The Apostrophe Blog
In 2019, the Beautiful Cadaver Project of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania put together an outstanding collection, The Dreamers Anthology: Writing Inspired by Martin Luther King, Jr. and Anne Frank edited by Janette Schafer, Cedric, Rudolph, and Matthew Ussia. Two of my poems, “Politics and the American Language” and “Still Birmingham” were published in it. Here’s a review.
I wrote “Politics and the American Language” after we attended the opening weekend of the Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama in April 2018. The poem’s title is a deliberate nod to George Orwell’s famous 1946 essay, “Politics and the English Language.”
Way back in November 2008, when we all nervously awaiting the outcome of yet another fraught United States Presidential election, I wrote a blog post called “Politics in the English Language” that talked about the state of political discourse then—and it is way more debased and abused these 2023 days: “…words too numerous to count have been bled of their original meanings until they are now, it seems to me, close to if not already dead. Pick a few, any few. Words like terrorist, maverick, socialist. I’m sure you can make your own lengthy list of favorites.”
“Still Birmingham” is a found/erasure poem based on another historical document that is still (unfortunately) more than relevant these days: “Letter from Birmingham Jail” by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Politics and the American Language
with a nod to George Orwell
The syntax gets garbled, tossed on a disregarded heap.
The leap no longer cares to understand the ground.
The faces stare blank, the tears leaked from an eye
Past every scene airbrushed.
Since there is plenty of blame to go around.
Since we have been paying attention to the wrong things, and far too long.
Because I wake up and it’s all still. Here.
Because what did my fretting really matter in the end?
Because this is the future, this is the bobble and fray.
With its banality drone, its callous and deviling barks.
With its lunch-counter clinks, its slap of a shattering plate.
With its radio wail called a voice
Now reporting that, at Monticello, the room that was Sally’s opens to the public today
With no imagery of her, only a silhouette to paper the walls.
In the Legacy Museum in Montgomery, I remember
That wraith of a woman, enslaved.
How the hologram made her a wavering, housedress fold
Behind her hands in their wringing grip.
How her voice pleaded: Help me find my child.
We have been numbed to the brink of sleep
While the crime stays hidden,
Captive under an army-issue sheet.
a found/erasure poem based on “Letter from Birmingham Jail”
written by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on April 16, 1963
Unwise and untimely, seldom do I pause of genuine good will set forth.
Outsiders coming in, to engage, readily consented when the hour came.
The prophets left their villages to carry the gospel of freedom, the call for aid.
I cannot sit idly by.
Tied in a single garment of destiny, never again can we afford to live with the narrow.
None of you would want to rest content, not grapple with underlying causes.
There can be no gainsaying the fact.
Racial injustice engulfs, its ugly record of brutality is known.
Unsolved bombings of homes and churches, the hard facts of the case.
We were the victims of a broken promise; the shadow of deep disappointment settled upon us.
Present: our very bodies, a means of laying our case.
Mindful of the difficulties, are you able to accept blows without retaliating?
Rise from the bondage of myths and half-truths to the unfettered realm, from the dark depths to the majestic heights.
Too long, our Southland bogged in a tragic monologue rather than dialogue.
It is an historical fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily.
For years, “wait” rings with piercing familiarity, always meant “never.”
For more than 340 years.
We creep at horse-and-buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter.
Those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation say, “Wait.”
Vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers, drown your sisters and brothers.
Hate-filled policemen curse, kick and even kill.
Your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your daughter why, see ominous clouds of inferiority form in her mental sky.
Concoct an answer for a son who is asking: “Why do white people treat colored people so mean?”
Take a cross-county drive and sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile.
Humiliated day in and day out, nagging signs reading “white” and “colored.”
Your first name, “n—-r,” your middle name “boy,” your last name “John,” your wife and mother are never the respected “Mrs.”
Forever fighting a sense of “nobodiness,” the cup of endurance runs over, plunged into the abyss of despair.
There are two types of laws: just and unjust.
St. Augustine: an unjust law is no law at all.
The white moderate is more devoted to order, prefers a negative peace, the absence of tension.
Lives by a mythical concept of time, constantly advises to wait for a “more convenient season.”
We bring to the surface the tension that is already alive, must be opened with all its ugliness to the medicines of air and light.
Reject the strangely irrational notion that there is something in the very flow of time that will inevitably cure all ills.
Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability.
The time is always ripe to do right, to lift from the quicksand of injustice to the rock of human dignity.
People have lost faith in America—streets flowing with blood, moving with a sense of urgency, this vital urge.
Make pilgrimages to city hall, go on freedom rides.
Few can understand the deep groans and passionate yearnings of the oppressed; still fewer have the vision to see injustice rooted out.
Too many have remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained-glass windows.
I have traveled the length and breadth on sweltering summer days and crisp autumn mornings, looked at the lofty spires pointing heavenward.
Who gave a clarion call for defiance and hatred when bruised and weary men and women decided to rise from the dungeons of complacency to protest?
In deep disappointment, I have wept.
Noble souls have broken loose, walked the streets, gone down the highways on tortuous rides, carved a tunnel of hope through the mountain of disappointment.
If the inexpressible cruelties of slavery could not stop us, the opposition we now face will surely fail.
Dogs sinking their teeth into unarmed; policemen push and curse, slap and kick, refuse to give food.
We wanted to sing our grace together.
T.S. Eliot: The last temptation is the greatest treason: To do the right deed for the wrong reason.
One day the South will recognize its real heroes.
Let us all hope that the dark clouds will soon pass away.
In some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our nation with all their scintillating beauty.
Yours for the cause of peace.