Monday, August 28, 2006

Bittersweet song in C

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From my earliest shape-gathering pools of recollection, there is a song that emerges. Whenever I hear it, I am drawn decidedly sadward. No matter what mood I may be in, this one song visits me like a country doctor who passes through a door, closes it, then takes my hand to tell me everything’s been done that can be done and now it’s in the hands of the good lord, or somesuch.

He then reassures me everything will be alright. Yet even with his practiced years of bedside ministering, he's unable to completely hide the truth. The truth of it is quite visible and lies but a few layers beneath his gentle face.

Whenever he tells me everything will be alright, I always take it to mean that no matter what happens—I’ll have to learn to live with it. There is a reason this country doctor suddenly materializes to tell me this each time that song plays: the door he appears from leads to my first sorrow. And that sorrow is one I’ve carried my whole life.

The first time I ever heard this bittersweet song in C, I was riding alone with my mother in the family car. I sensed there was something in her demeanor that was causing her stress so in an effort to cheer her up I reached toward the middle of the dashboard, twisted the big knob on the left, and music came out of the radio.

As we headed down Glenhope Drive towards the dairy or the supermarket, I was aware that whatever problems I might one day have in my young life, they would be small and inconsequential compared to what I was sensing in my mother that morning.

We had driven about a block or two when the song came on. It began in what I would one day learn and come to know instantly as a major key—a key usually reserved for happy, uplifting, and lighthearted songs. By the time it got to the last line of the opening chorus, a metaphorical change in weather suddenly fell over the song in the form of some minor key clouds. The song was You Are My Sunshine.

You are my sunshine, my only sunshine
You make me happy when skies are gray.

This initial part must have certainly made me feel hopeful and bouncy. This would surely cheer her up. I was driving with my mom on a gorgeous day and she was my sunshine and I was hers. No problems.

You’ll never know dear, how much I love you
Please don’t take my sunshine away.

All had proceeded along just fine until that last line. Who or what was going to take his sunshine away? It was his sunshine because a man was singing it. But why was his sunshine leaving? Was someone stealing it or was it going away on its own? Had it been a woman singing, the loss would have been hers and the tragedy might have been doubly compounded.
Yet, as we were driving, there was a visible and unmistakable sadness that overcame my mother. That led to a temporary confusion within me. This moment is etched indelibly in my memory as I could see the words caused my mother to stifle some invisible pain. It was also was my first experience with an emotional quality for which I had no name.

There is a product commercial currently using this song in a television advertising campaign. It begins with a couple of bars of toy piano and progresses for the remaining 25-seconds from there. It never reaches the inclement edges of the song, instead steering away from the dark stormgather to remain carefree in the bright sunshine.

Each time I hear the toy piano begin, I instantly recognize the song. But as the commercial fades out, I continue singing the lyrics in my head or aloud to myself as that sorrowed weather descends on me like a bird of gloom. And I find myself nearly on the verge of tears.

At first, I thought it was because I had recently been so deeply in love with a woman who was no longer in love with me. I naturally supposed this song was reminding me of her, smarting the heartache I’d carried for nearly three years.

So what then is the real reason that this song brings me such sorrow? It’s the life-long sorrow of my father leaving. And this is where it gets tricky. Emotions are generally a complicated amalgam of many things. Layered with a host of images, perceptions, and imaginings, emotion holds the ingredients of a recipe whose main component is subject to change each time it is felt. The chemicals that create these sensations within our brains follow a blueprint some millions of years in the making.

We then ascribe our own histories and experiences to them via the magnifying glass of our unique and singular memory. We then carry through our lifetimes a veritable pantryful of bitter soups marked with sorrowed labels we refer to as hard times as well as gleaming mason jars packed tight with the sweet preserves of the good times. Some of these cans and jars have expiration dates, some do not.

So it is with You Are My Sunshine.

It was, however, not my own sorrow I was sensing as we drove down Glenhope Drive listening to that song so long ago. It was my mother’s. Being only four years old, my sorrow was still well within the infancy of its personal understanding. I’d have a whole lifetime to come to know it intimately.

But my mother’s I could sense immediately and it was hers I wondered about that morning. As we trundled unseatbelted down the innocent mid-fifties street, I understood that, in spite of major keys and happy chords, the words of a song could overcast it with what I would eventually come to know as bittersweetness.

This differentiation would make much of my pantried soupstock easier to inventory and more palatable. Or not. Happy-sad equals easier to swallow. Sometimes; sometimes not. Sometimes bittersweet makes something far more tragic than the unsugared broth it is stirred from.

In this instance, hearing this song in a commercial does just that. It is an echo of the deepest kind. It comes from a place primordial in the prehistory of me. And it’s still painful. And bittersweet.

