I Have Fallen in Love with American Names

Anyone remember those sentry questions that would be used in to determine if some straggler in the soldier’s darkness was an American or foreign foe? “Who plays first base for the New York Yankees?” they’d ask.

Native Iowans have a similar method to catch those from out of state. They might start right off with asking about the state capital. “Dezz Moynens.” Wrong! Not an Iowan. “Day Moyne.” Native. Poweshiek, that fine county with a Brooklyn no one knows. “Poe’s He Eck.” Nope. “Powa Sheek.” How about that nice small town founded by lost Swedes in Boone County, Madrid. “Ma Drid?” Outsider, it’s “Mad Rid!”

While overseas in France in the early 1920’s Stephen Vincent Benet wrote his own catalog of place names that I have adapted for today’s piece “I Have Fallen in Love with American Names.”  In it, Benet contrasts American place names with European ones, perhaps to staunch a little homesickness on his part, but also as part of his claim to something he and Carl Sandburg helped to define in the first half of the 20th Century, something that’s now used to label a musical genre: “Americana.”
 
To briefly define Americana, it’s the featuring of things that are distinctive to our country, most often things that are in the past tense, things that we are asked to pay attention to as our heritage. If these things seem a little odd, old-fashioned or provincial to us, that’s the tang the artist wants us to taste.

I came upon Benet’s poem after reading a Phillip Roth memoir in the New Yorker last month, where Roth takes off from Benet’s poem to discuss how a literary sense of a greater America he did not yet know expanded his horizons westward from his childhood neighborhood in Newark New Jersey. Roth remembered how, in the 1940s, even though one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world was a river and a marsh away from his town, New York City was a world away, perhaps as far away as America seemed to Benet in Paris.
 
Roth doesn’t mention it, but as I read Roth’s piece, I thought of Benet’s story “By the Rivers of Babylon,”  were a future neo-indigenous youth ventures across that same river into the ruins of New York on a vision quest.

The original title

This was “By the Waters of Babylon’s” original title

In the nearly 100 years since it was written, Benet’s “I Have Fallen in Love with American Names”  has not fallen to ruins, but it has gained some tarnish or patina. I’ve cut a stanza because the notables referenced are now obscure, and I modified another line in it, not out gentility, but because it frankly stuck in my craw. By chance, one of the obscure and colorfully named towns in Benet’s catalog, French Lick, now is slightly better known as the hometown of basketball great Larry Bird—but that’s the not the greatest resonance the poem has picked up over the years.

As the poem builds to its ending, Benet uses something like the thought used by Rupert Brooke in his famous war poem “The Soldier”,  the idea where even if Brooke was to die and his body was buried overseas, that his Englishness would remain. Benet sets up a series of places he might be interred in England or Europe, and ends with a line that later became the title of a landmark book about the cruel and unjust treatment of indigenous Americans. Did Benet choose to end his poem with the evocative place name of Wounded Knee because of the massacre that occurred there a bit more than 30 years before he wrote his poem, or because of legends that Crazy Horse was secretly buried there, or was it only something that caught his eye on the page of an atlas? I don’t know enough about Benet to say. His litany of American places does include “a Salem tree” which sounds to me like a reference to the Massachusetts witch trials and executions. If we are to remind ourselves of the greatness in our heritage, we are likewise obligated to remind ourselves of the sins there too.

I Married A Witch Poster

Fall in love with a Salem tree? I have a tenuous connection to the story made into this film.

In my performance, I made the choice that, author’s intention or not, modern audiences will hear it as intentional, so I should perform it that way.  The American name of my home state, Iowa, comes somehow from it’s indigenous people, but over 400 years passing, we no longer know what it’s meaning is. How strange to say that I come from a place of no meaning, knowing the pass-word to tell the magic ghosts of native sentries, but knowing not what I’m saying.

To hear “I Have Fallen in Love with American Names” use the player below.

The Blood of Strangers

As we go forward, following Leonard Cohen’s suggestion “Let Us Compare Mythologies,” I’m going to take you to another very dark place. If Siegfried Sassoon was hesitant to publish the last piece Christ and the Soldier, I too am somewhat hesitant to publish this piece, The Blood of Strangers. For The Blood of Strangers to work it must achieve its aim to be provocative. Let’s take that word seriously: it means to provoke you, it means to make you uncomfortable.

That’s one of the things art can choose to do, but it does not give me any lasting pleasure to do so. As an attempted artist I do not believe I must have any greater insight to things than you do, but the nature of art is to try convey things vividly, and in this case I’m going to convey two viewpoints on revolutionary violence.

A year ago, only hours after the terrorist attack on the rock concert at the Bataclan in Paris France, I was scheduled to record as part of the work of making this Parlando project combining spoken word and music. As a musician, I felt compelled to address this event simply and parochially because the attack intentionally targeted music. I chose to use two texts to examine that event: excerpts from a first-person account by Isobel Bowdery, a member of the audience attacked that night, and a section of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass.

Bowdery’s account is to my mind extraordinary, even more so for having been composed so shortly after the attack. Whitman, in contrast, had much more time with his text, as he famously worked and reworked Leaves of Grass over his lifetime. The Whitman piece I used “France”  first appeared in Whitman’s 1860 third edition of Leaves of Grass and was retained in the final edition of 1891. Moreover, Whitman is particularly writing about the French Revolution, events already over 60 years old.

I believe I need say no more about Bowdery’s eloquent words. They are close enough to our time as to speak for themselves. Whitman’s are more problematic.

Modern American poetry has a father and a mother. Its mother is Emily Dickenson; its father is Walt Whitman. As a child, I can’t help but sometimes take after both parents. The Parlando project has already presented work of Dickenson, but this is the first piece we’ve published using Whitman—and this may be an unfortunate introduction, for Whitman’s France is a somewhat mythologized but unwavering appreciation of violence and revenge in the furtherance of a cause. Near the start I told you that I would not tell you what to think of this, but in the just-hours-past the Bataclan attack I was appalled at Whitman.
 
I suggest at this point, assuming you are prepared to visit a dark place, that you listen to The Blood of Strangers now and have your own experience of it. Musically this is another piece that takes after The Velvet Underground, a band I’ve talked about before this. My intent in speaking the two texts at the same time was not only a homage to a tactic the Velvets used, it was aimed at breaking up the flow of either text so that you will not experience them in isolation from each other, or as a logical “Point Counterpoint” debate, but rather a simultaneous experience in two different frames. The last half of the piece is an “instrumental” where The LYL Band gets to synthesize their feelings in the aftermath of that attack speaking only with music.

 

 

OK, if you’re still reading, what can I say in defense of Whitman?

Whitman Leaves of Grass Table

Whitman wanted Leaves of Grass to be all-inclusive. That was one of his core ideas. And this piece, France, was only one small part of this great, lifelong work. In his own copy of the 1860 edition that introduced this piece, he wrote down a table of the word counts of that edition of Leaves of Grass compared to other epic poetic works, proudly noting that he had already exceeded the word counts of the Bible, the Aeneid, Dante’s Inferno, and Paradise Lost. His radical inclusiveness wanted to take in all manner of despised and un-praised things in his great work. Although writing 60 years after the end of the French Revolution, he is writing on the eve of America’s great blood bath, the Civil War. So, as he continued to work on Leaves of Grass, where he kept and expanded the piece called France, he was intimately acquainted with the results of gunfire and bombs. I often thought of that Whitman, the wound-dresser, when I myself was applying bandages or tending to the ill and injured. Whitman famously declared:

Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.