Oct. 21, 2010

Ketchican Wrestling

by Jenifer Rae Vernon

You look like you wrestled 140
5'5, medium broad, crew-cut, redhead

My uncles wrestled, and my brothers, too
I'm standing in the airport line, watching you

You wear your tee-shirt proud, Ketchican wrestler
white cursive on dark red

Bet you spit to make weight,
ran stairs in snow pants

Cocked head, no jacket, you earned it
still, got both hands in your pockets,

Eighteen, going home for Christmas
duffle bag hanging from shoulder

Camouflage print
military's got you in their grip

Little one. My Jesus wish?
halt the combat

That makes ours Vets
and Satan's rich

"Ketchican Wrestling" by Jenifer Rae Vernon, from Rock Candy. © West End Press, 2009. Reprinted with permission.

It's the birthday of the Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, (books by this author) born in Ottery St. Mary in Devonshire, England (1772). He was an extremely ambitious young man, who lectured on religion, wrote journalism, and single-handedly tried to launch his own magazine. But he was exhausting himself and falling into a depression when he was introduced to the poet William Wordsworth. They met only briefly in 1795, but they struck up a correspondence and began exchanging poems. Wordsworth encouraged Coleridge to stop writing journalism and focus on poetry, and Coleridge took the advice. His poetry made him happier and happier, and after finishing a long and ambitious poem, he decided he needed to see Wordsworth in the flesh, so he set out to walk to Wordsworth's house, miles away. The walk took several days and when he approached Wordsworth's home, he was so overcome with happiness that he leapt over the gate and ran down the field to Wordsworth's house.

That first year of their friendship was the most productive period of Coleridge's life. They both liked to compose their poetry while walking, so they took long walks together throughout that summer, though Wordsworth preferred to stay on the path while Coleridge liked rough terrain. That winter, they took spent several days hiking along the coast, and to pass the time they made up a gothic ballad about a tragic sea voyage. Coleridge became obsessed with the poem when he got home, filling it with images from nightmares he'd had since he was a kid. It became his masterpiece, "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" (1798), the story of a sailor who brings a curse on his ship when he kills a bird and for the rest of his voyage he is tormented by sea monsters and the ghosts of his dead shipmates.

But within a few years of writing "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," Coleridge's life began to fall apart. He became addicted to opium, which ruined his friendship with Wordsworth. He wrote a great book of literary criticism called Biographia Literaria (1817) but he failed to complete most of his ambitious projects, including a 1,400-page work of geography, a two-volume history of English prose, a translation of Faust, a musical about Adam and Eve, a history of logic, a history of German metaphysics, a study of witchcraft, and an encyclopedia.

His friends hated the fact that he had wasted so much of his talent. They'd all considered him the most brilliant writer and thinker they'd ever known, but he accomplished so little. Near the end of his life, his friend Charles Lamb wrote of Coleridge, "His face when he repeats his verses hath its ancient glory, an Archangel a little damaged."

On this day in 1959, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum opened in New York City. Guggenheim himself was a mogul of the mining industry, and after his retirement in the late 1920s, he turned his energy to collecting art, contemporary art by people like Pablo Picasso, Amedeo Modigliani, Vasily Kandinsky, and Marc Chagall. He housed his work in a small sales room in Manhattan, but the collection outgrew the space. So he wrote to Frank Lloyd Wright: "Could you come to New York and discuss with me a building for our collection of Non-objective paintings. I feel that each of these great masterpieces should be organized into space and only you would test the possibilities to do so. It takes so much thought and loving attention and the experience of an originator and his wisdom to be able to handle such a difficult task. [...] I need your great advice if you could come, to speak about it, and let me know the expense it would cause. I have never seen a building you made but photos, and I feel them — while I never felt others work, as much lacking in organic perfection and adapting to the task's originality. I want a temple of spirit — a monument, and your help to make it possible."

Wright agreed happily — it was the first time he had ever been commissioned to design something in New York City. Guggenheim kept putting off the actual construction of the museum, and he and his art advisor, a German baroness, kept demanding that Wright change things. It ended up taking 16 years from the time Wright was hired until the museum actually opened its door. Guggenheim died in 1949, but he set aside $2 million for the museum, and a couple of years later they finally broke ground. Frank Lloyd Wright died in April of 1959, six months before one of his most famous buildings opened.

