Saturday, July 29, 2017

Frank Loesser's Musical Martinis

Frank Loesser would mix his martini at sunrise, having worked on songs through the night while friends and family slept.

As a fan of both Loesser and the martini, I was gratified to hear that tidbit from an interview with his widow Jo Sullivan, because it fits.  Loesser explains why, in the only song of his I know to mention the cocktail:  
To see the cool clear
Eyes of a seeker of wisdom and truth,
Yet with the slam, bang, tang
Reminiscent of gin and vermouth --
Oh, I believe in you,
I believe in you!
      - Frank Loesser, music and lyrics, from How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying
Loesser's work, like his favorite cocktail, is always fresh.  Many Loesser songs have that "slam, bang, tang" every time we hear them.  Here's an example of a lyric I know by heart that still takes me by surprise.  It's "Adelaide's Lament" from the musical Guys and Dolls:
You can spray her all day with the Vitamin A and the Bromo fizz,
But the medicine never gets anywhere near where the (sniff) trouble is.
If the girl has been getting a name for herself, and the name ain't his --
A person can develop a cough.  
Loesser wrote lyrics, or lyrics and music, for hundreds of popular stand-alone songs, and songs for forgettable movies.  Four unforgettable Broadway musicals are graced by his music and lyrics, Where's Charley?, Guys and Dolls, The Most Happy Fella, and How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying.  

Stephen Sondheim writes early and often about Loesser in his memoir - cum - lyricist's manual Finishing the Hat.  Loesser had been first choice to write music and lyrics for a show called Saturday Night, but young Sondheim got the job. He admits to imitating Loesser unconsciously in his first professional score (Sondheim p. 6).   Loesser, he writes, was a master of writing "conversational lyrics" that he "tailored" to characters, "able to perform the rare trick of sounding modestly conversational and brilliantly dextrous at the same time, a skill only [Dorothy] Fields and occasionally [Irving] Berlin possessed before him."  Sondheim calls Loesser "The Idea Man," because his notions for songs were, and still are, funny, growing naturally from character and situation. Later in his book, Sondheim brings Loesser into thumbnail assessments of other Broadway lyricists, citing Loesser as equal to some, superior to others. (see my Sondheim page)

From American Songbook specialist Michael Feinstein, I learned that Loesser originally had a reputation for writing off-color specialty songs, such that Hollywood producers were leery of hiring him.  Erotic currents flow just under the surface of Loesser's "Slow Boat to China," especially at the slow tempo that Cleo Laine purrs, "I'd love to get you / on a slow boat to China / all to myself, alone,"  though she hits at a plaintive note when she sings of "melting your heart of stone." (Cleo Laine and Laurie Hollowell, Loesser Genius).

Other songs play with fire.  A friend of mine hears date rape in the charming duet, "Baby It's Cold Outside," a conversational song of lines for Her and Him (left and right, below) that overlap and rhyme prodigiously:
My mother will start to worry - Beautiful, what's your hurry?
Father will be pacing the floor - Listen to the fireplace roar
So really I'd better scurry - Beautiful, please don't hurry
Maybe just a half a drink more - Put some records on while I pour

The neighbors might think - Baby, it's bad out there
Say, what's in this drink?      (from Frank Loesser, "Baby It's Cold Outside")
Loesser probably got whoops from the troops when he wrote a lyric for a Hollywood entertainment aimed at boosting morale during the Second World War. For "They're Either Too Young or Too Old," Bette Davis speak-sings constantly surprising variations on the title.  With young men overseas, the lyric says, her soldier boyfriend needn't be jealous:  
What's good is in the army.
What's left will never harm me...

I'm either their first breath of spring
Or else, I'm their last little fling
I either get a fossil or an adolescent pup
I either have to hold him off
Or have to hold him up.
  - (lyric by Frank Loesser, music by Arthur Shwartz)
But Loesser wanted to be remembered, not for sexy and funny songs, but for love and passion.  Sondheim suggests that Loesser failed when he tried too hard to be meaningful or touching.  Sondheim introduced me to the word "twee," which applies to every cut on the cast album of Loesser's forgotten show Greenwillow, which starts with the very "twee" lyric, "'Twill be a day / borrowed from heaven."

I've heard somewhere that he thought "I Believe in You" was going to be a great love song, until the director gave it to the young leading man to sing to his own reflection in the mirror of the men's restroom for How to Succeed.... 

