I, Like You, Am Made of Stars

I, Like You, Am Made of Stars: Matt Sedillo’s Mowing Leaves of Grass

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. 

Matt Sedillo. Photos on the wall are from the 1970 Chicano Moratorium. Journalist Ruben Salazar, whose image appears in a poster behind Sedillo’s right shoulder, was killed in the Silver Dollar Cafe by LA Sheriffs on that day.

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. 

Sal Castro, a teacher at Lincoln High School, one of five high schools who took part in the “blowouts,” a coordinated school walkout in 1968. In the wake of the blowouts, Castro was arrested and charged with 15 counts of conspiracy to disrupt public schools and 15 counts of conspiracy to disturb the peace. The charges were dropped in 1972.

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.

Two Poems on Independence Day

[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]

Independence Day

i don’t know what to tell you

Cover Time's Arrow

The cover art for the chapbook Time’s Arrow is from a denim construction by Diana Berek

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

gainful employment

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

 

Cooperation Day

 

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

Interconnectedness, interdependence?

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.

Earth Day at 50 — Lenin at 150

“He gave imagination to the writers
His every word became poetry”

by Lew Rosenbaum

On this day, April 22, 2020, perhaps millions of people are celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of Earth Day.  In 1969 then Senator Gaylord Nelson, an environmentalist, called for a national day of teach-ins on the environment for the spring of the following year.  He proposed April 22 as a day when most students would be most likely to participate.  An advertising man suggested that “Earth Day” might be a more broadly appealing name than a day of teach-ins.  And so “Earth Day” was born.  Nelson himself repudiated the idea that the choice of April 22 was a communist plot.  The John Birch Society, among others, had insinuated that the choice of April 22 was driven by the fact that date in 1970 coincided with the 100th anniversary of Vladimir Ilich Ulianov’s (Lenin) birthday.  Nelson quipped that the Birch Society knew more about Lenin than he did;  nevertheless, young people of 1970 knew more about Lenin than he did too.

At the time of the first Earth Day I was 27 and had come rather late to reading the works of the great Bolshevik.  Just a few years later, talking with my niece Ronni, a high school activist organizer working on Earth Day, I asked with a wry smile whether she knew that April 22 was also Lenin’s birthday.  She replied, with the characteristic twinkle in her eye, that was why the date was chosen.

Lenin lives

“Lenin lived, Lenin lives, Lenin shall live forever” V. Mayakovsky

So maybe both stories are true.  Maybe Lenin’s birthday had nothing to do with the choice of April 22; maybe it had everything to do with that choice.  A Talmudic fight about that is really not the point.  The point is the perseverance of Lenin’s influence, even though now, in 2020, when everyone is talking about the 50th Earth Day, little attention is being paid to Lenin’s 150th birthday, which is today.  Here is evidence of that perseverance:  “Lenin in Urdu: His Every Word Became Poetry.” This is one of a number of essays intended to celebrate the 150th anniversary of his birth.  It is a short review essay of writers in Urdu who have celebrated Lenin.  People who saw him as the embodiment of revolution.  In no small part is this due to the fact that, after the seizure of power by the Bolsheviks in 1917, Lenin was the main force within the Russian Communist Party who understood and fought for at first a minority position:  that what was then called the “national question” was the main form that the fight for socialism was taking, the liberation of the colonial countries from imperialism.

Well of course Lenin is remembered in many more places than in the Urdu language.  Bertolt Brecht wrote numerous poems that refer to Lenin.  One that is a bridge from the peoples of the East is this one:

The Carpet Weavers of Kuyan-Bulak Honour Lenin

Often he was honoured and profusely
The Comrade Lenin. Busts there are and statues.
Cities were named after him and children.
Speeches are made in numerous languages
Rallies there are and demonstrations
From Shanghai to Chicago, in honour of Lenin.
But thus they honoured him
The carpet weavers of Kuyan-Bulak
A small village in southern Turkistan:

