Mar. 20, 2009

The Loon

by James Tate

A loon woke me this morning. It was like waking up
in another world. I had no idea what was expected of me.
I waited for instructions. Someone called and asked me
if I wanted a free trip to Florida. I said, "Sure. Can
I go today?" A man in a uniform picked me up in a limousine,
and the next thing I know I'm being chased by an alligator
across a parking lot. A crowd gathers and cheers me on.
Of course, none of this really happened. I'm still sleeping.
I don't want to go to work. I want to know what the loon is
saying. It sounds like ecstasy tinged with unfathomable
terror. One thing is certain: at least they are not speaking
of tax shelters. The phone rings. It's my boss. She says,
"Where are you?" I say, "I don't know. I don't recognize
my surroundings. I think I've been kidnapped. If they make
demands of you, don't give in. That's my professional advice."
Just then, the loon let out a tremendous looping, soaring,
swirling, quadruple whoop. "My god, are you alright?" my
boss said. "In case we do not meet again, I want you to know
that I've always loved you, Agnes," I said. "What?" she said.
"What are you saying?" "Good-bye, my darling. Try to remember me
as your ever loyal servant," I said. "Did you say you loved
me?" she said. I said, "Yes," and hung up. I tried
to go back to sleep, but the idea of being kidnapped had me
quite worked up. I looked in the mirror for signs of torture.
Every time the loon cried, I screamed and contorted my face
in agony. They were going to cut off my head and place it on
a stake. I overheard them talking. They seemed like very
reasonable men, even, one might say, likeable.

"The Loon" by James Tate from Return to the City of White Donkeys. © Ecco Press, 2004. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of Henrik Ibsen, (books by this author) considered the "founder of modern prose drama," born in the village of Skien, Norway (1828). His father had a prosperous merchant business, but when Henrik was eight, the family's finances collapsed. They were forced to move out of their great estate into a rundown farmhouse, and their friends and social acquaintances deserted them. His father became tyrannical, and his mother depressed. Henrik had a lonely, introverted childhood.

He left home at age 16 and cut off communication with his family. He fathered an illegitimate child with a young servant girl, and to support them, he started to write.

He became the artistic director of a new Norwegian theater and staged dozens of plays, but the theater went bankrupt after only five years. He wrote several of his own plays, but they failed to attract much attention. Discouraged, he left Norway for 27 years of voluntary exile.

Ibsen moved to Rome, where he was extremely productive, writing two of his best-known works: Brand (1866) and Peer Gynt (1867). In 1868, he moved to Germany, where he wrote The Emperor and Galilean (1873) and Pillars of Society (1877). Then he moved back to Rome and wrote A Doll's House (1879), which brought him fame and controversy. It's a play about Nora, a woman who decides that she will not submit to her husband's will. She leaves him, walking out from what appeared to everyone else to a perfect marriage, a life in a "doll's house."

Oscar Wilde wrote exclamatory reviews of Ibsen's plays, George Bernard Shaw called him "the greatest living dramatist," and James Joyce's first published work was an essay praising Ibsen's play When We Dead Awaken (1899). Joyce even wrote to Ibsen to tell him that he was his hero.

It's the birthday of the Roman poet Ovid, (books by this author) born Publius Ovidius Naso in what is now Sulmona, Italy (43 B.C.). He loved the literary scene in Rome, where both Virgil and Horace were living. He was famous for his love poems, the Amores (circa 20 B.C.) and his masterpiece, the Metamorphoses (finished circa 8 A.D.), his tales of love and transformation. For no known reason, Ovid was abruptly exiled to Tomi, a Black Sea outpost on the edge of the empire. He never returned to Rome.

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