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The ninth day commemorating the last moments of George Floyd’s life.

 

I Want to Breathe

by James Laughlin

 

I want to breathe

 

you in I’m not talking about

perfume or even the sweet odour

 

of your skin but of the

air itself I want to share

 

your air inhaling what you

exhale I’d like to be that

 

close two of us breathing

each other as one as that

 

 

 

“I Want to Breathe” is a love poem, one I’ve featured before in a less fraught context. I’m featuring it again to close out this series not just because the title and the first line echo Floyd’s last words (“I can’t breathe”) but because it is a love poem. A poem to remember that George Floyd was not just a man murdered by police but a man who was loved in his lifetime by his family and friends; a man loved after his death by millions the world over; a man whose life and death inspires love between people united in outrage and grief.

 

And so here is a poem of breath shared from one person to another, an expression of a desire to be loving and close. We are born for connection. We live in shared space. We share earth. We share air. Deep within we want to share ourselves.

 

I want to share

 

your air inhaling what you

exhale I’d like to be that

 

close two of us breathing

each other as one as that

 

The law of the conservation of matter tells us that matter can transform but never disappear. Our air—made of nitrogen, oxygen, argon, carbon dioxide, and sometimes water vapors—is ancient. The air we breathe now is the same air our ancestors breathed. The same air as our neighbors breathe. The same as our enemies. It’s possible the very air George Floyd exhaled in his last moments was inhaled by those who murdered him.

 

Maybe there is redemption in that for them.

 

*

 

A brief memoriam for our fellow breather on planet Earth:

 

George Perry Floyd (1973-2020), born in Fayetteville, North Carolina, raised in a Houston housing project. Called “Perry” by his family. Played basketball and football in high school, recruited to play basketball for South Florida State College, transferred to Texas A&M to play basketball, dropped out. Had a brief music career as rapper “Big Floyd.” Worked as a car customizer. Mentored young men from the housing project he grew up in. Went to church. Struggled with addiction. Went to jail. Started over in Minneapolis. Drove trucks, worked for the Salvation Army, worked security at a nightclub. Lost his job because of coronavirus shutdowns. Got coronavirus himself. Read the bible. Prayed with his roommates. A six-foot six-inch tall man known for his hugs and his jokes. Over and over described as a “gentle giant.” A kind man, a caring man. A loving man. A man who fell, got up, tried again, fell, got up, fell. Was crushed.

 

A man who had his mother’s name tattooed on his chest. A man who loved his mother and was loved by his mother.

 

A man who is described by his girlfriend this way:  “He stood up for people, he was there for people when they were down, he loved people that were thrown away.” A man his childhood friend Meshah Hawkins describes as a “sweetie pie.” A sweetie pie.

 

Rest in peace, sweetie pie. Rest in peace, gentle giant. Rest in peace, George Perry Floyd.

 

 

*

 

Two friends described this nine-day project as a novena (a novena is nine days of repeated prayers for an urgent petition), and so it’s only fitting to end with a poem that is also a prayer. My sister forwarded me this one. It’s written by a rising sophomore at Gonzaga, a Jesuit high school in Washington, D.C. located less than a mile from the Capitol building. [Gonzaga is also home to one of the first poets I featured on this blog, legendary English teacher Rick Cannon, who retired this spring.] In “Prayer for Change” young poet Richard Scott writes movingly of his hope for permanent change. Thank you, Richard! Keep on writing.

 

 

I left “Prayer for Change” on the opposite side of “I Want to Breathe.” The two poems flank a statue named “The Freedom of the Human Spirit.”

 

 

Prayer for Change

by Richard Scott

 

I pray for healing in Ferguson

I pray for healing in Minneapolis

I pray for healing in New York

I pray for healing in Baltimore

 

I pray that we will continue to run for Ahmaud

I pray that we will blast our music for Jordan

I pray that we will continue to kneel with Kap

I pray that the police stop killing us

 

I pray that 911 is a beacon of safety, not death

I pray the next time my hands are raised it’s in a classroom

I pray that the voices of the unheard are amplified

I pray that the color of my skin won’t get me killed

 

I pray that Martin’s dream doesn’t become a nightmare

I pray that Rosa’s bravery isn’t blinded by cowards

I pray that Maya’s words are never erased

I pray for change

 

 

*

Note:  Last night as I taped the final two poems to the marble orbs in Shain Park, all but the first two poems were still there. Edges curled, some faded, but still hanging on.

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The final two poems of commemorating the last moments of George Floyd’s life will shift from poems of protest to poems of solidarity.

