References Longfellow’s narrative poem, “Evangeline,” which tells of the British expulsion of the French Acadians from Canada. Many of these Acadians settled as a group in Louisiana and are the ancestors of the Cajuns. Longfellow’s story tells of two lovers who are parted by the British attack, and find each other only by accident many decades later when the man is hospitalized, and the woman has become a nurse in a religious order. Their last moment of life is one of recognition, where they feel their love has stayed true, and then the man dies. The eternal search for desire, the quest for what our heart as seen, as if in a vision, and fidelity to that quest: what else can create a trajectory of meaning in our transient lives, but this manifestation of the immaterial? The man burdens himself with recriminations that he could have kept them from being separated in the disaster, and spends his days wandering throughout the country seeking his sweet Evangeline. The world itself begins to fade, or become an opposing force, as his desire grows ever brighter, ever stronger, ever more real. Either love or faith by themselves are mighty centers of action, drawing meaning after them in their cometlike wake; together, the comet must make landfall and crater hearts.
A prominent merchant in St. Paul, Minnesota, Joseph Forepaugh, built an elaborate Victorian mansion for his family; but success begat more misery than happiness. Forepaugh had a tryst with their Irish housemaid, Molly, making her great with child. When confronted with his infidelity by his wife, he swore off the affair and he moved the family to Europe to avoid a scandal. Molly, distraught and alone, hung herself before her good name could become ruined by her indiscretion. Joseph Forepaugh moved the family back to the St. Paul area after a few years away and built his loyal wife another mansion. But, he was so haunted by the sad death of his young lover Molly, he developed insomnia and eventually took his own life in the darkest hours of the night. The poem takes place on one of these endless nights of his heartbroken vigil. Joseph and Molly’s ghosts are often seen haunting the mansion, drifting disconsolately through the walls.
Another difficulty of the project on which I have embarked, is that of finding folktale and exemplar full enough of life in the twentieth century. Who are our heroes, the ones that say something of universal value, or that touch a root nerve so deep the great oak must shiver? Who, from our last century, do we, as Americans, carry within us? The process is made more difficult yet with the resignation of writer and artist from the hero-making business. Now, I hate jingoism and smarmy claptrap as deeply as any man (except when singing patriotic songs on the Fourth of July); but, the forging of national identity–even the search for that identity–is a frowned upon activity, scoffed at in intellectual journals, and dismissed by the popular press. The mass media prefer to have heroes as disposable as fashions, and for the same reason: to increase sales. The moral curiosity of a Hawthorne, seeking the expiation of sins, or the commemorative wish of a Francis Scott Key to recall battle-sacrifice with a song are not the norm anymore. Our bibles are printed on toilet paper, our national ideals become ephemeral. In any case, the guilty self-exploration of Holden Caulfield seems to have stuck for some fifty years, and I am claiming his adolescent angst as one of our defining visions of ourselves to have emerged and added itself to the roll call of American heroes. Holden is a bit symbolist and fin-de-si
Freneau is known as “the poet of the Revolution” with such works as “The Rising Glory of America” and was an early exponent of Romanticism. Here, the opinionated Matawan, NJ resident is playing pat-a-cakes with pretty Liberty, as a good anti-Federalist ought to do in his spare time. In his poem “Death’s Epitaph,” Freneau put these words into Death’s mouth: “slaves and Caesars were the same to me!” It is a sentiment I think the Princeton-educated Freneau could probably have been heard to utter as he downed his rum at the old Poet’s Inn–now a Mediterranean Cuisine eatery.
Major Andre was Benedict Arnold’s “handler” as we might say of a modern spy and his spymaster. Corrosive vanity, as with the gifted Alcibiades, was all that Arnold had left of his sense of personal honor. Much of the same hero-victim attitude permeates our contemporary celebrity and sports culture. “I am the best at what I do,” becomes a demented demand for special treatment and privilege–a demand that erodes the unity of a free people, creating special classes of individuals. In contrast, Andrew Jackson famously held the celebration of his Inauguration inside the White House, and when the festivities got too rowdy, he had the party whiskey barrels rolled out onto the lawn to remove the crowds; after all, the White House is “the people’s house.” Major Andre, in the poem, is encouraging the slighted ego of Benedict Arnold into an exacerbated state of self-inflicted suffering. In such a state of mind, one’s personal wishes for acknowledgement out-weigh all duty, all glory of a noble goal, all pledges given to a losing cause. One may gain the world, but lose himself in the indulgence of such a mood.
Many of the phrases of this poem were inspired by Martin Luther King’s justly famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” The orderly argument for disobedience, which goes through Socrates and Thoreau and Ghandi to break into non-violent flower in the mind of Dr. King, is a most interesting exercise in the influence, the reality of non-material concepts in the life of humanity. The refrain (“My feets is tired, but my soul is rested.”) is from a reported protester whom King mentions expressed herself with “ungrammatical profundity.” Seventy winters on her head, she joined in a bus-riders boycott to protest segregation, where black Americans would be forced to ride in the rear of the bus while white passengers rode up front with easiest access to entrance and egress. There was no question in her mind that the several miles walk to purchase necessities was worth whatever weariness; her soul’s rest was at stake. King himself draws several powerful parallels in his letter written to his fellow clergymen, drawn from both American history and the Bible; from the Boston Tea Party, to the jewish counselors of Nebuchadnezzar who, when they refused to bow to his golden image according to the dictates of their consciences, were thrown alive into a fully-stoked furnace. When the royal Nebuchadnezzar glanced after them to verify their punishment with the wicked lust of all those in power, he saw–not their destruction–but their shadows walking undestroyed in the flames; their righteousness had protected them. John Brown and Nat Turner took a violent path to try and end slavery, each fostering rebellions against an evil institution and paying the penalty of being hanged as law-breakers.
