After the Maniacs

walt-whitman.jpg walt-whitman-service-area.jpg

Wonder what Walt Whitman would say if he saw his name attached to a “service area” sign for the southern-bound?

Driving down to Baltimore today, where I am happily ensconced now, I decided to listen to a cd I’ve had on the backburner for awhile. But let me back up: I love, love, love Natalie Merchant and have for many years — well, Natalie Merchant after her stint as the lead singer for the 10,000 Maniacs. Her voice verges on holy at times. Merchant’s songs are melodic and soothing in ways my uneasy soul requires now and then.

Separately, I also love folk music. In the tradition of peanut-butter and chocolate, Merchant opted to join hands with folk and make “The House Carpenter’s Daughter.” Don’t be put off if you think the combination sounds odd at first. Merchant put some real thought into this album – she has written all of the liner notes as well as introductions to every song, which include reasons for each selection.

I don’t outright agree with her notion that these songs are slipping away due to the advancement of urban life but here follow excerpts from Merchant’s thoughtful introductory mini-essay:

“… These are the songs to soothe resltess babies, accompany the games of children, ease toil, celebrate love and mourn death, they speak of the spirit world and weaknesses of the flesh … What they all share in common is that they remind us of our humanity, of what we share.

Sadly, these are the songs that have been gradually slipping away from us. Since the abandonment of agrarian for urban life, the swift death of regionalism and the advent of recorded music, we have left many of these songs behind as relics in printed anthologies and the field recordings of musicologists.

As thoroughly modern people, we wonder how the archaic tales of shipwrecks, fair or fallen ladies, buried treasure, the lonely sojourns of pilgrims, or the trials of tenant farmers could speak to us about our world. Still, these traditional hymns and ballads embrace us with their familiarity. How can we feel so much nostalgia for times in which we never lived or places we can never visit? In our ’sophisticated’ minds we know that both have vanished but these songs teach us about what we know in our hearts.” — Natalie Merchant, Woodstock, NY 2003

The album is certainly worthwhile and one that can only enhance a drive from NYC to Baltimore on a gorgeous chilly spring day.

In relation to the query Merchant ends with: yes, people gravitate toward the familiar to ground themselves in what’s known before venturing into what’s unknown — it’s the paradox of our ’shared humanity’. We want to feel secure before we give into the deeper drive to find out what we don’t know.

It’s a simple equation really: I want strong roots before I go prodding around in the dark – that way, I won’t actually fall should I trip over something uncertain. But alas, poetry folks know (& this is our secret bond) that the security and the risk are equally grave and promising because the ground is as temporal (temporary) as anything else we don’t know — so the familiar we actually end up pining for is the familiarity of searching for the unknown, however unknowable it is. That’s why we’re happy to shake the very foundation that ‘our humanity’ always returns to for reassurance: words words words.

There is no there there, folks. And this is worth all of our effort.

Responses to “After the Maniacs”

  1. Larry Sawyer Says:
    April 6th, 2006 at 2:50 pm eI had Whitman on my mind the other day, too! Here’s what came out.


    O Barista! My Barista!

    O Barista my Barista! Our bitter trip is done,
    My thirst has weathered every block, the mocha we sought is won,
    The latte is near, the cash register I hear, the slackers all exulting,
    While follow eyes the steady steam, the espresso grim and daring;
    But O heart! heart! heart!
    O the brewing drops of Kona,
    Where on the deck my Barista lies,
    Fallen cold and dead.

    O Barista! my Barista! rise up and hear the Muzak;
    Rise up—for you the milk is flung for you the register trills,
    For you ristretto and cappuccinos foam, for you the line’s a-crowding,
    For you they grumble, the zombie mass, their tattooed faces turning;
    Yo, Barista! Deaf alt-rocker!
    This swizzle-stick beneath your head!
    It is some dream that on the unmopped tiles,
    You’ve fallen cold and dead?

    My Barista does not answer, his lips are pale and pierced;
    He must’ve drank some decaf, he has no pulse nor will;
    But my latte awaits me safe and sound, its roasted voyage done;
    From bathroom trip the shift manager comes in with my overpriced-coffee won;
    Exult O nine-to-fivers, and ring O cash register bells!
    But I, hungover, tread…
    Walk the faux-wood floors where my Barista lies,
    Fallen cold and dead.

Music Poetry

AMY KING View All →

Amy King is the recipient of the 2015 Winner of the Women’s National Book Association (WNBA) Award. Her latest collection, The Missing Museum, is a winner of the 2015 Tarpaulin Sky Book Prize. She co-edited with Heidi Lynn Staples the anthology Big Energy Poets of the Anthropocene: When Ecopoets Think Climate Change. She also co-edits the anthology series, Bettering American Poetry, and is a professor of creative writing at SUNY Nassau Community College.

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