Oct. 13, 2006
Away In Virginia, I See a Mustard Field And Think Of You
Poem: "Away In Virginia, I See a Mustard Field And Think Of You" by Barbara Crooker from Radiance. © Grayson Books. Reprinted with permission.
Away In Virginia, I See a Mustard Field And Think Of You
because the blue hills are like the shoulder and slopes
of your back as you sleep. Often I slip a hand under
your body to anchor myself to this earth. The yellow
mustard rises from a waving sea of green.
I think of us driving narrow roads in France, under
a tunnel of sycamores, my hair blowing in the hot wind,
opera washing out of the radio, loud. We are feeding
each other cherries from a white paper sack.
And then we return to everyday life, where we fall
into bed exhausted, fall asleep while still reading,
forget the solid planes of the body in the country
of dreams. I miss your underwear, soft from a thousand
washings, the socks you still wear from a store
out of business thirty years. I love to smell your sweat
after mowing grass or hauling wood; I miss the weight
on your side of the bed.
Literary and Historical Notes:
It's the birthday of novelist and short-story writer Conrad Richter, (books by this author) born in Pine Grove, Pennsylvania (1890). His father, both his grandfathers, and all his uncles were preachers. As a young boy, he loved to hear them tell stories about his ancestors who had been tradesmen, soldiers, country squires, blacksmiths, and farmers. He was especially fascinated that one of his ancestors had fought in the Revolutionary War under George Washington, and another had been a Hessian mercenary in the opposing British Army.
He got a job as a newspaper reporter, and he wrote fiction on the side, but most of his stories were conventional and derivative of other writers. Then in the late 1920s, his wife got sick and doctors suggested a change of climate, so they moved to New Mexico. Richter became obsessed with the history of the Southwest, and he began traveling around interviewing older men and women and gathering old record books, newspapers, letters, and diaries of the early pioneers. After five years of research, he wrote a book about the Southwestern settlers called Early Americana, and Other Stories (1936), and it was considered one of the best works of historical fiction ever written about Western pioneers. He went on to write many more books, including a trilogy about frontier life in Ohio: The Trees (1940), The Fields (1946), and The Town (1950), which won the Pulitzer Prize.
It's the birthday of Harlem Renaissance writer Arna[ud] Wendell Bontemps, (books by this author) born in Alexandria, Louisiana (1902). For three generations, all the men in his family had been brick masons, but after his mother's death when he was 12, his father sent him to a private school where he was the only black student.
He went on to be the first member of his family to get a college degree, but his father was furious that he chose to study literature instead of medicine or law. After he graduated from college, he moved to New York City because, he said, he wanted to see what all the excitement was about. The excitement was the Harlem Renaissance, and he quickly became friends with writers like Langston Hughes, Jean Toomer, and James Weldon Johnson. They encouraged him to publish his poetry and fiction, and his first novel, God Sends Sunday, came out in 1931.
He spent the rest of the Great Depression moving around the South, teaching at different colleges, trying to support his family and find time to write. He and his family lived in a series of ramshackle houses with tin roofs and poor ventilation. It often got so hot that he had to write his books on the front lawn under the shade of a tree. Finally, money got so tight that he and his wife had to move in with his father, who told him to give up writing and go back to brick masonry. The room his father gave him was too small for a writing desk, so he wrote his next novel on top of a sewing machine. Based on an actual slave uprising, the novel was published in 1936 as Black Thunder, and many people consider it his masterpiece.
After Bontemps's third novel got terrible reviews, he gave up writing fiction and got a job as the chief librarian at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. He used his authority as a librarian to build up one of the best collections of African-American literature anywhere at the time, and he went on to become one of the most important anthologizers of African-American literature, editing such books as The Poetry of the Negro, 1746-1949 (1949) and The Book of Negro Folklore (1958). Much of the literature that he preserved and anthologized might have been lost without him.
It's the birthday of comedian Lenny Bruce, (books by this author) born Leonard Schneider in the town of Mineola on New York's Long Island (1925). He got his start in comedy working as an emcee for a strip club, where he told jokes as he introduced the performers, and eventually he got his own show. At the time, comedians told jokes methodically, with a set up and a punch line, over and over. Bruce developed a new form of comedy where he just stood on stage and talked about things like politics, society, religion, and race; and he free-associated on those topics to make people laugh. People compared his comedy to jazz.
It's the birthday of singer and songwriter Paul Simon, born in Newark, New Jersey (1941). His father was a musician and his mother was a music teacher. When he was in sixth grade, he got a part in the school play as the White Rabbit in Alice In Wonderland. A boy named Art Garfunkel played the Mad Hatter. The two became friends after walking home from rehearsal every day. They started a singing duo, playing sock hops and high school dances, and they made a hit record when they were only 16 years old.
The two recorded their first folk album, Wednesday Morning, 3 a.m. in 1964, but it only sold a few thousand copies. They figured their career was probably over, but, unbeknownst to Simon and Garfunkel, their record label had added electric guitars to the song "The Sounds of Silence" and released it as a single. They had just moved back in with their parents and were sitting in Simon's car, wondering what to do next, when they heard the song come on the radio, and the DJ said it had gone to number one. Simon turned to Garfunkel and said, "That Simon and Garfunkel, they must be having a great time."
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