The Vanishing Red

Do you think you know Robert Frost? You know: steadfast New England farmers, Currier and Ives snowfalls, happy roads less traveled by. We might think of Frost as the friendly Modernist, with good ol’rhymes and rhythms and narratives of American scenes of Americans bearing up to the burdens of life.

Robert-Frost on a wall

Robert Frost. Wry poet of the good old days—or maybe not?

 

Today’s piece is instead the hard-boiled Robert Frost. It’s blank verse, but the beat is implied, the sentence structures beat against it, and my performance choice was to not emphasize the meter. What “The Vanishing Red”  portrays is, straight up, a racially-motivated murder, and the way Frost tells the tale uses sly ways to frame this story.

He doesn’t get out of the first line before he starts this framing. One of our characters is called the “Red Man” by history. A term roughly equivalent to the N-word for indigenous Americans, but one that in Frost’s time was not considered socially unacceptable.*  Frost wasn’t going to shock or disgust his readers in 1916 with that epithet at the start of his poem, like he might some today, but he wants us to know from the start that the race and history of this man is material to what is going to happen—but we don’t meet him yet.

Instead we meet another man, the Miller, who’s talking in a way we might find familiar. He starts out by telling us he’s not guilty of something before he’s even been charged with it, claims too that he’s not one of that PC brigade who “talks round the barn” instead of straight talk, that he’s a get-it-done doer.

Frost adds just a tiny bit of narration after the Miller’s speech. Some may read this narration as excusing the man, but the narrator’s pointing us to think about two things as the story will continue. The narrator says, let’s not consider this as history (“too long a story”) or politics (“who began it”). As we’ll soon see, we’re going to consider this as an Imagist poet would consider it, as a presentation of what Ezra Pound called “an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time.” History can be dulled by time. Politics says there are two sides.

Old Grist Mill

Nostalgic postcard or dark satanic mills?  Frost reports, you decide.

 

But first we have one more exchange of dialog. Our unnamed “Red Man” is at the Miller’s mill, and we hear nothing he says directly, but we do hear what the Miller puzzles about what the other man is communicating. The Miller portrays the other man as without English words, but he interprets some “guttural exclamation” anyway as surprise, and this is somewhat sketchy. Is the native American puzzled by the mill’s mechanism? Surprised at being seen by the Miller?

Is the Miller even reading the other man well? I think not. Afterall, the Miller has another reaction, stronger than his sense of what the other man may be feeling, and Frost’s narrator also doesn’t “talk around the barn:” it’s disgust. But that’s not what our Miller portrays in his next piece of dialog. He acts friendly, offers to show “John” his mill.**  Ah, the “Red Man” has a name, he’s not some reductionist cypher for an entire continent’s indigenous peoples, and since it’s an English name, we might surmise that he might even be one of the Massachusetts tribes that attempted to synthesize with the new rulers, taking to Christianity and living in “praying towns.”

And now the Imagist poem begins, ten lines. The Miller opens a trap door and shows John the water-power wheel, and a poem that has been entirely without imagery suddenly gets a vivid image. The wheel’s water forebodingly is like struggling, thrashing fish. The door closes, and the door’s handle (a metal ring) we are told makes enough noise with this shutting to be heard above the noise of the mill. And the Miller returns upstairs, alone. The wheel’s turned around to the beginning of the story where the Miller laughs, though it’s not quite a laugh. He meets a customer carrying more meal to be ground at the mill, who doesn’t understand what has just happened. We ourselves are just understanding what has happened.

What has happened? The racist Miller has thrown John, the “Red Man” into the mechanism and killed him. Frost wants you to feel that by showing you this moment in time, but he also wants you to vividly feel the lack of notice, the vanishing in the title, which isn’t some passive mystery, it’s an act of human cruelty.

Today’s music is two pianos, bass and drums. I’ve been suffering from a cold for the past few days which made completing today’s spoken word component a challenge, and I did miss one phrase in Frost’s text and didn’t get another one completely correct, but you didn’t get to hear any of the coughs and voice cracks from the bad tracks either. To hear “The Vanishing Red”  use the player below.

 

*For example, the college I went to over 50 years ago called its sports teams the Redmen then. I had a tiny part in the beginning of the process to change that.

**Acton Massachusetts had a grist mill and more. I can’t find any pictures of them, but the town still has a Grist Mill Road.

Advertisements

For the American Hendrix

Today’s piece uses my own words to present some images regarding American musician and songwriter Jimi Hendrix. Just like William Carlos Williams meditation on a small plant last time, I pretty much follow the famous Imagist rules: direct treatment of the thing, no unnecessary words, and musical phrasing instead of mechanical metrical feet.

Each one of the images opens up what I hope is a rich question. It’s my hope that the resulting poem and audio piece assists you in remembering these questions that I see as posed in Hendrix’s life. Here is the poem I wrote and used with today’s music:

 

For the American Hendrix

 

And then he laid the guitar down, and set it afire

Which seems silly or sacred, depending on the art

He had only to keep himself alive, which would kill him.

