Wordsmith Wednesday: Patti Smith’s M Train

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Our words this Wednesday come from Patti Smith​’s M Train.

They are:

“I hate being confined, especially when it’s for my own good.”

Presented almost as an aside in reference to trying to slyly stay unbuckled on an airplane, this sentence quietly links foundational themes in the text and illuminates them like the author clicking on a lamp in the corner of the room you’ve been sharing to show you more clearly the details in the chairs in which you both sit. In a book that is in large ways about place, space, and an oscillation within those concepts from the joys of Home to the omnipresent itch to roam independent, these words highlight an elemental juxtaposition in Smith between her love of comfortable routine—coffee at her favorite NYC table, her minimalist wardrobe, the love for her late husband Fred and their Michigan house—and the need to feel the wild pulse of world, especially through traveling to places once inhabited by artists she admires. There is sureness and self-awareness in this conflict that makes these little imbedded revelations in Smith’s writing more intimate, her fiercely imperfect independence human and alive. Bristling sincerity and curious uncertainty give texture to the prose that makes the reader feel as if they’re carefully but confidently being shown around a friend’s unfinished house, snapshots and nostalgalia picked up along the way. Smith acknowledges inconsistencies in construction and decor but never apologizes, rarely even attempting to meaningfully explain the vision for the final product, possibly because there never has been one except for it to be completely untied to expectation. We just watch her build the house around us and herself, finding beauty in the bent nails, rusted hinges, and knowledge it will never be done, getting lost enough in the ramshackle romance not to notice Patti herself has thrown on her black coat and gone out in search of coffee just when things seemed to be coming together. – NR

pattismith

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Wordsmith Wednesday: Natalie Diaz’ “My Brother at 3 A.M.”

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Our words this week are Natalie Diaz’ poem “My Brother at 3 A.M.” from her collection When My Brother Was an Aztec on Copper Canyon Press.

It reads:

He sat cross-legged, weeping on the steps
when Mom unlocked and opened the front door.
        O God, he said. O God.
                He wants to kill me, Mom.
When Mom unlocked and opened the front door
at 3 a.m., she was in her nightgown, Dad was asleep.
        He wants to kill me, he told her,
                looking over his shoulder.
3 a.m. and in her nightgown, Dad asleep,
What’s going on? she asked. Who wants to kill you?
        He looked over his shoulder.
                The devil does. Look at him, over there.
She asked, What are you on? Who wants to kill you?
The sky wasn’t black or blue but the green of a dying night.
        The devil, look at him, over there.
                He pointed to the corner house.
The sky wasn’t black or blue but the dying green of night.
Stars had closed their eyes or sheathed their knives.
        My brother pointed to the corner house.
                His lips flickered with sores.
Stars had closed their eyes or sheathed their knives.
O God, I can see the tail, he said. O God, look.
        Mom winced at the sores on his lips.
                It’s sticking out from behind the house.
O God, see the tail, he said. Look at the goddamned tail.
He sat cross-legged, weeping on the front steps.
        Mom finally saw it, a hellish vision, my brother.
                O God, O God, she said.
Part of a collection wrapped around themes of family, addiction, and Native identity, Diaz builds a space that is spiritual in its commonality, the mirror between real and surreal shivering on the masculinity and meth use of a brother. This poem blends those worlds in a way that sets the fears of the addict and the addict adjacent next to each other, both seeing the devil in the flickering in the dead of reservation night. A silent audience, the darkness surrounds and absorbs everything between the mother and her son: the familiarity, the desperation, the confusion, the love. Linguistically, repetition wraps a peculiar calm around the frantic energy of the son, peeling back the mystery of addict behavior with a knowing hand both clinical and caring. Loving an addict can warp expectations of normality, deadening nerves past shock and exhausting empathy into apathy. Diaz expresses this beautifully through her approach to the erratic, irrational behavior of the poem’s eponymous brother: her descriptions of the man’s addiction, much like the behavior of the mother, is without exaggeration or judgement. Her’s is the deadened, hesitant compassion of one that’s seen the devil too often to be still be scared of his tail, let alone the spitting lips he splits. – NR

Natalie Diaz

Wordsmith Wednesday: Kaveh Akbar’s “An Apology”

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This week’s Wordsmith Wednesday is Kaveh Akbar’s poem “An Apology“ from his collection entitled Calling a Wolf a Wolf.

It reads:

“Lord, I meant to be helpless, sex-
less as a comma, quiet as
cotton floating on a pond. Instead,
I charged into desire like a
tiger sprinting off the edge of
the world. My ancestors shot bones
out of cannons and built homes where
they landed. This is to say, I
was born the king of nothing, pulled
out from nothing like a carrot
slipped from soil. I am still learning
the local law: don’t hurt something
that can smile, don’t hold any grief
except your own. My first time—brown
arms, purple lips, lush as a gun—-
we slumped into each other’s thighs.
She said duset daram, mano
tanha bezar—I love you, leave
me alone. See? There I go scab-
picking again. You should just hang
me in a museum. I’ll pose
as a nasty historical
facet, wave at the cameras, lecture
only in the rhetoric of
a victim. As a boy I tore out
the one-hundred-and-nine pages
about Hell in my first Qur’an.
Bountiful bloomscattering Lord,
I could feel you behind my eyes
and under my tongue, shocking me
nightly like an old battery.
What did I need with Hell? Now that
I’ve sucked you wrinkly like a thumb,
I can barely be bothered to
check in. Will I ever even know
when my work is done? I’m almost
ready to show you the mess I’ve made.”

