Calling Out God and America: Ruth L. Schwartz and Brian Gilmore

(PHOTO: Courtesy) For many years, Ruth L. Schwartz made her living as a public health educator, trainer and consultant specializing in AIDS and cancer.

In both Ruth L. Schwartz’s Edgewater and Brian Gilmore’s Elvis Presley is Alive and Well and Living in Harlem, the speakers tempt God: “tell me why you ever thought/ you could improve on this/ music, this hunger[1]”. They call out the crazy notions floating around in both American history and its politics.

The difference between these two collections is that while Elvis Presley is Alive… is loud with a cast of personalities, Edgewater is quiet. Plants, animals, water and the sun populate Schwartz’s collection, as if she intended on taking us back to the Garden of Eden, before man’s destructive action.

Death’s possibilities hover over Edgewater. In this collection, nature is a teacher whose overall messages teach us that life is too short to wonder “what if”, so just do and have fun in the process.

We learn this in Schwartz’s opening poem, “Fetch”, where the speaker’s on a beach, tossing a stick to her dog. Here’s the physical details about the dog I thought were striking:

This one keeps swimming out into the

icy water for a stick,

he’d do it all day and all night

if you’d throw it that long,

he’d do it till it killed him, then he’d die

dripping and shining, a black waterfall,

the soggy broken stick still clenched

in his doggy teeth […][2]

(PHOTO: HarperCollins)

Here are the psychological details: “…watching him you want to cry/ for all the wanting you’ve forsworn”. While it’s unclear what the speaker’s rejected, or “forsworn”, it might be an opportunity for the reader to fill in the blanks with things he/she have rejected either out of fear or something else. I know people who want love and success but self-sabotage because of their fears of being hurt again or having so much expected of them.

I wanted to know more about the speaker’s situation—what “all the wanting” was about. But both the physical and psychological details intensify what the dog becomes to the speaker. Looking at the stick that’s thrown as the speaker’s affection for her four-legged companion, the dog’s act of retrieving it each time—“all day and all night”—to the point “he’d do it till it killed him” makes him courageous in a way the speaker is not.

While she’s rejected what she wanted (maybe love), the dog continuously goes after what he wants at that moment—the object of affection—despite the danger nearby, the dog possibly being “the soggy broken stick” clenched in the mouth of the icy waves.

A musical moment in this poem is the recurring “he’d do it”: “he’d do it all day and all night/ if you throw it that long,/ he’d do it till it killed him […]” That repetition is not unlike the stick being thrown and the dog retrieving it over and over.

(PHOTO: Carrie_W on flickr)

That “his body surges…as if to say/ Nothing could stop me now—[3]” is a lesson for both the speaker and reader to go after what you want in life.

The sexual charge in “Oh God, Fuck Me” is unbelievable. Here are some physical details: “[…] trees in spring, exposing themselves,/ flashing leaf-buds so firm and swollen/ I want to take them into my mouth.[4]

At first, those images seemed pretty easy, but the surprises came with the “kitchen faucet, dripping/ like a nymphomaniac,/ all night slowly filling and filling,/ then overflowing the bowls in the sink—[5]

If the speaker’s job is to arouse the reader, then it worked with me. While reading Schwartz’s poem, I felt like I was reading an erotic tale with surprises that were just as arousing. Here’s another surprise from Schwartz: “[…] English muffins,/ the spirit of the dough aroused/ by browning, thrilled by buttering.[6]

And this:

(PHOTO: Allison Thorton)

Fuck me with orange juice,

its concentrated sweetness,

which makes the mouth as happy as summer,

leaves sweet flecks of foam […]

along the inside of the glass.

Fuck me with coffee, strong and hot,

and then with cream poured into coffee,

blossoming like mushroom clouds,

opening like parachutes.[7]

Damn! The speaker’s tone is both playful and excited. A musical moment in the poem was the recurring “Fuck me”: “Fuck me, oh God, with ordinary things,/…Fuck me with my kitchen faucet, dripping/…Fuck me with breakfast.”

That Schwartz’s poem is a conversation the speaker’s having with God mocks the religious notion of the spiritual father as some elderly man repulsed by sex. Some readers might be put off by this poem, but it’s that same absurdity the speaker finds in the notion that God would be repulsed at all by sex, the thing he created.