 

He took every stop on the three 21 fret train tracks,

Slid between the rails, rode them underwater,

Understood the train-whistle called his ancestors

 

Living in the amplifiers, that he could not shake out,

That he could not know, that were here,

Before European words, that were here,

 

Brought in shackles, that were here,

Building in electricity, that were here

Now, for children who did not know they were children.

 

Voluntary orphans, immigrants discovering new worlds,

Walking on squatters’ land, not forgetting to bring their chains.

 

Jimi Hendrix

Jimi Hendrix plays for hippies in 1967. Do you envy them or feel superior to them?

In the first stanza, I remind us that Jimi Hendrix was a consummate showman, and that he used showmanship to wrest attention for his art, specifically when he appeared at his first significant concert as a bandleader at the famous Monterey Pop Festival and burned a guitar at the conclusion of a flamboyant act. I present this performance as being consistent to Hendrix’s commitment to his art, as a rock’n’roll musician, an itinerant life with associated dangers, which in his case lead to short life and career. Worth it? Necessary for success?


Hendrix ends his first American show as a bandleader with a sacrifice to his art.

The next stanza acclaims Hendrix for expanding the vocabulary of the electric guitar, using an image of the six-string guitar fretboard, which he transcended with notes beyond the temperament of the frets and though the use of feedback where the notes from the amplifier speaker reflect back to the guitar in the musician’s hands producing sustaining overtones that can be difficult to control but produce extraordinary effects. The question here: these sounds can be harsh, discordant, even painful, but do they too have a necessity?

Next stanza: this feedback is presented as Hendrix’s ancestry: part indigenous, native-American; part Afro-American, a descendent of slaves. This makes Hendrix the point where two arcs of American heritage cross: those that were brought to American against their will, like as to livestock; and those that that were already here and were supplanted by brutal or conniving invaders. The questions here should ask themselves, don’t you think?

The final lines move from Hendrix, to his audience while he was alive and performing: largely white, largely young, many taking a hippie bohemian voyage I liken to America’s famous immigrants, choosing to leave the world of their homes for some promised new world that cannot, and will not, be exactly as promised.

Whatever generation you reside in, you cannot get on a boat or plane to visit another generation’s time; but when you look at a picture or video of a crowd watching Hendrix play, consider those faces. They may be distracted by the day, transfixed or stunned, ignorant and seeking, intoxicated but intent, pleased and puzzled—they may not look like Hendrix, many will seem by their faces to not share his heritage, and none can know the depth of that heritage—and yet, they are dealing with the experience of his art. I ask you not to feel superior or inferior to them from the position of your age or the accident of your generation, but to instead to look to your own heart and ask if there you find some blindness or power, and then to ask, as the concluding words of “For the American Hendrix”  does: when coming to your new land, did you carry with you chains?

47 years ago today, Jimi Hendrix died, perhaps alone, perhaps ignored by his companion of itinerant convenience, trying to continue his art, ignorant of the strength of European sleeping pills.  To hear my performance of “For the American Hendrix,”  use the player below.

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 First Cuts are the Deepest

Earlier this month I posted the Parlando Project audio pieces that were the most listened to as of the start of this Spring. Turns out it’s a pretty good mix of what Dave and I are trying to do with this combination of music and words. However, in looking at the stats for the Parlando pieces, it looks as if a lot of readers and listeners are coming in partway into the project, starting around the beginning of this year. That’s fine. I think I’m getting a little better as I work intensively on the goal of 100 Parlando Project pieces by August of this year, but I think some of the early pieces are missing the listenership they otherwise might have gotten if I’d posted them later.

Since we’re still in National Poetry Month (#npm17), it stuck me that this might be a good time for some of our audience to catch up. So here are a few of the 2016 Parlando Project “deep cuts” from last year that you might want to check out:

Stars Songs Faces.  I wrote the music for this Carl Sandburg poem as my tribute to David Bowie in January of 2016, and it was the piece I choose to kick-off Parlando. Although I’m not the first to write music for these Sandburg words, I still like what I did, and the LYL Band performance realizes my intention well. This piece also reminds me that it’s been awhile since I posted a Carl Sandburg-based piece here. I’m working on one this week, but the orchestration is not going as well as I’d like it to yet.

The Prairie.  One of things I enjoy most about coming up with material for the Parlando Project is finding things in the public domain poetry cannon that I’d never read or even heard of. This is one of them. William Cullen Bryant was not on my radar until Dave Moore visited the Mississippi river valley mounds last year and began to write about them himself. This audio piece is on the longer side, which may account for the lower number of listens.

The Green Fairy.  Here’s a good piece written and performed by Dave Moore that hasn’t been listened to as much as some other pieces he’s written here. My notes in the accompanying post were written in mystery about the actual intent of Dave’s words. I’ve probably got some other poets’ intent wrong too, but remember that’s one of the points of the Parlando Project: you can appreciate poems when they are accompanied with music just as one appreciates song lyrics (or even music without words at all), as bits and pieces of language that sound good, or as lines or phrases that attach themselves to you with little pieces of meaning without any requirement that you understand the whole thing.

This is the Darkness.  I ascribe the lower listenership on this one to the dark tone. And indeed it might be an odd piece to listen too in the late Spring as days get longer and eventually warmer here in the upper Midwest. None-the-less, living around the 45th Parallel Minnesotans and Canadians should understand this.

