Sep. 21, 2003

Cellar Stairs

by Thomas Lux

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Poem: "Cellar Stairs," by Thomas Lux, from New and Selected Poems (Houghton Mifflin).

Cellar Stairs

It's rickety down to the dark.
Old skates, long-bladed, hang by leather laces
on your left and want to slash your throat,
but they can't, they can't, being only skates.
On a shelf above, tools: shears,
three-pronged weed hacker, ice pick,
poison-rats and bugs-and on the landing,
halfway down, a keg of roofing nails
you don't want to fall face first into,

no, you don't. To your right,
a fuse box with its side-switch-a slot machine,
on a good day, or the one the warden pulls,
on a bad. Against the wall,
on nearly every stair, one boot, no two
together, no pair, as if the dead
went off, short-legged or long, to where they go,
which is down these steps,
at the bottom of which is a swollen,

humming, huge white freezer
big enough for many bodies—
of children, at least. And this
is where you're sent each night
for the frozen bag of beans
or peas or broccoli
that lies beside the slab
of meat you'll eat for dinner,
each countless childhood meal your last.

Literary Notes:

It's the birthday of novelist H(erbert) G(eorge) Wells, born in Bromley, England (1866). After college, he got married, got a job writing biology textbooks, and settled down for a few years. But when he developed a respiratory illness in his late twenties, he thought he didn't have many years to live, so he left his wife, ran away with another woman, and began writing furiously. Between 1895 and 1898, he published all of the novels for which he is best remembered: The Time Machine (1895), The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896), The Invisible Man (1897), and The War of the Worlds (1898). At the time, scientists were debating the processes of evolution, the danger of scientific knowledge, and the possibility of life on other planets. He was one of the first writers to explore these ideas in fiction. He lived much longer than he thought he would, and went on to publish two or three books almost every year for the rest of his life. His book Outline of History (1919-1920) was his attempt to write a complete history of the world, and it outsold all his other books combined. H.G. Wells said, "Every time I see an adult on a bicycle, I no longer despair for the future of the human race."

It's the birthday of horror novelist Stephen King, born in Portland, Maine (1947). He's the author of many novels, including The Shining (1977), Pet Sematary (1983), and most recently From a Buick 8 (2002). After college, King worked jobs at a gas station and a laundromat. His wife worked at Dunkin' Donuts. His writing office was the furnace room of his trailer home, and all of his rough drafts were typed single-spaced, with no margins, to save paper. He had studied creative writing in college and tried to write some realistic stories, but he found that writing about things like giant man-eating rats was a lot more fun. He sold a series of horror stories to men's magazines, and he said that the paychecks from these stories always seemed to arrive when one of his kids had an ear infection or the car had broken down. He was inspired to write his first novel when a friend challenged him to try writing from a female point of view. He had gotten a job as a teacher, and had witnessed the extraordinary cruelty of teenagers, so he wrote about a weird, miserable, high school girl with psychic powers named Carrie White. He gave up on the book at one point and threw it in the trash, but his wife fished it out and told him to keep going. Carrie was published in 1973. The hard cover didn't sell very well. When his agent called to say that the paperback rights had sold for $400,000, King couldn't believe it. He went on to become one of the most popular novelists of all time.

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