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Poetry and Poetics

Jill McKenna Reed

Jill McKenna Reed

To-Do During Riots 1

To-Do During Riots 2

To-Do During Riots 3

To-Do During Riots 4

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Jill McKenna Reed is a poet, writing instructor, and beekeeper living in Portland, Oregon. She is co-editor of “Winged: New Writing on Bees,” an anthology of modern literary writing, forthcoming in October of 2014. Jill earned her MFA in Creative Writing Poetry at Portland State University. She is a native of the Chicago area.

linda hull collected poems

linda hull collected poemsThe Selected Levis

 

This is part two of Joan’s essay. Part three  will be posted on Thursday, October 23rd.

     When we look at the poetry of Lynda Hull, her poems seem to combine the backdrop of Di Piero and the internalization of Tretheway in her Collected Poems. And while the early poems are heavily textured, it’s easy to see, not only a change of perspective, but also a depth that developed in the poems written just before her death.

     In the introduction to Collected Poems, Komunyakaa stated: “Hull’s poetry creates tension through what the reader believes he or she knows; it juxtaposes moments that allude to public history alongside private knowledge. Thus, each poem challenges and coaxes the reader into an act of participation … Measured experience informs these poems.”

     This “challenge” and “measured experience” is what I believe culls the sense of place from within Hull’s poetry and allows the reader to dive in with all five senses. Hull is not only describing a place, but her experiences in that place. Hull is equally meticulous in describing the sounds of the trains and the longing they produce in her characters as she is the bead of sweat that trickles down the back. Hull tells the reader not only what is happening, but also where it is happening and why that is important to her, the characters and the reader as well. As Hull builds these physical layers around her characters, the reader is pulled into the same sense of claustrophobia and can almost hear the sound of the trains passing or the wind through clothes hanging on a clothesline.

     The poems in The Only World, published posthumously, elevate the ordinary, everyday things surrounding her characters and push them onto a more personal level. In “Chiffon” Hull’s use of phrasing and word choice creates a tactile sense of heat:

“Fever, down-right dirty sweat

of a heat-wave in May turning everyone

pure body. Back of knee, cleavage, each hidden

crease, nape of neck turning steam.” (151)

     Hull has rooted her poetry in experience and relates these experiences through an intense emotional response like a sense-memory she has already shared with her readers. These descriptions begin to feel like a sort of communally informed memory, which allows the reader to remember the feel of a trickle of sweat creep from the neck down their back. Hull then places unexpected images next to one another that enhance and expand the sense of place in a way that opens up the poem like a multi-layered image.

“a shock

of lavender clouds among shattered brick

like cumulous that sail the tops of high-rises” (151)

     This idea of a surprising “shock” of flowers among shattered and crumbling brick gives the reader the sense of a dilapidated part of the city, where these flowers persist to grow and rise colorful against the backdrop of the city. Hull’s deliberate use of interspersed short lines grabs the reader’s attention and tells them “pay attention, this is important.” The contrast of shattered brick and bright iris gives the reader a contradictory but solid sense of place. This contradiction in juxtaposed opening images alerts the reader to the fact that there are many layers and facets that make up this place and Hull intends to attempt to give as many to the reader as possible. Hull takes this even further when she transitions from sweat, brick and a shock of wildflowers to this somewhat hopeful flashback interaction with a group of young girls, labeling her “the cousin on the bright side” in this still innocent game of dress up:

“This morning’s iris frill

damp as fabulous gowns after dancing,

those rummage sale evening gowns church ladies

gave us another hot spring I, 1967.” (151)

“the endless rooftop season

and sizzle, the torched divided cities…

Camphorous, awash a rusty satin rosettes,

In organdy, chiffon, we’d practice

Girl group radio-hits…

JoAnn vamping

Diana, me and Valerie doing Flo and Mary’s

Background moans…”(152)

     These images set against the backdrop of “torched divided cities” and the significance of 1967, just before the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King, shows these young girls, so far from the changes to come, as they mimic the girl-groups in gowns. But, Hull interrupts this setting of innocence on this rooftop with not only the suggestive omens in the actual streets, but the realities in the upcoming lives of the girls as well:

“a landscape flagged with laundry, tangled

aerials and billboards, the blackened

railway bridges and factories ruinous

in their fumes.” (152)

“JoAnn who’d leave school, 14, pregnant.” (151)

and then later:

She was gang-raped later that year. The rest,

As they say, is history. History.” (152-153)

     But Hull doesn’t leave us in this setting of the clash between innocent role-playing and the reality of this place with these young girls. She ends the poem recalling the “cousin on the bright side” image and traces this reflection back to the iris, which seems to be a hopeful image:

“Bend

to these iris, their piercing ambrosial

essence, the heart surprised, dark bitter.” (153)

     Hull has transported the reader from the present to this conflicted past and then returns us back to this image of the iris all the while suspending these characters, and her readers, within a scene of shattered buildings, rooftops and the contradiction of the bright flowers as metaphor for the young girls.

     In “River Bridge” Hull uses this sense of place in a much different way. We are given a series of venues that seem more like the vistas a nature writer would describe, but these are city scenes, that are all at once mysterious and alluring, but always vividly tactile. The reader becomes as encased as the characters within the motif of clotheslines, trains, trolleys, streets and bridges that seem at once to tower over and ultimately trap everything within:

“The train

slashes its path through the neighborhood, whirr

and pulse. The heart and fuse of distance filling

the room, hurtling through countless frames,

the scene—now that curtainless room of young men

preening shirtless before their mirrors, now

the ward of iron hospital beds. I’ve seen them.

By the screen, the white cat swivels her ears

to follow the train until it’s lost in glass.” (168)

     Hull gives the reader increasing levels of place. There is what they inhabit but also all the things that are beyond their reach; the places they cannot touch; the things they will never see. The dual voice in this poem interjecting with “No not that one,” “I’ve seen them,” “Why That One?” in the beginning of the poem gives the reader a sense of an inner collective voice which becomes a deeper more questioning voice later in the poem: “so this is what its like to die” “now, now this sweet wrenched only” until this voice gives the reader a kind of soliloquy in part V:

I am the stranger coiled on the landing, singing

this is the bridge of the flying hands,

the mansion of the body. I am the one

who scratched at your door, the one who begged

rough coinage. This is the blessing

&this is a hymnal of wings. Hear the heart’s

greedy alluvial choir, a cascading train

whirring the tracks; called back,

called back from the river.” (173)

     This is the human reaction to this cacophony of images that have trapped them in … this is what has become of these voices in these places. The ending of the poem brings all of the elements in the sections together and the final line leaves the reader with the resonating “Someone feed them. Someone said get out of town” reflecting back to the “get-out-of-town-fast-story” from section II.

“The cat leaps again, a train, striking this time

a smooth oiled chord, as if there might be a

singing on the other side of the tracks.

Some Jordan. That otherness, those secret times

the bridges beneath the surface of life.

Pull on the rough coat and salt-wet shoes.

Let the liquor burn your throat. Did I do that?

Could that have been me? Those figures crossing

The bridge, setting out, always setting out.

Voices I must keep listening for in these sharpening

Leaves, among stacks and flames,

The smoking pillars. Someone feed them.

Someone get them out of town.” (174).

     With these closing lines we have the convergence of all: the bridge, the trains, tracks, and people trapped within wishing for what is beyond this place, searching for a “Jordan” and finally the unresolved and resonating “Someone feed them. / Someone get them out of town.

     While Hull paints vast overshadowing places in which her characters are imbedded, Larry Levis gently places his characters in the places they work, live and dream. Place in Levis’ poems doesn’t so much overshadow or become another character vying for attention as complement them as if they are grounded in their surroundings; as if the place they reside is a natural setting like a tree in a forest or beach near an ocean.

     In the Afterward, David St. John said: “Often, Levis’ championing of those at the margin of society—migrant workers, the disposed, a variety of spiritual transients—is set against a landscape of encroaching morality.” (228). How better to set these, then in a place that defines as much who they are as what they do? Which is exactly what Levis does.

In “Winter Stars” Levis opens with:

“My father once broke a man’s hand

Over the exhaust pipe of a John Deere tractor. The man,

Ruben Vasquez, wanted to kill his own father

With a sharpened fruit knife, & he held

The curved tip of it, lightly, between his first

Two fingers, so it could slash

Horizontally, & with surprising grace,

Across a throat. It was like a glinting beak in a hand,

And, for a moment, the light held still

On those vines. When it was over,

My father simply went in & ate lunch, & then, as always,

Lay alone in the dark, listening to music.

He never mentioned it.

I never understood how anyone could risk his life,

Then listen to Vivaldi.” (87)

      In this opening stanza, Levis has deftly interwoven place around his characters. It appears seamless. By telling his reader that this happens “over the exhaust pipe of a John Deere tractor” and by naming the man (Rubén Vásquez) Levis shows that this is a migrant worker and that his father is the boss, or owner of the farm. Levis also tells his reader that this is a commonplace occurrence and not something out of the ordinary: “When it was over / My father simply went in & ate lunch.” Levis then goes one step further in setting up the levels at play here by telling the reader his father is listening to Vivaldi. And while all of the characters are in the same place, the distinction in the hierarchy is clear; the father is the boss, the man with the knife is the employee. The narrator, the owner’s son, is outside of this altercation, and in seeing this interaction from a distance, sets up the voice for the rest of the poem. While he is in this place, he isn’t a part of it, physically or mentally, but only as an observer.

“sometimes, I go out into this yard at night,

And stare through the wet branches of an oak

In winter, & realize I am looking at the stars

Again. A thin haze of them, shining and persisting.” (85)

     This sense that the narrator has of being lifted up, out of this yard and into the stars further defines his sense of detachment from this place in his sense of longing to be elsewhere. The setting up of this distance in the beginning lays the groundwork for the way he views the depths of his father’s illness. But even in the analogy he uses to describe his father’s illness, he still stands outside what is happening:

“If you can think of the mind as a place continually

Visited, a whole city placed behind

The eyes & shining, I can imagine now, its end—

As when the lights go off, one by one,

In a hotel at night, until at last

All of the travelers will be asleep,” or until

Even the thin glow from the lobby is a kind

Of sleep;” (88)

     Once again, Levis contrasts the father as being indoors, even his illness takes on the characteristics of a large hotel, with strangers dimming lights as they drift to sleep. But when the focus returns to the narrator, he is still outside:

“I stand out on the street, & do not go in.

That was our agreement, at my birth.” (88)

     This metaphor for the relationship with his father is not only an emotionally distancing one, but also physically displacing. As Levis ends the poem, we are once again with the narrator gazing at the stars:

“”The pale haze of stars goes on & on,

Like laughter that has found a finale, silent shape

On a black sky. It means everything

It cannot say. Look, it’s empty out there, & cold.

