Autumnal

Yeah, I know that the astronomical autumnal equinox happened the week before last, but from a “boots on the ground” standpoint, we’ve been just a bit behind the curve here. (As is often the case in Iowa. Zing!) But that’s changing now, and quickly. Our daily walks over the past few days have involved more clothing layers than usual, and occasional hats, and tonight we’ve got our first frost warning posted. I’m planning to do a long bike ride tomorrow (for this), and it looks like the temperature will be ~36º F when I get rolling. More layers!

But that should be a short-term situation, as  today marks the three-week point before we load up the jalopy and move to Sedona, Arizona. Which means that unless global weirding queues up some particularly extreme and abnormal scenarios over the years ahead, 2020 should the last year that I spend dreading cold season, while trying to enjoy the pleasant elements of autumn. Not complaining. After 35+ years living in the frozen, damp, windy climes of Iowa, Chicago, Upstate New York and Idaho, I’m more than ready for a bit of year-round dry heat.

That said, I do note that I have raw, primal reactions to two common stimuli experienced in Northern autumns: hearing the sound of geese migrating southward and seeing Orion hunting in the Zodiacal plane on crisp, clear nights. I think these sights and sounds must resonate in our collective unconscious from centuries when shorter days and falling temperatures didn’t just mean higher fuel oil bills or extra lap blankets, but instead meant that the most perilous time of the year was nigh, and many of a community’s weaker members wouldn’t live to see the return of sunlight and warmth. Any time I hear the geese fly over, I involuntarily stop in my tracks and look up. Any time my eyes are drawn to the night sky and light upon Orion’s belt, they stay there, taking an active effort of will to look away. Those sounds and sights evoke awe, which I think of as wonder leavened with fear.

Autumn is a bittersweet season, at bottom line. I love the color, I love the weather . . . but winter is coming soon. For inside workers, it doesn’t really change the day to day pattern of our lives. But for those who spend warm months on the land, I imagine winter is a much different experience. I wrote a poem about these sorts of feelings back in the early 2000s called “Harvest.” It doesn’t explicitly mention geese or Orion, but it does try to evoke the sense of awe the season inspires in me. When I wrote it, I kept feeling like I should end it, then kept tacking on extra triplets (it has an odd structure), much in the way that we cling to the last leaves on the trees, the last warm days, the last pleasant evenings, lingering before the darkness falls and the snow is upon us.

While I was looking for that poem today in my old writing files, I stumbled over a few other pieces that also seem to evoke that autumnal spirit for me, some directly, some obliquely. They’re all posted below, for your consideration. Perhaps they’ll read well with a blanket and a cup of hot chocolate?

HARVEST

Let’s take a long deep breath
and ponder the pasture
and our place in it:
we’ve got the harvest in,
the orchards are pruned and
all our wood’s been split;
the leaves have long since gone,
the frost’s on the pumpkins
and it’s cold at night.
In less than four short weeks
we’ll stand here again and
see a sea of white.
We’ve stored the grain inside,
stacked hay in the stalls and
put our tools away.
The growing season’s done,
the colors have faded
into brown and grey.
It doesn’t seem that long
since last we all stood here
at this time of year.
We’ll hunker down inside
for five months or so and
try to fight the fear
that winter brings to us:
the cold and the darkness
and the sickness too.
We’ll count the days for months
and pray for the spring, that’s
all that we can do.
These bittersweet fall months
are fraught with emotion
in these farming fields:
we’re glad the harvest’s done,
we’re proud of our work and
happy with our yields,
but now we hibernate
like beasts in the forest
(less the gift of sleep).
We take one last long look
and walk from the fields, and
many of us weep.

FREEZE

Outside, we can tell the air itself is thickening,
while we ponder cold weather wear we’re ordering
from fall catalogs, the rate of cooling quickening
with the first frost freezing hard the backyard bordering,
the once green growth succumbing to nature’s savaging,
organic ice orchards wilting first then splintering.
By night, we hear the winds all whistling and ravaging,
and know that before we’re ready, we’ll all be wintering.

