• "The pagent is vast, and I clutch at tiny details, inadequate" Dorothea Lange

Sunday, June 15, 2014

In memory of Jimmy Scott (1925-2014): one of the finest singers of all time

“I’ve been called a queer, a little girl, an old woman, a freak, and a fag. As a singer, I’ve been criticized for sounding feminine. They say I don’t belong in any category, male or female, pop or jazz. But early on, I saw my suffering as my salvation.”

Jimmy Scott 

from his biography “Faith in Time: The Life of Jimmy Scott" written by David Ritz.

Jimmy Scott, who possessed one of the most most amazing singing voices in American jazz and popular music, died this week aged 88.

Scott was once described in the New York Times as “perhaps the most unjustly ignored American singer of the 20th century.”

Jimmy Scott sang with a high-pitched voice and a deep understanding of lyrics. He sang at slow tempos and elongated vowels, bringing fresh emotional meaning to songs. Listening to his songs has a haunting effect.

The jazz critic Will Friedwald wrote:
“Yet there’s a deeper question than even that, one which defies any attempt at a reasonable explanation, and it is, how does Jimmy Scott move us so deeply and profoundly?”
Listening to his haunting and spine chilling version of the song Nothing Compares to You, made famous by Sinead O'Connor, confirms the accuracy of Friewald's comments.

Scott's career was marked by hard luck, sorrow and decades of neglect. He found fame in the 1940's and 1950's, but after contractual disputes, his career floundered and he was forced to work as a lift operator and care attendant before his revival in the 1990's, by the time he was well into his sixties. 

Scott continued to perform well into his 80's, often singing in a wheelchair.

The singer songwriter and producer Joe Henry wrote this on his Facebook page:
jimmy possessed a voice so unique that most every description of his artistry begins with an attempt to dispel its mystery; but it was not something to be unraveled; rather, a divine instrument that one follows like a light out of darkness, the rhythmic invention of his phrasing so supple and sublime that it ran like water uphill as well as down. 
i had the opportunity to produce two songs for jimmy a few years ago; and though they have yet to be heard publicly, they stand as work i am as proud of as any music in which i have ever participated: a sacred morning in my basement where nearly every one stood silently in tears, as the first song played back. 
all except jimmy, that is; who simply beamed and nodded, waved me over, pulled my ear close to his lips, and said, "oh, let's just stay down here all day!"

Articles in memory of Jimmy Scott are here, here, here, here, here and here.  

Monday, June 9, 2014

Celebrating the poetry of Maya Angelou (1928-2014)

"writing becomes a greater life"

" You should be angry. If you are not angry you are either a stone or you are too sick to be angry. But you must not be bitter. Use that anger. You write it, you paint it, you dance it, you march it, you vote it, you talk it"

A Zorro Man
By Maya Angelou

in the wombed room
silk purple drapes
flash a light as subtle
as your hands before 

in the covered lens
I catch a 
clitoral image of
your general inhabitation
long and like a
late dawn in winter

this clean mirror
traps me unwilling
in a gone time
when I was love
and you were booted and brave
and trembling for me.
Million Man March Poem
Maya Angelou
The night has been long,
The wound has been deep,
The pit has been dark,
And the walls have been steep.

Under a dead blue sky on a distant beach,
I was dragged by my braids just beyond your reach.
Your hands were tied, your mouth was bound,
You couldn't even call out my name.
You were helpless and so was I,
But unfortunately throughout history
You've worn a badge of shame.

I say, the night has been long,
The wound has been deep,
The pit has been dark
And the walls have been steep.

But today, voices of old spirit sound
Speak to us in words profound,
Across the years, across the centuries,
Across the oceans, and across the seas.
They say, draw near to one another,
Save your race.
You have been paid for in a distant place,
The old ones remind us that slavery's chains
Have paid for our freedom again and again.

The night has been long,
The pit has been deep,
The night has been dark,
And the walls have been steep.

The hells we have lived through and live through still,
Have sharpened our senses and toughened our will.
The night has been long.
This morning I look through your anguish
Right down to your soul.
I know that with each other we can make ourselves whole.
I look through the posture and past your disguise,
And see your love for family in your big brown eyes.

I say, clap hands and let's come together in this meeting ground,
I say, clap hands and let's deal with each other with love,
I say, clap hands and let us get from the low road of indifference,
Clap hands, let us come together and reveal our hearts,
Let us come together and revise our spirits,
Let us come together and cleanse our souls,
Clap hands, let's leave the preening
And stop impostering our own history.
Clap hands, call the spirits back from the ledge,
Clap hands, let us invite joy into our conversation,
Courtesy into our bedrooms,
Gentleness into our kitchen,
Care into our nursery.

