John Samuel Tieman
by John Samuel Tieman
Did I ever tell you about the time I met Margaret Thatcher?
Harold Wilson arranged for me to do an interview at 10 Downing Street. I was researching my master’s thesis in British history at Oxford in 1978.
I really had no idea what to expect. Compared to the White House, 10 Downing Street is very unassuming. I was shown into a small vestibule. I remember smoking a cigarette, and putting it out in a small plate. While smoking, I admired a painting. I suddenly realized I was staring at a Gains borough. I didn’t want to think about what I’d just put my cigarette out in.
The front door opens, and in suddenly comes James Callaghan and his cabinet, followed by the shadow cabinet. What I remember about Margaret Thatcher is her smile and her handshake — they weren’t so much automatic and facile as they were spring loaded.
I did the interview for my thesis. I went to exit. As soon as I walked out, there were cameras, a bank of microphones — I felt like saying, “Well, I’m glad to see there’s such interest in my master’s thesis. Footnotes are going fine …”. But my appearance was quickly followed by a look of disappointment on the part of the reporters. It turns out that, at that hour, Britain was negotiating the transition of the colony of Rhodesia into the independent nation of Zimbabwe. That, and Tieman was researching his thesis in British history.
by John Samuel Tieman
Years ago, when I was young, I taught school on the island of Dominica. One day, I read to the students Alan Dugan’s “Love Song: I And Thou”. Immediately after class, a student asked me to recite the ending of the poem for him –
I can nail my left palm
to the left-hand crosspiece but
I can’t do everything myself.
I need a hand to nail the right,
a help, a love, a you, a wife.
I recited it several times until he had it memorized.
A few moments later, as I walked to my next class, I passed that young man. He was speaking to his girlfriend. I overheard him say, “I can nail my left palm …”.
I swore I would write Dugan about that. I even found his post office box. And, like so many young people, I thought there was plenty of time.
And then I read that Dugan died. So today I’m writing to you — although we’ve never met — because a poetry reading — one you organized — is happening once again in my classroom.
Patrick Kramer, a gifted student teacher, is doing a lesson on spoken word poetry. I normally supervise him from a distance, so to say. But today, the room to which I often retreat is in use.
So I’m in the back of my classroom. I figure I’ll work on grades. Then Mr. Kramer begins a tape of a poetry reading, a reading you organized in 2009 in the Bowery. He plays three poems, compelling stuff. I stop my grading.
The assignment is for the kids to write, and present, their own poems. A couple of kids present very interesting poems. Then a young woman burns my inner ear with her words about her suicide attempt.
Did you ever think you’d inspire black kids and immigrant kids in St. Louis?
by John Samuel Tieman
I sometimes think I wasted a lot of years looking for inspiration, when all I needed to do was simply open my eyes.
mother and suckling
boy at the bus stop on Pine
she notes the dawn and
wonders what the day will bring
besides milk and sleep and light
I have almost no imagination. Easily my best known poem was inspired by a shadow.
we undress for love
and for ten seconds the dusk
makes us young again
That haiku was published in Japan in translation in the millions. And it was inspired by nothing beyond what it says. I love my wife. I love her body. Twilight and I wish we were young.
I used to think that all poems were inspired by a great sunset, a cataclysmic earthquake, the death of a young athlete. In Vietnam, I saw a sunset that made even the birds pause. In 1985, I survived the Mexico City Earthquake. A student died on the soccer field last year. And I got from these not a single line of poetry. Then — then yesterday:
in utter silence
I stare out our new picture
window to the street
a basketball rolls by followed
by not a soul …
by John Samuel Tieman
my oldest old pal
pulls out a photo album
ripples in a lake
“He was 72. He lived a good, long life,” says a young colleague. I’m 62. I shudder. Folks have been on Death Row longer than 10 years.
I’m not aging gracefully. I’d like to “rage against the dying of the light.” Instead, I read the obituaries. I miss Les.
I kept Les’ obituary. Les and I were in the army together, 1969, 1970. We kept up for the next decade. Then jobs and loves and travel and we lost track, only to be reunited in 2003 or 4 or so. The cigarettes killed Les. I don’t have the skill to get over missing Les. I don’t have the time to build that skill. Sometimes I have a memory, say from my childhood, and I stop. I realize that I’m the only one left.
I’m not afraid of death. I’m an aging narcissist. I’m saddened by the fact that I’ll never make love to Suzanne Pleshette, never march with the Foreign Legion, never pinch hit for the Cardinals. I’m getting used to being the oldest person in the room.
After making love, my wife points out that my beard, and the white sheets, are the same color. It’s like I’m fading into the background.
covers my living room walls
but all I see is
the blank tv screen in which
an old man is reflected
by John Samuel Tieman
lonelier I thought
than a frozen ocean’s wharf
a young widow’s moan
Sometimes I love a good disaster story. The noble hero rescues the helpless. The survivor who, against all odds, comes away unscathed. The stoic victims remembered annually. Then sometimes it’s the Kursk.
Capt. Lieut. Dmitri Kolesnikov wasn’t a hero. He wasn’t particularly stoic. I’m not sure how many remember him. Yet there remains the home videos, the wife, the letter.
In his videos, his wife is funny, cute, obviously intelligent. They’re in love. It’s charming. Then he dies. He was aboard the submarine Kursk, which sank in 2000. Kolesnikov and 22 others survived for at least eight hours, if not for days in a cold, cramped and dark room. The submariner’s equivalent of being buried alive. On his body, a letter. “I am writing blindly. So I’ll write by feel.”
“I am writing blindly. So I’ll write by feel.” His words have haunted me for a dozen years. Some say we write in order to know what we think. I think we feel, then a kind of knowing follows. All the rest follows that. All the rest is sometimes writing. There were poems written in Auschwitz. There were messages sent from the Titanic. We feel, we think about what we feel, then all the rest follows and fades. Dmitri Kolesnikov’s letter is barely legible.
“I am writing blindly. So I’ll write by feel.” A dozen years later, and I am compelled to type his words, not because I must write them, not because I must hear them, not because I want to preserve them, but because, in the silence of my study, I must feel them with the tips of my fingers. I never knew Dmitri Kolesnikov. He had a nice smile. A nice wife. Likely a nice guy. But for all I know, he might have been brutish, sadistic, a martinet, a malingerer. What I do know is that once, in a tiny room, sad, afraid, he blindly wrote what he felt. Then he waited to die. Like all the rest of us.
I’ve ten thousand words
I’ll never put in prayer
the gods want the heart
by John Samuel Tieman
again I surrender to
the whisper of snow
My wife is reading Freud this evening. I sweep the fireplace, the ashes from Sunday more interesting for what they were. Phoebe says something I don’t quite catch, something about desire.
I stare out our picture window. I inventory our yard. Pine, twilight, beast, leaf, pulse and fog, raven, root. In the west, from work, a husband caught on a detour lengthened tonight by longing
A portion of my memoir appears in this month’s Vietnam magazine, and I’m surprised by letters from strangers. Several veterans had the same job I had. Others vets were stationed where I was, An Khe, an obscure corner of jungle. One message from a wife — her husband never talks about our war.
in this Nam photo
the burnt torso of a monk
an enemy monk
tonight a cigarette glows
in the dark and is crushed
by John Samuel Tieman
When I awoke Saturday, the first thought was, ‘Today is the day that Ruth dies.’
Ruth is my mother-in-law. Thursday, she had a heart attack. Friday, my wife, her daughter, Phoebe, put her in a hospice.
Her hospice is in the country, in southern Illinois, an hour outside St. Louis. The old folks home, where Mario, Ruth’s husband, still lives, is set like an Andrew Wyeth painting, the house on the hill, an empty pasture rolling toward the viewer, only someone old in the foreground rather than a comely model. On the drive, Phoebe and I look across a soy bean field, and see The Arch oddly on the horizon. We stop at the old folks home to pick-up Mario. The hospice is ten minutes from the home.
