From ON UNIVERSAL BALANCE
...And, having returned home, Nikolay Ivanovich said this to his wife:
“Do not be afraid, Ekaterina Petrovna, and do not worry. Only there isn’t any equilibrium in this life. And the mistake is only off by some kilogram and half for the entire universe, but still, it’s amazing, Ekaterina Petrovna, it is simply remarkable!”
[September 18, 1934]
From Russian Absurd: Daniil Kharms, Selected Writings (Northwestern University Press, World Classics series; officially published on February 17, 2017)
First of all, my apologies for the delay in posting this: I must again excuse myself by repeating that, like so many of us, I've only just returned from DC and the AWP. And so, dear reader, please accept this, my belated Happy St. Valentines's Day wishes to us all: may each of us seek to daily find within ourselves those inner resources that enable us to feel and express our love. Yesterday, I was helped on this occasion, during a particularly difficult personal time and in this unsettling historical moment, by going to see a film with two people I care about very much. While Lion is far from a perfect picture, what else is there in this world that can better evoke in us those cathartic and complex feelings of pity and empathy more than the innocence of a child?
I also wish to say that I had all the relevant selections from the book ready to go before I got on the road, but, to quote E. M. Foster: "How do I know what I think until I see what I say?" What I want to tell you about today is an experience of censorship I had with the Russian Absurd, Daniil Kharms Facebook page I had started, intended to promote the book with a series of selections, including the poem that follows here. The response I received to it was: "Your ad wasn't approved because it doesn't follow our Advertising Policies for adult products or services. We don’t allow images or videos that show nudity or cleavage, even if it’s portrayed for artistic or educational reasons." While I appealed the decision repeatedly, including finally to a live person, explaining that the post contained neither nudity, nor cleavage, nor certainly any videos, it got me exactly nowhere.
The situation became only more absurd, when Facebook's response to a prose piece in tomorrow's follow up post, "Daniil Kharms on Spirit," that I thought not only innocuous but genuinely elevated and uplifting was: "Your ad wasn't approved because it calls out to specific user attributes (ex: race, religion, age, sexual orientation, gender, disability or medical condition, financial status, membership in a trade union, criminal record, ethnicity, name). Such ads may offend users and lead to high negative sentiment." To make this already far too long introduction shorter: to put it mildly, Kharms, like so many of us today, had a "complicated relationship" with all of mankind, and even with God "himself". I hope you will read on for yourself, and I will only add here the following words from my introduction to the book:
"Humor and horror, Eros and Thanatos, degradation and sadomasochism jostle one another, side-by-side, in these stories and poems. Kafkaesque and Chekhovian situations and motifs from Pushkin and traditional Russian fairy tales are recognizable in Kharms’s sparse prose, yet they appear diseased, stripped down to their bare essentials, as if contorted by the terror of impending arrest and doom." And we might add, "by the terror of love gained and love lost". And now, most of the rest of this, I would like to be in Daniil Kharms's own words.
You can sew. But that’s all bunk.
I’m in love with your pudenda;
it’s moist and smells abundantly.
Another man would peek, let out
a squeak, and, sealing his nose, scram.
And wiping your fluids from his hands
would he return? Oh, what a question;
suddenly, there can be no other.
Your juices are to me sheer joy.
You think my words are an excrescence
but I’m prepared to lick your cunt
without break for breath and swallow
the delicious squim of your mallow
until I begin to burp and grunt.
(Daniil Kharms, 1931)
"Joseph Brodsky once quoted Anna Akhmatova, about an improbable Kharms sentence: 'Only with Kharms could that ever work. Never with anyone else.'" (From Ian Frazier's group review of all the books heretofore available in English translation in The New York Review of Books, which includes his own very personal experience discovering, translating, and failing in the attempt to communicate to Anglophone readers how and why Daniil Kharms's works are "funny".)
From “Thoughts about a Girl”
And when she passes by aflutter,
As if on air, not a word do you utter;
And when with a knowledgeable hand
She makes contact— you understand.
And when she lightly, as though dancing,
Sliding her lovely foot across the floor,
Proceeds to offer her perky breast for
You to kiss— then it is impossible not
To shout out loud and lovingly blow
From her firm breast a dust mote,
And recognize how touching your lips
To her youthful breast is pointless.
January 21, 1935
In every church bell there is spite
In every red ribbon there is fire
In every young woman shivering
In every young man his own steed.
March 20, 1938
Came to the window naked. In the house across the street someone must have taken an exception, the sailor’s widow, I think. A policeman came barging in, with the yard sweeper, and someone else in tow. They declared that I have been disturbing the neighbors across the street from me for over three years already. So I have hung some curtains. What is more appealing to the eye, an old woman wearing nothing but a chemise or a young man, buck-naked? And for whom is it less acceptable to show themselves au naturel?
This was my own "working" version of the book's cover. Being a very visual and concrete person, as I was developing and completing the book, being able to see both the "big picture" and the individual pages helped me in doing so. Here, I had "cut" and reversed what I believed to be a double "wedding portrait" of Daniil Yuvachev and Esther Rousakov. Kharms's first wife, she was the daughter of Jewish Russian-French “expats,” and part of the "reverse immigration" that had returned to Russia after the Revolution.
From the Notebooks. July 27. Who could advise me regarding what I should do? Esther brings with her misfortune. I am being destroyed along with her. What must I do, either divorce her or . . . carry my cross? I was given the choice to avoid this, but I remained dissatisfied, and asked to be united with Esther. I was told yet again, do not be married! But despite “having caught a scare,” I still insisted, I still tied my fate with Esther’s, till death do us part. I myself was to blame for this or, rather, I did it to myself. What has happened to the OBERIU? Everything vanished as soon as Esther became a part of me. Since that time, I have ceased to write as I ought to and have only brought misfortune upon myself from all directions. Is it that I can’t be dependent on women, no matter which one it is? Or is the nature of Esther’s character such that she brought an end to my work? I don’t know. If Esther is filled with sorrow, then how can I possibly let her go....
Kharms developed a highly personal and involved symbology, mostly involving an almost kabbalistic play with the letters of her name (his symbol for her as a whole person was the window). Esther Rusakov (née Ioselevich), was repressed, along with her entire family, in 1936.
Before I enter, I will knock on your window. You will see me in the window. Then I will walk through the door and you will see me in the doorway. Then I will walk into your house and you will recognize me. And I will enter you, and no one, except you, will see me and recognize me.
You will see me in the window.
The woman in the following picture is Alice Poiret, another of "Kharms's women;” both she and his first wife, Esther, have most often been literally cropped out of the few surviving photos of Kharms that have come down to us. Kharms had dedicated a number of poems to Alice, including the following:
[ January 7, 1933]
October 16, 1933
Talent grows, destroying, building.
The sign of stagnation is well-being.
Dear Klavdia Vasilyevna,
You are a remarkable and genuine person! As much as it grieves me not to be able to see you, I won’t be inviting you to the Children’s Theater or to come to my city. How heartwarming it is to know that there still exists one human being animated by dreams! I don’t know what word one can use to express that force which so delights me in you. I usually call it simply p u r i t y. I have been thinking about how wonderful it is, that which is primal...
… I’m genuinely delighted that you take your walks like so, in the Zoological Garden. Especially if you take walks there not just for the sake of walking, but also to observe the animals— I will fall in love with you even more tenderly.
October 20, 1933
I have studied women for a long time now and can definitively say that I know them with flying colors. First and foremost, a woman likes to be attended to. Let’s say she is standing right in front of you or is about to, and you make it seem as though you’re hearing and seeing nothing, and act like there’s no one else in the room; this inflames female curiosity. And a curious woman is capable of practically anything.
The next time I will intentionally stick my hand deep in my pocket with a quizzical appearance, and the woman will plant her eyes on me, like, what’s going on here? And I will slowly draw out of my pocket some sort of spark plug. Well and good; the trap has been sprung, and the fish is in my net!
One of the principal sources of divergence of human paths is the matter of preference for either skinny or plump women. I propose we reserve alleys in public gardens for quiet strolling, with two-seat benches distributed two meters away from each other; furthermore, thick bushes should be planted between the benches so that those sitting at one bench are not able to see what is happening at another. On these quiet pathways, the following rules must be enforced:
1. Entrance is forbidden to children, both alone and accompanied by a parent.
2. All noise and loud conversation are strictly prohibited.
3. Only one woman may take a seat next to a man, and only one man next to a woman.
4. If the person seated on a bench is resting their hand or some sort of other object on the free seat, you may not join them. Alleys should also be reserved for walking in solitude, with metal armchairs for single people. Between the armchairs, bushes. Entry is forbidden to children; noise and loud conversation are prohibited.
As a rule, pretty women do not stroll around in gardens.
September 28, 1935
One personage, wringing her hands in sorrow, was saying, “What I need is an interest toward life, and not at all money. I am seeking enhancement, not advancement. I need a husband, and not a rich man but a true talent, the director Meyerhold!”
The Sensual Woodsman
When in the distance flashed saws
And the axes had started ringing,
My girlfriends all became dearer.
I’m in love with them ever since.
Oh, girlfriends, my dear girlfriends,
So pleasant to sense you with my hands!
You’re all so smooth! All so solid!
One more wonderful than the next!
It’s so pleasant to touch your breasts,
Brush my lips the length of your legs.
Oh, help me people, dear people.
Oh, help me God, my dear God!
August 24, 1938
From An Obstacle (August 12, 1940) Previously published in Narrative Magazine (free registration required)
Pronin said, “You have very pretty stockings.”
Irina Mazer said, “So you like my stockings?”
Pronin said, “Oh, yes. Very much.” And he ran his hand down her leg....
From A Lecture (1940)
“A woman is the lathe of love.”
And he immediately got punched in the face....
From “The Power of...”
Faol continued: “Take, for example, love. It may be for better or for worse. On the one hand, it is written: you must love . . . but on the other hand, it is said: do not spoil . . . Perhaps it is better not to love after all? But it says: you must love. But if you do love, you will spoil. What to do? Perhaps go ahead and love but in some other way? But then why is it that in all languages, the same word is used to designate both this and the other love? So, this one artist loved his mother and this one plump young girl. And he loved them each differently. He handed over to the girl the larger part of his salary. The mother often starved while the girl ate and drank for three people. The artist’s mother slept in the hallway on the floor, and the girl had at her disposal two very adequate rooms. The girl had four coats and the mother just one. And so, the artist took from his mother her one coat and had it altered into a skirt for the girl. So that, in all respects, the artist spoiled the girl but his own mother he didn’t spoil, but loved her with a pure love. However, he did fear his mother’s death, but the death of the girlfriend he feared not, and when his mother died, the artist cried, and when the girlfriend fell out of a window and also died, the artist didn’t cry but found himself another girlfriend. And so it seems that a mother is prized as one of a kind, as though she were a rare stamp that cannot be replaced with another....”
September 29, 1940
You can read the rest of this powerful late "fiction" in the selection of seven prose pieces I had previously published in International Quarterly.
Daniil Kharms’s second wife, Marina Malich's (Durnovo) memoirs were recorded and published by the literary historian Vladimir Glotser in his book Moi Muzh Daniil Kharms (My Husband Daniil Kharms; available only in Russian).
From the Notebooks. May 26 
Marina stays in bed all day in a foul mood. I love her so very much, but how harrowing it is to be married.
I am tormented by my “sex.” For weeks, and sometimes months, I have not known a woman.
1. There is one purpose to every human life: immortality.
1a. There is one purpose to every human life: achieving immortality.
