The Facts of Art

This week, as EPA regulations are gouged and dangerous oil pipelines confirmed, I was drawn to a poem that looks at those who were here before, those who not only have/had a more respectful relationship with the land, but who in some cases, as in this poem, are the land.

Natalie Diaz is a fantastic poet whose work I’d been introduced to only recently. In “The Facts of Art,” she beautifully weaves a story that is part history, part reflection of America today, and part subtle warning for the future.

The Facts of Art
by Natalie Diaz
                                             woven plaque basket with sunflower design, Hopi,
                                             Arizona, before 1935
 
                                             from an American Indian basketry exhibit in
                                             Portsmouth, Virginia
The Arizona highway sailed across the desert—
     a gray battleship drawing a black wake,
            halting at the foot of the orange mesa,
                  unwilling to go around.
Hopi men and women—brown, and small, and claylike
      —peered down from their tabletops at yellow tractors, water trucks,
            and white men blistered with sun—red as fire ants—towing
                  sunscreen-slathered wives in glinting Airstream trailers
                         in caravans behind them.
Elders knew these bia roads were bad medicine—knew too
     that young men listen less and less, and these young Hopi men
           needed work, hence set aside their tools, blocks of cottonwood root
                 and half-finished Koshari the clown katsinas, then
                        signed on with the Department of Transportation,
were hired to stab drills deep into the earth’s thick red flesh
     on First Mesa, drive giant sparking blades across the mesas’ faces,
           run the drill bits so deep they smoked, bearding all the Hopi men
                 in white—Bad spirits, said the Elders—
The blades caught fire, burned out—Ma’saw is angry, the Elders said.
     New blades were flown in by helicopter. While Elders dreamed
            their arms and legs had been cleaved off and their torsos were flung
                  over the edge of a dinner table, the young Hopi men went
                         back to work cutting the land into large chunks of rust.
Nobody noticed at first—not the white workers,
     not the Indian workers—but in the mounds of dismantled mesa,
           among the clods and piles of sand,
                 lay the small gray bowls of babies’ skulls.
Not until they climbed to the bottom did they see
     the silvered bones glinting from the freshly sliced dirt-and-rock wall—
           a mausoleum mosaic, a sick tapestry: the tiny remains
                 roused from death’s dusty cradle, cut in half, cracked,
                        wrapped in time-tattered scraps of blankets.
Let’s call it a day, the white foreman said.
     That night, all the Indian workers got sad-drunk—got sick
          —while Elders sank to their kivas in prayer. Next morning,
                as dawn festered on the horizon, state workers scaled the mesas,
                        knocked at the doors of pueblos that had them, hollered
                               into those without them,
demanding the Hopi men come back to work—then begging them—
     then buying them whiskey—begging again—finally sending their white
          wives up the dangerous trail etched into the steep sides
                to buy baskets from Hopi wives and grandmothers
                       as a sign of treaty.
When that didn’t work, the state workers called the Indians lazy,
      sent their sunhat-wearing wives back up to buy more baskets—
           katsinas too—then called the Hopis good-for-nothings,
                 before begging them back once more.
We’ll try again in the morning, the foreman said.
     But the Indian workers never returned—
          The bias and dots calls to work went unanswered,
                as the fevered Hopis stayed huddled inside.
The small bones half-buried in the crevices of mesa—
     in the once-holy darkness of silent earth and always-night—
          smiled or sighed beneath the moonlight, while white women
                in Airstream trailers wrote letters home
praising their husbands’ patience, describing the lazy savages:
     such squalor in their stone and plaster homes—cobs of corn stacked
         floor to ceiling against crumbling walls—their devilish ceremonies
               and the barbaric way they buried their babies,
                      oh, and those beautiful, beautiful baskets.

Changes

In an attempt to diversify the sources of the information I consume, I recently subscribed to the LA Times. Much of what I read is similar to things I find online through Twitter/other news sources, or hear about from friends and relatives, but a lot of it is specific to California, Los Angeles, or even my neighborhood, and it’s made me think more about this city I’ve lived in for ten years. In the wake of recent and imminent changes to government and society at the national level, a lot of people are thinking more and more about life at the local level.

All of this swirling around together must have been what got “Changes” stuck in my head this morning. Tupac Shakur is a perfect example of someone focused on the local who affected the nation.

