May 26, 2011

The Execution

by Alden Nowlan

On the night of the execution
a man at the door
mistook me for the coroner.
"Press," I said.

But he didn't understand. He led me
into the wrong room
where the sheriff greeted me:
"You're late, Padre."

"You're wrong," I told him. "I'm Press."
"Yes, of course, Reverend Press."
We went down a stairway.

"Ah, Mr. Ellis," said the Deputy.
"Press!" I shouted. But he shoved me
through a black curtain.
The lights were so bright
I couldn't see the faces
of the men sitting
opposite. But, thank God, I thought
they can see me!

"Look!" I cried. "Look at my face!
Doesn't anybody know me?"

Then a hood covered my head.
"Don't make it harder for us," the hangman whispered.

"The Execution" by Alden Nowlan, from Selected Poems. © Anansi Press Limited, 1996. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Today is the birthday of the father of modern Russian literature: Aleksandr Pushkin (books by this author), born in Moscow in 1799. He published his first poem at 15, and in his brief life he worked in nearly every literary form: lyric poetry, narrative poetry, the novel, the short story, the drama, and the critical essay. He tended to run afoul of the authorities by writing revolutionary and political poems, and he was often questioned or sent to remote outposts under the guise of an "administrative transfer." In 1824, he was plucked from his cosmopolitan life in Odessa and exiled to his mother's estate in northern Russia, where he was closely watched. Denied the high-society life to which he was accustomed, he wrote, producing his most famous play, Boris Godunov (1830), and working on his verse novel Eugene Onegin (published serially from 1825 to 1832). After two years, he petitioned Czar Nicholas I to be released from exile. His request was granted, provided that he allow Nicholas to serve as his personal censor.

Unfortunately, freedom was not what he had hoped. He was implicated in the Decembrist Uprising of 1825 because some of the insurgents had carried copies of his poems, and so he was kept on a very short leash, forbidden to travel, or to publish anything, for several years. He was taken to task for reading portions of Boris Godunov aloud to friends, without permission. He spent some time looking for a bride and found one in the lovely Natalya Goncharova. He proposed, and she agreed, on the condition that he resolve his conflicts with the government. Boris Godunov was finally allowed to be published in 1830, five years after it was written. The uncensored version wasn't performed until 2007.

The czar was a great admirer of the lovely Madame Pushkina, and he promoted her husband to the lowest possible court rank, so that Natalya could be invited to court balls. It was a slap in the face to Pushkin, and he resented the insult along with the costly gowns he now had to purchase, although his wife enjoyed the attention. One of her suitors, Georges d'Anthés, was so persistent and brazen that Pushkin finally challenged him to a pistol duel in 1837, after receiving an anonymous letter welcoming him to "The Most Serene Order of Cuckolds." They were both wounded, but Pushkin's wound was mortal, and he died two days later.

Much of Pushkin's work is unknown to English readers because its complexity makes translations difficult. Vladimir Nabokov undertook a translation of the 100-page Eugene Onegin, and in Nabokov's version, the novel runs to four volumes; his introduction alone is nearly as long as the original book. He also made a controversial choice to favor the literal meaning — sometimes using obscure or archaic English words — over the poetic meter and language, which prompted a scathing review from his friend Edmund Wilson. The two exchanged snarky letters and had a lengthy falling-out over the affair.

Pushkin's work is often best known in other contexts. Boris Godunov inspired an opera by Mussorgsky (1873), and Tchaikovsky composed one for Eugene Onegin in 1879; the libretto, by Konstantin Shilovsky, is quite faithful to the original novel. Pushkin's short play Mozart and Salieri (1830) was adapted into a two-act opera by Rimsky-Korsakov (1898) and later inspired Peter Schaffer's play and film Amadeus.

From Boris Godunov:
A day will come when some laborious monk
Will bring to light my zealous, nameless toil,
Kindle, as I, his lamp, and from the parchment
Shaking the dust of ages will transcribe
My true narrations, that posterity
The bygone fortunes of the orthodox
Of their own land may learn, will mention make
Of their great tsars, their labours, glory, goodness —
And humbly for their sins, their evil deeds,
Implore the Saviour's mercy. — In old age
I live anew; the past unrolls before me. —
Did it in years long vanished sweep along,
Full of events, and troubled like the deep?
Now it is hushed and tranquil. Few the faces
Which memory hath saved for me, and few
The words which have come down to me; — the rest
Have perished, never to return.

It's the birthday of documentary photographer Dorothea Lange, born Dorothea Margaretta Nutzhorn in Hoboken, New Jersey, in 1895. She contracted polio when she was seven, and developed a permanent limp as a result. When she was 12, her father abandoned the family, so she dropped her middle name and adopted her mother's maiden name. She studied photography at Columbia University, and then in 1918 she began to travel, selling her photographs as she went. She ran out of money by the time she got to San Francisco, so she settled there, opened a photography studio, and made a good living shooting portraits of the Bay Area's upper class.

She began taking photographs of men on breadlines, striking workers, and the homeless during the Great Depression, to call attention to their plight, and she did indeed attract the attention of other local photographers. She was hired by the Resettlement Administration, which would later become the Farm Security Administration, to document the displacement of American farmers during the Dust Bowl years, and it's her photo, "Migrant Mother, Nipoma, California, 1936" that is her most famous. Her camera gave us a vivid visual memory of the Great Depression even if we weren't around to experience it.

