Conservatives had a field day when FDR enlisted the Hoboken crooner who made girls faint. That was just the beginning for Sinatra. Here, an excerpt from David Lehman's Sinatra’s Century: One Hundred Notes on the Man and His World, in book stores now.
The “Swoonatra” phenomenon reached its apex in the fall of 1944. When Sinatra performed at the Paramount Theater in New York that October, the throng of frenzied teenage girls—the so-called bobbysoxers—made mayhem in the streets. After a Sinatra performance—and Sinatra gave nine of them a day, starting at 8 in the morning—the girls refused to vacate their seats. Sometimes as few as 250 left theaters crowded with more than a dozen times that number. Police had to be called in. In what came to be known as the Columbus Day Riot, the bobbysoxers set in motion the pattern of behavior that marked the arrivals of Elvis Presley in 1956 and the Beatles eight years later. Having practiced their fainting techniques in advance, girls shrieked and swooned in bliss when the skinny vocalist bent a note in his patented way.
When Sinatra met Humphrey Bogart, the star of Casablanca andThe Maltese Falcon said that he’d heard Sinatra knew how to make women faint. “Make me faint,” Bogart said. Sinatra’s faint-inducing ability was also on the agenda when he met Franklin D. Roosevelt. “Fainting, which once was so prevalent, has become a lost art among the ladies,” the president told Sinatra in the White House on September 28. “I’m glad you have revived it.” Then the commander in chief asked Sinatra how he did it. “I wish to hell I knew,” Sinatra said.
The singer had wrangled the White House invitation when the Democratic Committee chairman asked his pal, the restaurateur Toots Shor, to a reception. FDR was glad to host Sinatra; it would counteract Bing Crosby’s endorsement of his opponent, Republican Thomas E. Dewey, governor of New York, Roosevelt’s old job before he went to the White House. “Look who’s here,” Roosevelt exclaimed and asked the singer to confide the title of the song that would be No. 1 on the hit parade next week. “I won’t tell,” FDR grinned. “Amapola,” Sinatra said. (The title may have sounded Italian to the president—and Italy was an uncomfortable subject in wartime—so he switched the subject.) The meeting went well, though the president was said afterward to scratch his head in wonderment at the idea that the skinny crooner had revived what he called “the charming art of fainting.” “He would never have made them swoon in our day,” he told an aide after the party broke up.
In June, 2016, Terrance Hayes visited Florida to read and teach in the University of Tampa low-residency M.F.A. program. In the course of his presentation, he made a comment about syntax and sound that struck me as important, and worth exploring. Despite our both being distracted by the seventh game of the N.B.A. Finals later that evening—a game to ruin any Davidson College professor’s mood—we agreed to correspond via email, and this conversation ensued.
Terrance Hayes is the author of five collections of poetry, including How To Be Drawn in 2015. His honors include a 2010 National Book Award, a 2014 MacArthur Fellowship and a 2016 NAACP Image Award for Poetry. His website is terrancehayes.com.
AMP: Welcome to the non-place of email. Let's dive in, over our heads.... If I understood correctly, sometime in your artisitic development, you began to associate the extension of syntax with the production of a different kind of music within the poem. Is that an identifiable moment? Would you care to elaborate?
TH: I was drawn to syntax early in my reading life. It was the feeling something beyond words was being communicated in the bones of poems. Certainly that was my experience of Keats’ “To Autumn”— specially that first stanza. When I first read it in college, I didn’t associate its power (mellow, carnal oozing power) with the fact it was a single over brimming sentence:
Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the moss'd cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For summer has o'er-brimm'd their clammy cells.
The same feeling came in certain passages of prose. I remember a college professor beginning to sob as he read Molly Bloom’s soliloquy of yes in Ulysses. It’s one of the longest sentences in the English language (4391 words according to Wikipedia). I must have associated the sentence’s breathless charge with his emotional reaction. There were no periods—he couldn’t take a breath to collect himself. I’m still trying to create that sense of charge and “o’er-brimm’d-ness” in my work.
AMP: I love your description of the “o’er-brimm’d”: that’s a great ambition. In that passage, Keats also holds it together contrapuntally, via end-rhyme and those almost-parallel caesuras in lines 7-9, which lead us to read backwards into memory as we move forward in the sentence. Is that something you do too? Or, rather, what’s your way of managing the length and breath of such a charged sentence?
TH: I see “contrapuntal” and “caesuras” and get a tad nervous. Especially when thinking about my early drafts of a poem. I mostly follow something closer to what Frost called “the sound of sense”:
“Now it is possible to have sense without the sound of sense (as in much prose that is supposed to pass muster but makes very dull reading) and the sound of sense without sense (as in Alice in Wonderland which makes anything but dull reading). The best place to get the abstract sound of sense is from voices behind a door that cuts off the words.”
I am trying to find the sense in a sentence: its sense of rhythm, its sense of verbs and nouns, its sense of thought and sound. I work in units of sentences as often as I work in units of line and image.
AMP: Cool, those connections that you draw between a sentence’s musical properties and its meanings....
“Rhythm” is a term that I tend to fudge when I’m discussing sound and sense; it’s such a difficult concept. Maybe I can ask you to consider an example from Frost, and talk a little more about rhythm.
In “West-Running Brook,” Frost observes of the water:
It has this throwing backward on itself
So that the fall of most of it is always
Raising a little, sending up a little.
I think that one way to read these lines is as a discussion of rhythm, the riffles in the water “contraries,” as Frost calls them elsewhere in the poem. Would such a metaphor be consistent with your use of “rhythm”? Or are you thinking of the rhythm of a sentence in another way? Could you elaborate upon your use of the term?
TH: The word “rhythm" is fluid. Sometimes I’m thinking about varying the length and speed of a sentence. As in the first poem in my collection Wind In A Box. (Is it self-important to refer to one my own poems?) That’s sort of an exercise in staccato sentences. And in the ways punctuation impact a sentence. A series of periods, some slashes, a dash:
WIND IN A BOX
This ink. This name. This blood. This blunder.
This blood. This loss. This lonesome wind. This canyon.
This / twin / swiftly / paddling / shadow blooming
an inch above the carpet—. This cry. This mud.
But most times I’m thinking of rhythm as a kind of pattern. As in the ways subordinate clauses and repetition can expand a sentence. Especially the way lists can expand a sentence. The catalogues of Whitman and his Beat progeny, for example. Ginsberg spins wildly creating a fog of image that first long, elastic sentence of “Howl.” That first sentence is one of the most technically dazzling dimensions of “Howl.” I don’t know if that answers your question. I agree rhythm is a difficult concept. Because it is such a personal/intuitive concept.
AMP: Now that we’re talking about sentences in your work expressly, I’d love to hear you comment upon one or more of the poems in your latest book, How To Be Drawn. In light of this conversation, I’m especially interested in the formal play in “Who Are The Tribes," the “Portrait of Etheridge Knight…," and “Some Maps to Indicate Pittsburgh”—all of which use words inside boxes and/or charts. Care to dig in a bit?
TH: The notion of “formal play” is on the mark. What it suggests is I’m just playing—or trying to play outside my given tendencies. Since sentences are my default inclination, the poems you mentioned are instances of trying something different. Of trying to shift my focus. They are genuine, intimate experiments. Meaning I don’t see them as natural extensions of the sentence. Though you’ll find maybe some syntactical play, the attention is given to form. Not that I’m Jordan—I’m no Jordan, but it’s akin to asking Jordan the relationship between his dunks and his work on his jumper or his defense. He was, when he developed his jumper and defensive prowess, only trying to broaden his skills…
AMP: So what’s next, in terms of formal play? Is there a kind of poem you’re working on, that you haven’t been able to write?
TH: Great question. I’m mostly/usually concerned with the last poem and the next poem. The last poem was accompanied with drawings. The next poem is presently several scraps waiting to find a shape. The poems of late have been pretty long. The poem before the last poem was over 1200 words. So I’ve been trying to work my way back to compression via sonnets lately. But I don’t know. I don’t mind not knowing.
AMP: I’m going to highlight a phrase from your latest excellent response, and take the conversation in a slightly different direction.
You write, “The next poem is presently several scraps waiting to find a shape.” Do you think this is true—that phrases, or scraps, or oddments, are “waiting to find a shape”? Maybe the shape is yours, and you have certain shapes internalized that wait for the scraps you collect by writing? Or… maybe there are shapes waiting to find scraps… in the culture? Care to comment?
