a review essay by Lew Rosenbaum
Anyone listening to Matt Sedillo spit his poems across a crowded room will be mesmerized. It’s the rapid fire of his delivery, the plain speaking, the cadence and rhythm, the word play. The content. Yes, it is the content. After all, none other than Greg Palast calls him the best political poet in America. It’s an important book to read in the midst of a season of uprisings. A new poetics and a new way of seeing the world are needed in a time of rebellion. Having a chance to examine the poems in his book shows that the form you hear in the delivery is there, on the page, too.
Take “Once.” “Once upon a dream” the poem begins, evoking mythic origins. “I had this dream once,” he continues a few lines later in the poem. ‘”son/There live the rich/And though you and I/ May never get to see it/One day this hill will run red with their blood.” Much of the rest of the poem reviews dialectical pairs of why the hill will run red – “Mendez and Lemon Grove” refer to the Mendez family’s fight against segregation in Lemon Grove, California. “Rodriguez vs. San Antonio” alludes to the 1971 racial and class equity fight of the School Improvement Association in Texas. “Saul Castro and the blowouts” is actually Sal Castro, and the reference is to the 1968 high school student walkouts for ethnic studies programs, where the opposition was the LA Unified School District and, in particular at the beginning, Lincoln Park High. These class and racial conflicts fuel the rage that will lead to what the poet’s father predicts. If you’ve not heard of these incidents, that’s part of Sedillo’s poetic strategy. He wants you to find something with which you are familiar, but he wants you to ask questions about what you don’t know, do a little work, realize that there is more to the poem than lies on the surface. He is challenging you to inquire.
From the same poem, “I head east/ Toward clinics of cruelty/ All humanity stripped from a system/Sadism posed as social work.” Clinics of cruelty and sadism posed as social work are two of my favorite metaphors in the book and they jump right off the line. But this is a setup for Sedillo’s third dream. “I have this dream/Every so often/Of people/ Beyond borders and prisons/Gathered in the distance/Telling tales of time/When women feared the evening/When communities were punished by color/And grown men hunted children/Hardly able to believe/People once lived this way.” Three dreams and three outcomes. Origins, retribution, and the world we want to live in. You can’t leave clinics of cruelty unless you can envision the kind of world you want to inhabit. And that is what Sedillo is giving you here.
“The Servant’s Song” goes one step further – the title first makes me think of Chaucer, whose Canterbury Tales are filled with the tales of ordinary folk. But by the end I see it as an allusion to Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht –Pirate Jenny’s song. At first it is a song of “Captains of industry/Lords of limited liability,” and a celebration of their power. But in the servants quarters people are dreaming and singing songs of blood and conquest. This hill too will run red with blood. Just like in Brecht’s poem, where hotel maid Jenny welcomes the pirates bombarding the hotel and the capitalists. Definitely songs for our times.
In “Oh Say,” Sedillo riffs on the lines of “Star Spangled Banner” and “America the Beautiful,” writing not only that he never saw any purple mountain’s majesty, but mixes in a refrain from “Strange Fruit” and hits the reader with the contrast – “black bodies swinging in the Southern breeze.” How can you square one vision of America with another, he is asking, without questioning the blood at the root? Deep within this poem are references to Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, the ironic “Oh captain, my captain” and “Oh pioneer.” “The myths/ The hymns/ The bitterness/Of fairy tales/Best woven into song,” he says, including myths of Lincoln and the Civil War. Words tumble over each other to reach the end of a poem of slashing ironies, of “amber waves of chains.”
The title of the book and the title poem demand that the reader come to terms with Walt Whitman. The title is a challenge: cut Whitman down to size, perhaps.
I bought my copy of Leaves of Grass somewhere around 1989 or 1990, after listening to Luis Rodriguez comment about how so many of the talented poets writing in Chicago had not studied the masters, like Whitman, didn’t realize how much we owe to him. In a 2015 interview, Rodriguez said something similar: “[Poetry] is not at the center of [our] culture. It’s pushed to the side. And yet we have some of the best, from Walt Whitman to Emily Dickinson all the way to the present.” I confess I’ve still not been able to read all of Leaves of Grass, though I recognize what Whitman meant to the poetic canon. At the time Leaves of Grass was published, it was condemned and admired for its sensuality. Some refer to him as the father of free verse. Most don’t realize that the title, Leaves of Grass, was a pun. Grass was a term used at the time to describe trash literature, and a leaf is a page of a book. Grass, of course, is also a plant, and Whitman, in part 6 of “Song of Myself,” defines and describes grass.
None of that is Matt Sedillo’s contention. Whitman, in Sedillo’s view, was a racist who deserves no respect.
George Hutchinson and David Drews, in an essay in the Whitman archive, begin as follows:
“Whitman has commonly been perceived as one of the few white American writers who transcended the racial attitudes of his time, a great prophet celebrating ethnic and racial diversity and embodying egalitarian ideals. He has been adopted as a poetic father by poets of Native American, Asian, African, European, and Chicano descent. Nonetheless, the truth is that Whitman in person largely, though confusedly and idiosyncratically, internalized typical white racial attitudes of his time, place, and class.”
Some are saying, in the context of taking down statues of slaveholders and confederates, that statues memorializing Whitman should be removed as well. Hutchinson and Drews describe Whitman’s inconsistent racial attitudes that more or less mimic the different views of the time, views inconsistent with the “democratic spirit” of his poetry. They conclude their essay thus:
Because of the radically democratic and egalitarian aspects of his poetry, readers generally expect, and desire for, Whitman to be among the literary heroes that transcended the racist pressures that abounded in all spheres of public discourse during the nineteenth century. He did not, at least not consistently; nonetheless his poetry has been a model for democratic poets of all nations and races, right up to our own day. How Whitman could have been so prejudiced, and yet so effective in conveying an egalitarian and antiracist sensibility in his poetry, is a puzzle yet to be adequately addressed.
