Tuesdays at Curley's

Welcome to PoemAlley, Stamford, Connecticut's eclectic venue for poets, poetry reading and discussion! Open to anyone living in Fairfield County and the surrounding area, we meet Tuesday nights at 7:00 pm at Curley's Diner on 62 Park Place (behind Target) . Come contribute, get something to eat, or simply listen!

Jul 31, 2015

Letting Go Of The Green Light

Resolving the rift between our accepted notions of the Civilized and the Wild is the theme for this year’s summer poetry service at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation, suggested by Reverend Frances Sink’s reading of The Practice of the Wild (Counterpoint, 2010), an essay collection from poet Gary Snyder.

How we define these concepts, how they might substantiate a schism that needn’t even exist and how the prevailing view (especially in regard to Western industrial life) affect our relations to one another and the world, are just some of the points addressed this Sunday in a reading featuring participants from the  UU community and PoemAlley, including Bonnie Klotzko, Joseph De Matteo, Dale Shaw, Marianela Medrano, Enzo Malaglisi, John Sakson, Rowyda Amin, Adriana Rexon, as well as program leader, Ralph Nazareth.

The Receding Orgastic Future
Ralph finds a topical and unsettling allegory for our fast-devolving times in the closing musings of Nick Carraway from Fitzgerald’s Jazz Age classic of opulence, tragic pining and unwarranted privilege, The Great Gatsby, dramatized in this clip from the 2013 Baz Luhrman film:

Instead of rediscovering our original ties with the biosphere, in the face of global economic collapse, terminal nuclear contamination, water/oil depletion, solar flare-induced electrical grid failure (and the perpetual military actions conducted in response or preparation), Civilization instead insanely cries more desperately for fighting Carraway’s inexorable current, not just in pursuit of flattering, or sanitized post-WWII pasts that never existed, but, as recent two-dimensional output from Hollywood demonstrates, of ill-conceived “Jetsonian” futures that could never be, either.

Keeping The Wild at Bay…
Tomorrowland, a sort of Atlas Shrugged for children from Disney, packaged as an upbeat ode to the way the future used to be, makes a hollow attempt to condemn our cultural commitment to social procrastination, passivity and distraction in response to the reality of the previously cited threats, even as the 2015 George Clooney vehicle, itself, proves to be a prime exemplar in defense of the status-quo assumptions sustaining such dysfunctional traits—mainly, the magically, unexamined belief that everything can be remedied with the right application of technology (by the right people, of course).

This fervent Gatsbyesque yen to believe helps sustain real-world delusions that serve energy and financial interests who benefit mightily by the present Civilization/Wild divide. Contrary to Washington and corporate sponsors proclaiming some nuclear or hydrocarbon Renaissance is just around the corner, able to sustain the US for decades to come (one of the newer financial bubbles-in-the-making, fracking, can only last a few years, according to Peak Oil expert Richard Heinberg), or constitute a “bridge technology” toward a renewable energy future, the only reality such ideas represent is so many boats of infinite growth floundering in the currents of an unyieldingly finite planetary system.

Related contemporary definers of the “civilized” or “progress” informing the titular sleek and high-tech metropolis of TL’s alternate world are a conditioned commitment to convenience, safety and material certainty against everything outside the fragile barriers of our built-up surroundings, be it infection, predatory animals, senescence, or the demonized human threat-of-the-month.

While Tomorrowland suggests the interconnectedness of a given natural habitat and its undomesticated denizens should be embraced as no more than decorative accents to a human imposition on the landscape (save for occasional flocks of birds, the only evidence of Nature permitted to exist on its own is in the wild grass prairie surrounding the city), last year’s Interstellar espouses an almost strident hostility to the ecosystem as a whole.

