Pushcart 2014: Afaa Michael Weaver – Blues in Five/Four, The Violence in Chicago (Poetry) from Ibbetson Street #32, November 2012

Larry “Poncho” Brown: “The Reason for Being” (2000)

Chicago used to be Sundays at Gladys’ Luncheonette
where church folk came and ate collard greens and chicken
after the sermons that rolled out in black churches, sparkling
tapestries of words from preachers’ mouths, prayer books,
tongues from Tell Me, Alabama, and Walk On, Mississippi.

I always wonder, when people reminisce fondly about a Golden Time: are they remembering accurately? I came of age in a time of nostalgia for the 50s, which, sure, were Leave It to Beaver and Father Knows Best, but also a time of Jim Crow laws and segregated schools and the limits of expectations for the men in grey flannel suits and women married to houses. Chicago was never just Sundays at Gladys’ Luncheonette, was it. Is the problem with modernity not solely the proportion of nastiness, or its increased visibility?

Nevertheless, this is a pretty depressing poem (it’s available online on the home page of his website), or maybe I’m just feeling it that way; I’ve been awash in feelings of “the world’s going to hell and I don’t want to play any more”. I see the 5/4 reflected in five lines per four stanzas; the meter needs to be forced in places to stay in pentameter, but it’s in that neighborhood.

In the first stanza, he’s talking about movies, then starts the second with “still shots” which of course has relevance to movies, but if you think of it in that context, the rhythm of that spondee – bam! bam! – as well as the word “shots” brings gunshot to mind. Tell Me, Alabama and Walk On, Mississippi are great characterizations; can’t you hear the voices, telling their stories?

I find I’m really bothered by the repetition of the word “shreds” in the fourth stanza, but I adore the last stanza. The “name the bad children call themselves” brings a particular word to mind. Then there’s the line break on starve, leaving us hanging (starved?) and harking back to the apocalypse movies where people are physically starving, but then resolving to a more spiritual kind of starvation, and perhaps one even more pernicious, with the next line. A generation of children bereft of laughter?

Now light has left us, the sun blocked out by shreds
of what history becomes when apathy shreds it,

As always, my ModPo friends had some great observations:

The third verse is such a beautiful evocation of a time when Sundays were special, the food and company was welcoming and warm, the singing coming from past times, and the church was a huge and supportive source of strength.

What violent shifts from stanza to stanza. The “collard greens” and the churchyard of the third stanza that Sarah mentions dragged us, as it were, to that fourth stanza, that is, back to the state depicted in the “movies” of the first stanza. I’m still puzzling over the progression here, but there seems to be (at least) four media involved, movies in the first stanza, stills (in books) in the second, the prayer books (rolling out into “sparkling/ tapestries”), and lastly history (are they texts, shredded?) from which the names of the next generation are derived.
More than these texts, what I find fascinating’s how relationship of the “folk” differs from stanza to stanza. In the second, the twilight of the persona’s generation, they are forced to view with eyes taped open. I assume this is the doing of the younger generation, the strong hoodlums. But if so, why? What’s the point of propping up their parents or grandparents? Is this a punishment of sorts, an accusation: “Behold what you have wrought”?
In the third stanza, the persona’s generation, younger then, congregate around texts, I imagine singing, and those idyllic lunches of how are the kids, did you catch what the preacher said, tell Martha her potato salad’s as fine as it gets.
Then in the fourth, history (or its shreds) becomes a name, a bad name, perhaps those same type of names prohibited in those Sundays of yore. I feel there’s much more to this stanza (why was history shredded and donned as a bad name instead of just plain thrown away or buried?). Will definitely return to this poem later.
I don’t know if anybody will agree, but there seems to me a distance between what the poet knows and what the persona knows. The persona is shocked, terrified, mournful, but almost always baffled. What has become of this land? It’s all going to the dogs.
Maybe this confusion is necessary for the poem, maybe this is why his generation being forced to look at pictures of the dead, why their eyes are taped open. Perhaps they had been turning a blind eye, already fostering the apathy he would later call to account in the fourth stanza.
It also proves that history has been shredded, not only for the rest of land and its hoodlums, but also, though to a much lesser extent, for the persona. Otherwise, he’d have the answer to his own implicit whys.
But the arrangement of the stanzas, the flash-forward (of sorts) of the first and the flashback of the third, indicates a clear understanding of what went wrong. Perhaps there’s more to that third stanza than the persona realizes, that something in that Sunday sparkle—or something denied by it—would bloom into the apathy that would someday shred history to blot out the sun

Yep, depressing poem; but Weaver’s a comforting, uplifting presence in his interview with a local TV station in which he discusses a different poem, as well as his history of abuse and the growth and strength he found combining Dao concepts with the Christianity of his childhood. And he has a sophisticated sense of humor: one of his poems is “Composition For White Critics Who Think African-American Poets Cannot Work In Contexts Of Pure Concerns For Language And Post-Postmodern Twenty-First Century Inventiveness In Lyric Expression Due To Their Self-Limiting Concerns With Language As A Means Of Self-Expression And Racial/Cultural Identity In Poetry That Is Ultimately Perhaps Beautiful However Too Trite And Too Folksy To Be Post [//] Theorist Efficacy.” I’d give it a Pushcart for the title alone.

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