The Song One Wants to Hear

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At a chain “family restaurant,” typical among those found at or near the American shopping mall, my section is treated to a slightly perfunctory, but acceptable enough (lots of clapping, good volume) and VERY brief “birthday song,” which begins with a line about not being allowed to sing the actual “Happy Birthday” song. Their homegrown version is very speedy, fast-clappy, and then, after the quick presentation of a dessert to the birthday celebrant, it is OVER. Bing bam boom. Twenty seconds, max.

As I listen to their song (more of a chant, really) I wonder about helpfully informing my server, when she returns, that the copyright issue that has, for years, forced such restaurants into coming up with their own musical accompaniment to the presentation of complimentary birthday dessert, has been resolved. After a protracted court battle, “Happy Birthday” has been released into the public domain, where it belongs! How helpful I could be, I think, sipping on my dessert (a glass of whiskey). I imagine how grateful they would be to know that they can now treat diners to an actual melody – the actual melody, the familiar one. We might all be able to sing along, even, if we were so moved. Think of how we’d all be connected again, by this cultural touchstone. Think of the happy, serenaded customers!

But as I play this all out – my learned revelation to the server, her gratitude visible as she rushes off to tell her co-workers – it occurs to me that the restaurant staff might not be happy to hear the news of the liberation of “Happy Birthday.” “Happy Birthday” is a much longer time-commitment, musically, than the little chant they’ve cooked up themselves out of necessity – and it is, in fact, a song, not a chant, and as such, requires a basic musical ear and voice that not every server may possess. Think of it – you’ve heard or participated in those awkwardly dissonant versions – half the group in one key, half in another, with a few enthusiastic but tone-deaf hollerers sprinkled about. Just because the servers are allowed to sing “Happy Birthday” doesn’t mean they are required to sing it, or required to want to sing it.

Maybe because my dessert is composed entirely of whiskey, this all blooms in my mind as an imperfect metaphor for how I feel about marriage. As a queer lady partnered with another queer lady for nearly fourteen years, I am now allowed to get married. But I still don’t want to get married. I’d like to suggest to the well-meaning folks out there who are so happy we now have this option and who wonder why we don’t take it – I empathize with your wondering why we don’t participate. Indeed, so powerful is marriage in the contemporary American imagination, one of the voices questioning my opting out is one coming from inside my own head. But here’s what I’ve got: like “Happy Birthday,” contemporary secular marriage has been a cultural touchstone, a “thing we do” or, if we can’t, “a thing we want to do.” Or a “thing we are supposed to want to do.” Until recently, I could conveniently tamp down such pressures with the simple fact: I’m not allowed to. Now I’m allowed to.

But like the servers (or, okay, likely their managers/corporate masters), many of us queers didn’t wait around for the law and the culture at large to give us permission to have our lives and our loves and our families. We figured it out. We created new structures and names, and ways of talking (a lot) about boundaries, family, money, work – and we created workarounds that grew into more than just workarounds. Oh we worked and we worked around. We negotiated. We found ways to honor/trouble/subvert/reinvent long-held traditions of kinship and partnership and romance. I mean, we talked a lot. And we figured it out. And it was pretty great!

I personally do not find contemporary civil marriage superior to or more desirable than the songs we wrote for ourselves. There are good reasons to get married and good reasons to not get married. Maybe some day I will – and even if I don’t, I will continue to over-process the philosophical and practical and cultural dimensions of marriage with my lady-love because, damn, do we know how to talk something through. And through. And through.

As I hear the evening’s fifth birthday clap-chant echo briefly from a distant corner of the restaurant, I confirm that there are actually multiple versions of the chant. This one doesn’t have the first one’s specific allusion to the forbiddenness of “Happy Birthday.” I’m pretty sure I’ve actually heard three different versions of “birthday clap-chant” in this one restaurant tonight. How many different alternative songs or chants have been created – begrudgingly and/or cheerfully – in response to the completely ridiculous legal “protection” of the copyright of a song we all know by heart, even if not always in key? And what if, as I am starting to strongly suspect, these servers already know that they are allowed to sing “Happy Birthday” again – but they just don’t want to? I had assumed they didn’t know about the recent court finding because of course, if they had known, they’d be singing “Happy Birthday,” wouldn’t they? Because that’s what’s done. It’s what one wants to sing, what one wants to hear. Isn’t it?