2. One pursues immortality by continuing his bloodline, another by accomplishing great mortal deeds in order to immortalize one’s name. And only the third leads a righteous and holy life in order to achieve immortality as life eternal.
3. A man has but two interests: the mundane— food, drink, warmth, women, and rest; and the celestial— immortality.
4. All that is earthly is a confirmation of death.
5. There is one straight line upon which all that is mortal lies. And only that which is not plotted on this axis may serve as confirmation of eternity.
6. And for this reason man seeks a deviation from this earthly road and considers it beautiful or brilliant.
And, last but not least:
From Symphony No. 2
...Well, to hell with him. I will tell you about Anna Ignatievna instead.
But to tell you about Anna Ignatievna isn’t so simple. First of all, I know practically nothing about her and, second of all, I just fell off the stool and forgot what I was about to say. Better I tell you about myself.
I am tall in height, not stupid, dress colorfully and with taste, don’t drink, don’t patronize the horses, but do like the ladies. And the ladies do not avoid me. In fact, they love it when I accompany them. Seraphima Izmailovna has invited me time and again over to her place, and Zinaida Yakovlevna also told me that she is always happy to see me. And with Marina Petrovna I had this amusing episode, which is the one I want to tell you about. The episode is really quite ordinary, but still very amusing, because Marina Petrovna turned, owing to me, entirely bald, like the palm of your hand. It happened this way: I came over to Marina Petrovna’s and she “boom!” and turned completely bald. That’s it.
June 9– 11, 1941
"I can’t imagine why, but everyone thinks I’m a genius; but if you ask me, I’m no genius. Just yesterday I was telling them: Please hear me! What sort of a genius am I? And they tell me: What a genius! And I tell them: Well, what kind? But they don’t tell me what kind, they only repeat, genius this and genius that. But if you ask me, I’m no genius at all.
Wherever I go, immediately, they all start whispering and pointing their fingers at me. What’s going on here?! I say. But they don’t
let me utter a word, and any minute now they will lift me up in the air and carry me off on their shoulders."
[Daniil Kharms, 1934– 36]
Just a little over a year and a half ago, I had the great pleasure to blog in these pages for my first time, on the occasion of having edited the Contemporary Russian Poetry issue of the Atlanta Review (Spring 2015). When I wrote David Lehman, almost exactly a year ago now, to tell him that my first full book, Russian Absurd: Daniil Kharms, Selected Writings, was forthcoming early this year from Northwestern University Press, I could not have remotely expected his response, an offer to blog about Kharms and my book, today and for the remainder of this week. And so ... here we are, the book's official release is this Friday, February 17, and I am just back in New York City from yet another overwhelming AWP, this time in Washington, DC that is largely unchanged (other than the construction boom in its Midtown and all the newly gentrified neighborhoods) from that summer of 1984 when, as a budding Sovietologist, I walked every day from my GWU dorm room in Foggy Bottom to my internship at the Georgetown Center for Strategic Studies on 17th and K Street. I had every intention then to pursue a career in the diplomatic service and my special interest was arms control, and though the town is little changed, the world and each one of us in it have been utterly transformed in the space of only several months.
1984: what an exciting year that was for all of us, but especially for those with a keen interest in Russian and East European Studies. In May, the USSR had boycotted the Los Angeles Olympics as payback for the US boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics, all of it, the consequence of the Russian invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. That war, which would become known as "the Soviet Union's Vietnam," was later thought to have been a major factor in the collapse of the USSR. In 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev would inherit the helm as the General Secretary of the CPSU, after the deaths of three septuagenerian leaders within the space of three years (Brezhnev, Andropov, and Chernenko) and the rest, as they say, is history. It seemed, then that the collapse of the Russian Empire was imminent, and that the shape of things to come, as predicted by George Orwell in his eponymous novel was farther away than it had ever been throughout that bloodiest of all, our 20th Century. Some had even gone so far as to diagnose the idyllic 90s as "The End of History". But then, just as the 21st Century had dawned, 9/11 happened, followed by perhaps our own second Vietnam, the War in Iraq and, at the end of its first decade, a market collapse that threatened to spawn a second Great Depression, and now, "seemingly" all of a sudden, history has come back, full circle and with a vengeance, to bite us all in the ass.
No one could have predicted even a year ago, when I signed on for this task, that this book would be as timely, cogent, and once again relevant as I had believed it would be when I began work on it ten years ago, and I myself only know this for certain now. As I had written in my introduction: “Covering the entire range between the merely unpleasant, the disturbing, and the hilarious, [Daniil Kharms's] protoexistentialist works succeed in bearing, if only tangentially, remarkable witness to the unspoken and unspeakable reality of life under Stalin.... Getting Kharms, I think, requires cultivating a visceral sense of the sociopolitical-cultural context of the repressions and deprivations of the 1920s and 1930s, and the suppression of Kharms and his immediate circle, the OBERIU ... [who] had assumed, in their generation, the “Slap in the Face of Public Taste” mantle of the Russian Futurists, literally adopting Kazimir Malevich’s encouragement to them as their motto— 'Go and stop progress!'” And so, before proceeding, I must begin my week-long residency here by first briefly establishing the links between the so-called Russian Absurdists and their spiritual and aesthetic "fathers" of the preceding generation, the Russian Futurians (so-called because they wished to distinguish themselves from the nationalistic and militaristic Italian Futurists).
In preparation for doing so, as we approached the turn of the year, in the run up to the Trump Inauguration and the book's official release, having assumed that most if not nearly all of us are also members of Facebook, I had started a Russian Absurd on Facebook book page, as well as a Russian Absurd on Twitter page and a Goodreads page,) where for the foreseeable future, I will continue posting selections from and news about the book, as well as links to "all things Kharmsian," some of which I will also be sharing here in the coming week. For now, I invite you to explore the following links and to join/like, follow, and share the group with your interested friends. I very much look forward to this, our journey together, as I prepare, as it where, to "take this show on the road" and to read from, i.e. "perform the book" to various and varied kinds of audiences. In my design of the book, I had made a very conscious effort to represent, within my own space constraints (280 pages,) as many of the different types of materials present in his notebooks as possible (diary entries, letters, one of his NKVD confessions, etc.) My main purpose in doing so was to pay particular attention to Kharms’s development as a writer over the short span of some decade and a half of his creative life. So that the development I am speaking of become self-apparent, I structured the book to follow as much as possible a strictly chronological order. The chapters that emerged, corresponding roughly to the “Early,” “Middle,” and “Late” periods, could also have been provisionally titled “The Theatre of Cruelty,” “The Theatre of the Absurd,” and “Protoexistentialism.” The brief "biographical sections," taken from Kharms’s notebooks, etc., and interspersed at the beginning and end of every section, were intended to cement a more personal relationship with the author, as well as to establish connections between his creative output and the circumstances and events of his life. I hoped that these "section breaks" would also provide “pacing” and some "breathing room" as it were, as well as a sense of a "life lived," so that these mileposts in Kharms’s biography could be used by the interested reader to map these events -- the initial suppression of the OBERIU (late 1920s), the breakup of his first marriage and his exile to Kursk after his first arrest (1931–32), and the growing desperation of his final years (late 1930s) -- over to his writing. Kharms’s poetry, like the prose that precedes it, likewise arranged chronologically, placed at the end, offers a kind of summation.
David Bulyuk, a world-class painter and the self-proclaimed "Father of Russian Futurism," spent the second half of his long life in the Ukrainian community of NYC's East Village and, among a group of painters, including Arshile Gorky, in Long Island's Hampton Bays.
Along with Velimir Khlebnikov, whom Roman Jakobson, the father of Structuralist linguistics, had called "perhaps the most important modern poet," no other poet made such a lasting contribution to Russian and World poetry as Vladimir Mayakovsky.
Aleksei Kruchenykh's best known work is the first Russian Futurist Opera, “Victory Over the Sun” (1913,) for which he collaborated with Kazimir Malevich.
The Russian Futurians: A Group Portrait. Vasilisk Gnedov, Igor Severanin (Ego-Futurists), Vasily Kamensky, Elena Guro, Vassily Kandinsky, Nikolai Aseev, Boris Pasternak (Tsetrifuga,) Anatoly Mariengoff (Imaginist), Simeon Kirsanov, et al.
Daniil Kharms (photo gallery) was born on December 29, 1905 and died on February 2, 1942. Today, this one last time, we may celebrate his 111th BIRTHDAY and the 75th anniversary of his DEATH.
As I retell in the introduction to my book, the "Russian Absurdists," the Oberiu (“Obyedenenie Real'nogo Iskusstva” or “Union of Real Art,”) were essentially the second generation of Russian Futurists, and their initial "launching pad," Velimir Khlebnikov and his Zaum' (Za-um, literally”beyond the mind, or the “trans-rational). In that spirit, I'd like to offer you these three very short Kharms poems so close in spirit to Khlebnikov's own miniatures, I believe them to have been intended as homages. Of the section of roughly 50 poems that close the book, many, perhaps most of the others are likewise "in this spirit,” and Daniil Kharms, at least in his poetry, remained a “Khlebnikovian” and a “Budetlyanen” (Khlebnikov's “person of the future”) to the end of his life. The Russian Futurian strategy of epatage, or “shocking the bourgeoisie,” was also at the heart of his personal style: in his dress, his dandyism, and particularly in his early, performative, improvisational, expressionistic theatrical work. (The accompanying photo is Daniil Kharms dressed as one of his personas, his "imaginary older brother".)
A cuckoo sleeps in a tree
A lobster dreams under a rock
In the field lies a shepherdess
And the wind is a two-way street.
In every church bell there is spite
In every red ribbon there is fire
In every young woman shivering
In every young man his own steed
I was watching a slowly eyelid
that was being lazily lifted
and with its lazy glance
circling the affectionate rivers.
[after August 13, 1937]
Everyone knows these days how dangerous it is to swallow stones.
One of my acquaintances even coined an expression for it: “Waisty,” which stands for: “Warning: Stone Inside”. And a good thing too he did that. “Waisty” is easy to remember, and, as soon as it comes up, or you need it for something, you can immediately recall it.
Аnd this friend of mine worked as a fireman, that is, as an engine stoker on a locomotive. First he rode the northern lines, then he served on the Moscow route. And his name was Nikolay Ivanovich Serpukhov, and he smoked his own hand-rolled cigarettes, Rocket brand, 35 kopeks a box, and he’d always say he doesn’t suffer from coughing as bad from them, and the five-ruble ones, he says, they make him gag.
And so, it once happened that Nikolay Ivanovich found himself in Hotel Europe, in their restaurant. Nikolay Ivanovich sits at his table, and the table over from him is occupied by some foreigners, and they’re gobbling up apples.
And that’s when Nikolay Ivanovich said to himself: “A curious thing,” Nikolay Ivanovich said to himself, “What an enigma the human being is.”
And as soon as he had said this to himself, out of nowhere, before him appears a fairy and says:
“What is it Good Sir that you desire?”
Well, of course, there’s a commotion at the restaurant, like, where did this little damsel suddenly appear from? The foreigners had even stopped stuffing themselves with apples. Nikolai Ivanovich himself caught a good scare and he says, just for the sake of it, to get rid of her:
“Please, forgive me,” he says, “But there is nothing in particular that I need.”
“You don’t understand,” the mysterious damsel says, “I’m what you call a fairy,” she says. “In a single blink of an eye, I can make for you anything you wish. You just give me the word, and I’ll make it happen.”
