The Stare’s Nest at My Window revisited

For Heidi

It’s been a rough series of days in the Twin Cities. Other than no great new loss of life (only fear of it) there’s not been much accomplished in my home or in my city.

I have a few new pieces in various stages of completion, and ordinarily I’d be working on additional ones for this project. This spring the pandemic quarantine measures have been bothersome, but so far Dave and my family have been coping and doing the best they can. Given the number of people sickened and killed by Covid-19, bothered and coping might as well count as “the best we can do.”

Then comes a public act of callous manslaughter. Worse for not being unprecedented. Worse for being tied to the sickness of racial oppression. We have a vaccine and a natural immunity for that: It’s empathy and love. Yet, many refuse to be vaccinated, or don’t have the vaccine available to them.

The phrase “the best we can do” has fallen into disrepute. Perhaps you’ve come upon this piece after reading or hearing someone else remarking on why this phrase is dispensed with, or should be dispensable.

For the last two nights the quarantine from the virus has been trumped by the fires and murmuring crowds. Crowds with the wisdom of crowds, which is to say, not much. Crowds work like a jangling overstimulated nervous system, tingling with pleasure and pain receptors, with a prejudice for why not.

My family, my friends, my artistic compatriots, my neighborhood are at the epicenter of this. Long time readers may know that alternate voice here Dave Moore was associated with a 20th century literary magazine that called itself “The Lake Street Review.”  Minneapolis’ Lake Street is (insert here the English verb that needs to be invented that stands for the balance of hope/fear/despair in our present moment poised in is/was/will be) a multi-ethnic, multiclass (if mostly working class) strip of enterprises where you can get diapers, groceries, your prescription filled, that part to keep your old car running, foods from fast to global, places where bands used to play before Covid-19, bookstores, libraries, arts labs, paper and toner for your printer, intoxicating beverages, hardware stores, your laundromat-load destination, where you go when your car needs gas and air for the leaky tire. It’s were the Latin Americans and African and Asian immigrants have their shops. Lake Street is an early 20th century construction. Apartments still over the retail ground-floors in older buildings, houses and apartments right next door behind the stores, closer than modern codes allow. Great portions of this are now gutted, looted; still smoldering from last night or cold ashes from the night before that.

I’m sure what we live  is a hugely interesting phenomenon for commentators, political philosophers, or folks just looking for a “news hook” to write or say something. Some will be civic sports-bar-tone arguments for who needs to be shot on sight for the sight of their targets, others will be earnest explainers about how rioting is the only effective language of the dispossessed, and that the wreckage of the places that a large percentage of those from the middle on down to the homeless frequent and depend on isn’t the disaster for them that it looks like to those less-evolved in their political consciousness.

As I’ve said already, I myself fear I’d dishonor this with my broken prose and dim eyes. And what old men think about this is less important than what those younger who may read this think, resolve, and do.

The Stare Nest at my Window text

Yeats poem written while sequestered in Ireland with his wife during a civil war. “Stare” is a old name for the starling, considered a nuisance bird.

 

Beneath the beach, more paving stones.

Friends of my family since both our children were born spent the hours around midnight wondering if the unchecked flames from a torched gas station would spread to the homes next door. My neighborhood post office (the same one where Lake Street Review  submissions used to come in) went up in big black smoke as it was deliberately broken into and set aflame. I’m not sure if anyone looted stamps.

My wife asked around midnight if we should flee.

“Where would we go?” I asked.

“Away from the flames.” She said.

All this is happening in a mix of memorializing assemblies at the site of the callous killing, protest marches with pointed aims, and then the looting and vandalism. I’ll offer one piece of observation that you may have not seen in the reports and thumb-sucking think-pieces: the memorializing, the protestors, and the vandals are an integrated lot. Skin tone and hair, those markers for ethnicities we use in our great cultural mythology of race, is My Rainbow Race in these events from the pious, to the protest, to the break and burn brigades. Watching cell-cam videos and media long-shots has impressed on me that the palette of the sufferers and perpetuators of these actions are not one shade. Racists are going to need to ignore these visuals as they form their illness’ distortions. The guy smashing the library window, setting fire to the auto parts store, or acting like a drunk frat boy he would never righteously be as he shoves the burning dumpster nearer to the building might well be white in these nights.*  And the “Nothing-ever-changes” cadre of gloomy-Gus activists** are likely too tired and weary to notice that the white, Asian, and Latin American participation has increased markedly in this time’s repetition of events sad, demanding, and chaotic.