TH: Yes, I mean scraps waiting to find a shape. As in what I suspect happens in quilt making. I’m just gathering bright bits of thoughts and conversations, imagery in my notebook. Waiting to stitch/thread something compelling together. Usually the brightest bit becomes the poem’s heart, its engine.
AMP: You mention your notebook. Could you talk a bit about how your process might elucidate the quest for “o’er-brimm’d-ness” in the syntax? How do you handle, literally, the writing, so as to facilitate in the composition process the ambitions you identified earlier?
TH: I have to talk about basketball again here. I can’t say I’m handling the writing so much as continuously practicing with it. I am trying to broaden my facility with it. I am practicing form, of course, but I am also practicing thinking and feeling. It’s all practice. That’s what Thelonius Monk says. For me, poetry is all practice. Occasionally practice pauses for a game—which is to say, some of my poems get published— but my habit is practice. I’m practicing to sustain my strengths while strengthening my weaknesses. I like a long sentence, for example. So I have to push myself towards new challenges with long sentences. One of my challenges/experiments in How to Be Drawn was to push myself into longer poems. These days I’m trying to work my way back to the sonnet. It all takes practice. One can fail in practice. One can experiment and scrimmage. There is intimacy and measure. Practice is a laboratory, a workhouse, a habit. For me, poetry is the practice of language. —June-September, 2016
Surely this has happened to you: One day you have a knotty research question. You begin with, say, Wikipedia. You click on a footnote link, one click leads to another and before you know it, it’s tomorrow! How you landed where you are is a mystery.
It was by just such a series of virtual leaps that I discovered the rich but relatively brief history of Jewish egg and poultry farmers of the early-to-mid twentieth century, most of which were located in New Jersey.
A few more clicks and I happened upon The Land Was Theirs: Jewish Farmers in the Garden Stateby Gertrude Wishnick Dubrovsky (1992, University of Alabama Press). The book captured my attention not only because of the subject matter but also because my mother’s maiden name is Dubrov, and her ancestors were indentured farmers to a wealthy estate owner in Russia. Perhaps my own interest in farmers and farming is bred in the bone.
I had always assumed that all Jewish immigrants to America went to cities, found work, and stayed put. If we eventually moved out to the suburbs, our work was still city-based. I didn’t imagine Jews settling in rural communities and making their living in agriculture. Yet there has been a continuous, if small, Jewish farming presence in the U.S. for more than 100 years.
I've been very interested in the debate about the Donald Trump statues. Some find them offensive as fat-shaming, transphobic, or simply in bad taste. Others find them hilariously apt. I collected these 2-D caricatures from history because I wanted to pin down what it is about the DT statues that causes such a strong reaction, as opposed to other unflattering caricatures of him that are all over the media. Is it because it's a 3D statue, lifesize and lifelike, therefore commanding our attention in a way print does not? Is it because there are five of them? Is it because he's naked and his genitalia have also been caricatured? Certainly one could argue that some of these cartoons are in bad taste, exaggerating physical characteristics (Bush and Obama's ears; turning the jowly king of France into a fat piece of fruit; the obese, bug-eyed King Edward), but are we as offended by these? And does our feeling of being offended lessen when the subject is evil, such as Hermann Goering? (Also, does the fact that the Goering collages are considered masterpieces of Dadaist art change our feelings about the images?) Many of the cartoons of Trump portray him as overweight, distorted, and grotesque; the watercolor naked portrait of him that circulated on the internet did not elicit such a strong negative response in anti-Trump folks. (It did, however, result in the artist being punched in the face by a Trump supporter.) I'm not trying to criticize anyone - I'm just really curious at how and why we respond to this kind of political commentary in the ways we do.
"Trial of Napoleon Bonaparte," George Cruikshank 1813
"King Louis Phillipe," Charles Philipon 1831
"Kaiser Wilhelm I of Prussia" 1871
"Napoleon III and Kaiser Wilhelm I," 1871
"King Edward VII of Great Britain," 1905
"Hermann Goering," Hannah Hoch 1930s
"Herman Goering," John Heartfield 1933
"Shah of Iran," Wiaz 1977
"Ronald Reagan," Paul Conrad 1987
"George W. Bush and Jacques Chirac," 2000s
"Dick Cheney," 2006
"Vladimir Putin and Barack Obama" 1913
Simeon’s Osby’s name, on the other hand, brought up a wealth of intriguing information from the genealogical site. He was born on May 15 1909. In the 1920 census, he is listed as the oldest of four children, living at 1501 S. 17th Street; in the census ten years later, he is still living at home with both parents and three more siblings.
Apart from a hiatus in 1926 when Simeon seems to have left school and worked as a porter, he continues to be listed in the City Directory as a student living at home through 1928 when he graduated from Springfield High with my father.
In 1929 he is shown living at home, but working in some unspecified capacity for a local company.
In 1931, he is still listed in the Directory as living with his parents, but is also a student at the University of Illinois Champaign.
According to the City Directory, Simeon remains a student at Champaign through 1934, the height of the depression. He does not appear to have graduated when he returns to live in Springfield, working as a case aid worker in the Surviving Bureau of Transients from then until he is enlisted into the Army as a Private at the end of December 1943. There are no details in the genealogical site about where and how he served during the War: he is discharged in October 1946, around the same time that my father was discharged from the Navy.
In the 1940 census, Simeon Osby is still living in Springfield, and married to Annabel, a teacher whose birthplace is Tennessee. No maiden name is given for her. No children are listed, and no address is provided in the City Directory.
But in the 1950 census his 58 year-old mother Virgie is living with them.
In 1948, Simeon is editor of the Capitol City News, and his wife is a stenographer at the University of Illinois Division of Services for Crippled Children. By 1951 when Simeon is again in the army at the outbreak of the Korean War, Annabel has been promoted to secretary and by 1955 she is the chief clerk in the same Division, and Simeon is working at the Chicago Defender. His mother Virgie is still living with them, and works as a maid.
I could find no census information for 1960 or 1970, but Simeon Buckner Osby is still working at the Defender in 1976, when he is among fifty journalist, the only one mentioned by the Edwardsville Intelligencer paper specifically as black, and present at a meeting to discuss some proposed cuts to benefit. He stands to speak against the proposal.
Simeon died on July 14, 1993, eight years after my father. He is buried in Camp Butler, Springfield’s military cemetery. His wife had died five years earlier, and she too is buried at Camp Butler.
His father is also buried at Camp Butler. But Simeon’s mother Virgie, who had lived with her son and daughter-in-law for so many years, who in 1955 was still alive and working as a maid, is not buried with her husband, and I was unable to trace a date of death or burial site for her.
The final intriguing information garnered in the genealogical site was that Simeon is listed as Simeon Buckner Osby Jr. in the Ninth Edition of Who’s Who among African Americans (1996/97).
That tidbit launched me into deeper research.
I knew nothing about The Chicago Defender: I had not ever even heard the name before the genealogical site revealed that Simeon worked at the paper. When I saw it, I first wondered whether it was or was not strange that an African American man in mid-century American would find employment as a journalist on a paper. How did a black person then write for any newspaper? Weren’t newspapers written by and for the white middle class and the white intelligentsia?
Was there such a strong policy of non-discrimination in the newspaper world after the war, that he could be employed? Or was it a muck-racking rag that ‘even’ a black person could write for?
I wondered whether he had to commute to Chicago regularly. I wondered what kind of things he wrote about: from the only snippet of information the genealogical site showed, in 1976 he seemed to have been involved in some kind of political journalism. Is that how he started his journalistic career? Was that the kind of writing he would have done for the Capitol City News where he was working in 1948? From the sound of it, the Capitol City News must have been the paper that reported on the goings on in Illinois State legislation.
I remembered that Simeon Osby’s father worked at the State Capitol Building and
I returned to the genealogy, saw in the records how Osby Senior had been born in Springfield in 1880 from parents who had migrated from Virginia and Georgia after the Civil War; in all probability freed slaves.
I saw how Osby Senior had been honorably discharged from the army in 1906, after serving in either the Philippine-American War of 1899 or the Boxer Rebellion of 1902.
How in 1907 Osby Senior first appeared in the City Directory as an unmarried watchman living on Elliott Avenue in Springfield, and in 1912 he was first listed as married to Virgie, born in Kentucky in 1882.
The couple is living at 1501 S. 17th Street. This is the same address where the growing family lives in the 1920 and the 1930 census. It is the home Osby Senior buys for $1500 in 1930.
In the yearly Springfield City Directory from where these facts are detailed, next to the name, for the Osby family too there is the bracketed (c): colored. Branded.