That’s when Nikolay Ivanovich notices that some sort of a citizen in a gray suit is attentively listening in on their conversation. The maître d’ comes running in through the open doors and behind him, some other character, with a cigarette dangling out of his mouth.
“What the heck!” Nikolay Ivanovich thinks to himself, “Who the hell knows how this thing will turn out.”
And indeed, no one can understand what is going on. The maître d’ is hopping across the tops, from one table over to another, the foreigners are rolling up all the carpets, and in general, who the hell can tell what’s really going on! Who is capable of what, that is!
Nikolay Ivanovich ran out into the street, forgetting even the hat he’d left behind earlier at the coat check, and he ran out onto LaSalle Street and said to himself: “Waisty! Warning: Stone Inside!” And also: “What haven’t I seen already in this whole wide world!”
And, having returned home, Nikolay Ivanovich said this to his wife:
“Do not be afraid, Ekaterina Petrovna, and do not worry. Only there isn’t any equilibrium in this life. And the mistake is only off by some kilogram and half for the entire universe, but still, it’s amazing, Ekaterina Petrovna, it is simply remarkable!”
[September 18, 1934]
Previously published in B O D Y.
Daniil Kharms was the pen name of Daniil Ivanovich Yuvachev (1905–1942). With his friend, the poet Alexander Vvedensky, Kharms cofounded the OBERIU, a group of second-generation Russian Futurist or so-called Absurdist writers active in the 1920s and 1930s. Not permitted to publish his mature work in Stalinist Russia, he survived, for a time, by composing poems for children. At the beginning of World War II, he was arrested (a second time) on the absurd charge of espionage and, feigning insanity to avoid summary execution, starved to death in a psychiatric hospital during the Nazi siege of Leningrad. Most of his writings survived only in notebooks, rescued fortuitously from a burned-out building by a friend and fellow OBERIU member, the philosopher Yakov Druskin. His short sketches, illegally circulated in Russia after the war, influenced several generations of underground writers who broke into the mainstream with the fall of the Soviet Union.
Some of the essays, poems, and prose in Russian Absurd: Daniil Kharms, Selected Writings first appeared and may be sampled in B O D Y, Eleven Eleven, (ĕm): A Review of Text and Image 1 (pg. 134-141), Gargoyle 66, Green Mountains Review, Little Star Journal, MAYDAY Magazine, Narrative Magazine, New American Writing 34, Numéro Cinq, Off Course 41, PEN America 12: Correspondences (pg. 100), The International Literary Quarterly 18, and The Literary Review 56.3.
"Reading this book makes me want to put myself in Kharms’s way." – Gary Shteyngart, author of The Russian Debutante’s Handbook, Absurdistan, and Super Sad True Love Story
“Kharms’s obliquely allegorical dark comedies are both mystical and mythic, Daoist and Dadaist, daring and deranging, surrealist and satiric, metaphysical and metafictional. Charting the experience of everyday life in Russia in the 1920s and ’30s, Kharms is an (anti-)Soviet realist. In a world gone mad, Kharms is, ironically, a last refuge of sanity. Alex Cigale’s sparkling translations bring these works into a new life in English.” – Charles Bernstein, Donald T. Regan Professor of English and Comparative Literature at U. Penn and author of A Poetics, Girly Man, and Pitch of Poetry
"Absurdism — the ridiculous as a reaction and an alternative to revulsion and resignation before an absurd age." – Alex Cigale, 2015 NEA Fellow in Literary Translation, from the Introduction
N.B. An update: After 22 years at the helm, this past year, founding editor Dan Veach passed the reins of the Atlanta Review, to its new editor, Karen Head, and the magazine is now newly affiliated with Georgia Tech University. In the coming year, I will be editing a Baltic Poetry issue of the magazine (Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania,) and hope to officially announce it in these pages by the end of this week.
Over the last few days, I have been thinking about poetry as a source of consolation in the face of devastating circumstances, thinking again of our friends, loved ones, and fellow poets in France—and of an earlier generation of French poets, the Surrealists, who knew a great deal about mass violence, displacement, and senseless suffering, having lived through the First and Second World Wars in Europe.
I love the Surrealists for many reasons including their emphasis on collaborative processes of making poetry and art, gathering together nightly in Paris to play verbal and visual games of chance that often yielded startling rich results, and for their attempt to achieve states of mind in which “life and death, the real and the imaginary, the past and the future, the communicable and the incommunicable, high and low, cease to be perceived as contradictions,” as their leonine poet-manifestoist André Breton, declared.
I like that the movement was founded and led by a poet but encompassed many painters and sculptors, and that it was international. Most of all, I like the language of Surrealist works, which fluidly incorporates strangeness into the everyday in a way that makes sense to me. I like the bleak humor and wit and the defiant activation of levity to puncture despair. There is much to loathe as well about the Surrealists with their embracing of violence, casual sexism, Eurocentrism, and misogyny, but when I read the poems, what I like is the working from and toward a place where destruction, sorrow, and fear can become something manageable, with the pain of experience still foregrounded.
Everyone who turns to poetry for consolation has a different idea of what a comforting poem looks like, and naturally what one seeks depends on the situation, but since the oughts, I have often turned to poems in this mode for a little pick-me-up, that feeling of nicely startled recognition as in oh, yes, of course, that’s how it is. Why didn’t I see that before?
My favorite of the French Surrealist poets is Max Jacob, who grew up in Quimper in Celtic Brittany and died in a Nazi concentration camp in 1944. His life story is nearly unbearably sad, though his prose poems will always make me smile.
Here are two poems by Jacob, the first translated by Andrei Codrescu and the second translated by Armand Schwerner.
The Wallpaper of Mr. R.K.
The ceiling of hell was fastened with thick gold nails. Up above was the earth. Hell is all fountains, big, luminous and twisted. For the earth there is a little slope: a field of wheat cut smoothly and a small sky in onion rinds through which passes a cavalcade of mad dwarves. On each side there is a pine forest and an aloe forest. You are now appearing, Miss Suzanne, before a revolutionary court for having found a white hair among your many black ones.
Miracles Real Miracles
Nice, old priest! After he’d left us we saw him fly over the lake, just like a bat, his thoughts absorbing him, not even understanding that this flight was a miracle. His cassock, the hem of his cassock is wet! That amazes him.
And here are two poems by contemporary American poets. I’m not sure if they would consider themselves surrealist or not, but I feel the influence of the surreal uncanny in their poems, which I have long admired. The first is by Larissa Szporluk from her collection The Wind, Master Cherry, The Wind published by Alice James Books.
A bell is gonged,
the body of a girl
curled up inside it,
a town grown wild,
dogs sniffing skyward—
They listen all night
for the girl to fall,
her stomach to growl,
or is it a foot
in a mindless gallop,
snorts of delight
as the gods take up
or is it a weird
and beautiful gargle,
the lovemaking sound
of a deep-sea diver
The next poem by the poet and translator Don Mee Choi speaks to the aftermath of the Second World War and the Korean War in Asia, as well as other large forces of history and American poetry, including a phrase from Dickinson (Emily). The poem is from her collection The Morning News Is Exciting published by Action Books.
from Twin Flower, Master, Emily
4 Dear Master,
I do! Autogeography, I do! Deeply lobed, in defiance of pretentious form, I push a petal from my Gown. An orator, born from jets, never met a translator. Orator, map out a wasteland between the front and the Chinese border. Such is—neocoloniality. I do! Autotranslation, I do! History can confront napalm. Sister’s madness is as good as mine. We make the biggest picture in the world. Shallow and spiked, nodding in air, we endure barbed wire. Daisy Cutter can touch us, cut us, demolish our petals. Our gown can stain like a drape. Translator for hire! Hire me. See you at the DMZ!
Yours, Twin Flower
It’s one thing to suggest the opposite of what you mean—classic verbal irony.
But, what if two different statements suggesting the opposite of their meaning follow each other in tandem.
Then, what if these statements were followed by others whose subtle meanings were deliberately scrambled.
And, further still, what if the entire scenario—the overall meaning itself—runs counter to what the statements suggest.
Well, this complex experience represents one of the most powerful formal characteristics of the blues.
I call this, “ironic juxtaposition” and it is one of three formal attributes that I discuss today.
The prototypical irony of the blues is that dejection is not only dejection, but something else: it could be rage, vindictiveness, or hope. The blues dramatize this root irony within their subtly clashing statements.
Let’s examine a 1951 song called “The Thrill Is Gone” by Roy Hawkins and Rick Darnell made famous by the iconic blues musician, B. B. King, as an example of ironic juxtaposition.
Photo by Roland Godefroy, 1989, public domain
King’s work has been fresh on my mind because he died this summer.
And don't get me started on Aretha Franklin's 1970 version!
Take in mind that many versions of the lyrics and score of this song exist because each blues person adapts it for her or his own purposes. But the essential ironic juxtapositions remain.
After the first repeating statements, you’d think that the “The Thrill Is Gone” is a simplistic lament that only shares sadness.
Yet, as the statements progress, we gradually learn that the song is a rebuke of a malevolent lover who wronged the singer and, even more than a rebuke, the song threatens the beloved, suggesting that rather than the singer only being dejected and lonely for losing the beloved, the beloved will instead be sorry for the loss.
These subtle ironies keep commingling and soon, by the time we get to the song’s final lines, which often convey something to the effect of “I’m free from your spell,” we realize that the lament is, in fact, an acknowledgement that the thrill is very much alive: the wonder comes in the singer being rid of the beloved and living to testify about it.
Thus, the song itself is an anthem masquerading as a lament—a terrific form of situational irony.
Midway through Franklin's version, the chorus is sung by backup singers who splice into the song the great civil rights anthem rooted in the spirituals, "Free, free at last, thank God almighty I'm free at last!"
Franklins' interpolation becomes the pinnacle of ironic juxtaposition for me among all the adaptations of this song.
Even in the late 1980s, I was telling folks in my life that the music and poetry of the blues and jazz constitute Modernism just as much as the poems of extremely well-documented virulently racist poets who we are often taught heralded Modernism like T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound. For an in depth exploration of T. S. Eliot's awful cultural bigotry, I highly suggest reading Anthony Julius' T.S. Eliot, Anti-Semitism and Literary Form, and even though Allen Ginsberg "forgave" him, and many apologize for him, Pound's bigotry was appalling.
In middle school, high school, and college poetry classes, youth are often taught that these problematic individuals are the kings of Modern poetry. Yet, so much of the time, black blues and jazz traditions are excluded from the annals of Modern poetry and that has bothered me since I too was taught a version of "high Modernism" that consistently left out home-grown black American folk artistry.
One of the most fabled hallmarks of poetic Modernism is the complexity of allusion to prior elite literary texts within "great modern poems." These allusions are said to represent the highest forms of greatness and the public must unlock the key to these references with arduous study.
But high modern poems by white men like Eliot, Pound, and Hart Crane are not the only sophisticated artistry that weaves allusion. The blues frequently depend on complex allusions to black cultural life, and, without exaggeration, these allusions require just as much penetrating study as those within poems like "The Waste Land."
I called this hallmark "fractious allusion" because, in fact, one of the enormous impediments to understanding the intelligence of the blues is their contemptuous over-simplification, and this dismissal is bread in an undervaluing of the very lives referenced in the work. That's why I took the time to say that the blues are a kind of Black Lives Matter movement this week.
If you did not understand the allusion of "free, free at last" in Aretha Franklin's rendition of "The Thrill Is Gone" then your understanding of the formal ingenuity of the work is seriously compromised.
