Walkabout

Walkabout (noun): a short period of wandering bush life, engaged in by an Australian aborigine as an occasional interruption of regular work.   (Merriam-Webster Dictionary)

Be especially relentless when it comes to reverence.

A voice inside you is singing.  Listen.  You are following the song lines, you are singing the world into being as you walk through it, you are composing what Walt Whitman called the “Song of Myself”.

We are surrounded by teachers: the paths we take, the wind, the water, the sandstone, the people on the street, the people we know, the ones who make us crazy, the ones we admire, pity, envy, the ones we can’t relate to at all.

Sometimes it’s “how will this work, I can’t do this anymore, I’m so tired, this is my life”.  Meanwhile the sun rises, incredibly, and planet earth whirls, spins.  The wind blows, the birds sing, evening settles – a miracle of the seemingly uneventful.

And then – you don’t know how you know, you just do – it’s time to go on walkabout again.  Time to return to the song lines again.  Time to remember that everything we do, we do on sand.  By all means, worship the house, but please don’t neglect to pray to the sand it’s built on.  And be especially relentless when it comes to reverence.

When you arrive, however weather-beaten, at the place where your voice has been waiting for you all this time, you will find that you know the sound of your voice just as you know the meaning of your name.  That’s the walkabout magic.

Alone as you feel, you are with all the world.

 

Beep Beep (Or, Sam Elliott Please Read This)

The state trooper walked so slowly up to my driver’s side window, it had to have been deliberate.  Either that, or he was trying to mimic what he’d seen in all those Looney Tunes cartoons he’d watched as a boy.

The only sounds were those of July cicadas, one other passing car, and the trooper’s boots munching on gravel as if it were potato chips.  The gravel had a clean look, and must have just recently been laid over the red clay by road workers along the shoulder of that country highway’s blacktop ribbon.

“What brings you to Georgia?” he asked, after an illuminating discussion about how fast I’d been going.  Having noted my Florida plates, followed by my New York driver’s license, this was naturally his next question.  He didn’t sound much like Mel Blanc.  Kind of looked like him though.

I must have sounded a mite confusing in my long-winded answering of that simple question, as I tried to explain how my uncle had passed away, and that my father had left me my uncle’s car, and how I’d flown to Florida to pick it up, and now I was driving it back to New York, and I had decided to stop and visit my grandfather on the way.

“Who’s yer grandpa?”  He asked this question in such a way that made it clear he wouldn’t give me a ticket if he knew who my grandfather was.  So I told him who my grandfather was, and the name of the road he lived on.

The trooper took the rim of his hat stiffly between thumb and forefinger, adjusting it while I held my breath.  He ten-mile stared down the road from behind his aviator sunglasses for a long slow southern moment, back in the direction of Moultrie.  You had to watch closely to see him shake his head no.

“Welp”, he said, “sit tight.  I’ll be right back.”

That money has long since been paid to the state of Georgia, but it’s still funny to think back on how – all the while I was pulled over and waiting for him to look me up, write the ticket, and have a conversation – a fat black film canister containing no less than nineteen joints lay beneath the driver’s seat, its existence (and, more important, its whereabouts) unbeknownst to me until two days later when I stopped at a Virginia gas station to write something down, and dropped my pen down the crack between the seat and the center console.

In hindsight I reckon this makes him the coyote, and me the road runner.

But you know how it is, sitting on piles of undiscovered treasure, or sometimes potential hornet’s nests, that – for long stretches of time – you never even know are there.  You just carry on, keep going, twenty miles over the speed limit.

Some days you forget to check your rear-view mirror, some days you look back a little more often, and still other days you catch yourself staring.  But always you hope, against hope itself, that one day you might learn to use your head for something besides a hat rack.

Of course, let’s not be so eager to smile about it that we forget this crucial point: I wouldn’t have had to part with one red cent, had Georgia law enforcement been acquainted with my grandfather.  That trooper would’ve smiled, tipped his hat, clapped his hand twice against the roof of the car, and said “Well, you have yourself a nice day.”

