Review: A Poet for Our Planet

A Turnpike Utopia: Poems to Resist Environmental Destruction for Profit and War
by Sam Friedman.
Central Jersey Coalition Against Endless War,
46 pages, Available from the author at sam4wp@netscape.net.
Written as a fundraiser. Price: whatever you can afford
(at least $3 to cover costs).

BACK IN THE 1950s as a high school student, I had to read Edwin Markham’s “The Man with the Hoe.” What happened was exactly like Emily Dickinson described: the top of my head blew off!

Later, when a professor asked how I came to be involved with fair housing issues, American Indian activism, feminism and so forth, I gave him a copy of “The Man with the Hoe.” I distinctly remember that he did not lose the top of his head, not even when reading

Time’s tragedy is in that aching stoop;
Through this dread shape humanity betrayed,
Plundered, profaned, and disinherited,
Cries protest to the Judges of the world,
A protest that is also prophecy.

I often wonder how, in those innocent high school years of mine, such a political poem could have “changed the chemistry of my soul” to use Denise Levertov’s phrase from The Poet in the World.

I lived in an environment where there were no newspapers, no television and an extraordinary amount of religious fundamentalism.

Whatever mysterious communication took place between me and Markham’s poem that day was an important first step that helped set the direction of my life towards social justice. Throughout my professional life as planner and now as a working poet, I have always been drawn to the poetry of protest, especially when I have had the privilege of knowing their authors.

Sam Friedman and I came to know each other through our friendship with Hunter Gray, who moderates several private, online social action groups, and who has written articles for this magazine.

A few years ago, I volunteered to review Sam’s draft manuscript of some new poems and began to pay closer attention whenever he posted poetry online during our various discussions. He is a man intimately grounded in the urban world and its issues of AIDS, workers’ rights, racism, the mistreatment of immigrants, and so forth.

In “Pledge of a ‘Good American,’” he is not afraid to goad the reader into taking more responsibility than “…pledg[ing] to do nothing but vote. I particularly liked “After, On the Way to Thereafter,” where he uses his poet’s good craft to describe how he builds his global city:

…I may write a paper on AIDS,
or hug and console
a stranger or friend.
My evening, perhaps, put our heads in the oven
as we clean a community stove,
or I may weave a poem, or rest overlong,
or whatever seems needed and fun
as we build our embraceable
new global city
from the petals and rootings of dreams.

Picture Poetry

The poems I love best in this chapbook are seven ekphrastic poems, or picto-poems. Another practitioner of this form is the Anishinaabe poet, Dr. Kimberly Blaeser, professor in the English Department of the University of Wisconsin.

Sam’s short poem “Tuna” best illustrates the blending of words and image. The poet asks, “…do they turn bellies up / as they float into extinction / dreaming of sushi bars without sushi / of weeping humans / without their dead to eat?” Just below the two stanzas of the poem is a graphic photograph of a dead tuna. I wish the image could have been in color, as dreadful as that would be!

The title poem, “A Turnpike Utopia,” is either a little playful or tongue in cheek. It took me awhile to chuckle! But that photograph of hundreds of ducks clogging an intersection was too good to be true. Read this poem aloud! Savor these lines:

…they quack forth their horror
at ponds full of benzene,
they weep for their rivers
all covered with scum.

to:

The geese seize the White House
as ducks fill the Senate:

…Their guano makes fertile
the halls and the rostra,
replacing the bullshit
where money once reigned.

My favorite of Sam’s eckphrastic poems came to be “Second Negation: Notes on the Day after the Revolution.” “What the hell do we do next?’’ the poet continually asks, in the face of a photograph looking like it came from Cairo’s Tahrir Square during the Arab Spring uprisings. “How will we live our meanings…? / How do we unleash the sleeping poetry?  the smothered power to create / that waits like crabgrass / in the brains and hands of everyone…?”  And towards the end, the poet — honest yet hopeful, has the courage to say,

I ponder the epic mistakes our revolutionary
democracy
is undoubtedly making
even as I rove, wander and scribble
through the rubble, the wonders, and the
shoving salvation
as crabgrass pushes aside the arid asphalt
of Madison Avenue
to seek its sun.

In the introduction, Paul Sauers rightfully praises Sam’s ability to “connect the dots between Wall Street, dying fish… [and] grotesquely profitable fossil fuel energy companies…” I would add to this praise that it is Sam’s strong vision that shines through our nights, as in “August Outage”:

In my five hours wandering without electrons
on the midtown streets of Manhattan,
in the ghetto core of Plainfield, NJ,
and throughout the long bus-sit between,
I hear no hostility,
share confusion, water, and thoughts
with many strangers,
make many friends

of the moment
of this moment when solidarity flowers,
this moment nested between years
of shoving, pressure,
talons,
fangs.

