Category Archives: Notes

Weaponized Music

Fela oversees rehearsal (Photo by Janet Griffith)

1. I have been listening to Fela Kuti. His pidgin, his music. What little I know about him, I read on Wikipedia–which is to say: I know very little about Fela Kuti. I know very little about Africa. Less about Nigeria.

2. Photos and videos suggest that Fela did not care for pants–at the same time, he seemed to prefer pageantry. Fela was a rock star, a big voice and a bigger show. If people gathered at his concerts for the show, why did they join his commune? When is music a weapon? In Fela’s Nigeria, I suspect that persona was the weapon. Fela, the show, was too much for his opponents.

3. When is music a weapon? 1990: The U.S. military’s boom-box blockade of the Vatican embassy in Noriega’s Panama. Did Van Halen see any profits?

4. Fela’s offense, to compare soldiers to zombies. Fela would not take orders:

Zombie no go go, unless you tell am to go (Zombie)
Zombie no go stop, unless you tell am to stop (Zombie)
Zombie no go turn, unless you tell am to turn (Zombie)
Zombie no go think, unless you tell am to think (Zombie)
Africa 70, Zombie (1977)

5. In Babylon silence was a weapon, but the silence gave voice to the Psalm:

O daughter of Babylon, who art to be destroyed; happy shall he be, that rewardeth thee as thou hast served us.
Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones. (Psalm 137:8-9, KJV)

6. Fela was an excess. He would have been a terrible head of state; he was a better, self-proclaimed “Chief Priest”. He preached a corrective, an antidote, prophecy. He might tear down, but could he build?

7. Daniel Auber’s La muette de Portici (1828) stirred the political passions of Belgium’s (French) revolution:

Amour sacré de la patrie,
Rends-nous l’audace et la fierté;
A mon pays je dois la vie;
Il me devra sa liberté.

8. Fela imported Black Power from America. When black America was busy looking for its royal African heritage, Fela gathered a harem of queens and adopted the role. Bold, tough and brazen: what white culture feared. Music became a weapon because it was a boast. Fela taunted Nigeria’s guns; they torched his place and killed his mother. Dead mothers are a weapon too.

9. When Milosevic silenced the news, Belgrade’s radio stations played a loop of N.W.A.’s “Fuck tha Police” and Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power”.

10. Cult of (doubtfully benevolent) personality. Fela returns to America as a story. Cultured, tamed, marketed. Che Guevara on a t-shirt; Fela Kuti on the soundtrack. His sons have inherited the show. Femi and Seun preach a similar message, but the beatings Fela won seem less likely to be given to his sons. Much could change, but has Nigeria imported “culture” from America. People are a weapon, better keep them entertained.

11. Pidgin brokin perfect, Abi?

12. “Strange Fruit” fed the outrage, but “We Shall Overcome” sustained the movement.

13. Music doesn’t kill people; people kill people.

14. I do not trust the song anymore than I trust the poem. Most times it would be better to tie a millstone to the tongue.

Animal Suicide Note

Why should the human animal be prone to suicide? The question itself reveals the kind of loneliness in which we find ourselves. We presume a unique otherness–cognitively engaged, self-aware, self-examined. By definition, it would seem, only the animal with a “self” can kill itself. Animals can be pressed to a kind of system failure, in which certain stresses (captivity, for example) lead to death. I once tried to feed an abandoned duckling, a mallard; in futility, it leaped in its cardboard box until it died. It would be hard to imagine, however, that its intentions (or “instincts”) were anything other than to escape. Cut off from the consciousnesses of other species, we cannot know if or when the deer has the urge to dash in front of the semi, or when the rat, in despair, takes its poison with purpose. For the most part, non-human, animal models for suicidality, are just that … non-human models. It is for this reason that researchers like Preti and Malkesman look for the traits in animal behavior that are known to be associated with human suicide risks, including: anxiety, impulsivity, and helplessness. Apparently, one can pester a mouse until it mostly gives up on life. Some switch eventually flips and the poor beast simply submits to predation. But the helpless mouse is helpless, not zelfmoord.

