Oct. 17, 2007

At Becky’s Piano Recital

by Carl Dennis

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Poem: "At Becky's Piano Recital" by Carl Dennis, from New and Selected Poems 1974–2004. © Penguin Poets, 2004. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

At Becky's Piano Recital

She screws her face up as she nears the hard parts,
Then beams with relief as she makes it through,
Just as she did listening on the edge of her chair
To the children who played before her,
Wincing and smiling for them
As if she doesn't regard them as competitors
And is free of the need to be first
That vexes many all their lives.
I hope she stays like this,
Her windows open on all sides to a breeze
Pungent with sea spray or meadow pollen.
Maybe her patience this morning at the pond
Was another good sign,
The way she waited for the frog to croak again
So she could find its hiding place and admire it.
There it was, in the reeds, to any casual passerby
Only a fist-sized speckled stone.
All the way home she wondered out loud
What kind of enemies a frog must have
To make it live so hidden, so disguised.
Whatever enemies follow her when she's grown,
Whatever worry or anger drives her at night from her room
To walk in the gusty rain past the town edge,
Her spirit, after an hour, will do what it can
To be distracted by the light of a farmhouse.
What are they doing up there so late,
She'll wonder, then watch in her mind's eye
As the family huddles in the kitchen
To worry if the bank will be satisfied
This month with only half a payment,
If the letter from the wandering son
Really means he's coming home soon.
Even old age won't cramp her
If she loses herself on her evening walk
In piano music drifting from a house
And imagines the upright in the parlor
And the girl working up the same hard passages.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of the novelist Wally Lamb, (books by this author) born in Norwich, Connecticut (1950), who took nine years to write his first novel, She's Come Undone (1992), about a woman looking back on her life after a failed marriage. The advance for the novel was just enough that he and his wife could buy their first car with air conditioning. The book only sold a few thousand copies, but Lamb was just glad to have published anything. And then, a few years later, Lamb got a phone call from Oprah Winfrey telling him that she'd picked his book for her book club, and it went on to sell 3 million copies. Lamb's second novel, I Know This Much Is True, was an even bigger best-seller in 1998.

It's the birthday of novelist Nathanael West, (books by this author) born Nathan Weinstein in New York City (1904), who wrote two great novels that mixed tragedy and comedy: Miss Lonely Hearts (1933), about an advice columnist who's overcome by the sadness of the world, and The Day of the Locust (1939), about the Hollywood subculture of failed actors who become stuntmen, extras, criminals, and prostitutes. West had terrible luck as a writer, and his books sold few copies. In a letter to F. Scott Fitzgerald, he wrote, "Somehow or other I seem to have slipped in between all the 'schools.' ... I forget the broad sweep, the big canvas, the shot-gun adjectives, the important people, the significant ideas, the lessons to be taught ... and go on making ... private and unfunny jokes." Eight months after he got married, he and his wife were killed in a car accident. Most of his work is collected in Novels and Other Writings, published by Library of America in 1997. Nathanael West said, "Forget the epic, the masterwork ... you only have time to explode."

It's the birthday of Arthur Miller, (books by this author) born in New York City (1915), who wrote Death of a Salesman (1949), based loosely on the life of his uncle, Manny Newman, who was a salesman and a big talker, full of schemes and hope for the future, even though he struggled to make ends meet. Miller said, "In [my uncle Manny's] house ... something good was always coming up, and not just good but fantastic, transforming, triumphant ... his unpredictable manipulations of fact freed my mind to lope and skip among fantasies of my own, but always underneath was the river of his sadness."

Death of a Salesman has gone on to be one of the most widely produced plays in the world, playing in France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Sweden, and Argentina. It has been particularly popular in China and Japan.

Arthur Miller died on February 11, 2005. He said, "Maybe all one can do is hope to end up with the right regrets."

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