Aretha Drops Her Fur Coat To The Stage

as if it is the whole fallen world sliding
from her shoulders of grace

as if she has known this world
as broken and holy and shown us so

as if she has been coated
in golden promises but refuses

to let them keep her from praising
to the rafters with her joyful arms

as if she decided to sprout wings
from the gilt cap-sleeves of her gown

as if she decided to sprout wings
from the rich glory of her vibrato

as if she’s showing the ghost of James Brown
how it’s done — a simple drop, no melodrama

as if it really does make her feel
like a natural woman

as if that’s her president up there
in the balcony catching some spirit

as if the whole world is sliding
from her shoulders

puny you and me clinging to the soft scruff of it,
as we slide down together

dissolving into a pool of gold at her feet
where we belong

Summer Reading Challenge UPDATE

Last month I had a great visit to mid-coast Maine with a fellow writer, where I worked on getting a draft of a new poetry book shaped up. I also brought along with me six books of poetry by others from my summer reading challenge list – mostly I read them with coffee coffee first thing in the morning either on the red sofa or out on the pier that came with the house we rented. Rough life, yeah, I know.

Reading individual collections was helpful to me as I finished up this one of my own – though I do recall other times when reading individual collections while shaping my own was actually not helpful. In any case, this time I did some reading, and it was wonderful. I recommend all of these books without hesitation. All strong, all containing multiple poems worthy of dog-earing. Yes, I dog-ear. No, I don’t know why I would ever do something so unkind to something as lovely as a book of poems.

Teresa Leo, Bloom in Reverse (Forty-three poems, twelve dog-ears)

Wow, these are some great poems on classic themes of love and death and estrangement and grief and loss. Poems of unthinkable pain and miraculous beauty. Poems of survival. These are poems of powerful feeling, and reading the book through in one sitting was an intense emotional experience. These poems do not mince words, but they are so artful from the level of the line (love all those couplets so well-wrought!) to the level of the scene-shaping.

Meg Day, Last Psalm at Sea Level (Eight dog-ears)

I was swept away by the voice of this collection. Like, tidally. I am still trying to resolve what I feel is this simultaneous urgency/calm in these poems. There is also great balance between what I’d call intellectual and emotional/spiritual concerns in these poems. Love the remix of John Donne’s sonnet in “Batter My Heart, Transgender’d God,” as well as the various “when I am ________” poems which explore facets of all different kinds of identities.

Alice Friman, The View From Saturn (Fifty-one poems, nine dog-ears)

I am embarrassed to say that I only really started reading Alice Friman’s work last year when I picked up Zoo in a used bookstore and had my damn mind blown. Some poets whose work blows my mind aren’t doing work that I, myself, am doing or aspire to do (stylistically, content-wise, whatever) – but hers are poems I admire, am amazed by, wish to have written, strive to write. She’s in my pantheon, now, filling a big gaping space I didn’t even know was there. Well. Maybe I knew. This is her most recent book, which I snagged at AWP and got signed by the author herself, who is so NICE.

Erin Belieu, Slant Six (Twenty-three poems, five dog-ears)

It’s my tradition in recent years to spend the fourth of July in Western Massachusetts at an annual (been going on for over twenty years, I’m sure) round-robin reading of Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” hosted by poet and editor Jan Freeman. Belieu’s book would, I believe, also make for an apt Independence Day celebration. I will be reading “When at a Certain Party in NYC” aloud to everybody I see for the rest of the summer. Into the fall, probably. It is hilarious and rings so, so true.

Ross Gay, Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude (One giant, endless, dog-ear of unabashed gratitude)

A few poems into this amazing collection, my favorite of the week, I had to stop folding pages down, because folding ALL (okay ALMOST all) the pages down defeats the page-folding purpose. Read this on one of the two prettiest days of my time at the shore, and so my own good mood and gratitude were sort of underscored or amplified by Gay’s vibrant odes and earthy, sensual catalogs, and ebullient thank yous. I came to this book already a fan of Gay – his first book, Against Which, is outstanding. I didn’t think it could be bested, but maybe it has.

J. Allyn Rosser, Mimi’s Trapeze (Sixty poems, four dog-ears)

In contrast to Leo’s couplets, this book (also from the Pitt Poetry Series) contains mostly single-stanza poems, which makes the variants on that choice (such as “Housing the Id” and “Miniature Histories of the World”) stand out sharply. It’s a big book – a lot of poems, five sections – and it goes so many places, in and out of so many different voices/tones. My favorite in the collection is “Quake,” near the end, with a group of people’s “sense of precarious communion” both broken and strengthened by an earthquake: “just the grave world / catching us off guard— / grabbing each of us by the shoulders / and giving a shake, saying only / Here. Now. Take a good look.”

