Mementos 10: Three Authors And What My Comrades Have Taught me

Mementos 10:   Three Authors And What My Comrades Have Taught me 

[I’m preparing for mitral valve surgery  November 15, 2016. One of the instructions is to bring mementos with me. The best way to do this without hiring a moving truck (Diana’s suggestion) is to put some of what I would bring with me on this blog. I can then access it on my phone. That is my goal here]

Mementos recover our experiences, make them live again, ones we want to remember. So much of my life has been entwined with writers and writing, with revolutionary work, that everything is colored in those hues. I would not do what I have done over the years without the collective discussions with the comrades, who helped me understand what I had lived through and helped me understand what was to be done as different circumstances arose. Disagreement and struggle have all been part of the learning process. I owe everything to them, and to my comrade Diana, on whose companionship, encouragement, constant pushing me forward and provocative ideas I have come to depend as much as I depend on air to breathe. I cannot emphasize this point enough. So this section is about three of the thinkers I’ve met because of the work I have done among writers, because of what my comrades have taught me.

 

* * * * * *

 

My friend Anne and I got to the auditorium early to get a place on the waiting list. More than 1000 people had reserved seats, but we still had hope we’d get in, and our ticket said we were number 12 in line. We got in and quickly found seats in the fourth row, right in the center, and sat down. Audience was buzzing all around us. The speaker would be Jonathan Kozol, I pulled out my copy of his latest book and told Anne, “I’ll never get him to sign this today, Guess I’ll have to give up on that.”

The woman next to Anne leaned over to look at the book, Shame of A Nation. “Is it as good as Savage Inequalities,” she asked? “That book changed my life. My daughter just graduated as an elementary school teacher and I had to give it to her.

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Warmest thanks from a grateful friend and admirer — Savage Inequalities

I nodded vigorously, “I think it’s much stronger than Savage Inequalities, but let me tell you about his book that changed my life, Death At An Early Age.”

At that, the woman in front of me turned around and asked, “Is that an older book? It seems to me I read that, maybe about 30 years ago? Yes that was amazing!”

“That was his first book, his book about his own experiences teaching in segregated schools of Boston.”

“That’s what he writes about, education . . .”

“But you know,” I interjected, “between Savage Inequalities and his new book, Kozol wrote two remarkable books, Amazing Grace . . .”

“Is that the one you gave me,” Anne asked me, while the woman sitting next to the woman in front of me exclaimed, “Yes, that’s the one I read!”

“, , ,and Ordinary Resurrections, two books really about the beauty and resilience of young people despite the degradation forced upon them.”

* * * * *

This excited exchange is what books are about. . It took place in the third and fourth rows of the auditorium of the Harold Washington Library, March 16, 2006, as the audience walked in. Much of my life has been among the community of people who write, publish, sell and read books that change the world. I write about how literature participates in social transformation. I’m starting with Jonathan Kozol here, but I could be writing about any of dozens authors whom I’ve been lucky enough to have met.

* * * * *

I “met” Jonathan Kozol in 1970, when I was a social worker working for the County of Los Angeles, assigned to the Pasadena “Adult Aids” office. This was my first permanent employment after I left medical school, after my temporary gigs had evaporated, after the Los Angeles Unified School District told me they did not want me to be a teacher.

Adult Aids shared an office with “Family Aids,” that is, those who provided Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), the largest portion of the welfare system. There were two parts of the adult aids section: “Old Age Security,” for those who were ineligible for Social Security, or whose Social Security did not provide for all of their needs. These were the “deserving poor.” The other part of adult aids was called “General Relief” in Los Angeles County – it went by other names elsewhere – but it was aid for the “undeserving poor,” that is, up until the early 1970s primarily single men who could not get a job. In fact, most of the general relief was routed through the welfare office on 4th street on Skid Row, called by the welfare department the “Single Men’s Center.” For years people had been sent to the Fourth Street office to register for welfare, from which they would immediately be placed in a welfare hotel on Skid Row and then dispatched to what was euphemistically called “Work Project.” Gangs of men could be seen around the parks raking leaves or sweeping streets or, when the fall fire season began, on the front lines fighting conflagrations. When farm workers were needed, men would be dispatched to the tomato fields or the grape ranches. The pay was often in vouchers for food and housing; when it was in money, the rate was in the range of $109 per month. (Vouchers for food and rent were in the $15 a week range).

There were maybe a dozen of us in the general relief section, and we quickly got a reputation for being the radicals in the building. In the first place, we were the most completely unionized section of the workforce. Art Grubel, the Pasadena chapter president was a little shocked when, on my first day of work, I sought him out to join; later on Jack and Harry, two union members from the Single Mens’ Center, transferred in; Rita who came from a family aids background also transferred in; and the supervisor, James Elcock, had been promoted from the ranks and was also a union member.   (Pat Kuntz, the other supervisor, was not a union member; Jim Starrs, who supervised some of the OAS workers, was also a union member).

Even more important, we all believed that the welfare regulations were too stringent, and we got to know what the regulations actually were and how that differed from the even more restrictive practical policies. As a result, our office became known as the office that had figured out how to give away the most money per recipient, and the administration clamped down on us little by little.

Conversation with Elcock and Starrs often turned to the political, and ranged far beyond the problems of the welfare offices. My experiences earlier in the (also radical) Student Health Project and then with the Black Panthers and some of the East Los Angeles community organizations, my trip to Cuba, and the fact that the Los Angeles Unified School District rejected by job application because of my long hair and my beard placed me on an interesting playing field in relation to them and to my fellow workers. Mary Alice, for instance, who sat behind me in the office, with her flask of Jack Daniels in her drawer just in case, would torment me about my willingness to give away the County’s money. She traced it to my radical roots. Not the case with most of my fellow workers and with the two supervisors. It was in this environment that I discovered a best selling book of the day: Death At An Early Age. I devoured this book, written by a teacher in Boston, about my own age, could not stop talking about it. To this day, I feel the chills the children in his school felt, that winter day he describes, huddled in the corner of the auditorium assigned to them for their classroom, under a broken window with the wind howling outside. Reading this book introduced me to Jonathan Kozol and helped me understand something more how the social issues I was dealing with daily had a systemic origin. And of course, as a person who had hoped to be a teacher, the frustrations Kozol related, the discrimination against Black students he reported, and the fact that what he described, short of the howling winds and snow, resonated with my own experiences in Watts, California.

Nearly two decades later I’d started working at Guild Books in Chicago. One night, back at home listening to a call-in show on public radio, I heard Otis Thomas, a member of the Chicago-Gary Area Union of the Homeless talking about housing takeovers and wintering in Chicago weather. I called the station, said I had just come from the west coast where the weather is less brutal, but where in Los Angeles they had considered rounding up all the homeless and placing them on a barge in the ocean. Thomas said he’d spent winters in California, where you could still die of hypothermia sleeping outside.

