My Species

After weeks of heaviness and sorrow, weight and tragedy, I wanted a poem that contained everything deep and mystifying that is life on this earth right now, but wrapped in hope. I found that airiness that belies the power within in a Jane Hirshfield poem. I hope you enjoy it, and that your heart becomes tender.

My Species
by Jane Hirshfield

even
a small purple artichoke
boiled
in its own bittered
and darkening
waters
grows tender,
grows tender and sweet
patience, I think,
my species
keep testing the spiny leaves
the spiny heart

Aloha, Lili’uokalani

It has been ironic and inspiring—but certainly not surprising—that some of the most vocal opposition, both social and legal, to the controversies of the last few months have come out of Hawaii. Hawaiian poets have been speaking out against colonialism, government oppression, and the hidden and not-so-hidden perils of capitalism since their first contact with Europeans.

There are countless fantastic Hawaiian and other Pacific Islander poets and poems (many of which can be found in the excellent anthologies Whetu Moana and Mauri Ola). One that I’ve been drawn to recently is Kirby M. Wright’s “Aloha, Lili’uokalani,” a sobering lament for a bygone time and disappearing culture.

Aloha, Lili’uokalani
by Kirby M. Wright

Queen Lili’uokalani, where is our aina?
My memories are a mixture of slack key,
Plumeria, and Kona wind in the trees.
I measure the trades with a desperate tongue.
Kapiolani is a park. Kaiulani is a hotel.
It is no longer enough to watch
The winter tide test the persistence of shores.
Lili’uokalani, do you see what I see?
Do you see my hotel uniform drying
On a balcony overlooking H-1 Freeway?
Honolulu windows burn a thousand suns.
But it keeps raining out at sea.
The rain comes warm, unexpected.
Do you, Queen Lili’uokalani,
Hold back tears for what you lost?
Did you carry your grief into heaven?
Paradise falls to us in pieces,
Pieces governed by the highest bidders.
Their blueprints cover sacred land with walls.
Walls to protect investments.
Walls to exclude the less fortunate.
Walls to keep Hawaiians out.
Kapus make Hawai’i a land of strangers.
Beach access is a narrow path between estates,
A strip of crushed coral and flowering weeds.
Sometimes I see the rich dipping their toes
In the chlorine safety of oceanfront pools.
Dear Lili’uokalani, Hawai’i is fee simple.
Hawai’i is fair market value.
Hawai’i is for sale and already sold.
A shadow falls on Iolani Palace.
Now Kalakaua is an avenue
Ruled by stoplights and crosswalks.
Likelike and Kamehameha
Are remembered only as highways.
The majority encourages progress.
The majority is no longer Hawaiian.

Still I Rise

I’m reminded this week that, in the midst of daunting odds, constant anxiety, and an endless stream of terribleness, there are those who are not daunted, who are not anxious, who see joy and promise and hope for our collective future. Not everything that goes bad is bad, and not everything that is bad stays bad. It’s up to us to build the world in which we’d like to live, and that begins with having the power, positivity, and confidence to inspire ourselves.

There are few poems that exemplify this attitude and approach to the world better than “Still I Rise.” Maya Angelou’s work is perhaps the most consistently excellent of the 20th century. Every poem feels surprising and familiar at once, joyful and grave, lighthearted and sincere. Her words are spoken music, and they never fail to inspire.

Still I Rise
by Maya Angelou

You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.
Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
’Cause I walk like I’ve got oil wells
Pumping in my living room.
Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I’ll rise.
Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops,
Weakened by my soulful cries?
Does my haughtiness offend you?
Don’t you take it awful hard
’Cause I laugh like I’ve got gold mines
Diggin’ in my own backyard.
You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise.
Does my sexiness upset you?
Does it come as a surprise
That I dance like I’ve got diamonds
At the meeting of my thighs?
Out of the huts of history’s shame
I rise
Up from a past that’s rooted in pain
I rise
I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
I rise
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
I rise
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
I rise
I rise
I rise.

The Rhythm of Time

I’ve been absolutely floored by yesterday’s repeal of the ACA and replacement with the disgusting AHCA, which essentially robs the poor to lower taxes for the rich. I have to believe that time will prove these callous politicians to be in the wrong and that the march of progress will win out, but the fight looks to be a long one.

