Sunday, April 22, 2018

Earth Day Poems and Posies

Today is Earth Day.  It seemed like a very big deal when it was introduced in 1970 when the Environmental Movement as we know it was still in its relative infancy having grown out the earlier Conservation Movement that emphasized the husbanding of natural resources for human use.  It seems in those early years when hundreds of thousands responded to calls to march or participate in some way that real change was possible.
And, of course, much was accomplished—the EPA and increased regulation of pollution, the hands-on movement to re-cycle and re-use, the on-going involvement of children which critics charge has now become a virtual secular religion.  But despite it all, the Planet is in more desperate shape today than it was then.  The Cassandra warnings about climate change have come true in spades, faster than anyone really expected. 
Yet resistance to real change to address the root causes has never been fiercer—or more successful—as it is fueled by billionaire exploiters and exploited by rabid right wing movements.  If liberals love the Planet, conservatives MUST attack it wrapping themselves in an ideology of unfettered capitalism on one hand and apocalyptic Evangelical claims that the End of Days is at hand so humans can and should squeeze every ounce of value from the Earth that will be thrown away anyway on the other.
Meanwhile the Earth Day celebration has been tamed, made nice, worth all of five minutes mention on the Nightly News and some grade school art projects.  We are told that “we must not make it political, because everyone loves the Earth”—a lie on the face of it.
Last year that somnambulance was interrupted after the election of Donald Trump and it became quickly apparent that with the eager support of Congress and a largely now compliant appeals judiciary every gain in environmental protection was under urgent attack as was the very science behind the reforms.  Millions around the world responded by joining the March for Science on Earth Day, last year in demonstrations the rivaled in size the Women’s March and other mass take-to-the streets actions.

Shifting the second March for Science from Earth Day to April 14 may have bee to clarrify each distinct event but it may have taken some wind from the sails of mass activism just as it was needed most.
 But this year with the total dismantlement of environmental regulation a reality, not just a fear, and the horrible consequences of unchecked human caused climate change more apparent than ever attempts to recreate the March for Science have stumbled.  Organizers changed the date this year from Earth Day to April 14 and although there were actions, they were far smaller than last year and marches and rallies passed virtually unnoticed in the press.  Independently some science marches were scheduled globally for Friday including some large demonstrations in Europe.  Other events are planned in this country this weekend.  But it is apparent that for whatever reason the energy has gone out of the movement.
There are just so many other outrages and causes to march for.  We get spread thin and worn out.  But poets remind us there is work to do.

Lachlan Mackinnon.
 Lachlan Mackinnon   was born in Aberdeen, Scotland in 1956. He was educated at Charterhouse and Christ Church, Oxford. He took early retirement from his job as an English instructor at Winchester College in 2011 and moved to Ely with his wife, the poet Wendy Cope. He has written five collections of poetry including Doves in 2017.
California Dreaming
Almonds and vines and lawns
drink up the last
of shallow, short-term water
then suck on the black depths
with a draw mightier
than the moon’s. And suck.
In sudden places the ground
puckers and caves.
Far westward, China smokes.
Nobody sees the rains fail
until they have.
Tableland mesas crack.
In the mountains the snowpack thins,
meltwater now brown
reluctant drops.
Cities gasp in the sun’s stare.
Faucets cough
and families turn inwards.
There must be somebody to blame.
Better ourselves than no-one.
We brag
of damage done
but whether we could truly
dry all rain, bake all earth,
science does not know.
The wastefulness was all
ours but this fetid heat
could be a planetary
impersonal adjustment
like an ice age,
so it might well be wise
to keep always
facepaint and ash about us.
When the last clouds
wagon-train off,
loincloth and invocation will be
the one hope for last
woman and last man discovering
she’s pregnant.

Lachlan Mackinnon  

Amelia Williams
Amelia Williams is a prime example of a poet/artist/activist.  She has a Ph.D. in English from the University of Virginia and lives in the Shannon Farm Community, an intentional community—in the old days we would have called in a commune—in  Nelson County, Virginia.   The beautiful 500 acres owned in common by the people who live there found itself threatened by the construction of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, a natural gas conduit planned to run from West Virginia to North Carolina.  In response she launched a project to protect the land by creating and installing 16 sculptural containers and assemblages that would integrate her writing with the landscape.  She had a documentary photographer take pictures of each piece, which she submitted as a collective eco-art trail for copyright registration with the U.S. Copyright Office.  The as yet untested idea is that the copyright protection could prevent the pipeline company from altering the landscape in which the installations are integral.  The whole project including the photographs and poems were included in Walking Wildwood Trail: Poems and Photographs, which benefits Friends of Nelson and Wild Virginia.

