When We Were Savages

When We Were Savages
a collaborative poem in five parts by the Jeff City Poets:
Michael H. Brownstein
Bob Boldt
Dick Dalton
& Michael E. Strosahl

I—Ota Benga (c.1883-March 20,1916)
Michael H. Brownstein

I was the hunter of elephants—
I fed my village for weeks at a time—
but I made two mistakes:
I welcomed the men with no skin
and I did not die a warrior’s death
when they killed everyone in my clan.
I fought hard and took many of them
before they captured me whole.
Why did they not kill me?
They told about lessons to be learned,
but they underestimated a hunter of elephants.

Strangely,
it was a man without skin
who bought my freedom,
took me to his world
away from forests and glades
to a place of noise and metal.

Yes, I returned home,
but there was no one to return to.
Yes, they put me on exhibit when I came back,
these strange people gawked,
wanting to sit at the same table as me
and, yes, my teeth,
sharpened into canines,
frightened and thrilled them.

It’s just that I missed the forest.
I was an elephant hunter,
a great man of my people,
a provider and warrior—
how sad I could not return when I wanted.
In my soft unnatural bed
I dreamt of going home,
finding a mate,
beginning a new clan—
wasn’t I the hunter of elephants?
The Great War got in the way,
men with no skin fighting men with no skin
and I did not understand.

I could not die a warrior’s death
I with capped teeth
living in a room without trees,
without brush.
This was no way to live—
the glory of teeth hidden from view,
dressed in clothing that chafed
skin and soul,
working in a large building,
making things of no intrinsic value.
So I let myself die—
the gun a weapon of my enemies
and in the battle to death,
I died a warrior,
the hunter of elephants.

There are many myths about me,
many more lies.
Remember me not
as the caged man in St Louis,
not as an exhibit in Washington DC,
nor as a man behind metal in the Bronx,
but as a man.

I was on view,
I was an exhibit,
but I was never a slave.
Yes, I gorged on bananas,
yes, I bragged about my teeth,
yes, I snarled better than the lion nearby
yes, I knew how to put on a show.

I was the first performance artist,
but never a prisoner in a cage for long—
just enough to look into the faces
of men who could never outdo me.

II-Ishi (c.1861-March 25, 1916)
Maik StrosahlI

In your lust for the sparkle,
you slaughtered my people,
in your desire to possess the land,
you scattered the last of us—
Mother, too sick to run,
was hiding in the blankets
as you tore through our camp,
left to the spirits soon after my return.

Those years,
I hid in the trees of the high ground,
foraged the land and
called myself to the holy ones.
When I could no longer live alone
with only the company of spirits,
great Yahi people long gone
but to my memories,
I embraced the death
descending to your camps might bring.

You found me starving,
this hungry old man,
but bound me for fear
of what a “wild man” might do,
even one of my age.

And you wondered why I just grinned.

You put me on display,
gathered crowds
to see “the last wild Indian”,
only then did it occur anyone
to save the words of Yana,
to record the stories of Yahi,
to listen to the ramblings
of this old man you let
clean your school.

You wanted me to learn your ways,
but I am too old,
I preferred my native clothing to your stiff suits,
though I posed for your photographs
and I would tell you anything you wanted—
except my name.

You took that from me when you
took those who would speak for me,
the ones who are just stories now,
unbelievable tales of an old man
who grew weary of the constant sick
that comes from living among
those who killed my people,
those who left me nameless,
coughing anonymously to the nurses,
calling in a fever
to the spirits that would soon gather me—
by name,
free from the consumption.

III-Minik Wallace (c.1890-October 29, 1918)
Bob Boldt

I lie here, one in a sea
of cots and coughing bodies,
heaving our last.
I lie, Minik, the first and last,
Inuit son of a mighty hunter.

Icebergs float past my bed
in this municipal gymnasium,
now a field hospital.
Sometimes the icebergs
become starched nurses
making rounds,
followed by pallbearers.
All around, the smell of antiseptic
and the breath of death
no delirium can staunch.

Yesterday, I smelled fresh seal blubber
hung in the cold air to dry.
Why did I come back here if not to die
in the bad air of this new world?
Now I will ride the smoke to see
this Jesus or my mighty hunter father,
whichever can get to me first across
the icy wastes of Paradise.
I still remember
when Robert Peary took us off
to where the giant icicles
pierce the grey sky.
Manhattan they called it
and they called me Wallace,
Minik Wallace.

Why did they carry me to this cursed land
of fouled air and fish in cans?
This land I cannot understand
and cannot leave;
this land of the psychopaths.
In my childhood,
I only met one of these kunlangetese.
On my island these issues were resolved:
thirteen went hunting that day,
twelve returned.
I thank Mr. Peary and the Museum for my education,
and I understand perjury.
I would give all the Bibles in the world
for a good kayak and a whalebone harpoon.

