Music, Poetry, Eulogy, Justice – John Coltrane, Gabrielle Calvocoressi, Martin Luther King, Doug Jones

About a week ago I watched a documentary on John Coltrane called Chasing Trane (by John Scheinfeld); it referenced a song Coltrane wrote called “Alabama.” The next day, I happened on a poem by Gabrielle Calvocoressi called “Acknowlegement, 1964.” It’s a raw human rights lament, that references the KKK bombing of an Alabama Baptist church which killed four young girls. Although not stated, I believe the title is taken from the first part of John Coltrane’s masterpiece suite, A Love Supreme.

Calvocoressi, a Coltrane devotee, tells of her discovery of Coltrane’s song “Alabama,” how it was written in response to the killing of the four little girls, and how it follows the exact intonations and pacing of Martin Luther King’s eulogy.

Here’s the audio and text of the eulogy, and here’s the song. (Because of copyright issues they aren’t superimposed, but you can do it manually).

Then, two days later, came this bit of good news sifting up over the border concerning Alabama’s Senate election: “In Alabama, decency has won an election.” The winner, Doug Jones, is the former U.S. attorney who, in 2002, successfully prosecuted two of the KKK terrorists who dynamited that church in Birmingham, Alabama. White supremacist violence, somehow protected, shelved, ignored for almost 40 years, finally brought to justice.

From Doug Jones’ victory speech:  “As Dr King liked to quote, ‘The moral arc of the universe is long but it bends towards justice’. Tonight, ladies and gentlemen, in this time, in this place, you have helped bend that moral arc a little closer towards justice, and not only was it bent more, not only was it bent truer, you bent it right through the heart of the great state of Alabama.”

From Dr. King’s 1963 Eulogy, on the lives of the slain girls, Denise McNair, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, and Addie Mae Collins:  “They have something to say to every minister of the gospel who has remained silent behind the safe security of stained-glass windows. They have something to say to every politician who has fed his constituents with the stale bread of hatred and the spoiled meat of racism. They have something to say to a federal government that has compromised with the undemocratic practices of southern Dixiecrats and the blatant hypocrisy of right-wing northern Republicans. They have something to say to every Negro who has passively accepted the evil system of segregation and who has stood on the sidelines in a mighty struggle for justice. They say to each of us, black and white alike, that we must substitute courage for caution. They say to us that we must be concerned not merely about who murdered them, but about the system, the way of life, the philosophy which produced the murderers.”

An excerpt from Gabrielle Calvocoressi’s “Acknowledgement, 1964:”

Could have gone west.
Could have packed your things,
who cares that you weren’t old enough to drive.

…could have gone down
the dark road between home and somewhere
better …

Could’ve got lost. Could have said, “I don’t know”
when the waitress asked, “Where you live at?”
You could have lied and said, “New Jersey”
or “Mobile.” Of course, that assumes
you’d get past Mason Dixon.

“I’ve found you’ve got to look back at the old things and see them in a new light.” —John Coltrane

Hopeful Poem Advent Poem

The other day a friend who is, among other things, the Arts Chaplain/Curator at St Faith’s Anglican church, asked if I had a poem that focused on the struggle of moving out of a dark vulnerable place towards hope. He wanted the poem to be part of the church’s observance of Advent. (To refresh: Advent, for Christians, is a period of introspection that arrests the daily hypnosis, exposes an existential loneliness, and sharpens a hopeful longing for the manifestation of Christ.)

The poem he picked wasn’t written with Advent in mind, nor was it written to reveal any sort of virtue, let alone hope. As most poems, it wasn’t planned, it was simply the occasion of sitting alone in a small park in downtown Edmonton one late summer afternoon, looking at a tree; a tree that happened to be leaning. I wrote a few drafts right there on the park bench. Later, after a dozen more, it gave itself up. These few years later, I see that it is an Advent poem. But conceivably, for those who don’t observe Advent, it is still a hopeful poem. 

Tree in a northern park

Today I saw a tree in a northern park
that slanted out as though it thought
to breach the blue horizon.

A mighty lean for a madroña,
but unknown for a white pine
-arc-boutant of imperfection.

It seemed a lonely tree.
A price it paid in failing the upright
company of other trees.

It did not tower or scrape the sky
as is said of the great redwoods.
It did not triumph over forces

that kept it lean-limbed and low.
Prostrate, its keeling crown
an uncertain compass—

weaving keening O’s, and silent Om’s
the semaphore of yearning,
the defying of impasse.

By the will of wind it moaned
a beggars hymn. Bough-bent
toward hell, it did not despair.

I imagined praying roots like great
hands spanning toward the arctic.
And restive roots that felt far

into the flesh of earth,
picking up the tremolo of palmetto.
Forever following a faint calling,

it hungered to lean
farther, still farther,
and touch the Southern Cross.

Inverse Dementia

If demise,
why not a disease
like Inverse Dementia?
Imagine: your thoughts,
imperceptibly at first,
a shuffle-step quicker,
your mind, somehow,
progressively lighter,
as though someone is going from room to room turning on lights,

and everywhere shadows are scattering,
and everywhere memories are leaping,
names, scenes, images, lists,
rapid-fire flashes of original associations,
ripe and ready, hanging like apricots
in those gardens at Babylon;

and now the roof evanesces in a luminous rain,
and the ceiling is carried off by swallows,
and the walls become rivers in fields
upon fields of unfolding horizons
under a wheeling multi-verse
of skies within skies, 
quickening, quickening,

until, what kills you,
is no suffocating slip into black,
but an explosion of perception,
which carries you
wholly prepared
into the Mystery.

If I Had A Name Like Wendy Morton

This was written for the occasion of Wendy Morton’s 77th birthday, celebrated last night at Planet Earth Poetry. As was so apparent at last evening’s standing room only event, Wendy is an inspiration to a great crowd of people.

Wendy handing out free wishes at her birthday party: here with Yvonne Blomer’s son, (Yvonne is Victoria’s Poet Laureate).

Poet, gardener, private investigator, West Jet Poet of the Air, free-spirit, recipient of a host of awards, the latest of which is the Meritorious Service Medal from the Governor General of Canada, for her projects: Random Acts of Poetry and The Elder Project, she remains, quite simply, a friend to many.

For those unfamiliar with Wendy’s work, the following is a riff on one of her many popular poems, “If I Had A Name Like Rosie Fernandez”.

Happy Birthday Wendy!

If I Had A Name Like Wendy Morton

I would wear braids of blue bells,
and a shawl of wild indigo.

I would sleuth the understorey of old-growth forests,
packing pistils of Peruvian lilies,
finding clues under cloak ferns.

I would transcribe the weave of wind in willows.
I would publish the loop and sweep of cliff swallows.

If I had a name like Wendy Morton
I would serve lavender tea to every stranger
willing to waltz me
through a pink blizzard of blossoms.

I’d buy a purple satchel
and stalk the autumnal equinox
to forage a pot of filigreed collards.

I would walk on water
wearing pontoon shoes
of pumpkin shells.

I would recline with sea lions
—we’d watch the geysers of orcas. 

I would sit with a young Inuit poet,
—we’d find the shortest path to each other’s heart.

I would take all the turbulent minds,
the hijacked dreams,
our fears of flying,
and lyric them into oblivion.

Oh, if I had a name like Wendy Morton,
I would shush the mortal creak and moan
and bring on everlasting spring
with a single poem.