Oct. 11, 2004
as the credits rolled
Poem: "as the credits rolled" by Denver Butson, from illegible address © Luquer Street Press. Reprinted with permission.
as the credits rolled
at the end of this movie I dreamt
in which I was a bicyclist in the Wild West
and you were the pretty girl with a fast gun
the sunset was the color of smoked salmon
and the mountains looked like paintings
I said if I'm really the hero
I should ride this here bicycle into that sunset
and you said what bicycle?
and shot it out from under me
with your lightning-fast six-shooter
and I said I reckon I could walk
and I started walkin'
and you caught up to me holstering your smoking gun
while Ennio Morricone himself
sauntered out from the green room
behind the mountains
humming a song so longing
we couldn't help wishing
that this was our forever
this sun this music
and those ushers down there
dragging their trashbags
silently through the aisles.
Literary and Historical Notes:
Today is Columbus Day, the day on which we remember the explorer Christopher Columbus and his voyage across the Atlantic in 1492. He's often been called the man who discovered America, but of course we know that there were people living in the North and South America for thousands of years before Columbus arrived. He wasn't even the first European to explore the New World. There are legends of Celtic and Phoenician sailors finding land across the Atlantic centuries before the birth of Christ. The Vikings sailed to Newfoundland in the tenth century, and around the year 1000 Leif Eriksson was probably the first European to visit the area that became the United States.
In fact, most of the ideas we have about Columbus are myths, including the idea that he was the first person to believe the world was round. The mythical Columbus was largely an invention of the American writer Washington Irving, who wrote one of the first modern biographies of Columbus, and made most of that biography up.
But while Columbus may not have discovered America, his voyage was the first to publicize the existence of the Americas to the rest of Europe, sparking waves of exploration and colonization.
He was trying to find a new trade route to Asia, and he'd gotten the idea to sail around the world in the opposite direction. He just miscalculated the size of the earth. He thought the distance from Spain to Japan was twenty-seven hundred miles, when in fact it's about thirteen thousand.
Columbus called his plan the "Enterprise of the Indies." He pitched it first to King John II of Portugal, who rejected it, and then to the Spanish King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella. They also turned him down, twice, until they conquered the Moorish kingdom of Granada in January 1492 and had some treasure to spare.
And so Columbus sailed, with the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria, three relatively small ships, none of them bigger than a tennis court. He kept a false captain's log, underestimating the distance traveled, to keep his men from panicking about how far they'd sailed from home. They panicked anyway, and seriously considered throwing him overboard after they'd found no land for weeks.
Then, at about 10:00 PM on this day in 1492, Columbus saw a light on the western horizon. He said it was, "Like a little wax candle that was lifting and rising." He tried not to get too excited and told his men to keep a lookout for land. It was 2:00 in the morning on October 12 when the lookout man on the foremost ship called out, "Tierra!" They waited until daybreak to go ashore. Historians aren't sure precisely which island Columbus first set foot on, but it was probably one of the islands of the Bahamas.
Columbus went on to lead a total of four expeditions to the New World during his lifetime, exploring the islands that became Cuba, Haiti, as well as parts of Central America. It was a long time before anyone realized the size and importance of the world Columbus had stumbled upon.
Columbus himself went to his grave believing that his greatest achievement was the discovery of a new route to China and Japan. He never made much money from his exploration, but Spain reaped the rewards and became the wealthiest and most powerful nation on earth.
The reason the North and South America are not named for Columbus is that he wasn't a very good writer, and his accounts of his explorations never became best sellers. A minor mapmaker named Amerigo Vespucci wrote the first really popular descriptions of the New World, full of adventure and romance, and his works gave our continents their names.
It's the birthday of the crime novelist Elmore Leonard, born in New Orleans (1925). His family moved around a lot, and finally settled in Detroit, where Leonard grew up. He wanted to be a writer from the time he was a kid, but by the time he graduated from college, he was already married with children. He didn't think he could make a living as a writer, so he took a job at an advertising agency.
Every morning, he would write fiction from 5 to 7 a.m., and then go to work. He decided to write westerns, because there were a lot of Westerns being made into movies at the time, and he figured he might be able to sell one of his novels to Hollywood. He published his first novel The Bounty Hunters in 1953. He published four more novels in the next eight years but he still hadn't had any major success. He quit his job to write fulltime, but he found that he had even less time to write, because he was so worried about supporting his family of five children. He finally sold his novel Hombre (1967) to Hollywood, but by that time Westerns were already becoming less fashionable so it didn't make much money.
Eventually, Leonard gave up on Westerns, and started writing crime novels. He slowly developed a cult following, but it took a long time for him to get a general audience. The problem was that his books weren't really mysteries or thrillers. He didn't write about noble private detectives like Philip Marlowe. Most of his books didn't even have heroes. He just focused on interesting characters who broke the law, and he became known for capturing they way those characters talked.
Leonard said, "When I start a book...the characters audition in their opening scene—I listen to them, see how they sound...if I'm curious enough to turn the pages, I figure it'll have the same effect on readers."
Leonard had published more than twenty novels over the course of thirty years, including Fifty-Two Pickup (1974), Stick (1983) and La Brava (1984), before he finally made it big with his novel Glitz (1985). He's published 15 novels since then and they have all been best sellers. His most recent novel is Mr. Paradise, which came out this year.
Though he's specialized in crime fiction for most of his career, Elmore Leonard doesn't read crime fiction himself. His favorite writers are Ernest Hemingway, Raymond Carver, and Bobbie Ann Mason.
To get inside the heads of the despicable people he writes about, Leonard said, "I [try] to put myself in [a criminal's] place. He doesn't think he's doing an evil thing. I try to see [him] at another time—when he sneezes, say. I see convicts sitting around talking about a baseball game. I see them as kids. All villains have mothers."
When asked why he writes about criminals, instead of ordinary people, Leonard said, "I just feel more secure in a situation where I know a gun can go off at any time if things get boring."
It's the birthday of experimental short story writer and novelist Ben Marcus, born in Chicago (1967). His first book was The Age of Wire and String (1995), which is a sort of fictional encyclopedia, organized into the categories "Sleep," "God," "Food," "The House," "Animal," "Weather," "Persons," and "The Society," each of which includes five brief essays and a glossary.
His novel Notable American Women (2002) that takes place in a futuristic Ohio, about a boy raised by his mother in a radical feminist society called "The Silentists." The main character of the book is named Ben Marcus, but when asked if the book was autobiographical, Ben Marcus said, "My family was very loving and I've never been to Ohio." He recently edited the Anchor Book of New American Short Stories, which came out this year.
It's the birthday of the French writer François (Charles) Mauriac, born in Bordeaux, France (1885). He's best known for his dark, religious novels, including A Kiss for the Leper (1922), The Desert of Love (1925), and The Knot of Vipers (1932).
He was a passionate Catholic and believed that the purpose of literature was to bring people to salvation, but he always struggled with how to write about evil without tempting his readers. In 1952, he won the Nobel Prize for Literature.
François Mauriac said, "Sin is the writer's element."
It's the birthday of Mason Locke Weems, born in Anne Arundel County, Maryland (1759). He was an Episcopalian clergyman and a traveling bookseller. He wrote extremely popular fictional tales about history and presented them as if they were fact.
It was Weems who invented the famous story about George Washington cutting down his father's cherry tree with a hatchet, and then admitting that he had done so. Weems included that story in his mostly fictional biography The Life and Memorable Actions of George Washington (1800).
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