Twenty carpet weavers stand there in the evening
Shivering with fever, in front of their humble loom.
Fever runs riot: the railway station
Teeming with buzzing mosquitoes – a thick cloud
Arising from the swamp behind the old camel cemetery.
But the train, which
Once in two weeks brings water and smoke, brings
Also the news one day
That the day for honouring Lenin lies ahead
And so decide the people of Kuyan-Bulak
Carpet weavers, poor folk
That for the Comrade Lenin also in their village

lenin-iqbal

Left – V. I. Lenin; Right – Urdu poet Mohammad Iqbal

A gypsum bust would be installed.
But as the money is collected for the bust
All of them stand
Trembling with fever and contribute
Their hard earned kopecks with wobbling hands.
And the Red Army soldier Stepa Jamal, who
Carefully counts and meticulously watches,
Sees the readiness, to honour Lenin, and is filled with joy.
But he also sees the uncertain hands.
And all of a sudden he makes a proposal
To buy petroleum with the money collected for the bust
In order to pour it on the swamp behind the camel cemetery
From where the mosquitoes come, which
Cause the fever
Thus to combat the fever in Kuyan-Bulak, and indeed
To honour the late, but
Not to be forgotten
Comrade Lenin.

This was agreed to. On the day of paying respect to
Lenin they carried
Their battered buckets, filled with black petroleum
One behind the other
Over there and spread it on the swamp.

So they benefited themselves, in paying homage to Lenin and
Paid homage to him, in that they benefited themselves and had
Therefore understood him well.

                        2

We have heard how the Kuyan-Bulak folk
Paid their respect to Lenin. As now in the evening
The petroleum had been bought and discharged over the swamp
Stood up a man in the assembly, and he demanded
That a commemoration stone be erected at the railway Station
Reporting these events, containing
The altered plan and the exchange
Instead of Lenin’s bust the fever eradicating petroleum barrel,
And all this in honour of Lenin
And they did that too
And mounted the slab.

(Note: Kuyan-Bulak is the railway station of Ferghana in Uzbekistan. The Slab had the text: ‘In this place there should have been a memorial to Lenin, but instead of the memorial, petroleum was brought and poured over the swamp. Thus Kuyan-Bulak, in memory of Lenin and in his Name smothered malaria’. Translator.)

The Jamaica Peace Council, an organization of Jamaicans at home and abroad, published in April 2019 this poem by Langston Hughes:

Lenin

Lenin walks around the world.

Frontiers cannot bar him.

Neither barracks nor barricades impede.

Nor does barbed wire scar him.

Lenin walks around the world.

Black, brown, and white receive him.

Language is no barrier.

The strangest tongues believe him.

Lenin walks around the world.

The sun sets like a scar.

Between the darkness and the dawn

There rises a red star.

As explanation, the author on the site writes:

The poem uses the figure of Vladimir Lenin as a stand-in for the march of social equality across the world, the hope of racial and economic harmony in the world.

Though Hughes didn’t identify as a communist and claimed to have never read Marxist texts at his congressional trial led by the infamous “Red Scare” Senator Joseph McCarthy, his poem describes an awakening in the world among oppressed people of the world for justice.

And of course there is the series of four poems, written from 1920 to 1924, by Vladimir

6db237f41c1e158fcfea5dd94c890250a6244359

V. Mayakovsky

Mayakovsky that celebrated the life of Lenin and commemorated his death. “The time has come,” Mayakovsky wrote:

I begin

the story of Lenin

Not

because the grief

is on the wane,

but because

the bitter anguish

of that moment

has become

a clear-cut,

weighed and fathomed pain.

Time,

speed on,

spread Lenin’s slogans in your whirl!

Not for us

to drown in tears

whatever happens.

There’s no one

more alive

than Lenin in the world,

our strength,

our wisdom,

surest of our weapons.

Poetry, then, is a way into understanding the international reverence for V. I. Lenin, and why he might have been on the minds of the young people in 1970, as perhaps they enjoyed a private joke behind the scenes at the expense of their elders who serendipitously chose April 22, 1970 to launch Earth Day.

