Tag Archive: politics


Our Government Shouldn’t Default on its Youth and Seniors

(PHOTO: Reuters)

This weekend’s forecast is rife with symbolism. Take the snarling sky and the thunderheads rumbling through the district.

Take the flash floods, the pounding winds, the power outages. And what you have is a local storm analogous to the one in Congress that shutdown the government last week, leaving this country’s defenseless citizens to wonder what this means for intergenerational programs.

Among those effected is the USDA’s Commodity Supplemental Food Program — which, in addition to serving 40 states and two Native American reservations — benefits Kent County, Michigan’s 1,300 low-income elderly. This older adult group is over 60 with an annual income below $15,000. According to NPR’s All Things Considered, the weekly food packages “include some dried milk, pasta and two different types of juice.”

This national impasse hit North Carolina’s Piedmont Triad Regional Council, trimming staff at the Area Agency on Aging (AAA). During the shutdown, the AAA reduced its full-time employees’ work hours by 25 percent, while temporarily laying off part-time staff. This limits or delays the agency’s ability to empower seniors and disabled people by affecting change in existing policies.

(ARTWORK: David Horsey)

If this shutdown continues, it could drain funds from the Older Americans Act (OAA) that secures physical and mental health services, retirement income and housing for older generations, while protecting them against ageism in hiring practices. The OAA also helps youth through its National Family Caregiver Support Program (NFCSP), which allows state agencies to use 10 percent of program-allocated funds to support grandfamilies, or households with caregivers over 55 raising a related young person.

Across the country, rental assistance programs aren’t sure how they’ll survive if the political deadlock, which stalled activity at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, stretches into November. These voucher services aid grandparent caregivers, who already face barriers to housing access (“More than 1 in 4 older caregivers live in overcrowded conditions,” according to Generations United, while “more than 1 in 6 pay over half their income in rent”).

It’s times like these, I wish Hubert Humphrey was here to lend Congress his common sense. “The moral test of government,” according to the former Vice President, “is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; and those who are in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy and the handicapped.” This was Humphrey calling on the American government to protect its vulnerable citizens.

(PHOTO: Stock Image)

A global example of helping the defenseless is The Girl Declaration, which fights intergenerational poverty by tapping into the potential of adolescent girls, who too often are without educational resources.

“Bringing together the thinking of 508 girls living in poverty across the globe with the expertise of more than 25 of the world’s leading development organisations, the Girl Declaration is our tool to stop poverty before it starts,” according to girleffect.org.

If three foundations and a coalition can start a movement that helps young girls abroad, there’s no reason Congress can’t help struggling households at home. To make matters worse, the U.S. is at risk of defaulting if legislators don’t raise the debt ceiling.

Last Thursday, AARP President Robert Romasco explained to Bloomberg TV’s “Market Makers” how a default catastrophically affects seniors hard. “It puts every single obligation we have — from bonds, to social security payments, to contractors — at risk,” said Romasco, whose organization lobbies for 37 million older adults. “Somebody’s not going to get paid. That could be social security recipients, it could be veterans, it could be bond holders.”

That’s why it’s important, more than ever, for some serious soul-searching on Capitol Hill. They can take a cue from Mahatma Gandhi, who once said: “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.” Let’s hope Congress loses itself doing what’s right.

Last night, I watched Clint Eastwood talk to an empty chair that stood in as President Obama. He asked a piece of furniture for explanations about his “failed” policies, then answered his own questions. This passed for humor with the convention audience as they laughed ‘til their faces turned red.

The entire time I couldn’t help but think Clint Eastwood showed his age—”Dirty Harry” had morphed into an angry old man, who looked disheveled and out-of-place. At times, I wondered if he knew where he was. And his stunt with that chair didn’t help. Instead, Eastwood came off as the mentally disturbed guy you see in parks, mumbling to himself and the birds.

I was sure an aide would come up and gently take Eastwood by the arm and guide him away from the podium. His stunt with the chair, however, was telling of the Romney-Ryan campaign and their supporters. Like Eastwood and the other speakers at the 2012 Republican National Convention, most Republicans continue to see things that aren’t there, like Romney’s credentials and his chances of becoming president.

They saw substance in a convention, where the speeches were hollow. None of the speakers gave real reasons for why Mitt Romney should be president (even Olympians at the convention struggled to make the case by recounting how the Republican presidential nominee saved the 2002 Olympic Games). Two nights ago, the Romney campaign played a video of former presidents George H.W. Bush and his son, George W. Bush. They talked about their times as president and what it took to sit in the Oval Office. The video felt more like a tribute to Bush Sr.’s service in office instead of making the case for what Romney will do for Americans.

When Bush Jr. declared Mitt Romney the person to bring America around, Bush Sr. had that glazed look that Clint Eastwood had when he stared out at the convention audience. When it was his turn to speak, all elder Bush could say about why Romney should be president was that “he’s a good man.”

Clint Eastwood and the convention crowd were only able to see everything they thought President Obama did wrong with the economy—his “failed” stimulus plan; his failure to keep the GM plant in Janesville, Wisconsin, functioning; the deficit he caused along with a host of other things corrected by FactCheck.org.

(ARTWORK: Mitt Romney and GST Steel)

I’ll bet the folks at that non-partisan, “consumer advocacy” nonprofit haven’t worked as hard as they did at the 2012 Republican National Convention. The most recent “false claims” and “misleading statements” was Vice Presidential Nominee Paul Ryan’s acceptance speech that accused President Obama of “funneling money away from Medicare” to his health care law. According to FactCheck.org, “Medicare’s chief actuary says the law ‘substantially improves’ the system’s finances, and Ryan himself has embraced the same savings.”

