Baldwin’s Blues

An article about James Baldwin inspired this post. I was familiar with James Baldwin the novelist (Go Tell It on the Mountain) and essayist (Notes of a Native Son), but not James Baldwin the poet. LA Times book critic David L. Ulin tells us about Baldwin’s poetry in this in-depth piece titled “James Baldwin, poet? But of course.”

James-BaldwinBaldwin is unquestionably one of the major American writers of the last century. An African American, a bisexual, an expatriate, a civil rights activist, his writing represented the voices of those who American society then and now marginalizes, neglects, and often persecutes.

The occasion for Ulin’s article is the recent reprint by Beacon Press of Baldwin’s poetry collection Jimmy’s Blues and Other Poems, originally published one year before his death in 1987.

For more about Baldwin’s life and writing, I recommend you read Ulin’s article linked above, or Baldwin’s Wikipedia entry.

For today, continuing the celebration of National Poetry Month, here are two excerpts from Jimmy’s Blues and Other Poems.

Amen

No, I don’t feel death coming.
I feel death going:
having thrown up his hands,
for the moment.

I feel like I know him
better than I did.
Those arms held me,
for a while,
and, when we meet again,
there will be that secret knowledge
between us.

Conundrum (on my birthday) (for Rico)

Between holding on,
and letting go,
I wonder
how you know
the difference.

It must be
something like
the difference
between heaven and hell
but how, in advance,
can you tell?

If letting go
is saying no,
then what is holding on
saying?
Come.
Can anyone be held?
Can I—?
The impossible conundrum,
the c lo s ed c irc le,
why
does lightning strike this house
and not another?
Or, is it true
that love is blind
until challenged by the drawbridge
of the mind?

But, saying that,
one’s forced to see one’s definitions
as unreal.
We do not know enough about the mind,
or how the conundrum of the imagination
dictates, discovers,
or can dismember what we feel,
or what we find.

Perhaps
one must learn to trust
one’s terror:
the holding on
the letting go
is error:
the lightning has no choice,
the whirlwind has one voice.

Excerpted from Jimmy’s Blues & Other Poems by James Baldwin.  Copyright 2014.  Published  by Beacon Press.

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Dusk Latitudes and Film Noir

It’s been quite a while since I have posted any of my own poetry.  Since it is National Poetry Month, I thought this was as good a time as any.  I don’t have much to say about my poems. They are what they are.

dusk latitudes

tempestuous waves
against the shore
the moon lying close
to the horizon

you must carry the afterglow
uphold the solitary wings
for vision has become
piles of coffee cups
awkward shadows
languid eyes

too many dismal whispers
that freeze action
in the business of life

and we are busy
like the waves that bellow
the eternal songs of the sea
and the moon that serenades
the milky way with sad laments

to empyrean’s ether end
hurtles light
past that place where midnight
comes from
the place where we part our lips
and act as though there are never tears

waves crash over rocks
and the moon slips from us
anonymously

© 2011 dmriley

This second poem was inspired by the 1946 Ida Lupino film, “The Man I Love.”

film noir

I hate fog, it’s sort of lonely
ida lupino says
as my hand runs down
the smooth skin exposed by her backless dress
your fingers are cold, she sighs
let’s go in here

we go to the bar
I buy her a short beer
she draws on a long cigarette
& blows the smoke out with impertinence
she’s looking at me straight on
remember what you said darling
when we were looking at the stars
life, you said, is too short
to waste time with memories
well, I think you’re right

Ida_Lupinoshe goes over
& asks the piano player
if she can sing
some desolate song she knows
she has the kind of voice
you’d expect to find in a place like this
perched on top of the piano
skirt pulled high
swinging that crossed leg
deliberately
perfectly

as I place a bet
on another shot of rye

I was hoping
to find something in her
that I’d been missing all my life
but she didn’t have it
no one does

later on she says
she’s been cheating on me
with robert mitchum
& when I ask her why
she just shrugs her shoulders
pouts with her lower lip
& says that it’s because
he always holds his glass
with such an air of

detachment

I walk home alone
cloaked in the gray night
I understand what she means now
about the fog

© 1997 dmriley

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The Price

Today, I present another post for National Poetry Month. This celebration is intended to focus on American poetry or how poetry has contributed to American culture, but we live in a global community and poetry is a universal language, so I choose to ignore that guideline from time to time.

tagore-2014-1One of the world’s great poets, and philosophers, Rabindranath Tagore, inspired the title of this blog, The Endless Further. I have written about Tagore in some detail previously (see below), so I won’t add much to that today. As I’ve noted, he had a great respect for Buddhism and once called Buddha “the greatest man ever born on this earth.”