Cold enough to reconcile

Even a father, even a son.” (88)

     We are brought from the expanse of stars to this “final, silent shape / on a black sky.” The father now resides in this otherwise star filled sky as a dark shape that has replaced “everything / it cannot say.” And although this may seem at first to perpetuate the distance, even in death, between the father and the son, the very act of placing the father as a permanent fixture in this star filled sky, that has been the son’s refuge, places the father in a position of meditative significance. As if in the very act of carving out this space for the father, Levis seems to reach a kind of transcendent understanding. The symbolic continuation of the established relationship in this way shows an acceptance and understanding in which the father becomes a permanent and unchangeable presence. Could this acceptance, finally, be a symbol of that longed for reconciliation?

     In “1967” Levis combines farm work with the clash of the narrator’s need to expand psychologically from the place the narrator lives:

“Some called it the Summer of Love; & although the clustered,

Motionless leaves that overhung the streets looked the same

As ever, the same they did every summer, in 1967,

Anybody with three dollars could have a vision” (180)

     Levis is taking the reader completely out of physical place in this poem and venturing into the idea of altering reality without changing the place. But doing this, he alters the set physical properties and can take the narrator so far outside of the physical by adding the dimension of the mind in a definitive way:

“Some people spent their lives then, having visions.

But in my case, the morning after I dropped mescaline

I had to spray Johnson grass in a vineyard of Thompson Seedless

My father owned—& so, still feeling the holiness of all things

Living, holding the spray gun in one hand & driving with the other…

With a mixture of malathion & diesel fuel,

And said to each tall weed, as I coated it with a lethal mist,

Dominus vobiscum, &, sometimes, mea culpa, until

It seemed boring to apologize to weeds and insincere as well,” (180)

     This somewhat comical stanza begins to point to the “generation gap” in the late ‘60s. This shift shows how he, the new generation, views even the weeds in a new way. The idea that he needed to apologize to the plants he is spraying is in direct contrast to the way his father or the migrant workers would approach this task. And while this does not specifically create a change in the place itself, it does create a difference in how the narrator views this place. Whereas in previous poems Levis has this narrator as separate from this farm, from these chores, here, through the psychological change, he is more in tune with it than previously seen.

“The bird’s flight in my body when I thought about it, the wing ache,

Lifting heaven, locating itself somewhere just above my slumped

Shoulders, & part of me taking wing. I’d feel it at odd moments

After that on those days I spent shoveling vines, driving trucks

And tractors, helping swamp fruit out of one orchard

Or another, but as summer went on I felt it less & less.”(180-181)

     This internalization of the things around him becomes a separate consciousness and even though he absorbs these things, it is not the work, or a connection to the people, but the internalization of the place itself with which the narrator becomes singular. This is short lived “as summer went on, I felt it less & less.” And, once more we are pulled back into this distance that has plagued the narrator:

“As the summer went on, some were drafted, some enlisted

In a generation that would not stop falling, a generation

Of leaves sticking to body bags, & when they turned them

Over, they floated back to us on television, even then,

In the Summer of Love, in 1967,

When riot police waited beyond the doors of perception,

And the best thing one could do was get arrested.” (181)

     As Levis closes the poem, the narrator is looking even further than the farm around him. He is viewing the world as though he were in the center of a whirlpool from which he is once again distanced. The momentary oneness he felt to the things around him has slipped away with the drug leaving his system and the reality of the world has seeped back into his conscious state. This recalls the ending of “Winter Stars” which finds the narrator outwardly in the same physical place but now with a more meditative understanding of the things around him.

Jess Burnquist

 

Jess Burnquist

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Difficult Drama of Nature

How cool the air above the horizon—the sky lights up
As you take your leave. And this leaving feels severe
It feels the way trees look as they clutch rough edges of land
All the while being shaped by a persistent wind.

I can be traced by satellite. Here is my house on a virtual map
But what of your soul? What of this next-phase?

I might be the tree clawing to stay. Also, you might be the wind.
The moon pulls these thoughts across a barren sea named Desert.
You dwelled here for a time with your lens—finding the synesthesia
In the mindlessness of the mesquite. What did I forget
To tell you before you splintered from your body
So fraught and pale—so tired of the process of breath?

You should know that your intended stillness
Gave way to the most difficult shifts of voice.
Your lithograph—the tea stained print
Of hallway and woman in three point perspective
Would form a constellation. And, dear friend,
We spoke once about the dead light of stars—the endless travelling
To briefly illuminate. I ask of contrast, why life/death? Why black/white?

There are no areas unmarked by this gasp
Of collective color. I gaze through darkness
Upwards to notice the moon. How it forms
A shy smile—a knowing wisp of light._________________________________________________________________

Jess Burnquist was raised in Tempe, Arizona. She received her MFA in Creative Writing/Poetry from Arizona State University. Her work has appeared in Hayden’s Ferry Review, Persona, Clackamas Literary Review, Natural Bridge and various online journals. She is a recipient of the Joan Frazier Memorial Award for the Arts at ASU. Jess currently teaches English and Creative Writing at Combs High School in San Tan Valley, and has been honored with a Sylvan Silver Apple Award and grant for teaching. She resides in the greater Phoenix metropolitan area with her husband, son, and daughter.

 

skirts and slack di piero

skirts and slack di piero

tretheway domestic work-1

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This essay will be posted in three sections. Part 2 will post on Thursday, October 16th and part 3 on Thursday October 23.

     Place plays a substantial role in establishing environment. Place can be used as a metaphor to define abstractions, as a backdrop that can help set tone or even as a character which can enhance movement and increase tension. Utilizing a sense of place can be an important factor in building depth in a poem and can be a significant tool for the development of characters.

     In the collection Skirts and Slacks, W.S. Di Piero uses place as a character as opposed to a backdrop to hang his characters upon. The characters do not merely exist where they live, place is used to give the reader additional bits of information that play out like vignettes around them. And although at times Di Piero’s characters seem to exist in spite of where they live, many times there is a subtle redefining of the habits of these characters through place.

     For instance, in the opening poem “Cheap Gold Flats” the title alone gives the reader some sense of style for this neighborhood. And even though the poem begins in a neighborhood bar, the image of those “cheap gold flats” seems to hang in the air waiting for recognition. This is a two-part poem, “Part 1.” Philly Babylon” opens with the bartender and whether or not the reader has ever been in one of these neighborhood bars doesn’t matter, Di Piero very effectively sets tone and place by appealing to the senses:

“The bartender tossing cans, carton to cooler,
hand to hand, with silky, mortal ease,
while the 4 p.m. beer and shot standees
study the voiceless TV above our heads.
The worst and longest storm on record.
Iceworks canal the pavements, power lines down,
Cars pillowed helpless in the snow.
Bus fumes vulcanize the twilight’s
911 sirens” (3)

     The reader can almost hear the clink of aluminum as the bartender tosses the cans, see them gliding as if he or she has watched the bartender perform this trick many times. The standees at the bar watch the voiceless TV as if this is a sacred place, which sets up the bar as if it were a sanctuary. We learn there is a storm. The wording here is particular “longest storm on record” not the worst, or the most snowfall, not even the greatest amount of damage, just simply the “longest.” Power lines are down, cars are “pillowed” which brings the drifts of snowed-in cars into a soft focus of airy snowdrifts with powdery white snow piled upon cars, angelic if form. The terms used to describe the storm and the setting does a lot to increase the feeling of seclusion in this opening section even though there is a group here there is little interaction among the characters.

“enter HAZEL, touching my elbow at the bar.

My Staticky Daily News breaks into the draft.

‘What’s my horoscope say today, honey?’

Dear Hazel, dear Pisces, don’t be hurt

Leave me alone a while, my mother’s dying,

I’ve been beside her bed for several days” (3)

     This intimate moment in which Hazel speaks to him and touches his elbow creates an interesting transition by breaking the silence with speech and continues with an unexpected insertion of the horoscope. This is such a great sarcastic break not only of the silence in the bar but lets the reader into the state of mind of the narrator. The reader finds out that his mother is dying without leaning on sentimentality. This line also reveals something more about the narrator himself. Di Piero pulls from the anger and hopelessness someone would feel about the eminent death of a mother: the seeking of isolation, the anger, the want to crawl into some sort of escape. The storm, the icy pavement and power outages now become a metaphor for not only the death of his mother, but the narrators state of mind as well. The chill he is feeling and the silence of the people standing in the bar watching the voiceless TV seem more significant now that we know he is in the midst of this crisis. This setting of the bar becomes a silent refuge for him until the solitude is broken by this sympathetic “touching” of his elbow. He no longer can escape the emotions that he is holding in and they begin to come out on the page.

“and when she looks above her head, she groans

to see whatever it is she sees, so here,

take my paper, go home, forgive me.”

     This passage does a few things. The mother looking up at some voiceless, soundless image harkens back to the men standing at the bar staring at the TV set. The “go home, forgive me” holds a double meaning. On one hand he could be talking to Hazel, on the other he could also be talking to his mother. The progression of place (the bar), the setting, (silent people standing around, frozen from the storm) and the actual emotional event the narrator is experiencing (his mother dying) all interconnect and foreshadow. Place becomes a character as important as the narrator, the other occupants of the bar, Hazel and his dying mother.

     In “Oregon Avenue on a Good Day” Di Piero also uses the senses to set place but in this poem he relies on taste and smell to set up this memory in which place becomes a concrete character.

“Some nights I dream the taste

of pitch and bus fumes and leaf meal

from my old exacting street.

This time home, I’m walking to find

I don’t know what. Something always

offers itself while I’m not watching.”

And then onto:

“enameled aluminum siding, brick,

spangled stonework, fake fieldstone

and clapboard, leftover santa lights,

casements trimmed in yellow fiberglass

our common dream of the all

and the only this, that’s exactly

what I can’t find.”

And finally:

“husband and wife inside, plus kids, suppertime,

pine paneling where scratchy exterior light

rises sweetly above a TV voice.”

     Place is as much a memory as a search for something the narrator cannot find or cannot regain. I find it interesting that in this poem the TV has a voice. The scene of the family having dinner has sound and a connection, unlike ‘Cheap Gold Flats” where the TV is voiceless. I like the idea of “a scratchy exterior light” The use of “scratchy” to describe the light shifts the feeling of this section into a completely different texture. This ‘scratchy” light from the exterior seems to be an intrusion into a memory diluted by time that threatens to “shed light” on this illusive thing he believes he has lost; the thing he longs for that may only exist in memory and not in the true reality.

     The poem “Hermes: Port Authority: His Song.” begins with the use of specific regional speech. The opening line is a type of hustler street-speak. Using a regionalism like this to open a poem is another way to set up place. The reader understands that this is happening in a city bus terminal and the character takes on a distinctiveness based on the idea of setting him in a city environment.

