Monday’s Verse 1/23/2017

Dear readers,

When I read the poem below, I think the jump from Gil Scott-Heron, who wrote "Whitey on the Moon," after all, to James Baldwin, is not so great a leap. Feeling the need for James Baldwin, I went to the poetry foundation for some examples, and before that hadn’t realized that he lived to see most of the 1980s (1924-1987). And that explains some of the references here, which are wide-ranging*. And get a load of how the relevance of such references has not dimmed in 30+ years! The allusions begin with his title, by the way, lifted from a well-known traditional blues song. Although Baldwin wrote poetry throughout his life, almost all of his published verse comes from a single volume, Jimmy’s Blues (1983).

This poem reminds us that, while Monday’s Verse is not a political forum, it will never be a site of appeasement.

One more plug for the Poetry Foundation’s website. When searching for some Baldwin poems, I came across a short essay by New Yorker writer Jia Tolentino, who says a lot about her relationship with poetry that hit personally for me. Stressing the importance of her non-expertise, for one thing, and how maybe it’s precisely her amateur openness that lets her love poems. You might enjoy it. It’s only about a page long, and the paragraph beginning "Not that I ever talk to anyone about poetry" is the one that sold it for me.

Have a great week,

mjl

*Know what would be really fun? If we went around taking turns unpacking those references… just everyone who feels so inclined pull out a single line that struck you, and say, hey, when he says "Uncas," he’s talking about a leader of the Mohegans in the pre-revolution colonies, who made treaties with the colonists, even sometimes against other tribes.

STAGGERLEE WONDERS

1

I always wonder

what they think the niggers are doing

while they, the pink and alabaster pragmatists,

are containing

Russia

and defining and re-defining and re-aligning

China,

nobly restraining themselves, meanwhile,

from blowing up that earth

which they have already

blasphemed into dung:

the gentle, wide-eyed, cheerful

ladies, and their men,

nostalgic for the noble cause of Vietnam,

nostalgic for noble causes,

aching, nobly, to wade through the blood of savages—

ah—!

Uncas shall never leave the reservation,

except to purchase whisky at the State Liquor Store.

The Panama Canal shall remain forever locked:

there is a way around every treaty.

We will turn the tides of the restless

Caribbean,

the sun will rise, and set

on our hotel balconies as we see fit.

The natives will have nothing to complain about,

indeed, they will begin to be grateful,

will be better off than ever before.

They will learn to defer gratification

and save up for things, like we do.

Oh, yes. They will.

We have only to make an offer

they cannot refuse.

This flag has been planted on the moon:

it will be interesting to see

what steps the moon will take to be revenged

for this quite breathtaking presumption.

This people

masturbate in winding sheets.

They have hacked their children to pieces.

They have never honoured a single treaty

made with anyone, anywhere.

The walls of their cities

are as foul as their children.

No wonder their children come at them with knives.

Mad Charlie man’s son was one of their children,

had got his shit together

by the time he left kindergarten,

and, as for Patty, heiress of all the ages,

she had the greatest vacation

of any heiress, anywhere:

Golly-gee, whillikens, Mom, real guns!

and they come with a real big, black funky stud, too:

oh, Ma! he’s making eyes at me!

Oh, noble Duke Wayne,

be careful in them happy hunting grounds.

They say the only good Indian

is a dead Indian,

by what I say is,

you can’t be too careful, you hear?

Oh, towering Ronnie Reagan,

wise and resigned lover of redwoods,

deeply beloved, winning man-child of the yearning Republic

from diaper to football field to Warner Brothers sound-stages,

be thou our grinning, gently phallic, Big Boy of all the ages!

Salt peanuts, salt peanuts,

for dear hearts and gentle people,

and cheerful, shining, simple Uncle Sam!

Nigger, read this and run!

Now, if you can’t read,

run anyhow!

From Manifest Destiny

(Cortez, and all his men

silent upon a peak in Darien)

to A Decent Interval,

and the chopper rises above Saigon,

abandoning the noble cause

and the people we have made ignoble

and whom we leave there, now, to die,

one moves, With All Deliberate Speed,

to the South China Sea, and beyond,

where millions of new niggers

await glad tidings!

No, said the Great Man’s Lady,

I’m against abortion,

I always feel that’s killing somebody.

Well, what about capital punishment?

I think the death penalty helps.

That’s right.

Up to our ass in niggers

on Death Row.

Oh, Susanna,

don’t you cry for me!

2

Well, I guess what the niggers

is supposed to be doing

is putting themselves in the path

of that old sweet chariot

and have it swing down and carry us home.

That would help, as they say,

and they got ways

of sort of nudging the chariot.