Yet, these allusions within the blues are fractious because they also raise issues of access, power, and privilege. Many of the allusions in the blues point tropes of low-to-no income black life, including lots of inside references to popular figures and social traditions spawned within rural and urban jookin' joints, speakeasies, and nightclubs. These references are often invisibilized by a mainstream public that may only encounter very limited, watered down or white-washed versions of these figures and traditions in the most commercialized popular songs and music videos.
Improvisation As Composition
This last hallmark is simply expressed: composing is improvising in the blues, and ongoing structuring and invention is endemic to blues form. (This contention—that improvisation is composition—is examined in relation to black vernacular dancing in this essay.)
Next up: I close with a discussion of a blues lyric by Bessie Smith.
Ever heard the stereotype that blacks in the United States talk too loudly at movie theaters? Needless to say, blacks aren’t the only folks to shout out phrases at the cinema like, “Don’t go in there, fool!” as one wonderful man hollered during a moment in an easily forgettable scary movie that I watched around Halloween last year.
Yet, these provocative participatory moments encode a terrific hallmark that I would like to highlight and, while these moments may annoy some people—yes, the very same people who become surreptitiously alarmed by even the sight of a group of blacks in public or who become fearful by just the sight of a lone black man around them when walking in the city—these moments indicate a remarkable formal hallmark of the blues.
Provocative participation is the first of six elements of blues form that I discuss today and tomorrow. Take in mind that, as with most artistry rooted in the centuries-old folkways of enslaved Africans and their descendants in the African Diaspora, there is no separation between sound, language, and movement in the blues. These spheres interpenetrate even while the blues manifest differently on the page, on the stage, in song, in oratory, and in dance. For definitional context, visit the Internet’s many encyclopedic entries to learn about the basic history of the blues’ origins in the rural American South and its adaption of spirituals, field hollering, work songs, and ballads by enslaved Africans and their descendants.
Often when devotees explain hallmarks of artistic forms rooted in the African Diaspora, respondents say comments like these: “But European music uses antiphony all the time!” or “But all music matters not just the blues!” Mind you: deflection is a kind of bias. Indeed, many artistic forms engage the hallmarks discussed here. This fact does not obscure the particular ways that the blues configure these formal characteristics or the specific manner in which the blues matters within the cultures through which it proliferates.
And one final caveat: discussing general hallmarks should in no way suggest that the blues are not diverse. On the contrary, these general characteristics are always varied and contested throughout centuries of development. But, that I and others can point to these formal traits indicates the cultural strength and distinctiveness of the blues.
Like the man who shouted out in the movie theater last year, the blues contain a variety of provocative participation that is more than static call-and-response. My students within the jazz dance and music class at the semi-rural university (mentioned in yesterday's entry) often heard the refrains within the blues as inert, meaningless restatements. Inviting them to see beyond this assumption and understand repeated phrases from a different cross-cultural perspective was often challenging.
Repeated phrases in the blues provoke a both tense (strained) and intense (excited) relationship with the previously established theme. This provocation can be insinuation, rebuke, or alarm—as if the repetition elevates the concern implicit in the preceding statement. Polite, high bourgeoisie cultures sometimes demand quiet acquiesce: don’t participate, don’t react, don’t protest, and don’t be too provocative. Not so with the blues.
In the blues, repetition provokes reassessment, redirection, or even critiques of prior statements in a way that enlivens a conversation. Repetitions also strike out against the suggestion that the original statement may not have been entirely or rightly heard or understood. That may be why repetitions in the blues are so often coupled with improvised riffs in the form of vamped interrogations, nods (recognizing or affirming phrases), invectives (snippets of curses), and invocations (parts of prayers) like “I’m tellin’ you,” “Sure enough,” "What you say?" "Night and day!" "Have mercy,” “Y’all hear me?” or “Amen!”
These refrains also set up the ironic twist in the closing line of grouping of phrases. On the page, the AAB rhyme scheme of three-line blues stanzas organize this set-up. This set-up creates the effect of the entire group of phrases turning in on one another. When understood as a whole, the phrases reveal unexpected shifts in meaning that are best expressed through cascading provocative participation—like many voices calling out at the screen in a cinema.
The second line in this three-lined blues stanza by yours truly performs the basics of this provocative participation:
She swears her feet are daggers & her body ain’t free
I tell you, she swears her feet are daggers & her body ain’t free
Have mercy, she sure feels vicious when she walks over me
A blues scale—a pentatonic scale—-runs counter to the traditional scale of European-descended music—or the diatonic scale. A blues note is sung or played in a bent way, with a nonstandard pitch, or a slurred, melismatic style. The counterfactual progression of the blues scale and the blues note comprise the bedrock of jazz, rock, R&B, and most of the way popular music is composed and performed, however cursorily.
Here is a seven-note blues scale in C sung by yours truly (and I will be the first to admit that I was never a “great” entertainer, just a good study and a serviceable performer, so don’t expect a miracle within this quickly prepared recording by a very exhausted night creature):
Compare this blues scale to the traditional do-re-mi-fa-sol-la-ti-do scale sung by Julie Andrews in the Rodgers and Hammerstein song "Do-Re-Mi" from the musical and film The Sound of Music.
One of the effects of provocative participation in the blues is that we are not always certain who is speaking to whom. Further still, we become uncertain as to whether the speaker is a unitary lyric voice, two voices contending against each other, or a chorus. Often these tensions rise in the blues quickly from one line to the next, creating a sense of heightened, ongoing dissociation. Refrains steady this shifting vocality, providing landmarks within the shifting voices. Later in the week when I talk about Bessie Smith’s blues song, “Gimmie A Pigfoot,” I hope to illustrate this formal attribute.
Tomorrow I will discuss three other formal hallmarks:
Today, I share key overarching ideological truths about the blues. To begin, let me journey back to a time many years ago when I taught jazz dance and music (as well as writing) for a year at a large semi-rural Midwestern public university. On the first day of the class at the start of the year I asked my students to bring pictures to class for the next session of what they thought the blues represented. Most of my students were white, middle class young men and women. The largest group of students of color were Asian-descended and Latina (six, if memory serves). Two blacks were in the class. Demographically, the students represented what many Americans think of when they invoke “the mainstream.”
Almost all of the students' pictures depicted an older black man placidly strumming a guitar like the image below (this photograph by Jean-Luc Ourlin from 2005 depicts the great blues musician John Lee Hooker and it is in the public domain):
And about a fourth of the students' images depicted a white parody group called the Blues Brothers, which was created by the comedians Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi as part of a musical sketch on Saturday Night Live in 1976 (this publicity still of the comedians appears here under fair use guidelines):
I asked the students to articulate the thinking behind their selections, and I encouraged them to word-associate (to write down individual words or short phrases) if they could not quite put their thoughts into complete sentences. I stressed that no one’s thoughts were wrong because all of their images are part of our perceptions of the blues. Rather than discounting their representations, my goal was to affirm them, study them, and expand on them with deeper and more trenchant reflection.
I still have my notes from my lesson plans. Most of the students wrote words like “sad,” or phrases like “down in the dumps.” Some wrote “cool” or “funny” and a few wrote “SNL,” referring to the late night TV show where the Blues Brothers group was created. One person wrote “old black guys singing about being sad” and another wrote “black slaves singing when they feel sad.”
During our discussion, the students elaborated on their articulations and soon they acknowledged that, overwhelmingly, their assumptions about the blues were that it was a tradition represented by either old black men who sing slow, mournful, downbeat songs about their sadness while playing the guitar or cool, hip, middle aged white men with dark sunglasses and black suits who sing funny, upbeat songs that parody the sadness of the old black men.
At one point in our discussions, two students debated the ways that each scenario suggested a kind of melancholic yet entertaining passivity, a willful sense of dejection (whether actual or ironized) and an inert experience of the easily-dismissed downtrodden. One of the students likened the downtrodden people that came to his mind when he thought of the blues to the homeless panhandlers that he saw in Chicago who ask for money when they busk around the entrances of public transportation. This student even said, at one point, that he first heard the blues from just such a panhandler and when another student laughed and jocularly asked if the student gave the homeless panhandler money, the student replied “no,” because the man smelled like alcohol and he feared that the man would just use the money to buy more alcohol.
Over the course of the first unit of the class, along with sharing the history of the blues’ origination and proliferation and learning a few blues, ragtime, and jazz dances and songs (and I will selectively share a little of this history soon this week), I tried to expand and redirect the students’ assumptions while also acknowledging that those assumptions are rooted in subjective versions of the truth (just as my own witness here is a subjective version of the truth). There is indeed sadness in the struggles of the blues and the blues have indeed been seemingly endlessly coopted by whites to the point where they are often considered to be a kind of inconsequential cliché of outdated black melancholia.
Yet, I continually found myself pushing back against the notion that the blues are a washed-up American cliché, an outmoded endeavor of diminished black personhood. So engrained was this assumption that my students found it hard to accept that the blues, as I argued, contain the ingenious hallmarks of high Modernism; that they are the transformation of melancholic stories of disadvantage into enactments of bawdy, sly resistance; that however mournful the music and lyrics may sound, they are about bearing active, ebullient witness to struggle; and that personal disclosure of the struggles and joys of folk life become political witness when shared to a world that often refuses to care about the particular lives of marginalized people.
These arguments were as difficult for some of my students to embrace as my other contention: that the blues were represented by just as many women as men, and just as many LGBT people as heterosexuals and cisgender (or non-transgender) people. This contention is borne out by the evidence of the lives of pioneers like Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, and Lucy Hicks Anderson (1886-1954), a black trans woman who helped run a network of underground Midwestern and Southern bordellos with other entrepreneurs like Ruby Taylor that showcased the most ribald blues and R&B entertainers. But, at the same time, the outspoken bawdy nature of the blues did not seem foreign to the students who discussed their constant exposure to rock and rap songs and dances, which seemed to be far racier. I was so glad that the students weren't alarmed by the blues' insistent, frank examination of sex, death, illicit practices, and the recreational consumption of substances.
After the class was over I found myself journaling about my experience. So deep was that journaling that I often return to reflecting on these arguments every year. Key to my arguments is the truth that the blues are personal and the personal is political.
For me, along with black Americans’ sorrow songs (the so-called “spirituals”), the blues constitute the original artistic wing of a centuries-old Black Lives Matter movement in America expressed in musical and poetic form. In fact, one way of understanding the current Black Lives Matter movement is to see it as part of a long tradition of radical action that seeks to draw attention to the truth that the personal is political.
Within the blues, the personal is political because there are some people whose life experiences are devalued or vulgarized: their stories are not considered with the same wealth as others. At its worse, this devaluing leads to unjust violence, incarceration, and maiming, and at its least it leads to chronic disrespect, neglect, hostility, and contempt. Yes: that’s the blues.
The blues often make people uncomfortable in a similar way as the Black Lives Matter movement makes some people immediately deflect from black people’s experiences (failing to embrace and confront such experiences directly) in favor of saying, “all lives matter” in a dismissive hope that expression of black disenfranchisement will just go away.
Sadly, just talking openly about marginalization, just singing the blues, just ironizing struggle, just creating platforms for resistance--just doing any of these things makes some people uncomfortable despite the fact that most Americans are suffering gravely with high rates of income inequality, terrible access to quality healthcare, vicious patterns of violence, frequently polarizing contact with governmental services, and all manner of disenfranchisement.