Ryan slammed Obama for not acting on recommendations from the Simpson-Bowles bipartisan deficit commission. Washington Post Columnist Eugene Robinson explained why that comment was deceptive. “Ryan failed to mention that he was a member of the Simpson-Bowles commission,” Robinson wrote in his Thursday column. “He also failed to mention that he was part of a minority of panel members who flatly rejected the ‘urgent report’ he now blasts Obama for ignoring.”

Ryan didn’t act alone. The 2012 Republican National Convention organizers framed their theme “We Built It” around a Obama quote taken out of context. Rae Lynne Chornenky, president of the National Federation of Republican Women, is as delusional as Clint Eastwood. She accused Obama of doing nothing for the 850,000 women who she claimed lost their jobs during Obama’s presidency.

However, Chornenky forgot to update her statistics. Recent information from the Bureau of Labor Statistics noted that jobs for women were 401,000 lower in July than when Obama took office. “That’s less than half the figure claimed by Chornenky,” FactCheck.org stated. “And her outdated percentage figure is now even more wildly off base.”

And just as off base is College Republican National Committee Chair Alex Schriver, who said “half my generation didn’t get up and go to a job this morning.” That statement was enough to make the fact-checkers do a double-take. “We’re not sure exactly what the 23-year-old Schriver meant by ‘my generation,’” they wrote, with good reason. The Bureau of Labor Statistics data reported nearly 64 percent of Schriver’s generation, which includes the 20- to 24-year-olds, had jobs as of last month.

(PHOTO: Courtesy) Vermin Supreme is an anarchist and activist who is running as an alternate candidate.

“And when looking at those who are actually in the labor force — not in college or the military, for example — the percentage is far higher, almost 86 percent,” FactCheck.org added. “The labor force includes both those who have civilian jobs and those who say they want work and have looked for it in the last four weeks.”

But don’t try to correct Clint Eastwood and anyone else at the 2012 RNC. They’ll simply dismiss you the way everyone does Vermin Supreme, a protestor at the convention in Tampa. The giant boot he wears on his head makes him stand out at the major political events he gets around to, where he attempts to rally support for his presidential bid that’s been written off as bogus.

Tuesday, Supreme gave his own “keynote” speech to the only audience he had outside the Republican Party’s convention: the security force. His platform, according to various news reports, included “zombie preparedness; harnessing zombies for labor; research into time travel so we can go back in time and kill Hitler.” He even promised his supporters free ponies.

Call him what you like. At least he’s sane enough to not waste 10 minutes talking to an empty chair.

Graphic Novella in the works!

ImageFor my third semester project, in the Stonecoast MFA Program, I decided to team up with the incredible Cory Thomas to collab on a graphic novella. The illustrations are Cory’s interpretation of my short story (tentatively titled THE HAGAKURE OF CORNBREAD OTHELLO) that he completed so far for this project.

I’m hoping Cory and I can continue this and sell it to a publisher. I got a good sign from my homie, the wonderful poet Bianca Spriggs, who sent me some resources on a publisher that puts out comics and graphic novels. Keep your fingers crossed. Check out an excerpt from the graphic novella here.

Tidal Basin Review Doing Big Things!

(PHOTO: Tidal Basin Review) Click the artwork to view larger image.

If you’re like me, you probably wondered what brought on the unseasonably warm weather a couple of weeks ago. And, like me, you’ll see the cause of that was the scorching new issue of Tidal Basin Review (TBR).

I’m honored to have some work alongside writers who get down on this issue’s theme of beauty. In his poem “Essence And Object,” Kyle Dargan’s speaker, looking back on his childhood, is talking to his lover about the ways TV socialized him and other black kids:

We were born then wrapped
within the age of prancing

images. Before I could be
weaned from the picture box—

its bright screen, bass, relentless
colors—hip hop commenced

proselytizing that I should want you
swollen, that I should want you

plush […]
[…] pelvis more

elephant head than arrow.

Damn! And, as a grown man, the speaker still struggles with that socialization, “trying to see the shapes/ etched in my head, the bodies,/ as the beauty I expect/ to shatter beneath.” But his informed understanding of how this “suckled ideal” misleads many youths helps him prevail. He rejects what he calls “a gene-coded hunt/ for figure-swells and heft” with this realization:

This ethereal tug I feel
between my groin’s creases,

I need it to be instinct and nothing
a television taught me of want.

[…] Let me be merely mammal—sniffing,
groping—let me crawl from thought

towards your fragrant, burdened hills.

I’m with you on that, bruh! I’m also with TBR’s mission of propelling the current artistic landscape. “Our vision is to amplify the voice of the human experience through art that is intimate, engaging, and audacious,” according to TBR’s vision.

(PHOTO: Tidal Basin Review) TBR's editors, clockwise from top: Truth Thomas (Poetry), Tori Arthur (Fiction and Non-Fiction), Fred Joiner (Poetry), Marlene Hawthrone (Photography), Randall Horton (Editor-in-Chief), and Melanie Henderson (Managaing Editor).

In its young existence, TBR, which came about in 2010, has already established itself as a journal that’s as much about community as it is craft. This past August, the journal took action on behalf of the ill-equipped DC public schools’ libraries when it co-organized a reading and book drive at the Marvin Gaye amphitheater in DC’s Watts Park.

That Saturday event kicked off a series of book drives around the city to help benefit DC Public School libraries. Poet and public interest lawyer Brian Gilmore called the event a shift in approach to the educational shortcomings of a community attempting to take back control of education for city youths.

“Instead of complaining about a broken school system that is not designed to work for children of color, and never was, this is a grassroots effort to fill in a much-needed gap,” Gilmore said on the day of the event. “It also…sends a message to the children that someone really does care and you are not just a number on a ‘No Child Left Behind’ report.”

(PHOTO: Thomas Sayers Ellis) The Black Issue!

