We can overcome the anxieties and fears that assail us daily during these uncertain times. As Dr. Gerald Stein, a retired psychotherapist from Chicago, reminds us: “We are the descendants of those who [have endured and surmounted misfortune] again and again for thousands of years.”
If the political-pandemical moment has lit your hair on fire, I offer a suggestion. Get into the shower. But since I can’t personally help with this remedy, let me provide some calming words.
We must begin here: many people fear the worst outcome in the U.S. election come November.
Some ask me for my opinion, my prediction, my reassurance.
I tell them I have enough trust in the good sense of the majority of my fellow-citizens to save the democratic republic. Hope and experience sustain me. I do what a concerned citizen can do. I will vote and, until events are past, take modest political action via the phone, the mail, and contributions to candidates I support.
These thoughts and efforts, however, do not dominate my time or my life.
Yes, potential chaos and catastrophe loom, but few souls profit by submerging themselves in disastrous scenarios. They are instead immobilized…
My Poetry Corner September 2020 features the poem “Begin Again” (Recomece) from the poetry collection Poetry that Transforms (Poesia que Transforma) by Bráulio Bessa, a Brazilian poet and motivational speaker. The poet was born in 1985 in Alto Santo, a city of an estimated 17,000 people located in the semi-arid interior region of the State of Ceará in Northeast Brazil.
At fourteen years old, Bráulio began writing poetry in high school after learning about the work of Patativa do Assaré (1909-2002), a popular oral poet and son of poor peasant farmers who were also from Ceará’s impoverished hinterlands.
“When I had contact with [Patativa’s] poetry, I perceived that a poet with very simple language was capable of speaking about that which is most complex in the world, of passion, and of forgiveness,” Bráulio Bessa told Katy Navarro during an interview on TV Brasil in August 2019. “I put it in my head that I wanted to be a poet and started writing. The most beautiful thing in this was to feel the transforming power of literature, education, and art in my life. I realized that it was possible to also be an agent of transformation in the lives of other people.”
“Living in a small city, I had this sensibility of understanding that a popular Northeastern poet generally goes to the local city market to recite poems as loud as possible to get people’s attention, and I looked at the Internet and said: This here is the world’s largest market, with all kinds of people, never closes, and doesn’t have borders. I began recording videos of poems, covering such themes as fear, prejudice, love, depression, and identity, and published them on the Internet.”
In 2012, Bessa’s videos gained national attention with over 250 million views. His “Northeast Nation,” launched on Facebook, promoting the culture of Brazil’s Northeast Region, has more than a million fans, earning him the nickname “Ambassador of the Northeast.” With his trademark Cearense accent and inseparable hat, and down-to-earth poetry, he enchanted the hearts of viewers.
The poet’s Facebook fame caught the attention of TV Globo, Brazil’s largest television network. Beginning in 2015, Bessa became a weekly participant on their TV program Encontro com Fátima Bernardes to speak about Brazil’s Northeast Culture with a poetic outlook.
The featured poem “Begin Again” is probably Bessa’s best-known poem. Inspiration for this nine-verse poem came from the tragic story of Laura Beatriz. In 2010, at eight years old, Laura lost her entire family in a landslide in Niterói, Rio de Janeiro. He speaks to her about hope, faith, and strength to begin again despite her adverse situation.
Every day is a day to begin again, no matter the magnitude of our problem. Cited below are verses 1, 2, 4, 5, 6, and 9 from Bessa’s poem “Begin Again.”
When life hits hard
and your soul bleeds,when this overbearing worldhurts you, crushes you…It is time to start over.Begin TO FIGHT again.When everything is darkand nothing illuminates,when everything is uncertainand you only have doubts…
It is time to start over.Begin TO BELIEVE again.[…]When evil is evident
and love conceals itself,when the heart is empty,when the hug is missing…It is time to start over.Begin TO LOVE again.When you fall
and no one catches you,
when the force of what is bad
succeeds in knocking you down…
It is time to start over.
Begin TO RISE again.When hopelessness
decides to whip you,
if everything that is real
is hard to bear…
It is time to start over.