 

*

 

Day eight, minute eight. We are near the end. He lays silent and still in the street. He is alone, he is in this moment friendless, he has no one to hold his hand or comfort him or gaze upon him with love as he breathes his last. It is a horror.

 

*

 

 

Only Breath

by Rumi

 

Not Christian or Jew or Muslim, not Hindu

Buddhist, sufi, or zen. Not any religion

 

or cultural system. I am not from the East

or the West, not out of the ocean or up

 

from the ground, not natural or ethereal, not

composed of elements at all. I do not exist,

 

am not an entity in this world or in the next,

did not descend from Adam and Eve or any

 

origin story. My place is placeless, a trace

of the traceless. Neither body or soul.

 

I belong to the beloved, have seen the two

worlds as one and that one call to and know,

 

first, last, outer, inner, only that

breath breathing human being.

 

 

 

I’m drawn to this poem more than I really understand it. There’s balm here, a resting spot to breathe calmly as we take in a world where a black man, as so many before him, was denied the right to breathe, who begged another man to let him breathe.

 

In this time of division, with so many people aching to rid the world of division and the injustice and pain division brings, Rumi wipes the slate clean. There is a reality beyond division, he says. Beyond the division of religion and country of origin. He just as easily could be talking about divisions of ethnicity, skin tone, political party, social class.

 

This reality exists even beyond the divisions between species and between beings from this world and the next.

 

It’s the reality of being beloved. Of existing in a state of being loved.

 

I belong to the beloved, have seen the two

worlds as one

 

We are the beloved, all of us, and every last atom of creation. And if you don’t believe in a loving creative entity, there is still the fact of love itself, the fact that it has always existed and always will, the miracle of it, the power of it.

 

I stop here with the poem because I can’t understand the last lines about the breath and I keep hearing John Donne in my ear—

 

No man is an island entire of itself; every man

is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;

if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe

is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as

well as any manner of thy friends or of thine

own were; any man’s death diminishes me,

because I am involved in mankind.

And therefore never send to know for whom

the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

 

Emphasis mine. Going to repeat it.

 

any man’s death diminishes me,

because I am involved in mankind.

 

*

 

A biography of Rumi from a previous post:

Rumi, born to a wealthy family in 1207, eventually settled in modern day Turkey.  He wrote over 70,000 verses in 25 years or, as I figure, about 7 ½ poems every day.  A religious figure, he is considered a Muslim saint.  His staying power comes not only from the beauty and emotional expressiveness of his poems, but his teachings of tolerance and peace.  He’s such towering figure of interfaith unity that Pope John XXIII was moved to say in 1958, “In the name of the Catholic World, I bow with respect before the memory of Rumi.”

 

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Day seven of commemorating the last moments of George Floyd’s life.

 

 

America

by Claude McKay

 

Although she feeds me bread of bitterness,

And sinks into my throat her tiger’s tooth,

Stealing my breath of life, I will confess

I love this cultured hell that tests my youth.

Her vigor flows like tides into my blood,

Giving me strength erect against her hate,

Her bigness sweeps my being like a flood.

Yet, as a rebel fronts a king in state,

I stand within her walls with not a shred

Of terror, malice, not a word of jeer.

Darkly I gaze into the days ahead,

And see her might and granite wonders there,

Beneath the touch of Time’s unerring hand,

Like priceless treasures sinking in the sand.

 

 

Sonnets are elegant and sturdy things, holding in all manner of ideas and imagery safely behind glass, the curio cabinet of poetry forms. Claude McKay’s “America” uses the sonnet’s tidy structure to carry his righteous anger and the load nearly causes a collapse.

 

The racism in America that McKay encountered after emigrating from Jamaica shocked him, stealing my breath of life, as he says in this poem. He calls America a cultured hell, a beast intent on killing him with her tiger’s tooth. Still and all, he loves the bigness and energy of his adopted country and feels no terror, malice, not a word of jeer towards it. Which is why the turn he makes at the end of this sonnet comes as a shock—

 

Darkly I gaze into the days ahead,

And see her might and granite wonders there,

Beneath the touch of Time’s unerring hand,

Like priceless treasures sinking in the sand

 

I can’t read that without thinking about another sonnet, Shelley’s “Ozymandius” —

 

My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;

Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay

Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare

The lone and level sands stretch far away.

 

So goes, we hope, we pray, the way of boastful, abusive power. Into the sands of time, wrecked and buried.

