Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Poetry Jam #10

That number is not a lie.  I've done this ten times, ladies and gentlemen: my poetical impulse cannot be contained by mere single-digit numbers.  It will take more than nines to stop me, I fear.

Tonight's poems come from the period of Autumn of 2011 through approximately Summer of 2012; quite recent, by the standards I have on this site.  I have reached a point where I have a certain degree of confidence in my poetry that I did not always have.  Namely, I feel confident in stating that my work actually is poetry, and not a clumsy pile of the worst  affronts to the very idea of poetry.  I've put on a brave face this whole time, but some of my earlier work is questionable in that regard.

So, it's poetry.  Is it good poetry?  I'm pretty sure I'm not allowed to say.  If someone would like to tell me, I'd really appreciate it.  In the meantime, enjoy Poetry Jam #10.  Several other poems from the same time frame are in my folder and on my desk top, in states I consider to be fragmentary or otherwise incomplete.  I see promise in many of them, so I'd like to finish them, but for now we have the following to consider:


Welcome to Monday; you're six hours late and the
sun is unfazed by the schedule you're keeping.
she's halfway across and you've only been sleeping, 
so drink all your coffee and be on your way,
happily lonely and happily driving away.

Open your eyes if you want to see clearly.  You
won't see the sun if you're happily dreaming,
she'll fly by the clouds with her countenance beaming;
you'll never be certain to see her in time.
smile, don't mention you're happily losing your mind.


Am I a child?
Am I young and immature?
A wild and wide-eyed innocent,
A messy pile on the floor;
Do I feel alive and hurt
Or am I dumb and bored?

A child grows, and what's a grown-up for?
The children want to know;

Am I a child,
An uncompleted work of life?
Am I growing up or down
Or standing still?
Am I just a vessel filled
With questions, needs and wills?

A child grows, and what's a child for?
The children never know.

Am I a child,
Will I grow?
Have I grown too much?
Am I such a mystery
I cannot solve myself?

The Iris and the Shell

An iris and a little shell, dissolving
in a million bits of violet light;
I see them in the future, and I know
it's coming soon. They're coloring the night
and painting pictures with the falling stars,
illuminated indigo and white.

Powdered into diamond dust and ground
into a pigment, dark and dimming blue;
I see them in the future and I wonder,
if I see them, can you see them too?
All spread across the water?  Hanging in
the evening breeze, embellishing the dew?

Can you see the future, see it blinking
in the sun?  The iris, rising tall
and growing stronger in the little shell?
I see it; it is beautiful, and all
the words I know could not do justice to
its grace. I'd like to watch its petals fall,

To see it standing bare until the spring
returns; I want to know the blossoms' smell.
Their future is a supernova burst,
their voices like a shining crystal bell:
Now, can you see them be reborn in cosmic
bloom, the heavens' iris-colored shell?

Locked Out

My hand is numb from cold, and fire
burns my feet: my reach exceeds
my grasp.
Too scared to fail, too dumb to win;
too shaken up to feel secure.
In fact I can't remember when
I felt secure, or why I did;
it seems so silly now, to think
I might have felt like I was safe.
Today I'm lonely, lost at sea,
I'm isolated, up a creek.
I can't remember what to do
or how to do what needs be done.
And who can help me? Can she help?
I think that she's the key, but she
is locked inside the cabinet,
and where's the other key?  I left
it somewhere, but I've lost it now.

Who keeps the key?  Who makes the rules
that govern love and emptiness?
Who locks the lonely people out
and offers them excuses? Says
"the door was never locked, in fact
the cabinet is open wide,
and all you need to do is reach
your hand out, grab the key and turn."
But who is grabbed?  I feel sick,
like something's got me by the lungs.
Too little air; the window's locked,
Is she the key?  And can she see
me on this side?  Both panes of glass
are foggy, and I'd like to clean
them, but I'm scared they'll break.

The End of the World Will Not be Violent

The end of the world will not be violent,
baked in blood and burnt;
the Earth won't shake.

For the world will end in a whisper,
in a quiet lullaby of birds
who sing of longing and laughter, as they fall asleep
and dream of sunny skies.

The stars will pierce the atmosphere
to dissipate the clouds from great distances,
and soon they'll disappear,
to lay the pearly heavens bare.

The birds will start to snore
as their nests grow deeper and deeper,
and the skies grow starker and starker
and merge in one great sky
the likes of which has never been seen above our heads before.

Unseen it will grow and the Earth will end
as it shrinks.