Chances are, though, they didn’t know who Lenin really was.  They probably didn’t know that he was a Latin scholar, and that his first introduction to revolutionary writing was through the Russian novelist Chernyshevsky.  They probably had never read the essays he wrote about Tolstoy, a novelist whose writing he loved, but whose worship of Russian mysticism he detested: He could never understand how the revolutionary and the reactionary could coexist in one man.  He read widely in Russian literature (Pushkin, Turgenev, Dostoyevsky, Gogol).  All of this and more was reviewed in The Guardian (“How Lenin’s Love of Literature Shaped the Revolution”) in 2017, as a way into looking at Lenin’s contribution to the Russian revolution and to the thinking of revolutionaries generally.

Lenin spent two decades building the foundation for the revolutionary organization capable of toppling the czar and establishing socialism in Russia.  At numerous points in that two decades he found himself in the minority among the revolutionaries.  Often he found himself in a small organization of exiles.  What he did in that twenty years was write furiously.  He wrote about the kind of tasks that were necessary (revolutionaries did not agree on those tasks; they did not agree on what forces in society were revolutionary; they did not agree on what role they should play as World War I got underway). He wrote about the ideological, organizational, and tactical building blocks necessary for the kind of political party he thought was necessary.  Some of these contributed some ideas particular to the revolutionary situation in Russia, ideas that he began to formulate when exiled early in his career to Siberia; when he researched and wrote a book that chronicled the Development of Capitalism in Russia. Here he maintained that despite the minuscule size of the Russian industrial working class, capitalism was already developing in Russia. Despite the general consensus that the Russian peasants were a monolithic class, Lenin described the stratification of peasantry into a wealthy section, a middle section, and the great mass of the peasantry at the level of an agricultural working class and serf.

He wrote the fourth book about the foundation of the necessary political party in 1908, and it was published in Russia in 1909. Here he defended the philosophical principles or world view of dialectical and historical materialism (Materialism and Empiriocriticism). It’s really in this book that he expounds on his idea of Marxism as a method as well as a theory and a doctrine.

Lenin in Russia in 1897 to 1917 faced a situation unlike in Germany, England, or the United States.  In those other countries the industrial revolution was well underway, appeared even complete.  Russia was in the beginning throes of the industrial revolution, much of the country enthralled to the big banks of Europe.  Lenin needed to devise a theory of the Russian revolution.  He did that in his description of the relationship of the various classes in Russia, the role of the working class and the peasantry, and the development of the national question in the Russian empire and beyond.  He did that by describing the objective reality the revolutionary classes faced and the role of the revolutionary organizations.  What is most significant about Lenin is his capacity to describe the reality he faced and the new ideas necessary for the new situation of his time and place.  He was a scientist.

What can we learn from Lenin’s experience on his 150th birthday?  In the 1970s, when I read Lenin I read him as the ideologue that I was.  What is to be Done?, State and Revolution, Left Wing Communism an Infantile Disorder, and Imperialism the Highest Stage of Capitalism were the four books of my Talmud. I do not intend here to dismiss them as unimportant.  No, there are important lessons to be learned from all of them.  But the way we read them is important, especially when we realize we are no longer dealing with a revolution in the midst of industrialization. The great Russian political revolution was part of the 19th to 20th century economic industrial revolution. In fact, the ensuing liberation struggles of the colonies, the struggles that Lenin foresaw as the great movement of the 20th century, pulled those peoples into the orbit of industry and a connection to the capitalist world order, either through a bourgeois or a socialist revolution.  But that era is over.

A new economic revolution is underway.  And there are new Lenins walking the streets of our world, applying their understanding of the real world to develop a theory of today’s revolutionary times.  In 1917 — and from 1917 through the 1960s and the first Earth Day — history has witnessed the completion of the replacement of agricultural private property by industrial-financial private property. Today we are witnessing the demise of capitalism that exists on the exploitation of labor.  That seems counterintuitive, when we see people living in the streets and workers unable to buy the basic necessities of life.  But the robotization of contemporary life points to the end of wage labor.  If labor is excluded from the production of the means of survival, then there is no longer a way to measure the value in exchange of the means of survival. As long as money is the means of exchange, those expelled from the employer-employee relationship have no way to purchase the means of survival. The Lenin’s of our day must be developing a theory of the revolution of the end of the market and the end of private property under new conditions, when the way to resolve the problems we face must mean distribution without money.

