Sunday, January 27, 2013

On Libraries and Graveyards: A Boston Moment

On Libraries and Graveyards: A Boston Moment

Vexed, unable to escape
From the ghosts I’d been chasing:
            Devils, saints, fathers
            Omnipresent, timeless,
            Enduring still.
Encrypted in memories,
Forgotten, now remembered:
            Echoes, wails, echoes,
            In hallowed space, green Commons,
            Echoing still.
Minutemen and patriots,
Living grounds erupt again:
            Blood-soaked, wrought, alive,
            Graveyards, book-stacks, ripe gardens
            Whispering still.
Quick, embrace fleeting presence,
Ancestors and progeny:
            Converge, fight, withdraw,
            Boundaries erased in haste,
            Surveying still.
Self-barricaded within,
Doors locked, sashes drawn, lights off:
            Spirits, texts, tombstones,      
            Where life and death cohabit,           
                        Pushing out the in,
                        Leaning against gravity,
                        Fortified in brownstone turrets,
                                    Or cellars—dungeons—safe.
                        Vexed—captive bailiff—
            Procreant still.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

A reader's guide to: Upon the Hundred-and-Eightieth Commemoration of Old Hickory’s Second Inaugural

Upon the Hundred-and-Eightieth Commemoration of Old Hickory’s Second Inaugural
(A reader’s guide)

Echew                                                                             1
            (God bless you.                                                  2
             ¡Salud!),                                                             3
Repudiate rather,                                                          4
             The comic shuck and jive—                            5
             The marionetted minstrelsy—                       6
In exchange for three                                                   7
            Hundred million in blue face,                          8
            Waiting still                                                         9
                        To breathe,                                           10       
                                    Recalling the first slap,            11
                        To work or thrive,                                12       
                                    To subsist free of concocted  13
Liberty:  populist distraction.                                     14       
Hopes collected—                                                       16
           Empty glass bottles held                                 17
            For deposit refunds—                                     18
And placed on plastic counters                                 19
—To be refilled with juiceless                                   20
            aides and drinks and soda:                            21
                        now fizzless, headless—                    22       
                        now sugarless                                      23
                        ales and whiskies—                             24
To be shot to chards                                                   25
            As target practice by                                       26
De-automated magazines,                                         27
            Dueler’s pistols only:                                       28
By disarmed militia.                                                     29
Nullification                                                                  30
Postponed.                                                                    31
Second coronation,                                                     32
            Constitutional assault reified,                       33
            Consolidated in spoils.                                   34
Second inaugural,                                                       35
            Crisis with plenary                                          36                   
            Approval—unchecked King mob.                37       
Second bank defunded,                                            38
            Debt re-deposited beneath                          39       
            Ceilings, over cliffs.                                        40
Second chance again,                                                41
            To uphold the first impression,                   42       
            To re-fight revolutions                                  43
                        Mythic for the second time:            44
                                    Hero of New Orleans.           45       
As migrant red faces—                                             46
            Flush with defeat,                                         47
            With tearful diffusion—                               48
            Turn to blue faces                                         49
            Then turn to grey,                                         50
            Then ashen,                                                    51
                        Now dust.                                           52
1-52:       This reader’s guide deals specifically with content and not style nor form (which are meant to magnify the content).  It is written as an aid for understanding the historical and cultural frame that sits around the poem itself.  As with all poetry, the cadences, stanzas, structure, and beat are carefully wrought and derive their strength in their audible utterance (read it out loud).  While I do not specifically address these stylistic concerns, I might ask readers to consider (in this poem) the pomp of an inauguration and the zeal of a march with the democratic fervor of loosely constrained delimiters.

1-3:         Eschew means to dismiss, but when spoken out loud, it also sounds like a sneeze.  In the U.S., you generally say, “God bless you,” when somebody sneezes.  Today, there is also much discussion about our relationship with Mexico, much as there was during Jackson’s Presidency as the seeds of the war with Mexico were being laid.  Spanish speakers generally say, “Salud,” meaning “to your health,” when somebody sneezes.  This acknowledges the omnipresence of this as an issue in both Jackson’s time and ours.  This “call and response” also alludes to the style of slave spiritual song which gave birth to the blues, which begat jazz which begat rock and roll.

