We were born 18
If you think we’re strange
You ought to see the others
So the other night I got surprised. Actually I got totally blindsided, but in a good way.
A few weeks back, I was talking about A Tribe Called Red and contrasting their music and their protest with the dreck Douglas Bland has been feeding us for the last hundred and fifty pages in Uprising. I’d been listening to Tribe for a couple of years now, but I never really did a proper deep dive into their work, and obviously that was going to have to change if I was going to write about them. That’s sort of a thing with me. There’s a handful of subjects and fields that I can’t get enough of, but thousands more that I’ll have a basic acquaintance with and that’s it.
It’s like being in the water where your feet don’t touch, and you can’t see the bottom. You know it’s deep, but that’s about all.
So I did a bit of a dive into Tribe and I liked what I saw. They’re good people doing good work, and a lot of the artists they collaborate with on their album are pretty cool too. Felt a bit of satisfaction when I recognized Montreal rapper Narcy talking about the immigrant experience on the radio and all that good stuff. Found out Tayna Tagaq’s written a novel which is pretty neat.
And then there was John Trudell.
Never heard about the guy until I looked him up, then I couldn’t help kicking myself for my ignorance. Activist and leader in the AIM, participated in the occupation of Alcatraz, lost his entire family to a mysterious fire less than a day after a protest in which he burned an American flag. Found his voice again through poetry and song writing. Damn. How the hell didn’t I know about this guy before? I figured he was worth a closer look, so I stowed his name in the back of my mind for the next time I went looking for stuff.
That’s something I try to do regularly: Look for stuff. I’ll wander through books stores or browse movies or music and see if something catches my attention. Doesn’t matter if it’s physical or online, if something catches my eye I’ll follow up and see what I find. It’s a mixed bag usually but sometimes I’ll find something amazing.
So I got Johhn Trudell in my mind while I’m browsing, and I come across a collection of his poetry: Lines from a Mined Mind.
So full disclosure: I’m not really into poetry. I mean, there’s some stuff that I like well enough, but it’s not something I get. It’s the same way with music. I know the stuff I love, but the best I can do is tell you: ‘I love the part where the guitar’s going middly-middly-middly-meeee!’ It’s like that with poetry, except I love music and I have a huge collection on my laptop. With poetry, not only do I not get it, but it’s hard for me to even enjoy it.
Until last last Friday night I would have told you that I don’t mind seeing/hearing poetry performed I just can’t read it. It’s a lot like Shakespeare that way. I can watch a play, but if I have to read it the words start sliding on the page and I have a sudden urge to take a nap. The way that ATCR presents John Trudell’s work – as a spoken word piece set to a pounding drum – is probably the best way to do it. Probably the only way I could enjoy it at least.
So I snagged the book, brought it home, and it sat on the table where I work for over a month untouched. John’s there on the cover, looking way more chill than I’ll ever be in my lifetime. I didn’t try to actually read it, but at one point I flipped it open and skimmed over the titles and I found this one poem about seeing a woman in a T-shirt.
The woman’s pretty, and there’s a sensuality to her that draws the eye. Some men stare at her with lust, others with love, but regardless she’s doing her own thing and carrying on anyway. It was a nice bit of work. I didn’t know this woman but I felt I could see her anyway. Gave me a kind of happy nostalgic feeling, like you’re watching the young people grow into their own and can’t help notice how awesome it is.
Huh, I thought. Pretty cool. Then I put the book down again and forgot about it for another couple of weeks.
Which brings us to last Friday. I was working late, and I’d gotten home after eleven with a caffeine headache and a lot of stress. I was scarfing down a slice of pizza I’d picked up on the way back, trying to counteract the caffeine with a beer when I spotted the book again and I remembered the poem about the woman in the T-shirt.
Now, we’ve already talked about Bland’s really sketchy attitudes towards women. There’s going to be more of this coming up and I was going to use that as an opportunity to talk about my own experiences dealing with women in the military. That poem was pretty cool, I thought blearily to myself. I should use it for a quote for when I write that post.
Yeah, I know. Go ahead and make your colonizer jokes. I don’t mind.
So I flipped open the book…and I couldn’t find the poem. Anywhere. I go through the tables of content (there’s several) and skim all the poem titles. Nothing about women in T-shirts. So I start skimming the poems themselves, figuring the poem probably a title different from its subject matter.
And then stuff started happening. Really cool stuff.
The lines I quoted at the start of this post are from a poem called ‘Born 18,’ which caught my eye since it’s the only one with a number in it’s title. Those are the first three lines in the poem. Tell me that doesn’t just grab your attention right off the bat. I started skimming through the book, looking for titles and reading poems at random.
Decades before the term ‘Toxic Masculinity’ got popular (and back when a lot of activist movements had serious problems with sexism) Trudell wrote ‘Sister, Sister’:
I want to talk to the woman in you
We’re under siege in a troubled time
Sister, sister won’t you hear my voice
I’m your brother but I’ve made the mistakes of a man sometimes it’s lonely being a man
The programming has its affect
Isolation is such a cruel thing
There’s his message (prayer?) ‘To God’:
We hope you don’t mind
but we would like to talk to you
there are some things we need to straighten out
it’s about these Christians
they claim to be from your nation
but man you should see the things they do
all the time blaming it on you
About being arrested protesting at ‘Diablo Canyon‘ and being forced to squat in the dirt wearing plastic cuffs:
Little did they understand
Squatting down in the earth
They placed me with my power
My power to laugh
Laugh at their righteous wrongs
Their sneers and taunts
Gave me clarity
To see their powerlessness
Needless to say, John Trudell didn’t think too much of agents of the state like me, although it seems to be more about pity than contempt for our ‘Plastic minds and faces.’ Much like in his description of the A-Lie Nation invoked by ATCR, Trudell seems to have a real understanding of what I described as ‘trauma culture’ in my review of ‘The Break‘. Check out this passage from the poem ‘Baby Boom Che’ where he talks about the impact of Elvis and rock’n roll on the boomer generation. His take emphasizes the fact that the baby boomers were a generation born in the aftermath of two world wars and a depression.
Everything was getting hopeless
Then when Elvis started to rock
The roll just picked up
I mean drabness the beaver showed us
Could only be a foretold future
Who wanted to be Ward and June and
I mean father never did know best
He was still crazy from surviving the war
This was a guy who understood living in that shadow of trauma and suffering. The words I was seeing on the page spoke to a dozen conversations I’ve had with the guys in the Mess. I was hooked.
I was also still awake at one thirty in the morning, on a day when I’d have to be up again at six. I had to get some sleep, even though the words kept pulling at my mind. Reluctantly I put the book down, and crawled into bed.
I still don’t to ‘get’ poetry, but as of last Friday poetry got me. I’m not sure if it’s just Trudell’s work, or if this will be the start of something larger. But it was definitely something else, and I’m very glad that I did it. I’ll probably be revisiting his work as this blog continues.
I’m not sure what else to say at this moment, except that this is why I look up weird stuff that’s outside of my experience. There’s more connection out there than most of us suspect, and the discovery’s one hell of a journey.
Also, I finally found the poem about the woman in the T-shirt late in the afternoon on Saturday. It’s called ‘Such a Fine Day.’