Sunday, July 5, 2020

The Muse of Breath

The Sister from Below is pleased to announce the publication of

Dreaming Night Terrors

Political Poems
on the eve of the 2020 Election

Who will speak truth    to the Master    of Mendacity?
“The Spirit of Elijah Cummings Speaks”

Stuck in the cloistered terror of a pandemic, it’s hard to remember the brawling days before and after the 2016 election, the furies released by the Kavanaugh hearings, our stunned grief at the death of Elijah Cummings in October 2019. That seems lifetimes ago. Yet the 2020 election, perhaps the most consequential of our lives, is looming.

Dreaming Night Terrors, is a chapbook of political poems from the time before Covid 19, before the murder of George Floyd and the protests about police brutality and American racism. Written in outrage and sorrow, these poems are Naomi Ruth Lowinsky’s offering to the spirit of Elijah Cummings. He advised us to “speak truth to abuse.” He reminded us that our resilience comes from our constitution, which is based on the separation of powers. Were he alive today he would urge us to organize, raise money, write rants, vote, do everything it’s in us to do to remove the current administration, its chaos and corruption, its mendacity, cruelty and cult of personality. This is our moment, even as we shelter in place and gather on Zoom, to defend our democracy, honor Elijah, and reclaim our responsibilities to each other and to the earth.


The Muse of Breath

Like Emmet Till in the casket, the Floyd
image made clear no black person could be safe.
Carol Anderson
author of White Rage
NY Times Review, June 28th 2020

Emmet Till painting by Lisa Whittington

(Dreaming Night Terrors is dedicated to the spirit of my father, Edward Elias Lowinsky, whose politics were the hard-won truths of a refugee from the European slaughter of his people.)

Breath is Spirit
Father, your spirit takes over my reverie with ravenous cravings for news—of the pandemic, of the protests, of the tsunami of change that is sweeping away the world as we know it. You insist that I track the terrible stories, make something of them—poems, blogs, a chapbook. You keep disturbing my introverted sheltering in place, stirring my outrage. It’s been a half life since we talked. Come to think of it, have we ever really talked, ever really had a dialogue? You lectured. I listened. My responses were always carefully crafted not to incite your rage. My spirit hid out in your presence. Your spirit wandered off into the Beyond. I always think of Jung’s mother telling him that his father died in time for him to become himself. You did that for me, and I’m grateful. You haven’t been around me much in all those years. Why are you making such a ruckus now?

Why do you assume it’s my call? You’re the one who pulls me out of the Beyond by breathing my spirit, obsessing about words and their roots, working for musicality in your language, seeking the humanism and creativity to which I gave my last breath—finding it even in the realm of politics. You speak of spirit, yours and mine. The word spirit comes from the latin “spirere,” to breath. You have come to a place in your life where you can breathe, fully, in the presence of my spirit. Perhaps my spirit has evolved to allow you the space to breathe.

I come to remind you it’s not enough to hide out from the virus. You need to speak out about the truths the virus reveals. How is it possible that America is still such a racist nation, that unarmed black people get killed for no good reason, that black and brown people die of Covid 19 so much more frequently than do white people? Didn’t we fight for racial justice in my lifetime? What happened to Martin Luther King’s long arc of the moral universe bending toward justice? Has it been twisted backwards?

Portrait of George Floyd by Eme Freethinker

Breath is Life
Father, your great grandchildren are out in the streets protesting. They’re wearing masks and chanting George’s Floyd’s last words: “I can’t breathe” as his life was crushed out of him by a policeman’s knee. Why? Because a cashier in a store thought he was passing a forged twenty dollar bill. His image is all over the world, including in Germany. He joins the list of names, tragic names that fill me with grief and shame: Eric Garner who died in a police chokehold, saying “I can’t breathe.” Why did the police stop him? On suspicion of selling individual cigarettes illegally. Breonna Taylor, a young Emergency Medical Technician, was shot eight times in her bed in the middle of the night. The police had bad information and no warrant. Ahmoud Arbery, a young man who liked to jog to clear his mind, was gunned down by two white men. His crime? Running while black. Walter Scott, stopped on some traffic technicality, was shot in the back running away. He was unarmed. Tamir Rice, a twelve year old boy, was playing with a toy gun. Shot by police. I could go on and on. All of these people would be alive today if they were not black. A sign seen at a recent protest: “Legalize Being Black!” How can this still be happening, in the America that saved you and our family?