Perhaps it is because my father passed away a year ago at the age of seventy-two. Perhaps it is because I know the subsequent difficulties my mother endured at the prospect of raising two children alone in the 1950’s along with the difficulties and sacrifices she further shouldered and made in carrying four more children through the two more failed marriages that followed. Those were not easy times to be sure.

This bitterness is only sweetened by my not having been raised by my father and not having to endure all the alcoholic terror he conferred on the family of his dreadful second marriage. One of my half-sisters told me about some of it after his funeral, the other two refusing to attend.

In retrospect, this has made my impromptu eulogy at the service all the more difficult to recall in any kind of favorable light. Nevertheless, he was buried with the honors afforded all military veterans for his service in the aftermath of the Korean War.

It is often hoped that we are able to bury those painful parts of ourselves alongside the dead who may have authored them while we keep and cherish the joyous parts as we ceremoniously send them off into the great unknown. This is not always possible. Oftentimes we carry a lifetime of accumulated wounds and scars all the way to our own graves.

And the world wags on.

The rest of the lyrics to this simple song follow below. I will have to make my own recording of it some day. I’ll be sure to add some reverbish echo to the vocal and keep the nylon-string guitar raw and slightly distant in the background. I may even slow it down a bit to get the lilt out. And I will be sure to sing the final plaintive chorus a cappella for a definitive and lasting bittersweet effect.

You Are My Sunshine

You are my sunshine, my only sunshine
You make me happy when skies are gray
You'll never know dear, how much I love you
Please don't take my sunshine away.

The other night dear, as I lay sleeping
I dreamed I held you in my arms
But when I awoke, dear, I was mistaken
So I hung my head and I cried.


I'll always love you and make you happy
If you will only say the same
But if you leave me and love another
You'll regret it all some day.


You told me once, dear, you really loved me
And no one else could come between
But now you've left me to love another
You have shattered all my dreams.


In all my dreams, dear, you seem to leave me
When I awake my poor heart pains
So when you come back and make me happy
I'll forgive you and take all the blame.

You are my sunshine, my only sunshine
You make me happy when skies are gray
You'll never know dear, how much I love you
Please don't take my sunshine away.

Written by Jimmie Davis & Charles Mitchell
Jimmie Davis was a country gospel singer
& former governor of Louisiana.

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Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Books written in their language

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Fast Picasso

I remember the shop in the dream being in a neigh-
borhood around the corner from an exact replica of
Gleidden, Switzerland, if there is such a place. The
shop had been changed into a gay bookstore and I
found myself lost, looking for the used bookstand
that was always near the counter, but was no longer
in its usual place. I walked about with too much lilt
and gravity seemed to push my elbows out wider
than I wanted. I was barefoot and the tiles were cool.

There was a sextet of painted etchings on black rect-
angular plates hung from the back of a bookshelf.
The first two had words and figures, the other four
were figures only. The first was of a figure entering
from the left and a place that could have been Cuba
or Manila. I don’t recall the writing. It had the feel
of a fast Picasso. The same figure in the second was
wavy, but perfectly articulated. The words read:
I remember walking in seeing them all and thinking . . .
followed by depictions of what it was he thought
in the remaining quartet. There were three women
on a floor, two of them nude, and a round man on
his stomach writing in a small book. Their hair was
shaded in random solid pools of shadow while the
rest of it was simply outlined. They were supposed
to be images of his thought impressions as he entered
this place teeming with a danger of implied hedonism.

They were compelling for their lines, the waviness
suggesting the liquous fluid recollection of thought.
Some of the plates had Klimtish areas filled in with
overlaid gold. The signature on the final plate read:
Leonard Cohen. I turned to see him walk into the
shop. He looked like Anne Sexton when she was
in her twenties and sported her hairdo. He wore a
long housecoat worn by autumn ladies in New York.
He smoked. We began talking while I began building
my own sextet of thought plates in the bookshelf of my
head as to why he was here, why I was here barefoot
and looking for books that must have been moved when
the changeover took place. He was genial and after some
brief words said: We’ve never been formally introduced,
I’m Leonard
. I said: I know, failing to remember any
other occasion wherein we might have met informally.

I told him that I’d been keenly studying the black sextet
of his encounter. He asked me what I thought of them.
I began to reply but the emotion of their impact visited
me like bad news at night and I found myself at the wide
hem of tears unable to say that their execution was superb,
that they held a delicately balanced and persuasive story,
that the story was given to change depending on one’s
mood, and that the consequences of his entering among
these reposed strangers retold itself with every looking.