 

A Better World: Poetry in Song

John Lennon’s Imagine, and Bob Dylan’s Blowin’ In the Wind are both songs that – when the music is stripped away – reveal themselves as powerful poems.  They have both stood the test of time, asking the heavy questions of what it means to be a human society, and both offering us the same fundamental invitation: let’s consider changing the ways in which we have chosen to live, ways less harmful and more peaceful, ways that discourage hate and separation, and encourage love and union.

With Blowin’ In the Wind being written in 1962 and Imagine in 1971, both songs are super-charged with countercultural ideas, calling out war, religion, and injustice on all fronts: social, political, racial, personal, and spiritual.  In Blowin’ Dylan essentially asks us, through a series of symbolic and metaphorical questions, what it will take for us to change our behavior, our beliefs and values, our way of thinking.  More specifically, how much more death in the name of greed and power will it take for us to wake up from our collective ignorance and see the truth and consequences of how we have chosen to operate as a society here in the western world?

In Imagine Lennon offers up the same basic idea, albeit a basic idea heavily clothed in layers of complication.  Rather than forming it as a series of questions, though, he frames it as more of an invitation, essentially proposing this: imagine how things could be in our human world, instead of how they are.  It’s clear that his proposal of how things could be, is also his personal belief of how things should be: peace instead of war, love instead of hate, “a brotherhood of man”.  He prompts us with some light symbolism, but his words are more direct than they are symbolic, asking us to imagine no heaven or hell, no countries or religion, no possessions, greed or hunger.  (The song remains controversial to this day, due to the line “and no religion too”, thought of by many religious groups as quite a daring proposal, and a threat to their respective belief systems.)

“Imagine there’s no countries,” Lennon says, “it isn’t hard to do.  Nothing to kill or die for / and no religion too / imagine all the people / living life in peace.”  In other words, think of a world in which there are no divisions of any kind.  No politics, no geographical borders, no organized religion, no economic class.  A world in which all these things are replaced by union and equality.  It makes me think of looking first at an image of Earth from close-up, where you can see the borders of all the countries that have been established by the human race, and then panning the camera out until you’re viewing Earth from space, like you see in so many pictures.  Once you pull back and look at it from a distance, there are no visible divisions other than that of land and water.  You just see a planet, and you start to get more of a sense of oneness.

Lennon then goes on to acknowledge the skepticism and doubt you may be feeling with the line “you may say I’m a dreamer / but I’m not the only one”.  Finally, he invites us to join him, and hopes that we eventually will: “I hope someday you’ll join us / and the world will live as one”.

Dylan’s Blowin’ In the Wind relies much more on the use of symbolism in the form of questioning, but points to the same theme of hope for ‘a better world’.  However, there seems to me to be a major difference of mood here, for while Lennon asks us to imagine a better world and hopes we will join him someday, Dylan bittersweetly tells the reader “the answer is blowin’ in the wind”.  With this powerful image, Dylan implies that it’s unknown if anything will actually ever change for the better, and if so, who knows when.  One could also interpret it to mean that the answer is obvious, everywhere, all around us.

To me, the poem is essentially a manifesto or declaration of this sentiment: when will enough be enough?  “How many times must the cannonballs fly / before they’re forever banned,” Dylan asks.  “How many deaths will it take till he knows / that too many people have died?”  In other words, when will it ever be enough?  “How many times must a man look up / before he can really see the sky?”  Dylan is poking at the issue of mankind never waking up to the fact that it’s killing itself through greed, fear, hate and blame.  How – even as we come to understand more about our history – we tend to continue repeating history on one level or another.

The image of the rising and falling of an empire, or a belief, can also be interpreted from the line “how many years can a mountain exist / before it’s washed to the sea.”  Dylan’s images are simple but the symbolic power they wield through contemplation is immense.

Blowin’ In the Wind is most-often described as an anthem of the civil rights movement, and a war-protest song, in particular protesting U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War at the time Dylan wrote it.  In June 1962, the song was published in Sing Out!, accompanied by Dylan’s comments:

“There ain’t too much I can say about this song except that the answer is blowing in the wind. It ain’t in no book or movie or TV show or discussion group. Man, it’s in the wind — and it’s blowing in the wind. Too many of these hip people are telling me where the answer is but oh I won’t believe that. I still say it’s in the wind and just like a restless piece of paper it’s got to come down some … But the only trouble is that no one picks up the answer when it comes down so not too many people get to see and know … and then it flies away. I still say that some of the biggest criminals are those that turn their heads away when they see wrong and know it’s wrong. I’m only 21 years old and I know that there’s been too many wars … You people over 21, you’re older and smarter.”

