Tuesday Jan. 19, 2016

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They hang around, hitting on your friends
or else you never hear from them again.
They call when they’re drunk, or finally get sober,

they’re passing through town and want dinner,
they take your hand across the table, kiss you
when you come back from the bathroom.

They were your loves, your victims,
your good dogs or bad boys, and they’re over
you now. One writes a book in which a woman

who sounds suspiciously like you
is the first to be sadistically dismembered
by a serial killer. They’re getting married

and want you to be the first to know,
or they’ve been fired and need a loan,
their new girlfriend hates you,

they say they don’t miss you but show up
in your dreams, calling to you from the shoeboxes
where they’re buried in rows in your basement.

Some nights you find one floating into bed with you,
propped on an elbow, giving you a look
of fascination, a look that says I can’t believe

I’ve found you. It’s the same way
your current boyfriend gazed at you last night,
before he pulled the plug on the tiny white lights

above the bed, and moved against you in the dark
broken occasionally by the faint restless arcs
of headlights from the freeway’s passing trucks,

the big rigs that travel and travel,
hauling their loads between cities, warehouses,
following the familiar routes of their loneliness.

“Ex-Boyfriends” by Kim Addonizio from What Is This Thing Called Love. © W.W. Norton, 2004. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

It’s the birthday of Confederate General Robert E. Lee, born in Westmoreland County, Virginia (1807). He did not approve of the secession and many people think he didn’t approve of slavery, and he was loyal member of the United States Army. But he was even more loyal to Virginia, where his family had deep roots. In 1861, President Lincoln offered him command of the entire Union Army, but Lee knew that Virginia was about to secede, so he declined, left the United States Army, and became a senior military advisor to Jefferson Davis. He went on to serve as General-in-Chief of the Confederate army.

It’s the birthday of American novelist Patricia Highsmith (books by this author) born in Fort Worth, Texas, in 1921. She is best known for having created the iconic character of Tom Ripley, a charming psychopath. Ripley first appeared in 1955 in Highsmith’s novel The Talented Mr. Ripley. Highsmith devoted four more novels to Ripley, including Ripley Under Ground (1970) and Ripley Under Water (1991).

Highsmith was already well-known when she created Ripley. Her first novel, Strangers on a Train, had been modestly successful until it was adapted into a hit film by Alfred Hitchcock. Then it flew off the shelves. In the book, as in the movie, two men with shady secrets share a train and discover they each want someone dead. The novel was rejected by six publishers before finding a home. Highsmith’s prose was too literary to be a detective novel and not procedural enough to be a crime novel. She felt she was closer to Kafka than dime-store novels. She said, “Solving a murder case leaves me completely indifferent. Is there anything more artificial and boring than justice? It is not my aim to morally redeem the reader. I want to entertain.”

Highsmith’s second novel, The Price of Salt (1952), was inspired by her obsession with a woman she met while clerking in a department store. It’s the story of two women who fall in love. It featured a happy ending, which was unusual for literature of the time about lesbians, and the book surprised everyone by selling around a million copies. It was billed as “the novel of a love society forbids.” The book was adapted into an acclaimed film, Carol, starring Cate Blanchett (2015).

And it’s the birthday of American poet and short-story writer Edgar Allan Poe (1809) (books by this author), born in Boston to two traveling actors who died before his third birthday. Poe was raised in Virginia by a wealthy, but stingy, tobacco merchant. The merchant wanted Poe to go into business, but by the time he was 14, Poe was already writing passable imitations of Lord Byron on the back of his adoptive father’s ledger paper. He was sent to the University of Virginia, where he did well, but he also gambled and fell into debt. His father wouldn’t send extra money, so Poe took to burning the furniture in his room to keep warm during the winter.

Poe’s first collection of poetry, Tamerlane and Other Poems (1827), was published when he was just 18 years old. He wanted to write, but he also had to please his father, so he enrolled in the U.S. Army, then West Point. He may have gotten himself deliberately kicked out of West Point for appearing nude at drill, but no one knows for sure. Poe kicked around Boston, New York, and Baltimore, working as literary critic and editor. He married his first cousin when she was 13 and he was 27. His writing was becoming increasingly Gothic and strange, especially Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque (1840), a collection of spooky stories that included The Fall of the House of Usher. It wasn’t until his long poem “The Raven,” with its famously quixotic titular bird, was published in The New York Evening Mirror (1845) that he became a household name and made a little bit of money. He performed the poem for society ladies in parlors, under dim lights.

When his wife died of tuberculosis, Poe went back to the binge-drinking that probably killed him at age 40, when he was found on the streets of Baltimore, in someone else’s clothes, raving incoherently. Poe’s work was derided during his lifetime by his peers, but scholars and writers discovered him anew in the 20th century. He’s now known as “The Father of the Detective Story” and largely credited with creating the genre of horror writing. Stephen King, Arthur Conan Doyle, and H.P. Lovecraft all cited Poe as an influence. And though T.S. Eliot once said Poe’s intellect “seems to me the intellect of a highly gifted person before puberty,” playwright George Bernard Shaw disagreed. Shaw said, “Poe consistently and inevitably produced magic where his greatest contemporaries produced only beauty.”

Only 50 copies of Tamerlane and Other Poems were printed, and it’s believed only 12 of the original books remain. In 2009, an edition of Tamerlane was sold at the Smithsonian for $662,000.

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