Keeping the Wild Harnessed

Suffering from a global blight of unspecified origin, much of industrial society has reverted to an agrarian state to feed a future dying populace, slowly suffocating from a decline in atmospheric oxygen (somehow connected to the Blight). Cooper, a bitter ex-astronaut-turned-farmer (played by Matthew McConaughey) has the opportunity to find a new home for our species in a planetary system beyond a recently-discovered wormhole, leaving behind his children, but not the hubris that got humanity into the predicament it faces.
Far from even intimating that any facet of industrial civilization’s cumulative assaults on the air, water and land might possibly be responsible, the egotistical rationale for what is happening wavers between the speculation that in some Gaianistic pique, Earth is pushing humanity out of its nest for its own good, or rebelling out of hostility (“caretaking” of the Earth is viewed by Cooper with contempt even as he cluelessly practices the same synthetic pesticide/herbicide-supported monoculture farming that is destroying our agricultural base today).

Other than humans, not another living thing, save for trees and crops, appear in the film (Cooper’s farm doesn’t even have a dog or chickens), as if, once more (though to far less glittering effect) the world is pared down to only what humans can get out of it—a sentiment emphasized where the utilitarianized earthly environment is reproduced with faithful insipidness within the an O'Neill-style orbital habitat that doesn’t even offer the solace of parklands.

John Adolphus Etzler
This anthrocentric perspective harkens back to a post-Enlightenment complex of suppositions that morphed a distancing from religious dogmatism into a materialist distancing of humanity from the environment from which it sprang. Historian Steven Stoll makes the case in The Great Delusion (Hill & Wang, 2009) how eccentric 19th century German utopian engineer John Adolphus Etzler, internalizing all the conceits of the Industrial Age, popularized the backbone of “free market” ideology: endless growth, decreeing that if humans want something, not only will Nature provide, but it can do so forever. Thus, in the end, Cooper and humanity indeed survive, but only to unapologetically lay the slow-burn foundation for using up another world in the same way.

A Dream Not Just Left Behind, But Never There
This is not to say that the problem with the concept of human civilization rests necessarily with its capacity to shape the physical world, but with a contemporary dearth of symbolic thought that used to accompany it. The question is how mindful (and modest) our awareness of this association can influence our attitudes about the Civilized and the Wild.

This is not an inconceivable prospect. In The Forge and the Crucible (University of Chicago Press, 1979), Micea Eliade’s overview of alchemical thought, he observes how early metal-working cultures the world over often maintained a mindful veneration of blacksmiths for their skill in fabricating both hand tools and weaponry—corresponding to the creative and destructive capacities in us all. Agrarian societies in Europe transferred their awareness of natural cycles in reproduction and agriculture to mining activities such that when a vein was exhausted, it was thought to be simply a matter of closing up the site, like a fallow field, to give its ores time to replenish themselves—maybe erroneous, but a belief indicative of a patient and cooperative, rather than exploitive, attitude rarely seen today.
Like Gatsby insisting he can repeat the past, our metaphor-deficient, frantically over-commodified existence proffers hopeless entrancements at every turn promising we can hit some cosmic “reset” button to deal with rising sea levels, virulent superstorms or some other unpredictable disaster, as if such concerns are no more than transitory inconveniences on the road to something always better… always greener.
Ultimately, if Civilization’s adherents are willing to work with and learn from integration with the Wild, the former could not only become more civil (rendering the latter, less frightening in the process), but more flexible, too--a crucial attribute, as Civilization’s survival would depend not on fighting the current, so much as adapting to where it is taking us.

Unitarian Universalist Congregation
20 Forest Street (directly across from the Avon Theatre)
Stamford, CT

Sunday, August 2, 2015
10 am

203-322-5438, Ralph Nazareth

Jul 27, 2015

Friendship Defined By Faith And Poetry

Diva (left) with Eleni Begetis
This evening PoemAlley will celebrate the lives and memories of Stamford resident Ella (Daisy) “Diva” Evans and Eddie Wright in front of Curley’s Diner. Close friends and fellow participants at Tuesdays at Curley’s, Diva died on July 13, mere weeks after Eddie, who had been struggling with lung cancer.

Eddie Wright
They were devoted members of Mt. Nebo Full Gospel Church in Bridgeport, as well as of a congregation in Norwalk, where Eddie lived. We are honored they found in the PA community an outlet for their experiences, observations and convictions, expressed through a range of pieces by turns picaresque, nurturing and profound.

