I HEAR AMERICA SINGING

January 28, 2017

I’m going to post a series of poems over the next week or so that speak to the tensions between the dreams and the realities of what it is to be an American.  We are all immigrants, of course, and even those who were here first are treated like outsiders.  So I’m starting with a poem by Sherman Alexie, “How to Write the Great American Indian Novel,” that plays on white stereotypes of American Indians.  It makes me think of early drawings by white artists of American Indians they were seeing for the first time.  Or not seeing: because they saw all the world in their own image (think blond, blue-eyed Jesus), their depictions show people with white features in Indian costume.  We have to see and hear and then embrace otherness, not fear and demonize it.

 

HOW TO WRITE THE GREAT AMERICAN INDIAN NOVEL

 

Sherman Alexie

 

All of the Indians must have tragic features: tragic noses, eyes, and arms.

Their hands and fingers must be tragic when they reach for tragic food.

 

The hero must be a half-breed, half white and half Indian, preferably

from a horse culture. He should often weep alone. That is mandatory.

 

If the hero is an Indian woman, she is beautiful. She must be slender

and in love with a white man. But if she loves an Indian man

 

then he must be a half-breed, preferably from a horse culture.

If the Indian woman loves a white man, then he has to be so white

 

that we can see the blue veins running through his skin like rivers.

When the Indian woman steps out of her dress, the white man gasps

 

at the endless beauty of her brown skin. She should be compared to nature:

brown hills, mountains, fertile valleys, dewy grass, wind, and clear water.

 

If she is compared to murky water, however, then she must have a secret.

Indians always have secrets, which are carefully and slowly revealed.

 

Yet Indian secrets can be disclosed suddenly, like a storm.

Indian men, of course, are storms. They should destroy the lives

 

of any white women who choose to love them. All white women love

Indian men. That is always the case. White women feign disgust

 

at the savage in blue jeans and T-shirt, but secretly lust after him.

White women dream about half-breed Indian men from horse cultures.

 

Indian men are horses, smelling wild and gamey. When the Indian man

unbuttons his pants, the white woman should think of topsoil.

 

There must be one murder, one suicide, one attempted rape.

Alcohol should be consumed. Cars must be driven at high speeds.

 

Indians must see visions. White people can have the same visions

if they are in love with Indians. If a white person loves an Indian

 

then the white person is Indian by proximity. White people must carry

an Indian deep inside themselves. Those interior Indians are half-breed

 

and obviously from horse cultures. If the interior Indian is male

then he must be a warrior, especially if he is inside a white man.

 

If the interior Indian is female, then she must be a healer, especially if she is inside

a white woman. Sometimes there are complications.

 

An Indian man can be hidden inside a white woman. An Indian woman

can be hidden inside a white man. In these rare instances,

 

 

everybody is a half-breed struggling to learn more about his or her horse culture.

There must be redemption, of course, and sins must be forgiven.

 

For this, we need children. A white child and an Indian child, gender

not important, should express deep affection in a childlike way.

 

In the Great American Indian novel, when it is finally written,

all of the white people will be Indians and all of the Indians will be ghosts.

 

 

The Consolations of Music

January 20, 2017

I sat propped between two friends at an early music concert.  They had taken me there because I was in utter despair, sunk so far into myself that the world seemed far away, seen through the wrong end of a telescope, barely audible. That continued as I sat there, the sense of blackness, of falling through space, for maybe half an hour.  And then I heard a few notes, and a few more.  Faint signals, but enough to reach me, and from then on I knew I would come back to myself, my life, even pleasures.  Music is the consolation that never fails me.  My book Sharp Stars is suffused with music, with the joy of writing poetry again after a long silence.  I’m in mourning right now, as many of us are.  I am throwing myself yet again on the consolations and joys of music, on its own and in poetry.  As long as we can hear it, and maybe make some ourselves, there’s still hope.  I think of Whitman, “I Hear America Singing”; Langston Hughes, “Weary Blues”; Marianne Boruch, “Little Fugue”; Betsy Sholl, “Lullaby in Blue”; Phil Levine, “On 52nd Street”; Robert Pinsky, “Street Music”; Mark Strand, “Delirium Waltz”; Robert Creeley’s “Water Music.”  Please add your own–the ones that you turn to.

 

 

ALLEGRO

 

 

I play Haydn after a black day
and feel a simple warmth in my hands.

The keys are willing. Soft hammers strike.
The resonance green, lively and calm.

The music says freedom exists
and someone doesn’t pay the emperor tax.

I push down my hands in my Haydnpockets
and imitate a person looking on the world calmly.

I hoist the Haydnflag – it signifies:
“We don’t give in. But want peace.’

The music is a glass-house on the slope
where the stones fly, the stones roll.

And the stones roll right through
but each pane stays whole.

