Jan. 12, 2005

Which One

by Maxine Kumin

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Poem: "Which One" by Maxine Kumin, from Jack and Other New Poems © W.W. Norton. Reprinted with permission.

Which One

I eye the driver of the Chevrolet
pulsing beside me at a traffic light

the chrome-haired woman in the checkout line
chatting up the acned clerk

the clot of kids smoking on the sly
in the Mile-Hi Pizza parking lot

the meter reader, the roofer at work
next door, a senior citizen

stabbing the sidewalk with his three-pronged cane.
Which one of you discarded in a bag

-- sealed with duct tape - in the middle of the road
three puppies four or five weeks old

who flung two kittens from a moving car
at midnight into a snowbank where

the person trailing you observed the leg
and tail of the calico one that lived,

and if not you, someone flossing her teeth
or watering his lawn across the street.

I look for you wherever I go.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of the novelist Jack London, born in San Francisco (1876). He is best known as the author of over fifty books, including The Call of the Wild (1903) and White Fang (1906). His best known short story is "To Build a Fire."

London was mostly self-educated. He read Ouida's Signa in 1883, a book about a poor Italian child who eventually earns fame as an opera composer. London credited reading this book as the beginning of his literary aspirations.

After graduating from grammar school in 1889, London began working long hours at a cannery, sometimes up to eighteen hours a day. Desperate for a different life, he borrowed money from his foster mother and bought a sloop named Razzle-Dazzle from French Frank, an oyster pirate, and then Jack London became an oyster pirate himself. When his sloop became too damaged to sail, London became a member of the California Fish Patrol.

London worked on a sealing schooner off the coast of Japan in 1893, and when he returned to America there were no jobs and he became a vagrant. In his memoir The Road (1907), London wrote about those days, including the tricks he used to evade train crews when he stowed away, and how he convinced strangers to buy meals for him. He even spent thirty days in jail in Buffalo, New York, before returning to California. Then he met a librarian named Ina Coolbrith at the Oakland Public Library. London called her his "literary mother."

London graduated from high school in Oakland and then spent a year at the University of California before poverty forced him again to seek his living through adventure. He sailed to Alaska to join the Klondike Gold Rush, and when this did not make him rich, London turned to writing and began seriously to seek publication for his stories.

He came close to abandoning a career in writing when The Overland Monthly was slow to pay for a story they had accepted. But he was saved, both "literally and literarily," when The Black Cat accepted his story "A Thousand Deaths" and paid him forty dollars to publish it. London's short story "An Odyssey of the North" appeared in the first issue of The Atlantic Monthly.

Around this time, London also became vocal as a socialist. In 1896, the San Francisco Chronicle printed a story about London, giving speeches on socialism in Oakland's City Hall Park. He was arrested for this practice in 1897. He ran for mayor of Oakland as a socialist in 1901 and 1905, and published several essays on socialism, including Revolution, and Other Essays (1910).

Jack London said, "The proper function of man is to live, not to exist. I shall not waste my days in trying to prolong them. I shall use my time."

It's the birthday of the novelist Haruki Murakami, born in Kyoto, Japan (1949). He is best known in America as the author of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (1995).

Murakami is the child of Japanese literature teachers, but he was more interested in American literature as a boy. He studied literature and drama at Waseda University and Tokyo, and after graduation, Murakami operated a jazz bar called "Peter Cat" in Tokyo for eight years. During this time Murakami became familiar with Western music, and that is why so many of his novels have musical themes.

Murakami did not write at all until after age thirty. He claims that he was inspired to write his first novel Hear the Wind Sing (1979) while watching a baseball game. He worked on the novel for many months, usually after finishing his workdays at the jazz club, and the finished book had short chapters and a fragmented style. Murakami sent the novel to a writing contest and won first prize.

In 1987, Murakami published Norwegian Wood and became popular in his home country, so he left Japan and traveled through Europe before coming to America. He taught at Princeton University and Tufts University and published two more novels. After a gas attack on a Tokyo subway in 1995, Murakami returned to Japan and his writing became less comedic and more serious.

Haruki Murakami said, "I have drawers in my mind, so many drawers. I have hundreds of materials in these drawers. I take out the images and memories that I need."

It's the birthday of the man who has given us the novels of Easy Rawlins and Fearless Jones, Walter Mosley, born in Los Angeles (1952). He is the author of Devil in a Blue Dress (1990), the first mystery novel featuring Easy Rawlins. Devil in a Blue Dress was made into a movie in 1995, with Denzel Washington playing the role of Easy Rawlings. Mosley worked for several years as a computer programmer before becoming a writer. He said, "I took up writing to escape the drudgery of that every day cubicle kind of war."

Mosley became well-known when Bill Clinton said in 1992 that Mosley was one of his favorite writers. Since that time, Mosley has earned national acclaim, and his work has been translated into 21 languages.

Walter Mosley said, "I don't see writers as teachers because books are kind of shared items... when writers write them, they are hardly anything and when people start to read them, they begin to change and to grow."

It's the birthday of John Winthrop, born in Suffolk, England (1588). He is best known as the Puritan governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony and the leader of The Winthrop Fleet of 1630, the largest fleet of Englishmen ever to depart for the New World.

Winthrop was a deeply religious man, and he believed that the Anglican Church needed to rid itself of Catholic ceremonies. He and his followers decided to leave England because they thought that God would punish their country for this heresy, and they thought they would be safe in the New World.

He was elected governor of the colony before their departure in 1630, and he was re-elected several times after they had arrived in the New World. As governor, he tried to keep the number of executions for heresy to a minimum and he opposed the veiling of women, which many colonists supported.

He is famous for his "City on the Hill" sermon. He claimed in this sermon that Puritans who had come to the New World had a special pact with God to create a new, holy community. He also claimed that the rich had a holy duty to look after the poor. The sermon was not given much attention when Winthrop first delivered it.

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