Tuesday, February 14, 2017

The Garden of Verse: A Quiet But Unforgettable Poem About 'Winter Sundays'

      A monthly column written by poet David Graham for Verse-Virtual, the online poetry journal to which I contribute each month, continues to contribute to my education. The column is called "Poetic License." This month David writes about one of his favorite poets, Robert Hayden, and shares some great poems including, to quote from the column, this "rather understated, rueful lyric about [his father], 'Those Winter Sundays,' which if not my favorite poem of all time, is certainly in my top five":

Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.

I'd wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he'd call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house,

Speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love's austere and lonely offices?

To read the rest of David Graham's column, see Verse-Virtual at:

        I have four new poems in the February issue, including one based on a photo of a Great Blue Heron by fellow poet Jim Lewis. Jim posted his photo on Facebook and challenged other poets who write for Verse-Virtual.com to write a poem inspired by looking this bird in the eye. My response to the challenge begins…

Courage of the Wind
(based on Jim Lewis’s photo of the Great Blue Heron)

You see me, as always, before I see you
You turn on a corner of the wind
where the air meets sky and the scent
of salt marsh bathes the hours
I know you by the killer eye in your bone arrow,
your linear head-piece head-on to the future
that houses both sense and brain, and the rapier jaw,
the needle of thought sewn through sky and brine,
the silvery flesh of life in the quick
and the ocular penetration,
right-angled from your dagger stab

… to read the rest of this poem and all the others in the February 2017 issue of Verse-Virtual.com, see http://www.verse-virtual.com/poems-and-articles.html

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Nation of Shame: Shutting Down Speech on the Senate Floor

There once was a piece of Old Diggery

Who handed out lessons in piggery
He stood up on a box his oaf song to sing
Quashing a letter from Coretta Scott King
And birthed a whole nation of triggery

             What's next? A caning on the Senate floor?

In the years before the Civil War the attack on Massachusetts Senator Charlies Sumner by a racist Congressman from South Carolina drove an irreparable wedge between two parts of the country, as the North learned that the slave owners on the other side lacked all decent respect for human life.
         (For the whole story see Massachusetts author Stephen Puleo's book, "The Caning: The Assault That Drove America to Civil War," for the details. Here's the link for that  book: http://www.stephenpuleo.com/book/the-caning/)
          These reflections are prompted by the Senate majority's attack on the freedom of speech of Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, who opposes the nomination of Jeff Sessions for Attorney General. Jeff Sessions is a racist. His history is on the record; it's no secret. When he sought to prosecute Civil Rights activists, back in Alabama where the government did that sort of thing routinely, he attacked a white lawyer defending the activists by calling him "a traitor to your race."
           I don't know about anybody else, but I don't want to be part of any "race" that Jeff Sessions is a member of. 
           Race is a fiction, a lie. There is no scientific basis for dividing human beings into races. There is only one human race. We are all in it. Unfortunately, some of our members are throwback degenerates, like Jeff Sessions.   
             Sessions, and every Republican senator who supports him, plus the despicable administration that proposed him (which appears to be government by White Supremacist Loose Cannon Bannon), are trying to drive America back to the pre-Civil Rights era when it's OK to slander members of "other" non-white groups whenever the need arises -- Muslims are terrorists; African-Americans are cop killers -- but illegal to point out that craven politicians appeal to white Americans' baser instincts by using racial slurs. That is, it's OK to be a racist, but it's not OK to call a white American a racist.
             What Warren was doing when the Senate gagged her last night was reading a letter from Coretta Scott King, generally regarded as reliable source on civil rights, opposing Sessions's nomination for a federal judgeship back in 1986 on the grounds of his blatant, repeated opposition to Civil Rights after desegregation became the law of the land. Back then, the Senate defeated his nomination.
             King's letter is straight-forward, but the language is civil. Her letter states: "Mr. Sessions has used the awesome power of his office to chill the free exercise of the vote by black citizens in the district he now seeks to serve as a federal judge.” 
             This is a factual claim.
              Somehow Senate Republicans alleged it was an attack on one of their members -- Alabama voters having chosen to vote the racist Jeff Sessions to the US Senate -- that violated some kind of rule about saying not-nice things about one of their members. 
               Brain-dead Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell ruled she could no longer speak on the nomination and was supported by his ignorant clones. 
               Folks, we are increasingly two countries. I don't wish to be part of any country that allows Jeff Sessions, or McConnell, or the p.o.s. in the White House  to govern us. (I expect the antipathy is returned.)  