It's the birthday of Ursula Le Guin, (books by this author) born in Berkeley, California (1929). Her father was a famous anthropologist — he was the first person in America to get a Ph.D. in anthropology, and he went on to found the anthropology department at Berkeley. When Le Guin became a writer, she drew on social science theories, and she said, "Claude Levi-Strauss has been a great source of fruitful irritation to my mind."

But as a kid she was more interested in science fiction. Every so often, she and her brother would pool their pocket change and buy a 25-cent science fiction magazine like Astounding Stories or Thrilling Wonder Stories. Young Ursula thought that she could write quite a bit better than some of the writers in those magazines, so at the age of 11 she wrote a science fiction story about the origin of life and a time machine and sent it off, but it was rejected.

About a year later, she chose a book off her parents' bookshelf called A Dreamer's Tales, by the Irish fantasy writer Lord Dunsany. She said: "I don't entirely understand why Dunsany came to me as a revelation, why that moment was so decisive. I read a lot, and a lot of my reading was myth, legend, fairy-tale; first-rate versions, too, such as Padraic Colum, Asbjornsen, etc. I had also heard my father tell Indian legends aloud, just as he had heard them from informants, only translated into a rather slow, impressive English; and they were impressive and mysterious stories. What I hadn't realized, I guess, is that people were still making up myths. One made up stories oneself, of course; but here was a grownup doing it, for grownups, without a single apology to common sense, without an explanation, just dropping us straight into the Inner Lands. Whatever the reason, the moment was decisive. I had discovered my native country. The book belonged to my father, a scientist, and was a favorite of his; in fact he had a large appetite for fantasy. I have wondered if there isn't some real connection between a certain kind of scientific-mindedness (the explorative, synthesizing kind) and fantasy-mindedness. Perhaps 'science fiction' really isn't such a bad name for our genre after all. Those who dislike fantasy are very often equally bored or repelled by science. They don't like either hobbits, or quasars; they don't feel at home with them; they don't want complexities, remoteness. If there is any such connection, I'll bet that it is basically an aesthetic one."

She went to Radcliffe, where she studied French, Italian, and Renaissance literature, and went to graduate school at Columbia. From there, she headed off to France to study the poet Pierre de Rosnard, and it was on the boat to Paris that she met the historian Charles Le Guin, and they fell in love and got married a few months later. They have lived in the same house in Portland, Oregon, for more than 50 years.

She started publishing stories in the early '60s, and a handful of science fiction novels. Then a publisher asked her to write a fantasy novel for kids 11 and older. She didn't know anything about writing for kids. She said: "I went home, and thought about kids. Boys. How does a boy learn to be an old guy with a white beard who can do magic? And there was my book." So she wrote A Wizard of Earthsea (1968), about a boy named Ged [pronounced with a hard "g" like "God"] who is learning to deal with his magical abilities. It was followed by The Tombs of Atuan (1971), which was a Newbery Honor Book, and The Farthest Shore (1973), which won the National Book Award for Children's Books.

But she had realized that all of her main characters, and sometimes all of her minor characters as well, were male, which was standard for science fiction. She said: "That's how hero stories worked; they were about men. [...] Women who wrote in that field often used pen names.

None of this bothered me. It was my tradition, and I worked in it happily. But I began coming up against certain discomforts." So she wrote a novel about a planet where everyone was genderless except for during a few days of each lunar cycle. That novel was The Left Hand of Darkness (1979), which won two of the biggest awards in science fiction, the Hugo Award and the Nebula Award.

She is very particular about the term "science fiction." She explained: "Science fiction — and the correct shortcut is 'sf' — uses actual scientific facts or theories for the source ideas or framework of the story. It has some scientific content, however speculative. If it breaks a law of physics, it knows it's doing so and follows up the consequences. If it invents a society of aliens, it does so with some respect for and knowledge of the social sciences and what you might call social probabilities. And some of it is literarily self-aware enough to treat its metaphors as metaphors. [...] Sci-fi uses the images that sf — starting with H.G. Wells — made familiar: space travel, aliens, galactic wars and federations, time machines, et cetera, taking them literally, not caring if they are possible or even plausible. It has no interest in or relation to real science or technology. It's fantasy in space suits. Spectacle. Wizards with lasers. Kids with ray guns. I've written both, but I have to say I respect science fiction enough that I wince when people call it sci-fi."

She has written many more books, including The Lathe of Heaven (1971), The Dispossessed (1974), The Telling (2000), and most recently Lavinia (2008), which gives voice to the story of Lavinia, one of the minor characters in the Aeneid.

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