Here is one of the few poem in which he mentions Buddha. It comes from Fruit-Gathering, a collection published by Macmillan in 1916, and was translated from Bengali to English by Tagore himself.

The Price

Only one lotus braved the blast of winter and bloomed in the garden of Sudas the gardener. He took it to sell to the King.

A traveler said to him on the way, “I will buy this untimely flower, and take it to my master Buddha. Ask your price.”

The gardener asked one golden masha*, and the traveler readily agreed.  Just then the King came there.

“I must take that lotus to Lord Buddha,” he said to the gardener.  “What is your price?”

The gardener claimed two golden mashas.  The King was ready to buy it.  The traveler doubled the price and the King’s offer ran still higher.

The gardener thought in his greed he could get much more from the man for whom they were eagerly bidding.

He hastened with his flower to the grove where Buddha sat silent. Love shone in his eyes, on his lips was wisdom beyond words.

Sudas gazed at him, and stood still.  Suddenly he fell on his knees, placing the lotus at Buddha’s feet.

Buddha smiled and asked, “What is your prayer, my son?”

“Nothing, my lord,” Sudas answered, “only a speck of the dust off your feet.”

* A measurement of rice or wheat berry

– – – – – – – – – –

Previous posts on Rabindranath Tagore:

Rabindranath Tagore

Sadhana and the Big Fish

Love’s Gift is Shy

One Day in Spring

A Myriad Minded Man

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Caged Bird

As I mentioned last week, April is National Poetry Month, a yearly celebration of poetry “inaugurated by the Academy of American Poets in 1996 . . .  when schools, publishers, libraries, booksellers, and poets throughout the United States band together to celebrate poetry and its vital place in American culture.”*

So I intend to dedicate a few posts in the coming weeks to this wonderful literary art that has been one of my lifelong passions.  I’ll start with Maya Angelou simply because today is her 86th birthday.

maya_angelouI had heard of Maya Angelou for some years, mostly in connection to her 1969 autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, but my real introduction to this remarkable woman was in the late 70s when she hosted the instructional telecourse “Humanities Through the Arts,” a series of half-hour programs that I still see on PBS from time to time.  What immediately struck me about her was that voice – her words so richly enunciated and the deep timbre.  As someone who has been schooled in what I call “vocal artistry,” I enjoy hearing a truly great speaking voice.

Listening to Maya Angelou speak, it’s hard to imagine that she was once mute.  Sexually abused by her mother’s boyfriend, she somehow found the courage to report the abuse.  The boyfriend ended up going to jail – for one day.  Shortly after his release, he was murdered.  Ms. Angelou wrote in her autobiography, “I thought, my voice killed him; I killed that man, because I told his name.  And then I thought I would never speak again, because my voice would kill anyone . . .” She was around seven years old at the time and she did not speak again for five years. Eventually she recovered her ability to voice, and during the same period developed a love of the arts.

There’s no way I can cover all the facets of Maya Angelou’s varied life.  You can read many of the details at Wikipedia or on her own website.  She has been a civil rights activist, film producer, television producer, playwright, film director, author, actor, and professor.

In the 1950’s she was a calypso dancer, performing at clubs in San Francisco such as the famous Purple Onion.  I mention this because recently I watched a 1957 movie called Calypso Heat Wave, a cheapie made to cash in on the short-lived calypso craze.  It features a very young Joel Grey (Cabaret) and in an uncredited role, Alan Arkin.  Maya Angelou performs two numbers that she wrote herself, and let me tell you, she’s pretty hot, not to mention about the only thing even remotely authentic in the movie.

As far as Maya Angelou the poet is concerned, the Poetry Foundation notes, “her poetry has often been lauded more for its content . . . than for its poetic virtue.”  And yet, her poetry has earned her a nomination for a Pulitzer Prize (1972) and she is only the second poet in U.S. history to compose and read a poem for a presidential inauguration (Clinton, 1993).