“Hey, mister, find a bus for you?

I burn my tracks, I stink.

I lay down in the dust.

And then:

“A dollar’s good. A quarter, too.

Any bus will do.

Wee got them all. There’s Teaneck,

The Oranges and Hackensack.

Atlantic City too.”

“”I’ll sell you pussy, nookie,

what you will. I’ll soap

your goodies in the men’s room sink.

O play me how you will.

Sleep tight. God speed your bus.

A dollar, quarter, dime will do.”

     This modern day Hermes is a very different messenger of the gods. This is the voice of no place. This is the voice of invisible existence and of things unseen. People ignore these unwanted, grittier people within all cities. This may be why the cities are named instead of described; this creates a namelessness that is created by treating places as well as people in this way. As if this new voice of Hermes is a universal telling of how all things have become: nameless, faceless, and disregarded. This is the voice of the hopeless and lost.

     Di Piero’s use of place as a character in Skirts and Slacks acts as another dimension for the characters and narrators to inhabit. Place not only begins to embody the character’s development but helps the reader to identify with even the most complex characters by giving the reader a solid anchor. But foremost in creating this place are the language choices that Di Piero embodies in these poems. This sense of collision that surrounds his characters is not limited to place alone.

     In “Pocketbooks and Sauerkraut” an essay from City Dog, Di Piero states that: “What my culture did give me was a sense…of language as the embodiment of contingency … but language … was swampy, crazily shadowed, and veined with unintelligible matter.” (43). Di Piero has created place in these poems from this “swampy, crazily shadowed and veined” language, and as a result, place becomes not only a naturally occurring extension of character but a solidly formed presence which acts as a character in itself to enhance and support the actions of the narrator and other characters in his poems.

     Natasha Tretheway’s domestic work, on the other hand, uses place in a very different way. Place in Tretheway’s poems is internalized by her characters. It is a sense that is carried within their movements. By using place as an internalized characteristic, she is able to create a persona that is expressed through the characters sense of their place in the world. In the opening poem of the collection, “Gesture of a Woman-in-Process” even the things around these women are part of them:

“Around them, their dailiness:

clotheslines sagged with linens,

a patch of greens and yams,

buckets of peas for shelling.”

“Even now, her hands circling,

the white blur of her apron

still in motion.” (3)

     The women are consumed as a part of the things that make up this place. “Their dailiness”; “the white blur of her apron”; the “buckets of peas for shelling.” All of these things speak to their work. There is little shared that is personal about these women. The chores they perform, the place that they perform it in and how they go about their day is interwoven into who they are. This truly epitomizes the idea of “I am what I do.”

     In “Domestic Work, 1937” The woman in the poem varies her movements and her temperament depending on place. Although she is doing the same work, her demeanor changes according to where she is:

“All week she’s cleaned

someone else’s house,

stared down her own face

in the shine of copper-

bottomed pots, polished

wood, toilets she’d pull

the lid to.”

But when she is at home doing the same work:

“a record spinning

on the console, the whole house

dancing. She raises the shades,

washes the room in light.”

“She beats time on the rugs,

blows dust from the broom

like dandelion spores, each one

a wish for something better.” (13)

     It becomes very clear that place is internalized into her actions. Her demeanor, her lightness is apparent in her own home, so different from her demeanor in the house of her employer. There is a joy apparent in the duties performed at home that are not present when she performs these things in the house of her employer.

In “Three Photographs” Thretheway uses place as a subjective part of her characters.

In “1. Daybook April 1901” she uses the narrative voice of the photographer who begins:

‘What luck to find them here!”

     This line turns them into objects within the photograph. Who they are does not matter. They are used merely as reference points to complete the photograph:

“two negro men, clothes like church,

collecting flowers in a wood.”

‘a blessing though their faces

hold little emotion. And yet,

they make such good subjects.

Always easy to pose.”

Even when she speaks of framing, it is still focused on the men in the photograph:

“how well this arbor frames

my shot—an intimate setting,

the bough nestling us

like brothers, How fortunate still

to have found them here

instead of farther along

by that old cemetery,” (6)

     They are not positioned within the things in the photograph; the things in the photograph are positioned around them. It’s as if as objects they hold more significance for the photographer. Flowers in a field would be incidental in a shot of an elaborate vista point so it seems that the men in this photograph are only necessary in order to capture the true nature of the “bough” or the “old cemetery.”

In “2. Cabbage Vendor” the focus is once again how this narrator does his/her work:

“When I’m in my garden

tearing these cabbages

from earth, hearing them scream

at the break, my fingers

brown as dirt—that’s natural.”

The narrator labels this work as being natural. Later, when the narrator speaks of the photograph it becomes the unnatural thing:

“But he will keep my picture,

unnatural like hoodoo love.

I could work a root of my own,

Turn that thing around

And make him see himself

Like he be seeing me—

Distant and small—forever.” (7)

     The idea that working the ground, pulling the vegetables is more the natural thing than her reflection in a picture is interesting in this passage. It brings again to mind the adage “I am what I do” which carries into the third and final portion of the poem: “3. Wash Women.” The narrator in this poem is looking at the picture. There is a different sense here as if the narrator’s connection stems from something other than familiarity. There is a communal sense of history and an understanding of that history that shifts between the narrator and the subjects in the photograph.

“The eyes of eight women

I don’t know

Stare out from this photograph

Saying remember.”

    The description of the work is supposed. This is a much more somber poem than previous poems in this collection. This poem gives the reader a more intensely disconnected feel. The women simply stare. The narrator supposes the lightness and joy in the chores but the faces of the women seem to tell another story.

“I picture wash day:”

“I hear laughter,

three sisters speaking

of penny drinks, streetcars,

the movie house. A woman

like my grandmother rubs linens

against the washboard ribs,

hymns grow in her throat.” (8)

     The narrator is giving us an imagined idea of these women working. It repeats the image of joyful work that we have seen in other poems in the collection until the poem comes to the final stanza:

“But in this photograph,

women do not smile,

their lips a steady line

connecting each quiet face.’ (9)

     This is the first hint that this is not happy work. This is the first time the sense of these women is different from the outer expression they portray. They are “a steady line connecting each quiet face” which tells the reader that this internalized place is dark, prison-like and inescapable.

     I find it significant that Thretheway uses place in this way. Many of the portraits in this collection are displaced persons. Slaves that do not belong to the homes they inhabit or the jobs they are perform. They seem to carry a sense of belonging only to themselves because of this displacement. They have been forced to fade into the background to survive and so in a sense they have become part of the place they inhabit. This is more of a social commentary than it first appears. In some ways, this idea of belonging to self and contented abiding within seems a very zen-like thing. But when the reality of slavery is considered this becomes a much different perspective. The fact that the people in the pictures are regarded as owned objects is significant. When viewed this way, the expressions on the faces in this picture become a reminder not merely of displacement, but of ownership. Slaves were often listed on manifests along with other “owned” objects: houses, furniture, china, bales of hay, acres of land and heads of cattle. Family members “willed” slaves to other family members at death and often used slaves to settle debts and disputes among landowners, trading them as if they were mere objects. So in effect, the only place for these women to have any power or strength is to revert to something internal that cannot be taken away from them.

     The differences in the way Di Piero and Tretheway use place enhances the characters and the settings in each of their collections. Di Piero’s poems are city poems. They have a beat and a strut, which narrates a type of separation from place so that it becomes something that enhances the poems as a separate character. Tretheway‘s characters don’t belong to the places they inhabit, so they carry these places inside themselves whereas Di Piero’s characters, imprisoned by their own actions, emotions and choices, pull out of the scenery around them like a 3-D image.

Jen Ashburn

Jen Ashburn

The Flight Home                                                                  En Route to Louisville

Remember the laundry that hangs on bamboo fences, on the edges of corrugated tin, on the rafters next to fishing nets that clump together and billow like 18th-century petticoats. Remember the blue jeans, the yellow t-shirts, the thick-hooded sweatshirts. Remember the slender brown legs that slide into the jeans, the fat lips of the toddler who sat on your lap, the hands of the man who, while working his day job as a security guard in front of an ATM, tied the knots that made the nets. Remember the brown waters of the Mekong, the Nam Khong, the Nam Song, the heavy rains in the afternoon, the early morning mist. Remember the clear rising song of a gibbon family at dawn. Remember the Chinese rock music. The gristle and fat in the meat. Even remember the mosquitos and salmonella. Remember how to say, “Do you speak English?” in five languages. And thank you. And please. Let me remember even when I’m hunched with work, when I’m old and crumpled with life. This life. Thank you. Please.

_________________________________________________________________

Jen Ashburn recently completed her MFA at Chatham University in poetry and creative nonfiction. She has work published or forthcoming in Grey Sparrow, Pretty Owl Poetry, Anak Sastra, The Poet’s Billow, Puff Puff Prose & Poetry Vol. II and the anthology Make Mine Words (Trinity University Press). She lives in Pittsburgh.

LangstonHughes2

This is the final part of Brian’s essay.

The final Hughes poem this essay will address is “Montage of a Dream Deferred,” a long, poetic sequence about Harlem published in 1951, a sequence that relies on the rhythms of jazz, ragtime, swing, and blues to address and protest racial oppression. In Hog Butchers, Bus Boys, and Beggars, John Marsh states that not only did the “low-down” folks give birth to jazz, but they also received something back from it. “It gives them purpose and focus,” he writes. “They have invented it because they need it” (167). What Marsh doesn’t address, however, is the way black music forms link “Montage of a Dream Deferred” together, even as poems and voices cut off and another voice and poem begins. In his essay, “Movies, Modernity, and All That Jazz; Langston Hughes’s ‘Montage of a Dream Deferred,’” Bartholomew Brinkman writes that while the jazz rhythms may threaten the lyric stability and unity of the poems, the poem’s use of manic bop rhythms the sequence to “move from a critical gesture to an affirmative one, recouping its loss of a private, lyrical subjectivity and instituting in its place a communal one” (93). Furthermore, Brinkman adds that like a jazz performance, there is a forward momentum to the sequence that depends upon the ordering of the poems (93).

While the poems may seem disparate, when read together, they represent the tension in post-war Harlem, the anxiety over the dreams deferred and the racial inequality that still plagued communities. What separates the sequence from Hughes’ other Harlem-based poems is that “Montage” showcases a class-conscious Harlem.

