Wordsmith Wednesday: Carl Sandburg’s “Chicago”

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Our words this week are from Carl Sandburg’s famous poem “Chicago.”

They are:

“Hog Butcher for the World,
Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat,
Player with Railroads and the Nation’s Freight Handler;
Stormy, husky, brawling,
City of the Big Shoulders:

They tell me you are wicked and I believe them, for I
have seen your painted women under the gas lamps
luring the farm boys.
And they tell me you are crooked and I answer: Yes, it
is true I have seen the gunman kill and go free to
kill again.
And they tell me you are brutal and my reply is: On the
faces of women and children I have seen the marks
of wanton hunger.
And having answered so I turn once more to those who
sneer at this my city, and I give them back the sneer
and say to them:
Come and show me another city with lifted head singing
so proud to be alive and coarse and strong and cunning.
Flinging magnetic curses amid the toil of piling job on
job, here is a tall bold slugger set vivid against the
little soft cities”

I am not a well-travelled person, but nowhere feels like Chicago to me. I’ve ran as a kid through its tiny south suburban backyards and scraps of forest, ridden my bike down over busted curbs on avenues that stretch straight from the city to the cornfields, started high school nights in farmland and ended them in a packed basement venue on the north side, cruised slow down side streets on the south and west sides, felt intimidated and invigorated by the bustle of downtown. I’ve driven down Lake Shore at night and stopped to spit in the water. My family has called no other place in this country home for generations. Late third wave immigrants, they walked the same streets as Sandburg. At least some of my family butchered hogs in the Union Yards. There is still a coarseness and a strength to the city not acknowledged in campaign speech propaganda or in the talking points of ignorant media pundits. Outside forces stay trying to exploit the city, but they underestimate its cunning. They mishear the vitality in its high hats and bass knocks, in its feedback and raised fists, in its screeching airbrakes and late night cries. They sneer at its schools and desperate students, at its streets and crying mothers, at its sheer determination to keep existing in face of forces that want it to fail, inside and out.

But I’ve tasted giardiniera submerged in red sauce on a summer night. I’ve smelled exhaust mixed with sweat and something sweet cooking inside. I’ve seen the wonder in the eyes of a child at Kershaw Elementary. I’ve felt the warmth in the smile and salutation of the cashier at Harold’s. I’ve heard the ancient rhythms of buckets beating out the song of the city. A century after Sandburg, Chicago still sneers proudly above big shoulders at the charlatans and cowards that keep its name in their mouth.

– NR

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Wordsmith Wednesday: 2Pac’s “Brenda’s Got A Baby”

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The words this week are the lyrics to 2Pac’s song “Brenda’s Got A Baby” from his 1992 debut record 2Pacalypse Now on Interscope Records.

“I hear Brenda’s got a baby, but Brenda’s barely got a brain
A damn shame, the girl can hardly spell her name
“That’s not our problem, that’s up to Brenda’s family”
Well, let me show you how it affects our whole community
Now Brenda really never knew her moms
And her dad was a junkie, puttin’ death into his arms
It’s sad, ’cause I bet Brenda doesn’t even know
Just ’cause you’re in the ghetto doesn’t mean you can’t grow
But oh, that’s a thought, my own revelation
Do whatever it takes to resist the temptation
Brenda got herself a boyfriend
Her boyfriend was her cousin, now let’s watch the joy end
She tried to hide her pregnancy, from her family
Who really didn’t care to see, or give a damn if she
Went out and had a church of kids
As long as when the check came they got first dibs
Now Brenda’s belly’s gettin’ bigger
But no one seems to notice any change in her figure
She’s twelve years old and she’s havin’ a baby
In love with a molester, who’s sexin’ her crazy
And yet and she thinks that he’ll be with her forever
And dreams of a world where the two of them are together
Whatever, he left her and she had the baby solo
She had it on the bathroom floor and didn’t know, so
She didn’t know what to throw away and what to keep
She wrapped the baby up and threw him in a trash heap
I guess she thought she’d get away, wouldn’t hear the cries
She didn’t realize how much the little baby had her eyes
Now the baby’s in the trash heap, bawlin’
Momma can’t help her, but it hurt to hear her callin’
Brenda wants to run away
Momma say you makin’ me lose pay
There’s social workers here every day
Now Brenda’s gotta make her own way
Can’t go to her family, they won’t let her stay
No money, no babysitter, she couldn’t keep a job
She tried to sell crack but end up gettin’ robbed
So now, what’s next? There ain’t nothin’ left to sell
So she sees sex as a way of leavin’ hell
It’s payin’ the rent, so she really can’t complain
Prostitute, found slain, and Brenda’s her name
She’s got a baby”

