29 September 2010

Voices and Soul

28 September 2010

by Justice Putnam
Black Kos, Tuesday's Chile, Poetry Editor

Being the son of a professional Historian, having a degree in History myself; I am both, amazed and appalled, by the blatant historical revisions and ignorance that is on display by the TeaBirchers© and their fellow travelers. From outright editing and distribution of Jefferson's Letter to the Danbury Baptists as a whole document, so as to support their dubious claims of the Founders being against the existence of a Wall between Church and State; to Fox News editing Obama's public exchanges so his presidency is diminished and marginalized.

Surely, if one has to lie to support an argument, the argument must not be very sound. What if we "edit" the lie out these discourses? What do we get? How about an honest assessment of where we came from:

What passes for identity in America is a series of myths about one's heroic ancestors. It's astounding to me, for example, that so many people really seem to believe that the country was founded by a band of heroes who wanted to be free. That happens not to be true. What happened was that some people left Europe because they couldn't stay there any longer and had to go someplace else to make it. They were hungry, they were poor, they were convicts.
-- James Baldwin
"A Talk to Teachers," Oct. 16, 1963

It is true that a Dream arose out of the disaffection experienced by those hungry, and poor, and convicted. It is true that tragedies and dangerous compromises occurred to make that Dream of America a possibility. Just let us not lie about where it was we came from and how it is we came to be who we are; let us look honestly to where our present is and where our future could be; let us not lie to make the Dream true. It is said, Knowledge is Power; and that is a sad truism when taking account of the axiom's terrible permutations. Ignorance though, masking itself as Knowledge, is not real Power; but real Ruination.

The only real course to stem this ruination then, is to embrace Knowledge and not Ignorance; to arm our minds and soul and activism against those corporate armies of propaganda, against those mobs of malice and hate; who in either, ignorance or guile, or both, would go to any means necessary than...

Let America Be America Again

Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.

(America never was America to me.)

Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed--
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.

(It never was America to me.)

O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.

(There's never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this "homeland of the free.")

Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark?
And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?

I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
I am the Negro bearing slavery's scars.
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek--
And finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.

I am the young man, full of strength and hope,
Tangled in that ancient endless chain
Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land!
Of grab the gold! Of grab the ways of satisfying need!
Of work the men! Of take the pay!
Of owning everything for one's own greed!

I am the farmer, bondsman to the soil.
I am the worker sold to the machine.
I am the Negro, servant to you all.
I am the people, humble, hungry, mean--
Hungry yet today despite the dream.
Beaten yet today--O, Pioneers!
I am the man who never got ahead,
The poorest worker bartered through the years.

Yet I'm the one who dreamt our basic dream
In the Old World while still a serf of kings,
Who dreamt a dream so strong, so brave, so true,
That even yet its mighty daring sings
In every brick and stone, in every furrow turned
That's made America the land it has become.
O, I'm the man who sailed those early seas
In search of what I meant to be my home--
For I'm the one who left dark Ireland's shore,
And Poland's plain, and England's grassy lea,
And torn from Black Africa's strand I came
To build a "homeland of the free."

The free?

Who said the free? Not me?
Surely not me? The millions on relief today?
The millions shot down when we strike?
The millions who have nothing for our pay?
For all the dreams we've dreamed
And all the songs we've sung
And all the hopes we've held
And all the flags we've hung,
The millions who have nothing for our pay--
Except the dream that's almost dead today.

O, let America be America again--
The land that never has been yet--
And yet must be--the land where every man is free.
The land that's mine--the poor man's, Indian's, Negro's, ME--
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.

Sure, call me any ugly name you choose--
The steel of freedom does not stain.
From those who live like leeches on the people's lives,
We must take back our land again,

O, yes,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath--
America will be!

Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain--
All, all the stretch of these great green states--
And make America again!

-- Langston Hughes

14 September 2010

Voices and Soul

by Justice Putnam
Black Kos Tuesday's Chile Poetry Editor

When I was a young father and husband in my mid-20's, attending Portland State University to finish out my undergrad degree, one of the many jobs to make ends meet, was as a life form model in several Art Schools in town.