From 1917 until his death in 1939, Simeon Osby Senior worked as an elevator operator and eventually as supervisor of elevator operations at the State Capitol, when elevator mechanisms were powered either by hand cranks or by hydraulic steam pistons.
Local history does not record when the three elevators were put in the State Capitol building, although space was allowed for them at the time of construction in the last years of the eighteen hundreds; but it does record a huge investment in their upgrade in 1939, the year Osby Senior died. It seems plausible but not definitive that the original elevators were put in around the time when he started working as their operator. It is not clear whether the first elevators were hand cranked or hydraulically operated.
It is most likely that all seven children at some time or other would have gone to the Capitol: how often did he take some of them to ride the elevators? Was the chance to ride the elevators a bargaining chip for this father? You work hard and do well in school, and I’ll take you to ride the elevators.
How often while they were in the elevators, did this or that legislator smile and pat any of the kids on the cheek? Which legislator remembered their name, and knew Mr. Osby’s? Who became his friends and who just addressed him as ‘boy’? With whom did the invisible man trade conversation and information?
How much did he see, and share with his son as he got older, and how much did his eldest son want to know?
Even though Simeon started his work as a reporter for the Capital News in 1948, almost ten years after his father, supervisor of elevator operations at the Capitol, died, and after the War, perhaps all he had to do was remind legislators of the man who had worked there for more than twenty years on an ancient system needing daily maintenance, and information on legislative activities easily came his way.
The moment the results came up after I typed the name The Chicago Defender in the search engine, I could begin to forgive myself for my ignorance, and for the time I had thought I had been wasting, researching and wondering about these three peers of my father’s.
The Chicago Defender was second biggest African American paper in the US,
“Founded in 1905 by Robert Sengstacke Abbott. Abbott published the first issue, a run of 300 copies, on May 6, 1905. The Defender began as a four-page weekly handbill filled with local news and reproductions of clippings from other newspapers. Abbott initially sold both subscriptions and advertising for the paper himself by going door-to-door throughout Chicago, Illinois.
Abbott used the Defender as a forum to attack racial injustice from the outset, and included a front-page heading on every issue that read, “American Race Justice Must Be Destroyed”. The Defender was a leading advocate in the fight against racial, economic, and social discrimination. It championed equal employment and fair housing for blacks, and boldly reported on lynchings, rapes, and black disfranchisement. What began as a four-page handbill had become by 1915 a popular local newspaper with a weekly circulation of 16,000.”
Once I was scanning through the on-line archives, I saw that the newspaper had sections dedicated to news from Illinois cities, including Springfield. I saw that long before Simeon started writing for the paper in 1953, he was the frequent subject: the local news more often than not consisted of social announcements. From the paper I learnt the exact date when Simeon left to attend the University of Illinois in Champaign (September 14, 1929). I learnt that in 1933, he and a friend were refused admittance at the Empire Theater and brought suit against the owner for violation of the civil rights bill, and were refused a warrant for fear of race riots. I learnt that between 1933 and the breakout of the War, Simeon was either secretary, Vice-President or President of the Springfield branch of the NAAC. I learnt that in 1939, Simeon filed a complaint with Adjutant General Carlos Black and the State’s Attorney, because only whites were being sold seats in some reserved sections of the Renaissance-Shamrock basketball game. I learnt that in 1939 he ran in the race for mayor of Springfield, sponsored by the Chicago Defender.
I knew I had to share my discoveries and I knew why: to give recognition to the hidden lives of Donald Hogan and Thelma Donnigan; to play some small role in honoring the career of Simeon Osby Jr., journalist and civil rights activist, who graduated high school with my father, Robert Fitzgerald, poet and translator.
When it occurred to me that I could look up the names of Donald Hogan, Simeon Osby and Thelma Donnigan on the genealogical site I subscribe to, I hesitated for some time: although I had no qualms at all at the thought of spending weeks in a library looking up census information, newspapers, city Directories to find them, what information could emerge by merely typing in their names into a genealogical search engine seemed like an invasion.
Was it the speed at which information might be brought up?
Was it the sense that there surely was family, their families, who were pursuing the same genealogical research, and I would be in some ways trampling on their privacy? Before I had bought my own subscription, a friend had done some research on my family for me, and it had left me uneasy even while I encouraged her to find out all she could.
What was it that made me uneasy?
A sense that we are all now living in a fish bowl, a sense of the need for modesty, the thought that veils and curtains should be drawn somewhere. But I hate curtains except those that protect me from the strongest sun. I want light.
I wanted light on these three young African Americans who daily shared the High School ground my father walked on for three years. Who walked the city he walked in for the seventeen preceding years. I wanted the light cast by finding out about them to extend to illuminate our day.
Already, even before I typed one of the three names and the year of birth, already what I had found by paying close attention to the pages of The Capitoline, rippled into a greater consciousness of structured discrimination, and into a deeper understanding of today’s anger. Already there seemed to be a direct line, from the exclusion of the three faculty advisers for the Unity Reserves, from the segregation into the one club, from the small numbers graduating, to The Black Lives Matter movement.
Isn’t ninety years too long a time for racism and discrimination to persist and mutate? 1928 was long before Rosa Parks, Brown versus the Board of Education, Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement. Fifty years have passed since those landmark institutional changes.
And still the angry young, the frustrated old, rise up in protest.
In 1928, was the institution of Springfield High proud for accepting blacks, unaware that the de-facto segregation showed it was merely paying lip service to integration? Was my father conscious of the hypocrisy, or oblivious to it?
What did my own double-edged reaction 90 years later – that on the one hand I should be so angry that there were there were only three graduating African American students, and on the other hand that I should find myself considering, how many Springfield schools had even three black students -- what did that say?
Could I dare to think that the three young people who managed to graduate with my father in June 1928, were both tokens of our Caucasian hypocrisy, and also markers for some kind of progress? What does progress means in that kind of context?
There are only four entries for Donald Hogan in the genealogical site I subscribe to: three of the entries are uploaded from the 1927 and 1928 Capitoline, and reiterate the information I already had, that he was a horn player, that he played in the orchestra, that he graduated in 1928. The fourth entry was a census that told me that he was born a week after my father, on October 19, 1910, in Springfield: like my father, he graduated high school before he turned eighteen. The entry also told me that he died in Chicago, Cook County, in August of 1986. Less than two years after my father. Nothing else.
But there is nothing ordinary about one of the four entries for Thelma Donnigan: the first three are uploaded pages of the Yearbook, but the fourth is an entry from the Springfield City Directory for 1928.
A William and Anna Donnigan, are listed above Thelma’s name, and a son of the couple, Harold, is listed below hers, but the three of them live together at a different address from hers, and cannot be her parents or, it seems, any kind of relatives. There seems to be no record of any of her family in Springfield: Thelma Donnigan, student at Springfield High, lives at 1105 East Washington Avenue.
Was she living with relatives who had completely different names?
Was she already living as a maid in the home of a white family? Did live-in maids list their names in city directories? Would a live-in maid have access to schooling?
Was she living with a man?
And then she is no longer in Springfield, but she is also not among the many Thelma Donnigans listed as living in any other part of the country. She vanishes from the records. Perhaps she disappears into the un-traceability of the married state.
What remains, a mark of shame as indelibly imprinted as any, on the society into which my father was born, and the dominant culture of which both he and I have been privileged beneficiaries, is a small, inconspicuous letter between brackets: (c).
Colored. Branded, like every other person of color in the City Directory for Springfield, Illinois in the year of the Lord 1928.
As far as "on this date" goes, today is a big one. Fifty years ago today - June 5, 1966 - I attended my 1st New York Mets game. Just like today, it was a Sunday. Shea Stadium was only in its 3rd season. My father, mother and I left early for the 1pm doubleheader against the Dodgers. On the way down - as we traversed the Taconic, Saw Mill River, Cross County, and Hutchinson Parkways - I learned about the 7th inning stretch. We made it over the Whitestone Bridge and got stuck in traffic on the Whitestone Expressway but eventually made it to Gate C. We weren't certain where the seats were, but the usher said keep going up the escalators, all the way to Upper Reserved - at the time the green seats. My mom picked a bad day to wear heels. Walking through the tunnel from the concourse opened up a sea of color. Watching games on a 19 inch black and white TV didn't prepare you for that vision. Finally planted in our seats directly above home plate, I settled down to learn the basics of scorekeeping from my mom. She was the big baseball fan: more about that in a moment. Sandy Koufax versus Gerry Arrigo. Yes, I got to see Koufax in his final year. Ron Hunt had the 1st Mets inside the park homer. Gerry Arrigo hit a double, but was removed from the game the next inning. I asked why; my mom said it was because he gave up 4 runs in 5 innings. The Mets would go on to lose this game 16-3. But fear not, the Mets would win the nightcap by a score of 3-2. So in one day, I saw the ups and downs of being a Mets fan. 20 years later, I would be there with my father when they won their 2nd (and most recent) World Series and 42 years later with my wife Susan and son Andrew for the Mets final victory at Shea.
