Harriet

The conversation about critical race theory has gotten so overtly racist and fascist these days that I have to suspect that in the years to come, lobbyists will be trying to prevent gradeschool and even college students from learning anything about Harriet Tubman and the underground railroad. When this movie came out, it broke a lot of glass ceilings in the film industry. And like the message of Martin Luther King, I think it frightened and angered a lot of people who weren’t prepared to grapple with the history of their own country and region.

When I was a kid, visiting Savannah, Georgia, I smiled to see so many statues of horsemen in the parks, merely because their horses were handsome and the bronze was nicely done. In hindsight, I am shocked at how oblivious I was at that age about the use of symbolism to prop up myths about Southern heritage that are totally out of touch with the reality of American history and the Civil War.

One of my favorite children’s authors, Richard Adams, wrote a book glamorizing the life of General Robert E. Lee’s horse Traveller, and I remember getting in trouble for bringing that book to school because it showed a confederate flag on the cover. I reacted defensively, because I saw it as a neutral horse story, and I saw the civil war as an uncontroversial backdrop to that horse story. I didn’t appreciate how distorted Richard Adams’s description of the civil war was at that age. He gave all the standard excuses for the insurrection – none of them were valid, but I bought the story hook, line and sinker. I didn’t believe that slavery was the root cause of the war.

Now that I know more about American history, I can see why people are fighting to suppress the truth. It may have been true all along, but to a lot of Americans, the fact that the Civil War was about slavery is news – and unwelcome news. It challenges what they learned in school. It challenges a lot of their assumptions about themselves and their heritage. And it raises a lot of questions about why that information was suppressed for so long after the war was won.

This poem, based on the 78th Psalm, is about the parable of the Exodus as a story told both among slaves and among freedmen and women, before and after the Civil War, to give context and inspiration to slaves and the children and descendents of slaves. For those who don’t know the movie Harriet or the story of the underground railroad, Harriet Tubman used the name and the legend of Moses when she traveled to the south to free slaves by stealth and by force, both before and during the Civil War.

