Jun. 7, 2003

The Bean Eaters

by Gwendolyn Brooks

(RealAudio) | How to listen

Poem: "Main Character," by Jimmy Santiago Baca from Black Mesa Poems (New Directions).

Main Character

I went to see
How the West Was Won
at the Sunshine Theater.
Five years old,
deep in a plush seat,
light turned off,
bright screen lit up
with MGM roaring lion-
            in front of me
            a drunk Indian rose,
            the western violins
            and hurled his uncapped bagged bottle
            of wine
            at the rocket roaring to the moon.
His dark angry body
convulsed with his obscene gestures
at the screen,
and then ushers escorted him
up the aisle,
and as he staggered past me,
I heard his grieving sobs.
            Red wine streaked
            blue sky and take-off smoke,
            sizzled cowboys' campfires,
            dripped down barbwire,
            slogged the brave, daring scouts
            who galloped off to mesa buttes
            to speak peace with Apaches,
            and made the prairie
            lush with wine streams.
When the movie
was over,
I squinted at the bright
sunny street outside,
looking for the main character.

Literary Notes:

It's the birthday of the poet Gwendolyn Brooks, born in Topeka, Kansas (1917), the first black author to win the Pulitzer Prize. She said, "That's why I am as well known as I am today. Sometimes, I feel that my name is Gwendolyn Pulitzer Brooks." She lived in Chicago for most of her life, from when she was just a month old, and grew up on the South Side. She said, "I wrote about what I saw and heard on the street. I lived on a small second-floor apartment at the corner, and I could look first on one side and then on the other. That was my material." Her first book was A Street in Bronzeville (1945), and she followed it up with Annie Allen (1949), the book that won the Pulitzer, and The Bean Eaters (1960). She said, "Writing is a delicious agony. Poetry is life distilled."

It's the birthday of the Anglo-Irish novelist Elizabeth (Dorothea Cole) Bowen, born in Dublin (1899). Her family were Protestant landowners, and she grew up on a country estate called Bowen's Court at a time when the Protestant Irish felt increasingly uneasy and isolated by "The Troubles" between the Irish revolutionaries and the British soldiers. The Anglo-Irish like Bowen were caught between their loyalty to Britain and their own sense of Irishness. Her novel The Last September (1929), takes place during this time before Irish independence. During World War II, Bowen lived in London and served as an air raid warden. She enjoyed it. She said, "Everything is very quiet, the streets are never crowded, and the people one dislikes are out of town." She set her novel The Heat of the Day (1949) in wartime London, and it became her best-known work. She said, "The writer, like a swimmer caught by an undertow, is borne in an unexpected direction. … To write is to be captured-captured by some experience to which one may have given hardly a thought."

It's the birthday of Louise Erdrich, born in Little Falls, Minnesota (1954). She has published three books of poetry, but she's best known for her fiction: her novels Love Medicine (1984), The Beet Queen (1986), The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse (2001), and The Master Butchers Singing Club (2003), published last February, about a German soldier who returns home from World War I, marries his best friend's pregnant widow, packs up his father's butcher knives, and moves with his wife to North Dakota, where they set up a meat shop. She grew up in Wahpeton, North Dakota, where her German father and Chippewa mother taught at a Bureau of Indian Affairs boarding school, and her grandfather had been tribal chair of the Chippewa Turtle Mountain Reservation. Her father used to give her a nickel for every story she wrote. "So," she said, "at an early age I felt myself to be a published author earning substantial royalties."


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