 

 

Tomas Transtromer

trans. Robin Fulton

 

 

 

DON’T LET ME BE LONELY [MAHALIA JACKSON IS A GENIUS]

Mahalia Jackson is a genius. Or Mahalia Jackson has genius. The man I am with is trying to make a distinction. I am uncomfortable with his need to make this distinction because his inquiry begins to approach subtle shades of racism, classism, or sexism. It is hard to know which. Mahalia Jackson never finished the eighth grade, or Mahalia’s genius is based on the collision of her voice with her spirituality. True spirituality is its own force. I am not sure how to respond to all this. I change the subject instead.

We have just seen George Wein’s documentary, Louis Armstrong at Newport, 1971. In the auditorium a room full of strangers listened to Mahalia Jackson sing “Let There Be Peace on Earth” and stood up and gave a standing ovation to a movie screen. Her clarity of vision crosses thirty years to address intimately each of us. It is as if her voice has always been dormant within us, waiting to be awakened, even though “it had to go through its own lack of answers, through terrifying silence, (and) through the thousand darknesses of murderous speech.”

Perhaps Mahalia, like Paul Celan, has already lived all our lives for us. Perhaps that is the definition of genius. Hegel says, “Each man hopes and believes he is better than the world which is his, but the man who is better merely expresses this same world better than the others.” Mahalia Jackson sings as if it is the last thing she intends to do. And even though the lyrics of the song are, “Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me,” I am hearing, Let it begin in me.

 

Claudia Rankine

 

 

 

AMERICA, I SING BACK

 

for Phil Young, my father, Robert Hedge Coke, Whitman, and Hughes

 

America, I sing back. Sing back what sung you in.
Sing back the moment you cherished breath.
Sing you home into yourself and back to reason.

Oh, before America began to sing, I sung her to sleep,
held her cradleboard, wept her into day.
My song gave her creation, prepared her delivery,
held her severed cord beautifully beaded.

My song helped her stand, held her hand for first steps,

nourished her very being, fed her, placed her three sisters strong.
My song comforted her as she battled my reason

broke my long held footing sure, as any child might do.

Lo, as she pushed herself away, forced me to remove myself,
as I cried this country, my song grew roses in each tear’s fall.

My blood veined rivers, painted pipestone quarries
circled canyons, while she made herself maiden fine.

Oh, but here I am, here I am, here, I remain high on each and every peak,
carefully rumbling her great underbelly, prepared to pour forth singing—

and sing again I will, as I have always done.

Never silenced unless in the company of strangers, singing.

 

Allison Adelle Hedge Coke


BIG BAND THEORY

It all began with music,
with that much desire to be

in motion, waves of longing
with Nothing to pass through,

the pulsing you feel before
you hear it. The darkness couldn’t

keep still, it began to sway,
then there were little flashes

of light, glints of brass
over the rumbling percussion,

the reeds began to weep and sing,
and suddenly the horns

tore bigger holes in the darkness—
we could finally see

where the music was coming from:
ordinary men in bowties and black

jackets. But by then we had already
danced most of the night away.

Sharon Bryan

 

 

 

 

 

 

THE PRESENT

January 1, 2017

One New Year’s Eve when I was seven or eight my parents had a few friends over to to celebrate.  I was the only child there, passing cookies and Ritz crackers with cheese slices.  I was thinking about the strangeness of one year ending and another beginning, when I was suddenly overcome with the sense that time was running out to write the year we were in in the present.  What was true now soon would be in the past.  I put down the plate I was carrying, dashed into my bedroom, and opened my notebook.  I wrote the year over and over: 1951, 1951, 1951, 1951, until the page was covered.  Nothing stays time, but I felt better for having marked it.  That was all I could do–when I woke up it we all would have sailed beyond it, no going back.  I still feel that mix of dread and anticipation.  Here are two poems that speak to that:

 

                                                                                                                                                                 

TO THE NEW YEAR
W. S. Merwin
With what stillness at last
you appear in the valley
your first sunlight reaching down
to touch the tips of a few
high leaves that do not stir
as though they had not noticed
and did not know you at all
then the voice of a dove calls
from far away in itself
to the hush of the morning
so this is the sound of you
here and now whether or not
anyone hears it this is
where we have come with our age
our knowledge such as it is
and our hopes such as they are
invisible before us
untouched and still possible
*
Archaic Torso of Apollo
Rainier Maria Rilke

trans. Stephen Mitchell


We cannot know his legendary head
with eyes like ripening fruit. And yet his torso
is still suffused with brilliance from inside,
like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low,

gleams in all its power. Otherwise
the curved breast could not dazzle you so, nor could 
a smile run through the placid hips and thighs
to that dark center where procreation flared.