And TBR’s online advocacy is just as active. Their past issues have challenged the post-Black notion, while highlighting DC’s go-go scene. The theme for the next issue is cultural pride. These are TBR’s ways of creating a space that supports a full representation of the rich American landscape.

There are many highlights in TBR’s “beauty” issue. But, in the interest of time (I want you to go over to tidalbasinpress.org and check them out!), I’ll end with Jacqueline Johnson’s “Hair Stories,” a poem in which Johnson’s speaker cherished those times she got her hair done in her aunt’s kitchen. Here’s the second part of a four-part poem:

Hours later the ritual would begin;
a towel thrown across my shoulders,
Dixie Peach run all around edges of my hair.
Your boys jack knifing through the
kitchen missing the hot grease cans.
You always started at the back,
hot comb hissing like an angry panther.

Your technique impeccable, mother of
three sons, never burned me.
Edges so rough, so uncooperative,
so niggerish, they always reverted back to
their African ways at the first sight of rain.
Despite bending my ear beyond its capacity,
hot iron teeth left  burn marks,
African American tribal scars.
Each kink a bouncing black cloud
becoming a language
running from Aunt to niece.

You can read the rest of Johnson’s poem, or check out the entire issue, by clicking here. Past issues are available here! (Click on the cover of each issue to see inside.) Check out the Basin Rising newsletter. You can purchase a print version by emailing tidalbasinpress@gmail.com.

Interested in subscribing to Tidal Basin Review? Click here to get started.

(PHOTO: Courtesy) Vicky Leyva

The dancers in dark pink and aqua-blue flamenco dresses startled the crowd when they dashed down the aisle of chairs on the Sub Level 1 floor of the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art.

Following them, a boy in his aqua-blue top, dark pink waist-tie and black pants shuffle-stepped among the dancers—his arms outstretched as if he were mimicking the movements of a plane.

These dancers were a highlight of an Afro-Peruvian Rhythms and Dance performance the Museum of African Art and Smithsonian Latino Initiative Pool presented Saturday. The headliners were Peruvian singer Vicky Leyva and her five-piece band.

This is the second event this year I’ve seen at the Museum of African Art. Last month, I saw MATCH + WOOD, a performance by poets Ernesto Mercer, Sami Miranda and a 10-piece band that explored the dynamic connections between Latino, African and American cultures.

Saturday’s event was a thread in an ongoing narrative of the Afro-Peruvian experience that started when the first slaves arrived in Peru in the sixteenth century, according to World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples – Peru: Afro-Peruvians published by the Minority Rights Group International. “By the nineteenth century, slaves formed the heart of Peru’s plantation labour force,” the publication noted.

And though the Peruvian government abolished slavery in 1854, Afro-Peruvians didn’t regain their ethnic identity until the 1950s. That’s when Afro-Peruvians created dance and theater groups to reaffirm their African identity.

(PHOTO: OralHistoryEducation.com) March on Washington, 1963

“Inspired by the civil rights movement in the United States in the 1960s, social groups formed to trace their African roots,” according to the publication. “Although these groups were short-lived, other groups have taken their place, including the Asociacion Cultural de la Juventud Negra, the Instituto de Investigaciones Afro-Peruano, and the Movimiento Negro Francisco Congo.”

During Saturday’s performance, Vicky Leyva’s Afro-Peruvian pride showed in her brown micro-shoulder-length braids, her wood-beaded cuff and her one-piece cheetah-print jumpsuit.

Even her smart phone exuded an Afro-Latina vibe. When it rang during sound check, the early attendees looked around to see who was blowing a wooden flute and smacking claves.

Leyva kicked off her set with a percussive-heavy number to which she stomped a foot and rolled her hips. The audience nodded and tapped their feet as the rhythm sped up. She jumped into another number that required crowd participation in the form of clapping. Leyva drove the crowd wild when she started winding her hips. She danced to each musician’s solo—even to that of the bass guitarist and electric keyboard.

This style of dance and accompanying music is festejo, according to afropop.org, the companion site for the radio series Afropop Worldwide, which served as a portal for Americans to learn more about Africa and the world for 22 years. The site is a network of researchers, writers, field recorders, photographers, videographers, audio engineers, producers, bloggers and on-air personalities.

According to the site, “The festejo is the most joyous of Afro-Peruvian music styles.” Vocalist Susana Baca, one of the site’s researchers, traced the dance and music to slavery in Peru. “After independence in Peru and the abolition of slavery,” she was quoted as saying, “people who were slaves only wanted to forget that part of their lives, to erase all memory of that stage of history.”

(PHOTO: Que Pasa Magazine)

She continued: “Erasing memory signified erasing melodies, erasing songs, erasing dances, and erasing traditions.

There were times in the early part of the 20th Century when an African descendant would be asked if he or she could remember a slave song. This person would say that they could not remember, but they remembered.”

Over time, the festejo became competitive among men, who gathered in a circle with their cajones (or box drums) and beat out “a series of fighting rhythms,” according to afropop.org. The festejo now incorporates sensual and undulating movements, the body’s way of talking. The percussionists are puppet masters whose rhythms trigger the dancer’s movements.

Vicky Leyva’s body interpreted the sounds and rhythms of cowbells and congas. The crowd jumped up and applauded when her body matched the violent rhythms of a cajone player whose box drum doubled as his stool. During that exchange, Leyva’s movements were as fluid as the underwater light patterns that rippled on a wall behind the performers. “I’m enjoying that,” she said after her dance. “Are you enjoying it?” We all yelled, “Yeah!”

Then Leyva performed a piece by a famous Afro-Peruvian poet to drums and hand claps. The poem, whose name escapes me, is about a little girl in Peru learning to embrace her African heritage. The little girl’s reluctance is the result of the current marginalization of Afro-Peruvians. According to the World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous PeoplesPeru, the Afro-Peruvian movement in Peru was weaker than those in Brazil and Columbia.

