Modern Talk

Chuck Miller is a writer friend from Albany, and a fellow maltreated survivor of the Times Union Blog Farm. While I consider myself to be a reasonably prolific keyboard wrangler, Chuck is one of a small number of people (Roger Green being another) who can put me to shame with both the volume and quality of the content offered at their websites. Both of those gents have blogged daily for well over a dozen years, never missing a post, ever. There are few constants in life, but I always appreciate the fact that I can go to their websites any day, every day, and get fresh content, constantly, all of which I enjoy.

Chuck has also always been a great champion of the community-building aspects of online communication, and for years he’s devoted his Saturday posts to highlighting other writers’ work from the preceding week. During the Anno Virum, he added a new feature to his weekly round-up, offering a video interview each Saturday with a selected writer from his blogroll. As it turns out, while I was up in Boise this past weekend, Chuck ran a video of a conversation that he and I had taped a couple of weeks earlier. It was fun to chat with him “work from home” style, having not seen him in person since I left Albany in 2011, though we’ve stayed in touch through our websites since then.

I appreciate being included in Chuck’s roster of interesting community-building talks. If you’d like to hear how it went (or hear what I sound like, if you only know me from virtual spaces), click on the screen cap below for a link to the full video at Chuck’s website. A fine idea on his part, well executed. As are most things that he sets his mind to, as will become amply evident if you forage about at his site for any amount of time!

Me and Sweetman’s Christmas

Me and my friend Sweetman, we was deep in dismal thought,
late at night over whiskey (straight) down at Grumpy’s Drinkin’ Spot.
It was Christmas Eve, yes sir, and our wives, they had done and left,
(though that had been many years ago, we was still a bit bereft).

We was chewin’ on pig feets, the kind you pull out of the jar
that sits next to the pickled eggs and the calves brains behind the bar.
Sweetman burped as we finished, then mumbled “Man, this just ain’t right,
we oughta get us some better grub, for to eat tomorrow night.”

Right then, at that moment, we heard some sleigh bells overhead,
so we stumbled out, looked up, and saw a bright red flyin’ sled,
it was headin’ off southward, behind a dozen head of deer,
so I grabbed me my gun real quick before that meat could disappear.

Like an ace, well, I drew a bead upon the twelve point buck up front,
while my good partner Sweetman, he shut up, like when we hunt.
Then I pulled me the trigger, and saw that buck come tumbling down,
me and Sweetman we walked a bit, and found our dinner on the ground.

Man, I tell you, that Christmas night, we had the best damned supper yet
’cause that deer made a lot of steaks, plus some sausage I can’t forget.
So me and Sweetman we sat there, feelin’ bloated and pleased as swine,
gettin’ drunk on the black-tar hooch, that we’d made from turpentine.

Note: Copyright 2004, JES. It’s the reason for the season . . .

It’s Not the Turkey . . .

It is a strange and unsettling Thanksgiving season this year, made even more so here by us being in transition between homes, with our furniture being delivered to the new house on Friday. This morning, we left our AirBnB home of the past month (and its resident javalinas) and are in a hotel for two nights, so really a betwixt situation, on all fronts.

While many or most of us may not experience the traditional big dinner tomorrow, as an offer of  small comfort, I republish an old poem below to remind us all that the turkey is not the most important comestible of Thanksgiving anyway. Not by a longshot.

Here’s wishing everyone health and safety and happiness wherever and however you are able to mark the day. And a big serving of cheese, fat, salt and carbs, readily made in the microwave, easily devoured anywhere, fresh out of the tray . . .

Alma rose at dawn to make the biscuits,
kneading lard into the baker’s flour,
rolling sheets and cutting discs for baking;
it took her just a bit more than an hour.

At that point, Alma turned to make the stuffing:
sausage, cornbread, broth and butter, nuts.
She pulled the neck and gizzard from the turkey,
(which, with the heart, she thought the sweetest cuts).

She filled the bird and stitched it tight for roasting,
then with a jar of cloves, she dressed the ham,
and pressed the honey from the comb she’d purchased,
to sweeten up her famous candied yams.

While collards stewed in bacon fat and bullion,
Alma snapped the beans and okra too,
then shucked the corn, (the Silver Queen she favored),
which, paired with shrimp, went in her Frogmore Stew.

By sunset, Alma’s work had been completed,
the family blessed their meal on bended knees.
An awkward silence followed, ‘til her son said
“How come there ain’t no Stouffer’s Mac an’ Cheese?”

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 . . .