Aug. 22, 2003

For a Sleepless Child

by Peter Schmitt

(RealAudio) | How to listen

Poem: "For a Sleepless Child," by Peter Schmitt, from Country Airport (Copper Beech Press).

For a Sleepless Child

If your room is ever too dark,
small one, look out through your window
up at the moon, that little bulb
left on for you in the sky's black wall.
It will still be there come morning,
burning in a bright room of blue.

And if your room, restless one,
is much too still, listen to the clatter
of the freight, rattling past trestles
on the cool night breeze. Then follow
the moon to the side of the tracks,
where the train is a long, slow dream

you can jump on. An open car
is waiting for you-one step up-
you're on! Now watch the dark towns, the lights
deep in the porches, and lie down
in the soft straw, and sleep till morning,
when the train chugs into station,

noisy with birds and wires overhead.

Literary Notes:

It's the birthday of (Edna) Annie Proulx, born in Norwich, Connecticut (1935). She was virtually unknown until the early 1990s, when she burst on to the literary scene, publishing her first novels, Postcards (1992) and The Shipping News (1993) in her late 50s. She said she doesn't regret becoming a writer later than most people because, she said, she knows a lot more about life than she did 20 years ago. She said, "I think that's important, to know how the water's gone over the dam before you start to describe it. It helps to have been over the dam yourself." She had a reckless past: She tried to leap over a barbed-wire fence and didn't make it; she ran away through the rain on the eve of her wedding and found herself lying on a railroad bridge in front of an oncoming train; she got caught in a thunderstorm on her third flying lesson; she threw a knife at someone she thought she hated; she swam across a lake while she was eight months pregnant; she was speeding and rolled a car late one night. She moved to Vershire, Vermont and founded a newspaper called Vershire Behind the Times. She wanted to write fiction, but there wasn't any money in it. Still, when she wasn't fishing or canoeing she wrote one or two short stories a year, set in rural towns in New England, and she was able to sell most of them to magazines. Those stories became her first book, Heart Songs and Other Stories (1988). Proulx's contract for Heart Songs stipulated that she produce a novel. She said she had no desire to write a novel, or even a clue about how to do it. Then one day she found herself drawn to some old postcards from the 1930s and '40s that featured mug shots of escaped convicts. One photograph caught her eye, of a handsome man with wavy hair, and she said that within a half-hour of sitting down to write she had her whole novel, Postcards (1992), in her head. It's about a man named Loyal Blood who accidentally kills his girlfriend, abandons his family on their little Vermont farm, and escapes to a life of adventures on the road. Proulx does extensive research for her novels. To get the Newfoundland dialect right for The Shipping News (1993), she said she "literally slept with" the Dictionary of Newfoundland English for two years. She said, "This is the point in work. You get it right, or you don't do it. Everything depends on your getting it right." Proulx's recent books include Accordion Crimes (1996), Short Range (1999).

It's the birthday of science fiction writer Ray Bradbury, born in Waukegan, Illinois (1920). He's the author of the classic The Martian Chronicles (1950), about humans who colonize and corrupt a Martian civilization. His novels include Something Wicked This Way Comes (1962); Dandelion Wine (1957), about a boyhood in the fictional Green Town, Illinois; and Fahrenheit 451 (1953), which is set in a future where reading is forbidden and people called "firemen" burn books.

It's the birthday of cartoonist George Herriman, born in New Orleans, Louisiana (1880). He became a cartoonist after he fell off a scaffold and couldn't paint houses for a living anymore. The basic plot of his Krazy Kat and Ignatz strip was simple, a love story: Krazy Kat loved Ignatz Mouse, but Ignatz just threw bricks at him. Offisa Pup loved Krazy and tried to protect him and throw Ignatz in jail. The strip appeared in the papers of William Randolph Hearst for more than 30 years and became a classic.

It's the birthday of poet and short-story writer Dorothy Parker, born in West End, New Jersey (1893). In 1920 she was fired from Vanity Fair because her drama reviews were so harsh, so she put her cynicism and wit into her first book of poems, Enough Rope, and it was a bestseller when it was published in 1926. She went to The New Yorker to write book reviews under the name "Constant Reader," and she was one of the founders of the famous Algonquin Round Table at the Algonquin Hotel in Manhattan. She established a reputation as one of the sharpest conversationalists in New York, and she epitomized the liberated woman of the 1920s. Her poems were collected as Not So Deep as a Well (1936), and her short stories were collected in Here Lies (1939). When she was 70 she said, "If I had any decency, I'd be dead. Most of my friends are." And she said, "Wit has truth in it; wisecracking is simply calisthenics with words."

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