The publication also found that the Afro-Peruvians in rural areas live in extreme poverty without basic services or social programs. As a result, “anti-racism working groups have been formed in Lima, and organizations such as the Asociacion Palenque and the Asociacion pro Derechos Humanos del Negro have managed to make their voices heard.” However, the Peruvian press reports show continued discrimination that included a club in Lima barring entrance to people of African descent.

(IMAGE: usslave.blogspot.com)

The little girl in the poem’s reluctance comes from the fact that despite a strong presence of African group identity, black Peruvians have no special collective rights since they’re not officially recognized as a distinct cultural group.

Though Leyva performed the poem in Spanish—a language I learned, but was never close to speaking it fluently—it was clear for me that the back-up singers’ chants of “Negra!” started as a taunt.

But once the girl embraced her African roots, she turned the taunt into her affirming chant: “Negra!”

And Vicky Leyva’s performance was just as affirming, especially when the dancers in dark pink and aqua-blue flamenco dresses came out. We clapped for the dancers moving the top layer of their dresses from side to side while they spun to the percussion. We shouted while the boy stepped to the cajone, congas and cowbell.

Leyva smiled while watching all this, and I wondered if she was once that little girl in the poem; if that was why she picked that poem to perform. I didn’t wonder long when Leyva, amid applause for the dancers who dashed back through the aisle, came back to the mic for her last affirmation. “I feel this music,” she said as we cheered. “African roots are in my veins. They’re in the veins of everyone here.”

(PHOTO: Courtesy) Kim Addonizio

In both Kim Addonizio’s Tell Me and Stephen Dobyns’s New Poems from Velocities: New and Selected Poems 1966-1992, the speakers are aware of the forces that connect everyone despite race and class.

Sometimes those insights manifest themselves to the speakers at a peep show[1] or a strip club[2]. Other times the speaker stumbles upon them while strolling through the city[3] or watching a pickup game of soccer[4].

Or they find it while firing their gun at a range[5] or reminiscing about a night at a foreign restaurant that war reduced to rubble[6].

Addonizio’s speaker first encounters that insight in “Quantum”:

You know how hard it is sometimes just to walk on the streets/ downtown, how everything enters you/ the way the scientists describe it—photons streaming through/bodies, caroming off the air, the impenetrable brick/of buildings an illusion—sometimes you can feel how porous you/ are […][7]

Those psychological details intensify the speaker’s paranoid tone and her germ phobia. They also allude to the atom as a metaphor for the “body of the world” to which we’re all connected, a body that insists on its recognition. And like atoms, that collective body consists of negative forces (electrons) that highlighted in these sensory details:

[...] the man lurching in circles/ on the sidewalk, cutting the space, around him with a tin can and/ saying Uhh! Uhhhh! Uhh! over and over/ is part of it, and the one in gold chains leaning against the glass of/ the luggage store is, and the one who steps toward you/ from his doorway, meaning to ask something apparently simple,/ like What’s the time, something you know/you can no longer answer; he’s part of it”[8]

(COVER ART: BOA)

These psychological details intensify the effect that the negative charges have on everyone inside that charged world-body:

[…] your tongue is as thick with dirt/ as though you’ve fallen on your hands and knees to lick the oil-/ scummed street, as sour as if you’ve been drinking/ the piss of those men passing their bottle in the little park with its/ cement benches and broken fountain.

Those lines explain why I’m repulsed when I see jellyfish-globs of mucus splattered on the sidewalk. My stomach turns as if I’m on my “hands and knees” licking them up. The electrons spark again when Addonizio’s speaker’s at the metro, hurrying “through the/ turnstile, fumbling out the money” as she considers how many hands those dollars passed through before reaching hers.[9]

In “Target”, Addonizio’s speaker is at a gun range. She rips “holes/ in the paper target clamped to its hanger” and enjoys nestling “a clip/ of bullets against the heel” of her hand and ratcheting “one into the chamber”, cocking “the hammer back” before she fires.[10] Her use of the weapon is erotic, especially “the recoil/ surging” up her arms “as the muzzle kicks up” and she’s in control.[11]

As a result of the erotic sensation of firing the gun with her “legs apart”, she’s empathetic with the negative forces of the world’s body: the boys who lift guns “from bottoms of drawers and boxes/ at the backs of closets, and drive fast into lives/ they won’t finish.”[12] The speaker lives vicariously through these guys who “lean from their car widows and / let go a few rounds into whatever’s out there.”[13]

What makes “Target” musical are the iambic first and second lines (“it FEELS so GOOD to SHOOT a GUN/ to STAND with your LEGS aPART”[14]) before the dactylic third, fourth and fifth lines that all end with spondees (“HOLDing a NINE milliMEter in BOTH HANDS/ AIMing at SOMEthing that CAN’T RUN./ Over and Over i RIP HOLES”[15]).

Those moments intensify the speaker’s erratic mental state that results in her seeing the gun as both a weapon of self-defense and a tool to victimize others. What’s scary is that there are people, like the speaker, for whom violence is an orgasm they’ll go to any lengths to experience despite the harm it does to others. They fire “until the gun feels/ light again, and innocent. And then […] reload.”[16]

(PHOTO: Ilya Varlamov)

The speaker’s use of science  to understand the world in “Quantum” returns in “Physics”. Addonizio’s speaker in “Physics” is at a peep show:

“[…] there’s a naked woman/ dancing before you and you’re looking/ at her knees, then raising your eyes/ to the patch of wiry hair which she obligingly parts/ with two fingers while her other hand/ palms her body from breast to hip/ […] you lift your face to hers she’s not/ gazing into space as you expect but/ looking back, right at you, with an expression/ that says I love you, I belong to you compl—/ but then the barrier descends.[17]

Other striking sensory details are the “black/ shade” that “has to close down,/ before slowly opening again like a pupil adjusting/ to the absence of light […]”[18] Reading those lines, I wondered who the pupil was—the peepers or the dancers? Then it’s clear they’re both the pupil.