Disenfranchisement rests on a seemingly banal notion. This banal, false notion goes like this: “The life experiences of the most marginalized have no real relevance to the powerful or the favored.” This is a false notion because, invariably, the marginalized often do the under-acknowledged work that makes it possible for the powerful to be favored. The television shows that screen daily stories of marginalization and pathology literally depend on those stories for their wealth. Thus, in this false, banal notion, unless there is a proverbial riot, marginalized experiences can be ignored at the very same time that they are consumed and commodified. So deeply held is this notion that it infects both the powerful and the marginalized alike. Yes, those who are marginalized try to ignore the forces that constitute their own suffering just as much as the powerful ignore those same forces.
But, the blues puts it all out there right in our eyes and ears. The terms by which the marginalized and the powerful operate are wildly different: the marginalized are often apathetic or acquiescent just to survive because resources, opportunities, and capacities for action are so deeply limited and even actively constrained. But, for the powerful, there is little excuse for apathy in the face of suffering when possessed with outsize power and privilege: resources, status, opportunity, wealth, and access.
Most of all, the blues dispel the highfalutin, sidity, upper bourgeois, religious anxiety of the “confessional” bred within European-descended cultures--with all the trappings of shame and repression that are still dominant within “polite” societies--since Augustine wrote the Confessions around 400 AD. Rather than confessing, the blues provocatively testify and bear witness without the guilt, without shame.
These are the ideological truths of the blues.
Like most poets, I understand the world in forms. In this multipart essay, I hone in on the form that most typifies my understanding of the world. That form is the blues.
A brilliant, complex, multifaceted network of musical and poetic structures, the blues are black Americans' gift to the country that enslaved us or our ancestors and that often continues to deny many of us economic, racial, and gender justice. Given the form's often under-recognized proliferation within many country's contemporary music and rhetoric, the blues are one of black Americans' greatest and most intelligent gifts to the world. At the same time that the blues chronicle everyday struggles, they also describe resilience, ingenuity, and a remarkable capacity to slyly bend circumstances for the better, critique problems, and structure elements with winsome intricacy.
I remember when I first heard the blues. For a brief time when she was a teenager, my mother moonlighted as a chorus girl and a wardrobe attendant on “Black Broadway,” as the singer Pearl Bailey called it, a section of Washington, D.C. around U Street where Duke Ellington was raised and where the Howard Theatre and the Lincoln Theatre still sit. I did not learn about this part of my mother’s hidden history until the months before she died when she explained many things to me, including why she pushed some of her children into the entertainment business (she was trying to capture her lost dreams). From her involvement in entertainment, my mother knew scores of performers, producers, managers, agents, poets, and musicians. One of these was a black Native American jazz musician and smalltime D.C. impresario named Cherokee Honi. Ms. Honi’s Logan Circle house was filled from floor to ceiling with memorabilia and knick knacks from black music history: records, costumes, programs, and instruments. When my mother went to visit, Ms. Honi always had music on her old record player.
The first time I accompanied my mother to a visit to Ms. Honi’s house was around the bicentennial year in the 1970s. As soon as I entered I heard a song that Ms. Honi was playing on the record player. I marveled at its almost hieroglyphic, bawdy jauntiness. When I inquired what the music was, Ms. Honi replied, “Oh, honey, that’s the blues!”
Turns out that the song was a 1933 blues lyric by the incredible black husband-and-wife blues team of Wesley Wilson (aka Kid Wilson, Sox Wilson or Socks Wilson) and Coot Grant made popular by the equally brilliant black blues singer Bessie Smith called "Gimme a Pigfoot (And a Bottle of Beer)."
Click here to listen to the original November 24, 1933 recording of the song.
This blues lyric exemplifies the formal hallmarks that I will reflect on later in this essay. Before we examine the lyric itself, let's discuss the writers, composers, and the entertainer who made the song popular. Coot Grant and Kid Wilson. Much has been written about Bessie Smith, a sensational musician, so bear with me while I focus on less well-known persons.
Grant was a woefully now-overlooked, pioneering blues entertainer whose artistry overlapped with the older Ma Rainey (a giant herself of the blues) and presaged Bessie Smith's invention. Grant and Wilson wrote over 400 songs together, toured all over the world (including Africa), and their composing and performing form a much-neglected bedrock of the urban turn in the blues. The duo's compositions and their versatility as songwriters, poets, and musicians touched the lives of countless entertainers in vaudeville during the Harlem Renaissance, and they recorded with giants like Louis Armstrong and Fletcher Henderson.
At their height, during the same year that they composed "Gimmie a Pigfoot," Wilson and Grant appeared together in Paul Robeson's 1933 film The Emperor Jones. Alas, sexism within the industry frequently gave Kid Wilson top billing in their stage performances.
You can examine surviving memorabilia like programs and posters to track how these entertainers were billed and read accounts of their artistry in the press that documented vaudeville to understand how they were promoted and valued within their times. That's the historical sleuthing that leads ethnographic journalists like me to claim sexism, and I don't use such words lightly.
After 1948, from press reports, we know only that she retired due to ill health while her husband continued to perform and compose songs throughout the 1950s. I record this history here because I want readers to understand the collective creation within blues. Each song, each poem, each dance is the work of multiple creators and only emphasizing Bessie Smith's interpretation of Grant and Wilson's song would tell little of the story.
Coot Grant (left) and Wesley "Kid" Wilson (right at the piano)
Now, let's encounter the language in full:
Up in Harlem every Saturday night
When the highbrows get together it's just so right
They all congregate at an all night hop
And what they do is Oo Bop Bee Dap
Oh Hannah Brown from way cross town
Gets full of coin and starts breaking 'em down
And at the break of day
You can hear ol' Hannah say
'Gimme a pigfoot and a bottle of beer.
Send me again.I don't care.
I feel just like I wanna clown.
Give the piano player a drink because he's bringing me down!
He's gotta rhyme, yeah!When he stomps his feet.
He sends me right off to sleep.
Check all your razors and your guns.
We gonna be arrested when the wagon comes.
I wanna pigfoot and a bottle of beer.
Send me cause I don't care.
Blame me cause I don't care.
Gimme a pigfoot and a bottle of beer.
Send me again, I don't care.
I feel just like I wanna clown.
Give the piano player a drink because he's bringing me down.
He's got rhyme, Yeah, when he stomps his feet.
He sends me right off to sleep.
Check all your razors and your guns.
Do the Shim-Sham Shimmy 'til the rising sun.
Give me a reaper and a gang of gin.
Play me cause I'm in my sin.
Blame me cause I'm full of gin.
How does this blues song exemplify six formal attributes endemic to the blues—provocative participation; counterfactual progression; shifting vocality; ironic juxtaposition; fractious allusion; ad improvisation as composition? Well, let me try to answer.
The pigs’ feet invoked in the title and refrain of this blues song invites provocative participation. Pigs' feet are a still-prevalent delicacy for many black Americans derived from rural Southern life. In the over 150 years since blacks were emancipated from enslavement, our foodways have come to represent stereotypes of deprivation. The accursed online “Urban Dictionary” (imprecated because it often sensationalizes the very same stereotypes that it exposes) defines pigs' feet as “a semi-offensive way for a white person to refer to a stereotypical black person, or to express just how stereotypically black a situation is.”
In fact, the deprivation symbolized by pigs' feet comes from the historical fact that often enslaved Africans and their descendants in the United States were consigned the worse possible foodstuffs. This bigoted, systemic tradition continues even today in predominately black rural and urban neighborhoods where grocery store chains refuse to open stores leaving black residents to rely on the cut-rate wares of bodegas and sundry shops or travel distances just to obtain quality, healthy food.
When I think of pigs’ feet I think of my tap dance classes with James “Buster” Brown when I was a kindergartener. He would teach us how to “pat Juba,” or hambone—a very old, black-created, enslavement-era musical and dance tradition often relied upon to teach child dancers and musicians how to coordinate hand claps with foot stomps (or upper body gestures with lower body actions). That's how I learned to pat juba—Dr. Brown, as everybody called my tap teacher, wanted us to coordinate and syncopate. Patting juba was made famous in the 19th century by a black transatlantic entertainer who I consider to be the grandfather of tap dance, William Henry Lane aka Master Juba (1825-1853), a man widely credited with all-but inventing the roots of tap dance and, through his tours in North American and the United Kingdom, spreading the ingenuity of African-descended, black-adapted vernacular dancing. The first verse of the centuries-old traditional lyrics that accompany patting juba (sometimes called “Juba This, Juba That”) go like this:
Juba dis and Juba dat,
and Juba killed da yellow cat,
You sift the meal and ya gimme the husk,
you bake the bread and ya gimme the crust,
you eat the meat and ya gimme the skin,
and that's the way,
my mama's troubles begin
The lyrics invoke a terrible lot: even though blacks made the cuisine (“sift the meal”) they were given the “husk”—the worse parts—and that's where "my mama's troubles begin." Pigs’ feet are not the prime cut of the pig, to say the least. Yet, when seasoned and pickled they acquire a taste made even more provocative by the history of oppression inscribed in their still lingering culinary existence.
For the singer of "Gimmie a Pigfoot" to say give it to me is, then, a very provocative act because it announces a bold preference for the very same thing that has been so complexly and symbolically repudiated and marginalized in the history of black life in the United States.
I thought I was immune to culture shock. Attending American schools, K-12 (albeit in Kuwait and Egypt) meant I was familiar with the lingo. Even though I spoke some Arabic at home, I never formally studied it at school, which translated into reading, writing, and dreaming, in English. What’s more, I had gone to college in the United States - so I didn't really expect much of an adjustment period when, around ten years ago, I made the US my home.
But, my college years in (in Washington, DC) were a kind of reactionary blur, where I’d spent most of the time with my nose buried in a book, experimenting with things like philosophy and silent fasts instead of taking in the New World around me. Seasons came and passed without my noticing, and I would go back home anyway at the end of each semester. So, when I decided to move stateside I was, for all practical purposes, living in America for the first time - the same way they say that you never know someone till you live with them.
Thus, in spite of all my early Americanization, landing in Miami airport, in early 2006, I felt like an untitled and near penniless version of Eddie Murphy’s African prince character in the 1988 hit comedy, Coming to America. A series of cultural confusions during my first year of disorientation, featuring my then-college-crush and soon-to-become wife, convinced me I was still “off the boat” and that Project Integration was very much underway.
Sure, America had changed, and I had too, since those college years (this was the tail end of the Bush Years, and pre-financial crisis) but somehow I had not wrapped my mind around the basics last time I was here: like the credit system. So, when Diana(my spouse-to-be) disclosed to me the amount of her mortgage ($115K) I was genuinely scandalized. After I candidly told her I thought such debt was criminal and she should do time for it, I gave her another piece of my overwhelmed mind. “In Egypt, we have a saying” I volunteered: 'extend your legs to the extent of your blanket.' Meaning if your blanket/means are limited, no need to stretch/splurge.” She heard me out, patiently, and brushed the whole thing off, assuring me I was over-reacting.
As a fledgling poet, I used to send out countless packets of my work to magazines across the country, like quivering arrows, in hopes a lucky few might hit their target. One day, Diana brought back an envelope to me. “You need to include the state and zipcode,” she said. “I did,” I replied. “No, you didn’t,” she continued matter-of-factly, “you just wrote Portland.” “Oh no,” I shot back, rather smugly. “I read that one very closely, my dear. It clearly stated either Portland or the zipcode; and the ‘or’ was even written in caps!” Very slowly, as though addressing a small (dim-witted) child, she let me know that OR stood for Oregon.
