Li Po (+ Russell Jones)

 

Li-

Peace!

Quick question:

I’m trying to get some straight answers from the pension and health fund office and all the voices are so delicate and calm over the phone that nothing gets answered, but someone’s gotta cover a vasectomy before there’s another pregnancy in this beezy. Eight Is Enough, you know what I mean, greasy?

Which reminds me: how much you put aside for taxes? Anything? Or your parents still pay for your accountant? Trick ass—

Also, I’m introducing you to Russell Jones—post-mort liquid sword, calligrapher of the poetic, supporter of the poor and free who I think prefers drink over work, much like yourself loves the wine, the wandering, the alley cat raw dogging. Heard he can do a thousand push ups over the course of a few hours with the right serving of angel dust, so there’s a connection there for sure if you’re up for another week of crawling upriver instead of laying around the porch like a fat fucking caterpillar.

Thought of you both today when the leftover part of a gram found me from folded into its dollar bill beneath my computer. I’m expelling this note, you see, as method to forget about that for another while, until there’s some clandestine moment to share it with some one else’s wife in the bathroom of the next birthday party. Keybumps and crazy pupils in special direction. These things should be ingested properly or not at all, as you know, especially medicine of origin.

Been months now since that last time we administered all the beginnings of disaster with appropriate carelessness, perfect preparation for insult you fail to recall, like everything with you, nice. So once more I refresh, my crony: we began with cold chelas, the room service bucket dropping condensation, the sharp aluminum smell a preface to when you pissed your pants the next day. But by then it had been diluted by so much expensive whiskey. You. All your class act bullshit, trust fund wanderer or street urchin made good, invited to the royal court—that’s not every hobo soups with the emperor, you know. Your connections betray your restless countermotion, away from institution when you want, right back in when you feel. Not all of us have it like that.

That middle of the room table they reserved for us there, dead center of the bar and lounge all the ass and thigh meat in our glazed sight lines as the milk-fed dj spun one out of three good records, two out of three forgettable. And the sisters in velour sweatpants laughing how I dance alone. You scribbling dead homies names in gold flake paint pen on the porcelain dishes, on the glass table, on the linen napkins, on the teacups and saucers—who the fuck was drinking tea at that point after bottles of brown juice? Who but you. And when some uncombed kid recognized you from across the room, plopped down in front of you to introduce himself, at that point your eyes wild from what—the yay? The drink? The music? The scent of moonlit bay? Dirty denim? Paint vapor? What was it that set you off, because you were in motion then.

In the elevator as we crowded in, as you pulled me away from the bouncer—there was a certain satisfaction. The melee was effective, jumped off and seemingly uncontrolled, but perfectly orchestrated. The tumbler ends of a Macallan bottle used like dish cleaner to spirit away the paint from porcelain, from table top, from cups and saucers, not from linen—but mostly all gone and the young porter exaggerating the gallery price of what had just been erased and the table cleared clumsily, forks and knives clattering against tile floor while everyone who so ignored you suddenly moved in to touch your coat as you passed pulling me into the elevator, all of us there descending to the street.

Ah, the street, the car to the Timbuktu suite, the iron laced terrace where all your gifts were thrown into the night—autographed books, poems, photos—worthless and beautiful suddenly like dead birds plummeting, fluttering unconscious until SMACK against the concrete below. And the gold chain you tore from my neck. Why? Because you’re an ass. A drunken miscreant. Because your mother is dead now. And you, ruined by success, guilty of excessive privilege, enfant terrible you. Did I break your pinky finger when you went for my throat? Was it my laughter, no, it was more a warbling cackle and it shook you back to reality, no, it shook you back to your hands at my throat. Whose punch met your ribcage on my behalf? And at that moment who would have hunted me once your body went plummeting over the terrace like those lost books? A featherless Icarus smashed cheek to street.

Instead what? Instead, you made canvas of my abdomen, wrote over my collarbone where your clutch burned as I twisted out of grasp. Firewalk there what we did. Gold flake across my chest, soon covered in black fabric and dropped to Market street 5AM ATM spitting out so many Andrew Jacksons into your palm and me sipping hotel coffee while the shopping cart stopped near Civic Center, pushed by homeless millenials who gladly took dollars for their gram of coke. Into your hands. Entre at the end of our noses there outside the War Memorial where there was no admittance. Instead, celestial flower bed, Saks Fifth paper bag with a fork and a bandanna in it. You under an umbrella at clear dawn crisp sun orange sky and starchild street googling a wiki article I read aloud. A Margrave is a marqui is a marquesa is a marco, a maravilla, a chinese noble, a grandee, a running spear burning arrow, fingertips on fire. And you were happy and I bewildered, this folded dollar bill carrying the night’s dust home with me.

