RIP Joe Vanni

I'll be leaving Rhode Island soon.  As I noted in the first entry on this blog, we're moving to Minneapolis.  I've lived here most of my life.  When I finally finished college (at Brown), after dropping out & wandering around a few years, I was ready to get more active in the community.  I was a patchwork of unreconciled impulses (like many a 23-yr-old).  At Brown I had changed my major from Semiotics to History to "Local Agriculture" (an independent study).  I had gone through a nervous breakdown and a "religious experience".  I had hitchhiked around the U.S. as a budding Jesus freak.  I had met with the Rolling Stones outside London, hoping to replace Mick Taylor as lead guitar & change the concept of the band.  (Yes, I did do that.)

After completing school I spent about 2 years running a food coop near the campus ("Kneecap Natural Foods").  I was trying to keep literature and poetry at bay - like Rimbaud, I guess, I had very mixed feelings.  Then I got tired of working behind the counter, and signed up as a VISTA volunteer, working for grassroots community organizations.

In those days (late 1970s, early '80s) community organizing was more of a working-class thing.  It was not so ultra-hip & posh as it is today.  Yet I was not a working-class kid.  I was from an old Minneapolis well-to-do family (but in Minneapolis that means "regular folks" and "civic-minded").  I was trying to escape my Ivy League background.

I had the usual idealistic biases against business, money, capitalism.  But you have to admit, they can be boring.  People are seeking wholeness - this is why the transactional give-&-take of capitalism alienates many of our yout'.  It's impersonal, and it's not about love : it's about money.

Most of these attitudes, nevertheless, are sheer luxury.  Anyone who has grown up poor understands this.  Work is the only solution - not feel-good economics, not abstract self-righteousness.  "You shall judge them by their works.".

But then... we do have to work together.

Sometime in the late 1980s or early 90s I attended the funeral of Joe Vanni - an activist I had worked with in the early 1980s (before retiring to librarianship).  It was a crowded ceremony - Joe Vanni was much-loved.

The poem is about the special parochial-corrupt-familial atmosphere of Little Rhody, Rogue Island (already perhaps fading into the historical distance) - the era of Buddy Cianci, Raymond Patriarca, Matty Smith... all the parochial power-players, who kept the state in a muddle of corruption.

I drove around Providence & environs all day today, a beautiful last day in July, taking photographs.  Something ironic about all this.  I'm leaving, sharing the faded photos, torn anew.  I never made a dent : never helped anyone much.  The neighborhoods of greater Providence & satellite towns remain crowded, poor, and incredibly ugly in a physical sense (not the people!).  Something still needs to be done about this apartheid of lush suburbs and grubby towns, rich & poor.  Of course individual people are doing beautiful things.  But it doesn't show yet in a physical setting.  The towns are impoverished; the roads are battered, horrible; the neighborhoods are cramped, a jumble of cars, roadsigns, power lines, noise, glass, metal, rubber, garbage.  Bleak, bleak.  I drove around through them today, feeling ashamed of myself.

from Shakespeare's Head

If you stand at the terrace, on the cliff above town, 
the clay forms a bowl, clay lips' parameters;
and I'm going beyond you, city fathers. . . 
– I'm moving toward stone.

Stone troubles my lips – a far-off circle, fractured now. 
I'm going beyond you, deep into the fosse,
a mutterin' snail or ostentatious ostrich feathers' 
bowler. . . down the incline, slowly.  Tubular.


I drove once in the rain (a midsummer ghost)
to the other side of town, to the West End.
To the hulking catholic church – a fortress, suspended 
over pastel tenements, tending their untold past.

To attend Joe Vanni's funeral.
A slight and motorcycled crippled man, 
a loco-honey man, who lived to lion-
tame the hometown carnival.

The workers were there, the volunteers –
nurses, charity cases, activists
(that green and negative network persists 
and persists – hauling the yoked pails of tears).

I was there on the sidelines,
asleep in my circulating book dream.
Closed my eyes, and suddenly there came –
a ship! Her prow was here – and her stern,

her stern was – Shakespeare's Head!  There
those city-minded wasps – buzzing at the axis 
of yesterday.  And here, at the sleepy matrix, 
the grave and cloudy promise – of a figurehead. . .


Between prow and stern of the immaterial vessel, 
within the perimeter of the muttering, droning bowl, 
at the bottom, in the stone caverns and tall
fingers of windows goes – the big buy and sell.

