Saturday, April 29, 2017

April 29: Unicorn, Tyehimba Jess, "Blind Boone's Pianola Blues"

Last day for the week of Tyehimba Jess.

I'm always excited to become familiar with a poet that I haven't read.  It's like opening up my eyes, looking out the window, and seeing a unicorn grazing in my backyard.  It makes the trees and grass and dirt look different.  The world a little clearer, brighter.

Saint Marty saw a unicorn in his backyard this morning.  The bastard was eating his lilac bushes.

Blind Boone's Pianola Blues

by:  Tyehimba Jess

They said I wasn’t smooth enough
to beat their sharp machine.
That my style was obsolete,
that old rags had lost their gleam
and lunge. That all I had
left was a sucker punch
that couldn’t touch
their invisible piano man
with his wind up gut-
less guts of paper rolls.
And so, I went and told them
that before the night was through
I’d prove what the son of an ex-
slave could do: I dared them
to put on their most twisty
tune. To play it double-time
while I listened from another
room past the traffic sounds
of the avenue below.
To play it only once,
then to let me show
note for note how that scroll
made its roll through Chopin
or Bach or Beethoven’s best.
And if I failed to match my fingers
and ears with the spinning gears
of their invisible pneumatic piano
scholar, I’d pay them the price
of a thousand dollars.

And what was in it for Boone?
you might ask…

Might be the same thing that drives men
through mountains at heart attack pace.
Might be just to prove some tasks
ain’t meant to be neatly played
out on paper and into air,
but rather should tear
out from lung, heart and brain
with a flair of flicked wrists
and sly smile above the 88s…
and, of course, that ever-human
weight of pride that swallows us
when a thing’s done just right…
But they were eager to prove me wrong.
They chose their fastest machine
with their trickiest song and stuck it
in a room far down the hall from me.
They didn’t know how sharp
I can see with these ears of mine—
I caught every note even though
they played it in triple time.
And when I played it back to them
even faster, I could feel the violent
stares… heard one mutter
    Lucky black bastard…
and that was my cue to rise,
to take a bow in their smoldering
silence and say, Not luck,
my friend, but the science
of touch and sweat and
stubborn old toil. I’d bet
these ten fingers against any coil
of wire and parchment and pump.

And I left them there to ponder
the wonders of blindness
as I walked out the door
into the heat of the sun.

April 29: Delousing Station, Creature of Habit, Tight Times

Billy and the rest were wooed through gate after gate, and Billy saw his first Russian.  The man was all alone in the night--a ragbag with a round, flat face that glowed like a radium dial.

Billy passed within a year of him.  There was barbed wire between them.  The Russian did not wave or speak, but he looked directly into Billy's soul with sweet hopefulness, as though Billy might have good news for him--news he might be too stupid to understand, but good news all the same.  

Billy blacked out as he walked through gate after gate.  He came to in what he thought might be a building on Tralfamadore.  It was shrilly lit and lined with white tiles.  It was on Earth, though.  It was a delousing station through which all new prisoners had to pass.

Billy did as he was told, took off his clothes.  That was the first thing they told him to do on Tralfamadore, too.

A German measured Billy's upper right arm with his thumb and forefinger, asked a companion what sort of an army would send a weakling like that to the front.  They looked at the other American bodies now, pointed out a lot more that were nearly as bad as Billy's.

Another lengthy section from Slaughterhouse.  Billy being herded through the prison camp with other American prisoners, toward a delousing station.  Now, Billy knows he's going to survive.  In fact, he has already survived, gotten married, become a father, and been abducted by aliens.  Certainly, he also has knowledge of concentration camps and the Holocaust.  Yet, this delousing station is frightening.  It could be a gas chamber.  In description, it certainly fits the bill.  The shadow of genocide looms in this passage.

I have written about Billy's unique perspective on time before.  The fact that the past, present, and future are fairly liquid states for him.  Yesterday he was born.  This morning, he's a German POW.  This afternoon, he may die.  Tomorrow morning, he'll be seeing patients in his office.  Billy doesn't fear death or tragedy.  He's not going to die in a German gas chamber.  Billy already knows what has, is, and will happen.

I have never been a big fan of uncertainty, as many of my faithful disciples know.  I am a creature of habit, embrace daily sameness.  When a new school semester starts, I quickly work to establish a schedule for my days and weeks.  Having two full-time jobs sort of requires ruts, tire tracks that I can follow easily for a few months.  And it's comforting to know where I have to be next Monday morning at 6 a.m., when I have to teach on Wednesday, what my office hours are on Tuesday.

Soon, I will be establishing a new daily schedule for myself.  The winter semester is coming to an end, and I'll be transitioning into summer mode.  No teaching.  Early work days.  Afternoons of relative freedom.  Time to read what I want, without having to grade it for grammar and organization.  And, of course, the loss of a teaching income for four months.  Tight times for this saint's household.

However I will enjoy the warmth and sun and relative calm.  Sure, about mid-July, the money worries will be piling up, and I will start counting down to that first paycheck from the university in August.

Right now, though, Saint Marty is thankful for the prospect of his summer rut, with all its hidden secrets in unlikely places.

Friday, April 28, 2017

April 28: Difficult Subjects, Tyehimba Jess, "100 Times"

One of the jobs of a poet is to write about difficult subjects sometimes.  Subjects that may shock, transgress.  Mental illness.  Rape jokes.  Menstruation.  Lynchings.  Abortion.  Abandonment.  Genocide.  Police violence.

