All: it is Ramadhan, and here in Cairo, the spirit of the month is all-enveloping, omnipresent, and pervasive. Walking through Zamalek after sunset last night, I could see it, I could feel it, I could smell it, I could hear it, I could taste the fast, the month, and the palpable, purgative, restorative effect it has on the community and the society.
So, enough for the travelogue. But I do want to share a poem, written by one of the Harlem Renaissance greats, Claude McKay, about his reminiscences of Ramadhan in Morocco (he is clearly talking about somebody he was in love with, not just the place, but I’ll leave it to you, dear readers of My Wall, to interpret). Hope it all fits . . .
(This poem is from 1980. I was working at a nuclear power plant in New York state. I was not too happy with my professional life, and my love life was tottering. No place for a 24 year old to be, but that’s another story. I wrote the first draft on the back of one of those industrial strength brown paper towels, folded in half. I escaped from that place by the skin of my teeth, finding greener pastures in nearby Connecticut. My love life improved, but the poetry I wrote there by the sea was not half as good. DIG stood for D, destroyers (navy ships that would hold the reactor plant), 1, the first of its type (and hence the oldest and most contaminated), and G stood for General Electric, aka god and master.)
the hour actively approaches
while we, its victims, sit and wait,
with folded arms, trying to appear
comfortable and carefree,
and mutually exclusive.
days pass quickly, and nights,
like the blink of an eye . . .
nay, the pupil’s dilation . . .
time races to its destination
while we, in our lethargy,
approximate suspended animation.
there is no conclusion,
only the vain pleadings
for a fresh new start,
a couple more opportunities.
The rope by which we hang
is long, connecting us, tethering
us to our past and our future,
but its knot is sure.
One day we’ll all lie down
In a narrow box. For a time
Our neglected hair and nails
Will continue to grow.
But our eyes won’t move
And our ears will no longer
Hear the ennobling sounds of music.
Our fingertips will forget
The caring touch of our beloved.
When that time comes for me
Don’t put no shoes or socks
On my feet – there’ll be no reason
to walk any more – but my toes need
freedom to wiggle if they want.
What must we conclude when the cycle ends?
Is there cause for hope, for optimism,
A balm we can surely find in Gilead?
Or isn’t all just a wink and a nod,
Yet another slave narrative that shows
the futility of our pleas for peace?
As a teen I thought Robert Redford might
Someday be President. I mean, Bobby Seale
Didn’t really stand a chance and Redford
Was at least a man of action. But there
was no great art in his films, well, except
in that spy flick he did with Dunaway –
Who had been my secret crush forever –
Where, under duress, she said, “This is . . . unfair!”
The issue is never
the number of sounds
per line. It’s always been
the silences between
the sounds that either
establish a pattern
or throw you off the trail.
You track the scent.
Everything goes back
to hunting and fishing.
I want to write a poem
If I were to run away from all this
Or maybe a play about a bakery
All this stuff, all these obligations
Where I once worked, once discovered
All my books and papers
Resources stored and stacked deeply
And never look back
In my essence, my spiritual DNA
Will there be space for me still
Inherited over the miles and years
In your heart, room for me
Where you are? Beauty, like truth,
is in the eye of the beholder, not the beheld.
I straddle multiple dualities:
Settler and native, assimilated
And separate, conqueror and conquered.
Crossing lines is my favorite pastime,
Assuming opposing identities,
Walking a mile in my enemy’s shoes.
Still, there are certain things I will not do:
I’ll never hurt a child, or kick a man
Who’s already down, or ignore a plea
For help from anyone. A warrior
To my bones, if you cross me I will pause
And think before I act: it’s likely I
won’t turn the other cheek. I’ll telegraph
my ev’ry move, give you the choice to strike.
Some might say this work/life has given us A warped sense of humor. We cast a glance At each other and smile. Yes, I was there With you in Baghdad, dodging mortar rounds On selected days, and on the tarmac Overnight in Kuwait City where we had to have a special sense of humor To survive war’s absurd insanity.
Time passes. The wounds heal. The scars remain. We write the future, it does not write us. We arrange and describe our past to fit truth’s narrative arc. It doesn’t matter That we spent nights in the Palace Fearful of those whose lands we invaded.
She said, “I’ll be your lover if you wish.” That forwardness was new to me. I paused, But dared not respond, fearing I’d foreclose My hope for a happy ending. She spoke, “I’m a hippie, it won’t mean much to me.” That’s odd, I thought, it’d mean so much to me.
A sudden death for my virginity Was averted. I still recall it, clear as day, perhaps, well, clear as yesterday. All good things must end, and my time would come To cross the line, to break the sacred plane, To taste the fruit of the tree of knowledge Of good and evil. The time, soon enough, Would arrive and my soul would be prepared.
My wife says she can tell When I’m writing poetry. She says she sees me moving In and out of space and time And she wonders where it is I go.
