Jul. 5, 2004
Poem: "Internal Exile," by Richard Cecil, from Twenty First Century Blues. © Southern Illinois University Press. Reprinted with permission.
Although most people I know were condemned
years ago by Judge Necessity
to life in condos near a freeway exit
convenient to their twice-a-day commutes
through traffic jams to jobs that they dislike,
they didn't bury their heads in their hands
and cry "Oh, no!" when sentence was pronounced:
Forty years accounting in Duluth!
or Tenure at Southwest Missouri State!
Instead, they mumbled, not bad. It could be worse,
when the bailiff, Fate, led them away
to Personnel to fill out payroll forms
and have their smiling ID photos snapped.
And that's what they still mumble every morning
just before their snooze alarms go off
when Fluffy nuzzles them out of their dreams
of making out with movie stars on beaches.
They rise at five a.m. and feed their cats
and drive to work and work and drive back home
and feed their cats and eat and fall asleep
while watching Evening News's fresh disasters—
blown-up bodies littering a desert
fought over for the last three thousand years,
and smashed-to-pieces million-dollar houses
built on islands swept by hurricanes.
It's soothing to watch news about the places
where people literally will die to live
when you live someplace with no attractions—
mountains, coastline, history—like here,
where none aspire to live, though many do.
"A great place to work, with no distractions"
is how my interviewer first described it
nineteen years ago, when he hired me.
And, though he moved the day that he retired
to his dream house in the uplands with a vista,
he wasn't lying—working's better here
and easier than trying to have fun.
Is that the way it is where you're stuck, too?
Literary and Historical Notes:
It's the birthday of novelist and short story writer Jonathan Baumbach, born in New York City (1933). His novels include Reruns (1974), Babble (1976) and Separate Hours (1990). He had a play produced in New York while he was a graduate student at Columbia University, but he was disillusioned by seeing it performed: It wasn't anything like he had imagined it. He realized that what he was really interested in wasn't theater, but the act of writing itself. He eventually abandoned playwriting and began writing fiction instead.
He published two novels with major publishers, but his third novel, Reruns, was more experimental, and no one wanted to publish it. After collecting dozens of rejections, he and the novelist Peter Spielberg decided to found a publishing venture called Fiction Collective. Fiction Collective published Reruns, and it has gone on to become Baumbach's best-known novel, selling more than twice the combined sales of his first two novels. It's made up of a series of thirty-three dream sequences. Baumbach has gone on to publish several more novels with Fiction Collective.
Baumbach wrote, "To live in this world in which madness daily passes for sanity is a kind of madness in itself. Yet where else can we go?"
It's the birthday of novelist George Borrow, born in Norfolk, England (1803). He was one of the most popular travel writers of his day. He had an amazing talent for languages. By the time he was twenty-two he could understand twelve languages, including Welsh, Hebrew and Danish. In 1833, he was hired by the British and Foreign Bible Society, and his first assignment was to translate the New Testament into Manchu, the court language of China—even though Borrow didn't know a word of Manchu at the time. He took a vacation in the country to learn the language, and after three weeks he had completed a translation of the Book of Jonah.
Borrow traveled all over the world distributing Bible translations, and he wrote about all the thieves, revolutionaries, gypsies, soldiers, politicians and priests that he met along the way. His most famous book was a bestseller called The Bible in Spain (1843), about his adventures in Spain while attempting to distribute Spanish translations of the Bible.
Borrow said, "I am invariably of the politics of the people at whose table I sit, or beneath whose roof I sleep."
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