As I said in my previous post, and as Emily Dickinson said more than a century ago, my job as a poet is to tell all the truth, but to tell it slant.  Tyehimba Jess knows a thing or two about this.

Saint Marty's truth tonight is that he still has a shitload of grading to do.

100 Times

by:  Tyehimba Jess

I say “nigger” a hundred times before breakfast every morning just to keep my teeth white.
–Paul Mooney, Comedian

Of course, I was skeptical, but because there’s often wisdom in the hardest humor, I stood before the mirror one sunrise and began my morning chant. All repeated calmly for the first week, but with flavors added on as the regimen continued into the second. 50 with er and 50 with a. 1/4 as question, 1/4 as surprise, 1/4 as anger, 1/4 implying the complaining “please.” All alternately whispered, shouted, laughed, snarled—all in search of the ideal whitening formula. After four weeks I remained skeptical. However, perseverance paid off by the sixth, when colleagues remarked on my brightened, hazeless smile, when friends alerted me to a steely glint in my grin.

I doubled the regimen to maximize results. Week eight saw a 2/3 increase in brightening, with a luminousness approaching diamond quality, particularly in the lower incisors. The uppers were sun white, never leaving room in their shine for shadow. Side effects became audible as well as visual: a small echo became perceptible after each repetition in my mantra, such that the cadence assumed a wondrous worksong rhythm. Upon closer examination, magnifying mirrors revealed one (1) small, brown man peering into the side of each tooth’s mirror-smooth enamel, each one appearing only briefly before each utterance. Alarmed but intrigued, I enhanced my treatment. Various gesticulations were added to the morning litany. Sneers, chuckles, sighs, and facial contortions were enhanced throughout. As a result, the echo’s intensity increased from slight windy whisper to low murmur, to small and steady chorus each morning, a daily affirmation of my will to shine. A halogen glare burned from my mouth throughout the day. I’ve become a walking lighthouse of shine—the ritual has grown above and beyond and through me. I wake each morning to stand before my mirror, and before I open my mouth I hear the chant begin above and around me, as if I were in the middle of the mantra’s core, as if I’m one in a circle of prayer. I’ve found others who hear the chant with me, or they’ve found me, those who rise up with me each morning to stand before our mirrors with the diamond-sharp sound of ourselves polishing each tooth until we gleam—our number grows daily. We shimmer and shine inside the bulging head of our chant, polishing our glowing mirrors, staring into the glare until we shield our eyes.

April 28: Haystacks, Pain, All the Truth

So tonight the passage from Slaughterhouse is a little lengthy:

At the base of the pole from which the light bulb hung were three seeming haystacks.  The Americans were wheedled and teased over to those three stacks, which weren't hay after all.  They were overcoats taken from prisoners who were dead.  So it goes.

It was the guards' firmly expressed wish that every American without an overcoat should take one.  The coats were cemented together with ice, so the guards used their bayonets as ice picks, pricking free collars and hems and sleeves and so on, then peeling off coats and handing them out at random.  The coats were stiff and dome-shaped, having conformed to their piles.

The coat that Billy Pilgrim got had been crumpled and frozen in such a way, and was so small, that it appeared to be not a coat but a sort of large black, three-cornered hat.  There were gummy stains on it, too, like crankcase drainings or old strawberry jam.  There seemed to be a dead, furry animal frozen to it.  The animal was in fact the coat's fur collar.

Billy glanced dully at the coats of his neighbors.  Their coats all had brass buttons or tinsel or piping or numbers or stripes or eagles or moons or stars dangling from them.  They were soldiers' coats.  Billy was the only one who had a coat from a dead civilian.  So it goes.

And Billy and the rest were encouraged to shuffle around their dinky train and into the prison camp.  There wasn't anything warm or lively to attract them--merely long, low, narrow sheds by the thousands, with no lights inside.

Somewhere a dog barked.  With the help of fear and echoes and winter silences, that dog had a voice like a big bronze gong.

Kurt Vonnegut survived internment in a German prisoner of war camp, the firebombing of Dresden.  Surely, Vonnegut, like Billy Pilgrim, traveled across Germany on a train with other captured soldiers.  And, I would guess, he was forced to put on the coats of the dead, like Billy.  In fact, much of Billy's wartime experiences are probably drawn from Vonnegut's life.  In a way, in Slaughterhouse, Billy Pilgrim is wearing Kurt Vonnegut's overcoat.

Vonnegut's book is an interesting mixture of fact and fiction.  In order to be able to write about his life during World War II, Vonnegut had to invent a time-hopping optometrist who gets abducted by aliens.  I understand this impulse.  There are some things about my life that I have written about in my poetry that I would never approach head-on.  As Emily Dickinson advises, I told all the truth, but I told it slant.

I think that's the job of any writer--novelist or essayist or poet or blogger.  To find a way to depict the truth in some form.  For example, I have written about my wife's mental illness and the difficulty it has caused in our marriage.  Like Vonnegut, I've taken some of the most painful moments of my life and transformed them into poetry.  A poem I wrote about my wife's stay in a psychiatric ward won an award from a literary magazine.  I have never read that poem in public.

So, I guess my point tonight is that pain makes great literature.  They're two sides of the same coin.  Last night at a gathering for my book club, we talked about the need for sadness in life.  If sadness didn't exist, then we would never understand true happiness.  To write about sadness is a way of writing about happiness, as well.

Saint Marty is thankful tonight for the truth of Kurt Vonnegut.