On the Cusp of the Known World:  A Field Guide

October mornings we wake to raspy buzz and jingle —
the Lesser Anglewing, Two-Spotted Tree Cricket,
Allard’s Ground Cricket, or is it? We stand on the deck
and press “play” again to hear a clear Midwestern voice
pronounce both names of a competing candidate
for this trilling in the grass: Say’s Trig, he intones,
Anaxipha exigua. When the effort to distinguish
overwhelms, we relish the names of our insect musicians:
the Slightly Musical Conehead, the Dog-day Cicada.
I feel we are on the cusp of something. A marriage
between cup and clasp. Two curves lean
into one another, stretch upward with a cautious
yearning, as if on tenterhooks, waiting
expectantly, with baited, but not bated breath, or maybe
just hung out to dry, the wet woolen smell
on the cusp between musky and rank.
The field guides agree it is hard to pin down
a goldenrod. We sort them into tribes by shape
plume-like, club-like, wand-like and elm-branched.
It can be hard to tell a wand from a club. Don’t forget
the flat-topped clusters. Asters, likewise, are tricky.
Leaves give clues: whorled, crooked, toothed or not,
grass-like, or perfoliate. In astonishing profusion
the tiny white asters are almost unknowable.
What are we on the verge of here?
It could just be me, stridulating,
hatching out of my skin of knowing, naming,
claiming; empty of easy kinship. Fall is
alive with the strangeness of yellow
flower, red berry, swift dark flying,
rattling upriver, not toeing the line
but towing it, pulling up stakes.

Amelia  Williams

Youth members participated in distributing flowers in the 2016 Tree of Life Flower Communion...

This year by semi-accident my Tree of Life Unitarian Universalist Congregation in McHenry, Illinois will hold its annual spring Flower Communion on Earth Day, despite the stubborn cold weather that has prevented all but the most hardy crocuses, snow lilies, and blue bells from blooming in our yards this year.  Even though we will have to bring store bought blooms, it seems an apt compliment to the ecological observation.
Flower Communion is a Unitarian Universalist tradition, one of the few original ones that we didn’t inherit from our more conventional Christian roots or simply rip off from somebody else’s tradition. 
The Unitarian Universalist Association explains it thusly:
The Flower Ceremony, sometimes referred to as Flower Communion or Flower Festival, is an annual ritual that celebrates beauty, human uniqueness, diversity, and community.
Originally created in 1923 by Unitarian minister Norbert Capek of Prague, Czechoslovakia, the Flower Ceremony was introduced to the United States by Rev. Maya Capek, Norbert’s widow.  [Capek died in a Nazi concentration camp.]
In this ceremony, everyone in the congregation brings a flower. Each person places a flower on the altar or in a shared vase. The congregation and minister bless the flowers, and they’re redistributed. Each person brings home a different flower than the one they brought.
I have been participating in this tradition now for nearly than 30 years with this congregation through four name changes, five ministers called or interim, three intern ministers, and two buildings.  It is a highlight of the church year.
Two years ago as I watched it unfold again, I began to scratch note in my Order of Service.

...So did Church School children.   "The happy chaos.
Flower Communion
Tree of Life Unitarian Universalist Congregation
April 17, 2016

Those Unitarians have a thing,
            a ritual if you will—
                        yeah, I know, hard to imagine.

They call it Flower Communion
            or if that gives the congregation hives
            for sounding damned
            you know, churchy and Christian,
            the Flower Service—
like FTD delivery

But don’t worry,
you know the details are fuzzy
and it will be different everywhere
you know—
            no Pope or Book of Common Prayer
            to set the rules just so.

They can’t even agree on a date
            though most of ‘em do it in the Spring
            sometime around when,
            if you’re lucky,
            it has been warm long enough
            to pluck some blossom
            from your yard—
                        If you have one.

Where I have parked my ass
            on Sunday mornings
            these last several years,
            Spring cheated us
            unless you planted daffodils
            or are unashamed
            by a handful of dandelions.

The supermarket flower wagons
            got a work out this year
            I’m guessing
            by the bright look
            of the vases and baskets
            on the table by the Chalice.
In some churches they try
            For proper liturgy—
            prayers or meditations
if they are queasy,
songs and blessings.

Folks file orderly 
            to lay their blooms in baskets
            or fill lovely vases
            and then some tidy system
            is employed to deal them out again.

But at our place we defy order
            and occasional attempts
            to impose it—
                        the poseys are supposed
                        to go in the baskets
                        before the bell is rung.

But a lot of us are late
            or left the bouquets in the car,
            wander in
and add their nosegays
to haphazard piles
after things a have started.

The timid and confused
            have to be called up
            for last moment deposits.

Then the Children and the Youth
            are beckoned from their seats
toddlers and teens
grab fistfuls and  plunge randomly
among the seats offering flowers
and bouncing off each other
like bumper cars
until everyone has a flower—
or three or four
and the kids can’t find
anymore takers.