From the speaker’s point of view, the dancer’s the one on display “as she thrusts herself over and over into/ the air between” them.[19] The dancer’s also the pupil because the speaker’s on display, “trapped there/ like some poor fish in a plastic baggie”.[20] The dancer gets a thrill out of watching the speaker open his “mouth just like a fish waiting/ for the flakes of food, understanding nothing/ of what causes them to rain down/ upon” him.[21]

Addonizio’s speaker also alludes to gluttony because, like the fish that eats itself to death, the speaker will never be fulfilled no matter how much he feeds his fantasy.

(PHOTO: Courtesy)

Stephen Dobyns takes a humorous and sympathetic look at fulfillment in ‘Topless” from his New Poems in Velocities. Unlike the patrons in Kim Addonizio’s “Physics”, the old men in Dobyns’s “Topless” aren’t dreaming of “fucking” the dancers.

Instead, the strip club is a therapeutic experience for the all-male patrons “with their gray faces […] ill-fitting toupees/ and sappy smiles”.[22]

Going back to the atom metaphor, Dobyns’s use of humor turns the strip club experience, another negative force in the world’s body, into a positive one. These sensory details in “Topless” show the harmless old men’s therapeutic experience:

Many/ were regulars, older guys in work clothes,/ sipping beers, out of shape, skidding between/ their first and second heart attack or stroke./ […] You know those mechanical toys, wind-up rabbits or bears,/ […] how they scuttle across the floor only to end up in a corner, banging/ their fragile tin bodies against the baseboard?/ These guys were like that. And the girls/ in a small way, would set them straight again.[23]

That the “plump girl” straddles a guy she knows enough about to ask him personal questions—“How’s the wife,/ how’s the back? How’re the arches holding up?”[24]— intensify the doctor-patient relationship between the strippers and old men. These striking sensory details not only show how ludicrous that relationship is but they also intensify the speaker’s sympathy for the patrons:

[…] as she spoke, she swung her shoulders, left/ and right, swinging her big breasts, so this guy,/ with his chin poked directly between her nipples/ kept getting punched, left breast, right breast,/ slapping across his face […]/ […] Pow, pow—piston strokes from some bright engine/ so that briefly the girl seemed the very center/ of the world’s own merry-go-round […]/ […] and clinging to their seats/ all these old guys, all the timorous and beaten.[25]

ARTWORK: Stock Image

The body of the world also takes a different spin in Dobyns’s “Santiago: Five Men In The Street: Number One”. While Addonizio’s speaker in “Quantum” and “Target” sees only negative forces, Dobyns’s speaker in “Five Men” sees both good and bad.

Going back to the atom metaphor, the pickup soccer game at lunch is the photon (or positive force) that brings together “four fellows in orange uniforms/ and a fifth in a dismal suit”.[26] According to Dobyns’s speaker, “The guy in the suit is a clerk who/ gets yelled at. The ones in orange sweep/ out a garage for a boss who thinks/ a uniform looks sharp.”[27]

Those sensory details allude to the class differences between the clerk and janitors. But those men are also bound by that atom’s negative forces: grief and death. “Not one will ever/ find an easy death,” according to Dobyns’s speaker, “and each will know/ a hundred forms of grief.”[28]

Grief and death also bound the waiter and restaurant patrons in “Somewhere It Still Moves”. In that poem, Dobyns’s speaker remembers a night of dinner and dancing at a restaurant in Sarajevo three years before the Bosnian War (1992-1995) reduced it to rubble.

Here’s what happened that night in 1989:

I was having dinner with my friends Howie and Francine./ […] The waiter kept knocking his head with his fist, trying/ to explain something. The only words we knew were Pivo—beer and Dobro—good. […]/ […] Okay, said Howie, sure. Bring it to me, whatever it is. […]/ When the waiter/ brought our dinner, there were our plates and on Howie’s/ plate a paper bag […] / […] Howie opened it carefully. Brains/ in a bag, lamb brains cooked in a paper bag. We recalled/ how the waiter made a circle, then knocked his forehead./ This was Howie’s dinner. […] He could/ barely breathe for all his laughter. We all  laughed/ and drank red wine.[29]

COVER ART: Penguin Books

Like Addonizio’s “Target”, the issue of senseless violence confronts Dobyns’s speaker in “Somewhere”. But unlike Addonizio’s speaker who empathized with predators, Dobyns’s speaker sympathizes for the victims: “The waiter who “is probably dead now./ Killed by a sniper as he crossed a street or stood/ by a window.”[30]

Dobyns’s speaker juxtaposes that spring night of 1989 with the picture of Sarajevo three years later during the Bosnian war, where “the restaurant, the entire block, has been transformed into rubble, so many rocks at a crossroads.”[31] That juxtaposition between a peaceful night and the rubble shows how unpredictable violence is.

The class difference alluded to in “Five Men” is also there in “Somewhere” between the waiter and restaurant patrons. And like an atom’s photons and electrons, that peaceful night in 1989 and the grief from the war are the world body’s positive and negative that binds the waiter and patrons, who the speaker imagines have been “blown to pieces” or “shot in the head”.[32]

That’s when Dobyns’s speaker reaches this conclusion about those conflicting forces that charge the body of the world: “We are the creatures that love and slaughter.”


[1] from Kim Addonizio’s “Physics”

[2] from Stephen Dobyns’s “Topless”

[3] from Addonizio’s “Quantum”

[4] from Dobyns’s “Santiago: Five Men in the Street: Number One

[5] from Addonizio’s “Target”

[6] from Dobyns’s “Somewhere It Still Moves”

[7] Kim Addonizio, Tell Me (Rochester, NY: BOA Editions, 2000), 15

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid., 19.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid., 76.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid., 77.