 

*

 

Claude McKay (1889-1948) was born in Jamaica, the youngest of seven in a family of farmers. He began writing poetry early, under the encouragement of an older brother.

 

After apprenticing as a cabinetmaker in Jamaica and finding success with poems written in a Jamaican dialect, he moved to the United States to attend Tuskegee Institute. He left after two months, disliking the militarism and segregation he found there, and transferred to Kansas State University. He studied agriculture for two years and then moved to New York, working as a bartender, longshoreman and waiter. He briefly married his high school sweetheart, with whom he had one daughter.

 

Mckay was a major figure in the Harlem Renaissance, and his poem “If We Must Die” is sometimes considered the movement’s inaugural poem. Besides poetry, McKay wrote four novels, a collection of short stories, two memoirs and a non-fiction history of Harlem.

 

A bisexual, McKay was an early advocate of gay rights and acceptance. He visited the Soviet Union several times, leading to him becoming the first black writer tracked by the FBI. Later he would renounce Communism and the repression it bred. In the last ten years of his life he became an American citizen and a Catholic convert. He moved to Chicago to work for a Catholic service organization and died a few years later of died of congestive heart failure at age 58.

 

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Day six of commemorating the last moments of George Floyd’s life. The sixth minute is when Floyd became unresponsive.

 

Still I Rise

by Maya Angelou

 

You may write me down in history

With your bitter, twisted lies,

You may trod me in the very dirt

But still, like dust, I’ll rise.

 

Does my sassiness upset you?

Why are you beset with gloom?

’Cause I walk like I’ve got oil wells

Pumping in my living room.

 

Just like moons and like suns,

With the certainty of tides,

Just like hopes springing high,

Still I’ll rise.

 

Did you want to see me broken?

Bowed head and lowered eyes?

Shoulders falling down like teardrops,

Weakened by my soulful cries?

 

Does my haughtiness offend you?

Don’t you take it awful hard

’Cause I laugh like I’ve got gold mines

Diggin’ in my own backyard.

 

You may shoot me with your words,

You may cut me with your eyes,

You may kill me with your hatefulness,

But still, like air, I’ll rise.

 

Does my sexiness upset you?

Does it come as a surprise

That I dance like I’ve got diamonds

At the meeting of my thighs?

 

Out of the huts of history’s shame

I rise

Up from a past that’s rooted in pain

I rise

I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide,

Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.

 

Leaving behind nights of terror and fear

I rise

Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear

I rise

Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,

I am the dream and the hope of the slave.

I rise

I rise

I rise.

 

 

The first verse of this poem is so famous it might as well be tattooed on our national conscious. It’s that perfect. I could re-read it a hundred times and it would never fail to give pleasure.

 

The rest of the poem is less familiar but no less quotable. Verse after verse Angelou rolls through barriers, growing in stature and strength like a super hero batting off bullets and punches and ramming cars and speeding trains.

 

(Angelou always seemed ahead of her time, and here, decades before Gwyneth Paltrow’s vagina-scented candle, Angelou claims the right of women to boast of their reproductive parts just as men do—

 

Does my sexiness upset you?

Does it come as a surprise

That I dance like I’ve got diamonds

At the meeting of my thighs?

 

But that’s not the point of this post. I just really like that verse.)

 

Her fierce faith in herself, in her people, in the tide of history speaks to this moment like no other, and I pray describes George Floyd’s life after death—

 

Leaving behind nights of terror and fear

I rise

Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear

I rise

Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,

I am the dream and the hope of the slave.

I rise

I rise

I rise.

 

*

A [very long because her life is so interesting] biography from a previous post:

 

Maya Angelou was born in 1928 in St. Louis, but after her parents’ divorce when she was 3 or 4, was sent to live in Arkansas with her grandmother. Over the years she was shuffled back and forth between her mother and grandmother, eventually landing in San Francisco. During one of the visits with her mother, when she was 8, she was raped by her mother’s boyfriend. She confided in her brother, who told the family. The rapist was sent to jail, released after a day, and then murdered, reportedly by Angelou’s uncles. After his murder, Angelou stopped speaking. She blamed her speaking out for his death.

 

With the help of a teacher, the appropriately named Mrs. Bertha Flowers, Angelou started speaking four or five years later. And then her life took off. She became San Francisco’s first African American female streetcar driver while still in high school. She gave birth at 17 to a boy, and worked as a waitress and cook to support herself and her child. She married a white man, a Greek sailor and musician, despite the difficulties of interracial marriage at the time. She studied dance under Martha Graham, and formed a dance partnership with Alvin Ailey before he became famous.

