In the days of constant violence and plagues, when the crops are dead with drought and fire and even the shade trees are gone, the citizens gather. The cry is help, and the answer calls to mind a riddle and a mirror, and who is the most mysterious of all?
––And the mirror answered back with a reflection, the face of the king and all behind him. But what does it take to read a body’s history?
Ask the oracle, she’ll tell you again: not until there is justice, will you know peace in your homes and shade for your children. The old questions return: whose death continues to echo within the city walls; whose blood stains the soil of these charred acres? What severances between life and the living continue to bleed.
Bring in the blind prophet to remind the assembly of the weight of this knowledge and what it means to have it, where no gain can come except through the death of a timeworn dream.
Nevertheless, they resisted.
I am inspired by the work of Brian Doerries and Theatre of War in placing Greek tragedies at the center of community discussions around central challenges of the moment. I jotted these notes while reviewing his translation of the Oedipus Trilogy and related notes.
Your preference for the long view was balanced by an exquisite attention to the ragged, beating heart of the impossible moment. You called history a long, bloody becoming toward what might finally be, this beautiful, terrible, needful thing, still stirring.
You were moved by the idea that against failure after failure, something wars, something goes forward, something lights a match, and remembered the winged man of the laughing, longing night.
You kept your eye on the sharp sails that flayed the albatross and on a promise that it was yet possible to walk back home over Galilee’s waters to be washed of the effluvium of living death.
Your own aches bent elsewhere, you trained your eye toward life upon these shores, to study the deep immortal human wish amid a timeless yearning for the good old days that had never been good.
You studied the choreography of spirit hanging on, dancing its own shelter with an intensity bright enough to shine through the sordid and cruel deniers of hearts, of lives, of life itself.
You argued that a poem is an action unto itself, a catalyst of compassion, a weight to bend the moral arc ever slightly toward a softer hand, toward community, toward home.
You knew despair could seed a song to raise the roof and the hard loving of laughter in bed with misery and as a constant reminder you drew heart-shapes in the constant dust, as if to mark this side of heaven.
Even as you mourned the moaning empress of the blues, four bullets in her heart, you lifted us up with ostrich feathers to feel her still shining forward, to look with you, through the transience of loss, to the way they would rise early next Sunday, even against the next fistful of snow.
On this day in 1913, American poet Robert Hayden (d. 1980) was born. The title of this post is adapted from an article Frank Rashid published in the Winter 2001 issue of Callaloo, “Robert Hayden’s Detroit Blues Elegies.” This post is composed using ideas and phrases from Hayden’s work and interviews, as well as a line (italicized above) from Stephen Vincent Benet’s John Brown’s Body, a work that moved and influenced Hayden, particularly his historical vision. Where possible, I have linked lines above to the works from which they are adapted.
Tomorrow’s hero is bloodless and perfect and all are lit from below––even the cow’s udder. It does not smell, and the maidens are all behind glass, sitting in the robot’s lap. In tomorrow, there is one voice and no talking back; the rugs do not slip and it’s rife with clean sailors. Instead of sounding music, tomorrow has the memory of sound.
It’s a little expensive, this tomorrow, and it remains unclear who––beyond these few––will be in attendance.
On this day in 1939, the New York World’s fair opened in Queens, New York. As war raged in Europe, this massive event was built around the theme of “The World of Tomorrow.” It professed to be a celebration of scientific discovery, but serious scientists complained that the emphasis on gadgetry far outweighed any possibility of serious scientific discussion. Einstein, for example, was asked to give a presentation on cosmic rays, but was only allowed five minutes to do so, a limit he said would make any serious explanation impossible. I failed to find a text of this speech this morning, so instead I selected E.B. White’s essay on his visit to the event, which appeared in The New Yorker and is collected in Essays of E.B. White. Today’s post is assembled from borrowed phrases from White’s text.
If memory is the first fiction, then so is the history of a group. As a group evolves, so will its collective chronicle of becoming, but the process is as fraught as any reconstruction. If history is a cathedral and facts are the stones, then it’s worth considering that all somebody can do before a complete building with a single stone is throw it or sit on it. If all that happens in any reframing effort is the collection of a pile of new stones, you may end up with a whole lot of broken glass and all of us outside. But if people are challenged to build with them, to create new architecture, new gathering places, new halls of worship and dreaming, transcendence and offering, then what? Unless someone is feeding the dreamers from the same table as the builders, planners, architects, masons, and those tasked with moving each stone, a cohesive vision won’t emerge. Imagination is no luxury, but a life skill, and as critical in times of flux as any other preparation: for famine, attack, natural disaster, invasion. No group who makes outcasts of its dreamers can endure.
