A Little Bit Of Fool In Me

James Emanuel (1921 – 2013)

For me, the promised land, always seeming just beyond my reach, is the poetic masterpiece, that perfect union of words in cadence, each beckoned and shined and breathed into place, each moving in well-tried harmony of tone and texture and meaning with its neighbors, molding an almost living being so faithful to observable truth, so expressive of the mass of humanity and so aglow with the beauty of just proportions that the reader feels a chill in his legs or a catch in his throat.

James Emanuel

A Fool For Evergreen

by James Emanuel

A little bit of fool in me
Hides behind my inmost tree
And pops into the narrow path
I walk blindfolded by my wrath
Or shrunken by some twist of pain,
Some hope that will not wind again.
He ogles with his antic eyes
and somersaults a you’re-not-wise
Until the patches in his pants
Go colorwheeling through my glance
So fast that I cannot recall
That I was mad or sad at all.
A little bit of fool in me
Keeps evergreen my inmost tree.


Writing this blog, it is hard sometimes for me to reconcile the beauty of a poem and the sadness that is part of a poets life.  Most of these poets I know nothing about their lives until I find their poem first and then do a little research about the poet.  James Emanuel was born and grew up Nebraska.   At age twenty he enlisted in the United States Army in 1941 and served as the confidential secretary to the Assistant Inspector General of the U.S. Army during WWII.  After his discharge, he  went to Harvard for his undergraduate, then Northwestern for his masters and ultimately on to Columbia for his Ph. D.  He then moved to New York City where he taught at City College of New York (CUNY) where he taught the college’s first course on African-American poetry. 

Emanuel was a poet, an educator, a scholar, an editor and mentor to many.   As the years passed Emanuel became disenfranchised with racism in America.  In 1960 he moved to Europe where he continued a brilliant career at the University of Toulouse as a Fulbright scholar.  He traveled and lectured at many Universities with extended stays at the University of Grenoble and University of Warsaw. In the late 1980’s his only child, a son, was brutally beaten by three racist cops in Los Angeles.  In the emotional aftermath his son committed suicide and Emanuel never returned to America. 

Emanuel published more than 300 poems, 13 books and was an influential editor and critic.   Emanuel created a new literary genre, jazz-and-blues haiku, which he read to musical accompaniment throughout Europe and Africa. Yet despite all that success he is largely overlooked in most literary circles after 1960, in part because he left the United States and because he wrote in mostly traditional poetic forms.   Emanuel was the last surviving writer from the Harlem Renaissance.  He died in 2013 in Paris France.  I find it interesting that both he and Ethridge Knight shared a love of haiku that went largely unnoticed in America during their lifetimes. 

I listened to the video below as I wrote this blog entry.  It brightened my day.   I found it ironic that the critics ignored him for being “traditional” and yet there is nothing traditional about his verse.  The joy in his voice, the artists he is honoring mingle with his haiku style and content and the sweet saxophone jazz.  It all combines into a stunning hypnotic literary effect.  Check out the video at about the 16:30 there are a couple of haiku on hip hop.  I particularly enjoyed the Jazz Rabbit.

 

Emmett Till

by James Emanuel

I hear a whistling
Through the water.
Little Emmett
Won’t be still.
He keeps floating
Round the darkness,
Edging through
The silent chill.
Tell me, please,
That bedtime story
Of the fairy
River Boy
Who swims forever,
Deep in treasures,
Necklaced in
A coral toy.

Under The Wide And Starry Sky

Oliver Sacks (1933 – 2015)

I cannot pretend I am without fear. But my predominant feeling is one of gratitude. I have loved and been loved: I have been given much and I have given something in return; I have read and traveled and thought and written. I have had an intercourse with the world, the special intercourse of writes and readers.

Oliver Sacks

In My Dreams

by Stevie Smith

In my dreams I am always saying goodbye and riding away,
Whither and why I know not nor do I care.
And the parting is sweet and the parting over is sweeter,
And sweetest of all is the night and the rushing air.