The ancestors remind us, despite the history of pain
We are a going-on people who will rise again.

And still we rise

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Remembering Tienanmen Square June 1989 and the courage of those who defied Chinese tanks

Photograph by Stuart Franklin/Magnum.

The photo on the right was taken from a different vantage point and shows the man in the background preparing to confront the tanks (AP Photo Terril Jones)

Today is the 25th anniversary of the brutal Chinese crackdown in Tienanmen Square.

The iconic image of that event is the photo of a single unidentified man holding two shopping bags who steps in defiance of a line of army tanks heading to Tienanmen Square.

All through the months of April and May 1989 Chinese students and pro-democracy activists protested in Beijing and other parts of the country. The protests were triggered by the death of Hu Yaobang, a liberal reformer, who was deposed after a power struggle with hardliners over the direction of political and economic reform in China.

In early May, the protestors occupied Tienanmen Square and demanded government accountability and greater democratic and press freedom. The students and pro-democracy protesters filled the square for weeks, initiating hunger strikes and other forms of protest activities.

On the nights of the 3rd and 4th June 1989 the Chinese Government enforced martial law. 

Massive troop and tank movements around the square began, concluding in an all-out assault that culminated in retaking Tienanmen Square and surrounding areas. 

Thousands of protesters and citizens heading to join the protest in Tienanmen Square were killed and injured after the People's Liberation Army opened fire on unarmed and peaceful protesters.

this photo shows the same man defying a long line of tanks (by Arthur Tsang)

Riots ensued around the Square and throughout the capital.

The authorities proceeded to carry out mass arrests. Some people were executed and others just disappeared. An estimated 1600 were imprisoned for long periods, and 2 remain in prison 25 years later. Others were politically punished and lost jobs and positions. Many of the student leaders were forced to flee China.

The Tienanmen Square massacre and its aftermath initiated a new era of conservatism in China that continues to this day.

Various slide shows of the 1989 events at Tienanmen Square are herehere and here.

Twenty five years later, the Chinese Government are trying to prevent any mention or discussion of the uprising and the massacres by locking up, charging or harassing artists, scholars, lawyers, bloggers and relatives of victims.

Chinese citizens involved in the uprising and those who try to remember the events of 25 years ago continue to suffer persecution.

Amnesty has recorded the names of Chinese activists targeted by the Chinese authorities in the lead up to the anniversary. This includes scores of detentions and house arrest and people being charged with offences carrying prison terms for holding private memorial gatherings for the dead.

The New York Review of Books has this interview with Hu Jia, who was just 15 at the time he participated in the Tienanmen Square demonstrations. He is currently under house arrest in China over his attempt to organize a commemoration of the massacre protest activities.

The Guardian has this article, featuring interviews with 3 leaders of the 1989 protests who were forced to flee China in 1989.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Ariel Dorfman on parallels between contemporary Egypt and Allende's military dictatorship in Chile

"After all the lives lost and sacrifices made, the hopes and aspirations, everything that led to the revolution in Egypt in the first place remains as is. The military owns 40% of the Egyptian economy. In a country of dire poverty and starvation, Egypt has the highest number of billionaires in the Middle East - second only to Saudi Arabia. Yet 1% of the population owns 90% of the Egyptian economy. The brutality of the security forces, which played a huge role in igniting the revolution, remains the same if not much worse. Corruption and monopolization of economic opportunities and access to capital remains the same. The few obscenely rich families that supported Mubarak's regime now support Sisi, and these are the families that own and control virtually all of the media outlets, telecommunications, construction and transportation industries. Even more, Sisi is working hard to reclaim Egypt's position as the playground bordello for indulgent sojourners from the Gulf countries"
Khaled Abou El Fadl

The Chilean playwright, novelist and public intellectual Ariel Dorfman notes here the parallels between the rise of Egypt's new President General Abdel Fattah el Sissi and another military dictator, former Chilean  general turned president Augusto Pinochet, who took power in Chile in 1973 in a US supported military coup which overthrew the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende.

Dorfman sees similarities between Santiago Chile in 1973 and Egypt 2014, in particular, a military coup which overthrew a democratically elected government (El Sissi led the 2013 military coup that overthrew the last democratically elected Egyptian leader Mohammed Morsi), followed by sustained bloodshed and a major crackdown on dissenters and opponents, resulting in the establishment of a military dictatorship.

