Wednesday, October 07, 2015

Catching the light

Each autumn we have another chance to experience the beauty of the tassels
of the corn plant. Today, friends drove me south to join a sketching group;
the meeting this month was at Capitola Produce
and we sketched in and around their Pumpkin Patch
which featured an antique rusty truck.
The light was very (almost TOO) bright
but spotlit these dry tassels perfectly.

Sometimes, when we have driven across the country in autumn,
I have been struck by the expansive beauty of fields of dry standing corn.
And sometimes we have been lucky enough to be passing when the harvesting
machines are pouring the prodigious golden harvest into waiting trucks. 

It is interesting to think about corn, where it came from,
the religious rituals it inspired--
how it developed different strains, and now how now it is being
genetically modified to resist the killing pesticides.
But none of this affects the beauty of the tassels in sunlight. . .

The Corn-Stalk Fiddle

When the corn’s all cut and the bright stalks shine
Like the burnished spears of a field of gold;
When the field-mice rich on the nubbins dine,
And the frost comes white and the wind blows cold;
Then its heigho fellows and hi-diddle-diddle,
For the time is ripe for the corn-stalk fiddle.

And you take a stalk that is straight and long,
With an expert eye to its worthy points,
And you think of the bubbling strains of song
That are bound between its pithy joints—
Then you cut out strings, with a bridge in the middle,
With a corn-stalk bow for a corn-stalk fiddle.

Then the strains that grow as you draw the bow
O’er the yielding strings with a practiced hand!
And the music’s flow never loud but low
Is the concert note of a fairy band.
Oh, your dainty songs are a misty riddle
To the simple sweets of the corn-stalk fiddle.

When the eve comes on and our work is done
And the sun drops down with a tender glance,
With their hearts all prime for the harmless fun,
Come the neighbor girls for the evening’s dance,
And they wait for the well-known twist and twiddle,
More time than tune—from the corn-stalk fiddle.

Then brother Jabez takes the bow,
While Ned stands off with Susan Bland,
Then Henry stops by Milly Snow
And John takes Nellie Jones’s hand,
While I pair off with Mandy Biddle,
And scrape, scrape, scrape goes the corn-stalk fiddle.

“Salute your partners,” comes the call,
“All join hands and circle round,”
“Grand train back,” and “Balance all,”
Footsteps lightly spurn the ground,
“Take your lady and balance down the middle”
To the merry strains of the corn-stalk fiddle.

So the night goes on and the dance is o’er,
And the merry girls are homeward gone,
But I see it all in my sleep once more,
And I dream till the very break of dawn
Of an impish dance on a red-hot griddle
To the screech and scrape of a corn-stalk fiddle.

Paul Laurence Dunbar  (1872-1906)

African-American Poetry of the Nineteenth Century: 
An Anthology, University of Illinois Press, 1992

Paul Laurence Dunbar, was a very talented poet, dramatist and writer who was born of parents who had been enslaved before the Civil War. He died quite young (of tuberculosis) early in the year in which my own father was born. You can see from this poem his mastery of a traditional tetrameter, rhyming and metrical, six-line stanza form. His more popular works were those he wrote in Negro dialect, but later scholars have been interested in his works written in more conventional English. He also wrote the lyrics for a very successful work which appeared here and in Europe.

But "Mandy Biddle" is, I think, a little too easy of an out. . . 

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