All of this frustration is reflected in “Montage of a Dream Deferred.” The sequence opens with the poem “Dream Boogie,” which begins with the traditional ballad stanza, a-b-a-b rhyme scheme, “The boogie-woogie rumble/of a dream deferred” (The Collected Poems 388). The sound of music is accompanied by the sound of feet stomping in poetic rhythm, but there is a violent undertone pulsating in the poem, though something is about to break and explode. The “boogie-woggie” sound rumbles in the first stanza, and one of the two speaker asks, “You think/It’s a happy beat?.” The poem indicates potential militant violence, pointing not only to the questions the italicized voice asks about the nature of the beat, but one of the last lines, “Take it away,” which could refer to the dream addressed in the first stanza. The dream is literally and musically taken away. In addition, the meter breaks down in the poem, and stanzas are frequently cut off by the italicized voice, thus creating a back and forth sequence, a question and answer between the notion of the dream and the dream deferred.

In another poem in the sequence, “Ballad of the Landlord,” Hughes uses the traditional ballad form again, while highlighting the poverty and hardships blacks faced. He then smashes the form after the speaker in the poem is arrested. The sonic techniques Hughes employs, especially the use of repetition, are especially effective in showing just how desperate the conditions were. The poems begins:

Landlord, landlord

My roof has sprung a leak.

Don’t you ‘member I told you about it

Way last week?

Landlord, landlord,

These steps is broken down.

When you come up yourself

It’s a wonder you don’t fall down. (The Collected Poems 402).

For the most part, the opening stanzas adhered to the ballad form, especially in terms of the rhyme scheme and meter. The repetition of the phrase “Landlord, landlord” is an effective sonic technique because it shows how much the tenant tried to get the landlord’s attention. Eventually, however, the tenant has had enough, especially after the landlord asks for more money.

Ten Bucks you say I owe you?

Ten bucks you say is due?

Well, that’s Ten Bucks more’n I’ll pay you

Till you fix this house up new.

What? You gonna get eviction orders?

            You gonna cut off my heat?

            You gonna take my furniture and

            Throw it in the street?

            Uh-huh! You talking high and mighty.

            Talk-on till you get through.

            You ain’t gonna be able to say a word

             If I land my fist on you. (The Collected Poems 402).

After the tenant threatens violence, the rest of the poem changes. The ballad form, especially the doggerel rhymes and meter, break down. The tenant’s voice is gone, replaced by the landlord’s, who cries out, “Police! Police!/Come and get this man!/He’s trying to ruin the government/And overturn the land!” (The Collected Poems 402). Like other poems in “Montage,” Hughes depicts the change of voice by using italics and altering the rhythm. The final three lines read like newspaper headlines: “MAN THREATENS LANDLORD/TENANT HELD NO BAIL/JUDGE GIVES NEGRO 90 DAYS IN JAIL” (The Collected Poems 403).

           On multiple levels, “Montage” illustrates the inequality that plagued Harlem. The poem is a drastic shift from “Harlem Night Club” and “Harlem Night Song.” Not only does Hughes experiment with form, mixing traditional ballad forms with frantic bebop rhythms, but the content marks a stark contrast to the optimism of his Harlem Renaissance-era poems. “Montage” is a sequence written after the Harlem riots, a period when Cold War politics silenced dissent and nearly disrupted the growing call for civil rights and equality. The poetic sequence stands as a fine critique of American capitalism and racial inequality and draws attention to a country that fought in a world war under the banner of freedom and justice, while ignoring growing tensions at home.

           By using sound, specifically laughter, blues, and jazz, as an essential part of his work and defending black music forms and black art in his essay “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain,” Hughes challenges the sonic color-line and ideas from the Enlightenment Period that can be seen in the early 20th Century. For Hughes, these sounds are not mere noise, but an essential part of black culture, an extension of the slave songs, a way to protest racial segregation, and an escape from the “weariness” of a white world. Furthermore, Hughes’s use of sound documents Harlem from the 1920s to the 1950s, capturing the optimism of the Harlem Renaissance period and the frustration of the later years.

 

 

Works Cited

Brinkman, Bartholomew. “Movies, Modernity, and All That Jazz: Langston Hughes’s ‘Montage of a Dream Deferred.’” African American Review. Spring/Summer 2010. Vol. 44: 85-96. EBSCOhost. Web. 27 Sept. 2013.

Chaser, Mike. “The Sounds of Black Laughter and the Harlem Renaissance: Claude McKay, Sterling Brown, and Langston Hughes.” American Literature. March 2008. Volume 80, Number 1: 58-81. EBSOhost. Web. 25 Sept. 2013.

Cullen, Countee. “Poet on Poet.” in Critical Essays on Langston Hughes. James Nagel, Ed. Boston: G.K. Hall & Co., 1986. Print.

Davis, Arthur P. “The Harlem of Langston Hughes’ Poetry.” in Critical Essays on Langston Hughes. James Nagel, Ed. Boston: G.K. Hall & Co., 1986. Print.

Goodale, Greg. Sonic Persuasion: Reading Sound in the Record Age. Chicago, University of Illinois Press, 2011. Print.

Griffin, Farah Jasmine. Harlem Nocturne. New York: Basic Civitas Books, 2013. Print.

Halliday, Sam. Sonic Modernity: Representing Sound in Literature, Culture, and the Arts. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press Ltd, 2013. Print.

Hughes, Langston. The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes. Arnold Rampers and and David Roessel, Eds.New York: Vintage, 1994. Print.

The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain,” in Twentieth-Century American Poetics: Poets on the Art of Poetry. Dana Gioia, David Mason, Meg Schoerke, Eds. New York: McGraw Hill, 2003. Print.

Jemie, Onwuchewa. “Hughes’s Black Esthetic.” in Critical Essays on Langston Hughes. James Nagel, Ed. Boston: G.K. Hall & Co., 1986. Print.

Johnson, Charles. “Jazz Poetry and Blues.” in Critical Essays on Langston Hughes. James Nagel, Ed. Boston: G.K. Hall & Co., 1986. Print.

Marsh, John. Hog Butchers, Beggars, and Busboys. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2011. Print.

Petry, Ann. “Harlem.” Holiday. April 1949. Volume 5, Issue 4: 110, 112-116, 163-166, 168. Print.

Radano, Ronald. “Hot Fantasies: American Modernism and the Idea of Black Rhythm.” in Music and the Racial Imagination. Ronald Radano and Philip V. Bohlman, Eds. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2000. Print.

Stoever-Ackerman, Jennifer. “Splicing the Sonic Color-Line: Tony Schwartz Remixes Postwar Nueva York.” Social Text 102. Spring 2010. Volume 28, Number 1: 59-85. Print.

Stoever-Ackerman, Jennifer. “The word and the sound: listening to the sonic colour-line in Frederick Douglass’s 1845 Narrative.” Sound Effects. 2011. Volume 1, Number 1: 20-36. Web. 7 November 2013.

LangstonHughes2

 

Hughes’s ideas about jazz and blues were echoed by other black intellectuals only a few years after “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain” was published. In Duke Ellington’s 1931 essay “The Duke Steps Out,” he says that jazz is more than the American idiom, but rather an essential part of black history, the result of transplantation to American soil and the evolution of the slave song, thus jazz has a history much deeper than mere dance music. “It expresses our personality, and, right down in us, our souls react to its elemental but eternal rhythm,” Ellington states (qtd. in Halliday 147). Like Hughes, Ellington makes a fine defense of jazz as an essential part of black culture, a music form that stems from slave plantation songs, a music that does not lead to laziness, nervousness, or hysteria, but rather a music that was necessary to survive in a white-dominated culture.

Like Ellingston, Hughes did connect jazz to black history, and he saw the music form as an essential part of Harlem, using it to chronicle Harlem from the 1920s to the 1950s. His music-based poems of the 1920s celebrate Harlem’s swinging nightlife, while his post-war music poems address racial segregation and class inequality. In several of Hughes’s early Harlem poems, specifically “Harlem Night Song,” the city comes alive at night when the bands take the stage.

Come,

Let us roam the night together

Singing.

I love you.

Across

The Harlem roof-tops

Moon is shining.

Night sky is blue.

Stars are great drops

Of golden dew.

Down the street

A band is playing.

            I love you.

            Come,

            Let us roam the night together

            Singing. (The Collected Poems 94)

More so than most of Hughes’s other poems, “Harlem Night Song” has a romantic quality, a speaker who implores a lover to roam the night with him or her while the band is playing and the moon is out. Even the night imagery is given a romantic quality. The moon shines, while the sky is blue and the stars are “great drops/of golden dew.” The poem, particularly the music of the band playing, represents a break from the daily grind, from the “weariness of the white world.” The couple is free to roam at night, to enjoy the music, despite whatever hardships they may face in the day. Like a lot of Hughes’s other poems, “Harlem Night Song” also draws on elements of the blues, particularly the use of the refrain, in this instance the phrases “Come/Let us roam the night together/Singing” and “I love you.” Hughes somewhat subverts the blues form, however, because “Harlem Night Song” is not a lament over a broken heart or racial oppression. Instead, it focuses on promise, of a budding love, a love that is made possible against the backdrop of music and a lively night life.

Harlem Night Song” is reflective of a 1920s Harlem, what critic Arthur B. Davis refers to as “Jazzonia,” a “joyous city” a “new world of escape and release” (136). He also notes that the time, while the Harlem Renaissance was in full swing, Harlem experienced a cabaret boom. Furthermore, Davis point out that when Hughes came to Harlem at 22 years old as a sailor and beachcomber, it was natural for him to be attracted to Harlem’s nightlife and to view it as “a new world of escape and release, an exciting never-never land” (136). Hughes was one of many immigrants that came to Harlem, and according to Farah Jasmine Griffin’s book Harlem Nocturne, about 1.5 million African Americans moved north between 1916-1930 (7), thus places like Harlem experienced an artistic boom, creating an optimism reflected in Hughes’s early poems.

In later poems, particularly “The Trumpet Player,” Hughes blends African ancestry with the continuing struggle for equality, moving away from depictions of Harlem as a place of cabarets and dancehalls. The poem also reflects Ellington’s idea that jazz is an extension of previous black music forms and black history. The first stanza begins:

The Negro

With the trumpet at his lips

Has dark moons of weariness

Beneath his eyes

Where the smoldering memory

Of slave ships

Blazed to the crack of whips

About his thighs. (The Collected Poems 338).

Published in 1947 in the collection Fields of Winter, “The Trumpet Player” does mark somewhat of a change from earlier poems, particularly the use of African imagery. Davis states that “in this new Harlem, even the jazz players are infected with sectional melancholy” (139), meaning that the ideals of freedom and liberty promoted during World War II were not evident in Harlem. He adds:

The Depression of 1929, having struck the ghetto harder than any other section of New York, showed Harlem just how basically ‘marginal’ and precarious its economic foundations were. Embittered by this knowledge, the black community had struck back blindly at things in general in the 1935 riot. The riot brought an end to the New Negro era; the Cotton Club, the most lavish of the uptown cabarets, closed its doors and moved to Broadway; and the black city settled down to the drab existence of WPA and relief living (138).