So why the Mets? In the late 40s and early 50s, my mother worked in the City as a registered nurse. She attended a lot of baseball games, sometimes at the Polo Grounds for weekday matinees but mostly Ebbets Field. After all, she was born in Brooklyn. She knew a man, Bill Gibson, who worked for the Brooklyn Dodgers in their ticket office. Bill would get my mom great seats for games. When the Dodgers moved west, Bill didn't follow. And in 1962, he ended up working for the Mets in their ticket office. Every March, Bill would make sure to mail our family a ticket brochure. And in 1966, at 8 years old, I was old enough to go. And that's the story. I thank for parents for bringing me to that game and thank God that Bill didn't end up working in the Bronx.
In honor of this occasion, here is a link to the song played by Jane Jarvis on the Thomas organ when the Mets took the field in the 60s and early 70s. It's called Let's Go Mets. It's a rare find that was posted last month on the WOR website by Mets broadcaster and life long Mets fan Howie Rose. This song instantly transports me back to growing up and attending Mets games at Shea. #LGM
Trochaic theory, the political forecasting system based on poetic metrics, which correctly predicted Obama's presidential victories in 2008 and 2012, has shortened the odds on Bernie Sanders -- if, and it's a big if, the Sandman gets the Democratic party nomination. The reason: his name conforms to the double trochee pattern that has reliably given us an array of chief executives including Andrew Jackson, Millard Fillmore, Grover Cleveland, Warren Harding, Harry Truman, and Richard Nixon.
The odds of presidential triumph shorten further if the candidate's first and last name alliterate (e.g. Woodrow Wilson, Calvin Coolidge, Herbert Hoover, Ronald Reagan). But it is probably too late for Bernie to change his name to Sandy. While deeply critical of Israeli PM Netanyahu, the Brooklyn-born Sanders remains a Zionist ("Do I think Israel has the right to exist? Yeah, I do") who scores high on the "Jew You" test devised by a team of experts including Larry David, Sarah Silverman, and University of Vermont professor Richard Sugarman. His favorite poet would be Yehuda Amichai if he had a favorite poet and were at liberty to disclose the name.
Hilary Clinton merits an asterisk if only because the two major precedents for her name are those of Zachary Taylor and Abraham Lincoln -- in both cases a dactyl before a trochee. Astrological analysis sees the likelihood of war following such an ascendant. But maybe that's just talk. If Clinton were to consider an "Abraham Clinton" ad campaign, with an actress playing Hillary in the role of Honest Abe, she would gain ten points in some polls. Deliberate mispellings of her last name (Clitnon), common in right-wing supermarket tabloids, are bound to backfire.
The monosyllabicTed Cruz doth lose unless, like George Bush he faces an opponent who shortens his name to the same thump thump (2000) or a hapless chap on water skis (2004) The triumph of the first George Bush against Michael Dukakis in 1988 remains an aberrant case that is usually explained (a) as an expression of satisfaction with the Reagan administration, (b) proof that a picture (Dukakis in tank with helmet) is worth a thousand words, and (c) the insertion of two middle initials in Mr. Bush's name, ostensibly to distinguish the 41st from the 43rd US president, but with attendant metrical mischief.
It is however pertinent to note that the metrical makeup of "Michael Dukakis" resembles that of Barack Obama except that, luckily for Barry, his first name scans as an iamb not a trochee and so he escapes the Dukakis ignominy.
Of John Kasich, it may be said that his best hope is to add a middle initial, preferably F, and launch an "all the way with JFK" campaign, but that would cost a huge amount of money and the candidate would dismiss the idea in line with his no-nonsense Ohioan personality. The relative fates of the governors of Ohio and Michigan during this primary season fall into their own pattern -- the many seasons when the Buckeyes trounced the Wolverines by three touchdowns and went on to a bowl game.
As to the one person I seem to have left out, I would reiterate that a simple syllabic extension of his last name -- from Trump to Trumpet -- would make all the difference. -- DL
KMD: I truly enjoyed your latest collection, Notes on a Past Life, which was just published by BlazeVOX Books. As I read the work, I was reminded of Marianne Moore’s philosophy with regards to poetry. She actually coined the term “conversity” to describe the dialogic nature of the arts, to evoke the idea of the poem as a conversation with other creative practitioners. Similarly, your collection contains references to such writers as John Ashbery, Adrienne Rich, and Mark Doty, as well as incisive commentary on the business of poetry. With that in mind, I’d love hear more about your beliefs about contemporary poetry as a dialogue among its practitioners. Which elements of the conversation are you most interested in preserving, and which of these are you most interested in refining, reconstituting, and even discarding? To what extent is your poetry, your participation in this literary conversation, an interventionist gesture, an effort to effect change through narrative, as well as form and technique?
DT: I think Moore’s term is apt. I’m always in conversation with other poets. In Notes on a Past Life, I set out to tell the truth about my own experiences in the New York poetry scene. That was all. But as I was writing the book, I realized it was a fairly stringent critique of the poetry business and ambition in general. Prior to starting the book—and while I was writing it, too—I read a number of poets who helped show me the way. I was looking for direction, and for permission, without really knowing it. It wasn’t a completely conscious process; I don’t know that writing, for me, ever is. Or can be. How do you write about unpleasant experiences with real writers, living and dead? How do you reach back, touch those old hurts, reignite them, and transform them into art?
Two poems I found helpful were Sylvia Plath’s “The Tour” and Ted Hughes’s “The Literary Life.” Both are about Marianne Moore, actually. Thom Gunn’s “Famous Friends” is a poem I’ve argued with for a long time. Ultimately, I think it’s valuable. Certain poems should trouble you. John Berryman’s Love & Fame showed me many things; I’ve been reading that book on and off for years. There were others. Lorca’s Poet in New York was helpful in terms of structure and pitch. Stylistically, Hilda Morley and A.R. Ammons helped me. James Schuyler and Anne Sexton always help me. The poets I’ve mentioned are all dead, of course.
To be honest, I don’t feel that contemporary poetry has very much to tell me.
I don’t think very much is actually being said, or said in an interesting way. There’s a sameness, and a safeness, a mundaneness, an eye to getting ahead that deadens the poetry. There are a few voices that seem distinct, concrete. Maybe there always are just a few. They stand out, but how many hear them? I think of what Elizabeth Bishop said about one of Marianne Moore’s books. She praised “the wonderful ALONE quality of it all—like the piano alone in the middle of the concerto.” I guess that’s what I’m always listening for, that solitary—and brave—individual in the midst of the rabble.
I’m curious to know what you find valuable in contemporary poetry. Does it nurture or inspire you? Who are the living poets you’re in conversation with? Who are the dead poets you talk to?
KMD: I certainly agree with your discussion of the “safeness” of much of contemporary poetry. I think part of this problem of homogenization comes from the increasingly corporate nature of the universities in which creative writing programs are housed. So many contemporary poets write towards what they perceive as the markers of legitimacy, rather than writing from a place of urgency, honesty, or risk. Yet there are so many contemporary writers whose work I return to again and again. For me, the most exciting work in contemporary literature is taking place at the very periphery of what we consider to be poetry, happening at the interstices of poetry and other genres and mediums: lyric essay, short fiction, literary criticism, even photography and the visual arts.
I spent some time at Yaddo in 2011, and remember having a conversation with the poet Sam Taylor, who said that the great frontier in contemporary poetry is not finding new ways to innovate or experiment. Rather, it is integrating tradition and innovation, placing the literary tradition we’ve inherited in new and provocative contexts. The most exciting contemporary texts often arise from the dialogue between the poetry, its tradition, and its artistic resources, and other modes of representation. Recently, I was moved by a collaboration between Sandy Florian and a visual artist, Alexis Anne Mackenzie, who works with collage. The juxtaposition of text with images gave the collection a generative quality, allowing each poem to open out into more imaginative work, more possibilities for readerly interpretation. Similarly, Keith Waldrop’s Several Gravities contains magnificent collages that act as kind of field guide, instructing the reader as to how to understand and appreciate the architecture of the poems. The work of Allison Titus, Julie Marie Wade, Emma Bolden, and Jenny Boully, particularly their experiments in lyric essay, has also been of paramount importance to my thinking about what is possible within contemporary poetry.