As Khaled Abou El Fadl writes there are serious questions about the legitimacy of el-Sissi's 'make believe' election. 

The 2014 election took place against a backdrop of prolonged crackdown and oppression by the military, in which an estimated 40,000 political activists have been imprisoned, 3000 protesters killed and journalists imprisoned. The youth movement that inspired the 2011 revolution has been banned.

Khaled Abou El Fadl reminds us of the military's recent actions in the lead up to the election:
In November 2013, Egypt issued a new law that all but bans any and all protests. On 28 April 2014, the Court of Urgent Affairs banned the April 6 Movement - a movement that played an instrumental role in the 25 January 2011 revolution and the 30 June 2013 protests against President Muhammad Morsi. But after the April 6 Movement became critical of the military's repressive measures, the Movement was accused of "espionage," "defaming Egypt" and of undermining state institutions. Many of its members who played such an active role in bringing down Mubarak and in criticizing Morsi find themselves in prison on trumped up charges. 
Many of its members who played such an active role in bringing down Mubarak and in criticizing Morsi find themselves in prison on trumped up charges. In January 2014, American University of Cairo professor and former parliamentarian Amr Hamzawy was charged with "insulting the judiciary" because of a Twitter post criticizing a judicial ruling that closed down three non-profit educational organizations that promote democracy. Most recently, Bassem Sabry, who is well known for his blog Muwatin 'Arabi (An Arab Citizen), died under mysterious circumstances at the age of 31 - security forces claim that he "accidentally fell from his balcony."
Khaled Abou El Fad also reminds us that the US Government has committed its support and military aid has begun to flow to the military dictatorship. 

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Everyday heroes: sit-ins 50 years apart show the power of ordinary people to take action against injustice

"You don't have to be a big name to make a difference and impact change. Small things can make ripples that make a big difference"
Joan Trumpauer Mullholland

Today in a Perth court 11 Christian leaders were fined $50 each for trespass after they held a prayer vigil and sit-in at the office of the Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop as a protest against the plight of 1100 children imprisoned in Australia's onshore and offshore immigration detention camps.

There was some concern that the Christian leaders faced a jail sentence for their protest.

The protest in the Foreign Minister's office was followed by subsequent prayer vigils and sit-in by other Christians and Church leaders on the east coast, this time in the offices of the Immigration Minister, The Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition.

The Christian leaders are part of a long tradition in which ordinary people use sit-ins as a form of direct action protest against injustice and domination,

This iconic photo was taken on May 28th 1963 in Jackson Mississippi and shows 3 people- 2 white people and one black woman- participating in a sit- in protest at a Woolworths lunch counter. They are surrounded by angry and aggressive white men who are pouring sugar, liquid and ketchup over the 3 protesters.

The protesters were three students- John Salter, Joan Trumpauer and Anne Moody- who were protesting against racial segregation of lunch counters in Woolworths stores throughout the American south.

Initially the protesters were jeered and taunted and then doused in sugar and ketchup. They were then beaten and kicked.  

It was one of the most violent attacks on protesters involved in a sit-in the history of the civil rights movement.

The attack went on for 3 hours as the Police stood by and watched

 The Woolworths store manager eventually had to close the store and the protesters were escorted away by Police.
The story of the Woolworths sit in, the events that lead up to the protest and the fall out from it (including the murder two weeks later of civil rights leader Medger Evers) and the stories of the protesters involved are told in Mike O'Brien's book We Shall Not Be Moved.

The Jackson sit-in was one of a long line of sit-ins used during the civil rights movement to protest against racial segregation in the South during the early 1960's.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Privatisation, floods and destruction in the Balkans

This week  a friend and colleague was telling me that her hometown in Serbia is under water as a result of the flooding and landslides devastating large parts of Serbia, Bosnia Herzegovina and Croatia.

The heaviest rainfall and landslides in living memory are causing destruction on a scale unseen since the terrible Balkan wars of 199o-99.

Forty nine people have died and dozens of towns along the Sava and Danube Rivers have been evacuated. An estimated 2000 landslides have caused damage estimated to be worth $1.4 billion. The flooding has also unearthed landmines left over from the Balkan wars.

Photos of the scale of the flooding and the resulting devastation are here and here.

Reports about the flooding are here, here and here

As Streck Hovat writes in the Guardian, this is not just a natural disaster. 

It is in fact and a social and economic disaster, in which the natural disaster is enabled by social, political and economic factors.