Monday, February 6, 2017

The Garden of Verse: The Greatest Political Poem, Shelley's "The Mask of Anarchy"

     On August 16, 1819, a public meeting of England's vast new industrial working class, then seeking more representation in Parliament -- and, perhaps, the vote for a few members of their own class -- that drew about 60,000 men, women and children to a site near Manchester was violently broken up by an attack of armed soldiers on horseback.
            A sword-blow and trampling massacre of participants took a disputed number of lives -- the official total 11, the unofficial five times higher -- including a little girl trampled to death.
            Living in Italy, driven from England for his radical views -- chief among them being his atheism, a punishable crime under English law -- the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley received the news by mail, "and the torrent of my indignation has not yet done boiling in my veins," he wrote to his publisher in London. 
            (My source for quotes and background information is "Shelley: The Pursuit" by Richard Holmes.)
            There was nothing liberal, democratic, civil libertarian or progressive about the government of England 200 years ago. Thirty years into its current Constitutional government and still adhering (as least as of the moment in 2017) to the protections of its hallowed First Amendment freedoms, the United States did not prosecute aetheists or make a habit of breaking up public meetings by government critics. American democracy was far from complete: only property-owning white males could vote, and half the country premitted slavery. But this country lacked a monarch or a social class system that enshrined certain people on the basis of birth alone with important rights and powers not shared by others.
            I can't really make a case for a connection between the situation faced by powerless working people in the early decades of the industrial revolution and the current political crisis in the United States brought on by the election of a "so-called president" who manages to meld everything that is wrong with our society, and much that always has been (such as racism), into one bloated, arrogant, narcissistic, ignorant personage...
            .... except to express my admiration over a great poet's ability to turn his "torrent of indignation" in great art.
            Nevertheless see this excerpt from Chris Hedges' recent discussion of the "moral monsters" of our own day:
            "Bannon and his followers on the 'alt-right,' self-declared intellectuals, ferret out facts and formulas that buttress their peculiar worldview and discard truths that contradict their messianic delusions. They mouth a few clich├ęs and quote a few philosophers to justify bigotry, chauvinism and governmental repression. It is propaganda masquerading as ideology. These pseudo-intellectuals are singularly incurious. They are linguistically, culturally and historically illiterate about the Muslim world, and about most other foreign cultures, yet blithely write off one-fifth of the world’s population—Muslims—as irredeemable. ...The inability of white supremacists like Trump and Bannon to recognize the humanity of others springs from their spiritual impoverishment. They mistake bigotry for honesty and ignorance for innocence. They cannot separate fantasy from reality. Such people are, as author James Baldwin said, 'moral monsters.'"
            Shelley knew about moral monsters too. 
            The poet's response to the massacre, which took place at a site called St. Peter's Field (shortened by the vernacular to Peterloo), was the poem his impeccably informed biographer Richard Holmes calls "the greatest poem of political protest ever written in English."
            It's centered, Holmes writes, on "the most important single image Shelley took from the newspapers... that of the unarmed mother, whose child was trampled to death as the Yeomanry first charged."
            Many of Shelley's long poems, in a short life, are ambitious works based on classical mythological themes, such as "Prometheus Unbound," that presuppose the classical education of someone from his own upper-class background, or at least enough familiarity with 'great books' to recognize the names in their titles.  
            In "Anarchy" nothing of the sort. Again, from Holmes: "He found himself writing immediately in the colloquial ballad stanzas he had not used since 1812.... The lines were terse, flexible, rapid, based on the simple four-stress verse of the broadsheets, sometimes end-stopping, sometimes running on unchecked for a whole stanza, using a bewildering variety of full rhymes, half rhymes, assonance, the curous minor-key of half-assonance, and sudden bursts of burtal, merciless alliteration. ... the reader has the sense of a mass of unconsciously prepared material leaping forward into a unity at a single demand."
            An armed minion of the state trampling a child in a heartless, indifferent assault on a mass protest for social justice symbolized for Shelley the evil of a system that financed the idle life of the rich by an oppressed class who lacked rights and power -- and sometimes enough to eat.
            He turns the facts on the ground into a poem that mimics the style and apparatus of a medieval allegory. The "Mask" -- a word also rendered as 'masque' and 'masquerade' -- was a theatrical entertainment in which costumes and facial masks suggested mythical characters, moral states, or other generalities of the human condition. At the Elizabeth and Stuart courts, for instance, the "masques" were the presentations of a court officer known as "master of the revels." Shelley's heavily moralistic figures (in the stanzas below), such as Murder and Fraud, suggest characters in Medieval Morality Plays, in which Vice and Virtue and Everyman, among others, frequently appeared. The proper names in the poem's opening stanzas (Castlereagh, Eldon) are chief ministers in the English "government" who approved the militia's behavior and arrested various protest leaders on charges of sedition. 
            Also, for the record, the word "anarchy" here means a brutal chaos of unleashed passions. Shelley's classically based use of the term has nothing to do with the political philosophy called "anarchism," a product of the latter 19th century which argued for the dissolution of government as the answer to the injustices of power. In Shelley's poem "anarchy" is unleashed by power on the the powerless.
            The poem begins with an imagined poetic journey:
I met Murder on the way--
He had a mask like Castlereagh--
Very smooth he looked, yet grim;
Seven blood-hounds followed him:
All were fat; and well they might
Be in admirable plight,                                                       
For one by one, and two by two,
He tossed them human hearts to chew
Which from his wide cloak he drew.
Next came Fraud, and he had on,
Like Eldon, an ermined gown;
His big tears, for he wept well,
Turned to mill-stones as they fell.
And the little children, who
Round his feet played to and fro,
Thinking every tear a gem,                                  
Had their brains knocked out by them.