Christ and the Soldier.  When I was my son’s age, I was following a day-to-day summary in the newspaper, a series called “100 Years Ago in the Civil War”  which covered the events just out of memory of the living in the American Civil War.  And now, since 2014, I’ve been informally following the centenary of World War I, which has similarly passed out of the memory of the living.  Siegfried Sassoon’s poem is a biting comment on WWI from a veteran of that war’s trenches. You know that old saying “There are no atheists in a foxhole?” Sassoon has a more complex view.

Print the Myth

A few posts back I mentioned that the Parlando project keyboardist and alternative reader, Dave Moore had visited Native American mound sites along the Mississippi river this year. He’s working on a series of pieces about the largest of the mounds, Cahokia in Illinois. Here’s one of them.

In that August post about William Cullen Bryant’s “The Prairie” I said that when Bryant wrote a poem about Cahokia he borrowed from “from some 19th century mythologies.” For focus and brevity, I left those myths out then, but I wanted to come back to this, because it’s important. In the 19th Century as US exploration and settlement moved westward from the eastern seaboard and these elaborate earthworks were viewed by folks like Bryant, there was a lot of unexplained mystery about them. And explaining mystery is the work of myth. Sometimes poetry joins in that work.

When poetry joins in that, explains mysteries, it faces great dangers. One danger is simple: their explanations can just be wrong. After all that’s another way we use the word “myth,“ to mean something that has been shown to be untrue. Bryant and a host of 19th century explainers of the North American mounds and their builders almost certainly fall into that trap.

You see, when these worthies saw the mounds they thought that they had to have been constructed by some people who were not Native Americans, or at least not the Native Americans who were soon to suffer occupation and displacement from those Eastern settlers. That’s another problem with explained mysteries. Sometimes the explanations are a little too convenient. You don’t have to think much to see the subtext here:

“Why, we don’t have to worry about displacing or even killing the folks who are already here, they did the same to those disappeared builders of these great earthworks.”

Myth gets complicated. We can see the ignorance, prejudices and racism that helped feed these 19th century settlers, but that doesn’t mean we can see our own current ones more clearly than they could see theirs. I often think of the title of the beautiful and wry Leonard Cohen’s first collection of poems “Now Let Us Compare Mythologies,” the title poem of which includes the line “I have learned my elaborate lie.”

One of the virtues of music is that it cannot explain mysteries, though it can sometimes help you experience them.

Now, back to Dave Moore’s piece “Print the Myth.” Dave wrote the words for “Print the Myth,” and he concisely goes into these issues. Dave is also the voice on this one. It was only my job to supply the electric guitar part. This is a live first take, spontaneously exploring how to present Dave’s words about the explanations for the mounds. As such, there are a number musical mistakes. My tastes allow for that. Dave himself thinks his performance wasn’t up to snuff, and I disagree thinking that the energy of the discovery overcomes the rough edges.

So if you want to hear a couple of poets and musicians constructing a way to tell the story of how the mounds were misinterpreted by Bryant and his contemporaries, click  the gadget below to hear “Print the Myth.”

The Prairie

Do you know the artists who influenced the artists who influenced you?

I live in a city now where many streets and public schools are named for 19th century New England literary worthies. My son’s grade school is Whittier for example. And a few blocks over is a street I ride on to get to one of my favorite breakfast places, Bryant Avenue.

I can’t say William Cullen Bryant ever registered much with me as a poet. He was never Longfellow famous. My city has not only a Longfellow school, but several other streets and institutions named after Hiawatha or characters in Longfellow’s once ubiquitous poem. My father, even in his later years, could recite large portions of Longfellow poems. But Bryant is left, like Whittier too, in a state where his name is barely remembered and his work is unknown.

Coincidence of nomenclature aside, I would not have discovered “The Prairie”, this William Cullen Bryant poem, if not for an accident. Dave Moore, the musician and poet who often supplies keyboard parts, words, and is an alternative reading voice here, took a trip this summer to visit the large pre-Columbian mounds along the Mississippi river. He came back with tales and some writing about these remarkable large earthworks, some of which we have worked into musical pieces. Since I have not seen these great mounds, I had to search for words to borrow if I wanted to contribute. Bang! It turns out that Bryant had just what I needed, and it was very good stuff.

To explain these mysterious mounds, Bryant had to take on suppositions borrowed from some 19th century mythologies. Those mythologies are a complex subject, worthy of long post in themselves. In cutting his piece for length, I’ve excised most of that, leaving what I find is still vivid: what would these mounds have seemed like standing in the middle of unplowed frontier prairie, and what thoughts would have then flowed through this 19th Century New Englander as he beheld them?

Bryant is great at that. He channels a bit of Homer in his suppositions, mixed with a soaring American anthem. The strength of his writing here surprised me. Turns out, though I had forgotten and had not read Bryant; modern America’s great 19th century poetic grandfather Walt Whitman had read him, and he had picked up something.

Below is a gadget that should allow you to play The Prairie, taken from William Cullen Bryant’s poem about the great mounds