IV-I Transform…
Dick Dalton

Black
as moonless nights
without stars
I glisten
with diamonds of sweat.
Caged
in the land of the free
I transform…
coming soon
to the home of the hypocrite.

Dad
was an outspoken Garveyite.
Our house was burned.
They said
“He fell
under a streetcar.”
Dead
in the land of the liars.
I transform…
freed with knowledge
taught by
caged
Black
elders.

Black absorbs
centuries of subjugation.
White repels
the heat of truth
his soul enslaved
his culture his cage.
I transform…
“By any means necessary”
striking fear in their hearts.

Justice demands,
“People of color take
power!”
The Hajj
erases color
for the few who see the soul.
I am Malcolm X
an outspoken messenger of Allah.
Our house is bombed.
I transform…

Stop.
Look inside.
Listen
for the bell of the streetcar.

V-Who Really Were the Savages?
Michael E. Strosahl

At Circus World in Baraboo,
we played the freaks,
we were the baboons,
the ferocious feline
stalking the bars of a cart,
back and forth,
while mom laughed,
snapping pictures
of her captured monsters.

At Niabi and
even Lincoln Park in Chicago,
we wandered between enclosures,
amazed by beasts on display,
making faces at the animals until
smacked on the back of the head,
herded on to the next display.

I was still riding in grocery carts
when I asked my mom
why that man by the carrots
did not take a bath.
I remember her turning red,
embarrassed as he looked up
and we quietly moved away
while she explained
we come in many shades

and that was all it took for me.
Yet I can claim no innocence
to other differences:
pointing at the woman with no legs,
laughing at the man in his dress,
whispering about those girls
dolled up and standing on street corners.

I read somewhere
that once a zoo in the Bronx
put a man on display—
a distant savage out of place
for visitors to watch
as he paced his enclosure,
watching us
watch him,
making faces as we
twisted ours,
holding back a snarl
as we roared

and I stopped to think,
remembering the circus,
the zoos,
gawking at those on display
as if they were ours to judge.
Were they so strange
in those distant days,
in those recent yesters,
when we would stare
and they would shrink in fear?
Though they were our captives,
the thought occurs now that
we were the savages.

Calavera Number Six

A Poem by Bob Boldt

Artificial skeletons are hardly ever displayed
now in thought or in sight.
Shop windows are voided of all but surgical masks.
Imagine what all the uncut pumpkins
must think of the strange ones this year.

Halloween was the time of Ghede
whose breath smelled of freshly turned earth
and was once caught soaping a skeptic’s window.
The scariest thing I see are trogs knuckle
drag-racing from coast to flaming coast.
.
The poet said angels often don’t know when
they are among ghosts or the living.
At least TV makes me feel angelic
when my only contact with reality is
Jim, my Asperger neighbor

and Brit Hume.
This prayer-consuming peace feels
like the slow-motion before the crash:
those precious count-downs to what you,
and I, and all must taste.

In this precise facsimile of Krapp’s den,
I wander in a replay life and wonder
how I will know when I’m a ghost.
I’ll be sure to ask my calavera
when its empty.

Calavera #3

A Poem by Bob Boldt

Walls are ablaze with murals red, yellow, green, and brown.
Torches march on the graves’ fallow ground
and glistening streets drink the sweet October rain.
Skeletons’ shadows dance the walls.
Little banshees call from behind living, frightful masks.
The night is wild with black guitars.

The festival of Dia de los Muertos is here.

Banish the fear of death. Taste the sweet sugar skull.
The dead are drunk in rum-soaked ground.
Papa Ghede’d eyes reflect the sparkling array
as a billion dead stars shine down.
Tomorrow we die anyway!

Happy Birthday to Lincoln and Darwin: We Must Disenthrall Ourselves.

An essay on Evolution by Bob Boldt

We Must Disenthrall Ourselves.

In the movie, Lincoln, we see several examples of the President’s humor. He once said of an especially wordy opponent that he was like the lazy preacher who was notorious for his long sermons. The explanation was “he got to writin’ and he was too lazy to stop.” Hopefully I will not be too lazy and will know when to stop as I also want to allow extra time for questions.

The reference to Lincoln today is appropriate because as most of you know Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin were born on exactly the same day February 12th in the year of 1809. Political history and the history of science owe a great deal to each man. Each in his own way helped to revolutionize our modern world.

In his address to Congress in 1862 Lincoln said. “The dogmas of the quiet past, are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise—with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.”