Horvat identities the destruction of the social safety net, which means that people have to look after themselves in a time of crises, and the privatization of water infrastructure, with the resultant de-investment in public infrastructure, which intensified the risk of flooding due to failure to construct and maintain drainage, embankments and dams in high risk areas, as major contributing factors.

An important question is whether the disasters have the potential to lead an ethnically divided region to see the value of putting aside cultural, ethnic and political differences. There is hope that the terrible destruction resulting from the floods can lead to regional and civil solidarity unable to be achieved through civic and political means.

This is an issue Rebecca Solnit has written about in her book A Paradise Built in Hell. Solnit argues that disasters don't just destroy, they also create anew.

Solnit argues that disasters expose the failings and inadequacy of the current political order (think how the response to Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans exposed the incompetence and cruelty of the Bush administration).

Solinit shows that disasters can also open possibilities for popular solidarity and new ways for people to act together. She writes:
“In its place appears a reversion to improvised, collaborative, cooperative and local society.... These “disaster communities” represent something akin to the role William James claimed for “the utopian dreams” of social justice: They help to break the general reign of hardness, and are slow leavens of a better order.”
Co-incidentally, I am currently reading Misha Glenny's book the Balkans 1804-2012: Nationalism, War and the Great Powers, which tells the history of the Balkans and dispels many of the myths through which the history of the Balkans is viewed.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Arundhati Roy on a democractically elected totalitarian Indian Government

Interview here with Arundhati Roy on the result of the recent Indian elections, which resulted in the election of Hindu nationalist Narendra Modi. 

Arundhati Roy argues that India has an elected totalitarian Government:
Now, we have a democratically elected totalitarian government. Technically and legally, there is no party with enough seats to constitute an opposition. But many of us have maintained for several years that there never was a real opposition. The two main parties agreed on most policies, and each had the skeleton of a mass pogrom against a minority community in its cupboard. So now, it’s all out in the open. The system lies exposed.”
As Barbara Crosette writes in The Nation, Modi's political origins are in the radical fringes of a Hindu nationalist party unashamedly influenced by 1930s European fascism, complete with theories of a master race. Crosette  argues that Modi's election presents India with its greatest political challenge since the nation was formed in 1947.

Arundhati Roy sees that the Modi Government is beholden to the mining and resource companies who bankrolled his campaign. She believes he will hand over land to the mining and infrastructure corporations and attempt to crush those resisting the forcible takeover of their land:
“The contracts are all signed and the companies have been waiting for years. He has been chosen as the man who does not blink in the face of bloodshed, not just Muslim bloodshed but any bloodshed.”
In her view India's chosen economic development model has a genocidal core
“How have the other ‘developed’ countries progressed? Through wars and by colonising and usurping the resources of other countries and societies. India has no option but to colonise itself............ Bloodshed is inherent to this model of development. There are already thousands of people in jails. But that is not enough any longer. The resistance has to be crushed and eradicated. Big money now needs the man who can walk the last mile. That is why big industry poured millions into Modi’s election campaign.”
An interview with Arundhati Roy about the dark forces underlying the Indian election is here.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

'Facing the world with eyes wide open' whilst 'standing among the missing': the poetry of Sam Hamill

Poets should speak out against what we see as the assault against our Constitution and the warmongering that's going on.  
Sam Hamill 
How much grief is a life?/ And what can be done unless/we stand among the missing, among the murdered,/the orphaned,/our own armed children, and bear witness/ 
Sam Hamill 
You can’t write about character and the human condition and be apolitical—that’s not the kind of world we’ve ever lived in.” 

Sam Hamill

True Peace 
Sam Hamill 

Half broken on that smoky night, 
hunched over sake in a serviceman's dive 
somewhere in Naha, Okinawa, 
nearly fifty years ago, 
I read of the Saigon Buddhist monks 
who stopped the traffic on a downtown 
so their master, Thich Quang Dúc, could take up 
the lotus posture in the middle of the street.
And they baptized him there with gas 
and kerosene, and he struck a match 
and burst into flame. 

That was June, nineteen-sixty-three, 
and I was twenty, a U.S. Marine. 
The master did not move, did not squirm, 
he did not scream 
in pain as his body was consumed. 
Neither child nor yet a man, 
I wondered to my Okinawan friend, 
what can it possibly mean 
to make such a sacrifice, to give one's life 
with such horror, but with dignity and conviction. 
How can any man endure such pain 
and never cry and never blink.
And my friend said simply, "Thich Quang Dúc 
had achieved true peace." 
And I knew that night true peace 
for me would never come. 
Not for me, Nirvana. This suffering world 
is mine, mine to suffer in its grief. 

