Monday, November 14, 2016

You and me talking Congo, gender, grief and ash

So, Donald Trump has been elected president of the United States. Less than a week ago that hard reality landed on us with great weight and searing heat and withering cold. We are bereft. We struggle to make sense of it, but we find the fact of his victory so alienating that it leaves us isolated from each other. We wake in the dark fearful, afraid of the coming devastation. We cry unexpectedly. Trump's racist, misogynist, homophobic, xenophobic campaign makes us wonder if we are safe, makes us wonder what has become of our allies. How much have we deceived ourselves and others about our world and our efforts to make it better?

Poetry may not be the answer, but it is one of them.

For Alice Walker
(a summertime tanka)
June Jordan
Redwood grove and war
You and me talking Congo
gender grief and ash

I say, 'God! It's all so huge'
You say, 'These sweet trees. This tree.'

from Poetry As Insurgent Art
Lawrence Ferlinghetti
I am signaling you through the flames
The North Pole is not where it used to be.
Manifest Destiny is no longer manifest.
Civilization self-destructs. Nemesis is knocking at the door.
What are poets for in such an age?
What is the use of poetry?

Langston Hughes
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.

I'll be at the table
When company comes.
Nobody'll dare
Say to me,
"Eat in the kitchen,"

They'll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed--

I, too, am America.

Night In The Kitchen
Adrienne Rich
The refrigerator falls silent.
Then other things are audible:
this dull, sheet-metal mind rattling like stage thunder.
This thickness budging forward in these veins
is surely something other
than blood:
say, molten lava.

You will become a black lace cliff fronting a deadpan sea;
nerves, friable as lightning
ending in burnt pine forests.
You are begun, beginning, your black heart drumming
slowly, triumphantly
inside its pacific cave.

Wild Once and Captured
On hearing Annie Lennox
Jeff Epton
A whisper full of rhythms,
an echo raw with power,
a people spilling outward
in tidal flows of fever.
Here music summons silence,

here longing a language,
touching an allure,
dancing a passion play
and searching leads us
one by one

to stories all our own,
and to stories told in common.
Here smolders spirit
rich and ripe with promise,
peace and legend.

There drums yammering in clearings
where we are jamming with justice
who was wild once
and captured
and has broken out again.

Joy Road and Livernois
Marge Piercy 

My name was Pat. We used to read Poe in bed
till we heard blood dripping in the closet.
I fell in love with a woman who could ring
all bells of my bones tolling, jangling.
But she in her cape and her Caddy
had to shine in the eyes of the other pimps,
a man among monkeys, so she turned me on the streets
to strut my meek ass. To quiet my wailing,
she taught me to slip the fire in my arm,
the white thunder rolling over till nothing
hurt but coming down. One day I didn’t.
I was fifteen. My face gleamed in the casket.

My name was Evie, we used to shoplift,
my giggling wide-eyed questions, your fast hands;
we picked up boys together on the corners.
The cops busted me for stealing, milled me,
sent me up for prostitution because I weren’t
no virgin. I met my boyfriend in the courts.
Together we robbed a liquor store that wouldn’t
sell us whiskey. I liked to tote a gun.
It was the cleanest thing I ever held.
It was the only power I ever had.
I could look any creep straight on in the eyes.
A state trooper blew my face off in Marquette.

My name was Peggy. Across the street from the gas-
works my mom raised nine kids. My brother-
in-law porked me while my sister gave birth,
choking me with the pillow when I screamed.
I got used to it. My third boyfriend knocked me up.
Now I’ve been pregnant for twenty years,
always a bigger belly than me to push around
like an overloaded wheelbarrow ready to spill
on the blacktop. Now it’s my last one,
a tumor big as a baby when they found it.
When I look in the mirror I see my mom.
Remember how we braided each other’s hair,
mine red, yours black. Now I am bald
as an egg and nearly boiled through.

I was Teresa. I used to carry a long clasp
knife I stole from my uncle. Running nights
through the twitching streets, I’d finger it.
It made me feel as mean as any man.
My boyfriend worked on cars until they flew.
All those hot night riding around and around
when we had no place to go but back.
Those nights we raced out on the highway
faster faster till the blood fizzed in my throat
like shaken soda. It shot in an arc
when he hit the pole and I went out the windshield,
the knife I showed you how to use still
on its leather thong between my breasts
where it didn’t save me from being cut in two.