It seemed curious to me at the time, why few of the student artists would draw the scars from my athletic injuries; tank track-like scars on my right shoulder and right knee, back in the day when they flailed you open to operate. I asked one of those student artists why that was so,

"Because," he sort of sniffed, "true Artists are only concerned with Beauty. By our efforts, we only want to immortalize that which is Beautiful."

And that summed up the dichotomy that presented itself, to me, in Art generally, but Poetry in particular; is Poetry of the detached observer or of the active participant? Is Poetry to concern itself with Beauty only? How then, is Beauty defined? To that question, I had already concluded with Balzac and Baudelaire, that Beauty is in and can be found in, all things. Regardless, Art and Poetry are records, Art and Poetry are History. As the French academic, Fernand Braudel wrote:

For the historian everything begins and ends with time, a mathematical, godlike time, a notion easily mocked, time external to men, 'exogenous,' as economists would say, pushing men, forcing them, and painting their own individual times the same color.

-- Fernand Braudel
On History

And Victor Hugo punctuated,

One cannot be a good historian of the outward, visible world without giving some thought to the hidden, private life of ordinary people; and on the other hand one cannot be a good historian of this inner life without taking into account outward events where these are relevant. They are two orders of fact which reflect each other, which are always linked and which sometimes provoke each other.

-- Victor Hugo
Les Misérables

The Beats, The Harlem Renaissance and especially The Black Arts movement incorporated in their Ethos, The Primacy of Experience; one's primary experience is what one recorded. It followed then, that one's primary experience was usually that of the active participant. When the neighborhood is burning and dad is shot by vigilantes and mom is cursing the helicopter lights and moving shadows as the windows shake from the prop wash, it's a little difficult to meditate on the petals of an orchid.

So it was for me in the days and weeks after 11 September. I had already flirted with the cynicism brought on by multiples of personal, national and world tragedies; from love lost by absence, incarceration or death; to stumbling upon,

"... the gutted remains of Honduran peasants desiccated next to red bougainvillea, as green hummingbirds darted and stopped at delicate petals and darted away again. I have seen the blasted remains of the last hospital in Sarajevo spilling stone and beds onto the street."

In spite of these experiences, I was still able to hold onto some child-like wonder at the world. I visited New York before the month of September 2001 ended. I didn't find any answers, but I had many questions, questions that revolved around Time, around the change in a person's Heart; questions revolving around the steady erosion of Innocence and how the graduations of that erosion is marked by...

The Dates of Demarcation


Justice Putnam

How many times
Can a Heart be broken
How many times
Can a resolve be tested

Is this the meaning
Of Life?

To be reminded
At the most unexpected
Time of
Pain and impermanence

How many times?

I hear the voices
Of those whose
Memories of
Lost innocence

Are etched with the
Precision of a Calendar
On the Stone of History:

Jack London remembered
The Boxer Rebellion
Jack Reed recalled more
Than Ten Days

Hemingway remembered
A Hospital in Italy
Vonnegut talked of
Dresden’s fiery face

Our Grandparents
Think of the Seventh
Of December

While others recall

A day in Dallas
A balcony in Memphis
A hotel in LA

How many more times
How many more generations

Will be born into this
Impending loss?

How many more
Incidents of horror
Before the last
Vestige of innocence
Is carried away?

These questions
May seem on the surface
To be a plea

How many more times

How many more images
Of a woman

Her dress blown
In a fall among


(New York September 2001)

from: The Nature of Poetics Collapsed Outside My Window

© 2006 by Justice Putnam
and Mechanisches-Strophe Verlagswesen

10 September 2010

Voices and Soul

10 September 2010

by Justice Putnam
Black Kos Poetry Editor

The Impossibility of Categorization might be the first theme of the American Epic. By turns, the Hero might be the Rugged Individual traversing mountain and stream, or the stout but tender Matriarch helping bridge the decreasing gulf between the Wilderness and the Town. The Hero might at once be anti-heroic, then by actions and deeds, raised to the Heroic, then by another set of actions and deeds, once again to fall utterly; while retaining the mantle of Hero still.

As the National Myth though, the Epic functions as a device to define the members of that nation; and by what marks they were to be identified.