 

She sang and danced at a nightclub. She recorded a Calypso album in 1957 and wrote and performed in an off-Broadway review called Calypso HeatWave and later a film based on that show. She toured Europe in Porgy and Bess. As she traveled, she taught herself the language of every country she visited. She was fluent in French, Spanish, Italian, Arabic and a West African language called Fanti.

 

In 1959 she moved to New York and joined the Harlem Writers Guild, befriending James Baldwin who became her mentor. Upon hearing Dr. Martin Luther King speak, she became an organizer for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

 

Screen Shot 2014-10-27 at 2.51.49 PMIn 1961 she performed in a Jean Genet play, The Blacks, along with legendary actors Cicely Tyson, Lou Gossett, James Earl Jones. She moved to Cairo with her son, where she worked as an editor at an English language newspaper, and on to Ghana where she served as an administrator at a university.

 

Angelou was devastated by the assassinations of her close friends Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. Shortly after she produced a 10-part documentary on the blues.

 

She wrote the first of her seven autobiographies in 1969 (the last one published when she was 83), I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. She wrote a screenplay, she wrote soundtracks, she acted in the television mini-series Roots and several other shows, she wrote music for singer Roberta Flack (listen here) and B.B. King (and here). She gave the inaugural poem for President Clinton, the first poet to do so since Robert Frost spoke at Kennedy’s inauguration. In 1996 she directed a feature film with Wesley Snipes. Along the way she published cookbooks, earned over 50 honorary degrees and awards–a Tony, an Emmy and the National Medal of Freedom among them–and in her last few months worked on the posthumous album I mentioned earlier.

 

Her biography is exhausting. A lifetime of nonstop creativity. She died in 2014 at age 86.

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Day five of commemorating the last moments of George Floyd’s life—

 

 

I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free

song by Billy Taylor and Dick Dallas

 

 

I wish I knew how

It would feel to be free

I wish I could break

All the chains holding me

I wish I could say

All the things that I should say

Say ’em loud, say ’em clear

For the whole round world to hear

 

I wish I could share

All the love that’s in my heart

Remove all the bars

That keep us apart

I wish you could know

Well I wish I could be

Like a bird in the sky

How sweet it would be

If I found I could fly

Oh I’d soar to the sun

And look down at the sea

 

Then I’d sing ’cause I know, yea

Then I’d sing ’cause I know, yea

Then I’d sing ’cause I know

I’d know how it feels

Oh I know how it feels to be free

Yea yea! Oh, I know how it feels

 

Yes I know, oh, I know

How it feels

How it feels

To be free, Lord, Lord, Lord

 

What it means to be me

Then you’d see and agree

That every man should be free

 

I wish I could give

All I’m longin’ to give

I wish I could live

Like I’m longin’ to live

I wish I could do

All the things that I can do

And though I’m way over due

I’d be starting anew

 

 

“I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free” is a song not a poem, but who doesn’t need some music right now? And this is one great song. Reading the lyrics, listening to it sung by the incomparable Nina Simone, I think about how I’ve always been allowed to feel free . . . and how others have not, others who have to keep their guard up, modulate their voices, change their hair texture, restrain their anger at authorities who don’t respect them, train their children to keep safe in ways white parents don’t have to.

 

Maybe this moment is here—

 

I wish I could say

All the things that I should say

Say ’em loud, say ’em clear

For the whole round world to hear

 

*

Among the many things I never knew about the Civil Rights movement of the 60s was that “I Wish I Knew How” was one of its anthems. The song’s history mirrors the arc of the song itself—it begins sweet and swinging and builds to soul-moving power. Jazz composer Billy Taylor originally wrote it as an instrumental in 1952, inspired when his daughter came home from school singing a spiritual, but he didn’t record it till 1963. The lyrics came later, written in collaboration with Dick Dallas. The instrumental version was used for a British television show that reviewed movies, and a modified version was eventually used for, yes, you guessed it, a Coke commercial.

 

The song found its audience when Nina Simone recorded it in 1967. Simone’s earliest musical training was in church (she played her first piano solo in church at age 2 1/2, surprising even her mother, a Methodist preacher) and she brings out the gospel flavor of the song, sometimes even adding call-and-response. The song comes alive in her styling in a way no subsequent cover does. And there are a lot of covers, from John Denver’s anodyne version (and I like Denver, but boy, this isn’t good) to John Legend’s.

 

Here’s Simone’s recorded version

 

 

Here’s a jazzier version she sang at Montreux in 1976. Watch through to the end—her performance is so emotional—see how she hits those piano keys—you’ll get the shivers.