Feinstein tells Terri Gross that Loesser's older brother Arthur had some classical music cred and that he disdained his brother's work.  Challenged, Loesser wrote a near-operatic score for The Most Happy Fella, for which he created songs in counterpoint, a modern madrigal ("Song of a Summer Night"), full-throated arias for an operatic baritone in the leading role, and this delicious comedy song for the Broadway singer who portrays a waitress in the opening number:

Oh, my feet, my poor, poor feet,
Betcha your life a waitress earns her pay.
I've been on my feet, my poor, poor feet
All day long today.....
(four "piggies" in)  This little piggy feels the weight of the plate
Though the freight's just an order of Melba toast.
And this little piggy is the littlest little piggy,
But the big son of a bitch hurts the most!
    (- lyrics and music by Frank Loesser, "Oh My Feet" from The Most Happy Fella)

But Loesser didn't have to try so hard to be touching.  Look no further than poor Adelaide, years into her relationship with Nathan Detroit, who sings to him,
When I think of the times gone by...
And I think of the ways I cry...
I could honestly die.

   (-"Sue Me", music and lyrics by Frank Loesser, Guys and Dolls)
It's a funny song, but there's no doubt, she's wronged, he's a jerk, and something has to change -- and it does.  Funny as it is, I feel that line more each time she sings it.  It just stops being funny -- until Nathan sings his last rhyme for "sue me" - "Shoot bullets through me!  I love you!"

With so much to his credit that's clever, showy, funny, and sly, it's a little throwaway number that makes me think of Loesser as one of Broadway's greatest artists.  Here's the cocky gambler Sky Masterson singing about New York in the early morning:

My time of day is the dark-time
A couple of deals before dawn
When the street belongs to the cop
And the janitor with the mop
And the grocery clerks are all gone
When the smell of the rain-washed pavement
Comes up clean and fresh and cold
And the street lamp light fills the gutter with gold
That's my time of day
My time of day,
And you're the only doll I've ever wanted to share it with me.
 - "My Time of Day," music and lyrics by Frank Loesser
That's the entire song, music meandering and short on pattern, designed to sound like natural speech. It's almost recitative; it's almost a song; it's straight from the heart of the character, down to the reference to gambling ("just a couple deals before dawn"), and it's as touching as any song I know.

I've heard that Loesser fought unsuccessfully to get Sinatra to sing his music as written for the film of Guys and Dolls, that he called his first wife "the evil of two Loessers," and that he was so unsure of his own composition skills that he would call his wife in to hear any new composition, to tell him if she recognized the tune from some other songwriter.

But, at his best, he was the best.  Here's a toast to you, Frank Loesser, with my third martini of the night.

Fresh Air interview with Terry Grose / Michael Feinstein  Loesser's 100th birthday, June 29, 2010.

From memory, I'm citing anecdotes from singer Jo Sullivan, Loesser's second wife, who spoke with Gross another time.  That show isn't archived on the web site. 

See a website devoted to Loesser with involvement from his children at

[Photograph: Young Loesser's face on a recording of his own renditions of songs, including "Heart and Soul" with music by Hoagy Carmichael; Loesser's image on a stamp in a series honoring the classic American songbook writers; and Loesser during the War with a young Frank Sinatra.]

Thursday, July 27, 2017

"Let the Poetry do the Work":
Kwame Alexander with Rachel Martin on NPR

Waking every morning from a nightmare of disappointing the students who will fill my classroom in a couple weeks, I was inspired by something I heard on NPR's Morning Edition.  Host Rachel Martin swapped lines of poetry with poet-educator Kwame Alexander.

[Photo: Pictured with fans with one of his novels - in - verse The Crossover on his website.]

Martin called their session "Poetry play" and, later, "our poetry party."  She wanted to know how we can get kids not to be scared of poetry.

Alexander observed that parents learned in high school to be scared of "Auden, Frost, Shakespeare." They learned to forget the fun, "whimsy, joy, passion" of poetry that his mother instilled in him when she'd come into a room and quote Nikki Giovanni or Lucille Clifton to him. For instance, he threw out "Advice" by Langston Hughes:  

Folks, I'm telling you,
birthing is hard
and dying is mean-
so get yourself
a little loving
in between.
Martin and Alexander shared a laugh and made his point.  Martin requested a reading from Shel Silverstein's "My Rules," and then she shared a wonderful bit of "The Summer Day" by Mary Oliver:

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes....