Ah, the happy chaos.

—Patrick Murfin

Saturday, April 21, 2018

Eye Opening Work by the Pulitzer Also Rans

I just got around to chasing down the work of the two other finalists for the recently awarded Pulitzer Prize for Poetry.  You may recall that I posted a sample of winner Frank Bidart’s verse on Monday.  But each of the runners up were a revelation to me, and in my opinion equally deserving of the honor.
Patricia Smith was a National Book Award finalist in 2008 for Blood Dazzler and the author of six other critically acknowledged volumes of poetry. Her awards and honors include the 2014 Rebekah Johnson Bobbitt National Prize from the Library of Congress, the 2013 Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize from the Academy of American Poets, and a 2013 Phillis Wheatley Book Award. A formidable performer, Smith has read her work at venues all over the United States and around the world. Smith was born in Chicago in 1955 and attended Southern Illinois University and Northwestern University.  She is married to Bruce DeSilva, journalist and Edgar Award-winning author. She is a Cave Canem faculty member, an associate professor of English at CUNY/College of Staten Island, and a faculty member in the Sierra Nevada College MFA program.
The Title poem her nominated book Incendiary Art should sear your conscience if you have one.

Incendiary Art
The city’s streets are densely shelved with rows
of salt and packaged hair. Intent on air,
the funk of crave and function comes to blows
with any smell that isn’t oil—the blare
of storefront chicken settles on the skin
and mango spritzing drips from razored hair.
The corner chefs cube pork, decide again
on cayenne, fry in grease that’s glopped with dust.
The sizzle of the feast adds to the din
of children, strutting slant, their wanderlust
and cussing, plus the loud and tactless hiss
of dogged hustlers bellowing past gusts
of peppered breeze, that fatty, fragrant bliss
in skillets. All our rampant hunger tricks
us into thinking we can dare dismiss
the thing men do to boulevards, the wicks
their bodies be. A city, strapped for art,
delights in torching them—at first for kicks,
to waltz to whirling sparks, but soon those hearts
thud thinner, whittled by the chomp of heat.
Outlined in chalk, men blacken, curl apart.
Their blindly rising fume is bittersweet,
although reversals in the air could fool
us into thinking they weren’t meant as meat.
Our sons don’t burn their cities as a rule,
born, as they are, up to their necks in fuel.

—Patricia Smith

Patricia Smith.

And I could not resist this one for sentimental reasons.  Thirty-five years ago, more or less, I passed two or three lazy afternoonsmatching Buddy Guy shot for shot in Lilly’s mostly empty Lincoln Avenue saloon and blues joint in Chicago.  We were both just killing time.

Making Love to Buddy Guy

I’m talking about the man at 80—trickling Jheri curl ol skool
now razored down or just plain fell out to make way for sparse 
and stubbled silver, his smile an improvidence of gold and rot

Yea, I hear you knockin
Here I come to let you in
Hear that stone cold knockin
Here I come to let you in

and that mile-low dip in his shoulders, that thing that happens 
when the grave first whispers the deserted verbs of our names 
and, like fools, we bend our nosy asses down to listen. I peel
Got my pork chops sizzlin
Got this room set up for sin

him of denim and sharkskin, and our slow tighten-up is doused 
in florescence, the slap glare of dressing room bulbs squawks 
bumps and fat, muscle dwindles down, the night’s knife-sharp

Bring it o’er here, sweet daddy
Let me love you, stem to stern
Bring it o’er here, sweet daddy
Let me love you, stem to stern
ensemb crumples to gummy tiles. There is rampant spill from 
spandex, an ain’t-believing inhale that just got to be let loose. 
Never seen fit to damn no man with this half century of creak

Lets don’t waste no time with talkin
Cause we got so much to learn
and droop, but this man here beguiles with the hesitation twang
and the stutter of porch, a dusty lust as close as real religion 
gon’ ever get to me. I so obsessively hatched the ravish, nights

Turn them lights down, baby
Turn them down till they burn blue
Turn those lights down, sugar
Turn them down till they burn blue     

all edgy with him, his ladled sugar mouth, air ’sissippi thick, 
shards of pig and bacon grease funking in Mason jars beneath
the sink. I nibble grime from his fingers, savor dizzy nails black

What we need with llumination?
In this dark, just me and you

with Lucky Strike reek and bass string, I am mad slow with their 
indents, their boisterous scars. I bite a little torch into the wilting 
comma of his lifeline and for the first time, sound. He moans as

Love those blues songs, darlin
When you growl it low and hiss,
Sing those songs, big daddy
When you growl those lies and hiss,

juke, he moans as blue elder. Death, stanking aloud and scarlet, 
sprawls wide-legged on the couch across from us, pretending 
to be detached, but she can’t resist tapping a bony toe in time 