I pass you now to my Dirty. Later for that garden where you likely lay reading this. Put your wine down and look up dear Russell. He’s waiting outside your gate. Once again, you’ve met your match.

Be easy, Leezy.

M.

 

 

— Marco Villalobos

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Letter to Harold Cruse

As these United States of America stagger toward the end days of empire, I read in these Tea Party leaves less a cataclysmic future than an outlived past that refuses its closure, a point you made, perhaps in vain, repeatedly. Everyone who remembers your work remembers your vitriolic criticisms of Civil Rights integrationism but few remember that your target was actually premature integrationism. And who remembers that your other major target was black nationalism, against which you pitched cultural nationalism. Perhaps only someone of my generation, Civil Rights babies, can still defend and see merit in your work. Despite the criticisms directed against your ad hominem attacks on individual activists, thinkers and writers, your distortions of the actual history of the Communist Party of the United States, I still find value in your essential points from The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual: integration only makes sense from a position of power, not weakness. It took me a long time to figure out why I sympathized so completely with the basic arguments of your book.

When I was on the high school newspaper staff, I wrote an editorial criticizing school busing as a means to integration, seeing in the strategy only justification for the erosion of inner city public schools and, at best, erosion of black dignity (now that white kids attend your school you will receive more state and federal funds). Those were not the only arguments I mounted against forced busing as a means of integration. I also pointed out that as the focus was primarily on blacks moving into white domains of the public sphere (I didn’t use that now fashionable word, of course), the strategy seemed less like integration than assimilation, if not acculturation. Perhaps I was still thinking of my visit out to Cranbrook Academy outside Detroit, that all-white prep school I could have attended if I’d wanted to do so. Or the fact that I passed on the invitation from the Ford Motor Company engineering school after mailing them some of my ideas for solar car batteries. When I started at Wayne State University I was intimidated by the sea of whiteness in which I was immersed, but despite the time I put in in at the “black table’ in the cafeteria I gradually made friends with my teachers and my white peers at the school newspaper. I remember thinking, where were all the black kids as I took one English class after another, not realizing that the black table was primarily representing the social sciences and medical schools.

I think what I most admire about your intellectual agility is that second book, Plural But Equal, where you move on from the lost opportunities of black empowerment as depicted, however problematically, in The Crisis. In the second book you accept the fait accompli of black capitalism and its thorough absorption of black popular culture. With little hint of bitterness Plural But Equal ponders the problem of black power within—not against—white capital and its attendant political, economic and social structures. Along with Ralph Ellison you remain one of my twin towers, buckling but still erect.


 


Letter to Tony Hester

We never met, and so you never knew me, never knew how much your songwriting meant to me in my teens and early twenties when I dreamed of becoming a songwriter along the lines of Holland-Dozier-Holland, Ashford & Simpson, and, more grandly, Smokey Robinson. Just as I was able to identify Hanna-Barbera cartoons long before the credits appeared at the end of a show, so I became adept at recognizing your signature lyrics and melodies before confirming my hunches by peering at those little names, often abbreviated, between parentheses on 45s and 33s. I have no doubt that among the typical baby-I-love-you filler that constituted so much Sixties     and Seventies r & b music I found your literate, not to say literary, metaphors and images captivating. And so I began telling people I wanted to be the next Tony Hester, but of course, no one knew who Tony Hester was. I’d have to mention one of your songs you wrote for The Dramatics before some, not all, would nod, yeah, I think I’ve heard that one. When I started hanging out at Groovesville Productions with my partners in music, Williams-Malik (Karl)-Hester (Major—a relative?), our version of Holland-Dozier-Holland, I hoped to run into you at some rehearsal or recording session. It never happened. It would be years before I found out you were strung out on dope most of the time, unable to do much other than compose some of the most compelling lyrics and melodies I’d ever heard. And by the time I heard you’d been killed in a drug deal gone bad I’d long surrendered my dreams of songwriting fame to the exigencies of life. Still, though you never knew it, perhaps couldn’t even imagine it, you were one of those angels, however bedeviled, that made me think, yes, I can.

