May 10, 2007

Twilight: After Haying

by Jane Kenyon

THURSDAY, 10 MAY, 2007
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Poem: "Twilight: After Haying" by Jane Kenyon from Otherwise: New & Selected Poems. © Graywolf Press, 1997. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Twilight: After Haying

Yes, long shadows go out
from the bales; and yes, the soul
must part from the body:
what else could it do?

The men sprawl near the baler,
too tired to leave the field.
They talk and smoke,
and the tips of their cigarettes
blaze like small roses
in the night air. (It arrived
and settled among them
before they were aware.)

The moon comes
to count the bales,
and the dispossessed—
Whip-poor-will, Whip-poor-will
—sings from the dusty stubble.

These things happen ... the soul's bliss
and suffering are bound together
like the grasses ...

The last, sweet exhalations
of timothy and vetch
go out with the song of the bird;
the ravaged field
grows wet with dew.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of the first African-American woman to win a Pulitzer Prize for drama, Suzan-Lori Parks, (books by this author) born in Fork Knox, Kentucky (1963). Her father was an officer in the Army, so Parks grew up in five different states and went to middle school in Germany. She went to college at Mount Holyoke, and while she was there, she began to hear voices of characters speaking in her head, and she felt compelled to write them down. Then, she had a chance to take a creative writing course with visiting writer James Baldwin. During the course, he asked everybody to read his or her work in front of the class. When Parks got her turn to read, she really tried to embody the characters, speaking in different voices and even moving around the room. Baldwin was impressed, and he suggested that she try her hand at playwriting. She hadn't been interested in drama at that point, but she later said, "When James Baldwin makes a suggestion, you listen."

She went to study acting at the Drama Studio in London and then came back to New York where she worked as a temp and started writing plays. For her first major production, she wrote a play called Imperceptible Mutabilities in the Third Kingdom (1989), which attempted to tell the story of the African-American experience through a series of dreamlike scenes. The play was wildly experimental, but it won the Obie Award for best Off-Broadway play of the year.

Then, in 1999, Parks got the idea for a play about two African-American brothers named Lincoln and Booth who get into a fight about whether or not Lincoln should return to his career as a con man. Parks wrote the play, called Topdog/Underdog in almost a single sitting. It premiered Off-Broadway in 2001, and within a year Parks had won both the MacArthur "genius" Award and the Pulitzer Prize for drama. It was the first play by an African-American woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for drama.

It was on this day in 1994 that Nelson Mandela (books by this author) was inaugurated as the president of South Africa. He had just been released from prison four years earlier, after spending 27 years as a political prisoner of the South African government.

It was on this day in 1940 that Winston Churchill took power as the prime minister of Great Britain, a position he would hold for the rest of World War II. He came to power at a very dark moment for Europe. In less than two years, almost all of Western Europe's mainland was either controlled by or allied with Nazi Germany. And then, on this day in 1940, Churchill became the prime minister. In his acceptance speech, he famously said, "All I have to offer is blood, toil, tears, and sweat."

It's the birthday of Fred Astaire, born Frederick Austerlitz, in Omaha, Nebraska (1899). He started dancing when he was four, and when he was six he formed an act with his sister, Adele, which became a popular vaudeville attraction on Broadway. When Adele retired in 1932, Astaire made a screen test. The movie executive wrote, "Can't act, can't sing. Balding. Can dance a little." Still, Astaire got a part in Dancing Lady (1933). It starred Joan Crawford, Clark Gable, and the Three Stooges. He's famous for the movies he made with his dancing partner Ginger Rogers: classics like The Gay Divorcee (1934), Top Hat (1935), and Swing Time (1936).

Fred Astaire said, "The higher up you go, the more mistakes you are allowed. Right at the top, if you make enough of them, it's considered to be your style."

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