 

There’s one more version to watch and listen to. This one is from her performance in a documentary short called Nina. Link here, and scroll down to the video. Her improvised lyrics, her unexpected and fabulous dancing, her white pantsuit. . . this is one for the ages.

 

Note:  as of last night, poems for minutes two, three and four are still hanging in there.

minutes three and four aligned

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Day four of commemorating the last moments of George Floyd’s life:

 

 

What Do We Do—Now

by Ellen Hagan

 

 

—after Gwendolyn Brooks

 

We mourn, we bless,

we blow, we wail, we

wind—down, we sip,

we spin, we blind, we

bend, bow & hem. We

hip, we blend, we bind,

we shake, we shine,

shine. We lips & we

teeth, we praise & protest.

We document & we

drama. We demand &

we flow, fold & hang

loose. We measure &

we moan, mourn & whine

low. & we live, and we

breathe. & some of the time,

we don’t.

 

Tonight, I am here. Here

& tired. Here & awake,

sure, & alive. Yes here &

still, still here, still & here

& still awake & still still

alive.

 

 

Most of us read Gwendolyn Brooks’ “We Real Cool” in high school, and if your education was like mine, the lens through which we read it was her use of the vernacular—

 

We real cool. We

Left school. We

 

Lurk late. We

Strike straight. We

 

Sing sin. We

Thin gin. We

 

Jazz June. We

Die soon.

 

Reading it again after so many years, my focus is pulled to the last lines, and I shudder. All the life in the poem, all the bragging, all the rhythm and it just comes down to one thing:  We/die soon.

 

Poet Ellen Hagan riffs on Brooks’ poem in “What We Do—Now.” Hagan’s poem is written in an aftermath. The aftermath of loss. Perhaps the aftermath of the deaths in Brooks’ poems. The poem’s title “What We Do—Now” can be read as a question born of exhaustion and grief. What do we do now?  

 

The list that follows is exhausting, a litany of thirty-one verbs (and some nouns used as verbs) in the long, rapid-fire first stanza. Mourning is listed twice. Mourning is driving all the other activity.

 

The second stanza takes a breath. It’s enough, the speaker suggests, just to be alive at this moment, to breathe, to be awake, to survive.

 

I go back to these lines

 

. . . and we

breathe. & some of the time,

we don’t.

 

and I think of George Floyd trying to breathe and Eric Garner trying to breathe and all the men and women we’ve never heard of who were just trying to breathe. And our collective breath as a nation, as a world, ragged now and anxious, wishing that simple act could not be taken away from the powerless.

 

 

Ellen Hagan is a writer, educator, activist and performer. She lives in New York City where she directs the poetry program at the DreamYard Project.

 

 

Note:  I was wrong when I said on the first day of this project that there would probably never be a protest in this peaceable park. One was beginning just as I left.

 

 

It was the second day of protest for these young people, and they were expecting dozens more to arrive. Later that evening a protest march gathered at City Hall to walk to Woodward Boulevard, the artery connecting the city of Detroit to its tonier suburbs.

 

Found this on my walk home—

 

 

 

 

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Day three of commemorating the last moments of George Floyd’s life:

 

 

4/30/92 for Rodney King

by Lucille Clifton

 

so

the body

of one black man

is rag and stone

is mud

and blood

the body of one

black man

contains no life

worth loving

so the body

of one black man

is nobody

mama

mama

mamacita

is there no value

in this skin

mama

mama

if we are nothing

why

should we spare

the neighborhood

mama

mama

who will be next and

why should we save

the pictures

 

 

Lucille Clifton’s “4/30/92 for Rodney King” looks like someone kicked it in at the sides, pounded it to thinness like a piece of meat. The dehumanizing of the black body in the poem’s form and imagery (the body/of one black man/ is rag and stone/is mud and blood) is broken up by a most human response to distress—mama/mama/mamacita. Seven times that voice cries out for help.

 

Rodney King, for those too young to remember or who may not even have been born yet, was beaten by police following a car chase in Los Angeles in March 1991. For fifteen minutes the unarmed King was kicked, stomped on, beaten with batons and tasered by four police officers. The beating only came to light because a man happened to film it from a nearby balcony. The tape was sent to a news station after the LAPD showed no interest in it.

 

In April of 1992, when the four offending officers were acquitted of using excessive force, a five-day riot broke out in the city. Fifty people were killed, 2,000 injured, and over one billion was lost in property. Rodney King was both ridiculed and hailed for a statement he made on television asking for calm during the riots: “I just want to say – you know – can we all get along? Can we, can we get along?”