I was Gladys. Like you, I stayed in school.
I did not lay down in back seats with boys.
I became a nurse, married, had three sons.
My ankles swelled. I worked the night hours
among the dying and accident cases. My husband
left me for a girl he met in a bar, left debts,
a five-year-old Chevy, a mortgage.
My oldest came home in a body bag. My youngest
ran off. The middle one drinks beer and watches
the soaps since the Kelsey-Hays plant closed.
Then my boy began to call me from the alley.
Every night he was out there calling, Mama,
help me. It hurts, Mama! Take me home.
This is the locked ward and the drugs
eat out my head like busy worms.

With each of them I lay down, my twelve-
year-old scrawny tough body like weathered
wood pressed to their pain, and we taught
each other love and pleasure and ourselves.
We invented the places, the sounds, the smells,
the little names. At twelve I was violent
in love, a fiery rat, a whip snake,
a starving weasel, all teeth and speed
except for the sore fruit of my new breasts
pushing out. What did I learn? To value
my pleasure and how little the love of women
can shield against the acid city rain.

You surge among my many ghosts. I never think
I got out because I was smart, brave, hard-
working, attractive. Evie was brave,
Gladys and Teresa were smart. Peggy worked
sixteen hours. Pat gleamed like olivewood
polished to a burnish as if fire lived in wood.
I wriggled through an opening left just big enough
for one. There is no virtue in survival,
only luck, and a streak of indifference
that I could take off and keep going.

I got out of those Detroit blocks where the air
eats stone and melts flesh, where jobs
dangle and you jump and jump, where there are
more drugs than books, more ways to die
than ways to live, because I ran fast,
ran hard, and never stopped looking back.
It is not looking back that turned me
to salt, no, I taste my salt from the mines
under Detroit, the salt of our common juices.
Girls who lacked everything except trouble,
contempt and rough times, girls
used like urinals, you are the salt
keeps me from rotting as the years swell.
I am the fast train you are travelling in
to a world of a different color, and the love
we cupped so clumsily in our hands to catch
rages and drives onward, an engine of light.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Before and After the Kaddish

The thin skin
inside the bend of
the aging elbow
throbs with the beat of
staying alive,
collecting itself,
davening, drumming the rhythm
of the fundamental prayer,
alive against the odds.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

The beauty that flows in the blood

Sonia Sanchez writes in "haikuography," the preface to her book, morning haiku, that "from the moment i opened that book, and read the first haiku, i slid down onto the floor and cried and was changed. i had found me."

In the two-page essay, Sanchez somehow goes on to say more than one might expect to find in a short essay about self and poetry, about short pauses and long memory, about "the blood veins behind beautiful eyes, the fluids in teeth, and the enamel in tongues..."

Sanchez packs all that, the pauses and memories and bitter folk experience, into "15 Haiku," dedicated to Toni Morrison. In the 15th haiku, Sanchez asks,

"O will we selves ever
convalesce as we ascend into wave after
wave of blood milk?"

The answer, one imagines, can only come after poets like Sanchez have begun at the beginning and waited until the end to pose the question.

15 Haiku
(for Toni Morrison)

We know so little
about migrations of souls crossing
oceans. seas of longing;

we have not always been
prepared for landings that held
us suspended above our bones;

in the beginning
there wuz we and they and others
too mournful to be named;

or brought before elders
even held in contempt. they were
so young in their slaughterings;

in the beginning
when memory was sound. there was
bonesmell. bloodtear. whisperscream;

and we arrived
carrying flesh and disguise
expecting nothing;

always searching
for gusts of life
and sermons;

in the absence
of authentic Gods
new memory;

in our escape from plunder
in our nesting on agitated land
new memory;

in our fatigue at living
we saw mountains cracking
skulls, purples stars, colorless nights;

trees praising our innocence
new territories dressing our
limbs in starched bones;

in our traveling to weselves
in the building, in the journeying
to discover our own deaths;

in the beginning
there was a conspiracy of blue eyes
to iron eyes;

new memory falling into death
O will we ever know
what is no more with us;

O will weselves ever
convalesce as we ascend into wave after
wave of bloodmilk?

