I am so many things: An expert in tying and untying knots. A traveler stranded on that ancient peak called Father’s Heart. A hidden grape distilling light and time to render news of the living.
A man fallen asleep at his desk while reading is apple blossoms left lying where they fell. The child who comes to wake him by kissing his hands is so many things: Love succeeding. The eye of the needle. Little voice calling the flowers to assembly.
May the child never forget the power of the small.
May the man never wake a stranger to himself.”
Lee never forgot the power of the small, the sacred moment of reading to a child. This poem helps readers do the same.
Susan Thornton Hobby
Producer of The Writing Life
During a pandemic overlaid with protests over systemic racism, fear is something with which we’ve grown comfortable, like our masks and our distance. And perhaps our racism.
Joy Harjo, this nation’s National Poet Laureate, is acquainted with racism and fear, but she doesn’t accept them. The first Native American to hold the national position with the Library of Congress, Harjo has been writing poetry, playing music, dancing, and painting since she was in a boarding school run by the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Oklahoma.
She visited HoCoPoLitSo in October 2005, playing her flute and reading poetry at the Howard County Conservancy, in a time that feels like another universe.
This May, Harjo got a call from Cheryl Strayed, who writes the Dear Sugar column in the New York Times. During the pandemic, Strayed added a podcast to her repertoire and named it Sugar Calling.
The two authors had a talk about writing during a pandemic. The conversation turned to the poem in this week’s Poetry Moment, “I Give You Back.
“This is one of the earliest poems I wrote,” Harjo told Strayed. “And I’ve begun to think that a lot of these poems have come to me because they’re coming through me. And then I have to do my part. I have to bring out my hammer and nails, and build a place for them to live. So this one came when I desperately needed it. It’s called “I Give You Back.” And it’s helpful, I think, during this time because it’s to get rid of fear. And we’re in a pandemic, something we’ve never been in before, in a time like the times we’re in now. And what does that mean? And what’s going to happen to us? So this poem is to get rid of fear. I think it comes out of the tribal tradition of writing poems to be useful to go out into the world—OK, poem you have work to do. And you have to go out and help people not be afraid.”
Harjo, whose name translates from the Muskogee (Creek) as “so brave, you’re crazy,” told me in an interview a decade ago that as she was coming of age, so was the Native rights movement. And while she tried to resist writing poetry, instead trying to concentrate on her visual art, music, and dancing, she found she had to write.
“The revolutionary times in Indian country demanded that my spirit learn to sing with words,” she told me. And while she still makes music and writes songs, poetry has become her medium.
I Give You Back” is one of those foundational poems that Harjo’s audiences ask for again, and again. Addressing fear as a foe, the poem has at its heart a line I return to, “I take myself back, fear.”
In the interview Harjo gave with poet Barbara Goldberg in 2005 for The Writing Life, Harjo explained that she still got letters about “I Give You Back.”
“The poem has served me well since the 1970s. I get a lot of letters and emails saying this poem saved their life,” Harjo explained.
She went on to say that she believes poems live beyond the page, that they have a purpose in the world, and that they create change.
“Poetry for me was soul talk, crafted soul talk,” Harjo said. “Words literally had power to change the weather, to make things happen. Poetry was a way to document the spirit of people.”
Giving fear back, rejecting racism, hoping for revision. Those are words to change the weather.
Susan Thornton Hobby
The Writing Life producer
Back in April, HoCoPoLitSo conceived of its Poetry Moment series as a dose of soothing literature during the pandemic shut-in. When George Floyd was murdered in May, renewing the Black Lives Matter movement, we changed our focus. In support of the racial justice, HoCoPoLitSo wanted to amplify the voices of the Black poets who have read for our audiences here in Howard County. Now it’s September and we’re inviting other voices to join our verse party to continue these conversations about what divides and unites us.
Poetry Moment will now include poets of other backgrounds, including Irish, Chinese, Muscogee (Creek), Latinx, and Baltimorean, including Lucille Clifton and Josephine Jacobsen.
We’re starting with Seamus Heaney, a Nobel Prize-winner and force of nature who read for our audiences three times. Called the greatest Irish poet since Yeats, Heaney died in 2013. But the hour-long interview from 1988, excerpted here, remained in our archives until we could negotiate and pay for rights to air it. We finally secured those rights last year, and we’re grateful to Padraic Kennedy for his donation that covered those costs.
This week’s Poetry Moment also includes a face many in Howard County knew and loved, Ellen Conroy Kennedy, who co-founded HoCoPoLitSo in 1974, and died this past February. Padraic and Ellen, married for nearly 65 years, are the foundation that HoCoPoLitSo is built upon.