MIGRATION

Gotta go the long way, fly along the highway,
high above the flyways, flat upon our backs.
Order over-rated, over-saturated,
rate the ones we hated, stop them in their tracks.

Wing as sharp as knife edge cuts into the first hedge,
watching from the high ledge, just above the stacks.
Flightless in the liner, lines from here to China,
over Asia Minor, chin up, Uncle Max.

Gotta go the long way, drive below the flyway,
park it in the driveway, fill and seal the cracks.
Watching the migration on a TV station,
where’s the destination? I’m so bad with facts.

GEMINI SNAKE

Gemini Snake coming out of the forest,
as the leaves fall, he rolls on, he rolls on,
I had a dream he was headed this way, and
I’m thinkin’ he’ll get here tomorrow, ’round dawn.

Gemini Snake at the edge of the farmlands,
he never stops, he rolls on, he rolls on,
went to the church to tell Preacher he’s coming,
and bone up a bit on those visions of John’s.

Gemini Snake in the next village over,
spinning off sparks, he rolls on, he rolls on,
on the horizon, we see smoke arising,
and harvest our crops, and chew bitter pecans.

Gemini Snake coming faster and faster,
right into town, he rolls on, he rolls on,
passes the town square and court house on Main Street,
damned if he doesn’t roll right to my lawn.

Gemini Snake passes straight through my property,
he doesn’t stop, he rolls on, he rolls on,
where he is headed now, I can’t imagine,
but I’m quite relieved by the fact that he’s gone.

HAPPINESS

There’s a lantern in the window
and a wild boar in the wood
as I’m standin’ in the plantin’ field
and feelin’ pretty good
’bout my farmin’ situation
an’ my plans for wintertime,
’bout that woman from Winooski,
‘an how glad I am she’s mine.
Got a bottle in the bureau,
and a smokin’ ham out back,
as I look about my holdin’s,
there ain’t nothin’ that I lack,
‘cept that boar . . . he keeps escapin’
every time we hunt him down:
like a ghost he disappears and leaves
us shootin’ at the ground.
I got ‘coons and I got turkey,
I got squirrels and I got deer,
shoot ’em, skin ’em, cook ’em, eat ’em,
that’s the way we do it here.
But that boar, he keeps eludin’ us,
he’s smart as twenty men.
I b’lieve I’ll know true happiness
when I make a ham of him.

Gemini Snake is a particular loathsome specimen of the hoopsnake genera, clearly.

Five Songs You Need To Hear (I’m Only Bleeding)

In 2004, I took on a self-imposed project to write and post a poem a day on my website for the entire calendar year. I got it done, but it was a slog. On August 31, 2004, the day’s bit of poesy was called “Twice As Far Behind As Yet To Go,” noting that the year had hit its two-thirds mark, and how it was feeling a bit endless on one plane, but with an end visible ahead on another. With a little editing, it’s a perfectly apt sentiment for August 31, Anno Virum, as well:

It’s summer, yet an illness falls like snow,
atop an ice of hatred hard below.
The dire year drags relentlessly, although
there’s twice as far behind as yet to go.
The joys of friendly discourse are benumbed.
We’re isolated, bludgeoned, stricken dumb.
But as we plot the “to” against the “from:”
there’s twice as far behind as yet to come.
Off in the distance, maybe, we can see
a shoreline from this sea of misery.
Perhaps we can feel hope, to some degree,
with twice as much behind as yet to be.
(The writer sighs on reaching a plateau,
with twice as far behind as yet to go).