Come near to your teachers, children, listen.
Open up your minds to history.
What I have to tell you has been passed down,
generation after generation,
and those who learn this story come to know
what our parents, and theirs, and theirs, went through.
We would not have you live in ignorance,
or raise your children without having known,
what wonders our own people worked for God.
They fought so you and I could be born free!
We, too, are descended of Moses;
his teaching was passed down to slaves,
and our ancestors raised up their children,
in secret they taught the commandments,
so that, in their hearts, they would uphold real laws,
for the sake of you children, their yet unborn,
that you might teach your sons and daughters
to place their trust in justice, truth and love,
and not forsake the miracle of freedom,
abiding by the righteous laws of God.
That they not join the lost generations,
rudderless and headstrong motherless boys,
as listless and as feckless as the damned,
and stripped of all religion – naked bones.
Such courage as they had in petty crimes
availed them little in the bitter south,
for they had no higher laws to live by,
and never thought to fight against Jim Crow.
And they forgot the war their parents fought,
and never looked on Moses as their own.
Before their ancestors were taken slaves,
another Moses led the way to freedom.
To part the sea that held his people back,
God held the waters fast – the waves stood still.
Beyond the land of Egypt, by a wisp
of cloud by day, a flame by night, He guided them.
This Moses showed them where to find cool springs,
when they believed themselves undone by thirst.
He shattered a great stone deep in the waste,
and water gushed free, clear as mountain streams.
And even then, his people challenged him,
unable to believe in a just God.
They mocked his gratitude for miracles,
demanding whether next, it would rain bread?
Among themselves, they bantered about God.
They joked, “Can He lay a feast in this desert?
If indeed we should thank him for this drink,
and He alone gave us this gushing spring,
why does He not serve bread at our table?
Where is the meat He has roasted for us?”
And God heard them well, and He answered them,
His people felt the heat of His wrath,
and their children, and theirs, paid a price.
For without belief and trust in providence,
they placed no value on their own salvation.
As easily as clouds scoot through the sky,
God brought to earth the bounty of the blessed,
a grain as fine as coriander seed,
for bread as white as hoarfrost, just for them.
This was a feast fit for Pharaohs and kings,
and it covered the desert surrounding their camp.
He drove the flocks of wild birds forth on storms,
the wind whipped from the east and from the south,
and pheasants and wild geese collapsed, exhausted,
and feathered feasts spread everywhere among them,
all the camp was littered with fresh meat,
and Moses and his people dwelt in plenty.
That day, they stuffed themselves without scruples,
for God had gratified their appetites.
They hiccupped, bellies strained against their belts,
when, even as they chewed the last morsels,
the force of God’s reproof struck in their midst,
and strong men in their prime were robbed of breath,
the flower of their youth snuffed out as one.
Yet even then, they heckled bitterly
against the thought of miracles and fate.
Thus in exile, without lands or laws, they went
their ways, remorselessly cynical, lost.
At times, at the point of the sword, they prayed
for help and looked to this God of old.
In these moments, they remembered their roots
and the works of Moses and Abraham.
These things tripped easily from their tongues
and they they spoke not true – although they prayed,
They made other pacts on the side, spread their bets,
and paid short shrift to the covenant.
Even so, the Lord had mercy for them,
curbed His anger toward them easily,
And sought no retribution in the end.
for He did not forget man’s frailty,
a creature born to die unrecompensed.
For men who have been slaves know only hate,
and cast into the wilderness, they doubt.
Of God they knew but little, trusted less,
and seizing freedom, cast aside all yokes.
What did your forebears know of miracles,
of holy intervention in men’s crimes,
of wonders done in Egypt, or on Sinai,
of water churning with slaveholders’ blood,
and poisoning the Pharaoh’s great estates?
Their Moses stole through riverbanks by night,
the cries of frogs and crickets masked her calls.
She led her people north, and left their crops
to feed the birds and wither in the fields.
If God had struck their cotton down with hail,
and sickened their moss oaks with mistletoe,
had robbed them of their livestock with a plague,
and bled their wealth, he could not have done more.
She roused freed slaves to fight the southern states,
to burn with the indignities they’d borne,
and raised and army to confront the whites.
Was Egypt’s Moses more war-like than theirs,
who called the wrath of God down on his foes,
and watched the seven plagues denude their wealth?
The Civil War, too, claimed the slavers’ sons,
a generation died on those bleak fields.
and Harriet, their Moses, led the way,
shepherding her flock to Canada.
She listened to God’s signs and quelled their doubts,
and led them where no enemy would find them.
And she delivered them up to freedom,
far from the slave-holding southern states.
And when they went south again in arms,
they fought for the right to their own land,
and won the right to see their kin again.
Yet the whites would not be reconciled,
and the terms of the peace they rebuked.
They went back to their old ways at once,
like a rifle that always misfires.
Their fiery crosses offended God,
these men who idolized whiteness and hate.
And the God of Moses reacted swiftly,
cutting off the Jim Crow whites from grace.
God withdrew from their homes and their hearts,
the spirit no longer shared their travails.
He turned His back while demagogues and crooks
assumed the reins of power in the south.
Even those He had freed felt him absence,
for his wroth no longer made distinctions.
The youth of their cities burned out, took drugs,
children had children, unmarried, alone.
The statesmen who fought for justice were slain,
and their legacies died with them, unmourned.
Now you must stir yourselves from this stupor,
like magicians freed from an evil spell.
You must fight the corrupt, pandering shills,
bring the ignorant poor out of their thrall.
The old ways will not serve you in your task,
the hesitancy of the middle path won’t work.
You must take new vows, invent new values,
true to the past, but not bound by its errors.
You must retake the commanding heights for love,
before the earth and all that’s in it burns.
Be able to lead those who only follow,
a shepherd to the lost, not the lucky few.
For if you cannot lead manind, the rest
will go to ruin from their ignorance,
and the elect will go without in turn.
Do not silence your conscience in this task,
but do it well, with statecraft and with nerve.

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Filed under Acting, Corruption, Directing, Dream Ensemble, False controversies, Poetry, Roll Credits

Fathers and Daughters

I know coming on the heels of a fan poem for The Phantom of the Opera, the first line of this fan poem for Fathers and Daughters comes off as a little distracted, but it’s such a good line, I had to steal it. The performances of Kylie Rogers, Amanda Seyfried and Russell Crowe are unforgettable in this film – the story of a girl who needs her father back, to feel brave enough to let herself love again. This poem, based on the 77th Psalm, is especially close to my heart, and is dedicated to those who have lost loved ones too soon, too suddenly, too young.