[20] Ibid., 76.

[21] Ibid., 76-77.

[22] Stephen Dobyns, new poems in Velocities: New and selected Poems 1966-1992 (New York: Penguin Books, 1994), 15.

[23] Ibid., 14.

[24] Ibid., 15.

[25] Ibid., 14-15.

[26] Ibid., 3.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Ibid., 3-4.

[29] Ibid., 21.

[30] Ibid., 22.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Ibid.

(PHOTO: Courtesy) T.S. Eliot

A well-known poet once defined the poets’ role as that of “forensic scientists.” But, instead of a crime scene, poets comb the world around them, looking for evidence that the poem occurred.

In that context, the speakers in T.S. Eliot’s Collected Poems: 1909-1962 and Amiri Baraka’s Transbluesency: Selected Poems 1961-1995 aren’t just concerned residents and nosy neighbors. Whether digging through mythology, religion or the news, these speakers document the ever-changing urban spaces.

In Collected Poems, Eliot’s speaker is a private investigator tasked with catching the poem in the act of being. He comes across a betrayal in the poem “Sweeney Among the Nightingales”:

Apeneck Sweeney spreads his knees
Letting his arms hang down to laugh,
The zebra stripes along his jaw
Swelling to maculate giraffe.

The circles of the stormy moon
Slide westward toward the River Plate,
Death and the Raven drift above
And Sweeney guards the horned gate.

Gloomy Orion and the Dog
Are veiled; and hushed the shrunken seas;
The person in the Spanish cape
Tries to sit on Sweeney’s knees

Slips and pulls the table cloth
Overturns a coffee-cup,
Reorganised upon the floor
She yawns and draws a stocking up;[1]

(IMAGE: tallmadgedoyle.com)

That “the Raven” constellation drifts above the lewd acts of Sweeney and the woman “in the Spanish cape” is an allusion to two stories of Apollo and the raven.

According to the first story, Apollo’s sacred bird was the raven, once a beautiful bird with silver feathers and able to talk to humans. Apollo charged the raven with protecting his pregnant wife, Coronis. But when Coronis falls for a mortal, the angry Apollo turned the Raven’s feathers black and had his twin sister Artemis kill Coronis.

In the second story, the raven, who went for Apollo’s water cup, arrived late and blamed his tardiness on the water snake. Apollo banished both the raven and water snake to the sky.

Eliot’s poem “Sweeney Among the Nightingales” adapts those Greek myths. In that context, the unnamed woman (Coronis) engages in an extramarital affair with Sweeney (the mortal).

The poem documents London’s transformation in 1920, six years after Eliot immigrated from the U.S. to U.K. “The lifting of war time restrictions in the early 1920s created new sorts of night-life in the West End,” according to an online timeline. “Entrepreneurs opened clubs, restaurants and dance halls to cater for the new crazes: jazz and dancing.”[2]

Sweeney and the unnamed woman are brushstrokes in Eliot’s portrait of that “night-life.” The speaker intensifies the activity by introducing another woman: “Rachel née Rabinovitch/Tears at the grapes with murderous paws;/She and the lady in the cape/Are suspect, thought to be in league.”[3]

“Sweeney Among the Nightingales” is a poem about greed and sexual immorality, two associations with city living that goes back to the bible (the prodigal son and Sodom and Gomorrah). And, if those points are unclear, “Rachel nee Rabinovitch” is Eliot’s cue to the reader that Rachel’s a married woman with as much at stake as the unnamed woman.

(IMAGE: Woodrow)

Eliot’s speaker’s observations continue in “Rhapsody on a Windy Night,” which opens with a man walking the streets at all hours of the night (“Twelve o’clock/ […] Half-past one/ […] Half-past two/ […] Half-past three/ […] ‘Four o’clock’”[4]). Eliot’s speaker appears to have lost his mind (“Whispering lunar incantations/ Dissolve the floors of memory/ And all its clear relations”[5]).

While the speaker never says what caused him to lose his mind, “Rhapsody” in the title does enough work to set the reader up for irregular rhythms and the speaker’s sudden change of topics to intensify his ecstatic emotions. He is a mad man who talks to street-lamps he encounters each hour. Even the “woman/ […] in the light of the door”[6] who hesitates toward him thinks Eliot’s speaker is nuts.

But the speaker’s not as crazy as we think. Re-reading this poem, one realizes it’s about mental illness and how those people are treated. My mind immediately went to St. Elizabeths in DC, a psychiatric hospital that once housed 8,000 patients (among them Ezra Pound, Mary Fuller and William Chester Minor) at its peak of operation, according to various sources. The hospital’s community-based healthcare included local outpatient facilities and drug therapy, which allowed patients near-normal lives.

My dad recalled his encounter with a patient nearly a decade ago. It happened around lunch time, in a nearby McDonald’s. Dad read his newspaper while eating his cheese burger and fries, when a man about his age approached him. Dad said the guy picked his nose, then asked him, “You going to eat that”—pushing his finger into the hamburger bun. To which Dad said, “Not anymore.”

In “Rhapsody,” Eliot’s speaker uses irregularities to bring the reader inside the mad man’s mind, which makes the reader empathetic. Moving through the world in his own way, subtlety is a trademark skill the speaker weaves through the poems in T.S. Eliot’s Collected Poems.

(PHOTO: Nan Melville) Amiri Baraka

On the other hand, the speaker in Amiri Baraka’s Transbluesency: Selected Poems: 1961-1995 prefers an in-your-face approach. While Eliot’s speaker is content with simply catching the poem in the act of being, Baraka’s speaker not only accomplishes that but speaks directly to the reader.