If all goes as planned, Marcia and I will wave off 2020 from a new house somewhere in Northern Arizona, knowing that we’ll be in the final three weeks of the worst Presidential term in American history. Please Jesus, Allah, Buddha, Brahma, Flying Spaghetti Monster, [Your Deity Here], let it be so. It’s harder to predict the state of the virus and the festering sores of institutional inequity at that future point, though I suspect that with an anti-scientific, greed-fueled, sexist and racist administration perhaps twitching in its death throes, its purveyors and enablers may purposefully make things worse before they have any possibility of getting better. But again, LORD willing and the creek don’t rise, come the end of January, we will most hopefully be in a place where those who steer our collective colorful caravan are actively interested in seeking a path toward health, justice, social equity, security, safety, stability and charity. We’re desperately in need of a new compass pointing that way.

A stirring soundtrack for that trip wouldn’t hurt either. Which brings me, in a roundabout way, to this installment of my ongoing “Five Songs You Need to Hear” series. Which was motivated primarily because I just nabbed one particular song that you most definitely need to hear, right now: Public Enemy’s 2020 remix of their towering 1989 anthem “Fight the Power,” from Spike Lee’s equally thrilling film Do The Right Thing.  The core riffs, beats and rhymes of the original version of “Fight the Power” are just so iconic all these years on, and I am most pleased that P.E. have returned to this classic with a topical and timely update, involving some of the many talented folk they have inspired over the years.

I vividly remember hearing “Fight the Power” for the first time when Marcia and I saw Do The Right Thing (one of my all-time favorite films) in Washington DC on or very near its release date, and it opened with Rosie Perez dancing and boxing on the big screen with that song just absolutely kicking!!! It remains the only time I can ever recall an audience clapping, standing and whooping for an opening credit segment. (You should watch it now). As provocative and inspirational as the song was in and out of its original context, it’s dismaying to think that it’s been 31 years (“1989, a number . . .”) since Spike released that great film, in which the climactic scenes hinge upon a black man being choked to death by a police officer. I guess I hoped, dreamed, maybe even believed in 1989 that things would have changed by 2020 in ways that such acts would be inconceivable, not commonplace. But nope, we’re not there yet. And we’re maybe not even twice as far behind as yet to go on that front. We’ve got work. Let’s do it. Voting smart would be a great step, for starters.

The other four songs in this month’s installment are also 2020 cuts with topical themes, food for thought, fuel for action. You can click here to get all of the previous “Five Songs” installments (scroll down after you click that link to move past this current article), which are now at 18 posts and counting. Loads of musical wonders and weirdness await intrepid explorers there. Get down to the sound of the funky drummer!

#1. “Fight the Power: Remix 2020 (Feat. Nas, Rapsody, Black Thought, Jahi, YG and Questlove)” by Public Enemy

#2. “Amoral” by Napalm Death

#3. “Asylum Seeker” by Gordon Koang

#4. “a few words for the firing squad (radiation)” by Run The Jewels

#5. “Please Don’t Fuck Up My World” by Sparks

Six More Little Poems

Note: As with the prior “Six Little Poems” post, these pieces were all written in 2004, and are copyright JES. And again, I leave it as an exercise for the reader to determine what themes they might have in common and why I am sharing them today.

I. Lines

We live, like sailors, hauling in our lines:
the strength of many hands makes lighter work.
The older help the younger, many times,
we laud the strong and censure those who shirk.
And as we pull the lines that shape our lives,
we suffer searing shock when someone falls,
recoiling cables cut through flesh like knives,
we feel as though our sails are tugged by squalls.
In time, we right ourselves to stay the course,
we cry for those we’ve lost to give us strength,
which flows out as a primal, inner force,
and lets us pull our lines another length.
Unbroken and determined all the same,
with fewer hands we tug upon our chain.

II. Not As I Say

i.
that misguided amateur effort at
persuasion just points to destruction

ii.
an ethical reverence in practice plots
a path toward peaceful perfection

III. Preacher

His finest virtue is natural and simple:
good faith in the face of the fates set before him.
But deep in their fever of strife and disturbance,
the viciously spirited opt to ignore him.

IV. A Measured Response

i.
“Bang, bang,” he said
and smacked me upside the head.
So I played dead.

ii.
“Kaboom,” I say
and torch his dad’s Chevrolet.
He runs away.

