Aug. 24, 2004

I Got Beat Up A Lot in High School

by Christopher Murray

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Poem: "I Got Beat Up A Lot in High School," by Christopher Murray, from Bend, Don't Shatter. © Soft Skull Press. Reprinted with permission.

I Got Beat Up A Lot in High School

He says. He smiles. He's sweet,
has become a lovely, gentle person.
I probably provoked them a lot,
he says. He's still small and sensitive.
There were lots of pregnancies, he says,
and suicides. They would drive off
a cliff in their cars, he says, just outside
of Blissing, Montana. And one girl,
he says, didn't know that her car
had airbags and she survived the impact
against the boulders on the bottom.
When she finally came back to school,
they said she could never do anything right,
Or they'd shoot themselves.
They all had gun racks on their pickups,
he says. Everyone drank quite a bit.
There was one gay bar, he says, where once
he saw his statistics teacher, soused,
and trolling for sex. But that's the past,
he says, sighing, sanguine and philosophic.
Now, I live in New York City, he says,
surrounded by friends and I can't conceive
of what I must have felt back then.
I'm sorry, I say, for all this pain in your past
and wrap my arms around his beautiful body.
It's not your fault, he says, and smiles,
looking out from inside himself.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of novelist Jean Rhys, born in Dominica, in the West Indies (1894). She made one the great literary comebacks of the 20th century. After years as a vagabond and bohemian, working as a ghostwriter and a manikin, she became one of the most promising writers of her generation after publishing several novels, including Good Morning, Midnight (1939).

But during World War II, she stopped publishing, and vanished from public life. Many of her fans assumed she had died. Then, in 1958, the BBC decided to make a movie of her book Good Morning, Midnight, and they placed published an advertisement, seeking information about Jean Rhys, and she responded. That advertisement inspired her to start publishing fiction again, and in 1966, twenty-seven years after her previous novel, she published Wide Sargasso Sea.

Jean Rhys said, "If you want to write the truth, you must write about yourself. It must go out from yourself. I don't see what else you can do. I am the only real truth I know."

It's the birthday of novelist Oscar Hijuelos, born in New York City (1951). His novel The Mambo Kings Sing Songs of Love (1989) was the first novel by a Latino American writer to win the Pulitzer Prize for Literature, and it helped spark a renaissance of Latin American literature in this country. It's the story of the Castillo brothers, who move from Cuba to the United States to become jazz musicians. Hijuelos' most recent novel is A Simple Habana Melody (2002).

It's the birthday of novelist A. S. Byatt, born Antonia Susan Drabble in Sheffield, England (1936). She began working on her first novel as an undergraduate and was still working on it when she began her doctorate in seventeenth-century literature at Oxford. Her academic advisor told her to give up on writing fiction and stick to scholarship, because every young woman with a degree in English fancies herself a novelist, and none are. Byatt didn't listen and published her first novel, Shadow of a Sun in 1964.

For twenty-five years she worked as a teacher and a mother and wrote several novels on the side, none of which sold well. Finally, when she was forty eight years old, she quit her job and devoted herself to her writing and the result was Possession, (1990), about a pair of literary critics falling in love as they uncover the story of two Victorian poets who fell in love more than a hundred years in the past. In order to write the book, she composed dozens of poems in the Victorian style by each of the two Victorian lovers.

Possession won the Booker Prize and became a bestseller in both Great Britain and the United States.

It's the birthday of short story writer and poet Jorge Luis Borges, born in Buenos Aires, Argentina (1899). After studying in Europe, he moved back to Argentina and got a job at a small municipal library in Buenos Aires, and eventually worked his way up to director of the National Library of Buenos Aires. He was able to complete his library work in one hour every morning, and he spent the rest of the day wandering the stacks, reading, or writing. It was there that he began to write the short stories for which he is remembered, stories about imaginary books and imaginary writers. His stories were collected in books such as Garden of Forking Paths (1941) and Ficciones (1944).

He said, "Through the years, a man peoples a space with images of provinces, kingdoms, mountains, bays, ships, islands, fishes, rooms, tools, stars, horses, and people. Shortly before his death, he discovers that the patient labyrinth of lines traces the image of his own face."

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