 

Copyright by Alice M. Azure.  November/December 2013, Against The Current #167

Review – The Book of Big Dog Town by Jim Stevens

There’s no better way to learn about a city than to have friends who delight in showing  you their favorite places.  Then it becomes easier to find more personal haunts such as outside cafés, churches, shops, museums or parkways to visit and patronize.  I am fortunate to have such  friends like Jan Domaracki, whose love of Chicago was so contagious that I eventually came to regard that city as a friend and place of enjoyment, sometimes of restoration.

Another friend, poet Jim Stevens, recently launched a collection about a pre-historic, Wisconsin city commonly mapped as Aztalan by archaeologists, but reverently called Big Dog Town by Stevens.  The term “big dog” refers to the little horses which Ho-chunk people believed to be dream helpers.  Even if you have never heard of Aztalan, that’s okay.  Let yourself enjoy the way Stevens’ tour will lead you into an alternate realm alive with song, canoe stars, Little People and Bird Man himself–the revered and charismatic hero of the great mound-builder civilizations which sprung up all over the Midwest and Southeast from AD 1050 to 1200.

Like any good tour guide, Stevens’ introduction shows his readers how he “was called” (2) to Aztalan, how its “door in the world” was opened to him, and how, over the years, he grew into a deep relationship with its hills, rocks, the Crawfish River—and how, when he played his flute, the wind played back his song (4).OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

After reading through some of the poems and stories in the book, I realized that this collection was more of a spiritual memoir of the poet’s association with Big Dog Town that, as he nearly claims, he has had in more than one life.  Especially engaging was the last selection, “The Lizard’s Tail and Eyes.” As this short story goes, a young storyteller, named Face in the Rock, has lost his grandmother.  A great dream-lizard convinced Face in the Rock that he could no longer remain in the village where his grandmother had lived and taken care of him. So he began to travel with the aid of Sun Chaser, who was a small horse in those days—what the ancients of Grand Pinery (Wisconsin) called a big-dog.  After a long journey,

[a] glacial kettle…appeared as a round hollow, reaching into dimensions above and below them.  They walked down the short slope.  This was truly a place to dance [and]…became a famous place where all sorts of people came to stay, for the big-dog, it was known, was a powerful dreaming creature and now she was walking beside the river.  (63, 64)

The poems in this collection are beautiful, like sparkling ornaments that radiate a dream-like mystique to this book’s core story of self-discovery.   Stevens is the kind of poet, says Richard Wilbur in a wonderful essay, whose  “…impulse is to name the world.”  (“Poetry and Happiness,” from Donald Hall’s anthology, Claims for Poetry, 479)  How he does this naming in The Book of Big Dog Town is to take an ancient city not visibly viable, but whose grounds and stories he experiences as still sacred and luminous, and set it forth with descriptive power and amazing imagination.

Sevens, who is a consummate flute player, uses his knowledge of music to animate many of these poems—“Canto for the Fifth World” being one a several examples.  In this long poem, each stanza begins with the line, “I am going into the sacred lands of Turtle Island,” and continues in a mode like a going-home song:

I am going where the Old Ones linger in their new bodies the hills
Where fear is lost in the undulating houses of the Earth
I am going where the fire is living in the leaves of the forest
There is a string of owls coming around in the layered night

My favorite is “Coming through the Music.”  I imagine that the poet and Bird Man are here in Cahokia, near where I live, and they are doing a
call and response near the Twin Mounds—with Stevens on Roundtop and Bird Man on Fox Mound.  I am not sure who Stevens had in mind for
the Bird Man—Charlie Parker or the ancient Sun Chief of Cahokia and all its environs.  To me, it makes little difference.

I would like to be at the very height of a round hill
Where I am turning intricate lines on a raw brass cornet
Pretty soon I hear Bird Man the tenor saxophonist

We can see each other so clearly across the way
On the other hill at the zenith of the yellow dog sun
Through a broad silver mist covering the low fields

The blues with its unique verbiage is leaping the spaces
It is known to us that we are on two special worlds
So we meet in the center and dance in the wind

We are making in the world the first paths of being
Closely now we speak of the isles and broadleaf forests
A call and response is bursting forth in hornlike flowers

The people awaken into a world of mysterious songs
Strings of mythologies begin to live in true nature
They are telling of creator twins who roam the earth

The ones who play with the harmonic orbs of the hills
First Brother who falls from the deepest of skies
Second Brother who emerges from the pulsing sea

Raw Brass and Bird Man do not slow their music
The meandering rivers are carrying an endless story
A first thought does not ever become old in the world (17)

The Book of Big Dog Town:  Poems and Stories from Aztalan and Around.  Fireweed Press (Madison, Wisconsin) 2013. 64 pages. $15.00.

