Nov. 18, 2014

Adirondack Moosehead

by Jeffrey Harrison

The moose that once presided over games
of Monopoly and crazy eights,
that loomed above us, goofy and majestic,
into whose antlers we threw paper planes,
still hangs over the great stone fireplace
like the figurehead of a ship.

All these years he hasn't flicked an eyelash
in response to anything we've done,
and in that way resembles God,
whom, as children, we imagined looking down
but didn't know how to visualize. A moose
over the altar would have been

as good as anything—better than a cross—
staring down on us with kind dark eyes
that would have seemed, at least, to understand,
his antlers like gigantic upturned hands
ready to lift us off the ground—
or like enormous wings outspread for flight.

"Adirondack Moosehead" by Jeffrey Harrison, from The Names of Things. © Waywiser Press, 2006. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of playwright and humorist W.S. (William Schwenck) Gilbert of Gilbert and Sullivan (books by this author), born in London (1836). He was a writer of humorous verse when he met composer Arthur Sullivan in 1870, and they went on to write 14 comic operas in the 25-year period from 1871 to 1896, including H.M.S. Pinafore (1878) and The Pirates of Penzance (1879). W.S. Gilbert, who wrote, "Life's a pudding full of plums; / Care's a canker that benumbs, / Wherefore waste our elocution / On impossible solution? / Life's a pleasant institution, / Let us take it as it comes."

He also wrote:

"If you wish in this world to advance,
your merits you're bound to enhance;
you must stir it and stump it,
and blow your own trumpet,
Or trust me, you haven't a chance."

It's the birthday of writer Margaret Atwood (books by this author), born in Ottawa, Ontario (1939). She spent most of her childhood living in the backwoods of northern Quebec, where her father did research on entomology. There were no roads, and no plumbing or electricity. She taught herself to read so that she could read the comics, and soon after she began to write.

She went to the University of Toronto, and then on to Harvard, where she took a graduate seminar on early American literature. She was fascinated by the Puritans, especially since some of her ancestors were Puritans, and one had been hanged for witchcraft. She returned home to Canada, found work teaching in Toronto, and began to publish poetry. She didn't know many writers, especially women writers. Of her attempts to fit in as a writer, she said: "I would dress in black. I would learn to smoke cigarettes, although they gave me headaches and made me cough, and drink something romantic and unusually bad for you, such as absinthe. I would live by myself, in a suitably painted attic (black) and have lovers whom I would discard in appropriate ways [...] I would never, never own an automatic washer-dryer. Sartre, Samuel Beckett, Kafka, and Ionesco, I was sure, did not have major appliances, and these were the writers I most admired."

She continued to publish poetry, and a few novels, including The Edible Woman (1969), The Circle Game (1966), and The Journals of Susanna Moodie (1970). Then, at the age of 32, she became suddenly famous when she published a critical study of Canadian literature called Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature. She claimed that every culture is dominated by a central metaphor, and that Canada's is survival. She wrote: "Our stories are likely to be tales not of those who made it but of those who made it back, from the awful experience — the North, the snowstorm, the sinking ship — that killed everyone else. The survivor has no triumph or victory but the fact of his survival. Survival was hugely controversial in Canada and made Atwood a household name. After its publication, she left Toronto and moved to a farm in rural Ontario to raise a family and write full time.

Years later, she wrote a novel about a dystopian future where the birthrate is declining and women called "handmaids" are kept as concubines by the elite members of a theocracy. To write the book, she harkened back to her graduate seminar, and used the setting, social structure, and prose style of Puritan Massachusetts. The Handmaid's Tale (1985) became a big best-seller. She said: "The thing to remember is that there is nothing new about the society depicted in The Handmaid's Tale except the time and place [...] My book reflects the form and style of the early Puritan society and addresses the dynamics that bring about such a situation."

Her other novels include Cat's Eye (1988), Alias Grace (1996), The Blind Assassin (2000), and the trilogy Oryx and Crake (2003), The Year of the Flood (2009), and MaddAddam (2013).

The MaddAddam trilogy and The Handmaid's Tale are often called dystopias, but Atwood calls them ustopias. She said: "Ustopia is a world I made up by combining utopia and dystopia — the imagined perfect society and its opposite — because, in my view, each contains a latent version of the other. In addition to being, almost always, a mapped location, Ustopia is also a state of mind."

She said, "I've never understood why people consider youth a time of freedom and joy. It's probably because they have forgotten their own."

It was on this day in 1928 that Mickey Mouse was born. Walt Disney's "Steamboat Willie," had its premiere in New York at the Colony Theatre. It was the first sound-synchronized cartoon to attract widespread public attention. Along with Mickey Mouse, the black and white cartoon featured Minnie Mouse and Peg-Leg Pete.

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