Saturday, December 12, 2009

"Now, Heart," Some Of What I Remember When I Listen

["Hunger Heart". Hibiscus flower, Tlaxcala, Tlaxcala, Mexico, August 2009. Photo by Warren Falcon. Click on image to see it large]


A river is a process through time, and the river stages are its momentary parts.
- Willard Van Orman Quine

I will incline mine ear to the parable, and shew my dark speech upon the harp.
- Psalm 49

We learn about one another's culture the same way we learn about sex: in the streets.
- Ismael Reed, Chattanooga born

Silence is so accurate.
- Mark Rothko

From early poems,1970's, youthful indiscretions/attempts to vocally/poetically arrive at/derive a worthwhile writer's voice. Some explication might serve or enhance these under serving, undeserving though "striving-after" poems hidden in old journals understandably unpublished but now so with apologies which are these expiatory explanations. Recently rediscovering these early arrival, derivative yet aspiring I recognized and reembraced an enduring self maturing, arriving into late middle age:

Obsessed newly by jazz, mad about the many miraculous lady singers, entranced all too easily as youth are want to be by sorrows and sexual infatuations which feel, emphasis on 'feel', like love, here are two of many 'songs' as tributes and life markers to jazz singers who provided soundtrack and felt expression to my angst and easily inflated/deflated sense of self, of beloved others, and of that new territory, independent life away from parental home and childhood community discovering, blundering into the fray of separate hearts and minds, irresponsible genitals and insouciant jouissance ('juiciness', in French), discovering then and again and again that like Walt Whitman I 'contain worlds' and many disparate selves poorly formed, most of them collective projections and expectations of who or what I wanted to be, what others wanted and expected me to be, resulting in much confusion, tumult and multitudes of momentary throw-away selves. Thus singers like Bessie Smith and Dinah Washington became anchors, warm contexts and containers, for my daily fragmentation and re-formation.

I lived on 3rd street in downtown Chattanooga, a refugee from zealous, politically conservative white evangelicals and the vestigial yet still viral Southern Confederacy. Just a block or two from where Bessie Smith was born, I used to watch from my upstairs porch the steep hilly street's comings and goings with a glimpse of the Tennessee River between tenements across the street, its persistent rich aroma heavy in the air. I imagined Bessie Smith as a little girl playing up and down the street like the kids I saw then - once, two of them gleefully chasing a frighteningly large and confused looking rat.

William - he insisted on 'Willie' - an old man down the street who knew Bessie as a little girl, used to come up to my porch after one day hearing Bessie from my phonograph singing blues onto the always busy but attentive street. One of the first and permanent things I learned from my porch is that a city street has keen, observant eyes, acute ears, omnivorously seeing/hearing everything, indifferently, perhaps, but nothing escapes it, a roving, all-knowing urban Eye of God.

Extremely green and eager as green always is though stutteringly, though without apology, I enjoyed Willie's many stories and back pocket bottles of Old Mr. Boston Apricot Brandy, both of which - story and spirits/spirited story - dissolved or appeared to, age, racial, cultural, and sociological differences, along with those catalysts/cata-lusts, the forever alchemical Bessie and other jazz singers, Billie! Dinah! Ella! Sassy! Lil Ester Phillips! Nina Simone! to name only a few of the sensuous solutio chanteuses resolving sexual confoundaries by Miss-ambiguating sins' plethera with loose lilt and will o the lisp whisper tongues.

One night Willie, much "in the pocket" - an expression for being well onto tipsy which I've never heard from anyone but him - wanted to dance to a Bessie tune playing, "Back Water Blues", him recalling nights as a young man in rural Tennessee where he'd worked hard days in oppressive vegetable fields then hit the after hours juke joints for "colored, twas segregation days," he explained, where he would go to drink, dance then dive/delve, as it were, into the sensual mysteries of moist skin, hot breath, mutually open mouths with their commodious moans and mumbles, venial hands, always vital parts, private hearts mutually pounding ancient known rhythms, odors and tastes of gin and those slender, forbidden, now greedily stolen bites in those all too short nights with their damned intrusive dawns.

