Monday, July 1, 2013

Earned Experience

The Supreme Court disembowelment of the 1965 Voting Rights Act . . . the day before Same-Sex Marriage came through (mostly) . . . Today, July 10, I’m still bummed out by the floodgates opened by the 5-4 decision that virtually performed seppuku on LBJ’s Voting Rights Act, which John Lewis said he believed he would never live long enough to see the death of . . . and the Roberts Court travesty of the long-ago great John Marshall Court (see, e.g., The Cherokee Nation v. The State of Georgia) v. the Cherokee Nation, e.g.) has already spurred six states to begin herding through the passage of bills requiring voter ID and outlawing early and Sunday voting, among God knows what else . . . in northern states like Ohio and Pennsylvania, who like their Southern brigands, were denied the right to make their own laws before the 20012 election. So: just in time for the Republicans to keep the House in 2014! Or so they believe . . .

John Lewis suffered a skull fracture on Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge’s on Bloody Sunday in the spring of ’65, but the march from Selma to Montgomery followed, drawing Americans of all races to Selma and encouraging Lyndon Johnson to badger Congress into making the Voting Rights Act law. Lewis, now a longtime congressman from Georgia, thought he would never be alive if the day came that he had just witnessed with a heart heavy as the lawman’s club against his head . . . 

Two good friends, photographer Jim Barker and Robert Cole, Johnnetta Cole’s husband, were on the march to Montgomery, and a Detroit housewife, Viola Liuzzo, driving back to Selma from the Alabama capital, was shot and killed on the road. I remember vividly the brave Lewis, Robert Moses, and of course James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner as well as so many others among the young with whom I identified because I too was young then and had been born in the South and was in Louisiana that summer, where I was asked by Ray Fox, owner of The Saloon on Bourbon Street, during an early morning breakfast, “You’re a liberal, aren’t you?” But that was fine: he was young and a liberal too.

New Orleans became the home of heaven and hell in my life that year, even though its Pandemonium was immediately more at home in my mind than its Paradise . . . its music and (may I say) its ease. There I found, however, the place I adopted imaginatively as the city of my true origin, the city that claimed my soul as it had so many others . . . certainly it was not Fort Smith, Arkansas, where I was born, or Tahlequah, Oklahoma, where more Southern white boys than I went searching for his chalaqui ancestral lineage via his father’s mother . . .

One of the poets I read and reviewed in those years was Galway Kinnell, in whose book Body Rags he refers to his experience as a civil-rights worker during the summer of 1965. I reviewed the book for George Hitchcock’s kayak magazine and during the writing of “. . . this map of my innards” (the title I gave the piece, a phrase in one of his poems), I found myself writing what I would finally call, twenty-five years later, “a poetry of experience,” with each poem “well earned,” words that occurred to me when first reading Tess Gallagher’s “Red Poppy” in The New Yorker in the fall of 1989, when Karenlee and I moved into our first house--the first we've owned together-- in this northern Minnesota town.

Well earned, indeed . . . Tess lost her beloved Raymond Carver, in 1988, to acquire the experience in the book Moon Crossing Bridge, which included this poem as well as many others that were just as moving; Kinnell took at least one beating  meted out by the Sheriff Raineys of the day, and the book-length poem that came next, The Book of Nightmares, was an even finer performance, and all the rage in Massachusetts when Karenlee and I moved there after leaving California’s Marin County in the summer of 1972. One night, in the summer of 1965, my companion and longtime friend, Betty Ludington (whom I married later, though we divorced), was gang raped, somewhere in New Orleans, and delivered back to our motel room on the edge of the city where she lay soaked in her own blood when I found her on our bed hours later, after combing the Quarter and surrounding streets that led in circles and finally stopped at the water fronting Tchoupitoulas Street, a bevy of newfound friends helping me look for her, their numbers seeming to grow by the hour. Betty died in 2009, I learned only a month or two ago from an obituary in a Sausalito newspaper posted on the internet, which stated that she “died unexpectedly with her family gathered around her.” We had said nothing to one another since last talking in 1971, in her Sausalito digs, her remarriage and happiness ahead of her, for which I'm grateful.

Now, near fifty years after that experience that ended a night of drinking at Jean Lafitte's Blacksmith Shop, there has been no end to war--writ Large or small--since those Vietnam War days. Certainly the Voting Rights Act was won only with the shedding of blood . . . and in many instances, with death, including the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., the era’s truly and inarguably great American, as truly tested and authentic and as celebrated as the indefatigably heroic Nelson Mandela, who now lies in a bed in South Africa dying from pneumonia at age ninety-four.

(27 June, rev. 1 and 10 July 2013)

copyright 2013 by Floyce Alexander

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