A few months later, I heard that Jonathan Kozol was in Chicago promoting his new book, Rachel and Her Children. This book about homelessness was a departure for Kozol. I was angry that I’d heard about this so late and could not invite him to sign books at Guild. I called the Crown Publishers sales representative to see if there was any way we could get him to drop by the store and meet some activists involved in homelessness. I got a local number for him and persuaded him to stop by. Because Guild was also the center of “Artists Against Homelessness,” organized by artist and staff member Sue Ying Peery, we contacted some of the artists Sue Ying was working with. They came to the store when Kozol was due to arrive. Then I called Otis Thomas and others to ask them to come to meet Kozol. The result was something that could happen only at Guild.

In January, 1988, the New York Times ran a story that featured Otis Thomas. ”Why are people dying on the streets when there are perfectly good apartments available?” . . . ”People say we’re crazy out here on the streets,” said Mr. Thomas. ”Well, what’s crazy is sitting around and not doing anything about it. We’re not going to give up. We’ve had enough.” (Jan. 7, 1988: http://www.nytimes.com/1988/01/07/us/homeless-plight-protested-in-3-cities.html ) Otis had been homeless for about 2 years. He was tall, plain-spoken, gentle and anxious to exchange conversation with Jonathan. On his part, Kozol amazing-grace-coverwas eager to learn about the street-level situation in Chicago and delighted to meet people putting up tent cities, reclaiming abandoned housing, and protesting the thousands of empty public housing units with so many people out on the street. The Chicago Coalition for the Homeless estimated the numbers of homeless in Chicago at about 20,000 that year, and the Chicago Housing authority admitted to a waiting list of 4,000 approved for entry to public housing, with over 3,000 empty units they called uninhabitable.

The morning ended with Jonathan giving me his telephone number in Massachusetts, the number of his assistant, and promising to do a reading for us his next time in Chicago. A year later, Rachel and Her Children came out in paperback. This time we were ready, and arranged for a reading. Of course we were able to bring the homeless activist community together for this event. Jonathan was soft-spoken, but when he started speaking there was a tremor, a fervor in his voice. He spoke about how, as a writer, he always hopes to convince people with his writing; he wants his writing to have an effect, to make a difference. And so it was with Rachel. He thought it would be a part of an effort to end this travesty of homelessness in a country that brags it is the richest in the world. But, he pointed out, a year after Rachel was published, and many lectures and travels since, he had found that the main consequence of the publicity is that a whole industry has arisen around homelessness. “There are even degrees in shelter management given in universities,” he said.

A few years later, June 5, 1995, House of Representatives Speaker Newt Gingrich was scheduled to give a talk to the final lunch meeting at the American Bookseller’s Association annual convention, this time in Chicago. There had been considerable opposition to this among booksellers. Nevertheless, ABA director Bernie Rath defended his decision to invite him. I called John Donahue, director of the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, to tell him about Gingrich’s appearance. Gingrich had issued his infamous “contract on America,” that included Medicare and Medicaid cuts as well as welfare and food stamp cutbacks. John called me back after consulting with his colleagues. Could I buy them tickets to the luncheon? Of course I could, if you can give me the money! Done! And so I purchased 10 tickets at about $30 a pop. Minutes into the luncheon the Coalition members present stood and shouted at Gingrich, stopping the presentations for about 30 minutes. The Chicago Tribune reported that 300 demonstrators marched outside the convention center as well.

Later that afternoon, as things were winding up outside and booksellers were saying their last good-byes to people they saw, Jonathan Kozol came up to check in (our paths had crossed earlier, because he had been at the convention to promote his new book, Amazing Grace, and he’d been on a breakfast panel). His curiosity had been piqued by the demonstration at the luncheon, and so he asked if I knew how the demonstrators had gotten inside. I told him that I had purchased tickets for them. He smiled, said he thought that might have been the case, and congratulated me: “Good work!”

* * * * * *

Jonathan Kozol returned to his main interest, the education of young children, with his next books, Savage Inequalities (1991), Amazing Grace (1995) and Ordinary Resurrections (2000). They each brought him back to Chicago, but only one while Guild Books was still open and could offer a platform for him to read and discuss. We took the opportunity to invite him to Michael Warr’s apartment in Wicker Park to meet with teachers and other community members. On the way to Michael’s apartment we chatted about who would be there and what they might expect; then about the children he had known in the Bronx; also, tenderly, about the health of his dog. But once we got there, in a packed, standing room only living room, Jonathan listened to what people told him about teaching and learning in the segregated Chicago public schools.

He leaned forward, intent, often cradling his chin in one hand, his elbow resting on his knee. His brow furrowed, his head shook in assent or in disappointment as he heard tales from the war zone of public education. Finally he called on a young woman, a student at a magnet school, Whitney Young High School, and his face changed, as it often did when he talked with or about young people, inviting her to give her experience. His voice was tender and welcoming. She spoke with passion, about how her working class parents had started her early with special school programs to take the tests to get into magnet schools from before she was in kindergarten, and because of that she had gotten into Whitney Young, one of the best public schools in the country. She said she was very grateful for her own education. But she was upset about so many of her friends in her neighborhood who did not have access to schools like this; or that the neighborhood schools (like Roberto Clemente, which was in her neighborhood) did not have anywhere near the programs that her school had. It wasn’t fair, she said. There is something wrong with this. Jonathan simply nodded. And the afternoon drew to a close.

Savage Inequalities echoed Kozol’s frustrations after publishing Rachel and Her Children. 25 years after Death at an Early Age was published, segregation by race, inequality by race and class was just as rampant, whole industries and a not-for-profit-industrial complex had grown up to profit on this inequality. When his next two books were published, Jonathan turned to a different face of what he had been exploring. What may be unique about Kozol is that he kept in touch with many of the families we met in his earlier books in the South Bronx. In Amazing Grace and Ordinary Resurrections, we see them later on, we look at their growth and how they have resisted being ground into oblivion. Their resistance, Kozol makes it clear, has nothing to do with any systemic aid that the children have received. Indeed, their survival is often in spite of the efforts to suppress them. In the pages of these books you can actually hear Kozol’s voice, tremulous and soft, just as he talked with and listened to the young woman in that Chicago living room: intent, pained but open and friendly.

A different Jonathan Kozol spoke at North Eastern Illinois University in 2000, after the publication of Ordinary Resurrections. Ringing accusations against a system that failed young people punctuated his presentation, and once again the hope that emerged because in some inexplicable fashion some young people managed to achieve resurrection; the implicit metaphor of children – children — having been crucified was not lost on his audience. Most of his audience of perhaps 500 were teachers or education or sociology students. Afterward, a sociology professor gathered about 20 students around a table in a nearby open area, and a heated conversation took place about the lessons of the presentation. Can the system be reformed? Do we need to start all over again? Who profits from it being the way it is?

Jonathan Kozol expressed frustrations that his work actually hadn’t changed the world, and perhaps this opens a conversation about what changing the world means, beyond reform. And that’s what I try to chip away at in my writing.