Meantime, I was looking for work and without much success, when I came across what seemed like a plum position. I could hardly contain my excitement. “Dianaaa,” I nearly hyper-ventilated into the phone “come over, this instant, and check out this job!” She tumbled into the room, also breathless, like a happy puppy. “Where, where, let me see…”
“You’re going to need to sit down for this,” I warned, presenting her with the job description. As she scanned the form, I volunteered: “I know, I know, it’s a military job… But, I’m willing to swallow my principles [I’m a die-hard pacifist ] for a salary like that… I'll just sell my soul to the devil for a short period, in order to buy my long-term freedom.”
“What are you talking about?” she ventured, cautiously. “Keep reading, please.” I bounded across the room and pounced on the page, forefinger landing on the key paragraph: “There!” I exclaimed. “401K,” I mouthed it like a miracle. “Can you imagine, for an editorial job? I’ll do it for a couple years, then quit! Plus, they can keep that extra one thousand dollars…” She gave me a look - half incredulous, half pitying - then burst into a fit of uncontrollable laughter.
Author collage (shortly after arriving to Florida) with his wife, Diana C. Restrepo
*I was soon to learn, a 401(k) is a standard type of retirement savings account in the United States, and has absolutely nothing to do with my fantasies of fortune and early retirement.
Something I have been wondering: would I give up my whiteness to be Black? The answer is yes, but Walter Scott would still be dead. Would I give up my whiteness to be Black? The answer is yes, but let’s not mistake it for sacrifice or pretend Walter Scott would not still be dead. I spend time in Black spaces, in Black family, amid Black love, I know Black genius and have known Black bodies and know just about nothing of what it is to be Black but I would be it, would surrender my whiteness to be it and Walter Scott would still be dead.
Something I have been wondering: what would happen if whiteness as we know it disappeared? What if whiteness carried on its broad pale back the unbearable weight of enslavement, of three-fifths, of Jim Crow and Tuskegee and the prison capitalist industry and the long and unqualified failure of Brown vs. the Board of Education? What then for my blue-eyed nephews, my pastel godson? Would Walter Scott still be dead? Would my father? My grandfathers? Theirs? In trees? Behind trucks? In fields? As experiments? On ships? In rebellion? Running away?
I can tell you I would not exist. My mother’s mother met my grandfather during the Great Depression; he was driving a boat and she was swimming off the family’s lake house pier. My mother met my father at a dance in the same lily-toned summer community. Remove skin privilege and the stories fall apart, my DNA a rope unraveling.
Make fate stronger than this, make them meet in bread lines or protest rallies and I exist, but who am I? Shift the locus of my birth, shift the solidity of my public schooling, shift the capacity of my parents to pay for college, shift the easy slip into employment, shift my safe white walk through everywhere – turn it all on its head, an inversion, and name me someone else. Because I am white, which is indivisible from privilege.
And what if tomorrow it all were different. If in an instant, skin became no indication of whom to kill or kidnap or fire or disdain or dismiss or enslave or arrest or detain or shrink from, clutching one’s expensive handbag on the subway. Would we find another marker for target, and construct a new national horror story on that? It would need to be visible, like skin. Be inherited, generationally unshakable. Who would be Walter Scott then, be Michael Brown, be Tamir Rice, be John Crawford, Mariam Carey, Amadou Diallo, Sean Bell, Alberta Spruil? Who’d be dead?
So much conjecture, and Walter Scott is still dead for nothing. Dead for nothing but his pure skin. And my father is alive, and my nephews and my godson being raised into good men. And my grandfathers died of old age and cancer and I can’t surrender or abandon or strip off this whiteness any more than I can bring back the dead.
But I can ask this question: what does it require for a human to be seen as human in any skin?
How many Coast Guard photos, how many sweet-faced senior pictures, how many Black boys leaning into their father’s good shoulders, how many hands up, how many face down, how many can’t breathe, how much footage of cops handcuffing newly dead humans do we need? These are bodies, living or once living. These are human, human, human bodies.
Billie Holiday on repeat, you know the song, the poplar tree, white bark, white branches, indivisible from its history, white like bones white like teeth and flags of surrender tied to branches and bayonets Walter Scott, I surrender. I am sorry. Michael Brown, I surrender. I am sorry. Ferguson, I surrender. I am sorry. Dear living dear living dear living, I can’t take the white from my body but here is my white mouth, here are my white hands. I will not surrender to history. I will speak. I will try to put them where there is need.
Given: We cannot write outside our time. We are invariably and inextricably in and of the times in which we live.
Given: The expansiveness with which we define “our times” and the ways in which we include the experiences of people other than/othered from ourselves in our work is variable and generally well within our conscious control.
Given: The practice of recognizing and including in our art the experiences of people marginalized or threatened in ways that are different from the ways that we ourselves are marginalized or threatened (if we are at all), is a personally, politically, and artistically risky act. The very real dangers of co-optation, appropriation, and/or reinforcing otherness are always present.
Given: We need to do it anyway.
The we I’m speaking of here, in particular, is we the privileged. Those of us with any combination of skin privilege, class privilege, gender privilege – that we.
And there lies a primary challenge: if there’s a we, there’s a they. And it feels dangerous to think in terms of us and them, because that way lies segregation and supremacist thinking -- it would be so much lovelier and rosier just to think and speak of a grand us, a human us.
But to do so is to deny the very real fact that groups of human beings, particularly in our United States, move through the world with vastly different threat types and threat levels, and some conversely with vastly different levels of protection and opportunity. And denying that in our art makes us liars, and contrary to some people’s belief, liars do not make great poets.
So if we’re going to tell the truth of our times in our poems, we need to recognize and examine our privileges and marginalizations, as well as our human connections and commonalities.
To be clear: this is not a call to “give voice to the voiceless” or any of that patronizing artist-as-savior business. People without or with less privilege have voices, make no mistake. Nobody needs us to speak for them.
This is, however, a call to dig deep into the personal and cultural histories that inform and platform and buttress our privilege, and expose those to the world’s bright eye. To examine the intersections between our privileged lives and the lives of those held outside that, particularly where those intersections do not cast us in flattering light. To practice the subtle and necessary balancing act that is speaking up and out in ways that expand the platform for other voices rather than usurping, speaking in place of, or silencing them.
Given: We’re going to fuck this up.
As long as we’re writing out of our own immediate, personal, experience, pretty much the worst we’re doing to do is write a bad poem. No harm, no foul. But the moment we step outside that, things get dangerous.
And well they should: nothing crucial is safe. And safety is a privilege denied to many. It is precisely because we could choose to write within the bubble of our privilege that we must step outside it.
How we do that is up to each of us, and is a topic for another blog. But for now, I’ll say this: all those ascot-grasping essays on “Can Poetry Matter” and “The Death of Art” will continue apace until the poetry that insists on speaking to and of its grimy, shameful and still sometimes tenaciously glorious time, insists on grappling with all the dark and needful complexities of our era, takes a solid, rightful and well-lit place center stage and cover page.
My posts this week on The Best American Poetry blog have all been about what it means to build writing communities of difference and writing communities of care. I am deeply grateful for this opportunity. Voices like my own (black, LGBT, Buddhist, and from working poor worlds) are underrepresented in mainstream literary venues. Tonight my friend and fellow author, Kathy Jones, taught me that I am not just a survivor, but an "overcomer" and reading and writing makes me so.
The Best American Poetry community is an intentionally, regularly integrative and inclusive literary institution. Yet, elsewhere, despite notable efforts, we still write and read within very culturally and aesthetically segregated worlds. Not all of our institutions are consistently, demandingly polyvocal, polyvalent, multigenre, cross-style, and inclusive. Moreover, quiet as its kept and difficult as it may be to hear, some perform diverse representation on the surface (through fleeting, occasional tokenism) while seething with toxic power plays underneath that undermine the spirit of true inclusion.
And so, for my final blog post this week, I ask for your help on behalf of a friend who is a remarkable writer. Alexis H. Allen is an elder black Southern writer, an ordained minister, a teacher, and a survivor of domestic violence who is writing a book called In Pew Pain about alienation within spiritual communities. If the quotation from an excerpt from her book piques your interest, then will you please suggest publishing venues for either a longform essay adapted from her book or for the book itself? You may visit my website and email me at the address listed on the righthand side of the homepage. Or you can leave a comment at this post. Here's the excerpt (included here with her permission):
From In Pew Pain by Alexis H. Allen
It was 1980 in Fort Knox, Kentucky. I was living with my husband, a non-commissioned officer stationed at this military army base. I attended church services at one of the chapel. The service as called the “Fort Knox Gospel Hour.” Wednesday evening Bible Study at the chapel was a highlight of the week. I needed words of inspiration and “some church,” as we say colloquially, to give me a lift until Sunday.
That Wednesday I made certain that the house sparkled and that the best dinner possible was prepared. The family was served, everything was fine and there were no excuses for me to stay home. It was time to go to Bible Study. There were no problems until I started to leave out of the door. As I picked up my Bible and my purse, my husband grabbed me by the arm and quietly but harshly said, “If you go to that church, I am going to come there, drag you out and stomp a mud hole in your ass.”
As I drove off, I trembled so uncontrollably that it seemed that the steering wheel would be rattled from it’s place. My greatest fear was that someday my husband would carry out his threats, attack me unmercifully, or kill me and the children as he said he would.
The acts of domestic violence that occur inside the walls of faith communities are represented by staggering, terrifying statistics. The legendary Christian leader Chuck Colson (1931-2012) once said that, "Tragically, studies reveal that spousal abuse is just as common within the evangelical churches as anywhere else. This means that about 25 percent of Christian homes witness abuse of some kind."
I safely arrived at Bible Study that evening and sat on the front row of the church. I found it hard to concentrate on what was being taught. I saw the Pastor. He gestured for me to come. He asked, “Why are you crying, Sister Allen. It can’t be because of Bible Study.” I told him about the threat that my husband made. He responded with, “Get your purse and your Bible. Go home. Have you seen the size of his feet?”
I appreciate your advice for Alexis H. Allen, and I deeply appreciate your openness and acceptance of my writing at The Best American Poetry blog.
I taught myself to read as a toddler to be close to my momma. My momma loathed me. I was, as she described me, her "sissy child" or the "changeling." Any admiration she had, arose from guilt. She was more business manager, army general, and torturer than momma. Which was worse: her violence against me (verbal, physical, sexual) or the violence that she allowed others (including siblings and my theatrical manager) to exact on me? Still, strangely, I loved her. Most of all, I did not want her to be hurt. I would hide underneath her sewing machine under the castoff cloth when my father would beat her.
One time after he beat her through the window out onto the roof, I holed myself so far under the sewing machine that my hand got caught in what turned out to be a secret compartment where she kept two of her most treasured books: Heidi by Johanna Spyri and Imperial Woman by Pearl S. Buck. Both novels are about orphan girls. My grandmother (a ruthless prostitute and madam despite coverups told by some in my family) disowned my momma: my grandmomma placed my momma on a Pullman Porter's car on a train out of Philadelphia and shipped her to live at a private black children's orphanage in Washington, D.C. My momma's favorite novels (and I still have the exact copy of Imperial Woman today) told tales of brutal girlhood and womanhood about which she inimitably understood. By the time I was three, relying foremostly on those novels, I could read.
I was aided by a special ability: eidetic memory. Eidetic memory is the capacity to intensely recall phenomena only seconds or minutes after exposure. The ability actually decreases as a child moves into adulthood. The first book I ever held in my hands was a copy of the King James Version of the Bible. At church, I would hold it open and when the deacon read aloud the passages to which the preacher referred, I connected the text with the orality and remembered entire passages. That's how I came to learn almost all of the Psalms. A brother and I were briefly tutored by a religious couple named the Morgans. Mrs. Morgan was shocked to discover that I could already recite long Biblical passages from memory. She gave me thrift copies of "classic" books and poems to "test" my recall. At three I was also unusual in that I spoke in complete sentences. But, my speech went deeper. My eidetic memory empowered my structural recognition of language. I wanted to know how it all ticked. I began to understand the language that I recalled as vocabularies set within sentences.
