Feb. 20, 2002

The Instrument

by Robert Winner

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Poem: "The Instrument," by Robert Winner from The Sanity of Earth and Grass (Tilbury House).

The Instrument

I've seen the mahogany grow pale
under the huge shoulders of pianists,
the curved beams brace themselves.

Such an army, so many games of chess
on the infinity of the keyboard, so much
access and self-disclosure…

It's like climbing in a forest
formed by your own hands, or singing
with your armpits, groin and heels…
it's playing Mozart in the Amazon
to a naked wondering people.

Music-the world that might be,
and yet the world as it is. The heart
comes out of hiding, saying to us:
"Listen, you can say anything you want now.
Here is the instrument."

It's the birthday of South African writer Alex La Guma, born in Cape Town, South Africa (1925). He grew up in an impoverished black neighborhood, the son of a political activist. He wrote dozens of novels, short stories, and essays, combining pieces of his own life story with criticisms of his country's policies. Imprisoned for several years in South Africa, he spent his later life in London and in Cuba as the representative of the African National Congress.

It's the birthday of novelist and short-story writer Pierre Boulle, born in Avignon, France (1912). Boulle was on an intelligence mission in Indochina in World War Two when he was captured by the Japanese and sentenced to forced labor. This experience was the inspiration for one of his best-known works, The Bridge over the River Kwai (1952; filmed in 1957). At the end of the film, the bridge is destroyed, which does not happen in the novel. Boulle was not pleased. He said, "For three years I fought them over this change. In the end I gave up. Now I don't bother. I just take the money and shrug." He also took the money for the filming of his novel, Planet of the Apes (1963; filmed 1968).

It's the birthday of bacteriologist René Dubos, born in Saint-Brice, France (1901). In 1939 he discovered tyrothricin, the first commercially produced antibiotic.

It's the birthday of boogie-woogie pioneer Jimmy Yancey (James Edward Yancey), born in Chicago (1898). He was a mainstay in the jazz and blues circles in Chicago, playing at after-hours joints and rent parties. Piano pieces such as "Yancey Stomp," and "State Street Special," were his signature songs. No matter what key he played in, he ended every song in the key of E flat. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986, but, despite his success as a musician, he earned his living for 26 years as a groundskeeper at Comiskey Park for the Chicago White Sox.

It's the birthday of playwright and producer Russel Crouse, born in Findlay, Ohio (1893). His writing partnership with Howard Lindsay lasted twenty-eight years. They first teamed up to salvage the book for Cole Porter's musical "Anything Goes." Perhaps most famous as the librettists for "The Sound of Music," they also adapted Clarence Day's "Life with Father."

It's the birthday of novelist Georges Bernanos, born in Paris, France (1888). His best-known work was The Diary of a Country Priest (1937). He also wrote a number of pamphlets attacking the Fascists during the Spanish Civil War, and a play, Dialogues of the Carmelites (1938).

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