All of Us or None! A Belated Return to the Virtual World

It’s been ages since I have posted on the blog. Pandemic fatigue and the onset of winter and lock-downs have exacerbated SADness and made writing a difficult chore. While I have been doing some drawing, I haven’t mustered up the focus to write. This blog, pays homage to the work of two poets, February birthday boy, Bertolt Brecht  (10 February 1898 – 14 August 1956), whose relevance and sardonic humour, make his poetry, equal to his fantastic play-writing skills.  Reading Brecht brought me to my second author in today’s blog, Nuyorican Boricua poet, Pedro Pietri (March 21, 1944 – March 3, 2004). Famed for his humour, commitment to anti-colonial liberation and his great poetry full of macabre and witty insights, like Brecht, Pietri found great moments of poetry in the little things, and on the side of the little people. 

Elsie Palmer Payne 1884-1971, Bus Stop,1943 USA

Additionally, in honour of February as Black history month in North America, Pedro’s approach to writing as an Afro Puerto Rican was underscored by his solidarity with a number of colonized and immigrant groups in New York City where he spent much of his adult life. As both an Afro-descended and Spanish/English speaking writer, as a member of a reluctant occupying force conscripted as a U.S. veteran for an imperial war; he was able to interweave these aspects of his life in his frequent use of “Spanglish” and tongue in cheek references to cultural practices and icons from his various experiences. 

Millard Sheets, Tenement Flats, 1933-34 USA

Wounded by chemical exposure during the Viet Nam war, he suffered a great deal from his time in service, and it served to open his eyes to the plight of  the poor and the colonized, people of colour, internationally. This internationalism while understanding the contradictions and ironies of his particular moment, link Pietri and Brecht across ages and political epochs and seminal wars of empire. While the trumpets of war sound off in the distance, this is an important time to remember and imagine that we are part of a great movement of people through-out time that believe another world is possible. In the meantime, skill, humour and critical thinking in all the arts– poetry is no exception– are necessary to survive the Neo-liberal bio-security, racism, war mongering, and financial finagling!

Jaune Quick- to- See Smith (1940-) Salish and Kootenai Confederation , 1991

As poets and play writes, Brecht and Pietri deserve to share a virtual stage ! I have shared the art of some ground breaking visual artists to accompany these pieces.

All of Us, or None- 

BERTOLT BRECHT

Slave, who is it that shall free you?

Those in deepest darkness lying.

Comrade, only these can see you

Only they can hear you crying.

Comrade, only slaves can free you.

Everything or nothing. All of us or none.

One alone his lot can’t better.

Either gun or fetter.

Everything or nothing. All of us or none.

You who hunger, who shall feed you?

If it’s bread you would be carving,

Come to us, we too are starving.

Come to us and let us lead you.

Only hungry men can feed you.

Everything or nothing. All of us or none.

One alone his lot can’t better.

Either gun or fetter.

Everything or nothing. All of us or none.

Beaten man, who shall avenge you?

You, on whom the blows are falling,

Hear your wounded brothers calling.

Weakness gives us strength to lend you.

Come to us, we shall avenge you.

Everything or nothing. All of us or none.

One alone his lot can’t better.

Either gun or fetter.

Everything or nothing. All of us or none.

Who, oh wretched one, shall dare it?

He who can no longer bear it.

Counts the blows that arm his spirit.

Taught the time by need and sorrow,

Strikes today and not tomorrow.

Everything or nothing. All of us or none.

One alone his lot can’t better.

Either gun or fetter.

Everything or nothing. All of us or none.