On this Earth Day and this 150th birthday of Lenin, it’s time to recognize that the inspiration that Lenin gave to the poets in Urdu, the Russian poets, to Langston Hughes is real and deserving of reverence. We need to cultivate the Lenins of our times. Without discounting his numerous contributions, what we need to revere is Lenin’s scientific outlook and his willingness to find new solutions to solve new problems.

At The Junction — Lew Rosenbaum

[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]

At The Junction

by Lew Rosenbaum

Janus

the two faced god

sits at the junction of before and afterjanus

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 disambiguation

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

apocalyptic horsemen

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

liturgical day

 

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

Poetry for April 10: Zapata/Huerta

Poems for April 10:  Assassination of Zapata and Birth of Huerta

One hundred years ago today, April 10, 1919, government assassins murdered Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata.  Here is what Eduardo Galeano wrote about this in his epic Century of the Wind (the third volume of his Memory of Fire trilogy).  Read a review of Century of the Wind here:

1919 Cuautla

This Man Taught Them That Life Is Not Only

Fear of Suffering and Hope of Death

It had to be done by treachery.  Shamming friendship, a government officer leads emiliano-zapata-claudio-osoriohim into the trap. A thousand soldiers are waiting, a thousand rifles tumble him from his horse.

Afterward they haul him to Cuautla and exhibit him face up.

Campesinos from everywhere flock there for the silent march-past, which lasts several days. Approaching the body, they remove their sombreros, look attentively, and shake their heads.  No one believes it.  There’s a wart missing, a scar too many;  that suit isn’t his; this face swollen by so many bullets could be anybody’s.

The campesinos talk in slow whispers, peeling off words like grains of corn:

“They say he went with a compadre to Arabia.”

“Hell, Zapata doesn’t chicken out.”

  He’s been seen on Quilamula heights.”

“I know he’s sleeping in a cave in Cerro Prieto.”

“Last night his horse was drinking in the river.”

The Morelos campesinos don’t now believe, nor will they ever believe, that Emiliano Zapata could have committed the infamy of dying and leaving them all alone.

Ballad of the Death of Zapata

Little star in the night

that rides the sky like a witch,9781568584461

where is our chief Zapata

who was the scourge of the rich?

 

Little flower of the fields

and valley of Morelos,

if they ask for Zapata,

say he’s gone to try on halos.

 

Little bubbling brook,

what did that carnation say to you?

It says that our chief didn’t die.

that Zapata’s on his way to you.

(from Vicente Mendoza, El Corrido Mexicano, Mexico City, FCE, 1976]

 

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

Born April 10, 1930:  Dolores Huerta, a “Civil Rights icon,” a living legend and labor activist, this interview was conducted with her in 2017.

Here are the lyrics of the “Corrido de Dolores Huerta” and here is the version with Los Lobos.

En Dawson, Nuevo Mexico
El diez de abril
Nació Dolores HuertaBUSD-Teach-In-with-Dolores-Huerta-0241
Nadie se lo imaginaba
Que ella iría encabezar
Parte del gran movimiento

En Stockton, California
Donde ella se crió
Empezo a ver la injusticia
Que el campesino ha sufrido
Sin la representación
Que una unión le daría

Me acuerdo que allá en Delano
El sesenta y dos
Se asoció con César Chávez
Y entre él y la Dolores
Formularon una unión
Que llegó a cambiar las leyes
Su sentir de mujer
Dirigió por buen camino
Del mejor porvenir
Al humilde campesino
Su sentir de mujer
Le prestó a la unión la fuerza
Te has ganado la flor
De la paz, Dolores Huerta

Después que organizaron
La gente en la unión
Imponieron una huelga
Para hablar de los contratos
También para nagociar
Apuntaron a la Huerta

César Chávez les decía
“Vamos a ganar
Esta huelga sin violencia
La revolución social
Hay que ganarla con la paz
Derramar sangre no es ciencia”https---images.genius.com-ca0eb33dffb6f8ce0110898e1d2158e6.500x500x1

Y un día en Arizona
La gente decía
“Ay Dolores, no se puede!”
La Dolores les contesta
“Esto será nuestro grito
Sí se puede! Sí se puede!”
Su sentir de mujer
Dirigió por buen camino
Del mejor porvenir
Al humilde campesino
Su sentir de mujer
Le prestó a la unión la fuerza
Te has ganado la flor
De la paz, Dolores Huerta

