Nov. 16, 2012

At the Vietnam Memorial

by George Bilgere

The last time I saw the name Paul Castle
it was printed in gold on the wall
above the showers in the boys'
locker room, next to the school
record for the mile. I don't recall
his time, but the year was 1968
and I can look across the infield
of memory to see him on the track,
legs flashing, body bending slightly
beyond the pack of runners at his back.

He couldn't spare a word for me,
two years younger, junior varsity,
and hardly worth the waste of breath.
He owned the hallways, a cool blonde
at his side, and aimed his interests
further down the line than we could guess.

Now, reading the name again,
I see us standing in the showers,
naked kids beneath his larger,
comprehensive force—the ones who trail
obscurely, in the wake of the swift,
like my shadow on this gleaming wall.

"At the Vietnam Memorial" by George Bilgere. © George Bilgere. Reprinted with the permission of the author. (buy now)

It's the birthday of the blues composer W.C. Handy, born in Florence, Alabama (1873). His father and grandfather were Methodist ministers, and he grew up in a cabin on the Tennessee River. He showed musical promise very early. As a child, he could identify the notes and intervals of birdsongs and ferry whistles he heard from the river. His family expected him to become a minister. When his father discovered he'd bought a guitar, he took it from Handy and exchanged it for a dictionary.

Handy left home and went on the road with a number of bands before ending up in Memphis, Tennessee, where he set up his headquarters on Beale Street. He studied popular music and became the first person to write down the music that would become known as "the blues." His first song, "Memphis Blues," was written for E.H. Crump, who was running for Mayor of Memphis. Later, he wrote his most famous song, "St. Louis Blues." Handy was not the first person to play the blues, but he was the first person to write sheet music for it and make it accessible for mass consumption. For this he was called "The Father of the Blues." He compiled blues music and published a book called Blues: An Anthology in 1926. He also wrote Negro Authors and Composers of the United States (1935).

Handy said: "The blues — the sound of a sinner on revival day."

It's the birthday of the novelist Andrea Barrett (books by this author), born in Boston, Massachusetts (1954). She is known for writing fiction about botanists, oceanographers, and geologists. In order to finish her novel The Voyage of the Narwhal (1998), about a group of British scientists exploring the Arctic, Barrett traveled to the Arctic herself. Andrea Barrett said: "I think science and writing are utterly the same thing. They are completely rooted in passion and desire, if they're any good at all. You can fall in love with the natural world in the same way you fall in love with a person. There's that same sense of helplessness, of lacking control over how much of your life you want to devote to it."

It's the birthday of the novelist Chinua Achebe (books by this author), born in Ogidi, Nigeria (1930). His great-uncle was the man who first received European missionaries into his village. His father became one of the village's early converts to Christianity. Achebe was baptized as a Christian and spent his childhood reading the Bible every day, going to church every Sunday. But he was drawn to the customs of the non-Christians in his community, their traditional festivals and the elaborate masks they wore during religious ceremonies.

He went to a school run by Europeans and read Charles Dickens, Jonathan Swift, and Joseph Conrad. While reading Conrad's Heart of Darkness, about the colonization of Africa, Achebe found himself identifying with the white colonizers against the African savages. He said, "Eventually I realized [...] I was not on Marlowe's boat steaming up the Congo [...] I was one of those strange beings jumping up and down on the river bank, making horrid faces." He decided to become a writer to give voice to those strange beings in Conrad's novel.

The result was his novel Things Fall Apart (1958), one of the first novels ever written about European colonization from the point of view of the colonized native people. The book is written in English, but weaves in traditional idioms and proverbs. Achebe said, "[P]roverbs are the palm-oil with which words are eaten." Things Fall Apart is one of the most important works of a nationalist revival in Nigeria. It has become an international success, selling 8 million copies in the first 41 years it was published.

Chinua Achebe said: "It is the storyteller who makes us what we are, who creates history. The storyteller creates the memory that the survivors must have — otherwise their surviving would have no meaning."

It's the birthday of the novelist José Saramago (books by this author), born in a small village northeast of Lisbon, Portugal (1922). The child of peasants, he grew up on his family's pig farm. His family moved to Lisbon when he was a teenager, and since his parents couldn't afford an academic school, he went to a technical school and became an auto mechanic. The technical school did offer one literature course, though, and Saramago fell in love with books. Every night after work at the repair shop, he would go to the local public library and read.

He published his first novel, Land of Sin (1947), when he was 24, but after writing two more novels that he considered failures, he stopped writing fiction for the next 30 years. He supported himself as a metal worker, and slowly began to write book reviews and articles for local newspapers. When Portugal came under the rule of an oppressive dictator, he joined the revolutionary movement to overthrow the government. He became the editor of an opposition newspaper, but the government shut the paper down and he lost his job.

Saramago was in his mid-50s, unemployed, and blacklisted by the government. He decided he had no choice but to go back to writing fiction.

He went to live in one of the poorest villages in his country and wrote a novel, Raised from the Ground (1980), about three generations of a peasant family. He tried to write the novel the way a group of people would tell a story, so he didn't capitalize any letters, didn't indent any paragraphs, and he used no punctuation other than commas. When friends told him the book was almost impossible to read, he told them to read it aloud, and they suddenly found it easy to follow.

He went on writing political and fantastic novels through the '80s and '90s. His real international success came when he published Blindness (1997), a novel about a mysterious disease that causes all the people in a city to lose their sight. A year later, in 1998, he won the Nobel Prize in literature.

José Saramago said: "If you don't write your books, nobody else will do it for you. No one else has lived your life."

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




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