* * * * * * *

In the spring of 1989 John Edgar Wideman read from his short story collection, Fever, at Guild Books. He read from the last story, the title story, held me spellbound. He told us that it would be part of a new novel he was writing, and the fever was a famous plague year

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May Damballah watch over you and yours — Damballah

in Philadelphia. I have this underlined in my copy of the book: “To explain the fever we need no boatloads of refugees, ragged and wracked with killing fevers, bringing death to our shores. We have bred the affliction within our breasts. . . Fever grows in the secret places of our hearts, planted there when one of us decided to sell one of us to another. The drum must pound ten thousand thousand years to drive that evil away.” It’s an allegorical fever that riddled Philadelphia as the 18th century drew to a close; but one that still stalks our streets.

The audience was small – it was generous of Wideman to write “Thanks for the party” in his autograph. One person listening intently had read Wideman before and came prepared with questions. One in particular was pointed. The listener, an African-American student, asked the author what he thought his responsibility as a Black writer was to the Black community. A few years later, by which time I’d been certified as a Wideman groupie, I was invited to a lecture he gave at Columbia College. The occasion was the publication of Philadelphia Fire, a novel that returned to late 20th century Philadelphia and the tenth anniversary of the day on which the Black mayor of the city of brotherly love bombed a block of row houses one of which was occupied by an activist group called MOVE. The novel is in three parts, each of which has a distinct musical style to the language. The middle section, also, is an autobiographical riff on when the author taught Shakespeare to Black students in the parks in the summer, and the particular play is The Tempest. Who Caliban really is plays an important part of this section and in some way inhabits the rest of the novel.

Afterward, I joined a few Columbia faculty and grad students at dinner with Wideman. One student asked a question about Shakespeare and about Wideman’s use of language, which reminded me of the question asked at Guild. Why Shakespeare in a novel of Black Philadelphia? The answers to both questions broke the boundaries that separates one genre from another and stretched the complaints about cultural appropriation. English, Wideman pointed out, is his language and he has the obligation to make the most of all his heritage, whether it is the language of the streets or the language of the Bard. It’s all his, and his responsibility to stretch that to its limits. I still find Philadelphia Fire the most exciting of John Edgar Wideman’s work because of this use of Shakespeare and because of the rhythmic cadences that mark each section – and because of the way his own biography sneaks into places of the novel, not just the teaching segment, but also basketball and his relationship with some of the political forces in Philadelphia. One of the most artful political novels I’ve read.

I’m not sure when this next conversation took place, it was in a crowded anteroom and again at a reading that Wideman had just done. The poet, Sterling Plumpp was telling me his impression of Wideman. Sterling had been one of the leaders in the committee to defend Dennis Brutus, the South African poet, from being deported to his certain imprisonment under apartheid. He also gave a very fine critique/review of the Arnold Rampersad two volume biography of Langston Hughes, helping us to understand Hughes relation both to the Black Arts movement and to the Black (especially Southern) working class. Stuffed in that lobby, Sterling didn’t need to twist my arm to convince me: John Edgar Wideman is one of the best American writers of our generation. I think I’d known that 10 years earlier when I first read his Sent For You Yesterday, returned over and over to the passage where John French muses over the words of Albert Wilkes, “They’ve got us on a rack.” That has epitomized, in six words, how I have experienced the world, how it seems to me Jonathan Kozol has described the lives of the children he has met.

* * * * *

In 1991 Leslie Marmon Silko published a book she had been working on for 10 years. Compared with the spare work of John Edgar Wideman and with her own Ceremony, a slim volume that had become a staple of school reading lists, Almanac of the Dead is a huge panorama of a novel encompassing more than 750 pages and a hemispheric landscape. autographsDiana and I read the book – we each had our own copy because it was so riveting, and because we had decided early on that it was a book we’d want to lend to others – and the day I finished the book I was on my way to work at Guild. I was so wrapped up in the text that I missed the Fullerton stop on the Purple Line express. By the time I’d realized this, I looked at my watch and noted that I was typically early. I made a split decision and happily rode into the loop and back to the bookstore by which time, 30 minutes later, I had finished the book.

Much of my memory of this novel is of what was happening at the time in the real world. We had a book discussion group at the bookstore and those of us who had read the book would look at each other after hearing the news that day and say, “Almanac of the Dead,” and we’d exchange knowing glances, shake our heads. Zapatistas, the Union of the Homeless, traffic in human organs, all the way to Standing Rock and Blackwell, all of these “appear” in the book. Brecht described art not as a mirror to reflect reality but as a hammer to shape it. And that was how we saw Silko’s book, which reflected reality but gave us a door to imagine what reality might otherwise be like.

In February, 1993 we hadn’t yet made our decision to close Guild. But the handwriting was on the wall. Our last day was at the end of May, but this February 17, Leslie Marmon Silko was in Chicago and sat at Guild’s sales counter to sign books. I can’t remember who was there aside from Diana and I, but when we handed her our books, almost falling apart from rereading, dog-eared and underlined, I remember the glow that spread across her face. She wrote along with the autograph: “When I was writing ALMANAC all those 10 years, I think I relied on energy and enthusiasm of readers like you – somehow the support travelled back through time to help sustain me.”

 

 

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Mementos 6: A Tale of Four Bookstores, Following Dreams, Remembering Charlie Clements and Eduardo Galeano

Mementos 6: A Tale of Four Bookstores, Following Dreams, Remembering Charlie Clements and Eduardo Galeano

[I’m preparing for mitral valve surgery in November, 2016. One of the instructions is to bring mementos with me. The best way to do this without hiring a moving truck (Diana’s suggestion) is to put some of what I would bring with me on this blog. I can then access it on my phone. That is my goal here]

At 71 my father quit working and decided to follow his dream. George and my mother, Anna, moved to Los Angeles to be with Greta’s family and with me. The year was 1961. I left to go to college at USC the year before. Uprooted from connections to the Rosenbaum

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There sits George, perched atop the gear wheel, a location unknown.

family and friends in New Haven devastated him. Selling the house and packing our belongings exacted a corresponding physical toll. The person who walked off the plane and into my arms in Los Angeles was not the father I’d left behind.

There was his dream though. The 15 years of employment at Mayer Rogol’s clothing store in Seymour had been steady work, but the wages were meager and George chafed at working for Anna’s family. At home we were surrounded by books, most of which had come from what my father saved from his Corner Bookstore, part of a legendary used book section in New York. They rested comfortably in oak bookcases I remember him building in the 1940s. The only power tool he had was a drill; he fashioned them with hand tools alone. He came west hoping to use the proceeds from the sales of

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George’s Corner Bookstore, 120 4th Ave. in 1930s

the house to purchase a bookstore again. To do something he thought was really useful, to do something that gave him satisfaction.

We visited used bookstores around the city together – Partridge had just opened on Hollywood Blvd, right next to Pickwick’s emporium of books; we looked at Yesterday’s Books crammed into a dusty, corner space on Alvarado. And after just a few looks we realized that the dream was a fantasy: there was nothing that even the entire $20,000 could purchase. The light disappeared from his eyes, the walk slowed, and George settled into 5 years of disappointment and Parkinson’s syndrome before he died in a nursing home, debilitated with a stroke.