But this is about Matt Sedillo’s Mowing Leaves of Grass, so what does Matt Sedillo say? The title poem is, in a way, Matt Sedillo’s own “Song of Myself.” Beginning “I am the as yet written vengeance of Elvira Valdez,” the poet leads us through a litany of Southwestern cities drawing connections to the Chicano past and present on a path through miseducation and misrepresentation and punishment unless we accept the canonic political and literary leaders. These include Chaucer and Shakespeare and of course Whitman. “If we let you in/What will become/ Of the canon?” The voice becomes that of the oppressor: “I will show you/ Who you are/ In a book/ And you will believe it/ ‘Cause I said it.” But the poet seizes control again, says check out my poetry — “The universe/ Is a muralist/ The Cosmos/ Our self-portrait,” and here comes Joaquin, “Triumphant/ Marching/ Through the halls of Tucson/Mowing down leaves of grass/Fuck Walt Whitman.” There it is: the punch line, followed by the affirmation of what it means to be alive, “all that we are and all that we have been.”
Whitman worked on a New Orleans newspaper for three months. Having witnessed slave auctions with revulsion (also described in “Song of Myself”), he returned to Brooklyn, New York and founded a free-soil newspaper. Free-soilers were not abolitionists, but they played a role in demanding the end of the expansion of slave-owner controlled territory and in opening the fight for the end of slavery. The leadership of the fight to break the back of the slave power was industrial capital in the north. Wall Street brought Reconstruction to an end when it reached an accommodation with the slave power and returned the planter aristocracy back to control, now under the domination of northern interests. The freedmen lost what they had gained and were driven back into peonage. This is the context in which all the transcendental poets and writers worked. A group of New England abolitionists, dubbed the “Secret Six” and connected to the transcendentalists, raised money for John Brown and the raid on Harpers Ferry. Whitman attended John Brown’s hanging, and joined Thoreau, Melville, and Emerson in condemning the execution.
Today’s cause is also a form of abolition – a form that strikes deeper into what divides American society than ever before. When we hear today the call for prison abolition or for abolishing the police, and we engage some of these abolitionists in conversation, we find that they are talking about restructuring society entirely. A secure and safe society is one in which human beings have all their needs met and in which they thrive, not just survive. If 150 years ago the battle was to end chattel slavery, today increasing permanent unemployment demands why wages are necessary to obtain the abundance available today. Poets have been modernizing the democracy of 150 years ago, taking their verse into the streets with the demonstrators, taking the open mic to the people’s mic. If free verse liberated poets to write in a more democratic form, contemporary spoken word has dragged poetry into the battle for today’s new world democracy – the democracy of distribution according to need.
That, in my view, is Matt Sedillo’s genius. I don’t disagree with Greg Palast, when he assessed Sedillo as America’s most important political poet. But our new generation comes out of a cauldron that is producing – can’t help but produce – an army of brilliant writers with a vision of a new world. I think Sedillo himself says this in “El Sereno.”
“El Sereno” is one of my favorites in this collection, perhaps because the poet so concretely and vividly describes an area of Los Angeles I know well. He speaks of the “industrial petrified forest,” and the people who worked there. “As a child/ I could never quite/ Make the connection/Between the broken/ And empty bottles/ Across the steps/ And the broken and empty men/ Poured out the rust factories/From across the tracks,” he writes. And there’s another, related connection he could not make. His father “A prince among men/In a backward kingdom,” Sedillo couldn’t make the connection “Between/ His fingers around my throat/And the anguish/In his chest.” It’s the same anguish he has explored in many of these poems, the same as the black bodies swinging in the Southern breeze. In the face of all this, and perhaps because of all this, the poet is defiant, but more than defiant. He evokes the communist poet Roque Dalton’s “Como Tu” when he writes “I like You/Am made of stars/ You like me/So full of pain/Are brimming with genius/Listen to no one/Who would make you feel different.”
Listen to no one who would make you feel different.
[I wrote these two poems over the last couple of years and included them in my chapbook, Time’s Arrow. The book is available for $5 plus shipping. Send me a message if you are interested — Lew Rosenbaum]
i don’t know what to tell you
about independence day
here in the you ess of A
my blue-eyed boy
my green haired girl,
independent from whom and for what
surely not from the corporations
for which we slave
or from the overseers who
happily expelled us from our
so we can dance forever
in the graveyard of jobfullness
gnawing on bones scraped
from the dumpster where we
dive and drink the contents of
half empty coke cans
and catch a few winks
before the copper taps us
on the toes and tells us to move on
or chokes us for selling loose squares
what can I tell you about sitting
hat in hand in front of the food emporium
i want to give you good counsel
but all i can think of is to
urge you to take what you need
but I know that while capital
takes what it wants
without a thought
you will wind up in solitary
for dreaming of the steak in the cold case
or even a bag of chicharrones
to munch on
with a cold old English gurgling down the throat
on a hot, windless summer day
the aroma of the barbecue
pulled pork or ribs
smothered in sweet baby ray
streaming from the park
on cool lake breezes
drives you to a frenzy
so what can you be independent of
my green eyed boy
my blue haired girl
without taking over the
whole mother fucker
and making it ours
I’m not sure about this independence thing any more.
Independence is overrated.
National or individual I mean.
It’s what I was told I needed to be ever since I was very young.
I wanted to be independent of my parents
I ran away from home as far away as I could get
And now my children, as they too struggle for independence
Come back and back again
And only part of it is because the safety net has shredded
But this independence thing doesn’t even work for nations any more.