V. Move on the Fields

Fly down, call me, a lost nation is moving.
One fistful of shells sparked a kindling star.
Pains great, pains small, be damned,
and distilled into tepid pale jelly. (Sleep, brother).
Once I am dead, would that I may speak,
and afterward, move on the fields.

VI. Hand Grenade

Careful with that hand grenade, son,
you just might go and hurt someone.
And once you do, it’ll be too late
to apologize and set things straight.
After you toss that hand grenade,
you’ll have to live with the mess you’ve made.
So unless you want to bring vengeance on,
be careful where you throw it, son.

There’s a William Blake painting for everything . . .

 

Six Little Poems

Note: All six of these little poems were written in 2004, and are copyright JES. I leave it as an exercise for the reader as to what themes they have in common and why I share them today.

I. Monster

Despite the spite, I suggest paying attention
to the next set of ravings that fall out of his head.
He’s a mean one, he is, on that there’s no argument,
but he telegraphs his moves through the things that he’s said.
He’s quite predictable in the targets of his new obsessions
and in his pettiness and willingness to carry a grudge
long after a normal person would have just let it wither:
once set on a bad path, he’s a hard one to budge.
But he’s ponderous, not nimble, and easy to outwit
if you do all your homework real well up front.
If you learn what he’s aiming for, by paying attention,
you can easily stay clear when he’s out on the hunt.
He’s a monster, though frankly he lacks the key skill
that he needs to be effective at the point of the kill.

II. Election Day

There’s foreign observers
down at the polling station,
as the hacks and the flacks
champ for confrontation.
I wonder, as I’m voting,
with some consternation:
When did we become
such a mess of a nation?

III. Anesthetized

no data, doesn’t matter
get some facts and force them into
tangled webs of gossamer
and lies
the scientists are vying
with the publicists and naturalists
romanticists and classicists
and spies
the talking heads are talking
as the chopping blocks are chopping
and the commentators comment on it all
home looking, works cooking
we crash the couch and force the spike
into our flaccid arteries
and let the world
fall upon us with a sigh
on flat screen tablets
and in digital surround
on a rising stream of noise we swim
it engulfs us and we drown again
anesthetized
’til tomorrow when
we rise
like Lazarus
to die again

IV. Flood

There you go, let loose the flow
of tainted waters, rising from below,
bitter bile, salty tears, unspoken fears,
all the yes dears, for years and years
rupture the structures, the rocking towers,
like cattle in Babel lowing the hours,
some past, some present, some yet to be,
let loose the torrent, set the flow free,
ride, Sally, ride, on your column of flame
bottled and brokered by merchants of pain,
and the rain, oh the rain, the heavens part,
the waters are rising, drowning your heart
in the cascades and rapids, the swirling pools
of singular servants, wisely suffered fools,
for a moment, a minute, a point in space,
caught in curved surfaces, lost in a place
of floods and mud plains, waves of grain,
Amber alerted by Sally’s complaint
of pressured flow building from below,
so let loose the flow, let it flow, let it flow.

V. Labor, Organized

They cut the timber, we make it into pulp
They bring us pine trees, we grind ’em into pulp
Our machines eat up their logs in one big scary gulp

They work the west seam, we burn their coal for heat
They bring us black coke, we burn it up for heat
Watch ’em coughing up their lungs while drinking in the street

They grow the soy beans, we feed ’em to our pigs
Feed corns and soy beans, we give ’em to our pigs
Come the holidays we’ll have some bacon with our figs

They’re in the garden, with pitchforks in their hands
Pitchforks and torches, and long ropes in their hands
We sit here in darkened rooms and question their demands

VI. Immolation

he’s spun up like a top wound by an old crack-addled dervish
and he’s twitching like a fish, he’s flopping on the deck, he’s nervous
and he’s agitated, too, he’s got an edge just like a cleaver,
something somewhere is broadcasting, and he knows he’s the receiver
of its tension and its anger, though he couldn’t quite explain it,
he’s the bearer of a lit fuel tank with no good way to drain it,
just a spark or just a cinder, and the whole town would be flattened,
leaving nothing in its wake, not even hatches that he’d battened,
though he knew that it was coming, he just couldn’t seem to date it,
and it caught him by surprise the day the deal was consummated

William Blake could see the future. It looked much like the past.

