Dec. 30, 2009

Chance Meeting

by Susan Browne

I know him, that man
walking- toward me up the crowded street
of the city, I have lived with him
seven years now, I know his fast stride,
his windy wheatfield hair, his hands thrust
deep in his jacket pockets, hands
that have known my body, touched
its softest part, caused its quick shudders
and slow releasings, I have seen his face
above my face, his mouth smiling, moaning
his eyes closed and opened, I have studied
his eyes, the brown turning gold at the centers,
I have silently watched him lying beside me
in the early morning, I know his loneliness,
like mine, human and sad,
but different, too, his private pain
and pleasure I can never enter even as he comes
closer, past trees and cars, trash and flowers,
steam rising from the manhole covers,
gutters running with rain, he lifts his head,
he sees me, we are strangers again,
and a rending music of desire and loss —
I don't know him — courses through me,
and we kiss and say, It's good to see you,
as if we haven't seen each other in years
when it was just a few hours ago,
and we are shy, then, not knowing
what to say next.

"Chance Meeting" by Susan Browne, from Buddha's Dogs. © Four Way Books, 2004. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of the novelist who coined the term "Generation X": Douglas Coupland, (books by this author) born on a NATO base in Baden-Söllingen, West Germany (1961).

His first novel was Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture (1991), and his most recent book is Generation A (2009). Generation A is set in the near future, but at a time when bees have become extinct, and it's the story of five people across the world — in Iowa, New Zealand, Sri Lanka, Ontario, and Paris — who are somehow stung by bees and so come together to figure out what happened.

And he said, "TV and the Internet are good because they keep stupid people from spending too much time out in public."

It's the birthday of Rudyard Kipling, (books by this author) born in Bombay, India (1865). As a boy, he was cared for by an ayah, a governess, and other Indian servants, and he learned to speak Hindi better than English and liked to listen to the servants tell stories, which his parents couldn't understand. He wrote: "In the afternoon heats before we took our sleep, she [his ayah] or Meeta would tell us stories and Indian nursery songs all unforgotten, and we were sent into the dining-room after we had been dressed, with the caution 'Speak English now to Papa and Mamma.' So we spoke 'English,' haltingly translated out of the vernacular idiom that one thought and dreamed in."

But his days in India ended when he was six years old and sent back to England. He went to school there, but he didn't have enough money to go to Oxford and he didn't do well enough in school to get in on a scholarship. So in 1882, when he was 16 years old, he went back to India to work for a newspaper, The Civil and Military Gazette. He went on to write extremely popular stories about British people in India, including Plain Tales from the Hills (1888) and Soldiers Three (1888).

Kipling married an American woman, Carrie Balestier, in 1891, and the couple moved to Vermont. And it was there that he wrote his most famous novels, The Jungle Book (1894) and its sequel, The Second Jungle Book (1895).

He also published several poetry collections, including The Seven Seas (1896) and Barrack Room Ballads (1892), and he is best known for the poems "Gunga Din," "The White Man's Burden," and "If."

It's the birthday of Swedish novelist Sara Lidman, (books by this author) born in the village of Missenträsk, Sweden, near the Artic Circle, in 1923. She had tuberculosis as a child, and had to spend time in a sanitarium, and she said, "It was wonderful. All these people and all this bustling life and you were allowed to read." She lived and traveled around the world — went to South Africa to learn about apartheid, and to Vietnam to get a first-hand account of the war there.

She published her first novel, Tjärdalen (1953), translated as The Tar Pit. Written in dialect, it's the story of a small, poor village in northern Sweden in the 1930s. The residents spend a year building a tar pit hoping that it will bring some money into the village, only to have the village outcast, a man called The Fox, intentionally destroy it right before it is ready to fire. The Fox wounds himself in the process, but the villagers are so furious with the man who has destroyed a year's worth of labor that they don't give him the medical help he needs, and let him die of gangrene. The village doctor calls it a "collective murder," and one character says afterward: "We must never become so poor that we cannot afford to let a useless person live among us."

The Tar Pit made Sara Lidman famous as soon as it was published. She went on to write many more novels, many of them set in rural Northern Sweden, including Cloudberry Land, (Hjortronlandet, 1955), Rain Bird (Regnspiran, 1958), and Life's Root (Lifsens rot, 1996).

It's the birthday of poet Joshua Clover, (books by this author) born in Berkeley, California, in 1962. In 1997, he published his first book of poems, Madonna anno domini, and it won the Walt Whitman Award from the Academy of American Poets. And then nine years later, he published The Totality for Kids (2006).

It was on this day in 1816 that Percy Bysshe Shelley and Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin were married. They traveled through Europe, then returned to England, by which time Mary was pregnant. She gave birth to a daughter, who was born prematurely and died after two weeks. A year later, in January of 1816, they had a healthy child named William. That summer, they accepted the invitation of Mary's stepsister, Claire, to join her and Lord Byron at Lake Geneva. Claire and Byron were lovers, and Claire and Shelley were also probably lovers off and on during those years. It was during that stay in Switzerland that Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, soon to be Mary Shelley, (books by this author) began her most famous novel, Frankenstein (1818).

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