Nov. 11, 2011

Drop Dead

by Tamara Madison

You spat it out like venom
at your playground enemy
and it felt so good to say
Drop dead! Late in life

it becomes a sweet mercy
to imagine: one minute
you're treading the earth
as ever, the next you're gone!

No hospitals, MRIs, CAT scans,
surgery, no loved ones
standing around wondering
if you're still breathing

and what to do with you
in case you are. And though
I'll never be ready for you to go,
as long as it is your wish

to leave this way, it is mine.
And may it happen on a day
when you are singing with friends,
laughing at a joke, dancing

in your living room.
May it come to you before
you know it and you'll find
yourself flying, a balloon

cut loose, taking one last glance
at this fond world that you have loved.
Though it will feel so cold to us,
this world without you, still

with all my heart here is my wish
for you dear friend, mother,
kindred soul: when the time comes,
Drop dead!

"Drop Dead" by Tamara Madison, from Wild Domestic. © Pearl Editions. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of writer Kurt Vonnegut (books by this author), born in Indianapolis (1922). His books include Cat's Cradle (1963), Slaughterhouse-Five (1969), Breakfast of Champions (1973), and Timequake (1997). In 1999, Vonnegut wrote a piece called "How To Write With Style." He ended his essay by summing up his seven most important points: Find a subject you care about; do not ramble, though; keep it simple; have guts to cut; sound like yourself; say what you mean; and pity the readers. He wrote: "I myself grew up in Indianapolis, where common speech sounds like a band saw cutting galvanized tin, and employs a vocabulary as unornamental as a monkey wrench. In some of the more remote hollows of Appalachia, children still grow up hearing songs and locutions of Elizabethan times. Yes, and many Americans grow up hearing a language other than English, or an English dialect a majority of Americans cannot understand. All these varieties of speech are beautiful, just as the varieties of butterflies are beautiful. No matter what your first language, you should treasure it all your life. If it happens to not be standard English, and if it shows itself when your write standard English, the result is usually delightful, like a very pretty girl with one eye that is green and one that is blue. I myself find that I trust my own writing most, and others seem to trust it most, too, when I sound most like a person from Indianapolis, which is what I am. What alternatives do I have? The one most vehemently recommended by teachers has no doubt been pressed on you, as well: to write like cultivated Englishmen of a century or more ago."

It's the birthday of Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky (books by this author), born in Moscow (1821). He published his first novel — a short novel in letters called Poor Folk — in 1846, and was hailed as a great new voice of Russian literature. The most important Russian literary critic, Vissarion Belinsky, proclaimed that Dostoyevsky was the new Gogol. But Dostoyevsky's arrogance got the better of him — he wrote to his brother, "Everywhere I am the object of an unbelievable esteem, the interest in me is, quite simply, tremendous." Ivan Turgenev responded by publishing a satirical poem about Dostoyevsky, mocking him for being so arrogant that he wanted a special border printed around his work. His next novels got terrible reviews, and he fell out of the good graces of Belinsky and his circle. It was generally assumed that Dostoyevsky wouldn't live up to his promise.

In 1849, Dostoyevsky was arrested for his affiliation with a group of radical thinkers called the Petrashevsky Circle. He was sentenced to death, but his sentence was commuted to four years of hard labor in a maximum-security prison in Siberia. He wrote a letter describing his experience: "In summer, intolerable closeness; in winter, unendurable cold. All the floors were rotten. Filth on the floors an inch thick; one could slip and fall. The little windows were so covered with frost that it was almost impossible to read at any time of the day. An inch of ice on the panes. Drips from the ceiling, draughts everywhere. We were packed like herrings in a barrel. [...] There was no room to turn around. From dusk to dawn it was impossible not to behave like pigs." He wrote in another letter: "There were moments when I hated everybody I came across, innocent or guilty, and looked at them as thieves who were robbing me of my life with impunity. The most unbearable misfortune is when you yourself become unjust, malignant, vile; you realize it, you even reproach yourself — but you just can't help it."

After he was released from the prison camp, things were looking brighter for a while. Dostoyevsky married, served his time in the army, and was allowed to return to St. Petersburg. He joined his brother Mikhail in editing two literary journals. But in the year 1864, both his wife and his brother died. Already in debt, Dostoyevsky took on his brother's publishing debts and the financial burden of his brother's family. He thought gambling would help him manage his debt, but instead he became addicted to gambling and ended up losing more and more money. In July of 1865, he went abroad with the hopes of getting some writing done and making back his money by gambling; it only took him five days to lose everything. He had to ask for a loan from Turgenev — he promised to repay it in a month, which of course he was unable to do. The future looked bleak.

Then, less than two months later, he wrote a letter to a publisher outlining his idea for a new story, or maybe novella — at this point he had no idea it would turn into a novel. He wrote: "It is the psychological report of a crime. The action is contemporary, set in the present year. A young man, expelled from the university, a petit-bourgeois in origin and living in the direst poverty, through light-mindedness and lack of steadiness in his convictions, falling under the influence of the strange, 'unfinished' ideas afloat in the atmosphere, decided to break out of his disgusting position at one stroke. He has made up his mind to kill an old woman, the wife of a titular counselor who lends money at interest. The old woman is stupid, stupid and ailing, greedy [...] Almost a month passes after this until the final catastrophe. No one suspects or can suspect him. Here is where the entire psychological process of the crime is unfolded. Insoluble problems confront the murderer, unsuspected and unexpected feelings torment his heart. Heavenly truth, earthly law take their toll and he finishes by being forced to denounce himself."

That book would become Crime and Punishment (1866).

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