In 1975, the song was included in a Sri Lankan high-school English textbook, causing controversy because it replaced Shakespeare’s work with Dylan’s.

Lennon’s Imagine was first released in 1971, and topped the charts after his murder in 1980.  It’s one of the most-performed songs of the twentieth century, and is widely considered one of the greatest songs of all time.  Like Blowin’ In the Wind, it bridges the gap between poetry and song, language and lyrics, art and education, pop culture and counterculture, philosophy and psychology.  It is currently being covered by music stars via Instagram in response to the COVID-19 worldwide pandemic.

The power of both of these poems put to music, lies in the use of language as a means to point to larger truths about what it means to be human, and the commonality of people that transcends all systems of class, race, politics, religion, the unique ability of humans to recognize and change their own behaviors, and – perhaps most important of all – the danger and power of belief.

A Short Interview

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A brief interview about poetry with Homebound Publications:

HB: Why did you start writing poetry?

CMR: I’m not sure which is more true: if I began writing poetry, or if poetry began writing me. All I know is, at some point, it became a necessary creative way for me to understand the world, my own experience of life in it, and to express whatever needs to be expressed.

HB: What inspired your first poetry collection?

CMR: I’ve been creating a body of work for several years, and have multiple collections I fiddle around with when I succeed in making the time and having the energy. I make amalgams of old poems and new poems that seem to have something in common thematically, trying different combinations. So it feels like cheating to say my first collection is “inspired” by something (though certainly the conception of each poem began with an inspiration, epiphany, reflection, or observation). It feels more like finally hitting a home run after striking out several times.

HB: Do you have a favorite poem from the collection?

CMR: No. Maybe if I were a woodworker I’d have a favorite table or something.
I might be a little too working-class for that notion. Just keep trying to make yourself available to the muse, you know? Roll up your sleeves and get in there and do your art.

HB: What poets have inspired you over the years?

CMR: So many. Basho, Kay Ryan, Billy Collins, Mary Oliver, Tony Hoagland, Whitman, Frost, Louise Gluck, Rumi, Wendell Berry, W.S. Merwin, the Beat Generation…..the list is endless.

HB: What are you working on next?

CMR: More poetry, and a prose poem collection.

Nine Machetes and an Earring

When I was a boy, one of the things I loved most was a collection of 45-records, passed on to my Grandma Ruth from her dad’s jukebox and pinball machine distribution business based in Silverton, a small Oregon town in the Willamette valley an hour south of Portland.  In the 1950’s and 60’s, Grandma Ruth would “ride the route” from customer to customer (taverns, arcades, diners, roller skating rinks), changing out records in jukeboxes and replacing broken flippers in the pinball machines, or delivering new machines and hauling away damaged ones, returning them to my great grandfather’s shop to be fixed by “mechanics”.  That was years before I was born, but those records would become an important part of my childhood, creating memories that became tangled up with meeting my grandfather for the first time.

I was drawn to music and storytelling from the beginning.  Growing up as an only child with a mother who refused to own a television, I learned to love reading, and read piles of books on rainy gray Oregon days, of which there are plenty.  My love of stories and characters merged with the thrilling discovery of my grandma’s vast 45 record collection.  A few were old jazz and disco, but the vast majority were outlaw songs, trucker songs, and story songs from the 60′s and 70′s, both popular and obscure.  Often the songs would depict bad guys as heroes, involving cowboys, outlaws, gold prospectors, trains, truckers, knives, guns, booze, and women.  To quote Rodgers and Hammerstein – ‘these are a few of my favorite things’.