“Oh God, Fuck Me” also raises a question: is it possible for parents to censor what their children watch when sex is all around us, even in the “ordinary things”?

(PHOTO: Sean Bonner)

Each “Fuck me” seemed to work not only as transitions between thoughts, but also intensified the pleasures experienced by these “ordinary things”. I automatically thought of my fiancée craving a slice of chocolate cake or key lime pie.

“Oh God, Fuck Me” also turns the idea of sex as something dirty on it head while implying that the act itself is a kind of church: “Fuck me…/ with the downstairs neighbor’s vacuum,/ that great sucking noisy dragon/ making the dirty come clean.” The church is in “the dirty”, or the sinner, becoming “clean”, or in good standing with God.

I could go on with other examples of what Schwartz’s speaker tackles in her 107-page collection, but, in the interest of space, I’ll keep it to the earlier examples and Schwartz’s poem, “Edgewater Park”:

Even now, at the end of the century,

when our survival as a species

seems a matter of dumb luck,

our bodies studded with these jewels of tenderness

the way so many dying insects

(PHOTO: Courtesy)

bead the spider’s web—

even now, on the cliffs above the beach,

I see two men who meet for pleasure,

nothing else,

fully clothed, in a cove of bushes,

standing face to face, as if to dance—

but one has both hands on the other’s cock

and is pulling at it, tenderly—

and the body, at least, would name this Love,

and who are we to contradict

the pure animal body?

all around us, in expensive houses,

men and women married many years

touch far less joyfully than this,

with less attention to the hunger of it.

And truly, what do we have left

but moments of this gazing, pulling

at each other, at ourselves,

(PHOTO: Rukhlenko)

the shells ground finer and finer

under our feet,

making a kind of jagged sand,

the insects we call Canadian soldiers

rising from the water in great swarms

to mate and die—

on my window they looked like tadpoles,

hundreds of them flooding toward

the light—

and some of them

made their way in,

the whiteness of the ceiling

became their water,

they massed there as full of joy

as if it were the sea.

By morning they were dead,

their many bodies

light and dry,

littering the tabletops.

And the spiders, lucky spiders,

ate for weeks.[8]

In “Edgewater Park”, the speaker’s examination of the quality and condition of human nature is through her comparison of humans to the “Canadian soldiers”, insects that rise “from the water in great swarms/ to mate and die—”

The speaker’s tone is pity, especially for homophobes, who, in this poem, haven’t evolved beyond the insects that “bead the spider’s web—” I mentioned earlier that life is too short to wonder “what if,” that the overall message is to just do and have fun in the process.

(IMAGE: Courtesy)

Well, these two guys seem to get it, having found the “jewels of tenderness” within their bodies. If the spider is death, would you wait for it to weave a web for you to stud? Obviously, the two men wouldn’t.

The few musical moments in “Edgewater Park” didn’t enhance the context or take away from its contents. Here’s one of those moments: “our bodies studded with these jewels of tenderness…” Reading those lines aloud, “our bodies studded with” made me think of a jazz drummer setting up his solo. I counted two trochees and one dactyl, which sped up the falling meter before the swing rhythm of “these jewels of tenderness”.

Other musical moments are the “O” sounds in “fully clothed, in a cove of bushes”, and the “S” sounds in “standing face to face, as if to dance—” There’s also the recurring “even now”: “Even now, at the end of the century,/…even now, on the cliffs above the beach”. The repetition seemed to bring the poem back on track from the extended metaphor of “our survival as a species”.

Going back to the two men, their economic status is not known. But the speaker makes one thing clear: that they found happiness instead of the appearance of it only enhances their quality of life more than the married couples “in expensive houses”. That the two men pleasure each other makes their act more courageous than the well-to-do “men and women married many hear” who “touch far less joy fully than this.”

Whether it’s the LGBT or black community, the speakers in Ruth L. Schwartz’s Edgewater and Brian Gilmore’s Elvis Presley is Alive and Well and Living in Harlem are bullhorns for oppressed groups.

(PHOTO: Courtesy)

Unlike Schwartz’s speaker—whose overall tone were at times playful, excited and melancholy—the tone of Gilmore’s speaker ranges from sarcastic and loving, to angry and pitying.

