Your Voice in Times of Tyrants…

If words have import they must be like rain. Be careful how you speak. A torrent and invested meanings are washed away. A pittance and if you’re lucky perhaps you’ve written a poem, though this is not likely or assured.

In the dictionary of rain are clues to sailing and growing wheat and yes, how to raise children and support the aged.

I’ve not read the entire book of rain speech though I’m pursuing it.

I understand as I open my throat I’ve a chance to turn this place into a cafe chantants with many dancers.

I do not know who you are.

Every opportunity for speech is a moral concourse with the body and landscape.

The first day the great tenor Enrico Caruso really sang—that is, lifting his face to the middle distance and calling up a rare angel—that first day, he felt larger than anyone, any man, like a colossus, but with this trick, he was a giant you could see through for such is a voice, an invitation to incorporeality.

This happened in Cairo in the Ezbekieh Gardens. The whole district had singers on every corner. Dancers. Puppeteers. Baccarat players. Men who put small coins on their tongues to kiss passing strangers.

He sang for the champagne supper crowd at the El Dorado, for the winners of trente et quarante…

And the voice was there, lifting his heavy torso. You could still see stars in Cairo in those days.

Know what you’re voice is.

Stand for your voice in times of tyrants.

On a Gift of Stones from Isla Negra

In the dark times it’s the simple gifts, the simplest ones that are the most sustaining. My friend Lorraine visited her son in Chile and has now given me three gift wrapped stones from Isla Negra, the island home of poet Pablo Neruda. They’re on my desk. One appears to have fallen from the sky with its pitted skin telling a tale of vast distances—space it has survived.

They’re cool to the touch. One fits my left eye’ socket, the “more blind” eye which is always in pain. Unbidden relief from the stars.

I read the news. The coagulated war merchants circus burns children across the globe. The masters of war ride about in armor plated limousines. They drive straight over the ashes of boys and girls.

The stones of Isla Negra are not a sentimental matter. Yes, they’re soothing. Also however they possess that mineral blank out of which all consciousness must be midwived and I for one feel androgynous in their presence. Which means strong. And even more ancient in mind than I’d imagined I was, and I already thought I was very old.

Once I met a shaman in Lapland. He smelled like smoke, though he did not smoke.

A tiny stone will smell like eternity because it is the thing itself.

You can be who you wish.

As Pentti Saarikoski once wrote: “I want to be the kind of poet whose poems build houses for people…”

Back to socialism, eh, Cosmos?

The Age of the Great Symphonies is Over Now: Thoughts on Iowa City

So I’m having one of those days, a rainy kind of day though it’s perfectly sunny and I find myself in Iowa City, Iowa where although it’s very hot, the cheer factor of an excellent American midwestern university town is extant, palpable, almost in every street and shop. This is a small city that people generally like. With it’s famous Writer’s Workshop, performing arts center, International Writing Program, theater scene, excellent music venues, it beats many bigger cities when it comes to having or sustaining what used to be called “cultural life” but which I think we should now call “imperatives.” Citizens should have access to clean water, safe streets, health care, adequate housing, educational opportunities, recreation, and of course, whatever it is we mean by poetry. As Walt Whitman would say, the states themselves are the greatest poem. Places and people are sacred compositions. We forget this at our peril. And this is why it’s a rainy day. Rain is coming down on the public squares, those rich places of imagination, and perhaps this is more evident to me in the little burgh of Iowa City than it is in my current hometown of Syracuse, NY. Syracuse is a “rust belt town” and her people have been fighting for civic life and human dignity for years. In Iowa City one could always take certain standards—decencies—for granted. But no longer. Not anymore.

**

 

I won’t say Iowa City is dying. But the town is in trouble despite a host of upscale new restaurants and shiny aluminum skinned high-rise condominiums. The governing class in Des Moines has ruthlessly pursued policies that relocate resources from the public interest—“the commons”—assuring the top 1 % gets “breaks”—which in a rich agricultural state means the freedom to no longer support cultural treasures. It’s a cycle of cynicism and pork—the little people get less and less; the elites get plenty. In Iowa this means abandoning a century of support for excellence in public education. The current Governor and State Legislature have been strangling the state’s universities for over 20 years.

This is what makes visiting Iowa City so interesting. The town’s not dying in the manner of Syracuse. But a casual walk across the University of Iowa’s campus reveals an institution which doesn’t have a functioning art museum nearly ten years after a devastating flood. The art department’s old buildings (with the Horatian chestnut, “Ars Longa, Vita Brevis Est” carved above the door) stand in ruins. The school’s treasured art collection still resides in other cities. The university’s board of trustees has recently praised the university for postponing a new museum and instead, continuing to investigate the matter. The board of trustees is an embarrassment.

**

Locals know the town is in trouble. Despite the influx of upscale restaurants and tony coffee joints and new mini-skyscrapers the town’s biggest industry, education itself, is starting to starve.

The best book on how states like Iowa “got here” is Nancy MacLean’s Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America. 

The sun is out but it’s a rainy day.

One thinks of Rolf Jacobsen’s poem: “The Age of the Great Symphonies” here translated from the Norwegian by Robert Bly:

The age of the great symphonies

Is over now.

The symphonies rose toward heaven with real magnificence—

Sunlit clouds with thunder

Over the brilliant centuries.

Cumulus under blue skies. Coriolanus.

Now they are coming back down again in the form of rain,

A banded, stone-colored rain on all the wave lengths,

and programs

Covering the earth like a wet overcoat, a sack of noise.

Now they are coming back down from the sky,

They bounce of the skyscrapers like electric hail

And seep down into farmers living rooms

And roll over the suburbs and brick-oceans

As immortal sound.

A rain of sound,

“You millions of this earth, embrace”

So as to deaden screams

Every day, every day

On this earth which is thirsty and takes them back into

itself again.

 

Generally Applicable

So it works this way people you thought were sturdy as birches

Not without bent trunks or thinned leaves

But long in uprightness

Fail within

Birch-like

 

In a wet summer

When mushrooms are everywhere

& your neighbors children

Dig with spoons

Down among the roots