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Sunday, April 17, 2011

April 16-17, 2011: Birthday Presence

Saturday was my younger son Kyle’s fourth birthday. Besides making me feel as if I’m living in a VCR (sorry, dating myself, DVD player) with a permanently stuck fast-forward button, that occasion has got me thinking about four very complex and significant births in great works of American art (three of which are in texts I’ve written about in this space before, but they’re worth coming back to):
1)      The second half of William Carlos Williams’ “Spring and All” (1923): The shortest stanza of Williams’ poem comes at its exact midpoint, and feels as if we could be in for a vision of spring not at all unlike T.S. Eliot’s bleak “April is the cruelest month” opening of The Waste Land. “Lifeless in appearance, sluggish / dazed spring approaches—“ writes Williams, and, with the bleak imagery of the opening stanzas (and their setting near “the road to the contagious hospital”) in mind, we prepare for the worst. But while the world into which the final three stanzas’ subjects emerge is certainly far from idealized—“They enter the new world naked, / cold, uncertain of all / save that they enter”—the emergence, “the stark dignity of / entrance,” is that much more powerful as a result. And so too is the poem’s final, hard-earned faith in the future: “rooted, they / grip down and begin to awaken.”
2)      The opening chapter of Charles Chesnutt’s The Marrow of Tradition (1901): My first post here was on the greatness of Chesnutt’s novel (especially in contrast with the darkness of its central events), and I won’t repeat myself here. But it’s worth noting how fully the opening chapter, entitled “At Break of Day”—in which the novel’s principal white protagonists, Olivia Carteret and her husband (Major Carteret), greet the birth of their long-awaited son, although only after Olivia and the baby seem nearly certain to die instead—foreshadows the novel’s surprisingly optimistic final moment, Chesnutt’s ability to imagine and narrate hope and a potentially brighter future in even the darkest night of American existence.
3)      The third verse of Bruce Springsteen’s “Outlaw Pete” (2009): “Pete,” the much-maligned (at least by Springsteen fans whose opinions I’ve encountered), 8-minute opening track on the album Working on a Dream, is to my mind a truly great American song. There are lots of reasons why I’d make that case, and maybe a future blog post in there; but for now I’d emphasize the birth and identity of Pete’s mixed-race (half-white, half-Navajo) daughter in the third verse. It’s her birth, and Pete’s recognition of how much of himself is now caught up in her, that fully changes Pete from mythic/legendary/idealized boyish anti-hero to a maturing, complex American man; and similarly it’s her plaintive appeal to the memory of her father that brings the song’s final verse to both a tragic and yet a thematically rich closing image.
4)      The climatic sequence of The Opposite of Sex (1998): There’s no single sequence in Don Roos’s hilarious, smart, and ultimately very moving first film that better highlights its multiple strengths—from Christina Ricci’s pitch-perfect and post-modern voiceover narration to the complex and evolving interrelationships between the movie’s six (at least) main characters—than the climactic birth of the Ricci’s character’s son. To tell you whose son he is, what happens in this sequence, or how it leads into the film’s funny and powerful concluding images would be to spoil a film that, like all of these texts, deserves to be reborn again and again with each new reading, listening, or viewing.
Happy 4th, Kyle! More tomorrow, back to regularly scheduled blog programming!
PS. Five links to start with:
3)      The lyrics to “Pete”:
4)      Extended trailer for Opposite:
5)      OPEN: Any births (real or artistic) you’d share?

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