The silence will be cool, and glow
with gentle light;
a nightlight for the sleeping birds
who dream of sunny skies,
that once upon a time
combined in one great sky.

One More Year

I think I've got a year to live;
if nothing turns out horribly wrong,
explodes in my kitchen, burns my lawn,
or breaks into a million pieces on
the sidewalk curb,
I think I can make it that long.

I think I've got a year to go
to London, Mars, or somewhere gone,
to fall asleep with only a yawn,
to find myself awake at dawn
and pass a dream;
I'd like to live that long.

I think I've got a beautiful year
to write a very beautiful song,
and sing it to a cheering throng,
and learn to sing it like I belong
on stage at all;
I hope I can make it that long.

City of Angels

I'll see you in the city of angels,
a dirty place I'd never like to see
again; a place for killing dreams and schemes
that hatched too soon.  I'll see you there,

in months or years, at somebody's party;
I don't know why I'd be there, but I know
I'll be there soon.  I read the invitation:
"Come at once and bring your money, all

the money you can spend in an evening."
I'll bring the most but you'll have more; before
I know it you'll have spent me, I'll be spent
and lying on the floor, crying for

you, falling for the city of angels.
In dirty tears, in dirty thoughts, in pain
and lots of others, feeling bolts of light
and arrows in my bones.  I'm all alone,

the party's slowly tapering down
and now you're out the window in your Euro-
diamond car, off to paint some sketchy,
filthy, unhygienic bar a deep,

disturbing, healthy lavender-red.
I watch you speeding down the boulevard
and watch the guards patrol the streets below,
forever mindful of disruptions: guns

and needles in the city of angels.
It worries me to think that you're so good
at this; I wonder if I pegged you wrong,
as wandering shadows dirty up the walls.

Feeble Falling Snow

I watch the feeble falling snow outside;
it sits upon the ground in pools of water,
melts before it settles down to touch the street. 

It chills the air across the window,
fogs the pane outside and melts away,
like every other flake of ice that falls at thirty three degrees. 

The snow above,
the rain below,
the crystals frozen in the gutter;
nothing cleaves to mist and dew,
It slips and slides across the frosty glass.

The Huntsman Dying in the Snow

West of the midnight sun,
the lightning strikes the huntsman as he
watches the caribou run
across the grass and snow.
Under the arctic sun
he lies, alone and smoking whispers
into the said and done,
and hearing no response.

East of the evening sun,
the sky is falling on the huntsman's
body, and one by one
the stars announce the night.

A Beautiful Life

A beautiful life in forests and fields,
cars and trucks,
the highways bound for bigger towns,
and Radiohead on the radio.

Hand in hand between the hills, the
melting ice;
the wind still sends the air below
that warms at the sound of our voices.

By mossy jeeps and the resting timber,
rivers run
beneath the slopes of green and snow,
by wheels on the slippery road.

On a whim we stop, and taste a memory,
drink a cup;
the winter on a country drive
will carry us, bringing us home.

Light the Way

Light the way, I'll follow you,
I'll walk across the city streets
if you'll be on the other side;
light the way and I'll be there beside you.

Light the way beneath the stars
with lamps along the sleepy streets,
and take the darkness from the sky;
share the light that reaches out and scatters.

Light the way that brings me home,
and if you hurry we will meet
where scattered lights have come to rest;
Come together, living all around us.


This concrete wall is bigger than me,
this bridge extends indefinitely
as far as I can see;
I am as small as anything
that I have ever known,
smaller than the dirt below
my feet and infinitely tiny
in comparison to this,
the work of your machines.

The Road Looks Like a River

The road looks like a river today,
with droplets sparkling on the black
like ripples,
and tires sinking under the surface,
under the sinking tar.

The road looks like a river
running over,
the cars are underwater and the
lights shine from below
like a graveyard of lost ships
descending home.

The river is alive!
The ripples dance across the hoods
and hail,
hail the breaking cloud
and split the surface of the black
in grains of sinking tar.

You Are So Young

Your face is laughing
and you are so young,
your heart beats faster,
seconds faster than mine can beat.

I've had enough of
this walking along;
Let's take our shot a
hundred miles and years from here!

Now nothing makes me
believe in my heart
like you: you send me
far from here and far along.

But why should I be
so eager to fly,
when you are here and
we're together on solid ground?

And why should I
surrender this day
when you are here and
sunshine glows in the open air?

Your face is laughing
and you are so young;

Music and Lyrics

I believe in a word of love
and hope, because it sounds like bells
when spoken, melts like water, cools
and cleans me, makes me think of you.