“I’m sorry” tends to show up in our everyday vocabulary, similarly to “umm” and “like” and “what’s your name again?” when we’ve been taught to be apologetic for who we are and how we feel. We find ourselves in a tug of war between what we think, want to say, how we want to act, and what is expected of us based on social, sexual, religious, et al expectations. As much as we want/hope/try to fit into the mold or perception that our parents/friends/significant others have of us, when that is not who we truly are, our thoughts and actions aren’t always able to align. We speak out of turn, we feel too eager, too energetic, too prepared. We say our sorrys.

We want so badly to be someone else or discover who we are, learn from our past, but during that process we find out we are is a whole bunch of wires all mixed up together never connecting to the right plug. We are human and we want a range of uncertain desires that make us feel like pieces of puzzles that don’t fit together, that we’ve cut apart to line up. This mess is something we must love first before being able to present to others. We must find our roots, our initial selves, and hold fast or it will always be an inward fight. – KK

akbar

Wordsmith Wednesday: Eileen Myles’ “An American Poem”

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Our words this week come from the end of Eileen Myles’ poem “An American Poem” from their 1991 collection, Not Me.

The excerpt reads:

“I am a Kennedy.
Shouldn’t we all be Kennedys?
This nation’s greatest city
is home of the business-
man and home of the
rich artist. People with
beautiful teeth who are not
on the streets. What shall
we do about this dilemma?
Listen, I have been educated.
I have learned about Western
Civilization. Do you know
what the message of Western
Civilization is? I am alone.
Am I alone tonight?
I don’t think so. Am I
the only one with bleeding gums
tonight. Am I the only
homosexual in this room
tonight. Am I the only
one whose friends have
died, are dying now.
And my art can’t
be supported until it is
gigantic, bigger than
everyone else’s, confirming
the audience’s feeling that they are
alone. That they alone
are good, deserved
to buy the tickets
to see this Art.
Are working,
are healthy, should
survive, and are
normal. Are you
normal tonight? Everyone
here, are we all normal.
It is not normal for
me to be a Kennedy.
But I am no longer
ashamed, no longer
alone. I am not
alone tonight because
we are all Kennedys.
And I am your President.”

Assuming a fictional role in an American political dynasty, Myles allows themselves to interrogate identity, both personal and national, in a voice that naturally oscillates between sincerity and sarcasm. A real-life blue collar New Englander, they use autobiographical content about being a young queer poet experiencing the class contradictions of New York City juxtaposed with their assumed identity as a closeted member of the (in)famous Kennedy family to complicate the typical idea of success as power, beauty, wealth, and fame with the realities of the mass, of the struggle, of the poor and diseased, of the imperfect normal. With this poem, Eileen Myles (who ran a campaign as the first “openly female” presidential write-in campaign the year after this poem was published) empowers the average in the face of the elite, pushes on cracks in persistent political and social structures, and challenges the idea of Americanness itself, all in a style that fosters messy love and honest dialogue rather than nihilism or didacticism. As the actual Kennedy family continues to whet its elite white teeth on our country’s political stage, Myles’ reminder to recognize the whole beautiful, bruised, transforming face of this nation as its truer identity is one that can continue to guide us as we navigate into a more empowered, inclusive, and just image of America. – NR

myles

Wordsmith Wednesday: Kurt Vonnegut “Wailing Shall Be in All Streets”

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Our words this week come from Kurt Vonnegut’s essay “Wailing Shall Be in All Streets” from his posthumous collection, Armageddon in Retrospect.

The excerpt reads:

“The facile reply to great groans such as mine is the most hateful of all cliches, ‘fortunes of war,’ and another, ‘They asked for it. All they understand is force.’ Who asked for it? The only thing who understands is force? Believe me, it is not easy to rationalize the stamping out of vineyards where the grapes of wrath are stored when gathering up babies in bushel baskets or helping a man dig where he thinks his wife may be buried.”

A veteran of WWII taken as a POW during the Battle of the Bulge, Vonnegut’s writings on war and the institutional machineries that create it have informed my perspective on pacifism and patriotism since adolescence, specifically in thinking about the human costs for soldiers and civilians. Vonnegut spent the first part of his career writing directly or indirectly about the sickening inhumanity and personal trauma of the American firebombing of Dresden, a mission that killed tens of thousands of innocent people, including women and children. He’d spent the days during the bombing hiding in a slaughterhouse and the days after working alongside Germans to search for survivors while stacking burnt bodies for mass cremation. The American media hardly spared a headline for victims and vets alike, the government sparing even less. I can only imagine Vonnegut’s anger and despair at this, a young man recovering from the suicide of his mother. His humor, calm criticism, and emotional generosity in the face of trauma taught me a ton on how to navigate heaviness and injustice, how to use art and voice to make something half a century ago halfway around the world feel present and vital and human.