Similar comments could well be made about our own stormy present as we face a nearly perfect storm of difficulties from global warming, peak oil, population overshoot and universal fiscal meltdown.

The 13th Amendment finally gave substance to the original contention that “ALL men are created equal.” Lincoln was not concerned with the “created” part of the Declaration, (whether created by God or Nature) but only with the “equal” part.

A year before Emancipation Darwin wrote. “I have not seen or heard of a soul who is not with the North. Some few, & I am one, even wish to God that the North would proclaim a crusade against Slavery. Great God how I should like to see that greatest curse on Earth: Slavery abolished.”

There is one account I have read that Lincoln was not only familiar with the idea of evolution, but was convinced by it.

Both Lincoln and Darwin were products of the nearly universal culture of Christianity and a pretty fundamentalist version of that religion by today’s standards. Lincoln suffered for his calling into question some pretty well understood axioms of both the Old and New Testament’s unequivocal endorsement of human slavery. The industrial North’s abolitionist opposition to black slavery flew in the face of Biblical teaching.

On the other side of the Atlantic, Darwin’s impact on the creation myth of Genesis was no less revolutionary. Each of these men sought to disenthrall humanity from the quiet dogmas of the past, including the Bible’s evil, stupidity and mendacity. Both men’s associations with Christian worship and doctrine were strictly pro-forma. Neither man believed in a personal Christ who saved souls and redeemed sin. Both men, for prudent, practical reasons, chose not to make an issue of their disbelief or lack of faith in the dominant superstition of their time.

The ostensible goal of our celebration here this morning on the occasion of our annual Evolution Sunday is to emphasize the compatibility of science and religion, reason and faith. The Dali Lama was asked, if science and Buddhism came into conflict, which would win. His Holiness answered that religious belief would have to yield to science. Would that other religious leaders were equally as sanguine when it came to the science/religion debate. Last year Gallup reported, “Forty-six percent of Americans believe in the creationist view that God created humans in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years.” Clearly there can be no reconciling of science with this religious view. While we are at it, according to the most recent survey, 62 percent of leading scientists said they are either atheists or agnostics.

That means that a majority of scientists do not believe in a personal god. Compare this with the fact that not one professing atheist currently serves in Congress, on the Supreme Court or in the White House. Last year there were rumored to be 28 stealth atheists in the Congress but these members were more loath to confess their lack of belief in God than to criticize Israel.

But what about the religion of enlightened, secular Christians? Is there not an equal, if less obvious, conflict between all monotheist religions and science? Religious evolutionists like their irrational fundamentalist brethren still assert the primacy of homo sapiens in the universe. They would also assert that God has set up the evolutionary process of simpler forms yielding to the more complex as evidence that our own little tribe of hairless apes has somehow fulfilled the cosmic destiny to be the favored species in the eye of the Almighty. I would like to assert that this view, albeit more rationally palatable and intellectually satisfying, may still be in conflict with the evidence and may be threatening our survival. Liberal monotheism is always inclined towards Mankind as special and more important than other life forms.

In the attachment to your program I have listed quotes by some of the most advanced scientific thinkers our culture has produced. They are unanimous in their belief that the precepts of evolution and science cannot possibly reconcile with popular religion the way it is practiced in our society. In fact most of them would consider a belief in science and a belief in a personal God as essentially irreconcilable. I have included these quotes by way of showing that the preponderance of scientific evidence while not always denying the existence of God certainly considers a belief in His existence irrelevant to modern thought and conduct. I must hasten to add that I neither believe in this assertion or hold that it represents many of the most interesting trends in modern scientific and philosophic thought. I do believe however that they are spot on in rebelling against the particular God and the religion most believers practice in modern society. This is the kind of religion we must disenthrall ourselves from.

But who today has the courage of a Lincoln and a Darwin to lead us out of the dogmas of the present into the stormy future where we may yet prevail? I think the scientists that denounce all religions are as myopic as are the religious fundamentalists who reject science? So what kind of religion would I consider appropriate and valuable to both the tenants of modern science and the spiritual needs of a species staring extinction in the face?

For the majority of human history we lived in ways that would be nearly unrecognizable to generations raised in the industrial world. Without attempting to romanticize the noble savage, the dominant religion of these pre-agricultural, pre-historic cultures was shamanism. This theology, if you can call it that, is also prevalent in present so-called “primitive” cultures that have not been completely decimated by modernity. Shamanism has dominated pre-civilized cultures around the globe for the first 50,000 years of our history.