* * * * * * * *

Maybe my love of books came from watching my father’s hands craft those bookcases and wonder about the magic that they held. I adored one of the books on the shelves:  Jack London’s Call of the Wild.  The story of Buck resonated with me — early on it was Buck, the hero, who captured my imagination, but I think as I grew older I identified with the Thornton character and his relationship with Buck — and I read it over and over again.

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“Greta Rosenbaum”  inscribed in George’s hand on the inside front cover

That earned great praise from Anna (another reason for me to care so much for the book). Soon I started scouring used bookstores to find treasures.  From somewhere I knew that used books contained special value, though I did not know what it was.  By then I had begun reading philosophy, and especially Bertrand Russell, whose penetrating criticisms of organized religion were eye-opening. And then came my passion for Shaw, his prefaces as much as his plays. Visiting Greta in Los Angeles during summers in the 1950s, I made a habit of visiting the Goodwill Store in the downtown area as often as possible, where I’d pick up used editions for a buck or less.  I’d proudly show my acquisitions to my father, who dismissed them and therefore my ability to recognize what was good (valuable).  And then, for high school graduation, Greta gave me a complete set of Shaw plays.

* * * * * * * *

I was in my second year of medical school when my father died, and two years later I quit school. In the mid 1970s I settled in at the Midnight Special Bookstore.  We moved the store from its tiny Venice location to the third street mall in Santa Monica, vastly improving both its visibility and its size.  We immediately began planning to take advantage of the new space we had, with author events and readings and special programming around social issues. The first opportunity we had came in the spring of 1984. By then, the Midnight Special was renowned for its selection of Latin American literature and history, especially for its concentration on Central America, then in the throes of conflagration.

Our store best sellers included any new book on El Salvador. Photographer Susan Meiselas published a book of her work, Nicaragua June, 1978- July, 1979, (Pantheon, 1981) which followed the revolution to the overthrow of Somoza and the triumph of the Sandinistas. She followed this up with a book on El Salvador, the work of 30 photographers. Grove Press documented the struggles in the countries of Central America with a series of books that quickly rose to the level of our best sellers. In 1984, then, it only made sense for Gayle Browning, who represented Bantam Books, to talk with us about hosting an event with

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The book cover of Witness to War.

Charlie Clements. Bantam, mainly a mass market publisher, had just published in hard cover Clements’ Witness to War, the account of his journey from the US Air Force pilot in Vietnam to serving as a non-combatant medic with the rebels in El Salvador. After leaving El Salvador, he testified before Congress and traveled across the country talking about the brutality of US foreign policy in El Salvador.

Born in 1946, Clements had graduated from the Air Force Academy and spent a few months in 1967 at UCLA. There he saw the campus vigils about the war escalating in Vietnam, perhaps even the same demonstrations on Wilshire Boulevard that I had seen and taken part in. Perhaps seeds of his future disillusionment were planted here, but at the time he looked at the protesters as misguided, and he went on assignment to Vietnam. After about 9 months and 50 missions, he had grown to recognize the immorality of the war effort, especially because of government lies about military operations in Laos and Cambodia. He refused to fly any more missions, was returned to the U.S., confined to a psychiatric ward and discharged with a 10% mental disability. He became a physician and, in 1980, while treating undocumented immigrant farm workers in California’s central valley, he heard from his patients about the growing U.S. involvement in the war in El Salvador. He feared another Vietnam was developing there. He volunteered his medical assistance in the FMLN (Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front) controlled territory, and entered the Guazapo front in El Salvador in March 1982.

During the civil war in El Salvador, Charlie Clements worked as a physician in rural villages that were bombed, rocketed, or strafed daily by their own government. One day a peasant asked, “Why don’t you carry a weapon like the other doctors?” Clements explained that when he returned from the Vietnam War he became a Quaker and that Quakers believe in non-violence. The peasant shook his head in disdain saying, “You gringos are always concerned about violence done with machetes or machine guns. I used to work on the hacienda,” he said, pointing into the distance. “I fed the dogs there [in the hacienda] bowls of meat and milk even when my own children were hungry. If the dogs were ill, I took them to a veterinarian, but my children died without ever seeing a doctor. You will never understand violence or non-violence until you understand the violence to the spirit from watching helplessly as your children suffer.”

“Activists in the US [Clements wrote] . . . have always had to jump in front of the ship of state to keep it on a self-correcting course. Whether the issue was slavery, labor rights, women’s suffrage, civil rights, Vietnam, Central America, or Iraq, it is the determined protests of those who will settle for nothing less than justice or peace that have altered the course of history. The moral arc of the universe doesn’t bend toward justice by gravity.”

http://www.americanswhotellthetruth.org/portraits/charlie-clements (supplementary information from an interview with Charlie Clements https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pYCge-l-GRU)

 

Of course we jumped at the chance to host this book party. Who else had the ties to communities as well as universities to bring an audience for an author like this? And then we realized what we had done. We had never had a publication for a hard cover book (most of our customers were paperback readers). We’d never done a signing with a major publisher. We had never done cooperative advertising with a publisher before. No matter our vision for what we would like to be, inseparably connected to the cultural life of the Los Angeles basin, our insularity as a political bookstore limited our possible outreach. The day of the signing I paced the length of the store in high anxiety, prowled the front of the store to monitor that we actually had customers coming to hear from Charlie Clements,

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Charlie Clements

and then when the youthful looking physician, four years my junior, walked in the door and we seated him at the folding table piled high with his Witness to War, when he began to talk about his experiences — the 50 some people listened in rapt attention. Then people lined up, around the wooden table shaped, we thought, like an amoeba to have their books signed.

 

I stood to the side, watching the flow, when one person stepped out of line to talk with me. Diane Glinos was a student at UCLA and a committed participant of the Nicaragua solidarity work. She had taken flyers about the event to her school and to the organizations in which she was active. She had an earnest expression on her face, her dark, intense eyes told me she had something important to tell me, when she whispered, “Lew, you should offer to introduce Jackson Browne to Charlie Clements.”   My quizzical look as I looked around convinced her to tell me that he was standing in line. No one in line wore a placard saying “I am Jackson Browne” and I had no idea what he looked like, so I suggested that she might want to do that herself.

 

Diane thanked me for the offer, but thought it would be more appropriate for a representative from the bookstore to do this. She was gracious enough to point him out to me (without making me feel any more stupid than I already felt). I asked Jackson if he would like me to introduce him to Dr. Clements, but he told me he already knew Clements and would wait his turn in line to say hello. But, he said, “I’d like to see if you can get a book for me. It’s a book of photos about Nicaragua. . .” and before he could get any further I told him we had the book in stock and how many would he like, and would he prefer hard or soft cover. On his request I brought two copies of Susan Meiselas’ book to him. On that day, he may not have bought anything other than these and copies of Charlie Clements’ book. But after this, Jackson Browne made many visits to the Midnight Special to find the reading material he needed, to find out the information he could not find elsewhere. Of 220px-jackson_browne_-_lives_in_the_balancecourse now I had to listen to Jackson’s music, so a bought his new release, Lives in the Balance.  The music just reverberated within my brain, “There are lives in the balance, there are people under fire, there are children at the cannon,” and then the magical pipes, the Latin phrasing of the the instruments.  So when Jackson called one day to ask about some books, I had to tell him what I thought about the album.  This precipitated one of the most influential conversations I’ve had.  I admit that until then I hadn’t much considered the artistry of rock and roll.  Jackson forced me to think of the seriousness with which rock and roll musicians pursue their craft.  And I’ve thought about that afternoon often ever since.