At the beginning of this week’s video, Ellen can be heard, and then seen, requesting Heaney’s poem “Digging.” “Recited,” she adds. Heaney smiles. He knew Ellen well, and like most in the poetry world, could not refuse her.
He then recites his iconic poem. When I was teaching students this poem, they didn’t understand how the rhymes fit together until they heard it in his voice. Then they understood the connection between “ground” and “down” and “sods” and “bog.” They didn’t know that when Heaney pronounced “gravelly ground,” it sounded just like the scrape of a shovel into soil.
Any time we can offer poems in the voice of the author, we’re doing the world a service. And this voice seems timely to hear now because of the increasing fracturing of our country over racial justice, and political divisions in general.
Heaney’s voice was well known in Ireland during the troubles, the sectarian divisions and violence that pitted citizens of different religions against each other from the 1960s to 1998.
“Ireland has been characterized by a tradition of sectarian violence,” Duke University’s President Richard Brodhead said during a Trinity College of Arts and Sciences tribute to Heaney after his death. “Not armies against armies, but between people who live together by day and (had) the violence suddenly intrude on their domestic lives. His poems are an uncanny evocation of this intimate violence.”
While he was never overtly political, Heaney talks in this hour-long episode of The Writing Life about an intimately violent poem he wrote in the seventh section of Station Island, the shooting of a young man he knew in Ulster after police arrived at his door.
“Because, see, in Ulster, as in shall we say, you could have imagined a situation some years or decades ago in the Southern states of the United States, where someone could be a virulent bigoted Klan member, but also be wearing the uniform of impersonal justice, in other words a policeman, so that they hygiene of the uniform is no guarantee. You actually have the festering stuff underneath it,” Heaney tells the audience in 1988. He explains that he isn’t pinning blame in his poem, he doesn’t accuse the police, he’s talking in universal terms about the killing of a man he knew. And he finishes with explaining, “Politics in Northern Ireland, and politics in El Salvador and politics in Iran and politics in Israel, it’s all spectator sport for most people. Of course it’s necessary for those of us outside to be concerned, but the real energy is intimate. I think that writing has to concern itself with the first circle, with the intimate place where everything is exact, rather than with the second or third circle, where the big parties are watching and you’re getting publicity. Poetry isn’t concerned with publicity.”
Poetry not publicity. Sounds like a great motto. Now more than ever, poetry’s witness and wisdom provide a window of understanding into other’s lives. Listen to this voice, so specifically Irish, and hear the universal, as when Gwendolyn Brooks spoke of her seven at the Golden Shovel in “We Real Cool,” or Tyehimba Jess read about Blind Tom the musical savant, or Patricia Smith channeling the voice of a hurricane. HoCoPoLitSo’s mission is to amplify literature’s voices, to allow words to change the world.
Susan Thornton Hobby
The Writing Life producer
For thirty-nine (39) years the HOward COunty POetry and LITerature SOciety (HoCoPoLitSo) has awarded book prizes to honor students nominated by their teachers for Promise and Achievement in Language Arts. To foster lifelong reading habits and a love of literature, HoCoPoLitSo presents book awards with personalized bookplates. The tradition continued this year with modifications. Instead of HoCoPoLitSo board members making presentations at Howard County public high school honors assemblies for graduating seniors, books were delivered to students’ schools or mailed directly to students with the assistance of board members Susan Thornton Hobby and Anne Reis (Homewood Media Specialist), and Howard County Public School System’s Secondary Language Arts Coordinator, Nancy Czarnecki.
Twenty-eight students were chosen by their English Departments to receive HoCoPoLitSo’s Promise and Achievement Award in Language Arts. The honorees were: Victoria Adler, Cameron Goodwin-Schoen (Atholton), Helen Pantoulis, Tobias Moser (Centennial) Kaitlyn Walker, Harrison Young (Glenelg), Rose Kinder, Christopher Parris, Jr. (Hammond), Dré Campbell, Gale Freeman (Homewood Center), Emily Gorny, Richard Zhou (Howard), Autumn Salcedo, Andrew Vesey (Long Reach), Audrey Casper, Jiwoo Moon (Marriotts Ridge), Ian Roe, Douglas Stewart (Mt. Hebron), Mikhi Kelly, Maheshwari Shukla, Genesis Houston, Kiana Macharia, (tie) (Oakland Mills), Esha Bhatti, Melissa Rayo (Reservoir), Tess Redman, Chutian Weng (River Hill), Ananya Chand, and Aden Noyes (Wilde Lake).