Martin skipped to the last lines:  "Tell me, what is it you plan to do / with your one wild and precious life?"  Listening to this while I cleaned up the breakfast dishes, I felt amused, involved, convicted, all at the same time.  And I saw the grasshopper!

Alexander tells students to "distill it into a few digestible words to get [at the same] feeling."  I can imagine asking kids to think of a time they had a strong or mixed feeling, and to list all the ingredients that went into making that moment.For teaching poetry, Alexander says "Let the poetry do the work."  He read a poem, no attribution given, that drew us in with Seuss-like rhymes, "I love to ride on a plane, I like to take the train," and so on, but "if I had my 'drothers," he concluded, "I'd get my exercise in your arms."

For the pièce de résistance, Alexander challenged Martin to improvise a poem on-air.  He prompted her with questions. "What's an age you remember?  What did you see?  What was that like?"  When she said that summer evenings on the porch at age eight were "green," and "like grass," she wasn't satisfied.  He kept pushing her until memories bubbled up that got her excited - sweet tea, lemons, "sweet like my mother's smile."  Suddenly, Rachel Martin, Kwame Alexander, and I were satisfied.

I'm more convinced than ever that reading poetry aloud and writing poetry are the most important things an English teacher can do at any age.  At least do it before the kids learn that poetry is a problem to solve for credit. 

"What about essays?" ask some educators.  "Stories?  Novels?   Don't kids have to learn to walk before they can run?"

That last analogy is a bad one, not least because kids do run before they learn to walk, stumbling all along.  Kids also speak gobbledygook with the inflections of whole sentences before they learn words, crayon full pictures before they learn techniques, compose songs before they read music.   Kids play games of basketball before they've "mastered" the "fundamentals."  The teacher who says, "No, don't try to learn that thing you want to learn" should be suspended for malpractice.

Besides, any halfway decent poem gets its effect by doing all the things that a good essay would do, mixed with the things that a good story would do.  The poet will necessarily make choices about how to focus the reader's attention, how to draw the reader on to something that builds to a conclusion.  That's called structure.

The halfway effective poem will also use clues in diction and details to conjure a sense of character, and some kind of story. 

For grammar, there are the tricks poets use to link ideas and minimize verbiage.  Mostly, they reduce clauses to phrases and cut out the dull verbs of being.  I've seen grammar books that don't get that far into practical grammar.

And if any given poem doesn't do all these things, well, poems are short.  What one lacks, another will provide.

I'm refreshed, thinking how I can make poetry a part of our regular routine, not just a now-and-then thing.

Read my earlier reflections on what students learn from responding to poetry without teacher's active involvement, Plentiful Payoffs from Poetry Playoffs.  One of my biggest "hits" on this blog is my reflection on Mary Oliver's book Thirst.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Teach US History with the Pledge of Allegiance

Through years of teaching US History to 8th graders, I found that kids would forget in spring what they'd studied in fall - or, worse, they reverted to what they'd understood in second grade, involving happy Pilgrims, a cherry tree, and Abe Lincoln freeing all the slaves. 

My solution was to tie American history the Pledge of Allegiance.  Though we'd repeat the whole history four times, each time we would pick up a different strand suggested by the Pledge's last words: (1) One nation, (2) under God, (3) indivisible, (4) with liberty and justice for all.  The strand for each successive quarter emphasised an event later in the time line.  That students would have already memorized the phrases from the Pledge in order, that these phrases suggest the themes, and that these are tied to key events, should make remembering it all easy. I would be sure to convey the material through engagement with art, primary sources, and personal stories.

I started each quarter with an examination of current events and opinions about them, hoping to excite the students' curiosity.  We then reached back centuries to see how the USA got to be this way.  Here's how it worked:

First Quarter:  One Nation?
500 years, emphasis on early 1600s
In what way(s) are we truly one nation?  Related to native and nationality, the word nation suggests that we are in some way one people.   But a quick survey of current census data shows how many peoples, languages, religions, ancestries, and independent tribal nations rub shoulders within our borders.  Is this diversity something new?  We look at current attitudes towards immigration and nativism.

We jump backwards to pre-Columbian times simply to see what other nations occupied this same continent before there was a USA:  native American tribes, empires, leagues; Renaissance European colonizers from Spain, Portugal, France, and Holland; the forced importation of Africans.  We examine maps, discuss what artifacts tell us, view Renaissance art, read primary source accounts of international encounters.

We pause to look in-depth when we reach the English at Jamestown in 1607 and their countrymen who followed them to this continent, because their language and peculiar national traditions shape the eventual USA.