Mario is ninety-two and blind. Ruth is unresponsive. I have to explain to Mario how his wife looks. Her lips are white. I ask him if he would like to hold her hand. Mario is of that generation of men never trained in reflection or expression. He sits. I put her hand in his. He kisses her hand, and simply says, “Good-bye, Ma.” Then sets his head on the edge of the bed and weeps. Sixty-two years of marriage.
The family gathers. We’re alternately chatty with life and denial, then quiet as we listen for Ruth’s next breathe.
R. C., 1923 – 2012
there’s no climate change in a hospice
the shadows the same the year round
the only sign of autumn is some kid’s hand turkey
taped next to the hand sanitizer on the wall
the wall is marred by a poorly moved bed
even death is dull when it’s measured
four breaths a minute
there’s no memory in a hospice
no Kilroy died here! and So did Red!
there’s only the folks in charge of death
the chaplain, the daughter and the poet
but that’s how I learned what’s a death rattle
the nun who stops praying
the daughter who drops a book
the charge nurse who whispers This is it
by Phoebe Ann Cirio and John Samuel Tieman
Nothing feels benign anymore. That’s the lesson of terrorism. Planes used to be safe — flying used to be fun! So were movies and restaurants.
Everything feels wrong. We can land a rover on Mars, but our kids can’t pass math. We esteem yesterday over today and tomorrow. Major religions seem rigid. Many folks find life black and white. Then there’s the hate, the violence. It seems like one day there’s a shooting, and the next there’s an execution . America can’t even invade the right country anymore. Life seems overwhelming.
How do we approach all this? How do we approach all this safely?
Not long ago, we were in Mexico City. There is something quite evocative about standing before the Chacmool, a sacrificial altar. A human sacrificial altar. It reminds us of New York City.
A few years ago, we spent a week in New York City. We especially wanted to see the exhibit of Aztec art at the Guggenheim Museum.
We had lunch at the Tavern On The Green, a fashionable restaurant in Central Park. We sat next to a delightful group of eight women. They were high school classmates. To celebrate a birthday, they had flown in from all over the country. There was much photographing and joking. Their friendliness overtook our corner of the restaurant. And while we were not in their party, they were impossible not to notice.
Especially when, as suddenly as a tsunami, their conversation turned to the World Trade Center. They all knew someone who had died. One spoke of a neighbor, another of a brother-in-law. With anxiety still in her voice, the teacher told how she watched the towers collapse from her classroom. Most poignantly, the retiree added, “It’s different now that I live in Florida. Those people aren’t like us. They aren’t always on alert.”
The ladies at the neighboring table know something about fear.
The Aztecs ruled their region by terrorizing their neighbors. They were a rigid society. They were feared and despised by their neighbors, upon whom they constantly warred. But the aim of their “Flowery Wars” was not slaughter. They captured their opponents for human sacrifice.
That’s what’s so engaging about the Aztecs. In the town where Ground Zero is being reconstructed, we identify with the sacrificial victim.
The sacrifice was bent backward over the Chacmool, the altar. The victim’s arms, legs and head were held firmly by five priests. A sixth priest quickly and expertly plunges an obsidian knife between the terrified victim’s ribs. He twists the knife, spreads the ribs. A sacrifice is considered well done when the priest holds aloft the still-beating heart.
In a hostile universe, daily human sacrifice was needed to appease the gods. Sacrifice was a common part of minor ritual. On the other hand, thousands were sacrificed during the dedication of the Templo Mayor in the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan, today’s Mexico City.
But such sacrifice also earned the Aztecs the hatred of their neighbors, who were easy for Hernan Cortez to recruit. The Aztec empire ruled central and southern Mexico for about 300 years. But their reign ended swiftly upon the arrival of Conquistadores in 1519.
There was much to learn from an exhibit of Aztec art set in the town where there occurred the greatest loss of life due to a terrorist attack on American soil.
The Aztecs felt inferior to others. They esteemed their ancestors over themselves. Their theology was demanding. Life was black and white. The living were haunted by the dead, and they needed to appease the terrifying gods with human sacrifice. Xipe Totec, their god of fertility, was honored and appeased by priests who draped themselves in the skins of the sacrificed. They wore these skins until they virtually rotted off. Priests so clothed reminded the citizens that they were never safe from the demands of the gods. The Aztecs inhabited a world they found terrifying, and coped by becoming terrifying themselves.
Today, the Aztecs are reduced from their grandeur. We no longer have to fear them. We can go to the museum, and see the beautiful and frightening artifacts of a once dangerous people. Unlike the enemy who brought down the Twin Towers, the Aztecs no longer need be feared. Here at least we can be reassured that some fearsome enemies can be stopped.
Now we have a different enemy, one that we cannot see coming. Terrorism lurks in the most benign places, so that nothing feels benign anymore. (Where will we be vulnerable next? The food supply? Our french fries?) We have become afraid and vulnerable.
There was much reassurance offered by that exhibit. When we identify with the victims of the Aztecs, then we participate in an internal drama. We imagine capture and death, but we evade it. This time we get to leave unscathed. The ladies at the adjoining table remembered, again, years and months later, the ones who did not survive the attack. The Aztec exhibit engaged us in an imaginative trip into the terror. But this time we walk away.
Phoebe Ann Cirio is a psychoanalyst in private practice. John Samuel Tieman is a regular contributer to Coal Hill Review. They are married, and live in St. Louis.
by John Samuel Tieman
Everyone has a 9/11 story. To tell the truth, I don’t have a story. I have a record of feelings.
I was teaching 7th grade in St. Louis when The World Trade Center and Pentagon were bombed. Apparently, our administrators had some debate about whether or not to show this over our TVs. But how can we soften the trauma by veiling it?
At first, it was all a bit confusing. Perhaps I am a bit of a rube, but, since I’m not from New York City, I’ve never paid any attention to the World Trade Center. When it first came on the TV, I wasn’t sure what I was looking at. Then, when the film showed the collapse of the first tower — we were watching recordings about an hour after it actually happened — all the smoke confused me. What’s going on? But then I saw the Pentagon. After my years in the army, in Vietnam, I damn sure knew what that was.
My kids were scared. “Are they going to bomb us? Will they fly a plane into the Arch? What about our school? …”
We watched the TV for a bit more. The news was fragmented. The same news clips repeated. It was time to turn-off the TV. Not because the news is sketchy, but because I saw the dissociation in my students’ eyes. My job was to assure them that life will carry-on for us. We will be sad. We will be scared. But no one will harm Dr. Tieman’s class; no one will bomb our school. As always, I will be here at 6:30 AM. Tomorrow, we will begin the next lesson.
Then there were, and still are, the other feelings. I’m a native Midwesterner, a St. Louisan. But I don’t hate New York. Except as the setting for “NYPD Blue”, I’m simply unfamiliar with it. My wife and I take The New York Times on the weekend, but I never read the local bits. So my connections are tenuous.
After a couple of weeks, I noticed that The Times started running extended obituaries for the 9/11 dead. I didn’t think much of it. Till one caught my eye one Saturday.
To be honest, I paused because the woman in the photo was cute. So I read on. She was a well educated, successful business woman. Every Thanksgiving, she threw a party in her apartment, because her balcony was immediately above the street where the big Macy’s parade balloons are inflated.
I imagined having a friend who threw such a party, me sitting on that balcony, sipping coffee, munching a bagel, staring at a two storied Big Bird. I remember the sadness I felt that day — I still imagine the emptiness where this woman used to be — that sadness has yet to leave me.
I no longer know the Vietnam War. I only feel it.
I am in D. C. for a conference. I’m staying at the Renaissance Hotel on 9th. But I am drawn to Panel 49W, Line 035. Robert O. Bumiller. The Vietnam Memorial.
I walk the length of the Mall from east to west. I’m only vaguely aware of everything around me. Capital Building. Washington Monument. Tourists. Smithsonian. Lincoln. Vaguely aware. I free associate. I remember a lot of guys who died in the Nam. One guy was shot right in front of me. But Rob …
I grew up with Rob. Rob’s mom and my mom went to school together. They stayed lifelong friends. Rob and I, we were childhood companions.
