Sidewalk Cafe Table Paper Napkin Poems

img_20161109_144329Afternoon walk close in and find a cafe with sidewalk tables to sit out with an espresso, on watch and wait.

Wait for some light that might soon start to seep through a cracked world.

World War II and the Nazi army advances on Paris. You can hear artillery fluster the banlieues. Do you try for a train or run the roads south with distraught families or take a table on the sidewalk of some tree hidden rue (for you are on the streets where all is rue) and order an espresso and write a poem on a napkin:

And the poem on the paper tablecloth is perhaps as typical of the way Prevert got around in France in the min-Forties as it is of his poetry itself – a poetry (his worst critics will tell you) which is perfectly suited to paper tablecloths, and existing always on as fine a line between sentiment and sentimentality as any that Charlie Chaplin ever teetered on.¹

When I was inducted into my Guard unit, the 140th Engineer Company, in 1969, they were still packing the M1 Garand rifle. Before firing, we learned to disassemble and reassemble the eleven part trigger housing group. The M1 was a fine weapon, as Woody Allen’s Hemingway character in “Midnight in Paris” might have said, but of course didn’t – that was Paris of the 1920s. The M1 was heavier than its successor the M14, which I was introduced to at Fort Bliss, but you fired them both like rifles, sighting in and taking aim, adjusting elevation and windage. The M16 seemed a light, plastic toy in comparison; you pointed it and sprayed. Even as a kid I was attentive and sensitive to words, but it wasn’t until Basic Combat Training that I realized the unique place nomenclature played from certain perspectives – the naming of things, the naming of parts, in particular, and how, in certain circumstances, you couldn’t simply go to a thesaurus for synonyms as variable substitutes. You had to find the real right word.

Henry Reed’s poem “The Naming of Parts,” from “Lessons of the War,” illustrates the uses of proper nomenclature, and of paying attention:

Today we have naming of parts. Yesterday,
We had daily cleaning. And tomorrow morning,
We shall have what to do after firing. But today,
Today we have naming of parts. Japonica
Glistens like coral in all of the neighboring gardens,
And today we have naming of parts.

This is the lower sling swivel. And this
Is the upper sling swivel, whose use you will see,
When you are given your slings. And this is the piling swivel,
Which in your case you have not got. The branches
Hold in the gardens their silent, eloquent gestures,
Which in our case we have not got.

This is the safety-catch, which is always released
With an easy flick of the thumb. And please do not let me
See anyone using his finger. You can do it quite easy
If you have any strength in your thumb. The blossoms
Are fragile and motionless, never letting anyone see
Any of them using their finger.

And this you can see is the bolt. The purpose of this
Is to open the breech, as you see. We can slide it
Rapidly backwards and forwards: we call this
Easing the spring. And rapidly backwards and forwards
The early bees are assaulting and fumbling the flowers
They call it easing the Spring.

They call it easing the Spring: it is perfectly easy
If you have any strength in your thumb: like the bolt,
And the breech, and the cocking-piece, and the point of balance,
Which in our case we have not got; and the almond-blossom
Silent in all of the gardens and the bees going backwards and forwards,
For today we have naming of parts.²

Whatever you happened to be holding at Fort Bliss in the fall of that year, M1, M14, M16, the proper nomenclature called for but one word: weapon. Call it a gun, and you got down with it for 20 or 30 pushups, kissing its butt and calling out, “One, Drill Sergeant; Two, Drill Sergeant”; etc. If you dropped it, you got down with it again. If you set it aside or missed-placed it, you were accused of having a taste for self-abuse, and got down with it again.

Help Wanted: Poet – Must be good at naming things

img_20161111_121309In his November 14, 2016 Financial Page article for The New Yorker, “What’s in a Brand Name?,” a one-page gem, James Surowiecki anecdotally mentions the time Ford asked the poet Marianne Moore to come up with a name for one of its new cars. She came up with a bunch, all rejected. Sometimes, the key to naming something successfully is found in the action word sublimate. But it is called advertising. Advertisements are arguments in which attempts are made to persuade us to do something that probably won’t be good for us. So we might, for example, get Arthur Godfrey telling us what kind of cigarette is best for us. Borrowing someone’s credibility to pitch your argument is a tricky business. Scholars describe it as a means of persuasion called ethos; others may call it a slang profanity, remain unpersuaded, and know it’s best to choose your own cigarette.