Begin TO DREAM again.[…]Begin again, redo yourself,remember what was good,rebuild each dream,rediscover some talent,relearn when you make mistakes,shake the hips when dancing,and if one day, way ahead,
life gives a reverse,recover your faith
and BEGIN AGAIN anew.
Americans must walk through the ruins, toward the terror and fear, and lay bare the trauma that we all carry with us. So much of American culture and politics today is bound up with the banal fact of racism in our daily lives and our willful refusal to acknowledge who benefits and suffers from it. Underneath it all is the lie that corrupts American life. It corrupts how we imagine governance; how we think about our private lives (constraining even who we can love); and how we imagine community and the broader public good. The lie is the lifeblood of Trumpism. Anything that does not corroborate its reality is dismissed as “fake news.” Anyone who doesn’t fit the view of America as a white nation or refuses to submit to it is cast as a traitor or as someone who hates America.
Excerpt from the Conclusion (p. 211) of Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own by Eddie S. Glaude Jr., published by Crown, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York, USA, 2020.
Eddie S. Glaude Jr., born in 1968 in Mississippi/USA, is the James S. McDonnell Distinguished University Professor of African American Studies at Princeton University. His most well-known books are Democracy in Black: How Race Still Enslaves the American Soul (2016) and In a Shade of Blue: Pragmatism and the Politics of Black America (2007).
It is hot here in California. On August 16th, a heat wave sent temperatures soaring in Death Valley to 130℉ (54.4℃), believed to be the highest temperature recorded on Earth in over a century. With a historic wildfire season threatening life and property, Governor Gavin Newson has declared a state of emergency. On August 24th, as reported by Cal Fire, the state has had 7,002 fires this year, burning over 1.4 million acres…and growing. At the same time last year, 4,292 fires had burned 56,000 acres.
Depending upon where you live, you are probably facing your own extreme weather-related danger. Given our climate crisis, this is our new reality as inhabitants on Earth. Though the COVID-19 global pandemic may have forced our climate activists off the streets worldwide, they continue to press for urgent action.
My Poetry Corner August 2020 features the poem “The Punt Trench” from the first poetry collection, Unfathomable And Other Poems (2020), by Guyanese-Canadian author Ken Puddicombe. Since retiring from his accounting work, Puddicombe has been pursuing his love of writing. To date, he has published two novels and a short story collection.
His poetry collection is filled with nostalgia of his boyhood days in Guyana. As an immigrant living in Canada since 1971, he writes in “Nostalgic”:
As they grow older, the yearning
For a return to the old country increases.
Memories plague them, of a childhood in a familiar spot.
Any little incident will send their senses reeling and take
them back in time and place.
The punt trench is a recurring memory in Puddicombe’s poems. For readers unfamiliar with Guyana’s coastal lowlands of sugar cane fields crisscrossed by canals or trenches, a legacy of Dutch colonizers (1648-1814), a punt or cane-punt is a flat-bottomed iron barge for transporting harvested canes along the system of canals or punt trenches from field to factory. About 20 feet long, 8 feet wide, and 3 or 4 feet deep, the punt is drawn by a mule (in the early days) or tractor, attached by a long chain, moving along the punt-trench earth dam or unsurfaced road. The punt trench also serves as a drainage canal during low tides and periods of flooding, controlled by kokers or sluices.
Puddicombe’s memories of the punt trench are somber and haunting. The title poem, “Unfathomable,” the longest narrative poem with seventeen stanzas, recounts the tale of the unfathomable death of his playful and daring friend—crushed between two punts moving along in a convoy on their way to the sugar factory.
The punts in the mule-train linked
With short lengths of chain hooked
Into metal clasps welded at the front
And rear of each craft. Six mules up front
Kept the convoy moving, each animal
Bound to a punt by a length of chain.Lincoln was clinging to the connecting
Chain between two punts in the middle
Of the convoy, hanging on for a ride,
When the distance narrowed swiftly
Between the punts.
