Dec. 11, 2006
Poem: "Bypass" by Susan Kelly-DeWitt, from Greatest Hits 1983-2002. © Pudding House Publications. Reprinted with permission.
When they cracked open your chest, parting
the flesh at the sternum and sawing
right through your ribs, we'd been married
only five weeks. I had not yet kissed
into memory those places they raided
to save your life. I could only wait
outside, in the public lobby
of private nightmares
while they pried you apart, stopped
your heart's beating, and iced you
down. For seven hours a machine
breathed for you, in and out. God,
seeing you naked in ICU minutes
after the surgery ... your torso swabbed
a hideous antiseptic yellow
around a raw black ladder of stitches
and dried blood. Still unconscious,
you did the death rattle on the gurney.
"His body is trying to warm itself up,"
they explained, to comfort me.
Literary and Historical Notes:
It's the birthday of the novelist Jim Harrison, (books by this author) born in Grayling, Michigan (1937). His big breakthrough was the book Legends of the Fall (1979). It was so successful that Harrison was able to buy a farm near his old home in Michigan, as well as a cabin in the woods of the Northern Peninsula. He said, "Ever since I was seven ... I'd turn for solace to rivers, rain, trees, birds, lakes, animals. If things are terrible beyond conception and I walk for 25 miles in the forest, they tend to go away for a while."
Jim Harrison said, "I like grit, I like love and death, I'm tired of irony. ... A lot of good fiction is sentimental. ... The novelist who refuses sentiment refuses the full spectrum of human behavior, and then he just dries up. ... I would rather give full vent to all human loves and disappointments, and take a chance on being corny, than die a smartass."
It's the birthday of Thomas McGuane, (books by this author) born in Wyandotte, Michigan (1939). He's the author of many novels, including Ninety-two in the Shade (1973), Nothing but Blue Skies (1992), and The Cadence of Grass (2002).
It's the birthday of Russian writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, (books by this author) born in Kislovodsk, Russia (1918). He grew up a committed communist, and never questioned the party line. He even brought a copy of Das Kapital along on his honeymoon for pleasure reading.
He became a decorated war hero during World War II, promoted to first lieutenant and then captain. But after the end of the war, he was suddenly arrested by Russian authorities for supposedly criticizing Stalin in one of his personal letters. He was sentenced without a trial to eight years in a labor camp. He spent time at a few different camps, but eventually wound up at a hard-labor camp in Kazakhstan, where he worked as miner, bricklayer, and a foundry man.
His time in the Gulag changed his life, because he found that most of the men there had already rejected the Soviet government. In a strange way, it was only in the Gulag that Russians spoke freely about their political beliefs without fear of retribution. Solzhenitsyn later wrote, "You can have power over people as long as you don't take everything away from them. But when you've robbed a man of everything, he's no longer in your power."
It was in the Gulag that Solzhenitsyn began to write seriously for the first time. To keep his work from being seized, he would compose on tiny paper scraps, commit his words to memory, and then destroy the paper. He was finally released from his labor camp on the day of Stalin's death in 1953, and when Nikita Khrushchev relaxed censorship laws, Solzhenitsyn was able to publish his novel One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1962).
He went on to write a seven-volume history of the Stalinist labor camps called The Gulag Archipelago. The first volume was published in Paris in 1973, and that book got him deported from the Soviet Union. He settled in Vermont, where he tried to live as quietly as possible, rarely speaking in public. He lived there for 13 years, and then, in 1993, he was finally allowed to return to his homeland. He's been living in Moscow ever since.
Solzhenitsyn wrote, "For a country to have a great writer is like having a second government. That is why no regime has ever loved great writers, only minor ones."
Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®