Half a century later, I think 
of Bô Tát Thich Quang Dúc, 
revered as a bodhisattva now--his lifetime 
building temples, teaching peace, 
and of his death and the statement that it made. 

Like Shelley's, his heart refused to burn, 
even when they burned his ashes once again 
in the crematorium--his generous heart 
turned magically to stone. 

What is true peace, I cannot know. 
A hundred wars have come and gone 
as I've grown old. I bear their burdens in my bones. 
Mine's the heart that burns 
today, mine the thirst, the hunger in the soul. 

Old master, old teacher,
what is it that I've learned?

There is no other poet like Sam Hamill.

His poem True Peace describes his reaction to the self immolation of Buddhist priest Thich Quang Duc in June 1963 in Saigon. Thich Quang Duc sat in the middle of a busy Saigon street and waited for a fellow priest to pour petrol over him. He then set himself on fire.

Thich Quang Duc was protesting religious persecution against Buddhists by the American sponsored dictator of South Vietnam, Ngo Dinh Diem. Just weeks before  Diem's armed forces shot dead 9 Buddhists.

The murder of the monks and the self immolation of Thich Quang Duc set off a wave of protest against the deeply unpopular Diem regime, which triggered a US inspired coup approved by President John F Kennedy to overthrow the Diem regime in November 1963. The coup and overthrow of the Diem regime paved the way for escalation of US involvement in the second Vietnam War.

Sam Hamill is a distinguished American poet and political activist. 

Hamill is an outspoken and campaigning poet who has produced nearly 20 volumes of poetry and edited even more. Hamill acknowledges the influence of the Beat poets and also Zen Buddhism on his poetry.

As a young man, Hamill served in the US army as the result of a court sentence.

He is an avowed pacifist who has taught in prisons and has worked actively with women and children affected by domestic violence.

He founded and ran Copper Canyon Press for 32 years, one of the US's most innovative poetry publishers and has also translated Japanese, Chinese, Greek, Latin and Estonian poetry.

In January 2003 he was invited to the Bush White House by the President's wife Laura Bush as  part of a poetry symposium. Hamill refused to attend in protest against Bush policies in Iraq and Afghanistan. He went on to establish Poets against War, a global movement against war, to speak out about wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Hamill called for poets to submit poems for an anthology of poetry protesting against the wars. The anthology proved to be the largest single theme poetry anthology in history, comprising 30,000 poems by 26,000 poets. 12th February 2003 became a day of poetry against the war.

Hamill's actions inspired 135 poetry readings and events throughout the US and lead to the establishment of the website Poets Against the War.

His poetry has been translated widely with recent translations in France, Egypt, Italy and Argentina.  A Collected Volume of his work titled Habitations: Collected Poems, spanning nearly half a century of writing will be published in 2014.

He presently lives in Port Townsend, Washington, and Buenos Aires. Recent interviews and article featuring Sam Hamill are hereherehere and here.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

The war in Syria: navigating an impossible story

"All of Syria is in fact being crucified. In fact, despite their differences, Syria’s warring parties are united in the blood of Syrians – and Palestinians – which they shed on a daily basis. When over 150,000 Syrians, including 10,000 children are dead, and 6.5 million are internally displaced, and 2.5 million have fled beyond the country’s borders, no one is innocent. As for the pseudo-intellectuals who are keeping track of one body count, and ignoring the other, they must wake up to the fact that there is only one pool of victims, the Syrian people"
Ramzy Baroud

The killings and struggle for power continues in Syria. Syria is in ruins.  The Syrian war has become not just a struggle for power in Syria, but a regional struggle for Syria. 

What began in 2011 as peaceful protests for human dignity and political reform, inspired by the uprisings across the Middle East, degenerated into civil war after the Assad regime used military force to crush the popular protest. 

The result was the transformation of a popular protest into a military struggle that drew in major proxies- including Russia, US, Iran, France, Saudi Arabia, Israel and the UK.

As Eric Margolis writes:
Most of the uprising against Damascus began on the borders with Lebanon and Jordan, from where US, British, French and Saudi intelligence services organized, trained, and financed anti-Assad groups. Turkish intelligence, MIT, also fuelled the uprising in the north. 
This writer strongly believes Western special forces armed with the latest anti-tank weapons covertly supported anti-government forces – just as in the western-organized overthrow of Libya’s leader, Muammar Khadaffi.
Ramzy Baroud reminds us in his article Navigating Syriathat the Syrian war  is a stage for bloody political intrigues involving the US, UK, France, Israel, Saudi Arabia and other Arab nations who fund, arm and support the anti-Assad rebel forces, and Russia and Iran, who support, fund and arm the Assad regime. 