Mihku Paul’s New Poetry Book, 20th Century Powwow Playland

In an interview by Lisa Panepinto (“Renewing Images: Mihku Paul Interview,” River Pine Anthology of Civic Discourse, September 14, 2012), Mihku tells about a summer she attended a Sun Dance ceremony in North Dakota.  A deer had been killed so that there would be food for the celebrants.  However, no one knew how to cut up the animal’s body for cooking.  Having often helped her mother and grandfather skin and dress out animals for sportsmen who hunted around the Old Town area of Maine, Mihku knew how to butcher a deer.  At first she held back from volunteering.  Not only was it miserably hot and humid, but water was not readily available.  In the end, she persuaded herself to take charge of that deer.

Some of the poems in 20th Century Powwow Playland are like the chunks of deer meat that Mihku exposed that day in North Dakota.  Using the tools of her poetic craft, she masterfully hones sounds, verbs, images, rhythm and lines to cut open the skin (a word she uses often) of a latent colonization, revealing vicious racism, violence, poverty, anomie—all of which her family has had to endure in central Maine.

In the poem “Piecework,” she describes women who work out of their home, doing piecework for a shoe factory.  For Pauline, “complaining is her vocation, sex her currency / children are a thorn in her side / [she] …leaves to fend for themselves/ like feral kittens.” Another, Millie, has eyes that are “bloodshot” and which “…broadcast /a flag of surrender.” Pale Antoinette “shifts her generous flesh / shakes the bench and rises. / She makes more coffee, smokes another Camel.”  Mihku’s mother’s “…hands twist the awl, stacks the pieces, / until she must stop / fearful of ruining work / creased palms cracked and bleeding.”

A poem I like for its rich language and images is “Undertow.”  She talks about a drunk, a man named Froggy who drowned in the Penobscot River which rings the reservation, called Indian Island.  She then mentions her brother, who was also drinking at the time, and how he found another drowned body, a “…snagged / limp form of a boy his own age.”  She concludes the poem with a haunting, lyrical question:

Do ghosts whisper psalms in

the flooded branches of trees,

sing strange hymns beneath the ice, to

their next of kin, those newly arrived souls,

claimed by this river inside us?

Another poem caught my attention for the way Mihku created a sense of fear as well as promise.  In “Return,” everyone and everything is groaning in the sometimes stormy, sometimes moonlit dark—the earth, Mt. Katahdin, great pines, and a bear (Muin), with whom she travels.  He teaches her “…to welcome velvet dark / guided by the moon’s shape-shifted spark.”  Then, says the poet, “a steady warmth flowed gently up my spine, / Katahdin’s song rose up from granite stone.”

I am glad to have had the privilege of spending time with Mihku during the recent Returning the Gift Festival in Milwaukee, September 4 -9.  There, her spark and confidence were unmistakable, especially during a slam poetry competition, in which she won second place.  It was then I had a strong feeling that my Maliseet friend, with her wonderful sense of language, sound and images, was well on her way to becoming one of the most important poets to emerge out of New England.  I look forward to her next oeuvre!

20th Century Powwow Playland is available through http://:nativeauthors.com. Mikhu’s website is http://mihkupaul.com.

© by Alice M. Azure, November 2012.

My Early Poetic Influences: Fred W. Moeckel 1929 – 1966

From the age of 11 to 18, I lived in a children’s home in Cromwell, Connecticut.  Even though  Fred Moeckel joined the staff as a boys’ counselor around the time I was in the eighth grade, he was always kind and friendly to us girls.

I loved to be around Bud (his nick name) for many reasons.  He taught us silly songs like “I Know an Old Woman Who Swallowed a Fly.”   He was always sketching cartoons, even though he wouldn’t do a caricature of me.  “Why?” I asked.  “Well, you don’t have any odd features,” he laughed.  We always wondered where he disappeared to on his day off—for when he returned, there were paintings under his arm or a sheaf of poems tucked into his pocket—not to mention a camera slung over his shoulder.

Most of all, I loved his poetry.   Once I asked him how he could make so many poems.  His answer was something like, “Well you think of two things that might go together, and you make a poem out of them!”  Back then, I didn’t understand.

One of my fondest memories of Bud is of long summer afternoons down by our swimming hole.  Instead of “life-guarding” us, he’d be engrossed in poetry writing and sipping coffee from the hot pot he carried with him.  Meanwhile, about thirty or so of us kids would be swimming away, dunking each other, doing tricks off the diving board or perhaps ramming the raft with our ten-foot water log!  Many years later while on vacation, I, too, carried a steaming pot of coffee down to a beach with me—to help wile away a cool morning reading my books or writing letters.

