Jul. 30, 2008

Living in America

by Anne Stevenson

'Living in America,'
the intelligent people at Harvard say,
'is the price you pay for living in New England.'

Californians think
living in America is a reward
for managing not to live anywhere else.

The rest of the country?
Could it be sagging between two poles,
tastelessly decorated, dangerously overweight?

No. Look closely.
Under cover of light and noise
both shores are hurrying towards each other.

San Francisco
is already half way to Omaha.
Boston is nervously losing its way in Detroit.

Desperately the inhabitants
hope to be saved in the middle.
Pray to the mountains and deserts to keep them apart.

"Living in America" by Anne Stevenson, from Anne Stevenson: Selected Poems. © American Poets Project, 2008. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of the novelist Emily Brontë, (books by this author) born in Thornton, England, in 1818. Emily Brontë, who wrote what is considered one of the greatest love stories of all time, Wuthering Heights (1847), but who never had a lover and almost never talked to anyone besides her family and her servants. She and her sisters Anne and Charlotte and their brother, Branwell, educated themselves at home, reading their father's large collection of classic literature, while their father locked himself up in his room and even ate dinner alone. The children invented elaborate fantasy kingdoms and filled notebooks with the history and inhabitants of these places.

Emily was considered the most reserved and mysterious of the children. She was interested in mysticism, and she had no friends. Wuthering Heights is dominated by the strange presence of the Yorkshire moors where the Brontës lived most of their lives. Emily also wrote poetry. Her sister Charlotte discovered some of her verses and said this about finding her sister's poems: "Of course, I was not surprised, knowing that she could and did write verse: I looked it over, and something more than surprise seized me, —a deep conviction that these were not common effusions, not at all like the poetry women generally write. I thought them condensed and terse, vigorous and genuine. To my ear, they had also a peculiar music—wild, melancholy, and elevating." Charlotte decided to publish a manuscript of poems by all three sisters, but under male pseudonyms. Poems by Currier, Ellis and Acton Bell was published in 1846. Wuthering Heights was published in 1847.

In 1848, Emily died of tuberculosis when she was just 30 years old, standing in the living room of her family's parsonage with one hand on the mantle.

Emily Brontë wrote in Wuthering Heights: "I cannot express it; but surely you and everybody have a notion that there is, or should be, an existence of yours beyond you. What were the use of creation, if I were entirely contained here?"

And, "I have dreamed in my life, dreams that have stayed with me ever after, and changed my ideas; they have gone through and through me, like wine through water, and altered the color of my mind."

And, "I lingered round them, under that benign sky; watched the moths fluttering among the heath, and hare-bells; listened to the soft wind breathing through the grass; and wondered how anyone could ever imagine unquiet slumbers, for the sleepers in that quiet earth."

Today is the birthday of Maria Anna "Nannerl" Mozart, Wolfgang's older sister and his musical role model, born in Salzburg, Austria, in 1751. She and Wolfgang were the only two of their parents' seven children to survive, and their father, Leopold, encouraged both children's musical talent. Wolfgang was inspired to be a musician because he wanted to be like his sister.

Maria, nicknamed "Nannerl," was considered a child prodigy on the harpsichord and piano, and the two children toured and played together. Nannerl even received top billing. We know she wrote music because there are letters from Wolfgang praising her compositions, but none of her work survives. Wolfgang and Nannerl were very close—they made up a secret language and they invented a kingdom where they were king and queen. But as Nannerl grew older, she was expected to end her career and get married. And once she was 18, she had to stay home with her mother while Wolfgang toured with Leopold. Wolfgang wrote to his sister from the road, and he continued to admire her, saying in one letter, "Believe me, you could earn a great deal of money in Vienna for example, by playing at private concerts and by giving piano lessons. You would be very much in demand."

She fell in love, but Leopold didn't approve the match, so she agreed to marry the wealthy man her father had chosen, even though Wolfgang encouraged her to disobey their father and do what she wanted. Nannerl was now called Marianne, and she and her brother grew apart. He rebelled against his father and pursued his music while Marianne settled quietly into domestic life and supported herself by giving piano lessons in Salzburg.

It was on this day in 1954 that Elvis Presley made his debut in what is called "the first rock 'n' roll show" in history. He had played publicly before at a crowded music club, but this was his first performance at a real venue. He played at the Overton Park Shell as part of the trio the Blue Moon Boys, with Memphis musicians Winfield "Scotty" Moore and Bill Black. The newspaper ads for the performance misspelled Elvis's name as "Ellis Presley." This was the first night that fans saw Elvis's famous leg movements. The story is that he was so nervous about his first major performance that his legs shook under his big pants, and caused female fans to go crazy. He said, "The first time that I appeared on stage, it scared me to death. I really didn't know what all the yelling was about. I didn't realize that my body was moving. It's a natural thing to me. So to the manager backstage I said, 'What'd I do? What'd I do?' And he said, 'Whatever it is, go back and do it again.'"

Elvis Presley, who said, "Rhythm is something you either have or don't have, but when you have it you have it all over."

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




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