Joe Hill: A Musical

This just needs dialogue, lyrics, and original music (presumably folk). It’s based on a bit of history plus plenty of invention.

Act 1, Scene 1: Silver King Mine, Utah (1914)

Striking miners sing of their suffering and despair. They are buoyed to see Joe Hill, a Swedish immigrant and union organizer, arrive. He leads them in a chorus of his song, “There is Power in the Union,” which raises their spirits. Hilda Erickson, age 20, a fellow Swede, approaches him and expresses her admiration for his courage.

Act 1, Scene 2: the same

Joe pulls fellow workers Sven Andersson and John G. Morrison aside to discuss what to do when hired guns come to break the strike. Morrison suggests they blow up the only bridge to the mine so that the goons can’t bring their heavy weapons with them. Andersson says he knows where they can steal some dynamite.

Act 1, Scene 3: Hilda’s family home, a humble homestead near Park City.

Joe arrives with flowers and asks Hilda out on a date the next weekend. After he leaves, she sings ambivalently. Maybe Joe would come to love her in time, but he seems to love the movement more–and death more than all.

Act 1: Scene 4: The sheriff’s office

The local sheriff meets with Morrison, who turns out to be a former police officer and now an undercover deputy. Morrison tells him that the Wobblies are planning acts of terror using dynamite. The sheriff orders Morrison to let them steal the explosives and then arrest them on the spot. Morrison sings of his anger that communist foreigners would try to subvert his community.

Act 2: Scene 1: Hilda’s home

Otto Appelquist, another Swedish immigrant, knocks on Hilda’s door, also bearing flowers. He sings of the life they could have together as his store thrives in the growing American West, the land of dreams. This song turns into a duet, with Hilda confessing the appeal of his vision even as she also admires Joe. She agrees to go on a date with Otto.

Act 2: Scene 2: A warehouse by night

Andersson and Morrison steal dynamite. Once Andersson has it in his hands, Morrison draws a pistol and tells him he’s under arrest. Andersson draws and fires, killing Morrison. Standing over the dead body, Andersson sings of his fear and announces that he will flee town immediately.

Act 2: Scene 3: Outside Hilda’s home, the same night.

Appelquist drops Hilda off at her door and sings of his love for her as he walks away. Joe Hill suddenly appears and demands that Appelquist leave Hilda alone. They argue heatedly. Joe picks up a shovel and brandishes it threateningly. Appelquist draws a pistol and shoots Joe in the chest; Joe staggers away.

Act 2: Scene 4: The same

Appelquist returns to Hilda and confesses in shame what he has done. She sings of her frustration with all violent, possessive men. She hopes that Joe survives and chooses not to turn Otto into the police.

Act 2: Scene 4: The sheriff’s office

The sheriff receives word by telephone that his deputy, John Morrison, has been killed. The phone rings again to let him know that the anarchist Joe Hill has staggered into a doctor’s office with a bullet wound to his lungs. He sings of his rage at Hill and expresses bitter satisfaction that the radical will now die for murder.

Act 3: Scene 1: The Utah Territorial Penitentiary, Salt Lake City

Orrin Hilton, a slick city lawyer, urges Joe to tell the jury who really shot him. Joe says he would never snitch, and besides, he doesn’t want to take the stand in his own trial. He sings that he will serve the revolution best as a martyr. What is one man’s life worth when millions starve with rags on their backs?

Act 3: Scene 2: A field outside of town

Otto admits that he is no hero, but he sings eloquent memories of the old country, Sweden, in summertime. Can’t they ever enjoy wild strawberries again? Meanwhile, Hilda sings a lament for Joe and commits to living a decent life with Otto.

Act 3: Scene 3: The Utah Territorial Penitentiary

Joe reads his last letter to “Big Bill” Haywood (“Don’t mourn–organize”) and sings his final testament: “My will is easy to decide / For there is nothing to divide. …” Men come and take him to be shot. As the commander counts, “Ready, aim …” Hill shouts, “Fire — go on and fire!” A ghostly chorus of workers sings Hill’s “The Preacher and the Slave” while Hilda and Otto watch, hand-in-hand. 

Hush

Thin stands of bare-limbed maples and pines
Barely hide cinder-block buildings and signs,
But snow, fresh snow, wet snow: snow drapes all. 
Each twig or needle bears as many crystals
As could possibly be piled upon it,
Becoming a slender line under white,
Each just a tiny part of the lacy whole.
Trees are huge versions of their own branches;
Branches, like their own ornamented twigs;
Drifts, composed of delicate, gem-like flakes. 
No shortcuts. No “Paint that whole section white.”
Even in the densest thickets, each branch
Is intricately decorated with snow.
What superfluous generosity,
What quiet power. The road, too, is hushed. 
Cars file through, wheels whispering, as if
Reminded of what they have done, although
The storm does not mean to chide or console.
It is not meant for us; it simply is.