Crawl toward the rotten deck the whole fifty-two 
pick-up weeks now, Hamlet, boy-o –
down below the mates will check you
and even their odd scores.  You'll know

you know too late.  The high arched eyebrows,
the vainglorious attitude stabilizes there in the arena;
the swarms have their bull, their turf, their see-saw 
way of saying yes, no – like maneuvering crows.

And the high school's painted brown and gray
so that you can sock away three retirement plans. 
Your ghetto farm's run out of helping hands
to pay for riding lessons for little Fauntleroy.

Your idea of the city is not my idea, fellas.
You're caddies for some suburb golf protection racket. 
You guard your perks like Midas fingers his pocket 
money.  Everything in vice clamps for this cruise!

The week's meal is gruel and baked beans again
so you can fly your cronies to San Jose.
Children muddle through under the mediocrity
of well-schooled flunkies, so you can be a football fan.

Downtown is a quiet graveyard of wind-driven stores 
so you can play polo in Newport with a movie star. 
And everybody knows just what you are!
They're your cousins, after all – no one cares.

But I'm whispering beyond you, philistines. 
My eyes are in the clay.  I'm shaping the rim, 
I'm dreaming, I'm looking for the trim
sail.  Wind sighs through the pines.

"The Hannah", a ship sculpture in Burnside Park

Church of St. Mary, Providence

Church with two hands

It so happens that when I started writing Stubborn Grew, back in 1996, I was reading a very interesting study of Aristotle's Poetics, author of which I've forgotten.  I've also forgotten the main thread of the book, except I have the vague idea he analyzed how the Poetics managed to "do what it says" - that is, the style and structure of the work reflected or embodied the abstract argument Aristotle was making.  The Poetics in this way was itself a work of poiesis.

This gave me the vague idea of turning the analysis on its head.  I would work my way into a narrative poem by "acting out" in fairly explicit fashion certain abstractions regarding "what poetry is about".  So we have Orpheus, King David the Psalmist, Shakespeare, making cameo drop-ins in somewhat cartoonish fashion - totems for the more concrete dilemmas I would be trying to excavate.

The following is one of the first sections written.  It seems to summarize the risky foolishness of writing poems.  They lead one back into dreams, into childhood - possibly solipsistic, self-enclosed, & so lost forever.  Thus the closing image, which not everyone will recognize but which was familiar to kids in my milieu in the 1950s (maybe still is) : the game of making a "church" (instead of a shadow bunny rabbit) by interlacing fingers of both hands, lifting the two index fingers (for the steeple), and then opening the hands (showing the congregation).  It must have been a Sunday School thing.

"Rational animal" : Aristotle's definition of humankind's duplex, inherently dramatic situation.

from Shakespeare's Head

It begins with the headache of a rational animal.
Sepulchred, perhaps, in a whitened rhyme
or bibliophile's musty drawers – reflective rim 
or echo chamber, some titanic scuttled shell.

And you lose the thread, and this is the thread.
Purpled, from the mordant notebook,
from the charitable extinct awk's
last corkscrew into a cup of molten mead,

like lead.  The chorus and audience withdraw.
You are alone with the sound of an evening of a swing. 
Here's the church, here's the steeple. . . here's the door.

A gate in Fox Point

Slimy footpad

Reading back into this almost 20-yr-old poem, the scriptor is surprised anew by the special shiftiness, the jittery nervous glib patter of this Hen-fellow, trying to put one over on himself or somebody.  Interesting how the perception of place is also a projection of same.  If the poet is a slimeball snail, then of course he will be crawling through the gunk of a "rotten little state".

& now 20 years later, Mr. Photographer slithers around again, like an outsider.  Going in circles.

But then this sketch is another prelim, a lead-in.  The poet solo is not enough, is insufficient, incapable.  He need help.  Where does the "ink-feather pen" come from?  Read on, friend, & find out!!!

from Shakespeare's Head

What might be descried from such murky battlements 
of a rotten little state?  From elevated Terrace
the reproduced patriarch looks like pumice.
Air seethes through filed pediments.

The iron rail on the cliff is a kind of grid 
or magic lantern blanket for a snail. All shell, 
no pith. 
One slimy footpad

leftover.  But lights will go up again –
Walter will play the untested understudy –
will sketch the shadiest, draftiest city –
not with a bang, but an ink-feather pen.

Roger Williams Memorial, Prospect Terrace
Downtown w/grid