With this in mind I was reminded of the long fights that others have been through to secure rights and see their beliefs and freedoms recognized. Bobby Sands, a controversial Irish poet who died in prison in 1981 while on a hunger strike, wrote beautiful poems about this fight, this march towards the future, and the difficulties faced along the way.

The Rhythm of Time
by Bobby Sands

There’s an inner thing in every man,
Do you know this thing my friend?
It has withstood the blows of a million years,
And will do so to the end.

It was born when time did not exist,
And it grew up out of life,
It cut down evil’s strangling vines,
Like a slashing searing knife.

It lit fires when fires were not,
And burnt the mind of man,
Tempering leandened hearts to steel,
From the time that time began.

It wept by the waters of Babylon,
And when all men were a loss,
It screeched in writhing agony,
And it hung bleeding from the Cross.

It died in Rome by lion and sword,
And in defiant cruel array,
When the deathly word was ‘Spartacus’
Along with Appian Way.

It marched with Wat the Tyler’s poor,
And frightened lord and king,
And it was emblazoned in their deathly stare,
As e’er a living thing.

It smiled in holy innocence,
Before conquistadors of old,
So meek and tame and unaware,
Of the deathly power of gold.

It burst forth through pitiful Paris streets,
And stormed the old Bastille,
And marched upon the serpent’s head,
And crushed it ‘neath its heel.

It died in blood on Buffalo Plains,
And starved by moons of rain,
Its heart was buried in Wounded Knee,
But it will come to rise again.

It screamed aloud by Kerry lakes,
As it was knelt upon the ground,
And it died in great defiance,
As they coldly shot it down.

It is found in every light of hope,
It knows no bounds nor space
It has risen in red and black and white,
It is there in every race.

It lies in the hearts of heroes dead,
It screams in tyrants’ eyes,
It has reached the peak of mountains high,
It comes searing ‘cross the skies.

It lights the dark of this prison cell,
It thunders forth its might,
It is ‘the undauntable thought’, my friend,
That thought that says ‘I’m right! ‘

Protest

It seems that every weekend there’s a march or a protest at this point. There’s a lot to be upset about, and plenty of people want to make themselves heard. Scheduling marches and protests is a very public and often effective way to voice concerns that are being ignored by those in power.

Ella Wheeler Wilcox, an American poet of the late 1800s and early 1900s, understood the importance of protest as a vehicle for change. Although not a particularly critically acclaimed poet, Wilcox was a popular and much beloved poet during her time, and evidence of her accessible and direct style can be found in “Protest.”

Protest
by Ella Wheeler Wilcox

To sin by silence, when we should protest,
Makes cowards out of men. The human race
Has climbed on protest. Had no voice been raised
Against injustice, ignorance, and lust,
The inquisition yet would serve the law,
And guillotines decide our least disputes.
The few who dare, must speak and speak again
To right the wrongs of many. Speech, thank God,
No vested power in this great day and land
Can gag or throttle. Press and voice may cry
Loud disapproval of existing ills;
May criticise oppression and condemn
The lawlessness of wealth-protecting laws
That let the children and childbearers toil
To purchase ease for idle millionaires.

Therefore I do protest against the boast
Of independence in this mighty land.
Call no chain strong, which holds one rusted link.
Call no land free, that holds one fettered slave.
Until the manacled slim wrists of babes
Are loosed to toss in childish sport and glee,
Until the mother bears no burden, save
The precious one beneath her heart, until
God’s soil is rescued from the clutch of greed
And given back to labor, let no man
Call this the land of freedom.

The Next War

Despite the devastating evolution of war and its ever-increasing ability to destroy more and more lives in less and less time, there are many who still consider war to be a game. Global leaders wager with the lives of others in a deadly gambit.

This attitude is one that is cultivated from a young age, as Robert Graves points out in his poem “The Next War.” Graves, who served and was injured in World War I, had suffered the atrocities of war firsthand. As his poem implies, is it any wonder that so many regard war flippantly, as an obvious consequence of international diplomacy, when virtually from the womb we are encouraged to indoctrinate ourselves in its cult of glory?