This is pure storytelling from a figure who remains legend and somewhat of an enigma in modern American culture, partially due to the juxtaposition of his self-ascribed thug image and demonization by high-profile conservative figures with the skilled, thoughtful, and emotional poetry found throughout his body of work. In just under two minutes on this track, Tupac Shakur creates a character to discuss poverty, sexual abuse, community responsibility, teenage pregnancy, and other social issues from a close-up, personal perspective rather than through the dehumanization of a headline. He is an observant, intelligent street reporter explaining the root causes, blending the personal with the political, rather than exploiting the tragic effects like the media often does. Only twenty when these words were released and only twenty-five when he died, Shakur was a poet at heart navigating his past, his reality, his imperfections, and the challenges of his/our time with an open heart and an open mouth. The world needed Tupac to tell these stories, his stories. We needed to see him grow, to reconcile his gentle with his gangster, his poet with his panther. I hope there’s heaven for a G.

– NR

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Wordsmith Wednesday: Brand New’s “137”

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This weeks Wordsmith Wednesday comes from Brand New’s song “137” off their newly released album Science Fiction.

It goes:

“Under the ocean
next to a boiling vent
he’s none the wiser
Earth’s only resident.

It piled up
Man, it was wall to wall
blink of an eye
and all the problems solved.”

We’ve become accustomed to and eerily familiar with the phrase “mutually assured destruction,” knowing it as a possibility in the past and a constant shadow on the future. With these words, Jesse Lacey paints an end-of the world scenario, one where we have created our own destruction through a product we have birthed. This is not far from the present. With the tense state that the world is in, that we are in with each other, the rashness and lack of thought that are put into detrimental decisions made by our government, a slip of a finger is no longer just a possibility. Launching a missile to destroy a whole population, to “fix” a problem, becomes an actual solution.

Though these lines deal with a scientific apocalyptic narrative, the song also questions how a god, any god, could have allowed for a deadly weapon, one that has caused so much destruction, to be created. How could a higher being, who is constantly described as benevolent and just, sit idly while we blow each other up? In the scenario that Lacey describes, this is the exact goal. A way to ensure full destruction. All the problems solved.

– KK

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Wordsmith Wednesday: Rage Against The Machine “Bulls On Parade”

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Our words this week come from Rage Against The Machine‘s song “Bulls on Parade” off their 1996 album Evil Empire.

The words are:

“Weapons, not food, not homes, not shoes
not need, just feed the war cannibal animal
I walk from corner to the rubble that used to be a library
line up to the mind cemetery now”

As a kid, Zack de la Rocha’s lyrics on the radio were my first unconcious introduction to anything resembling radical American political thought, planting seeds about corrupt government (“Testify”), brutality by racist police (“Killing In The Name”), and exploitation for greed (“Sleep Now In The Fire”) in my head that would germinate into adolescent opinions during the Bush Era. Rage Against The Machine and The Battle Of Los Angeles both served as catalysts to the development of my personal politics and interest in alternative histories before an introduction to Howard Zinn at sixteen gave some structure and solid argument to de la Rocha’s anger. However, it was always these lines that stuck out to me as a boy growing up in the shadow of wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, specifically the imagery of a destroyed library. The juxtaposition of war and ignorance against learning and care is a relationship that has only become stronger and clearer as I’ve grown up in a world where the United States has been at constant, endless, expensive war without any clear objective or exit strategy. For over half my life now, we have had troops on the ground in Afghanistan fighting, and dying, in a war on terrorist organizations that essentially fuels itself by providing propaganda for these organizations with U.S. military presence. Just this week there has been a presidential call for an increase in troops. Eisenhower is ignored, Halliburton is forgotten, and the military-industrial complex chugs on. This cycle is pushed forward by politicians and pundits championing American safety, strength, and prosperity while children in parts of this country go hungry, homeless, and hopeless. Unfortunately for those kids, feeding, clothing, and empowering the poor has little of the perceived or real political and economic benefits that war can provide to the powerful elite, so they just keep rallying around the family with a pocket full of shells.

– NR

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Wordsmith Wednesday: George Saunders’ “The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil”

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Our words this Wednesday come from George Saunders’ 2005 novella The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil.

The excerpt is:

“Suddenly Phil didn’t seem like quite so much of a nobody to the other Outer Hornerites. What kind of nobody was so vehement, and used so many confusing phrases with so much certainty, and was so completely accurate about how wonderful and generous and under-appreciated they were?