She was hired by the War Relocation Authority during World War II to document the internment of Japanese Americans, but when she photographed Japanese-American children saying the Pledge of Allegiance shortly before they were sent to the camps, the Army felt the photographs were too critical of U.S. policy, and they were impounded.

She said: "One should really use the camera as though tomorrow you'd be stricken blind. To live a visual life is an enormous undertaking, practically unattainable. I have only touched it, just touched it."

It's the birthday of John Wayne, born Marion Morrison in Winterset, Iowa, in 1907. He grew up in Southern California and earned his famous nickname, "Duke," as a child; he was never seen without his Airedale dog, Duke, and people began calling him "Little Duke." He liked the name better than Marion, and it stuck. His first on-screen film credit was as "Duke Morrison."

He broke into the film business via the prop department, as a scenery mover, and befriended director John Ford, who started giving him bit parts in his movies. His first starring role came courtesy of Raoul Walsh, and his screen name came from a discussion between Walsh and a studio executive; Duke wasn't even there when the decision to call him "John Wayne" was made, and never could get used to the name "John." Walsh cast him as the lead in The Big Trail (1930), but it was in Ford's Stagecoach (1939) that he became a star. His 50-year relationship with Ford produced some of his best work: including the "cavalry series" of Fort Apache (1948), She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949), and Rio Grande (1950), and Ford's post-war — and more disillusioned — films The Searchers (1956) and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962). Their personal views on politics grew further and further apart, especially during the McCarthy era — Wayne supported the House Un-American Activities Committee, and Ford spoke out against it — and the friends had to agree to disagree and leave it out of their conversations.

With director Howard Hawks, he made Rio Bravo (1959), prompted by his and Hawks' outrage over High Noon (1952). Both men felt High Noon was un-American and its characters cowards, so they retold the story of a town under siege by outlaws in a way that was more to their liking. It proved so popular that they remade it twice: as El Dorado (1967) and Rio Lobo (1970).

It's widely reported that the Republican Party approached Wayne in 1968 to try to convince him to run for president. He declined, scoffing that voters would never put an actor in the White House. He gave a controversial interview to Playboy in 1971, saying, among other things, "Our so-called stealing of this country was just a question of survival. There were great numbers of people who needed new land, and the Indians were selfishly trying to keep it for themselves," and "I believe in white supremacy until blacks are educated to a point of responsibility. I don't believe in giving authority and positions of leadership to irresponsible people." The article also yielded his epitaph, after he died of stomach cancer in 1979: "Tomorrow is the most important thing in life. Comes into us at midnight very clean. It's perfect when it arrives and it puts itself into our hands. It hopes we've learned something from yesterday."

It's the birthday of jazz trumpeter, bandleader, and composer Miles Davis (1926). He was born in Alton, Illinois, and grew up in East Saint Louis. His family was fairly well off, a fact he liked to remind people of, since they tended to assume he came from poverty. His dad was a dental surgeon, and they also had a ranch in Arkansas, where young Miles learned to ride horses. He moved to New York in 1944 to study at the Institute of Musical Art, which is now Juilliard. His true schooling, though, came by way of jam sessions with Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, and when Gillespie and Parker parted ways, Davis filled Gillespie's vacancy in Parker's band.

Always an innovator, Davis formed a nine-piece ensemble in the late 1940s that included a tuba and a French horn; their aim was to recreate the smooth sound of the human voice, and their album Birth of the Cool (1956) heralded the beginning of the "cool jazz" movement. Though it was historically important, it was a commercial failure, and Davis resented the success of later musicians — mostly white — who enjoyed success under the cool jazz banner.

He developed a heroin habit in the early '50s, due partly to the company he kept and partly to depression over romantic troubles and his lack of critical acclaim. He finally beat the habit in 1954, after locking himself in his room at his father's house until he had come through the difficult withdrawal symptoms. But he was also musically productive during those years, developing a "hard bop" style. He wrapped up the 1950s by releasing one of the most celebrated jazz albums in history, Kind of Blue (1959), which was based on modal scales rather than chords, and was more melodic than some of his earlier work.

In the late 1960s, Davis began introducing some electric guitar and piano into his records, inspired in part by Jimi Hendrix and James Brown. He cut what some consider his last pure jazz album, In a Silent Way, in 1969, and then moved increasingly toward funk and rock 'n' roll; his jazz-rock fusion double album Bitches Brew (1970) was hugely successful — his first gold record — and won him a lot of new fans even as it alienated his old ones. He was the first jazz musician to be featured on the cover of Rolling Stone, and he began opening for rock acts like the Grateful Dead, Santana, and Neil Young.

He broke both ankles in a car accident in 1972, which slowed him down, and checked out of public life altogether in 1975, ill and exhausted and battling a cocaine addiction. There was a three-year period where he didn't play his trumpet at all, and it took some time to get his chops back when he returned to music in the early '80s. This time he surprised the critics and fans alike by taking an interest in British New Wave music. He died of pneumonia and a stroke in 1991.

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




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