In my dreams they are always waving their hands and saying goodbye,
And they give me the stirrup cup and I smile as I drink,
I am glad the journey is set, I am glad I am going,
I am glad, I am glad, that my friends don’t know what I think.


I was watching the documentary on Oliver Sacks on American Masters on PBS this week and remembering my enjoyment of reading his regular magazine columns in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s.   I have read most of his books that he wrote and have always enjoyed the humanity he brought to his unique perspective on the intersection  of neurology and the individual.   What his final book, a biography, along with the documentary reveals, is his own humanity and the events that shaped him as a person, a scientist and as a writer.  

What is remarkable about the documentary is that it peels back a protective layer of privacy into his personal life and creative writing process that I wasn’t aware during the decades that I read his work.   Oliver Sacks writing is very much the product of a team that surrounds him, from a long time collaboration with a ghost writer/editor, his publisher, fellow writers who shared feedback and encouragement, other scientists, but most importantly his patients, whose stories and lives and diseases he chronicles with the focus always on the person, not just their physical manifestations of their illness.  Oliver Sacks ideas on consciousness, creativity, memory and writing are remarkable in the their simplicity in some ways with his awareness  on what makes us the same, not how we are each dissimilar, while recognizing that each and every one of us have a unique story, a singular life to live. 

There will be no one like us when we are gone, but then there is no one like anyone else, ever. When people die, they cannot be replaced. They leave holes that cannot be filled, for it is the fate – the genetic and neural fate – of every human being to be a unique individual, to find his own path, to live his own life, to die his own death.

Oliver Sacks
 

This pandemic has forced many to think about our mortality and our lives.  We have had to re-invent the ways in which we work and interact with the world, ways we see ourselves as productive, ways in which we relax,  entertain ourselves.  It has drawn a very harsh boundary around what we think of as our inner circle and the rest of the world.  I fear that at a time that this worlds need to to band together collectively more than ever to solve nearly insurmountable problems that these past 18 months will forever alter the path of three generations of global human thought for most individuals in the wrong direction; away from an idea of shared sacrifice for the collective good and towards an over protective individualism.  I fear that in our forced isolation of social distancing, the world has become a world of outsiders, people are something to be avoided and if we are not careful, feared.  This new pandemic mindset of avoidance and individualism is one more rung on the ladder of challenges we shall have to overcome and climb over.   I am reminded by Oliver Sacks example to look at the humanity of each individual not our collective and individual pathologies.  See each other as singular gifts while mirroring back to us the parts of us that we see in ourselves.  To err is to be human and to be ill is to be mortal.  Can we take something good from this pandemic, an acceptance of illness as an inseparable part of being alive and focus on a supportive form of community that helps each of us on our journey. 


Requiem

by Robert Louis Stevenson (1850 – 1894)

Under the wide and starry sky,
    Dig the grave and let me lie.
Glad did I live and gladly die,
    And I laid me down with a will.

This be the verse you grave for me:
    Here he lies where he longed to be;
Home is the sailor, home from sea,
    And the hunter home from the hill

The Truth Might Ripen

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Ronald Stewart Thomas (1913 – 2000)

The Fair

By R. S. Thomas

The idiot goes round and around
With his brother in a bumping car
At the fair. The famous idiot
Smile hangs over the car’s edge,
Illuminating nothing. This is mankind
Being taken for a ride by a rich
Relation. The responses are fixed:
Bump, smile; bump, smile. And the current

Is generated by the smooth flow
Of the shillings. This is an orchestra
Of steel with the constant percussion
Of laughter. But where he should be laughing
Too, his features are split open, and look!
Out of the cracks come warm, human tears.

This

By R. S. Thomas

I thought, you see, that on some still night,
When stars were shrill over his farm,
And he and I kept ourselves warm
By an old fire, whose bars were bright
With real heat, the truth might ripen
Between us naturally as the fruit
Of his wild hedges, or as the roots,
Swedes  and mangolds, he grew then.

No luck; the thoughts hopefully sown
On such evenings never could break
The mind’s crust.  Keeping my own
Company now.  I have forsaken
All but his poor basement of bone,
Where the one dry flame is awake.