My goal was to learn vocabularies and glean the mechanics of sentences. I taught myself vocabularies using the Britannica encyclopedias and thick bound dictionaries in my home. My immediate family was poor, violent, and lacking in college education, but they were intensely literate, especially in Christian texts. I began to understand the weight of simple, independent subject-verb declarative statements when I honed in on Psalm 23: "The Lord is my shepherd. He leads me in paths of righteousness. I will fear no evil. I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever." I reached a milestone when I was able to differentiate between the present tense of "The Lord is my shepherd" and the future tense of "I will fear no evil."
I recognized verb tense by figuring out the intelligibly within the preacher's reference to Psalm 23: the Lord's care of us meant that, in the future, we would be blessed without fear and homelessness. I connected meaning with recalled oral images, and recalled oral images with texts. By the time I tackled Heidi and Imperial Woman, I knew vocabularies and sentences. I then proceeded to move beyond the basics of declarative, imperative, interrogative, and exclamatory states from the Bible into a style of expression that seemed limited in that Christian text: descriptive expression. At their best, whether nonfiction or fiction, stories thrive on vivid narrative description. The Bible's religiosity seemed governed by a different order--less storytelling and more rumination, exaltation, questioning, imprecation, vituperation, invigilation, and praise.
Then, just after turning three, I began journaling. I used pieces of paper torn from the legal pads on which my momma wrote out monthly bills, organized chores, and kept track of her menses. My first instinct was to document the systematic burning done to me by a sibling so that I could show my pediatrician, Dr. Margaret Mary Nicholson, a piece of paper that described the atrocities in lieu of speech. My momma beat me and made me swear never to utter what my elder brother was doing to me or anything else in our family. Writing seemed a means to express my struggle without disobeying my momma's commands.
As you may know full well by now, I was no ordinary toddler, and I felt very close to death. I thought that there may surely come a time when my momma or any family member might actually kill me. So I was very conscious of mitigating my behaviors so as not to cross them while still exercising my own will. My eidetic memory posed a threat to my momma. She warned me repeatedly that if I told what I remembered (with the enormous precision and depth that it came to me) that I would be responsible for the break up of my family. "You could go to an orphanage," my momma threatened. "Or we could be homeless." All of these horrors did indeed befall me: soon I would be removed from my mother's care and placed in foster facilities. Soon I would be homeless. Our family would indeed be broken up and it is a testament to my good mental health as a person today that I have moved beyond the castigating guilt that I once felt for simply telling the truth about the violence.
And then it came to pass that my momma discovered my journals. She also discovered that I had been removing, reading and then returning her novels to the secret compartment in her sewing machine. She dragged me into the upstairs hallway by the bathroom and struck me again and again in my face. Then she handed the novels to me and told me to go downstairs and put them on the bookcase shelf in the den because they were obviously no longer a secret. I stood at the top of the steps, collecting myself before descending. She berated me for taking too long at the top of the staircase. Then, with a tap on my back, she pushed me. I tumbled down the steps like a rag doll. I knew I had injured my head as soon as I hit the bottom step. This was the first of a series of concussions that I endured through violence over the course of my childhood. My momma lied to Dr. Nicholson about the true source of my injury from that day. She lied about most of my injuries. As a toddler, I taught myself how to read and write. But at that moment, at the bottom of the steps, I began to cloak my reading and hide my writing. What good were my literary efforts if I was dead?
Are the dead still with us? When the flesh is husk, does the spirit speak? Can a love be everlasting? Can a hurt be overlong? After a predator dies, are his crimes still wrong? When the nightclub closes, do the splintering floors still dance? How many balls are just memory? How many illnesses took lives? I've heard hundreds of eulogies, yet I am not wise. What survives? Why bereft? Spirit-speaking? Spirit-listening? Smoldering ash? Life-theft?
And you, dear Eriq, are you with me? Do you still commentate at spirit-balls? Do you remember the time when we were five years old at Aunt Jackie's house when we first met Mr. Yardley, the predatory man who became our theatrical manager? We were not siblings, but we bled the same blood. AIDS covered you in blisters. You raged through your last hours. "But," you cried through fevers, "I thought I was resistant." Then death was a hiss. Years ago, Mr. Yardley told his new child charges arraigned that day at Aunt Jackie's: the only role that we would truly play as child entertainers was the part of a child. We learned to be cherubic: to smile with our eyes, with our teeth, with our cheeks pinched and puffed. What kind of death attends an abused child who plays innocent for money? What did it mean to perform childhood yet never be a child? Now that you are spirit, Eriq, are you finally a child?
And you, dear Jimmy, are you with me? Do you still dance at the spirit-Show Palace in a ghost-Times Square? Do you still run your hands across your litheness, lick your teeth, blink your eyes, cooing, "Everybody wishes they could have this puertorriqueño skin, this puertorriqueño hair." You were Apollo when you burlesque-danced at the Show Palace, and I was just the nightshift domestic who cleaned the wall-to-wall mirrors (and an occasional fill-in dancer, shockingly homely, weak in gathering tips). Do you remember the night you hauled me to Jerome Avenue in the Bronx while you scored Gutter Glitter from your supplier? I told you that I would never, ever let anyone put me in danger like that again. You replied, eyes dancing with Zip: "If not for Baysay, I would love you." Does the deathplace have Weasel Dust and Bubble Gum and Brooklyn Pearl and DC-Dust? Nothing was free, right? After I asked to crash at your tiny sublet and told you I had no money, you still demanded I write a poem for you each day. Of course, I complied. "Life is about something for something," was what you would say. So, then, what is death? And do you still read Apollo poems in the sprit-night?
And you too, Woody, the standout former Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company dancer. Long legs, terrific ballon, alert mind, warm-hearted, off stage and on: a black crane, a swan in human lace. We met at the Paradise Garage. I was sitting in the corner on the floor and you urged me to dance. Then you took me to the round-walled Better Days on West 49th and the cramped Buttermilk Bottom on Franklin Street. And when you came to D.C., we went to the Bachelor's Mill where the cunning catch dates in their fists. And just before you started teaching as a dance professor in Texas, we talk on the phone and you sigh: "What's fame, what's money, what's life without love?" And, oh, you adored the metaphysical poets and house music and gospel songs and soft-spokeness and warm ocean waves. In the 80s, your favorite group was Ten City--you let me listen to their song "Devotion" on your Sony Walkman. "Don't come to Texas, baby," you told me when you were dying, "I don't want you to see me like this. I'm so weak." Are they still singing, "I wanna give you devotion?" Or, "When you're short on cash/I've got your length/when you're weak/I'll be your strength"?
Serious writers must sometimes explain that writing is not a hobby, not a leisure pursuit, and not a luxury. Rather, it is the most essential practice of our lives. Audre Lorde said it best: "Poetry is not a luxury. It is a vital necessity of our existence. It forms the quality of the light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change, first made into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action."
"Yeah, yeah, yeah," one of my dearest former poetry students said to me many years ago. "But what do you really mean when you say that writing is not a luxury?" It was just a few weeks after the beginning of my poetry class. He could not understand the notion that some serious writers' very survival depends on writing. It all seemed like romantic claptrap: for him, writing was a luxurious choice, not an austere calling. He was a wealthy white student at a small, private liberal arts college who had always dreamed of being a famous, award-winning, bestselling writer. But, as he shared on the first day of class when we all introduced ourselves, if he did not achieve his ambition, he was going to be okay because he could rely on being comfortable. Then he said, "After all, writing is just something that I do on the side."
During a conference in the middle of the semester, he told me that he did not know what he was going to do after the first week of my class because he had never had a black teacher before, much less an LGBT Buddhist teacher. I affirmed my former student that day in our conference and I affirmed him every other day throughout our rapport in the years to come. (And I have received his permission to write about him with the understanding that I not reveal his name.) His honesty was one of many starting places for true learning between us. True learning is frequently uncomfortable: we must break to reveal. If you think that I was in the slightest bit upset with him for his honesty, then you may need to read my thoughts about bias. In fact, he was doing everything right: he was trying to work-through the influence of his upbringing as he came to terms with my searing, discomfiting poetry lessons.
I sensed that he was covering up pain. The tragedies of my own life helped me to see a darkness engulfing him, a darkness so encompassing that he could not fathom its encroachment upon him. I suspected that my former student was a drug addict a month after meeting him. Unlike most teachers at the school, I have lived through the harshness of the streets and I know its struggles. I have never been an addict. But, some of my dearest friends have struggled with addiction. My office at the time was on the far, backside of the campus in a dorm. When I was working late, I would often see him when he was high: stumbling, nodding with a glazed, deadened gaze and an ashen pallor about his skin.
One day his drug supplier came on to campus to drop off a shipment. Yes, along with being an addict, he was a dealer. I saw them conversing furtively behind the dining hall as I made my way to the bus stop late at night to go home: the white young man of privilege and the black young man of disadvantage connecting through drugs. Then they both turned to look at me, the black LGBT Buddhist teacher from the working poor world of the streets and I broke the spell of their secret, painful rapport by calling out, "Be safe! I'll see you in class next week!"
Soon my former student's substance abuse and drug dealing came to the attention of the authorities at school. An incident occurred about which I still do not know the details. He stopped coming to class. It would not be long before his problems would force him leave the school. But, while he did not formally complete my poetry class, he continued his education with me.
One night I received a call from him at 3 a.m. in the morning. "Please," he weeped, "Come help me. I think I am in Druid Hill Park. I don't know where to turn." Without hesitation, I hopped on a bus and then walked past the abandoned buildings and trash strewn thoroughfare to the cross streets where he said that I would find him huddled under a street light. He was shivering. He seemed to have lost some of his clothes. He wore only one shoe. I gave him my jacket. "Aren't we going to hop a cab?" he asked and I told him, "Absolutely not. We are going to catch a bus." As long as I did not alert his parents or the school, he agreed to let me help him.
He fell asleep on the bus without asking where we were going. It was only when we arrived at a 7 a.m. meeting of Narcotics Anonymous that he understood my designs. I lived blocks away from the venue where that early morning Narcotics Anonymous meeting took place. When I walked to the bus stop in the mornings, I passed by the meeting folk lingering outside, smoking cigarettes. That morning after the meeting, over breakfast at the Paper Moon diner in Baltimore, I suggested that it was time for him to rewrite his life. And so began my former students' true writing education.
Five years later, the poems started coming: vital, brutal, brilliant poems about being a rich kid on Woo-Woo (heroin laced marijuana smoked in a cigarette), Belushi (heroin laced with cocaine), and Cheese (heroin laced with cold medicine). He once told me, "I'm an asshole." I then encouraged him to "write like an asshole until you come to a place in your life when you can cover up your behind."
Ten years later, I am pleased to say that he has rewritten his life and, whatever happens, he has the tools to keep doing so. His very life depends on writing. I told my former student who is now my friend that I was blogging this week and I wanted to feature one of his poems to introduce his artistry to the world. At first he agreed, but then, just before midnight, he called to say that he was not ready. Instead, he suggested that I link to an old hymn called "It Is Well With My Soul" that I once sang to him over the phone five years ago that begins: "When peace, like a river, attendeth my way,/When sorrows like sea billows roll;/Whatever my lot, Thou has taught me to say,/It is well, it is well, with my soul."
