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

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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

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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

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Wordsmith Wednesday: Kelly Link’s “The Summer People”

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This week’s Wordsmith Wednesday stems from Kelly Link’s short story “The Summer People,” in her collection Get In Trouble.

It reads:

“When you do for other people (Fran’s daddy said once upon a time when he was drunk, before he got religion) things that they could do for themselves but they pay you to do it instead, you both will get used to it.

Sometimes they don’t even pay you, and that’s charity. At first, charity isn’t comfortable, but it gets so it is. After some while, maybe you start to feel wrong when you ain’t doing it for them, just one more thing, and always one more thing after that. Might be you start to feel as you’re valuable. Because they need you. And the more they need you, the more you need them. Things tip out of balance. You need to remember that, Franny. Sometimes you’re on one side of the equation, and sometimes you’re on the other. You need to know where you are and what you owe. Unless you can balance that out, here is where y’all stay.”

So much of life is transactional. Currency can take form as physical money, or time, or advice given and taken. We often forget that at the base of almost every interaction is an exchange of goods. If we forget this, if we begin to give and give and give, we lose ourselves in the process. Our individuality becomes intertwined with those whom we are looking after.

In “The Summer People,” Link explores the loss of identity and individuality within a family and, particularly, at a young age. Franny is indebted to The Summer People. Her Ma was indebted to them. There is no other life, there is no other option, she must always listen and do what they ask. They gift her with useless, beautiful, unique, outdated objects/toys/knick-knacks, as a thank you for scouring the city for their needs. Though this relationship has tilted to one side, this is all she knows, this connection with The Summer People is what defines her.

It is easy to lose ourselves in our relationships with others, allowing what we do for them to validate us as human beings. Reminding ourselves where we stand in the midst of these transactions helps us to keep a firmer grasp on our individual identity.

– KK

Kelly-Link

Wordsmith Wednesday: Foxing’s “Indica”

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This week’s Wordsmith Wednesday comes from the song “Indica” off of Foxing’s album Dealer.

It reads:

“And if so, do I haunt their parents’ dreams?
And in so, am I summarized by sounds of young lungs screams?
Their young ones screams (…)

And if so would I bring their parents peace
And if so, could I give back the sounds of their children’s screams?
Let go of what I’ve seen”

Often when we think of what defines us, we see it as what we surround ourselves with or what we hope people’s perspectives of us are. Our actual physical actions and consequences are peripheral. Though here, within these lyrics, we are faced with the lingering, haunting effects of what we have done. How it feels as though it becomes and defines us. Foxing points to the unanswerable questions we are faced with when we return from war and the constant questioning and enduring reminders of our actions. The immeasurable weight that is on our shoulders and the inconceivable horrors we have committed and attempted, successfully or not, to come to terms with, these are the things that sometimes feel as tough they define us. A past that is out of our control. A past that we can’t shake off. A past that can endure as a summary of our existence.

Though often impossible to move out of the forefront of your mind, these past actions do not have to act as our identity. We are more than that as long as we allow ourselves to be. We can not change what has already happened but can change what we do next.

– KK

foxing

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: Danny Brown’s “Fields”

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The words we’re highlighting this week are from Danny Brown’s song “Fields” from his 2011 album XXX on Fool’s Gold Records.

The lines are:

“It’s like they all forgot man, nobody care about us
That why we always end up in prison instead of college
Living in the system, working kitchen for chump change
Lost in the streets, niggas playing that gun game
Where nobody wins, just a bunch of mommas losing
Dead body in the field, nobody heard the shooting
We living in the streets where the options is limited
Cause its burnt building instead of jobs and businesses”

When I first saw/heard Danny Brown in my dorm room back in 2011, I was immediately drawn to his whole thing: busted tooth smile, weirdo hair, rock star attitude. His approach all felt genuine, like he was in his own lane lyrically/stylistically and was inviting you to ride passenger as he swerved full speed. That’s why I’m highlighting a chunk of a verse that juxtaposes the blown out bizarro bravado Brown is typically known for. The media loves to hold up statistics of violence in major cities, especially within black communities, but hardly ever makes the logical jump away from race to socioeconomics. Urban poverty, like that found in Danny Brown’s home city of Detroit, breeds a culture of drugs/gangs/violence because to some those are the unfortunate means to the most American end: money. When traditional economies don’t support citizen’s families or simply don’t exist, alternative economies emerge. Through these words, Brown provides a window for outsiders to see the root causes of the crime scenes they see on the nightly news, humanizing harsh realities that networks sensationalize for the story. If politicians started listening to poetry instead of pundits, maybe they’d learn that paychecks do more to curb violence than police do.

– NR

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