Greenwood Encyclopedia of African American Literature

Monday, November 25, 2013

A Day, A Season

(Mainz, Germany)

At dusk suddenly shrubs
blacken like over-ripe fruit.

Cries of children playing
soccer diminish. In last light,

women walk dogs in the park
before winos shuffle in,

rustling like cockroaches.
These and other gestures

of light, air, traffic, hunger,
routine, and business seem this

evening profound enough to be
called seasonal. The evening

seems large. There was the solitary
dying sunflower in the old woman's

garden today. Its sagging head
looked tragically rotten. Its

sad, dappled leaves hung like the fins
of a beached sea-mammal. Old

people boarding the bus now
in Mainz-Bretzenheim climb

into gray light. The bus
groans away from the curb.

hans ostrom 1980/2013

Friday, November 22, 2013

Including Styrofoam, Blender, and Bomb

A lime-green blender vomits a mixture. The party.
The shovel in the shed equals stolen property.

An image of the spider's body remains on the page
of the book that crushed the spider. Ideogram.

As you talk, I stare at your fingernails,
which gleam like oiled leaves under neon.

She refuses to sell her father's anvil.
We used to poke needles just under and through our skin:

no blood. The man looked at six tomatoes
and regretted inviting friends to dinner.

I want to fry many minnows,
she said. Many. ("She's losing it.")

A drawer is filled with electrical cords--
black, white, orange: to what end?

When he was eight years old, he struck another
child on the head with a croquet mallet. Clinically.

What do you mean the condom broke?
What do you mean what do you mean?

The manager pulled on his moist nose and said,
"We are going to have to wrap up this meeting."

Closure. There was nothing left of the car.
An undetonated rocket was found in the village.

The photograph is of a child's hat in
a mud puddle, along with a styrofoam container.

Green oil makes the puddle shine in the photo.
I don't know. Have you looked online?

hans ostrom

Some prompts for writing L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E poetry and/or surrealistic poetry

(Some prompts we used in a poetry class today, based in part on some reading we did (Breton's Surrealist Manifesto, poems by Hejinian, Bly, and Tate, among others.)

#2 was the most popular choice, followed by #4

1. Describe any ordinary task or activity—brushing your teeth, buying a cup of coffee, whatever—and interject random images, actions, or utterances to create the effect of a dream.
2. Write down memories of your life, one sentence per memory, but put them in random order. Events, images, things you said, things you heard others say, etc.
3. Think about a boring situation you had to/have to endure. Waiting at an airport. Listening to a professor. Etc. Then describe it with a list of extravagant comparisons. “Waiting at the airport is like cooking dragon-flesh with a Zippo lighter.” And the similes should be unrelated to on another; that is, you are not developing a conceit.
4. Describe a situation or an event that, as you recall it, did in fact seem surreal at the time. Try to capture that quality of surrealism.
5. Write down things (phrases, utterances, opinions) you hear quite a lot—from friends, room-mates, professors, co-workers, family, people you overhear. They should be unrelated. Don’t try to organize them.
6. Think of unrelated objects. A blender, a shovel, a book, a hubcap (e.g.). For each object, describe an action, which need not be logical. “The book ate a moth.” One description or action per object, then move on to the next object and its action.

hans ostrom

Beat-Memo Homage

Re-posting one from 2009.

Beat-Memo Homage: Dig It

You don't (or I don't, or one doesn't) hear anyone say, "I dig that" or "I can dig that" in the ancient hipster or old-Beatnik sense of "I understand that" or "I'm in tune with that" much anymore--except perhaps when people are genially mocking the usage.

I still recall fondly the pop-song, "Grazing in the Grass (Is a Gas)," with its dig-related riff and refrain. Not the apogee of American music, I grant.

According the OED online, this sense of "dig" arose in English (in print, at least) around 1935:

1935 Hot News Sept. 20/2 If you listen enough, and dig him enough, you will realise that that..riff is the high-spot of the record.
1941 Life 15 Dec. 89 Dig me? 1943 M. SHULMAN Barefoot Boy with Cheek 90 Awful fine slush pump, I mean awful fine. You ought to dig that. 1944 C. CALLOWAY Hepsters Dict., Dig v.{em}(1) Meet. (2) Look, see. (3) Comprehend, understand.