Russia, is the main backer of the Assad regime, with additional aid and support provided by Iran and Hezbullah.

The US, UK, France and Middle East countries, particularly Saudi Arabia have continually escalated the military conflict with their backing of the armed opponents of the Assad regime.

This is despite the rebel forces being dominated by extremist Islamist jihadi forces similar in beliefs and methods to al Qaida.

There is clear evidence that the US, UK and European countries are directly involved in training and arming the anti-Assad forces, with Saudi Arabia acting as the coordinator and distributor of arms. 

As Baroud notes, both sides perpetrate horrendous war crimes, destroy cities, massacre civilians, inflict perpetual sieges on civilian populations and commit unhindered violations of human rights massacres.

Baroud argues that neither side has the answers to the crises gripping Syria.
The Syrian narrative is very complex because a ‘just solution’ is not a matter of a clever articulation of words. Aside from the Syrian camps, parties involved include Western powers, Arab governments, Israel, Russia, Iran, and a cluster of intelligence agencies and legions of foreigners, on all sides. The agendas are mostly sinister. The media campaigns are driven by lies. The story of the Ghouta chemical attack of last year is particularly poignant. A war was about to break out, led by the US and cheered on by Arabs. A recent investigation by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Seymour Hersh suggests that the whole thing might’ve been a plot, involving Turkey, to indict the regime. He argues that the Americans knew it, yet still were ready to go to war
Baroud concludes his article by imploring us to stand with the Syrian people, not with the oppressors, who are both warring sides and their many supporters. 
But how do you navigate an impossible story? The answer: You side with the victim, no matter her colour, sect or creed. You remain committed to the truth, no matter how elusive. You drop every presupposition, abandon ideology, permanently discard dogma, and approach Syria with abundance of humanity and humility. We need to understand the roots of this heinous war, but we also need it to end for the good of the Syrian people. The Syrian conflict should not be a stage of bloody political intrigues for the West and Russia, Israel, Iran and the Arabs. Syria is not a God-given inheritance of the Assad-clan and their friends, or a space for another extremist experiment, as was the case in Afghanistan and Somalia, or another imaginary battlefield for social media leftists, whose claim to socialism is an occasional Facebook profile photo of a clasped fist, or an earth shattering quote about defeating capitalism.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Friday's poems: Ruth Stone

'In my 30 years of knowing you
cell by cell in my widow’s shawl,
We have lived together longer
in the discontinuous films of my sleep
than we did in our warm parasitical bodies.'
Ruth Stone
Getting to Know You
"You are a lovely link
in the great chain of being
Think how lucky it is to be born."
Ruth Stone
Thanks to Sam Hamill I have discovered the poetry of  Ruth Stone.

Green Apples
by Ruth Stone

In August we carried the old horsehair mattress

To the back porch

And slept with our children in a row.

The wind came up the mountain into the orchard

Telling me something;

Saying something urgent.

I was happy.

The green apples fell on the sloping roof

And rattled down.

The wind was shaking me all night long;

Shaking me in my sleep

Like a definition of love,

Saying, this is the moment,

Here, now.

Eden, Then and Now
Ruth Stone

In ’29 before the dust storms
sandblasted Indianapolis,
we believed in the milk company.
Milk came in glass bottles.
We spread dye-colored butter,
now connected to cancer.
We worked seven to seven
with no overtime pay;
pledged allegiance every day,
pitied the starving Armenians.
One morning in the midst of plenty,
there were folks out of context,
who were living on nothing.
Some slept in shacks
on the banks of the river.
This phenomenon investors said
would pass away.
My father worked for the daily paper.
He was a union printer;
lead slugs and blue smoke.
He worked with hot lead
at a two-ton machine,
in a low-slung seat;
a green-billed cap
pulled low on his forehead.
He gave my mother a dollar a day.
You could say we were rich.
This was the Jazz Age.
All over the country
the dispossessed wandered
with their hungry children,
harassed by the law.
When the market broke, bad losers
jumped out of windows.
It was time to lay an elegant table,
as it is now; corporate paradise;
the apple before the rot caved in.
It was the same worm
eating the same fruit.
In fact, the same Eden. 

Ruth Stone (1915-2011) lived much of her life in a rural farmhouse in Vermont. Her first book of poetry was published in 1959, the year in which her husband committed suicide. Stone was left a widow with 3 young children to support. Her subsequent poetry was marked by the loss and grief of the suicide. 

