Arguing with America

"It's rather counterintuitive for poets to write in a sort of so-called patriotic way because it's the nature of good poetry to move towards mystery or uncertainty. If you say, I love America, you love America, maybe we're done and there's nothing to talk about. So for poets, a bigger tradition, I think, is the kind of poem that argues with America, that addresses America and in a way, that is our patriotism."

~ Tess Taylor, from "Celebrating The U.S., In Verse," All Things Considered, July 4, 2012

Map, Jasper Johns, 1961 

Immigrant Picnic
by Gregory Djanikian, from Poetry magazine, July 1999 

It's the Fourth of July, the flags
are painting the town,
the plastic forks and knives
are laid out like a parade.

And I'm grilling, I've got my apron,
I've got potato salad, macaroni, relish,
I've got a hat shaped   
like the state of Pennsylvania.

I ask my father what's his pleasure
and he says, "Hot dog, medium rare,"
and then, "Hamburger, sure,   
what's the big difference,"   
as if he's really asking.

I put on hamburgers and hot dogs,   
slice up the sour pickles and Bermudas,
uncap the condiments. The paper napkins   
are fluttering away like lost messages.

"You're running around," my mother says,   
"like a chicken with its head loose."

"Ma," I say, "you mean cut off,
loose and cut off   being as far apart   
as, say, son and daughter."

She gives me a quizzical look as though   
I've been caught in some impropriety.
"I love you and your sister just the same," she says,
"Sure," my grandmother pipes in,
"you're both our children, so why worry?"

That's not the point I begin telling them,
and I'm comparing words to fish now,   
like the ones in the sea at Port Said,   
or like birds among the date palms by the Nile,
unrepentantly elusive, wild.   

"Sonia," my father says to my mother,
"what the hell is he talking about?"
"He's on a ball," my mother says.

"That's roll!" I say, throwing up my hands,
"as in hot dog, hamburger, dinner roll...."

"And what about roll out the barrels?" my mother asks,
and my father claps his hands, "Why sure," he says,

"let's have some fun," and launches   
into a polka, twirling my mother   
around and around like the happiest top,   

and my uncle is shaking his head, saying
"You could grow nuts listening to us,"   

and I'm thinking of pistachios in the Sinai
burgeoning without end,   
pecans in the South, the jumbled
flavor of them suddenly in my mouth,
wordless, confusing,
crowding out everything else.

Creating a Portrait on the Cheap

From Anonyponymous: The Forgotten People Behind Everyday Words by John Marciano:

Étienne de Silhouette sil·hou·ette n. A shape distinctly outlined by background.

While living in London, Étienne de Silhouette stumbled onto the black-magic secrets of Anglo-Saxon capitalism and fiscal responsibility. He returned to Paris spreading the dark gospel, no more popular on the Champs-Élysées in the mid-1700s than now. Silhouette, however, had the ear of the royal mistress, Madame de Pompadour, through whose devices he was elevated to be Contrôleur général des finances.

To pay down the crushing debt being incurred from the ongoing Seven Years’ War, Silhouette suggested what amounted to an import of the British Window Tax, although he wanted to tax doors too, and just about everything else he could think of. Silhouette also proposed slashing the pay of bureaucrats—again, never a way into the Gallic heart—and even ordered the king to melt down the royal plate.

The most amazing thing about Silhouette’s departure after nine months in the office was that he lasted so long. Parisian ridicule of the finance minister didn’t stop with his fall from grace, and anything made on the cheap was said to be done à la silhouette, including the then-popular method of producing a portrait without having to draw, in which the “artist” traced the subject’s shadow onto a piece of black paper, cut it out, and stuck it in a frame.

Music is More Magical with Understanding

Cottton Top TamarindFrom “Music Written For Monkeys Strikes A Chord,” by Richard Harris, Morning Edition (9.2.09):

David Teie has been developing a theory to explain why music plays on human emotions. His theory is that music relates to the most primitive sounds we make and respond to, like laughter, heartbeats, or a mother's cooing.

Fearful monkey music:

Happy monkey music:

He says, "the paradox is that I distinctly remember thinking once that when they figure out why Puccini makes me cry, I hope I die the day before the news gets out. But the great news about this exploration into music is it's actually more magical and wonderful once you realize how it works."

David Teie Plays the Schuman Cello Concerto in A minor (Mvt 1) with the Eclipse Chamber Orchestra, April 2007

See also: Music for Cats

You're a Bittersweet Classic, Charlie Brown

I heard this great piece on NPR this morning about how A Charlie Brown Christmas almost never made it on the air for the first time in 1965. CBS thought that the jazz didn't mix well with traditional carols, that the voices should be provided by professional child actors, and that the tone and themes were too heavy for kids. It turned out that half of the people watching television across the country that night tuned in to watch.

The composer of the soundtrack, Vince Guaraldi, died unexpectedly of a heart attack in 1976. "He was found in a room at the Red Cottage Inn hotel, relaxing between sets at Butterfield's nightclub in Menlo Park, California. Guaraldi had just finished recording the soundtrack for It's Arbor Day, Charlie Brown earlier that afternoon."

He wasn't around to discover that his music had become modern Christmas classics. A remastered edition of the soundtrack, which has never been out of print, has been released this year.