Thinking About Good-bye

It’s been a week of saying good-by, to those I’ve admired for work done and lives lived, most ofwhom never knew me, one slightly and another dearly.

This morning, after a week of sitting with and walking silently around, a family member, meditating on breath and body and earth and beyond, news comes of the death of Philip Levine, the American poet whose work has most moved me of that generation coming from the second world war.  I knew him and his wife briefly when I worked in Fresno, CA in the mid 1970s. It was their home.  He was an honored and famed professor at Fresno State.  She helped me do land research to track large agricultural holdings in order find migrant farm workers and organize union elections.

Books Phil LevineHis poetic interests, coming from a hard scrabble life in Detroit, were of working men and women, grinding labor, bitter cold.  I had been in migrant shanty camps and border slums and could not stand the poems, when I found time to read, about autumn leaves, love in meadows, fleecy clouds.  He paid attention to what held my deepest attention — the lives of others, in extremis. He also wrote of the Spanish Civil war. Though too young to participate in it, as some of his older friends and neighbors did, he felt it deeply, as had I.  Though committed to a Gandhian nonviolence, I was pulled to the courage of those who fought, and lost, against the Mussolini and Hitler supplied forces of fascism. I read histories, memoirs, stories of the war. I was inspired by the self-organizing anarchists, took warning from George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia. My contempt for standing by while others suffered was sealed in me forever. After knowing Levine and finishing my work in the Central Valley I went to Spain where one Spanish friend joked that I knew more about that war than her own generation.

It’s too bad we wait for a person’s death to return us to their work.  I’ll be re-opening my volumes of Philip Levine and thanking him for attention passed to others.  Here are two I like, and here a collection of many others.

 

For more, by Margalit Fox at the NY Times, read here.

Ω

On The Murder Of Lieutenant Jose Del Castillo By The Falangist Bravo Martinez, July 12, 1936
by Philip Levine
When the Lieutenant of the Guardia de Asalto
heard the automatic go off, he turned
and took the second shot just above
the sternum, the third tore away
the right shoulder of his uniform,
the fourth perforated his cheek. As he
slid out of his comrade’s hold
toward the gray cement of the Ramblas
he lost count and knew only
that he would not die and that the blue sky
smudged with clouds was not heaven
for heaven was nowhere and in his eyes
slowly filling with their own light.
The pigeons that spotted the cold floor
of Barcelona rose as he sank below
the waves of silence crashing
on the far shores of his legs, growing
faint and watery. His hands opened
a last time to receive the benedictions
of automobile exhaust and rain
and the rain of soot. His mouth,
that would never again say “I am afraid,”
closed on nothing. The old grandfather
hawking daisies at his stand pressed
a handkerchief against his lips
and turned his eyes away before they held
the eyes of a gunman. The shepherd dogs
on sale howled in their cages
and turned in circles. There is more
to be said, but by someone who has suffered
and died for his sister the earth
and his brothers the beasts and the trees.
The Lieutenant can hear it, the prayer
that comes on the voices of water, today
or yesterday, form Chicago or Valladolid,
and hands like smoke above this street
he won’t walk as a man ever again.
Ω
Gin
by Philip Levine
The first time I drank gin
I thought it must be hair tonic.
My brother swiped the bottle
from a guy whose father owned
a drug store that sold booze
in those ancient, honorable days
when we acknowledged the stuff
was a drug. Three of us passed
the bottle around, each tasting
with disbelief. People paid
for this? People had to have
it, the way we had to have
the women we never got near.
(Actually they were girls, but
never mind, the important fact
was their impenetrability. )
Leo, the third foolish partner,
suggested my brother should have
swiped Canadian whiskey or brandy,
but Eddie defended his choice
on the grounds of the expressions
“gin house” and “gin lane,” both
of which indicated the preeminence
of gin in the world of drinking,
a world we were entering without
understanding how difficult
exit might be. Maybe the bliss
that came with drinking came
only after a certain period
of apprenticeship. Eddie likened
it to the holy man’s self-flagellation
to experience the fullness of faith.
(He was very well read for a kid
of fourteen in the public schools. )
So we dug in and passed the bottle
around a second time and then a third,
in the silence each of us expecting
some transformation. “You get used
to it,” Leo said. “You don’t
like it but you get used to it.”
I know now that brain cells
were dying for no earthly purpose,
that three boys were becoming
increasingly despiritualized
even as they took into themselves
these spirits, but I thought then
I was at last sharing the world
with the movie stars, that before
long I would be shaving because
I needed to, that hair would
sprout across the flat prairie
of my chest and plunge even
to my groin, that first girls
and then women would be drawn
to my qualities. Amazingly, later
some of this took place, but
first the bottle had to be
emptied, and then the three boys
had to empty themselves of all
they had so painfully taken in
and by means even more painful
as they bowed by turns over
the eye of the toilet bowl
to discharge their shame. Ahead
lay cigarettes, the futility
of guaranteed programs of
exercise, the elaborate lies
of conquest no one believed,
forms of sexual torture and
rejection undreamed of. Ahead
lay our fifteenth birthdays,
acne, deodorants, crabs, salves,
butch haircuts, draft registration,
the military and political victories
of Dwight Eisenhower, who brought us
Richard Nixon with wife and dog.
Any wonder we tried gin.

