Dec. 11, 2003


by David Kirby

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Poem: "Russia," by David Kirby, from I Think I am Going to Call My Wife Paraguay (Orchises).


A woman lifts a wine bottle
and brings it down
on the head of her lover,
who falls dead at her feet.

At the trial a student
leaps up, pale with love,
and shouts I did it,
so they take him away.

When he gets out of prison,
he goes down to the river,
where he sees the woman
reading under a tree.

She has become
a young girl again.
He offers her a bouquet
and says marry me, marry me

but she throws the flowers
in the water and says nothing.
It is most the beautiful
day of his life.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of American short story writer Grace Paley, born in New York City (1922). She was raised in the Bronx by Russian immigrants who spoke Yiddish, Russian and English around the house. She started writing poetry at an early age, and took a course from the British poet W.H. Auden when she was 17 years old. As she grew older she felt an urge to write fiction, but she was raising two children and felt that she didn't have the time. One day, she fell ill and arranged for her children to go to an after-school program while she stayed home and rested. Without the children there to take care of, she sat down at a typewriter and started writing what would become her first short story, "Goodbye and Good Luck." She wrote two more stories and began to send them to the editors of magazines, but no one would publish them. Eventually, she showed the stories to the ex-husband of a friend, who worked in publishing. He said the stories were so good that if she could write seven more like the ones he just read he was sure he could get them published. Paley wrote seven more stories, and The Little Disturbances of Man was published in 1959.

Her short stories are often about the lives of ordinary people in New York, especially women. Many of her stories don't have much action or plot. She wrote in the short story "A Conversation with My Father": "[Plot] takes all hope away. Everyone real or invented deserves the open destiny of life."

Paley often goes long stretches without writing. She starts stories by writing down a few sentences and letting them sit for as long as it takes for her to think of what should come next. Sometimes, she said, it takes months or even years. Her second book of short stories wasn't published until 1974, 15 years after her first collection. She spent the years in between protesting the Vietnam War and participating in the civil rights and feminist movements. She has called herself a "somewhat combative pacifist and cooperative anarchist."

It's the birthday of American poet Jerome Rothenberg, born in New York City (1931). His first collection of poetry came out in 1959, and since then he's published over 20 more. He's also a well-known translator who has translated poems from French, German, Spanish, Aztec, Navajo, Hebrew, and Seneca. He said, "There are no half-formed languages, no underdeveloped or inferior languages. . . . The language of snow among the Eskimo is awesome. The aspect system of Hopi verbs can, by a flick of the tongue, make the most subtle kinds of distinction between different types of motion."

It's the birthday of writers and longtime friends Jim Harrison and Thomas McGuane. Harrison was born in Grayling, Michigan (1937). One day, he was out hunting in the woods when he fell off a cliff and hurt his back. Thomas McGuane suggested that Harrison write a novel. He began work on Wolf, and it was published in 1971.

Harrison wrote a few books of poetry and another novel, but he was struggling to make just $10,000 per year. Then, in 1979, he came out with a series of novellas entitled Legends of the Fall. It was so successful that Harrison was able to buy a farm near his old home in Michigan, as well as a cabin in the woods of the Upper Peninsula.

Jim Harrison said, "I like grit, I like love and death, I'm tired of irony. . . . A lot of good fiction is sentimental. . . . I would rather give full vent to all human loves and disappointments, and take a chance on being corny, than die a smartass."

Thomas McGuane was born in Wyandotte, Michigan (1939). He's the author of many novels, including Ninety-two in the Shade (1973), Nothing but Blue Skies (1992), and The Cadence of Grass (2002). He grew up in an Irish family that loved to tell stories, but his parents discouraged him from becoming a writer. When he left for Michigan State University, he devoted himself to reading and writing fiction, hoping to make it big as a writer and show up his parents. He developed a circle of friends that included Jim Harrison, and they exchanged stories and books. Harrison used his connections in the publishing world to help get McGuane's first novel, The Sporting Club (1969), published.

McGuane lives on a ranch in Montana, where he raises cattle and takes care of dogs and horses. He's an avid fisherman, and published a book about fishing in 1999 called The Longest Silence: A Life in Fishing. For a while, he was a serious rodeo competitor. He said, "I don't . . . believe in American writing. . . . The problems of writing . . . are really universal. They are the same in Mexico, the same in Yugoslavia, and the same in Montana."

It's the birthday of Russian writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, born in Kislovodsk, Russia (1918). He went to great lengths to write and eventually publish his novels under the Communist regime of the Soviet Union. After fighting in World War II, he was arrested for writing letters that criticized Joseph Stalin. He was sentenced to eight years in Russian labor camps, where he worked as a miner, a bricklayer, and a foundryman. Upon his release, he was exiled to a village in Kazakhstan, where he taught math and physics. He began writing prose in secret, being careful not to show his work to even his closest friends, in case word got out to Soviet authorities. He said he was "convinced that I should never see a single line of mine in print in my lifetime." Then, in 1961, the Soviet government adopted slightly looser censorship standards. Solzhenitsyn decided to risk trying to publish his first novel, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1962). He succeeded, but two years later the government took his books out of print and forced him to stop publishing.

Solzhenitsyn's manuscripts were smuggled into Europe and America, and they drew the attention of several major writers. In 1970, Solzhenitsyn won the Nobel Prize for Literature, even though he still couldn't publish in his home country. It wasn't until the collapse of the Soviet Union that his works became widely available in Russia. Today, he's considered a national hero.

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