Robert Altman’s A Prairie Home Companion is such a deconstructionist’s dream that you almost expect the late Jacques Derrida to make a cameo appearance. Talk about reality’s insubstantiality: here we have the cinematic version of a beloved radio program, now over three decades old, whose sly conceits play on a homespun America that barely existed.
“Root is what I am, rootpoet here at home among the worms, finding here the poem’s terms.” —Miklos Radnoti, August 8, 1944
If, as it seems, art is nothing, nothing at all— some sleep only that lulls us toward trees, what to make of these poems, Miklos, where you ordered a life into lines? That brutal stumble through the mountains might have said enough. Or those curses sneered by villagers, one pausing near the water well to dust and dust his sleeves. Finally, you with the rest, worn through, too settled for another step, were forced to dig and dig your graves, then
kneel at last on the uncalmed earth there. What is that light against the fields? Why, after all that had been done? They sought to sever tongues from thoughts—those soldiers, certain in their silence, who carved from hurt this tender fruit words could have grown and given seed. Miklos, these hidden poems, found folded in your pocket. . . . Prove, history, how the world speaks deeper than decay: this murmur pulled from underground, with its challenge of a purer sound and song.
I’ll always remember the sweltering night in Missouri, the pulsing din of the katydids, the prairie grass stretching away on the other side of the trees. In the dark woods across the pond, a lost calf bleats its anguish— six times, then eight, then six again. I sit at the camp table listening, as so many nights before. In the tent, sleeping, the boy, now thirteen, the woman, after twenty-seven years. Moths and greenbugs attack the lantern, flapping crazily. Before I finish tonight they will land in the halo of the hot gas light, diligently search out the lantern’s air vents and incinerate themselves. In the morning I will brush away the fine white ash. This is not a fitting metaphor for any human aspiration. The light we are seeking is not the kind that destroys those who seek it. True, the bright burning gas tempts us sometimes. I know, I know. There are nights when we feel that bad. I turn the valve of the lantern to off and wait for my vision to adjust to the darkness. The almost inaudible breathing from the tent comforts me. I think of us sitting on the shore as the last sunlight seeped from the sky, watching the boy cast his fishing line again and again out into the pond, catching nothing except happiness. The light we are seeking catches all the world in the shooting arc of the outthrown line, never to be lost, not bounded by night, dangerous only to death.
It wasn’t where we wanted to live but you have to put down roots to thrive. Daily we bore the shock of forbearance— our own and our neighbors’: the noise, the smell! Be fruitful! We tried. Soil of lead arsenate, cadmium. We added our detritus, peel and core: redemption. And now our mineral prison blooms in this, the year of our departure: now at last the berries fruit in blue abundance. Which goes to show our acts are not our own; what we make does not belong to us. At best we fade softly as timothy, and leave our harvest to the next people.
Great westerns have always wrestled with moral issues. John Ford’s The Searchers tackles racism; Howard Hawks’s Red River, loyalty; Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch, honor; Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West, revenge; Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven, redemption.
Mark Bustos, a stylist at an upscale salon in Manhattan, gives free haircuts to homeless people every Sunday, his only day off from work. He started the practice during a trip two years ago to the Philippines. The response was so enthusiastic that he decided to make the same offer in New York. Many of the people whose hair he cuts are very thankful. He especially remembers the man who, after seeing what he looked like with his new haircut, asked, “Do you know anyone that’s hiring?” (The Week, August 29).