* *  * * * * * *

Eduardo Galeano sat at my dining room table in my Chicago apartment on Lill Street one block away from Guild Books, pen poised and a stack of books to be signed at his side. Breakfast consumed, he had reluctantly agreed to sign some books in advance of his appearance at the bookstore later that Saturday, 1988.   He was anxious, it seemed, and we had been warned that his health was mending after some heart issues. We didn’t press him to sign books, but were delighted when he agreed with our suggestion that some folks might just want to purchase a signed copy without talking with him.

I sat mesmerized with the tremendous accomplishment of getting Galeano to Guild; even more amazed by the good fortune of giving up my bedroom to him and my relocating to the living room couch. How did that happen?

Three years earlier, in 1985, I’d been a bookseller at Midnight Special Books in Santa Monica, California. I had done many things at the bookstore, but in 1985 I was mostly the person in charge of ordering books. While the consolidation in book selling and publishing had been well underway, it was still a few years before the tremendous expansion of super stores. It was still important for sales representatives to call on booksellers for book orders.

Doug Hodges, who later became a national sales manager for Random House, s0ld the Random House catalogue to me then. He always came to see me early in the season. He told me I prepared more thoroughly than any of his accounts for our meetings, and, even with the smaller number of imprints under the Random House rubric than I would later have to deal with, meeting with Doug could be an all day event. Start at 9 AM, break at noon for lunch, then come back to wrap up from 1 to 3. All independent bookstores relied heavily on Vintage paperbacks, Pantheon literary and political titles. Less important for us were the books in the venerable Knopf imprint, the Random House titles and Crown and Villard were least important. Nevertheless I always combed through each of those catalogs to find the gems, which was one reason Doug came early to see me. He said he learned a lot about the importance of some of the books that no one else knew about. This day in 1985 was going to be one of those days.

In the Pantheon catalog I found Eduardo Galeano’s Genesis, “the extraordinary first volume of a great and ambitious project” reads the flap of the book jacket. This is probably part of the catalog copy that leaped out at me. And the first thing I said to Doug as we sat down to the Pantheon list was: “We want Galeano in our store when he tours for the book. He has GOT to come here. No place else in Los Angeles area would know what to do to promote this book or who has the connections to get people to hear him.”

Hodges sat dumbfounded. “Who is he?” Doug asked.

I told him about how a generation of Mexican and South American intellectuals had cut their critical thinking eye-teeth on Galeano’s Open Veins of Latin America (two decades later Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez would choose to present a copy to recently elected President Barack Obama); how that was the most consistent best selling book on Latin

galeano-autograph-1

Eduardo Galeano signed the third volume of the Memory of Fire trilogy at my breakfast table in 1988

American history in that section of the store; how the most important Latin American studies departments/teachers in the Los Angeles area from UCLA to UC Irvine to Cal State Los Angeles relied on that book, all of whom we knew and to whose students we therefore had a direct line. And when I got through Doug reiterated that was why he came to the Midnight Special first. He had never heard of Galeano, he now had something to tell other booksellers when he showed the catalog.

But Random House was not planning on touring him, it was not in their plans at all, he was too unknown in the US, Random House could not afford to bring him from Uruguay where he lived. Excuse after excuse met my rants and raves and criticism of their short sightedness.

Random House did not bring Galeano to the US in 1985.

The situation repeated itself, complete with rants and raves and refusals from Random House in 1987, when the second volume, Faces and Masks, was published. This time, however, Doug knew who Eduardo Galeano was and thought he would pre-empt my tantrum by telling me in advance that Galeano was not coming to the United States.

At the end of 1987 I packed my Toyota Station Wagon with its rebuilt engine and its 200,000 miles and drove to Chicago to join the Guild Books staff. One of the first sales representatives I met was Random House’s Mary McCarthy. While poring over the Pantheon catalog I saw that Galeano’s third and concluding volume of the Memory of Fire Trilogy, Century of the Wind, would be published that season (1988). I guess the cumulative brow beating Random House reps had gotten from the likes of Richard Bray at Guild and me at Midnight Special must have taken its toll on the Random House touring brass.

This time Galeano would come to the US.  Richard had come to know Eduardo Galeano’s agent in New York, Susan Bergholz, who insisted that Galeano needed peace and quiet while he was here, recuperating from his illness. Some place away from what she anticipated would be a flurry of activists tiring him out and keeping him from getting the rest that he needed on what looked like a very strenuous tour. He hid out in my bedroom.

So there he was, in my dining room, at the table at which he had just finished breakfast, signing books, including all three volumes of the trilogy, Open Veins, Days and Nights of Love and War, and a copy of each signed to me, all signed “gratefully, mil mil abrazos,” and more importantly with the caricature of the pig with the flower in his mouth, a trademark he said he reserved for special autographs.

But, he said, “I will not read.” OK, we thought, we don’t want to press him on this, make him angry or more anxious. Yes bookstore patrons, our bookstore patrons, want the author to give them a taste of what is in the book and talk about it.   But here is a man who is clearly nervous about the upcoming event. So we backed off, and Eduardo went for a walk, returning directly to the bookstore an hour or so before the event was to start, declaring himself willing to sign more books in advance if we wished. And yes, we wished.

As he signed, the people began to arrive for the book signing. He was seated in the back room, but heard the commotion beginning to build, glanced into the store area, and said, “I think I will read. But I left my book with my notations in your apartment.” I ran to the building, ran up to the third floor apartment (yes, we had cleared with his agent that walking up 3 flights would not be too strenuous for Eduardo), found his book and ran back with it in time to start the program.

The crowd hung on his words, as he read in English but also in Spanish, and then answered questions, altogether about an hour and a half, and then began signing books, as the line snaked throughout the store. He talked with each person as much as the person wanted; he took pictures with the customers and their children. I stood at his side doing the task that all booksellers do in this situation: open the books to the pages preferred for the signature. And about 45 minutes into the signing ritual Eduardo turned to me with a broad but incredulous smile: “They like me. They really like me!”

Before he left, Eduardo toured the 3,000 square feet of the book store and spent some time

DSCF5075

The Haymarket monument sculpted by Mary Brogger, located just north of Randolph on DesPlaines. An abstracted wagon/platform now marks the spot from which the speakers addressed the crowd in Haymarket Square.

looking at the political and labor posters we had for sale, on display in a rack. He fingered the display, took some notes, and left. The next morning friends of ours recorded an interview with him on video and took him in search of Haymarket Square, a search that proved unsuccessful.

