Sep. 13, 2003


by Michael Ondaatje

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Poem: "Bearhug," by Michael Ondaatje, from The Cinnamon Peeler: Selected Poems (Knopf).


Griffin calls to come and kiss him goodnight
I yell ok. Finish something I'm doing,
then something else, walk slowly round
the corner to my son's room.
He is standing arms outstretched
waiting for a bearhug. Grinning.

Why do I give my emotion an animal's name,
give it that dark squeeze of death?
This is the hug which collects
all his small bones and his warm neck against me.
The thin tough body under the pyjamas
locks to me like a magnet of blood.

How long was he standing there
like that, before I came?

Literary Notes:

It's the birthday of English man of letters J(ohn) B(oynton) Priestley, born in Bradford, England (1894). He wrote more than a hundred books of fiction, essays, and drama. His most popular novel is The Good Companions (1929), about a group of touring performers who know that the movies are going to put them out of business. He served in World War I, and it was the defining experience of his life. Most of his friends were killed, and he believed that England was never the same afterwards. He never wrote fiction about the war, because he thought it would be disrespectful. His favorite of his own novels was Bright Day (1946), about his hometown before the war. He said, "I belong at heart to the pre-1914 North Country."

It's the birthday of Roald Dahl, born in Llandaff, South Wales (1916). He's known for children's books such as James and the Giant Peach (1961) and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (1964). His parents were Norwegian, but they lived in Great Britain so he could attend British schools, which his father believed were the best schools in the world. Dahl hated school. He was always terrified of being beaten by the teachers, and he got terrible grades. As soon as he finished high school, he took a job with the Shell Oil Company to get as far away from England as possible. He went to live in Africa and loved it. When World War II broke out, he quit his job, drove to a British base in Kenya, and signed up with the Royal Air Force. He served as a fighter pilot until he was shot down over Egypt, and he barely crawled out of the plane before the gas tanks exploded. He started writing stories when a journalist asked him to write down the most exciting thing that had happened to him during the war. The journalist sent the story to a magazine without his knowledge, and it was published. He decided that if writing was that easy, he'd try to do more of it. Dahl made his name as a writer of short stories for adults. He specialized in dark stories with a twist at the end. In one story, a woman murders her husband with a frozen leg of lamb and then feeds the lamb to the police when they come looking for the murder weapon. His stories were published in collections such as Someone Like You (1953) and Kiss, Kiss (1959). When he got married and had children, he started telling them stories every night before they went to bed. He found that their favorite stories were those in which wicked adults met terrible ends. He wrote his first children's book, James and the Giant Peach (1961), about a boy who escapes from his wicked aunts by squashing them in a giant peach. He went on to write many more children's books, and he said that the secret to his success was that he conspired with children against adults.

It's the birthday of Sherwood Anderson, born in Camden, Ohio (1876). He's best known for a book of short stories about small town life, Winesburg, Ohio (1919). His father was a veteran of the Civil War and liked telling Civil War stories better than working. Anderson grew up resenting his father's laziness. He sympathized with his mother, who was miserable for most of his childhood. She died when he was a teenager, and he was so disgusted at his father's lack of grief that he left home and never saw his father again. He worked at a warehouse in Chicago and took business classes at night. He eventually got a job managing a mail-order paint company in Elyria, Ohio. He started writing fiction in 1909. One day at work, he stood up and walked out of the office and wandered off, ignoring everyone who asked where he was going. He was found four days later, wandering around in nearby Cleveland. He said later that he had pretended to be crazy so that the paint company wouldn't take him back. He moved to Chicago and became friends with writers like Carl Sandburg and Theodore Dreiser. He wrote every day at a desk watching people walk by his window. He said, "Sometimes it seemed to me ... that each person who passed along the street below, under the light, shouted his secret up to me." He was struggling to write what he called "a story of another human being, quite outside myself, truly told." One rainy night, Anderson got out of bed without any clothes on, and began to write. He said, "It was there ... sitting near an open window, the rain occasionally blowing in and wetting my bare back, that I wrote the first of the stories, afterwards to be known as the Winesburg stories." Anderson was 43 years old when he published Winesburg, Ohio (1919), and it made him famous. The book is a collection of short stories about people in a small town, and it was revolutionary, because he wrote about misery and sexual frustration and violent desires in a very simple prose style. He dedicated the book to his mother, saying, "[Her] keen observations on the life about her first awoke in me the hunger to see beneath the surface of lives." Though he never wrote anything else as good as Winesburg, Ohio, the book was very influential for many writers, including Ernest Hemingway.

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