“Drowning” describes the time the author/poet almost lost his life in the cocoa-brown waters of the punt trench. Though he could not swim like the older boys, he plunged into the deep / Murky, swirling pit of the Punt Trench, made murkier still when his feet stirred up the mud and silt at the bottom of the trench.
On his first return visit to Guyana in 1987 after a sixteen-year absence, Puddicombe questions whether one could ever really go back to a time and place long gone. In his poem, “Middle Road,” the street where he had once lived, he finds The bridge over the Punt Trench where / I fell into the water now collapsed, the Trench / Filled in with debris.
In the featured poem, “The Punt Trench,” he reflects on the changes over time in four stanzas, each beginning with a different theme: Memory,Despair, Change, and Hope. His Memory of the punt trench as Fast moving torrential / Waves flashing through / The Koker to the raging Atlantic is no more. Instead, he feels only despair.
Despair.The Punt Trench is a dumping
Ground filled with debris and
Castoffs. Empty shell of a car.
Rusting frame of a bicycle. Bags of
Garbage piled in mounds. A dog’s bloated
Carcass. Tall paragrass and wild eddo bush
Reaching to the sky.
The punt trench, once a haunting memory of youthful joy and dread, is now a symbol of the decay of a neighborhood and of a nation; of promises not yet realized. It is not the change promised by the founding leaders of the independent nation.
Change.From the Koker in Public Road
All the way to the Backdam
The Punt Trench is now Independence
Boulevard. Every time the breeze zips
Across from the north-east,
It reeks and fills my
Only birdsong brings the poet Hope that Life goes on!
As the author and poet acknowledges in “You Can Never Go Back,” the final poem in the collection, the places of his idyllic youth have changed or no longer exist. People are no longer the same. Yet…some among us grasp a dream of returning to a time we consider our days of glory. Life goes on, for better or for worse, with or without us.
To read the complete featured poem, “The Punt Trench,” and learn more about the work of Ken Puddicombe, go to my Poetry Corner August 2020.
With all the social distancing and lockdown during these uncertain times of a global pandemic, there is no reason for us to give up on finding the love of our life. In her self-help guide, From Loneliness to Love: Five Steps for Finding a Healthy Relationship, memoirist and former mental health therapist JoAnne Macco does not dillydally with meanderings. She presents each recommended step with clear and concise descriptions and exercises for realizing the change we seek in our lives.
Based on her own journey of finding a compatible partner, following her divorce and two rebound damaging relationships, Macco knows well the pitfalls that await us along the way. She believes that the steps she had taken for a successful outcome could also work for others.
Her first step is intuitive: “Clarify Your Heart’s Desire.” Yet, so many of us can stumble in defining exactly what we seek in a relationship. Tips and exercises help the lonely heart to zero in on the list of qualities that really matter, based on each person’s wants and needs.
Hope locates itself in the premises that we don’t know what will happen and that in the spaciousness of uncertainty is room to act. When you recognize uncertainty, you recognize that you may be able to influence the outcomes—you alone or you in concert with a few dozen or several million others. Hope is an embrace of the unknown and the unknowable, an alternative to the certainty of both optimists and pessimists…. It’s the belief that what we do matters even though how and when it may matter, who and what it may impact, are not things we can know beforehand. We may not, in fact, know them afterward either, but they matter all the same, and history is full of people whose influence was most powerful after they were gone.
Rebecca Solnit in the Foreword to the Third Edition (2015) from Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities, published by Haymarket Books, Illinois, USA, 2016. First published by Nation Books, USA, 2004.
Rebecca Solnit, born in 1961 in Connecticut/USA, is a writer, historian, and activist. She is the author of more than twenty books on feminism, western and indigenous history, popular power, social change and insurrection, hope and disaster. An independent writer since 1988, she is a columnist at the Guardian and a regular contributor to Literary Hub. Her most recent book, Recollections of My Non-Existence, was released in March 2020.