And so you’ve probably guessed that the dead poets I talk to include mostly female modernists—H.D., Mina Loy, and Marianne Moore in particular. They really began this undertaking of exploring the possibilities for dialogue between poetry and other disciplines. I’m particularly interested in the ways they placed the literary arts in dialogue with the work of philosophers of the time period—Charles Saunders Peirce, William James, and especially Sigmund Freud. They really showed me that the smallest stylistic choices can convey powerful assertions about philosophy, literary theory, and psychology. And even these seemingly small stylistic choices are often politically charged. They remind me that poetry contains a unique repertoire of artistic resources, which can illuminate and complicate work from other fields of enquiry.
I’d love to hear more about what poetry made possible for you in telling the truth about your experiences in the New York scene. This collection could have arguably taken a much different form—anything from a roman à clef to a memoir. Why did you turn to poetry as a vehicle for representing these experiences? What did the vast range of poetic forms in the book make possible within the narrative, within your own thinking about the past, and within your conceptualization of time?
DT: That’s quite a trilogy of influences—H.D., Loy, and Moore. All troubling figures, in their own way. Eccentrics. I love that Loy described poetry as “prose bewitched.” Not long ago I reread H.D.’s Sea Garden, which I first read when I was in college in the ‘70s. I remembered liking the shorter pieces focused on a single subject, like a flower or tree. But this time I responded to the longer poems, such as “Pursuit” or “Prisoners,” where she gives just a snippet of a larger plot, like a scene from a movie, yet an entire narrative seems to rise up and blossom around it. Something similar happens when I read your poems. They’re full of details—ornate, romantic, and (dare I say) “feminine” objects. Lockets, silver charms, a velvet curtain with “silk tassels and lavish golden trim,” bone china “rimmed with tiny black crocuses.” There are chalets and opera houses and nightingales and chandeliers. Things gleam and glitter. The word “luminous” shows up again and again. It feels as if we’re situated in another time, as if a Victorian novel, or a whole universe of Victorian novels, haunts every page. At the heart is a sense of mourning, desire, the mystery of human experience. I can see your affinity with Jenny Boully, especially in your “footnote” pieces. Though the story itself is intentionally withheld, it’s interesting how much pours in around the “ornaments” and “embellishments,” around a mere gesture or single moment. As with H.D., there’s the suggestion of a narrative, or the trace of one, that gives the writing a ghostly or disquieting quality.
It was only natural that I would write about my New York years in poems, since poems are what I write. Poetry has always been, for me, a place where one can be absolutely truthful. More than in a novel, say, as fiction isn’t real. I guess in my mind that makes it less truthful. Less raw. And in a memoir I would have felt bound by narrative and facts. I’d have to spell everything out, make it all make sense. Notes on a Past Life is, more than anything, an experiment in memory. Often a poem would start with a color or object; images and feelings would begin to swirl around it and the memory would come forth and take shape, as language. A looser and more honest language than I was used to, which I found surprising and exhilarating. I was amazed how much I was able to remember, how much came back.
I outlined the book fairly early on, knew in advance which people and experiences I wanted to write about. Still, it felt, in the two years it took to write the book, like I was retrieving, putting the puzzle pieces of my history back together. To make sense of it. To understand what it was that I actually went through. So in some ways it was a fragmentary process. This allowed me to pull in passages from old notebooks, quotes from writers who were important to me in the past, even old discarded poems. I’m talking about decades-old poems. There was a kind of redemption in being able to include poems I had once considered failures. Or being able to rework some of them into the fabric of the new poems. So they were salvaged, finally of use. No effort is wasted or irrelevant. Or completely abandoned.
By the way, I thought of two more poems that were important signposts for me. Both by May Swenson. One, “March 4, 1965,” is about being a judge for the National Book Award in Poetry and feeling guilty that she played it safe by giving the award to dead Theodore Roethke instead of Galway Kinnell, whose book she preferred. The other, “At the Poetry Reading,” is about being bored at a reading by “stodgy” James Merrill: “The hour seems an age.” These poems were published in a journal after Swenson’s death, but not included in her collected poems. Why? Too honest?
All too often, writers possess great technical ability, but they lack ambition with respect to the larger ideas that seemingly small choices within a text—a line break, alliteration, and even the visual appearance of the work on the printed page—can communicate. For many practitioners of the literary arts, style remains mere ornamentation, rather than functioning in a more substantive way. And so we are left shivering in a beautifully painted corridor after the performance, with the doors latched all around us.
At the same time, three recent texts by women remind us that form, and the behavior of the language itself, can function as an extension of content, opening up possibilities for readerly interpretation that transcend the semantic meaning of the words as they appear on the page. C. Kubasta’s All Beautiful & Useless, Ruth Danon’s Limitless Tiny Boat, and Anne Tardos’ Nine each present us with subtle technical choices that call our attention to the politics inherent in language, grammar, and the literary forms we have inherited. We are asked to consider language not as a given, but rather, as a set of implicit hierarchies, judgments, and assertions of power. Even more importantly, the reader is reminded that language structures conscious experience, and even the most subtle implications of grammar are internalized by the subject. In these deftly crafted works of poetry and hybrid prose, we watch as each author simultaneously inhabits and revises received structures for thinking and writing, ultimately subverting them from within that familiar and deeply entrenched order. Although somewhat different in style and approach, these innovative texts certainly share an investment in approaching poetic technique as politically charged, the smallest nuances of formal innovation offering opportunities for social justice within the literary landscape, and well beyond its boundaries.
What does possibility look like, then? How will we recognize her, and what glittering ammunition does she carry?
* * *
I did not say this exactly. I said
I am alone. I am ashamed.
I said I am so thirsty I
want something to drink. And
I said there are small shells
crushed beneath my feet. And I
also said one simple thing…
Ruth Danon’s Limitless Tiny Boat provocatively juxtaposes inherited myths with invented forms, which often use the space of the page as a visual field. By presenting her artistic inheritance alongside the wild machinery of her own imagination, Danon ultimately calls our attention to the arbitrary nature of the forms, narratives, and linguistic conventions that circumscribe what is possible within thought itself. Indeed, the cultural imagination from which we all borrow is revealed as the result of chance, and what’s more, it is only one of many possibilities.
At the same time, Danon’s graceful retellings of classic myths remind us that these shared narratives, these symbols and motifs that circulate within culture, are necessary for dialogue, artistic exchange, and even community. Danon fully acknowledges the necessity of a repertoire of forms and narratives, and the larger collective consciousness to which they give rise. She herself is implicated in sustaining this chance assemblage of cultural knowledge. Yet she skillfully works within these received structures for thinking and writing to expand what is possible within them.
What will we find when we open the door?
* * *
Any sequence of three lines
suggests a narrative…
As Danon’s book unfolds, familiar myths, and the literary conventions that structure them, are rendered suddenly and wonderfully strange. Indeed, we are made to see that the story of Narcissus and Echo offers myriad possibilities for identification on the part of the reader, among them a silenced female beloved, who discovers the possibility of speech by traversing the darkened corridors of her own psyche. Narcissus, who normally occupies a prominent role in the story, becomes a tertiary figure, mere ornamentation.
As Danon works to excavate Echo’s agency from this familiar mythical dreamscape, narrative convention is revealed as a source or order within a text, but also, a diversion, a limitation, a silencing. When we are asked to attend to Narcissus, we miss the possibilities at the margins of the text, the subversive and provocative gestures that exist only on the periphery of a larger cultural imagination.
Indeed, narrative convention is revealed as an attempt to impose order on an inherently unruly human psyche. What we discover through Danon’s work is the multiplicity that is housed within any experience, perception, or event. As we struggle to sort through these glittering possibilities, our attempts to find order inevitably replicate the power structures within the culture we inhabit. Danon’s work offers us a profound interventionist gesture, which inevitably expands what is possible within this familiar narrative, and the larger power structures that narrative replicates.
When Danon forces us to unsee Narcissus, we see Echo for the first time.
What else is waiting for us when we meet her?
* * *
Mix of funk and freejazz Miles Davis musical response.
Lucretius saw the universe as something having a nature.
Bernstein: “Estrangement is our home ground”-Yukon bullfrog flu.