The summer I turned eleven, my dad came and whisked me away on a summer vacation to meet his dad – a retired shrimper named Buddy – in Florida.  “Get ready to meet Grandpa Buddy,” my dad told me.  “He’ll tell you that ‘you gotta be tough’, and that ‘gettin’ old ain’t for sissies’.”  For a country boy from Oregon who’d never really been anywhere, it was a big adventure. Flying across America, I stared down in amazement at the Rockies, the circles, squares, and rectangles of the Midwest, the silver ribbons of rivers, the palms and cypress trees of Florida, all the while doted upon by stewardesses.

What kind of name is ‘Buddy’ anyway, I thought as I bounced around in the car, my dad navigating a sandy old pothole-riddled road that plunged us deeper into the tropical forest around the Withalacoochee River.

To my delight, grandpa Buddy turned out to be a retired version of one of those characters in the songs I loved so much.  He’d lived an adventurous life as the captain of his own shrimp boat; he’d lived out a slice of the Americana I idolized, though I was much too young to understand that.  And so I came to idolize him, practically overnight.  He had enough stories to fill not just a book, but an entire shelf, and he embellished them with the chops of a master storyteller.  My dad and I would sit for hours listening to the syrupy accent of his deep Johnny Cash-like voice, going on about Key West, the Gulf of Mexico, Campeche, Veracruz, Matamoros.  He talked about a different world then the one I knew, but I identified it as the same world being sung about on the old 45’s: heroes, outlaws, tough guys, sailors, pirates, thieves, swashbuckling heartbreakers and unknown legends.

“You gotta be tough,” Buddy would say again and again.  It was the takeaway, his mantra, the moral of every story he told.  He continued to say it into his nineties until he passed away.  He loved to lie back in his chair, clasp his hands behind his head, and think about all the different lives he had lived, all the chapters of his story.  “Watching the re-runs”, as he called it.

In my overactive boy’s imagination, he was the coolest, toughest guy I’d ever seen. He lived in the Florida jungle on a river full of alligators and snakes. He made shrimp nets and hammocks by hand out in his workshop, where an industrial fan – so large it looked like it should be in an airplane hangar – hummed.  There was a hand carved out of wood in the window by the front door, giving all visitors the finger.  He had tattoos, a topless jeep, nine machetes and an earring. Okay, it was probably more like two or three machetes, but in my kid-mind it was definitely nine.

It turned out that my Grandpa’s real name was Marvin, a name he never liked. He quit school as a young boy and worked as a helper on fishing and shrimping boats. The fishermen would say “Hey buddy, do this or that for me”, or “Thanks buddy”, and the name stuck through the years until he had his own shrimp boat and was known as Captain Buddy.

After that trip, I returned to my familiar quiet life with my mom in our little house in rural Oregon.  I stayed in bed all the next day, heartbroken, unable to stop the tears.  My mom kept asking me what was wrong, and I kept telling her I wanted to go back to grandpa Buddy’s house and live with him in Florida.  I was just a kid with an overactive imagination and a shortage of male role models in my life; I didn’t understand that he was just a man, just a vulnerable person with fears and desires like anyone else. In my head and my heart, he was way larger than life.

I spent the rest of the summer loathing myself; I suspected I wasn’t tough by anyone’s standards – least of all, Buddy’s.  And I figured that – when it came down to it – I probably never would be.  But I had also learned something of immense value that I would carry with me from then on, though I wouldn’t identify it clearly for many years to come: through my grandfather, who I barely knew, a light had switched on inside me, a light that shined inside my mind.  It was the light that comes from the magic of storytelling, sparked by all the books I’d read, kindled by the old 45’s, and fueled by the power of character – fiction or non.

Contemplating Cultural Appropriation

Many of us, as much as we hate to admit it, are not exactly sure what cultural appropriation means.  Had it come up in a conversation, we might have made a mental note to “google it” later.  Its most basic definition?  The unacknowledged and/or inappropriate adoption of the customs, practices, ideas, etc. of one people or society by members of another (typically more dominant) people or society.

When members of a dominant culture appropriate from a disadvantaged minority culture, controversy sometimes ensues (as it did when Katy Perry performed at the 2013 American Music Awards dressed up as a geisha).  Cultural appropriation manifests in numerous ways here in the U.S., from movies to fashion to holiday traditions, and often appears to be rooted in a lack of awareness.