Poem for April 4: In Memoriam, Martin Luther King, Jr. — by June Jordan

th

[On April 4, 1968 the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated.  For April 4, 2019, I choose to read/reprint this poem, by the widely acclaimed, politically engaged poet, June Jordan (1936-2002).  The Poetry Foundation web site biographical page for June Jordan quotes an interview with the poet:  

In an interview with Alternative Radio before her death, Jordan was asked about the role of the poet in society. Jordan replied: “The role of the poet, beginning with my own childhood experience, is to deserve the trust of people who know that what you do is work with words.” She continued: “Always to be as honest as possible and to be as careful about the trust invested in you as you possibly can. Then the task of a poet of color, a black poet, as a people hated and despised, is to rally the spirit of your folks…I have to get myself together and figure out an angle, a perspective, that is an offering, that other folks can use to pick themselves up, to rally and to continue or, even better, to jump higher, to reach more extensively in solidarity with even more varieties of people to accomplish something. I feel that it’s a spirit task.”

Martin Luther King’s enduring gift to his political descendants is his “work with words.”  LR]

 

In Memoriam: Martin Luther King, Jr.

I
honey people murder mercy U.S.A.
the milkland turn to monsters teach
to kill to violate pull down destroy
the weakly freedom growing fruit
from being born
America
tomorrow yesterday rip rape
exacerbate despoil disfigure
crazy running threat the
deadly thrall
appall belief dispel
the wildlife burn the breast
the onward tongue
the outward hand

deform the normal rainy

collection_jjordan12016_0

June Jordan

riot sunshine shelter wreck
of darkness derogate
delimit blank
explode deprive
assassinate and batten up
like bullets fatten up
the raving greed
reactivate a springtime
terrorizing
death by men by more
than you or I can
STOP
       II
They sleep who know a regulated place
or pulse or tide or changing sky
according to some universal
stage direction obvious
like shorewashed shells
we share an afternoon of mourning
in between no next predictable
except for wild reversal hearse rehearsal
bleach the blacklong lunging
ritual of fright insanity and more
deplorable abortion
more and
more

 

[The poet can be heard reading her poem here.  Her poem “Apologies to All The People Of Lebanon” can be read here (Aja Monet performs the poem here].

Santiago On My Mind

Santiago On My Mind

by Lew Rosenbaum

 

I imagine myself

sipping my scotch

alongside reporters from

the Washington Post and The Guardian

HotelCarrera_320x240_Ext

The Santiago, Chile, Hotel Carrera

in the bar in the basement

of the Hotel Carrera

across the street from La Moneda –

I’ve never been to Santiago,

one of the largest of cities

in the Americas,

on a day when Nixon-sent

bombs dropped on the palace,

where Kissinger doomed democracy

and later complained that

96c648a8.NixonKissinger1_800x554

Co-conspirators: Nixon & Kissinger

reporters had not given US credit

for its strangling hand in the coup –

sitting on a bar stool

downing my pisco sour*,

would I recognize the door opening

to the deaths of 3,000 —

or was it 30,000?

and the number of tortured?

did the blood from Victor Jara’s

severed hands run in rivers

all the way through Wall Street

Victor_Jara

Victor Jara, murdered September 16, 1973

or was it the silent sound

of his guitar that drowned out

the cheers from the stock marketers

on September 11, 1973.

 

Our own 3,000 dead

in New York City

food service workers and

janitors and traders and

secretaries – vaporized and rubbled upon,

embracing miraculous air coffins or

consumed by a collapsing monument

to global wealth and plunder –

how can we take advantage of these

fresh dead

ask the politicos looking for an enemy

around which flag to rally

the disconcerted, to declare, reimagine,

construct, flim-flamify this day as

patriot day

I wonder what a manhattan would taste like

in the bar on top of the World Trade Center

I imagine the dry heaves after the

taste of thousand dollar bills

 

and how can nine eleven only mean

nueva york,

in a country that styles itself “America”

or even THE united states

as if there were no other nation

that boasts united states

and now denying 1973

coopts tragedy for its unique

butchering self

 

sitting in a bar across from La Moneda

Palacio-de-La-Moneda-Santiago

Palacio La Moneda, Santiago, Chile

sitting in a café in Manhattan

dipping my finger in the memory of blood

growing purple morning glories whose vines

will strangle borders and bombs

 