Summer 2015 Reading Challenge [updated]

IMG_7258Like Ron Mohring, I am responding to Oliver de la Paz’s 2015 Summer Reading Challenge. A good idea I hope will go viral. I can’t resist lists. Here’s the gist — make a list of fifteen books to read between now and the end of August. Three books from your list should be poached from the lists of others. So it will be helpful to keep linking to lists you know of, I guess. As you finish a book, post some kind of…response, commentary, review, what have you.

I aspire to read more than this over the summer, but this feels like a strong start. And I know I’ll be loving reading others’ lists, so link ’em up! I’m adding the ones I know of from time to time below my list.

Here’s my list — 2 nonfiction & 13 poetry:

No Requiem for the Space Age: The Apollo Moon Landings and American Culture (Matthew D. Tribbe)

The World Without Us (Alan Weisman)

Bluets (Maggie Nelson)

Hoodlum Birds (Eugene Gloria)

The View from Saturn (Alice Friman)

Our House Was on Fire (Laura Van Prooyen)

Talismans (Maudelle Driskell)

Twine (David Koehn)

The New Testament (Jericho Brown)

Bloom in Reverse (Teresa Leo)

Mimi’s Trapeze (J. Allyn Rosser)

Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude (Ross Gay)

Slant Six (Erin Belieu)

Last Psalm at Sea Level (Meg Day)

How to Be Drawn (Terrance Hayes)

Others who have made lists for this challenge — please add your link in the comments if you join the challenge:

Wendy Call

The Black Sheep Dances

Josephine Ensign

Crista Ermiya

Jeff Oaks

Making it home, April 1970

Forty-five years ago this month, the “failed” Apollo 13 mission actually became “NASA’s finest hour” because of the incredible creative and technical work done by so many folks to bring the crew back home. The story of Apollo 13, which first unfolded the week after I was born (!) was what first inspired me, years ago, to retell some Apollo space program stories via poetry. In the spirit of turning failures into successes, and in honor of the great feats of Apollo 13, here’s one of the poems.


–Apollo 13

To make it home, they had to keep
hurtling away from Earth, gathered by gravity
into lunar orbit, the dark side never
quite this dark before.

Until the final burn they wouldn’t be allowed
to hold Earth in the window, where it belonged,
to burst towards it rather than let it fade
over their shoulders, shrinking to moon-size.

They had to turn their backs on home
and trust the stripped-down physics
of momentum and return.  They had to surrender
to the old forces and attractions.

To make it home, they had to fly away
from every instinct urging them to turn
around right there, as if the crippled craft
could turn on such a thin dime.

They had to believe in the machine,
that the spindly lunar lander as lifeboat
could do everything it wasn’t designed to do —
like them, it was supposed to go to the moon.

The nature of the adventure shifted
from the journey to the return — coming home
was the new, untried frontier
as Cronkite called the play-by-play.

To make it home, they had to resurrect
the old imperatives, re-enter the race
that had already been run and won,
they had to want to make it home

like they wanted to make it to the moon.

–Liz Ahl (originally published in Salt River Review #38, 2010)

A poem for Record Store Day 2015

Yours truly, in Vientiane, Laos, 1974 or 1975, rocking dad’s headphones.

Tomorrow, April 18, is Record Store Day all across the globe. Vinyl records are definitely worth celebrating. I wrote this poem (inspired by Record Store Day) a few years ago, and I’m sending it out to all the vinyl-philes, and to the record stores that stand out in my own experience/memory — Homer’s in Lincoln, Nebraska and Pitchfork Records in Concord, New Hampshire, in particular).

Your Record Store

The one just barely breaking even downtown,
holding out across from the town common–
the one that deals almost exclusively in vinyl.
The one run by guys
who may or may not truly revere the analog,
who may or may not have Opinions about digital,
about the ephemerality and soullessness
of the download, et cetera, but who spend
whole shifts DJ-ing the store, music reaching
to the vintage pressed tin ceiling, rolling
down the aisles of milk crates.

The only playlist’s already printed
on the black disc’s swirling eye; any shuffling
requires warming up the second turntable,
which is do-able, but why disrupt
the string of songs assembled
in that order, for your pleasure, by artists?

At the coffee shop they give you the bum’s rush
if you don’t keep plugging the refill meter
to buy your tabletop and free wi-fi,
and the boutique saleswoman gets nervous
if you examine every shirt she’s got in stock.
But here, it’s understood you could spend
unaccountable hours flipping, flipping, flipping
through the bins, drunk on musty liner notes,
inspecting for scratches. It’s a good
Saturday afternoon’s labor, thumbing your way
from A to Z, across the vast archipelago
of genres and sub-genres–the taxonomy itself
a kind of music. You’ll always find something
good to spin here, an hour-long dissertation
on Miles Davis or Husker Du, or another album
demanding that you take it home, begging
for your needle in its groove.