I never got that far. Before waking from the dream,
the last image I have of Mr. Cohen is Ms. Sexton
holding her cigarette and a wry smile, her eyes
filled with such a knowledge of a world that could
not be guessed at but through her sharing of marks
on paper, her black marks on black plates, her house-
coated emissaries in Leonard and now me, standing
barefoot in a gay bookstore where lesbian women sat
quietly reading books written in their language, where
amorous light passed morning through willing windows,
where lustrous Switzerland lay just around the corner.

Joseph Gallo
August 22, 2006

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Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Rivulets of fine rope

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Eleven Dresses

Wheat with cobalt trim, open
at the back so that shoulders might
find the cloudbreak’s brief caress.

Burgundy accented with copper thread,
twisted like rivulets of fine rope; a way
down from such prisons of station.

Flaxen as bronzing maize, where
a glint of red hair might race
fire through the mad fields.

Olive flecked mute with lapis, soft
for the restless covers of hard books
amid stonebeds that arrive like chariots.

Silence is the mantra black, when
everything loses itself to the unkept
promise that took the sun with it.

Shadows throw gingham lace wildly
across the buckboard; spring burns
a blue that will blaze through winter.

Hound and wind’s tooth interlace
like unlocked lovers; moors break
banshees in mist along the heath.

Silks skirt the velvet draw of summer,
trims the budding laughter like a taut sail;
there will be time for missing all this later.

Denim frays the fringe that barns the hay;
tangled in the scent that spoke animal
when the rainswollen doors were left ajar.

Corduroy ribbed in a thousand currents,
each line an oath sworn navy to the sea;
pacing the thirty year wait to the deckbones.

Topaz spun in amber, the seize of perfect fabrics
sanctify the touch that bore the fingers; senses
teach what has been taken and what will not remain.

Joseph Gallo
August 21, 2006

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Saturday, August 19, 2006

Three years from the sun

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Sour Water

Slowly, the sea smallens. You learn to live with how
you love. If a river can course this, you can too.
From Ulrichen snow to Cahuilla sand, a journey
you never knew would take such time to know you.

It might well have become a harsh glaciation of sour water

were it not for the kisses that buttered the warm gipfeli
with morning sun and her gracing mouth. A winter road
through The Goms brought houses built on collared stones

that crowded the iceway’s edge and kept rooting longtails

from finding their way into the larder of your loving fires.
And the moving unribboned behind you like a spool raveling
in reverse until you’re motoring Temecula past midnight

and the low moon tilts westward in a black sombrero,
somewhere out over some place you cannot see from
here but know exists, driven in sway and drift amid
the scattered shallows of all your vacant imaginings.

The crying comes not so much as before as if some polished

spigot served its purpose for once, alone on your way home,
with not one song lacerating the sac of your dear sorrow or
blurring the stars causing them to run via lactea down

the desert of your saltless face. This is the drying sea you
once thought fathomless, rifted to the very core of the earth
with the wound of love let go, of love let loose for a sudden
season before the world tilted three years away from the sun.

You are an island tonight. All the blue worry of misread
soundings that circled the current of all you’ve endured
has brought you here to chartlessness and tranquil anchorage.
She has left you ripened plantains in a bowl. A note set in her

own hand reads: Gone another ocean away. Won’t be home.

Wait up late if you wish. So you do, for nothing, for the practice
of waiting up for no one. Into these hours swell the brackish
smalling of the sea. You learn to live with how you love.

Joseph Gallo
July 9, 2006

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Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Circles over terminal slow

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Washing The Bones

Today I am rain. I function as sky in sorrow or sky in joy.
I sudden in ways the ground misperceives what affects it.
What carried muscle and hair, sinew and hoof lies fallow
in the marrow of weather-strewn years left too long in the
dead of things. Elkgrass, feralsprout, tattertuft skirl the blood
scrabble where the beast fell. Vultures long since abandoned
these scattered ruins to shadow other circles over terminal slow.

Each of us holds our place. I lift the bones one by one, unassuming
the structure. The sharp grain of calcification reads like a lode
of death. Here thriving was arrested completely, the erosion of life thorough. Water was sent back to sky, as was breath and the back that bore the vertebral link of numberless dawns and dusks that passed without notice. Nearby, chaparral grunts and whatever roots there four-footed keeps camouflage in close alliance.

How have I come to this? Gathering bones in New Mexican

highlands and bearing them homeward in a desperate act of
resurrection, skirting scrubcactus and downwood, red Chama
stucking at my trod, making
my way down the draw toward a dirt
road fractured with thundermirror strewn there from nightstorm
and fireclap that passed like black buffalo in the darkness that
stampeded between stumbling heavens and a light sleep.

Thus today I am rain. I remove them one by one,

set them in some order that does not add up to a
known biology, brush and wash the patient bones
with a softness seldom afforded anything beyond
such remote redemption. Yet I do so with humility,
with honor. These are my bones now.
I will wear them in the world.

Joseph Gallo
August 8, 2006

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