             The clear implication is the English government has no regard for the little children, or any other human beings of the lower classes, who have their "brains knocked out" by a tyrannical government's callous acts and systematic repressions.

            The "Mask of Anarchy" has 91 stanzas. In its last third, Shelley outlines, still in ballad-style metrical and rhymed verse, the path of massive nonviolent resistance to immoral authority that would in a later century be practiced by Gandhi in India and by the civil rights movement in the United States.
            Just face your armed oppressors bravely, the poet appears to say, and do not fight back. The movement created by this brave stance will grow and eventually succeed because a regime -- of any sort -- that uses force on nonviolent resistors eventually loses the support of its people. I would point out here the likelihood that some nonviolent resistors will lose their lives.
            Shelley's poem anticipated a violent response as well:
 With folded arms and steady eyes,

And little fear, and less surprise,
Look upon them as they slay
Till their rage has died away.

            What will happen as a result, he says, is those who participate in killing unarmed protestors will be shunned by the rest of society.
Every woman in the land
Will point at them as they stand--
They will hardly dare to greet
Their acquaintance in the street.

            And ultimately the resistance of the oppressed to injustice will succeed. So Shelley in a final, brilliantly triumphant stanza concludes:

Rise like Lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number--
Shake your chains to earth like dew               370
Which in sleep had fallen on you--
Ye are many -- they are few.

            You win because the numbers are on your side. This was surely the case in India. It was the case in Iran, a country Americans tend to ignore given that its current government is no bargain, when demonstrators by the millions overthrew the Shah because his army would not fire on its own people.
            In India, of course, protestors were massacred at the Amritsar memorial in 1919. Yet Gandhi's movement (which, as I have just read, acknowledged the inspiration of this poem) ultimately succeeded in liberating his country from British rule.
            Civil Rights protestors were also beaten by white racists during the Civil Rights demonstrations (and some killed), not only in the South, but in places like Chicago, and also in Boston when black people faced racist taunts during the Boston school desegregation crisis. But the Civil Rights movement succeeded in changing the country, even if racism has clearly not disappeared from American society.
            What feels important about the example of "The Mask of Anarchy" to me -- in the present moment -- is that instances of extreme social injustice drive great poets (at least the best of them) mad with outrage. They are conductors of suffering.
            Outrageous abuses of authority such as the Peterloo massacre are lost to history after a century or two. Shelley's masterpiece of poetic response was lost to history for decades because nobody would publish it in 1819. No one had the courage to publish it then because the English government repressed dissent by prosecuting and jailing publishers, editors and authors responsible for printing criticisms of its policies, laws, and institutional injustices. In fairness, Shelley did not return to England to publish it under his own name and, probably, go to jail. He had left England, in part, to avoid that fate.
            While textbooks and university courses will routinely state that Shelley is regarded as one of England's "great" romantic poets, nobody much knows what he wrote beyond a few widely collected poems: "Ozymandias," with its useful moral that "fame is fleeting: "Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair." Or the Skylark, a short elegant lyric. Or, maybe, if they took college course that included it, "Ode to the West Wind," a middle-length poem which reads and feels like that breath of fresh air the poem promises will arrive. Most of us have heard its famous line: "If winter is here, can spring be far behind?"
            But most of his greater, more ambitious works were written to challenge the fundamental injustices of his own society.
            The genius of poetic response to injustice is a powerful weapon for resisting tyranny and oppression. We can find inspiration in the act of opening our souls and imaginations to the great prophetic works of the past.


