Schedule Change

in the style of Dr. Seuss

We all remember Dr. Seuss,
as famous now as Mother Goose,
with rhyming stories full of facts
about the Grinch, Who, and Lorax.
The famous stripey-hatted Cat
And Sam I Am’s big breakfast spat.
Most of the books were full of rhymes.
A few had art from older times,
when we thought foolish things about
what humans are, inside and out.
We held them closely anyhow,
those books from then brought into now.

But Seuss himself was known to say,
“Those books weren’t written the right way.
I thought I’d have a bit of fun,
but realized I had hurt someone.”
So now dear Dr. Seuss is gone,
his children left to carry on.
Not a matter of compromise,
but them deciding what was wise.
To pull the books that did the harm,
and push the others’ special charm.
Private decisions shouldn’t irk,
we have to let them do their work.

No public bans would we abide,
but it’s their call. They did decide.

-C. G. Brown

Nobel Laureate Louise Glück and The Persistence of Memory

Photo by Suzy Hazelwood from Pexels

Louise Glück, the winner of the 2020 Nobel Prize in Literature, identified the two pieces of writing that formed her as a child as William Blake’s “The Little Black Boy” and Stephen Foster’s minstrel song “Old Folks At Home”, colloquially known as “Swanee River”. “The Little Black Boy” begins:

My mother bore me in the southern wild,
And I am black, but O! my soul is white;
White as an angel is the English child: 
But I am black as if bereav’d of light.

As for “Old Folks At Home”, I don’t need to explain why a minstrel song is problematic. But here are a few lines, shown in the original slave dialect as imagined by a white man, just so you get what’s happening:

All up and down de whole creation
Sadly I roam,
Still longing for de old plantation,
And for de old folks at home.

All de world am sad and dreary,
Eb-rywhere I roam;
Oh, darkeys, how my heart grows weary,
Far from de old folks at home! 

Blake’s poem is a work of its time. Fine. Blake is an important author nonetheless. Fine. These are things that we have to learn to hold in tension. We still hold Aristotle as a model of thinking because of his contributions to logic and his general right direction on biology, though he believed some now-obviously-wrong things like heavy objects fall faster, or that women are a degenerate state of men, with men as the natural ideal.

However, when we teach Aristotle, we teach his wrong beliefs as primitive misunderstandings, at least, even if we don’t explore the implications on the people in the society as much as we should. But we at least acknowledge them. When we teach Blake, especially to high schoolers, we often present his work uncritically and don’t unpack the “primitive” beliefs he carries. And we generally try to pretend that things like Foster’s song simply didn’t happen, which is hard to do when you also make it the state song of Florida and don’t even change the words until 2008. 

I want to go back to that Blake poem. It’s very clear that the subject of the poem aspires to nothing more than to first, have God make him as white in spirit as the English child he speaks of, and then on a great future day, to protect the white child and have his unrequited admiration and love finally returned. This imagined English child did not work or pray for this purity and beauty, it was his birthright, an inherent whiteness. And this American woman, born in 1943, who was only 22 years old when the Civil Rights Act was passed, was shaped and set on her course as a girl by those words.

I have not read Glück before today, and while I do write poetry, I am not a poetry critic. I have little to say about her work. The few pieces I’ve seen are familiarly modern; laconic free verse with line breaks and metaphors that conjure images of spirits moving across hazy wild scenes, diffuse colors and light. Like anyone who has received much recognition, she’s loved and hated. 

I keep wondering, though, how a woman who at 5 or 6 years old was shaped by minstrel songs and images, and was so unaware of the implications that she shared that fact uncritically at her Nobel Lecture, performed as a professor. What poems did she lift up from her students? What challenges did she swat down? Did she even have ears to hear poetry that rubbed against those comfortable narratives that are so pervasive in the American consciousness?

This is the danger of teaching “the greats” without the correct tension. We watch shows like “The Man In The High Castle” and are completely unaware of the parallels in our actual life. At one point in the series, the Nazis that control the Eastern United States start a Jahr Null (German for Year Zero) campaign, where they plan to completely erase American history and replace it with propaganda that suited their aims of control and indoctrination. 