The African imagery evoked in the poem shows the long history of inequality blacks faced, dating back to slavery and continuing after World War II. The opening stanza contains the image of “smoldering memory/of slave ships/blazed to the crack of whips/about his thighs.” This haunting memory of the past has a physical impact on the trumpet player, evident by the “dark moons of weariness/beneath his eyes.” By the third stanza, the poem shifts from memories of the past to the present music.

The music

From the trumpet at his lips

Is honey

Mixed with liquid fire.

The rhythm

From the trumpet at this lips

Is ecstasy

Distilled from old desire—

Desire

That is longing for the moon

Where the moonlight’s but a spotlight

In his eyes,

Desire

That is longing for the sea

Where the sea’s a bar-glass

Sucker size. (The Collected Poems 338).

            In Harlem Nocturne, Griffin depicts the 1940s as especially important to black artists in Harlem because of the realization of dreams deferred. In July 1941, there was a plan for a major march on Washington for jobs and equality. However, FDR issued an executive order calling for an end to discrimination in defense industries and federal bureaus, thus the march was called off. However, as late as 1940, 90 percent of New York’s defense plants refused to hire black workers, and a number of bars and restaurants did not serve black patrons (7). Furthermore, throughout the 1940s, J. Edgar Hoover called for a crackdown on black newspapers sympathetic to left-wing causes. He even urged FDR’s administration to use wartime sedition powers to indict members of the black press ( 92).

           These issues eventually led to the Harlem Riots, and by August 1, 1943, property damage was estimated to be over $5 million, hundreds were arrested, and six blacks died (Griffin 120). Writing about Harlem for Holiday magazine in 1949, novelist Ann Petry stated, “Rioting mobs broke plate-glass windows, looted stores, causing property damage estimated in the millions. And in the process they seem to have permanently rubbed out that other hackneyed description of Harlem –the dwelling place of dancing, laughing, happy-go-lucky, childlike people” (110). The “hackneyed description” of Harlem Petry refers to is certainly evident in Hughes’s early depictions of Harlem; however, his work evolved to capture the tension Petry refers to and to critique capitalism and inequality.

           In his other poems from the 1940s, Hughes addressed the issue of segregation and inequality directly, using sound to do so. One of his poems, “I, Too,” echoes Walt Whitman’s iconic poem “I Hear America Singing,” particularly Whitman’s idea that the downtrodden are also part of America and deserving of praise. Hughes extends the conversation by including blacks as part of America, while using sound, particularly laughter, to protest racial segregation.

I, too, sing America.

I am the darker brother.

They send me to eat in the kitchen

When company comes,

But I laugh

And eat well,

And grow strong.

Tomorrow, I’ll be at the table

When company comes.

Nobody’ll dare

Say to me,

Eat in the kitchen,”

Then.

Besides,

They’ll see how beautiful I am

And be ashamed—

I, too, am America. (The Collected Poems 43).

           Written in 1945, about a decade before the Civil Rights Movement, “I, Too,” addresses the service roles blacks had and the segregation that existed, in this case the way the “darker brother” is sent to eat in the kitchen when company comes. Especially striking about the poem is the use of laughter as the one act of protest and challenge to white power.

Regarding form, Hughes isolates the lines “But I laugh/And eat well/and grow strong.” Those lines can also be read as end-stopped lines, meaning there is a natural pause at the end of each line, thus slowing down the rhythm and causing the reader to pause after the persona laughs, eats, and grows strong. Because of the form of those lines and the natural pauses, the acts are given more weight, and they come before the white space and shift to the following stanza, where the speaker is confident that one day he will have a place at the table. Not only is the laughter associated with the act of eating and growing strong, but the idea of one day transcending restrictive racial confines. The laughter is an act of protest that allows the speaker to imagine his body in a place it is currently forbidden in the poem, and it gives the speaker the confidence and strength to imagine one day he’ll have a seat at the table.

Part 3 of this essay will be posted on Friday.

LangstonHughes2

This is essay is divided into three parts. Part two will post on Wednesday, and part three on Friday.

 

          While many critics have noted the influence of blues and jazz on Langston Hughes’s poetry, little has been written about Hughes from a sound studies standpoint. His sonic landscapes not only chronicle Harlem from the 1920s to 1950s, but  also challenge the sonic color-line, specifically ideas from the Enlightenment Period about sound and logic, ideas that still persisted in the first half of the 20th Century, evident through early criticism of ragtime and jazz. In defending black music forms and using specific sounds in his work, including blues, jazz, and laughter, sounds of interwar and post-war Harlem, Hughes challenges 19th Century notions that only white speech is clear and reasoned and sounds unable to be pinned down, particularly sounds of the racialized Other, are purely emotional and non-logical; Hughes’s sonic landscapes also serve as a protest against racial segregation and a critique of American capitalism.

           Before addressing Hughes’s poetry and his essay “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain,” it is important to give definition to the sonic color-line and understand some of the key ideas regarding sound from the Enlightenment Period that Hughes’s work reacts against, especially since such ideas still persisted just as Hughes’s career was beginning. The idea of the sonic color-line can be attributed to Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman’s work on sound studies, specifically her essays “The word and the sound: listening to the sonic colour-line in Frederick Douglass’s 1845 Narrative” and “Splicing the Sonic Color-Line: Tony Schwartz Remixes Postwar Nueva York.” In her first essay, she notes that the sonic colour-line describes race through “aural signifiers as well as visual ones” (21). The racial etiquette of the 19th Century distinguished between white sounds and black sounds, and included aural behavior, such as musical tastes, public displays of emotion, vocal tones, and accents in speech (22). Furthermore, the dominant cultural of the time labeled black sounds as non-logical. Because the sounds did not conform to white European standards, they were considered non-logical, overly emotional, and wild.

           In her other essay, “Splicing the Sonic Color-Line,” Stoever-Ackerman notes that the idea of the sonic color-line stems from W.E.B. Du Bois’s idea of the visual color-line in the Souls of Black Folks and his re-imagining of the color-line in Dusk of Dawn (65). She adds that we see race as well as hear it, and “sonic phenomena like vocal timbre, accents, and musical tones are racially coded, like skin color, hair texture, and clothing choices” (65).

           Stoever-Ackerman’s work points to several examples of the sonic color-line existing in the 19th Century, but it was also evident in early criticism of jazz and ragtime music, specifically the way critics linked the black music forms to wildness and nervousness. In Anne Shaw Faulkner’s 1921 essay “Does Jazz Put Sin in Syncopation?”, published in Ladies’ Home Journal, the author writes, “In almost every big industry where music has been instituted, it has been found necessary to discontinue jazz because of its demoralizing effect” (qtd. in Halliday 144-145). She adds that after the workers indulged in such music, there was an unsteadiness and unevenness to their work product.

          Other critics and record companies saw a distinction between jazz for a white audience and jazz for a black audience. Greg Goodale notes in his book Sonic Persuasion that record companies tried to manipulate Americans into categorizing music based on race and forced black bands to play “hot jazz” to cater to what they perceived to be the black sound (82-83). Hot jazz often had poor connotations and was frequently associated with drunkenness and sexual frenzy. These negative depictions of jazz, constructs of race, and ideas left over from the Enlightenment Period drew strong reactions from Hughes not only in his poetry, but also his manifesto “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain.” First published in 1926, the essay is critical of black poets that try to be white and avoid using black music forms. Hughes writes:

Let the blare of Negro jazz bands and the bellowing voice of Bessie Smith singing Blues penetrate the closed ears of the colored near-intellectuals until they listen and perhaps understand. Let Paul Robeson singing ‘Water Boy,’ and Rudolph Fisher writing about the streets of Harlem, and Jean Toomer holding the heart of Georgia in his hands, and Aaron Douglas drawing strange black fantasies cause the smug Negro middle class to turn from their white, respectable, ordinary books and papers to catch a glimmer of their own beauty. We younger Negro artists who create now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame. If white people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, it doesn’t matter. We know we are beautiful. And ugly too (151).

The essay was published shortly after critic George S. Schuyler criticized Hughes in The Nation for his reliance on black music forms. Schuyler’s criticism echoes Counte Cullen’s review of Hughes’s debut poetry collection, The Weary Blues, for Opportunity in 1926. Though the review was generally favorable, Cullen was critical of Hughes for relying so much on jazz and blues.

Taken as a group the selections in this book seem one-sided to me. They tend to hurl the poet into the gaping pit that lies before all Negro writers, in the confines of which they become racial artists instead of artists pure and simple. There is too much emphasis here on strictly Negro themes; and this is probably an added reason for my coldness toward the jazz poems—they seem to set a too definite limit upon an already limited field (39).

To Hughes, however, jazz was a fundamental part of black life and essential to Harlem, what he labeled in the “Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain as “the eternal tom-tom beating in the Negro soul—the tom-tom of revolt against weariness in a white world” (150).

Hughes’s defense of jazz may have come because he realized jazz was a way for whites to transcend their racial identity and subvert negative constructs of black sound, thus realizing the music does not lead to hysteria or drunkenness. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, black jazz musicians played with white musicians in recording studios and in bars. In 1931, Louis Armstrong was arrested outside of a club in Los Angeles for smoking marijuana with white drummer Vic Berton (Goodale 83). It became more and more common to see integration on stage, even if major record companies tried to construct sound in terms of race and market to white and black audiences.

This integration is represented in Hughes’ 1926 poem “Harlem Night Club,” and like a lot of his other 1920s poems, it represents the optimism of the Harlem Renaissance that black art forms could be a way to transcend racial barriers, or more specifically a way for whites to enjoy black music forms and overcome racial constructs and identity.

Sleek black boys in a cabaret.

Jazz-band, jazz-band, ––

Play, play, PLAY!

Tomorrow…who knows?

Dance today!

White girls’ eyes

Call gay black boys.

Black boys’ lips

Grin jungle joys.

Dark brown girls

In blond men’s arms.

Jazz-band, jazz-band—

Sing Eve’s charms!

White ones, brown ones,

What do you know

About tomorrow

Where all paths go?

Jazz boys, jazz boys—

Play, PlAY , PLAY!

Tomorrow…. Is darkness.

Joy today!

  The poem presents a mixing of races, brought together by the jazz music, a scene that would have been common in the larger cities in the 1920s and 1930s. The “white girls’  eyes/Call gay black boys” while “Dark brown girls” dance “in blond men’s arms.” The speaker of the poem implores the jazz band to keep playing so racial barriers can be overcome and young whites can transcend racial identities, particularly the ideas that whites should not like this type of music, but the poem also poses the question “Tomorrow…who knows?”.  That question can be read two ways. Either the speaker believes that the jazz movement could lead to the erosion of racial barriers, or the speaker understands that once the music stops and once the listeners step outside, they will be re-introduced to racial constructs.  The later idea is more likely since the speaker admits in the final stanza, “Tomorrow…Is darkness/Joy today!.” For at least the moment, however, while the band keeps playing, racial barriers are non-existent and the whites realize that listening to this music has no negative effects.

