Mar. 2, 2006


by Tess Gallagher

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Poem: "Comeback" by Tess Gallagher from Dear Ghosts, © Graywolf Press. Reprinted with permission.


My father loved first light.
He would sit alone
at the yellow formica table
in the kitchen with his coffee cup
and sip and look out
over the strait. Now,
in what could be
the end of my life, or worse,
the life of someone I love, I too
am addicted to slow sweet beginnings.
First bird call. Wings
in silhouette. How the steeples
of the evergreens make a selvage
for the gaunt emerging sky.

My three loves are far away
in other countries,
and one is even under
this dew-bright ground
where the little herds
of jittery quail peck
and scurry for their lives.

My father picks up his
cup. Light is sifting in
like a gloam of certainty
over the water. He knows
something there in the half light
he can't know any other way.

And now I know it with him: so much
is joining us in the dawn
that no one can ever be parted.
It steals over us because we left
the warm beds of our dreams
to sit beside what rises.
I think he wants to stay there
forever, my captain, gazing but not
expecting, while the world
begins, and, in a stark silent calling,
won't tell anyone what it's for.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of horror novelist Peter Straub, born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin (1943). His first two books were collections of poetry, Ishmael and Open Air, published in 1972; but he had always wanted to write a novel, and in 1973 he came out with Marriages, about an American businessman who cheats on his wife in London. Critics didn't like it, and it didn't sell very well. Straub said, "[I realized] I was one of those guys coming along with more of the same. It unnerved me. I knew I could never hold a real job—that I'd be an impossible employee anywhere. I had to save my life by writing a book that could get published."

So for his next book he tried writing a horror novel, hoping to make enough money to support himself. The novel was Julia (1975), about a woman haunted by the ghost of a murdered child. Straub has gone on to become one of the best known writers of horror fiction today. Straub once said, "[Horror is] a nasty, subversive genre, the purpose of which is to upend conventional ideas of good taste, and to speak truths otherwise ignored or suppressed."

It's the birthday of novelist John Irving, born in Exeter, New Hampshire (1942). His parents divorced by the time Irving was two years old. He never met his father and never learned anything about the man. He said, "The principal event of my childhood was that no adult in my family would tell me who my father was." He fell in love with the novels of Charles Dickens in part because he identified with the stories about orphans.

He made his name with his novel The World According to Garp (1978), about the fatherless son of a radical feminist. It was Irving's fourth novel, and it went on to sell more than three million copies in six months. The success allowed Irving to quit his teaching job and devote the rest of his life to writing, but instead of making him happy, it made him miserable. He said, "The first thing I thought of when that novel made me famous, was, 'Now [my father] will come find me. Now he'll identify himself.'"

Irving finally learned the identity of his father in 1981, when his mother gave him a collection of letters she'd been hiding since World War II. Irving learned that his father had been a fighter pilot who was shot down over Burma, who walked to China, and was only rescued after being missing for forty days.

Irving used his father's letters in his novel The Cider House Rules (1985). He hoped that somehow his father might read the book and see the letters. He said, "[It] was my way of saying, 'If you're out there, if you do read me, hello, I know something about you.' But I never heard from him."

In 2001 Irving had just started a new novel about an actor who goes looking for his lost father and finally finds him. That year, he gave an interview on television, and after the interview he got a phone call from a man claiming to be his half brother. It turned out that Irving's father had died in 1996. Irving went on to finish the novel about a man searching for his father, called Until I Find You, which came out in 2005.

He's disappointed that he never managed to meet the man, but Irving believes he might not have become a writer if his father hadn't been absent. He said, "My imaginary reader has been my father. Surely, in one novel after another, I've been inventing fathers. I've been making them up. I have a ceaseless capacity to make up the missing part, to fill in the blanks, and he was a blank in my life."

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