“They are playing a game,” R. D. Laing opens the first knot of his Knots:

They are playing at not
playing a game. If I show them I see they are, I
shall break the rules and they will punish me.
I must play their game, of not seeing I see the game.³

img_20161110_145049It’s fall, and soon winter will come in, and most of the cafes locally will move their sidewalk tables and chairs indoors, and it will be harder walking and wandering to find a place to sit out with an espresso in what might remain of the afternoon light (in the Northwest, the world is also cracked, but in winter, that’s how the water gets in). A certain discomfort is a necessary good for some kinds of writing.

Over the past week or so we visited several cafes for an afternoon espresso at a sidewalk table in the waning light of fall, hoping for some inspiration from the general rue for a paper napkin poem. Alas, we got no paper napkin poems. But we got some sidewalk espresso music, and enjoyed a few clean, well-lit places, and took a few pics we offer here in lieu of napkin poems.

¹ From “Translator’s Note” (1964) Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s introduction to City Lights Books The Pocket Poets Series: Number Nine, “Selections from Paroles,” by Jacques Prevert, San Francisco, July 1958, Sixth Printing February 1968.

² Reed, Henry. “Naming of Parts.” New Statesman and Nation 24, no. 598 (8 August 1942): 92 (.pdf).

³ “Knots,” by R. D. Laing, Vintage Books edition, April 1972, page 1. Originally published by Pantheon Books in 1971.

The Political Fray Replay

What does it mean to “vote one’s conscience”? Isn’t the conscience that comfortable place where sleeps one’s presuppositions, unquestioned assumptions, background biases, wishes, wants, and whimsy?

James Joyce was three months old when in May of 1882 two high-level government men associated with British rule were assassinated in what came to be called the Phoenix Park murders. The resulting fallout probably delayed home rule decades, destroyed more lives and families, fed family arguments over politics for decades, was absorbed into history and myth. Charles Stewart Parnell’s career faced new challenges, and Parnell’s early death was a tragedy for Ireland.

In “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man,” Joyce’s Stephen recalls his family arguments arising from the topic –

That was called politics. There were two sides in it: Dante was on one side and his father and Mr. Casey were on the other side but his mother and Uncle Charles were on no side. Every day there was something in the paper about it.

It pained him that he did not know well what politics meant and that he did not know where the universe ended. He felt small and weak. When would he be like the fellows in Poetry and Rhetoric? They had big voices and big boots and they studied trigonometry.

Joyce’s Stephen, in “Portrait” and again in “Ulysses,” considers himself the servant of two masters, the Church and British rule. Stephen wants nothing to do with either. That Britain has its own church separate from Ireland’s complicates issues:

— Really, Simon, you should not speak that way before Stephen. It’s not right.

— Oh, he’ll remember all this when he grows up, said Dante hotly, the language he heard against God and religion and priests in his own home.

— Let him remember too, cried Mr Casey to her from across the table, the language with which the priests and the priests’ pawns broke Parnell’s heart and hounded him into his grave. Let him remember that too when he grows up.

— Sons of bitches! cried Mr Dedalus. When he was down they turned on him to betray him and rend him like rats in a sewer. Lowlived dogs! And they look it! By Christ, they look it!

— They behaved rightly, cried Dante. They obeyed their bishops and their priests. Honour to them!

— Well, it is perfectly dreadful to say that not even for one day in the year, said Mrs Dedalus, can we be free from these dreadful disputes!

Uncle Charles raised his hands mildly and said :

— Come now, come now, come now ! Can we not have our opinions whatever they are without this bad temper and this bad language? It is too bad surely.

Mrs Dedalus spoke to Dante in a low voice but Dante said loudly:

— I will not say nothing. I will defend my church and my religion when it is insulted and spit on by renegade catholics.

Mr Casey pushed his plate rudely into the middle of the table and, resting his elbows before him, said in a hoarse voice to his host:

— Tell me, did I tell you that story about a very famous spit?

The young Steve tries to understand the arguments, the claims and evidence and reasoning. He does not name the fallacies, not yet:

Stephen looked with affection at Mr Casey’s face which stared across the table over his joined hands. He liked to sit near him at the fire, looking up at his dark fierce face. But his dark eyes were never fierce and his slow voice was good to listen to. But why was he then against the priests? Because Dante must be right then. But he had heard his father say that she was a spoiled nun … Perhaps that made her severe against Parnell. And she did not like him to play with Eileen because Eileen was a protestant and when she was young she knew children that used to play with protestants and the protestants used to make fun of the litany of the Blessed Virgin. Tower of Ivory, they used to say, House of Gold! How could a woman be a tower of ivory or a house of gold? Who was right then ? And he remembered the evening in the infirmary in Clongowes, the dark waters, the light at the pierhead and the moan of sorrow from the people when they had heard.