My father promised me – just let me stand here, please.
My father sang to me – just let me answer, please.
In the panics of childhood, I reached for him.
My eyes stiffen with salt by night, it won’t stop.
I don’t want to be told that’s ok.
I dwell on his absence, strain against the loss.
I have nothing to say for myself, no pride.
You forced me to feel with my whole heart again.
I recoiled from the pain, I had no words.
I could lose myself in his memory,
the world we made maps onto the world entire.
This is the song I pull to myself in the cold.
Let it speak to my heart, for I ask myself,
will the love that was real never touch me again,
can no one bear to hold me through the night?
Is the warmth of my childhood erased from life,
are the promises kept by the dead unmade?
Can my father still leave me, in memory, too,
would he blame me for running from hope and fear?
In my heart I believe I have let him down,
and he hid his face from my gaze in shame.
I try to bring him back before my mind’s eye,
when I hear his works held up as an example.
I recite the smallest things he said to me,
and read aloud from his last masterpiece.
He taught me how to see and feel and do.
Where else can his daughter turn for faith and truth?
My father’s joys, to me, were miracles.
The wider world acclaimed him, too, in time.
He came back, when he seemed lost to me forever,
he never changed to me, never gave up.
The way my body needs the touch of water,
the way the senses tremble at the thought,
my whole heart thrilled when we both sang this song.
The way the sky withholds and then pours down.
The way round thunderclaps reverberate.
That was how his laughter filled my soul up.
The clattering ignition launching satellites –
that was how he typed his book about us.
His readers shared our triumphs, laughed and wept.
He wrote the way a navigator writes,
and sought uncharted places in the heart,
where things so near we miss them can be found.
My father led me here – somehow he knew,
this song was sent to bring me back to you.

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Filed under Acting, Dream Ensemble, Fathers and Daughters, Music, Poetry

boundaries

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December 17, 2021 · 12:30 am

Body of Lies

In Hollywood, the CIA is always the villain, even if the protagonist is a CIA agent, and Ridley Scott’s action adventure Body of Lies is no exception. Starring Russell Crowe as the cynical CIA careerist Ed Hoffman, Leonardo DiCaprio as the much-abused human intelligence specialist Roger Ferris, and Mark Strong as the skeptical Jordanian intelligence czar Hani, this cloak-and-dagger thriller is a bit dark for a popcorn movie, but for a dust-filter genre Middle East spy flick it does the job, without belittling the million+ deaths the U.S. war on terrorism has caused.

This poem, inspired by the 76th Psalm, is in Hoffman’s voice browbeating Ferris about priorities.

Uncle Sam is well known in Basra,
in Baghdad he left his mark.
In Jordan he knows his friends,
in Gaza he has his narcs.
There, in a shower of missile strikes,
he laid waste Saddam’s war machine:
vengeful light shows in electric green
battered the backbone of industry.
The palace guard were put to shame,
retreating in a bitter daze,
and unopposed, the air force bombed Iraq.
The credit was the C.I.A.’s,
for manufacturing consent.
Langley has never been more feared,
for who can outrun a drone?
Satellites decide whose homes
will be reduced to rubble,
when Langley has a score to settle,
defending freedom, as they say.
Jihadists go to ground like rabbits
knowing we will draw up kill lists.
Make what promises you may, you’re with us;
our allies are your friends because of aid.
The wages of oil wealth are paid in blood.
My Pentagon outranks your king’s right hand.

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Phantom of the Opera

Though I’m not normally one for musicals, I thoroughly enjoyed Joel Schumacher’s adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Weber’s masterpiece, The Phantom of the Opera, starring Gerard Butler and Emmy Rossum. I cringe at Gerard Butler’s signature move in shoot-em-up’s of shooting his adversaries dead when they’re already down, but this role won me over to his fandom. Emmy’s turn as Christine is angelic, and I would definitely go to see another musical adaptation if she were in it – fans should check out her YouTube channel for original music videos, including Christmas music!

This poem, inspired by the 75th Psalm, is in Madame Giry’s voice, an almost omniscient narrator of the story of the cursed Parisian opera house and its melodramatic demise.

We sing for you, the Phantom – we take heed,
and know your voice, who summoned us, comes near.
The people are enthralled, and doubt you not.
“The point of no return is now at hand,
and I shall cast the lots – who lives, who dies.
This Opera house would fade from memory,
if I had not raised up its brightest star.
I warned the circus dancers, brutes and clowns,
and their inflated diva, not to sing.
Seek not to rob my prottégé of rank.
Your blithe disdain for art does not daunt me.
For nowhere else will you obtain the means
to move the soul – my music is the key.
The Phantom you abhor will have his due,
for only he can make or mar on cue.
At his fingertips the music sheaves,
mute with possibility – his dreams.
He will break his silence, and in song,
unwind his fell designs for the pompous throng,
and all will come to ruin at one blow.”
And I, though I keep faith, will always know
whose music moved the firmament that night.
“And all the fools who hunted me recoiled.
Christine alone held fast, and met my eyes.”

