Dec. 11, 2011


by Jim Harrison

To remember you're alive
visit the cemetery of your father
at noon after you've made love
and are still wrapped in a mammalian
odor that you are forced to cherish.
Under each stone is someone's inevitable
surprise, the unexpected death
of their biology that struggled hard, as it must.
Now to home without looking back,
enough is enough.
En route buy the best wine
you can afford and a dozen stiff brooms.
Have a few swallows then throw the furniture
out the window and begin sweeping.
Sweep until the walls are
bare of paint and at your feet sweep
until the floor disappears. Finish the wine
in this field of air, return to the cemetery
in evening and wind through the stones
a slow dance of your name visible only to birds.

"Broom" by Jim Harrison, from Songs of Unreason. © Copper Canyon Press, 2011. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of short-story writer Grace Paley (books by this author), born in the Bronx (1922). Her parents were Jewish socialists from Ukraine, who were exiled by Czar Nicholas II. They ended up in New York, where Grace grew up in a tight circle of family and friends and neighbors who argued constantly about politics. She enrolled in college a couple of times but never graduated. Paley only wrote three books of short stories in her long career, but they all got rave reviews: The Little Disturbances of Man (1959), Enormous Changes at the Last Minute (1974), and Later the Same Day (1985). Part of the reason she had such a small output is that she was busy with other things, not just raising kids but working as a peace activist. She was a well-known figure in her neighborhood because she spent a lot of time standing in the park near her house handing out flyers advocating for women's rights or ending war or nuclear disarmament. She traveled to Vietnam during the Vietnam War so that she could come back and report on it herself. And she kept protesting and giving talks — and writing stories, essays, and poems — until her death in 2007 at age 84.

It's the birthday of poet Naguib Mahfouz (books by this author), born in Cairo in 1911. He started writing when he was 17 and wrote more than 50 novels, even though he had to work as a civil servant to support himself until his retirement in 1972. He is most famous for his Cairo Trilogy: Palace Walk (1956), Palace of Desire (1957)and Sugar Street (1957). He won the Nobel Prize in literature in 1988. He said, "If the urge to write should ever leave me, I want that day to be my last."

It's the birthday of novelist Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (books by this author), born in Kislovodsk, Russia (1918). He was working as a high school science teacher when he published his first novel, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1962), about a prisoner laying bricks in a Soviet labor camp. He continued to publish, earning him the wrath of the authorities, even after he won the Nobel Prize in literature in 1970. He was finally arrested and deported after his novel The Gulag Archipelago was published in 1973. He wrote: "For a country to have a great writer is like having another government. That's why no regime has ever loved great writers, only minor ones."

It's the birthday of novelist Thomas McGuane (books by this author), born in Wyandotte, Michigan (1939). He came from a family of Irish Catholics. He said: "When they immigrated to the East Coast (my family went to Massachusetts), they saw themselves as an enclave of outsiders in a Yankee, Protestant world. My parents moved to the Midwest, and I can assure you that, whatever we thought we were, we did not consider ourselves to be Midwesterners. [...] When I moved to Montana in my twenties, I felt myself to be an outsider in still another world. The only thing that seems reassuring is that most Montanans feel the same way — they're mostly from somewhere else and their history is so recent that to be one of the migrants is really to be one of the boys."

McGuane said: "I associated a life of action and a life of thought as being the writer's life. But I didn't do much writing when I was a kid. I wanted to be a writer before I wanted to do any writing." He went to college at the University of Michigan, where one of his classmates was another aspiring writer named Jim Harrison — the two became lifelong friends and ended up both living in Montana. McGuane spent the summer of 1968 in Livingston, Montana, and he loved it so much that he moved there a year later. His first novel, The Sporting Club, was published in 1969, and when he sold the film rights a year later, he went ahead and bought a ranch with the profits. But it took him awhile to settle down in Montana. He spent most of the '70s in Hollywood — writing screenplays, dating actresses, drinking too much, and doing too many drugs. His screenplays included Rancho Deluxe (1973) and The Missouri Breaks (1976), but he never wanted to be a screenwriter — he said, "Aspiring to be a screenwriter is like aspiring to be a co-pilot." He was widely known as "Captain Berserko." He kept writing novels throughout those years: The Bushwacked Piano (1971) and Ninety-Two in the Shade (1973) were funny and ambitious and won awards. But then his beloved sister died of a heroin overdose and both his parents died of alcoholism within three years. After his own descent into drinking and picking fights wherever he could, McGuane sobered up. He said, "I'm really the only one still walking around, and I came pretty close to being not still walking around." In 1977, he married Laurie Buffett, the sister of his friend Jimmy, and the two have been married ever since. The next year, he published the novel Panama (1978). The critics panned it because it wasn't funny, but McGuane thought it was his best work.

McGuane spends his days writing, fly fishing, and riding horses. He is a member of the Cutting Horse Association Hall of Fame — he was Montana's cutting horse champion for three years in a row. He and Laurie raise cutting horses and Angus cattle on their 2,000-acre ranch. He said: "As you get older, you should get impatient with showing off in literature. It is easier to settle for blazing light than to find a language for the real. Whether you are a writer or a bird-dog trainer, life should winnow the superfluous language. The real thing should become plain. You should go straight to what you know best."

McGuane has published 10 novels and two collections of short stories. His latest novel is Driving on the Rim (2010).

It's the birthday of poet and novelist Jim Harrison (books by this author), born in Grayling, Michigan (1937). When he was 25 years old, he tried to decide whether he should go on a hunting trip with his father and sister, but in the end, he decided not to. They were both killed a few hours later when they were hit by a drunk driver. Harrison said their dying "cut the last cord that was holding me down," and he immediately wrote his first finished poem. He drifted around for a while, then went to live with his brother John, who was a librarian at Harvard. He published his first volume of poems, Plain Song (1965), and he thought he wanted to be a poet. He wrote two more books of poems, and then he was out hunting birds with his dog and he fell off a cliff and hurt his back and had to stay in bed for months. His friend Thomas McGuane convinced him to try writing a novel as a way to pass the time. Harrison wrote Wolf: A False Memoir (1971).But he didn't have an agent, so he sent the one copy of his manuscript off to his brother John, in the hopes he could find a publisher for it. Unfortunately, the postal workers went on strike and the manuscript was lost in the mail. Harrison assumed it was lost forever and that it was probably the end of his novel-writing career, but it resurfaced after a month, and his brother managed to find a publisher for it, and Harrison become a novelist as well as a poet. His other books include the novella Legends of the Fall (1979); the novels True North (2004) and The Farmer's Daughter (2009); and the poetry volumes Returning to Earth (1977) and In Search of Small Gods (2009). This fall, he published a new book of poetry, Songs of Unreason (2011), and a new novel, The Great Leader (2011).

Jim Harrison said: "Life is sentimental. Why should I be cold and hard about it? That's the main content. The biggest thing in people's lives is their loves and dreams and visions, you know."

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




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