Pushcart XL: Thomas Sayers Ellis, “Vernacular Owl” (poem) from Poetry, July/August 2014

Amiri Baraka: photo by Ruth Fremson/The New York Times

Amiri Baraka: photo by Ruth Fremson/The New York Times

                                        for Amiri Baraka
  Old Ark,
how funky it was, all those animals, two of every kind,
and all that waste, the human shit somebody had to clean up.
Somebody, some love you hugged before fear,
the fear of an in-sani-nation, the No Blues, ruined your bowels.
Go devil.
Public programs
like
Race.
Dems a Repub
of Dumpster Molesters,
Private
like
the Runs.
God evil.
Somebody had to clean that shit up.

~~ Complete poem available online at Poetry;
audio also available (minute 9)

Lots of MFA theses gonna be written about this one. Me, I know when I’m over my head, so the best I can do is mention the obvious, step back and let the poem take the spotlight of wiser thoughts than mine.

What greater tribute can a poet give but a poem. As the predominant image for his tribute to Amiri Baraka, Ellis chose to riff on “Somebody Blew Up America,” which may be Baraka’s most controversial work, leading to, among other things, the end of his tenure as Poet Laureate of New Jersey. The title of Ellis’ tribute echoes the “who” of Baraka’s poem, along with the image of the owl as wise and all-seeing.

The poem uses Noah’s Ark as its conceit, but takes us to the overlooked but far more practical aspects of the well-known story with the repeated line, “Somebody had to clean that shit up”. Brings a different image to the Ark, doesn’t it? Much as bringing facts about America brings a different image to patriotism, like the first time you realize “manifest destiny” was code for “we’re gonna take what we want and kill anyone who gets in the way”. If we’re going to benefit from the dark side of history – and many of us do, every day – the least we can do is acknowledge it in the present.

The poem’s a kaleidoscope of images, and I’m nowhere near familiar enough either with Baraka’s work nor with poetics in general to parse it. This is something like a highbrow “American Pie” (the song, not the movie, for god’s sake), a game I never played well. But, boy, a lot of degree candidates are going to get a lot of mileage out of it. Just count the references – to pop culture, to politics, to the military, to social and poetic theory, to sound and fury – in one brief section:

              Flushed, too, every time the Yew Norker
or one of Obi-Wan Kenobi’s traitorous X Jedi Clampett hillbillies
fresh prince’d us…
 
                               The real religion,
                               our “individual expressiveness”
                                 wasn’t dehuman-u-factured
                               by a Greek HAARP
                                       in a Roman uni-dot-gov-versity.
                               Where we Away
                               our Steel, “flood”
                                 means “flow.”
                               Where we Tenure
                               our Ammo, “podium”
                                 means “drum.”
 
Flood,
flow.
Podium,
drum.
Flood,
drum.
Podium,
flow.
Drum,
podium.
Flood,
flow.

As indicated in the Poetry background material, Ellis has put a lot of thought into the performance of poetry for a long time: “A perform–a–form occurs when the idea body and the performance body, frustrated by their own segregated aesthetic boundaries, seek to crossroads with one another.” Hence the saxophone intertwined with the reading (if you didn’t listen, oh, please do, beginning at about the 9-minute mark – it’s quite a different experience from reading the text, and includes some solid commentary from Don Share and Lindsey Garbutt). He’s recorded collaborations of other Baraka works with saxophonist James Brandon Lewis. And notice that Baraka’s reading of his original poem also includes a saxophonist.

I’ve always wondered why so many poets read their works in that monotone drone: it’s so standard, there must be a theoretical basis for it (unless poets are by nature just terrible readers?), perhaps to focus on the words rather than the spoken interpretation, to allow the hearer to apply her own interpretation? But the drone is an interpretation, and when I hear it, I find it often diminishes what I’d thought I’d heard in the poem in the first place. Ellis, like Baraka, has multiple outlets for his art – he’s a photographer as well as poet and teacher – and if you don’t think teaching is a performing art, you’ve never seen a real teacher in action – so perhaps that’s why he’s able to allow poetry to expand beyond words on a page.

Don Share, editor of Poetry (which is, arguably, America’s most august poetry journal) reveals in a Divedapper interview with Kaveh Akbar the negative reaction publishing such work can generate:

As some might have seen, the august TLS in the UK went crazy over my publishing Thomas Sayers Ellis’s poem, “Vernacular Owl,” erroneously calling Ellis “half-literate,” and characterizing the magazine as the bastard offspring of Ray Johnson and Amiri Baraka. But Harriet got hate mail after publishing T.S. Eliot’s “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” – like a note from the critic Louis Untermeyer who said that the effect of the poem was that of the “Muse in a psychopathic ward.” You can say “Make It New” all you want to, but some things stay the same.

That’s the push-pull, isn’t it: make it new, but don’t scare the horses. Lots of people scaring the horses these days, since politely asking the horses to clean up their own shit wasn’t working.

                                Now a daze,
                                tribe-be-known,
                                the devil
                                the best historian we got.
                                Anyhow.

In the audio podcast, Share mentions the ending word as looking backwards, in resignation, and forwards, as where do we go from here. I love that. When I read the poem, I thought it sounded like exhaustion, as if the speaker just realized, hey, I’ve said everything I have to say, now it’s up to you to do something with what you’ve heard, and when I heard Share’s comment, it seemed to fit what I was fumbling around with. “Here it is. It’s yours now. Well?” Who’s gonna clean up this shit?

The question of “whose story is it” was a big issue for me in the story I read just prior to this, “The Weave” by Charles Johnson. I wonder if this is the theme running through Pushcart here, or if it’s just that it’s on my mind so I see it everywhere these days. History is all storytelling, and the storyteller has great power to shape belief which has great power to shape the future, because (just check Borges’ “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius”) what people think happened is often more important than what did happen. Every American history course begins in Europe with people who became Americans, because to begin in what is now America with the original Americans would be a different story with different heroes and villains. Elections are won and lost on how well the candidate tells the story. “Who lives who dies who tells your story“. “The danger of the single story“.

And the devil has his story, too. Who wrote this story: Ellis, Baraka, America, me, you? Who?

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