Four years would pass before Eduardo would return to Guild. In May, 1992 my divorce from my first wife was finally becoming a reality, my marriage to my second wife a month away, and the book Eduardo would be signing would be The Book of Embraces. The existence of the bookstore itself was tenuous as both a Barnes & Noble and a Borders had opened in the neighborhood and as the neighborhood became less affordable for our regulars. Our core clientele were moving away. We had to close one third of the bookstore and the Guild Complex, the not-for-profit literary organization we had spawned to take up the promotion of literary events, had to move (they occupied a performance space in the South Loop called The Edge of the Lookingglass. This is where Eduardo was going to read.

This time Eduardo stayed in a hotel off Michigan Avenue. We agreed to meet in the lobby of his hotel. There were some items he had to buy while he was on tour, and we could talk while I accompanied him on his rounds. We went to one of the “Magnificent Mile’s” most appealing shopping attractions, the Water Tower Place, where Eduardo wanted to pick up some CDs for his daughter and where I knew there was a small CD store. He picked up a couple of classical CDs and a jazz CD, off the sale rack at the front of the store, but then was stymied in finding the CD his daughter wanted.
Eduardo walked to the checkout counter and asked the sales clerk, in faltering but carefully pronounced words, “Do you have anything by the [clearly and slowly enunciated] Butt Hole Surfers”? A quizzical and sheepish look spread over his face as he said it, almost apologetic. But the clerk was the one who apologized, saying that he wished the store would carry them, but probably the best place to try would be Wax Trax Records (which was right across from the Guild Book Store!).

That evening at the Guild Complex at the Edge of the Lookingglass, Eduardo Galeano read to an even larger crowd than he had the first time in Chicago. And among the things he read was this tribute to Guild Bookstore, the “largest bookstore in Chicago” in this anecdote:

Forgetting
Chicago is full of factories. There are even factories right in the center of the city, around the world’s tallest building. Chicago is full of factories. Chicago is full of workers.

Arriving in the Haymarket district, I ask my friends to show me the place where the workers whom the whole world salutes every May 1st were hanged in 1886.

It must be around here,’ they tell me. But nobody knows where.

No statue has been erected in memory of the martyrs of Chicago in the city of Chicago. Not a statue, not a monolith, not a bronze plaque. Nothing.

May 1st is the only truly universal day of all humanity, the only day when all histories and all geographies, all languages and all religions and cultures of the world coincide. But in the United States, May 1st is a day like any other. On that day, people work normally and no one, or almost no one, remembers that the rights of the working class did not spring whole from the ear of a goat, or from the hand of God or the boss.

After my fruitless exploration of the Haymarket, my friends take me to the largest bookstore in the city. And there, poking around, just by accident, I discover an old poster that seems to be waiting for me, stuck among many movie and rock posters. The poster displays an African proverb: Until lions have their own historians, histories of the hunt will glorify the hunter.

 

In 1995 Guild Books had been closed for two years, but the Guild Complex hosted Eduardo for his newest book, Walking Words. Diana and I drove him to the reading location, a settlement house in the Wicker Park area, and on the way crossed the Chicago River. Walking Words is a book of myths, some modern, some older, many of water spirits and animals, in a collaborative with Jose Francisco Borges, whose woodcuts illustrate the stories. Diana told Eduardo stories about the Chicago River, whose history included years of being set on fire from the materials polluting the waters, years of being unsafe to drink for the animals that populated the river, years of being attacked by the manufacturers who degraded the water supply and the people who lived on its banks. Eduardo listened, intent, with evident pain in his face. “But wait,” Diana said, “the river had its revenge. Last year the river refused to be contained by the man made barricades, burst through into the tunnel through which the subways run and up into the streets of the city, causing millions and millions of dollars of damage.”

“The earth has memory,” Eduardo said. “That is important. Memory is important. I want to know more about memory.”

 

We know now where the Haymarket was, where the rally was for which the Haymarket

galeano-we-say-yes-to-diana-and-lew

In his 1992 book of critical essays, We Say No, Eduardo wrote: “We say no to some people. And we say yes to Diana and Lew.

martyrs were arrested and imprisoned and executed. In 2006 Henry Holt published Eduardo’s Voices of Time, continuing the epigrammatic form he has worked with, this time “stories that I lived or heard.”   At the Guild Complex we convinced Susan Bergholz to take Eduardo’s strenuous tour through Chicago once more. He read for us at the Museum of Contemporary Art to a packed audience. For many, this was the culmination of what Guild Books had been about. For us, it was an opportunity of bringing memory, forgetting, and not knowing at all together, these themes that strike at the heart of Galeano’s work and of the revolutionary process.

May Day, 2006, just weeks earlier, I walked among almost a million Chicagoans along a route from Union Park to Randolph into the Loop and Grant Park. The steel, concrete and glass canyons resounded with the chants of marchers, many of them recent immigrants from Mexico and Latin America. “El pueblo unido jamas sera vencido” reverberated from the walls of those buildings, the marchers swelling into the streets in a mass farther than anyone could see.

But before coming to the loop, just a few blocks out of Union Park, we came to Randolph and Des Plaines. I stepped to the sidewalk, stood in the shadow of the corner building and looked north as the throng walked by me. The contingent from one union, also looking north, paused briefly and saluted the sculpture across the way – a recreation of the platform from which the speakers addressed their audience that May, 1886. Most marchers seemed unaware of the historic place through which they were walking, although well aware of the historic day on which they were marching.

How could we bring this reality of American consciousness to the reading that Eduardo was going to do? We made sure that some of those union leaders representing the marchers and their consciousness of May Day introduce Eduardo. And so they did, and we had the chance to talk about the sculpture, the march, and that although many marchers did not know where Haymarket square was, the fact that their march reclaimed not only the memory of the martyrs but the reality of the struggle which continues.

* * * * * * * * *

My life after Guild Books led me to become an assistant manager in Barnes & Noble.On the day I received my pin for 10 years service and loyalty,  3 years away from my being able to retire with full social security, Barnes & Noble fired me for not pushing the employees to work harder.  For the first time in 30 years I didn’t manage a bookstore, didn’t have to worry about meeting payroll in my own store or maintaining a sane workplace in a store I didn’t own. I sighed with relief.  At some point after I had been forced into “retirement” I was talking with Nelson Peery, who had been instrumental in my coming to Chicago in the first place.  Don’t worry, he said, you’ll get a bookstore again, I’m sure of it.  I didn’t tell him that in the economic environment of  superstores that was the last thing on my mind.  I thought about my father’s own disappointment in 1962, and instead of bookstores I thought of what new chapter would open in my life, now that I would have the opportunity to follow my dreams of revolutionary activity. Fundamentally this story is about literature and revolution; It is about history and lions and how, by recovering memory, by making known what is unknown, the lions begin to write their own history.

 

On Reading the “Anthology of a Thousand Poets” Ho Chi Minh

ho-chi-minhOn Reading the “Anthology of a Thousand Poets”

Ho Chi Minh

They used to sing of nature’s charms –
hills, streams, mists, flowers, snow, moon, and wind.
Today, a poem must have steel.
A poet must learn to wage war.