Barely arrived, it seems, and almost time to leave…
In her most recent collection, Nine, Anne Tardos acknowledges the necessity of shared conventions, myths, and narratives for creating community, and in turn, works of art. Yet her interrogation of these constraints is as relentless as it is fiercely intelligent. She ultimately eschews the rules of grammar, syntax, and narrative, choosing instead to define her own.
Written in nine end-stopped lines of nine words each, the poems in this provocative collection make us suddenly aware of the many constraints that are imposed upon conscious experience. Much like Danon, Tardos reminds us of the chance nature of the rules, and the larger cultural imagination, that we have inherited. This burdensome inheritance, accidental as it may be, ultimately circumscribes what is possible within thought itself. And for Tardos, the vast terrain of the cultural imagination we all inhabit is wholly subject to revision.
As Tardos redefines the rules that lend structure and meaning to experience, she allows this radical grammar, these new syntactical structures, to open up unforeseen possibilities for her own thinking, and for our imaginative work as readers. The poetic line becomes both a self-contained unit and a gesture toward infinitude, the possibility of indefinite extension. Similarly, the wild and provocative juxtapositions within each line strike sparks within one’s imagination. Each moment of rupture within these fragmentary narratives becomes an aperture, a doorway through which the reader is beckoned. Indeed, the poet no longer gives meaning to an audience who passively receives it. The text instead becomes a machine for generating meaning, and practitioner’s job is merely to guide the reader in his or her own imaginative work.
Emily Dickinson’s beloved Newfoundland Carlo does not appear often in her poems, but it is Carlo Dickinson refers to most often as her great companion in her letters from 1861-1864. The Carlo letters are clustered during the Civil War years, stressful, passionate years that include the horror of war, the Master Letters, and the intense activity of copying and sewing the fascicles. As has been well-documented, Carlo appears in the letters as companion, as surrogate, as Dickinson’s heart, and as a necessary chaperone in a Master Letter from 1861, when Dickinson proposes a reckless rendezvous, made safe by Carlo’s presence: “Could’nt [sic] Carlo, and you and I walk in the meadows an hour – and nobody care but the Bobolink — and his — a silver scruple?” The bird as witness and the silver of its scruple make me think of # 861:
Split the Lark — and you’ll find the Music
Bulb after Bulb, in Silver rolled —
Scantily dealt to the Summer Morning
Saved for your Ear when Lutes be old.
Loose the Flood — you shall find it patent —
Gush after Gush, reserved for you —
Scarlet Experiment! Sceptic Thomas!
Now, do you doubt that your Bird was true?
The poem, copied by Dickinson into an 1864 fascicle, has a triumphal tone that almost seems a precursor to her more famous #1072 that begins, “Title Divine—is mine!/ The Wife—without the Sign” copied into an 1862 fascicle.
The fascicles are dated by changes in Dickinson’s handwriting, and Dickinson copied the poems into the fascicles, seemingly not in the order in which she wrote them. What does any of this have to do with Carlo? Mainly that Carlo figures large as a steadying force through the “White Heat” of these years.
Carlo isn’t listed in the subject index of Thomas H. Johnson’s The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson. Under “dog,” there is only a late poem beginning, “A Little Dog that wags its tail/And knows no other joy,” not a poem about Carlo.
Aside from an early valentine, written when Carlo was just a puppy, Richard B. Sewall identifies Carlo only with #186 that begins,
What shall I do—it whimpers so —
This little Hound within the Heart
All day and night with bark and start —
Though Carlo might stand in for Dickinson’s heart, the Hound is little, and Carlo appears at the end of the poem as a staunch messenger:
Tell Carlo —
He’ll tell me!
I don’t think Carlo is ever little or ever a hound in Dickinson’s poems. To my mind, the poem where Carlo is stated as himself most truly in his role as companion is #520, in an 1862 fascicle. It begins:
I started Early — took my Dog —
And visited the Sea —
The Mermaids in the Basement
Came out to look at me —
After the first line of the poem, the dog doesn’t appear again, and Carlo is not named. Much has been written about the dog’s absence from the poem when the sea becomes threatening. Still, I see this as the poem where Emily Dickinson defines Carlo’s indispensible role in her life. Without Carlo, Dickinson could not face the sea that represents both terrors and pleasures: the sea she set out on when she couldn’t claim election, the sea that divided her geographically and otherwise from beloved friends, the sea that hid curious creatures and the terrifying gaze of the other, and the sea of sexual longing that threatened to obliterate all boundaries. The sea had to be confronted. The only possible companion for Dickinson on such a visit is the knowing and mute Carlo. Her rambles with Carlo in the hills around Amherst gave Dickinson the freedom of an elsewhere, unburdened by language and the human “Beings” she compares unfavorably to Carlo. His companionship is a portal into the space between words and worlds that allows poems to come. From 1850, the earliest date given any poem in the fascicles, until he died in 1866, Carlo was Dickinson’s familiar, opening doors. In Dickinson’s famous, heart-stricken letter to Thomas Wentworth Higginson after Carlo died, she wrote only:
Would you instruct me now?
Today I’d like to feature writing by nine contemporary American poets whom I like. I’ve known most of them for a while, although I’ve made the acquaintance of some recently through their work.
I asked each of them to send me one piece of new writing from a work-in-progress, recently published collection, or forthcoming book. All are wonderful poets, so naturally, most sent poems. One sent an excerpt from his new (poetic) novel. All are persons whom I esteem for their thoughtfulness and resolve, in addition to their incisive insight and verbal verve. All are poets who give generously to other poets and to their communities inside and outside of writing.
I feel lucky to know them and their work.
The first poem is by poet and translator Rosa Alcalá from her forthcoming collection M(y)OtherTongue (Futurepoem, 2016), her third poetry collection. Rosa’s book Spit Temple: The Selected Performances of Cecilia Vicuña (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2013) was short-listed for the PEN Translation Award.
As if the memory of burning hairs from hooves or soaking tripe in vinegar might an enclosure make, traction from the present leads us back and not to the other side of the curtain where a woman wails to pry open a lid. We casually break off pieces of crackers and wipe on cheap napkins oil and anisette, until the middle child crosses the threshold, unafraid. We have failed in the most basic rule, to never turn from offal in favor of quiet or self-care or need, as if the ugliness and flavor of it would make unpronounceable our names. When we knew the secrets of transformation, of the long simmer, the cure, the careful pluck. Still, we fail every moment we turn our slippery grammars against us and let our children be adopted into perfect homes. We stood there, my brothers and I, ladling the honeycombed stomach into your dish, the last holders of something funny, yet never told again, as a cowlick fixed moments before the bulb flashes. We laughed that we knew the joke and were the joke, but would fail the test of translation. For which our children groan, and push away a dish, and throw open the curtains, their sunshine so big and so original. What do you call it, when in a mind and in a language the sun goes down? When you float from floor to floor or let your sister braid your hair an afternoon before the war? “I leave and they don’t know. To find a bed that is my own.”
David Groff is a poet, writer, independent book editor, literary scout, and teacher. His most recent poetry collection, Clay, was chosen by Michael Waters as winner of the Louise Bogan Award for Artistic Merit and Excellence (Trio House, 2013). The following poem is from his collection Bloodwood, a work-in-progress.
A Boy’s Own Jesus
The older brother I never had,
the one who knew the way
to the bathroom in the dark.
Okay with rushed prayers
He who witnessed the fists
gut me to breathlessness.
Able to sleep during storms.
Trustworthy, though with
like a father after a few drinks.
Never a father.
from his own hard father.
Suffering little children
who suffered, yet suffering
when I lay my weight on him
and made his thighs tingle.
Shaking his head at my penis
pronging, this pollution,
Looking good in a loincloth,
his pained man muscles
turning me truant.
Desire and dying,
made one body.
In my fevers
rising with robe-wings
over my wild boat,
feeling fevered too,
keen to each degree.
Making me his special boy.
His arms held and wrestled me.
A cradle or a cage,
devil or deliverer.
Rachel Levitsky’s poem is from her work-in-progress invoking the couplet, Warren Beatty films, and other relevant forces. Her most recent collection is the verse novel The Story of My Accident Is Ours (Futurepoem, 2013).
hedging bets. against loving a mother
sexy mom horrified she had a fat ass
resist telling this ongoing mother ruth’s chest
now dead dad herb speaks. he and i tussle
whether i can write or not. not ‘hemingway’ or a genius.
can't find out later how he did that.
abandon the stories of the past. not something special.
the refugee is me / not me. [peter: jew / not jew]
a memoir because my life is interesting enough to me to remember the bits and
pieces and to tell. i liked this beginning. this manner of just telling.
nothing overly fancy and overreaching like those sentences in the last book.
sentences just the same…in this weird couplet form…holding to the position of
poet more than poem. my problem holding on, believing in the effects of accretion. i
think i need to tell my lover wait i need the ongoing story wait i need
our conversation to accrue i will lose a sense of myself i will forget what i have
written i have been trying to collect this life over and over again no one ever
stays the witness. no. i won’t make you. let slow cactus grow. menopausal
and continuously wet. corita’s painting of nin.
going in to come out.