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Filed under Acting, Directing, Music, Poetry, Puppy love

Hekabe

In the hands of an ironist like Euripides, the last days of queen Hekabe are a miserable sight. Above, you see the death of her daughter, Polyxena, to honor the grave of Achilles at Troy. Having lost all her children at once, she feeds her revenge on a target of convenience, and upon seeing that even then she cannot escape her fate, she casts herself into the sea. This poem, inspired by the 74th Psalm, comes before the news of her last child’s death, before she has abandoned all hope of redemption.

As Simone Weil points out in the Poem of Force, even a slave’s tears are not her own to shed for those she loves – she may weep only for her master’s sorrows, and no longer dare weep for her own. So even Hekabe’s prayer to Apollo is an act of outrageous defiance, for already she is a slave, and this she will not accept.

To what end, Apollo, are we cast off?
You rage against those under your protection.
Recognize our ancient heritage,
as people of your fiefdom, in your debt,
whose kingdom raised royal temples in your name.
Set foot upon the smoldering sanctum,
all looted and blood-smeared, altars defaced.
The Greeks have overrun your Ilium,
made mock-ups of portents, and scorned the gods.
Aegeans felled our princes and our priests,
summarily as woodsmen clear young pines.
Our graven images are ground to dust
in blows from spear hafts, maces, shields and slings.
These arsonists reduced your throne to ash,
and shat upon the altar at your feet.
They would erase Troy from the very Earth.
They scorched your groves and feasted on your kine.
Your oracles we did not heed in time.
The prophetess Cassandra is a slave,
and no one understands her either way.
How long, Sun God, will Greeks with their snide jokes
dismiss a queen and mother’s right to mourn?
What holds back your darts, seeing us butchered,
your silver bow at rest and not deployed?
The Furies are an older lot, but you
once prized our safety and our shining walls.
You smote the serpent Python in his cave,
as ancient and as fearsome as the Flood.
You pulverized the monster’s gaping jaws,
filleted his flesh for dolphins, mice and crows.
You severed stones between the laurel’s roots,
where springs gushed forth, and stilled them into pools.
Your chariot announces break of day,
and Night herself waits on your horses’ neighs.
You, the inventor of maps, drawings, laws,
medicine, learning – you gave men reason.
Justice demands you take heed of our plight,
their barbaric gesture, blood sacrifice.
Do no dare feed these dogs daughters of Troy,
the wrath of a mother will reckon this.
See to your city, take heed of our prayers,
for the Furies are moved, they scent clotted blood.
Turn not aside from an old woman’s needs,
for even a slave may pray on her knees.
Apollo, aid me if you will not be shamed,
for the Greeks mock our loss with funeral games.

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Kingdom of Heaven

Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven has been warmly received by critics as an epic that trades in positive masculinity and features a powerhouse performance from Eva Green as the princess Sibylla and an all-star cast of knights in shining armor. As with Gladiator, the soundtrack steals many a scene, this time scored by Harry Gregson-Williams.

The story asks the question whether personal integrity is an adequate stand against corrupt leadership in the realm of statecraft – whether upholding the rights of criminals is fair to those under their power. Although the film suggests that Balian is content to live with his choices to the end, the price paid by others whom the film allows us to care about is awfully high.

This poem, based on the 73rd Psalm, is in Balian’s voice addressed to Sybilla, after he has announced his decision not to usurp power from her cynical and foolhardy husband, Guy de Lusignan (played by Marton Csokas). Later, he will retrace his steps and confront Guy ineffectually about a tactical blunder – but his cinematically convenient decision to confront the king bluntly in front of his knights naturally dooms his advice to failure, as Guy must defend his own authority by dismissing Balian’s unsolicited advice wholesale. Balian (Orlando Bloom) comes off as a bit of a blunderer himself, in that regard. But at least his self-respect is intact…