‘Boy oh boy,’ said Freeda.

‘He just comes right out and says it,’ said Melvin.

‘Thank goodness someone finally has,’ said Larry.

‘As for you Inner Hornerites!’ bellowed Phil. ‘Please take heed: You are hereby testing the limits of our legendary generosity, because of how you are, which is so very opposite of us. Friends, take a look at these losers! If they are as good as us, why do they look so much worse than us? Look how they look! Do they look valorous and noble and huge like us, or do they look sad and weak and puny?”

If some of the rhetoric in this excerpt seems to echo what you’re hearing in the current political discourse, that’s because the language of nationalism and it’s dumber, more violent cousin, jingoism, often rest on the vilification of the “Other.” This is the language you heard on the campaign trail and it’s the mindset behind border walls, travel bans, and threats of nuclear war. Throughout the book, Phil’s populist approach and appeal to Outer Hornerites, similar to that of Trump, is almost entirely built on expressing their superiority over Inner Hornerites, of using single incidents or accidents to generalize about “Them” and using fear to quell any dissidence among the Outer Hornerites themselves. Originally meant to be a children’s story in response to a challenge to write a book where all the characters are conglomerate objects, The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil uses satire to simplify, and clarify, factors that lead to conflict, subjugation, injustice, and, in this case, genocide. This story’s cautions against blind faith in authority, national hubris, sensationalist media, and compliance with injustice seem a lesson to navigating our current sociopolitical landscape, a shifting lesson I’m learning every day. I don’t have the answers, but be careful of those who try to win your heart and mind by vehemently spouting confusing phrases with certainty.

– NR

saunders

Wordsmith Wednesday:

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This week’s Wordsmith Wednesday is an excerpt from Hope Jahren’s novel Lab Girl.

It reads:

“Time has also changed me, my perception of my tree, and my perception of my tree’s perception of itself. Science has taught me that everything is more complicated than we first assume, and that being able to derive happiness from discovery is a recipe for a beautiful life. It has also convinced me that carefully writing everything down is the only real defense we have against forgetting something important that once was and is no more, including the spruce tree that should have outlived me but did not.”

Winter has always felt like the time of year that we are meant to look inward, self-reflect, and evaluate our surroundings. Recently, however, I’ve constantly found that to be more accurate of the summertime. When everyone is out and present and attempting to extract every bit of life they can out of every minute of the day. That is when I find myself to be searching for happiness, for what will satiate that desire to be satisfied with my own existence and what it has culminated to. It is difficult to pause in this time of everyone’s constant joyous celebration, of movement, of momentum, and reflect on our perspectives and what we have gathered over the course of this time on this planet, but it is simultaneously pivotal in shaping our understanding of our surroundings and being able to derive happiness even from the most confusing/darkest/tumultuous of times. I write to remember these times, the difficult and the prosperous. To remind myself to never forget to reflect on the entire landscape and not just the single object in my immediate line of sight.

– KK

Jehran

Wordsmith Wednesday: Kendrick Lamar’s “LUST.”

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Our words this week come from Kendrick Lamar’s song “LUST.” from his latest record “DAMN.”

The words are:

“We all woke up, tryna tune to the daily news
Lookin’ for confirmation, hopin’ election wasn’t true
All of us worried, all of us buried, and the feeling’s deep
None of us married to his proposal, make us feel cheap
Still and sad, distraught and mad, tell the neighbor ’bout it
Bet they agree, parade the streets with your voice proudly
Time passin’, things change
Revertin’ back to our daily programs
Stuck in our ways, lust”

On a collection of songs built around breathing life and form into broad human themes, Lamar engages lust not just as a sexual concept but also one of desiring the easy, the pleasurable, the lazily indulgent. The self-centered default. He reflects on this concept in men, women, and himself before dropping the above words at the end of the final verse. These lines reflect something essential and troubling about the recent US presidential election and the national response in the months that followed. After clenched stomachs and disbelief came genuine discussion and community building efforts, energetic and directed and productive. But sustained, unsexy resistance is hard. Legs start to hurt and throats go hoarse. Victories are small and meaningful outcomes require a marathon. Time passes. Normalization begins. Constant engagement and outrage get exhausting and complacency starts to return to those privileged enough to afford it and to some that can’t. Back to the default. So, while it may be human nature to seek the comfort of the self-centered action, real growth requires personal sacrifice for collective progress, less lust and more love. I’m definitely guilty of making the selfish choice in the face of greater injustice, but I’ve also made sacrifices to reach out and pull others up. It’s right, but it’s hard. Damn.

– NR

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