Take Baraka’s “A Poem for Deep Thinkers,” where the speaker calls out decision-makers whose power and class status put them out of touch with their constituents:

Skymen coming down out the clouds land/and then walking into society try to find out/
whats happening—‘Whats happening,’ they be saying/look at it, where they been, dabbling in mist, appearing &/disappearing, now there’s a real world breathing—inhaling/exhaling concrete & sand, and they want to know what’s/
happening.[7]

It was impossible to read those lines and not think of the current political climate, where “Skymen”—with their heads far enough up in the clouds to dabble “in mist”—claim to speak for “the American people.” What also comes to mind is the spectacle of the 2008 elections, when presidential candidates scaled down their spending and spun personal narratives to make themselves seem in-touch with working-class Americans.

John McCain’s claim was hilarious since, unlike Obama, he never advocated for people on low or fixed incomes. The kicker was when he couldn’t remember how many houses his family owned. “I think — I’ll have my staff get to you,” McCain said in a 2008 interview.[8]

But if they were wondering, Amiri Baraka’s speaker in “A Poem for Deep Thinkers” breaks it down for the “Skymen”:

What’s happening is life itself […]/[…] stabbed children in the hallways of/
schools, old men strangling bankguards, a hard puertorican/inmate’s/
tears/exchanging goodbyes in the prison doorway […][9]

(IMAGE: Val Brussel)

Baraka’s speaker also alludes to Icarus:

[…] blinded by sun, and their own images of things,/rather than things as they actually are, they wobble, they/stumble […]/[…] the skymen stumbling, till they get the sun out/
they eyes, and integrate the inhead movie show, with the/material reality that exists with and without them.[10]

Those lines speak to failed policies for low and middle income Americans politicians passed without talking with their constituents, thinking they knew what the people needed. Also, like Icarus, politicians fall from grace when they’re “blinded by sun,” or their own self-interests.

And Baraka’s speaker doesn’t stop there. He goes on to challenge Christ and Christian fundamentalists in “When We’ll Worship Jesus.” This poem, published in 1972, addresses the scandals, atrocities and oppression of the time. During that year, the U.S. was already at war with Vietnam and Nixon was re-elected despite the Watergate Scandal, which later resulted in his resignation.

(PHOTO: Courtesy)

Leading up to “When We’ll Worship Jesus” being published, the draft occurred and the National Guard fatally shot four students—while wounding nine—for protesting the Vietnam War at Kent State in Ohio.

These events contextualize Baraka’s speaker’s angry tone: “We’ll worship Jesus/ When jesus do/ Somethin.”[11]

The poem is a wish list from Baraka’s speaker to Jesus, asking for payback on a number of things: the U.S. bombing of Cambodia (“jesus blow/ the white house/ or blast Nixon down”[12]), Muhammad Ali jailed for protesting the war (“jesus get down/ […] & box w/ black peoples/ enemies”[13]) and police brutality (“jesus […]/ […] scare somebody—cops not afraid”[14]), to name a few.

“When We’ll Worship Jesus” is an opportunity for Baraka’s speaker to successfully flex his hyperboles, which intensifies his alarmed tone.

(IMAGE: gaspinvestigations.com)

Like T.S. Eliot’s “Sweeney Among the Nightingales,” Baraka’s “Jesus” is a poem about betrayal. To which Baraka’s speaker responds by reducing Jesus to the lowest of the low.

Jesus becomes everything from a prostitute (“jesus, in a red/ check velvet vine + 8 in. heels”[15]), to a pimp (“jesus pinky finger/ got a goose egg ruby/ which actually bleeds”[16]), to both a coon and a tom (“jesus at the Apollo/ doin splits and helpin/ Nixon trick niggers”[17]), to even a self-deprecating Cyclops (“jesus w/his one eyed self/ tongue kissing johnny carson/ up the behind”[18]).

At times, the hyperbole of Baraka’s speaker seemed too over-the-top, just as there were times when the subtlety of T.S. Eliot’s speaker seemed too passive. Still, both speakers opened a young poet up to possible approaches in tracking the poem down.


[1] T.S. Eliot, Collected Poems: 1909-1962 (London: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1963), 49.

[2] Exploring 20th Century London. Oct. 11, 2011. <http://www.20thcenturylondon.org.uk/server.php?show=nav.40&gt;.

[3] Op.Cite, 49-50.

[4] Ibid., 16-18.

[5] Ibid., 16.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Amiri Baraka. Transbluesency: Selected Poems 1961-1995. Ed. Paul Vangelisti. New York, NY: Marsilio Publishers, 1995. 165.

[8] Politico, “McCain Can’t Recall Number of Homes He Owns,” 20 Aug 2008.

[9] Op.cite.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid., 158.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14]Ibid.

[15] Ibid., 159.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

(PHOTO: Shelia Henderson)

Walking past DC’s Watts Park in Northeast, the people stopped in their tracks when they heard  Mister Señor Love Daddy, from Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing, speaking.

The fictitious disc jockey was invoked through a poem by Fresno, Texas-poet Jonathan Moody. Through Derrick Weston Brown’s reading of the poem, Love Daddy held court for three minutes, long enough to lend his voice to an issue of concern not just for the folks on foot, but those driving by, who pulled over to get the 411.

“My people, my people,” he said. “What can I say; say what I can.” And just as baffled as the character and Brown himself were other poets and organizers who took over the park’s Marvin Gaye amphitheater August 6 to do something about the ill-equipped DC public schools’ libraries.

(PHOTO: Shelia Henderson) Ward 7 Council member Yvette M. Alexander and Melanie Henderson.

“It seems the politics of this city are costing our children their right to a quality education,” Melanie Henderson, an organizer for Saturday’s event and managing editor of the literary journal Tidal Basin Review, said in an interview afterwards.

“It is unimaginable what the effect on a child’s self-esteem might be when walking into a nearly-empty school library,” Henderson said.