You can Brexit as much as you want but you can’t disentangle yourself
From your neighbors
Those who struggled for independence in the hallowed 1960s
Find the tentacles of imperialism bind tighter
Even if they are coated with sugar
And while I sit alone in my apartment
Eating my salad and drinking Dos Equis
I tip my cap to the farm workers of Sinaloa
The Cuauhtemoc brewery workers in Monterrey
The timber workers of the Pacific Northwest,
Maybe they were Wobblies from Everett or Centralia,
Who cut the wood that made my table,
And even more these days
The silicon valley upstarts whose robotics produce everything
Including the Japanese car I drive
The shirt all the way from Cambodia clinging to my back
The lettuce from Salinas
Obliterating jobs, but not the need for real, creative work.
Don’t we need a new holiday that celebrates our
The way we relate to each other
The way we could take care of each other
Call the day “everybody eats day,”
Call it “Big Rock Candy Mountain Day,”
Call it the day we abolish money and jobs
And celebrate work and contribution
Call it cooperation day.
In 1984 John Edgar Wideman published Brothers and Keepers, a bestseller memoir and finalist for the National Book Critics Circle award for best book of non-fiction that year. The book explores how he became an award winning novelist, while his brother wound up serving a life sentence convicted of murder. I was working at the Midnight Special
Bookstore in Santa Monica. I didn’t read Brothers and Keepers, but I did pick up his novel, published the year before, the third of what is called his “Homewood Books.” Wideman is known for his experimental writing techniques, and perhaps that is what drew me into Sent For You Yesterday. The use of language, its color and rhythm and musicality. But what really hit me hard was this passage, early on, when John French waits on a street corner in the Homewood section of Pittsburgh, early on a chilly, damp morning, to be picked up for day labor. I wrote this four years ago about my daughter Courtney, her kids, and Diana and me, how we experience the life we lead mirrors what Wideman wrote many years ago:
How do you write about a life lived intensely, from crisis to crisis. Persistent, determined, bright, Courtney struggled as a single parent with three kids, still struggles. Mostly employed, but never employed enough to get out of debt, pay rent, buy enough food, afford health care. Mirroring the irregularity of her precarious existence, Courtney shows the heights of creativity necessary to pick her way through the mine-field of poverty, falling into the depths of depression when circumstances gang up around her and block her way. We’ve been lucky enough to be in a position to help when the depths were deepest; after all part of the joys of family is to alleviate the pain of those close to us. But the other part that we have had to come to grips with is that we are living the life of a new section of society that is being born. Yes even us, the old ones, Diana and I.
John Edgar Wideman wrote about it in a novel called Sent For You Yesterday. This is an image which has stayed with me for more than 30 years
“They used to put people on wheels and pull them apart. Pull the arms and legs out of the sockets just like a kid do a bug. Boiling people in oil and slamming their heads in a helmet full of spikes, and horses tearing men into four pieces and that wheel with ropes and pulleys stretch a man inch by inch to death. The rack, Albert said . . . They got us on a rack, John French. They’re gon keep turning till ain’t nothing connected where its supposed to be. Ain’t even gon recognize our ownselves in the mirror.”
Courtney has her own image, a personal one, that comes from the character in the Lil Abner comic strip. Joe Btfsplk, the world’s worst jinx, the well-meaning character who walks around with a rain cloud over his head. Ever since I wrote [my poem to Courtney when she turned 21] “Twenty-one Is,” we’ve been coming to grips with how one’s personal luck fits in the context of the relations of society. The dialectic of taking responsibility for what is in your power to control, but not accepting guilt for what cards class society deals you.
That’s what John French is trying to negotiate that early morning when he waits on the corner to get a day-labor job as a paper hanger, feeling all the joints in his body aching, and trying to explain that to himself. It’s the social relations that force him into the back breaking work. And it’s the social relations that force Courtney into having to move every year or two, to struggle to get adequate care and counseling
for the kids, to get food stamps when out of work, to avoid on pain of starvation and eviction, going to apply for welfare . It’s the social relations that bring Diana and me to look at our social security to figure out if we have enough to pay rent this month, or pay the medicare premium.
“They’re gon keep turning till ain’t nothing connected to where it’s supposed to be.” This image split my brain 30 years ago. How is it that such an image that is so horrible is at the same time so beautiful? It is a Goya painting in words. It fascinates. Your eyes keep returning to it. Your fingers want to touch the blood to see if it is fresh, if it is real. But it is real, because it captures the essence of what I am feeling each time I pay rent, each time Courtney loses a job. And each time I dream of diamonds out of broken glass, pearls growing around sand grains.
A pandemic makes you look at things differently. Everything, even the rack they’ve got us on. Wideman wrote about that too, first in a collection of his short stories. I wrote this four years ago:
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 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 novel Wideman was referring to came out a few years later, entitled The Cattle Killing. The plague fever was smallpox. Black Philadelphians in the late 18th century were both accused of being the origin of the disease and being immune to it, and thus were charged with caring for the ill. Unlike today’s plague of COVID 19, the smallpox is spread by a mosquito. There is no person to person way to spread the illness. Like the Philadelphia plague, rumors spread early that Blacks were immune to the disease; however, today’s plague strikes hardest among the poorest, most congested populations, especially Black and Latinx. That underlined passage rings truer even than it did when I first read it.
By 1990, when he published his Philadelphia Fire I was a certifiable John Edgar Wideman groupie. His autograph in my copy reads “You’re a warrior in a good fight. Stay strong.” If the fight he was talking about was spreading new ideas, then Philadelphia Fire is the novel of a warrior in that good fight. My copy of the book is heavily annotated and underlined. The inside boards of the cover are filled with page numbers — references to themes and concepts that struck me as I was reading. Here’s what I wrote about the book a few years ago:
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.
[After Wideman’s reading at Columbia College] 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 how rap interpenetrates that section] 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.
