I did manage to track down the movie The People Speak and I watched it over the course of several days last week. Famous actors and musicians lent their voices to the speeches and writings of radical Americans, while Howard Zinn offered a narrative structure, and historical photographs and video footage provided a visual context. A good package, overall, but something about it felt lackluster to me. While the folks involved were suitably impassioned (Marisa Tomei, David Strathairn, Jasmine Guy, and Viggo Mortensen gave several particularly stirring performances each) I couldn’t help thinking that it would have been cooler if the ‘cast’ had been composed of commoners – as if the unremarkable extraordinary everyday folks could bring something more genuine to the project. Of course many of the glittering famous people involved had less than glamorous origins, so I’m splitting hairs here most likely. In the end though, the movie didn’t satisfy me.
Of course I found other ways to hear the people speak. I picked up Emmanuel Guibert’s Alan’s War: The Memories of G.I. Alan Cope, which tells Alan’s story in comic book format. Guibert (who produced the excellent graphic memoir The Photographer) met Alan Cope when he was an old man living in France, became good friends with him, and soon found himself setting down in images the stories that Cope told him. Alan’s War is a much quieter book than The Photographer, but it is compelling in its own way. Cope’s wartime adventures seem pretty mellow – he spent much of his time in Eastern Europe (as part of General Patton’s 3rd Army) just driving round the countryside, and only injured himself doing things like falling out of the second story of a barn. He didn’t see much combat, although there was no avoiding some of the horrible and pointless results and aftermaths of battle. He became a soldier as a very young man, and while WWII raged in the background Alan was more focused on personal development and discovery, and on the friends he made. He delighted in coming across musicians and getting them to play, the physical satisfaction of hiking, good meals with local families he encountered, being one of only two guys who didn’t get seasick during the ocean crossing… As can be expected, the war had a lasting effect on Alan’s life, influencing his work afterward, where he lived (he only returned to America for a short time), and his relationships. His storytelling was straightforward, a little bit funny, occasionally eloquent and even philosophically lofty at times. He definitely came across as a fellow I would have liked to chat with, and I thank Guibert for, in a way, making that possible. Guibert’s perfect illustrations and Alan’s simple voice make for a book that catches you off guard – with it’s matter-of-fact style, it takes awhile to build up an emotional punch. It’s understated yet all the more powerful because of that. The day Alan arrived in France and saw the city of Le Havre, utterly destroyed, he had this sudden startling realization:
Heartbreaking. And yet hopeful. I’m glad to have met Alan Cope.
I’m also very pleased to have made the acquaintance of Langston Hughes. In April, in celebration of National Poetry Month, L of Omphaloskepsis shared her growing addiction to spoken word poetry. I enjoyed many of the youtube videos and TEDtalks she posted, and I was reminded of how much more I enjoy poetry when it is spoken or read aloud. I had Selected Poems of Langston Hughes checked out of the library because he had landed on my post-A People’s History of the United States reading list, and I proceeded to read it out loud – to myself. My housemates may have caught the sound of my voice carrying through the house late at night, because I quickly found that some poems can’t be read softly. Many of Langston Hughes poems really must be exclaimed!
I miss reading out loud. I used to read to my sisters everyday after lunch, until my mother sent us all reluctantly back to our schoolwork. I was talking to my little sister recently about this, and she said that she had an almost perfect memory of the events of certain books that I had read out loud, whereas her memory of other books she had read herself (in the normal fashion) was spotty at best. Interesting. The spoken word is powerful, and oral storytelling is especially so. As I discovered, even when your only listener is yourself, something about reading out loud transforms the whole act. It pulls so many additional senses into the experience, and invites your tongue, your face, and probably your hands (especially if you’re part Italian!) to the party. I so thoroughly enjoyed reading Langston Hughes to myself that I went straight off and got a few more books of poetry to lend my voice to – Alan Ginsburg and Roberto Bolaño are next on the list.
Here are a few of my favorites from Selected Poems of Langston Hughes – read them out loud!
Dear dream of utter aliveness -
Touching my body of utter death -
Tell me, O quickly! dream of utter aliveness,
The flaming source of your bright breath.
Tell me, O dream of utter aliveness -
Knowing so well the wind and the sun -
Where is this light
Your eyes see forever?
And what is this wind
You touch when you run?
I’ve been scarred and battered.
My hopes the wind done scattered.
Snow has friz me, sun has baked me.
Looks like between ‘em
They done tried to make me
Stop laughin’, stop lovin’, stop livin’ -
But I don’t care!
I’m still here!
Daybreak in Alabama
When I get to be a composer
I’m gonna write me some music about
Daybreak in Alabama
And I’m gonna put the purtiest songs in it
Rising out of the ground like a swamp mist
And falling out of heaven like soft dew.
I’m gonna put some tall trees in it
And the scent of pine needles
And the smell of red clay after rain
And long red necks
And poppy colored faces
And big brown arms
And the field daisy eyes
Of black and white black white black people
And I’m gonna put white hands
And black hands and brown and yellow hands
And red clay earth hands in it
Touching everybody with kind fingers
And touching each other natural as dew
In that dawn of music when I
Get to be a composer
And write about daybreak