The last straw for many was the Jan. 23, Washington Post article on Ballou Senior High’s poorly-stocked library. “The literature section of [school librarian] Melissa Jackson’s library…had 63 books one morning last week, not enough to fill five small shelves,” Post Reporter Bill Turque wrote in his article “Librarian at D.C.’s Ballou High Scrambles for Books.”

“In the area marked ‘pure science,’ there were 77 volumes,” he continued. “This is not because the students at the Southeast Washington school had scoured the stacks and checked almost everything out. Ballou’s entire collection consists of 1,185 books, about one per kid.”

And that’s just at one school. Poet and public interest lawyer Brian Gilmore described the public school library system as horrific. “The DC Public School libraries I have seen resemble a library I once saw at Lorton Prison when I taught there in the 1990’s,” he said. “Few books, hardly any good books of any relevance, and the books are ragged, old and insulting.”

“And,” in the words of Mister Señor Love Daddy, “that’s the double-truth, Ruth.”

(PHOTO: Melanie Henderson) Jericho Brown before the event. Thanks for the books, Jericho!

Henderson and others at this past Saturday’s Summer 2011 Literary Arts in The Park wondered how the historic traditional public schools in the nation’s capital were below the 100 book per student threshold. “Our kids here deserve not just enough, but the best,” Henderson said.

Another point of contention were the current disparities in educational resources between the city’s haves and have-nots. “I have also seen libraries at private schools in the area and these libraries are usually stellar,” Gilmore said.

Among those private schools with stellar libraries is Sidwell Friends School, where Sasha and Malia Obama are among the 1,109 students.

In a post on her award-winning website, author and freelance writer Susan Ohanian noted that the school has three libraries. “The Upper Level school library contains over 20,000 volumes,” wrote the former educator and current fellow at both the Education and the Public Interest Center at the University of Colorado-Boulder and the Education Policy Studies Laboratory at Arizona State University.

Ohanian noted that Sidwell Friends has a separate area for books about the study of China, adding that students also have access to more than 50 magazines and journals. “The library also subscribes to ProQuest for online periodicals in full text,” she wrote. “This service is available both at the school and to students when off-campus.”

Ohanian sent out a charge for the First Family to correct the disparities. “I know there are thousands of schools across the country hurting for the lack of books, libraries, and librarians, but when we see one little light of a school trying to buck the anti-library tide, we must try to help,” she wrote. “And we should urge our First Family to do likewise.”

The poets and organizers at the Saturday event at Watts Park responded to a similar call to action sent out by Tidal Basin Review, Marshall Heights Community Development Organization, and Ward 7 Council member Yvette M. Alexander.

(PHOTO: Melanie Henderson) Abdul Ali shared a poem about his experiences at a creative writing workshop at Howard University.

The event kicked off a series of book drives to take place around the city to help benefit DC Public School libraries.

Gilmore, who was on the program to perform but didn’t make it because of a last minute scheduling conflict, did collect books for the drive. Though there in spirit, he called Saturday’s event a shift in approach to the educational shortcomings of a community attempting to take back control of education for city youths.

“Instead of complaining about a broken school system that is not designed to work for children of color, and never was, this is a grassroots effort to fill in a much-needed gap,” Gilmore said. “It also…sends a message to the children that someone really does care and you are not just a number on a ‘No Child Left Behind’ report.”

But more needs to be done, Gilmore noted. He suggested the organizers creating a grassroots coalition or a nonprofit to work outside what he calls “the toxic dysfunctional government apparatus.” This coalition or nonprofit would regularly collect and make literature available to DC public school libraries.

(PHOTO: Melanie Henderson) That's me, there!

Saturday’s event was just the initial effort, Gilmore noted, applauding the organizers for “a small, yet, symbolical way” of showing DC youths they’re not alone.

Henderson agreed. “Events like these empower average people to cause change in their own and in the communities of others,” she said. “It puts the power back into the hands of the people, whose love and connection to a place or space will push them to work harder and give more to the positive development and preservation of the culture, or cultures, that have nourished them.”

Henderson hoped residents left inspired to affect change in their own ways. She also hoped the event would spur “wider and stronger community involvement in support of youth.” Like Gilmore, Henderson offered suggestions on how to take the next step.

“This is a problem with a practical solution that everyone can be a part of and feel good about,” Henderson said. “The idea is to take what you know, your own talents and gifts, and your resources and networks and use them to better your community.”

(PHOTO: Melanie Henderson) Yao Hoke Glover and Randall Horton chopping it up.

During the event, the poets took the stage after posing for a group photo with organizers and Ward 7 Council member Yvette M. Alexander.

Among them was Abdul Ali, who jumped at the opportunity to be part of the effort. “I liked the idea of sharing poems with a book drive,” Ali said. “It’s a rare opportunity to do literary activism and a reading all in one.”

Poet Yao Hoke Glover agreed with Ali. “Literacy and the promotion of reading is the foundation of a community’s ability to transfer ideas [and] connect with one another,” Glover said. “The concept of books and literature must be cultivated in the children at an early age.”

That the event took place in Ward 7, with construction on the new Woodson High School in the background, made it all the more symbolic for the poet. “I would hope the event is a very concentrated and solid beginning to the strengthening of D.C. Literary Culture, particularly in the African American Community,” said Glover, who closed out the reading with poems about his father.

The highlight of the event was Mister Señor Love Daddy’s appearance on that humid Saturday. “Yes, children, this is the cool-out corner,” the fictitious disc jockey said in a poem written by Jonathan Moody and performed by Derrick Weston Brown, who opened up his set with OPP (Other People’s Poetry) before reading his own.

The character’s words summed up the mood of those gathered that afternoon in the park. He said, “I’ll be giving you all the help you need.”

For those interested in donating books, please contact Melanie Henderson via email at communitybookdrivedc@gmail.com.

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