Furthermore, the poem mirrors the syncopation of ragtime music and early jazz, employing syncopation so no regular meter or rhyme scheme is established. The opening stanza has a rhyme scheme of a-b-a-c-a. Two out of the lines in the stanza rhyme with nothing else, thus disrupting the pattern. Hughes does this throughout the rest of the poem as well, establishing what appears to be a rhyme scheme, before breaking it with one or two lines that do not adhere to the structure. In addition, Hughes changes the capitalization of the words “play” in the first and last stanza, also disrupting the rhythm. Like a lot of Hughes’s poems that employ music, his form mirrors the content.

Visit TheThe again on Wednesday for part two.

Amanda w. Book Yellowed

Swallowed Whole

Recently, on vacation, I saw a blue heron catch and eat a fish.
In its middle, the fish was a good deal larger than the heron’s
slender neck.

Looking out subway windows, sparks fly, light up
graffiti tags in this dark, rat-infested tunnel
I am hurtling through. Ideas leap to mind:
violence, poverty, being born with very little
real opportunity. I’ve been taught these ideas.

The heron brought the fish on land, pecked into it
repeatedly until it was good and dead,
then somehow managed to swallow it whole.

Can I have an original idea? It all feels collaborative,
this living of life. My original ideas are the smallest
of perceptions.

I’ve been taught, too, the importance of graffiti
as urban art, street culture expressed. I’ve rounded
many corners, blown back by a mural with teeth.

In a class I took, one theory-loving student asked
a particularly earnest student if he meant HOPE
ironically in his piece. My small perception was
astonishment that she really could not grasp
where he was coming from.

Can art create a better world? Not a prettier,
better decorated world, not even a more
thought-provoking one, but a world where
people suffer less?

The heron killed the fuck out of that fish, and yet
the idea leaping to mind was how impressive, how
possible that heron had made what seemed impossible.

I am 40. I am starting to question this writing of poems business.

______________________________________________________

Amanda J. Bradley released two books of poems from NYQ Books: Oz at Night in 2011 and Hints and Allegations in 2009. Her poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in many journals such as Paterson Literary Review, Ragazine, Gargoyle, Rattle, Pirene’s Fountain, and Toronto Quarterly. Amanda earned a Ph.D. in English and American Literature from Washington University in Saint Louis and an MFA in Poetry Writing from The New School in Manhattan.

 

 

Le_Reading_at_LPR_Event

Prayer for Topaz, 1942

Dear God,

Mom said you are busy and don’t have time to listen to a little 8-year-old Negro girl from North Carolina and her foolishness, like praying for a box of candy. That would be selfish. But if it’s really important she said, then I should take it to you in prayer like the preacher says on Sundays.

I’m not asking for anything for me. But I’ve been hearing the kids at school talking about some place out west called Topaz. At first I thought they were talking about a spot to get rings and flashy jewelry, but Margaret’s big brother, Ed, who’s in 5th grade, says it’s something like a jail where they put Japanese people. I didn’t believe him because he’s always trying to scare us girls. So I asked my dad, and he said it’s true. The government put them there so that the country would be safe. I know that some Japanese airplane men did some bad things in Hawaii back before Christmas, but the people they put away aren’t from over there. They’re Americans and some have been here since before I was born. Some of them are just tiny little girls like me.

I know, God, I’m young, but I really don’t understand how the government thinks that a little Japanese girl could hurt this big country. Anyway God, I’m praying for you to take care of those little Japanese girls and boys. I hope they have some toys to play with and maybe some candy. I hope they get to go home soon.

And God, while you are doing that, could you also watch over me and my family and all of us at school. I worry that we might be next.

 

_________________________________________

Le Hinton is the author of five poetry collections including, most recently, The Language of Moisture and Light (Iris G. Press, 2014). His work can (or will) be found in journals such as Little Patuxent Review and the Baltimore Review, anthologies such as The Best American Poetry 2014 and outside Clipper Magazine Stadium, incorporated into Derek Parker’s sculpture Common Thread in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

 

 

Ned at Atomic Books Aug '13

First Thaw

This morning was the first time: all the snow
that buried us receding, still in drifts
piled high, crusted with ice and yet receding,
slowly drawing back—abandoned cars
revealed, crushed grass, the shattered road ice-slicked,
salt-splashed, slush running downstream, breaking up
over the drains, dissolving….All this time
I thought the whole world lost, but now the light
glances off roofs still cracking with the weight—
a little less, today. The second time
is now: when I can bear to look around
once more and watch this world emerge—old world
from which so much is missing still, new world
in which so much will, one day soon, appear.

______________________________________________

Ned Balbo’s The Trials of Edgar Poe and Other Poems (Story Line Press) was awarded the 2012 Poets’ Prize and the 2010 Donald Justice Prize. His two previous books are Lives of the Sleepers (Ernest Sandeen Prize and ForeWord Book of the Year Gold Medal) and Galileo’s Banquet (Towson University Prize). He was co-winner of the 2013 Willis Barnstone Translation Prize. His commentary on the poetic turns in Andrew Hudgins’ “Mary Magdalene’s Left Foot” appears at Voltage Poetry.

First Thaw” appeared previously in Lives of the Sleepers (University of Notre Dame Press, 2005).

 

 

 

In many of the pieces I’ve turned in for a Creative Writing class, they’ve been returned with red ink underlining the first line, usually with comments like “This needs to have more impact” or “How does this draw in the reader?” Plus, there’s always one class period dedicated entirely to the crafting of the first line. Even now, as I’m writing this, I’m wondering if these first sentences are really the best ways to open this article.

The first lines of our poems can promise us interested audience or convince them our work is worth skipping over. From what I’ve learned from my studies so far, a good opening grabs a reader’s attention. I’ve also seen from my own reading that trying too hard to get their notice can make the lines feel forced and serve as a worse opening than something more generic.

This emphasis in my classes and the complexity of first lines I’ve experienced in my own writing led me to wonder what truly makes a great first line and what people’s favorite first lines are. I took to THEthe’s tumblr and twitter page to ask our followers.

Some of our responses were from our reader’s own poems:

thethefirstlinesoriginalpoetry

Others responded with some published and famous works:

thethefirstlinesfamouspoetry

While I had read some of these poems before this gave me the opportunity to look up many of these poems. What I noticed was that many of these first lines left a strong visual image along with an emotional connection, most notably love or sadness. An image by itself in an opening can be memorable, as in one of our followers’ original poem, which compares cervical mucus to egg whites. This also gives a bit a mystery to beginning of the piece because although the bodily fluid obviously will relate somehow, the reader must read more to find out what’s going on in in the piece. It can sometimes be difficult to pull out extraordinary descriptions but simpler image may be more readily available. In this case, it may be more effective to juxtapose the image with a strong emotion that isn’t usually associated with that image. For example, one follower mentioned the opening to Louise Gluck’s “The Wild Iris.” While the image of a door is not all that exciting, and certainly not very memorable, when combined with the feeling of suffering the lines become a powerful combination that pulls the reader in. Sorrow isn’t typically a feeling one would think of alongside something as typical as a door, and by putting them together the poet creates interest.

Still there are other amazing poetic openings not mentioned by our followers, but still are worth examining. For instance, Homer’s epic, The Odyssey, begins with “Tell me, O muse, of that ingenious hero who travelled far and wide after he had sacked the famous town of Troy.” While this line doesn’t meet either of the characteristics previously mentioned, it does give the reader (or in the case was for Homer’s audience: the listener) an immediate sense of what the following story is about. We learn that our main character is smart, strong, and a veteran of the famous battle of Troy. We also know that this story will be about his journey after the battle, and that it will be a long journey. Also, Milton’s Paradise Lost opens by telling the readers what they are about to experience. The first book opens with “Of Mans First Disobedience, and the Fruit/Of that Forbidden Tree, whose mortal taste/ Brought Death into the World, and all our woe.” It is becomes obvious to the reader within these first few lines that the tale will be about Adam and Eve and their infamous story of the origin of sin. Neither of these poems open with bold imagery or obvious emotional connections, but they are still regarded as iconic and beautiful first lines. There is something in the simplicity of these lines, along with those of other epic poems, which are inviting to a reader. These lines seduce the reader with the promise of an adventure or tale, which the reader then gets to experience vicariously through the poet and the characters in the poem. There is also this hint of a narrative in the lyrical first lines. It may not be as direct as epic poems, but it is there in an unusual image, or evocative phrase. Look again at the Louise Gluck’s line. Both the suffering and the door promise a story of some sort, one of an upsetting past and the other of a hopeful future.  However, there is a lack of immediacy in epic poems that is present in lyrical poetry.

This easily explained by the difference in lengths between these exceptionally longer epic poems and the shorter lyrical pieces. Epic poetry has many chapters, in some cases books, in which to ease the reader into a scene and topic of a story. Meanwhile, lyrical poems have less space available and must get to the essential parts of the scene immediately. Shorter works from the same time periods as Homer and Milton have similar first lines to modern lyrical poetry.

There is also a sense of intimacy in the openings of lyrical poetry that is lacking in the epic poems. Homer’s work addresses the muses in the first line, seemingly talking to a third party. The epic poem begins with holding the reader at a distance, although it invites them to read the story. Lyrical poetry is more personal and usually addresses a “you” or “we”, even in the first lines of the poems. These lines give the allusion that the poet is speaking directly to the reader.  Whoever the poem is about served as a sort of “muse” to the poet and that’s who they are truly addressing, but the language gives the sense that it can be about anyone, including the reader.

Thanks to all of our followers who responded!

 

So I’m reading, and very much enjoying Ray Hammond’s Poetic Amusement, his masters thesis on the influence of po’biz amid writing programs on American poetry. When I read, I interact with a text, start scribbling my own argument for or against, maybe write a didactic sonnet, or trounce about my house looking for other books that seem pertinent. In chapter 4, Hammond writes about the muse, how the muses have been put on the shelf and replaced by workhop craft. I’m enjoying it because no one speaks about the primal condition of poetry being the ability to “receive” from outside one’s ego, and even one’s consciousness–to be stupid. Stupidity, in its old sense “stupere” means to be stupefied, stunned, left with your mouth agape, and, lo and behold, Hammond quotes Levertov on the original definition of Muse:

To contemplate comes from ‘templum, temple, a place, a space for observation marked by an augur.’ It means not simply to observe, to regard, but to do these things in the presence of a god. And to meditate is ‘to keep the mind in a state of contemplation.’ Its synonym is ‘to muse’ and to muse means ‘to stand with open mouth’–not so comical if we think of inspiration–to breathe in.