Stephen tries to understand the allegiances:

He was for Ireland and Parnell and so was his father and so was Dante too for one night at the band on the esplanade she had hit a gentleman on the head with her umbrella because he had taken off his hat when the band played God save the Queen at the end.

But all the young Steven can really understand and what seems to stick with him over the years are the tears:

At the door Dante turned round violently and shouted down the room, her cheeks flushed and quivering with rage :

— Devil out of hell! We won! We crushed him to death! Fiend!

The door slammed behind her.

Mr Casey, freeing his arms from his holders, suddenly bowed his head on his hands with a sob of pain.

— Poor Parnell! he cried loudly. My dead king! He sobbed loudly and bitterly.

Stephen, raising his terrorstricken face, saw that his father’s eyes were full of tears.

The older Stephen decides not to join the political argument, but will devote himself to his art, his writing:

 A tide began to surge beneath the calm surface of Stephen ‘s friendliness.

— This race and this country and this life produced me, he said. I shall express myself as I am.

— Try to be one of us, repeated Davin. In your heart you are an Irishman but your pride is too powerful.

— My ancestors threw off their language and took another, Stephen said. They allowed a handful of foreigners to subject them. Do you fancy I am going to pay in my own life and person debts they made? What for?

— For our freedom, said Davin.

— No honourable and sincere man, said Stephen, has given up to you his life and his youth and his affections from the days of Tone to those of Parnell but you sold him to the enemy or failed him in need or reviled him and left him for another. And you invite me to be one of you. I’d see you damned first.

— They died for their ideals, Stevie, said Davin. Our day will come yet, believe me.

Stephen, following his own thought, was silent for an instant.

— The soul is born, he said vaguely, first in those moments I told you of. It has a slow and dark birth, more mysterious than the birth of the body. When the soul of a man is born in this country there are nets flung at it to hold it back from flight. You talk to me of nationality, language, religion. I shall try to fly by those nets.

 

Poem for Ones Who Know One When They See One

What W. H. Auden said
“In Memory of W. B. Yeats,”
not modified in the “guts”
or on the blog:
“For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives”
so there it is,
no one need worry.

“Encore! Encore! More! More!”
OK, ok, settle down;
this is no time for pathos, but,
“Wild nights – Wild Nights!”
Emily Dickinson reasoned,
racked with want on the windy,
open sea of her dainty,

daunting room of gloom,
and who knew better even
than the audible Auden
how poetry makes nothing
happen, again and again,
like seizures,
and so I give you this, this wildcalm night:

Poem for Ones
Who Know One
When
They See One:

Poem for Ones

Privacy Poem

Where do we get this notion
of privacy?
Is privacy a value,
or is privacy a virtue?

If privacy is a value,
it’s simply a worth
we want, and what we want
is not always what is good
for us:
we want alcohol,
tobacco, and firearms;
fast cars with sound
so loud we need
earplugs;
instant accesses
to tête-à-tête boxes
where we spy
on our bosses.

But is privacy a virtue,
like love, patience, for
giveness,
joy of living, or courage
to befriend?

Abuse of surveillance
does not make a virtue
of privacy,
just as, as Ivan Illich
explained,
protection
is not the same as
safety.

But getting back
to privacy:
we want to be seen
and heard at the party
but not in the morning
when the porcelain white
face throws up
its image in the little pond.

The poet wants to be read:
“Read me! Read me!”
But the words seem so
private,
no way to enter
the text.
“I’m in here!”
the poet exclaims,
as if from the depths
of some Xanadu privy,
and when we hear
the roller of big cigars,
his call a private scream
behind a rude screen,
we know the poem
is finished
and about
to go
public.

In public the words squirm
for privacy, wriggling
across the page
heading
for a clear margin.

IMG_20151023_131339

Poetics and Politics: Notes on “Poets for Corbyn,” a Berfrois e-Chapbook

This MachineIs poetry a sturdy platform for political action? Aren’t poets the ones following rabbits down holes? Jumping into ponds to hug moons? Talking blather and twittering sentiments to one another across an inky night? Politicians often twist tongues, glossolalia filling their cheeks, but what they speak is not usually considered poetry.

Poets for Corbyn,” another e-chapbook from Berfrois, features 21 poems by 20 poets, edited by Russell Bennetts. The poems are unified by their support for Jeremy Corbyn (1949), a member of the UK parliament and of the Labour Party, and currently standing to be Labour’s Leader. US readers might be accurate in aligning Corbyn with their own Bernie Sanders.