In particular, Eddie’s output took the form of ongoing personal conversations with God, related in the form of a series of journal entries, which he shared with PoemAlley almost every week (even through his health crisis), captivating both for their sly humor and inclusive, meditative appeal (not surprisingly, Eddie, who passed on June 13, had also presented sermons in church on occasion).

This special memorial gathering will begin in Columbus Park at 7:30 pm and include the singing of “Amazing Grace”:

Jul 14, 2015

Ibn Kenyatta and Transcending The Cell Of The Self

Writing from ongoing experience with the incarcerated as a poet and teacher, Ralph Nazareth offers this detailed and moving critique of ibn Kenyatta’s collection (originally appearing in the journal Socialism and Democracy, capturing a stoic compassion and inclusive humanism comparable to the work and commentary of other members of the world's largest prison population, such as Mumia Abu Jamal anMohamedou Ould Slahi.--RM

poems for an imperiled world
ibn Kenyatta
Xlibris (2014)

This slender but tensile volume of twenty-five poems contains “passionate songs” sung from “above and beyond the blues/but still underneath the top heap/of the bottom dung.”

Kenyatta, prisoner No. 74A3701, incarcerated for over four decades, strives “ever upward
always towards the light.” Ceaselessly soaring, he says, “mylife/mylife is/and mylife’s song speaks to me/‘Carry on!’”

His expansive vision is a testament to the courage of a man who consistently flies above the turbulence on the ground. Shaped by an acute awareness of human and planetary disturbances, he issues prophetic warnings about real and present dangers and exhorts us to “carry on” with love.

A Magisterial Defiance of Assumptions
One may be surprised to hear such a voice emerge from the exile of a long prison term. It would be natural to expect a man interminably immured to write with an edge—sharp, ironic, and bitter—to rail at the dark fates, at injustice and cruelty, at the scandalous abuse of power and the Law. It may perhaps be also reasonable to look here for an owning up to a darkness within—a deed, an irreversible loss of self and other, a terrible and prolonged disruption—and more—possibly remorse, or at least a hint of it, a deeply suggestive trail of a move to recover lost ground.

There’s little in Kenyatta’s work that satisfies these traditional expectations born of an unexamined set of assumptions about society and the system of criminal justice it has long maintained at grave material and spiritual cost. His poems, on the other hand, are philosophical and reflective, even magisterial, touched at times with the sadness at the self-inflicted wounds leading us to the edge of collective, planetary catastrophe. Perhaps the unfailingly lofty rhetoric and vision are precisely the result of the man having spent long years in the vise of suffering—a vision that has been wrung out of pain. Perhaps it is the deepest response to a living death.

Personal to the Planetary
In the ringing credo of his preface, Kenyatta asserts: “If we are to save ourselves from ourselves, that is, the planet from the worst that is within us, each of us must look deep within, first, if we are to stop the VIOLENCE: our overbearing self-interest: greed, lust, hatred, prejudice, larceny, jealousy, envy, etc. then we must reach out and ‘grab hold of the hand’ of one other human being in order to help spread the Word. Love. Peace. Respect.” He continues unwavering: “We must stop, look, and listen to the silent voice within our own hearts. the world is crying out to us. And Mother Nature is calling each one of us out—by name.”

Do not ask what this man did to deserve an unimaginably long term in prison. Do not ask what may be wrong with a blind system of justice that subjects humans to inhuman treatment. Raise yourself, this book seems to urge, to another level and see that you are stewards of a great treasure, a planet facing imminent danger, our “playground” spiraling down into a “place of contentious strife within a living hell.”

Kenyatta does not harbor “illusions” that his poems will have a world-transforming effect, for he knows all too well that only a few will heed the call to do the work needed to tend this “garden” and restore it to health. He merely offers his poems as part of his “humble expression of service rendered toward the Human Family, in my own way.”