Xochitl-Julisa Bermejo’s poem is from her debut collection Built with Safe Spaces, forthcoming from Sundress Publications. Xochitl-Julisa notes this about her collection:
“Built with Safe Spaces is a collection of poetry inspired by Los Angeles, my grandmother, and the Arizona-Mexico border where I volunteered as a desert aid worker in the summers of 2011 and 2013. By traveling from the green hills of Los Angeles to the jagged canyons of the Sonoran desert, it is my hope these poems illustrate a speaker driven to activism by a need to honor her family's journey as Mexican immigrants.”
Our Lady of the Water Gallon
Un mensaje a mis compañer@s
I etch black line Sharpie Virgenes
on plastic water gallons: one arc,
Ichthys in the sand at travelers’ feet;
one post carving, hobo’s mark
on the road. The Virgen speaks to faceless
shadows traveling when the land is dark.
I etch black line Sharpie Virgenes
on plastic water gallons. One arc
is the bridge between L.A. and Arivaca,
liquor store murals and water drawings,
dogs on lawns and dogs trained to attack a
man and woman darting up Hippie Mountain.
They’ve hiked this far from Guatemala
on one plastic water gallon, one arc.
Ichthys in the sand at traveler’s feet
is the tale of a man left shirtless and shoeless
beside thorny mesquite. Como un pez sin agua,
he is fished off the road limp and nearly witless.
In the arms of compañeros he asks,
“¿Es esto sentir la muerte?” Barely conscious
he is Ichthys in the sand at traveler’s feet.
One post carving, hobo’s mark,
would mark our “angel food” with a cross,
but cross signs feel wrong to fingers
wanting a symbol with less power, more loss,
like desert flower blooms, or a growing belly
beneath blue robes of water and gloss.
I need one post carving, hobo’s mark.
On the road, the Virgen speaks to faceless
suffering. A woman seven months pregnant
hikes with garlic-lashed calves (snake safe-guard).
Bleeding and cramping, body bent
to ground, she makes mud salves and prayers
to Our Mother: keep my unborn daughter radiant.
On the road, the Virgen speaks. To faceless
shadows traveling when the land is dark
I say, I see the fresh footprint in the riverbed,
the torn blanket ditched on the hillside.
At a rest stop shaded by oak, I tread
slow, count empty gallons, read what remains.
I promise you are not invisible, nor discarded,
people traveling when the land is dark.
I etch black line Sharpie Virgenes
to cloak rocky paths in stars
and hope one will guide you home.
When muscles spasm and farm lights appear too far,
know that I built this poem with safe spaces.
But because no words can erase your scars,
I etch black line Sharpie Virgenes.
Our fiction exception is from David Micah Greenberg’s recently completed novel Concourse, the first in his five-volume cycle of novels about New York City. Also the author of the poetry collection Planned Solstice (University of Iowa Press, 2003), David notes:
“Concourse is a novel set in the Bronx, in which the lives of an emergency room physician and a public servant become entangled during a corruption investigation. The book weaves together narrative, verse and essay, as in this excerpt about the history of food in the experimental novel."
The history of the novel is food, crowds, and charity.
The history of nations is different from a history of human nature, because with nations time must be spent, but with human nature it must be observed. Nations are as an eleemosynary repast against which human nature rebels, to reveal that which is worth telling. In the 18th century charitable action becomes a subject of the novel; Tom Jones, is taken up by Squire Allworthy. The squab was served with a charred bread pudding, glazed in a truck of smoke.
Balanced against the feast are characters who mingle unconstrained by station, though limited by context — as the infinite variety of typesetting, and its narrow combinatory rules. The martini was blended with scotch so as to smoke the concoction. Charity intrudes to make the better man not attend; it is the ability to choose this attendance which sets the novel apart, and provides neither duty nor relief.
And crowds come and grow, bringing with them famine and Thomas Malthus, the patron saint of the novel. Why is it that with increased communication — moveable type, the internet — art becomes more hermetic? Is it a rivalry between charity and nature? The terrine had a glaze that smelled like sex from a certain angle. A calm superiority buffets it. Because the conscious author rests over the crowds like a simile over a hawk, or a hawk over unsuspecting crowds, the reader maintains the predator’s view. The beef carpaccio had seaweed and sliced hazelnuts with a lemon vinaigrette, but there was also mutton.
The one-sidedness of simile is a joy and lament on human nature. It is a charity that does not crucify distinction upon a cross of ever-proliferating, voice. An enormous caesar salad was made from kale and hazelnuts, with the egg white thickly drizzled. It does not expect patronage; it does not believe it should live without work, but strives to entertain. Do the ravenous masses enjoy hunger? The nature of hunger is to warn, to circumvent, to sort in the pleasured brain — guests who disappear before pain sets. The fruits were forward and the wine was a mess.
And if our lives and opinions matter then these thoughts driven into the body already decay, like a hull on its side in the Irish Sea. The pork belly, smoky and crisp, lay in a smoked tomato reduction with stringy scallions. The wine’s metallic and floral notes were almost salty, against the seared and puckered fluke in yuzu. The moment is indelibly orphaned. Madness is real and will always cling to us; it has a better ability to describe and predict, even the tide against shoals. From the birth of chance, a sidelong glance. The unseen sands have become us.
The following poem is from fellow Philadelphian Jason Zuzga’s forthcoming first poetry collection Heat Wake, which will be published by Saturnalia Books next March. Saturnalia’s catalogue describes the book thus:
“Heat Wake the phrase could designate the heat of the just-deceased animal, the warmed seat, the legacy of the anthropocene, the Fata Morgana that swirls and ripples sightlines. Heat Wake the book swirls with tactility, biology, evolution, and desire: hands reach, grab, feel, and are held as the poems percolate with quick sonic link and variation. The poems unfold amid the presence of stubborn rocks, ocean, suburban New Jersey, all approached at a queer angle . . . .”
A long sugar stick—translucence
molecular ribbon—held dark inside
this mouth against this tongue.
Scissor this word from printed fiber.
Let this persuasive stain dissolve
under tongue like a pink snowball
held by mammal hand inside
an aluminum house or
standing in this sunlit creek.
Burn this on a pyre of
research-jangled and car-blown.
Delete “this” with a clap
from air, from the file of words;
scratch this from the sand
with pointed stick.
This through-line will connect
you—to me, whether you be of tar,
of electric, of pheromone
spat through tube.
Amy Uyematsu is the author of four esteemed poetry collections including The Yellow Door (Red Hen Press, 2015) and Stone Bow Prayer (Copper Canyon, 2005). This poem is from her new collection Basic Vocabulary.
A Handful of Knowing
Even as a child she prefers their company. Each day the girl goes to Stone
Mountain and chooses one of the ten thousand stones which lie at its base.
Sometimes she picks a jagged rock, studies it from different angles to see
it brighten and darken in the shifting light. Or she might spread a handful of
pebbles on her outstretched palms and marvel that no two are exactly the same
size or shape. If she finds a boulder big enough for her to recline on her back, she
can take in the sky. Before long the girl is able to touch each granite gem with
the deft fingers of a sculptor, delighted when a once grainy surface turns glassy
and smooth. Sitting among the rocks and pebbles, she listens with them to a world
that stirs, grateful when something new flurries in and glad when mountain quiet
returns. As time passes, the girl grows so intimate with the stones that no one
notices she's become old and weathered and silent like them. Song birds and lizards
rest on her. Small fingers trace the lines on her face.
(after watching a video on Michael Grab, a Boulder artist who stacks boulders)
Pay close attention to the feel of each rock.
Remember that balance requires a minimum of three contact points.
Let fingers go light.
Notice even the smallest clicks, some smaller than millimeters.
Continue to meditate.
Use the tiny to large indentations as a tripod so the stone can stand upright.
Connect with the rock's vibrations.
Wait for it to become nearly weightless.
Listen to it become still.Expect the impossible.
Arrange one rock so it barely touches the next rock then one more.
Splash some water on the slowly rising sculpture.
Welcome the wind rushing through.
Believe in the steadiness of these stones.
Be as patient.