Modern religions especially the monotheist preoccupation arose with the rise of the giant imperialist agricultural civilizations of the old and new worlds. Whereas modern monotheism emphasizes man’s separateness from God and Nature and encourages analysis rather than experience of the Divine. Shamanism and the religion of pre-civilized cultures had a direct experience of the Divine. It’s connection to all Nature was direct, respectful, relational and connected. Man is neither separate from Nature, God or other humans. For precivilized culture there is no doubt as to the existence of Divinity and higher levels of reality. The guiding influences for this culture centered around the shaman, psychoactive plant substances and altered state inducing behaviors like repetitive ritual, dance, sensory deprivation, fasting, etc. Aspects of this experiential variety of religious experience survived the onslaught of civilization’s monotheism finding refuge in activities like mysticism, Liberation theology and certain ascetic and ritual practices. It might be said that modern monotheism insofar as it is commonly practiced appeals to the worst angels of our egos. They promise personal immortality, the practice of material aggrandizement through faith while suppressing doubt and any question of their dubious evidences for the existence of a personal deity. Nearly all popular religions today offer the antithesis of authentic connections with either a god, Nature or true ecumenicism.

“The world is not an unsolved problem for scientists or sociologists, the world is a living mystery. Our birth, our death, our being in the moment, these are mysteries.

“These are doorways. They are opening onto unimaginable vistas and mysteries. Our culture has killed that. Made us products of shoddy ideas and shoddy ideals.

“And the way to get away from that is to return to the authentic experience of the body, it means sexually empowering ourselves, and it means getting loaded, it means exploring the mind as a tool for personal and social transformation.

“The hour is late, the clock is ticking. We will be judged very harshly if we fumble the ball. We are inheritors of millions upon million of years of successfully lived lives and successful adaptations to changing conditions in the natural world.

“Now the challenge passes to us; it means that the yet to be born will have a place to put their feet and a sky to walk under. And that is what the psychedelic experience is about, it’s about producing an experience that honors the past, honors the future and honors the power of the human imagination.

“There is nothing as capable of transforming the mind and the planet as the human imagination. Lets not sell it short. Let’s not sell ourselves to nit-wit ideologies, lets not give our control over to the least amongst us. Rather claim your place in the sun and go forward into the light.

“The tools are there.

“The path is known.

“You simply have to turn your back on a culture that has gone sterile and dead, and get with the program, of a living world.

“And a re-empowerment of the imagination.”
Terrence McKenna from Eros and the Eschaton.

In Memory of Alan Turing

An Essay by Bob Boldt

“Love the sinner; hate the sin.” This merciful axiom is supposed to rule the Christian attitude toward behavior not sanctioned by Scripture. It is unfortunate that, in the hands of many, it translates into “Hate the sinner.” This attitude has seldom found a more tragic application than in the life of groundbreaking British mathematician, Alan Turing.

June 23rd was the 100th anniversary of the birth of one of the greatest theoretical minds in the history of science—and a tragichero. During WWII, Turing single-handedly broke the Germancommunications code saving thousands of Allied lives and assuringvictory over Hitler.

Turing’s mind was something unique in science. He was capable of detecting patterns where others saw only chaos. His contributions to the fields of communications theory, artificial intelligence (TheTuring Test) and morphogenesis are still contributing to our knowledge and understanding of the modern world he so brilliantly anticipated in his brief 42 years of life.

He is a tragic hero because his homosexuality caused him to run afoul of the then draconian British legal system that viewed homosexuality as a crime punishable by prison or chemical castration. Turing’s choice of the latter caused his suicide.

People of sense and intelligence must reject many of the moralistic conclusions of those who regularly bludgeon the body politic with their unyielding standards of morality concerning sex. Their dogmatism is not only degrading the social and political dialog here, but, left unchallenged and unchecked, is already beginning to turn back decades of enlightened jurisprudence. A modern society does not need some archaic code formulated in obeisance to a demented, paternal God to provide clear, ample guidelines for behavior and to develop humane, legal formulations.

Nietzsche said, “Beware in casting out your demons that you do not cast out the best part of yourself.” We need to be extremely careful in our rejection of other’s behavior. We must stringently ask ourselves “Who is harmed?” Christianity’s “Love the sinner; hate the sin.” often morphs into “Hate, persecute and prosecute the sinner.” This has lead to all manner of crimes and atrocities unparalleled in human history and has resulted in the martyrdom of geniuses from Hypatia of Alexandria to Giordano Bruno. This anti-science Christian zealotry has cost us the loss of some of the greatest minds humanity has produced. Alan Turing is only one modern example. His loss to us is tragic and incalculable.

