Sep. 13, 2004

At Becky's Piano Recital

by Carl Dennis

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Poem: "At Becky's Piano Recital" by Carl Dennis, from New and Selected Poems © Penguin. Reprinted with permission.

At Becky's Piano Recital

She screws her face up as she nears the hard parts,
Then beams with relief as she makes it through,
Just as she did listening on the edge of her chair
To the children who played before her,
Wincing and smiling for them
As if she doesn't regard them as competitors
And is free of the need to be first
That vexes many all their lives.
I hope she stays like this,
Her windows open on all sides to a breeze
Pungent with sea spray or meadow pollen.
Maybe her patience this morning at the pond
Was another good sign,
The way she waited for the frog to croak again
So she could find its hiding place and admire it.
There it was, in the reeds, to any casual passerby
Only a fist-sized speckled stone.
All the way home she wondered out loud
What kind of enemies a frog must have
To make it live so hidden, so disguised.
Whatever enemies follow her when she's grown,
Whatever worry or anger drives her at night from her room
To walk in the gutsy rain past the town edge,
Her spirit, after an hour, will do what it can
To be distracted by the light of a farmhouse.
What are they doing up there so late,
She'll wonder, then watch in her mind's eye
As the family huddles in the kitchen
To worry if the bank will be satisfied
This month with only half a payment,
If the letter from the wandering son
Really means he's coming home soon.
Even old age won't cramp her
If she loses herself on her evening walk
In piano music drifting from a house
And imagines the upright in the parlor
And the girl working up the same hard passages.

Literary Notes:

It's the birthday of English man of letters J(ohn) B(oynton) Priestley, born in Bradford, England (1894). He was one of the great English men of letters of the 20th century. He wrote more than a hundred books of fiction, essays and drama. His novels and plays were all popular successes, but critics didn't take him seriously, because they thought he wrote too much and in too many different areas.

He said, "A novelist who writes nothing for 10 years finds his reputation rising. Because I keep on producing books they say there must be something wrong with this fellow."

He served in World War I and it was the defining experience of his life. Most of his friends were killed, and he believed that England was never the same afterwards. He never wrote fiction about the war, because he thought it would be disrespectful. His favorite of his own novels was Bright Day (1946), about his hometown before the war. He said, "I belong at heart to the pre-1914 North Country."

Near the end of his life he refused knighthood because, he said, "I started as J. B. Priestley and I'll finish as J. B. Priestley."

It's the birthday of Sherwood Anderson, born in Camden, Ohio (1876). He was working at a mail-order paint company in Elyria, Ohio, writing in his spare time, when one day at work, he stood up and walked out of the office and wandered off, ignoring everyone who asked where he was going. He was found four days later, wandering around in nearby Cleveland. He said later that he had pretended to be crazy so that the paint company wouldn't take him back. He moved to Chicago and became friends with writers like Carl Sandburg and Theodore Dreiser.

He wrote every day at a desk watching people walk by his window. He said, "Sometimes it seemed to me...that each person who passed along the street below, under the light, shouted his secret up to me." One rainy night, Anderson got out of bed without any clothes on, and began to write. Sitting there in front of the window, with the rain blowing on his bare back, he wrote the first of the stories that became his masterpiece Winesburg, Ohio (1919) about people in a small town, their misery and sexual frustration and violent desires. He dedicated the book to his mother, saying, "[Her] keen observations on the life about her first awoke in me the hunger to see beneath the surface of lives."

Winesburg, Ohio influenced many writers, including Ernest Hemingway. Anderson met the young Hemingway a few years later and wrote him letters of introduction so that he could go to Paris and meet writers like Gertrude Stein and Ezra Pound. He also encouraged the young William Faulkner, whom he met in New Orleans. He inspired Faulkner to write his first novel and helped him get published.

Sherwood Anderson said, "I go about looking at horses and cattle. They eat grass, make love, work when they have to, bear their young. I am sick with envy of them."

And, "It may be life is only worthwhile at moments. Perhaps that is all we ought to expect."

It's the birthday of Roald Dahl, born in Llandaff, South Wales (1916). He's known for children's books such as James and the Giant Peach (1961) and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (1964). His parents were Norwegian, but they lived in Great Britain so he could attend British schools, which his father believed were the best schools in the world. But Dahl didn't do well at school. On one of his end of term reports, his teacher wrote, "Vocabulary negligible, sentences mal-constructed. He reminds me of a camel."

As soon as he finished high school, Dahl took a job with the Shell Oil Company to get as far away from England as possible. He went to live in Africa and loved it. When World War II broke out, he quit his job, drove to a British base in Kenya, and signed up with the Royal Air Force. He served as a fighter pilot until he was shot down over Egypt, and he barely crawled out of the plane before the gas tanks exploded. Doctors had to remove the end of one of his leg bones, and he kept the bone for the rest of his life, using it as a paperweight in his office. He was a compulsive collector of all kinds of things. He saved all the foil sleeves of the chocolate bars he ate as a young man, and molded them into a ball. He still had the ball at the end of his life.

Dahl's first published book was The Gremlins (1942), which was the first book to popularize those trouble-making creatures that supposedly lived on fighter planes and bombers and were responsible for all the crashes. Mrs. Roosevelt, the president's wife, read the book to her children and liked it so much that she invited Dahl to dinner, and he and the president soon became friends.

But Dahl made his name as a writer of short stories for adults. He specialized in dark stories with a twist at the end. In one story, a woman murders her husband with a frozen leg of lamb and then feeds the lamb to the police when they come looking for the murder weapon. His stories were published in collections such as Someone Like You (1953) and Kiss, Kiss (1959).

When he got married and had children, he started telling them stories every night before they went to bed. He found that their favorite stories were those in which adults met terrible ends. In his first children's book, James and the Giant Peach (1961), Dahl wrote, "One day, James's mother and father went to London to do some shopping, and there a terrible thing happened. Both of them suddenly got eaten up (in fully daylight, mind you, and on a crowded street) by an enormous angry rhinoceros, which had escaped from the London zoo. Now this, as you can well imagine, was a rather nasty experience."

Dahl went on to write many more children's books, and he said that the secret to his success was that he conspired with children against adults. Some critics attacked him for the violence in his books, but he said, "[Children] invariably pick out the most gruesome events as the favorite parts of the books...I never get any protests from children. All you get are giggles of mirth and squirms of delight. I know what children like."

Roald Dahl wrote, "A little nonsense now and then, is cherished by the wisest men."

And, "A person is a fool to become a writer. His only compensation is absolute freedom."

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




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