September 26, 2012

Poem of the Week: Old Lem


Sterling Brown


I talked to old Lem
and old Lem said:
          “They weigh the cotton
          They store the corn
                We only good enough
                To work the rows;
          They run the commissary
          They keep the books
                We gotta be grateful
                For being cheated;
          Whippersnapper clerks
          Call us out of our name
                We got to say mister
                To spindling boys
          They make our figgers
          Turn somersets
          We buck in the middle
                Say, “Thankyuh, sah.”
                They don’t come by ones
                They don’t come by twos
                But they come by tens.

          “They got the judges
          They got the lawyers
          They got the jury-rolls
          They got the law
                They don’t come by ones
          They got the sheriffs
          They got the deputies
                       They don’t come by twos
          They got the shotguns
          They got the rope
                We git the justice
                In the end
                       And they come by tens.

          “Their fists stay closed
          Their eyes look straight
                Our hands stay open
                Our eyes must fall
                       They don’t come by ones
          They got the manhood
          They got the courage
                       They don’t come by twos
                We got to slink around
                Hangtailed hounds.
          They burn us when we dogs
          They burn us when we men
                       They come by tens . . .

          “I had a buddy
          Six foot of man
          Muscled up perfect
          Game to the heart
                       They don’t come by ones
          Outworked and outfought
          Any man or two men
                       They don’t come by twos
          He spoke out of turn
          At the commissary
          They gave him a day
          To git out the county
          He didn’t take it.
          He said ‘Come and get me.’
          They came and got him
                       And they came by tens.
          He stayed in the county—
          He lays there dead.

                       They don’t come by ones
                       They don’t come by twos
                       But they come by tens.”

    [I chose this relatively well-known poem by Sterling Brown as a followup to last week's "Dead Man Blues" by Lucy Smith. It, too, is a grim and pessimistic look at how the oppression of the Black Nation was maintained in the days before the Civil Rights Movement, and at the double-barreled use of the state and vigilante terror.]

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September 17, 2012

PotW: Dead Man Blues


by Lucy Smith

Down in the lonesome death cell
A black man sits and sings.
The key he sings is minor
For Sorrow plucks the strings.

       Wish I had died in my cradle, 
       Wish I had never been born;
       For I'm to hang in the morning,
       Hung in the cold, grey morn.

       Here in the valley of the shadow
       From death there's no escape
       I was the nearest black man
       When that white gal hollered rape

Down in the lonesome death cell
He sits and stares at his shoes.
Sorrow plucks the guitar strings
As he sings the Dead Man Blues.

No Middle Ground
(Philadelphia, 1952)

[This reminds me of the work of the great Sterling Brown, "Break Of Day," say.
Seems grim? This is why the Civil Rights Movement erupted.]

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September 10, 2012

PotW: What Kind of War?

by Larry Rottman

Ask what kind of war it is
where you can be pinned down
all day in a muddy rice paddy
while your buddies are being shot
and a close-support Phantom jet
who has been napalming the enemy
wraps itself around a tree and explodes
and you cheer inside?

Winning Hearts and Minds:
War Poems by Vietnam Veterans
(Brooklyn, NY, 1972)

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September 5, 2012

PotM: In the great snowfall before the bomb

In the great snowfall before the bomb

by Lorine Niedecker

In the great snowfall before the bomb
colored yule tree lights
windows, the only glow for contemplation
along this road

 I worked the print shop
right down among em
the folk from whom all poetry flows
and dreadfully much else.

 I was Blondie
I carried my bundles of hog feeder price lists
down by Larry the Lug,
I'd never get anywhere
because I'd never had suction,
pull, you know, favor, drag,
well-oiled protection.

I heard their rehashed radio barbs—
more barbarous among hirelings
as higher-ups grow more corrupt.
But what vitality! The women hold jobs—
clean house, cook, raise children,
bowl and go to church.

What would they say if they knew
I sit for two months on six lines
of poetry?

[This is the poem that made me a Lorine Niedecker fan. She was an Objectivist poet (NOT the Ayn Rand bullshit, but a Reddish school of Modernist poetry which fell into obscurity during the McCarthy era) who lived and worked in rural Wisconsin. 

An article by Elizabeth Willis is a good introduction to her, but there's a lot more on the Internet about her life and her poetry. (Some of the articles mention that she worked for Hoard's Dairyman, which she refers to in this poem, but few of those commenting seem to understand the central role this weekly publication played for North American dairy farmers throughout the 20th century.)

It's a short poem, but a rich one, touching on the Bomb, the lives of working people--including the work itself, women's role in society and the weird distance the lone artist must feel in larger communities.]

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