Only the good is cherished by a true knight,
for what more is Christendom to the pilgrim?
Truly, for my part, I might have strayed,
for in this labyrinth, love gave me pause.
Do you doubt that I envy your husband,
when I see you secure in his palm?
Glibly the man fears nothing of the grave,
feeling only his fullness in power.
The cross has no place in his religion,
for the man abhors all self-denial.
Arrogance defines his every gesture,
disdainful of his duties under law.
Grease from his table smears his bloodshot eyes,
as he plies the mob by idolizing war.
Of binding oaths he speaks with arch derision,
and no one doubts that he will be a tyrant.
When he swears by the name of our Lord,
his rabble-rousing sweeps through crowds like wildfire.
Not because they credit him with faith, no –
and yet they drink his poison eagerly.
They suppose Christ does not see them sin,
and question how one God could know all hearts.
Do you think I am blind to their success?
Men who stint no evil gain in power.
For what reward do you think I keep my vows,
and by my labors do such penitence?
The Templars spit on me, and will do worse,
and all my doings here may be for nought.
Do you doubt I contemplated killing him?
The thought of my wife, and your son, held me back.
The act of apprehending how things stand
has been a wrenching sorrow in my heart.
Until, in contemplation on the mount,
I came to sense what heaven can withhold.
Truly, these warriors rule over an anthill,
a simple act can cast all to the winds.
Do you not marvel at how sudden death
can be, on the heels of great good fortune?
Ephemeral as incense, their illusions
dissipate like mist above the sea at daybreak.
When I resented keenly all I’d lost,
and fear of hypocrites transfixed my soul,
I stumbled like a brute led on God’s way,
comprehending none of what I saw.
Yet even then, love’s light burned from within,
the spirit of Jerusalem sustained me.
Your brother took me in his confidence,
and in defending you, I won acclaim.
Why else do you believe I take up arms,
who else do you imagine I desire?
Exact from me all that the world demands,
and still a knight and Christian, I endure.
I see what ends corrupted men are for,
how low they grovel, obdurate and damned.
For me, nearness to scripture is enough,
I pitch my tent where God wills and move on,
consoled by the fair sweat upon my brow.

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Filed under Acting, Corruption, Dream Ensemble, Gladiator, Music, Poetry

Dia De Muertos

So I was reading the Penguin selections of the Talmud, and stumbled upon a ghost story just in time for Halloween – here’s some paranormal poetry in anticipation of the Dia De Muertos.

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Gladiator 2

Not sure what to make of all this talk about a Gladiator sequel with Russell Crowe and Ridley Scott, but if it comes to fruition this time, I will definitely be seeing it in theaters! Couldn’t resist writing a little fan poetry in anticipation…

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Indira Gandhi

This paean to Indira Gandhi is a little tongue-in-cheek, but it pays tribute to a very real and very enduring dynasty in Indian politics, the Nehru/Gandhi family, scions of the Congress Party, once upon a time a party of statesmen with a platform, but now as much a family firm as any political party in India. 

Dynasty politics is something my home country, the U.S., is no stranger to. Here, nepotism and family name brand politics seemed to have peaked when Clinton and Trump faced off in the 2016 elections, but the family firm’s place in American politics has deep roots, and the periodic reversion from statesmanship to “family & friends” politics is probably an ineradicable tendency in populist democracies. 

The portrait of Indira Gandhi above is from a Time magazine story on the state of emergency Indira used to prolong her stay in power when the high court ruled that she must step down. Indira’s emergency powers eventually gave way to a resurgence of press freedoms, but contemporary India is under a similar cloud of violent oppression and censorship, causing investigative journalists to fear for their lives.

This poem is modeled on Psalm 72, the last of the Davidic Psalms, a poem addressed to the trusted heir to the throne, King Solomon. 

Impetuous child of a tireless statesman,
take up for your country the torch of his name.
Refuse the temptations of office and purse,
safeguard the afflicted, the outcasts, the poor.
From the Vindhaya mountains to Chota Nagpur,
may your dynasty quell years of conflict and strife.
May this daughter of Chacha Nehru bring us joy,
lifting up the oppressed with a steady hand,
just as she steered us through war, without flinching.
Our rivals hang back when we join in her train,
green and gold – a new dawn white – a pure, freshet moon.
Where she turns her embrace of her people, monsoons
cannot slow her advance, and good practice ripens.
Men and women who press for fair wages will thrive –
and civil strife yield to the ballot once more,
from the Bay of Bengal to Maharashtra,
from the mouth of the Indus to Mahanadi.
Before her the Thar desert shimmers and nods,
and the glaciers of Kashmir safeguard Ladakh.
May the princes of Jaipur at last pay their way,
and the island Tamils take up pens and not swords,
may the gurus of Punjab inspire their flock
to build monuments not to divide, but to heal.
And all the Great Powers will line up in turn,
to pay court to our government – neutral, secure.
For the Congress spares the poor from begging,
and comes to the aid of the children of God.
Indira is moved by the laboring poor,
the barefoot rice-planters and girls look to her,
to outwit the absentee landlords and loan sharks,
knowing she came back for love of their cause.
Long may her legacy lead us through peril,
bringing prosperity, banishing famine.
All of our faiths owe her prayers of goodwill,
for her government has been a blessing.
Well has she watered the paddies and fields,
and even the mountains are greener today.
Mango leaves rustle with promises now,
and lotus blooms spring forth like stars in the sky.
Will her name always guide us in times of need?
As constant as moonlight, her family returns,
a blessing to people of all tongues and creeds.

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