4-5:         Repudiate is a loose synonym for eschew, in case you didn’t get it the first time.  “Shuck and jive” is a term to describe the activities of slaves in the old south, Jackson’s south.  “Shuckin’ and jivin’” indicates that slaves would say “yessir” to placate their masters, or act dumb when they really had other motives: deceptive.  This term became central to the understanding of slave culture and eventually came to carry negative connotations.  In present parlance, “shuck and jive” means something similar to “bob and weave” around the truth.  It still carries racist overtones.  Sarah Palin, a Conservative American icon, former Republican governor of Alaska, and Republican Vice Presidential candidate in 2008, made a comment including the phrase about Barack Obama.  She was asked by political foes to “repudiate” her comments as racist.  There is ambiguity in this line of the poem.  Are we asking history’s Jackson to repudiate the slave culture which he strongly supported in 1834 or are we asking our present selves to repudiate the racist overtones of using the phrase today?

6:            Marionettes are puppets.  Minstrelsy is the nineteenth and twentieth century practice of dressing white actors in “black face” because they did not want to involve true African Americans in the stage, although they needed them to be characters in some dramatic presentations.  Today, the idea of “black face” is highly offensive.  In Jackson’s day, this was considered acceptable.  Regardless of how black characters are “played” on the stage, it is impossible to imagine the telling of America’s story without the inclusion of the black experience.  Indeed, today’s American culture is strongly influenced by the black experience which has largely come to define popular culture (eg. blues, jazz, rock, rap).  Barack Obama, son to a black father and white mother, could be considered a white man in black face—both genetically and metaphorically.  While this is in many ways a “repudiation” of our storied past relationship with race, it also stands as a moral social victory over racism.  On another level, there are those who might believe that Barack Obama is nothing but a puppet of the democrat party who uses his appearance as a black man to justify “shuckin’ and jivin’” around political action.

7-8:         The population of the United States in 2013 is approximately 300 million.  This line is presented to reinforce the temporal simultaneity of the issues the poem addresses.  Ostensibly, the poem is about Andrew Jackson’s second inauguration, but is also unapologetically about the issues we face in 2013 which can, in many ways, be traced back to 1833.   The term, “blue face” is a play on the idea of “black face.”  It can be interpreted in many ways simultaneously.  If one holds their breath, they become “blue in the face.”  In twentieth century politics, Republicans are described as “red” while Democrats are described as “blue.”  These descriptions developed from media reporting that would color states on a map of the U.S. as either red or blue to help visualize election results.  With the re-election of Barack Obama in 2012, the popular statement is that the United States is becoming “more blue.”  As democracy rules, we imagine that the faces of all American are blue, like the majority of states in which they live.  This red state/blue state=red face/blue face dichotomy is revisited later in the poem.

9-10:      Expands the first explanation of “blue face” from above, people holding their breath in anticipation of…something.

11:          The “first slap,” describes the first slap given to a newly-born child to make him breathe.  Until a child’s first breath, its face is blue and unoxygenated.  We also slap (adult) people who are holding their breath to make them breathe.  In Jackson’s day, America was still young.  He was present at the birth of the nation, so he could remember the “first slap” on a baby America.  As this poem is about his second election, it could also apply to the first election which, to all of those people who voted against him, was the first slap in the face.  This could also apply to the re-election of Barack Obama. 

12-14:    “Waiting still… to work or thrive.”  One of the great challenge of all Presidents is the charge of the economy to ensure that Americans are able to work and survive.  This was as true in Jackson’s presidency as it is in Obama’s America.  Americans in 2013 are reminded each day of poverty and unemployment.  In the throes of a weak economy, people lower their expectations: pleased to keep their heads above water. 