See also: More Temperate; Tangled Beauty; and “Notes on Gerard Manley Hopkins’ Spring and Fall” 

When the Lotus Bloomed

Thanks to Cambridge Arts’ Sidewalk Poetry program, this poem is now imprinted in cement at Clarendon Ave. and Massachusetts Ave. in Cambridge (Mass.). The text appeared first on my blog. I meant to answer Rabindranath Tagore’s Gitanjali #20, “On the Day When the Lotus Bloomed,” which begins—in Tagore’s own translation from Bengali—“On the day when the lotus bloomed, alas, my mind was straying, and I knew it not. My basket was empty and the flower remained unheeded.”

By the way, Tagore’s English versions of his own verse are criticized for being sentimental, archaizing, and didactic and less challenging than the originals. For instance, Amit Chaudhuri writes, “Tagore’s English version of the Gitanjali, for which he was awarded the Nobel prize in 1913, is what Mother Teresa once was to Calcutta, the royal family to England, and Kingsley to Gandhi: a tantalising mirage that obstructs the view of what’s behind it.” My response, then, must be even further from Tagore’s Bengali original, which I cannot read. But I think these eight lines convey some of me, and I hope they offer a touch of peace in North Cambridge.

Enjoy the Flight

You can’t track swans across the sky. No trace.
The air they’ve passed as clean as what they breathe.
This is because they never cling nor hoard,
Just stretch their necks and feet and beat their wings.
Or so it was said in a treasured verse:
Words uttered and echoed and inked and taught.
Yes, but what of those other travelers?
The ones who have stowed their treasures aboard?
The carpeted cabin is dimmed and hushed.
The engines that thrum and gently shake them
Churn and burn and scrawl a long vaporous line,
Orbiting the orb where swans swim in breeze.

(Weimar, Germany, Nov. 5-6)

the student

A Victorian house on a stately street,
Formal, ornate. The bell breaks the silence.
Would a gift have been wise--something to eat? 
When to shift from pleasantries to science?
A ticking clock, long rows of serious books,
China, polished wood, a distant dog barks.
Pay attention, this might have some value.
It's rude to seek help without taking advice.
Now say what you've really come for, shall you?
Then: time to go? Did our talking suffice?
Not for years now have I been the visitor.
This is my parlor and I am the grey one,
The host, the ear, the kindly inquisitor.
How can it be that it's my turn to play one?

See also: Midlife.

Horace against the Stoics

Horace wrote his first book of Satires (meaning “medley” rather than “satire” in the modern English sense) no later than 33 BCE. In a passage in the Third Satire, he criticizes the Stoic doctrine that justice has its basis in nature. He suggests that rules are conventions that allow us to prevent conflict with minimal cruelty.

Nothing about his position is unique, but his language is luxuriant: “cum prorepserunt primis animalia terris / mutum et turpe pecus, glandem atque cubilia propter / unguibus et pugnis …” In my version …

When the animals crawled from the new* earth,
That mute and ugly herd fought for a nut 
Or a place to rest--with nail and fist, 
Then with clubs, then with tools they’d designed for war,
Until they came upon words to mark out sounds 
And sense, and names. From then on, war waned. 
They walled towns and wrote laws so that no one
Should be a thief, a thug, or an adulterer.
For even before Helen, sex** was a vile 
Cause of conflict, but those are forgotten 
Who died chasing it, like the bull in the herd, 
Cut down by someone more fit than he is.
You have to admit, if you really search the files,
That laws were contrived in fear of injustice, 
For nature can’t distinguish just from unjust
As she makes some things safe and others best to shun,
Nor can reason convince us it is just as bad--
And bad in the same way--to step on someone’s 
Garden plant as to steal a holy relic 
By cover of night.*** Let there be a standard 
To tell the right penalty, so the cruel lash 
Isn’t used when a regular beating would suffice.

Horace, Satires. 1.3.99-119, my translation

*Literally, “first earth.” **Actually a vulgar, sexist word. *** I’m surprised he doesn’t say: reason can’t convince us it is worse to steal the sacred object.

See also some thoughts on natural law; “The Wedding of Peleus and Thetis“; pragmatism and the problem of evil

let’s go for a walk

A human is a spidery thing: digits,
Appendages for sensing the currents,
Good for catching, clutching, striking, stroking;
An upright anemone, an antenna.

A dog is a nose-delivery system,
Built for forward motion with detours:
A face on propulsive feet, a torpedo
(Until sacked-out, done for now, recharging).