Then we proceed through waves of immigration and reaction back to the present day.   At the end of the quarter, we try again to reach a consensus on the way(s) in which we are "one nation," and ways we are not.

Second Quarter:  Under God?
emphasis on late 1600s to 1700s
In what way(s) are we truly under God?  The phrase was added late to the Pledge of Allegiance to draw contrast to "godless Communism" during the Cold War, and was borrowed from a phrase that Abe Lincoln added to his neat handwritten copy of the Gettysburg Address on the day after he had delivered it.  The phrase might suggest that we are "under" God the way we're "under" the sky; it might suggest that we all follow the same faith.  Again, we make a survey of current attitudes and issues regarding faith in the USA today before we recycle through the centuries.

This time, we look more closely at how the European colonizers came from a world divided by the Protestant Reformation.  We look at the close connection between Church and State in all European cultures involved on this continent up to that point: most thinkers could not conceive a government not authorized by religious authority.

We focus more this time on the consequences of the Mayflower's accidental landing in Massachusetts instead of their target Virginia.  The Puritans who came with John Winthrop intentionally set themselves apart to create what Winthrop called "a city on a hill" to show the world a Protestant Christian government.  Instantly, their unity splintered, each offshoot becoming a new colony; through conflict and the witch debacle, official clergy lost credibility.   By the time we get to Thomas Jefferson's line about "Nature's God" in the Declaration of Independence,  the Enlightenment had reduced God's role in political life, if not in family life.  The Constitution enshrines the idea that reason and mutual agreement are the source of authority in the USA, not the church.

We look at revivals and the role of faith in the Abolition movement, and note periods of revival that swept the nation, and the development of a quasi-civic religion -- in "Manifest Destiny" and the Pledge itself.   At the end, we try to reach a consensus on what it means to be Under God.

Third Quarter:  Indivisible?
emphasis on the 1800s
In what way(s) are we truly Indivisible?  The obvious area of focus must be the division of states during the Civil War, but we begin, as before, with a survey of current events, looking for signs of division, and of unity in spite of division.  

A survey back to colonial times reveals regional animosities, civil conflict, and threats of secession going back to the 1780s.  The fear of a nation within the nation (Native Americans, African Americans held in bondage) would be part of this.

Of course, the Civil War and Reconstruction will take up a lot of the quarter's time.  After we review the cultural divisions exposed by the Depression, the Vietnam War, and perhaps "the war on terror," we might be in a better position to evaluate whether we've still got what it takes to keep us indivisible.

Fourth Quarter:  Liberty and Justice for All?
emphasis on the 1900s

What different ways do Americans today define liberty and justice?  Then, who is meant by all - "all men [who] are created equal?" All people living in America?  Only American citizens? 

By this time in the year, the kids should be able to survey the centuries pretty rapidly.   They'll see a gradual widening of the definition of "all."  In the 20th and 21st centuries, they'll see expansion and contraction, as we reach out to spread liberty and justice to other lands, and then retreat.

Looking Back: How Did it Work?
I didn't notice any particular difference in the way the kids perceived history.   From my point of view, we were seeing the Big Picture four ways, combing through history four times with deeper and broader perspectives.  

From their point of view, it was just the next reading, the next essay, the next discussion, the next map.  I was the only one connecting the dots.  

I tried this one time before I moved on to another position in another school.   If you want to try it yourself, I'd be glad to help.  I still think the idea is a good one.

See my blogpost of related interest: Does God Bless America?

Monday, July 17, 2017

The Sympathizer: Page-Turner Hard NOT to Put Down

"But amnesia was as American as apple pie," muses the double-agent who narrates Viet Thanh Nguyen's first novel The Sympathizer (Grove Press, 2015, p. 195).

That's the kind of off-hand observation that makes this page-turner so hard not to put down -- because on every page the reader wants to make a note of a witty observation, provocative statement, or apt simile.  For instance, Hollywood, by "softening up the world," functions as "the launcher of the intercontinental ballistic missile of Americanization" (172); Vietnamese refugees are exiled in time as in space, keeping their clocks set to Saigon time and always thinking "When can I return?" (199); men at the end of a long banquet "nuzzle [their] cocktails with the affection one reserved for puppies" (261). 

The story is simple enough.  Our unnamed narrator serves a General of the deposed Saigon regime, first helping him to exile in the USA,  assassinating two of the General's enemies, and finally spearheading an armed incursion against the unified Vietnam's communist regime. 

