Friday

Aug. 15, 2014

Absolute September

by Mary Jo Salter

How hard it is to take September
straight—not as a harbinger
of something harder.

Merely like suds in the air, cool scent
scrubbed clean of meaning—or innocent
of the cold thing coldly meant.

How hard the heart tugs at the end
of summer, and longs to haul it in
when it flies out of hand

at the prompting of the first mild breeze.
It leaves us by degrees
only, but for one who sees

summer as an absolute,
Pure State of Light and Heat, the height
to which one cannot raise a doubt,

as soon as one leaf's off the tree
no day following can fall free
of the drift of melancholy.

"Absolute September" by Mary Jo Salter, from A Kiss in Space. © Knopf, 1999. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of the Swedish journalist and novelist Stieg Larsson (books by this author), born in Skelleftehamn (1954). He originally took up fiction writing in 2001 as a way to make some extra money. He approached an editor in 2003 after he'd written two novels and started on a third; he planned 10 detective thrillers, called the Millennium Series, but he died of a heart attack the following year. His three novels were published posthumously; the Swedish title of the first volume translates as Men Who Hate Women (2005), but it's better known in the English-speaking world as The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. That book and its sequels — The Girl Who Played with Fire (2006) and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets' Nest (2007) — have sold about 30 million copies in 40 countries around the world.

It's the birthday of Mary Jo Salter (books by this author), born in Grand Rapids, Michigan (1954). Salter's married to fellow poet Brad Leithauser; they met at Harvard, in a poetry class taught by Elizabeth Bishop. She's published several poetry collections, including A Phone Call to the Future (2008), Open Shutters (2005), and A Kiss in Space (1999)

When asked what she'd be if she weren't a poet, Salter said: "I'm a writer because I'm not a composer. That's what I'd really love to be — a composer of long, complex symphonies and operas! To produce the wordless power of music, to move people in that way, has always seemed to me the highest artistic goal. I'm stuck with being better at words."

It's the birthday of essayist Thomas de Quincey (books by this author), born in Manchester, England (1785). As a teenager, he showed a real aptitude for Greek; he spoke it fluently and wrote verses in that language. He moved to the Lake District in 1809 to be closer to William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, his literary idols. But he eventually fell out with both of them, and, in 1813, he became hooked on opium. Chronically in debt, he had to take a job writing articles for Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine to make ends meet. He wrote more than 200 articles, but he's best remembered for Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (1822). It's a combination of autobiography, social commentary, and vivid descriptions of the effects of the drug. It was an instant sensation and influenced later writers like Edgar Allan Poe and William Burroughs.

On this date in 1935, humorist Will Rogers (books by this author) and pilot Wiley Post, died in a plane crash flying from Fairbanks, Alaska, to Point Barrow. The two men were world famous: Post for being the first pilot to fly solo around the world, and Rogers for his rope tricks and his pithy newspaper column. They were also fellow Oklahomans and friends. So it was natural that Rogers would hire Post to fly him across Alaska as he went in search of new material for his column. While Post flew the plane, Rogers would work away on a typewriter.

Post cobbled together the plane himself, from parts of two different Lockheed aircrafts. Lockheed knew the parts were incompatible and refused to assemble it, knowing it was unsafe. Post had also ordered pontoons for the Alaska trip, in case he needed to make a water landing, but they didn't arrive in time, so he attached two ill-fitting floats instead. The floats made the plane hard to control, and its nose tended to dip down. They hit some bad weather that made it hard to get their bearings. They landed in a lagoon to ask directions, and found they weren't too far from their destination. They took off again, but the engine stalled when they were just 50 feet up. The plane's nose dropped and the craft hit the lagoon, and Post and Rogers died instantly.

On this date in 1843, the amusement park known as Tivoli Gardens opened in Copenhagen, Denmark. It's the second oldest amusement park in the world; the oldest is in nearby Klampenborg. Denmark's King Christian VIII agreed to grant the charter to the park's founder, Georg Carstensen, after Carstensen pointed out that "when the people are amusing themselves, they don't think about politics." He designed it mainly as a pleasure garden, with flowers, cafés, theaters, and bandstands set in a lovely park setting. Today, almost none of Carstensen's original park remains; in 1943, Nazi sympathizers bombed it, burning most of the buildings to the ground, but rebuilding started immediately and the park reopened just a few weeks later.

In 2009, Tivoli Gardens became the first amusement park to operate entirely on wind-generated power. Nearly 4 million people visited the park last year.

It's the birthday of Denise Chávez (books by this author), born in Las Cruces, New Mexico (1948), a town just 40 miles from the Mexican border. Her father was a lawyer, and he left the family when Chávez was a child, so her mother, a teacher, raised her with the help of a strong community of women from both sides of the border.

After earning two master's degrees, Chávez went to work on her first novel, the draft of which was 1,200 pages. She and her editor whittled it down to 456 pages, and the resulting book, Face of an Angel, was published in 1994 to high critical acclaim. The novel includes excerpts from the diary of the protagonist, who is a career waitress, as well as a waitress etiquette and philosophy manual. Chávez herself had spent more than 30 years waiting tables.

She grew up in a family that loved to tell stories, and she acknowledges her roots in the oral storytelling tradition, calling herself a "performance writer." In her writing, she also incorporates her bilingual background, and she does not italicize Spanish words in her works, which has caused conflicts with editors who think that the words should be differentiated in the type or set apart somehow.

Chávez has written several plays, two novels (Face of an Angel, 1994) and (Loving Pedro Infante, 2001), and a children's book (The Woman Who Knew the Language of Animals, 1992). She also wrote a memoir with recipes, A Taco Testimony: Meditations on Family, Food, and Culture (2006). She is the founder and director of the annual Border Book Festival in Las Cruces.

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

 









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