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

All That Jazz

In the dark, silent house,
the sound in your ears
is the rhythm of always,
the whisper of going,
the hum of arriving,
the anthem of living
this day.

The people of porches,
pulsing with talk,
throw up their hands,
squint in the sun
and enjoy their companions
in peace.

You respond to the rattle
as memory shifts,
recalling the friend
who teased you distraught
and left you a wish
to touch him or smack him
or hug,
and you stand up to pace,
until the moment has passed.

The house next door tips
as on toes
and peers through the blinds
to ask “are you cool
in the dark?”
and you wait
to say, “so,”
and sip at your drink.

You wave a distracted good-bye
as you focus again
on the whisper and hum,
hearing, this time,
the voice of the friend
who wove vibrant thought
and sweetness of soul
out of her tale and deep
into yours,

and wrote,
in the end,
love you
to here
and love you beyond,
but there’s never forever
and tomorrow is pulling
and the best I can do,
a distracted good-bye.

This is the hum of arriving,
the whisper of going,
the murmur of stillness and resting,
of resting bare on the sand
while the sun cooked us to puddles,
and the wind stirred us
and whipped us
and carried us home
and we sipped at our drinks
and said our farewells

in the dark, silent house
where I sip at my drink
and think of the poet
who bled real blood
in a house just as dark
as the life he had lead,
until, tied to a chair,
he took the mistake
he no way deserved.

That rhythm of always,
no respecter of lovers,
nor generous with gifts,
is simply a part
of the anthem of living,
of waiting this day
for houses to tip on their toes
and people of porches
to point out a way.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

The Transgressive Acts of Men

My Most Reliable Reader called me the other day. She was enjoying my poem, The Transgressive Acts of Men, but she wanted a little more perspective on how to understand the poem.

I had actually already taken a stab previously at creating context for the poem. That bit went something like this, "...the poem has little to do with multiple transgressions and wrongdoing by men of any description. This may be disappointing to some readers, but then Norman Mailer's 1967 novel, Why Are We in Vietnam?, only mentioned that country once and provoked numerous discussions about whether the book had actually answered the question it raised. So it might be with The Transgressions of Men.

"The transgression in question here is in reality singular and limited to me imagining myself to be an art mother of sorts. Hubris and delusion, yes?"

But the truth is that notwithstanding the absence of a list of transgressive acts by men, the subject is raised, yes? So, there you are, Most Reliable Reader. What you make of this poem might be different than what I make of it, and I think I'm pretty happy about that fact.

But there is more. There's always more.

I do think we should dwell on the fact that in a sexist culture men have all sorts of advantages. We should not gloss over the fact that on the average men die younger than women and often die more violently. But when they do die violently. most men and women die because other men kill them. And after the dead are counted, most men continue to benefit from privileges that accrue to them because they are men.

But there is more. There's always more.

Having done little other than raise a few questions, the poem continues:

"all who we were,
all who we are gone nova.

The end
when it comes,
almost more than we can bear,
more for certain than we can know,

memories on the way,
partners on the road,
dreams on the wing,
exploding outward."

That's because that's who we are in the bosom of our sisterhood, or brotherhood, or whatever. We are partners on the road, dreams on the wing, and, going nova, we will explode outward. And it will be a fine and fitting next step, or last step, or whatever.

The Transgressive Acts of Men

Excluded from the matrilineal ascent,
I intrude.
I am before and beyond
all my mothers,

all my daughters,
mothering the clan;
in my DNA,
the Amazonian last daughter

staring in wonder
at the brink,
holding the hand
of all my sisters,

mindful of our brothers,
among whom I once was counted;
all who we were,
all who we are gone nova.

The end
when it comes,
almost more than we can bear,
more for certain than we can know,

memories on the way,
partners on the road,
dreams on the wing,
exploding outward.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

the way it works

by Charles Bukowski
(who must be, in some important way,
Denny Zappin’s spiritual doppelgänger)

she came out at 9:30 a.m. in the morning
and knocked on the manager’s door:
“my husband is dead!”
they went to the back of the building together
and the process began:
first the fire dept. sent two men
in dark shirts and pants
in vehicle #27
and the manager and the lady and the
two men went inside as she

he had knifed her last April and
had done 6 months for that.

the two men in dark shirts came out
got in their vehicle
and drove away.

then two policeman came.
then a doctor (he probably was there to
sign the death certificate).