The fire in Philadelphia that this novel remembers is not the historical Philadelphia of The Cattle Killing. It is contemporary Philadelphia, just five years from the date of publication, the five year anniversary of when the city fathers dropped a bomb of C4 explosives on the roof of a row house on Osage Avenue, setting a fire that killed 11 of the 13 people living inside and burned an entire neighborhood to the ground. The residents of the building belonged to a group variously described as radical, anarchist, Black, environmentalist, back to nature activists. May 10, 2020 was the 35th anniversary of an event that is little known outside Philadelphia, but continues to be traumatic in the city. ‘We have bred the affliction within our breasts,” Wideman said in The Cattle Killing. You can see it even deeper in this story. A Guardian article brings some of the history up to date. Some MOVE activists who had been arrested and imprisoned before the attack on Osage Avenue remained incarcerated for over 40 years. Ramona Africa, the only adult to escape the holocaust alive, was imprisoned. Five children were incinerated in the blast and the ensuing fire. One child escaped, running naked through a wall of fire into an alley and away. Or so the story of the novel goes.
In a sense, the main character of the novel could be the child that got away. The novelist himself is a main character as well, under the name of Cudjoe (the historical antecedent of this name stems from a leader of the Maroons, enslaved West Africans who escaped into the hills of Jamaica and for more than a century resisted British colonization). Interviewing a woman who had been a MOVE member, Cudjoe searches for the child who escaped. The name the woman gives him is Simbha Muntu, or “Lion Man.” In real life he was known as Birdie Africa, 13 years old when he got away. The mystery of his getting away is more important than the history, which is recounted in this Philadelphia Inquirer article. A police officer took the boy to a nearby van, which then took him to a hospital, where he stayed while his burns were being treated. His father, Andino Ward, not a member of the MOVE group, reclaimed his son and renamed him Michael Moses Ward. Birdie/Michael died in 2013 on a cruise ship in the Caribbean at 41 years old.
What is it that survived from the wreckage on Osage Avenue? How did it come about? What are people thinking? How does it reconcile with the author’s very comfortable life? Or with his past life in this very city of Philadelphia? How can we escape our past,
how do we beat the drums to recover our humanity? Wideman poses no answers to questions. Cudjoe has a dream. He’s at Clark Park near Osage Avenue. “I’m also a witness, upright, floating, somehow staring down at the basketball court, screaming because a boy is lynched from the rim. A kid hanging there with his neck broken and drawers droopy and caked with shit and piss. It’s me and every black boy I’ve ever seen running up and own playing ball . . .” Wideman was an All Ivy League team basketball player and leading scorer and captain of his University of Pennsylvania basketball team. Could the kid hanging there have been Simbha?
A howl ends the book: “A mob howling [Cudjoe’s] name. Screaming for blood. Words come to him, cool him, stop him in his tracks. He’d known them all his life. Never again. Never again. He turns to face whatever it is rumbling across the stones of Independence Square.”
Romare Bearden’s work explodes from the cover of Sent For You Yesterday (see illustration above). In 2018, Wideman published a collection of short stories, American Histories. I wrote this (you can read the whole essay in this blog) about the lens through which to read American Histories last year: “You can discover the key to American Histories, the profoundly dialectical collection of what purports to be short stories by master craftsman John Wideman, on page 206. ‘Well, Basquiat asks, how does the artist resolve this dilemma, Maestro? This perpetual losing battle, this shifting back and forth, this absence, gap, this oblivion between a reality the senses seize and a reality the imagination seizes.’” Basquiat, the young and brash artist, interrogates the old master
Bearden in an imagined conversation. They lived a few blocks from each other in Harlem and, as far as anyone knows, never met. That conflict, though, between what is real and what is imagined pulses through American Histories and through all his work; more politically stated, that conflict between what exists and what is possible. I can’t read American Histories without being haunted by the picture of every boy lynched from the rim of the basketball hoop; by the plague that needs no importation of refugees to spread its contagion; by the rack tearing us apart.
“They got us on a rack, John French. They’re gon keep turning till ain’t nothing connected where its supposed to be.” That’s still how I experience the world. If there is anything the current plague has shown us, it is that this statement is real. They don’t care about us. It remains for us, those whom the system has discarded, mutilated, wiped out of history — it remains for us to imagine and to build what is possible. “The drum must pound ten thousand thousand years to drive that evil away.” We need to find that howl. We need to pound that drum. We haven’t got 10,000 years.
[This is the first poem in my new chapbook, “Time’s Arrow.” Being the January selection, I suppose it is appropriate for a December 31 post. Each poem in the chapbook is linked to a month; but not all months are represented, and some months have more than one poem. — LR]
by Lew Rosenbaum
the two faced god
sits at the junction of before and after
he can’t fully give up the past and
won’t commit to the future
two faced meaning a liar?
perhaps he is telling tales that never were
or forecasts he knows will never come to pass
the counsel for what they call the political class
facing back he is gray-bearded but
looks forward without hair on his chin
this has always been the fascination
the what’s-in-it-for-me kid
the facialization of January
a hell of a cold welcome for the baby new year
cold as hell
but out of the hell hole heat of the past year
with its wars and famine and
hope springs eternal — again —
that this external new year will see no more war
not even bake sales this year for the pentagon
two faced Janus is a dreamer
when we need visionaries
dreaming of what was
trying to bring back
when the good times rolled
those ozzie and harriet days
when america was america
the america that never was for langston hughes
but janus can’t grasp the dialectic
it’s either yesterday or tomorrow
yet there is no tomorrow without yesterday
and if he’s not aiming for all those yesterdays
he’s telling us to close the door
build a wall
dig a moat
between yesterday and today
preserve our purity
the baby has no clothes
but the emperor with all his fascist robes
is naked in his vulturosity
what is my point anyway?
tomorrow is a new year
how new can it be
when we drag our ropa vieja with us
and they don’t fit, never will again,
don’t look back
something may be gaining on us
you can’t fool me
that by adding one day after another
something new strides forth
all those screams and fireworks and horns at midnight
full of sound and ecstasy that signify nothing
but another drunk corporatico plodding in snow
when the day breaks
protecting his stranglehold on his privates property,
the edifice of his wealth and the military that guards it,
the public display of his masturbo-obscenity
so what compels us to ask
what really is new under the sun?