Have you noticed all this commotion is about breath? Covid 19 is a respiratory disease. It attacks a person’s lungs. If you’re sick with Covid you can’t breathe. Racism is a disease of the collective breath. Air is something we all share. But racism stops the oppressed from breathing freely, from living their lives with joy and purpose. If you’re black or brown you’re constantly feeling under assault. George Floyd can’t breathe. Eric Garner can’t breathe. Black and brown people can’t breathe because they are always at risk. Their spirits are crushed by the burden of such hatred, such constant danger. What did I always tell you? Eternal Vigilance is the price of liberty. What happened to your vigilance?

When I saw you last, father, you were curled up like a fetus in that hospital bed. Reagan was on TV, well into his dog whistle assault on the multicultural America you fought for. You were too sick to rant against him. It’s been 35 years since the cancer devoured you, since the cancer of white supremacy devoured the civil rights and liberties we had so recently achieved. I kept thinking the backlash would be over soon, the Age of Aquarius would finally begin. Our liberal America would triumph. I wasn’t vigilant enough to get it—things kept getting worse. In the ‘90s, during the democratic presidency of Bill Clinton, welfare was undermined, and mass incarceration stole black men out of their families, destroying young lives and ripping up communities. So many young fathers were in jail for meaningless, made up offenses. You can imagine what this did to their women, their children, their breath, their spirit. I didn’t understand that racism in America is systemic, and that I, even with the best of intentions, am complicit with a system which privileges me over black and brown people. I didn’t comprehend the Phantom Narratives, to borrow my friend Sam Kimbles’ phrase, that had America and me, in their grip—the ghosts of the American civil war and the ghosts of the Shoah telling competing stories. I didn’t begin to see that we were witnessing a resurrection of the chain gang, of the plantation system with slaves, until recently. I’m ashamed that it took me so long.

It takes spirit to confront unwelcome truths.

A graphic account of America's love affair with prisons

Breath is a Song
Father, you were in my dream the other night. You were so young and tender, the age you were, 33, when you got your first job in America, teaching Musicology at Black Mountain College; the age you were when I was born. We are on a fast moving train, sitting at a table in the dining car. You are headed forwards, me backwards. I’m the age I was when I visited your deathbed. There is sweetness and ease between us. We are headed South, to North Carolina. I wake to remember my favorite story of you.

Photo of Father, Mother, my baby brother, Si, and me (1946)

I was a toddler. You were recently off the boat, finding sanctuary at a small liberal arts school in the South. Like most of your colleagues, you were a refugee Jew, escaped from the Shoah. I have fleeting memories of all those European musicians, painters, weavers, Bauhaus builders in world changing times speaking many languages in the cafeteria. We were a community spat out of the mouth of Europe’s monstrous hatred of the Jews, lucky to land here on the shores of Lake Eden. But this was the South. Jim Crow reigned, which outraged you. Looked to you like how Hitler treated the Jews. You invited Roland Hayes, an African American tenor, to sing at a desegregated concert. Hayes sang the European repertoire as well as spirituals. He had been received by the crowned heads of Europe, but given little attention in America. Mother told me that you and she were afraid the Ku Klux Klan would burn Black Mountain College down. That didn’t happen. Hayes gave his breath, his great spirit, to Schubert’s “Du Bist die Rüh” and to “Go Down Moses.” That was 1945. The war was still on. Your parents had died in the year of my birth. That must have been such an assault on your breath. How did you have the chutzpah to take on segregation?

I knew I just had to keep on breathing, keep on living my life. My mother died in a concentration camp in Holland. I didn’t know what had happened to my father, though later it appeared he was in a cattle car on the way to Auschwitz when the allies bombed the train. What a terrible irony, to think my father was killed by America. My spirit rose up in fury and told me to do something! So I desegregated Black Mountain College—the first school in the South to open its doors to black people of color. I did it with the Roland Hayes concert, and with a campaign to invite black students. It was my intention to help America honor its promise. I had so much faith in America. What happened? 