By By Ray

An Essay by Bob Boldt

I just heard that my childhood hero, Ray Bradbury passed some twenty-four hours ago. By my calculations, this unimpeded spirit buoyed on the wings of his boyish, eternal sense of wonder passed the outer limits of the Solar System some seventeen hours ago en route to Proxima Centauri, outward bound, following his limitless curiosity.

I could joyously recount my many experiences being entertained by his unequaled flights of imagination that became reality for me before the advent of space exploration and the scientific discoveries that have so changed our culture and the world. Well-coached in the fantasies of this prophet, the future held no shock for me with all the technological
changes that have come to pass since my first reading of “The Martian Chronicles.”

Bradbury’s incredible and sometimes less than hospitable fantasies were always buffered by his compassion and optimism. Many of his settings took place in my own, familiar, Midwestern landscape among the people I grew up with. The humor and humanity of his characters resonated and allowed me a familiar footing from which to venture forth into the unknown—within and without.

I suppose epitaphs will say that ninety-one is not a sad or tragic age at which to leave this planet, especially not for one who has lived a life filled with such an accomplished list of stories that will continue to bring pleasure to so many. I say that, to one who has remained so young for so long, any time of death is premature.

The best way to celebrate a writer is perhaps to share a sample of a favorite story or passage. I must confess to often having fantasies of meetings and conversations between certain of my most admired characters or artists. Here is Ray Bradbury’s account of exactly one of my fantasies–one that actually took place! This is the description written for Holiday Magazine of the tour he and Charles Laughton took of Disneyland. His recounting of this historic occasion is full of all the marvelous humor and hyperbole we expect from a great fiction writer.

“Finally a good friend jollied me into my first grand tour of the Magic Kingdom. I went with one of the great children of our time: Charles Laughton.

It is a good memory, the memory of the day Captain Bligh dragged me writhing through the gates of Disneyland. He plowed a furrow in the mobs; he surged ahead, one great all-enveloping presence from whom all fell aside. I followed in the wake of Moses as he bade the waters part, and part they did. The crowds dropped their jaws and, buffeted
by the passage of his immense body through the shocked air, spun about and stared after us.

We made straight for the nearest boat—wouldn’t Captain Bligh?—the Jungle Ride.
Charlie sat near the prow, pointing here to crocodiles, there to bull elephants, farther on to feasting lions. He laughed at the wild palaver of our riverboat steersman’s jokes, ducked when pistols were fired dead-on at charging hippopotamuses, and basked face up in the rain, eyes shut, as we sailed under the Schweitzer Falls. We blasted off in another boat, this one of the future, the Rocket to the Moon. Lord, how Bligh loved that.

And at dusk we circuited the Mississippi in the Mark Twain, with the jazz band thumping like a great dark heart, and the steamboat blowing its forlorn dragon-voice whistle, and the slow banks passing, and all of us topside, hands sticky with spun candy, coats snowed with popcorn salt, smiles hammer-tacked to our faces by one explosion of delight
and surprise after another.

Then, weary children, Charlie the greatest child and most weary of all, we drove home on the freeway.”

A Testimonial to Adrienne Rich

Prose and Prose Poetry by Bob Boldt.

The poet is dead; long live poetry!

Poet Adrienne Rich passed on Tuesday March 27. An internationally recognized, award-winning poet she wrote socially conscious verse that influenced a generation of feminist, gay rights and anti-war activists. She was 82.

The following is a memory of her reading on the University of Missouri campus I wrote almost eleven years ago:

I arrived early on campus. At least five hundred chairs were deployed, awaiting the army of the erudite come to hear the poet, Adrienne Rich read. A small woman assumed the podium. She was slightly stooped with a professorial air that perhaps belied her sharp eyes. Sizing up the room she began to read.

For at least an hour, maybe more, she read from her life’s blood—the stream of words of passion for the world, its politics and injustice and the specific articles of her indictment of it all. And above all were those eyes–the eyes of one whom the world has wounded too often for her to give up her loving of it now.

When finished she seemed somehow used up, husked—the kernel delivered to perhaps her last generation.

I spoke something to her at the reception that fortunately I can no longer recall and walked out into the soft September night, the words of her last poem just beginning to fade from memory:

“But the great dark birds of history screamed and plunged
into our personal weather.
They were headed somewhere else but their beaks and pinions drove
along the shore, through the rages of fog
where we stood, saying I.”

The reassuring campus and the smell of the late summer’s night in my nostrils filled me with joy and a fulfilling confidence. I was thinking that, in spite of it all, there was, after all, hope that we could surmount the present difficulties and find a peace in the world—a personal peace—even a planetary peace. My memory of that moment is still vivid as I write.

I went home and slept soundly through the last night of hope on earth before the end of the world that came the next morning—on September eleventh, 2001.