Poetry for Southern California
Our Senior Editor G. Murray Thomas has put together the latest CD's in our craft for your ultimate listening pleasure (once you get the CD that is). We will provide listening selections when available. And from time to time Murray may review books, or broadsides or god knows what... By G. Murray Thomas
Also in this issue the ultra=lovely and poet Beth Amato enticingly reviews Jaha Zainabu’s The Science of Chocolate Milk Making
CD by Talk Engine
In these hip-hop days, it seems almost revolutionary to accompany spoken word with straight ahead rock’n’roll. Or maybe that’s just my Baby Boomer prejudices shining through. In any event, I did enjoy this CD marriage of hard rock and poetry.
Talk Engine is poet Jackie Sheeler, backed up by Landru von Dige (guitar), Bryan Schmidt (bass) and Glenn Minasian (drums). Their gritty rock’n’roll is an appropriate setting for her gritty tales of urban decay, addiction and betrayal. The music not only provides a setting for the words, it complements them and even elaborates on them. (And let me emphasize that “gritty” here applies to the style, not the sound quality. This is an amazingly clear recording of both the music and the words.)
If the music has a disadvantage here, it is that it may encourage a superficial listening, like this was just another rock album. A quick listen would catch the references to war, drugs and homelessness, fairly common topics, and one might conclude one has heard this before.
But on close listening, Sheeler’s words are more subtle and personal than that. Much of this CD is really about personal demons—addiction, alienation, self-loathing—observed with a sharp eye to both their details and their ambiguities. “Pickup Line” turns “sexual harassment” on its head, finding strength in the line (“If I were a girl/ I’d want to look just like you”) yelled at her on the street. “My Enemy” finds the responsibility for homelessness in one’s own attitudes, rather than society. “Dream Me Coupled” takes this attitude another step farther, saying, “Never think of me, though, as unloved/ because that’s my job, and I do my job so well.”
On other cuts, such as “At Prayer” and “Sophie,” she turns the same nuanced eye on issues such as terrorism and consumer culture.
And when she does veer into familiar, didactic territory, as in “Picture Show” and “Vigilante Verses”, well, the CD still rocks.
1934 ¼ W. Washinton Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90018
This is not so much a review of Jaha Zainabu’s The Science of Chocolate Milk Making as it is an attempt at a rhapsody that will fall far too short of telling you why you must know this poet and her words.
Jaha Zainabu is a gift; and now she is a gift you can give to yourself, anytime, in her new collection of poems. Read it out loud, if you can, in a voice tinged with chocolate and burgundy, with some candles lit, incense burning and something real nice on the stereo. Her voice leaps off the page from the font to the line breaks. This is Jaha doing what she does best—telling you how it is, like it is, no holding back.
When Jaha stands on stage and rubs her hand back and forth over her scalp, looks at the audience and speaks,
I will be for love today
there is an audible sigh in the room. “I Am” is a poem beloved by many, not only for its beauty, but also because it is filled with so many things we all need to hear, think, and know more often:
Not the contents of my wallet or weight
Not my relationship status or work
My circumstances shall not decide my worth
I am flawless
In that moment of hearing, you will agree completely that Jaha is flawless, and more, you will know that you yourself are, too. For Jaha’s greatest gift is that she can give yourself back to you. All those little pieces you’ve been holding back for fear of not being understood, the ones you pimped and the ones you ho’ed, the ones you loaned out and didn’t get back and the ones that were straight-up stolen, Jaha will give them back to you, until you are the only you that you truly recognize and honor. That is the gift to inspire, the one that makes us all better, even if sometimes it is only momentary.
All of Jaha Zainabu’s poems contain an undercurrent of the same thing: reassurance. You are not alone in the struggle, each poem seems to cry out. The struggle yields beautiful fruit, the lines say. Stay engaged and you will witness miracles, until you exist from wonder to wonder.