Changes
by Tupac Shakur, featuring Talent

[2Pac:]
I see no changes, wake up in the morning and I ask myself:
“Is life worth living? Should I blast myself?”
I’m tired of being poor and, even worse, I’m black
My stomach hurts so I’m looking for a purse to snatch
Cops give a damn about a negro
Pull the trigger, kill a nigga, he’s a hero
“Give the crack to the kids: who the hell cares?
One less hungry mouth on the welfare!”
First ship ’em dope and let ’em deal to brothers
Give ’em guns, step back, watch ’em kill each other
“It’s time to fight back,” that’s what Huey said
Two shots in the dark, now Huey’s dead
I got love for my brother
But we can never go nowhere unless we share with each other
We gotta start making changes
Learn to see me as a brother instead of two distant strangers
And that’s how it’s supposed to be
How can the Devil take a brother if he’s close to me?
I’d love to go back to when we played as kids
But things change… and that’s the way it is

[Talent:]
That’s just the way it is
Things’ll never be the same
That’s just the way it is
Aww yeah
That’s just the way it is
Things’ll never be the same
That’s just the way it is
Aww yeah

[2Pac:]
I see no changes, all I see is racist faces
Misplaced hate makes disgrace to races
We under, I wonder what it takes to make this
One better place, let’s erase the wasted
Take the evil out the people, they’ll be acting right
‘Cause both Black and White are smoking crack tonight
And the only time we chill is when we kill each other
It takes skill to be real, time to heal each other
And although it seems heaven-sent
We ain’t ready to see a black president
It ain’t a secret, don’t conceal the fact:
The penitentiary’s packed, and it’s filled with blacks
But some things will never change
Try to show another way, but you staying in the dope game
Now tell me, what’s a mother to do?
Being real don’t appeal to the brother in you
You gotta operate the easy way
“I made a G today,” but you made it in a sleazy way
Selling crack to the kids
“I gotta get paid!”, well hey, but that’s the way it is

[Talent:]
That’s just the way it is
Things’ll never be the same
That’s just the way it is
Aww yeah
That’s just the way it is
Things’ll never be the same
That’s just the way it is
Aww yeah

[2Pac talking:]
We gotta make a change
It’s time for us as a people to start making some changes
Let’s change the way we eat, let’s change the way we live
And let’s change the way we treat each other
You see the old way wasn’t working
So it’s on us to do what we gotta do to survive

[2Pac:]
And still I see no changes
Can’t a brother get a little peace?
It’s war on the streets and a war in the Middle East
Instead of war on poverty
They got a war on drugs so the police can bother me
And I ain’t never did a crime I ain’t have to do
But now I’m back with the facts giving it back to you
Don’t let ’em jack you up, back you up
Crack you up and pimp-smack you up
You gotta learn to hold your own
They get jealous when they see you with your mobile phone
But tell the cops they can’t touch this
I don’t trust this, when they try to rush I bust this
That’s the sound of my tool
You say it ain’t cool, my mama didn’t raise no fool
And as long as I stay black, I gotta stay strapped
And I never get to lay back
‘Cause I always got to worry ’bout the payback
Some buck that I roughed up way back
Coming back after all these years
“Rat-a-tat-tat-tat-tat!” That’s the way it is

[Talent:]
That’s just the way it is
Things’ll never be the same
That’s just the way it is
Aww yeah
(You’re my brother, you’re my sister)
That’s just the way it is
Things’ll never be the same
That’s just the way it is
Aww yeah

[2Pac:]
Some things’ll never change

[lyrics courtesy of AZ Lyrics]

Casualty

Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

This is normally a joyous day for many around the world to celebrate their Irish heritage, but we can’t forget those lost in the fight for peace and freedom in Ireland. The 20th century was a bloody one for Ireland, and it is only in the past two decades that The Troubles, as they’re known, have blossomed into a lingering peace. Seamus Heaney lived and wrote through the tumultuous post-war period, and while he lived long enough to see the current peace, the bloodshed seeped into his poetry in powerful ways.

Casualty
by Seamus Heaney

I
He would drink by himself
And raise a weathered thumb
Towards the high shelf,
Calling another rum
And blackcurrant, without
Having to raise his voice,
Or order a quick stout
By a lifting of the eyes
And a discreet dumb-show
Of pulling off the top;
At closing time would go
In waders and peaked cap
Into the showery dark,
A dole-kept breadwinner
But a natural for work.
I loved his whole manner,
Sure-footed but too sly,
His deadpan sidling tact,
His fisherman’s quick eye
And turned observant back.
Incomprehensible
To him, my other life.
Sometimes, on the high stool,
Too busy with his knife
At a tobacco plug
And not meeting my eye,
In the pause after a slug
He mentioned poetry.
We would be on our own
And, always politic
And shy of condescension,
I would manage by some trick
To switch the talk to eels
Or lore of the horse and cart
Or the Provisionals.
But my tentative art
His turned back watches too:
He was blown to bits
Out drinking in a curfew
Others obeyed, three nights
After they shot dead
The thirteen men in Derry.
PARAS THIRTEEN, the walls said,
BOGSIDE NIL. That Wednesday
Everyone held
His breath and trembled.
                   II
It was a day of cold
Raw silence, wind-blown
surplice and soutane:
Rained-on, flower-laden
Coffin after coffin
Seemed to float from the door
Of the packed cathedral
Like blossoms on slow water.
The common funeral
Unrolled its swaddling band,
Lapping, tightening
Till we were braced and bound
Like brothers in a ring.
But he would not be held
At home by his own crowd
Whatever threats were phoned,
Whatever black flags waved.
I see him as he turned
In that bombed offending place,
Remorse fused with terror
In his still knowable face,
His cornered outfaced stare
Blinding in the flash.
He had gone miles away
For he drank like a fish
Nightly, naturally
Swimming towards the lure
Of warm lit-up places,
The blurred mesh and murmur
Drifting among glasses
In the gregarious smoke.
How culpable was he
That last night when he broke
Our tribe’s complicity?
‘Now, you’re supposed to be
An educated man,’
I hear him say. ‘Puzzle me
The right answer to that one.’
                   III
I missed his funeral,
Those quiet walkers
And sideways talkers
Shoaling out of his lane
To the respectable
Purring of the hearse…
They move in equal pace
With the habitual
Slow consolation
Of a dawdling engine,
The line lifted, hand
Over fist, cold sunshine
On the water, the land
Banked under fog: that morning
I was taken in his boat,
The Screw purling, turning
Indolent fathoms white,
I tasted freedom with him.
To get out early, haul
Steadily off the bottom,
Dispraise the catch, and smile
As you find a rhythm
Working you, slow mile by mile,
Into your proper haunt
Somewhere, well out, beyond…
Dawn-sniffing revenant,
Plodder through midnight rain,
Question me again.

