She’s been in the hospital a week,
this time with no improvement,
and I’ve come home to shower,
change clothes, and feed the dog.
As I’m about to get back in the car,
the boy next door, whose dad left
years ago, asks if I’ll play catch,
and I agree because it’s something
I can do. We toss a tennis ball
back and forth in the driveway;
after awhile his mother comes out
with two beers and a juicebox.
She watches, without speaking,
because we have known each other
a long time, and, as it gets darker,
the ball seems to become lighter,
floating through the gloaming.
Maybe I should say it looks
meaningful, like a radioisotope
or a pill, but I’m not thinking
anything like that or about how
we probably look like a family
to passersby. I’m not thinking
at all. I’m just swinging my arm,
grabbing and releasing yellow,
slowly becoming indistinct.
“Catch” by Joseph Mills from This Miraculous Turning. © Press 53, 2014. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)
It’s the birthday of poet Maya Angelou (books by this author), born in St. Louis, Missouri (1928). When she was three years old, her parents’ marriage ended, and her father put Angelou and her brother on a train and sent them to a tiny town in Arkansas to live with their grandparents. She wrote: “Stamps, Arkansas, with its dust and hate and narrowness was as South as it was possible to get.” Occasionally she went back to live with her mother, and during one of these periods, her mother’s boyfriend raped seven-year-old Angelou. She told her family, and the man was murdered, possibly by her uncles. Angelou felt responsible, and she stopped speaking for five years. She said: “I thought, my voice killed him; I killed that man, because I told his name. And then I thought I would never speak again, because my voice would kill anyone.”
Angelou and her brother went back to live with their grandmother in Stamps. One day she met Bertha Flowers, a stylish, educated black woman who wore voile dresses and flowered hats and had a library of great books. Flowers took the girl under her wing; she had a beautiful voice, and she read aloud from her favorite novels and poems — from Shakespeare, Dickens, Poe, and many more. She was insistent that language was the most important thing that separated people from all other species, and not just written words, but also spoken word. When Angelou was 12, Flowers took her to the library and suggested that she read everything, beginning with books whose titles began with the letter “A”; Angelou eventually read every book in the library. Flowers encouraged Angelou to memorize and recite literature, especially poems, and slowly, by reciting other peoples’ words, the girl began to speak again.
When Angelou was 14, she moved to Oakland to live with her mother, and soon dropped out of school to become the first black streetcar driver in the city of San Francisco. She gave birth to a son at age 17. She found steady work as a calypso dancer and singer, and toured Europe as a dancer with a production of Porgy and Bess. She moved to New York City, then lived for a while in Egypt and Ghana, working as a journalist. She met with Malcolm X in Ghana and decided to return to America to help establish his Organization of African-American Unity, but he was killed days after she returned. A few years later, she had just agreed to help Martin Luther King Jr. when he, too, was killed — on her 40th birthday.
She sunk into depression, but she received lots of support from her friend James Baldwin, a novelist. One night he took her to dinner with some friends, the cartoonist Jules Feiffer and his wife, Judy. All three were magnificent storytellers, and Angelou had to fight to get a word in edgewise, but she said a few things. Apparently, they were impressed, because Judy Feiffer called up Bob Loomis, an editor at Random House, and told him that he should convince the dancer Maya Angelou to write an autobiography. Loomis called her up, but she refused. He called several more times, and she continued to turn him down. Finally, Loomis asked Baldwin for help, and Baldwin suggested a strategy. So Loomis called Angelou one more time and said he would stop bothering her, and that it was probably a good thing she wasn’t attempting it, because it was very difficult to write an autobiography that was also good literature. Immediately Angelou agreed to give it a try. She said, “Once I got into it I realized I was following a tradition established by Frederick Douglass — the slave narrative — speaking in the first-person singular talking about the first-person plural, always saying I meaning we.”
She went to work, and her first autobiography became I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969). She went on o write many more books of poetry and autobiography, including Gather Together in My Name (1974), Oh Pray My Wings Are Gonna Fit Me Well (1975), And Still I Rise (1978), All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes (1986), and Mom & Me & Mom (2013).