I used gendered pronouns in moving to the vandal side of things, as that part does tend to become a sausage-fest. My wife is going off to join others this afternoon to sweep up broken glass. Not to get into gender stereotypes here, but how much do you want to bet that the gender mixture there will be distinctive too?

Tonight, I do not know what will happen. The memorializers will continue to do so, for George Floyd is still dead. The protestors will continue to protest, for it’s still wrong. And the vandals, not even interested in the materialist desire of the looter *** for a case of beer, a flat-screen TV, a book of Yeats collected poems or LeRoi Jones’ liner notes will continue to maintain that the best refutation of a failed “the best we can do” is: “the worst we can do.” The tao is too strange for me to know. Blessed be if they are right.

This is all the squishy thinking and writing I’ll be capable for a while. Tonight, I will probably not sleep, or fall asleep in imponderables. Will my wife be able to sleep the night before our anniversary? Will someone’s laddish fire, set with self-congratulating righteousness, find its equivalent of four Birmingham Sunday-school girls? When will America’s Valkyrie gunfire (I say with dread: remarkably rare so far) begin to sing? Will progressive change crest and recede? How happy is Donald Trump, our king of misrule, as his empire expands while progressives proclaim nothing ever changes as proof of their progressive acuity. Tell me, I want to believe, I need comfort: are you sure too it can’t get worse?

I now return you to our usual cultural activities. The most popular piece I’ve posted this year is by a cultural nationalist poet from another nation: Ireland’s William Butler Yeats. When I posted it at the end of January I wondered if I’d done well by it, but I now think I did, and listeners seem to agree. I’m also now sure my reading of this text is shared-heart-true. If you have time, and are interested in the exact background as Yeats wrote this, read the original post linked here.

This is a week where I have been in my own little run-down tower, seeing out my  window as Yeats showed me. Brothers and sisters, read the last stanza of Yeats poem in tears—even though they don’t put out fires directly.

Rather than a link to the text you’ll see it above in its entirety because I urge you to do that. If you’d like to hear my performance and music for this, the player gadget is below.

 

 

 

*Having tasted but not absorbed the fibrous materials of current cultural appropriation tropes, do any white anarchist allies as they smash the state at the library window, or get all dewy being a revolutionary fire-starter in a multi-ethnic neighborhood wonder if they are being authentically respectful of non-white culture from their skin privilege?

**I have long wondered at the futility of the salesman (as an agitator is, to a large degree) who paints their product as ineffective in use and their allies and audience as always deficient. I’m an old man. I understand being sick and tired. I’ll buy the “I can’t believe we’re still fighting these same old battles” T-shirt. But don’t tell me it itches, it’s guaranteed to fall apart, and isn’t available in my size.

***A few years back someone, who I cannot remember in order to credit, said that rioting with looting combines the two least attractive tendencies in American culture: shopping and violence.

Poetry

Today’s audio piece marks the 200th published by the Parlando Project! Since presenting our first piece, Carl Sandburg’s “Stars Songs Faces”  back in 2016, we’ve combined words (mostly poetry) with original music as varied as we can make it. Those who’ve followed along know that the words we use are generally written by others, because that lets me encounter them, as I hope you do too, freshly, to discover anew what charms they have.

Not only does the music vary, but how we present the words varies too. Sometimes we sing the words, sometimes we just speak them, sometimes we chant or intone them.

Marianne Moore with pony

“Like a horse that feels a flea” Marianne Moore around the time she wrote “Poetry”

 

Through this past couple of years, Dave Moore has been the alternate reader here, and I expect that you enjoy the break from my voice once in awhile (as I do). For today’s 200th piece, and for April’s National Poetry Month, I’m pleased to present Marianne Moore’s “Poetry”  read, not by me, but by the “Lake Street Writer’s Group,” a small group of usually poets who’ve met since the 1970s, which took it’s name from the inner-city commercial street near where they lived. The first voice you’ll hear is poet, musician, and comics artist Dave Moore again, the second is poet and writer Ethna McKiernan and the third is poet Kevin FitzPatrick, who has the honor of having the latest book published by a member of the group, Still Living in Town”.

Minneapols Moline Tractor

MM of another color. Minneapolis-Moline once built tractors in a Lake Street factory. Marianne Moore was once asked by a car company to suggest the name for a new model. One of her suggestions: Utopian Turtletop

 

It was my idea to ask them to read Marianne Moore’s poem, since Moore herself breaks her poem up into various voices, not only from abrupt changes in diction but with the use of quotes. My thought was the changing voices would emphasize the poem’s stance of speaking for poetry’s audience.