It shows up repeatedly in our movies in the form of whitewashing: white Hollywood actors playing characters of another ethnicity.  Johnny Depp as a Native American in the Lone Ranger, Robert Downey Jr. as a black man in Tropic Thunder, Jack Black as a Hispanic in Nacho Libre; the list goes on and on, dating back to 1961’s The Outsider, wherein Tony Curtis was cast as Native American.

Most of us don’t live with a direct connection to the past suffering of an oppressed people.  If we did, Disney would probably not have gone anywhere near Pocahontas.  (She was abducted as a teenager, forced to marry an Englishman, and used as propaganda for racist practices before she died at age 21 – Disney might as well have romanticized the Trail of Tears, or Anne Frank’s diary.)  To quote James Allen in The Atlantic: “the Disney movie itself might have been okay, I guess, and the commenters saying it was made with good intentions may be correct. But the actual story of Pocahontas was grim and brutal. Turning a story like that into something fluffy and empowering is just uncomfortable.”

We have desensitized ourselves with our own media and entertainment industry, and we stand ready to consume whatever it puts in front of us, even allowing it to “educate” us.  Imagine if Disney made a movie about Anne Frank and gave it a happy ending.  Now imagine the movie becoming mainstream German culture’s most widely-known reference for the Holocaust!  Talk about creating a subculture of misinformation and going down the rabbit-hole of how insidious our consumerism has the potential to become (a subject for another article, perhaps).

Hollywood seems to possess a severe shortage of ethics, and so its power is often poorly wielded; somewhere beneath its downy-comforter top layer is a bottom sheet that hasn’t been washed in several decades, where the industry goes to bed with U.S. politics (i.e. Reagan, Schwarzenegger, Trump.  Creepy, isn’t it?  Makes me want to move to Canada.)

Hollywood also serves up a double-standard with whitewashing: it claims to honor the culture even as it misrepresents it, perpetuating racial stereotypes and adding to the problem of trying to think for one’s self.  Though general awareness seems to be gradually increasing in the U.S. (I am bereft of any concrete facts to support this statement – it’s merely a feeling), we largely seem to remain surprisingly undisturbed by victimization stories.

Another example of cultural appropriation can be found in our Halloween costume choices.  People dress up as racial stereotypes without even realizing it.  Mothers dress up their daughters as Pocahontas, trivializing violent historical oppression without even being aware that they are doing so.  People often think they’re showing love or appreciation of a culture, but they’re actually stoking the fire of oppression.  This is usually unintentional, not done out of prejudice.  (You go to the Halloween party thinking your costume is awesome, you know?)

It’s not about saying you’re a bad person if you unintentionally participate in appropriation, it’s about cultivating an awareness of whether or not you might be engaging in something that perpetuates oppression and racial stereotypes.  It’s about making a psychological paradigm shift, undergoing a transformation of consciousness, thinking outside the box of your cultural myths.

“It goes deeper than what you’re dressed like,” says Henu Josephine Tarrant of the Hopi tribe in an interview with NPR.  “When you really look at it and you really study these tropes and stereotypes and what they mean and how they affect us as Native people, you know they’re all rooted in a historically violent past.”

In so many examples of cultural appropriation, what usually seems to bubble to the surface is either a lack of awareness or a desire for entertainment, not outright prejudice or intended disrespect.  Truly a “gray area” in every sense, this topic’s complexities and controversies are dictated by people’s preferences and value systems.  What is deeply offensive to one person is “just having a little fun” to someone else.  It’s personal.  Who’s to say where a line should be drawn between cultural sensitivity and freedom of expression?

One can’t help but wonder when our schools will designate it as required curriculum.  You’d sure think it would be, here in America, where multi-ethnic groups of people coexist in virtually every corner.

 

“No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”

                                                               Nelson Mandela

 

  1. Huffington Post, 2014, Whitewashing Was One of Hollywood’s Worst Habits, So Why is it Still Happening?, Amanda Scherker.
  2. The Atlantic, 2015, Does Disney’s Pocahontas Do More Harm Than Good?, Chris Bodenner.
  3. NPR, npr.org, 2019, Cultural Appropriation: A Perennial Issue on Halloween, Leila Fadel.