Being stunned out of one’s normal thought, to enter a state of ecstasy, to be made “stupid” (stupere–gape mouthed), awed by that which inspirits you is not so uncommon. Watch a child totally absorbed in drawing or coloring, his or her tongue hanging out, oblivious to his surroundings,and you’ll get a more precise sense of the alpha wave state the mind enters upon being truly engaged with any task or action calling for a forgetting of one’s self in a moment of concentration/contemplation. This takes place in “ground set apart”–in privacy, in solitude, in the midst of noise one has learned to tune out. The “god” is present in both the ground set apart (templum) and in the act being performed there. This is what I mean by presence, and so, for me, each genuine poem is a templum, a ground set apart, and we must enter it in a state of unknowing, of “stupidity” in its most ancient sense so that the “muse” may enter us.

All this might sound like spiritual mumbo-jumbo, but it is not outside what scientists have recently come to know, especially in neuroscience. Creativity does not come from our usual cognitive faculties (though our cognitive faculties help shape it as it comes forth). Its initial neural twitch takes place in what Robert Bly called the “lizard” brain, and what neurologists call the “affective brain”–the brain functions we share with other animals, especially primates: playing, seeking, caring, etc. It comes from a much more primal, animal sense of the spirit–a shaman’s flight over the houses, a forgetting of one’s own cleverness and benevolent fascism over the text at hand. We need time to waste, time to be outside our usual heads. Plato, who is still at the center of Western thought, agreed poets “received” their poems from gods (demons). This was exactly why he didn’t want them in the republic: because their thoughts, their compositions, though often more wise and profound than philosophy, had no systematic ground of order. If Plato came back today and saw the workshop, craft obsessed nature of poetics, he’d give his approval, but not for reasons poets might like: Plato would approve because the stupidity of inspiration has been removed from the writing of poems. We do not enter a temple and enter contemplation (mind free mindfulness) in the presence of a god, and, if this should happen, we revise the god out of the poem by work shopping it to death. Revision has its place, but it does not have pride of place. I submit that all poets should strive for bringing forth a presence. Anyway:

I never write from an idea unless the idea has started writing me. This morning, reading Hammond, I decided to write a sonnet playing with the concept of musing, of luring the muse through an act of contemplation. In the sonnet, the narrator of the poem stares into a ditch where a frog is sticking out his tongue to catch a fly. He loses himself in contemplating the ditch, forgets the social order, and makes a didactic plea for “staring” as a form of inspiration–just staring. I chose to write this in sonnet form because I was not trying to write a poem–contemporary or otherwise. I was trying to create a space (the sonnet form is the space) in which to versify everything I just said above. Form for me is a room to muse in–not a prison. I do not consider this a poem, but a piece of didactic verse. I had fun seeing if I could suspend the pay off of the sentence until the volta. What a way to have fun! You know I’m getting old. Anyway, consider it my coloring book while my tongue was hanging out:

Muse (Didactic Sonnet Number One)

To muse for a long hour on this ditch
in which a frog unfurls his froggy tongue
to haul the fly in, and the poor, the rich
the good, the bad, are, by the church bells, rung
(ding-dong! Goodbye!) into sweet disaray
so that you soon forget the social strain,
and press your eye against the pickerel weed
beyond all thought, though sunlight yields to rain:
this be the workshop then, of gods and time.
This be the meter–rhythms slow or quick
that stare and stare, till ditch and stare commune,
until the eye becomes a frog that flicks,
this ancient tongue which lures what it has sought:
the muse–this fly of musing–beyond thought.

This evening at Catholic mass, while everyone bowed their heads to pray, I asked Jesus not only to help me be good to my husband and my family, but also what he thought about my poetry. I heard a voice, perhaps in my head, or perhaps funneled out the church ceiling which said, “your poetry will touch a few hearts, but it won’t help you in heaven.” Granted, I am aware that it is a bit presumptuous to ask the son of God what he thinks of your poetry. But it had me considering the worth of poetry, and what it means in the grand scheme of things, in relation to other aspects of life, that when you weigh them for their importance, are likely more spiritually imminent. I mentioned this to my husband, the poet Joe Weil, and he said, “You were listening. That is exactly what I would expect that Christ would say.”

When we returned home, we walked to the river on the other side of our land and went fishing. We coexisted, somehow in an almost silent reverie. I listened to the cacophony of birds, noted that there was an absence of geese, and glanced once at the sky, which appeared as if it had been painted in perfect blues and whites by God himself. I thought I would write a poem about it, but then it occurred to me that there is something about experience which simply cannot be appreciated to the fullest extent when you are preoccupied with drumming up lines to illustrate the experience with some sort of fancy language and clever twist of rhetoric. The experience, without the impediment of the literary impulse and obsession stands on its own, no matter how absent the mind must seem, no matter how stupid the utterances of wonder which reference it.

My husband never catches a fish when I am with him on the riverbank. In order not to spook the fish, I walked back to the house. Twenty minutes later, he returned, ecstatic, as he had fought an enormous carp for the whole duration of my absence. There is something, I think, about pure ecstasy, about the thump in the human heart which does not ask of or require poetic language to speak for it. As poets, we need time to live. The poet Franz Wright recently told me that he was finally beginning to enjoy his life, and not drowning in his own misery just because he went a day without composing a poem.

When Joe writes a poem, it is a sacred occurrence. It happens only once or twice a week, but his poems demonstrate quality, as opposed to quantity (of which I am often culpable). I spend so much of my time writing poetry that even the stupid awe that comes from watching two sparrows fly from a tree becomes “crucial” material for poetic concerns. So what is the poetry that transcends the expertly crafted line of verse? From what I have deduced, it’s the ultimate experience of beauty that requires no documentation, and which simply IS, ontologically, existentially, what have you.

After I write a poem, there is a moment or two of the elation related to accomplishing something, but after awhile, I just want the actual experience of love, in its simplest form, the absent contemplation of gazing into a fire or burying my head against Joe’s chest. Sometimes I feel like I shouldn’t be permitted to experience this sort of contentment until I’ve done my job for the day and written a poem. Reader, I can’t tell you in words the intimacy I experience when I am writing a poem. But just listen. Joe is playing the piano. He almost caught a fish. Art is everywhere, in the air, in the buzz I feel from my third drink. Not every instance of beauty requires a literature to uphold it. For there is already a literature, hovering even in the most immaterial moment, in the acts we commit on our way to heaven.

The best art school I ever attended was my childhood friend, Marco Munoz’ studio above a Florist shop on Elizabeth Avenue, Elizabeth, New Jersey, circa 1977 to 1980. We were kids, the sons of factory workers, and immigrants/exiles from Cuba and Peru and, by all the usual expectations and social indicators, we were not supposed to exist. I was the token white American Irish Catholic guy. Marco had known me from grade school at St. Mary’s, but had left to attend what was then Jefferson High school. I didn’t see him from 8th grade until the end of my senior year. By then, he had taken classes with a charismatic high school art teacher called “Tags” (an Italian name shortened with affection). Tags hipped his students into Jazz as well as Jasper Johns, Pollack, Mondrian, Braque, etc. So Marco had this crew of artsy kids who smoked pipes, talked poetry, music, and painting non-stop, and occasionally wore fedoras. The main hang was Fernando Gonzalez, Arthur George, and this guy from Cuba, Alejandro Anreus, a self proclaimed Catholic leftist and hypochondriac. Marco told them about me, so they walked down Dewey Place one June evening, with the intention of ringing my door bell. At the same time they were coming down my street to meet me, I was being carried by a group of friends from a party at which I had downed a bottle of Vodka, a bottle of Gin, and a pint of Jack Daniels. They had me on their shoulders–more or less comatose. This was only a few months after my mother died, and I was in love with a girl named Mary Ientile, and I drank in order to obliterate all boundaries standing between me and my grief which was epic, extroverted, and a great trial to my friends.

According to Marco, they reached my front stoop just as I was being deposited there by my pall bearers. Marco turned to Alejandro and Fernando and Arthur and said: “that’s Joe Weil.” Somehow, I woke from my stupor and replied: “yes it is.”

So began my tenure in the greatest art school I ever attended. What happened there? We hung out. This is the one thing art schools do not teach. It is not constructive. It wastes a lot of time. Inappropriate behavior is likely to transpire. This is how a typical hang would go: we’d get into Marco’s black pick up truck, and drive around Elizabeth, playing Charlie Parker and Dizzy, and Monk, or Wagner–at top volume, the way street kids play hip-hop now-a-days. We’d buy a whole bunch of cheap cigars and put them in the mouths of stone lions–any stone lion we saw. We once covered fifty miles, looking for stone lions. We’d go back to Marco’s studio which had been given to him by a florist shop owner named Ted, who also taught art, and we’d scat, argue about Nietzsche, and Alejandro would complain about both his various stomach ailments, and the latest existential crisis with his girlfriend. Mostly, we’d scat and look at Mondrian, Johns, Pollack, Braque. I had never heard of these guys in school. I learned quick and faked what I didn’t know. The studio was full of stolen or discarded art books and reproductions of great paintings as well as the group’s paintings which were flung everywhere. We used the head of Socrates as an ash tray (we drilled a hole in his skull). The conversations, and scatting would go on for hours, accompanied by cheap wine–gallons of Gallo. We’d paint and my new friends would laugh at my paintings, but I could scat way better than them so I got even. We were pretentious, and arrogant, and naive, and that’s good because, before you are significant, you must be stupid enough to believe you are already significant. I am treating this lightly, but some of the conversations on art were the best, most extensive symposiums I ever attended. Alejandro is now the chair of the art department at William Paterson University. Marco continues to exhibit his work. Aurthur George actually makes a living in commercial art. Fernando married the beautiful daughter of a Spanish general and has a steady gig as a history professor at some college in the Berkshires. I went to work in a factory for twenty years, but I came out a lecturer at Binghamton University somehow. Go figure. This is all miraculous because Elizabeth is not an artsy town. The mayor at the time tried to ban Ingmar Bergman’s “The Seventh Seal” from local cable TV. He said no one could speak Spanish at city hall in a city that was already 40 percent Hispanic. He was an old machine Democrat. He’d say something dumb like that to please his bigoted cronies, then wink at the leaders of the Cuban community and get their kids jobs. Mayor Dunn had heeded the call to take in Cuban exiles after the Bay of Pigs invasion and had received major money from the government for doing so. He was also no doubt heeding the request of DeCalvacante family members (their head quarters were in Elizabeth, and they are the rather loose model for The Sopranos). A lot of former chums of the mob down in Cuba were given refuge, and with them, a lot of Cuban intellectuals who had fallen foul of the system (I met Herberto Padilla later and he published my first poem–in Linden Lane magazine).