Literary Festival in Rangoon

With a trip to Burma/Myanmar coming up in one week I’ve been going nuts trying to learn a little bit more about the country than the latest causality figures from the northern border where Kachin rebels have been waging a 50 year struggle against the Burman majority. As dire as that is for the people involved much more is happening, and with auspicious signs.

I would think that many, especially the young, would be dizzy with excitement in the ‘new’ Burma/Myanmar.  After decades of censorship, harassment and jailings, writers are able to write and read in public.  Burmese authors are being published in the country.  The daily press is able to pursue stories as they see fit. It’s not perfect by any means but it sure looks fun.  Better than being arrested for writing a Valentine’s day poem, as Saw Wei was in 2008.

Last week actually saw a literary festival in Rangoon with some 80 indigenous writers participating, as well as international stars such as Jung Chang of China whose “Wild Swans” has just been published in Myanmar though it is still banned in China.

Associated Press is beginning a year-long series about change in Myanmar.  The first article is about the lifting of censorship and how some writers are responding.

Aung San Suu Kyi gives a talk at the Irrawaddy literary festival in Burma, the first event of its kind in the country. Photograph: Khin Maung Win/AP

Kate Hodal reports for the Guardian U.K about the festival:

Sessions at the Irrawaddy literary festival, which ended on Sunday, were held in Burmese and English and varied from workshops on photojournalism and discussions on censorship and violence to poetry readings and film screenings.

Audience members stood up to share their tales of being political prisoners under Burma’s five-decade long military regime, or to ask questions on how their country could gain greater literary clout. Tents selling secondhand books spilled onto the lawns of the Inya Lake hotel, which was hosting the festival, while poets and writers crowded around picnic tables discussing art and literature.

The three-day festival’s most popular talks invariably involved the opposition leader and Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi — who acted as patron of the festival — during which she told sell-out audiences that books helped stave off loneliness while living for nearly 20 years under house arrest, and joked that however courageous she might seem to others, she would never be brave enough do what Harry Potter had done.

“[Reading] gives you a chance to understand how other people think, and what kind of experiences other people have been through,” she said. “And it also helps you to cope with your own life.”

 

News from Mail: Poetry

Though war and armed assaults in Mali have been much in the news lately good things continue to happen. Here, a letter from a friend in Portland, Oregon.

 “I wanted to share with you a project we began this year in Bamako, Mail,  linking a Malian high school class learning English with an American class learning French.  They are exchanging poetry written in their 2nd language (actually for the Malians their 3rd or 4th language).  Mali is a land of song, poetry, proverb, where the major language bambara is filled with metaphors and proverbs in everyday exchanges.  So it was a natural to suggest this exchange of poetry.
“Attached are 3 poems from KoFalen’s  “A Fo!  Say It!” project.  Alassane Diarra’s class of Fili Dabo Sissoko High School in BKO participating in the poetry exchange with (Return Peace Corps Mali Volunteer) Stephen Lambert’s class of Metropolitan Learning Center High School in Portland, OR.  This will culminate in a Poetry Reading in April in Directors Park, downtown Portland free and open to the public.”
Mali 1

Read more of this post

m4s0n501

Poetry In Afghanistan

A very good piece in the NY Times about girls writing poetry, in Afghanistan, secretly.