what makes today different from any other
either the iron heel of robotofetishism
or the unheard-of abundance of all of us or none
everything or nothing
when the wretched of the earth arise
because we must and because we can
[A few weeks ago a friend posted a notice that Gospel record store Reid’s Records in Berkeley was going to close the next weekend. Poking around the internet, I came up with this article in Berkeleyside. The dates seemed to be fuzzy, and the notice I got was a week later than one closing date I had seen. And then, today, in preparing this post, I found on Reid’s FB page that Diara is planning to be open Saturday, November 2. So you can still check Reid’s out. But also, when I shared this with friends in Oakland, Austin responded with this gem. LR]
by Austin Long-Scott
I didn’t know about Reid’s but the article made me nostalgic because It connected me to
memories I hadn’t thought about in decades. In my 20s and 30s I hung out in record stores, from small independents like Reid’s and El Cerrito’s Down Home Records to big independents like Berkeley’s Amoeba and chains like the then-new Tower Records. I was a traveling national reporter in the 60s and 70s and I had favorite record stores in half the states. No matter what was going right — or wrong — with an assignment, I always enjoyed a visit to a local record store. And yes, it was partly the joy of reading the album covers. I never was a gospel fan, maybe that’s why I ignored Reid’s even though I used to ride my bicycle along Sacramento Street right past their 3101 address. Blues and jazz and rock were more my taste. So I followed tiny used record stores like Grooveyard as they moved from one storefront to another, because I knew the owner, who was also the only employee, loved Abdullah Ibrahim and I might find a rare album of his in one of Grooveyard’s record bins.
The Reid’s article was framed to bring up how people work hard to build nests and a community based on shared interests grows up around the nests. And then things change and the nests they worked so hard to build slowly become unimportant to the community and then the community disappears. I’ve often remarked on how strange it is
that human beings seek stability in a world that is ceaselessly changing. Capitalism speeds up change, of course, because change opens new opportunities for exploitation, which is the most cherished American freedom, the freedom to exploit.
And those thoughts took me to neighborhoods and gentrification. Not just the black working class Oakland that is being driven out by the flood of high rise luxury condos going up in the heart of the city, attracting Silicon Valley professionals with money to burn, driving rents sky high and smothering the nests that gave so many people so much pleasure in their heyday. There’s a 5-minute talking blues about Oakland’s after hours, mellow, down home juke joints of the 1980s that would come alive around 2am and go until 5 or 6am. It’s titled “Three Sisters,” by blues guitarist Frank Goldwasser on his “Bluju” album. When I was first getting to know San Francisco I paid attention to the Fillmore where black folks were being pushed out and the blues clubs were closing. I’ve never lived in San Francisco but I’ve studied it and the gentrification of the Fillmore was as real to me then as the gentrification of Oakland is now.
And those memories took me into memories of Chicago, where I was born. I didn’t grow up in Chicago, but back when I was a reporter I used to get to Chicago at least a couple of times a year and I alway took time to take pictures of those South and West side murals painted on crumbling slum building walls. Most of those are gone now. I was still doing that when the Wall of Respect and the Wall of Truth disappeared. And remembering that led me to a happier memory — the time a reporting assignment in Chicago led me to happen by a used car lot with a big sign that read “Drexel Chevrolet.” I suddenly remembered that my late father bought his first Chevy in 1948 from Drexel Chevrolet. So I stopped to take a look. As I stepped onto the lot a salesman left the office and headed in my direction. By the time he reached me I had spotted a 1967 Chevy van among the used
vehicles for sale. I happened to be in the market for a used van, so when the salesman greeted me I asked about it. He described it as having belonged to Muddy Waters.
Yeah, sure, I thought. I told him I wanted to look around and when he went back to his office I opened the door of the Chevy van. It was filthy inside. The floor was littered with greasy engine parts, cigarette butts, a few reefer remnants and quite a few used rubbers. When I rummaged through the glove box I found the original metal owners’ plate. It said this van had been sold to McKinley Morganfield.
Holy shit!! I thought. I jumped out of the van and headed for the nearest pay phone. I dialed information and asked for the number of McKinley Morganfield. It was listed. I dialed it. A woman answered the phone. I asked to speak to Muddy Waters. “He’s not home right now,” the woman said. “I’m his wife. Can I help you?” By the time we finished talking I had a complete history of how troublesome that van had been and why he traded it in at Drexel Chevrolet for a new station wagon. I used to go see Muddy Waters every time he performed in D.C., so I knew I had to have it. The salesman and I agreed on a price, I put a down payment on it, caught my scheduled flight back to D.C. and arranged another assignment in Chicago so I could drive it back home. I kept that van for 2 years and drove it from D.C. to California and back. Small stuff was always going wrong — door handles, window cranks, instruments, dashboard switches. But the big stuff, engine, driveline, cooling system, electrical wiring, all held together.
a review essay by Lew Rosenbaum
[American Histories, by John Edgar Wideman, was published in May, 2018. The paperback will be released later this month, March 26, 2019, by Scribner– ISBN 9781501178351, $16. It should be available at your favorite bookstore]
You can discover the key to American Histories, the profoundly dialectical collection of what purports to be short stories by master craftsman John Wideman, on page 206. “Well, Basquiat asks, how does the artist resolve this dilemma, Maestro? This perpetual losing battle, this shifting back and forth, this absence, gap, this oblivion between a reality the senses seize and a reality the imagination seizes.” The Maestro in this story is Romare Bearden, the artist who in his youth lived in the Pittsburgh neighborhood, in which Wideman himself grew up a couple of decades later. The conversation is imagined, but it could have been real, because Bearden and Jean-Michel Basquiat lived and worked not far from each other in Harlem, where both of them died in the same year, 1988. Bearden, who preferred to be considered an artist and was usually called a “collagist,” was born in 1911. Basquiat, described primarily as a painter, was born in 1960 and died at 27. Bearden and Basquiat never met.
