Jul. 12, 2010

Going on the Belief Walleyes Eat Late

by Thom Ward

we fish at dusk. No strikes.
Just the occasional bass
thwapping the roof of the water,
making us wish our boat
were anywhere but here.
Which is the umbrella bed—
fat sandbar of stalk weeds, shells,
tangled hooks and lures,
the snouts of old centerboards.

We've nailed some giants off this bed.
Speckled green, dorsal fins bristled,
they died in the snarl of our net.
The thought of those fish
can tease a mile of line from a reel.
So we let out a little more
As the lake goes back and the loon
cries to its mate. The locals say
when you can't see the end of your pole
the day is done.

"Going on the Belief Walleyes Eat Late" by Thom Ward, from Small Boat with Oars of Different Size. © Carnegie Mellon University Press, 2000. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of the man who said, "I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived." That's Henry David Thoreau, (books by this author) born David Henry Thoreau in Concord, Massachusetts (1817). In 1854, he published Walden, or Life in the Woods, which has become a beloved classic.

It's the birthday of poet Pablo Neruda, (books by this author) born Neftali Ricardo Reyes Basoalto, in Parral, Chile (1904). As a boy, he read all the time and wrote poetry. Even though his father disapproved of his writing, he kept doing it, and he was encouraged by the poet Gabriela Mistral, who lived in his town and later became the first Chilean to win a Nobel Prize. In 1923, when the boy was 19, he sold all his possessions in order to publish his first book, Crepusculario (Twilight), and he published it under the name Pablo Neruda so his father wouldn't be upset. In 1924, he published Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair, which was incredibly successful.

It's the birthday of mystery novelist Donald Westlake, (books by this author) born in Brooklyn, New York, (1933), the author of more than 100 books.

He worked as slush-pile reader for New York-based magazines, and at night he wrote his own short stories — things that did not often advance past the slush pile. In fact, he received 204 rejection slips before his first short story was ever accepted. But soon after that, the first novel he wrote was accepted by Random House. It was called The Mercenaries (1960), it was huge best-seller, and it was nominated for the prestigious Edgar Allan Poe Award from the Mystery Writers of America.

He wrote fast, sometimes publishing four books a year. Publishers had reservations about releasing multiple titles in one year by a single author. And for this reason — especially early in his career, when he was furiously prolific — he used pen names. Mystery novelist Donald Westlake was also mystery novelist Richard Stark, and he was Curt Clark, and Timothy J. Culver, and Tucker Coe. And he was Samuel Holt and also Edwin West.

Almost all of his books are set in New York City. His two most famous characters: one a bumbling, disorganized criminal, John Dortmunder, and the other a callous felon named Parker.

Westlake wrote on a typewriter — manual typewriters, not the electric kind — from the 1950s through the 1990s and into the 21st century, up until he died on New Year's Eve 2008 from a heart attack at the age of 75. His reasoning: "I don't want to sit there while I am thinking and have something hum at me." For decades, he wrote in the middle of the night, getting started at 10 in the evening and going through till 4 in the morning. But later he moved his work schedule to daytime — still seven days a week — saying, "I loved it [working at night], but social reality impeded. Now I wander in here at 9 in the morning or so, and come back for a while in the afternoon. I am a very lenient boss." He usually wrote about 7,000 words in one sitting, which is something like 25 double-spaced pages in 12-point Times New Roman font.

It's the birthday of (Gaius) Julius Caesar, born in Rome around 100 B.C. He came from an aristocratic family that traced its lineage back to the goddess Venus, but by the time he was born, his parents weren't rich or even distinguished. And so it was rather ambitious of him to try to become a Roman politician, at a time when it was almost a requirement for all politicians to come from powerful families.

In the last years of his life, Caesar was appointed absolute dictator of Rome. He had ambitious plans to redistribute wealth and land, and he began planning public works and an invasion of Germany. But a group of senators, led by Brutus and Cassius, wanted to bring back the old republic. So they organized an assassination on the steps of the Senate. Caesar died from over 20 stab wounds.

Julius Caesar said, "Which death is preferably to every other? The unexpected."

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