Thursday, December 13, 2018

Poetry and Politics: Poems on 'My America' Resonated at Reading

           I had a great time reading poetry to a smart and responsive audience at Plymouth Public Library last Sunday afternoon -- a compliment I can't easily repay. 
            I was reading some political commentary poems from the "Wild Ideas" section of my book "Cocktails in the Wild," when after concluding a long poem titled "My America," someone began clapping and the whole room immediately joined.
            Poetry readings of the serious sort are not often interrupted by applause. That was certainly the first time it happened for me. 
            And that's reason enough for me to reprint the poem, "My America," parts i and ii, below. The poem was written during the Presidential campaign of 2016, when it appeared to me and many others that our system of electing leaders was exposing an ugly national underbelly, but well before the vote. The poem was originally published in in the fall of 2016.
            My thanks for opportunity to read to Plymouth Public Library director Jen Harris, outreach librarian Tom Cummiskey; to author/poet pal Judy Campbell, who brought both friends and some unbeatable chocolate fudge (the friends were good too). And to Anne, who timed the photos in the power-point down to the second.       
            Some folks even bought copies of my poetry books for Christmas presents. Is that the holiday spirit of giving, or what?

My America (i)
    ("There died a myriad... For a botched civilization" -- Ezra Pound)

Looking at you these fallen days (or me in the mirror)
I join the ranks of your disappointed admirers
We are no longer saving the world
we are saving our jobs
Frankly, I am sick of the whole 'greatest country in the world' chest-thumpery
and if there were somewhere else to go I would go there
but (still true) if you are not part of the solution
you are part of the problem
and I know which part I am

America, my transcendental gender-free inamorata, you are my sole support
I am one of your pensioned ex-lovers, as  
glimpsed in the film version of what-we-now-really-are, walking the boardwalk
somewhere desolate, like Atlantic City,
the New Jersey Crimea, sucking up air like one of Chekov's washed-up emigres,
after the rodeo, after the gold rush, after the film festival, the short-series Conventions,
after the failed uprising, after the media has packed up and gone home
to spend a quiet evening in the hotel with their phones

one of your disappointed vampires in need of a bloody fix,
scanning the pre-dawn streets for Ginsberg set-piece atrocities,
the best minefields of America, dodging gunned-up, hyped-up, trumped-up
scaredy-cops shooting black men because we are afraid of black men
(why shouldn't we be? given all we have done to them?)
and are of course still doing with fanny-pats of approval from race-card Republican judges

America, ghoulish dreamboat, ancient lover gone in the teeth,
eager for wounds to lick cuz you like the taste
you grow comfortable with the deaths of others
They are dying in Aleppo
Other countries (nursing their own broken mirrors) ask,
"What are they are thinking in America?"
They are not thinking in America
Thinking is not done in America,
some calculation of course, some texting, some advertising,
some truly boorish emoting
It's always about us, isn't it?
If not, then why are you bothering me?

My America! after the big affair, after the ball is over,
your kick-line of sulky dwarfs cleaning up behind the parade
You were young once
We were all young once
Your bright young men wore wigs and tight pants, showed a leg
Ladies learned to smoke, swear, dance and dip to apocalyp-stick swingtime
America, your century is over
You open your faded arms to tinpot dictators,
make eyes at banana republics, don the latest looks from funhouse mirrors,
worship pigs who despise everything you ever stood for  
... all for a botched democracy, a menopausal male
gone grouchy in the knees, stiff in the frontal lobe
You have no use for carping critics
who spend time spooning with their buddy Google,
the single pop culture lightweight who can stand their company
Write me a check and I'll get out of town

My America (ii)

My America, however, is a guy with a distinctly 'different' name
that is to say clearly not Anglo-Saxon (a tongue with more than enough funny names of its own), 
for example banjo player 'Bela Fleck'
combining Hungarian roots with the Appalachian mountain music that now defines his instrument,
itself a melding of deep-flowing currents, Celtic, English, African-American
Who travels to Africa to trace the banjo's genealogy
in hide-covered stringed instruments brought here by slaves
In the film* you can see the respect in his eyes as his fingers work to copy
a finger-picking rhythm pecked at hummingbird speed by a Malian guitar player
and the respect in the eyes of the African players of the akonting
(a three-stringed, long-necked banjo antecedent)
as they see what Fleck can do with the modern version