A Global Womb Scorched by Hubristic Suns
Those of us who will take the time to listen to Kenyatta will above all else hear his call, more urgent than stern, often poignant, to take responsibility for our lives. The boundaries of what we narrowly see as criminal behavior get vastly expanded in Kenyatta’s profoundly humanistic vision, which warns us against the arrogance of “our god-creating heads.” Unlike the evil functionaries at the Nuremberg Trials who, to a man, said, “I am not responsible,” Kenyatta would have us see that we are all responsible for the ecological holocaust raging all around us, the denudation of the earth, the “injured womb.” Our “projections” and our captivity “within our own ‘event horizon,’” our hubris at thinking of ourselves as “our own suns,” our all-too-blind flitting in the “amniotic darkness of our inner self-cocoon” lead inevitably to little more than “a made-up and make believe world we call human life/where we are its soul-creators of our dreams as well as our nightmares.”

Kenyatta is a teacher who feels no need to apologize for his didacticism. In fact, his doomsday perspective—that we are on the edge of planetary- and self-extinction—makes it imperative for him to speak. And fulminate he does, a veritable voice in the wilderness, as he presses us to redeem ourselves by seeing through the “pseudo-games of mesmerism” of the “devil-mind… disguised as flesh and blood,” the fatal “self-imposed imprisonment.” He refuses to back off from his unrelenting critique. His wailing is suffused with a world sorrow, too big, almost uncontainable, in the face of which the pain of his own incarceration does not seem worth even a passing mention. His prophetic task is to bring all his fury and passion to make us see our Public SHAME:

…haven’t we for too long now been fighting and slaughtering one another
over the same old divisive theologies of religion
over the same squandered national resources
the same impoverished and land-mined territories
the same chemically laden food supplies
the same oil slicks in already polluted waters
the same blood diamonds and tarnished gold
                                                            AD NAUSEAM
                                                            (“Joy Ride”)

The Motionless Explosion of the Moment
As we come under the sway of Kenyatta’s doleful catalogs, we sense at a level deeper than immediate despair, a spiritual instinct which heals divisions and points to an integrated being founded on hope, respect and love. Just as we have no one to blame but ourselves for the “gathering gloom,” we have no need for an agency save the one that stems from our own will to fully enter the freedom of the moment.

Kenyatta’s vision, equally open to excremental and redemptive elements, hence mature and tough, rises to rhapsodic levels as he exhorts us in his poem “Imitation of Life” to bend all our forces to the kind of retrieval our lives depend on for meaning and sustenance:

in spite of the unspeakable wretchedness that is felt as our lives
in spite of all the physical horrors ever to be visited upon human flesh
in spite of our deepest longings for our invitational respect toward Death
we still must will ourselves to live for just one more moment
to relish the baptismal wholeness in its “motionless explosion”
let life live its own moment-to-moment is-ness
it stills any run-on fears that may stalk the empty corridors
of a self-imprisoning mind
which can only entangle itself in its own
ever-impending and self-made web called time

and so now with a cleared vision we can do this we can scale this summit

we must will ourselves to live just one more day
and then to repeat this same feat again and again
and to mark each experience as being a new beginning
in our hopes that a possible change will arrive
and Faith will find us worthy

Lest we mistake this fervor for an all-too-easy transformation of the myth of Sisyphus or an illusory act of cheering ourselves up as we stare into the impending storm, Kenyatta warns in “The Waterbearer”:

but to consciously live out each moment to moment of each day
requires such supernal strength and courage
like that of the great Waabazee River of Ifundiland
which spurns the attractive force of gravity
by initially flowing its waters upstream
on its perennial journey to the sea….

Defying Panoptic Gravity
To learn how to walk amid adversity, and to continue to walk in the face of the apocalypse, Kenyatta says requires that we practice the art of “defying gravity,” an art one masters, if at all, by a “cleared vision” which helps us “act always ‘as if’ everything still mattered in this life/even if she or he inevitably saw no hope in physical matter itself/for the sun hasn't given up on us yet/and neither has the moon.”

