Category Archives: verse and worse

Joe Hill: A Musical

This just needs dialogue, lyrics, and original music (presumably folk). It’s based on a bit of history plus plenty of invention.

Act 1, Scene 1: Silver King Mine, Utah (1914)

Striking miners sing of their suffering and despair. They are buoyed to see Joe Hill, a Swedish immigrant and union organizer, arrive. He leads them in a chorus of his song, “There is Power in the Union,” which raises their spirits. Hilda Erickson, age 20, a fellow Swede, approaches him and expresses her admiration for his courage.

Act 1, Scene 2: the same

Joe pulls fellow workers Sven Andersson and John G. Morrison aside to discuss what to do when hired guns come to break the strike. Morrison suggests they blow up the only bridge to the mine so that the goons can’t bring their heavy weapons with them. Andersson says he knows where they can steal some dynamite.

Act 1, Scene 3: Hilda’s family home, a humble homestead near Park City.

Joe arrives with flowers and asks Hilda out on a date the next weekend. After he leaves, she sings ambivalently. Maybe Joe would come to love her in time, but he seems to love the movement more–and death more than all.

Act 1: Scene 4: The sheriff’s office

The local sheriff meets with Morrison, who turns out to be a former police officer and now an undercover deputy. Morrison tells him that the Wobblies are planning acts of terror using dynamite. The sheriff orders Morrison to let them steal the explosives and then arrest them on the spot. Morrison sings of his anger that communist foreigners would try to subvert his community.

Act 2: Scene 1: Hilda’s home

Otto Appelquist, another Swedish immigrant, knocks on Hilda’s door, also bearing flowers. He sings of the life they could have together as his store thrives in the growing American West, the land of dreams. This song turns into a duet, with Hilda confessing the appeal of his vision even as she also admires Joe. She agrees to go on a date with Otto.

Act 2: Scene 2: A warehouse by night

Andersson and Morrison steal dynamite. Once Andersson has it in his hands, Morrison draws a pistol and tells him he’s under arrest. Andersson draws and fires, killing Morrison. Standing over the dead body, Andersson sings of his fear and announces that he will flee town immediately.

Act 2: Scene 3: Outside Hilda’s home, the same night.

Appelquist drops Hilda off at her door and sings of his love for her as he walks away. Joe Hill suddenly appears and demands that Appelquist leave Hilda alone. They argue heatedly. Joe picks up a shovel and brandishes it threateningly. Appelquist draws a pistol and shoots Joe in the chest; Joe staggers away.

Act 2: Scene 4: The same

Appelquist returns to Hilda and confesses in shame what he has done. She sings of her frustration with all violent, possessive men. She hopes that Joe survives and chooses not to turn Otto into the police.

Act 2: Scene 4: The sheriff’s office

The sheriff receives word by telephone that his deputy, John Morrison, has been killed. The phone rings again to let him know that the anarchist Joe Hill has staggered into a doctor’s office with a bullet wound to his lungs. He sings of his rage at Hill and expresses bitter satisfaction that the radical will now die for murder.

Act 3: Scene 1: The Utah Territorial Penitentiary, Salt Lake City

Orrin Hilton, a slick city lawyer, urges Joe to tell the jury who really shot him. Joe says he would never snitch, and besides, he doesn’t want to take the stand in his own trial. He sings that he will serve the revolution best as a martyr. What is one man’s life worth when millions starve with rags on their backs?

Act 3: Scene 2: A field outside of town

Otto admits that he is no hero, but he sings eloquent memories of the old country, Sweden, in summertime. Can’t they ever enjoy wild strawberries again? Meanwhile, Hilda sings a lament for Joe and commits to living a decent life with Otto.

Act 3: Scene 3: The Utah Territorial Penitentiary

Joe reads his last letter to “Big Bill” Haywood (“Don’t mourn–organize”) and sings his final testament: “My will is easy to decide / For there is nothing to divide. …” Men come and take him to be shot. As the commander counts, “Ready, aim …” Hill shouts, “Fire — go on and fire!” A ghostly chorus of workers sings Hill’s “The Preacher and the Slave” while Hilda and Otto watch, hand-in-hand. 

Hush

Thin stands of bare-limbed maples and pines
Barely hide cinder-block buildings and signs,
But snow, fresh snow, wet snow: snow drapes all. 
Each twig or needle bears as many crystals
As could possibly be piled upon it,
Becoming a slender line under white,
Each just a tiny part of the lacy whole.
Trees are huge versions of their own branches;
Branches, like their own ornamented twigs;
Drifts, composed of delicate, gem-like flakes. 
No shortcuts. No “Paint that whole section white.”
Even in the densest thickets, each branch
Is intricately decorated with snow.
What superfluous generosity,
What quiet power. The road, too, is hushed. 
Cars file through, wheels whispering, as if
Reminded of what they have done, although
The storm does not mean to chide or console.
It is not meant for us; it simply is.

See also: More Temperate; Tangled Beauty; and “Notes on Gerard Manley Hopkins’ Spring and Fall” 

When the Lotus Bloomed

Thanks to Cambridge Arts’ Sidewalk Poetry program, this poem is now imprinted in cement at Clarendon Ave. and Massachusetts Ave. in Cambridge (Mass.). The text appeared first on my blog. I meant to answer Rabindranath Tagore’s Gitanjali #20, “On the Day When the Lotus Bloomed,” which begins—in Tagore’s own translation from Bengali—“On the day when the lotus bloomed, alas, my mind was straying, and I knew it not. My basket was empty and the flower remained unheeded.”

By the way, Tagore’s English versions of his own verse are criticized for being sentimental, archaizing, and didactic and less challenging than the originals. For instance, Amit Chaudhuri writes, “Tagore’s English version of the Gitanjali, for which he was awarded the Nobel prize in 1913, is what Mother Teresa once was to Calcutta, the royal family to England, and Kingsley to Gandhi: a tantalising mirage that obstructs the view of what’s behind it.” My response, then, must be even further from Tagore’s Bengali original, which I cannot read. But I think these eight lines convey some of me, and I hope they offer a touch of peace in North Cambridge.

Enjoy the Flight

You can’t track swans across the sky. No trace.
The air they’ve passed as clean as what they breathe.
This is because they never cling nor hoard,
Just stretch their necks and feet and beat their wings.
Or so it was said in a treasured verse:
Words uttered and echoed and inked and taught.
Yes, but what of those other travelers?
The ones who have stowed their treasures aboard?
The carpeted cabin is dimmed and hushed.
The engines that thrum and gently shake them
Churn and burn and scrawl a long vaporous line,
Orbiting the orb where swans swim in breeze.

(Weimar, Germany, Nov. 5-6)

the student

A Victorian house on a stately street,
Formal, ornate. The bell breaks the silence.
Would a gift have been wise--something to eat? 
When to shift from pleasantries to science?
A ticking clock, long rows of serious books,
China, polished wood, a distant dog barks.
Pay attention, this might have some value.
It's rude to seek help without taking advice.
Now say what you've really come for, shall you?
Then: time to go? Did our talking suffice?
Not for years now have I been the visitor.
This is my parlor and I am the grey one,
The host, the ear, the kindly inquisitor.
How can it be that it's my turn to play one?

See also: Midlife.