'Dawnus interuptus, ' I quipped, us both slapping knees, passing the narrative bottle fore and aft hefting moments re-grasped between us, offerings to the equally narrative river, the all-knowing hungry street.

Jumping to his feet, Willie described 'powder dancin'' (pronounced marvelously, 'powdah') which I had never heard of. Talcum powder would be copiously scattered onto the dance floor where couples in stocking or bare feet would ecstatically dance, gliding and sliding sweetly scented, muskily bent toward later glides and slides in the slippery joy of momentary allure and amour on dimmed porches or surrounding woods often enough and gratis upon delicate slabs of moonlight gratuitously dewy providing cushion for Passion's out and in, honoring and dignifying deities of skin wanting more making more skin, headlong Nature's frictional algo-rhythms indelibly scored in every each his/her yawing yen.

Willie shouted, "YOU GOT ANY TALC POWDER?!"

...The jazz us trembled...

"NO!" I bellowed, curious.


Even more curious, "YEAH!!"


He grinned an Old Mr. Boston juke-joint night-memories quaff-again grin.

Martha White, a brand of flour sold down South, has never been put to better use. Willie threw handfuls of 'Martha' over the tenement-planked living room floor as I half protested at the mess it (and me and Willie) was and would become. Completely gripped by his present-in-the-past brandy trance, a much younger man now, he suddenly grabbed me, brandied and tranced, too, my long hair flying, and danced me all over the floor the night through with swigs of Old But Now Spry 'n' Sprightly Mr. Boston with pauses to change record albums on the phonograph, "catching up our breaths," he panted.

Next morning (more likely early afternoon), Willie long gone, I awakened sprawled on the penitent porch - a cool concrete floor my sinner's bench - sweaty and thick as pan gravy, mosquito bitten, marinaded by Tennessee night mists. I staggered into the living room onto the ghostly floor powdery white, 'stroked' with two attached, or close to, sets of foot prints, heel slides and smears, a kind of 'Jackson Pollock meets Tibetan sand painting 'yazzed' yantra'**' with cigarette ashes flicked into the flickering impermanent mix. I've not powder danced since when we drank discovering oral history's joys, opened eager ears and fraternal arms forgetting fears of race and religion, age and expressed/ espressed Desire's multilingual disseminations.

I know that wheat is anciently sacred but now even more so for flour, the sight and feel of it, its unbaked smell, turns me again toward a Chattanooga 3rd street, its compass river swelling like bread nearby bearing witness still for one cannot say too much about rivers - their irreverence of edges scored, spilling themselves, proclaiming natural gods deeper than memory yet dependent upon it for traced they must be in every human activity, no matter the breech, for something there is to teach even deity though it may be wrong to do so, or hearsay to say it or sing, but the song is there for those whose ears are broken onto bottoms from which cry urgencies of Being and between, dutiful banks barely containing the straining Word.

**From Tibetan Buddhism. Visual meditation devices, Yantra function as revelatory conduits of cosmic truths.


To Bessie Smith,3rd Street Chattanooga (circa 1971)

Already the river begins its sweat.
April to September I'll be on the porch
Come sunsets listening to cars in the
Dark and you, remembering the flour
On the floor and me and Willie in
Stocking feet dancing till dawn,
An old man down the street come
To drink on my porch sometime.

You were singing one night
While we drank and he just
Had to dance and pulled me,
Reluctant, skinny ass kid
All over the floor that night.
But my feet did dance.
And the flour stayed down
The whole summer long.

Now, Karen E. and Dinah Washington are still too painful 'o' dirges to give but only the skinniest details about. Karen, skinny, too, like this account where the devil is, indeed, in the details; Karen, young, vibrant, brilliant, German literature Thomas Mann scholar, once a patient in a mental hospital I worked the night shift at, committed suicide. We both loved the divine divas of jazz, Dinah Washington in particular.

