Friday, June 30, 2017

Poems for June 14

Before the Blight by Ruth Stone

The Boy Died in My Alley by Gwendolyn Brooks

The Ballad of Rudolph Reed  by Gwendolyn Brooks

Holy  by Abdul Ali
American Names by Stephen Vincent Benet
If I only look at the titles of the poems selected... I am struck by the preponderance of B's
in the first three... a Biblical admonition in the first, a sense of an old Ballad telling of woes in the next two... Writing this now on June 30, with three sessions of discussion in mind (June 14, 21 and 28) I think of the Bob Ross reference of the "mirthful elms" and "elated basket of laundry" in the Catherine Moore title,  as I read the Ruth Stone poem again.

Her opening line, "The elms stretched themselves in indolent joy," with the adjective "indolent" 
attracts my mind to the unusual pairing of a connotation of "lazy" to the more rapturous quality of "joy".    But here, it is not the happy artist high on marijuana painting a happy world.
Indolent has an indifference implied-- I am, without needing to be connected to anything else...
refusing to exert myself... avoiding pain ...

Ah.  Being Human... deservedly wiped out by a flood... perhaps cursed again,
in a world where elms adopt a less than positive human way of being, as they express a usually
positive affective state.  Joy has a sense of being close to "saved by grace" as in Joy to the world!  But this is not a poem about being "saved"... but a poem alluding to what is not there anymore... 
I love this little poem... how roses "pretzel"... how the speaker of the poem is taken over
so that names of things are whispered by lips -- (the onomatopoeia sp/ps indeed whispers and uses the lips; the "tz" of pretzel twists and winds).  Whether or not "Mrs. Mix" exists, the x in her name pretzels both visually and aurally... like the roses in her garden.

10 lines which make me want to spend time with them... Before the blight... do you remember Elm trees?  How they gave our main streets green shadows under their "loose tents"?
Is there a blight as well that destroyed the roses compared to sensuous, big-bosomed nudes
(with the lucious sounds  of "Limoges cabbage blooms"...   What is the feel of being rocked 
in "sinewy arms of summer" -- the season which normally I associate with lazy... although
for the growing season,  the rich reward of ripened berries, tomatoes, not mentioned in the poem,
has not been a simple, seamless exercise of growth...
The use of a bird to convey "the strangeness of myself" doubles in the impact of the strangeness.

The elms stretched themselves in indolent joy,
arching over the street that lay in green shadow
under their loose tent.
And the roses in Mrs. Mix’s yard pretzeled up her trellis
with pink Limoges cabbage blooms like Rubens’ nudes.
My lips whispered over the names of things
in the meadows, in the orchard, in the woods,
where I sometimes stood for long moments
listening to some bird telling me of the strangeness of myself;

rocked in the sinewy arms of summer.

What is this strangeness?  How does each reader understand it?  

On to the next B of the Boy... already the title warns of an unsavory story.  Gwendolyn Brooks is 
a wonderful story teller.  Some remarked there was a sort of "Dr. Seuss" quality; all remarked her
unusual use of capital letters:    First stanza, "without my Having Known."   which rhymes with another capitalized word, "Alone".  Shots, capitalized twice. T for thousand, and the visceral
detail of them:   
"careening tinnily down the nights
across my years and arteries. 
Boy, capitalized 4 times, and then "b" for the 
"boy who ornaments my alley. 
I never saw his face at all.
I never saw his future fall.
But I have known this Boy.

Brooks is a master story teller with her slant rhymes, repetitions, 
how she coins compound words like  "heart-ears" (and I feel tears and years..) and "stretch-strain" of a moment...
  Note the capital of Wild, and Crossed-- the  paradoxical "knowledgeable unknowing" and the unforgettable "red floor of my alley"... it gives us all a sermon, and Brooks makes it speak to us all.

I have always heard him deal with death.
I have always heard the shout, the volley.   
I have closed my heart-ears late and early.    
And I have killed him ever.

I joined the Wild and killed him   
with knowledgeable unknowing.                 
I saw where he was going.
I saw him Crossed.  And seeing,     
I did not take him down.

He cried not only "Father!"
but "Mother!
The cry climbed up the alley.
It went up to the wind.
It hung upon the heaven
for a long
stretch-strain of Moment.

The red floor of my alley
is a special speech to me.

The Ballad of Rudolph Reed delivers a powerful story of a black man who moves into a white neighborhood.  He and his wife are  described as "oaken" -- and I think of the attributes of oak:
wise, strong, able to endure.   "Oaken" has an old-fashioned flavor to it, and the fact the Rudolph's name is Reed brings to mind the fable of La Fontaine, where the flexible reed is able to survive the storm, but the oak, uprooted.
Do we not understand the hunger for a safe home?
          “I am not hungry for berries.  
            I am not hungry for bread.  
           But hungry hungry for a house  
          Where at night a man in bed 

        May never hear the plaster  

         Stir as if in pain. 

        We never see the people who throw the stones, the sharp glass that hits his daughters eye,
        nor do we see them murder Rudolph dead by the time he hurt the 4th white man.
The rhythms, aliterations, repetitions, the skillful inclusion of the house located in a "street of bitter white.  
”Oh my home may have its east or west  
Or north or south behind it. 
All I know is I shall know it,  
And fight for it when I find it.“ 

It was in a street of bitter white  
That he made his application.  
For Rudolph Reed was oakener  
Than others in the nation. 

The use of song brings words close to the heart…. Throughout the poem, the eyes reveal the tension: 
the hope of not "blinking through the gloom" but living where there is room for everyone...  the "steady stare" of the agent "corroded to a grin"... the italicized "look" of the yawning eye squeezed into a slit";  the little girl's wound, "staining her gaze so pure"... The change the bloody gauze has a curse in it.

Turning to the next poem, Holy, the middle part also uses eyes:
These eyes shutter                       

a different script
playing out behind their lids.

The first part, is dream, imagining people as units of prayer... instead, headlines... names craving wholeness...
  The third part implores like prayer:  Let there be... over and over, different vibrant sounds,  birds, music, Mississippi remix, to fill the dark alleyways...

I brought in the Stephen Vincent Benet poem, as it came up in the June 5th and 12th issue of the New Yorker in Philip Roth's piece "I have fallen in love with American Names" .  It's interesting that the names he selects is mostly white and male, all born between 1871-1900.  As one reader mentions, Willa Cather (born 1873) and For Neale Hurston (born 1891) are "conspicuously absent."
Although Roth mentions that Benet's poem is not about the plight of Native Americans, but the potent lyrical appeal of American Names, his article does speak to the American mythology that overlooks  the massacre of Lakota men, women and children at  Wounded Knee, a village on the Pine Ridge Indian reservation in Oglala Lakota County, South Dakota.  The event is known formally as the Wounded Knee Massacre, as more than 150 Sioux men, women, and children who were largely unarmed were killed that day.
I shared this quote as well: 
Life is not lost by dying; life is lost minute by minute, day by dragging day, in all the thousand small uncaring ways.
Dreaming men are haunted men.
We thought, because we had power, we had wisdom
.. Stephen Vincent Benet

 We returned  to first poem:
"My lips whispered over the names of things" and discussed the evocative power of names.

Crayola… how the names have changed -- how there is such a difference between
scarlet and crimson… and what did we do without magenta invented in 1860?  and now
without burnt umber…?

As always, a splendid sharing and thoughtful discussion.

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