Supported by a generous donation by Dr. Lillian Bauder, students received books by such outstanding poets and writers as: Maya Angelou, Carrie Brown, Michael Dirda, Lauren Groff, Joy Harjo, Colum McCann, Alice McDermott, Randy Pausch, Stanley Plumly, Jason Reynolds and Ocean Vuong. Students were also invited to view the authors who have visited Howard County talking about their work at www.youtube.com/hocopolitso.
We get mail!
The other day when I was visiting my dad, he handed me a book and told me to read the last paragraph aloud.
As Smith recrossed the bridge, he stopped and stood in one of the recesses to meditate on his immaturity, and to look upon the beauty of the still expanses of white moonlight and black shadow which lay before him. At last he shook his head negatively, and went home.
“That’s how they wrote back then,” he said, listening to the air the paragraph left behind. I admired the sentiment, and probably agreed that it was, indeed, something, the way they wrote back then. The book was a Bernard Shaw novel that I had not heard about, Immaturity. I was holding a 1931 edition. Where was this going?
It didn’t take a moment longer to realize the paragraph and the way they wrote wasn’t why I was handed the book. He started telling me a story about the inside cover, the markings there, and a bit of history I might otherwise have never come across, something called Bletchley Park.
Who knew? At the time and until the 1970s, only those that were supposed to, thanks to the Official Secrets Act. For me, a mystery was unraveling. Bletchley Park was a mansion in Buckinghamshire, England that housed a secret code-breaking operation during the second world war. I was instantly intrigued. Paraphrasing my dad, men were off fighting the war and women were tapped to translate Axis messages encoded by Enigma machines, contributing the secrets of intercepted messages to the war effort, and helping beat the Nazis ‘two years early’.
At its start, the operation at Bletchley incorporated a few hundred — you will have heard of Alan Turing and maybe Gordon Welshman and the Bombe machines that figured out the daily codes the Germans incorporated as fast as they could — and grew to an effort of thousands, all working on decoding daily messages of the Germans. The following six minute clip provides a better introduction. (While it is a video, it is more a slide show of 360 degree images that you can move around in using the tool in the top left of the frame. Have a listen and look around.)
Part of my dad’s version of the story was personal history, working in England years later, and having associates who dated back to the war. I’ll skip all the details, but so-and-so knew so-and-so-and-so and the narrative found its way to explaining the book I had in my hand. Inside the front cover was an oval stamp “B. P. Recreational Library Club”, and, on the facing page, an oddly glued-in, folded-over piece of paper with dates from the forties stamped onto it. Under that was a listing of hand-written month/day dates, all crossed out.
I had no idea what I was holding. He explained the book was part of a lending library created to provide recreation to workers when they weren’t putting in 15 hour days decoding.
The agency itself also tried to facilitate off-duty leisure activities for the staff in addition to amenities to provide for their general welfare. As such, the agency made buildings available for various leisure and educational activities. Hut 2 initially served as a tea room, providing hot beverages, sandwiches and lunch vouchers. The hut also contained a lending library and was the home of the Bletchley Park Recreational club from its formation in October 1940.The Hidden History of Bletchley Park, Christopher Smith, 2015
My dad explained the book had passed into my mother’s hands from the wife of someone he had worked with. It was actually part of the Bletchley Park collection during the Second World War – WOW! (The dates suggest just after, though the style of tracking due dates on the inside pages might have started after the war?) Over the years, the library had collected more books than needed, so this was one of eight or nine that had been decommissioned and given to my mother for keeps — he wanted to make sure I knew possession was legit. The other books in the collection were from Eastgate and Cheltenham, new locations for codebreaking during the war and after as effort, capabilities, and need grew.
Unbelievable, really, that such secrecy should have prevailed.Jane Fawcett, Veteran, Hut 6
Obviously, I grew up in the house with these books and knew nothing of their secret past, that being the way of those who can keep secrets.
Now the story is out and I hold this book in my hands in awe. What a connection to the way they did things back when. We tend to obtain a book for the story written within, but sometimes the book is the story itself, a thing to learn from as it moves from the reaches of history into our moment. Here it is today, a treasure that is monument to heroes of the past, the women of Bletchley Park.
HoCoPoLitSo, Board Co-chair
- Bletchley Park is now a museum. Visit the webiste here online. Next time you are in England, visit the secret itself. It is on my To Do list.
- Click here for an extended documentary on Bletchley Park via YouTube.
- More on the codebreaking efforts of the Allies during World War II can be found Stephen Budiansky’s book Battle of Wits.
- Christopher Smith’s Hidden History of Bletchley Park is also fascinating.
- The Bletchley Circle — what do you do after the war if you were one of the super-smart Bletchley women? Well, back into the normal every day humdrum of ironing clothes and feeding children. This short-lived British mystery series has a few of them getting together to use their wits to solve murders, though. It is an interesting way to share the story.