What complicates the story, and what allows Nguyen so much room for trenchant wit, is that the narrator is a double agent. Son of a single Vietnamese mother and an odious French priest, he has the "destiny" or "talent" of a "bastard" for "seeing from two sides"(314).   He was educated in the US; he knows how his homeland appears in Western novels and pop culture -- Graham Greene's The Quiet American earning particular scorn for treating Vietnamese women as metaphors (114).  But he's not blind to the weaknesses and corruption in Vietnam, or in himself. After committing the first assassination, he goes on a drinking binge, writing,  "Besides my conscience, my liver was the most abused part of my body" (114).  The ghosts of his two victims literally haunt him.

A long satiric interlude in the story concerns our narrator's serving as consultant to the Auteur of an Apocalypse-Now kind of movie.   Until our narrator gets involved, the epic movie has no Vietnamese characters.   Besides being viciously funny, this portion of the novel takes time out from comedy for a touching moment when the narrator mourns at the grave of his mother -- in a phony cemetery on the set of the movie.  

One of the novel's most concentrated passages for political banter is our narrator's confrontation with Richard Hedd (I got the joke, Professor Nguyen, but I don't think it seemly to mention it). Hedd is revered by American hawks as more expert on Vietnam than the natives, if only because of his British accent (259).  Quoting from pages of Hedd's book that describe "categories" of Vietnamese people, our narrator develops those literal pages as a metaphor:
These categories existed as pages in a book exist, but most of us were composed of many pages, not just one.    Still, I suspected, as Dr. Hedd scrutinized me, that what he saw was not that I was a book but that I was a sheet, easily read and easily mastered.  I was going to prove him wrong.  (252)
Hedd, as a non-American, comments freely on the pursuit of happiness. For Americans, he says, that's a "zero - sum game," measuring one's own happiness against someone else's unhappiness (255). Our narrator and his boss the General turn the discussion around when someone avers that Afghanistan, "the new Vietnam," supersedes Asia as America's concern.  "As a nonwhite person, the General, like myself, knew he must be patient with white people, who were easily scared by the nonwhite."  The narrator continues...
We ate their food, we watched their movies, we observed their lives and psyche via television and in everyday contact, we learned their language, we absorbed their subtle cues, we laughed at their jokes, even when made at our expense, we humbly accepted their condescension, we eavesdropped on their conversations in supermarkets and the dentist's office, and we protected them by not speaking our own language in their presence, which unnerved them. ...[W]e probably did know white people better than they knew themselves.... (258)

...though mysteries remained, such as how to make cranberry sauce or throw a football.

Nguyen chose for his epigraph a statement by Nietzsche that there's "something to laugh at" in torture.   Our narrator's book is a confession addressed to the official in charge of his reeducation, and torture is involved.  I can't say I agree with Nietzsche on this one, and I had to fight myself not to put the book down, this time for good.

But I do agree with wonderful writer Robert Olen Butler, author of stories of Vietnamese exiles collected in A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain.  He writes of Nguyen's book that it "transcends history and politics and nationality and speaks to the enduring theme of literature: the universal quest for self, for identity."

And, it's funny.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Me and Mia

We walk mornings around the perimeter of the Publix shopping center nearby.  She's unpredictable around other dogs, so the neighborhood is out.  Besides, there are orts and puddles of spilled stuff to sniff, and trucks to bark at.  We took a moment to send a selfie in response to an early birthday wish from Susan.  I want to preserve the picture.  Mia's happy, but eager to get moving again.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Summer, Knoxville, 1915 & Wyoming, in a car, 1967

It's a very 1960s-America memory, a mere sensory impression:  In the front seat of the Pontiac Bonneville that we borrowed from Grandmother because it had air-conditioning, Dad drives us on a two-lane highway somewhere between our home in Chicago and our destination at Yellowstone Park in Wyoming, and Mom sits beside him.  Behind them and below, actually in the wells where backseat passengers' feet go, my brother and I are each curled up on pillows brought from our beds back home.  Older sister is stretched out above and behind us, reading.   

It's after lunch.  The AM radio may be playing the news, or some sunny drawling country-western tunes from the day (Roger Miller, Patsy Cline), but it's far away now.  I'm much closer to the low metallic hum of the tires.   It's lulling me to sleep, but then, like the sudden tapping of a cymbal, Mom's voice sounds, Dad replies, and Mom laughs.  They're speaking about the next stop, or about the countryside.