Rob grew up in wealth. But he was crazy wild. Couldn’t stay in school. Finally, he was drafted, and sent to the 1st Cavalry Division. 11B20, infantry rifleman, “straight leg grunt” we used to say. In August of ’68, he had the back of his head shot off. He was just short of his 21st birthday. He lived long enough to call home one last time from a hospital ship. That’s where they sent folks when they were sure to die, a ship. Anyone with a chance got flown to Japan. Rob’s dad picked-up that phone. That call killed Carl, the dad, as sure as a bullet to the brain.
There’s a kiosk just before I get to The Wall. This guy sells all these Nam knick-knacks, bumper stickers, buttons and such. We chat. I notice Vietnam magazine. I’m startled, frankly, because I’m this month’s featured veteran. My narcissism compels me to tell the guy this. Suddenly, I’m signing autographs. But it’s not like it’s flattering. It’s awkward. I’m a pretty obscure writer. I rarely see my writing outside my own study. I’m unaccustomed to signing autographs, and I don’t know how to do this gracefully. So I just stop. One guy shyly looks at me, the magazine in hand. I should offer, but I just walk away.
Panel 49W is about halfway down the right. Line 035 is about half-way up The Wall. I don’t pray.
I touch his name. I remember joking with Rob in the kitchen. Setting off sparklers on the 4th of July. How he hated Oscar, his middle name. How Rob and another friend, Doug, drove me to our high school one snowy day. I let go of his name.
I move down a few panels to 1970, the year I was in the Nam. Hank. Pete. Greaser. Others. I don’t pick-out their names. It is enough to know they are here.
On the way back to the Renaissance, at the corner of 9th and G Streets, there’s a beggar in a fatigue jacket. He stops me, stands right in front of me, stares at my lapel pin, my Vietnam Service Ribbon. He asks, “Brother, do you know me?” I give him a dollar. He thanks me. “But do you know me?”
by John Samuel Tieman
One of the mysteries of marriage is watching
Phoebe revise. I’ve seen her take a thirty page draft
and just throw the whole thing out. All of it.
And start over. The ideas are all there and greatly
clarified. But the words she throws out.
What she keeps is the clarity of thought.
For my part, I stand in awe. She jokes
how revision starts with bloodshed.
by John Samuel Tieman
St. Louis, 8:00 AM
It occurs to me that I got home from Vietnam, and out of the army, forty years ago today. Indeed, at this very hour. My major sensation is not so much sadness or nostalgia as much as — forty years! Forty years. My God, I was only twenty at the time I got home from the war. Where did forty years go …
I’m saddened, but hardly surprised, to hear that you never discuss the war with your wife, Jan. The other day, I was watching some show, and this war veteran said that he has memories he never shares. I was about to congratulate myself, thinking ‘Well, at least I’m not like that’, when, somewhat startled, I said instead right out loud, ‘Oh my god, I’m one of those guys.’ There’s just stuff I never discuss. It’s not that I can’t. It’s just too painful.
When I first got out, I thought going to the university would help me put the war behind me. But it didn’t. I just felt isolated. Anytime I would tell a story, it was usually wild, often laughable, exaggerated, that sort of thing. I never talked about the real pain. I knew my wife, Phoebe, at the time a dear friend, for four years before I even told her I was a veteran.
But, of course, the war didn’t go away. I remember one evening when it occurred to me that I had actually gone twenty-four hours without dwelling on Vietnam — and I don’t mean musing, I mean dwelling. Then I realized that evening that I had been home for three years.
One week, when I was an undergraduate at SMU, I wondered if I could remember accurately my time in the Nam. So, as I lay in bed, just before I’d fall sleep, I relived the war day-by-day. I did this for a few nights. I could recall every single day. I can’t do that anymore. But all I have to do is hear “Taps”, and I find myself, at times, overwhelmed by a sadness so precise that I know it will never go away.
Sometimes the memories are light. Like the time Nance nicknamed me “Buddha”, my Nam name, because of the way I was sitting on the ground when I first met him. Other times, like that night that guy murdered those folks in Charlie Company, in forty years I’ve talked to two people about that. You and my therapist.
Now I’ll tell you something I only told my therapist. When they finally cornered that grunt, that murderer, in that little field just below us, I could see his muzzle flashes as he held off his pursuers. He was so busy with the guys right in front of him that he didn’t know I was directly to his right. I had a clear shot. But it was so dark that I wasn’t sure who was around him, or where. I held my fire. Seconds later, this other guy blew him away.
I learned something that night, something I didn’t want to know. A lot of folks wonder whether they could kill somebody. I’m not one of those folks. And I spent the next two decades – with drugs and sex and booze – trying to unknow that about myself. That and so much more …
Finally, I did my work in therapy. I learned many things about myself. Among them, I simply learned to live with all that sadness. When I recall Vietnam, there are a whole range of feelings, from laughter to horror. But what I needed to learn was, perhaps, the simplest lesson: that whatever other feelings I may have, I will never recall that war and not be sad.
by John Samuel Tieman
Walter Bargen, Missouri’s first Poet Laureate, is the author of five books of poetry. I met Walter when we served on the Literature Panel of the Missouri Arts Council. This exchange happened over the internet from 20 – 22 October 2011.
after making love
by a small and nameless stream
she misses Pine Street
All day in bright sun
Reflect upon the water.
Car window down
Autumn leaves on the driver’s seat
this pigeon is caught
in my class — it shits on my
grade book then escapes
Late for its final meeting
Skims autumn’s dark surface.
even the robin
left it untouched – the one
raisin on our porch
On the first turn
the engine purrs.
Time to let the cat out.
by John Samuel Tieman
I guarantee that this week, the week of Veteran’s Day, someone someplace will say, “We celebrate the sacrifice made by the hero in uniform.”
This is an essay about language, especially the words celebrate, sacrifice and hero. Ironically, the very terms Veteran’s Day and Memorial Day are confused. Veteran’s Day is for all those who served in the uniformed services. Memorial Day is for those who died. It is just as well that we confuse these terms. It reminds us of how few people actually serve, how these two days have more to do with barbecues than actual heroes.
No official word is adequate to describe war, and certainly not the word celebrate. I am at a loss to understand what there is to celebrate in a war. Except for the soldiers and their families, nobody today sacrifices. There’s no war tax, no rationing. As for hero, the word is so overused as to be meaningless. I recently heard a local TV channel use hero to describe someone who rescues puppies.
Nobody will celebrate that Stan, a veteran of the Air Force, dropped out of university because of the pain in his right foot, which had been crushed when a missile dropped on it. Stan didn’t sacrifice for his country. The accident, according to Stan, was meaningless. A winch broke, and front half of his foot was smashed.
Nor will anyone remember what Cal sacrificed. Cal was Bob’s dad. Cal died of a broken heart as sure as his son died of a gunshot in The Nam. Bob had his head blown off, because a rifle misfired in what the army termed a “misadventure”. His father did not celebrate.
Mark, from the south side of Chicago, was smart, quiet, unpretentious. We shared a barracks in Basic Training. His name is on the Vietnam Memorial in Washington. No one calls him hero. He was drafted. He didn’t win any medals. Mark didn’t sacrifice his life: his life was torn from him.
There was a fellow I once walked past in Vietnam. He was on guard duty. I passed close enough to chat for a second. He died that night. He was killed while guarding the Finance Company of the 4th Infantry Division. You don’t think of accountants dying in a war. Yet die he did. I didn’t know him. But I remember him. He wasn’t a hero. I heard later that he fell asleep on guard duty. There is nothing to celebrate, though there is much to mourn.
Perhaps, because I am a war veteran, I have more to remember than most. That said, I will not remember the war dead, or my brother and sister veterans, any more this week than I remember them any other week. Besides, the act of remembering is a solitary thing. It doesn’t do the remembered any good or ill. But the words, by which we record the memory, the words matter. Sacrifice is too sacred a word. As for celebrate, there’s nothing to celebrate. It’s war. Heroes, yes, there are, in fact, heroes. But mostly there are just sad, scared, lonely young men and women, the heroes included. Perhaps the only word that really matters any more is remember.
So let me say a few last words, one last memory.
I left Vietnam in December of 1970. I used my G. I. Bill to go to Southern Methodist University. In my senior year, 1975, the North Vietnamese invaded the South. My old base camp, An Khe, fell without a fight. I remember the very night I heard the news.