Simone Weil
What makes it possible for us to believe that “everything still mattered in life”? How do we defy gravity, which we must do if we are to walk, and continue walking, that is, if we are to be fully human? Kenyatta alternates between the poles of the agency of self-will and what he names in “Prayer Beads” the “caring power called Grace.” Reminiscent of the assertion of the great French mystic Simone Weil who said that grace is the act of coming down without weight, Kenyatta’s statement of belief, at the end of a sequence of poems that have taken the reader through the desert of the spirit, holds that ultimately human agency must be seen to be part of a larger web of forces. In this web we, small “as a tiny grain of sand blown across the Kalahari,” are upheld by the entire Universe, hence unburdened of our own specific gravity, a universe whose story is no larger or more glorious than “your story and my story/and all our stories,” yet without which our stories are incomplete and, like Yeats’ center, “cannot hold.”

To be mindful of this radical inter-relatedness, Kenyatta realizes, is an imperative. In a brilliantly creative use of possibly the only image in the book that reminds us of his life under constant surveillance in prison, he pairs it with Mystery.


anklebraceletmonitoring Mystery is this
we’re all under authority to get this
human life right

Not even here, where the oppressive machinery threatens to shackle the human with its iron grip, is Kenyatta willing to compromise his secular mystical vision, a deep earth spirituality, that seeks the nurturing reassurance of two hands, the cosmic and the human, holding each other in inextricable love, the only way “to get this human life right.”

Double-Consciousness In a Time of Resurgent Darkness
I’m writing this response to Kenyatta’s poems in the wake of the brutal deaths of Michael
Brown, Eric Garner and other besieged Blacks; the unveiling of the continuing horror at Riker’s Island and other penitentiaries across this land; in the era of mass incarceration, the “New Jim Crow,” and the systematic attempt at disenfranchising an entire group of people that was reluctantly brought into the body politic by the Voting Rights Act in 1965. In other words, I’m writing this in “dark times.” As a long-time volunteer teacher at a maximum-security prison in New York, I’m writing this with some understanding of the “dark places” we call our “correctional facilities.”

I feel the need to say that I experience a slight shudder of dissonance between the nightmare that is our criminal justice system and Kenyatta’s vision, formed in the dark coils of that gulag, that pushes us all to “get human life right.” Where dissembling in the name of survival is the norm, Kenyatta refuses to wear “the mask” crafted in the days of the old Jim Crow and memorialized in Lawrence Dunbar’s famous poem. Falling in line or shuffling along with those who “shade our eyes” and feed the culture of “grins and lies” is an option he forcefully rejects. Similarly, he pushes aside W.E.B. Dubois’ “veil” and chooses to stride into the open country of his soul, free of the “double-consciousness” and the sense of “always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others… the feeling of two-ness, an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body…”

I’m searching here for a way to register my mild surprise and disappointment at Kenyatta not openly acknowledging in his work the excruciating weight of his life behind bars. That I am not able to take a definite stand regarding this apparent lacuna in his presentation of himself to the outside world must mean something, not the least of which is the unfathomable complexity of the way in which we human beings deal with our respective situations.

Love’s Abiding Patience
Last week when I was back at the prison, I shared this ambivalence about Kenyatta’s work with the men in my class. As always, they were provocative and perceptive in their response. But what one of them said stands out for me as the answer that should still my questions, at least for the moment. He said, “You know, Nazareth, you get to a point… well, you get to the point you’re just too tired to go over the shit year after year. You get over it. You settle down to something. Maybe you’ll call it love. And that’s all that matters….”

Now that I look back on Kenyatta’s poetry, it seems most likely that he has attained a genuine transcendence through whatever one may choose to name it—in his case, perhaps love in its many guises.

am i not also your Brother
am i not also your Sister
under the penumbra of an all-embracing Universal Love

The solidarity within human community is one of its faces. A union with the reality of the spirit is another. It helps Kenyatta to refuse to be reduced to a simple material existence, which runs the risk of being its own prison.

“Come out of the circle of time,” says Rumi, “and into the circle of love.” Perhaps that is what Kenyatta is doing, as he says, “in my own way.”

Ralph Nazareth, Ph.D.
Professor, English Department
Nassau Community College, NY
Further Information:

Find out more about the current state of criminal justice, ending the school-to-prison pipeline and other reforms to the American penal system at:

Building Bridges--The Monthly Newsletter of the Prison Action Network (http://prisonaction.blogspot.com/)

On the Count--The Prison & Criminal Justice Report