Puerto Rican Obituary

BY PEDRO PIETRI

They worked

They were always on time

They were never late

They never spoke back

when they were insulted

They worked

They never took days off

that were not on the calendar

They never went on strike

without permission

They worked

ten days a week

and were only paid for five

They worked

They worked

They worked

and they died

They died broke

They died owing

They died never knowing

what the front entrance

of the first national city bank looks like

Juan

Miguel

Milagros

Olga

Manuel

All died yesterday today

and will die again tomorrow

passing their bill collectors

on to the next of kin

All died

waiting for the garden of eden

to open up again

under a new management

All died

dreaming about america

waking them up in the middle of the night

screaming: Mira Mira

your name is on the winning lottery ticket

for one hundred thousand dollars

All died

hating the grocery stores

that sold them make-believe steak

and bullet-proof rice and beans

All died waiting dreaming and hating

Dead Puerto Ricans

Who never knew they were Puerto Ricans

Who never took a coffee break

from the ten commandments

to KILL KILL KILL

the landlords of their cracked skulls

and communicate with their latino souls

Juan

Miguel

Milagros

Olga

Manuel

From the nervous breakdown streets

where the mice live like millionaires

and the people do not live at all

are dead and were never alive

Juan

died waiting for his number to hit

Miguel

died waiting for the welfare check

to come and go and come again

Milagros

died waiting for her ten children

to grow up and work

so she could quit working

Olga

died waiting for a five dollar raise

Manuel

died waiting for his supervisor to drop dead

so he could get a promotion

Is a long ride

from Spanish Harlem

to long island cemetery

where they were buried

First the train

and then the bus

and the cold cuts for lunch

and the flowers

that will be stolen

when visiting hours are over

Is very expensive

Is very expensive

But they understand

Their parents understood

Is a long non-profit ride

from Spanish Harlem

to long island cemetery

Juan

Miguel

Milagros

Olga

Manuel

All died yesterday today

and will die again tomorrow

Dreaming

Dreaming about queens

Clean-cut lily-white neighborhood

Puerto Ricanless scene

Thirty-thousand-dollar home

The first spics on the block

Proud to belong to a community

of gringos who want them lynched

Proud to be a long distance away

from the sacred phrase: Que Pasa

These dreams

These empty dreams

from the make-believe bedrooms

their parents left them

are the after-effects

of television programs

about the ideal

white american family

with black maids

and latino janitors

who are well train—

to make everyone

and their bill collectors

laugh at them

and the people they represent

Juan

died dreaming about a new car

Miguel

died dreaming about new anti-poverty programs

Milagros

died dreaming about a trip to Puerto Rico

Olga

died dreaming about real jewelry

Manuel

died dreaming about the irish sweepstakes

They all died

like a hero sandwich dies

in the garment district

at twelve o’clock in the afternoon

social security number to ashes

union dues to dust

They knew

they were born to weep

and keep the morticians employed

as long as they pledge allegiance

to the flag that wants them destroyed

They saw their names listed

in the telephone directory of destruction

They were train to turn

the other cheek by newspapers

that mispelled mispronounced

and misunderstood their names

and celebrated when death came

and stole their final laundry ticket

They were born dead

and they died dead

Is time

to visit sister lopez again

the number one healer

and fortune card dealer

in Spanish Harlem

She can communicate

with your late relatives

for a reasonable fee

Good news is guaranteed

Rise Table Rise Table

death is not dumb and disable—

Those who love you want to know

the correct number to play

Let them know this right away

Rise Table Rise Table

death is not dumb and disable

Now that your problems are over

and the world is off your shoulders

help those who you left behind

find financial peace of mind

Rise Table Rise Table

death is not dumb and disable

If the right number we hit

all our problems will split

and we will visit your grave

on every legal holiday

Those who love you want to know

the correct number to play

let them know this right away

We know your spirit is able

Death is not dumb and disable

RISE TABLE RISE TABLE

Juan

Miguel

Milagros

Olga

Manuel

All died yesterday today

and will die again tomorrow

Hating fighting and stealing

broken windows from each other

Practicing a religion without a roof

The old testament

The new testament

according to the gospel

of the internal revenue

the judge and jury and executioner

protector and eternal bill collector

Secondhand shit for sale

learn how to say Como Esta Usted

and you will make a fortune

They are dead

They are dead

and will not return from the dead

until they stop neglecting

the art of their dialogue—

for broken english lessons

to impress the mister goldsteins—

who keep them employed

as lavaplatos

porters messenger boys

factory workers maids stock clerks

shipping clerks assistant mailroom

assistant, assistant assistant

to the assistant’s assistant

assistant lavaplatos and automatic

artificial smiling doormen

for the lowest wages of the ages

and rages when you demand a raise

because is against the company policy

to promote SPICS SPICS SPICS

Juan

died hating Miguel because Miguel’s

used car was in better running condition

than his used car

Miguel

died hating Milagros because Milagros

had a color television set