 

A Tribute to the Ashokan Farewell

Of a Particular Piece of North American Music

                      (Ashokan Farewell, Jay Ungar, 1982)

Listen to the Ashokan Farewell

 

Its first       utterances     stir me,

open, display, flatten      me,

as if            I were a ship’s mast.

Then           the others

begin their phrasing,    accompaniment,

expanding            the single voice

into       a conversation.

It’s as if a beating heart

found                   lungs, blood,

and I am a rocky bluff,

a green field strewn with stone,

a wooden fence along a dirt road

graced by a spray of tiny flowers.

Then, the swell          of repetition,

the deliberate climb

to            the overlook

high        on a mountainside,

and my soul is laid bare,

and I am gone

as gone could ever be,

riding the wind.

Solid gone.

C.M. Rivers

Bobcats and Big Sur

Reckoning appeared in the Winter 2020 issue of Stonecoast Review (University of Southern Maine).  This poem came about as an amalgam of a few different things that came together in my mind to create a snapshot of a character.

The first was from a visit to Yosemite National Park, when three friends and I were walking near the village and saw a bobcat.  This wasn’t a “sighting”, it was realizing a bobcat stood six feet away.  It behaved just as I’ve described it in the poem, having almost no reaction to its close proximity with us, affording us a great close-up look before it walked away.

The second came out of camping in Big Sur and experiencing the infamous stretch of highway there.  This combined with my affection for big moustaches, heroes and villains both fictional and real, pirates, desperados, bikers, hippies, unknown legends and lovers who sweep through town with a devil-may-care attitude.  This combined even further with a contemplation of the connection that exists between the Big Sur/Monterey area, American literature (Steinbeck, Henry Miller, Robert Louis Stevenson), poetry (Robinson Jeffers) and the Beats (Kerouac).

The final image in the poem is “the temple of well-fed lions”.  It’s become a recurring phrase in my poetry; I’ve used it three or four times, and now it threatens over-use, so I should probably leave it alone for a good long while.  It came about one morning after a solid night of sound sleep, when I felt so deeply rested I thought about how lions look, lazing about after a feast and sleeping away the majority of the hours in a 24-hour time cycle.  That same morning I happened to be looking at Maxfield Parrish’s “Daybreak”, and the temple image merged with the sleeping lion image in a moment of inspiration.

Reckoning

Picking my way along a path

passing through mountains,

I suddenly came upon a bobcat.

It yawned, barely acknowledged me,

sauntered past, six feet away.

As I watched it evaporate into the forest,

moving as if to say the world is mine,

I was struck by an overwhelming desire

to grow a hedgerow moustache,

covering the expanse of my upper lip

like Mark Twain, Sam Elliot,

or a rugged musclebound hippie biker

who wears a rolled-up yoga mat

slung across his back

where you’d think

a double-barreled shotgun would be,

hugging the curves

of Highway One through Big Sur

on his sweet, sweet chopper,

all at once a sage, recluse,

iconoclast, beatnik, mountain man,

swashbuckling heart-throb

and unknown legend,

inviting you to join him

at the temple of well-fed lions

in order to empty your spleen

of accumulated dreams.

C.M. Rivers

Fritter in the Bookshop

Just because we’re sentimental about a household object that used to belong to a grandparent, doesn’t mean the dog won’t eat it while left at home alone all day.  To him, a coaster with the Notre-Dame cathedral painted on it is – while not the preferred afternoon snack – quite suitable to chew on.

“To think of all the grand plans you once had”, he says, smiling up at me one day as we walked through the park, with an expression indicating that he is at once a wise sage and a mischevious trickster.  “You were trying to be more than you are.” 

He’s right of course.  I am only a wanderer, like the kind you see sketched on a Chinese scroll, small and off to one side.  I am the reader in a chair, in the corner of the bookshop with tea and an apple fritter.

There’s just something about a hot cup of tea and a warm apple fritter, when you’re perched on the shore of the Milky Way, fiddling with the margins that exist only in your mind.

 

 

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