I first explored Tamin Ansary’s insight, “History is composed of facts the way that a cathedral is composed of bricks . . . But the bricks are not the cathedral,” in an earlier post, “Cathedral.”
Here’s the tearing sky again; hold it close. See if you can stand a minute inside the detonating histories of the next flyover. I read this morning that the spider relies on the wind to spin fibers of a web between trees and still they go one loop at a time and my faith, by comparison, is weak. If light can be particle and wave, then knowing must be mind and universe at least, and maybe also body, in its necessary histories, these visions of the past, dreamed and remembered fresh with each new vision of the days ahead. Now what.
A Moonwalk revelation, ending in an embrace, the wide white smile of The Godfather of Soul shining back.
There is a night, long after my bedtime in 1983, when the three kings take the stage. Soul is leading. For a moment, he is front and center, green jumpsuit and perfect hair, wanting company. The numbers dead from the Ethiopian drought have reached four million, and protestors are gathering at Greenham Common Air Force Base as Reagan’s army deploys missiles. It’s almost time to invade Grenada. It’s civil war in Zimbabwe, earthquake in New York, the birth of Mario Bros and Microsoft Word, some say the birth of the internet, and a new land speed record in the Black Rock Desert. I don’t understand what is happening.
The King of Soul calls on the rising King of Pop, younger and still darker than we knew him later, who leans in to be embraced by Mr. Dynamite, kissing his ear, his first words into the mic, I love you; I love you, then spin, shimmy, what is this? A Moonwalk revelation, ending in an embrace, the wide white smile of The Godfather of Soul shining back. It’s the Embassy Bombing in Beirut, the highest U.S. unemployment rate since 1941, the assassination of Aquino in the Philippines. Here comes Run DMC, Depeche Mode, Iron Maiden; the age of the international superstar. Let’s dance, karma chameleon, I want to party like it’s 1999. It’s time to fasten your seatbelts, ladies and gentlemen; buckle up, it’s the law.
Next comes the King of Funk; Prince, where are you? Pointer finger extends a royal summons to the back of the room, stage left. The Artist arrives straddling the waist of the white-bearded muscle man who bears him on his back, whose image calls to mind Hell’s Angels; up goes His Royal Badness in a futuristic jumpsuit, gold lame details, heels. This king on the guitar, a prolonged erotic moment. Oh no, it’s not a jumpsuit, now the top half is coming off, now it’s the shirtless High Priest of Pop making love to the Mic stand, to the audience, thrusting himself into the space between the music and their rising cheers, then falling like a spent lover into the crowd. They are filling the prisons, building new warehouses for storage of the fathers and brothers and sons. There are bullet holes in the ceilings. The new warehouses are stacked five stories high; they can’t build them fast enough. The vans arrive in a constant stream; the machine needs bodies. The bodies are the fathers and the brothers, the uncles and the sons. Where are they now? They are Away.
This is the year I enter school – line up! Bells, the bells, the stone buildings, the weight of this ominous word, terrorist, its point to point to some being not quite human, grounds for extermination, but now, we were told was the age when the wars were done; now, the adults said, was a time of hard-earned peace. Of progress, the dawn of a new age! News of another car bomb punctuated news of mass extinctions, and even with the bombs erupting everywhere, even with the mass extinctions, and the adults looked ill with symptoms of battle fatigue that no one was allowed to discuss.
It is the year of the West Bank fainting epidemic, and epidemics of fainting elsewhere, especially at concerts; it was the heyday of new religion, and our stadiums became our new meccas; and Sally Ride is the first woman in Space, Ride, Sally, Ride! and Guion Bluford is the first black man in space, Say it Loud! Vanessa Williams the first black Miss America, and the King holiday is signed into law. The Zapatistas are rising; Thriller is released.
I am too young to be at the concert; too young to even know the names of the kings who take the stage. I find the footage later, among the artifacts of the hyperspace that was being assembled around us. I pour through the artifacts, looking for clues in the aftermath; it’s the same question in any aftermath, isn’t it? What happened? And what was there before? And, was there any sign, before it hit, what was happening?
I can’t help it, the way I keep returning to the moment when the second of the kings takes the stage, the way he says I love you like he’s someone just arriving, and I love you like he’s someone already getting ready to leave. I can’t help but think that if I had seen him then, I would have been moved with recognition. Even then, before I knew anything about anything except the speed of the way it feels to spin with your arms out wild, knowing you’re about to fall flat when the spinning gets too much; that’s what we did then, holding hands until we released them, falling flat and breathless on our backs, laughing in terror at the still-spinning sky.