For anyone who thinks Elvis Presley is the king of Rock n’ Roll, Gilmore’s speaker is here to clear up the history of popular music, remind us of freedoms taken for granted and to scrutinize race relations in America. He starts with the opening poem, “Angry Voices”, which is in four parts. The first three honors Ray Charles, Sammy Davis Jr. and Bo Diddley, all of whom paved the way for a bitter Chuck Berry in the fourth part, titled “Memphis (the stolen)”:

“any wite boy wit’ dat much nerve,

to come in ‘ere wit’ that recorda’ ‘n all,

rite in front of all these spades,

wit’ all this hate,

wit all this energy jus’ ready to explode,

has gotta be a king.”[9]

For the most part, the speaker’s tone is a controlled-anger. In “Elvis”, the sarcasm cuts like a blade in a knife fight. The speaker transforms Elvis Presley and the mass of white imitators into an oversized animal that terrorizes black culture: “[…] i swear i/ saw him in harlem/ everyone bolt your doors!/ […] board up your windows!!/ […] stop […] singing […] !!![10]

The speaker calls out “the hug monster looming over us” and attacks it directly here:

(PHOTO: Daniel A. Norman)

a wailing soul simulating bantu and yoruba wearing

zoot suits and breaking more black sisters’ hearts

than chuck berry could mend with ‘maybelline’ or

‘thirty days.’[11]

A musical moment in Gilmore’s “elvis” is here: “such a mass,/ such a disturbing mass. such a wallowing in the mud/ mass          such a dangerous mass.[12]” I saw the recurring “such a” as exclamations. With each “such a” the mass seemed to grow to something “disturbing” and “wallowing in the mud” until it became “dangerous”. I also enjoyed the “M” sounds close together in “mud/ mass”. (I also appreciated the reference to Muddy Waters, who was another musician from whom “the mass” stole their sound, having wallowed “in the mud”.)

Here’s another musical moment: “the mass couldn’t do it all because mud   is like/ blood;          mud is about emotional outrage![13]” I like the internal rhyme of “mud” and “blood”. And like the earlier example, the recurring “mud” punctuates the seriousness of the matter.

Here are musical moments in Gilmore’s poem, “september is not change”, which focuses on the political casualties in South Africa:

(PHOTO: Robert Ruark)

in september leaves fall

from trees like the dead

children don’t wait until

december to be seen naked[14]

Reading those lines aloud, I enjoyed the “E” sounds in “leaves”, “trees” and “seen”. The stretched sound in “leaves” and “trees” slowed the rhythm to set up the surprise of “like the dead”.

Reading those lines, I thought of the Bisho massacre that happened in 1991, a year before Third World Press published Gilmore’s Elvis Presley is Alive… According to various sources, the Ciskei Defence Force shot at 100,000 protestors, leaving 29 dead in Bisho, the capital of South Africa’s Eastern Cape Province.

In the months leading up to the Bisho massacre, according to those same sources, the African National Congress was found guilty of human rights violations in some of their exile camps, and the violence between the African National Congress and the Inkatha Freedom Party left 46 dead. Then you have the Bisho massacre in September, hence the poem’s title, “september is not change”.

Like Ruth L. Schwartz’s poem “Edgewater Park”, Gilmore’s poem is a plea for humanity. The other musical moments in “september is not change” intensifies this plea:

(PHOTO: Cooperative Baptist Fellowship)

the september papers read like

august papers

july papers

june papers

headlines of blood and fire

burning ash between my fingers

in september i pray for jesus

i pray for mohammed

i pray for someone

somewhere to make september

not like all the other months[15]

The listing of months, followed by the recurring “papers” helps illustrate the redundancy, or excess, of “headlines of blood and fire”. The recurring “i pray” gives the speaker an urgent tone, with each “i pray” as a plea not only to jesus and mohammed, but to some god who can “make september/ not like all the other months”. The recurring “september is not change” throughout that poem won’t let us forget.

Gilmore’s poem, “We must not be cows”, captures overall uses of both his and Schwartz’s speaker in their examination of the human condition and quality:

(PHOTO: Micro Cinefest)

I’ve always hated wiggly lines:

wiggly lines on my TV set

making the picture impossible to comprehend;

my doctor says—

this can ruin your eyes

this is unhealthy.

Wiggly lines irritate my wisdom teeth,

make them swell and start cuttin’,

I am watching news and eating chocolate

forgetting about next week’s check-up.