Sunday, February 5, 2017

Garden of Verse: New Poems from Plymouth Author: Driving With the Right Side of the Brain


            Dolores Stewart Riccio, Plymouth-based poet and author of a series of clever mysteries by a circle of psychic friends, has published a new collection of her poems titled "Driving with the Right Side of the Brain."
            The book begins with the classic lament of the mature poet: "not enough time."
            Citing a quotation from Ralph Waldo Emerson on the task of the creative imagination ("My books should smell of the pines and resound with the hum of the insects"), Riccio's poem is titled "What Shall We Do About This Abundance?" It begins:
            There simply isn't enough time
                  to get around to all the inviting
                  beach roses, simmering with silk and scent.

            Speaking as someone who has long appreciated the company of beach roses, I say what a marvelous image: "simmering with silk and scent."
            All those soft 's' sounds really do simmer. Silk strikes me as exactly right for the consistency of that special breed of rose, and 'scent' is the first sign of their presence when you near a New England shoreline.
            This poem concludes with an observation, "Before we are ready, the end of summer comes," both true and resonant. Because this is always the way of things, isn't it? Because, yes, summer comes to an end before we have figured out "what to do" with any of it. And by now we also realize that we are not merely speaking of summer.
            All of this imaginative, philosophical punch packed into the first page of a book of 104 pages of similarly reflective, delightful and affecting poetry.
            Riccio is a member of an ongoing poetry group sponsored by the Duxbury Library. The library's director, Carol Jankowski, sums up "Driving with the Right Side of the Brain" this way:

            In her new anthology of poems, Dolores Stewart Riccio invites curiosity, memory, love, mystery, pageantry, and history to attend a celebration of soul! Each poem speaks directly to the reader; each lovely image appears in the mind’s eye and heart as brilliantly as a celestial panorama. The anthology is divided into eight sections, with topics ranging from Reincarnation to Shapeshifter and Acts of Faith. In the poem “Driving with the Right Side of the Brain,” the poet exclaims, “some daredevil soul records with a flourish of a pen adventures I never remember.” Trust me, daredevil souls: readers will lovingly remember the adventures that come alive in this poetry!
            Ellen Jane Powers, author of a poetry collection titled "Celestial Navigations," writes of Riccio's book: "At times we feel we're overhearing a private rumination, then we come across an 'old spell' or charm to carry us onward. Her language is at once philosophical and witty, giving power to the underdog and dame alike."
            Having received a review copy of her new book , I wrote a brief review as well:
            Dolores Stewart Riccio's sure-handed lyrics, ranging from delicate to pointed, show us Shakespeare at the senior center, Greek mythology in the publisher's office, a Lakota legend on the power of youthful desire, quiet testimonies to the mystery of an undying love. She sees the legendary in the everyday as well, a grieving old man merging into his garden, mountains whirling just out of sight, rivers of sky only a bird can navigate. Her volume of new and selected poems is a book of marvels, some of them the everyday kind like listening to opera while driving to the post office, a cache of unexpected words for death ("the professor of fates and balances"), some of them acts of faith such as "Negative Birthday Candles." These poems provide a fitting response to the epistemological teaser "Do you believe you are breathing?" Dolores Stewart Riccio's answer: "I  do not believe, I know."

            You can find more information about the author's series of novels, known as the The Divine Circle of Ladies mysteries, at her website: http://www.doloresstewartriccio.com/works.htm
            These clever and entertaining ladies are a little more inclined to magic and witchcraft than to the writing of verse. But magic is a kind of poetry as well.