Thursday July 9, 2015

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Wisteria can pull down a house

The wisteria means to creep over the world.
Every day its long tendrils wave in the breeze,
seize the bench under its arbor, weave
round the garden fence obstructing
the path. Its arbor’s long outgrown.

Such avidity. Such greed for dominance.
It has already killed the Siberian irises
it shadowed, stealing all their sun.
Should I admire or resent? Neither.
I go out with loppers and hack and hack.

If it could, it would twine around my neck
like a python; like an angry giant squid
it would pull me into a strangling embrace.
I will grow back, it swears, and outlive you.
Its vigor outdoes mine. It will succeed.

“Wisteria can pull down a house” by Marge Piercy from Made in Detroit. © Knopf, 2015. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

It’s the birthday of the man the New York Times called “the poet laureate of contemporary medicine,” neurologist and writer Oliver Sacks (books by this author), born in London (1933). Sacks’s mother was one of England’s first female surgeons; his father was a general practitioner. His parents were not demonstrative and treated their children like colleagues: Sacks was dissecting human tissue with his mother by the age of 11. As a teenager, he became fascinated with chemistry, a subject he later explored in his memoir, Uncle Tungsten (2001), the first draft of which topped out at more than 2 million words.

Sacks fled England for Canada in 1960, sending his parents a one-word telegram, “Staying.” In California, he dabbled in drugs, developed a taste for motorcycles, and befriended the poet Thom Gunn. Sacks cleaned up his act and by 1965 was in New York, failing miserably as a research scientist. Once, he forgot to tie his lab notebook tightly enough to his motorcycle rack and his papers blew over the Cross Bronx Expressway. His supervisors said: “Sacks, you are a menace in the lab. Why don’t you go and see patients — you’ll do less harm.”

In a dilapidated Bronx hospital, Sacks found his calling. “When I wandered in there, on my first day, I saw these frozen, transfixed people in the corridors. I had never seen anything like that. I thought, ‘These are my people.’” His patients were victims of encephalitis lethargica, or “sleeping sickness,” which had swept the world in the early 20th century. Sacks turned his findings into a best-selling book, Awakenings, blending the role of physician and writer, a stance that proved popular with readers, but not with the medical establishment, which questioned the quality of his science.

Sacks’s books have raised awareness of brain disorders such as Tourette’s syndrome and autism and are, at root, about people who have suffered loss to their identities. About using medicine as storytelling, Sacks said: “My patients come to me with stories. They have predicaments. They have plights. They come searching for ways of dealing with these things. There is something dramatic in all this.”

It’s the 70th birthday of Dean Koontz (books by this author), born in Everett, Pennsylvania (1945). His family was poor; they didn’t have an indoor toilet until he was 11. His father was an abusive alcoholic that couldn’t keep a job. Koontz went to stay with neighbors for six months when he was four years old, because his mother was in the hospital. The neighbor read him stories every night and he says he came to associate storytelling with a peaceful feeling.

He won a fiction contest sponsored by Atlantic Monthly when he was in college, which made him think writing was a pretty good gig. After he left college, he kept writing, whenever he could find time after his day job as a counselor for underprivileged kids and, later, as a high school English teacher. Finally, his wife, Gerda, told him she’d support him for five years so he could really give this writing thing his best shot. By the end of the five years, she had quit her job to run his business affairs. His books have now sold more than 400 million copies, in 38 languages. He’s most often associated with horror and suspense novels, but he’s also written a memoir about his golden retriever, Trixie, called A Big Little Life (2009).

And it’s the birthday of Southern firefighter-turned-writer Larry Brown (books by this author), born in William Faulkner’s hometown, Oxford, Mississippi (1951). Brown nearly flunked out of high school and opted for the Marines, which inspired his novel Dirty Work (1989), about injured Vietnam vets. He wrote while the other firemen slept, writing about men and women who loved beer, trucks, and self-destruction. When his first collection, Facing the Music (1988), was published, he shrugged off criticisms of the violence in his work, saying, “Well, that’s fine. It’s OK if you call it brutal, but just admit by God that it’s honest.”

On writing, he said: “I try to put my characters in trouble early on. What you try to do is make the character and the situation so real that it creates kind of an illusion. You create a visual experience in the readers’ heads, make it so realistic that they have to read on. That’s what I learned in 20 years of writing.”

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