Know that simple gravity and devotion form a limitless glue.
Count on the zero point of silence within.
Michael Snediker is the author of the poetry collection The Apartment of Tragic Appliances (Punctum Books, 2013). His poem is from a recently completed collection New York Editions, which he describes as:
“A ‘translation’ of Henry James’s fiction into poems, and an experiment in ‘close reading’ brought so close it sometimes blurs. Both poem and manuscript are interested in how something like desire (or hope or lonesomeness) is and isn’t translatable across genre and time, between persons and characters: the relation between feeling and form as they both wear down and into each other, and carry each other along.”
Time isn’t the solution
our alchemy happens in,
time is the alchemy,
lost art of the hasp
of a Roman fibula
made sharp in the sea
Like the tomb of Hector
where the boy hides,
the air in the wings
of our throats is
doomed to repeat
the spell of a soul
lifting out of the body
the body’s threshing.
That you know it
doesn’t mean it
incurable, each morning,
your fall into the marble
baths of Diocletian
which you haunt
like something you died
I wish I’d known you
when the silver
of your beard
the alarming ease
with which the outside,
And our last poem for the evening is from Joanna Klink’s luminous new collection Excerpts from a Secret Prophecy (Penguin, 2015), her fourth collection.
If there is a world, let me be in it.
Let fires arise and pass. The sky fill with evening air
then sink across the woodlots and porches,
the streams thinning to creeks.
In winter there will be creatures half-locked in ice,
storms blown through iron grates, a drug of whitest ardor.
Let the old hopes be made new.
Let stacks of clouds blacken if they have to
but never let the people in this town go hungry.
Never let them fear cold. If there is a world,
let it not be temporary, like these vague stars.
Let us die when we must. And spinelessness
not overtake us, and privation,
let rain bead across tangled lavender plants.
If there is a world where we feel very little,
let it not be our world. Let worth be worth
and energy action—let blood fly up to the surface skin.
If you are fierce, if you are cynical, halfhearted, pained—
I would sit with you awhile, or walk next to you,
and when we take leave of each other after so many years,
the oaks will toss their branches in wheels of wind
above us—as if it had mattered, all of it,
every second. If there is a world.
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
Because my first novel, Mrs. Houdini, is about the famous illusionist’s wife, sometimes I am asked whether I believe in magic.
When I was living in Ireland, that magical isle, in 2008 as a graduate student, I did not see any fairies or leprechauns. I did see a lot of chain restaurants and malls. In the late nineties, the Celtic Tiger had come to Ireland. Ten years later the streets still sang with this affluence: shops were crammed, hotels were expensive, and the lights of the pubs blazed late into the night. It was to be the last year of the Tiger, but none of us knew this yet; my Irish classmates and I enjoyed gourmet meals and train trips to Galway and cheap flights to England and Italy. After such a long, sad history of misfortune, of famine and scandal and poverty—which had sent my great-great-grandmother, like many others, across the Atlantic to America—there was only the enchanted air of celebration.
Sometimes I heard people wonder whether Ireland had modernized too quickly, whether an Ireland of Vodafone and Marks and Spencer meant that perhaps the old Ireland had been lost. But I saw the magic of Old Ireland everywhere I went that year. I saw it in County Cork, when I walked through a storm at dusk to Blarney Castle and kissed the Blarney Stone, lying upside-down off the edge of the castle wall while the rain fell like tinsel around me. I saw magic in the cobblestoned streets of Galway, in the lilt of the shopkeepers’ voices and the way everyone seemed to call everyone “love” and in the Abbey Theatre in Dublin with its velvet curtains and the ghosts of Yeats and Lady Gregory in the wings. I saw it in a firelit café on the Aran Islands after a long walk along the cliffs in the spring cold, and the warm, coarse brown bread I have never tasted since. I saw it in the voices of the street musicians who sang on Grafton Street until three a.m. on Saturday nights, and the Bulgarian woman who ran the nail salon near my room and talked only of her family, and in the hillsides dotted with sheep and heather, and in the stone angels of the Powerscourt Gardens, and the cracked pages of old Biblical texts at the Chester Beatty Library.
Do I believe in magic? I have had psychics tell me things about my life so far from the truth it was embarrassing even to be present. I am amazed by David Blaine but know that there is a difference between illusion and magic. I know that Harry Houdini made an elephant disappear in front of hundreds of people but he used no special powers to do so. But I have also had a white-haired fortune-teller in New Orleans ask me, out of the blue, why I had stopped going to church, at a time in my life when I had stopped going to church. And I have seen the miracles of children being born to friends who were told they could never have children. And I have watched the sun rise over the pink ocean, and stood staring at the gray, churning Irish Sea and the yellow-lit windows of a pub in the rain.
"A starlit or a moonlit dome disdains / All that man is, / All mere complexities, / The fury and the mire of human veins." (Yeats, "Byzantium")
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.
(Ed note: Pundits have begun to ask David Lehman to apply his trochaic theory of predicting election outcomes to the current slate of candidates, both Democrat and Republican. He first described the theory on the BAP blog in 2008 when his analysis favored Barack Obama. (It also favored Obama in 2012.) Find more about his theory here. Lehman's now classic interviews on the subject are pasted below. sdh)
What do Woodrow Wilson, Warren Harding, Calvin Coolidge, Herbert Hoover, Harry Truman, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, and Ronald Reagan have in common?
Yes, all were presidents. But so were Dwight D. Eisenhower and George Bush.
No, what the nine presidents mentioned have in common is that each of their names is a double trochee. That's right -- nine of the last 16 presidents scan their names to the tune of "Okla-homa." A trochee is the inverse of an iamb; in the former, there's a strong stress followed by a weak stress (e.g., "Harry").
Your chances of getting elected president go up if your name conforms to this pattern -- or if, like Franklin D. Roosevelt, your scansion is extraordinary and metrically favorable.
In the current electoral climate, the clearest winner is Bernie Sanders, whose name is a classic double trochee (even if you spell out his first name -- Bernard -- as long as you pronounce it as the British do, with the accent on the first syllable). Bobby Jindall would also score high but only if (1) he were a viable candidate and (2) you accept Bobby as a legitimate first name. The counter-example of Jimmy Carter will be offered, but it might be argued that his resort to a nickname instead of the proper "James Earl Carter" may help account for his failed presidency. Well, OK, how viable a candidate is Bernie? I don't know. I'm not really political.
Probably the most interesting candidate, from the point of view of metrical theory, is Carly Fiorina. Her name translates as a trochee followed by a dactyl and a trochee. It is similar to Franklin Roosevelt if you leave out the D (but you can't).
Marco Rubio has a trochee followed by a dactyl, also an interesting variant.
According to trochaic theory, Donald Trump's chances would improve considerably if he changed his name to Donald Trumpet.
The guys with one-syllable first names (Mike, Ted, Scott, Chris) have little chance. Rand Paul -- two spondees (two strong accents back to back) -- taps into the George Bush rhythm but without the obvious advantages that Jeb Bush has. But what is Jeb's real first name? And why has he dodged the issue?
If this is equivocal, well, it's early in the process. May we remind all that trochaic theory favored Barack Obama in both 2008 and 2012? -- DL
On my birthday today in 1950, Ben Hogan won the Unted States Open in a three-way playoff. What made it almost miraculous was that Hogan had suffered multiple injuries sixteen months earlier when a Greyhound bus swerved out of its lane and hit Hogan's car head on. Hogan, attempting to shield his wife, Valerie, from the impact, went to the hospital with a broken collarbone, broken ankle, broken ribs and a double fracture of his pelvis. (Valerie escaped with minor injuries.) A blood clot in Hogan's leg required emergency measures; doctors tied off the surrounding veins to prevent the clot from reaching his heart. As a result, Hogan’s legs atrophied. Would he ever play a round of golf again? The more pressing question was whether he would ever walk again.
Yet here he was at the Merion Golf Club in Ardmore, PA, site also of the 2013 U. S. Open. Hogan defied the skeptics, playing four rounds of superb golf, walking from hole to hole unassisted. At the 72nd hole, he needed a par to tie Lloyd Mangrum and George Fazio for the lead and join the pair in a June 11th playoff. Hogan's one-iron shot to the green, one of the great moments in golfing history, occasioned Hy Peskin's photograph, above, undoubtedly the sport's most famous. A year later Hollywood turned the inspiring tale into a movie, Follow the Sun, with Glenn Ford as Hogan and Anne Baxter as Valerie. Click here or here for more on Hogan's heroics. -- DL
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.
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.