I'd like to listen, but I'm being drawn down into sleep. I love my pillow for receiving my weight, for being warm and sweet-smelling with my own drool.  And I'm feeling safe and contented and suspended in time.  I don't want ever to lose that moment.

Fifty years later, I'm still there, when I want to be.  And now I recognize the universality of this.  It's in James Agee's prologue to A Death in the Family, his memory of his own childhood 100 years ago, later set to wonderful music by Samuel Barber in the concert piece Knoxville, Summer 1915:

They are not talking much, and the talk is quiet, of nothing in particular, of nothing at all in particular, of nothing at all. . . . All my people are larger bodies than mine,...with voices gentle and meaningless like the voices of sleeping birds.... One is my mother who is good to me.  One is my father who is good to me.  By some chance, here they are, all on this earth; and who shall ever tell the sorrow of being on this earth, lying, on quilts, on the grass, in a summer evening, among the sounds of the night.  May God bless my people. . . oh, remember them kindly in their time of trouble, and in the hour of their taking away.

After a little I am taken in and put to bed.  Sleep, soft smiling, draws me unto her. . . .
Agee's long prologue appears to be prose, but it has the impact of good poetry.   I've run into many others who, like me, heard or read the words once and remembered them for years after.

[Note: I discovered this piece in my archive, written during a workshop led by a colleague involved with the National Writers Project at Kennesaw State University in 2007.  Another offshoot of the workshop made one of my earliest blogposts, Shrink Age.]

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Almost 9 O'Clock: Being Mom to my Mom

My first day with a driver's license, I was an hour late getting home.  Mom was sitting up in the den.  She turned so that I could see her tears, and then she climbed the stairs to bed.

I got the point.  She'd been waiting for the phone to ring, the hospital or policeman on the other end.

42 years later:  Mother fell last Wednesday and bruised her arms, and fell the next night so that I had to rush away from dinner in Atlanta to stand beside her in the Emergency Room. She phoned around 6:45 Monday night, her voice strained, telling me to "come up here and solve all my problems for me." By 7, I was with her, and we were laughing because she had no idea what she'd had in mind when she called.

Part of the problem is that little bottle of wine that she likes to ease her into the evening.  She finishes it off, throws away the bottle, rinses the glass, wanders into the living room, and thinks, "Ah, it's time for my nightly glass of wine."  That can go on to three or four bottles. 

Tonight, I've worked two hours on this blog with single-minded concentration, forgetting even to drink water.  I'm thirsty, my head hurts, and my neck is stiff. But I'm happy: My phone hasn't vibrated even once, and it's 8:58 pm.  Every time I check the clock and haven't heard bad news about Mom, I think, we've made it for another night.

Waiting at the doctor's office for removal of staples from the bad fall she took last week [see photo], she wanted to know, "Why are we here?"  I ran through the list of our recent adventures. She laughed, "Having me is just like having a teenage boy, isn't it?  Serves you right!"

Earlier reflections on life with dementia:
Moving Mom: Worrying, You Suffer Twice  .
Does "Unfiltered" Mean True?
Photo with Mom: Safety Deposit for Emotions.

Marie Howe's Poems: You Must Remember "This"

"The Gate," read aloud on Krista Tippett's radio program On Being, was the gateway for me to Marie Howe's poetry.  Howe first explained that the poem was one of many in her collection What the Living Do about her much younger brother John, who died of AIDs in 1987. She began, "I had no idea that the gate I would step through / to finally enter this world / would be the space my brother's body made."  Around thirty seconds later, I felt I knew the young man, and the wisdom that his sister captured succinctly in a word: not "the" world, but "this" one, the only one we've got, the one we usually pass by with our minds on our objectives or screens.

This is what you have been waiting for, he used to say to me.
And I'd say, What?

And he'd say, This --           ("The Gate," WTLD 58)

Then she read something newly minted, "Magdalene - The Seven Devils," a naming of the seven devils that Jesus cast out of Mary Magdalene (Mk 16.9) as if it had happened today:  "The first was that I was very busy."  Other demons include,  "I was worried," and, "envy, disguised as compassion."  But, she goes on tangents and has to start over: "Ok the first was that I was so busy."  The more Howe's Mary Magdalene coiled back, the more tightly wound up in the poem I was, nodding and laughing at feelings I owned. I went online and bought three collections: What the Living Do, The Kingdom of Ordinary Time, and Magdalene.