In the paradigm of lowered expectations, politicians distract those struggling economically by diverting attention toward those other things that government is able to provide such as new “rights.”  If citizens are unable to achieve power economically, a government may instead redistribute—if not dollars—power from those who “have” toward those that “have not.”  The redistribution of economic and political resources from one “class” to another is the tactic that has been employed in the name of “populism” since its inception.  “Populism” was being developed within the democrat party as early as the Jackson years, found its most powerful explicit enunciation in the late nineteenth century and is currently implicit in the rhetoric of the democrats—led by Barack Obama—in 2013.

16:          Barack Obama’s campaign was built upon the twin rhetorical tools of “hope” and “change.”  The idea of hope was also implicit in Jackson’s era as America looked westward toward the promise of America’s geographical and cultural possibilities.

17-18:    In certain states, you pay a fee when you purchase glass bottles.  You may later return those bottles for a 5 or 10 cent refund.  This is a government initiative designed to change behavior, to promote recycling.  In 2013, the use of glass bottles is waning as plastic and aluminum cans are increasingly popular.  The first widespread use of mass manufactured glass bottles, on the other hand, was just taking off in 1833:  a fledgling innovation in packaging.  Glass bottles, whether in 1833 or 2013, are vessels whose intrinsic value is in their ability to hold things.  One cannot bottle “hope,” as it is an idea.  A bottle filled with hope, then, will always be empty.

20:          Plastic is widely used in 2013, creating a temporal juxtaposition of the 19th century technology, glass, against the ubiquitous 21st century technology, plastic.  Nonetheless, we imagine bottles lined up and empty on a flat surface.

21-24:    There are many liquids that can rightly be preserved in glass bottles.  The word “aides” is a pun used to describe juiceless, sugary drinks (like KoolAid) that are prevalently provided to the poor instead of truly nutritious juices.  There is also a popular phrase, “drink the KoolAid,” which is used to describe group behaviors that are blindly followed.  A twentieth-century American cult committed mass-suicide by drinking poisoned KoolAid.  The word aide also refers to the people with whom a President surrounds himself.  They are meant to be extensions of the leader himself and to carry out the policies the President supports.  These bureaucratic aides are, themselves, empty vessels, filled with only the “juice” of the leader’s own mind.

                Sodas, beers, and spirits like whiskey, all meant to deliver forms of mind-altering drink without nutrition, lose their properties when exposed to air.  A poorly-sealed glass bottle will render these drinks “fizzless” or “head” less in short time.  If the drinks are likened to “hopes” then to render them fizzless or headless is to take away the freshness of the ideas that underlie the hope.  Thus, we are left with empty bottles—hopeless—with only stale inebriation.  A failed government will keep its people drunk so as to distract from the fact that hope is hapless.

25-29:    Having creating the image of empty bottles lined up on flat surface, the common image of people shooting those bottles comes into easy focus.  Using bottles as target practice is a commonly-used trope when discussing the wild west (for which Jackson stands as a ready nineteenth century symbol when considering that Tennessee was the wild frontier in his early days). 

                A raging debate has re-surfaced around the time of Obama’s second inauguration relative to the second amendment, especially in light of the mass shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary school in December of 2012.  In its wake, much of the debate centers around what the “founding fathers” would have thought about such technologies as gun automation and high capacity ammunition magazines.  In Jackson’s day, such technologies did not exist.  Thus, there is a push commonly aligned with Obama’s administration that would like to see the rights of gun owners rolled back to more closely resemble those that existed during Jackson’s time.  Clearly, this is not a position that Jackson would have taken, as he carried a gun and even took part in as many as ten pistol duels.  The pistols used in duels, though, were technologically primitive in relation to what are available today, but represent the caricatured ideal what 2013 gun opponents would like to see available to citizens except the military (of which the President is  the “Commander in chief”).  To further extend this juxtaposition, a direct reference to the second amendment is offered as the Constitutional justification of the “right to bear arms” is for the maintenance of militia.  Twentieth century gun rights opponents consider this anachronistic as America has a well-armed military to protect its borders.  In Jackson’s day, with the revolution still a smoldering memory, the need for a militia to protect the people against the government itself was likely a more reasonable interpretation of the passage’s definition of rights.   This entire stanza places in direct opposition the cultural and political realities that, although driven by similar populist idealism, have led to dramatically different policy prescriptions.  Time, then, intervenes between the gaps in ideology.  Both are men of their own times.

