Friday Aug. 25, 2017

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Noon, or The Siesta

On one of my mother’s last outings,
we drove to the art museum in St. Louis.

I could feel her falling away. Slowly
we moved across the slick floors.

The Bronco Buster in one room,
The Passion of Christ in another.

It was all the same. I was about to lead
us out when we came to the Van Gogh:

A couple asleep, his shoes beside
the sickles. Mom said, “They’re not

going to get good silage loafing around
like that.” On the way home we crossed

the Mississippi. A metropolis dissolved.
There were fields beyond the water

works—a delft blue sky, and bales of hay
with tired men sitting and smoking.

“Noon, or The Siesta” by Ron Koertge from Vampire Planet. © Red Hen Press, 2016. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

On this date in 1718, French immigrants founded the city of New Orleans. Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville named the new settlement for Philippe II, the Duke of Orléans. The duke was the regent of France, ruling in place of King Louis XV, who was only a boy. The French had claimed the Louisiana Territory in 1682, and the location of New Orleans — at the mouth of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers — meant that it was prime real estate for anyone who wanted to control America's large interior waterway. Though the city never lost its French character, it was blended with elements of Native American, African, and Spanish cultures.

To get things started, France sent a starter population of prisoners, slaves, and bonded servants. They arrived in New Orleans to find a mosquito-ridden swamp that was surrounded by hostile Native Americans, and prone to hurricanes. The new settlers threatened to revolt, so the French government sent 90 female convicts straight from the Paris jails. These ladies of questionable repute were chaperoned by a group of Ursuline nuns until they could be married off to the men who awaited them.

Two engineers laid out plans for a the original walled village, which later came to be known as the French Quarter or the Vieux Carré — the Old City. Though it's called the French Quarter, the architecture of the area is mostly Spanish in influence, since fire destroyed most of the original buildings in the 18th century. By that time, the city was under the control of the Spanish, who rebuilt the quarter. New Orleans became an American city in 1803, when Napoleon sold Louisiana to the United States government.

Tom Robbins wrote, in Jitterbug Perfume (1984): "Louisiana in September was like an obscene phone call from nature. The air — moist, sultry, secretive, and far from fresh — felt as if it were being exhaled into one's face. Sometimes it even sounded like heavy breathing. Honeysuckle, swamp flowers, magnolia, and the mystery smell of the river scented the atmosphere, amplifying the intrusion of organic sleaze. It was aphrodisiac and repressive, soft and violent at the same time. In New Orleans, in the French Quarter, miles from the barking lungs of alligators, the air maintained this quality of breath, although here it acquired a tinge of metallic halitosis, due to fumes expelled by tourist buses, trucks delivering Dixie beer, and, on Decatur Street, a mass-transit motor coach named Desire."

Today is the birthday of novelist Brian Moore (books by this author), born in Belfast, Northern Ireland (1921). When he died in 1999, his obituary in the LA Weekly began, "The most accomplished and least fashionable writer in Los Angeles died last week." Graham Greene once described him as "my favourite living author," and said, "Each book of his is dangerous, unpredictable, and amusing. He treats the novel as a trainer treats a wild beast." But many people have never read his work.

Brian Moore was one of nine children born into a devout Catholic family. He quickly rejected the teachings of Catholicism, but continued to write about them for the rest of his life. The Catholic Church banned several of his novels. Moore left Ireland after World War II, spent time working for the U.N. in Poland, and moved to Canada in 1948, where he started working for a Montreal newspaper. In 1952, he left the newspaper to concentrate on writing novels. His first book under his own name was rejected by 12 different American publishers before it was finally accepted. Published in 1955 as The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne, the book was a bleak tale of an unmarried alcoholic Catholic woman living in Belfast. He later said: "I was very lonely, I had almost no friends, I'd given up my beliefs, was earning no money and I didn't see much of a future. So I could identify with a dipsomaniac, isolated spinster."

He moved to New York to write his second novel, and in 1966, he moved to California, where he remained for the rest of his life. Several of his own books were adapted into Hollywood movies, and he wrote other screenplays, too. He wrote the screenplay for the Alfred Hitchcock movie Torn Curtain and said that the ordeal was "awful, like washing floors." It so happened that Moore could do an uncanny impersonation of Alfred Hitchcock.

Moore once said in an interview: "Writers like me, you see, lead a surrogate life. We don't really have a life of our own. I'm only happy when I'm writing about something or somebody else — perhaps that's part of the problem of not being better known than I am — I live through my books, in a way. No personality of my own."

It's the birthday of American poet Charles Wright (1935) (books by this author), born in Pickwick Dam, Tennessee, a tiny, rural community named for the title character of Charles Dickens's novel The Pickwick Papers. Wright was named for his great-grandfather Charles Penzel, who at age 23 took a bullet in the mouth when shouting "Charge!" during the Battle of Chickamauga during the Civil War. Wright's father was a civil engineer for the Tennessee Valley Authority and they moved often during his childhood, living comfortably in government housing. His father also worked on the Manhattan Project, the research and development project that produced the first nuclear weapons during World War II.

Wright was an active and diligent student in high school, helping to coach the football team, serving as vice president of his class, and being named to the honors program. He read all of William Faulkner by the time he graduated (1953), but he didn't start writing poetry until he served four years in the U.S. Army. He was stationed in Italy when he came across Ezra Pound's Cantos, which he used first as a kind of guidebook to Italy and then as a way to begin writing his own poems. He's never thrown away his poems from Italy; they are stored in a footlocker. He says: "They don't know how to do anything. Mostly, I guess, because they didn't know what they were supposed to do. And I myself had no clue."

When he returned to the United States, Wright enrolled in the Iowa Writers' Workshop, where the workshops were held in Quonset Huts left over from World War II. He was reading voraciously, especially poems by Dante, Emily Dickinson, and Arthur Rimbaud, but he was unprepared for the rigors of the workshop. He says, "I'd never written a proper poem in my life." When he graduated, he began teaching and publishing in magazines. His first collection, The Grave of the Right Hand (1970), received good reviews and established the basis for his style: expansive, almost cinematic language. About his writing, he says: "I once said if a guy can't say what he has to say in three lines, he better change his job. I haven't gotten that far yet, but I'm down to six lines."

Wright's other collections of poetry include The Southern Cross (1981), Country Music (1982), Black Zodiac (1997), Littlefoot (2007), and Caribou (2014). He won the Pulitzer Prize (1998) for Black Zodiac. Wright served as U.S. poet laureate of the United States from 2014 to 2015.

On writing poetry, he says: "Language is the element of definition, the defining and descriptive incantation. It puts the coin between our teeth. It whistles the boat up. It shows us the city of light across the water. Without language there is no poetry, without poetry there's just talk. Talk is cheap and proves nothing. Poetry is dear and difficult to come by. But it poles us across the river and puts music in our ears."

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