Poet’s notebook: My poem, “So long — a cautionary tale”, followed by comments

So long– a cautionary tale (interpretation of Woody Guthrie’s “Dusty old dust”)

So long
so long
I’ve got to be drifting

The dust storm blew

It hit
like thunder

In the month called Gray
I walked down
to the grocery store
it was crowded

One pound of butter
for two pounds of gold

Kind friend, kind friend
I’ve got to be drifting

I’ll sing it again
drifting along
so long, it’s been good
so long

The old dust storm
blowed

So black
so black

The telephone rang

And rang and rang
and rang and rang
and rang

Some comments on this poem:

This is a simple poem based on Woody Guthrie’s old standard, “Dusty old dust”, popularly known as “So long, it’s been good to know you”? Am I being lazy? I’ve incorporated fragments of other peoples language before, most recently in the poem that uses a quote from Pope Francis for its title, but I think this is the first time I have tried to turn another artist’s song into a poem. The song itself is dated. It’s about the bad old times of the Great American Depression, from the mid-1930s. The lyrics are like old friends to me. Like Guthrie says, “I’ve sung this song and I’ll sing it again”. Me too. How many times have I sung this song again and again through the years? If a hundred it wouldn’t surprise me. The preacher “folded his specs and took the collection, saying / So long, it’s been good to know you . . .” He uses the collection to get himself out of town because the dust storm is too much. It’s apocalyptic. He can’t see “the words of his text”. I read somewhere that the amount of dust that was displaced during those monster-storms during that epic draught cycle that scoured the Great Plains (1934-37) was equivalent to the amount of ground moved when they built the Panama Canal, or is it many times that amount? The point is, it was horrific – the earth was in the sky, in their lungs, in their eyes, in their hearts and dreams. Reality was upside down. Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath is probably the source of my vivid sense of this period, which starts with the displacement of all those share-croppers, packing everything up, like the preacher and going west. A lot of darkness and hopelessness. Nothing left to pray for.

Sometimes things get so bad for people they gamble everything on getting out with their lives and not much else. That’s what is going on all over the world right now and why there are so many refugees. Tonight is the third debate between Trump and Hillary. I’m going to watch. I feel like the ill-fated moth who can’t stay away from the candle, but I don’t expect to hear anything that is going to make me feel any better about the times we are facing. And the candle is illusory. Nothing that either of these candidates says has any affinity with light. I really identify with the masses of displaced folks in the world. This is my homeland but sometimes I look around and I don’t recognize anything. It doesn’t feel like home out there and sometimes it really feels like I can’t see my own hands as I grope through the darkness. Something has to give.

Guthrie’s famous song was written on Black Sunday (1935), which started out as a perfect, rare windless day when, without warning, the winds from the North picked up, the temperature dropped 30 degrees and black clouds of dust thousands of feet high enveloped the Great Plains plunging wide tracts of Oklahoma, the Texas Panhandle, Kansas, and Colorado into utter darkness. This was the Bible Belt and these were God-fearing people. They might not have realized then that the dust that was blocking the sun was man-caused. Years of plowing up the grasslands of the prairie for vast crops of wheat in previous decades left the soil exposed to the ravages of winds and draught. We also live in a dark time but our darkness is existential, but some part of me identifies with the share-croppers, and wants to pack up and hit the road. It’s time to move. Something’s not working brothers and sisters. I feel like, in reality, this “place”, this old way, this old worn-out world isn’t sustaining us. We can do better. (And, by the way, I watched 10 minutes of the debate and turned it off before I got my wings singed. I finished this blog this morning, after a good night’s sleep.)

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