Mar. 28, 2007

Coastal Farmlet

by David Ray

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Poem: "Coastal Farmlet" by David Ray, from Music of Time: Selected and New Poems. © The Backwaters Press. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Coastal Farmlet

"A man wants nothing so badly as a gooseberry farm."

I want a coastal farmlet.
I desire it very much.
I saw it advertised
in the classifieds and I presume
that coastal means our land
comes right down
to the sea with the whitecaps
lashing romantically, and farmlet
means we can grow
gnarled trees on our headland
and let sheep roam. It is about cheap
enough for us if we borrow, beg
and steal, pawn a few poems, also write
a harlequin romance or two, and it's
only 9000 miles from the place
we call home. There's not much
of a hitch except the Immigration
would not let us stay in the country
to live in our farmlet. But still,
I want it and think we should go
look at it, right now, this moment,
while tangy sweet gooseberries glow.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of writer Nelson Algren, (books by this author) born in Detroit (1909). He made it through the University of Illinois and then drifted around during the Great Depression, hopping freight trains. He eventually settled in Chicago, which he called "The City on the Make." He also said, "Loving Chicago is like loving a woman with a broken nose."

He is best known for his novel The Man with the Golden Arm (1949), about a card-dealing World War II veteran named Frankie Machine who's hooked on morphine. It was the first serious novel about a drug addict in American literature.

It's the birthday of Frederic Exley, born in Watertown, New York (1929). He wrote one great book, A Fan's Notes (1968). He wrote it as a memoir, but in those days memoirs didn't sell, and his publisher asked him to make it look more like a novel. The main character remained Fred Exley. His biographer described the Exley of the book as "Huck Finn gone alcoholic but still lighting out for the territory."

It's also the birthday of Russell Banks, (books by this author) born in Newton, Massachusetts (1940), who wrote Continental Drift (1985), The Sweet Hereafter (1992), and Cloudsplitter (1998).

He once said, "[If I] hadn't become a writer ... I would have been stabbed to death in the parking lot outside a bar in Florida at 24, or something like that. I really believe that, actually. I think writing saved my life."

It was on this day in 1941 that the novelist Virginia Woolf (books by this author) drowned herself in a river near her house in East Sussex. She had long suffered from periods of depression, and modern scholars believe these depressions may have been symptoms of manic-depressive illness, also known as bi-polar disorder.

In her diaries over the years, Woolf had often written about her volatile mood swings, and she seemed to think that they were brought on by her sense that her writing wasn't good enough. She was relatively healthy for most of the 1920s as she published many of her greatest novels, including Mrs. Dalloway (1925) and To the Lighthouse (1927). But she struggled with her book The Years (1937).

Woolf's mood only grew worse as the Second World War broke out in 1939. She and her husband moved to their country house in East Sussex when Germans began to bomb London, because they thought it would be safer. But their country house lay under the flight path of the German bombers. More than once, during the summer of 1940, Woolf watched from her garden as the German planes flew over, close enough that she could see the swastikas on the undersides of the wings.

By March of 1941, she was writing in her diary that she had fallen into "a trough of despair." She wasn't at all satisfied with her most recent book, and she felt as though the war made writing insignificant. She wrote, "It's difficult, I find, to write. No audience. No private stimulus, only this outer roar."

She finally wrote three letters, possibly as much as 10 days before she committed suicide, explaining her reasons for wanting to end her life. In the longest of the three, she wrote to her husband, "I feel certain that I am going mad again. ... I shan't recover this time. ... I can't fight it any longer. ... What I want to say is that I owe all the happiness of my life to you." Woolf left the letters where her husband would find them, and then on this day in 1941 she walked a half-mile to a nearby river and put a heavy rock in the pocket of her fur coat before jumping into the water.

One of the last people to see Virginia Woolf in good spirits was the novelist Elizabeth Bowen, who visited Woolf just a month before her death. Bowen later wrote of the visit, "I remember [Virginia] kneeling on the floor ... and she sat back on her heels and put her head back in a patch of sun, early spring sun. Then she laughed in this consuming, choking, delightful, hooting way. This is what has remained with me."

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




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