Mar. 28, 2004

The War in the Air

by Howard Nemerov

SUNDAY, 28 MARCH, 2004
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Poem: "The War in the Air," by Howard Nemerov, from War Stories: Poems about Long Ago and Now (University of Chicago Press).

The War in the Air

For a saving grace, we didn't see our dead,
Who rarely bothered coming home to die
But simply stayed away out there
In the clean war, the war in the air.

Seldom the ghosts came back bearing their tales
Of hitting the earth, the incompressible sea,
But stayed up there in the relative wind,
Shades fading in the mind,

Who had no graves but only epitaphs
Where never so many spoke for never so few:
Per ardua, said the partisans of Mars,
Per aspera, to the stars.

That was the good war, the war we won
As if there were no death, for goodness' sake,
With the help of the losers we left out there
In the air, in the empty air.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of Frederic Exley, born in Watertown, New York (1929). He wrote one great book, A Fan's Notes (1968), a memoir of his obsession with football.

It's the birthday of writer Nelson Algren, born in Detroit, Michigan (1909). He made it through the University of Illinois, then drifted throughout the Midwest, hopping freights, working as a door-to-door salesman, playing cards, and betting on horses. He eventually settled in Chicago, which he called "The City on the Make," or sometimes, "the lovely lady with the broken nose." He once said, "People ask me why I don't write about nature or the suburbs. If a writer could write the truth about one Chicago street, that would be a good life's work."

Algren wrote two novels: A Walk on the Wild Side (1956), and The Man with the Golden Arm (1949), about a disillusioned, card-dealing World War II veteran named Frankie Machine. It's Algren who's responsible for the famous advice, "Never eat at a place called Mom's, never play cards with a guy named Doc, and never go to bed with anyone who has more troubles than you."

It's the birthday of Russell Banks, born in Newton, Massachusetts (1940). He wrote Continental Drift (1985), The Sweet Hereafter (1992) and Cloudsplitter (1998). He counts Algren among his heroes; he once said, "At a university, you study books that can be deconstructed, not books that can change your life. Algren's books can change your life, and this kind of book you always have to discover on your own. Somebody passes them to you, you know, under the table as if it was an illegal gun or something: 'Read this! Nobody else likes it but you will.' I just love it when someone comes to me and says in a tone of conspiracy, 'I just read this Nelson Algren guy, it's incredible, what do you know about him?'"

It's the birthday of writer Mario Vargas Llosa, born in Arequipa, Peru (1936). He's the author of Conversation in a Cathedral (1969), Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter (1978) and The Feast of the Goat (2002). His parents sent him to a military academy when he was fourteen, and he set his first novel, The Time of the Hero (1962) at the school. After it came out, the administration burned a copy in a ceremony on the school grounds. He lived abroad for several decades, but he returned to Peru in the eighties, ran for president against Alberto Fujimori and lost. "Never again," he said, about his decision to enter politics. "Literature and politics are mutually exclusive."

It's the birthday of Maxim Gorky, the pen name of Aleksei Maksimovich Peshkov, born in Nizhny, Russia (1868). He is best known for his play The Lower Depths (1902), and his autobiographies My Childhood (1914) and In the World (1915). In 1906, he arrived in the United States to campaign on behalf of the Russian Revolution. His visit was sponsored by Mark Twain, who had written a pro-revolutionary essay called "The Czar's Soliloquy" the previous year, and who helped to found a group called The American Friends of Russian Freedom. Gorky was received like a hero, invited to speak publicly and offered hospitality by all sorts of prominent figures. At the time, the two New York papers, the World and the American, were involved in a nasty feud, and when Gorky signed a contract to publish in the American, the World printed a scoop thought to have been supplied by the Russian Embassy—that the woman Gorky was traveling with was his mistress. Immediately, the hotel he was staying in turned Gorky out, honorary dinners and speeches were cancelled, and further fund-raising efforts were rendered ineffectual. Even Twain abandoned him, saying that Gorky "might as well have come over here in his shirt-tail."

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