I used to read William Blake out loud, the voices of the school children on the playground out our window and in the nearby park so loud that I had to shout out his 'Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience' to be heard. Karen would almost always cry when she heard me quote/shout now by heart, mistakes and all, holding her sad face in my hands, 'And we are put on earth a little space, That we may learn to bear the beams of love And these black bodies and this sunburnt face Is but a cloud, and like a shady grove, For when our souls have learn'd the heat to bear, The cloud will vanish, we shall hear His voice, Saying, 'Come out from the grove, my love and care And round my golden tent like lambs rejoice'...'

By then gin had replaced Old Mr. Boston, and thin Karen had replaced some earnest yet fleeting others for in youth there are ne'er too many, from Willie nights to other momentary eternities of lovers. We lived Blake's songs, and Dinah's. Karen died them. The gods and Thomas Mann love her. I still do. Die of them, that is. And love her, do.


Dinah Washington, All Alone On The Street Of Regret (circa 1977)

It was sunrise, October.
Karen had just done herself in.
I suffered it through with
William Blake and gin.

Over the fence across the street
Children ran to class and Blake,
Too, chased those kids fast through
Leaves in the chill school yard.

I thought - the ground's already hard over
You, Karen. To Charon, then, and keep
Yourself warm. My arms no longer can.
You left no note in the dawn.

Out of lime and song at 7 a.m.
I dress, spin down the steps like then
In this morning now thin with Spring.
There's green over you now.

I cannot help but see a thin mildew
Form around your fingers in the dark.
Blake's still down playing in the park.
I'll play some Dinah when I get back in.

Now, Heart, don't you
Start that singing again.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Of Henna Night, Being An Account Of The Ritual Re-Creation Of The First Bell

Sympathizing with an experiment, we yet need not venerate the result.

--Marianne Moore, The Complete Prose of Marianne Moore (Penguin, 1987), p. 586

For Marianne Levenstein Annur

[This poem arrived literally out of a shoe box. Experimenting with cut-up poetic technique as propounded by William Burroughs, in the mid-1970's in my little cabin on Huckleberry Mountain in the North Carolina mountains I cut up phrases from several dreams I'd had along with xeroxed (photo copied) essays from an encyclopedia on the history of bells and bell making, and one on the rituals and traditions of Henna night in Islamic countries. My choices of essays were random. I just opened the encyclopedia and these were the essays I opened to. I cut up phrases from each, added them to the shoe box along with my dream fragments, and thoroughly shaken (not stirred) pulled out phrase by phrase what became this poem. This was my most successful attempt of many with this technique. What I found was that, especially when seized up in writer's block, the 'accidental' or chance juxtaposition of images, phrases, caesuras in content, contexts and voicings along with disparity of logical connection between topics (bells, metalurgy, Henna rituals for women, wedding nights, sexual attraction and consumation) sometimes created not only astonishing images and poetry but re-tuned my own consciousness to function in this non-linear associative way as a poet and now, importantly, in my creative work as a psychotherapeutic counselor with others. I recommend this technique for all poets or aspiring poets for much is to be learned with perhaps the greatest discovery being that there is another Mind/Hand/Source involved in the craft of poetry, of all writing, guiding the quotidian course of our lives, paying attention first and foremost with a willingness to leave known territory while not devaluing that territory at all. Immediate and tangible foundations are supported by unseen and assumed greater, deeper, older and stronger ones. From this rich arche-techtonic structure, hold and mold our lives and our creativity rise.]

I will tell you of Fatima.

She is the bell,
The tintinabulum,
The veil and the will.

Then take me to her.
You can have the tapestry of streets,
The bowls of tint.
Shade the surface black
And she will emerge
The river,
The bead upon the throat,
The bread swelling,
Lifting up,
The Fertile Crescent...


Between the breasts and
Most of the moving parts
While she crossed the threshold
She was quite badly torn

Fatima had clusters
Mounted solidly of bronze

She said it hurt terribly


Fatima opened her dark eyes

...If they were with the tide
From top to lip...

