Nov. 3, 2003

Reasons to Survive November

by Tony Hoagland

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Poem: "Reasons to Survive November," Tony Hoagland, from What Narcissism Means to Me (Graywolf Press).

Reasons to Survive November

November like a train wreck—
as if a locomotive made of cold
had hurtled out of Canada
and crashed into a million trees,
flaming the leaves, setting the woods on fire.

The sky is a thick, cold gauze—
but there's a soup special at the Waffle House downtown,
and the Jack Parsons show is up at the museum,
full of luminous red barns.

—Or maybe I'll visit beautiful Donna,
the kickboxing queen from Santa Fe,
and roll around in her foldout bed.

I know there are some people out there
who think I am supposed to end up
                in a room by myself

with a gun and a bottle full of hate,
a locked door and my slack mouth open
          like a disconnected phone.

But I hate those people back
from the core of my donkey soul
and the hatred makes me strong
and my survival is their failure,

and my happiness would kill them
so I shove joy like a knife
into my own heart over and over

and I force myself toward pleasure,
and I love this November life
where I run like a train
deeper and deeper
into the land of my enemies.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of detective writer Martin Cruz Smith, born Martin William Smith in Reading, Pennsylvania (1942). His mother was a jazz singer, and his father was also a jazz musician. He began by writing potboilers and reporting for newspapers before he wrote Gorky Park, which he sold in 1981 for a million dollars. It's a detective novel set in Moscow, and in 1983 it was made into a movie starring William Hurt. Smith wrote two more Russian mystery novels with the same detective character, and then he wrote Rose (1996), set in a nineteenth century English mining town. His most recent book is December 6 (2002), about Tokyo just before the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Smith said, "You have to be an outsider to write."

It's the birthday of photographer Walker Evans, born in St. Louis (1903). He worked mostly in black and white, and didn't use any fancy equipment or techniques. He took pictures with an old beat-up camera with a slow lens and developed his pictures with rudimentary materials. He tried to capture images of the failed American promise—portraits of sharecroppers, old automobiles, faded signs, ghost towns of the West, decrepit factories. He compiled these pictures in his book American Photographs in 1938.

Evans originally wanted to be a writer. He dropped out of Williams College after a year, went to New York to try to write, and then sailed off to Paris where he took classes at the Sorbonne and read Flaubert and Baudelaire. He said "I wanted so much to write that I couldn't write a word." But he took photography lessons and found that he felt completely comfortable behind the lens of a camera. He came back to the United States and got a job as a Wall Street stock clerk, where he met the poet Hart Crane. His first published pictures were three photographs that accompanied Crane's book-length poem The Bridge, about the Brooklyn Bridge.

Evans worked with writer James Agee on a project called Let Us Now Praise Famous Men: Three Tenant Families (1941), in which they documented the lives of three sharecropping families in Alabama. Evans and Agee spent four weeks one summer living with and getting to know the families they were depicting. Agee wrote the text, and Evans provided 31 photographs.

Walker Evans said, "With a camera, it's all or nothing. You either get what you're after at once, or what you do has to be worthless."

It's the birthday of French novelist André Malraux, born to a wealthy family in Paris (1901). After studying Asian languages, he went with his wife to Cambodia at the age of 21. They soon moved to Saigon, where he edited an anti-colonialist newspaper and then joined the anti-colonial Young Annam League. Later, he fought against fascism in the Spanish Civil War, and joined the French Resistance in World War II. He worked as an art editor in Paris, and went on archeological expeditions in Iran and Afghanistan. With surrealist poet Louis Aragon, he founded the International Association of Writers for the Defense of Culture. Malraux believed art was a way for man to transcend his fate. He said, "In art, I am utterly committed. Art is an anti-destiny." His best-known work is Man's Fate (1934), a psychological suspense novel set in the uprisings in Shanghai during the early days of the Chinese Revolution.

He said, "The mystery of life appears to each one of us as it appears to almost every woman when she looks into a child's face and to almost every man when he looks into the face of someone dead."

It's the birthday of poet and journalist William Cullen Bryant, born in Cummington, Massachusetts (1794). He's known for his poems "To a Waterfowl" and "Thanatopsis." He published several poems before he turned 21, and wrote his famous poem "Thanatopsis" when he was only eighteen. He worked on it through several revisions before it was published anonymously in the North American Review in 1817. The poem is about living life to the fullest so that when death comes there are no regrets. It ends:

"So live, that when thy summons comes to join
The innumerable caravan, which moves
To that mysterious realm, where each shall take
His chamber in the silent halls of death,
Thou go not, like the quarry-slave at night,
Scourged to his dungeon, but, sustained and soothed
By an unfaltering trust, approach thy grave
Like one who wraps the drapery of his couch
About him, and lies down to pleasant dreams."

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




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