Lima stood to recite her latest poem: a rubaiyat, the Arabic name for a quatrain, addressed to the Taliban.

 You won’t allow me to go to school.
I won’t become a doctor.
Remember this:
One day you will be sick.

*

Meena’s father pulled her out of school four years ago after gunmen kidnapped one of her classmates. Now she stays home, cooks, cleans and teaches herself to write poetry in secret. Poems are the only form of education to which she has access. She doesn’t meet outsiders face to face.

“I can’t say any poems in front of my brothers,” she said. Love poems would be seen by them as proof of an illicit relationship, for which Meena could be beaten or even killed. “I wish I had the opportunities that girls do in Kabul,” she went on. “I want to write about what’s wrong in my country.” Meena gulped. She was trying not to cry. On the other end of the line, Amail, who is prone to both compassion and drama, began to weep with her. Tears mixed with kohl dripped onto the page of the spiral notebook in which Amail was writing down Meena’s verses. Meena recited a Pashtun folk poem called a landai:

 

“My pains grow as my life dwindles,
I will die with a heart full of hope.”

Read all

Gunter Grass at 84 Stirs a War of Words

Germany has sold to Israel over some years, and with partial funding from its own treasury, 6 Dolphin Class submarines.

The Dolphins are quiet diesel-electric attack submarines that evolved from Germany’s famous and ubiquitous U209 Class. They can fire torpedoes and missiles from their 533mm torpedo tubes, perform underwater surveillance, and even launch combat swimmers via a wet and dry compartment.

The contract for the 6th was reported signed in February, 2012.  Not only can they fire torpedoes but, slightly refitted, missiles can be launched, including, sad-to-say

It is also rumored that Israel has tested a nuclear-capable version of its medium-range “Popeye Turbo” cruise missile design for deployability from the 650mm torpedo tubes in its Dolphin Class submarines. The 2002 Popeye Turbo launch test location off Sri Lanka suggested that the tests may have been performed in cooperation with India.

Defense Industry Daily

On Wednesday, April 4, Gunter Grass, the most famous living German writer, best known for his 1959 Tin-Drum and the 1990 Nobel Prize for Literature, published a 66 line poem entitled “What   Must Be Said.”

Why have I kept silent, held back so long,

on something openly practiced in

war games, at the end of which those of us

who survive will at best be footnotes? [more...]

 

Sparked, he says, by the sale of that submarine, he upside-downs the fear that has gripped the EuroMericans for the last year, that Iran will develop and then drop an atomic bomb and destroy millions.  In Grass’ imagination, it is the Israelis whose bombs  should be feared;  deny it or not, they almost certainly have atomic weapons, and not just a few.

The poem — which is certainly kludgy in an English translation by the very good translator, Breon Mitchell — might have been better as an essay, or opinion piece.  So it’s interesting that a mere poem has whipped the furies in Israel and among its supporters.  Not a literary judgment of course, but a political response to one more toe over the line which declares no criticism of Israel is to be tolerated, even if from friends — much less from someone who has already showed his skepticism towards Israeli behavior.

In an interview with Spiegel Online in 2001, he described the “appropriation” of Palestinian territory by Israeli settlers as a “criminal activity”, adding: “That not only needs to be stopped – it also needs to be reversed.”

Good commentary on the poem and Grass in The Guardian, UK, 

When the shouting dies away to whispers it will still be known by many who did not know before that Israel has 6 submarines, nuclear weapons, and the delivery system to make them lethal.  Iran’s submarine force of some 20, including 3 fast, quiet Kilo class diesels from Russia capable of firing torpedoes and missiles, is based in the Persian Gulf, without so far as is known, nuclear bombs, or missiles configured to use one — which isn’t to say they are not lethal.  Iranian submarines and US Carriers in the same small waters are accidents waiting to happen.

It seems to me big people with big mouths ought to practice walking away from fights rather than using a poem to start one, especially since the most worrisome thing to Israel ought to be that the poem is a clear indicator of shifting perceptions around the world.  No more favored nation in the hearts and minds of many, but another war-dog we should all keep a wary eye on.