Midwestern Measures

The weather in Iowa can be putrid pretty much any time of the year. We’ve been enduring a particular gnarly stint here in recent weeks, with a gross combo platter of grey skies, rain, wind and humidity. Last night, just as we sat down for dinner, the tornado sirens went off, just to add some spice to the stew of suck. None of this should be surprising should you consult the Köppen Climate Classification System before visiting (or moving to) Iowa, which is classified as having a “Hot Summer Continental Climate.” Here’s the dispassionate description of that:

A hot summer continental climate is a climatic region typified by large seasonal temperature differences, with warm to hot (and often humid) summers and cold (sometimes severely cold) winters. Precipitation is relatively well distributed year-round in many areas with this climate, while others may see a marked reduction in wintry precipitation and even a wintertime drought. Snowfall, regardless of average seasonal totals, occurs in all areas with a humid continental climate and in many such places is more common than rain during the height of winter. In places with sufficient wintertime precipitation, the snow cover is often deep. Most summer rainfall occurs during thunderstorms and a very occasional tropical system. Though humidity levels are often high in locations with humid continental climates, it is important to note that the “humid” designation does not mean that the humidity levels are necessarily high, but that the climate is not dry enough to be classified as semi-arid or arid.

Sounds lovely, huh? If you consult a global Köppen Classification map, you’ll note that Iowa shares its climate with such exciting weather tourist destinations as Kazakhstan, Romania, Russia, Ukraine, Ontario and the cluster of American states in which corn, soybeans and hogs define the economy. Spring Break in Almaty, yo!! Woo Hoo!!

While looking out my window at the deep, deep drear this morning, I was reminded of a series of poems I wrote in 2004 and 2014 called “Midwestern Measures,” describing some of the unique facets and features of life in the Upper Corn Belt. The poems were written in Poulter’s Measure, a popular English Renaissance poetry form that also features heavily in various Christian hymns. I like it as a fun style, akin to double dactyls (I wrote a series called Women of Spam in that form), and limericks (which feature in my obviously titled ode to my homeland, Low Country Limericks). All part of my over-arching love for absurdist observational piffle and tripe.

I wrote the first set of Midwestern Measures during my “Poem A Day For A Year” project, and they were inspired by a visit to Marcia’s home state of Minnesota. The second set came after we moved to Iowa, and were originally published anonymously on my now-defunct Des Mean website. (That link will take you to the set of articles from there that I saw fit to move here when we left Iowa for Chicago in 2015, never imagining that we’d come back; this article will appear at top, but you can scroll down for many older ones). Some of the earlier Minnesota-based Midwestern Measures were later repurposed for Iowa, because despite many radical cultural, political, social and artistic differences between those two states, their geographic proximity does create some similarities, most of them having to do with vile weather.

So in “honor” of the revulsion that my local climate is producing right now, I re-post all of the Midwestern Measures below, opening with some of the weather gems. The Minnesota specific ones are appended at the end of the list. Hope they’re all good for a giggle. God knows we could all use some of those these days.

“Climate Control”

Our winters are quite cold.
The summers? Very hot.
It’s windy almost all the time,
and rainy when it’s not.

“Breezy, With A Chance of Showers”

The wind blows from the west,
and leaves us to the east.
And for as long as we recall
it’s never, ever ceased.

“Where Their Weather Goes”

The wind blows from the west
and crosses the Great Lakes,
which makes the snow in Buffalo
come down in sheets, not flakes.

“The Road Trip”

We drove off to the North.
I-35 was closed.
And somewhere just outside of Ames,
we sadly sat and froze.

