May 29, 2010
My seatmate on the late-night flight
could have been my father. I held
a biography, but he wanted to talk.
The pages closed around my finger
on my spot, and as we inclined
into the sky, we went backwards
in his life, beginning with five hours
before, the funeral for his only brother,
a forgotten necktie in his haste
to catch this plane the other way
just yesterday, his wife at home
caring for a yellow Lab she'd found
along the road by the olive grove,
and the pretty places we had visited—
Ireland for me, Germany for him—
a village where he served his draft
during the Korean War, and would like
to see again to show his wife
how lucky he had been. He talked
to me and so we held
his only brother's death at bay.
I turned off my reading light,
remembering another veteran
I met in a pine forest years ago
who helped me put my tent up
in the wind. What was I thinking
camping there alone? I was grateful
he kept watch across the way
and served coffee in a blue tin cup.
Like the makeshift shelter of a tent,
a plane is brought down,
but as we folded to the ground,
I had come to appreciate
even my seatmate's breath, large
and defenseless, the breath of a man
who hadn't had a good night's rest.
I listened and kept the poles
from blowing down, and kept
a vigil from the dark to day.
It's the birthday of the 35th president of the United States, John F. Kennedy, born in Brookline, Massachusetts (1917), who said in one of his last major public speeches, "When power leads man toward arrogance, poetry reminds him of his limitations."
It's the anniversary of one of the most legendary moments in modern art. On this day in 1913, The Rite of Spring had its premiere at the Théâtre des Champs- Élysées in Paris, a ballet with choreography by Vaslav Nijinsky and music by Igor Stravinsky.
Igor Stravinsky got the idea for the ballet, which would be about a pagan ritual in which a virgin is sacrificed to the gods of spring by dancing herself to death. He drew on dozens of Russian folk songs for the melodies, but instead of using those melodies in any conventional way, he chopped them up and threw them together into a dissonant collage of sounds with a relentless staccato rhythm.
It was unseasonably hot on this evening in 1913, so it's possible that the audience was more restless than usual. The audience sat quietly through the first several minutes of the piece, but when the music suddenly turned harsh and dissonant, people in the audience began to shout at the stage.
Fights broke out between the audience members. People who were enjoying the music attacked those who were booing. People spat in each other's faces. Between the first and the second act, the police were called to remove hecklers, but the disruption continued. Stravinsky was so upset by the response that he left his seat in disgust. Nijinsky stood on a chair in the wings shouting out the counts to the dancers who couldn't hear the music over all of the booing. The piece lasted only 33 minutes, but by the end, the audience had nearly erupted into a riot.
Almost overnight, Stravinsky became one of the most celebrate artists in the world. A year after its premier, The Rite of Spring was performed without dancing, and when it was over, members of the audience carried Stravinsky out on their shoulders.
Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®