 

For a more complete account of the beating and riots, link here.

 

If you have the stomach for it after all the violence we’ve witnessed over the past few days, watch the video of the beating here. Low-quality and grainy as it is, the film shows Rodney King attempt to rise, get beaten down, roll over in pain, get rolled back by the police for more beating, then lie still as the beating continues. Just a body to those police officers. A man to anyone with eyes.

 

Clifton’s closing questions, unfortunately, have the ring of prophecy.

 

who will be next and

why should we save

the pictures

 

*

 

A brief biography of Clifton from a previous post:

 

Lucille Clifton was born in New York in 1936.  Her father was a steelworker who sexually abused her, and her mother was a laundress and gifted poet with little formal education. At age sixteen Clifton attended Howard University as a drama major.  She finished her studies in New York.

 

 

She had six children with her husband Fred, a professor at the University of Buffalo.  She was the poet laureate of my home state of Maryland where she eventually settled. She won the National Book Award and was the first African-American woman to win the prestigious Ruth Lilly Prize. She had a separate career as a writer of children’s books and the most unusual career for a famous poet I’ve ever heard of:  Jeopardy show champion.  She died in 2010 at age 73.

 

*

Note:  The “Minute Two” poem I put up yesterday is still taped to its marble orb in the park—

 

 

 

 

 

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Day two, commemorating the second minute of the last moments of George Floyd’s life:

 

 

Let Them Not Say

by Jane Hirshfield

 

Let them not say:   we did not see it.

We saw.

 

Let them not say:   we did not hear it.

We heard.

 

Let them not say:    they did not taste it.

We ate, we trembled.

 

Let them not say:   it was not spoken, not written.

We spoke,

we witnessed with voices and hands.

 

Let them not say:    they did nothing.

We did not-enough.

 

Let them say, as they must say something:

 

A kerosene beauty.

It burned.

 

Let them say we warmed ourselves by it,

read by its light, praised,

and it burned.

 

 

Instead of we came, we saw, we conquered, poet Jane Hirshfield posits a different course:  we saw, we heard, we tasted, we witnessed, and we did not-enough. Admitting failure instead of bragging about conquest. That’s the way forward.

 

Today at the square the poem I left yesterday had been removed. And it rained last night so today’s poem is probably gone as well. But I hope at least some of the people in the park wondered what I was doing and read the poems after I left.

 

 

 

A brief biography of Hirshfield from an earlier post:

Jane Hirshfield was born in 1953 in New York City.  After graduating from the first Princeton class to include women, she moved to San Francisco to study Zen Buddhism for eight years. She’s published eight books of poetry and, as a translator of Japanese poetry, helped popularize tanka in the United States. She’s won numerous awards and taught at many universities including Stanford, Duke and Univerisity of Virginia.

 

 

 

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To Christine, Catherine, Yen-Fang, Megan, Donny and Molly:  I love your submissions and can’t wait to WE INTERRUPT YOUR REGULARLY SCHEDULED PROGRAMMING something’s come up TO BRING YOU THIS BREAKING NEWS

 

[breaking your heart news]

 

So I can’t post them right now.

 

Just doesn’t feel right.

 

Give me nine days. Nine days, one for each of George Floyd’s last moments. Nine days and I’ll post all the wonderful poems and creative commentary you sent.

 

Nine days, and I pray our nation will be in a better spot.

 

Each of those nine days I’ll be posting a poem. I’m going to put all of them in a downtown square of my little town in suburban Detroit. A peaceable downtown square where there are no protests and probably never will be.

 

*

Day one, minute one . . .

 

 

Let America Be America Again

by Langston Hughes

 

Let America be America again.

Let it be the dream it used to be.

Let it be the pioneer on the plain

Seeking a home where he himself is free.

 

(America never was America to me.)

 

Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed—

Let it be that great strong land of love

Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme

That any man be crushed by one above.

 

(It never was America to me.)

 

*  * *  *  *

O, let America be America again—

The land that never has been yet—

And yet must be—the land where every man is free.

The land that’s mine—the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME—

Who made America,

Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,

Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,

Must bring back our mighty dream again.

 

Sure, call me any ugly name you choose—

The steel of freedom does not stain.

From those who live like leeches on the people’s lives,

We must take back our land again,

America!

 

 

The first poem I left at the square was Langston Hughes’ “Let America Be America Again.” I cut out the middle section (the complete poem is at the end of this post) because people are more apt to read a shorter than longer poem and this needs to be read—

 

O, let America be America again—

The land that never has been yet—

And yet must be—the land where every man is free.