31-32:    A major issue that came to a head during Jackson’s tenure was known as the “nullification crisis,” in which representatives of the southern states, in opposition to what was called the “tariff of abominations,” threatened to “nullify” any federal laws that they felt unjust.  Jackson worked to mollify these concerns by asserting the primacy of the Federal government in what amounted to a convenient interpretation of the Constitution.  In fact, the solution to the growing sectionalism was more a deferral of the underlying Constitutional issues than solution.  America would see sectionalism increase and reassert itself with increasing passion in the ensuing decades, leading ultimately to the Civil War.  Sectionalism continues to be an issue in the United States, though the boundaries are more clearly defined between rural-versus-metro rather geographical.

32-34:    America, a constitutional republic, does not have a monarch.  Political opponents of Jackson, just like those of Obama, assert the rhetoric of anti-royalism to describe the consolidation of presidential power.  Of course, this is bombast.  Nonetheless, each change in leadership in Washington leads the opposing side to invoke this rhetoric and cloak it as an assault on the American “way of life” protected by the Constitution:  civil rights, gun ownership, nullification, federal institutions and their growth. 

The “spoils system” was heavily used by Jackson to reward his political supporters with jobs.  In 2013 America, the system continues with the knowledge that control and growth of the federal bureaucracy both solidifies power as well as provides a significant voting bloc.

35-37:    In stark contrast to “coronation,” the United States has an “inauguration” of the President in a peaceful and constitutionally-prescribed transfer of power.  The Twentieth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution mandates that the President be inagurated at noon on January 20th in the year after his election.  During Jackson's time, the inauguration occurred in March.  A second inauguration indicates a transfer to self, although second elections are often treated as “mandates” that are provided by the people.   Jackson claimed justification for his sometimes awful positions (especially toward Native Americans and African Americans) in the power of democracy.  He was known by some detractors as “King mob,” a nickname that blends the irony of the juxtaposition between the “coronation” and “inauguration.”

38-40:    One of the major “constitutional crises” of Jackson’s tenure was the de-funding of the Second National Bank of the United States which he believed was an abominable institution geared toward enriching the wealthy at the cost of common men.  Despite a law passed by Congress which had extended its life, Jackson unilaterally destroyed the bank by withdrawing all Federal funds from it thereby re-defining the American banking system.  His populist attack on banking, based in a general disregard for Economics in favor of politics, is not unlike the banking crises that Obama inherited in his first term and perpetuated during fights over the debt ceiling, sequestration, and the “fiscal cliff.”

41-45:    Jackson was the “hero of New Orleans” as the leader of a military battle during the War Of 1812.  His victory in the battle actually came days AFTER the war ended, but nonetheless secured Jackson’s place as a military leader and national hero.  One of the great political blunders of all time, and one which candidate Obama was able to capitalize upon during his first presidential campaign, was his predecessor, George W. Bush’s handling of the Hurricane Katrina catastrophe in New Orleans.  Because Obama was not Bush, he became the rhetorical hero by that fact.  In both cases, Obama and Jackson are heroes in perception—myth—much more than in reality.

The War of 1812 was, in many ways, a continuation of the Revolutionary war in which the young America was forced to re-assert its independence against England.  Jackson’s, like Obama’s, first election was considered revolutionary in American history.  Thus, their respective second elections (like the War of 1812), were revolutionary again. 