 

 

*A pisco sour is an alcoholic cocktail of Peruvian origin that is typical of the cuisines from Chile and Peru, considered also a South American classic.[A] The drink’s name comes from pisco, which is its base liquor, and the cocktail term sour, in reference to sour citrus juice and sweetener components. The Peruvian pisco sour uses Peruvian pisco as the base liquor and adds freshly squeezed lime juice, syrup, ice, egg white, and Angostura bitters. The Chilean version is similar, but uses Chilean pisco and pica lime, and excludes the bitters and egg white. Other variants of the cocktail include those created with fruits like pineapple or plants such as coca leaves.

The Birthday Gift

[May 10 is Greta’s (my sister) birthday.  She would be 90 years old this year, but she died almost 10 years ago.  For a time I continued to write her letters.  I had to do this to make peace with myself.  There was so much I still wanted to talk to her about, even if I didn’t get an answer.  There is still so much I want to talk with her about, and I know that will not happen.  I have this picture on my computer desktop.  It gazes out at me and I’m not sure that it comforts me with her permanent presence; or hurts me with the reminder of her absence.  I know I don’t want it to go away.  Maybe sometimes, as I sit at the computer not sure where to begin with what I need to do, I find encouragement in the smile on her face.  Maybe after I hear something new in music, like some of the songs composed and played by Adam and OneLove, I talk to her photo.  And on this May 10, on her 90th birthday, I revisited what I wrote as I was about to have my mitral valve surgery in what I called my Memento 5,  and also what I wrote (along with Diana) about this visit to Schneider Haus and the quilt competition that Diana took part in, to commemorate Greta (you can click the links to find those pieces). Maybe instead of letters, I’ll write poetry now.  LR]

The Birthday Gift 

by Lew Rosenbaum

The photograph gazes at me

from ten years agolew-greta-diana-schneider-haus-kitchener-may-2008

your birthday, Greta,

three of us standing to the side of lilacs

your eyebrows arched slightly, Greta,

eyes glimmer – are they brown?

they must be brown, all our family

has brown eyes – but my memory fails

and what I see could be gray or even

green, but I do catch the interest

as, alert, you look at the camera, not at me

standing by your side, but gaze at the

Josef Schneider Haus docent

she holds the camera and we pose

frozen in time and yet as I look at you

now alive, lips turning up in a sly smile

you betray the disease that robs you

of your humor, your laugh, the glint that

sparkled from those brown/gray/green eyes

the creases in your face melt away

I can hear you chuckle from that photo

you had just turned 80 and you could not

remember the road we had driven

many times before – we got lost on the way

to the Schneider Haus, that frightened you,

but for an instant,

standing next to the lilacs,

Diana laughs and revels in the company

in the symmetry of our mouths

a river of amusement washes over us

the three of us bathe in the pleasure

of the moment, of being alive together

 

My eyes stray from the joy I take

looking at your face to notice your gray hair

short cut, blown in the cool May breeze,

it’s not carefully combed or straight

as you are accustomed to wear it

and your red plaid shirt, the heavy one

you are wearing because it is a cool May day,

it hangs open and to the side, not the

impeccable way you would have worn

this or any other shirt, it’s that disease,

we’ve seen it before, both of us, Greta,

when you showed me how our mother,

our Chana, our Anna, would not, perhaps

could not, keep that neat appearance that

had been her hallmark, and how you

made me see the vacancy where the sentience

had inhabited her dark brown eyes, see the

hairs dangling disheveled from the corona

of braids she still wore when she could.