Notice that Cab Calloway is featured in an early citation. This is almost purely guesswork, but my familiarity with African American origins of some American slang and of "hepster," "hipster," and jazz-related slang induces me to hypothesize that this use "dig" may have sprang from African American colloquial speech, which heavily influenced Beat slang.

With regard to the more literal use of dig, I can report that I did a lot of digging in my youth and young adulthood, much of it related to putting in water-lines, building foundations for houses, putting in fence-posts, establishing drain-fields for septic tanks, and even looking for gold. Since then I've done a lot of digging in gardens.

Strange as it may sound, my father loved to dig. (He became a professional hard-rock gold-miner at age 17, at the Empire Mine in Grass Valley California; this meant digging.) To him it was an art. Probably the best tip I can give you from the art of digging according to him is to let the pick (or pry-bar) do the work. Never swing a pick as high or higher than your head; you really don't have to swing it at all. Work with it, and let its iron point do the work, not your forearms and back. If the pick is wearing you out, something is wrong--I mean besides the fact that there you are, using a pick.

Unfortunately, my experience digging, often alongside my father, may have ruined Seamus Heaney's famous "Digging" poem for me. In it, Heaney explicitly compares his writing ("digging" with a pen) to his father's digging in the ground. I think because I saw the comparison coming a mile away (when I first read the poem), I winced. Also, because digging is a form of labor and a skill unto itself, I'd be tempted to leave it alone and not associate it with the figurative digging of writing.

True, a pick and a pen both have a point, and so, therefore, does Heaney. But for some reason I wanted him to let writing be writing and digging be digging and not go for the comparison. I'm in an extremely tiny minority with this response, however, so I think it's mostly about me and not about Heaney's poem, which many people adore.

In any event, and in honor of those old hipsters and long-ago Beats, and in homage to writers I happen to like, here's a list-poem memo (for some reason, the idea of writing a Beat "memo" amused me, probably more than it should have):

Beat-Memo Homage

I dig Basho, Dickinson, Housman,
Lagerkvist, and Gogol. I dig Kafka, Calvino,
Borges, Brautigan. Can you dig Langston
Hughes,W.C. Williams, and Sam Johnson? I can.
Oh, man. I dig Swenson (May), Valenzuela (Luisa),
Sayers, Stout, and Conan Doyle. I dig
Shapiro, Stafford, Bukowski, and Jarrell.
Leonard Cohen and Jay McPherson: I dig
them, too. Of course I dig some of those
Beats, except they're ones who were
on the fringes of Beatly fringehood: Snyder,
Baraka, Everson, Levertov. Sure,
I dig Ginsburg and Kerouac, just
not as much as other people do. I dig Camus,
who didn't believe, and Nouwen, who did.
I dig Suzuki (Zen Mind...), St. Denis
(Cloud of...), and Spinoza. Jeffers, I
dig--Mr. Happy-Go-Lucky. I dig Rumi
an Goethke: what's not to dig? I dig
O'Connor (Frank and Flannery both).
I dig Horace and the Beowulf cat,
Tolstoy, Cervantes. Let's leave it at that.

Copyright 2009 Hans Ostrom

Time to Move

When Daddy started growing antlers
out of his temples,
we decided it was time
to move away from Chemical County.

After they were arrested
and held without bail or a
hearing in a converted warehouse,
one of them had the idea
of reciting Eisenhower's
speech about the military-
industrial complex. They did.
They recited it. And then
they were moved to another
facility. Facility.

After she attempted to burn
all my clothes and kept
leaving cat-carcasses
on my doorstep, I decided
it might be time
to make the move of
re-thinking our relationship.

She shouted as loud as she
could at the people, and they
obviously did not hear her,
so it was then that she knew
she had moved into
a ghost's existence. Which
was fine with her.

hans ostrom 2013

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

"Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow," by William Shakespeare

largely an embarrassing affair

i have found life to be largely
an embarrassing affair in which
one is supposed to know things
but doesn't know them yet or knows
things but isn't supposed to know
them yet and in both cases
is derided, checked, & otherwise
made to feel bad. then

there is the matter of failing
at things one never really
gave a shit about and failing
at things one cares terribly
about but could never quite
secure the proper
assistance with, or
an effective gesture of welcome.