The Next War
by Robert Graves

You young friskies who today
Jump and fight in Father’s hay
With bows and arrows and wooden spears,
Playing at Royal Welch Fusiliers,
Happy though these hours you spend,
Have they warned you how games end?
Boys, from the first time you prod
And thrust with spears of curtain-rod,
From the first time you tear and slash
Your long-bows from the garden ash,
Or fit your shaft with a blue jay feather,
Binding the split tops together,
From that same hour by fate you’re bound
As champions of this stony ground,
Loyal and true in everything,
To serve your Army and your King,
Prepared to starve and sweat and die
Under some fierce foreign sky,
If only to keep safe those joys
That belong to British boys,
To keep young Prussians from the soft
Scented hay of father’s loft,
And stop young Slavs from cutting bows
And bendy spears from Welsh hedgerows.
Another War soon gets begun,
A dirtier, a more glorious one;
Then, boys, you’ll have to play, all in;
It’s the cruellest team will win.
So hold your nose against the stink
And never stop too long to think.
Wars don’t change except in name;
The next one must go just the same,
And new foul tricks unguessed before
Will win and justify this War.
Kaisers and Czars will strut the stage
Once more with pomp and greed and rage;
Courtly ministers will stop
At home and fight to the last drop;
By the million men will die
In some new horrible agony;
And children here will thrust and poke,
Shoot and die, and laugh at the joke,
With bows and arrows and wooden spears,
Playing at Royal Welch Fusiliers.

Spring in War Time

It’s Good Friday, and it’s a beautiful sunny spring day here in Los Angeles, but all around me there is talk of war: bombs in Syria; bombs in Afghanistan; bombs in North Korea. Sara Teasdale, an American poet of the early 20th century, noted this irony in her “Spring in War Time.”

Spring in War Time
by Sara Teasdale

I feel the Spring far off, far off,
The faint far scent of bud and leaf–
Oh how can Spring take heart to come
To a world in grief,
Deep grief?

The sun turns north, the days grow long,
Later the evening star grows bright–
How can the daylight linger on
For men to fight,
Still fight?

The grass is waking in the ground,
Soon it will rise and blow in waves–
How can it have the heart to sway
Over the graves,
New graves?

Under the boughs where lovers walked
The apple-blooms will shed their breath–
But what of all the lovers now
Parted by death,
Gray Death?

The New Noah

Adonis (sometimes written as “Adunis”) is the pen name of Ali Ahmad Said Esber, a Syrian poet, essayist, and translator. He has long been opposed to the brutal regime of the Assad family, since well before the recent opposition that led to the current civil war. A prolific and controversial writer, Adonis is considered to be one of the greatest living poets in the Arab world.

The New Noah
by Adonis

                         1
We travel upon the Ark, in mud and rain,
Our oars promises from God.
We live—and the rest of Humanity dies.
We travel upon the waves, fastening
Our lives to the ropes of corpses filling the skies.
But between Heaven and us is an opening,
A porthole for a supplication.
“Why, Lord, have you saved us alone
From among all the people and creatures?
And where are you casting us now?
To your other Land, to our First Home?
Into the leaves of Death, into the wind of Life?
In us, in our arteries, flows a fear of the Sun.
We despair of the Light,
We despair, Lord, of a tomorrow
In which to start Life anew.
If only we were not that seedling of Creation,
Of Earth and its generations,
If only we had remained simple Clay or Ember,
Or something in between,
Then we would not have to see
This World, its Lord, and its Hell, twice over.”
                         2
If time started anew,
and waters submerged the face of life,
and the earth convulsed, and that god
rushed to me, beseeching, “Noah, save the living!”
I would not concern myself with his request.
I would travel upon my ark, removing
clay and pebbles from the eyes of the dead.
I would open the depths of their being to the flood,
and whisper in their veins
that we have returned from the wilderness,
that we have emerged from the cave,
that we have changed the sky of years,
that we sail without giving in to our fears—
that we do not heed the word of that god.
Our appointment is with death.
Our shores are a familiar and pleasing despair,
a gelid sea of iron water that we ford
to its very ends, undeterred,
heedless of that god and his word,
longing for a different, a new, lord.

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]