Jun. 6, 2010

The Couple

by Louis Jenkins

They no longer sleep quite as well as they did
when they were younger. He lies awake thinking
of things that happened years ago, turning
uncomfortably from time to time, pulling on the
blankets. She worries about money. First one
and then the other is awake during the night,
in shifts as if keeping watch, though they can't
see very much in the dark and it's quiet. They
are sentries at some outpost, an abandoned fort
somewhere in the middle of the Great Plains
where only the wind is a regular visitor. Each
stands guard in the wilderness of an imagined
life in which the other sleeps untroubled.

"The Couple" by Louis Jenkins, from Before You Know It: Prose Poems 1970-2005. ©Will O' Wisp Books, 2009. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of Aleksandr Pushkin, (books by this author) born in Moscow (1799). He's been called the father of modern Russian literature, and many Russians consider him among the greatest writers of all time. In Russia today, everyone has read Pushkin, and everyone can quote him. People bring flowers and burst into tears at the field by the Black River where he was killed in the duel. In every Russian town, there is a street or a square or a school named after him. He's become a kind of mythical figure. It's common for parents say to their children, "Who do you think is going to close that door after you, Pushkin?"

It's the birthday of poet Maxine Kumin, (books by this author) born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (1925). She's the author of many poetry collections, including Up Country (1973), which won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry, and most recently, Where I Live: New and Selected Poems 1990–2010 (2010), which was published this spring.

Maxine Kumin said: "Until the Women's Movement, it was commonplace to be told by an editor that he'd like to publish more of my poems, but he'd already published one by a woman that month … this attitude was the rule rather than the exception, until the mid-sixties. The highest compliment was to be told, 'You write like a man.'"

On this day in 1949, George Orwell's (books by this author) novel Nineteen Eighty-Four was published.

Nineteen Eighty-Four begins with the famous line: "It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen."

In 1936, Orwell sold off the family silver and left to fight against the fascists in Spain. He was very tall; one morning his head was up above the parapet, and a sniper's bullet hit his throat. He barely survived and was discharged, so he went back to England with his wife, Eileen. He got so sick that doctors were afraid he had tuberculosis, and he had to spend six months in a sanatorium. He wrote Homage to Catalonia (1938) about his experiences in Spain, but because he was critical of the Communists and also anti-Fascist, pretty much everyone who read it took offense at it. And not many people even read it — it was published in April of 1938, and by the time that WWII broke out in September, only 900 copies had been sold.

Orwell tried to join the war effort, but he was found unfit for any sort of military service. He kept busy writing reviews and political essays, and eventually he found a publisher for Animal Farm (1945), but not until it had been rejected by several publishers, including T.S. Eliot at Faber and Faber.

In 1945, Orwell was hired as a war correspondent for The Observer, and he was in France when he got news that his wife had died from a routine operation that he barely knew was happening.

Orwell was heartbroken and wasn't feeling well, but he returned to England to take care of their adopted son, Richard. Animal Farm was successful, which also meant more work for Orwell, more lectures and invitations. David Astor, the editor of The Observer and a good friend of Orwell's, asked if his friend would be interested in staying on his family's estate on an island in the Hebrides, off the coast of Scotland. There was no electricity or telephone, the mail came twice a week, and they were 25 miles from the nearest store. The weather was harsh much of the time, and besides walks and fishing with his son, mostly he wrote and wrote, a new novel called The Last Man in Europe.

He said, "Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness." He kept working on the book, even after in 1947 he was confined to his bed and diagnosed with tuberculosis. He wrote from bed, and by longhand when his typewriter was taken away from him in the hospital. He went through an intense drug treatment in the hopes of curing his TB, which caused him mouth blisters, throat ulcers that made it hard to swallow, rashes, and flaking skin, and his hair and nails fell out. He was losing weight, had fevers, and his right arm had to be put in a cast, but he kept writing with his left. Under pressure from his publisher, he finally finished the book by the end of the year, and had to retype the messy manuscript himself.

He decided to change the title — from The Last Man in Europe to Nineteen Eighty-Four. It was published in June of 1949. It was a huge success — the critics loved it, and it sold well. But his health got even worse, and by September he was back in the hospital. In January of 1950, just seven months after Nineteen Eighty-Four was published, Orwell died at the age of 46.

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




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