then the body-stuff: too big,
too small, too thin, too thick,
not quite enough of this, not
enough like that. really it's
a kind of constant surveillance,
with the body and the physical
behavior stuff. right?

not complaining, just recording.
to err is human, but that's
not the point. it's the always
feeling off, bad, ill-fitting,
excessive, insufficient. those
feelings are human and
largely a source of embarrassment.
is the thing.

hans ostrom 2013

Saturday, November 16, 2013

why do people?

why do people like pickles?
why do they buy pickles, hey?
why do people use phones?
why do people make poetry?
why do people claim
they do have homes?
listen to the people.
they say, and they say, and
they say.the
people say!

why do people hate people?
why do people torture people?
why do people think people
ain't people? you'
got to be
think that.

maybe you have been an
Ain't People.
hey, maybe you know how
it feels.
for reals.
--feels to be seen
as less than nothing.
knows what it's like
to stand there,
wond-ring. wond-ring
why oh why,
why me?

Oh Lord Ah God
oh true and only one.
you are bigger than
the sun. Please will
you freight in
some answers
about this plight,
this fate, this one.

(oh, yes, this one.)

hans ostrom 2013

make them want

make them want
what they don't
need and sell it
to them; that's the
creed of the
Consumocracy, our
churn of items.

the version of
that thing you just
bought's out of date,
ill-equipped by
equipment specialists
(go figure), ill-de-

instead of an apology,
you'll get an advert,
I said an ADVERT,
which will tell you
to buy thatthing2.0

or the all-new

get it, have it,
use it, show it,
talk about it. stroke
it. yeah, pet that
prime commodity.

goods and services,
Little People. get the
goods, or the
system will not
work, and you don't
want the system
not to work, now
do you? i thought not.

i say unto you,
consume until doomsday--
which has its own brand.

hans ostrom 2013

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

It's Going To Be All Right?

People, including parents and friends,
like to say, "It's going to be all right,"
as if they knew. It's not a bad rhetorical
move--pretending you know when you don't.
Where would we be without such
rituals of speech?

"What goes around, comes around," people like
to say. Something about Karma, which
in the U.S. has become a girl's name. Something
about a belief in a force or entity
that controls the game--a pit-boss, say,
in Vegas: no, that's not quite right.

Or maybe it's the deep order of fractal chaos?
It has to be more than wishful thinking.
Doesn't it? It's going to be all right?

I said to a woman once, concerning a mutual
friend who'd been shafted by greasy academic
pigs in tweed, "What goes around, comes around."
(What I really meant was: they'll get theirs.)
She said, "No, it doesn't. Even if it comes around,
it's too goddamn late. These fuckers hurt her,
and they will get away with it."

True enough. Meaning: true. It's in fact the
lesson I took away from Hitler's reign, slavery,
Jim Crow, lynching, assassinations of MLK
and JFK, Black justice v. White justice,
the rise of worms in organization, U.S.-
sponsored coups, and on; and on and on:
they will get away with it.

Even if a dictator's hung,
the damage is already done.

I have said to people in trouble,
"It's going to be all right." It isn't
exactly a lie. It isn't the truth.
It's something we say. It's something
those without knowledge or power
feel as though they ought to say
just to keep the illusion of
an ongoing game alive.

These things we say to each other
that aren't exactly accurate
are nonetheless important
evidently. Tell me. Tell me,
stranger, tell me, friend; tell
me it's going to be all right.

hans ostrom 2013

Saturday, November 9, 2013

When the Tongue

Quarter to Five (A Zombie Poem)

(reposting one from 2009)
He works as a zombie from 9 to 5. He climbs
into a catatonic state and performs duties
as are assigned to him. He's under the spell
of employment. (It could be worse.) His
co-worker, Barton, said, "You scare me.
You look like the living dead." "Don't worry,"
he said, "I'm just behaving professionally. After
work I become vibrant and garrulous."

"But I don't get it," Barton said, "--what
job-title around here requires a person
to behave like a zombie?" "In my particular
case," said the man, "it's Chief Deputy for
Zombic Affairs." "And what is it exactly
you do?" asked Barton. "Barton," he said,
"you don't want to know." With his blank,
unnerving, but professionally appropriate
affect, he resumed his duties, for the clock
read only quarter to five.

hans ostrom 2009