Mixing poetics and politics reminds me of the note Woody Guthrie taped to his guitar in 1943: “This Machine Kills Fascists.” If music and culture critic Greil Marcus is right, and the guitar is not a machine and it does not kill fascists, then poetry is not a fit medium for political activism. But why does Marcus take Woody’s note so literally? Guthrie knew the difference between figurative and literal language, but he also knew that even the white lettered on red background STOP sign is an argument, even if only occasionally a driver passes through it with some disagreement.

Maybe one of the most politically effective signifying messages in “Poets for Corbyn” is Nick Telfer’s “For the Love of God.” A concrete poem, it evokes a rally chant where we hear the single slogan “No Blair” shouted repeatedly, 21 times in a black and white grid: noblair; no noblesse – shares of rights and duties are equal.

That Woody labeled his guitar a machine is more than a nod to labor and unions. Woody was a machinist, manufacturing messages in song – in song because song is what people (as in The People) hear and respond to and remember. And song is poetry. Poetry stirs pathos, and it’s pathos that gets politicians elected, pathos that goes to war, pathos that sacrifices, pathos that bangs the drum slowly and paddles the boat and joins the march and walks down the line.

How do the poems in “Poets for Corbyn” sound? What forms are employed? What characteristics of poetry are in evidence? Are the poems difficult to understand (i.e. modern or postmodern and such)? Are the poems all polemical?

Some of the poems might be considered polemical. From Michael Rosen’s “For Jeremy Corbyn”:

“celebrating an economic system
that was developed and finessed
with the use of child labour around 1810
…they tell us that socialism is outdated.”

Some of the poems sound traditional, employing stanzas with rhyme, as in Michael Schmidt’s “Until I Built the Wall,” a kind of ballad narrative:

“Until I built the wall they did not find me
Sweet anarchy! tending quietly
To wild birds or picking the blackberry.”

Some of the poems in “Poets for Corbyn” are clear and concise, but with irony spreading like tattoos, as in Helen Ivory’s “Doll Hospital at the Top of the Hill”:

“Take her to the doll hospital;
restring the limbs with slipknots
fill the skull with lint
clean out the craze lines on her face
and paint on a 1940s smile.”

Some of the poems are painfully forthright. Reminding me of the ruined hopes of George McGovern’s 1972 US Presidential campaign, is Andy Jackson’s “Unelectable”:

“I represent the things you want but cannot say,
the ideology of why the hell not; socialism redux,
neither new nor old, not clean or compromised
but human to its heart, and that could be enough.”

Of course, in 1972, the human heart was not enough. Will it ever be enough? A heart needs a voice, as illustrated in Nicholas Murray’s “J. C.”:

“Corbyn’s no knight in shining vest,
or bright Messiah from the West
(he’d say)
but someone who has found a way to voice
a fractured country’s need for choice,
to say we’ll make another kind of noise:
No way!

That “No way!” is a call for solidarity, expanded upon in Erik Kennedy’s (long-titled) “Growing Fears That the Leadership Contest Has Been Hijacked by Far-Left Infiltrators”:

“and if in your entire life
you’ve had
no-one to identify with
who wasn’t first and last
a danger to the good
through well-meaning compromise,

if you can agree to this,
resignedly but definitely,
you might be a socialist.”

The austerity buzzword is taken down by Becky Cherriman’s “Austerity”:

“Hear it scutter
along the guttering of offices
in the bins behind Waitrose,
the thorned bushes at the playground’s edge –
a language devised by the high-born
to parch the lips of those with less.”

In place of austerity, Josephine Corcoran suggests a “Coat” of hope:

“A woman filled with the gladness of living
refused to be suspicious of hope….
Deep inside the coat,
the woman held on to the goodness of people.”

And of opposing viewpoints, the kind that lead to divorce? From Erin Belieu’s “Poem of Philosophical and Parental Conundrums Written in An Election Year”:

“And that’s what you call the realpolitik in action
when it comes to divorce, wherein the rubber hits
the ‘blended’ family’s road. But since I’m not…
…and I’m thinking
maybe I got it right this time…
…the obstinate and beautiful mystery
that every soul ends up being to every other.”

The poems in “Poets for Corbyn” are unified by their call for solidarity in support of a purposeful cause. For that call to be successful, the politics must not be subsumed by the poetics. There is tension here, no doubt. Woody’s machined message was made to defy backstabbing political machinations. At the same time, real machines made real weapons used in a real war, and a military industrial complex prevailed. But Woody knew that, even as Marcus does. “What did you learn in school today?” Tom Paxton sang.

Over at Berfrois, readers may download for free an electronic copy of “Poets for Corbyn.” There are several covers readers may choose from; I liked the one with the blue bicycle.

