I spent today preparing to teach a two-week short-story-writing class to high school students. I always like to start over, when I teach, rather than fall back on old class plans and lessons. Otherwise I might start to think I'm really only a teacher, and am done with learning. It's a pleasure to be using short stories of Roberto Bolaño for the first time in this context. "The Grub," from Last Evenings On Earth, should lead to a different series of questions and writings than I'm used to, or at least that's what I'm hoping.
Bolaño. Bolaño. Bolaño. I read and read and read him, but I can't explain why--what in his writing is so appealing? There's some sort of recovery happening when I read his stores and novels. (Not so much the poetry.) He makes me want to write. He makes me a little more disgusted by other writers.
I was surprised, rereading John Cheever stories in my search for interesting models and talking points for these high schoolers, to find more mystery and sympathy in his work than I ever used to, and I think it's because they remind me of Bolaño--a similar patient spokenness in both, a similar composed and devious honesty. It's an odd match, I acknowledge, but there's some metaphor between them. Check out "The Death of Justina" or "Clemantina."
Another writer who seems fresher in context of Bolaño is John Newlove, a Canadian poet who also died in 2003. He was from Saskatchewan, as unlikely a place on earth as Chile. He lived for a while around Deep Springs College in Death Valley, though I'm not sure if he taught there.
This John Newlove poem is worth a whole life. It's from his 1986 book The Night the Dog Smiled. I found it in a small bookstore in Victoria, or rather Kurt Slauson found it and encouraged me to buy it. At the time the buzz in the english department at the university of victoria, apparently, was that Newlove had disappeared after the book came out, was in hiding, maybe for drink or health, or maybe stealth. This poem should be on the Canadian dollar, on its flag. I hate the poet laureate trend in North America, the condescending nationalistic nod it implies. Yet Canada should make John Newlove the Canadian permanent posthumous poet laureate for writing this poem.
You never say anything in your letters. You say,
I drove all night long through the snow
in someone else’s car
and the heater wouldn’t work and I nearly froze.
But I know that. I live in this country too.
I know how beautiful it is at night
with the white snow banked in the moonlight.
Around black trees and tangled bushes,
how lonely and lovely that driving is,
how deadly. You become the country.
You are by yourself in that channel of snow
and pines and pines,
whether the pines and snow flow backwards smoothly,
whether you drive or you stop or you walk or you sit.
This land waits. It watches. How beautifully desolate
our country is, out of the snug cities,
and how it fits a human. You say you drove.
It doesn’t matter to me.
All I can see is the silent cold car gliding,
walled in, your face smooth, your mind empty,
cold foot on the pedal, cold hands on the wheel.