On the other hand, we are animals and there is no reason to suppose that our own system failures differ from those of other species. It is the reflection, this face in the mirror, our human narcissism which pushes us to assume that our creaturely break downs are in fact some kind of rational deliberation about the value of another minute of life. In contrast, philosophical suicidality is silly. Thinking about the more troubling questions of existence, even when the answers are dire, ranks among the pleasures of life. Even so, Socrates serves (on one side of the coin) as a fine case study of the suicidality of self-examination. After all, to examine one’s life is, ultimately, to weigh whether or not it’s worth living. For most of us, I suspect that a competing animal urge toward self-preservation (completely outside of any rational machinations), protects us from philosophical foolishness. But for others, a completely different noise burns through the mind. The pain itself (even if we might know its source and, therefore, its limits) rages and smolders in the brain stem. In as much as it is “natural” to jump off of a hot stove, likewise, a human, an animal, in pain will seek ways to escape. But when we humans leap or pull the trigger, even then something in us, that blasted narrator, observes: you’re about to jump; you’re about to do yourself in. The chatter itself is tiresome.

Having written this, having reworked it, once again, through my mind, and obviously with some motivation, I suppose knowing is itself a bit of a buffer. We survive, but, like any animal, among the wounded.

References:

Malkesman O, Pine DS, Tragon T, Austin DR, Henter ID, Chen G, Manji HK. Animal models of suicide-trait-related behaviors. Trends Pharmacol Sci. 2009 Apr;30(4):165-73. PubMed Central PMCID: PMC2788815.

Preti A. Do animals commit suicide? Does it matter? Crisis. 2011 Jan 1;32(1):1-4. PubMed PMID: 21371964.

Transitional

We moved this summer, a few miles north to an older house with a larger yard. The work of transporting six people and all their junk to a new location has been, not surprisingly, disruptive. My bicycle commute has tripled (happily for the miles spent in the wind, less so for the lost writing time). Grocery shopping seems, for the moment, more complicated. Everyone’s routine has shifted–showers, laundry, homework locations and personal turf. And, we moved right smack in the middle of the growing season. Thus, I “waited” until this week to plant our fall garden. Lettuces, radishes, spinach and greens are all sweeter in the cool months. So, after a blistering hot summer, I’m hoping for a sunny, but mild fall with a late frost. Given that a large ash tree shades most of the garden, we’ll probably need more than 45 days to have a full harvest. The ash tree will make gardening a challenge next year. I may have to grow sun hungry plants in containers or find a spot in a local community garden. On the other hand, I’ve discovered that shade extends the life of some garden plants. The basil, for example, which I moved in pots to our new location, is sweeter and greener than in past years. Without full exposure to the sun, it has not gone to seed … and so, we have spring-flavored basil in late August.

I have been reading Wallace Stevens’ “Sunday Morning” one stanza at a time before falling asleep. At this age, I am neither challenged nor amused by it. I read the second book of the Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea series, The Tombs of Atuan, in half as much time. In my life, both worlds, Earthsea and the land of quiet Sunday mornings with coffee and elaborate rugs, seem equally distant. I may be due for another reading of Don Quixote soon, or maybe, after the frost, more Coleridge.

Chicory

Memory might be cultivated with care or it might be left to wither or spread as the seasons and circumstances permit. Most tend to it with some of the former and much of the latter. Perhaps I should not be surprised by the recent force of those weedy incidents from the first decade or so of my life. Many are of no real consequence, but seem to have a lasting force–a fig tree behind a garage in Arkansas, the odor of boxwood at Keeneland, asparagus in the fence rows in Versailles, and chicory in the front pasture of the family farm.

Rooted in my memory, the ephemeral morning blue of the chicory marks a season in which the lettuce beds have also gone to seed. The baby blue with hints of powder and lace open above improbable soil and jangly stems. Until noon they bloom a cool fog in the worst places–exit ramps, new construction, vacant lots. And now, though they flower thirty Junes on in the margins of my urban life, I can turn in the pasture of my childhood and feel the grade of the field, see the locust trees on the ridge, and wince at the mound of dirt where my father buried our favorite mare.

I must remember not to let summer pass without chicory or I would live as a stranger in exile from myself.

Mud

With this, I conclude what I aimed to achieve at the beginning of the year. I have written something here (in this semi-public, self-published manner) once a week for every week of 2010. I have done so at some expense: first, my wife has prepared the family meal on Wednesday nights; second, I have written with less ambition at my job; and third, I have written very little poetry this year. Of these, I lament the last the most.