They still got influence

with Wind and Water,

though they in for some surprises

with Cloud and Fire.

My days are not their days.

My ways are not their ways.

I would not think of them,

one way or the other,

did not they so grotesquely

block the view

between me and my brother.

And, so, I always wonder:

can blindness be desired?

Then, what must the blinded eyes have seen

to wish to see no more!

For, I have seen,

in the eyes regarding me,

or regarding my brother,

have seen, deep in the farthest valley

of the eye, have seen

a flame leap up, then flicker and go out,

have seen a veil come down,

leaving myself, and the other,

alone in that cave

which every soul remembers, and

out of which, desperately afraid,

I turn, turn, stagger, stumble out,

into the healing air,

fall flat on the healing ground,

singing praises, counselling

my heart, my soul, to praise.

What is it that this people

cannot forget?

Surely, they cannot be deluded

as to imagine that their crimes

are original?

There is nothing in the least original

about the fiery tongs to the eyeballs,

the sex torn from the socket,

the infant ripped from the womb,

the brains dashed out against rock,

nothing original about Judas,

or Peter, or you or me: nothing:

we are liars and cowards all,

or nearly all, or nearly all the time:

for we also ride the lightning,

answer the thunder, penetrate whirlwinds,

curl up on the floor of the sun,

and pick our teeth with thunderbolts.

Then, perhaps they imagine

that their crimes are not crimes?

Perhaps.

Perhaps that is why they cannot repent,

why there is no possibility of repentance.

Manifest Destiny is a hymn to madness,

feeding on itself, ending

(when it ends) in madness:

the action is blindness and pain,

pain bringing a torpor so deep

that every act is willed,

is desperately forced,

is willed to be a blow:

the hand becomes a fist,

the prick becomes a club,

the womb a dangerous swamp,

the hope, and fear, of love

is acid in the marrow of the bone.

No, their fire is not quenched,

nor can be: the oil feeding the flames

being the unadmitted terror of the wrath of God.

Yes. But let us put it in another,

less theological way:

though theology has absolutely nothing to do

with what I am trying to say.

But the moment God is mentioned

theology is summoned

to buttress or demolish belief:

an exercise which renders belief irrelevant

and adds to the despair of Fifth Avenue

on any afternoon,

the people moving, homeless, through the city,

praying to find sanctuary before the sky

and the towers come tumbling down,

before the earth opens, as it does in Superman.

They know that no one will appear

to turn back time,

they know it, just as they know

that the earth has opened before

and will open again, just as they know

that their empire is falling, is doomed,

nothing can hold it up, nothing.

We are not talking about belief.

3

I wonder how they think

the niggers made, make it,

how come the niggers are still here.

But, then, again, I don’t think they dare

to think of that: no:

I’m fairly certain they don’t think of that at all.

Lord,

I with the alabaster lady of the house,

with Beulah.

Beulah about sixty, built in four-square,

biceps like Mohammed Ali,

she at the stove, fixing biscuits,

scrambling eggs and bacon, fixing coffee,

pouring juice, and the lady of the house,

she say, she don’t know how

she’d get along without Beulah

and Beulah just silently grunts,

I reckon you don’t,

and keeps on keeping on

and the lady of the house say

She’s just like one of the family,

and Beulah turns, gives me a look,

sucks her teeth and rolls her eyes

in the direction of the lady’s back, and

keeps on keeping on.

While they are containing

Russia

and entering onto the quicksand of

China

and patronizing

Africa,

and calculating

the Caribbean plunder, and

the South China Sea booty,

the niggers are aware that no one has discussed

anything at all with the niggers.

Well. Niggers don’t own nothing,

got no flag, even our names

are hand-me-downs

and you don’t change that

by calling yourself X:

sometimes that just makes it worse,

like obliterating the path that leads back

to whence you came, and

to where you can begin.

And, anyway, none of this changes the reality,

which is, for example, that I do not want my son

to die in Guantanamo,

or anywhere else, for that matter,

serving the Stars and Stripes.

(I’ve seen some stars.

I got some stripes.)

Neither (incidentally)

has anyone discussed the Bomb with the niggers:

the incoherent feeling is, the less

the nigger knows about the Bomb, the better:

the lady of the house

smiles nervously in your direction

as though she had just been overheard

discussing family, or sexual secrets,

and changes the subject to Education,

or Full Employment, or the Welfare rolls,

the smile saying, Don’t be dismayed.

We know how you feel. You can trust us.

Yeah. I would like to believe you.

But we are not talking about belief.