In “Jeans,” it is the voice of a woman not afraid to be one:
These jeans will not ever kiss these lips or
hug these cheeks again
And the beauty finally
Is that I don’t want them anymore
They are not big enough to
hold the woman I am today
These poems take you to that place in yourself that will be so happy to see you when you get there, and hope you’ll stay awhile, ‘cause you just don’t visit often enough.
One of the strongest pieces in this collection is “Friends”. The narrator of the piece is an older woman, looking back, telling the story of her best friend Talanda’s death. In this piece the promise of Zainabu’s writing is revealed. She weaves a tale worthy of a literary descendant of Hurston and Morrison; she glides us in and through a narrative tinged with love, sadness, emotional regret, bitterness, revenge, and violence, and she does it expertly without losing her distinctive voice:
her time over time
Talanda a woman’s gotta love herself
enough to love herself all by herself
If she got to
You gotta go
Cos you’s a dead woman in this house
time I tell her she just look at me cross
And tell me shame on me for not
showin family respect
See I never did tell nobody but Talanda
But me and him is first cousins on my daddy side
But that don’t never no mind to me
Woman is thicker than blood
This is a love story between friends. It is a cautionary tale veiled as a down home, good old-fashioned juicy story.
It is the small things, Zainabu shows us, that illuminate the goodness of continued survival, even in the daily face of extinction, even when we are so far from thriving. In “Times,” one of my favorite pieces, she illuminates what really holds us back from that moment of complete suicidal despair:
that really the struggle
Seeing the rainbows through the smog
And how would you know it was winter
if you never felt the fog
You see it’s all about the goin through it to
the getting to it
One of my teen heroes, Abbie Hoffman, wrote Steal this Book. Well, let’s not steal from anyone. Let’s put art and spirit where it deserves to be: on a pedestal. Buy this book and buy it knowing that however much you may pay for it, you are not paying what it is worth. You cannot pay Jaha what it cost her to live, experience, process and then turn into art this life she is inhabiting, and you cannot pay for what it will mean to you as you read it and hear her voice come to life, wrap itself around you like the afghan knit by your auntie that’s a little worn and doesn’t match your new couch, but is all you ever want around you on a night like this. This book is your best friend on the phone after a bad day, it is your Sunday Church when you are too lazy to get out of bed, it is the lover you wish were next to you on a Saturday afternoon, it is the hot bath ready when you come home tired. This book loves you, the best in you, even if it hasn’t met you yet.
Larissa Shmailo writes clearly and intelligently about many moving subjects, from homelessness and AIDS to the Holocaust. So I am left wondering: Why am I so unmoved by this CD?
I think the problem is that so few of the poems sound lived-in. Take the title poem, about the various tragedies which can drive the middle class to homelessness. It sounds just a bit too much like the many newspaper articles I’ve read about once-middle class families living in their cars. This journalistic distance occurs throughout “The No-Net World.” I am not presuming to know what Ms. Shmailo has lived through, just how the poems sound to me.
When Shmailo deals with emotions, as in many of the short love poems (“Quantum Love”), her work can resonate. But too often she’s dealing more with ideas, the idea of homelessness, the idea of AIDS, and those ideas fall flat.
The exception is “How My Family Survived the Camps,” the strongest, the most important poem here, and one which clearly is based on personal (or at least familial) experience, and one which carries great emotional power. In it she describes the combination of luck and ingenuity that enabled her family to survive the Holocaust. The key poem on the CD, it gives by far the best realization of her running theme, that how we react to what happens to us is as important as the events themselves.
Shmailo is certainly capable of getting off a telling line, such as “You can’t take the gift of madness away” (“Madwoman”) or the shift from “Johnny, I love you, don’t die” to “Johnny, I love you, let go” (“Johnny, I Love You, Don’t Die”).
Yet for every moment that moved me, there were many more that hit me only intellectually. While I could understand and appreciate what she is saying, I didn’t feel connected to her words, didn’t feel them inside me.
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