“Poets for Corbyn”, edited by Russell Bennetts, Pendant Publishing, London, UK, 2015. ISBN 978-09928034-5-2. V2.0. 34 pages, with poems by Tom Pickard, Michael Rosen, Pascale Petit, Ian Birchall, Michael Schmidt, Marion McCready, Nick Telfer, Rory Waterman, Helen Ivory, Iain Galbraith, Andy Jackson, Nicholas Murray, Alec Finlay, Erik Kennedy, Ian Pindar, Becky Cherriman, Josephine Corcoran, Natalie Chin, Ernest Schonfield, and Erin Belieu. Covers by Evan Johnston @evn_johnston.

Mkgnao!9: Alien Cats from Outer Space (A Minidrama)

Mkgnao!9

Abducted by alien cats from outer space and whisked away to a faraway planet then shot back to Earth from a circus cannon cocked with physicist rubber string theory, a cat cannonball, Scamble tries to interest Cramble in a tabloid worthy extraterrestrial tale!

Cramble: [Silence]

Scamble: “And you have nothing to say?!”

Cramble: “Does this have something to do with my recent cloture motion?”

Scamble: “No! The cat planet is called Mkgnao!9. It’s all bushes and trees, birds and fish, and dunes of kitty litter. It’s a cat’s paradise. Everyone there is a hep cat!”

Cramble: “If all are hep, none is hep.”

Scamble: “Nonetheless, no matter what radio station you play, Mantovani! The planet is lush with the sounds of birds and strings and bugs flirting about hither and thither and streams of white wine full of fish on the lark. I’m thinking of moving to Mkgnao!9. Do you want to go with me?”

Cramble: “Sounds too good to be true. What’s the catch? I’ll bet there’s a downside.”

Scamble: “Their oceans are filling with used kitty litter.”

Cramble: “Making it difficult to know how to pack. In any case, how will you get back to Mkgnao!9 if the hep space cats don’t come pick you up again?”

Scamble: “Silence, Exile, and Cunning.”

Cramble: “Here you go with that James Joyce cheap cheat imitation literary allusion stuff again. Anyway, I don’t get the connection.”

Scamble: “Joyce is the patron saint of cats up on Mkgnao!9.”

Cramble: “Lucky Jim.”

Scamble: “I’m going to write a memoir about my Mkgnao!9 experience!”

Cramble: “Sounds wild. I’ve heard the memoir form is popular these days. I was thinking of writing one, but I can’t seem to get past chapter one, “Begot to Nap.” But why don’t you create something new? Wasn’t that the gist of Joyce’s gig, to repair in the garage of his brain the broken bicycle of his island, rally the folks to a new way of riding, or words to that effect?”

Scamble: “I just did!”

Cramble: “Did what?”

Scamble: “Create something new!”

Cramble: “What?”

Scamble: “Mkgnao!9!”

Cramble: “It’s a good thing the id is kept out of sight.”

Scamble: “Do cats have an id?”

Cramble: “Everything’s got an id, if only you can find it.”

A Cat’s Argument

A Cat's Argument

“Aren’t you hot sitting on that heater vent?”

“Alas, summer so fast has passed.”

“Yawn. Fall curls my tail and bristles my fur. Just yesterday you were complaining of the heat and wondering if summer would never end.”

“Shelley was right: ‘We look before and after and pine for what is not.’”

“I once lived in a basement room paneled in knotty pine.”

“I’ll bet it was not when you finished with it.”

“I rebut that. The finish was sprayed shellac. I used to rub against it a good polish.”

“Why can’t cats live without argument?”

“Who says they can’t? Cite your sources if you’re going to talk to me like that.”

“An old cat’s empirical knowledge.”

“Remember that imperialist cat came into our yard?”

“Can facts suffice? Or must cats argue?”

“Argument is a fact of life, a must.”

“How does meaning behave in an argument?”

“Meaning is an alley cat on the prowl and up to no good.”

“Is every text an argument, every argument a trick, every text a test?”

“You ask a lot of hollow questions.”

“I once lived in a hollow.”

“Have you ever been back?”

“Does Theory eschew the behavior of meaning?”

“Go ask a theorist.”

“Do theorists like cats?”

“I suppose some might, but they all want to know how and why we purr.”

“Where do assumptions come from?”

“Assume I don’t know, and wake me up when winter has passed.”

“What a flock of lucky theorists who can fly south for the winter.”

“Have they anything to say to us?”

“I don’t know. Anyway, it’s too hot in the south.”

“It’s going to be too hot in here, too, if you don’t move off that heater vent.”