We shudder at that idea, while living in the results of a successful Jahr Null campaign right here — the Lost Cause. I won’t recap the full details of how it came to be, but the wives and daughters of Confederate veterans built a retelling of the Civil War that cast their husbands and fathers as noble but doomed warriors of legend, fighting for a beautiful way of life. There’s no mention of the mass enslavement or the unimaginable brutality, or how many white people were living only slightly better than slaves themselves, yet could take comfort in their caste position. Worst of all, this narrative actually won, which we can see when a sitting President in 2020, regardless of who they are, is willing to threaten to withhold military funding if we do not keep Confederate names on our military bases. Can you imagine if we insisted on having General Cornwallis or Benedict Arnold’s name on our military bases? 

I am not advocating for the “cancellation” that the Christian right perfected and of which the left is now so often accused (and sometimes guilty). I am advocating instead for contextualization. We can’t pull at every thread, but we can provide some interdisciplinary context. What era was Blake writing in? What social stratum as he in? How would that shape how he viewed people? Which of his views are outdated? Which outdated views do we still hold on to? I know the best professors are already doing this already. But learning to simultaneously admire great talent and refuse to accept the worldview through which it was filtered is the skill we must acquire as students.

I talk about “living history” a lot. The past reaches constantly into our present, grabs the edges, pulls the frame into a shape that it recognizes, unless we actively work to reframe for our time. And here, in a far future age, Blake’s hands still are shaping white imaginations, thrilling them with the fantasy that the highest aspiration in a Black life is to shelter and protect a luminous white soul, and in return receive a beatific smile of appreciation. 

Bobo not coming back

Bobo not coming back
he mississippi mud covered
he in money and he broke

Bobo not coming back
we not gonna play no more cards
we not dancing cool, fire hydrant fresh
we not gonna race to the store for more candy

Bobo not coming back
y’all not gonna put nobody in jail?
y’all got to shoot up his sign like that?
y’all gonna let sleeping lies dog?
y’all call this great again?

Bobo not coming back
i’ma tell the truth and shame the devil
i’ma carry Bobo inside me
i’ma eat candy on the corner and remember him
i’ma ride my bike and feel the wind on my face
i’ma get to know free

-C. G. Brown
29 September 2020

Inspired by a line from “Lovecraft Country” S1E7

The Talk

What you’ll learn here is important.
Sit quietly, now, and let me explain.
I will show you how this works.

First, be perfect. No errors in diction,
in posture, attire, stride, or movement.
What you’ll learn here is important.

Second, be patient. Watch your grandfather,
mother, brother, daughter, push the rock uphill.
I will show you how this works.

The rock will slip at the top of the hill,
but see! This time it falls not quite so far.
What you’ll learn here is important.

The secret is blood and bone, piled so high,
the rock can slide no further. Progress!
I will show you how this works.

Your ankles’ skin will serve for bootstraps,
and one day, your flesh will shorten the day’s work.
What you’ll learn here is important.
I will show you how this works.

-C. G. Brown
9 April 2018

Y.N.D.

“Your nigger dead.”
Checkmate. A King just got shot.
“Your nigger dead.”
I had to shoot. He was smoked out on that pot.
“Your nigger dead.”
He had a gun, crowbar, toy, a cell phone.
“Your nigger dead.”
He shouldn’t have carried that in front of his home.
“Your nigger dead.”
He was twelve, but he looked like a grown man.
“Your nigger dead.”
He left me no choice. It wasn’t my plan.
“Your nigger dead.”
She shouldn’t have mouthed off at that cop.
“Your nigger dead.”
If you weren’t a criminal, the violence would stop.
“Your nigger dead.”
He shouldn’t have tried to run away.
“Your nigger dead.”
He was a threat, even still as he lay.
“Your nigger dead.”
Selling loosies is a crime.
“Your nigger dead.”
It’s better that we skipped the judge this time.
“Your nigger dead.”
Stop saying you didn’t do nothing, you lie.
“Your nigger dead.”
You come for me, it’s gonna be “Die, Nigger! Die!”
“Your nigger dead.”
You can’t treat Samaritans with respect.
“Your nigger dead.”
She’s a slut. We stone. What else did you expect?
“Your nigger dead.”
Talking about some, “I am”! Who are you?
“Your nigger dead.”
He should spend some time with real Jews.
“Your nigger dead.”
Enemies of the state get crucified.
“Your nigger dead.”
“Your nigger dead.”
“Your nigger dead.”