Perhaps it’s the parallelism in their work, the fact that they were both giants of the art world in New York at the same time; that they incorporated, in abstract work, elements that clearly responded to the social situation that surrounded them; that jazz influenced their work; that Bearden was of the Black art movement and that Basquiat seemed unaware of it – perhaps all of that is why Wideman chooses to imagine a conversation between the two of them. You can be curious about that if you want to. But it’s what he does with the mystery of the artistic forms that connect them and what separates them, and the Pittsburgh story, that intrigues me.
For instance, a page later he expands on this “losing battle” in describing the problem of collage: “He’s (Bearden) unable to explain to Basquiat why removal of objects from an array sometimes makes the array more plentiful, not smaller. Nor can he explain how a board on which he is arranging things becomes more spacious as he packs it.” Or, Wideman has Bearden say, a few sentences later, “You might say each collage starts with the bare bones of a story.” He tells a brief story about how he and two other kids beat up a neighbor. When Bearden’s grandmother intervenes, she brings that disabled neighbor boy, Eugene, to live with his family. A story that haunts the artist for 50 years: “A collage I built [Farewell Eugene] is layer upon layer questions about that simple story.” Adding each piece to the collage requires studying that piece, and the whole composition disappears; “To see it whole again, his eyes must relinquish his grip on the element.”
And so it is with the whole of American Histories. But in this collage, concentrating on this one piece (“Collage”) brings everything else into focus. American Historiesis a collage of imagined American history, in which the imaginative is at least as important as the sensual. The writer struggles with the gap between what maybe ought to have occurred and what we believe did happen. John Brown and Frederick Douglass converse in the very first story, the Old Man unable to convince the escaped slave to join him at Harper’s Ferry. It’s not clear what part of “JB and FD” is real, what is imagined, and through it all what part is the writer’s voice. And ends with wondering why the author makes John Brown a Black man.
Wideman plays with the confessions of Nat Turner, imagining what is going through his head as he stands ready for execution. Turner begins to recite his “abc’s” – he is self taught, and instructs us about his own history and plans. As he explains the meanings of letters, he reaches his conclusion skipping to the end of the alphabet. An alphabet foreshortened as much as execution foreshortened his life.
At the very beginning, Wideman’s “prefatory note” is an open letter to the president. It’s likely written, or at least finished, after the 2016 election, and he wonders if the president who receives this note along with his stories will be a woman, perhaps a Black woman. If any president will receive it, he doubts. Wideman doesn’t explain the stories: They speak for themselves. “The note is a plea, Mr. President. Please eradicate slavery.” And maybe, Wideman declares, terminating slavery may even be “beyond your vast powers.” The thirteenth amendment did not accomplish the fact, another example of the play between sense and imagination, “But you should understand better than most of us, Mr. President, that history tells as many lies as truths.”
There is of coure the poetry of the language, a defining characteristic of Wideman’s writing. Framing the whole as a collage though, makes me look again and again at an element in “Maps and Ledgers,” a sentence that begins on page 57 and ends on page 59 and has to be written this way. A story as much about language as about a life experience. Story with sentences, like this one, without verbs and articles. Another gem of a short story in which every paragraph begins with “We go out to dinner and discuss.” The two paragraph story “Bunny and Glide” parodies with the robbers of legendary fame. The long story, in which Wideman’s narrator stands at the edge of the Williamsburg Bridge contemplating suicide.
In the Aldous Huxleyesque universe of “Empire,” Wideman replaces “superfluous distinctions” like race and gender with the “gratefuls” and the “givers.” This, in a way, a reprises the prefatory note’s allusion to the separation of peoples by immutable but superfluous categories and the question, when will it end and under what circumstances? His story “Expectations” ends with “I expect Nat Turner. I expect he will die again for the sin of color.” If we get a second coming of Nat Turner, do we also get a second coming of John Brown? What will the next Harper’s Ferry look like?
From beginning to end, Wideman layers story after story, after a patient lifetime’s practice, as if they are colors, fabrics, doing what Bearden did on a board, having “practice[d] patiently for a lifetime the skills of cutting and pasting, gluing down
textures, colors, fabric, layer after layer to picture what the past may have been and how it rises again, solid and present as the bright orange disc of the sun I put at the top right corner of Farewell Eugene.”
Eduardo Galeano died in April 2015. I think of him often, I was overjoyed to hear that Hunter of Stories would be published posthumously in Nov. 2017. This is excerpted from a post I wrote a year earlier, November 2016, on this blog:
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 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 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:
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.
* * * * * * * * *
We know now where the Haymarket was, where the rally was for which the Haymarket
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.
And that’s how the blog post ends, with shop floor union leaders who had been in the leadership of forming that march talking with Eduardo about the significance of that march, a way for us to return to the Book of Embraces, in a way to embrace this chronicler of the historic struggles of the international working class. As I told Eduardo about this march that was more than a march, I explained that I had been to many May Days in my life. They were travesties of what May Day used to be like. I recounted to him how my father had walked in May Day marches in New York, as part of the insurance workers union (I didn’t know this then, but one of the largest unions in Chicago in the 1930s was the union of workers who worked for large insurance companies). In a way I felt cheated, because my sister, 14 years older than I, stood on the sidewalk with my mother while the parade went by. But my May Days were small gatherings of at best 100 people. And here, in 2006, hundreds of thousands of workers marched in the streets, while the ideologues had their small meetings and groused because “these were immigrants, not really workers”!
The National Museum of Mexican Arts celebrated the publication of Hunter of Stories in December, 2017. Sandra Cisneros, among others, read from the book. She chose to read this selection:
May Day is the most widely celebrated of all holidays.
The entire world stands still to pay homage to the workers hanged long ago in Chicago for the crime of refusing to work more than eight hours a day.