I thought of Williams Bridge. Williams Bridge spanned a small river in An Khe. Specialist 4th Class Eric Williams died while building that bridge. I never met him. He died four years before my tour of duty. He was not a hero. He did not sacrifice his life. He drowned in an accident.
As I watched the news that night in 1975, I thought about the death of Specialist Williams. Somewhere, in all that grief, were all the deaths, Americans, Vietnamese, the French and all the rest. But I fixed on The Sp. 4 Eric Williams Bridge. And I wept bitterly. Because it was all in vain. There was nothing to celebrate.
The next day was an ordinary weekday. I just went to class. I remember listening to a lecture in Dallas Hall at SMU. And knowing that, of all my classmates, my teachers, friends, people I liked, people I loved, of all those folks, I alone wept for Eric Williams.
by John Samuel Tieman
Why zombies? Why now? Zombies are everywhere. Wikipedia lists fourteen comic books, eight nonfiction books, over thirty novels and anthologies devoted to zombies. I won’t even count the movies and TV shows.
My favorite is AMC’s “The Walking Dead”, which begins in post-zombie-apocalypse Atlanta. Deputy Sheriff Rick Grimes, played by Andrew Lincoln, awakens from a coma. He finds himself abandoned by the living, and surrounded by the dead. He fights his way to a rural area, where he joins with other survivors in a grim struggle for their lives.
Who are the zombies? Zombies are not our friends. Let’s think about that. Zombies are like us. They are like us in the same way that a mirror image is like us. Zombies bear an uncanny resemblance to the living. But the resemblance is grotesque, a missing leg, half an arm. Then there’s that complexion. Zombies are as singular in their purpose as they are unrelenting. There is no reasoning with a zombie. No amount of mediation will help. They are unintelligent. They are slow-moving. Individually, they are easily defeated, but when they “swarm”, you’re pretty much lunch. Zombies are not our friends.
Or, to be precise, we don’t consider zombies good neighbors. Neighbor is defined by two paradoxical qualities, a degree of familiarity and a degree of distance. The neighbor is both knowable and unknowable. Esperanza and her family have lived catty-corner from me for almost fifteen years. I like Esperanza, and know a lot about her. I know, for example, that she was born in Honduras. But I will never know what it is like to grow up in Central America, to marry a Norteamericano, to become a naturalized citizen.
And that’s what makes neighbors interesting. There’s so much I’ll learn, and so much I’ll never know. That’s not true of zombies. With zombies, we know what they are, and we know everything they will ever be. With the neighbor, this is never that clear. With the neighbor, there is mystery.
And that’s how you make a zombie. First, the concept of neighbor dies. Not the neighbor – the concept of the neighbor. Actually, the zombie who used to live next door, that guy is still staggering around the park. Their home zip codes notwithstanding, zombies are not considered our neighbors. They are the evil other, about whom we know all we need to know. It’s not the zombie who has died. It is, in one sense, the love for the neighbor that has died.
Why zombies? Why now? Because the zombies are everywhere.
Because zombies are Muslim “extremists”. Because zombies are Mexican “illegals”. They are unrelenting and unintelligent. They have no inner life. They look like us, but they have bad complexions. There is no reasoning with them. There is no negotiating with them. Because the problem is not one “illegal”, not one “extremist”. The problem is when they “swarm”. We know what they are. We know all they will ever be. We know what to do. We kill them. We keep them out. If we don’t, they’ll eat us.
This is the world we live in, a world where dialogue is anathema. A recent survey of Tea Partiers revealed that over two-thirds favored candidates who neither compromise nor negotiate. That attitude is hardly exclusive to the right. There are plenty of intractable liberals. Personally, I am neither pro-zombie nor anti-zombie. I simply point out the world in which we live. When Marshall McLuhan first spoke of the global village, we imagined a world filled with neighbors. What we got is a city filled with zombies.
But what do you do with a zombie? In the opening episode of “The Walking Dead”, the deputy sheriff is pursued by a zombie with no legs. She is terrifying. Later in the show, Rick Grimes returns to that zombie. Indeed, he goes out of his way to find her in a suburb of Atlanta. She keeps crawling toward him. She still wants to eat him. But he has a gun. He is no longer threatened by this legless creature. I thought he was going to avenge himself for having been so terrified by her. Instead, he pities her. He says, “I’m sorry this happened to you”. Why? Because this woman, for all her differences, is still his neighbor.
Let me be perfectly clear. I’m not proposing a new immigration policy. I don’t know what to do about terrorism. I’m not that wise. I’m simply saying there are no zombies.
by John Samuel Tieman
Between me and my God
There are only eleven commandments;
The eleventh says: Thou shalt not
Bury thy brother alive
– Atukwei Okai
Like many Americans, perhaps most Americans, I watch with keen interest the Occupy Wall Street movement and its affiliates, in my case Occupy St. Louis. Like many Americans, perhaps most Americans, I wonder if this movement is ephemeral.
Occupy Wall Street says in its “Statement Of Purpose, “We, the 99 percent, are hereby taking action against the greed and corruption of the richest 1 percent, the bankers, politicians, and corporate persons that govern our nation.” In my experience, the problem with being the 99% is that there are 99 voices all speaking at once. Mass movements are often as exciting as they are confusing. There are 99 sub-texts. In this case, however, there is a clear message. America, it is OK to critique capitalism.
It is OK to critique capitalism. This is an affirmative message in that it encourages reform that mitigates against the worst impulses of capitalism, impulses that have enriched the already rich, impoverished many who were middle class, and further impoverished the already poor. Occupy Wall Street is a reform. Far from being a violent manifesto, the “Statement Of Purpose” endorses nonviolence.
I am reminded of our political ancestors. Roughly one hundred years ago, the British consolidated their social democratic impulses with the trade union movement, the result being the Labour Party. In our country, these same impulses became more fragmented, with the social democratic critique of capitalism, Eugene Debs for instance, becoming a tiny voice, and the union movement becoming both pro-worker and capitalist. Any lingering critique of capitalism was muted by several persecutions of the left, the worst being McCarthyism.
But that’s over now. With the fall of the Berlin Wall, there also fell the fear of the leftist critique. No one worries about the communist take-over. They worry about the corporate take-over of their pension plan, their small business, their family farm. Folks worry about their jobs, their homes, their health.
This is the critique that is not going away. It is a call for reform. But it is reform with a hard edge, because the 99% are clearly saying that capitalism cannot go on like this. If it means class warfare, then let there be class warfare. Folks remember that, from Reagan’s deregulation to Madoff’s larceny, this war was ignited by the 1%.
Embedded in this critique is a clear narrative, a clear story – some people are inordinately rich because some people are inordinately poor. Bob Smith is poor because Bernie Madoff stole his money. Sam Smith got laid off while the CEO got a million dollar bonus. The poor fight the war while Haliburton … . You get the idea. It is a consistent narrative. Nothing sparks reform quite like a good story.
Let me tell another story. I am a Vietnam veteran from a modest background. I am grateful for the G. I. Bill. In large part, it was through the G. I. Bill that I got my bachelor’s degree, my M. A., and my first teacher’s certificate. The G. I. Bill also helped me finance my home. Should I need it, I have health coverage from the Veterans’ Administration, a fact I find comforting. I can say, without hesitation, that the G. I. Bill changed my entire life, as it has changed the lives of millions of veterans. My point being that I am one of millions of citizens who can attest to the fact that large scale governmental programs can do tremendous good.
Folks are not blind to the fact that unchecked government can do harm. But that is not the problem right now. Indeed, in most arguments these days, that’s the red herring. The problem is unchecked capitalism. Thus the gift of Occupy Wall Street – it is OK to critique capitalism.