Joined by the filament of a leash that
Ties me to him as much as him to me,
We loop through a net of scents, sounds, memories,
Tugged back to the door that keeps us both safe.

Midlife

The young speak to say something, to make a name.
The old repeat to hold themselves the same.
Midlife is for any age, a state of mind.
It’s saying what you think you’d better say,
Like it or not, because the words, not you,
Might budge some dense thing in someone’s way
(Although by speaking you are using time,
That dwindling light, that sinking sun).
Your words are not true, not original,
Not worth repeating, especially by you;
They have their purpose, they take their turn.
Midlife is the breadwinner, the driver,
The gentle nudge and the picture-taker.
Tender to those who speak to speak, and those
Who sing one more time what they fear to lose.

See also: youth, midlife & old-age as states of mind; echoes.

for Irina

Little Irina Antonovna, six,
Took it upon herself to write to her aunt,
Laboriously addressing it to:
"Region of Petrograd, Max Heltz factory."

Why did she write this letter? Well, her father:
Ten years in the camps for being a scholar,
Dead by now. Her mother: dead. Neighborhood:
Wall fragments, smoke, equipment shards, Nazi bombs.
Grandfather: died of rickets while walking
Irina to safety. Grandmother: same.

The letter worked; Irina lived. Married
Dmitri, who never asked her opinions,
But did write Number Nine for her and maybe
Heard her when he wrote the gentle cello drone
That supports the opening. Or the polka--
Why couldn't that frenzied part be Irina?
Why assume she was always soft, helpful?

A young, diverse American quartet
Exhumes Dmitri and Irina for us,
His black notes crisp on their iPads, their bows
Vibrating like cicadas, their eyes flashing
Recognition, assent: one to the other.

They are pillowed in layers of safety.
A clean, bright stage, a tidy concert hall,
An audience that has heard it before
And knows just when to leap up for applause:
White-haired burghers of this college and town.

Irina's professor father would have fit
Right in, if he hadn't been starved or shot.
Little Irina would have liked to hide
Beneath that concert grand, so solidly framed.
A campus cop waits, unworried, outside.

This place is not real. What's real is in the notes.
They know starvation, midnight knocks on doors,
Cities murdered from the sky, orphans' fears,
They know, too, the terrors of the audience,
Shrunken in their seats, nervous to drive home.

Phones still ring with sad news; death sentences
Come in biopsy results. And beyond this room
A billion new Irinas plead to be spared.

See Stephen Harris, “Quartet Number Nine,” “Interview of Irina Shostakovich by Alexandre Brussilovsky,” and also “voices,” and “a poem should.”

translations from Kuruntokai

Kuruntokai (The Short Collection) is an anthology of classical Tamil verse collected by Pooriko Nachinarkiniyar in the sixth or the seventh century CE. The poems are lyrics of love and longing. Apparently they offer layers of religious symbolism. Here are two translations of #36, giving some sense of the original:

Poem from the purple-flowered hills

Talaivi says to her friend—

He swore “my heart is true.
I’ll never leave you.”

My lover from the hills,
where the manai creepers
sometimes mount the shoulders of elephants
asleep among the boulders,
promised this on that day
when he embraced my shoulders, making love to me.

Why cry, my dear friend?

Paranar, Kuruntokai, verse 36, translated by A. Anupama
She Said

On his hills,
 the ma:nai creeper that usually sprawls
 on large round stones
 sometimes takes to a sleeping elephant.

At parting,
 his arms twined with mine
 he gave me inviolable guarantees
 that he would live in my heart
 without parting.

Friends, why do you think 
 that is any reason for grieving? 

 Paranar (Kuruntokai 36), translated by A.K. Ramanujan

Or #46 …

Poem from the fertile fields and fragrant trees

Talaivi says—

Don’t you think they have sparrows
wherever he has gone, with wings like faded water lilies,
bathing in the dung dust in the village streets
before pecking grain from the yards
and returning to their chicks in the eaves,
common as evening loneliness?

Mamalatan, Kuruntokai, verse 46, translated by A. Anupama
She Said

Don't they really have
in the land where he has gone
such things
as house sparrows

dense-feathered, the color of fading water lilies,
pecking at grain drying on yards,
playing with the scatter of the fine dust
of the street's manure
and living with their nestlings
in the angles of the penthouse

and miserable evenings,

and loneliness? 

 Ma:mala:tan (Kuruntokai 46), translated by A.K. Ramanujan

I’ll try a reply:

We used to watch sparrows like this one.
They'd look up at her, at me, hopeful,
Head tilted: crumbs? fly away?

Now it's only me. This one flutters up
To hunch under an eve and wait.
When the rain stops, maybe it will find a bite.

See also: when the lotus bloomed, nostalgia for now, voices