Jun. 24, 2012

Highway 30

by Ted Kooser

At two in the morning, when the moon
has driven away,
leaving the faint taillight of one star
at the horizon, a light
like moonlight leaks
from broken crates that lie fallen
along the highway, becoming
motels, all-night cafes, and bus stations
with greenhouse windows,
where lone women sit like overturned flowerpots,
crushing the soft, gray petals of old coats.

"Highway 30" by Ted Kooser, from Sure Signs: New and Selected Poems. © University of Pittsburgh Press, 1980. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Today is the birthday of the Irish playwright George Shiels (books by this author), born near Ballymoney, in County Antrim. He immigrated to North America when he was a young man, and worked on the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railroad. An on-the-job accident in 1913 left him confined to a wheelchair, so he returned to Ballymoney to open a shipping company with his brother. He also started writing poems and stories of his Canadian adventures.

He produced a few plays in Ulster, including Away from the Moss (1918) and The Tame Drudge (1920), and after a couple of years, he caught the eye of Dublin's Abbey Theatre. This began a long relationship with the Abbey, beginning with the staging of Bedmates in 1921. He became one of Ireland's most popular playwrights in the first half of the 20th century, and his name could almost guarantee a full house. But for quite some time, no one could attend a Shiels play in his hometown of Ballymoney: One director had spiced up his production with swearing, and Shiels refused to allow his plays to be staged there for many years after that.

His best-known plays include The New Gossoon (1930), The Passing Day (1936), and The Rugged Path (1940).

Today is the birthday of Argentine novelist and essayist Ernesto Sábato (books by this author), born in Rojas, Buenos Aires Province (1911). His parents were Italian immigrants, and Sábato embarked on a career in science. He earned a doctorate in physics, and worked in atomic radiation labs, but he walked away in 1943, disillusioned with the way he saw the new discoveries being used. He became a writer, and though he only wrote three novels—The Tunnel (1948), On Heroes and Tombs (1962), and The Angel of Darkness (1974)—he became one of Argentina's most beloved and respected authors. In 1984, he won the prestigious Cervantes Prize for Literature.

He was diagnosed with lesions on his retinas in the 1970s, and his doctors advised him to give up reading and writing. This didn't stop him from accepting the request of Argentina's President Raúl Alfonsín. Alfonsín asked Sábato to compile a record of atrocities committed during the country's seven-year military dictatorship. Sábato produced a 50,000-page document called Nunca Más ("Never Again"), which contained evidence of at least 9,000 people who had been "disappeared" under the dictatorship. The project changed Sábato's future writings; he became more pessimistic about human nature. He believed that technology had outstripped spirituality, leaving the human race bereft. In one of his last books, he wrote, "Only those capable of envisaging utopia will be fit for the decisive battle, that of recovering all the humanity we have lost."

He died in 2011, less than two months before his 100th birthday.

Today is the birthday of Saint John of the Cross, born in Fontiveros, Spain (1542). He's the patron of mystics, contemplatives, and Spanish poets, because he himself was all of those things. Along with Saint Teresa of Ávila, he reformed the Carmelite order. He was arrested for his attempts at reform, and he was treated brutally, given a public lashing once a week. But he wrote his most beautiful poetry while he was in jail. He managed to escape from prison, taking his poems with him, and he continued to work on Church reform and to write poetry. He is considered one of Spain's greatest poets, with poems like Spiritual Canticle and Dark Night of the Soul.

Saint John of the Cross wrote, "If a man wants to be sure of the road he treads on, he must close his eyes and walk in the dark."

It's the birthday of Ambrose Bierce (books by this author), born near Horse Cave Creek, Ohio (1842). He wrote essays, journalism, and satire, and he's well known for his short stories, especially "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" (1890) and The Devil's Dictionary (1906), a satirical reference book. He volunteered for the Union Army when the Civil War broke out, and he was only the second person in his county to do so. He fought in some of the bloodiest battles, and later he wrote stories about the war: bleak, bitter stories with senseless deaths and no heroes.

Today is the birthday of novelist Anita Desai (books by this author), born north of Delhi in Mussoorie, India (1937). Her mother was German and her father was Bengali. She said, "I am sure this is what makes my writing whatever it is; I see India through the eyes of my mother, as an outsider, but my feelings for India are my father's, of someone born here."

She grew up speaking German at home, Hindi with her friends, learned Bengali from her father, and listened to Urdu poetry recited in the street. But when she first learned to read and write in school, it was in English. She said: "I think it had a tremendous effect that the first thing you saw written and the first thing you ever read was English. It seemed to me the language of books. I just went on writing it because I always wanted to belong to this world of books."

After she finished the manuscript for her first novel, Cry, the Peacock (1963), she wasn't sure what to do with it. At that time, there were no literary agents, so she just looked up publishers and mailed them copies of her manuscript. Finally, she sold it to a tiny London publishing house that focused on international writing. She's the author of several novels, including Clear Light of Day (1980), Fasting, Feasting (1999), and most recently, a collection of three novellas called The Artist of Disappearance (2011). One of her daughters, Kiran Desai, is also a writer and won the Booker Prize for her novel The Inheritance of Loss (2006).

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