Saturday Mar. 28, 2015

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This Morning

As I drive into town
the driver in front of me
runs a stop sign.
A pedestrian pulls down his cap.
A man comes out of his house
to sweep the steps.
bright as raspberries.

I turn on the radio.
Somebody tells me
the day is sunny and warm.
A woman laughs

and my daughter steps out of the radio.
Grief spreads in my throat like strep.
I had forgotten, I was happy, I maybe
was humming “You Are My Lucky Star,”
a song I may have invented.
Sometimes a red geranium, a dog,
a stone
will carry me away.
But not for long.
Some memory or another of her
catches up with me and stands
like an old nun behind a desk,
ruler in hand.

“This Morning” by Jo McDougall from In the Home of the Famous Dead: Collected Poems. Copyright © 2015 by Jo McDougall. Used with the permission of The Permissions Company, Inc., on behalf of the University of Arkansas Press.  (buy now)

It’s the birthday of Nelson Algren (1909) (books by this author). Born Nelson Algren Abraham to working-class parents in Detroit, he grew up in Chicago’s immigrant neighborhoods. He wrote his first story, “So Help Me,” during the Great Depression, while he was working at a gas station in Texas. His life — and work — changed dramatically after he was caught stealing a typewriter and spent five months in jail. His later novels and stories would feature the down-and-out, the loser, and the reject. He became known as a writer of Chicago; he wrote: “People ask me why I don’t write about nature or the suburbs. If a writer could write the truth about one Chicago street, that would be a good life’s work.”

In A Walk on the Wild Side (1956), set in the world of pimps and prostitutes in New Orleans, Algren gives his three rules for life: “Never play cards with a man called Doc. Never eat at a place called Mom’s. Never sleep with a woman whose troubles are worse than your own.” The novel is, in many ways, about the contempt of a nation for its dispossessed, and in it he wrote: “When we get more houses than we can live in, more cars than we can ride in, more food than we can eat ourselves, the only way of getting richer is by cutting off those who don’t have enough.”

Nelson Algren, who said, “A certain ruthlessness and a sense of alienation from society is as essential to creative writing as it is to armed robbery.”

It’s also the birthday of a man who counts Algren among his heroes: poet, novelist, and short-story writer Russell Banks (books by this author), born in Newton, Massachusetts (1940). He wrote: “At a university, you study books that can be deconstructed, not books that can change your life. Algren’s books can change your life, and this kind of book you always have to discover on your own.”

His father abandoned the family when Russell was 12, and the boy was forced to help out his mother with family finances. He was a bright student, and won a scholarship to Colgate, becoming the first in his family to go to college. But he dropped out after only eight weeks, feeling that he didn’t fit in among the privileged preppies, “the sons of the captains of American industry,” as he called them. He left the North for Mexico and Florida and intended to join Castro’s rebellious army, but he ended up in Florida fishing, writing, and working as a gas station attendant. By his early 20s, he was married and had a daughter, but the relationship ended in divorce when he was 22. He later called this period “the terrible years.”

When he was 24, he went back to college, entering the University of North Carolina, and this time around he felt well adjusted and was a good student.

He wrote a novel, Hamilton Stark (1978), in which he experimented with narration techniques and perspective, using shifting points of view to frame the story. His novel Continental Drift (1985) was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize and called by Atlantic reviewer James Atlas “the most convincing portrait I know of contemporary America: its greed, its uprootedness, its indifference to the past. This is a novel about the way we live now.”

Banks’ 2011 novel Lost Memory of Skin — a finalist for the 2012 PEN/Faulkner Award for fiction — was inspired by an encampment of sex offenders living under a causeway near Banks’ Miami high-rise apartment.

It’s the birthday of St. Teresa of Ávila (books by this author), born in Gotarrendura, Spain (1515). She grew up in a wealthy household in a walled city. She was fascinated by the spiritual life even as a young girl, particularly the martyred saints. At the age of seven, she ran away from home with her younger brother, hoping to find wherever it was that the Moors lived and be martyred. Their uncle found them just outside the city and dragged them home.

Teresa was also a beautiful and social girl. She loved perfume, jewelry, and elegant clothes. Her mother died when Teresa was 14, and she was heartbroken. Her father felt that it was inappropriate for his beautiful daughter to be without a female companion, so he sent her off to a convent school, which would teach her the necessary skills to become a good wife and mother. Instead, she decided to become a nun. A couple of years later, she suffered from malaria and almost died. She survived, but her legs were paralyzed for three years. During her illness, she had mystical visions, falling into trances or levitating during times of intense rapture.

Although she stayed at the convent for 20 years, it was not the sacred place she wanted it to be. Each nun had a set of private rooms, and sometimes a personal maid. They were allowed to wear jewelry, leave the convent, and entertain daily visitors, both women and men. Teresa eventually broke away and founded the Discalced Carmelite Order (the word “discalced” means “shoeless”). In this new reform order, the nuns lived in poverty and simplicity, devoting their time to prayer, according to ancient traditions. After establishing her own monastery, Teresa traveled around Spain on a donkey, setting up 16 new monasteries for women. She also wrote several books, including The Way of Perfection (1566) and The Interior Castle (1580).

It’s the birthday of novelist Lauren Weisberger (books by this author), born in Scranton, Pennsylvania, in 1977. Weisberger majored in English, spent a summer backpacking around Europe and Asia after graduation, then moved back to the U.S. and landed a job as assistant to the editor-in-chief of Vogue magazine. After she left Vogue, she worked as an assistant editor at Departures magazine, then took some writing classes and started to work on a book. It became The Devil Wears Prada, which contains a pretty straightforward autobiographical narrative about Weisberger’s experiences as a personal assistant at Vogue magazine: The main character, Andy Sachs, aspires to be a writer, moves to New York City, and gets a job at a fashion magazine working as the personal assistant to the despotic and domineering editor. The Devil Wears Prada spent six months on the New York Times best-seller list when it came out in 2003.

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