It’s the birthday of novelist and screenwriter Marguerite Duras (books by this author), born in a small village near Saigon in what was then French Indochina (1914). After her father died of dysentery, her mother struggled to support the family, and she was so distracted that she forgot to enroll her children in school. Duras said: “For two years I ran wild; it was probably the time in my life I came closest to complete happiness. At eight, I still couldn’t read or write.” Her mother bought some land, hoping to farm it, but it turned out to be worthless. Still, the family was able to scrape enough money together to send Duras to school in Saigon.
While Duras was going to high school in Saigon, she began an affair with an older, wealthy Chinese man, which ended when she graduated from high school and went to college in France. She kept the affair secret for the next 50 years, while writing short, experimental novels such as The Sea Wall (1953) and The Sailor from Gibraltar (1966), and screenplays for films such as Hiroshima Mon Amour (1966).
Then at the age of 70, after struggling with alcoholism for much of her life, Duras decided to write a novel based on her adolescent affair with the Chinese man. That novel was The Lover (1984), and it was her first major literary success, becoming an international best-seller and winning France’s top literary prize.
The Lover begins: “One day, I was already old, in the entrance of a public place a man came up to me. He introduced himself and said: ‘I’ve known you for years. Everyone says you were beautiful when you were young, but I want to tell you that I think you’re more beautiful now than then. Rather than your face as a young woman, I prefer your face as it is now. Ravaged.’”
It’s the birthday of blues singer Muddy Waters, born McKinley Morganfield in Rolling Fork, Mississippi (1915). He said that his grandmother nicknamed him Muddy Waters because as a boy he liked to play in the muddy creek near his house. He learned to play the blues in the Mississippi Delta style by listening performers like Son House and Robert Johnson. He worked as a farmhand during the week, but he began to perform at juke joints, fish fries, and parties on the weekends.
In 1941, the musicologist Alan Lomax came through Mississippi, recording folk singers for the Library of Congress, and he made several recordings of Muddy Waters. Waters was blown away by the experience of hearing these recordings. He said, “Man, you don’t know how I felt that afternoon when I heard that voice and it was my own voice.” He was so impressed that decided to try to make it as a professional recording artist. He was making 22 cents an hour as a farmhand, and he’d recently gotten into a fight with his boss about a pay raise. He later said, “I wanted to leave Mississippi in the worst way.”
So in May of 1943, Waters took a train from Clarksdale, Mississippi, to Chicago, Illinois. His only luggage was a suit of clothes and an acoustic guitar. He was joining the migration of thousands of African-Americans from the South to Northern cities to find better jobs and to get away from Jim Crow laws. Waters got a job at a paper factory, moved in with some cousins on the South Side, and started performing at house parties for whiskey and tips.
At the time, the most popular music in the nightclubs in Chicago was big band music. Waters tried to break through with his Mississippi blues, but he had a hard time playing loud enough for anyone to hear him on his acoustic guitar at the noisy parties and bars where he played. So in 1944, he bought a cheap electric guitar from his uncle, which helped increase his sound level.
It was the first time anyone had played Mississippi blues on an electric guitar, which revolutionized the sound of the blues. Still Waters didn’t make it big until the night he was backing a singer named Sonny Boy, and Sonny Boy got too drunk to sing. That night, Waters said, “I pulled the mike to me, opened this big mouth up, boy, and the house went crazy.”
To get time off for his first recording session at Chess Records, Waters told his boss he had to go to a funeral. That first session didn’t pan out, but the following year, in 1948, Waters recorded his first hit, “I Can’t Be Satisfied.” The song was released on a Friday afternoon in April of 1948, and the initial pressing of 3,000 copies had sold out by Saturday evening. Waters said: “All of a sudden, I became Muddy Waters, you know? People started to speakin’, hollerin’ across streets at me.”
Waters went on to record many more songs, including “Standing Around Crying” (1952) and “Hoochie Coochie Man” (1953), and he became one of the most influential blues musicians of the 20th century.