Someone once said, I think it was Huey Long, that if a guy worked hard and played by the rules, he didn’t want to take away this guy’s first limousine. Long wanted to take away his second limousine. There are practical consequences to a critique of capitalism. Reforms lead to proposals, and proposals lead to laws. Tax the rich. Regulate the corporations. Pay for the wars. But in the spirit of our political ancestors, like Huey Long, this doesn’t mean punish those who have done no more than work hard and play by the rules. It means this. Take care Vince, a janitor, who worked hard, played by the rules, but is now, at age sixty, out of work because a corporate take-over led to his impoverishment.
first published in The St. Louis Beacon
by John Samuel Tieman
I went to the Occupy St. Louis rally on Friday. There was a lot of excitement in the air. What struck me was the range of folks — housewives, veterans, unionists, an AARP group, students, teachers of course. Not just the usual “Same Six Radicals”, as a friend puts it. I had a number of folks to march with, especially the American Federation Of Teachers, and Veterans For Peace. The unions were well represented, so I marched with the veterans. We shut down Market Street, demonstrated outside Bank of America, then outside The Old Courthouse where the Dred Scott Case was decided, and where slaves used to be sold.
by John Samuel Tieman
I occurs to me that I got home from Vietnam forty years ago today. Indeed, at this very hour.
My major sensation is not so much nostalgia or sadness as much as — forty years! Forty years. My God, I was only twenty at the time I got out of the army, and now it’s twice as many years since! How — How — Where did forty years go …
covers my living room wall
but all I see is
the blank tv screen in which
an old man is reflected
still it’s strange – autumn
longing for a crisp winter
Sunday after church
On my desk is a picture of two Japanese screens I saw last year at the art museum. On these screens are paintings of poems hung first from a cherry tree in spring, then from a maple tree in autumn. The petals, the leaves, the poems, each will blow away, I imagine, tomorrow. The poets are already gone. The picture is a souvenir.
My years have gone like that. Not that I expected any different. Still, I’ve always been lucky with my health, so I’ve always denied time and gravity their due. But just now, at sixty, I don’t see as well as I used to. I need new glasses. My physician tells me Friday that I have the curse of my family, that one day I won’t see at all.
I step outside. Each day deepens the color of the linden tree. My wife looks up from her gardening. She says, “the veins in the leaves.” But I don’t get the rest. Young women drive past laughing, their radio playing something I neither recognize nor like. Nothing is left of my youth. Nothing is left of last year. Nothing but old glasses, old poems, a souvenir, and the leaves which Phoebe sweeps from our porch.
I trust the autumn
the clarity of dying
oddly comforts me
a red leaf lands on my sleeve
it rests before moving on
by John Samuel Tieman
We all watch for fire
for all the fallen dead to return
and teach us a language so terrible
it could resurrect us all.
– Joy Harjo, In Mad Love And War
So a colleague says, “You’re a veteran. What are your favorite war movies?”
I am alternately drawn to, and disturbed by, war movies. But it’s not for the reasons a lot of people think. A lot of folks think that a war movie, verisimilitude notwithstanding, can never depict war. I’m an artist. I don’t ask the artifact to be the war. I just ask the art to give meaning to witness.
I don’t like most war movies, because there is nothing transcendent. All they do is remind me that, when I was a soldier, I was violent. On the other hand, I find the violent fantasy arousing. I miss my M-16. There’s nothing transcendent about that. It’s disturbing.
Here’s what I like. Some of the best war movies are not about war. They are about coming home from war. They are about finding meaning in witness. That’s what I like.
What follows is personal, my likes, my dislikes. I will illustrate this not by talking about whole movies, but by centering upon great scenes.
When this movie came out in 1986, I saw it six times. It was the first time I saw a movie that looked and sounded like Vietnam. Oliver Stone is a Vietnam veteran.
In The Nam, he also learned something about the meaning of evil. Stone ends the movie with Chris Taylor, the central character, saying, “I think now, looking back on it, that we did not fight the enemy. We fought ourselves. And the enemy was in us.” The movie was, in some quarters, criticized for what was perceived as moral ambiguity. Taylor, however, learns that there is nothing morally ambiguous about the fact he, the soldier, has to kill – and I mean to kill anyone at all. Taylor finishes by saying that we need “to teach to others what we know, and to try, with what’s left of our lives, to find a goodness and meaning to this life.”
There is the one other scene that I love. That’s the scene where The Heads are in a bunker smoking dope. My war buddies and I had such a bunker. There is a camaraderie known to those who have shared danger,. Too much can be made of that comradeship, and too often in movies it is clichéd. Stone spares us the sentimental. So, when I see this scene, hear that music, I think of our bunker and The Heads I knew.
The Best Years Of Our Lives
Here’s your trivia question. What movie won the Academy Award for Best Picture of 1946? It’s A Wonderful Life? Lawrence Olivier’s Henry V? Darryl F. Zanuck’s The Razor’s Edge, based on the 1944 Somerset Maugham novel?
No. The movie that won is the movie that 16 million returning veterans wanted to see, The Best Years Of Our Lives, the movie about three guys readjusting to civilian life.
Harold Russell won two Academy Awards for the same role. Russell plays Homer Parrish, a disabled ex-sailor. While serving as a paratrooper, Russell in fact lost both hands.
In what could be called a reverse bedroom scene, Homer’s fiancée, Wilma, played by Cathy O’Donnell, comes by to break their engagement. Wilma is reluctant to leave Homer, but her parents want to send her away. “I want you to be free, Wilma, to live your own life. I don’t want you tied down forever just because you’ve got a kind heart,” Homer tells her.
He tells her further that she really doesn’t know what she’s getting into. “I’m going upstairs to bed. I wantcha — I want ya to come up and see for yourself what happens.”
She follows Homer to his bedroom. He takes off his pajama top with surprising dexterity. Then he stands before her, his harness and hooks displayed. He wiggles out of the harness, and tosses it on the bed. With his left stub, he points to the harness and says, “This is when I know I’m helpless. My hands are down there on the bed. I can’t put them on again without calling to somebody for help. I can’t smoke a cigarette or read a book. If that door should blow shut, I can’t open it and get out of this room. I’m as dependent as a baby that doesn’t know how to get anything except to cry for it.” To her credit, she marries him.
There are a couple of things that make this scene powerful. Russell, in a sense, isn’t acting. “This is when I know I’m helpless.” He speaks for almost all war veterans, the wounded and the whole. Why? Almost all war veterans, the occasional sociopath notwithstanding, are psychically wounded. This woundedness is compounded frequently by a feeling of isolation. Homer is luckier than most. He is able to share his pain with Wilma.
A seemingly odd choice. But there’s this old joke among war vets. Do you know the difference between a war story and a fairy tale? A fairy tale starts, “Once upon a time,” and a war story starts, “Now this here ain’t no bullshit.”
I love a great story. And every war vet has at least one story that, as the bard says, “would harrow up thy soul.”
I mention this movie because of one scene only, a great scene, a story told by Quint, the captain of the ship that chases the shark. Amid much drinking aboard his vessel, Quint recalls the 1945 sinking of his cruiser, the U. S. S. Indianapolis. Quint spent four days in the water waiting for rescue. Hundreds around him were eaten by sharks. For Quint, hunting sharks is all about his war. It is his way to revisit his trauma, and this time, hopefully, fix it.
Quint’s mesmerizing tale is based upon a true story. Of 1,196 folks aboard the cruiser, only 316 survived. And, yes, hundreds, by sharks. And this here ain’t no bullshit.
Robert Shaw, who played Quint, completely rewrote the monologue, which director Steven Spielberg came to regard as one of the the best scenes he ever shot. Originally, mention of the Indianapolis was just a passing reference to Quint’s familiarity with sharks.
Dr. Strangelove Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb
I love Peter Sellers. But, when it comes to this movie, I’m a Slim Pickens fan. As Air Force Major T. J. “King” Kong, Pickens rides a hydrogen bomb like some nuclear bronco, smacking it with his cowboy hat until the scene flashes to stark white.
There is an absurdity to war that this scene captures. A war buddy of mine, Dick Bittner, used to talk about “a cartoon”, some absurd scene going on right in the middle of a war. Like the time my buddies were asked to paint artillery shells as they were being fired. The artillery guys kept objecting that paint was getting all over their hands and the howitzer, but, hey, orders are orders. Then there was the time an army band was sent into the field to play “Those Magnificent Men In Their Flying Machines”, this while dignitaries, generals and such, ate finger sandwiches, drank wine, and watched an air strike kill Viet Cong. It is as if, in the search for meaning, existential absurdity itself reminds us that it’s one option.