She escorted me to an inner room
Where was an intricate carillon music
It is the inevitable accompaniment
She said pointing below
Come in here, my little eye
I did where she remembered, ululating
With plump cushions where it rotates
Of the tintinabulum
A change of waist
Iron or steel bars
To the edge of the lip

At the advent
I nibbled salted melon seeds
For this is the Lailet el Henna


In the towers are the reproducers

Within the clean bronze
Their walls were stood
Ready to receive her
And later became all
Of the intricate trills

She pushed her way through
The pivot points
A deep lactation
In the most ravishing shades

Simulate the Pleiades
The rich magenta

Running water is much the best
Whether she wept as she then drew out
Watering the date gardens

She stepped over warm spurting blood

You should have heard her cry
'Ya Ali' and her loud hell-hella


A sheep was slaughtered

The physical vibrating movements
For anything tinkling
On the palms and the fingernails
At the point of clapper impact

And on the pillow
She drew out
For the rhythmic accompaniment
And then put it while it was hot
Up inside

A folded piece of bread


What did she vow at the Saint's tomb?


The Henna Night was celebrated

Metal was added to the lip
Placenta and puella runs
And full harmony that are familiar to lovers

Before Fatima's face
A knife had been placed
Between the upper and
Lower big sprigs of myrtle

The waist almost became
Through the flattening of the crown
Similarly beautiful
And took out of the outside skin
Alone in thousands of towers
Between legs
A tiny triangle where several seams met
Variations in the walls thickness
When the bride's hands were hennaed
Had very slow pains
Prayers were said while the metal was
Poured into the molds
An opaque black veil over
The bells of Nimrud

This thickening of the lip
Straight and pot like
To the chanting
Gave it rhythm and balance


Fatima was propped up on pillows
On her big bed
She had a large round silver box
Heavily embossed
The shape of the bell
The same thickness
A push button that rings arpeggios

Carelessly she pulled out
Before I went into
...Joining in refrains...
Into the modern bell
Recast it for tuning again
Thick and ornamented with gold
Paint and Flowers
As it unfolded her pains
Delicately through the dark and silent
Just as the rope that swings
Scarely noticed


Did you have a hard time of it, Fatima?


The large brass bedstead

Lighted candles

Their walls were
All primitive forms
Although she put on the veil
A delight to the senses


Mohammad came
As fast as the
Vibrating bars that
Generate blows
I kept on my ornaments
I rubbed her abdomen with a knife
Tore in two a flap of bread
Pink gauze curtains

Wheat and salt were scattered
None has been found
Fatima had donned the veil

Iron, steel, gold
Silver, zinc and lead
Which is formed by the squaring
Of the shoulders

Small bells began
Were shortened
Reduced the muscular effort
Needed to swing...


And then went in to his bride
With mounds of henna paste
All from silver containers

Plus hundreds of single bells and peals
A time indicator
Anything set with precious stones
I put this on his navel
All with small finger loops on top

The idea of the clapper
To fall back into position
To crack
The thickness of the lip


A call to worship was lost
When rings were cast around
The hinges and locks
The soles of her feet
A beehive in shape
Close to the vibrating
Enveloped in a black coat

And my dear whispered
It must be completely consumed
Must be in the open
From the top

There bury it face up
With votive rags
Of the Tigris and Euphrates
The opal and the navel

Watched with deep
Or Henna Night


The only remedy is to melt it down

Fatima to me as she lifted the heavy lid

A naked sword was laid
Came into being

As a warning signal
There would be a loud burst of
The piercing, high pitched
Trilling ululation
Into tiny handle-less cups

A deep lactation
Fatima's milk

The gradually inward sloping sides

Fatima to me as she lifted the heavy box


It is the Henna Night


It is the parting of veils

She pointed downward,

Disrobing in the darkness,

The lantern light of the street

Rubbing against her

Fatima to me as she lifted the heavy box

...To dip your fingers in seven colors...

Fatima opened her dark eyes

Fatima to me

She lifted it up

The heavy hennaed night ringing