Go in deep and whisper
“You ain’t had no man like this.”

to our gasping waltz. Buddy’s left eye on me is milky, starved, 
so oddly unmoored, hooch-fused. His gut beneath my hand is
an errant gush of rivers. I trace shake down the sudden raised 
Make me lose my power?
I don’t think you ever could
Make me lose my power?
I don’t think you would or could 
road of his chest, on him downtempo, a lesson I learned from 
the west side of every damned woman. Funk, the whole funk 
and nothing but, is deluge. We couple, washed in the smudged 

But you work that hoodoo
Tryin to turn me out for good

glow of shot glasses that are unwashed but rinsed and rinsed in gin, 
hefted, blistered a nasty gold. Clawing my waist, he screams the name
of his first guitar, conjuring the outline of her splintered hips, his sweet 

migration, south to north, across a silent girl. But I am wide aloud, we 
are in Chicago and a little church leaks from our tangle. He prays to just
stay alive, howling like our stink in this room. And I strive to be his lyric.

—Patricia Smith

The other finalist was Evie Shockley who has published multiple books of poetry, including the new black, winner of the Black Caucus of ALA’s Literary Award for Poetry, and a half-red sea.  She was honored for her newest volume semiautomatic. Her poetry has appeared in MELUS, Harvard Review, Columbia Poetry Review, and in the anthology Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry. among many other publications. Shockley received the 2012 Theodore H. Holmes ’51 and Bernice Holmes National Poetry Prize, awarded to "a single poet of special merit" by the faculty of Princeton University’s creative writing program. Born in 1965 and raised in Nashville, Tennessee, Shockley received her BA from Northwestern University. After studying Law at the University of Michigan, she earned her PhD in English from Duke University. She is an assistant professor in the English Department of Rutgers University.
Where’s Carolina
east of childhood, north of
                     capitol offenses, just west
       of a big blue treasure chest:
                            wet coffin of neglected bones.
              in the veins, unnoticed as
a pulse. at a counter: sitting in
       varicolored eloquence. behind
                            the mystery of the magnet. home
              of horton, poetry’s bondsman:
                     between anger and awe. below
the line, overrated, underestimated.
                     helms territory: within a belt,
       an expanding waste. atop hades:
                            persephone’s threshold. beside
cloud-hooded mountains.
              outside time: a coltrane solo.
                            far from fatal. after all.
—Evie Shockley
Evie Shockley.

From Shockley’s 2011 book the new black.
from The Lost Letters of Frederick Douglass
                                                           June 5, 1892

Dear Daughter,
                             Can you be fifty-three this
month? I still look for you to peek around
my door as if you’d discovered a toy
you thought gone for good, ready at my smile
to run up and press your fist into my
broken palm. But your own girls have outgrown
such games, and I cannot pilfer back time
I spent pursuing Freedom. Fair to you,
to your brothers, your mother? Hardly.

what other choice did I have? What sham,
what shabby love could I offer you, so
long as Thomas Auld held the law over
my head? And when the personal threat was
ended, whose eyes could mine enter without
shame, if turning toward my wife and children
meant turning my back?

                                               Your mother’s eyes stare
out at me through yours, of late. You think I
didn’t love her, that my quick remarriage
makes a Gertrude of me, a corseted
Hamlet of you. You’re as wrong as you are
lucky. Had Anna Murray had your
education as a girl, my love for
her would have been as passionate as it
was grateful. But she died illiterate,
when I had risked my life to master language.
The pleasures of book and pen retain
the thrill of danger even now, and you
may understand why Ottilie Assing,
come into our house to translate me into
German, could command so many hours,
years, of my time—or, as you would likely
say, of your mother’s time.

                                                Forgive me,
Rosetta, for broaching such indelicate
subjects, but as my eldest child and
only living daughter, I want you to
feel certain that Helen became the new
Mrs. Douglass because of what we shared
in sheaves of my papers: let no one
persuade you I coveted her skin.
I am not proud of how I husbanded
your mother all those years, but marriage,
too, is a peculiar institution.
I could not have stayed so unequally yoked
so long, without a kind of Freedom in
it. Anna accepted this, and I don’t
have to tell you that her lot was better
and she, happier, than if she’d squatted
with some other man in a mutual

                 Perhaps I will post, rather
than burn, this letter, this time. I’ve written it
so often, right down to these closing lines,
in which I beg you to be kinder, much
kinder, to your step-mother. You two are
of an age to be sisters, and of like
temperament—under other circumstances,
you might have found Friendship in each other.

With regards to your husband—I am, as
ever, your loving father—

                                               Frederick Douglass 

—Evie Shockley