Beyond demonstrating a bit of self-discipline, I am less certain of the rewards of this year-long exercise. Although I felt out-of-practice at the beginning of the year, I doubt that my prose-style has improved. I’m not any smarter; I probably lost as much knowledge this year as I gained. (My very limited language skills, for example, have eroded.) As for readers, except for my wife and one friend, I am pretty sure that I have no consistent readers. I did not look for readers, so I can’t complain, but the world also gained very little from my labors. Nonetheless, it was time well-spent in so far that it was (selfishly) mine.

In the coming year, I hope to write more poetry than in previous years. This will result in fewer contributions to this blog. I have some unfinished business (the Lycidas series is incomplete) and I do not want to lose what little prose writing muscle I’ve gained, so I will carry on, but I expect to write no less than one post per month in 2011.

Today, the temperatures will reach the mid-50s; the snow is melting and the rain will come this afternoon. Today is not a good day for writing. I am ending this now to drag my Wii-addicted sons through the mud. We live in exile and want more for mud than for words.

Rootless

Somewhere on one of my short runs through the city of Indianapolis I saw a single bagworm sack hanging from the limb of a small, street side, deciduous tree. Was it a maple tree? A pear? Maybe a ginkgo or tulip? I’m not sure. It was a brief image as I passed by on a wintry run. I see it very clearly now, in memory, but I have no idea where it is. I often run out from my office or home in a more or less straight path for two or three miles, but make my way back in a series of dog-leg turns. The little sack, if it’s still dangling from its limb in the wind and ice and snow, could be anywhere on either side of the street for roughly twenty miles of running routes. I doubt I will ever see it again. A woodpecker or crow will likely find it first.

The bagworm hangs suspended in my disjointed memory with tenacity. It does so, in part, because it belongs more in my memory than it does in an urban landscaping tree. Were I a child again in rural Kentucky, I could find hundreds of these in cedar thickets and fence rows. I see them now at eye level, practically in the face, as I tracked various critters through day old snow.

The evergreen bagworm (Thyridopteryx ephemeraeformis) in winter is a prickly sack of leather encasing the dead body of a mouthless, headless, wingless, legless female moth. And inside her body, itself really just a sack, the shiny little eggs, tapioca pearls, wait for spring. Most home owners with manicured evergreens will consider the moth to be a pest; it is voracious and unsightly. We trimmed them off our cedar Christmas trees with pruning shears. The gut strings of their bags are so tough that they can girdle a small limb … and in a season or two, choke it out to brown.

Here in Indianapolis, recent winters have been mild. The moth is increasing its northern range. In twenty years of living north of the Ohio River, this is the first evergreen bagworm that I have seen. I am sure that there have been many others, especially in the southern part of Indiana, but I have missed them. This December has been cold. If the coming months are colder, the moth may retreat a season or two to the south. What little, aimless sense I have of home follows.

Thyridopteryx ephemeraeformis

Turning

South of 11th street, the Indianapolis Central Canal finishes its last mile and a half in a concrete basin. At, roughly, sixteen feet below the city streets, it is a welcome and mostly pleasant alternative to the ordinary urban bustle. Nonetheless, but for goldfish and mallards, it’s a lifeless display. The ecosystem is still recovering from the city’s $423,000 cleanup (completed three years ago) and battling a monthly barrage of anti-algae treatments. Before the “cleanup” the canal (especially near the government building and the State Museum) was a foul mess. Full of weeds and algae and rotting vegetation, the methane was strong and gurgled audibly. But the weeds, while hiding the concrete, gave cover to the fish; the bass, bluegill, and carp swam slowly, in and out of view in the submerged forest.

Today, the ginkgo trees have shed their nuts and the mums have begun to brown. The water’s surface gathers corner blankets of blown leaves, slowly sinking. November tannin and tea. Below, the goldfish, some with fan tails and few longer than a hand, hang two feet and deeper beneath the wind and rain. Waiting.

I miss the old, foul canal. Without another cleaning, it will return … probably within the decade. I miss, already, the seasons of increase. The bottom growth rising to the surface, fecund and rich. But the summer passed with equal violence and the fall was too warm, and now, the waiting.