Jul. 15, 2009

Keep America Beautiful

by Kenneth Hart

Somebody hung out his red, white and blue
laundry on the highway overpass outside Providence,

a short distance from the prison crew picking up
our Cheetos bags and burger wrappers

and monster drink cups. We're stalled in traffic;
bumper stickers announce the price of freedom,

claim liberty is our right.
The guard in mirror sunglasses leans against

the correctional facility van, props a shotgun on his knee
like he's auditioning for a movie. He's protecting

our freedom to litter from the inmates' desire
to be free to litter. We inch along;

past the Budweiser billboards and the ad haiku,
brakes wheeze some like an espresso machine,

some like an aging soprano with emphysema.
It looks like this is going to take awhile, here

beneath the soiled laundry of the republic
which clings to a chain link fence.

Maybe the seagull floating above us
sees a few things that we can't.

He's probably scavenging for something
we've left behind.

"Keep America Beautiful" by Kenneth Hunt, from Uh Oh Time. © Anhinga Press, Inc., 2008. Published with permission.

It's the birthday of novelist Iris Murdoch, (books by this author) born in Dublin (1919). In the four decades that she was writing, she produced 26 novels, half a dozen plays, a couple of poetry collections, and several works of philosophical scholarship.

She grew up in London, studied philosophy and classics at Oxford, and joined the Communist Party during World War II. She grew disillusioned with the Party, though, and after the war, she went to work for a U.N. humanitarian relief organization. She went to grad school to study more philosophy, and prepared herself for a career in academia. The first book that she ever published was a piece of scholarship called Sartre: Romantic Rationalist (1953).

The year after her study on Sartre came out, she published her first novel, Under the Net (1954), later selected as one of the best 100 English-language novels of the 20th century. It's about a 30-something-year-old writer, Jake Donaghue, grappling with an existential struggle; it's greatly influenced by Murdoch's studies of Sartre. Within the novel, the protagonist Jake is working on a novel called The Silencer in which he (via Iris Murdoch) writes, "All theorizing is flight. We must be ruled by the situation itself and this is unutterably particular. Indeed it is something to which we can never get close enough, however hard we may try as it were to crawl under the net." Through out the novel, "the net" refers to language itself.

In her novel, The Nice and the Good (1968), Murdoch wrote: "Happiness is a matter of one's most ordinary everyday mode of consciousness being busy and lively and unconcerned with self. To be damned is for one's ordinary everyday mode of consciousness to be unremitting agonising preoccupation with self."

In 1956, she married John Bayley, an English literature professor and also a novelist whom she'd met at a dance at Oxford a couple of years before. He was six years younger than she, and it was a loving and happy but unconventional marriage between two brilliant scholars: She had love affairs, and he wrote praising reviews for her work and answered her fan mail. They loved to swim together.

Murdoch developed Alzheimer's in the last years of her life, during the mid-1990s. At first, she thought she just had writer's block. She wrote her final novel, a psychological thriller called Jackson's Dilemma (1995), during the early stages of Alzheimer's.

Bayley, now her husband of 40 years, wrote a memoir about the progression of her Alzheimer's disease. He said that she became like "a very nice 3-year-old." The memoir, Elegy for Iris, is divided into two sections: "Then" starts on page 1, describes their courtship and marriage and academic life together, and is written in a traditional narrative form. Bayley writes, "I was living in a fairy story — the kind with sinister overtones and not always a happy ending —in which a young man loves a beautiful maiden who returns his love but is always disappearing into some unknown and mysterious world, about which she will reveal nothing."

The second part of the memoir, entitled "Now," starts on the 223rd page, with a diary entry dated January 1, 1997. From this point on, the book is a series of diary entries focused on daily life with Iris's Alzheimer's.

Elegy for Iris was first published January 1999, while Iris Murdoch was still alive. She died the next month. There was a film made in 2001, Iris, based on the book. Bayley also wrote about his wife in Iris and her Friends: A Memoir of Memory and Desire (1999) and Widower's House (2001).

Iris Murdoch said, "Writing is like getting married. One should never commit oneself until one is amazed at one's luck."

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




  • “Writers end up writing stories—or rather, stories' shadows—and they're grateful if they can, but it is not enough. Nothing the writer can do is ever enough” —Joy Williams
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