I believe in the light of music,
twice reflected in your eyes
as lightning in a sky of diamonds,
music and lyrics by one and two.

Hot Ink

The ink was hot, its fire spread across
a thousand books, and arson was the crime.

The knowledge, grace and beautiful words that rang
like keys were lost when the music burned to ashes
and the ink was poured on vulnerable heads.

A history was written in their place;
an inky darkness scorched across their pages.


Commentary is unavoidable.  Prepare for it!

Happily and Child both find me in a state of self-doubt, familiar to those familiar with my poetical works.  I don't think Child came out the way it originally sounded in my head, but I can hardly remember how it sounded way back then.  I just tried to be honest.

I wrote The Iris and the Shell in a more or less transparent attempt to impress a girl I was seeing last October.  We'd been on a few dates and I liked her, but I sensed that she was not exactly enraptured with me.  So I spent days crafting this poem, to provide some evidence of my value as a thinking, feeling person who could do at least one thing well.  As it happened, she never read it because I never saw her again, but the loss did not plunge me into my usual bout of despair and depression.  True, Locked Out came out of that period, and it's pretty depressing, but all in all I came out of that one alright.

The End of the World Will Not be Violent and One More Year are further indulgences in my obsession with what I privately call mellow apocalyptica, a word I apparently made up.  To wit: we're all doomed, but it might be kind of pretty when we go.  I guess I think about things like that as the year comes to an end.

I was ridiculously proud of City of Angels when I wrote it, and I still think it's pretty damn awesome.  It's also a fact that I thought it up while slightly drunk at four in the morning, wondering what an ex-girlfriend I hadn't seen in years was up to at that very moment.  Through bleary eyes, I saw that the hastily improvised meter worked, and it made me smile.  In the morning I realized I had been absolutely insane: in all likelihood she was just sleeping, like I and all ostensibly sane people should have been doing at four in the morning.  But it still works as a panicky nightmare piece.  That's valid, right?

I wrote two poems in quick succession about snow, which is only fair because it was winter and snow was on my mind.  I like living in a place where it snows, though it doesn't always come in the kind of fluffy blankets you see on Christmas cards; hence, Feeble Falling Snow.  As for Huntsman, it just seems I can't do anything without being at least a little depressing, but I think I came up with some good turns of phrase here.

A Beautiful Life, Light the Way, You Are So Young, and Music and Lyrics are my favorite poems in today's collection.  All of these poems were written for and inspired by my beloved girlfriend, Tara, whom I met in January and has transformed my life into a field of lollipops and other delightful treats.  The first two came early, and in fact I gave a copy of Light the Way to her as a St. Valentine's Day present.  I'm such a smoothie!    I composed Music and Lyrics during a prep period while working as a substitute teacher in a history classroom.  The lesson consisted mostly of showing a video, so I thought it was the best possible use of my time.  Thus far, Tara has only seen those two, so I present the others to you and to her with all of my love.

Underpass is a lot shorter than the others here, but it expresses a very simple idea that came to me while I was walking under a bridge.  It really doesn't need to be any more than it is, and I really like it as is.

Hot Ink is a metaphorical sort of thing, the sort of poem one writes when trying to be very serious about something important without wanting to seem overly transparent.  Why be transparent when you can be arty?

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Thanksgiving in Patuxet

Tomorrow, Americans will come together all over the country to feast and enjoy the company of family (to the extent that they do not wish to avoid them).  Many of them will say prayers and publicly express gratitude for the good things in their lives.  Many of the meals they share will be absolutely delicious, but some of them may disappoint.  Some people will overeat, and some will come away grateful that Thanksgiving only comes once a year.  Despite these shortcomings, I consider these gatherings to be a good thing.

However, these are not the only shortcomings to consider.  Because Thanksgiving, as it is practiced, is more than a time to gather and be with family.  It comes complete with a national origin myth, which is taught to every school child and invoked in decorations and other pageantry.  We are told of the brave Pilgrims who, bearing the twin beacons of Christianity and democracy, landed by chance on Plymouth Rock and established a colony.  They befriended the local Indians (remember Squanto?) who helped them survive the first winter; the Pilgrims set about bringing culture and civilization to the harsh landscape.  After that first year, all parties involved sat down for a glorious feast, thus beginning an unbroken tradition of thankfulness that we carry on today.

A lot of this is crap.

It's extremely easy to go through life in America and never see this kindergarten version of history seriously contradicted (by which I mean, contradicted by someone you take seriously).  But it's also fairly easy to find the truth of the matter if you are willing to look for it.  You could use the internet, or even read a few books.  To make sure I had all the important facts for this post, I turned today to an old favorite: James W. Loewen's Lies My Teacher Told Me.  I thought it would be worthwhile to revisit this information and share it with the people of this country.