and he could not afford one yet

Milagros

died hating Olga because Olga

made five dollars more on the same job

Olga

died hating Manuel because Manuel

had hit the numbers more times

than she had hit the numbers

Manuel

died hating all of them

Juan

Miguel

Milagros

and Olga

because they all spoke broken english

more fluently than he did

And now they are together

in the main lobby of the void

Addicted to silence

Off limits to the wind

Confine to worm supremacy

in long island cemetery

This is the groovy hereafter

the protestant collection box

was talking so loud and proud about

Here lies Juan

Here lies Miguel

Here lies Milagros

Here lies Olga

Here lies Manuel

who died yesterday today

and will die again tomorrow

Always broke

Always owing

Never knowing

that they are beautiful people

Never knowing

the geography of their complexion

PUERTO RICO IS A BEAUTIFUL PLACE

PUERTORRIQUENOS ARE A BEAUTIFUL RACE

If only they

had turned off the television

and tune into their own imaginations

If only they

had used the white supremacy bibles

for toilet paper purpose

and make their latino souls

the only religion of their race

If only they

had return to the definition of the sun

after the first mental snowstorm

on the summer of their senses

If only they

had kept their eyes open

at the funeral of their fellow employees

who came to this country to make a fortune

and were buried without underwears

Juan

Miguel

Milagros

Olga

Manuel

will right now be doing their own thing

where beautiful people sing

and dance and work together

where the wind is a stranger

to miserable weather conditions

where you do not need a dictionary

to communicate with your people

Aqui

Se Habla Espanol

all the time

Aqui you salute your flag first

Aqui there are no dial soap commercials

Aqui everybody smells good

Aqui tv dinners do not have a future

Aqui the men and women admire desire

and never get tired of each other

Aqui Que Pasa Power is what’s happening

Aqui to be called negrito

means to be called LOVE

Dame Laura Knight, Britain, 1877-1970, The Madonna of the Cotton Fields, 1927

Pedro Pietri, “Puerto Rican Obituary” from Selected Poetry. Copyright © 2015 by Pedro Pietri.  Reprinted by permission of City Lights Books.

Source: Selected Poetry (City Lights Books, 2015)

Poetry for the Peeps! Georgina Herrera, Cuba

This is a continuation of my previous blogs in which I present my translations of the AfroCuban poet Georgina Herrera. I find her an amazing poet whose economy of language and simple words belies the deep and complex essence of her feelings and poetry. She balances a righteous anger with a hope for wholeness, with regard to both self and community. Her early life was one of deprivation and sadness. But her talent for writing defined her adult years. All the translations are done by me, with the original copyright belonging to Georgina Herrera, who has kindly given me permission to translate them. Wikipedia says:

Aged 20, Herrera moved to Havana in 1956, and worked as a domestic; it was in the homes of her wealthy employers that she met writers, who encouraged her to publish. Early in the Cuban Revolution she became involved with the “Novación Literaria” movement, and began working as a scriptwriter at the Cuban Institute for Radio and Television. …Her first poetry collection, G.H. appeared in 1962, since when she has published several books, characteristically using themes that centre on gender, Afro-Cuban history, and the African legacy: Gentes y cosas (1974), Granos de sol y luna (1974), Grande es el tiempo (1989), Gustadas sensaciones (1996), Gritos (2004), África (2006), and Gatos y liebres or Libro de las conciliaciones (2010). Although best known as a poet, Herrera has also worked as a scriptwriter for radio, television and film. With Daisy Rubiera she has co-authored a memoir entitled Golpeando la memoria: Testimonio de una poeta cubana afrodescendiente (Ediciones Unión, 2005).

PRIMERA VEZ ANTE UN ESPEJO

(Viendo una cabeza terracota de mil años, excavada en Ifé)

¿Dice alguien que no es
mi rostro este que veo?
¿Que no soy yo, ante el espejo
más limpio reconociéndome?
O…. ¿es que vuelvo a nacer?
Esta que miro
soy yo, mil años antes o más,
reclamo ese derecho.
Mi mano va
desde ese rostro al mío
que es uno solo y de las dos,
asciende, palpa
el mentón purísimo,
la espaciosa boca. Sí,
con mucho espacio, así que un solo beso
de ella basta
para pedir la bendición al viento,
la tierra, el fuego y la llovizna.
Ahora toca mi mano la nariz.
De un lado a otro va sobre ese rostro
de las dos. Esa nariz… mi dios; en la pradera
para mí sola, esa que llaman Universo,
en la que ando a mi albedrío,
atrapa olores.
Olor a fuego, a tempestad,
a tierra y agua juntos,
olor de amor, de vida inacabable
entra por ella; es
el total alimento de mi sangre.
Mi mano, al fin, a lo más alto
de ambos rostros llega:
los pómulos, la frente, baja
un poco nada más hasta los ojos
que yo miro y me ven.
Ojos tremendos
en los que apaga y aviva sus fuegos la tristeza.
Soy yo. Espejo o renacida.

de Gatos y liebres o libro de las conciliaciones, Ediciones Unión, La Habana
(1978, 1989, 1996, 2006, 2007)

First Time Before a Mirror

(on seeing a terracotta head, excavated in Ife)

Can anyone say that this 

is not my face I see?

That it is not I before the mirror

more clearly recognizing myself?

Or… is it that I have been born again?

She that I see

Is I, a thousand years before or later,

I reclaim this right.

My hand goes

from that face to mine

which is one, alone and then, to two

it travels up, touches 

the purest forehead,

the spacious mouth. Yes,

with much space, so much that only one kiss

of hers

is enough to ask blessings of the wind,

the earth, the fire, and the drizzle.