I broke this on the group of poets cold, and they are reading the poem off a page I gave them, which divided “Poetry”  up in small beats and phrases of the poem. Remarkably—well, maybe not all that remarkably, Dave, Ethna, and Kevin are all excellent readers of their own poetry—what you hear is one take, just as they read it, just as they handed it off verbally from one to the other around a room. They had no musical backing to hold their cadence, only Marianne Moore’s words. I wrote, played, and recorded the music later: drums, bass, guitar, and piano.

What I hear coming out of this is the same thing I aim for often here. Just as you are encountering the poem’s words freshly, as they hit your ears, the performers are doing the same. Sure, we may have heard or read the poem before, but it’s another’s voice, happening now, that is conveying it to you. We use music with the words here, and with the other Parlando Project pieces, for several reasons: it reminds us that poetry is musical speech, that poetry works in its sounds, its rhetorical flow, and the harmony of imagery like music; and because it offers the option to relax the cause of the words meaning.

There’s not one missed word in the trio’s cold reading, which is more unusual than an accident.  When I’m improvising melodic lines freely, I accept that I’ll need to deal with “wrong” notes, musically creating (to vary from Moore’s famous line) “imaginary gardens with real clams in them.”  To hear the group read “Poetry,”  use the player gadget below.

 

The Lake Street Testament

The most popular TV show of my youth was a strange yet derivative series called “The Beverly Hillbillies.”  The basic device of this comedy was as old as Shakespeare’s rude mechanicals, and as common as 19th and 20th Century perennials like hillbilly plays, Ma and Pa Kettle films and even minstrel shows.

Beverly Hillbillies Confederates

Both of these statements are true:
A. The Beverly Hillbillies support your 2nd Amendment rights
B. They are portrayed as fools who constantly misunderstand the modern urban world

 

They all work the same way, and the joke never seems to grow old: rural folks are stupid, prone to exaggerating for comic effect all errors in human logic. They are above all inexperienced, leading to all kinds of misunderstandings; and they are peculiar in their language: misuse of words or odd pronunciations are rife. Abstractly, this is the ore of comedy gold, but culturally these traits are being applied to an “other,” a group that can safely be made fools of to demonstrate the audience’s superior understanding.

One trap of that kind of comedy: the dumber the writer thinks the audience is, the dumber the writer believes he must make the characters, until they lack all worth, delight and surprise. While one could worry about such authors violating political correctness, the worse danger to the authors’ career is for the audience to figure out that they are being played for rubes through a play about fools.

I was young when “The Beverly Hillbillies”  was going strong, and living in a very small town in a rural state, but I found this show funny. I never occurred to me that my own inexperience might be blinding me to the idea that I could be part of this bumpkin class, at least in some people’s eyes. My little town was progressive, proud of its school, and besides I didn’t think like those silly folks, I knew full well that richer folks’ houses could have a swimming pool in the back yard and that they were called just that, not See-Meant Ponds.

But my youth and my small town were  a course of inexperience. I was forever mispronouncing words and authors’ names because I had never heard them spoken—I had only seen them written on the page. I was, and yet wasn’t, those stock comic characters.
 
Is there any value in small towns? I believe there is. I’ll give you one example before I move on: in small towns there is no surplus of conscripts, everyone needs to do their part. Slacking doesn’t mean someone else does it, it means it doesn’t get done, and there’s no escaping that knowledge. I’m afraid that in my old age and life in a big city, I’ve become just such a slacker.

And there’s one other value to such a youth: going from a smaller, less varied place to a larger and more diverse one gives an eye a very sharp lens to look at things. I’m not sure movement the other way works as well. If one looks in the big end of the telescope, everything you point the small end at looks tiny and indistinct. It’s no accident that a very large group of writers follows that biographic path from town to city.
 
All this leads to today’s piece, “The Lake Street Testament,”  which is an urban story through and through.
 
The path of a long build up like this to a short ending is another comic staple: the Shaggy Dog Story. Earlier here you’ve seen me write about the essentially comic dimensions of the human condition, particularly when talking about Leonard Cohen, Mose Allison, and Phil Dacey. This piece takes that thought into this religious season and puts it on Lake Street, which is a main commercial east/west street through the center of Minneapolis, as urban a road as exists anywhere.

Lake Street

Lake Street in Minneapolis Minnesota. No palm trees, no movie stars.

 

The audio player below will let you hear the story of “The Lake Street Testament.”