My Poetry Corner July 2020 features sonnet 13 from the poetry collection American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin (2018) by African American poet Terrance Hayes. (Note: The following excerpts of poems are all sourced from this collection.) Born in 1971 in Columbia, South Carolina, Hayes is a national award-winning poet and university professor. After receiving his MFA from the University of Pittsburgh in 1997, he taught in Japan, Ohio, and Louisiana before returning to the University of Pittsburgh where he worked for several years. In Pittsburgh, he gained local fame as co-director of the Center for African American Poetry and Poetics.
Hayes moved on to New York University to take up his current post of Professor of English. In 2017, he was elected a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets and now serves as an ex-officio member of the Academy’s Board of Directors. The divorced father of two children resides in New York City.
Hayes’ featured sonnet 13 is one of seventy freestyle sonnets, all bearing the same title and length of fourteen lines required for the poetic form. Written during the first two hundred days of the Trump presidency, the sonnets in this poetry collection are mostly political poems about life, love, and death of black men—haunted and hunted by violent racism.
In his 2018 interview for the Poets & Writers Magazine, Hayes tells interviewer Hanif Abdurraqib why he chose the sonnet: “How can I write a traditional love poem to someone or something I don’t deem worthy of my love? I just don’t know what other form would be able to hold this particular moment.”
He further expands on his poetic choice during his interview for The White Review Magazine in January 2019. In trying to express all the complications of love and politics, “I have to change my mind, because it’s a sonnet, because of the volta,” he tells interviewer Rachel Long. “Otherwise, it’s just a box. Something has to give. So whatever I go in with, I have to come out with something new.”
In sonnet 7, the poet alerts (lines 1/2//13/14):
I lock you in an American sonnet that is part prison,
Part panic closet, a little room in a house set aflame.
Voltas of acoustics, instincts & metaphor. It is not enough
To love you. It is not enough to want you destroyed.
In the following eight sonnet, the poet pour[s] a pinch of serious poison and merciful panic into [the] river for assassins like James Earl Ray, Dylann Roof, and others named in the poem. On the volta (lines 11-14), he then affirms:
Love trumps power or blood to trump power
Beauty trumps power or blood to trump power
The names alive are like the names in the graves
In the featured thirteenth sonnet on my Poetry Corner July 2020, Hayes describes all the ways in which the black male is silenced and erased by violent racism.
The earth of my nigga eyes are assassinated.
The deep well of my nigga throat is assassinated.
The tender bells of my nigga testicles are gone.
You assassinate the sound of our bullshit & blissfulness.
Hayes commentary on Trump’s rise to the presidency in sonnet 26 (lines 1-4) resounds loudly today:
America, you just wanted change is all, a return
To the kind of awe experienced after beholding a reign
Of gold. A leader whose metallic narcissism is a reflection
Of your own…
He asks in sonnet 30 (lines 4-6):
Is this a mandate for whiteness, virility, sovereignty,
Stupidity, an idiot’s threats & gangsta narcissisms threading
Every shabby sentence his trumpet constructs?
“…I ain’t mad at you, / Assassin,”Hayes writes in sonnet 53 (lines 12-14). “It’snot the bad people who are brave / I fear, it’s the good people who are afraid.” (Emphasis mine)
To read the complete featured thirteenth sonnet, “American Sonnet for My Past and Future Assassin,” and learn more about the work of the poet Terrance Hayes, go to my Poetry Corner July 2020.
On America’s 244th year of independence, I offer these “rants” from Tom Engelhardt, an American editor, publisher, and author who belongs to the same generation as our 45th president.
That my generation, whether in the form of Donald Trump or Mitch McConnell, would be responsible for turning imperial America into an autocratic-leaning, collapsing semi-democracy, and a first-class world annihilator, I would have found hard to imagine. [In the early 1970s], if you had told me that, half a century into the future, the world’s fate would rest on a presidential election between a genuine madman and something close to a dead man (that, for all we know, may not prove to be an election at all), I would have dismissed you out of hand. And yet that, it seems, is the pandemic legacy of my generation for which we should all be ashamed, even as we watch the young, driven by the insanity and inanity of it all, turning out in our diseased streets to protest a country coming apart at the seams.