Bud published three books of poetry in his short life—the first of which is my favorite—One Voice Two (New York: Exposition Press, 1964).  Many of the poems evoke memories of wonderful  summer days  of swimming and playground fun with other children who lived at the home—especially the boys about whom our beloved poet-friend wrote.   A favorite of mine is “S-U-M-M-E-R” (page 32):

The smell of child sweat
sweet as bubblegum,
the prickle of white heat
evaporating from
the slightest bird’s wing-tremble breath,
the glass beads of freckled words
spell summer…

The poem “Ritual” (page 51) captures a familiar, happy scene of childhood:

Thief-quick boys
upset the poise
of young girls, sun-
bathing; they run
scattering heel-
high sand to steal
whatever loose thing
a girl must bring
to swimming.  To show off—
the boys, by a throw of
each girl’s belonging,
begin a singsonging
tease:  out of reach,
over the head of each
victim.  At last,
the game of it past,
the tormentors hand
all contraband
back.  For their part,
the girls, though hurt
today, will bring
small things
with them tomorrow
for the boys to borrow
and steal and play catch
with while the girls watch.

I remember Bud’s sensitivity to our childhood hurts—having been comforted by him the best he could manage when other adult counselors came down too hard on us.  Here’s a poem—”Gone from Gladness Wholly” (page 29)—that illustrates what Mark Van Doren called Bud Moeckel’s “…intimate relation with all things”:

Heavy to the lone child lying hidden
beneath the underside and veins
and pigeon-fruit of grape leaves, the gains
of joy are lost to an unbidden
child-reflective melancholy;
and he is gone from gladness wholly,
grieving as only a lone child grieves
in the silken comfort of silver leaves.

Fred W. Moeckel attended North Park College and its theological seminary.  He graduated magna cum laude from the Hartford Art School in 1959—even though he became blind during his final year.  At the time of his death in 1966 from complications of diabetes, he was a rehabilitation counselor for the blind.

Siobhan Senier’s Essay in MELUS

What is striking in Azure’s work is her emphasis on travel, especially around ceremony and among urban areas where other Native people reside. Her peripatetic life directly informs the poetic hubs of her chapbook, In Mi’kmaq Country. The first piece, “Someday I Will Dance,” acts like a hub anchoring her many locations and affiliations. It sets its speaker in an unnamed but distinctly urban, Midwestern space described as “This world of asphalt grids” (18). From that vantage point, she catches a glimpse of colorful fall foliage, which gives her occasion to travel imaginatively across space and time, to join “the People” in a dance (25-26). She pictures them in a quatrain that begins in the Midwest and travels back to Mi’kmaq homeland:

Do they dance at old Saukenuk,
At the capes of North and Blomidon?
Do their voices rise above Katahdin,
Around the harvests of Gaspe? (10-13)

Saukenuk, once the principal village of the Sauk nation, is now an Illinois State Park. It purportedly pays homage to Black Hawk, one of many Native leaders who have been re-appropriated for American mythologies: a brave hero who ultimately and inevitably lost his fight with settlers, thus ushering in colonial progress and ushering out the vanishing race. A visit to this kind of site is one of Azure’s signature poetic gestures. Her latest book, Games of Transformation, is a reflection on the Cahokia Mounds, also in present-day Illinois.11 There, as in her reimagination of Saukenuk, she subverts the US national imaginary by calling into being a Native community and a Native future.

The next three lines (tracing capes North and Blomidon, Mount Katahdin, and the Gaspe peninsula) triangulate Mi’kmaq aboriginal territory, doubling back and forth across the international line as though the speaker is exercising her rights under the 1794 Jay Treaty. Azure moves from Cape North on the northeast portion of Cape Breton Island (allegedly the first point of land John Cabot saw) to Cape Blomidon on the northern side of the Nova Scotia in the Bay of Fundy, over to Mount Katahdin in the interior of Maine, and up to the Gaspe peninsula of Quebec, the northernmost part of Mi’kmaq territory. She repatriates herself by covering places with significance in traditional histories of the Wabanaki hero Glooscap—Blomidon was once called “Glooscapweek,” or “home of Glooscap” (Hornborg 86). She traces an international, cosmopolitan trajectory, moving among Native communities constituted before the currentframework of nation-states and still understood outside that framework. (excerpted from pages 25-27)

For the entire essay, go to Senier37.1

Front Cover Art courtesy of MELUS, where it first appeared ( Vol issue 2012). All Nations Seek Peace. 2012. By Mihku Paul. Aquarelle, watercolor, and ink. Copyright Mihku Paul. Reproduced with permission of the artist. Cover Design: Phil Wolfe Graphic Design, www.pwgraphicdesign.com. Reproduced with permission of MELUS.