Feb. 25, 2004

In Praise of My Bed

by Meredith Holmes

The Last Waltz

by Alden Nowlan

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Poems: "The Last Waltz," by Alden Nowlan, from Selected Poems (House of Anansi); and "In Praise of My Bed," by Meredith Holmes, from Shubad's Crown (Pond Road Press).

The Last Waltz

The orchestra playing
the last waltz
at three o'clock
in the morning
in the Knights of Pythias Hall
in Hartland, New Brunswick,
Canada, North America,
world, solar system,
centre of the universe--

and all of us drunk,
swaying together
to the music of rum
and a sad clarinet:

comrades all,
each with his beloved.

In Praise of My Bed
At last I can be with you!
The grinding hours
since I left your side!
The labor of being fully human,
working my opposable thumb,
talking, and walking upright.
Now I have unclasped
unzipped, stepped out of.
Husked, soft, a be-er only,
I do nothing, but point
my bare feet into your
clean smoothness
feel your quiet strength
the whole length of my body.
I close my eyes, hear myself
moan, so grateful to be held this way.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of novelist and critic Anthony Burgess, born in Manchester, England (1917). He was an incredibly prolific writer: he wrote more than thirty novels, hundreds of essays, film and television scripts, translations, and a two-volume autobiography. He once said, "I refuse no reasonable offer of work and very few unreasonable ones." His first love was music: he studied music in college and tried writing symphonies without much success. When he became famous as a writer, he started writing music again with the hope that he would be able to get it performed because of his name recognition. He once said, "I wish people would think of me as a musician who writes novels, instead of as a novelist who writes music on the side."

After fighting in World War II, he worked for five years as a colonial education officer in Malaya. While he was there, he was diagnosed with a brain tumor, and a doctor told him he had only one year to live. He later wrote: "I had been granted something I had never had before: a whole year to live. I would not be run over by a bus tomorrow, nor knifed on the Brighton racetrack. I would not choke on a bone. If I fell in the wintry sea I would not drown. I had a whole year, a long time. In that year I had to earn for my prospective widow. . . . I would have to turn myself into a professional writer."

Burgess wrote five novels in the year 1960 alone, and continued to write at a frantic pace for the rest of his life. He's best known for his 1962 novel A Clockwork Orange, about a violent gang in a bleak futuristic world. It begins: "There was me, that is Alex, and my three droogs, that is Pete, Georgie, and Dim, Dim being really dim, and we sat in the Korova Milkbar making up our rassoodocks what to do with the evening, a flip dark chill winter."

It's the birthday of the "Father of Modern Pathology", Giovanni Battista Morgagni, born in Forli, Italy (1682). He's remembered today for his book On the Seats and Causes of Disease, published in 1761, in which he describes in great detail the results of 640 autopsies he performed on patients who had died from diseases. It's considered one of the most important works in the history of medicine.

It's the birthday of novelist Karl May, born in Ernstthal, Germany (1842). He's famous for writing dozens of novels about the American West at a time when not very many Europeans had been there or knew much about it. He was raised in poverty, and during the 1860s and '70s he spent a lot of time in prison for petty theft and fraud. It was while he was in prison that he began to read about American pioneers and cowboys and Indians. He got the idea for a series of novels about the adventures of a heroic German immigrant named Charley and his Apache Indian friend Winnetou. As soon as he published the books, they became hugely popular, especially among German adolescent boys. His novels became some of the most widely read books in Europe.

Many Europeans first learned about the American West through May's novels. All of his books were subtitled "Travel Experiences" rather than "Travel Novels", and most people thought that May was writing about his own travels in the West. But he had actually never been to America when he started writing the novels, and when he finally did go he never made it farther west than St. Louis.

May's novels are still incredibly popular in Germany. Since his death, about 100 million copies of his books have been sold. Many of his novels have been made into movies and TV shows, and in northern Germany, thousands of people still go to see an annual festival that puts on plays based on May's plots.

It's the birthday of comic playwright Carlo Goldoni, born in Venice (1707). He's one of the greatest playwrights in the history of Italian theater, the author of The Liar, The Coffee House, The Beneficent Bear and many others. In the eighteenth century, most Italian plays were farcical comedies in which the actors wore masks and fancy costumes, and improvised jokes on stage. Moldoni was one of the first playwrights to write more realistic comedies, with believable characters and natural dialogue.

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