 

There: a smile threatens to break out on your face,

see the dimple forming in that left cheek

as the lips turn upward ever so slightly?

this is how I used to be, you tell me from the photo

remember me this way, I won’t be able to

hold this attitude much longer, you may not

see me like this again, hold me, hold onto this

moment, my brother, this, my birthday gift to you

 

This Is My Last Shuttered House — Lew Rosenbaum

[My mother, Anna, died at 87 in 1983.  She spent the last few years declining in a nursing home;  the last weeks hardly cognizant of her surroundings.  That image haunted me, still haunts me, trying to imagine what was in her mind when we thought she was not comprehending. This poem took a couple of decades to write, reaching this version in my chapbook To Pay The Piper. She loved to tell young people about the time the soldiers came, like cossacks; it was so central to her growing up, to her fear of the Russian oligarchy and her willingness to embrace the radical.  Of course one of the things that I think about now at this time of my own life is that others will have to fight and to remember;  and in remembering and fighting, do something the world of her comrades was unable to do. They will build a whole new world which will not know cossacks of any kind and which will treat the elders with compassion.  LR.]

This Is My Last Shuttered House

Lew Rosenbaum

 

The first time — I was only seven —

Grandma shuttered all the windows

1922: Anna

Anna Rosenbaum in about 1920

She took us up the stairs

She hid us under beds

While the soldiers thundered by.

 

But this is my last shuttered house.

This withered body contains the last of my suffering.

What hurts me most?

I would tell you,

The look you give me

When you can’t see within.

Oh yes, you see a crazy woman.

Flailing about, her tongue

Wraps itself around each gurgling

Sound I cannot make you understand.

 

You sit here now

Son and daughter; you

Have each other to talk to

And, thinking you know how

Senseless I am,

Exchange glances

Sharing your distress and pity.

 

Now I can lie here

Pretend to sleep.

Although your pity repulses me;

Still, glad you are here.

 

I know you are upset.

I’ll give you less grief

If I lie here

In my last shuttered house.

 

Peering from the outside

You can’t see

Ghost or web or

Whatever is alive within.

 

I remember the first time.

I’ve told you many times.

I was only seven

Oshmyany was our town

And the soldiers came like cossacks

They rode horses with clattering hooves

Down the narrow cobbled streets

And they banged on all the doors

They demanded young men for the army

They demanded young women to serve them.

And we shuttered all the windows

Grandmother shuttered all the windows

She took us up the stairs

We hid under the beds

We hid in the closets

Grandmother pulled the shutters

And the house was dark for days.

* * * * *

this-83-yr-young-woman

Anna Rosenbaum in June, 1979, at 83 years old.  She hung out with me on my shift at the Midnight Special Bookstore one day a week.   The bookstore hosted a birthday party for her and a fundraiser for the Texas Farmworkers Union. She died four years later, August 1987.

Now I hurt most from those

Your uncomprehending stares

Even more than sores that eat through to the bone

Even more than feeding tubes they thrust down my nose

And more:

Because my stare cannot always comprehend you.

(Moments clear like this one

May never come again).

 

One July evening you laid your hands on my

Sweat-drenched brow and murmured permission.

“Don’t stay in this pain for me” you said.

“Not on my behalf. The toll’s too great.”

 

I grip this too fragile thread

Only to recognize your faces

When I can . . .

I will let go when meaning

Slips away completely.

There is nothing after this.

 

When this house, my last house,

Is shuttered tight

Others will have to fight

Others will have to remember

 

Even about that first time

When I was only seven

And the soldiers came like cossacks

Riding horses with clattering hooves.

Things I Know I Love About You

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

nazim_hikmet2_s

Nazim Hikmet (1902, Salonica – June 3, 1963, Moscow)

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 peaks0004926-R1-063-30

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 timePortraits of Diana

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 himPortraits of Diana 1

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

Portrait of David

Diana’s portrait of David in Nelson Peery’s Future is Up To Us

gazing at sand

spilling through outstretched fingers

contemplating eternity

 

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

hammers, scythes

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

Red Chair

The Red Chair at Oxbow

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

Stitched to the Earth #1: In Joy And Sorrow

Stitched to the Earth #1: In Joy And Sorrow, 2005 (Denim, Conte Crayon)    The history of labor is the collective narrative of many individual joys and many individual sorrows.  These fragments of pant legs show the ear and tear and dust of work.  But in the lifetime of the men and women, there was time to rest, time for families to come together to express their joys and sorrows.

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.