On my first trip to the United States, I was surprised to learn that May 1st was a day like any other. Not even the city of Chicago, where the tragedy occurred, seemed to notice. In The Book of Embraces I confessed that such willful forgetting pained me.
Much later I received a letter from Diana Berek and Lew Rosenbaum of Chicago.
They had never celebrated the holiday, but in the year 2006, along with the largest crowd they had ever witnessed, they paid homage to the workers sent to the gallows long ago for their bravery.
In the letter, Diana and Lew told me they finally understood the discomfort I described in the Book of Embraces.
“Chicago embraces you,” the letter said.
Hunter of Stories is a collection of memories, sometimes gentle, sometimes sharp, always penetrating. There are, for example, two recollections of his book Open Veins of Latin America. One recounts how his native country, Uruguay, at first did not ban the book thinking that it was a book of anatomy. They discovered their error quickly. The second, tells of the soccer player who carried the book that found its way across continents, a book pierced by a bullet that entered the back of a guerrilla fighter from El Salvador, killing him, found its way back to the hands of its author. The book is a kind of a pearl necklace, an embrace of images of a lifetime strung artfully together for reminiscence . . . or for meditation on what is next.
In Search of Grown-Up Anger by Lew Rosenbaum
I’m forever grateful to Lee Ballinger, for writing his review of Grown-Up Anger in Counterpunch. (Read the review here) I don’t have to do the work he did to dig into the history of the Upper Peninsula or the Dustbowl. I don’t have to spend the time recounting the incomparable connections that author Daniel Wolff draws between Dylan and Guthrie (the subtitle of this book is The Connected Mysteries of Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie, and the Calumet Massacre of 1913), or to spend time on the music (which I am not skilled enough to do anything more than sketch). Instead I can dwell on the title, Grown-Up Anger, and why that is such an important part of this story.
At 18 years old, I was angry about Yale rejecting me, angry that my father wanted me to go to work rather than go to college, angry that Columbia accepted me without automatically giving me a scholarship, angry as an outcast at school, angry that my mother wanted me to stay close to home. I packed my resentment in my suitcases and fled from New Haven, Connecticut to Los Angeles, California to get far away from everything that made me angry. That’s how I started, and that’s what I brought to the table when I started to read Daniel Wolff’s Grown-Up Anger.
“You could start elsewhere,” Daniel begins his book. Elsewhere meaning other than being 13 and angry. “You could start here,” he writes to end the book, describing the molten lava at the core of the earth, at the core of the story of Calumet, at the core of the story of the music of both Guthrie and Dylan. But Wolff starts not with economics, not with anthropology, not with geology. The author starts with music, with hearing a raw voice coming out of the radio, the first time he heard Bob Dylan, “Like A Rolling Stone” representing what anger is all about at 13, and who isn’t angry at 13? Angry at everything, adults dismissing that anger, and, Wolff says, “I swore I’d never forget that look. Never forget how adults dismiss what kids say . . .”
Stay with me now. This is not “just another book glorifying or justifying teenage angst.” Quotes because I can see readers my age shaking their heads with knowing smiles of actualized wisdom. This is a book about perception and reality. Daniel conjures up the pictures of the angry young Dylan and Guthrie, how they see themselves and the world, how their portraits correspond to reality – or not. And, even more important, how these pictures change with changing circumstances.
So Daniel Wolff was an angry 13 year old when he first heard Bob Dylan (on the radio) singing “Like A Rolling Stone.” The more he heard it, the more everything about the song declared, “Outrage was the only way to respond to the world, the only way to get out from under the crust of lies to something like the truth.” And there you have it in one short sentence. There is a world that is a trickster and a sham. But, there is a truth that lies beneath the lies. We are justified in being angry that the world lies to us. How do we penetrate those lies to uncover liberate the truth?
Wolff discovers “Like A Rolling Stone,” discovers Dylan, goes poking around in record bins to find more, and happens a few years later, when in college, on an album by Woody Guthrie. Listening to Guthrie, Daniel Wolff finds it easy to see what Dylan learned from Guthrie. But in searching for more Guthrie (hard to find) he finds an album recently released by Guthrie’s son Arlo, with a song Woody wrote called “1913 Massacre.” The tune, he recognizes, was what led him to Woody in the first place, a tune used by Dylan in his first album, an homage called “Talkin’ Woody.” Now this is a story of how everything is connected, not in some imaginary way grafted on to reality to make it seem to fit like a Procrustean Bed. This is pure dialectics. That Guthrie and Dylan are tied together through this “Talkin’ Woody.” But that the tune of “Talkin’ Woody” comes from an actual Woody Guthrie tune, “1913 Massacre,” that is linked to the context in which both songwriters/singers were coming to terms with the reality, the truth of the world around them.
One thing that’s really great about this book is how Daniel Wolff unpacks the context of the thread he is following—by the time the first chapter ends you know that you will find clues in the massacre in 1913, where more than 70 children died for money and greed. Dylan’s anger, from the days of “Like a Rolling Stone,” has transformed into some kind of icon; while Guthrie’s hopeful music of the world yet to come has receded into some kind of history. “Is that what happens to anger? Is there no way for it to grow up.”
Bob Dylan and Woody Guthrie both created myths about themselves, and one part of the book delves into what is the truth, what isn’t, and does it really matter? Or put another way, when is the myth truer than truth? And while it may seem that this question is in the realm of biography, which so often is falsified (especially in terms of celebrities), Wolff also takes his lens to the truth and myth of Calumet on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, and the massacre that happened there in 1913. It does matter if the doors in that building opened in or out. It does matter how the mineowners treated their workers. It does matter how the union responded to the demands of the miners. This book is about perception and reality, about context, and, near the end of the book Wolff returns to pursue the theme of anger growing up. Here’s Woody Guthrie, writing about two kinds of anger:
What is an outlaw? . . . [T]he outlaw is beat. Beat to start with. The whole world is against him. Reason why is because he’s not organized. He’s just by his self. Wants to holler, cuss, fight, work to change the world around a little bit better . . .but he’s by his self. Bound to lose . . . Why do people set down and write great songs and ballads about their outlaws?
