Monday

May 17, 2004

Hard River

by James Finnegan

MONDAY, 17 MAY, 2004
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Poem: "Hard River," by James Finnegan. Reprinted with permission of the poet.

Hard River

I pulled back
the jaundiced curtains
of the room rented
for four weeks in Wichita.
I didn't care
that the only thing I could see
from the window was the highway,
because I would watch the highway
the way I used to watch the river
with a six of beer and nowhere to go
after work, just watch
the cars and trucks
flow on and on, heading home
or to work or nowhere in particular,
knowing out there somewhere
someone was listening to the radio,
the same station I was listening to
with this man talking, just talking
into space, wavelengths over furrows
in the wide stretches of farmland,
knowing no one cares
about what he's saying,
still he talks and syllables and seconds
and dust settle like silt in the open air,
a child asleep across the backseat
of a car, tires throbbing over
slabs of pavement, no spare
in the trunk and two hundred miles
from here to wherever is there
on the hard river that carries them along
and if they're lucky
takes them home.


Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of novelist Dorothy Richardson, born in Abingdon, Berkshire, England (1873). Her great work was the thirteen-volume autobiographical novel Pilgrimage (1938). In 1911, she moved to a cottage in Cornwall and began writing her first novel. She wasn't satisfied with it, so she threw it away and started searching for a new subject. Eventually she decided to write about her own life, and everything in the novel would be filtered through the mind of her persona, Miriam Henderson, with no narrator to make sense of her thoughts. That style of writing became known as "stream of consciousness," and she was the first person to use it in the English language, before more famous writers like James Joyce and Virginia Woolf.


It's the birthday of young adult novelist Gary Paulsen, born in Minneapolis, Minnesota (1939). He's the author of dozens of books, including Canyons (1990), Woodsong (1990), and Hatchet (1988), about a fourteen-year-old boy who survives more than fifty days in the northern wilderness.

Paulsen ran away from home when he was fourteen years old, and held a series of manual labor jobs across the country. He decided to be a writer while he was working as a satellite technician for an aerospace firm in California. He drove off to northern Minnesota, rented a cabin on a lake, and wrote his first novel while living off his own vegetable gardens.

While he was living in the north Minnesota woods, he took up dog sled racing, and ran the Iditarod dog sled race twice. After the second run, he got sick and had to give up the sport. He started devoting the same amount of energy to writing that was required for dog sled racing. He wrote for nineteen or twenty hours every day; he once said he is "totally, viciously, obsessively committed to work. . . . I don't drink, I don't fool around, I'm just this way. . . . The end result is there's a lot of books out there."

Paulson has published more than 175 books and more than 200 articles for children and young adults. His latest novel is Brian's Hunt (2003).


It's the birthday of playwright and novelist Dennis Potter, born in Berry Hill, Gloucestershire, England (1935). When he was twenty-six years old he developed a severe form of arthritis that stiffened his joints and made his skin blister. He would be in and out of hospitals for the rest of his life, and he sometimes had to lie in bed for days at a time. But he took advantage of this time to start writing seriously, starting out as a television critic for a London newspaper and then creating his own TV shows. He had incredible faith in television. He said, "I first saw television when I was in my late teens. It made my heart pound. Here was a medium of great power, of potentially wondrous delights, that could slice through all the tedious hierarchies of the printed word and help emancipate us from many of the stifling tyrannies of class and status and gutter-press ignorance."

Most of his early TV shows were political satires that were hugely controversial in England. He went on to write innovative dramas and miniseries like Pennies from Heaven (1978) and The Singing Detective (1986).


Today is the fiftieth anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education decision. It was on this day in 1954 that the United States Supreme Court ruled that racial segregation in public schools is unconstitutional. The case was brought before the court by the NAACP as a combination of five cases from around the country, representing almost two-hundred plaintiffs. The most famous case was Oliver Brown and her daughter Linda against the Topeka Board of Education.

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