Though Howe uses characters and terms from her Catholic upbringing, orthodoxy is not her concern. It's that attentiveness learned from the brother John, or from an unnamed Jesus figure in the Magdalene poems or poems about Mary in The Kingdom of Ordinary Time. The phrase "ordinary time," as she explained to Krista Tippett, is the church's name for the numbered or "ordinal" Sundays between Pentecost and Advent, the time in the church year devoted not to the miraculous incarnation of Jesus, but to what we, the living, do with it.  She develops the theme in Magdalene, as the title character learns how to look at someone else as a separate person (24; 26; 43).  By the end of that collection, she's learning the same lesson from appreciating her adopted daughter.

On another NPR show, Fresh Air, host Terry Gross had Howe read "What the Living Do." First, Howe explained that she gave up on a poem and just wrote a letter to her late brother - and discovered it was a poem. The poem affected me much more after I'd heard that explanation.  What the living do is the daily rituals of "ordinary" days, paying attention, being grateful:  "This is it. / Parking. Slamming the car door shut in the cold.  What you called that yearning" (WTLD, 89).

Howe discussed the idea of "ritual" with Krista Tippett.  "The Gate" mentions that her brother, dying on his bed, had already rinsed every glass. Howe agreed when Tippett said, "It strikes me that these rituals of ordinary time themselves are a little bit like poetry, these condensed, kind of economical little packets of beauty and grace that carry so much more forward than, than is obvious."  Howe told how she assigns her poetry students two - line observations without comment, without metaphor.  They complain how hard it is to do; but after weeks doing it, when she assigns metaphor, they want to stick with observation.

Howe tells of having difficulty writing certain poems until it struck her that they were praise poems. "Practicing" is a loving memory of her seventh grade girl friends practicing kisses (WTLD 23); "My Mother's Body" folds the body's healthy child-bearing past with its end, with thankfulness (Kingdom of Ordinary Time 45).  

Many of her poems portray boys or men in ways I've not seen in other works. What the Living Do sets the theme with "The Boy," about a brother's heroic stand against the father's bullying.  The males in "Sixth Grade" enact a proto-gang-rape.  As her brothers join neighborhood boys to build "The Fort" in a vacant lot, she watches at a distance,

                           ...a village of boys
who had a house to clean, women
in magazines, cigarettes and soda and
the strange self-contained voices they used
to speak to each other with...    (18)
fascinated by "what they had made without us."  Her father appears in all three books, swaying from drink, lumbering up the stairs to her attic bedroom, promising, "I'll break you" (Magdalene 30, 58); she writes gratefully of a brother who comforted her.  Later collections include poems of frank and funny carnal desire, including a synecdochic catalogue of men she has known by the peculiarities of their anatomy ("On Men, Their Bodies"Magdalene 22). There's the "he" identified with Jesus; and John, and John's beloved.  Whether enthralled or repelled, Howe gives this reader a sense I've not had before of how strange masculinity is to someone from the other side.

I expect to return to these collections again, for wisdom and a fondness for the people they describe, as I return to those by Richard Blanco, Linda Pastan, Todd Boss, and to Donald Hall's"The Night of the Day."  [See my page Poetry and Secular Psalms]

Interview with Krista Tippett On Being

Interview with Terry Gross on Fresh Air

Wednesday, July 05, 2017

Biking July 4th: Does God Bless America?

The local bike shop displays a poster that reads, "GOD WILL BLESS AMERICA WHEN AMERICA RETURNS TO GOD." Pedaling through Atlanta on Independence Day, I wondered in what way this nation is unblessed?

I started the day's bike trip with a visit to Mom at assisted living.  Dad invested in markets and insurance, but she'd be pinched without federal safety net programs that are in place for all of us.

The two-wheeled part of my journey began, as usual, at the Martin Luther King, Jr. memorial site, where the man's silhouette is outlined with sky.  He was spokesman for a movement that helped the USA to grow into its own stated ideals.

Midway, I circled Stone Mountain, where the Ku Klux Klan resurfaced in 1954.   Carved to honor Confederate Army officers during the late 1960s,  Stone Mountain this Fourth was a place of celebration for families black, white, and Hispanic, running, walking dogs, sharing picnic areas.

In between, I passed lots - literal lots - where communities' regeneration shows.  For every closed store and crumbling house, there is construction of new town homes and businesses.