Tonight, in Oakland

These introductions are weird, because I don’t always feel qualified to write them. Sometimes I simply find a poem or a poet I want to investigate further, something or someone catching me in that certain way that poem/ts are supposed to catch people. I’ve known of Danez Smith for a little while, but I was not very familiar with his work until very recently, when I picked up his collection Black Movie. I haven’t been through the book yet, but the purchase inspired me to read some of his work online, and “Tonight, in Oakland” is my favorite of what I found.

Tonight, in Oakland
by Danez Smith

I did not come here to sing a blues.
Lately, I open my mouth
& out comes marigolds, yellow plums.
I came to make the sky a garden.
Give me rain or give me honey, dear lord.
The sky has given us no water this year.
I ride my bike to a boy, when I get there
what we make will not be beautiful
or love at all, but it will be deserved.
I’ve started seeking men to wet the harvest.
Come, tonight I declare we must move
instead of pray. Tonight, east of here,
two boys, one dressed in what could be blood
& one dressed in what could be blood
before the wound, meet & mean mug
& God, tonight, let them dance! Tonight,
the bullet does not exist. Tonight, the police
have turned to their God for forgiveness.
Tonight, we bury nothing, we serve a God
with no need for shovels, we serve a God
with a bad hip & a brother in prison.
Tonight, let every man be his own lord.
Let wherever two people stand be a reunion
of ancient lights. Let’s waste the moon’s marble glow
shouting our names to the stars until we are
the stars. O, precious God! O, sweet black town!
I am drunk & I thirst. When I get to the boy
who lets me practice hunger with him
I will not give him the name of your newest ghost
I will give him my body & what he does with it
is none of my business, but I will say look,
 
I made it a whole day, still, no rain
still, I am without exit wound
& he will say Tonight, I want to take you
how the police do, unarmed & sudden
& tonight, when we dream, we dream of dancing
in a city slowly becoming ash.

The Contrariness of the Mad Farmer

This week’s poem is the first suggested by a reader. Wendell Berry is a farmer and poet whose interest in the environment seems particularly important at a time when the EPA is under threat. Of Berry, our reader writes, “He’s pretty touted in Christian circles, but I don’t think they really know how rebellious he is, especially about environmental issues. ‘The Contrariness of the Mad Farmer’ helped me out of that toxic Christian subculture.”

The Contrariness of the Mad Farmer
by Wendell Berry

I am done with apologies. If contrariness is my
inheritance and destiny, so be it. If it is my mission
to go in at exits and come out at entrances, so be it.
I have planted by the stars in defiance of the experts,
and tilled somewhat by incantation and by singing,
and reaped, as I knew, by luck and Heaven's favor,
in spite of the best advice. If I have been caught
so often laughing at funerals, that was because
I knew the dead were already slipping away,
preparing a comeback, and can I help it?
And if at weddings I have gritted and gnashed
my teeth, it was because I knew where the bridegroom
had sunk his manhood, and knew it would not
be resurrected by a piece of cake. ‘Dance,’ they told me,
and I stood still, and while they stood
quiet in line at the gate of the Kingdom, I danced.
‘Pray,’ they said, and I laughed, covering myself
in the earth's brightnesses, and then stole off gray
into the midst of a revel, and prayed like an orphan.
When they said, ‘I know my Redeemer liveth,’
I told them, ‘He's dead.’ And when they told me
‘God is dead,’ I answered, ‘He goes fishing every day
in the Kentucky River. I see Him often.’
When they asked me would I like to contribute
I said no, and when they had collected
more than they needed, I gave them as much as I had.
When they asked me to join them I wouldn't,
and then went off by myself and did more
than they would have asked. ‘Well, then,’ they said
‘go and organize the International Brotherhood
of Contraries,’ and I said, ‘Did you finish killing
everybody who was against peace?’ So be it.
Going against men, I have heard at times a deep harmony
thrumming in the mixture, and when they ask me what
I say I don't know. It is not the only or the easiest
way to come to the truth. It is one way.