Now I touch my hand to my nose.

From one side to another over this face

of the two of us. This nose…my god; on that prairie

 of mine alone, that they call Universe,

where I wander at my whim,

trapping smells.

Scent of fire, of storm

of soil and water together,

scent of love, of endless life

enters my nose; it

is the total nourishment of my blood. 

My hand finally, touches the peaks of 

both faces:

cheeks, forehead, lowers a bit just to the eyes

that I see and that see me.

Tremendous eyes

in which sadness, puts out and revives, fires. 

I am. Mirror or reborn.

Mirror, Mirror, Kaushalya Bannerji 2019

Sobre el poeta, el amor, la poesía

Los poetas
Hacemos democracia con la intimidad.
Quitamos falsos techos,
abrimos las ventanas,
descorremos cerrojos fabulosos…
Surge así el poema,
nuestro modo
de hacer saber hasta qué punto hicimos grandes
a momentos, a seres tan pequeños.

On the poet, love, poetry

The poets
We make democracy with intimacy
We remove false roofs,
open windows
unscrew fabled bolts…
that’s how the poem surges into being,
our way
of knowing to what extent we made great,
for a moment, such small beings.

Sin Titulo

Estas palabras, aparentemente
suaves y tranquilas,
palabras transparentes, sí, pero
tenaces.
Llegan, entran, se quedan para
siempre.
Son mi manera.
Así es que grito,
y sé que me hago oír

de Gatos y liebres o libro de las conciliaciones, Ediciones Unión, La Habana
(1978, 1989, 1996, 2006, 2007)

Dream, Kaushalya Bannerji, 2021

Untitled

These words, apparently
soft and calm
transparent words, yes, but
tenacious
They arrive, they enter, they stay for
ever.
It’s my way.
That’s how I shout
And I know I have made myself heard.

The Great Wave, Kaushalya Bannerji, 2021

Hey, Bobby Marley!

If Bob Marley were alive today, it is likely that he would be assassinated again, by the U.S. government and its agents. His 75th birthday would be tomorrow, February 6th, although he perished at the age of 36, a man in the prime of his music, lyrics, and creativity.  It is fitting he was born in February, a free spirited Aquarius and in the month in which we honour African liberation.

Like the reggae music with which he is inextricably bound, Bob’s music spoke of life on the streets and in the hearts of Jamaica, a country he loved profoundly and put on the musical map for all these decades to come. 

When I was a teenager, I associated this music with dissatisfied middle-class white boys whose rebellion was smoking weed and listening to reggae for the street cred. My downtown public schools were almost completely white, in contrast to what I see today in Toronto. And I could not relate to the music I felt was appropriated by my classmates. 

However, as I left the confines of Toronto and brought CDs in dusty suitcases, back in the day (— when they were novel technology!) I started listening to the lyrics Marley penned. And I was moved by the depth and range of his insights, so rare in mainstream pop culture. Since then, Bob Marley’s music has accompanied me through countless days and nights. His social commentary, fiery commitment to racial and anti-imperialist justice, gentle love songs, and praise of Rastafari have earned him a place that is unparalleled in western popular music. 

From his soaring lyricism in “No Woman, No Cry” to his plea for self-knowledge and history in “Buffalo Soldier” and “Redemption Song”, his critique of Jamaica’s hypocritical drug policy and neo-liberalization in “Trenchtown Rock”, his love for Rastafarian pride in the Caribbean in  “Natty Dread”, Bob sang of the under dog and downpressed. He centred “nation language” during a time of post-Independence nation building in the Caribbean, in which black humanity, not white capital, was the driving moral force. 

Little wonder that songs which underscored “that a hungry man is an angry man” substituted for years of politcal theory, and their author had to be silenced. His musicalization of Haile Selassie’s speech to the United Nations resulted in “War”, and “ Natural Mystic”’s lyrics could have been composed yesterday. Bob Marley is truly a songwriter and performer of our time— a time of great social upheaval and possibility.  He understood that people were capable of consciousness and pleasure, and that they are not antithetical. 

Although the massification of Marley’s music has resulted in horrid fusions and countless cover versions, even muzack like renditions, it’s important not to take his music for granted. His image is one of the most reproduced and commoditized in the world, along with that of Che Guevara.  But his message, ironically, is that of anti-commodification and emancipation from a soulless and mindlessly hierarchical world. Happy Birthday, Mr. Bobby! I hope you enjoy the playlist below.

war

natty dread

no, woman, no cry

redemption song

buffalo soldier

Trenchtown Rock

https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-38142699

Marley shot 1976

Bob Marley Funeral 1981

manu chao