Black Mountain College faculty

Breath is Inspiration

We elected a black president in 2008, with a musical name—Barack Obama. He is brilliant, eloquent, elegant—a man with a strong moral compass. He has a beautiful, high spirited wife and two lovely daughters. It was inspiring to have such a loving, admirable black family in the White House for eight years. But racism was alive and well in America and Obama had a terrible time trying to govern. The Republicans blocked him at every turn. Obama is still deeply beloved. But the backlash was the election of the anti-Obama— a blatant racist, a master of mendacity, of chaos and corruption, a demagogue, a narcissist, the crazed center of a cult of personality. He follows the playbook for dictators. His self-serving and incompetent administration has made us the laughing stock of the world, and revealed the underbelly of American racism and inequality. He has not even attempted to lead the country out of the dreadful pandemic we’re stuck in. The body counts keep growing. The numbers of the sick keep growing. Other countries refuse to let Americans in. Not that we want to travel these days.

And what are you doing, my daughter, to confront all this horror?

I am putting my poems to work for the election of a good man, a man who has a moral compass, a man who understands suffering and grief, Joe Biden. I hope the poems will inspire people to do whatever is in them to do—especially to vote to oust the worst president we’ve ever had.

Worse than Nixon? Worse than Reagan?

Much worse. I wrote a poem during the spring of 2016 which expresses how dangerous I understood him to be even before he was elected. At the time mother was far gone into her dementia. She had no idea what was happening in the world. But the child in me yearned for her protection.

What I Want To Tell My Mama

Only she’s gone     a slight rustle of reeds
at the edge of the pond    a paw print in the mud

Sometimes she takes my hand    like a curious
two year old    tracing my veins     touching my rings

Mutti     you’ve dived down below    your German
gutterals     found your own    Ur tongue
Crim crutz
Olam Bolam
If you were who you used to be    Mama
I’d tell you about that Scary Man

that Chaos Man    with Caterwauling Hair    who beats
his chest and threatens

to drive us back
into the Tohu Bohu

He’d build a Golden Wall    high as the Great Wall
of China    Impenetrable as Negative Space

A Magnificent Wall to keep the likes of us
Refugees and our Rabble children    out

of America      Mama    he’s a Huckster
a Big Hunk of Catastrophe

Flasher Man    Slash Her Man
Hair sprayed into Caesar’s Brass Helmet
Olam Bolam
Crimini Crutz
All the ghosts we keep in the closet
rush in shrieking
“It’s the Nazis
It’s the Fascists
It’s the Cossacks
It’s the Huns
It’s Joseph McCarthy as Hair Spray Man
come to eat our young     Run!”
He is the King of the Hoax     the Prince of Evasion
Makes sausage

of our worst fears
We eat it

What he eats
is cotton candy
Rim Ram
Crimini hachts
There’s a gargantuan Wall of Broken
Glass    between his lovers    and his haters

yet we are spell bound     Mama
How can I explain

He has hula dancer fingers
He curls them

unfurls them
We watch     mesmerized
“On Day One    Hour One
You’ll all be gone    Every last one of you
                                             Enemy Aliens!”
Crimini crumini
Olam Bolam
Mama    make him
be gone…

That’s quite a language your mother developed in her dotage. Makes me think of another word that comes from the Latin, “spirare”— inspiration. Sounds like your mother was casting powerful spells.

Yes, I’ve had the same intuition about it. Speaking of inspiration, your passion for the political in its deepest, widest, most humanistic form, has inspired me to publish this little book. I want you to know, father, that I’ve dedicated my chapbook to your spirit. 

Have you ever dedicated anything to me before?

No. But this train is moving swiftly. I’m nearing the age you were when you died. I want you to know that I am your daughter, that I feel your spirit moving in me. Your passion for life, for justice, and for song inspire me in these terrible times. I’m grateful.