For the American Epic she set out to construct, Phillis Wheatley could see no method for determining who was a member of the culture and who was an other; indeed, the two positions expatiate each other constantly and indefinitely. Wheatley's subversive refusal to accept the taxonomies of a culture that marked her as the other shows Wheatley's own assimilation; she would not and could not place herself outside the narratives she recites. Her construct of the American Epic and its narratives of belonging required her participation in the culture, even if it wasn't the culture her masters constructed. For Wheatley, all Colonial Americans were equal; precisely because definitions of equivalency or difference cannot be established.

Wheatley's investigation of the dominant notions of who belongs, within the boundaries of what it is to be American, is particularly evident in her poem, To The Right Honourable William, Earl Of Dartmouth, His Majesty's Principal Secretary Of The State For North-America. She makes explicit her African marginality, while issuing correctives to her audience; important, because writs issued to the good Earl were also made public for all the colonies to read.

Writing before the Declaration of Independence and the ratification of a Constitution which permitted slavery, Wheatley offered a vision of an American Culture without a privileged center and without qualifications for membership based on race, class or gender. Indeed, Wheatley is the archetype American, a type which paradoxically marks itself as belonging, through a constant process of making and unmaking; of repeating and then differing from itself.

She wrote of this so long ago; we may get there still.

To The Right Honourable William, Earl Of Dartmouth, His Majesty's Principal Secretary Of The State For North-America

HAIL, happy day, when, smiling like the morn,
Fair Freedom rose New-England to adorn:
The northern clime beneath her genial ray,
Dartmouth, congratulates thy blissful sway:
Elate with hope her race no longer mourns,
Each soul expands, each grateful bosom burns,
While in thine hand with pleasure we behold
The silken reins, and Freedom's charms unfold.
Long lost to realms beneath the northern skies
She shines supreme, while hated faction dies:
Soon as appear'd the Goddess long desir'd,
Sick at the view, she languish'd and expir'd;
Thus from the splendors of the morning light
The owl in sadness seeks the caves of night.
No more, America, in mournful strain
Of wrongs, and grievance unredress'd complain,
No longer shalt thou dread the iron chain,
Which wanton Tyranny with lawless hand
Had made, and with it meant t' enslave the land.
Should you, my lord, while you peruse my song,
Wonder from whence my love of Freedom sprung,
Whence flow these wishes for the common good,
By feeling hearts alone best understood,
I, young in life, by seeming cruel fate
Was snatch'd from Afric's fancy'd happy seat:
What pangs excruciating must molest,
What sorrows labour in my parent's breast?
Steel'd was that soul and by no misery mov'd
That from a father seiz'd his babe belov'd:
Such, such my case. And can I then but pray
Others may never feel tyrannic sway?
For favours past, great Sir, our thanks are due,
And thee we ask thy favours to renew,
Since in thy pow'r, as in thy will before,
To sooth the griefs, which thou did'st once deplore.
May heav'nly grace the sacred sanction give
To all thy works, and thou for ever live
Not only on the wings of fleeting Fame,
Though praise immortal crowns the patriot's name,
But to conduct to heav'ns refulgent fane,
May fiery coursers sweep th' ethereal plain,
And bear thee upwards to that blest abode,
Where, like the prophet, thou shalt find thy God

-- Phillis Wheatley

07 September 2010

Voices and Soul

7 September 2010

by Justice Putnam
Black Kos, Tuesday's Chile, Poetry Editor

Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, though born a free woman in the time of slavery, was nonetheless, a fierce advocate for abolition and equal rights. She was part of the Free Produce Movement, a boycott of goods made with slave labor. "Free" meant, "not enlsaved" and "Produce" was any good or crop made or harvested by human effort. Some have argued how effective the movement was; given that slavery existed for almost a century from the movement's inception. But whether a boycott is against "Blood Diamonds", or "Sweat Shop Fabric", an individual stand, indeed, carries great power. It brings about irrevocable change; like waves wearing away rock along the coast line. When asked by the landed gentry of the times, why she would boycott goods made by her "people", she insisted that what she owned was Free; that it was manufactured by men and women of their own Free Will, who were paid an honest wage for an honest day's work. She insisted that what she owned was not extracted by the whip and the lash, by the tearing apart of families, flesh and the Soul. She insisted that what she owned was truly from:

Free Labor

I wear an easy garment,
O’er it no toiling slave
Wept tears of hopeless anguish,
In his passage to the grave.