All Quiet On The Western Front – any version
In the most painfully stark scene of a painfully stark film, the German soldier Paul, the main character, stabs a French soldier. He dies slowly. Because of the fire overhead, Paul is then trapped in a shell hole while his mortally wounded enemy groans — all night.
Paul learns the identity of the man. Gerard Duval. A printer. Paul even learns his address, and vows to write Duval’s wife and child. It’s personal.
War is personal Perhaps the greatest lie of any war is that the enemy is not human, that the enemy is not like us. War is always personal. A North Vietnamese war poet once said that, when he aimed his rifle, he aimed first at the heart of that soldier’s mother.
Paths Of Glory
Platoon begins with a quote from Ecclesiastes. “Rejoice, oh young man, in thy youth.” When I was in Nam, Chuck Willis’ nickname was “Pop”. He was 24. With all respect to the professional soldier, and the occasional old coot, war is associated with youth. And old veterans looking back on what they were, and what they’ve become because of war.
Paths of Glory, a 1957 film by Stanley Kubrick, takes place during World War I. Kirk Douglas stars as Colonel Dax, the French commanding officer of three brave soldiers, who refused to continue a suicidal attack. Dax defends them against a charge of cowardice. They are court-martialed and executed. Their own comrades are forced to shoot them.
In the final scene of the movie, a young woman in a tavern begins to sing a German folk song. The soldiers are at first hostile, and the viewer can easily anticipate rape. But the hardened troops instead end up humming along, some openly weeping, as she sings “The Faithful Hussar”. They weep for what they have become.
“For he today that sheds his blood with me, shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile…” Wasn’t that what Henry V said? I used to wonder about this good old boy I used to see at a V. F. W. hall. He was a physician at the St. Louis University hospital. But, during World War II, he was a pharmacist’s mate on a submarine. Once a month, he’d meet-up with his old shipmates. Working men. I used to wonder about that. The physician and the plumber.
I went to a reunion of my Nam unit, the 4th Infantry Division. I always avoided these things, but this time the 4th was meeting here, my hometown. I spent the evening talking to a guy who, today, is a crane operator. The Ph. D. and the high school dropout.
And what draws us together? Memories. A few laughs. A terrible knowledge. And while art cannot replicate the experience, it can, in fact, give that knowledge meaning. As for the experience per se, that’s what reunions are for.
As for the movies. Why are so many good war movies really coming home movies?
There are a lot of other movies I could mention. Born On The 4th Of July. The Deer Hunter. The Man In The Gray Flannel Suit. Coming Home. Or, for that matter, Rambo. My point is this. It took me a lot of therapy to learn a simple truth. I will never recall The Nam and not be sad. But I don’t hate the army. I hate what I became because of war. Sometimes art, for an hour or two, gives that a meaning.
submitted by John Samuel Tieman
Charley, a new retiree-greeter at Wal-Mart, just couldn’t seem to get to work on time. Every day he was 5, 10, 15 minutes late. But he was a good worker, really tidy, clean-shaven, sharp-minded and a real credit to the company and obviously demonstrating their “Older Person Friendly” policies.
One day the boss called him into the office for a talk.
“Charley, I have to tell you, I like your work ethic, you do a bang-up job when you finally get here; but your being late so often is quite bothersome.”
“Yes, I know boss, and I am working on it.”
“Well good, you are a team player. That’s what I like to hear.”
“Yes sir, I understand your concern and I’ll try harder.”
Seeming puzzled, the manager went on to comment, “It’s odd though your coming in late. I know you’re retired from the Armed Forces. What did they say to you there if you showed up in the morning so late and so often?”
The old man looked down at the floor, then smiled.
He chuckled quietly, then said with a grin, “They usually saluted and said, ‘Good morning, Admiral, may I get your coffee, sir?’”
By John Samuel Tieman
When I lived in Mexico City, I now and again stopped at the Cafe Tacuba, just a few blocks from the Zocalo, the city center. The Cafe Tacuba is a pastry and snack joint built in a colonial nunnery. It’s a popular lunch spot for government workers. It’s built right on the old Aztec causeway leading in and out of Tenochtitlan. Of course, today it’s just one of the many doors in the many high rises in the center of Mexico City.
It was along this very street that Cortez and his crew were run out of town on the Noche Triste, 30 June 1520. Somewhere, right here somewhere, he and his crew dumped the entire Aztec treasury, this to lighten themselves for their getaway. Those who did not, those soldiers who kept the gold in their boots and uniforms, sunk down into the mud beside this one causeway out of town. Later, after Cortez slaughtered the Aztecs, he would try to find the gold, but the mud is just too deep.
So, today, everyone knows it’s right here somewhere. Within yards of this very bagel is a gold plate engraved with the finest Aztec workmanship, a plate from which the mighty Moctezuma II himself ate his very bagel. But today, that million dollar plate has a fifty million dollar office building on top of it. So there your fortune sits, just sits. Right here somewhere.
by John Samuel Tieman
It was really interesting being backstage, as it were, at a working circus. The gathering audience is getting ready to play. The circus folks are getting ready to go to work. It’s a bit tense, actually. It’s not play to them. The folks are warming up their acts, which means also warming up the animals, ponies and little dogs and such.
We’re not in The Big Tent, but in the hospitality tent alongside it. Our by-invite-only audience is made up of various folks, legislators, dignitaries. First, there’s five performers from the classical guitar society. Then I begin to read.
That’s when I notice that, just outside the hospitality tent where I’m reading, behind the seated audience and slightly out of sight to them, is the rest of my audience. Uninvited folks who stop to listen. Two clowns, a Shetland pony, and three little dogs standing on their hind legs.
First, I projected to the pony. Later, I schmoozed with the dignitaries.
by John Samuel Tieman
I’ve been asked to write a poem for Circus Flora. Flora is the eponymous African elephant, now in retirement. Here’s my first try:
Tanka For Flora
Now in retirement
Flora contemplates her life –
the circus — the kids –
she recalls Africa and
knows somewhere — somewhere out there –
An assignment like this brings out the playful side of writers. When I told my friend Arnie Schnegel about it, he immediately sent me these two delightful poems:
Flora, the elephant,
Is quite the dancer.
In her tutu she looks
Circus Flora has gone
Now she can wear
Naming the Elephant
Why didn’t they
Name you Mary?
And when Phoebe Cirio, my love, saw Arnie’s poems, she came up with this one, the best of the lot:
There once was an elephant named Flora
Who liked to dance the hora
Away she did go
No longer with the show
But we do still adore her
When I think of Vietnam, I think of Joe Cocker. Of course, I remember M-16s, bunkers and Claymore mines. But I think of Joe Cocker singing “Delta Lady”. Why? Because I was 19. Because he sang –
Please don’t ask how many times I found you
Standing wet and naked in the garden
And I think of the days
And different ways that I held you
We were closely touching, yes our heart was beating
I think of “Delta Lady”, because I had never known that kind of sensuality, that kind of intimacy.
In 1970, I was stationed with the 4th Infantry Division Band in the Central Highlands of Vietnam. We had a great job, but it was a dangerous place at a dangerous time. This was during, and just after, the Cambodian Invasion.
But this isn’t an essay about danger. This is an essay about longing.
Musicians in Vietnam were like musicians anywhere. We were artists, artists in uniform, but artists nonetheless. As a group, we were vastly more educated than our fellow enlisted men, and, frankly, more sophisticated than many in the officer corps. A master’s degree in music was not unusual, a bachelor’s degree fairly common, proficiency on your “horn” a must. I knew a guy who was drafted right out of Woody Herman’s band. My point being that we had all the intelligence, sensibilities and sensitivities of artists. And we were young. Chuck Willis, a Spec. 4 from Tyler, Texas, a trumpeter, Chuck we called “Pop”, because he was the oldest of my group of buddies. He was 24. I was 20.