With every book I read, a veritable film is created within. Pupils retract and widen; my fingers can’t move rapidly enough through pages as I see these words and somewhere inside me, images of this reality are created and the film reel of the book progresses. The most internal movie is being made as I imagine what these words really mean. Everything is there. I can see each character; I try to sense idiosyncrasies within them; I conjure up the places they live; there’s an attempt to see everything, and often, I’m imagining it. That’s ok. But what if I didn’t have to? A thirst for reading combined with a primal love for adventure and travel sparked a passion for going to those places I’ve read about in books and experiencing a tangible film reel--something I can touch and don’t have to dream up within my imagination.
The best place I’ve ever seen is Ireland. But I knew that before I visited. My father trekked through the country years ago; he brought back a bodhran, a necklace he’d been given by someone who picked him up while hitchhiking, and a map of the country. I’d traced the lines of the map hanging on my father’s wall so many times, but I’d also read Angela’s Ashes. Frank McCourt’s brutal accounts of poverty and hardship in 1930’s/1940’s Limerick didn’t necessarily stir in me a desire to glorify or relish in the grit of the city. It did, however, have me wondering what it might be like to retrace McCourt’s steps. For those not familiar with the book, Frank McCourt recounts his impoverished childhood as he moves from Brooklyn to Limerick and details all the trials that came with it.
I came to Limerick not needing to see McCourt’s Limerick necessarily, but to create my own, and to assimilate it into a more personal Angela’s Ashes. McCourt describes Leamy’s National School, for example, as a seemingly gray place where teachers doled out corporate punishment and students were warned not to cry. Today, the mid-sized brick building still stands, and it seems implausible that this--this spot where you lean and rest your back on the cool iron gates and finger the short stone columns that stand before the building--this is where Frank McCourt saw the things that made him who he was and subsequently earned him a Pulitzer. I stand where he stood.
Much of McCourt’s Limerick has been glorified so, and what was once poverty stricken have subsequently become museums, luxury hotels, and other signs of booming industry. There’s even an Angela’s Ashes walking tour. Not everything still stands, but some things do. South’s Pub does. It’s the pub that serves as a vehicle for McCourt’s father to drink up the family’s savings in the book. It’s also the place where McCourt’s uncle bought him his first pint. The brightly colored bar glass of the Tiffany lamps and lavishly upholstered furniture may not reflect the more bleakly narrated description of the bar in the novel, but that’s not the point. It’s there. I was there. And you can go there. We can all be somehow a part of rewriting our favorite novels in our own mind’s eye by seeing and touching and smelling what our authors did when those words were written. We can make our own reel, and then our favorite novels become something else. They become ours.
The entirety of the literary community and fans of his work are all grieving the loss of Mark Strand this week. The faulty area at school was abuzz with memories and stories of the iconic poet. Professor Deborah DeNicola, my colleague at Broward College, celebrates Strand in a poem she had published in Nimrod a few years ago.
Loving Mark Strand
It’s as if he knows how close he’s always been to Spirit.
As if your hand might pass through the numen of his voice
and a little shadow shiver on the auditorium wall.
If you asked I bet he’d glance away with a half smile and husky
whisper . . . Everything ages . . . We get old . . . Everyone disappears . . .
and this with a hissing sigh: . . . Love fades . . . But his eyes
would twinkle like wild dice and you’d know underneath
that haunting still lives a romantic, why else would he
strike us so humble, so droll? One could do worse
than scribble ethereal sighs while years slip by
as pages lifted by wind. Maybe he sees something
we can’t imagine beyond this earthly timeline. Always
his quavery moans purr like a couple of mongrels,
wounded but playful. Oh Strand! Oh handsome Strand!
Your towering gaze taught us tricks that held out mystery,
ships made of words, lifelines we almost grasp
as we read poems built of vowels, poems mocking
themselves, poems so pleased to be poems, bemused
at the range of their pain, consumed with their own toiling
well into twilight— elusive, mewing poems whose feet
never touch ground. And here in the pin-drop quiet,
ten deep in the standing-room-only of his vapory breath,
we’re almost splay-legged in rapture while there
at the podium, he’s merely mouthing the syllables
of light and air and glass in the perfectly stitched font
of The New Yorker. We could sail the rictus of cryptic
grin, its crescent aisle, while we cling to his piper’s cape
and flow from the building up a Bread Loaf embankment
where wind blows color out of the gloaming and the smoky
poems dissolve, deliquescent as rain beclouding
the synchronous rise of birds. And Strand,
with the bittersweet smile, glad to have touched our lives,
never giving a hoot who mimicked him . . . he just keeps moving,
holy over the fields, an Aquarian Orpheus, one with his head
intact, toes dangling over the edge of our good green planet
into the mythic skies of poetry history, taking his place beside
Homer, Virgil . . . Demosthenes’ stones under his tongue,
back to the first bicameral tribe, the blue mother cave where
he first dreamed in the silence the tender language of the born.
-Deborah DeNicola, published in Nimrod
The attacks of September 11th were very difficult for me as they were for many people. It was the last year of my MFA program. In addition to teaching and flying, I was finishing my thesis which was a book length collection of poetry about a flight attendant named Kimberlie.
I was surprised some flight attendants were able to work right away. I was afraid there were going to be more attacks. I took an unpaid week off which the airline allowed us to do without a problem. After a week, I had to go back to work. I was scared and grieving but broke. In the briefing I had with the two other flight attendants prior to our trip, I told them I was scared and it was my first trip back. One of the other young women said, “I’m scared too, it’s my first trip too. My mom is coming on all our flights with us.” Her mom could pass ride space available for free as part of our employee benefits and it wasn’t a problem getting on any of the flights because they were all practically empty. In spite of what anyone may think, I fully admit I was so glad to have a mom there watching over us. The other young woman working with us didn’t seem frightened at all. Her husband was a high school history teacher and the attacks caused him to change his entire course to 9/11 backstory. For the first time in his teaching career, his students were enthralled.
Of course, flying and finishing assignments and my thesis, 9/11 entered the poems. The fear I felt. The images I saw. Very shortly after 9/11, I went to the Hong Kong Ladies’ Night Market where a vendor was selling t-shirts with screened images of the Twin Towers burning right before they collapsed. The shirts were hanging outside his booth, high on display. He saw me looking at them with shock and disgust and he looked at me indignantly as if to say, “That’s right.”
I had scheduled for Eileen Tabios to be the Guest Author in the class I was teaching. She spoke to the class about the difficulty of finding language immediately after a tragedy occurs. Grappling with language myself, all I could see was the image of the dust settling and feel a sense of quiet dislocation. Images without sound. It became the final poem of the collection.
I shouldn’t be thinking of Santa Claus in March. But, this picture I took in the desert behind my house was taken in October. Besides, I wanted to write something less heavy about language and words, their power to make a thing more itself, to make one thing another.
I showed this picture to my Elder, and he said, "Well, I guess no Christmas this year. Santa is dead." Which reminded by of Charles Harper Webb's poem, "The Death of Santa Claus."
For this post, I’m going to share an anecdote about Santa--
The Mojave word for Christmas is Nyevathii ivaak. The missionaries used Christmas day to lure Mojaves to church. They gave them fruit. They each got a piece of candy. Sometimes they even got a present.
Because Santa Claus was just as mysterious a white man as Jesus, the two saviors blurred together in their minds. Jesus was dead, they had been told, and Santa Claus appeared out of nowhere on the same day every year. Both Santa and Jesus seemed to have come from the sky, and they both kept ending up at the church. Hmmm. The conclusion: Santa Claus was the ghost of Jesus. Christmas in Mojave means The Ghost Came, means the ghost of Jesus is here in a red suit, and he’s got candy--he's Santa Jesus.
In Mojave, the words we use to describe our emotions are literally dragged through our hearts before we speak them—they begin with the prefix wa-, a shortened form of iiwa, our word for heart and chest. So we will never lightly ask, How are you? Instead, we ask very directly about your heart. We have one way to say that our hearts are good, and as you might imagine if you’ve ever read a history book or lived in this world, we have many ways to say our hearts are hurting.
The government came to us first in the form of the Cavalry, then the military fort (which is why we are called Fort Mojave), and finally the boarding school. The government didn’t simply “teach” us English in those boarding schools—they systematically and methodically took our Mojave language. They took all the words we had. They even took our names. Especially, they took our words for the ways we love—in silencing us, they silenced the ways we told each other about our hearts.
One result of this: generations of English-speaking natives have never heard I love you from their parents, which in their eyes, meant their parents didn’t love them. However, those parents never said, I love you, because it didn’t mean anything to them—it was an English word for English people. There is no equivalent to it in the Mojave language—the words we have to express our feelings, to show the things berserking in our chests for one another are much too strong to be contained by the English word love.
But after boarding schools and work programs sent them to the cities for work, our children stopped speaking Mojave—they were beaten if they were caught talking or singing in their language. Maybe when they came home their parents spoke to them all about their hearts, but if they did, the children didn’t understand anymore.
It is true, the Mojave language does not say, I love you—and it is equally true that the government was hoping we would quit expressing this toward one another, that we would never again give each other tenderness. While we don’t say, I love you, we say so much more. We have ways to say that our heart is blooming, bursting, exploding, flashing, words to say that we will hold a person and never let them go, that we will be stingy with them, that we will never share them, that they are our actual heart. And even these are mere translations, as close as I can get in English.
Despite Cavalries and boarding schools, our language is still beautiful and passionate—it carries in it the ways we love and touch each other. In Mojave, to say, Kiss me, is to say fall into my mouth. If I say, They are kissing, I am also saying, They have fallen into each other’s mouths.
The word for hummingbird is nyen nyen, and it doesn’t mean bird—it is a description of what a hummingbird does, moving into and out of and into the flower. This is also our word for sex. Mat ‘anyenm translated to English means the body as a hummingbird, or to make a hummingbird of the body. On a very basic level we have a word that means body sex hummingbird all at once.
I think of the many lame things people say when they want to have sex with someone--imagine how much more luck they would have if they came to you with that lightning look in their eyes and that glisten in their mouths and said just one word: hummingbird. And you would think: bloom, sweet, wings that rotate, heart beating at 1,260 beats per minute, flower, largest proportioned brain in the bird kingdom, syrup,iridescent, nectar, tongue shaped like a “w”—which means something close to yes.
Recently, an adult learner who is teaching her children the language in her home asked our Elders if they could teach her to tell her son that she loves him. They told her that we have no word for that. But, the learner insisted, I need to know because I never heard my parents say that to me, and I will not let my son grow up without hearing me tell him that I love him. The Elders asked her, What is it you really want to tell him? The learner was emotional at this point, her words had caught in her throat. Instead of speaking, she made a gesture with her arms of pulling someone closer to her, and then she closed her eyes and hugged her arms against her chest. Ohhh, one of the Elders exclaimed, Now, we have a word for that—wakavar.
Maybe there is no great lesson to be learned here, but when I sit down to write a poem, I carry all of this language with me onto the page--I try to figure out what I really mean, what the words really mean to me. I don’t ever want to say, love, if what I mean is wakavar, if what I mean is hummingbird, if what I mean is fall into my mouth.
I left it
on when I
left the house
for the pleasure
of coming back
ten hours later
to the greatness
of Teddy Wilson
"After You've Gone"
on the piano
in the corner
of the bedroom
as I enter
in the dark
from New and Selected Poems by David Lehman
THE RULE OF THUMB
Ringfinger was nervous
when they learned
that Hand might succumb
to the rule of Thumb.