Dec. 15, 2009


by Galway Kinnell

I open my eyes to see how the night
is progressing. The clock glows green,
the light of the last-quarter moon
shines up off the snow into our bedroom.
Her portion of our oceanic duvet
lies completely flat. The words
of the shepherd in Tristan, "Waste
and empty, the sea," come back to me.
Where can she be? Then in the furrow
where the duvet overlaps her pillow,
a small hank of brown hair
shows itself, her marker that she's here,
asleep, somewhere down in the dark
underneath. Now she rotates
herself a quarter turn, from strewn
all unfolded on her back to bunched
in a Z on her side, with her back to me.
I squirm nearer, careful not to break
into the immensity of her sleep,
and lie there absorbing the astounding
quantity of heat a slender body
ovens up around itself.
Her slow, purring, sometimes snorish,
perfectly intelligible sleeping sounds
abruptly stop. A leg darts back
and hooks my ankle with its foot
and draws me closer. Immediately
her sleeping sounds resume, telling me:
"Come, press against me, yes, like that,
put your right elbow on my hipbone, perfect,
and your right hand at my breasts, yes, that's it,
now your left arm, which has become extra,
stow it somewhere out of the way, good.
Entangled with each other so, unsleeping one,
together we will outsleep the night."

"Insomniac" by Galway Kinnell, from Strong is Your Hold. © Houghton Mifflin Company, 2006. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of the authoress called by Philip Roth "the most gifted woman now writing in English": Edna O'Brien, (books by this author) born in County Clare, Ireland (1932). Newsweek described her as having "the soul of Molly Bloom and the skills of Virginia Woolf." She grew up in a "non-book owning family"; once her mom found a book by Irish playwright Sean O'Casey (books by this author) in Edna's luggage and wanted to set fire to it.

She went to pharmacy school. But by the time she'd gotten her license, she knew she wanted to dedicate herself to writing. She was working in a chemist's shop in Dublin when she discovered a slender volume called Introducing James Joyce: a selection of Joyce's prose,with an introduction by T.S. Eliot. She later said: "I opened it to a section from Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, the Christmas dinner scene, with the blue flame over the Christmas pudding. Up to then, I had been writing rather fancifully, with a lot of adjectives. When I read that, I realized one thing: that I need go no further than my own interior, my own experience, for whatever I wanted to write. It was truly, without sounding like St. Paul, an utter revelation to me." To this day, Edna O'Brien keeps the book handy, its yellow hardcover now faded. Inside, she inscribed it: "A Book that taught me more than any other about writing. Purchased for sixpence in Bachelor's Walk in 1950 or 1951."

She was in her 20s when she wrote and published her first book, Country Girls (1960). She'd received a £50 advance for it, which she blew right away, and then she sat down and wrote the book in just three weeks. It immediately made her famous — and in Ireland, particularly infamous. The book was banned there for allegedly "smearing Irish womanhood." She said, "I was accused of betraying my country, my locality, my sex. The nuns in my convent went bonkers with rage." At her home parish in the west of Ireland, a priest called out from the pulpit for anyone possessing a copy of the book to bring it back to that church that night so the copies could be burned. People said nasty things to her mother. Edna O'Brien's mother never, to the end, approved of her daughter's choice of writing as career.

O'Brien moved to London and has spent her life in exile there. But like her hero James Joyce, (books by this author) she continued to write about the land she had exiled herself from. She once said: "James Joyce lived all his life away and wrote obsessively and gloriously about Ireland. Although he had left Ireland bodily, he had not left it psychically, no more than I would say I have."

Ten years ago, she wrote a biography of Joyce — just 192 pages long — for the Penguin Lives series. James Joyce by Edna O'Brien begins:

"Once upon a time there was a man coming down a road in Dublin and he gave himself the name of Dedalus the sorcerer, constructor of labyrinths and maker of wings for Icarus who flew so close to the sun that he fell, as the apostolic Dubliner James Joyce would fall deep into a world of words — from the "epiphanies" of youth to the epistomadologies of later years.

James Joyce, poor joist, a funnominal man, supporting a gay house in a slum of despond. His name derived from the Latin and meant joy but at times he thought himself otherwise — a jejune Jesuit spurning Christ's terrene body, a lecher, a Christian brother in luxuriousness, a Joyce of all trades, a bullock-befriending bard, a peerless mummer, a priestified kinchite, a quill-frocked friar, a timoneer, a pool-beg flasher and a man with the gift of the Irish majuscule script."

Edna O'Brien is now on the faculty at University College Dublin, where Joyce was a student more than 100 years ago. This year, she published a biography on Lord Byron, entitled Byron in Love: A Short Daring Life (2009).

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
  • “I want to live other lives. I've never quite believed that one chance is all I get. Writing is my way of making other chances.” —Anne Tyler
  • “Writing is a performance, like singing an aria or dancing a jig” —Stephen Greenblatt
  • “All good writing is swimming under water and holding your breath.” —F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • “Good writing is always about things that are important to you, things that are scary to you, things that eat you up.” —John Edgar Wideman
  • “In certain ways writing is a form of prayer.” —Denise Levertov
  • “Writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia.” —E.L. Doctorow
  • “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” —E.L. Doctorow
  • “Let's face it, writing is hell.” —William Styron
  • “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” —Thomas Mann
  • “Writing is 90 percent procrastination: reading magazines, eating cereal out of the box, watching infomercials.” —Paul Rudnick
  • “Writing is a failure. Writing is not only useless, it's spoiled paper.” —Padget Powell
  • “Writing is very hard work and knowing what you're doing the whole time.” —Shelby Foote
  • “I think all writing is a disease. You can't stop it.” —William Carlos Williams
  • “Writing is like getting married. One should never commit oneself until one is amazed at one's luck.” —Iris Murdoch
  • “The less conscious one is of being ‘a writer,’ the better the writing.” —Pico Iyer
  • “Writing is…that oddest of anomalies: an intimate letter to a stranger.” —Pico Iyer
  • “Writing is my dharma.” —Raja Rao
  • “Writing is a combination of intangible creative fantasy and appallingly hard work.” —Anthony Powell
  • “I think writing is, by definition, an optimistic act.” —Michael Cunningham
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