And from its ample folds
Shall rise no cry to God,
Upon its warp and woof shall be
No stain of tears and blood.

Oh, lightly shall it press my form,
Unladen with a sigh,
I shall not ‘mid its rustling hear,
Some sad despairing cry.

This fabric is too light to bear
The weight of bondsmen’s tears,
I shall not in its texture trace
The agony of years.

Too light to bear a smother’d sigh,
From some lorn woman’s heart,
Whose only wreath of household love
Is rudely torn apart.

Then lightly shall it press my form,
Unburden’d by a sigh;
And from its seams and folds shall rise,
No voice to pierce the sky,

And witness at the throne of God,
In language deep and strong,
That I have nerv’d Oppression’s hand,
For deeds of guilt and wrong.

-- Frances Ellen Watkins Harper

01 September 2010

Voices and Soul

31 August 2010

by Justice Putnam
Black Kos Tuesday's Chile, Poetry Editor

This past weekend, on the 47th anniversary of Martin Luther King's March on Washington, a right wing demagogue and his ill-informed minions descended on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial to, as they put it, Restore Honor in America.

“America today begins to turn back to God. For too long, this country has wandered in darkness," the demagogue sputtered and as his minions cheered.

The theology the demagogue invoked though, was something entirely different than the theology of Martin Luther King and by extension, Obama's; and the same theology that took me to Latin America the year Archbishop Romero was assassinated. He made it abundantly clear what those differences are,

"You see, it’s all about victims and victimhood; oppressors and the oppressed; reparations, not repentance; collectivism, not individual salvation. I don’t know what that is, other than it’s not Muslim, it’s not Christian. It’s a perversion of the gospel of Jesus Christ as most Christians know it.”

The demagogue then insisted that to, "turn back to God", was to glory in the future and the goodness that will come; and to ignore the harpings of the "victims" of that progress.

But we will not forget the sins of our past and present. We will not forget how it is that we are where we are. A battle is taking place then, between forces that claim to have the ear of God; similar to the battle between the Angels of Heaven and Earth in Robert Hayden's...

The Ballad of Nat Turner

Then fled, O brethren, the wicked juba
and wandered wandered far
from curfew joys in the Dismal's night.
Fool of St. Elmo's fire

In scary night I wandered, praying,
Lord God my harshener,
speak to me now or let me die;
speak, Lord, to this mourner.

And came at length to livid trees
where Ibo warriors
hung shadowless, turning in wind
that moaned like Africa,

Their belltongue bodies dead, their eyes
alive with the anger deep
in my own heart. Is this the sign,
the sign forepromised me?

The spirits vanished. Afraid and lonely
I wandered on in blackness.
Speak to me now or let me die.
Die, whispered the blackness.

And wild things gasped and scuffled in
the night; seething shapes
of evil frolicked upon the air.
I reeled with fear, I prayed.

Sudden brightness clove the preying
darkness, brightness that was
itself a golden darkness, brightness
so bright that it was darkness.

And there were angels, their faces hidden
from me, angels at war
with one another, angels in dazzling
combat. And oh the splendor,

The fearful splendor of that warring.
Hide me, I cried to rock and bramble.
Hide me, the rock, the bramble cried. . .
How tell you of that holy battle?

The shock of wing on wing and sword
on sword was the tumult of
a taken city burning. I cannot
say how long they strove,

For the wheel in a turning wheel which is time
in eternity had ceased
its whirling, and owl and moccasin,
panther and nameless beast

And I were held like creatures fixed
in flaming, in fiery amber.
But I saw I saw oh many of
those mighty beings waver,

Waver and fall, go streaking down
into swamp water, and the water
hissed and steamed and bubbled and locked
shuddering shuddering over

The fallen and soon was motionless.
Then that massive light
began a-folding slowly in
upon itself, and I

Beheld the conqueror faces and, lo,
they were like mine, I saw
they were like mine and in joy and terror
wept, praising praising Jehovah.

Oh praised my honer, harshener
till a sleep came over me,
a sleep heavy as death. And when
I awoke at last free

And purified, I rose and prayed
and returned after a time
to the blazing fields, to the humbleness.
And bided my time.

-- Robert Hayden