Apr. 16, 2002

In the Beginning

by Joyce Sutphen

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Poem: "In the Beginning," by Joyce Sutphen from Coming Back to the Body (Holy Cow Press).

In the Beginning

I think this place was often a village,
and smoke from the fires hung like
ropes in the air. I think we are standing
on bones and feathers, broken shells.

This place was star-crossed, moon
beamed, earth-quaked. The wind
blew on a silver horn, and light
went around in a golden bowl.

This place was once a river,
and before that it was a garden
filled with every kind of fruit tree,
everything that is good to eat.

I think something happened here;
I think this is the place where
deals were made, and angels held
their breaths in the sky above.

It's the birthday of novelist, poet, critic, and teacher Kingsley Amis, born in London, England (1922). Although he started out as a poet and university professor, Amis came to fame with his first novel, Lucky Jim (1954). It is a comic novel about a young university professor struggling to deal with the worlds of academia and the English social classes, and its study of youthful discontent prompted critics to classify Amis as one of Britain's "angry young men." Many of his later novels, including Jake's Thing (1978) and Stanley and the Women (1985), satirized modern sexual mores. His 1986 novel on the subject of social drinking, The Old Devils, won England's prestigious Booker Prize.

It's the birthday of dancer and choreographer Merce Cunningham, born in Centralia, Washington (1919), who studied dance at Bennington College, where he met Martha Graham and was asked to join her troupe. He began to choreograph in 1943, and two years later left Graham and began a long association with composer John Cage. In 1952, he formed his own company.

It's the birthday of actor and director Charlie Chaplin, born in London, England (1889). His parents were vaudeville performers. Chaplin debuted at the age of five, when he sang onstage after his mother became ill. Within a few years, he was one of the most popular child actors in England. His father died of alcoholism when Chaplin was twelve, his mother was in and out of mental institutions, and Chaplin spent the rest of his youth in poor houses and an orphanage. In 1910, he came to the United States with Fred Karno's Speechless Comedians. There he was spotted by someone in the Keystone Film Company, and in 1914, Chaplin made his first feature film, Making a Living. The following spring, his most famous character made its first appearance in The Tramp (1915), which developed the formula for many of his later films: the plucky hero - dressed in baggy pants, a cutaway coat, oversized shoes, and a battered derby hat - triumphs in spirit after losing in love, and waddles down the deserted highway, alone again.

It's the birthday of playwright John Millington Synge, born in Newton Little, Ireland (1871). In 1893, Synge went to Germany to study the violin, but had such stage fright, he gave it up. The following year he moved to Paris to study language and literature. His life changed in December of 1896, when he was introduced to the poet William Butler Yeats, who recommended that Synge give up his study of French and study his own people and their language. Synge took his advice and went to live in the Aran Islands off the west coast of Ireland. He took notes and photographs, and studied the islanders' culture and dialects. Synge's most controversial play, Playboy of the Western World, was produced in 1907, and resulted in an audience riot.

It's the birthday of writer and critic Anatole France, born Jacques Anatole Francois Thibault in Paris, France (1844). He was a major figure in French literature in the early twentieth century, and won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1921. Beginning in 1887, he wrote an influential weekly column containing critical articles on contemporary writers. He best known novel is perhaps Penguin Island (1908), a satire about penguins who transform into human beings after mistakenly being baptized by a nearsighted Abbot.

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