Our company was divided between “juicers” and “heads”. The juicers were drinkers. They often were the “lifers”, professional soldiers, as well as those who, for whatever reason, preferred liquor to drugs. Then there were the “heads”, the dope smokers. I was a “head”. We “heads” were “hippie soldiers”, who wore peace signs and beads beneath our fatigues. We did our duty, several “heads” were decorated, but we loathed the war.
In the Central Highlands, the nights could be cool. And we were cool. The “heads” had a bunker to ourselves, a bunker to which, when we were off-duty, we could retreat in the evening and get high. There someone would break-out a cassette player and tapes. Today, this seems as ancient as saying we read from an illuminated manuscript. But, in 1970, this was hi tech. And our music was deeply cool. Janis. Jimi. Chicago. Credence. Blood, Sweat and Tears. Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. And Joe Cocker.
“Standing wet and naked in the garden.” I had never known that kind of intimacy, that kind of sensuality. I was on a first name basis with a dozen prostitutes. But what Joe Cocker sang about – I longed to know what that was about, what my wife calls “domestic eroticism”, the simple eroticism that leads to the fullness of our humanity.
This is the price we ask of our soldiers. This is what we deprive them of. At a time in their lives when they should be working on the skills of intimacy, they don’t simply find themselves isolated – they find themselves sharpening a bayonet, clearing a minefield, cleaning an M-16 instead of dry cleaning their best suit, or that long black dress, for a date. It’s easy to say that war deprives folks of their lives and their limbs. What is difficult is to say that we deprive that young soldier of his or her psychic wholeness. “Welcome Home!” is easily said. It’s painful to think of Audie Murphy, America’s most decorated soldier, having flashbacks during which he held his wife at gunpoint.
But about “Delta Lady” There’s also these lines –
And I whisper sighs to satisfy her longing
For the warm and tender shelter of my body
“My body.” Me, “the warm and tender shelter”. Like many veterans of war, I bore a terrible and certain knowledge, that, given the right circumstances, I’m capable of killing. And I don’t speculate. I am certain of it. This I learned at age 20. At a time when I should have been learning how my body can be a “warm and tender shelter”. At a time when I should have been learning not only how to love, but how to be loved. When others were having their first love affairs, me and the guys in that bunker were having Red Alerts.
Which is why, today, when I look around my modest home, when I look at my beloved, my wife, I say a prayer of such gratitude. And I think of that time when Ollie, our assistant armorer, a burly black Chicagoan, comes into the bunker, pops a tape into the cassette, and says “You gotta hear this, man.” He plays “Our House” by Crosby, Still, Nash and Young. And Ollie smiled a smile, and Ollie dreamed a dream. And today I pray for Ollie, wherever he is, that he got that house, that he married that woman he’d heard about in a song.
by John Samuel Tieman
When I was a kid, I used to think that faith was about knowing stuff. Today, I think that faith is about wishing that life taught us something.
My mother died at 101, almost 102, years of age. Her memorial service was last weekend.
These days, it’s called the Mass Of The Resurrection. In the old days, a Requiem Mass. This mass was held in the chapel of a cloistered order of nuns. My mother loved those nuns, and they loved her.
But today, the day after the service, I am exhausted. I arranged the service, did the readings, delivered the eulogy. Like so many American families, we were born here, St. Louis, and almost everyone left here. I, by chance, returned. And stayed. Thus the arrangements were left to me. And that was OK. I like this liturgy.
There is a sameness to the Mass, whether it is said by the pope or the simplest Franciscan, whether it is in Latin or English, whether it is in Chartres Cathedral or, in this case, a small monastery. Some bits, like the gospel and the epistle and the psalm, these change from day to day. For all that, even these readings are framed within a liturgy remarkable for its sameness. This is true of a lot of Catholic prayers. The rosary is essentially a chant. The Hours are essentially The Psalms sung over and over and over.
My point being that I wish all this taught me something. About life. About prayer. About death. About life after death. I know what I believe. But I’ve reached an age where I don’t care what I believe. I care about what I feel. And right now, today, a day after her Mass, I feel empty and exhausted.
I thought I would cry when I saw my mother’s ashes. I thought I would cry when I read her eulogy at the memorial mass. Instead, I cry at odd times. Watching a show. Feeding the birds. Doing the dishes.
In a sense, I’ve come to the conclusion that there are no conclusions. I find comfort in the mass. In the rosary. I find comfort in family and friends and cloistered sisters. But I wish all this taught me something. About prayer. About emptiness. About exhaustion. About why I cry when I’m feeding the birds.
I often wonder what ever happened to Francois Villon?
I am an historian, as well as a writer of mostly poems and essays. I have a great love for history’s rascals, especially if they are poets. Especially if they’re late medieval poets, since I’m a bit of a medievalist.
Francois Villon is best known for his Testament and his Legacy, long poems, each of which is written in the form of a last will and testament. He also wrote many shorter lyrics. Historians are much taken by those short lyrics which are written in gang jargon. (Think of a medieval Nelly rapping “Pimp Juice”.) At his finest, Villon evokes a wistful melancholy, the best example of this being the “Ballad Of The Ladies Of Bygone Times”, which contains his most quoted line, “But where are the snows of bygone years?”
Aside from what was discerned from the poems, for centuries almost nothing else was known of his life. Around the 1870′s, the poems are supplemented by the discovery of other primary sources. Police records. Court records. He was born in Paris about 1431. He earned his bachelor’s degree from the University Of Paris. He certainly was a cleric in minor orders, although there is no indication that he was a Catholic sub-deacon, deacon or priest. As a student, he seems to have engaged in rowdy, if relatively harmless, mischief. (Anyone, who has been an undergraduate, needs no further explanation of such behavior.) He got his M. A., also from the University Of Paris, in 1452. Of the next few years after his graduate studies, of these we know little, although every indication is that Villon lived a life we today would describe as bohemian.
Beginning on the 5th of June, 1455, the police and the courts record brawls, homicide, robbery, imprisonments, banishments, tortures, two death sentences and fortuitous pardons. He was once water-boarded. In the “Ballad to Fat Margot”, he described how he made his living as a pimp. On the 5th of January, 1463, he was banished from Paris. This was a commutation. Villon originally was to be “strangled and hanged on the gallows of Paris.”
All the primary sources, the poetry, the police records, the court records, these all date from 1455 to 1463. Nothing more is known.
But that doesn’t stop me from speculating. I think Francois Villon had that every popular combination of sociopathy and narcissism. While he was deeply religious, he never showed any real sign of a conscience. Crimes and criminal associations, which he freely admitted, were delivered with a poetic wink and a smart aleck rhyme. He had empathy, in that he was aware of the pain of others, but he seldom showed compassion. He mourned the fact that his mother was poor and alone, but he didn’t do anything about it. He beat Fat Margot with a club. Pity he reserved for himself.
I can imagine that cold January morning in 1463. I can watch him walk to the gates of Paris. He’s got only what he can carry, a manuscript, his degrees, a rosary, a loaf of bread. I can imagine him dressed as a cleric. He is thirty-two. He’s been imprisoned, tortured, beaten, stabbed. He no doubt looks a lot older than thirty-two. He has legitimate skills. He can be a scribe, do parish work, teach. He is a man of letters. He is not without hope. But he’s also a thief. And a little scary.
And I am an historian, so, in a sense, I have to stop speculating. I have to let him go. And that’s the problem with history. I want to understand the psyche of Francois Villon. But I’ll never really will know his mind. I want Francois Villon redeemed. But I’ll never really know his soul either. I can go no further with him than the gates of Paris. Did he end his days as a village priest? Or hanging from the gallows at the edge of the village?
The problem is that life’s real mysteries aren’t as enigmatic as they are enervating. Where did all the money go? Why do we hurt the ones we love? Why can’t the Israelis and the Palestinians figure out how to get along, and leave the rest of us alone?
Which is why we love a good murder mystery. It’s so much more satisfying than any real history. There’s the dead body. The weeping loved ones. The world is disordered, oh no! But wait. There’s a clue. Enter the handsome detective who, not without considerable personal risk, solves the mystery and sets the universe aright once again. But history just isn’t that tidy. The truth is often found in the unanswerable question.
