Apr. 27, 2013

Journey by Train

by May Sarton

Stretched across counties, countries, the train
Rushes faster than memory through the rain.
The rise of each hill is a musical phrase.
Listen to the rhythm of space, how it lies,
How it rolls, how it reaches, what unwinding relays
Of wood and meadow where the red cows graze
Come back again and again to closed eyes—
That garden, that pink farm, that village steeple,
And here and there the solitary people
Who stand arrested when express trains pass,
That stillness of an orchard in deep grass.

Yet landscapes flow like this toward a place,
A point in time and memory's own face.
So when the clamor stops, we really climb
Down to the earth, closing the curve of time,
Meeting those we have left, to those we meet
Bringing our whole life that has moved so fast,
And now is gathered up and here at last,
To unroll like a ribbon at their feet.

"Journey by Train" by May Sarton, from Collected Poems. © Norton, 1993. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of playwright August Wilson (books by this author), born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (1945). His father was a German baker and his mother was an African-American cleaning woman. His father was rarely around, and he grew up in the impoverished Hill district of Pittsburgh with his mother and five siblings. Five families rented the building — his family had two rooms with no hot water, and they all shared the dirt yard out back. His mother, Daisy Wilson, taught Freddy to read when he was four years old, and a year later, he got his first library card. He was a bright boy, but he suffered from racism in school. He dropped out of school altogether when he was 15 years old after a teacher accused him of plagiarizing a paper about Napoleon because she didn't think a black student could have written anything so good.

So he taught himself, at Pittsburgh's Carnegie Library. He read Richard Wright, Langston Hughes, and Ralph Ellison. He joined the Army and started writing poetry, influenced by Dylan Thomas and Amiri Baraka. When he was 20, his father died, and he changed his name from Frederick Kittel to August Wilson, taking his mother's last name. Three years later, he and a friend started the Black Horizons Theater company in the Hill district where he grew up. He staged his first play, Recycling, in 1973.

In 1978, Wilson moved to Minnesota. He said: "I moved to St. Paul in 1978 and got a job at the Science Museum of Minnesota writing scripts — adapting tales from the Northwest Native Americans for a group of actors attached to the anthropology department. So I began to work in the script form without almost knowing it. In 1980 I sent a play, Jitney, to the Playwrights' Center in Minneapolis, won a Jerome Fellowship, and found myself sitting in a room with 16 playwrights. I remember looking around and thinking that since I was sitting there, I must be a playwright, which is absolutely critical to the work. It is important to claim it." Wilson was homesick, and Jitney was set in the Hill district in the 1970s.

Wilson continued to write successful and popular plays: Ma Rainey's Black Bottom (1982), set in the 1920s; Fences (1983), set in the 1950s and 1960s; and Joe Turner's Come and Gone (1984), set in 1911. Wilson realized that he was setting his plays in different decades, and he decided to make that his life's work: chronicling African-American experiences throughout the 20th century, decade by decade. He said: "I was doing an interview with a guy and he says, 'Well, Mr. Wilson, now that you've written these four plays and exhausted the black experience, what are you going to write about next?' I just told him I would continue to explore the black experience, whether he thought it was exhausted or not. And then my goal was to prove that it was inexhaustible, that there was no idea that couldn't be contained by black life." His final play in the 10-part Pittsburgh Cycle was Radio Golf, which is set in the 1990s, and premiered in 2005. Wilson died of liver cancer six months later.

August Wilson said, "My greatest influence has been the blues. And that's a literary influence, because I think the blues is the best literature that we as black Americans have. [...] Blues is the bedrock of everything I do. All the characters in my plays, their ideas and their attitudes, the stance that they adopt in the world, are all ideas and attitudes that are expressed in the blues. If all this were to disappear off the face of the earth and some people two million unique years from now would dig out this civilization and come across some blues records, working as anthropologists, they would be able to piece together who these people were, what they thought about, what their ideas and attitudes toward pleasure and pain were, all of that. All the components of culture."

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