May 11, 2001

The Grain of Sand

by Robert Morgan

FRIDAY, 11 MAY 2001
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Poem: "The Grain of Sound," by Robert Morgan, from Topsoil Road (Louisiana State University Press).

The Grain of Sound

A banjo maker in the mountains,
when looking out for wood to carve
an instrument, will walk among
the trees and knock on trunks. He'll hit
the bark and listen for a note.
A hickory makes the brightest sound;
the poplar has a mellow ease.
But only straightest grain will keep
the purity of tone, the sought-
for depth that makes the licks sparkle.
A banjo has a shining shiver.
Its twangs will glitter like the light
on splashing water, even though
its face is just a drum of hide
of cow, or cat, or even skunk.
The hide will magnify the note,
the sad of honest pain, the chill
blood-song, lament, confession, haunt,
as tree will sing again from root
and vein and sap and twig in wind
and cat will moan as hand plucks nerve,
picks bone and skin and gut and pricks
the heart as blood will answer blood
and love begins to knock along the grain.

It's the birthday of novelist and short-story writer Stanley Elkin, born in New York City (1930). He taught at Washington University, in St. Louis, for most of his life. He wrote 17 novels, including The Dick Gibson Show (1971), The Living End (1979), and the posthumously published Mrs. Ted Bliss (1995).

It's the birthday of novelist and biographer Mari Sandoz, born on her father's homestead in northwestern Nebraska (1896). The Nebraska plains was the subject of all of her later writing. Her first book was Old Jules (1935), a biography of her father. She did a biography of Crazy Horse, and wrote The Battle of Little Bighorn, told from the Indians' point of view.

It's the birthday of dancer and choreographer Martha Graham, born in Allegheny, Pennsylvania (1894). Her father was a doctor who specialized in nervous disorders, and he diagnosed patients according to their physical movements. Graham studied dance as a teenager with Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn, who had the only major dance company that worked outside of classical ballet. One of her most famous pieces was Appalachian Spring (1944).

It's the birthday of Irving Berlin, born in Tyuman, Russia (1888). He was born Israel Baline, but when his name was misprinted as "Berlin" on the sheet music of his first song, "Marie from Sunny Italy" (1907), he kept it. His first big success came with "Alexander's Ragtime Band" (1911), and for the next 55 years he wrote some of the most memorable songs: "Always," "Blue Skies," "A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody," "God Bless America," "There's No Business Like Show Business," and of course, "White Christmas."

It's the birthday of Joe "King" Oliver, born in Abend, Louisiana (1885). A cornetist, he helped establish the career of Louis Armstrong when he brought Armstrong to Chicago to play in his Creole Jazz Band in the early '20s.

It's the anniversary of the printing of the first book. In the year 868, Wang Chieh printed the Diamond Sutra, a Buddhist scripture, on a sixteen-foot scroll using wood blocks. The scroll was discovered in Turkestan, in 1900, among a thousand bundles of manuscripts walled up in one of the Caves of the Thousand Buddhas.

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