 

The Age of Ignorance

Whew! Here’s some plain talk we don’t usually hear from the better behaved side of the aisle…

Charles Simic is a poet of international repute. He teaches at the University of New Hampshire where he is Professor Emeritus.

Widespread ignorance bordering on idiocy is our new national goal. It’s no use pretending otherwise and telling us, as Thomas Friedman did in the Times a few days ago, that educated people are the nation’s most valuable resources. Sure, they are, but do we still want them? It doesn’t look to me as if we do. The ideal citizen of a politically corrupt state, such as the one we now have, is a gullible dolt unable to tell truth from bullshit.

Read all at NYRB

And read a poem, Eyes Fastened With Pins, at Poets.org

 

[cross posted at AllInOneBoat.org]

Ferlinghetti Declares for the 49ers

Unexpectedly, Lawrence Ferlinghetti made an appearance on the NY Times sports pages today. Of last weeks 49ers victory over the New Orleans Saints:

“That was the greatest end of a game I’d ever seen,” Ferlinghetti said in a telephone interview, proclaiming himself a renewed fan of the 49ers, at least while their playoff run lasts. They will host the Giants on Sunday in the N.F.C. championship game.

 But since he hasn’t composed a pome about football and is more likely to about the other football, which most of the world plays, take a moment and enjoy himself reading Baseball Canto.  It will tickle your politics as well as your game cock.

A Poem from Egypt

from The Utopia of Cemeteries

Unpainted walls,
stone filled ground
fragile bones not even able to stand
and my bones are stuck in the middle
I am thinking of a small demonstration
to protest against the angels
who deprived us of the necessary calcium
God is above the ditch extending His shadow over us
and letting us sleep late
A drop of light falls from His hands
A darkened body enters
The drop dries
and we get to know our new colleague
with an open heart.
He gives us cigarettes with extra generosity
We like his voice when he mutters:
“What the hell is happening here?”

Ahmad Yamani, Egypt

from Beruit 39: New Writing from the Arab World, edited by Samuel Shimon, Bloomsbury Press, 2010

I’ve been pouring over anthologies of Arab literature and hope to have some reviews coming up. Meanwhile, I liked this poem from Egypt, or perhaps Spain, where the writer, Ahmad Yamani, born in 1970, is now studying.

Taha Muhammad Ali: A Poem

A friend of mine, John Huyler, has made it a practice over the years to read a poem every night as he goes off to sleep. Preparing the way for dreams, perhaps. I don’t have quite that discipline and am often too caught up in catching up on the great classics to have an ounce of wakefulness left to read even one poem. I am quite astounded of late though by the poems of Taha Muhammad Ali, in translations of Peter Cole, Yahya Hajazi and Gabriel Levin. Copper Canyon has the book, So What: New and Selected Poems, 1971- 2005
*
Tea and Sleep

By Taha Muhammad Ali

If, over this world, there’s a ruler
who holds in his hand bestowal and seizure,
at whose command seeds are sown,
as with his will the harvest ripens,
I turn in prayer, asking him
to decree for the hour of my demise,
when my days are drawing to an end,
that I’ll be sitting and taking a sip
of weak tea with a little sugar
from my favorite glass
in the gentlest shade of the late afternoon
during the summer.
And if not tea and afternoon,
then let it be the hour
of my sweet sleep just before dawn.

And may my compensation be —
if in fact I see compensation —
I who during my time in this world
didn’t split open an ant’s belly,
and never deprived an orphan of money,
didn’t cheat on measures of oil
or violate a swallow’s veil;
who always lit a lamp
at the shrine of our lord, Shihab a-Din,
on Friday evenings,
and never sought to beat my friends
or neighbors at games,
or even those I simply knew;
I who stole neither wheat nor grain
and did not pilfer tools
would ask —
that now, for me, it be ordained
that once a month,
or every other,
I be allowed to see
the one my vision has been denied —
since that day I parted
from her when we were young.

But as for the pleasures of the world to come,
all I’ll ask
of them will be —
the bliss of sleep, and tea.