I became tired of looking out the
window and began to
read the latest issue of
The New Yorker.

when I looked again there was a nice
sensitive-looking gray-haired gentleman
walking slowly up and down the
sidewalk in a dark suit.
then he waved in a black
hearse which
drove right up on the lawn and stopped
next to my porch.

two men got out of the hearse
opened up the back
and pulled a gurney with 4
wheels. they rolled it to the back of the
building, when they came out again he was in a
black zipper bag and she was in
obvious distress.
they put him in the
hearse and walked back to
her apartment and went inside

I had to take out my laundry and
run some other errands.
Linda was coming to visit and
I was worried about her seeing that
hearse parked next to my porch.
so I left a note pinned to my door
that said: Linda. Don’t worry.
I’m ok. and
then I took my dirty laundry to my car and
drove away.

when I got back the hearse was gone and
Linda hadn’t arrived yet.
I took the note from the door and
went inside.

well, I thought, that old guy in back
he was my age and
we saw each other every day but
we never spoke to one another.

now we wouldn’t have to.

Charles Bukowski died in 1994. If he were alive, and I had an opportunity to speak with him, I would point out an error (perhaps Bukowski’s, perhaps his editor) in the third stanza, which goes like this:

“the two men in dark shirts came out
got in their vehicle
and drove away.”

I think it’s clear from reading the rest of the poem is that most of the time, when Bukowski can put his articles (a, an, some, the) and conjunctions (and, but, etc.) at the end of a line, rather than at the beginning of the next one, he does so.

If one recites this poem out loud and deemphsizes the “thes,” “ands,” and “buts” at the end of each line, the poem tends to tumble forward conversationally, the importance of and separate impact of each action is diminished, and one gets that the speaker observes events around him through a haze that reflects his idiosyncratic understanding of his own mortality.

I’m betting that Bukowski meant to write the stanza this way:

“the two men in dark shirts came out
got in their vehicle and
drove away.”

Of course, the reader who is not prepared to accept my analysis might respond that in three instances in the very first paragraph Bukowski begins three lines with “ands” rather than putting them at the tail end of the line before. What, the skeptical reader might ask, do you make of that?

Nothing, nothing, I’d mutter and
stare off into the
middle distance until
I could see a
distraction of some sort rising up.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

The Downhill Cure

One reliable path
to a good mood,
even to ebullience,
is heading down hill
at a fast clip.

Picture the kids,
sledding and mudding and whooping
in the winter and the wet,
picture the pines and the pastures below
and you falling forward into the sun.

See the Mad Pirate Roberts
(the Farm Boy in disguise) and the Princess Bride
rolling downhill, bandanas and skirts
waving along the way, giddy
and gasping and almost intimate.

This is what down hill can do.
But uphill is Jack and, of course, Jill
and broken crowns and tumbling down
their separate ways. Such negativity
is the price for going up.

But downhill,
tripping or not,
the valley unfolds ahead
and the blue sky stretches

Monday, February 1, 2016

On your birthday, Nate

February 1, 2016

You have started work for the day,
my boyo, my first born,
my heart of my heart,
my dig deep to discover that vein
of tenderness that runs through ache.

You were my first all of everything,
my big cat,
my padding slowly,
my carrier of on and on,
of what ought to be carried.

You were my ocean swell,
my open sky,
my scudding clouds,
my bird before the storm,
my distant thunder.

You were my night train,
my Boulder to Ann Arbor express
speeding ahead. You were my
afternoon delight, my exultation,
my languid day.

You were the fever in the night,
the baby in the chilling bath.
You were the first and loudest warning
that what we do has echoes
that I will never hear.

You were the clear challenge
to old men to make that
about them be that
about you, be
about that which comes next.

No matter that you are there
and I am here,
we share a life that is a fullness
in my heart, and all
that I will leave behind for you.

I reach out from here
to touch you there,
my love, my boy,
my great, big boy.