Stone wrote about the suicide in a poem March 15 1998:

Tied a silk cord around his meat neck
and hung his meat body,
loved though it was,
in order to insure absolute quiet,
on the back of a rented door in Soho.

Stone also wrote feminist poems about women's lives and experience as well as political poems.

Stone worked as a university teacher of creative writing and visiting poet and was forced to move around universities all over the US to find work. In 1990, aged 75, she became a Professor of English and Creative Writing at State University of New York.

Although Stone's first book of poetry was published in 1959, recognition as a poet came late in her life. Most of her published work did not appear till she was past 70 years of age. She was in her 80's before she became widely recognized for her poetry.

Stone published 13 books of poetry.

The Ruth Stone Foundation was set up to honor her poetry and maintain her house and garden in Vermont.

A piece about Stone written by one of her daughters is here.

Articles about Stone are herehere and here.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Budgets and freedom for whom in Australia?

Nazim Hikmet's poem A Sad State of Freedom is a reminder of the illusions of freedom hoisted on us by the corporate and political elite. 

The illusion of these 'democratic' freedoms is very real today as Australians and West Australians come to grips with the horror and cruelty of 'austerity' budgets imposed on them by Federal and State Governments. 

These are budgets that dispossesses the less well off, to fund more largess and wealth for the already well off, the rich, the super-rich and the corporations.

A detailed assessment of the Federal budget by Bill Mitchell, one of Australia's leading economists is here.

There has been no time in this country's history when an elected Government has so brazenly dispossessed the less well off, in order that the already well off, the rich, the super rich and big business prosper even more.

A Sad State of Freedom
by Nazim Hikmet

You squander the gleam of your eyes, 
the sparkling toil of your hands, 
to knead  dough for countless loaves of bread
of which you'll taste not a morsel; 
you are free to slave for others-- 
you are free to make the rich richer. 
                                You are free.

The minute you are born, they swarm around you 
and build mills of lies which grind till the day you die.
All this great freedom is yours to bury your head in your hands
                         and rack your brains about freedom of conscience;
                                You are free.

Your head is bent as if they cut it at the nape, 
your arms weigh down at your sides, 
All this great freedom is yours to drift here and there.
                         out of work, jobless,
                                You are free.

You love your country with all your heart,
but some day they might sell it, maybe to America,
All this great freedom is yours so you may be sold
                         or become an air base:
                                 You are free.

Wall St grabs you by the neck with its cursed hands:
You might be shipped out to Korea some day.
All this great freedom is yours to fill a grave
                         or to take the name of the unknown soldier:
                                  You are free.

You say man must live not as a tool, or number or cog,
but like a human being.
All this great freedom is yours for them to handcuff you,
                        yours to be jostled, jailed or even hanged:
                                  You are free

No iron curtain, no bamboo curtain, no lace curtain in your life
No need for you to choose freedom:
                                  You are free.
This freedom is a sad thing under the stars.

Nazim Hikmet (1902-1963) is considered Turkey's greatest modern poet.

He was outspoken, revolutionary and a dedicated political activist and communist who was first jailed in 1924 at the age of 22 for working on a leftist magazine. He spent 18 years in prison in Turkey as a political prisoner.

Many of Hikmet's poems were written in Sultanahmet Jail in Istanbul where he was imprisoned for many years for his political beliefs. Sultanahmet was the first jail built in Istanbul in 1918. It is now a luxury hotel.

Hikmet was awarded the World Peace Prize in 1950, the same year he gained his release from prison after 12 years, following an international campaign for his release led by Picasso, Paul Robeson, Bertrand Russell, Pablo Neruda and Jean Paul Sartre.

Within a short time of being released he was again forced into exile from Turkey in 1951. He spent the last 13 years of his life in exile from Turkey. He died in Moscow in 1963, where he is still buried, although there are moves to return his remains to Turkey.

His poetry was suppressed in Turkey for over 50 years. It is only recently that Hikmet's citizenship was restored by the Turkish Government.

Hikmet's poetry is characterized by a wonderful generosity of spirit and a powerful sense of human solidarity.

My first encounter with the poetry of Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet was in John Berger's book of essays Hold Everything Dear. One of the essays in Berger's book is a dedication to Hikmet and his poetry.