Otherwise this stone would seem defaced
beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders
and would not glisten like a wild beast’s fur:

would not, from all the borders of itself,
burst like a star: for here there is no place
that does not see you. You must change your life.

Ha Ha

November 20, 2016

I’m reading poems that make me laugh out loud.  Since they’re poems, the laughter always has other layers and edges, of course, but the laughter comes first.  If you have The Oxford Book of American Light Verse, take a look at William Cole’s “What a Friend We Have in Cheeses.”  Two of the poets I always rely on for this are James Tate and Frank O’Hara.  James Tate’s second book is titled The Oblivion Ha-Ha (you’ll want to look up ha-ha if you only know one meaning),  and you can cheer yourself up just by reading through a list of his poems titles: “The Blue Booby,” “The Distant Orgasm,” “To my Great Great Etc. Uncle Patrick Henry,” The Hostile Philharmonic Orchestra,” “Nausea, Coincidence,” “Man with Wooden Leg Escapes Prison.”  Or book titles: Hottentot Ossuary, Riven Doggeries, and a collaboration with Bill Knott: Are You Ready Mary Baker Eddy?”

Here are two poems that make me laugh.  Please, please suggest others.

 

POEM [Lana Turner Has Collapsed]

 

Frank O’Hara

 

Lana Turner has collapsed!

I was trotting along and suddenly

it started raining and snowing

and you said it was hailing

but hailing hits you on the head

hard so it was really snowing and

raining and I was in such a hurry

to meet you but the traffic

was acting exactly like the sky

and suddenly I see a headline

lana turner has collapsed!

there is no snow in Hollywood

there is no rain in California

I have been to lots of parties

and acted perfectly disgraceful

but I never actually collapsed

oh Lana Turner we love you get up

 

 

TEACHING THE APE TO WRITE POEMS

James Tate

 

They didn’t have much trouble
teaching the ape to write poems:
first they strapped him into the chair,
then tied the pencil around his hand
(the paper had already been nailed down).
Then Dr. Bluespire leaned over his shoulder
and whispered into his ear:
‘You look like a god sitting there.
Why don’t you try writing something?’

 

 

 

The Unconscious

November 17, 2016

I’m not willing or equipped to live in the world of politics and “news” right now, so I’m living in music (Bach, Dylan, Miles Davis, Johnny Cash, Leonard Cohen–talk about earworms– Janis, Etta James, etc.) and poems I think of as great escapes.  But the mind knows what it knows, including what it would rather not, and as I read through some of them I was also struck by their timeliness.

from Charles Simic’s Pulitzer-Prize collection of prose poems, The World Doesn’t End:

We were so poor I had to take the place of the bait in the mousetrap. All alone in the cellar, I could hear them pacing upstairs, tossing and turning in their beds. “These are dark and evil days,” the mouse told me as he nibbled my ear. Years passed. My mother wore a cat-fur collar which she stroked until its sparks lit up the cellar.

And:

My mother was a braid of black smoke.
She bore me swaddled over the burning cities.
The sky was a vast and windy place for a child to play.
We met many others who were just like us. They were trying to put on their overcoats with arms made of smoke.
The high heavens were full of little shrunken deaf ears instead of stars.

*

 

MUSHROOMS

Sylvia Plath

Overnight, very
Whitely, discreetly,
Very quietly

Our toes, our noses
Take hold on the loam,
Acquire the air.

Nobody sees us,
Stops us, betrays us;
The small grains make room.

Soft fists insist on
Heaving the needles,
The leafy bedding,

Even the paving.
Our hammers, our rams,
Earless and eyeless,

Perfectly voiceless,
Widen the crannies,
Shoulder through holes. We

Diet on water,
On crumbs of shadow,
Bland-mannered, asking

Little or nothing.
So many of us!
So many of us!

We are shelves, we are
Tables, we are meek,
We are edible,

Nudgers and shovers
In spite of ourselves.
Our kind multiplies:

We shall by morning
Inherit the earth.
Our foot’s in the door.

*

I KNOW A MAN

Robert Creeley

As I sd to my

friend, because I am

always talking,—John, I

 

sd, which was not his

name, the darkness sur-

rounds us, what

 

can we do against

it, or else, shall we &

why not, buy a goddamn big car,

 

drive, he sd, for

christ’s sake, look

out where yr going.

*

And one not so unconscious, one of the first that came to mind last week, by Emily Dickinson:

After great pain a formal feeling comes–
The nerves sit ceremonious like tombs;
The stiff Heart questions–was it He that bore?
And yesterday–or centuries before?

The feet, mechanical, go round
A wooden way
Of ground, or air, or ought,
Regardless grown,
A quartz contentment, like a stone.

This is the hour of lead
Remembered if outlived,
As freezing persons recollect the snow–
First chill, then stupor, then the letting go.