Despite the art of people like Vonnegut and idea that we are the most advanced civilization in the history of our planet, the United States has been at war in one capacity or another for well over half of my life. Recently we elected to give an unstable old man access to the largest nuclear arsenal in history, a cyberbully with the foreign relations tact of an aggressive fifth grader in the schoolyard and the empathetic capacity of a rock. The fear of the Cold War is creeping back into the collective psyche through the language of politicians and the media. So, as the flag waving of Veterans’ Day fades until next year’s brief show of nationalist pride and social media posts, I suggest we build a statue of PFC Vonnegut holding a basket of burnt babies in front of the White House, the Capitol Building, and the Pentagon with a plaque simply saying “The Fortunes of War.” Just as a friendly reminder.

– NR

kvonne

Wordsmith Wednesday: Kenneth Calhoun’s Black Moon

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This week’s Wordsmith Wednesday comes from Kenneth Calhoun’s novel Black Moon.

It reads:

“Maybe it was the hurricane upsetting a sealed storehouse of voodoo, Dr. Ferrell considered as his daughter hovered over them.

He distracted himself with his ongoing mantra of maybes.

Maybe it was the toxic dust from fallen towers, the ash creeping into our lungs. Maybe it was some ancient spore released by the melting ice. Maybe it was the earthquakes and the tsunamis they summoned. Maybe it was the hole in the ozone, the collapse of the upper atmosphere. Maybe it was the betrayal by the banks. Maybe it was the dead surpassing the living. Maybe it was the ground choking on garbage and waste. Maybe it was the oil blasting freely into the ocean, or the methane thawing at the bottom of the sea. Maybe it was the overload of information, the swarms of data generated by every human gesture. Maybe it was the networking craze, the resurrection of dead friendships and memories meant to be lost, now resurfacing like rusted shipwrecks to reclaim our attention and scramble our sense of time.”

We’re constantly handed so many options within every interaction that our brain is wired to ask the possibilities of each outcome. The “whatifs” and the “maybes,” the vast landscape of opportunities, they have begun to hinder us, to seep into all aspects of our daily life. As humans, it’s natural for us to want to explore the future and the past for answers. What this ends up doing though is stopping us from living in the present. We are unable to move past certain life choices because we are ceaselessly racking our brains searching for every other decision we could have made, every cause that could have led up to this effect, and how it could have been different.

Calhoun brings us into a presently apocalyptic world that is inhabited mostly by people whose thoughts are never-ending, whose brains cease to shut off at night, who don’t sleep. This “mantra of maybes” is one way that this disease takes over people’s minds and tips them into a sleepless abyss, filled with ramblings and incoherent monologues. Though terrifying to see on paper, this is not far from our own thoughts, the neurons in our brain firing constantly looking for answers to our own questions. Dr. Ferrell embodies the beginning stages of this process, shows us how getting wrapped up in these thoughts, though sometimes important to ask, can steer us away from living in the present, from returning to a collected state of calm and moving forward in action, not solely in questions and thoughts.

– KK

calhoun

Wordsmith Wednesday: Stephen King’s IT

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Today’s Wordsmith Wednesday is from Stephen King​’s “It.”

The passage reads:

“The energy you drew on so extravagantly when you were a kid, the energy you thought would never exhaust itself—that slipped away somewhere between eighteen and twenty-four, to be replaced by something much duller, something as bogus as a coke high: purpose, maybe, or goals, or whatever rah-rah Junior Chamber of Commerce word you wanted to use. It was no big deal; it didn’t go all at once, with a bang. And maybe that’s the scary part. How you don’t stop being a kid all at once, with a big explosive bang, like one of that clown’s trick balloons with the Burma-Shave slogans on the sides. The kid in you just leaked out, like the air out of a tire. And one day you looked in the mirror and there was a grownup looking back at you. You could go on wearing bluejeans, you could keep going to Springsteen and Seger concerts, you could dye your hair, but that was a grownup’s face in the mirror just the same. It all happened while you were asleep, maybe, like a visit from the Tooth Fairy.”

Known in pop culture as a master of modern horror, King’s ability to evoke the magical, endless quality of childhood relationships and events may be his true gift. His ability to make tangible the formless, vibrant feeling of growing up naturally builds characters you invest in because you can see yourself and your life in those experiences, regardless of the setting. Children and characters with mental abnormalities often occupy a role connecting the rigid adult world and the supernatural in King’s stories precisely because they have not been boxed in by the cold comfort of dead logic, but rather view logic as just one tool in conquering fear in all its forms.

I’m currently past the backend of King’s aforementioned transition period and, thus, lie squarely in early adulthood. Reading this passage gave words to something that’s been happening in front of my mind for the last few years. I’ve felt the air leaving my wheels, in morning commutes, pointless meetings, endless deadend job applications. However, I feel fortunate in that I at least have known there’s a hole to be patched, with friends, art, learning, love. I know the kid in me will keep leaking out, slow and steady, but I’m going to keep rolling as long as I can.

– NR

sking