St. Louis is one of the most musical of cities in our country – especially for aficionados of Blues and Jazz. And I missed the Big Muddy Blues Festival on this past Labor Day – unwilling to drive into the city’s LaClede Center to fight for parking – or to use the metrolink – or to brave the heat. No jiving for me.
Not long ago Terry and I had the best of all worlds in Mystic, Connecticut. Every Thursday night from seven o’clock to nine was live Dixieland Jazz at Ashby’s, a bar and restaurant at the end of Connecticut Route 127 in Old Mystic. Weekly gatherings were an eclectic bunch – Theresa, Jack and staff from the Mashantucket Pequot Museum, Gloria and Delores from Rhode Island’s Watch Hill coast, Paul and Richie, World War II airplane pilots, Angie, my Portuguese accountant friend, and the “boys” in the band—Dom, Charlie, Lou, John and Pete.
Donna, our waitress, knew our favorite foods and drinks… and what wasn’t on the menu, she’d get the cook to make it for us—like my favorite, pan-fried sole.
These glorious Thursdays lasted six years. And then the owner sold the place after his wife ran away with cook. A Mr. Donut shop now occupies the spot where glorious jazz once filled the air. I soon retired to St. Louis. Here’s a poem about that wondrous time:
Thursday night is finally here—
It’s live jazz time at Ashby’s
so we head down to Mystic
along Route 27 way.
Inside it’s nothing fancy — sea stuff hanging
on the walls—buoys, harpoons,
prints of clippers from by-gone eras,
old instruments arranged around the bar.
Dominic lifts his horn to us.
Charlie nods, shoulders hunched
over yellowed keys.
Ted blows a set of scales
up and down his clarinet.
John, traps all set,
waves from his chair.
Lou is busy tuning strings
on his burnished bass viol.
Eleanor, Don, Tom and Marge smile hellos.
Jack asks where we’ve been.
Angie grins, happy we’re at our place
under the menu board
where we wait for Donna
to bring our steaming plates
of scallops, fish and chips.
The boys in Charlie’s band
prefer Dixieland jazz
but tonight they play
“Willow Weep for Me.”
Jim leads Gloria
onto the floor for a dance.
It seems the haunting melody
moves her to another place.
Bob’s son slowly stands,
hands braced upon the table—
lets the plaintive melody
rock him side to side.
Cecille’s smoky voice starts
“You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To.”
Her father smiles, eyes half shut,
imagines his dead wife’s spirit
keeping gentle rhythm
with their daughter’s wistful song.
Sometimes you never know
what musicians might appear.
Tonight we aren’t disappointed
as familiar notes soar through the air:
Pack up all my cares and woe—
Gradually eight men jam the floor.
Scott’s horn grabs the melody
embellished by saxophone’s
Here I go, singing low.
Clarinet’s high notes soar to the fore,
drums, bass and piano
playing off and around each other,
Where somebody waits for me,
Sugar’s sweet so is she.
No foot in the house is still.
Some of us stand at our tables,
jive in place the best we can,
our hoots, whoops and whistles
punctuating the air:
Oh what hard-luck stories they all hand me.
When the song is over,
Ashby’s owner Steve,
turns to the players,
shouts his thanks
over our applause—
reminding us why
we travel to Mystic
down Route 27 way.
Lines from “Bye-bye Blackbird” used with permission from Fred Ahlert Music Corporation.
“Ashby’s was first published in The Resident, January 25 – February 7, 2006, p. 30. Stonington, CT.
For a person like me – who has lived through and participated (however little) in the great movements for reform focused on civil right for Blacks, women and American Indians – I found it extremely difficult to say anything about the Ferguson, Missouri riots that occurred this past summer and fall, and still simmer hot. What transforming words were there to be said that hadn’t already been said a hundred thousand times or more? Then I came across these words by Nayyirah Waheed: Some words build houses in your throat. And they live there, content and on fire. However inadequate, the following poem evolved:
Voice! Take a good look at this house built of self-righteous
rage, rants against greed, racism, hatred and discrimination.
Voice! Talk to me about seared timbers, the past’s poison
of pomposity, the current paralysis of silence. Do not spare
rebuke that scours the rot of ennui. Open my ears
to builders who wield new vocabularies – leaders
who practice justice, peace and respect, who
renew flagging energies, who care for the People.
Voice! Help me remodel this house.
Push me. Spend me. I beg fire’s renewal,
its outrage restrained. O Voice, support community
visions that make dreams of jobs materialize.
My Voice! In time remaining, remember to rejoice
with rising sun, for seeds that sprout – the prize to come.
© January 2015
Here’s a photograph of all the native authors who attended the launch party for Dawnland Voices: An Anthology of Indigenous Writing from New England. Hosted by the University of New Hampshire at Durham, I will say for myself that it was a splendid evening – an event I will always remember! I finally got to meet Daniel N. Paul (third from left, seated) and Jaime Battiste, (first at left, standing). We were the Mi’kmaw contingent out of ten other tribal voices. It was so good to meet Cheryl Savageau (second in from the right seated), Melissa Tantaquidgeon Zobel, (far right, seated), Mihku Paul (7th from left in middle row – white shirt, long hair), Carol Bachnofner (to the right of Mihku), Lisa Brooks (back row black & white blouse), and Jesse Bruchac (last to the right, back row). Paula Peters (next to Jaime) has become my new friend. I regretted that Steven Augustine, Marie Battiste, James Sakej Youngblood Henderson, Susanne Rancourt, Joe, Marge and Jim Bruchac, Trudie Lamb Richmond, Jayne Fawcett, and Robert Peters were not in attendance. And I believe all the departed ones – Rita Joe, Lorne Simon, Sopiel Soctomah, Chief Francis Joseph Neptune, Tomah Joseph, Deacon Sockabasin, Joseph Stanislaus, Sopiel SElmore, Lewis Mitchell, Sylvia Gabriel, Peter Mitchell, Mary Ellen Stevens Socobasin, Joseph Nicolaaar, Molly Spotted Elk, Wowaus, Samson Occum and the others – rejoiced with us this past Saturday night, November 1, 2014. We carry their words and add our own, all known to each other and all very much unvanished!
This anthology is available from the University of Nebraska Press. Siobhan Senier is the editor and she had assistance from ten tribal editors in choosing the selections. Bravo! This is an historic work! An historic occasion!
Today is my birthday, and I must say it has been a good year as far as getting my poetry published. My newest chapbook, Worn Cities, attracted eighty pre-orders, enough for the publishers, Finishing Line Press, to proceed with a press run of 250 copies! I am grateful to all my supporters who ordered copies, which will be shipped September 6th, 2014.
My poems have appeared in Cream City Review, About Place Journal, and Yellow Medicine Review. Of particular pleasure for me has been the release of Dawnland Voices (University of Nebraska Press), edited by Siobhan Senier. It is an anthology of indigenous writing from New England tribal authors, including Mi’kmaw, Maliseet, Passamaquoddy, Penobscot, Abenaki, Nipmuc, Wampanoag, Mohegan, Narragansett and Schaghticoke people. Each of the tribal sections contains an introduction by a tribal community editor that assisted Siobhan in collecting and choosing the pieces showcased.
Many of the authors I know personally or through correspondence. Some I have showcased on this site – Mihku Paul, Carol Bachofner, Cheryl Savageau and Siobhan Senier, the indefatigable editor! In the Mi’kmaw section, I found myself loving Elsie Charles Basque’s story, “From Here to There,” where she recounts traveling alone with children from Saunierville, Nova Scotia to Willimantic, Connecticut, a place where my own mother had lived awhile. There’s an excerpt of the late Lorne Simon’s wonderful novel, Stones and Switches. James Sakej Youngblood, Jaime Battiste (father and son) outlined the basis of our Mi’kmaw treaties –underscored by an excellent essay by Grand Chief Donald Marshall Sr., Grand Captain Alexander Denny, and Putus (wisdom) Simon Marshall.
My entries included three poems – “Repatriation Soliloquy,” “Mi’kmaq Haiku,” and “Someday I Will Dance,” a personal favorite. Poems of the beloved poet, Rita Joe, are included and of course, Daniel Paul, our reknown activist, has an included section from his hard-hitting book, We Were Not the Savages. As Joe Bruchac says, “…this is a brilliantly edited anthology.
If you want to order Dawnland Voices online, check out this link to learn more.
Even Dawnland Voices could not trump the best news of this birthday year: I found out the name of my biological fourth great grandmother–the one of whom I wrote in my May 7, 2013 post, listed below in the archives of this website. Her name was (is) Marie LeBlanc Mius. She had twin daughters, Marguerite and Madeleine Magdalene, born Mius – but taken in by another family, the Babin’s. Marguerite became my third great grandmother. There’s a story behind this “adoption,” believe me – but it’s for another time. A cousin whom I found through autosomal DNA testing, Edward Cyr, helped me find her. I will never forget the enormous burden of obsession that rolled off my shoulders when Ed said, “You’ve found Her! You’ve found your grandmother.” Not many people can boast of two family trees – double sets of relatives on down to the pre-colonial period of Nova Scotia. I am thankful. In a future post, I will share a poem I wrote for Grandmother Marie.
My new poetry collection–Worn Cities–will be coming out this fall. If you place your order during the pre-publishing period (up to July 25), shipping is only $2.99 for the first copy and $1.99 for each additional copy. If you’ve already ordered Worn Cities, my sincere thanks.
The cover art is my own photo from early 1980 of the Munjoy Hill area in Portland, Maine. In spite of intense gentrification, today Bruni’s Market still stands. Here are a few lines from the title poem in the collection:
In the sun-salted air of DiMillo’s on the waterfront,
I chatter and carry on about poetry
with Cheryl, Siobhan and Carol.
Lobster-roll juices dribble down my chin,
stain my aqua-blue, designer print blouse.
It doesn’t matter. I am happy
in my city by the sea.
Purchase Worn Cities
To order by mail, send a check or money order for $12.00 plus $2.99 for shipping t0
Finishing Line Press, P. O. Box 1626, Georgetown, KY 40324.
The other night—when sadness had a heavy grip around my throat, I poured myself a shot of whiskey—something I seldom drink unless it’s in a pumpkin pie. But Robert J. Conley had died a week ago. Since I never had the privilege of drinking with him, that night I toasted him. So many of us in Indian Country have lost a good friend, superb storyteller and beloved educator—to mention only a few of the roles he filled for everyone that knew him.
Robert J. Conley, a Kituwah author of over 85 books—poetry, fiction and western novels based on Cherokee history—passed on February 16, 2014. He and his wife Evelyn have been my friends for many years. Thanks to Evelyn’s superb marketing skills and my thorough delight with Robert’s storytelling, no other author’s books take up more space on my bookshelves than Robert’s! And I have read them all. My favorites are his love poems to Evelyn in The Rattlesnake Band and Other Poems. Of his novels in the Real People Series—I loved War Woman the best. Brass—a sort of horror story whose main character is an ancient, evil Cherokee spirit gone modern—was another thriller.
I first met Evelyn in the mid 1980’s, when the Tulsa United Way sponsored a grant to the Cherokee Nation in Tahlequah. Evelyn was the Cherokee lead person. The source of the grant monies was a national program funded by the Kellogg Foundation to the national office of United Way of America. Since I was on the national United Way staff and connected to Blueprint grantees, I got to see Evelyn at various events. We became good friend and remained so after I left the national staff and moved to Chicago.
It was Evelyn who first introduced me to Wordcraft Circle of Native Writers & Storytellers after Alec died. And things have never been the same. It seemed like a latent artist within me emerged and I found a new path for the rest of my life. I thank the Conley’s for this gift…especially Robert. When I retired from the United Way movement in January of 2006, I poured myself into poetry and the lively writing community that exists in the St. Louis area, my new home. During a visit to Robert and Evelyn shortly thereafter, I sort of “contracted” with Robert to critique (a word he hates) or help me gauge what I had to do to improve my writing. I waited. And waited. Finally, I emailed him, asking him what he thought about my manuscript, Games of Transformation. Here’s what he emailed back:
I’m probably not very good, especially if you want some kind of analysis, commentary, etc. I have read your poems and thought they were very good. I think you are one of the best poets at work around these days….The reason it took me so long to write is that I kept trying to think of something really bright to say, but all I can say is that they are GOOD, so move on.
What a shot of confidence his words gave to me! I was overjoyed. And this is the Robert J. Conley who doesn’t mince words! The author of Cherokee Thoughts: Honest & Uncensored! Well—yes, I am being over-dramatic. But another well-known author had refused to blurb my manuscript, claiming it wasn’t “ready.” Needless to say, Robert’s words were a wonderful balm to my bruised ego. A little later, at its 2012 Returning the Gift Festival, Wordcraft Circle awarded Games of Transformation as the “Poetry Book of the Year.”
Robert, my friend—I didn’t mean to carry on like this. These few paragraphs were supposed to be about you. Well, I am hard put for all the accolades you deserve, and will continue to get in the next months. Just know that I am profoundly grateful to you for your encouragement and good words. I am awaiting The Brothers in the mail from your publisher, Goldmines. Still, I am sad that you didn’t get around to spin a continuing tale about the son of Brass, who still lurks under the sea. And that little glass of whiskey was enjoyable the other night. If you run into Alec—he likes whiskey, too. Maybe you two could enjoy a few jokes about that all-too-serious woman who misses you both very much.
Every year I wait for Christmas to come in its own special way. One year it was the alto and soprano soloists each singing the aria,”He Shall Feed His Flock Like a Shepherd.” They were part of the Augustana College Oratorio Society performing Handel’s The Messiah. The women’s lovely voices–especially on the high G notes of the soprano’s aria–commanded my attention. In those moments, upon hearing the words, “Take His yoke upon you and learn of him / for he is meek and lowly of heart / and ye shall find rest / and ye shall find rest unto your soul,” I felt my heart overflowing with gratitude, my spirit renewed.
Another time, shortly after the death of my husband, Alec Azure, I had moved from Chicago to Fairfax, Virginia. One late afternoon I was out walking and came upon a young boy weeping into his hands. I stopped by him and asked if I could help. Through tears that covered his cheeks, he cried, “I feel so bad about myself.” And I, burdened by the same, tried to assure him that we, as a human race, have all experienced these feelings but have to go on, forgive ourselves and learn from our mistakes. And I went on. Days later I wept, realizing the Christmas Rose had come again.
On December 17th of this year, Christmas once again visited me! A poster arrived in the mail, sent by my good friend, Ray Kimball. Titled “Msit No’kmaq,” meaning “All My Relations,” the poster is a colorful depiction of Mi’kmaq family clans. And guess what? Spider is there! Awo’kaq! Awo’kweijit! What an affirmation of Grandmother Spider’s visit to me the summer of 1994 when I retreated to some woods in Wisconsin, seeking new direction in my life–even beseeching the name of my clan! Then, I did not understand her visit. But I never doubted that she would teach me. My memoir, Along Came a Spider, recounted this incident and how, in the ensuing years, I have learned about Spider’s importance in my life.
I am convinced of the glorious compatibility of Native and Christian spirituality. So I have arranged a miniature alabaster crèche on my kitchen windowsill. Above the figures, I have hung a purple-beaded rendition of Spider, who stretches down to where the baby lay. I regard this as a bold link of greeting from deities come to earth to bless and champion all who seek succor, including me.
(c) December 2013 by Alice M. Azure
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.
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.
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
is undoubtedly making
even as I rove, wander and scribble
through the rubble, the wonders, and the
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,
Copyright by Alice M. Azure. November/December 2013, Against The Current #167
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).
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.