To begin with, it bears repeating that in historical terms, the Pilgrims were relatively unimportant.  Plymouth was hardly the first European colony, nor even in the top ten.  Jamestown was already up and running in Virginia, and the Spanish, French and Dutch had been planting colonies for a long time previously.  Europeans were already living on land that would later be part of the United States, in sites and communities that exist in continuity with the present day.  And of course, there were tens of millions of Native Americans living there already, many of them in permanent or seasonal settlements.  Plymouth itself was eventually absorbed into another colony.  So treating the establishment of Plymouth as our founding moment is bizarre at best, and actively biased in favor of religious Englishmen at worst.

Hardly anything the Pilgrims did was a historical "first;" not even the First Thanksgiving.  This is not a truly controversial assertion: harvest festivals are common in many countries around the world.  The timing and iconography of Thanksgiving makes it very plain that it is in essence a harvest festival, and the Pilgrims certainly held one in conjunction with the Native Americans.  But when Abraham Lincoln first established Thanksgiving as an annual federal holiday, he made no mention of the Pilgrims: declaring days of "thanksgiving" on an ad hoc basis had a long history  that preceded the Pilgrims.  According to Loewen's book, the Plymouth Rock story wasn't a part of the national holiday lore until the 1890s.

Thanksgiving is often touted as a celebration of a time when the Natives and the Pilgrims came together in harmony, the implication being that this harmony has defined our nation in some essential way.  It hasn't, of course: the Native Americans have been systematically killed and displaced from every corner of this country they originally inhabited.  The Pilgrims were gentler than most, but they represented the same general pattern: the encroachment of Europeans on land that was already populated, while treating it as though it were empty.

In fact, the biggest single piece of assistance the natives of New England gave to the Pilgrims was dying in droves of small pox.  Across the continent, European diseases had wiped out more than 90% of the indigenous population, a decline from more than ten million people.  The earliest European explorers wrote about industrious villages and even cities throughout North America.  These were drastically depopulated by the plague, and when the Pilgrims came to Cape Cod, they built their colony literally (quite literally) on the abandoned ruins of Squanto's hometown.  That town had an advantageous position on the harbor, which the natives had taken full advantage of for fishing.  There were permanent buildings and fields where corn was grown.  The name of this town was Patuxet, until the Pilgrims renamed it "New Plimoth."  Had the people of Patuxet not been decimated in a plague, they might not have been so accommodating to the newcomers.

Patuxet is not unique: the Americas are full of European settlements on the sites of indigenous towns and cities, not all of which were depopulated when Europeans "discovered" them.  But the Indians of the Thanksgiving mythos can hardly be said to have towns: they have been characterized as nomads who lived primitive, uncivilized, unproductive lives.  This is not true.  They were farmers, and fishermen, and craftsmen.  They lived differently from Europeans, but they were civilized.  Nevertheless, the descendents of those Europeans, who seldom bathed and looted the graves of natives for valuables, have painted them for posterity as savages who should be grateful for the arrival of "modernity" on their shores.

Let's bring this back to Thanksgiving, as it is celebrated today.  The holiday is a treasured part of life for many of us.  Tomorrow, I will take the opportunity to grow closer to my girlfriend and her family, an opportunity for which I truly am grateful.  I will eat the turkey, the mashed potatoes, and the gravy; God willing, it will be absolutely delicious.

But for the sake of truth and justice, can we knock it off with the Pilgrim/Indian iconography?  Can we stop treating the history of our country as if it revolves around a positive relationship between two peoples that never really existed?  Can we give indigenous people a break by not treating them as characters in a diorama, but rather as dignified humans with legitimate historical grievances? 

Can we stop treating the early history of the American colonies like a forgotten passage of the Bible?  I don't know if we can.  Americans (particularly white ones) view history as an opportunity to justify our past as an ascendant path toward exceptional greatness.  They see the hand of God in this, and they always have: most Europeans in the 17th century believed that the plagues which killed the native people of America were an explicit invitation from God to move in.  Nowadays we've forgotten even that, and we imagine that this continent was gifted to us in a pristine, mostly empty state.  It wasn't: it was opportunistically seized.

We'd do best to forget everything we think we know about "the First Thanksgiving" and learn to respect the experience of Native Americans.  Do a little research and learn about the real history of this country, whether it's in books like Loewen's or on (reputable) sites around the internet.  Some of it you will like, and some of it you won't, but in either case you'll learn infinitely more than what schools have seen fit to teach you.