I ate a steak last night,

there was a little TV set on the

fatback,

(PHOTO: Narayan Vivek)

wiggly lines splintering a newscaster’s

face who thinks afrika is really a

“COUNTRY”:

Nigeria must be NY.

Mozambique is Florida.

Egypt is Michigan.

Rwanda is Rhode Island.

I sleep hard at night              dream of wiggly lines

that wiggle,

I eat jigsaw puzzles while reading Koran,

shatter dishes            scan the Bible,

when I wake I toss my television with the sliced up

(PHOTO: Banksy Graffiti Street Art)

newscaster out the window,

He still talks of country

still makes my tooth ache

still

makes

my sirloin taste

strangely like

hamburger.[16]

Gilmore’s poem is clearly about the media’s distortion of facts. With the physical details in “We must not be cows”, I heard the static from the TV and saw the “wiggly lines splintering a newscaster’s/ face.” I also saw the speaker “watching news and eating chocolate” or the “steak last night”.

The psychological details are just as striking: “Wiggly lines irritate my wisdom teeth,/ make them swell and start cuttin’”. That the “wiggly lines irritate” the speaker’s “wisdom teeth” and none of the others was a clever play not only on “wisdom”, but also the idea of rejecting the distorted information. The title adds context to the speaker’s plea for his readers to not be cows grazing the grass they’re fed from manipulative people.

(PHOTO: Digital Burn)

When I think of the “wiggly lines”, I recall what I learned about America in elementary school: our great armies and humanitarian efforts. Many of my teachers, who I’m sure meant well, unwittingly became the newscaster on the TV screen covered by wiggly lines.

A look at American pop culture shows that those wiggly lines also speak to distracting TV ads and consumerism. Like the speaker, I used to “sleep hard at night” dreaming “of wiggly lines”. It wasn’t until college, when I started reading more on my own about America, that I discovered her hypocrisies. That’s when I awoke. Like the speaker, I tossed “my television with the sliced up/ newscaster out the window” and started thinking for myself.

Here’s a musical line: “forgetting next week’s check-up.” The “eh” sounds—“forgetting”, “next” and “check-up”—mixed in with “K” sounds—“next week’s check”—made it pleasurable to read “We must be cows” aloud.

There’s also music in the wiggly lines’ recurrence: “wiggly lines on my TV set/[…] Wiggly lines irritate my wisdom teeth,/ […] wiggly lines splintering a newscaster’s/ face […] wiggly lines/ that wiggle”. That repetition successfully recreates the pattern of “wiggly lines” on a TV set. (In this case, the speaker’s message isn’t twisted by the “wiggly lines”.)

(PHOTO: LG Studio)

The barbed wit in “We must not be cows” is in the speaker’s sarcastic tone, which cuts at America’s ethnocentric ways in which it approaches other cultures:

wiggly lines splintering a newscaster’s

face who thinks africa is really a

“COUNTRY”:

Nigeria must be NY.

Mozambique is Florida.

Egypt is Michigan.

Rwanda is Rhode Island.

In both Brian Gilmore’s Elvis is Alive… and Ruth L. Schwartz’s Edgewater, the speakers have undertaken the ambitious task of calling out any absurdities no matter where they pop up. And looking at the 21stcentury, two things are clear: 1) their task is far from over, and 2) the speakers have their work cut out for them.


[1] from Ruth L. Schwartz’s poem, “Talking to God on the Seventh Day”

[2] Ruth L. Schwartz, Edgewater, New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2002, p. 3

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., p. 43

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid., p. 44

[8] Ibid., p. 5-6

[9] Brian Gilmore, Elvis Presley is Alive and Well and Living in Harlem, Chicago: Third World Press, 1992, p. 6

[10] Ibid., p. 7

[11] Ibid., p. 10

[12] Ibid., p. 8

[13] Ibid., p. 9

[14] Ibid., p. 15

[15] Ibid., p. 15

[16] Ibid., p. 54

4 thoughts on “Calling Out God and America: Ruth L. Schwartz and Brian Gilmore

    1. Thanks, Kevin. I forgot how I came across her work, but once I did I became an instant fan. I don’t know if put anything else out since Edgewater. (Her website has Edgewater listed as her latest publication.) Thanks again for stopping through the blog, and for your encouraging words.

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