My earlier blog posts on Nazim Hikmet are here

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Songs of Renown: Paul Robeson, Hirsh Glik and the Hymn of the Jewish Partisans

The song Zog Nit Keynmol (in Yiddish), also known under various titles- the Hymn of the Jewish Partisans, the Partisans Song or the Song of the Warsaw Ghetto- was written in 1943 by Hirsh Glik, who was a young Jewish poet, resistance fighter and inmate of the Warsaw Ghetto. 

More about Hirsh Glik is here on the website Music and the Holocaust.

The song was adopted by Jewish partisans and resistance fighters and was a symbol of Jewish resistance against the Nazis. The song was often sung by people in concentration camps.

The song was a regular concert performance by Paul Robeson who sang the song in Yiddish and English.

Paul Robeson sang the song in a Moscow concert in 1949 during the height of Stalin's anti-Jewish purge. It was his protest against Soviet persecution of Jews.  In that concert, Robeson spoke in support of Jewish writers and actors in Russia and his friendship with Jews who had perished in Stalin's purges.

Here is how the concert is described on the website of the  Jewish Partisan Educational Foundation:
Four years after the fall of Hitler, the tune would be used as a form of resistance against another 20th century tyrant. Paul Robeson traveled to Moscow in June of 1949 to give a performance to an audience that included many Communist Party elites, as well as what little remained of the Jewish intelligentsia after Stalin's purges. At the end of the concert, Robeson stunned the audience with a surprise rendition of the Partisan Hymn. His introductory remarks contained references to the Yiddish language, the deep and enduring cultural ties between the US and Russian Jewish communities, as well as to leading Jewish intellectuals who had been "disappeared" by the regime. 
The remarks, the spontaneous translation of the song to the shocked audience, and thunderous applause that followed were cut from the recording by Stalin's censors, but the chaos is evident in the mixture of applause and jeers that follows the actual performance.
Here is a heavily censored live version of Robeson's performance from that 1949 concert:

The following comments are from Paul Robeson's son Paul Robeson Jr's biography of his father:
... One could hear a pin drop during my father remarks about the deep and enduring cultural ties between the Jewish communities of the Soviet Union and the United States, about the common tradition of the great Jewish writer Sholem Aleichem, and about the continued vitality of the Yiddish language. Finally he announced that he would sing a song of the Jewish partisans who fought to the death against their Fascist oppressors in the Warsaw Ghetto. 
Since the song had to be sung in Yiddish, he would explain the lyrics in Russian, as follows: 
'Never say that you have reached the very endWhen leaden skies a bitter future may portend;For sure the hour for which we yearn will not arriveArid our marching steps will thunder: we survive'. 
For a moment there was no sound from the stunned audience; then a single intrepid young woman stood up and applauded, and the entire audience joined in a swelling wane of applause before my father could sing a single note. Only this response to my fathers remarks remains on the recording; Stalin's censors simply cut out his remarks, and they have disappeared..." 
The Song of the Wamaw [sic] Ghetto Rebellion sung in Yiddish (Zog Nit Keynmol) - remains an a crowning jewel of this recording of the Concert. The combination of power and pathos with which my father delivered this song transfixed his listeners. When he finished, the audience released its accumulated tension like an explosive charge. Although his listeners included many of Moscows Jewish intellectual elite who were waiting for Stalins axe to fell on them, the great majority were Russian members of the Party elite which was being decimated by a purge. Jews and Russians alike, in some places seated side-by-side, were either walking in the shadow of death or had lost someone close... 
After that first release, the ovation continued to swell and recede in a series of waves which ebbed and flowed. People stood, applauded and cried out; they called my father by his patronymic-Pavel Vasilevich; some who were total strangers fell info each others arms and wept; still others sat silently with tears streaming down their faces. The first part of the audiences response is captured on this recording, but the rest has been cut by the censors. Still, the sound of this cry of hope is unforgettable, and there is little doubt that it was heard by the Master himself"
Zog Nit Keynmol Hymn of the Jewish Partisans

Never say that this is the end of the road.
Wherever a drop of our blood fell, there our courage will
grow anew.
This song, written in blood, was sung by a people fighting
for life and freedom.
Our triumph will come and our resounding footsteps will
proclaim "We are here!"

From land of palm-trees to the far-off land of snow.
We shall be coming with our torment, with our woe;
And everywhere our blood has sunk into the earth
Shall our bravery, or vigor blossom forth.

We'll have the morning sun to set our day aglow;
Our evil yesterdays shall vanish with the foe.
But if the time is long before the sun appears,
then let this song go like a signal through the years.

This song was written with our blood, and not with lead;
It's not a song that summer birds sing overhead;
It was a people, amidst burning barricades,
That sang this song of ours with pistols and grenades.