 

 

and this—

 

 

The land that’s mine—the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME—

Who made America,

Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,

Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,

Must bring back our mighty dream again.

 

 

The poem holds together outrage and hope, and Hughes keeps them in equal balance, a feat in the face of grave injustice.

 

 

Here’s a bio of Langston Hughes from an earlier post:

 

Langston Hughes (1902-1967) was born in Missouri to a family whose ancestors included slaves and slave owners.  His parents divorced when he was young, and his father moved to Cuba and Mexico to escape racism and to get away from other black Americans, who he had come to dislike.  Hughes, on the other hand, embraced black culture, especially the lives of people he described as “workers, roustabouts, and singers, and job hunters on Lenox Avenue in New York, or Seventh Street in Washington or South State in Chicago—people up today and down tomorrow, working this week and fired the next, beaten and baffled, but determined not to be wholly beaten, buying furniture on the installment plan, filling the house with roomers to help pay the rent, hoping to get a new suit for Easter—and pawning that suit before the Fourth of July.” Later in his career he was criticized for “parading” working-class black characters who spoke in dialect, but his portrayals of those characters in poems, novels, and plays earned him the unofficial title of “Poet Laureate of the Negro Race.”

 

Before he found success as the first African-American to earn a living from his writing, Hughes worked as a sailor, a doorman, a waiter, a cook and a truck farmer.  He attended Columbia University and graduated from Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, where his classmate was Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall.

  

He published two autobiographies, several children’s books and wrote a popular column for the Chicago Defender for twenty years.  He died at age 65 of prostate cancer.

 

*

 

Let America Be America Again

by Langston Hughes

 

 

Let America be America again.

Let it be the dream it used to be.

Let it be the pioneer on the plain

Seeking a home where he himself is free.

 

(America never was America to me.)

 

Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed—

Let it be that great strong land of love

Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme

That any man be crushed by one above.

 

(It never was America to me.)

 

O, let my land be a land where Liberty

Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,

But opportunity is real, and life is free,

Equality is in the air we breathe.

 

(There’s never been equality for me,

Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”)

 

Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark?

And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?

 

I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,

I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars.

I am the red man driven from the land,

I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek—

And finding only the same old stupid plan

Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.

 

I am the young man, full of strength and hope,

Tangled in that ancient endless chain

Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land!

Of grab the gold! Of grab the ways of satisfying need!

Of work the men! Of take the pay!

Of owning everything for one’s own greed!

 

I am the farmer, bondsman to the soil.

I am the worker sold to the machine.

I am the Negro, servant to you all.

I am the people, humble, hungry, mean—

Hungry yet today despite the dream.

Beaten yet today—O, Pioneers!

I am the man who never got ahead,

The poorest worker bartered through the years.

 

Yet I’m the one who dreamt our basic dream

In the Old World while still a serf of kings,

Who dreamt a dream so strong, so brave, so true,

That even yet its mighty daring sings

In every brick and stone, in every furrow turned

That’s made America the land it has become.

O, I’m the man who sailed those early seas

In search of what I meant to be my home—

For I’m the one who left dark Ireland’s shore,

And Poland’s plain, and England’s grassy lea,

And torn from Black Africa’s strand I came

To build a “homeland of the free.”

 

The free?

 

Who said the free? Not me?

Surely not me? The millions on relief today?

The millions shot down when we strike?

The millions who have nothing for our pay?

For all the dreams we’ve dreamed

And all the songs we’ve sung

And all the hopes we’ve held

And all the flags we’ve hung,

The millions who have nothing for our pay—

Except the dream that’s almost dead today.

 

O, let America be America again—

The land that never has been yet—

And yet must be—the land where every man is free.

The land that’s mine—the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME—

Who made America,

Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,

Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,

Must bring back our mighty dream again.

 

Sure, call me any ugly name you choose—

The steel of freedom does not stain.

From those who live like leeches on the people’s lives,

We must take back our land again,

America!

 

O, yes,

I say it plain,

America never was America to me,

And yet I swear this oath—

America will be!

 

Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,

The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,

We, the people, must redeem

The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.

The mountains and the endless plain—

All, all the stretch of these great green states—

And make America again!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Sympathy

by Paul Laurence Dunbar

 

I know what the caged bird feels, alas!

When the sun is bright on the upland slopes;

When the wind stirs soft through the springing grass,

And the river flows like a stream of glass;

When the first bird sings and the first bud opes,

And the faint perfume from its chalice steals—

I know what the caged bird feels!

