Oct. 10, 2009

Mornings on the Farm

by Dennis Ward Stiles

My father woke at five.

My own eyes often opened
before he touched my shoulder.

Mother's hands had learned
to fly, to place his plate—eggs
cooked flat—on the table
just as his footsteps
reached the bottom stair.

We drank water
ate fast and said little.

Cattle and hogs with needs
keen as our own
waited, eager but wary
even as we fed them.

We were killers with a handout.
They felt our hurry
and the hint of death in it.

"Mornings on the Farm" by Dennis Ward Stiles, from The Fire in Which We Burn. © Main Street Rag Publishing Company, 2009. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of playwright Harold Pinter, (books by this author) born on this day in 1930 in London. He is the author of The Birthday Party (1957), The Caretaker (1959), and Betrayal (1978). He once described the subject of his plays as "the weasel under the cocktail cabinet." He won the Nobel Prize in literature in 2005, and he died last December at the age of 78.

It was on this day in 1881 that Charles Darwin (books by this author) published what he considered to be his most important book: The Formation of Vegetable Mould Through the Action of Worms. At the time, most people thought of earthworms as pests, but Darwin demonstrated that they were beneficial, important for soil fertility and consequently for agriculture.

Darwin had published The Origin of Species in 1859, but he thought that this work was more important — and in fact, during his lifetime it sold much better than The Origin of Species, more than 6,000 copies its first year.

He wrote, "Although the conclusion may appear at first startling, it will be difficult to deny the probability, that every particle of earth forming the bed from which the turf in old pasture land springs, has passed through the intestines of worms."

It's the birthday of journalist Daniel Pearl, born in Princeton, New Jersey (1963). He was the South Asia Bureau Chief for The Wall Street Journal until he was murdered by al Qaeda terrorists in Pakistan, 2002.

It's the birthday of Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi, born on this day in the village of Le Roncole, near what is now Parma, Italy (1813). When Verdi was still a boy, he was hired as the official church organist, but he left when he was 12 to go study in a nearby town, and the people there were so supportive that they set up a fund to send him to the Conservatory in Milan. But when he went to audition, he was rejected, because the Conservatory said that he was "lacking in musical talent."

So he got a private tutor, and he went on to become one of the most famous opera composers in history. His first opera, Oberto, premiered in 1839, when Verdi was just 26 years old. He wrote Nabucco (1848), Rigoletto (1851), and Aida (1871).

He died at age 87, and one of his friends said that "he died magnificently." Although he requested a quiet, private funeral, more than 250,000 people turned out for his funeral procession.

He said, "I adored and adore this art; and when I am alone and wrestling with my notes, then my heart pounds, tears stream from my eyes, and the emotions and pleasures are beyond description."

It's the birthday of singer-songwriter John Prine, born in Maywood, Illinois (1946). He got a job working at the post office in his hometown, and he started playing in coffee shops, but no one paid any attention to him. Then one day, the film critic Roget Ebert went to see a movie that he didn't like very much, so he walked out of the theater early and headed down the street to get a beer instead. He happened to go to the bar where Prine was playing as background music. And so instead of writing a movie review that week, Ebert wrote a review called "Singing Mailman Delivers the Message," and suddenly John Prine had a full house every time he played.

It's the birthday of romance writer Nora Roberts, (books by this author) born in Silver Spring, Maryland (1950).

It's the birthday of R.K. Narayan, (books by this author) who was born Rasipuram Krishnaswamy Iyer Narayanswamy in Chennai, India (1906). He shortened his name at the suggestion of his friend, the novelist Graham Greene.

Narayan was raised by his uncle and grandmother, and his grandma was a storyteller and his uncle published a literary journal. He failed the entrance exams to college, and finally managed to get in, but he wasn't a very good student. After college he decided to pursue writing full time, but for about 10 years he received nothing but rejection letters. One day he was walking down the street when the idea of a fictional town called Malgudi came into his head fully formed, along with the ideas for characters, a railway station, the school, and market, and he set out to write his first novel, Swami and Friends (1935). It was set in Malgudi and so were 13 of the 14 novels Narayan went on to write.

And it was on this day in 1935 that Porgy and Bess had its premiere in New York City. George Gershwin wanted to adapt DuBose Heyward's novel Porgy to the stage, and so he went down to South Carolina with his brother Ira, and they spent weeks there trying to learn about African-American Gullah culture.

George Gershwin was so pleased with what he called his "folk opera" that he said, "I think the music is so marvelous, I don't believe I wrote it."

One of its most famous songs is "Summertime," with the lyrics:
And the livin' is easy
Fish are jumpin'
And the cotton is high

Your daddy's rich
And your ma is good lookin'
So hush little baby

Don't you cry

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




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