It’s Not the Same River — Lew Rosenbaum

It’s Not The Same River   by Lew Rosenbaum

“No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.” Heraclitus, 535-475 BCE

“We are all related” – Lakota prayer

Ninety-six percent of water on earth is saline.

The water swimming in my cells,

The water that bathes my cells,

The water coursing in my bloodstream,

All of it is saline.

We cannot drink salt water.

 

Aquifers make up thirty percent of the four percent that is fresh water.

Lying deep beneath the arid desert,

Beneath the flat Midwestern plains,

Beneath the big-sky buttes of Montana,

Beneath the putrid oil wells of the Texas panhandle.

California almonds drink this water when people cannot.

Nestlé bottles what the people may not drink.

 

The amount of water used to supply the world’s golf courses

Is the same as the amount that could supply all the world’s people.

Japan had 23 golf courses before World War II.

They found their error

And built three thousand courses.

An anti-haiku.

 

Lake Huron is the third largest fresh water lake on earth.300px-Saginawrivermap

Flint, Michigan, lying near the shores of Lake Huron,

Started using Flint River water instead.

(It takes its name from the Ojibwe language, when the river ran pure).

But river water flowed past the industrial factories

That built Flint, and discharged chemical waste

Turning clear water a muddy brown,

Infected with retch-inducing odors,

Cancer-causing chemicals and corrosive salts

That leached lead from the pipes in lethal doses.

When people showered,

Water brought rashes and pain to their bleeding skin.

 

Sixty percent of the human body is water.

We humans need water more than we need food.

Why do capitalist private profiteers get to drain our aquifers?

Flint is a lesson and a call to wake up.

No one can make the babies come back,

But we can have clean, free water for all

By ending the rule of private property

That protects golf courses and

Preys upon the lives of our people.

We are all related.

 

Exposed and Ode to a Shot Glass: Commemorating Billy Watkins

[On July 27, 2014, The Revolutionary Poets Brigade – Chicago held a “bonfire” reading as part of the World Poetry Movement’s readings for peace.  We built a bonfire at promontory point, jutting out into Lake Michigan, the Chicago skyline dramatically draped against the northern horizon.  As the sun went down over the trees to the west, poets and activists read from their work and described the social struggles in which they were engaged.  We asked Billy Watkins to speak about his work with the newspaper The People’s Tribune, and to read some poetry. What follows is the complete transcript of his reading, his last public presentation. As he left promontory point, he was pleased to hear that his, his first public sharing of his own poetry, was an extraordinary success. Now, nearly a year later, we follow this transcript with a new poem about Billy Watkins.– Lew Rosenbaum]

Adam Gottlieb: Next up is going to be Billy Watkins talking about the People’s Tribune. Watkins is a writer for the People’s Tribune and an all around revolutionary. Everyone please give it up for Billy!

[applause]

20140727_190620Billy Watkins: Thank you, I want to be a part of the circle here, that’s good. I am yeah I am both happy and humbled to be here this afternoon. I’m not a poet. I wanted to get my little piece out of the way so we can get ready for some serious poetry. My day job is, I’m a professor at UIC I’ve been there for 20 years, I’m tired of them, they’re probably tired of me, probably I should re-tire. But at any rate, until that happens, I’m a part of the movement. And right today I’m representing the People’s Tribune. I’m going to pass around [here he hands a stack of People’s Tribune’s to be passed around the listeners], several of us here write for the People’s Tribune and distribute it. I’ve been working for the People’s Tribune for a long time. It’s a newspaper, a community newspaper that is addressing the issues of tyranny, oppression, capitalism, war, we’re trying to respond to every act of tyranny and oppression, and provide a newspaper where the people can inform one another and organize themselves. We’re beyond the time of, we’re at a time in history that you all already know is a very dangerous and menacing time of — the people, the powers that be are marshalling their forces. They’re putting their house in order to do whatever their master plan is. We on the other hand are not as organized, don’t have as many resources, perhaps don’t even understand how serious the threat is. But we’re beginning to understand it.

Last week, with the invasion of Gaza, we understood it even more.

So I want to, I was asked to, I was lured here, because — I’m not a poet — but I love words and I understand the power of words. Was it Shakespeare who said the pen is mightier than the sword? Somebody said it. Whoever said it had a lot of truth to it. And so words are the key to action. Words are inspiring. Words do things to us. We’re moved by words, whether it be in song, in poetry, in prose, whatever. So, I have never, this is the first time I’ve ever shared anything I’ve written in public like this.

[applause]

I mean I’ve written a couple books, but I’ve not shared – I don’t know if this is poetry or drunken reminiscences – and is there a difference [someone says same thing] – same thing, I’m glad to know that, because at the end of every day I have a little glass of gin and I do a little writing. So this represents the end of every day.

This is a piece that I wrote – I’m probably one of the oldest ones out here, and we’re called together today to talk about war, condemn war, well, I was brought up in the “Cold War.” And I wrote this poem actually last year, and I was thinking about some of the old cold warriors, who helped shape our world, or I should say misshaped our world. So these guys we got today in the Pentagon and launching these adventures, they are poop-butts compared to the people we had in the 1960s. I mean you had some real pros who were assembled by the Kennedy administration to in fact reconfigure the world. So let me just read some of my thoughts, and I call this

Exposed  by Bill Watkins

Divine one, king, emperor, sovereign, his highness, sire, your majesty, landlord, hereditarian bloodline, elected by no one, speak to God

You go by many names,

we know who you are,

we got your number,

we’re on your ass

Democrat, reformer, liberal, progressive, humanitarian, neoliberal, Kennedyite, new dealer, new wheeler,

You go by many names,

we know who you are,

we got your number,

we’re on your ass

Usurper, hater, exploiter, robber baron, expansionist, smooth criminal, imperialist, pig, evil doer, vermin, trickster, wicked one.

You are known by many names,

we know who you are,

we got your number,

we’re on your ass

Liar, cheater, misleader, fool, hurter, killer, wannabe thriller

we know who you are,

we got your number,

we’re on your ass.

Reagan, Clinton, Eisenhower, Truman, Wilson, Obama, and yes Jimmy Carter, the peanut man.

You are known by many names,

we know who you are,

we got your number,

we’re on your ass

Stockman, Plockman, Foreman, Hockman, Gates, Vrydolyak, Cheney, Kennedy Fukuyama , Rumsfeld, McGeorge

“What mother would name her child McGeorge” Bundy

Bundy — what mother would name her child McGeorge?

You go by many names,

we know who you are,

we got your number,

we’re on your ass

Wallace, Bilbo, Maddox, Stennis, Connor,

You go by many names,

we know who you are,

we got your number,

we’re on your ass

Mortgage man, rent man, landlord man, police man, collector man, bag man, dope man,repo man, hit man, alder man

You go by many names,

we know who you are,

we got your number,

we’re on your ass

Faker, false prophet, apostate, revisionist, snake man, god man, obeah man, con man, trick man, lowdown man

You go by many names,

we know who you are.