I tell her I cross a mighty river Again and again. One that separates The temples of life’s renewal, On the west coast facing east, catching the first rays of sunrise – From the tombs that guard the past, On the east coast facing west, basking in sunset’s glow.
Both a library and an archive, A moving feast inside my mind. Crossing back and forth between Those two worlds creates an energy source and a drug for my addiction.
She does that thing where she Points two fingers at her eyes And then at me. She’s watching.
I run a quite unique distillery And take it with me everywhere I go – I feed it all the garbage and the trash From life experience. It processes junk And outputs poems to read and share with friends and foes alike. Moonshine for the soul.
One thing about the distillation act: it does not destroy matter – Newton’s law Is in effect – what’s not refined from life At length concentrates to a detritus That must be channeled outward, overboard. And if the output pipings cross-connect, It mixes gunk with truth for ill effect.
I’ve made some crucial errors in this life. But often times when I go back in time And try to make it right, I learn The sin, the crime was mainly in my head And had no strong or weak effect at all On those I may have wronged without relief. Who wants or plans to harm their fellowman? But what greater harm in life is there Than doing wrong against your own self’s soul? I say to my soul: I deeply apologize, Please point to the path of your forgiveness. My soul responds: O silly man, I am Your soul, I know your every deed. But please stop by and visit when you please.
Let’s be clear. The winners want this world to be the only one. They don’t need a heaven, a nirvana, a promised land, a garden with black-eyed virgins after martyrdom.
The winners want this world to last forever and a day, no disruption, no inherent degradation in the plan/to the plan that keeps them in charge, the religion that justifies, the philosophy that rationalizes, the mathematics that computes their equations.
Let’s be clear, again. At length, soon or late, things unravel. Entropy rules, permanence becomes impermanent, time folds back on itself – like Prince says, his music for the future written in the past and stored in a vault – a chess game that anybody can learn to play and win.
It might be time for a shape shift moment. This kernel of time, wedged between the walls Of two more standardized realities Only points us backwards on the path Of forward growth. You can write your own poem – This one holds out hope for a revival And a different direction for our dreams.
Old ways benefited the chosen few. Their poets and prophets sing of better Days to come. They have playwrights and Netflix Producers on the job around the clock, Promising to protect the status quo. I can’t say I wish them ill. Their vision Is a museum object, best preserved, mute.
Life is so much more like Parks and Recreation than Madame Secretary. So don’t get it twisted when you pull the curtain.
Poetry is just streaming words – nothing high brow about it – painting is lines and shapes splashed on canvas with a brush – and dancing is shifting weight from one foot to the other in motion across a wooden floor.
If I were a strong wind I’d wrap all around you – if a river, I’d rise up to your knees – if a song, I’d bounce tenderly against your eardrums, until I found my way into your inner heart.
More like Parks and Recreation, less like Madame Secretary, nothing like The Good Wife. Life. Don’t get it twisted.
A funny little sonnet from the archives, NaPoWriMo2016.
I started this sonnet, impromptu poem – what was its object, and what its subject? Agency is slippery, talk is cheap, and I am crossing, passing betwixt, between these worlds of witty words and lines and thoughts. This sonnet started writing me, reversed the action. Could I soon avert the doom? The richochet effect, the final blow avoided me and landed somewhere else. The poem became the essence I conceived and I, at once, its object and its aim. It acted on me as it wrote itself: these worlds of words contained the richochet – the harm absorbed, apart, within its walls.
Reflections on listening to a podcast about Afropessimism (because the author’s book tour was cancelled)
Can I tell you something? A deep secret? I am exhausted by your shallowness And as of this morning at 7AM I will no longer give a good goddamn What you think about my talent and skill As a bureaucrat. What about yours? Where is your tact? Your sense of fairness? Your appreciation for the art form? I have a fairly good, if wicked notion What you are thinking when you see my face – My black face that does not apologize When undermining your hypocrisy. Fuck all this. I’m going to work TODAY. Keep six feet away from me. Wash your hands.
A lovely homemade thing From a far off distant land, Woven with yarn and lace: A cushion steadies my coffee cup A pad where the mouse can rest. How’d you know it’d be so useful? A treasured gift of grace – A token that holds a place – Folded carefully in the liquor bar drawer between the shot glasses and candles, the napkins and cork replacements. Woven with yarn and lace – A lovely homemade thing, From a far off distant land.
On the first sabbath of each month I satisfy my civic obligation to the Novus Ordo by serving as a tour guide & worship leader at the national secular temple I charm organized groups of tourists and the occasional onlooker with tales about Minerva, our goddess of learning & defender of civilization, and I show them the proper way to worship at her shrine. (Of course, this Roman Minerva is really a Greek Athena – her spirit animal gives the secret away – but we, the initiates, all wink & nod & go along with the deception.) Inside the temple, the paintings & the sculpture & the architecture all fit together harmoniously, integrated seamlessly with the worship performance we lead, into a total work of art that inspires and instructs, gently extracting energy from sightseers who congregate outside the entrance gate, the same energy that floods the inner sanctum to feed the hidden beast.