Confusion and wailing are all our politics; the rending of garments, and the distraction of demagoguery are everywhere in our public speech and national stances. The old “root, hog, or die” attitude of self-reliance, the “get off’n my porch” reply to the Federal Revenuer, and even the possibility of such self-reliance, or such flip temerity in the face of authority, are dwindling in our landscape beyond the manicured precincts of today’s high-rent, medievally “gated communities.” As in Indra’s net, all things connect to all things. With no rhymes to remind us of who we are, our geopolitical impact will lessen. “The kingdom was lost, all for the want of a horseshoe nail.” The horseshoe nails of Japan, among other anchors, are haiku; it can be a thing as small and forever as that. Basho re-branded Japanese self-consciousness through his own, deeply historical, sense of values. The tales we tell ourselves about who we are and what we must be can open or close possible futures to our activity. In the TV show “Dr. Who,” the good Doctor most often solves dilemmas in a world that resembles current-day London to a remarkable degree; other times are, perhaps inevitably, less real to those writers. It is the expectations the imagination permits that shapes such choices. Here, the poet laments that such sayings no longer apply to his nation, that the folklore that could have grown up around the civic religion of our founding documents has waned toward silence. The Revolution that occurred first “in the minds of the people,” has faded from their lips. The artist’s duty to carve out unforgettable rhymes that ring true for generations has gone untended; our native hills “echo naught of those old patriot tales.” The mechanical, political adherence to the letter of the Constitution chunters on loudly and deafly, tangling America in the world’s woes as the upholder of world order and an increasingly vague “symbol” of the rights of the individual. We prosecute tendentious wars, but sing no songs of patriot lore:
"No onward story among their aged seams repeats, Nothing but blood is added to what was great."
When grief has broken us, the link between what we want of life and what life delivers is strained; daily events take on the tenor of the unreal; dreams grow into rumors of the other realm, and the mind becomes a point of focus where invisible whispers enter the verity of daylight. Mary Todd Lincoln became grief-distracted by the death of her son, Willie, during the time the Lincolns lived at the White House. Rumor and witness conspired to declare her mentally ill or dangerously depressed at this time. Lincoln himself adopted an ever more fatalistic turn of mind about his eventual assassination, the destiny of both his presidency and the nation seemingly carved in marble gravestones. Both of the Lincolns saw and felt Willie’s presence in the White House, hearing his fleet footsteps run down empty corridors, or experiencing other eerie manifestations. Mary Todd became obsessed with wanting to contact Willie and held s
Fats Waller is, for me, an emblem of the creative artist’s response to oppression. First and foremost, what I feel most strongly about Fats is that he is the marvelous, mischievous, creative American Mozart of Tin Pan Alley. He won’t be defined or stopped by anyone. Shakespeare wrote reams of subversive plays that drew implicit parallels to what he thought of the mismeasure and misrule of his own times and society. In Shakespeare, there is an education in our own humanity, if we are open to our own feelings of being alive. The roots of jazz and the blues have the same basic imperative: feel. Understanding is secondary to life, experience is primary. Even if one’s feelings are despair and ennui, as in the broken marches of the Blues, feel them; and, once the gates of perception have been cleansed by honestly feeling what you feel, one must inevitably do more than just feel them, one must sing them. Art is a moral response to being alive. The world is a forest of varying experiences–from the soft subtle Georgia breeze that tinkles against the poor man’s bottletree making a random angelic choir in a dirt yard, to the ‘strange fruit’ of the famous blues tune that describes lynchings in the American South, with dead men and women hanged for no more reason than the color of their skin. Despite such terror and such despair, Waller’s Falstaffian joy for life is as immense as the sun; and that joy bulls through all the bullshit that burdens us.
Dance appears to us in perfected memory as in a dream. The words of neighbors and lovers fade, and only their faces remain; the memory of a loving look, the addendum of a touch. How does dance have such a vivifying power–to remain when all else falls away? The body remembers its emotions; that which moves us emotionally makes us, literally, move. The result of all calculation, and every accident, every spasm or hapless spontaneous gesture, is action; in action, we are revealed. Poetry, as performance, is action; as speech it is famously full of falsity, foil and counterfoil. In some tribes, a poet’s testimony is not allowed in court–poets are considered such expert and persuasive liars. In our own day and age, car salesmen and lawyers (with congressmen running a close third) are our exemplars of dubious speech. But, in the art of dance, however many hours have been toiled away at practice, however ancient the template the ballet or kabuki dancer follows, there lies revealed the truth of the human body in motion, the athletic fact. And this is somehow akin to memory and dream; the power of those totems to remain real to us when all else fades.