Dec. 23, 2006

Mysterious Island

by George Bilgere

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Poem: "Mysterious Island" by George Bilgere, from The Good Kiss. © The University of Akron Press. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Mysterious Island

My nephew slides
His skinny body into bed
Shivering a little because it's chilly
And because it just feels so good
To get into bed when you're nine
And your mother's going to read to you
From The Mysterious Island
And your big yellow cat leaps up
To his place at the foot of the bed,
Purring with the sheer pleasure
Of the day's lamp-lit ending.

This was my bed, forty years ago,
The little boat I navigated
Through childhood, when the world
Was still perfectly coherent
And nightmares were something
I woke from, and the small universe
Of my room, the house, the yard,
Was so tidy and well-mannered
That being asleep and being awake
Were not so very different — just two
Pleasant, adjoining neighborhoods

I drifted through on my bike
Or my bed until I grew tired
And woke one summer
To that dull sound rising
Beyond the farthest trees,
A muted roar at the edges
Of the neighborhood.
Something about twilight
Was just beginning
To turn me inside out — but
The feeling passed quickly;
My mother cleared her throat,
I closed my eyes. Now the men

Are loading their ship
With backpacks and rifles and telescopes.
They are setting out on the dark ocean.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of the poet Robert Bly, (books by this author) born in Madison, Minnesota (1926). He served in the Navy during WWII, and then entered Harvard University, where, he was surrounded by aspiring writers, including John Ashbery, Adrienne Rich, and Frank O'Hara. He said, "One day while studying a [William Butler] Yeats poem I decided to write poetry the rest of my life. I recognized that a single short poem has room for history, music, psychology, religious thought, mood, occult speculation, character, and events of one's own life."

Bly lived for a while in New York City, where he set out to write 12 hours a day at least six days a week. He supported himself by working one day a week as a file clerk, or a painter, or a typist. Even though he lived in a big city, he was terribly lonely. He went for weeks at a time without talking to anybody. Occasionally, he had to spend the night in Grand Central Station.

Bly eventually moved back to his hometown of Madison, Minnesota, with the woman he married, and they moved into an old barn half a mile from the house he'd grown up in. He said, " I still hadn't shed my isolation; the nearness to my parents was difficult, as was the lack of work. I spent whole days sitting out in the fields. But there was peace. I had still had a great love of silence." And it was there that Bly wrote the poems that became his first collection, Silence in the Snowy Fields, which came out in 1962.

It's the birthday of author Norman Maclean, (books by this author) born in Clarinda, Iowa (1902), but he grew up in Missoula, Montana. He taught English at the University of Chicago, and after his retirement from teaching, at the age of 70, he began to write. He published two autobiographical essays, and then he wrote his famous autobiographical novella, A River Runs Through It.

It begins, "In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing. We lived at the junction of great trout rivers in western Montana, and our father was a Presbyterian minister and a fly fisherman who tied his own flies and taught others. He told us about Christ's disciples being fishermen, and we were left to assume, as my brother and I did, that all first-class fishermen on the Sea of Galilee were fly fishermen and that John, the favorite, was a dry-fly fisherman."

It's the birthday of novelist Donna Tartt, (books by this author) born in Greenwood, Mississippi (1963). Her first novel, The Secret History, is about a group of college students who form a secret cult and wind up murdering one of their own members. It sold more than 5 million copies when it came out in 1992. Tartt was just 28 years old.

Her second novel, The Little Friend (2002), is about a girl named Harriet who is trying to solve the mystery of her older brother's death.

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