There's no reason to go on with the pageants and the the buckles and the feathered headdresses.   They do nothing for school children except to turn them into close-minded adults.  They do nothing for adults except to keep their minds closed. 

Thanksgiving doesn't have to be about identifying our multicultural nation with an insular band of religious separatists and their quest to populate a "new world."  Neither does it have to be about removing embarrassing realities from our history.  It can and should be about humility and gratitude.  That's the spirit with which I intend to treat it tomorrow.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Barack Obama Won the Election, and he Won it Hard.

I was listening to Karl Rove sputter today about how Obama is the first President to win a second term with fewer electoral votes than he got the first time.  And I said to myself, that's technically true.  But it made me think of Franklin Roosevelt, who in four elections managed to get 472, 523, 449, and 432 electoral votes.  These were massive victories all, and an anomaly in history (particularly since the Constitution now forbids it), but nevertheless demonstrative of a President continuing to win reelection with declining electoral support.  Roosevelt wasn't considered any less the President because his share of votes declined in 1940 and 1944.  But Rove is clearly trying to argue that, by winning *only* 61% of the electoral vote, Obama should regard this election as something of a loss.  He shouldn't.  He won it big.

Bill Clinton won two elections with 370 and 379 electoral votes.  Barack Obama has won two terms with 365 and 332.  But Clinton never got more than 50% of the popular vote (though he still won it), and Obama has done it twice: this indicates that, as the country becomes more ideologically polarized, the potential for a candidate of either party to win stratospheric electoral landslides of, say, 400 or more votes may be declining.  But either way, it appears that in the post-Reagan political landscape, Democrats have a strong electoral advantage.

For comparison: George W. Bush lost the popular vote once and won it once.  He won those elections with 271 and 286 votes (when his father won in 1988, he won 426 votes).  It takes 270 to win, and the younger Bush won these elections with very few votes to spare: Flip one crucial state like Ohio and Florida, and his victory disappears.  By contrast, Obama could have lost both of those states this year and still won.  So even though his share of the electoral vote declined and the popular vote was close, his performance this year was still significantly more robust than the previous two-term Republican President ever managed. 

This matters, and it has everything to do with demographic realities.  In 2008, we all liked to tell ourselves that Obama's election meant that we had moved beyond the worst of racism, and that this was a new kind of country.  But the main arc of Obama's first term was more or less exactly what you would have expected "the first black president" to go through: he lost the white vote (particularly the white male vote), got locked out of most of the south, and was roundly criticized for not being "American" enough.  Governors and other yokels talked semi-seriously (one hopes) about secession, and policies that had once been popular in Republican circles were called "socialism" in Obama's hands.  A lunatic fringe became convinced that Obama was born in Africa and guided to office as part of a sinister foreign conspiracy, and more mainstream racists libeled him as a beneficiary of preferential treatment who couldn't utter a coherent idea in standard English without a teleprompter to help him.

If Obama got fewer votes this year than last time, it can be explained by one piece of data: in 2008, he lost the white vote by 12 percentage points, and in 2012 he lost it by 20.  But his support among the various other racial groups remained constant or improved.  The attitude of one racial group has been mistaken for the attitude of the whole country, simply because that racial group made up 76% of the voters.  But it is still only one racial group, and the fact that only that racial group had an eight point reaction against the first term of the first black President means something.  It does not mean that Latinos, African-Americans, Asian-Americans, and every other minority group are irrationally biased against white people or the Republican party.  It means that European-Americans are irrationally biased against a black President.

As one of the 39% of white people who voted for Barack Obama in 2012, I'm proud to say that this election demonstrates the awesome power of a multi-racial voting coalition against a mono-racial one.  As a liberal, this makes me feel warm and fuzzy.  As a human being, it makes me hopeful.

So if Obama got fewer votes in round two, I feel very confident in ascribing that "loss" to racism, no matter how the other 59% feel about that label (and who knows what the other 2% are up to).  It was a unique challenge for an incumbent President (in a dour economy, no less) to overcome, and he overcame it with room to spare.  On top of that, liberals had success around the country in Senate races and ballot measures.  It wasn't a clean sweep by any means, and it demonstrates the continuing geographical divide that will be politically problematic for this country for some time.  But it was a thumping good night for the left.  In four more years I'm sure we'll all be pulling our hair out again, but for now we have victory, and we like it.

Here's to freedom, social justice, and a better outlook for the Supreme Court.