 

I know why the caged bird beats his wing

Till its blood is red on the cruel bars;

For he must fly back to his perch and cling

When he fain would be on the bough a-swing;

And a pain still throbs in the old, old scars

And they pulse again with a keener sting—

I know why he beats his wing!

 

I know why the caged bird sings, ah me,

When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore,—

When he beats his bars and he would be free;

It is not a carol of joy or glee,

But a prayer that he sends from his heart’s deep core,

But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings—

I know why the caged bird sings!

 

Okay it’s a little literal, putting a poem with the famous line “I know why the caged bird sings” on a cage of birds. I could have left it somewhere that highlights the metaphorical nature of “Sympathy,” say in a book about slavery or taped to a Confederate statue (hard to come by in Michigan), but I yam what I yam, as Popeye would say. Not particularly subtle.

 

This is a poem I thought I was familiar with, probably because the first line of the third stanza is the title of the more famous Maya Angelou autobiography. But reading it, I realized that if in fact I had the poem before I hadn’t felt it. It’s brutal, that bird beating its wings against the bars of its cage till it bleeds. The lovely pastoral vision of the first stanza makes it all the more painful.

 

I’ve always assumed “Sympathy” was about slavery. But I came across this explanation from the Library of Congress website from Dunbar’s wife Alice. (Dunbar worked at the Library of Congress for a time, a job that contributed to his poor health.):

 

 

The iron grating of the book stacks in the Library of Congress suggested to him the bars of the bird’s cage. June and July days are hot. All out of doors called and the trees of the shaded streets of Washington were tantalizingly suggestive of his beloved streams and fields. The torrid sun poured its rays down into the courtyard of the library and heated the iron grilling of the book stacks until they were like prison bars in more senses than one. The dry dust of the dry books (ironic incongruity!–a poet shut up with medical works), rasped sharply in his hot throat, and he understood how the bird felt when it beats its wings against its cage.

 

Of course it would be reductive to say the poem is about working in a dusty basement. Cages are everywhere. Some cages people put themselves in (alcoholism, for example, which Dunbar suffered from), and some cages people are forced into (enslavement, sorry Kanye). Dunbar was familiar with both and the powerful poem speaks to all.

 

Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906) was born in Dayton, Ohio, the child of former slaves. His mother taught him to read when he was four and always encouraged his education. His parents separated when he was a toddler, and his father, who had escaped enslavement before the end of the Civil War and fled to Massachusetts to fight for the Union, died when Dunbar was twelve.

 

Dunbar was the only black student in an all-white high school. It’s amazing to me that in late 19thcentury America such a student could be class president, editor of the class paper and class poet, but he was. He wanted to go to college but had to work to support the family. Prevented from finding a job in the legal or newspaper world because of bigotry, he took a job as an elevator operator (another cage). During this time he self-published his first collection of poems and sold copies for a dollar to people riding on his elevator.

 

Orville Wright was a high school classmate and friend. He and his brother owned a publishing plant and published a black newspaper featuring Dunbar’s poems. Dunbar was also friends with Frederick Douglas and Booker T. Washington.

 

When he was 26 he married schoolteacher and poet Alice Moore. The marriage was unhappy and they would separate after four years. As newlyweds they moved to Washington, D.C. where Dunbar worked for the Library of Congress. When he was diagnosed with tuberculosis, they moved to Colorado for his health. To soothe his coughing fits doctors encouraged him to drink whiskey, which contributed to his alcoholism which in turn hastened his death at the early age of 33.

 

In addition to eleven volumes of poetry, Dunbar wrote novels, essays, short stories, plays and lyrics, notably for the musical comedy “Dahomey,” the first all-black Broadway production. He collaborated with Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, Anglo-African composer of “Deep River” fame. You can hear one of their pieces here.

 

Dunbar has a genius for constructing memorable phrases. His poem “We Wear the Mask” gives me shivers. Listen here to a punk version. (And if you think I was being literal, check these two jokers out.)

 

Another phrase of his co-opted in popular culture is the “Who Dat” cheer for the New Orleans Saints, originally from his lyrics to the song “Who Dat Chicken in Dis Crowd?” If you want to hear something from the NFL that’s not divisive, Aaron Neville’s mix of the Who Dat cheer with “Saints Go Marching In” accompanied by Saints players is positively infectious.

 

Finally, link here for a lovely Christmas Carol using his poem “Ring Out Ye Bells.”

 

 

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