“Iowa’s Greatest Lake”

Those Minnesota lakes?
The best I’ve ever seen!
But this Clear Lake, I’m sad to say,
is either ice . . . or green.

“On Landing at DSM”

We flew above the clouds.
We could not see the ground.
We saw some hills as we went up,
then none when we came down.

“Iowa Longevity”

We’re healthy folks ’round here,
a fact the world affirms.
We work hard, sleep lots, and live in
a place too cold for germs.

“Eating in Iowa”

The diet here is great,
our plates are quite the sight:
with corn and pork and milk and bread,
our food is always white.

“Practical Politics”

So we sent Joni Ernst
to D.C.’s hallowed halls,
because she knows her way around
a pair of porky balls.

“The Other Maytag”

I ate the Tenderloin,
I ate the Snickers Pie,
but if you make me eat that cheese,
I think I might just die.

“Know Your Audience”

Bruce Braley thought he’d run
for Old Tom Harkin’s seat.
He made a “stupid farmer” joke,
then harvested defeat.

“Warning Signs”

I will not take my wife
to State Fairs anymore:
I went to go see Butter Cow,
and lost her to Big Boar.

“Side Effects”

I gave up eating meat
per PETA Girl’s requests.
I’m now a soy-fueled PETA Boy,
with unexpected breasts.

“Red Zone”

The Cyclones have the ball,
two seconds on the clock.
A pass, a score, they win the game!
(Twelve people die from shock).

“Trip Time Portal”

No matter where we go,
our GPS display
says driving there and back will take
three hours, either way.

“Gasp!”

The farmer’s wife was shocked
to find her husband’s porn,
from which she learned a brand new way
to eat an ear of corn.

“The Count”

Atop the Show Me State,
beneath 10,000 Lakes,
sits Iowa: The Capitol
of Caucus Count Mistakes.

“Her Scenic View”

We climbed the Loess Hills.
We hiked the Driftless Zone.
But anything between those points,
she makes me walk alone.

BONUS MINNESOTA MEASURES

“Doesn’t Taste Like Chicken”

The sky is bright and blue,
the air is cool and brisk,
but I am flushed and turning green:
I ate the lutefisk.

“All This and IKEA Too”

Progressive to the end,
this state will meet your needs,
and do it with efficiency.
(God Bless the noble Swedes!)

“Land of a Lot of Lakes”

Ten thousand lakes we saw,
and all of them were nice.
Although I think I’d like them more
if they weren’t solid ice.

“Friendly Neighbors”

In Minneapolis,
we’ve really got it all.
And if we don’t, then right next door,
they’ll have it in St. Paul.

“After the Bear”

We saw the Northern Lights,
we saw our clouded breath,
we saw our ripped up tent and then
we slowly froze to death.

“Football Is An Outside Sport”

The Vikings used to play
outside in Bloomington,
but now they play inside a dome.
It’s warm, but not as fun.

The view from my office desk. It’s really that dreadful.

 

Four Mathematicians (Poetically)

I think I’m done archiving old concert reviews for now. While trawling though that old hard drive, though, I did find a few other things that I found amusing, and that have not been up on my public website since the 1990s. One that particularly pleased me was my series of short poems about mathematicians. I don’t know why I wrote them, but I was happy to be reminded of their existence, and share them today. Because nerd.

ONE:
He George Boole
He no foole
He new al-jabre
Nifty toole
Things be yeae
Things be naye
Or and nor nande
All things saye.

TWO:
Fibonacci, in perplection,
Logicked out the Golden Section.

THREE:
Gödel’s Hurdles:
By going out a system seeking proofs,
A bigger system’s spawned with bigger troofs.
(Repeat ad infinitum).

FOUR:
Georg Cantor, never dull,
Starts the count at aleph null.
Now he’s boxed and wormy dirty,
Contemplating aleph thirty.

I think I see a Fibonacci Spiral in his stylish hat.