“Caged Bird” was first published in Ms. Angelou’s 1983 volume of poetry, Shaker, Why Don’t You Sing?  The poem is about her personal experience with discrimination growing up in the south during the 1930s and 1940s, and the struggle of the 1960s civil rights movement.  Race, however, is not the only thing that binds people to suffering, so the “caged bird” is a metaphor for the universal desire of all beings for personal liberty.

Caged Bird

A free bird leaps
on the back of the wind
and floats downstream
till the current ends
and dips his wing
in the orange sun rays
and dares to claim the sky.

But a bird that stalks
down his narrow cage
can seldom see through
his bars of rage
his wings are clipped and
his feet are tied
so he opens his throat to sing.

The caged bird sings
with a fearful trill
of things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill
for the caged bird
sings of freedom.

The free bird thinks of another breeze
and the trade winds soft through the sighing trees
and the fat worms waiting on a dawn bright lawn
and he names the sky his own
But a caged bird stands on the grave of dreams
his shadow shouts on a nightmare scream
his wings are clipped and his feet are tied
so he opens his throat to sing.

The caged bird sings
with a fearful trill
of things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill
for the caged bird
sings of freedom.

Maya Angelou, “Caged Bird” from Shaker, Why Don’t You Sing? Copyright © 1983 by Maya Angelou.

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“life is more true than reason will deceive”

It’s Columbus Day, when the banks and post offices are closed, and the government is shutdown (!?) in order to commemorate the anniversary of the arrival in the Americas of Christopher Columbus, who sailed the ocean blue in 1492 and never copped to discovering a new land, but rather stubbornly maintained he had reached the East Indies he’d set out for, which is why he named the Indians “Indians.”

But today, I’d like to tip my hat to a man who discovered Somewhere he had never traveled gladly beyond, an epic explorer of language, that idiosyncratic navigator on the ocean of poesy – e.e. cummings. It is the 119th anniversary of his birth.

At one time, e.e. cummings was, next to Robert Frost, the most widely read poet in America. His “[in-just] spring” was the first poem I read that really suggested the possibilities of poetry to me. I think I was in the 3rd or 4th grade, and I loved the way the words were un-capitalized, run together, out of order, and arranged so unusually on the page. He has been a favorite ever since.

He wreaked havoc with the form of poetry and the structure of the sentence, he fractured spelling, ect&ect. His Influence on modern modern is immense

(an)d

since he was an irreverent kind of guy, it seems only fitting confronted as we are with the absurdity of government closed for a Federal Holiday in the midst of the Republican shutdown, to present a couple of his short poems on the subject of politics:

From Collected Poems:

economic secu
rity” is a cu
rious excu

se
(in

use among pu
rposive pu
nks) for pu

tting the arse
before the torse

From 1 X 1:

a politician is an arse upon
which everyone has sat except a man

Cummings was not passionately political, however both during and following World War I, he was an outspoken pacifist, and in the 1920’s he was among the left-leaning literati of Paris’ Left Bank. By the 1930’s he became disillusioned with anything that smacked of socialism. He offered up a stark critique of the Soviet Union (calling it “Hell”) in EIMI, his 1931 prose account of a visit there. And although he shifted to the right, he was not flag-waver. He was at heart an iconoclast, a rebel poet driven to agitate against convention. A patriot, yes, but his patriotism was as unorthodox as his poetry.

In spite of the fact that his father was a Unitarian minister, or perhaps because of it, Cummings became more the ‘spiritual but not religious’ type. He almost certainly maintained a belief in some sort of God, yet as a staunch individualist, he was wary of organized religion. I don’t know if he had any encounters with Buddhism, but here is a final poem, also from 1 X 1, that has always struck me as having a somewhat Buddhist tone:

life is more true than reason will deceive
(more secret or than madness did reveal)
deeper is life than lose:higher than have
– but beauty is more each than living’s all

multiplied with infinity sans if
the mightiest meditations of mankind
cancelled are by one merely opening leaf
(beyond whose nearness there is no beyond)

or does some littler bird than eyes can learn
look up to silence and completely sing?
futures are obsolete;pasts are unborn
(here less than nothing’s more than everything)

death,as men call him,ends what they call men
– but beauty is more now than dying’s when

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