46-52:    Here again, we call on the imagery of “red state” versus “blue state.”  Red Republicans were defeated, and thus remain frustrated.  The imagery of red faces also calls upon Jackson’s most enduring legacy of what some might call “evil” against Native Americans.  Jackson orchestrated the “trail of tears,” the harsh and uncivil forced removal of Native Americans from the east to the west of the United States.  Despite Jackson’s championship of the common American, this did not include women, African Americans, or Native Americans.  “Blue” faces also recalls the “hopeful” Americans mentioned earlier in the poem.  In death, all of these faces are ashen.  Re-joining the past with the present, there is also an unspoken pun relating the Trail of Tears—Indian slaughter during Jackson’s time—with the Trail of “Tea”-ers—2013 “Tea Party” Republicans who were rather soundly repudiated during the last presidential election cycle. 

One generation after Jackson’s presidency, and sown in many of his policies, American fought the Civil War.  This was  known as the war between the “blue and the grey.”  Union soldiers wore blue uniforms, Confederate soldiers wore grey.  During the American Civil war, regardless of the color of the uniforms, over 600,000 were killed, creating lifeless, ashen faces.  Obama has been a war President as the commander and chief of operations in both Iraq and Afghanistan, which many consider other nation’s civil wars.

Recalling that this poem is ostensibly about Jackson, we are reminded that all of the characters in it are dead, returned to the “dust” of the Earth. 

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Upon the Hundred-and-Eightieth Commemoration of Old Hickory’s Second Inaugural

Upon the Hundred-and-Eightieth Commemoration of Old Hickory’s Second Inaugural

            (God bless you.
Repudiate rather,
             The comic shuck and jive—
             The marionetted minstrelsy—
In exchange for three
            Hundred million in blue face,
            Waiting still
                        To breathe,
                                    Recalling the first slap,
                        To work or thrive,
                                    To subsist free of concocted
Liberty:  populist distraction.
Hopes collected—
            Empty glass bottles held
            For deposit refunds—
And placed on plastic counters
—To be refilled with juiceless
            aides and drinks and soda:
                        now fizzless, headless—
                        now sugarless
                        ales and whiskies—
To be shot to chards
            As target practice by
De-automated magazines,
            Dueler’s pistols only:
By disarmed militia.

Second coronation,
            Constitutional assault reified,
            Consolidated in spoils.
Second inaugural,
            Crisis with plenary
            Approval—unchecked King mob.
Second bank defunded,
            Debt re-deposited beneath
            Ceilings, over cliffs.
Second chance again,
            To uphold the first impression,
            To re-fight revolutions
                        Mythic for the second time:
                                    Hero of New Orleans.
As migrant red faces—
            Flush with defeat,
            With tearful diffusion—
            Turn to blue faces
            Then turn to grey,
            Then ashen,
                        Now dust.

Saturday, January 5, 2013



Staring down a bullet train,

Thursday, January 3, 2013

The Ayes Have You (or Restless in Manhattan)

The Ayes Have You (or Restless in Manhattan)

Have you ever been told that
            You walk like a New Yorker:
Face forward, eyes darting, lingering
Here and then there;
Setting pace on spritely feet?
Have you ever cursed gravity
            For keeping you from heaven:
Unfazed, unearthed, and unrepentant,
Still defiant,
Still stomping over downcast?

Have you ever put a frame
            Around a brusque self-portrait:
Where your dim grey eyes are bright and blue,
Ardent, like Russians marching?

Have you ever been standing
            On the surface of the sun:
Looking down, seeking shadows unfound,
Now overhead,
While your soles melt below you?

Have you ever voted with
            Your hard feet or beaten heart:
Seen stubbed toes and blocked arteries crushed,
Your diaphragm
Trampled by democracy?
Have you ever slipped into
             restless melancholia
When walking through undead Manhattan—
            On the day the world ended—
                        On the first day—
From Harlem to Wall Street?
From the Hudson to the East?
From Lexington to Madison?
From 34th to 35th?
From the Piers to the High Line?
At Bryant Park?
Have you?