Naw, death’s gon’ die. We still alive.

-C. G. Brown
4-5 April 2018

As-Is

This house is falling apart.
The paint crinkles, bends backward,
ripples like skin on cold soup.
Beneath, drywall experiences ennui,
waits for a purpose beyond demarcation.
The ceiling and the walls recede.
The floor bends, tilts to one side or the other.

The load-bearing wall talked to me this morning.
She’d had enough of the weight.
She told me how, overwhelmed by the pain,
she whimpered at night. The floors creaked
in sympathy, but then were silent.
The front wall said, “me too,” but offered no buttress.

This house is falling apart.
One day, the occupants who so blithely reside
will find themselves awakened to a crash,
as a wall awkwardly ambles down a suburban side street
and facades, shocked by their loss of bearings,
try not to crush them on the way down.

-C. G. Brown
2 April 2018

Carnival

Something in the smoothness
of machined plastic and polished steel,
something in the perfect warmth
of lights designed when electricity was not tamed,
carried in pockets, on wrists,
when things electric still warranted wonder,
still burned the curious touch like Franklin’s key,
takes me up and away, to filtered film reels
in the mind, to see through their eyes, untainted joy.

Our devices secured, we spin around
in seats engineered to hold us
like a father holds a child, sifting kernels of dread
for fine joy through a sieve of imagined danger.

And even with alert eyes, and encompassing arms,
and higher heights, and bigger drops,
somewhere inside, I am stretched wide with trust,
hurtling impossibly high, six feet above ground,
glowing golden in the encroaching darkness,
with newly-minted wonder.

-C. G. Brown

Catechism

Rorschach pools gather again.
We look outside, breath condensing at the window
as we fervently seek to find The Stranger, our adversary.
We double-lock our doors
as the slate-gray burn singes our nostrils.
At our feet, casings for rosary beads.
We kneel, and bow, and recite our catechism.

“Hail Pistol, full of protection
I need no one but you with me.
Blessed are you among weapons,
and blessed be the fruit of your womb, Bullet.
Holy Pistol, mother of Safety,
cover our weaknesses and fears now
and ward the hour of our death.”

This god does not hear the thump of flesh on concrete,
cannot smell acrid, sweating fear as the lambs run,
cannot taste the blood you feed it.
We look outside, seeking The Stranger,
while those we keep, coddle, then ignore
creep at our backs, mouthing prayers
to a senseless god, and reloading.

-C. G. Brown

Dedicated to far too many.

Gemini (for Eunice and Nina)

Eunice wanted to play.
In a concert hall with the precise
and measured proportions of a cello, she’d sit.
Fine, fine, this Bösendorfer, waiting to serve,
to sing at the mistress’s command.

Instead, Nina sang.
Through nights, cloven hooved,
this toe black, that one white,
’til dawn, driving a baritone up Jacob’s ladder
until it spread across the sky, electric, angelic.

Rage as unkempt as lightning.
White boys’ stares and freshly licked lips
would have to do for refined applause.
Another martini, on the house,
for flowers at her feet.

And through the chaos of her Gemini self, this
A pulsing, gravitic heart of a neutron star.
An angel descends the ladder, bandoliers and Afros,
seeking the doors where the blood
has been carefully scrubbed away.

And this, through the chaos of her reclaimed self.
Standing on the shore, facing west,
tracing a lyric reversal of the course of precious cargo,
and watching a crackle in the sky.
“Like me, like me,” she must have thought.

We are left, then, commissioned to carry,
to run the voodoo down, to watch
where the lightning meets the sea, and imagine
if they had just let Eunice play
how wonderful that would be.

-C. G. Brown