Which leads me to wonder, once again, what ever happened to Francois Villon?
I love being alone. I love staring out my window at nothing, and sitting here thinking of nothing. This is an essay about nothing at all, an essay addressed to the whole world, which is to say no one in particular. The world is a nice place, but you can’t just hang out with the world.
First, a few disclaimers. I love my wife. I’m one of those folks described as very married. In twenty years of marriage, in thirty-two years of friendship, I’ve not so much as raised my voice to Phoebe. Our compatibility is, frankly, remarkable. When folks ask me how we do it, what can I say? Marry someone with whom you’re remarkably compatible?
Then I love my friends. I have friends that go back forty years to my army days, thirty-five-plus years to my undergraduate days. I love them all.
But I also love being alone, staring out my window at nothing, sitting here thinking of nothing.
I love my home. I live in St. Louis, although, staring out my window, it’s just a city. I stare at just a backyard with a street running next to it which ends at the crest of a hill about two-hundred meters from here. There’s a little public school on the other side of that rise. When the wind is blowing from that direction, you can hear the kids play. My wife went to school there back in the mid-60′s. There’s also a Catholic church on the other side of that hill. I attended that church, went to that parish school, and, indeed, was confirmed there. I can hear the noon Angelus bells. But I can’t see the school or the church from my window. I sometimes pray the Angelus.
Occasionally a firetruck rushes up to the corner, where it turns to go somewhere, north, south. But once it stopped. Now that was Big Time. Rumor had it that someone at the corner had a meth lab which exploded. But I don’t know. It didn’t make the Post-Dispatch.
On the other side of my backyard, the closest neighbors are a black family, friendly enough folks, although I don’t know them as well as I know the other neighbors. I call the wife ‘The Empress Dowager’, because on her left hand she has three fingernails each over a foot long. I’ve got to wonder what that’s about. But I don’t ask, because the fantasy is a lot more fun than any actual answer.
Not long ago, I saw the movie Into Great Silence. I love it so much that I bought the DVD as well as a book about Carthusian monks. That’s what the movie is about, monks, a Carthusian monastery full of them. Carthusians make Trappists look like weenies. They are hermits, who, while they live in a monastery, spend almost all of their time in their cells. I get that, but I don’t get why they don’t want to get laid. Or, for that matter, why they don’t want to catch a few innings of the Cardinal’s game on the tube – who doesn’t want to watch Albert Pujols bat? But the great silence, staring out the window at nothing, praying my rosary for no one about nothing. Yeah.
Don’t get me wrong. I am very, very Catholic. But I have never wanted to be a good Catholic. The Trappist Thomas Merton once said something like, “God, protect me from all right thinking men, which is to say men who agree perfectly with their own police.” I used to love Thomas Merton. I still like him, but I like him better dead. That way I can pick and choose the bits I like from his life. The actual monk, I think I would have found annoying. Pretty much like I find my whole Church these days. I belong to a very annoying religion. I love the St. Louis Cathedral when it is cool, dark and empty. But Catholic I am. I can no more stop being a Catholic than I can stop being a Midwesterner, both of which I’ve tried. But what a Jewish friend says of his religion, I say of mine. I wasn’t born to a faith: I was born to a fate. Which leads me to nothing at all.
as I drive to work
the dawn light right in my face
there’s the threat of rain
So I’m looking at one of these TV clips with the good hearted GI giving candy to this kid. An uplifting story. So let me tell a little war story about why I don’t do uplifting.
Early December of 1970. The 4th Infantry. The An Khe Pass. Nam. I’ve got a lot of memories of the An Khe Pass. Watching a sniper, who tried to kill us, get killed for instance. Stuff like that.
This one day we were on a convoy moving equipment. I’m in back with the equipment and a grunt, and there’s no cover on our truck. We’re pissed because it’s rain and it’s Nam and it’s C-rations for lunch. The C’s were packaged in early 1950-something, one whole war ago. So, yea, we’re pissed. Then the grunt says he wants to show me a trick. That’s the grunt’s words. A trick. I half expect him to pull out a deck of cards. He takes his now empty C-ration can, pulls out a rock from his pocket – he’s been saving it, I remember him picking it up – puts the rock in the can, and bends back the lid to seal it. Then he waits. Not long. We start to pass this bunch of beggar kids. The grunt holds out the can, but doesn’t throw it. He keeps it just out of reach of the beggar kids until he like culls one out of the pack. A boy maybe eight or ten. The boy keeps running and the grunt keeps the can just out of reach. (Keep in mind that convoys never stop. Never. To the snipers, we were always a moving target. Appleman and O’Leary once had a blowout, and we just left their asses.) So the grunt now has the kid running along the side of the truck. I guess we’re doing five or ten miles an hour, and the grunt slowly starts to move rearward. Till finally he’s got the kid at the back of our truck, running between us and the next ten ton truck. The driver behind us, I mean maybe fifteen feet behind us, he’s not so much horrified as astonished. This whole time, the grunt is something like impassive, expressionless, flat, this whole time.
Now the kid is within an inch of what he thinks is a meal, when the grunt throws the can to a whole other bunch of beggar kids. The boy breaks left, gets to the other kids, and has to look over their shoulders as they huddle. All his effort, and the kid can’t even get to the can for all the other beggar kids. Then they open it. Then the boy gets it, the trick. He looks up. At me. I had never before, nor have I since, seen a look of such unmitigated hatred.
driving home from work
I watch a hawk fly nowhere
in perfect circles
when I recall a Nam whore
her cold breast out of nowhere
Reviewed by John Samuel Tieman
Sasha Sings The Laundry On The Line
by Sean Thomas Dougherty
Published September 2010
Many years ago, I was driving down a street with a friend, a geneticist who used to play cello in a symphony. It was spring. I mentioned how beautiful the blossoming pear trees were. He agreed and pointed out that every tree was, from the genetic point of view, identical. I’d driven down that street for decades. But that day, I learned more than I actually saw. My vision was clarified and deepened.
Poetry is like that. When poetry works well, we learn more than we actually read. Such is the case with Sean Thomas Dougherty’s Sasha Sings The Laundry On The Line, recently published by BOA Editions.
Dougherty is a landscape artist. But the landscape is not one painted by Gainsborough. He’s more like Studs Terkel walking along Division Street in Chicago, describing immigrants and drug addicts, the denizens and detritus of urban America. For example, in the poem “Arbitrary Cities”, the poet describes broken glass in a gutter with perfect precision and clarity:
there is a blue bottle broken by the gutter
of our apartment house on Parade Street,
on the edge of the blue light lilted frozen lake,
a blue bottle as blue lake glass, ice blue its song
its ice blue broken song, this stolen prayer,
how neither of us will lift it to our lips like a flute…
In addition to his extraordinary observational abilities, Dougherty is a master craftsman, versatile in his style and original in his approach. In “Arbitrary Cities”, the author moves smoothly from the epistolary description quoted above to prose riffs without missing a beat. In other poems he has long passages of near-rhyme, and his four line elegy for Robert Creeley is unlike anything I’ve read before.
These are very complicated poems with many unexpected jumps and shifts. In the lovely and surprising “Dear Tiara”, every stanza begins with “I dreamed – “I dreamed I was a saint’s hair-shirt, sewn with the thread / of your saliva.” The poem “X” is much more enigmatic, in that every stanza begins with “X”:
X Vietnam veterans with shotguns …
X cops pushing mops, X machinists laid off …
X cafeteria workers and coal smoke …
X the broken traffic light in burnt-out Toledo. On the corner
some woman waiting in the rain for nothing we can name.
I’m not sure what X means. I’m not sure what exactly Dougherty is dreaming. I know this means what I’ve just read. I know this means more than what I’ve just read. Like a dream an analyst records, this is a poetry that goes straight from the artist’s unconscious mind to the unconscious mind of the reader, the poem itself being the means of relationship, the artifact that both holds the thought and everything the thought will become. Time and place become the geography of loneliness. “Dusk drifts like a terrible scream”, and the music becomes “the sound of someone / torn / being sewn.” Thus do we learn more than we actually read. Thus does the reader have, at least for a moment, clarity.