The country, that is, of Yo-Yo Ma, Lang Lang, my Quincy Chinese neighbors
whose grandfathers visit to play basketball with preschool grandsons,
the lady who shouts with the half-dozen words we share that I have
planted my garden in the wrong place. 'What are these?' she points. 'Nothing to eat?'
The country of my wife's grandfather Meier who escaped the czar's army
to carry a sewing machine to work in Brooklyn
My close-mouthed father, born here in unlucky times,
who never once in our hearing spoke a word of his Depression childhood,
but survived to give us what he lacked and carried his secrets to the grave
The Nisei soldiers who stormed up mountains in Italy to take Nazi forts
while their parents were interned somewhere in the ambivalently 'Great' Plains,
and those with names like DiMaggio whose mothers were forced to register each year as enemy aliens 
and whose travel-restricted fathers could no longer visit their sons' restaurants
while they fought in Europe and the Pacific
Of citizen Khizr Khan, whose officer son died protecting those who served under him
in Afghanistan,
a country much like this one in having too many wars. (My America can be improved.)
And Zarif Khan, who founded an Afghani community in of all places Wyoming,
by taking advantage of a collection of opportunities such as the ranch-hands' pent-up demand
for fresh tamales, the stock market, freedom of travel, the right to vote, a collection
found perhaps nowhere else but in these United States

Of Darlene Love who went from house cleaner, to backup singer, to contributing
"Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)," to the nation's permanent holiday playlist
The country where an author (Barbara Ehrenreich)
could write a book titled "Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America"
and not be hounded by Putin's police  
The country of Cesar Chavez, Joan Baez, Sonia Sotomayor, Roberto Clemente, Rita Moreno

A country of 'climbing-up' ordinary heroes, open minds, thinkers and doers, money makers and music makers
with names our own Moms and Dads never heard of,
but learned to play nice with for the good of the whole, e pluribus unum
transcending the clans and tribalisms that set other worlds on fire
because we were the others, the strangers, the newcomers once, the genuine alien nation

*"Throw Down Your Heart," 2008


links to my two poetry books:


Saturday, December 1, 2018

The Garden of Verse: Poems and Photos in December's Verse-Virtual

Pierce Pond, Pleasant Valley Wildlife Sanctuary, Mass Audubon, Lenox, Massachusetts
          Seven short poems with accompanying photos are up today on the December issue of My thanks go to editor Firestone Feinberg for turning these poems and photos of various sizes into the album-like presentation I hoped to achieve.
            The photo above is one I took on a chilly late October morning when Anne and I went for a walk in the Pleasant Valley Mass Audubon nature preserve in Lenox, Massachusetts in October. See
            Anne was recovering from minor knee surgery and we often looked for modest outings in beautiful places, which, happily, were not at all that hard to find.
            Some other folks walking there that morning offered notes on the wildlife they'd glimpsed and shared their appreciation of the place's beauty this time of the year.
            The other subjects for the poems with photos included in the online journal are a wetland created by beavers who dammed a stream very close to a hardtop road and a house situated on it. Over a decade and a half we watched the beaver dam transform the landscape into a habitat that protected and fed them, as grass and woodland gave way to marsh grass, pools, dying trees, and wetland habitat for birds and fish. The beavers are gone now; the transformation goes on.
            Other subjects are another wetland that abuts a sizeable pond called Stockbridge Bowl, on the other side of a causeway. We walk there frequently to watch a sunset or simply gaze at the water.
            Also: a tiny cabin in the middle of a sloping green field. A fast-running stretch of the Housatonic River seen from the new River Walk park in Great Barrington. A view of mostly bared trees from a hillside cabin. And a view of a newly created preserve off Under Mountain Road, also in Lenox.
            You can see these photo-poems and work by 30 poets in all in the December issue of