Hemingway - A Desperate Life

BOOK REVIEW by Willard Manus

In HEMINGWAY--A DESPERATE LIFE, David Ray has written 121 poems about the late writer whose larger-than-life persona often overshadowed his body of work (Hemingway was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1953; he died eight years later of a self-inflicted gunshot).

Over the years countless books and articles have been written about Hemingway--he is even a character (caricature, really) in a recent prize-winning movie, Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris)--but few of these works penetrate to the core of the man the way David Ray's does. A distinguished short-story writer as well as a poet, Ray paints an unsentimental but compassionate portrait of Hemingway, first paying tribute to his gifts as an artist, then proceeding to show his contradictory sides as a human being--courage mixed with braggadocio, generosity with pettiness, love of life with fear of death.

Ray's terse, lapidary poems deal with just about every well-known aspect of Hemingway's life: his hunting, fishing and drinking, his wartime exploits, his wives and mistresses, Italy, Spain, France, Africa, Cuba, bullfighting, palling around with Gary Cooper and Fidel Castro, succumbing to paranoia and dementia in later years, trying to fight against shock therapy at the Mayo Clinic.

Hemingway began as a literary rebel and innovator, one who became known for his understatement, his simple declarative sentences and short words. By the end though he needed help in editing his own work, so dense and prolix was it. Ray sums up Hemingway's tragedy, the essence of his desperation, in a poem called Night Letters:

"He wrote them at night

and in most cases had

no intention of mailing

them. They told far

more than he wishes

to tell those to whom

he was writing. Taboos

like unexpected sorrow

could be broken. Truths

could be told often

to ex-wives and

lost friends, without reserve.

He could even tell them

how sad he was. Now

and then he could say

he was sorry. But who

would have believed it?"

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