Just a quickie now, I want to read something from one of my favorite people, V.I.Lenin, and its a passage from one of my th-2favorite books, entitled What Is To Be Done.

It’s just one paragraph. It’s a paragraph that I love because it speaks to me. Speaks to those of us in the movement, and we are trying to grow the movement, and we want to do the right thing. We are faced with all kinds of tricksters and hypocrites and we are surrounded by all kinds of buffoons and people who would have us misstep.

“We are marching in a compact group along a precipitous and difficult path, firmly holding each other by the hand. We are surrounded on all sides by enemies, and we have to advance almost constantly under their fire. We have combined, by a freely adopted decision, for the purpose of fighting the enemy, and not of retreating into the neighbouring marsh, the inhabitants of which, from the very outset, have reproached us with having separated ourselves into an exclusive group and with having chosen the path of struggle instead of the path of conciliation. And now some among us begin to cry out: Let us go into the marsh! And when we begin to shame them, they retort: What backward people you are! Are you not ashamed to deny us the liberty to invite you to take a better road! Oh, yes, gentlemen! You are free not only to invite us, but to go yourselves wherever you will, even into the marsh. In fact, we think that the marsh is your proper place, and we are prepared to render you every assistance to get there. Only let go of our hands, don’t clutch at us and don’t besmirch the grand word freedom, for we too are “free” to go where we please, free to fight not only against the marsh, but also against those who are turning towards the marsh!”

   * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Ode to a Shot Glass by Lew Rosenbaum

The five inch high shot glass has a map of Arkansas

Printed on the side. Arkansas emblazoned in red letters

Along its northern border, while a yellow scroll at the southernshot glass (1)

Proclaims in red letters “The Natural State.” An hour ago

It was filled with vodka, smooth tasting Stolichnaya. I bought the Stoli

For ideological reasons: I thought it would best

Help me think of my comrade, Billy Watkins, writing what he called

His musings, his drunken reverie before going to bed,

Writing what he said he didn’t know if it was poetry or

Just drunken reminiscences, or is there any difference he said,

In that last public appearance, that night when we read poetry

Around the bonfire;

When we assured him there was no difference;

At promontory point, when he told us he had never read his poetry –

But is it poetry, he wondered, when he told us

He’d been writing for forty years, thrown most of it away,

I don’t know whether it’s any good, he said.

I’m a professor in my day job, I’m tired of them, some of them would be happy

If I RE-tired, his resonant voice breaking, his breathing labored,

He read his litany of scurrilous scourges of the working class,

And without being asked, we joined him in his chorus

“You go by many names, we know who you are,

We got your number, we’re on your ass.”

.

A week later, he would never write another line.

.

This is Billy’s glass. He collected it on one of his many journeys.

I chose this among the offerings at the service that

Celebrated his life, a generous selection his widow Mary

And his son Will prepared – I cringe at using the word “widow” –

I took this, not some exotic instrument from West Africa,

Some multicolored Asian textile, some Olmec sculpture:

No, this proletarian relic from the North American South,

Slavery’s home, and the key to American liberation,

And pouring a libation to fill this vessel, I think of Billy, late at night,

Chasing down his rage at the white architects of Black education,

Sharpening his view of Black protest thought,

Vilifying the corporate transformation of education.

If he were writing tonight, it would be a line straight from

Little Rock, the home of Orval Faubus and Bill Clinton,

To Charleston, where the first shots of the civil war were fired

And where nine were murdered in

Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church.

And, tossing off the last of the clear, fiery liquid in this glass,

He’d scribble another line to assure the enemies of his class,

We’re on your fascist ass.

.

Rest well, beloved comrade. We’re on their ass too

Ode to a Laughing Man (after Bertolt Brecht) — Lew Rosenbaum

Ode to the Laughing Man

Lew Rosenbaum

I

The morning light, still before dawn,

Filters through the windows,DSCF6866

Creeps around table, the chairs, the end of the bed

Lets me see their shapes as if in the night

Their edges had all softened, become indistinct,

And the breeze ripples lightly across my skin

Bringing with it intense, sweet fragrance

From the lilacs in the courtyard. I love watching

The early morning light define my surroundings:

I love inhaling this late May scent that has, since childhood,

Signified pleasure. And still, and then

The light reveals

Bodies of the bombed,

The fragrance cannot hide

The stench of sewage in our waters.

II

This morning, and yesterday, and probably tomorrow

I think of Bertolt Brecht, writing

Ah, what an age it is

When to speak of trees is almost a crime

For it is a kind of silence about injustice!

III

with glasses

I love to walk into the garden

Where purple salvia run riot

Interrupted by pink columbines at play,

Magenta spiderwort wave at me in the wind,

And my neighbor stops to gossip

About hosta, peonies, and we laugh

About the advancing violets,

Even about the dandelions,

About their bitter greens in a salad.

We smile, we laugh, and laugh.

IV

He who laughs

Has not yet heard

The terrible tidings.

Brecht wrote that too. But

 

I’ve heard the terrible tidings.

And yet I speak of trees,

Because after capitalism that is what we will do.

It is a crime to dwell on capital’s depravity,

Its descent into fascism,

Without envisioning what’s possible and necessary

What needs to be accomplished by the only ones who can.

There is but one reason to talk about

Doom and gloom.

Everything or nothing.

All of us or none.

[With apologies/thanks to Bertolt Brecht: To Posterity and All of Us or None }

Hair is the Hieroglyphic

Hair is the Hieroglyphic

by Lew Rosenbaum

She lounges listless in her nursing home bed.

Her hair — unkempt, unruly —scatters across

shrunken shoulders and splays across bed sheets.

There is no order to her appearance, no order to

the sounds babbling from her half-open mouth,

no pattern to the gray, black, white, yellow strands

that color her hair independently, still lend it that

dirty, ochrous look. It wasn’t always so.

I remember her sitting on the couch in the living room,

combing her abundant black tresses, two feet long

from the crown of her head almost to her waist,

every morning combing, always combing and combing,

plying the wide-toothed end to remove the

morning snarls that had accumulated in the thrashing

of night, moving toward the fine-toothed end until

long undulant streams dangle and glisten in the

morning sunlight streaming through the window.

Then she divides the hair at the crown, parting the

black sea to course in two rivers, one over each shoulder.
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With deft and nimble fingers she braids one side,

then the other, until the cascades lie across her breasts

each side emerging as an entwined water snake. Now she

arranges them in a circle,

forming a regal corona,

her straight shoulders speak confidence

as she smiles and stands up.

I saw the gray beginning to streak her hair.

I noticed when that yellow contaminated the

purity of color, when the display lost its luxuriance,

when she would finger the combed hair,

shake her head and mourn about how fine the

wisps had become, tell tales about women’s

envy, about admiration as she undid those braids.

The stages of a woman’s life are the grist that makes

a sphinx’s riddle. The hair is the hieroglyphic in which

these stages are recounted. I want to defy the inevitable,

pick up that comb, straighten those strands,

call back an earlier vibrant vision.

(previously published in the chapbook, To Pay The Piper)