 

— Tyrone Williams

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Introduction & Letter to John Berger

It’s Halloween, Samhain, Dia de Muertos; it’s the time of All Souls, including the living and the dead. Perhaps during these spirit days, the membrane between our world and other worlds feel particularly delicate, as we invite ancestors back to our side of time. But for most people I know, the borders between the living and dead are always porous. I know no writer, thinker or artist who is not in ongoing conversations with the dead. Our ancestors are many, our lineages continually branching both forward and backward in time.

In the fall of 2018 I wrote to a group of writers with an invitation from No. 1 Gold: “please send a letter to a dead writer, artist, thinker or public person who is important to you — someone you’d like to write to. Think of it as an opportunity to be in conversation with the dead who live with you– your literary, artistic, and intellectual ancestors, guides, or friends.” I was interested both in “spirit” – the question of who people felt in contact with and moved to write to, and in “letters” — a form of writing that can be intimate or formal, but which is a gesture, and which gives the reader the feeling of being with the writer. A letter as a burst of thought or narrative or a hand held out, as opposed to a polished work of fiction or argument.

No. 1 Gold is committed to working in ways that feel joyous and nourishing; this means allowing our work to be slow – not only as a resistance to efficiency driven models of the culture industry and it’s glut of content – but also as a way to be thoughtful and intentional. We do things because we want to do them, we have said to ourselves. So when the deadline neared and writers asked for more time, it was no problem. I offered this by way of an extension: “The dead have time, I think, and will wait.” And yet, somewhere in the mix, we lost our own thread of time and the project was delayed for much longer than we anticipated. I have come to see that the dead may have time, but we the living are quite constrained. Our lives are marked with particular time stamps, and many of the letters that were sent to us contain these markers. There were letters written in 2018 to those who had just been lost, letters with the bright, painful energy of keen loss. There were letters that were less concretely inscribed in time, too, those written across great distances, to the dead who had always been dead to the writer. In all these letters, though, there is a bending of time and space (isn’t this what writing does in any case?) to draw our dear ones near.

I should add, though, that despite anything I’ve written here “spirit letters” did not begin as an abstraction or idea. First came the letters that I myself wrote without much thought, and then later came the thought. Here’s the first letter I wrote, to John Berger, on January 2, 2018.

*

Dear John,

I don’t know what to do but to write to you.

Yesterday, Genya and Ilana came to visit from around the corner and from Glasgow. When they left I was thinking of a possible city in which you might walk for thirty minutes and find yourself in the hills, or in the desert, or by the sea. Ilana described the Isle of Bute. My mind wandered to Shetlands, Hebrides, Faroes. I’ve never been to any of these places, but I always end up in the Faroes in my mind. Ilana had spoken about deep time, about James Hutton, the Scottish geologist who informed the Europeans that they had been mistaken about the earth, that it was incomprehensibly older than they had imagined. Ilana talked about her own artistic practice, which involves juxtaposing objects that are 14 million years old with objects that are four days old, and making fresh marks on handmade washi paper that will last 1000 years.

After they left I came across this on Instagram: “It’s no metaphor to feel the influence of the dead in the world, just as it’s no metaphor to hear the radiocarbon chronometer, the Geiger counter amplifying the faint breathing of rock, fifty thousand years old…. It’s no metaphor to witness the astonishing fidelity of minerals magnetized, even after hundreds of millions of years, pointing to the magnetic pole, minerals that have never forgotten magma whose cooling off has left them forever desirous. We long for place; but place itself longs. Human memory is encoded in air currents and river sediment. Eskers of ash wait to be scooped up, lives reconstituted.” It was posted by Maaza Mengiste and is a quote of Anne Michaels.

Four months before you died, I wrote: “He is old enough to be my grandfather, and I am not young. We have dwelled in time together– nearly forty years now.” This shared timeline, a source of so much courage in my life, broke one year ago today.

It’s no mistake to feel the influence of the dead. You know. You know how essential it is (to sustain a psyche and a politics) to have an overlapping memory with something earlier than yourself. You allow that reading can be a kind of visitation. That’s what writing is, too.

So I am visiting.

Here we are in a new configuration of time. Still, I wish you were here.

Madhu

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