It was through Fernando that I became familiar with philosophy. Alejandro introduced me to the Spanish poets, Hernandez, Machado, Paz, Otero, Neruda, and Vallejo. Marco was the one with the great collection of Jazz. So I learned far more than I bargained for. I had to drop out of college because of my family disasters. I lost my parents, the house I grew up in, all within a couple years, then spent 20 years in a mold making plant, but I survived just as these Cuban exiles and immigrants survived: because I had the rope memory of something greater, and this made all those years in the factory not only bearable, but useful. I was an emotional train wreck, and these guys gave me some sense of sanity and a political/philosophical context for what I suffered–albeit in a way any “normal” American consumer would consider crazy. They gave me the notion that it didn’t matter if you were in college, or worked in a factory–that all this culture belonged to me as well as the elite, and without me having to betray my neighborhood and become a snob. If I had gone to grad school, I would have had to abandon my own mixed registers of speech. I would have had to embrace “professionalism”–that merciless neighborhood in which, all too often and all too sadly, only the semiotics of excellence seem to matter–not excellence itself.

I guess this brings me to my point: my pedagogical approach to creative writing is digress, digress, follow the nose of your longing. Be 100 percent present to all possibility. Learn to hang out and waste time with anyone of like mind or of unlike mind who intrigues. Don’t be too picky. Read lots of books, see lots of pictures, listen to music, and be suspicious of all “official” channels of knowledge. More is learned by being among artists than by attending their craft talks. I hate well-structured craft talks. I didn’t attend a single work shop until I was near forty. I now see there is some merit in it. It seems to me the best thing about work shops is the opportunity to be among other writers, which leads me to this idea:

A young artist needs to hang out and be a little arrogant and cocky, and re-invent the wheel. Most of my best students know they will learn far more from me by hanging out than by official structures. When I taught at arts high, I brought Arthur and Fernando, and Marco, and Alejandro with me. I took the energy of that brief three year period and incited its return among my own students. I worry about an art world given over to seminars, and work shops, and official lessons from the “masters,” but I don’t worry too much because I am smart enough to know that most of the valuable stuff students learn has nothing to do with me. A good teacher does what Tags did: he or she exposes and points out, incites and shares his or her passion, and then gets out of the way. As much as possible, the teacher plants the explosives in just the right place, then watches things blow up. Professionalism is a lie. I am often taking some former students with me on a Dodge gig. I don’t need to, but I want to. We will be going to Newark, and we’ll be winging most of what we do. They will learn more about the art scene and about poetry by actually performing with me than they ever will through my classes. These are former undergrads. Grad students are too busy and they are forced to be professionals. They are underpaid, and they have been taught not to show too much enthusiasm because, I guess, enthusiasm might be deemed the way of the bumpkin, and no one wants to be seen as an bumpkin.They probably think me a fool. They’re absolutely right, but I like being a bumpkin.

When I go to Newark, I will keep the late night scats, and joy of hanging out in mind, and I will try to present some small sense of that–of communion. An artist must show up and be present in every sense of the word. All else is secondary. A teacher must know that what he or she thinks he or she is teaching may not be the real lesson at all. I have no idea what my real lesson is. I am in the back of a black pickup truck, with tears in my eyes because I’ve just heard Beethoven’s Last Quartets for the first time, or I am laughing and scatting to Salt Peanuts. This is my being. It would be nice if I could convey some of that to my students–if a little of me could travel with them in years to come. That might suffice. The rest is official lesson plans. Those things scare the shit out of me.

Photo by Marco Munoz

The poet who saved my life never existed for me in his native language. He died fifteen years before I was born. His name is Miguel Hernandez, and he will never be as well known in English as Lorca, Jimenez, or Machado, but he is my poet, the one I would take with me into exile.

When I first met one of his poems I was a senior in high school and my mother had just died. She did not die prettily. I remember the good Catholic liberals in my school showed a film on how a good Catholic family should behave during a terminal illness. I sat in the class growing more and more enraged. I shouted at the teacher: “There’s no right way to behave fuck face,” and stormed out of the class. They wanted to suspend me. My father told them to go see my mother. I was let back into the school the next day, and I was not made to watch any more films on a “beautiful” death. The mouth cancer had eaten away half her face. She had a tumor in the middle of her forehead, and her lips, what was left of them, were swollen so that she could barely speak. She was not yet fifty one.

I did not know how to grieve. My aunts and uncles, who had grown up in a large Irish family, understood all the mechanics of grief. You made tea. You made funeral arrangements. You grew ever more tidy.You smoked and joked, and changed the curtains. On the first night of my mother’s wake, I refused to stay with the family at Aunt Elizabeth’s. I threw myself down on my parent’s bed, when no one was there, and wept the way you might if everything in your life has been dismantled. Sounds came out of me I did not know could exist. I buried my head in my mother’s pillow. I could smell her cancer everywhere in the house. It had become the incense of my life. I was about to turn 18.

Life is not merciful. It does not forgive a weakness in any structure, including that in the human soul, and it will tear, and peck, and hammer against this weakness until it is destroyed. I sometimes think African American “cool” and Irish humor developed out of an awareness of this truth. One must fool life into believing the structure is sound. One must put up a front against the hornets and rats who would build a nest in the flawed structure of the soul, but this “front” becomes a tomb, and I now realize most of the people who raised me, who looked after me, who hovered over my first sleep, were already buried under ten tons of well constructed shite. This is the experiential, non-verbal equivalent of form. All the formalities of our lives are meant to distance us from the merciless beak that seeks out the vulnerable, the visibly damaged. Life sends its chickens to peck the bleeding chicken to death. In a sense, literature, word, is the chief shaping ancient of what can not be shaped. And so on to Hernandez:

I was not allowed to grieve, except in private, and a part of me continued doing teen anger things: I drank, I smoked. Being a nerd, and not very good looking, I pined for a girl who had no interest in me at all. If a loss is big enough, all the little losses come through the hole, and they widen it, and in comes more big losses–an avalanche. My father developed throat cancer. He became a drunk. We lost our house and lived over a record store in Garwood, New Jersey. My family went from solidly working class and Catholic to dysfunctional mess. It was during this time, this time when I realized my Catholic faith had nothing to give me but Hallmark greeting card sentiments, when all the people we had known started to “unknow” us that I came upon the poems of Miguel Hernandez.

I still believed in the sacraments, and in Christ, but I no longer believed in his followers. They made me want to puke. Christ spoke the truth about life hating any structural weakness when he said: “To those who have, more will be given, and to those who do not have, the little they have will be taken away.” I told a priest about this, how this statement comforted me because I knew, by my experience, that it was true. The priest, being a snob ass, told me Jesus was speaking about faith. I said: “bullshit. He told us you only need the faith of a mustard seed. He was talking about the law of life. Strength seeks strength. The healthy seeks the healthy, and the week are ransacked for what ever material is left. He didn’t say it was good or bad. He just said it was true.” Nothing in my experience has changed my mind on this. In life, poetry has been the one mercy I know–poetry and music. Everything else has been a bust.

So I purchased the Hernandez book because it was bright orange on the cover, and I liked that. I didn’t know a damned thing about Spanish poetry, or most poetry for that matter. I wrote songs then, very good melodies, and terrible lyrics. As is my habit, I opened the book to a random page. It had been two months since my mother’s death. There were more deaths and losses to come and I knew it because I am intuitive, and can grasp the basic structure of things with the smallest bit of information. I am not extra sensory. Forget that. I have a brain wired to leap. This is intuition–an ability to jump to conclusions that are often absolutely true (And sometimes utterly false). I opened the book to his poem “Me Sobra El Corazon”:

Today I am. I don’t know how,
today all I am ready for is suffering,
today I have no friends,
today the only things I have is the desire
to rip out my heart by the roots
and stick it underneath a shoe.

I had found one voice that did not seem to be lying to me, and I had a meltdown in the middle of that book store, a used book store half English, half Spanish. I was fifty cents short, and when the person at the desk would not trust my promise to return with the fifty cents, I broke down in tears, and begged. An old Cuban lady gave me the fifty cents, and I bolted from the store, and sat in the park. I did not read any of the other poems for about a week. I clung to this poem because this voice was not lying to me. It was giving me back what I knew. It was not making tea, or hanging curtains, or saying “shut up.” It was telling me my wanting to die, my sadness was now my wealth, that everything else could be taken away from me, would be taken from me, but this suffering was mine:

The more I look inward the more I mourn!
Cut off this pain?–who has the scissors?

I eventually read the book, and read it a hundred times. This Spanish poet, this shepherd, this Hernandez tossed into a prison, freed, and stupid enough (wonderful enough) to go back to where he would surely be re-captured out of compassion for his family, this man who died in filth, in one of Franco’s many prisons, had spoken to me in a way only Christ had: “to those who have, more will be given, and to those who do not have, the little they have will be taken away.” Christ also said: “Anyone who is brought to nothing for my sake will discover who he is.”

My grief was not merely private. The cancer of my mother and father, the loss of our house, the descent of my family went along with what happened to the working class culture I grew up in: good factory jobs went belly up. Skilled men and women were told they were worthless. Unions were destroyed. America went from a country that actually made something to a land of “professionals.” Vague, silly people who, like all vague silly people, create great destruction from their privilege, and are, themselves, eventually, destroyed. Before they are destroyed, they will swell like supernovas, embrace health foods, and spirituality, and a cult of professionalism (they will affirm the very thing that destroys them) and they will turn mean and blame the weak. They are soft spoken, politically correct, and the deadliest people who ever walked the face of this earth, and as a poet, I look forward to their destruction because they have no equipment for suffering (which is the same as living) and, therefore, no true compassion.

A country can not sustain an entire population of Daisy and Tom Buchanans, but that’s what we’ve been doing for the last thirty years. Hernandez shaped my suffering. He also taught me that it exists on a scale beyond me, or anyone I love–that this loss is in, not of, a loss in things. In a time of great suffering, a human being might have only the consolation of his or her sentences. So be it. This is why it is important for poetry to exist: because it is beside the point, and, being beside the point, it cannot be impaled. It shapes what can never be shaped, carries what can not be carried, speaks to the dead, gives courage to those who have little else to go on. The “professionals” rule poetry militant. Jobs are gained and lost. Someone like me who has never been outside the coil of suffering will, no doubt, get clobbered. So what? I have known the impersonal machinery of management as a factory worker. I know the decorum of professionalism for what it is: a brand of benign contempt for life, and an ongoing death wish. Poetry, this scribbling, this jotting down, is no remedy, but it may shape the sickness just enough to make it portable.