Jul. 23, 2003

In Bed With A Book

by Mona Van Duyn

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Poem: "In Bed With A Book," by Mona van Duyn from Near Change (Knopf).

In Bed With A Book

In police procedurals they are dying all over town,
the life ripped out of them, by gun, bumper, knife,
hammer, dope, etcetera, and no clues at all.
All through the book the calls come in: body found
in bed, car, street, lake, park, garage, library,
and someone goes out to look and write it down.
Death begins life's whole routine to-do
in these stories of our fellow citizens.

Nobody saw it happen, or everyone saw,
but can't remember the car. What difference does it make
when the child will never fall in love, the girl will never
have a child, the man will never see a grandchild, the old maid
will never have another cup of hot cocoa at bedtime?
Like life, the dead are dead, their consciousness,
as dear to them as mine to me, snuffed out.
What has mind to do with this, when the earth is bereaved?

I lie, with my dear ones, holding a fictive umbrella,
while around us falls the real and acid rain.
The handle grows heavier and heavier in my hand.
Unlike life, tomorrow night under the bedlamp
by a quick link of thought someone will find out why,
and the policemen and their wives and I will feel better.
But all that's toward the end of the book. Meantime, tonight,
without a clue I enter sleep's little rehearsal.

Literary Notes:

It's the birthday of John Treadwell Nichols, born in Berkeley, California (1940). He's the author of the The Milagro Beanfield War (1974), The Voice of the Butterfly (2001) and many other novels. He began writing seriously when he was fourteen years old. His earliest stories were all gangster epics full of raunchy slang, but his first published books were realistic novels about people like himself. He worked as a blues singer in a Greenwich Village café, a dishwasher in Connecticut, and a firefighter in the mountains of Arizona. After traveling in Central America and moving to New Mexico, he decided that he had to write a political novel about the lives of Latin American people. He worked on seven novels that never saw the light of day. Finally, he said, "I blammed out The Milagro Beanfield War in a last-ditch effort to save what was by then an almost non-existent literary career." It was a great success, and Robert Redford made it into a movie.

It's the birthday of Sir Jonathan Hutchinson, born in Selby, Yorkshire, England (1828). He was a pioneer in the study of syphilis, a disease that has afflicted many great writers and artists, like Gustave Flaubert, and Vincent Van Gogh.

It's the birthday of crime novelist Raymond Chandler, born in Chicago, Illinois (1888). He's known for his novels about the private detective Philip Marlow such as The Big Sleep (1939) and The Long Goodbye (1954). His mother divorced his father when he was a boy, and he went with her to live in England. He studied classics in college and thought about being a professor of literature, but eventually moved back to the United States. He had a hard time readjusting to America. People thought his English accent was funny, and he was revolted by American habits like spitting. He wrote some melodramatic poetry and essays, but couldn't get much published, so he gave up and took a bookkeeping class, got a job at a bank, and went on to become a wealthy oil company executive. He didn't start thinking about writing again until the stock market crashed in 1929 and he lost his job. He wrote for pulp fiction magazines because he thought it would be easy, and because it paid pretty well, about a penny a word. He published his first story when he was forty-five years old. Chandler was never any good at coming up with plots. He had to study and steal from other mystery writers like Dashiell Hammett. But he knew how to create atmosphere. Chandler is famous for his metaphors. In one novel he wrote, "She smelled the way the Taj Mahal looked by moonlight." In another he wrote, "She gave me a smile I could feel in my hip pocket."

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