4

The sons of greed, the heirs of plunder,

are approaching the end of their journey:

it is amazing that they approach without wonder,

as though they have, themselves, become

that scorched and blasphemed earth,

the stricken buffalo, the slaughtered tribes,

the endless, virgin, bloodsoaked plain,

the famine, the silence, the children’s eyes,

murder masquerading as salvation, seducing

every democratic eye,

the mouths of truth and anguish choked with cotton,

rape delirious with the fragrance of magnolia,

the hacking of the fruit of their loins to pieces,

hey! the tar-baby sons and nephews, the high-yaller

nieces,

andTom’s black prick hacked off

to rustle in crinoline,

to hang, heaviest of heirlooms,

between the pink and alabaster breasts

of the Great Man’s Lady,

or worked into the sash at the waist

of the high-yaller Creole bitch, or niece,

a chunk of shining brown-black satin,

staring, staring, like the single eye of God:

creation yearns to re-create a time

when we were able to recognize a crime.

Alas,

my stricken kinsmen,

the party is over:

there have never been any white people,

anywhere: the trick was accomplished with mirrors—

look: where is your image now?

where your inheritance,

on what rock stands this pride?

Oh,

I counsel you,

leave History alone.

She is exhausted,

sitting, staring into her dressing-room mirror,

and wondering what rabbit, now,

to pull out of what hat,

and seriously considering retirement,

even though she knows her public

dare not let her go.

She must change.

Yes. History must change.

A slow, syncopated

relentless music begins

suggesting her re-entry,

transformed, virginal as she was,

in the Beginning, untouched,

as the Word was spoken,

before the rape which debased her

to be the whore of multitudes, or,

as one might say, before she became the Star,

whose name, above our title,

carries the Show, making History the patsy,

responsible for every flubbed line,

every missed cue, responsible for the life

and death, of all bright illusions

and dark delusions,

Lord, History is weary

of her unspeakable liaison with Time,

for Time and History

have never seen eye to eye:

Time laughs at History

and time and time and time again

Time traps History in a lie.

But we always, somehow, managed

to roar History back onstage

to take another bow,

to justify, to sanctify

the journey until now.

Time warned us to ask for our money back,

and disagreed with History

as concerns colours white and black.

Not only do we come from further back,

but the light of the Sun

marries all colours as one.

Kinsmen,

I have seen you betray your Saviour

(it is you who call Him Saviour)

so many times, and

I have spoken to Him about you,

behind your back.

Quite a lot has been going on

behind your back, and,

if your phone has not yet been disconnected,

it will soon begin to ring:

informing you, for example, that a whole generation,

in Africa, is about to die,

and a new generation is about to rise,

and will not need your bribes,

or your persuasions, any more:

not your morality. No plundered gold—

Ah! Kinsmen, if I could make you see

the crime is not what you have done to me!

It is you who are blind,

you, bowed down with chains,

you, whose children mock you, and seek another

master,

you, who cannot look man or woman or child in the

eye,

whose sleep is blank with terror,

for whom love died long ago,

somewhere between the airport and the safe-deposit

box,

the buying and selling of rising or falling stocks,

you, who miss Zanzibar and Madagascar and Kilimanjaro

and lions and tigers and elephants and zebras

and flying fish and crocodiles and alligators and

leopards

and crashing waterfalls and endless rivers,

flowers fresher than Eden, silence sweeter than the

grace of God,

passion at every turning, throbbing in the bush,

thicker, oh, than honey in the hive,

dripping

dripping

opening, welcoming, aching from toe to bottom

to spine,

sweet heaven on the line

to last forever, yes,

but, now,

rejoicing ends, man, a price remains to pay,

your innocence costs too much

and we can’t carry you on our books

or our backs, any longer: baby,

find another Eden, another apple tree,

somewhere, if you can,

and find some other natives, somewhere else,

to listen to you bellow

till you come, just like a man,

but we don’t need you,

are sick of being a fantasy to feed you,

and of being the principal accomplice to your

crime:

for, it is your crime, now, the cross to which you

cling,

your Alpha and Omega for everything.

Well (others have told you)

your clown’s grown weary, the puppet master

is bored speechless with this monotonous disaster,

and is long gone, does not belong to you,

any more than my woman, or my child,

ever belonged to you.

During this long travail

our ancestors spoke to us, and we listened,

and we tried to make you hear life in our song

but now it matters not at all to me

whether you know what I am talking about—or not:

I know why we are not blinded

by your brightness, are able to see you,

who cannot see us. I know

why we are still here.

Godspeed.

The niggers are calculating,

from day to day, life everlasting,

and wish you well:

but decline to imitate the Son of the Morning,

and rule in Hell.

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