I passed through Clarkston, known for welcoming refugees.  Every time I ride, there's a polite encounter with people sharing the bike path who don't look, dress, or speak like me. On the 4th, I thought of the words I'd read from the prayer book before sunrise, taken from the book of Isaiah, addressed to Jerusalem, the original "City on a Hill":

Arise, shine, for your light has come
And the glory of the Lord will dawn upon you.
... Nations will stream to your light,
And kings to the light of your dawning.
Your gates will always be open.
Day or night, they will never be shut.

Maybe because I listen to NPR, which has no commercial interest in hyping anxieties, I know that no people on earth have less statistical likelihood of being attacked by invaders or terrorists, by corrupt government officials or criminal gangs.   We have jobs, abundant resources, more consumer goods than we need, and a safety net of food banks, shelters, and state-paid E.R. service.  Even the homeless guy I passed at the entrance ramp to I-75 checked his smart phone.

That morning, NPR did also air an interview with historian Jon Meacham, for his take on these days when pols and polls say we're more fractious than ever. Meacham agreed, but his concluding thought was a fair diagnosis of where we Americans are, now, and a hint at a prescription that kept me feeling positive through the day:

My favorite definition of a nation comes from St. Augustine who said, a
nation is a multitude of rational beings united by the common objects of
their love. So what we have to ask ourselves at every critical point is,
what do we love in common? Right now, we don't love enough in common.

And at our best, we, I think, loved the idea of liberty under law, of an
American dream in which that dream became a reality because there was an
equality of opportunity, a capacity to move forward and that we were
all, more or less, in a large, national undertaking together. (Jon Meacham, on Morning Edition, July 4, 2017)
The "idea of liberty under law" might not be exactly what the bike shop poster had in mind as "turning back to God."  I suspect the poster designer has something in common with the pastor in 2005 who said Hurricane Katrina was God's punishment of New Orleans for tolerating gays and abortions.  But "liberty under law," "for all," is the best idea any nation in the world has proposed for living together.

See my blogpost of related interest:  Teach US History with the Pledge of Allegiance.

Monday, July 03, 2017

Baby Driver: 0 to Wonder under 60 seconds

Under sixty seconds, we know just about everything we need to love Baby Driver

The first seconds of Baby Driver could be the climax of a traditional "caper" movie: Jittery characters in black grip their weapons, tumble out of a red sports car, and scurry across the street through the glass doors of a bank.

But the camera stays behind with the young driver, mute and expressionless between ear buds and dark glasses.  Alone now, he jacks up the music, lip-syncs, dances behind the wheel.  He's having a blast, and so are we, except when he glances through windows at terror in the bank. 

In moments the gang returns, the driver "Baby" hits the road, and we're off with a new song, all of Atlanta's police in hot pursuit. It's a dance for vehicles, even the gun shots synchronizing with the music.  

So we already know "Baby" (Ansel Elgort) sets himself apart from the bad guys; he's an artist behind the wheel, and we're on his side.  We also guess that the movie's style has as much to do with Singing in the Rain as with Ocean's Eleven; and our guess is confirmed after the heist, when "Baby" dances to a different song balancing a tray of coffees around lampposts, pedestrians, cars and workmen.  Even a street musician's saxophone plays in the same key as the song.

Director Edgar Wright and his young star have generated so much goodwill before the titles have finished rolling that we're hooked.  The goodwill extends to two people Baby cares for.  First, there's foster father "Joe" (CJ Jones), wheelchair-bound, who expresses concern for Baby via American Sign Language while Baby waltzes a sandwich to him.  Then there's the singing waitress "Deborah" (Lily James) who just wants to drive west on I-20 without a plan.  I'd have been satisfied if he'd picked her up and driven away right then.

Of course, complications ensue and ensnare: Baby is going to have to fight for his freedom.  The tone darkens considerably when we meet "Bats" (Jamie Foxx),  whose malevolence comes with sympathy - not ours for him, but his for himself, roiling with deep-seated grievances.  While the movie veers sharply towards The Terminator, the music keeps going, and the director plays with the chase theme as a composer varies a tune, e.g., changing instruments, or playing the tune backwards, etc. (I don't want to spoil surprises.)

[Photo:  Director Edgar Wright, left; Wright and Elgort]

Searching the internet for some back up information, I ran across one blogger's analysis of Edgar Wright's first draft of the movie.  Movie scripts are usually one minute per page, but the printed script for Baby Driver was much longer, not because of dialogue, but because of meticulous descriptions to fit action to the soundtrack of Baby's iPod selections.  Check it out: