Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Remembering Memphis

It was 1968 and not enough people had been killed. James Meredith and Medgar Evers had been shot, but not enough cannon fodder in Vietnam or Iraq, nor Bobby Kennedy, nor many good people to come and suddenly be taken from us, not enough for us to realize how terrified we were of change, of the emptiness at the core of our selfhood. My brother hadn’t done a U-turn from being in The Resistance and burning his draft card to becoming a right wing Christian Conservative and saying, “Nothing in the 60s was worth spit.” For all the screaming idealistic rhetoric, we still had no idea how hollow authority was or how much anxiety and denial ran through the nation’s psyche. Recently married, I’d come to know the pangs of possession and bigotry inside myself, how hard it was to let go, especially of nothing. I had woke up enough to rail at the power structure but not enough to understand its insatiable appetite and infinite capacity for deceit, murder and crime. That would come later after we knew "THE REST of the story" on Vietnam, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Panama, the Economic Hit Men, the promotion of the Kurdish uprising, Rumsfeld shaking hands with Saddam, pedophilia and denial in the Catholic Church. O everybody knows, the fix is in, and you know how it goes, once you start defending a weak ego.

The Memphis Garbage Workers’ Strike was on, Martin Luther King had been shot, just as he had begun to speak out on Vietnam and discrimination in the North. His body lay there on the hotel balcony, legs sprawled out, knees bent, as if doing the limbo on the floor---he was in THAT much PAIN! I thought (“Help me!” he cried, just like I do even when I know there’s nobody there, nobody there at all).

Marriage was hell for me. I remember it as a lump of pain and anger I carried around in my chest for years, because I’d never had to accommodate another person in my life before. My communication skills worked with adolescent gang kids but not at home, where I was still the adolescent. How dare she be so different from me!? “What is this earth,” I wrote in my notebook on the plane, “that we live on it in all its seasons and humiliations?” I was a Street Club Worker for the New York City Youth Board, and my union offered to send a few of us to Memphis to march with the Garbage Workers. I used to sing (and do riffs on paper and comb to)

“If Beale Street could talk
If Beale Street could talk
Married men would have to
Take their beds and walk.”

But I never knew the Memphis of Memphis Slim and the other blues artists I listened to, could be so blue, so soft and moist in the morning, white people so defensive or overly apologetic or belligerent, blacks with that beaten look in their eyes…as if they also were in a bad marriage. “We were killing each other.” She told me later. But we thought it was love. And I guess it was, we just didn’t know much about love. The white people on the sidewalk weren’t screaming “Nigger Lover!” so much now that Martin was dead. They just stared at this aftermath and at us like we were some utterly alien funeral procession for some foreign dignitary. There was so much grief and poverty in their faces too, you would have thought, if you thought about it at all, there just wasn’t enough of anything to go around, and it was everybody’s shame.

I remember Memphis, today, 1/15/07, 39 years after the fact, as a central fact of my life, divorced and broken and patched up & bolted together like Frankenstein (ARRGGG!)in so many ways I never thought possible, betrayed by every possible authority, still struggling anonymously in a daily battle for survival. And I remember the signs saying, “I AM A MAN". I remember Martin, as the man who made more sense for me than Malcolm when I was walking in the 60 feet of pavement between two rival gangs in Brooklyn, and I remember the doctor who did the autopsy saying he had the heart of a 60 year old man, he was that worn down from the struggle. I hope there's nothing horribly wrong with that, because I AM a 60 year old man now and I too need to say I AM A MAN, but I’ve done relatively nothing, just carried my little sign to swell that throng, with nothing to say, just overwhelmed then as now by the endless pathos, what the other needs, little hands reaching for comfort, food, or just to be OK. And it can’t be OK. Did he, did we do all that just to die as the planet burns up in a cascade effect of combined feedback loops betrayed even by the authority of the scientific method, each study locked in its own narrow spectrum of data, all the estimates of ice melt at least a 100% too low, nobody watching the store?

Then as now, some used Jesus for power, some used Jesus for peace---and there can’t be any peace. We can’t repair the human heart that much--and some, like me, just want to say anything just to hear themselves talk. The hostess at the Chinese Restaurant tonight said suddenly, out of the blue,

“Are you a writer?”

“Sometimes I’m a writer,” I said amused, “most of the time I’m just a scribbler.”

But include this in the record, and never forget, the tacit blessings of trees and grass and flowers and dark, rich soil, that morning in 1968 in Memphis, and a black woman in a torn sweatshirt leaning against a doorway to one of those ramshackle houses forever weeping the silence of the ages no man has ever questioned without consequences.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

What's Left?

Do not be fooled by the smell of roses
Fresh cut grass, trees
Do not be fooled
Life is not that kind
The ice will still melt but

we can have a party
While we watch the waters rise
“More ice anybody?”
like interest compounded every second
in one giant feedback loop
and so exponentially
faster than scientists
each stuck in his own
cubbyhole of calculation can assume

traffic will back up on the freeway
near sunset for no good reason
no more than a year after it was built
UFOs will be sighted &
Will speed off too busy to be bothered
With our stupidity

Do not be fooled
There will still be such great & awe inspiring
Distances that say
There is nothing to say
Between them and us and
She and
You and
Me and

Consciousness may indeed be
Manifesting its self in matter
But matter as we all know
Can be very dense witness
(as I do)
tonite the president’s speech
not even addressing the points
of the loyal opposition:

how to repair the errors of debaathification
how to help a country in a civil war
how to help one sect without inflaming the others
corruption on our side and theirs
the concerns of the Iraqis for the independence
necessary for governance

and the usual voices
chatter on & on, on the radio
as if they knew something
while species, forests and wetlands
disappear I fold
my hands and listen

dutifully because
that’s all I’m given as a way of participating
in history and I notice the marks
of age & hard work on them and wonder
what for?

And the guy in the coat is still waiting
For the bus
That never seems to come
In this town

And café windows stare blankly
Without their college kids
Chattering blandly like flocks
Of gulls on shit
Splattered rocks by the ocean

Alpha males and alpha females
Still lead us down trails of alpha tears
And arrears pretending to even more wisdom
Than our stupid genes tell us they have

I am not fooled tho
What I find to believe in
In these last sad days
Full of seemingly intentionally stupid leaders
Is the intelligence of nature

Tho our genes that make it marginally
Self reflexive may be a flash
In the cosmic pan still there are
Artists who work with it

There is the feel, smell & sight of vegetables
In the market
Faces on the street
Animals and their invisible connection to us
And the whole like it was all one
Vast vibrating sympathy

And---intensified even
By its brevity----the wonder
Of being here
At all.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

The Christmas Train
(or not so free association)

I buy two suitcases at a thrift store
and fill them with performance props
which will be so sad if I never perform again
and it could be sad for a long time to come
because I figure I may never die
because I can never find anything that fits me
in a thrift store
the drunk Tohono O’odham at the door
begs for change
I give it him as I‘d give it you
if you were begging for chocolate
but nothing is what it seems
I can’t fix this mess with my bad dreams
and everything lost
is found again
and goes round and round
in my poor old echoing brain

Bing Crosby’s everywhere these days
Selling pretty faces and happy families
Except at the world trade center
The Vietnam war memorial
The border fence
And Auschwitz and Berkenwald
But I’d like to hear white Christmas there
Just to richen up the egg nogg
And the irony
He was always such a grouch
And he beat his children
And he’s been dead fifty years
And he still owns more Christmas
Than Jesus
And it only hurts if you know too much
Like the guy in the detective novel
Who gets a pair of cement shoes
Or a really bad case of the Christmas blues
All this and more than mortal tongue can tell
Goes round and round a crazy carousel
Whose merry tunes can’t drown out the rain
That pounds and pounds
On my poor old echoing brain

Christmas wrappings and toys and TV sounds
Screams and loud talk are thrown over the fence
By my section 8 neighbors
Trash all over the street when the garbage truck comes
I love it
The way they slop all over lurching like drunken
Dancers so real so much the way
It is what it is
And that’s show biz
But gee whiz
Does it have to be so stupid
And especially in the rain?
O babe it ain’t no thang
Just some messed up music
From my poor old echoing brain

At New Years there’s always a party
Where we have the appliance toss and the baby
Toss and toss
Back a few
For all those who fell in love
With blue
On that wild roller coaster ride
Down the mental drain
To suicide
Sylvia Plath and Curt Cobain
Jim Jones and Hart Crane
Ray Johnson and all the lesser knowns
Who were just as insane whose bones
Pile up like all the sad old trains
Echoing down the distances
of the morning rain
I asked my shrink time and again
How do you stop a train
That just keeps on going round
And round
In your poor old echoing brain?

--------She said,
each self is locked in its own personal narrative
Each ego fed according to the politics of the dream censor
Each representative lost in its own representations
Each brain echoing the particular wounds and triumphs of its animal body
(equals ego equals a dog’s legs kicking in its sleep)
(and the memory of old nights in the rain
just goes around and around in my poor old echoing brain)

each bio a fabrication and worn like a medal of honor
given by one’s own personal government
each of us damaged and still surviving the disaster of being
thrown into the world crying and gasping for breath
(and the cold drizzly rain
just keeps on pounding
on my poor old echoing brain.)

I met a National Guardsman
Who’s been in Kosovo and Iraq
And is getting called up again
So proud of his competence
So careful and concerned for his men
Good soldiers in a bad war
They’re always with us
Never asking what they’re really
Fighting for
All because the world is so poor
When their soldier patients die the medics
Stand at attention as the broken body
Is carried out
We must all answer the call
These holiday sentiments can be recycled
Tsunami and Katrina victims and all
Just throw them out in the cold freezing rain
To go round and round
In my poor old echoing brain.

I sent a pome to Leonard Peltier in prison
He never answered, I guess there was just nothing
Left to say after Clinton pardoned that scumbag
Charlie Rich instead of Leonard
And my customer’s pissed at me
As I at him and there’s hell to pay
Over the basic outrage of individual
Differences. What went wrong?
How’d he turn out so different from me?
Life is sweet
If you don’t smell your feet
But some people
Should never meet
While high above the Arizona/Nevada
Desert Adrien Heisey takes pictures
Of dunes and runes and solitudes
Where I used to long for company
And now it just makes me feel overwhelmed
Evidence of so much nothing
At work again
In my poor old echoing brain

Wears me down
But I gotta remember
It’s a relative term
Invented by little bitty people who
Need to think they’re big
But they just keep
Knock knock knocking
On my brain
Torches in one hand
Tar and feathers in the other
Invested with the power of god
Just like my brother
Knock knock knocking on my brain
Like Rush Limbaugh
Rapping on the table and the
Microphone trying to pretend
He isn’t all alone
In a séance with his dead self, impossibly
Vain and all
In vain
O you know how it goes
Round and round
My poor old echoing brain