Sep. 15, 2009

A Wife Explains Why She Likes Country

by Barbara Ras

Because those cows in the bottomland are black and white, colors
anyone can understand, even against the green
of the grass, where they glide like yes and no, nothing in between,
because in country, heartache has nowhere to hide,
it's the Church of Abundant Life, the Alamo,
the hubbub of the hoi polloi, the parallel lines of rail fences,
because I like rodeos more than golf,
because there's something about the sound of mealworms and
leeches and the dream of a double-wide
that reminds me this is America, because of the simple pleasure
of a last chance, because sometimes whiskey
tastes better than wine, because hauling hogs on the road
is as good as it gets when the big bodies are layered like pigs in a cake,
not one layer but two,
because only country has a gun with a full choke and a slide guitar
that melts playing it cool into sweaty surrender in one note,
because in country you can smoke forever and it'll never kill you,
because roadbeds, flatbeds, your bed or mine,
because the package store is right across from the chicken plant
and it sells boiled peanuts, because I'm fixin' to wear boots to the dance
and make my hair bigger, because no smarty-pants, just easy rhymes,
perfect love, because I'm lost deep within myself and the sad songs call me out,
because even you with your superior aesthetic cried
when Tammy Wynette died,
because my people
come from dirt.

"A Wife Explains Why She Likes Country" by Barbara Ras, from One Hidden Stuff. © Penguin Poets, 2006. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of Claude McKay, (books by this author) born in Sunny Ville, Jamaica (1889), when Jamaica was still part of the British West Indies. In 1912, he published two books of poetry, written in dialect, Songs of Jamaica and Constab Ballads. The books were extremely successful, and he was awarded the medal of the Institute of Arts and Sciences in Jamaica. But he used the money to leave Jamaica and go to the United States. He continued publishing poetry, and he wrote a few novels, including Home to Harlem (1928), about street life in New York. McKay was one of the writers who helped usher in the first stage of the Harlem Renaissance, and he was a big influence on younger poets like Langston Hughes.

It's the birthday of filmmaker Oliver Stone, born in New York City (1946). He went to Yale, but he dropped out to go teach in Saigon. He got there just as the Vietnam War was beginning, and Saigon was turning into a lawless city. So he left again after six months, traveling home on a merchant tanker. He spent the long trip writing a novel, but he couldn't get it published, and he tried Yale again, but he dropped out for a second time. So he decided to go back to Vietnam, this time in the Army. He was awarded a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart. Afterward, he went to NYU and studied film with Martin Scorsese, and started making his own movies. He has directed some films about Vietnam, including Platoon (1986) and Born on the Fourth of July (1989). He also directed JFK (1991), Natural Born Killers (1994), and most recently, W. (2008), a biopic of George W. Bush.

It's the birthday of the writer James Fenimore Cooper, (books by this author) born in Burlington, New Jersey (1789), the 11th of 12 children. A year after his birth, James's father moved the whole family to the wilderness of upstate New York, which was considered the frontier. The Coopers lived in primitive conditions for much of the boy's childhood, and he spent a lot of his time playing in the woods with his brothers.

Cooper loved to read, a habit he had learned from his mother, who read constantly in order to comfort herself in the isolated wilderness. One day, when he was 30 years old, he was reading aloud to his wife, a book about English social life. The book was written so badly that he threw it down in disgust, and he said, "I believe I could write a better book myself." His wife just laughed at him, because even though he loved to read, he didn't like writing at all — he wasn't even good at writing letters. James Fenimore Cooper was so indignant that his wife had laughed at him that he sat down right away and started to write his first novel, Precaution (1820). He claimed it was written by an English writer, and it failed completely. But Cooper kept writing anyway. He decided that he would do a better job if he wrote about something he knew well, like American life on the frontier. So he wrote The Spy: A Tale of Neutral Ground (1821). It was set in New York, and it was the first historical romance about the Revolutionary War. The Spy was a huge commercial and critical success, and then Cooper wrote The Pioneers (1823), beginning his series of novels about Natty Bumpo, which also includes The Last of the Mohicans (1826), The Pathfinder (1840), and The Deerslayer (1841).

Until James Fenimore Cooper came along, most Americans only read British novels — just like the one he was reading aloud to his wife. Cooper was the first major American novelist, and Natty Bumpo was the first major hero of American literature.

It's the birthday of the mystery writer Agatha Christie, (books by this author) born in Torquay, England (1890). She wrote more than 60 mystery novels, including The Murder on the Orient Express (1934), Death on the Nile (1937), and The Mousetrap (1952).

It's the birthday of children's author and illustrator Robert McCloskey, (books by this author) born in Hamilton, Ohio (1914). He got a job in Boston painting a mural of famous citizens, and while he was outside painting, he noticed ducks crossing the road and holding up traffic. He decided they would be a good subject for a picture book. But he wanted to observe them more closely in order to draw them, so he picked up four ducks and took them home to his studio apartment in Boston. He said, "The ducks had plenty to say — especially in the early morning. I spent the next weeks on my hands and knees, armed with a box of Kleenex and a sketchbook, following the ducks around the studio and observing them in the bathtub." All that observation and drawing became Make Way for Ducklings (1941), which won a Caldecott and became a beloved children's book.

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