Here’s why. An outlaw does it wrong . . . And the Union does it right . . . [But] an outlaw does one big thing. What? It’s easy.
Tries his best.
Dies for what he believes in. Goes down shooting.
In “East Texas Red,” Guthrie’s song tells the story of a group of hobos who against a railroad brakeman, known to be the meanest man on the line, who has kicked over their dinner, a pot of stew, and sent them packing. They kill the brakeman next time he threatens them, then sit down to eat their stew, “no compromise” says Wolff, “an outlaw ballad about grown-up anger.”
I don’t mean to imply that Grown-Up Anger is prescriptive. The book is a quest for “The history of anger. Hope. The truth.” Quests are journeys, not end points. An extended description of “Like A Rolling Stone” three quarters of the way through evokes the feeling of listening to the song even years after the author first heard it. The music of the book is as much the author’s poetic voice as his fugal musical sensibility. Far from prescriptive, the most satisfying part, in a way, is how the geology, anthropology, economics, and history of Calumet are also metaphor for the music of the book. For what else is the fiery magma contained within an 1800 mile rock shell and a 5 mile crust holding lead, copper and sulfur than some kind of rage waiting to break free? “You could start there.”
Things I Know I Love About You: A Poem at 75 by Lew Rosenbaum
I don’t know when I first read Nazim Hikmet’s “Things I Didn’t Know I Loved.” He wrote it a year before he died of a heart attack, but it smacks of the kind of reflection that strikes one who sees the end pending and who savors all the moments remaining. Or of observing
the slow demise of a loved one and sees for perhaps the first time every motion, every sound that makes that person special. Hikmet was 60 then, the year was 1962.
Hikmet, generally considered one of the most important 20th century poets, was a Turkish revolutionary. This is what the poets.org site has to say about him:
Raised in Istanbul, Hikmet left Allied-occupied Turkey after the First World War and ended up in Moscow, where he attended the university and met writers and artists from all over the world. After the Turkish Independence in 1924 he returned to Turkey, but was soon arrested for working on a leftist magazine. He managed to escape to Russia, where he continued to write plays and poems.
In 1928 a general amnesty allowed Hikmet to return to Turkey, and during the next ten years he published nine books of poetry—five collections and four long poems—while working as a proofreader, journalist, scriptwriter, and translator. He left Turkey for the last time in 1951, after serving a lengthy jail sentence for his radical acts, and lived in the Soviet Union and eastern Europe, where he continued to work for the ideals of world Communism
He died in Moscow in 1963.
Of course the poem made me think of what I didn’t realize I loved — especially as I approached surgery last year and wondered how much longer I would be able to appreciate those things. But even more I began to think of what I knew I loved. And I thought about how to respond to Hikmet’s poem in a way to affirm that love. This is what came out; it is my poem for Diana on my 75th birthday.
It’s 2017, November 13
Night has fallen as I drive home
and though I feel like a “tired bird on a smoky wet plain”
I love anticipating
walking in the door
sitting down next to you
and offering you dark chocolate
I didn’t know I love the earth
the working of it
until you come in, trowel in hand,
gloves soil-brown, loam aroma in your hair, and then
I know I love how you revere this, our mother
I know I’ve loved mountains whose peaks
pierce the sky, while rivers cascade
down their sides eating canyons into the stone
and the ancient sequoias that people
the slopes and valleys
and while I look up at the mysteries reaching for heaven
I love that you focus on tiny yellow and blue miracle flowers underfoot
I knew at once that I love the way you fight
to understand the world around you –
do you remember that salon where we watched a film
Bethlehem Wedding I think it was
and after, you explained the entire history of European feudalism
me with my mouth wide with wonder
I didn’t know I loved all trees
the way you showed me to see them as friends
to stand under the arching cottonwoods and
examine their ribbed bark
to hail the procession of springtime flowers
maples, chestnut candles, fragrant basswood, the long beans of the catalpas
all this and more I know I love about you
Do you remember the first time
you came to my apartment,
remember the blue sweater you wore,
remember how I demanded to take your photograph
I know I loved that intense look in your green eyes –
even though I thought they were blue –
what I love now is your patience,
you gave me a second chance, you must have wondered
why the photos, what’s wrong with him
I don’t regret them: one thing I love about you
is those portraits, those eyes of crystalline jade
And I know I love about you other pictures
the portraits with Greta
that introspective and far away look
I know I love how you seized the snapshot of David at Starved Rock
and transformed it into a meditative painting
of a fourteen year old young man
gazing at sand
spilling through outstretched fingers
I know I love how you drew resistance
how in one lone image you captured technological innovation
and the promise of a future abundance
a mandala of heads and open mouths
words and notes
playing with mother boards and keystrokes
and real-if-not-artificial intelligence
emerging from past class antagonisms
I know I love how you play with dialectics
I know I love the red chair in your Oxbow painting
the sheathe of yellow sun light streaking across the grass,
green with yesterday rains
exuberant in the blustery winds off the Eastern Lake Michigan shore
I know I love the memory of standing in the fading sun
atop corn-rowed-hills at summer’s end
a quilted landscape draped before us
the aroma of hot dry husks flaring our nostrils
all finding their way onto your canvas
I know I chuckle every time I pass
the denim constructions stitched to the earth
because I know I love the rents in the fabric
that show the working class pedigree
I laugh at our joke that someone has torn this painting
I know I love the way we laugh together
we have also cried together
I know I love that we can hold each other
while our children and all around us whirl toward destruction
and we grasp for the new world in birth
I know I love that you changed my life 25 years ago
And continue every day to change my life
And I love that I didn’t need to reach 75 to know I love all this about you.