I’ve known Stephen Paul Miller for going on forty years now, and the conviviality of his personality has never changed; so it’s always a pleasure to run into him, and I am not one who likes surprises. He has been a good friend to others, Taylor Mead and John Ashbery come easily to mind; and he is also a professor who’s written The Seventies Now: Culture as Surveillance (Duke University Press), and the forthcoming The Freedom Budget and Beautiful Snacks, books to make better sense of the present by understanding the past sometimes with a laugh.
Teacher and poet come together in Stephen’s poem for Joe Biden’s inauguration. The word inauguration comes from Latin. An augur was a Roman priest who studied the flights of birds to predict the future in their patterns. The prefix in can mean no or not: immeasurable, incomplete, immoral. It can also mean a location. An inauguration takes place on a certain day for everyone to see, in great numbers hopefully, engendering prosperity.
Perhaps flying birds do forecast, who knows? Rome became an empire that controlled the world. The United States has controlled the world too. If George W. Bush had studied the flights of birds before he invaded Iraq, could it have turned out any worse? The advice of a bird would have been as good as Dick Cheney’s. Barack Obama was a breath of intelligence after that; I got up in the morning knowing the president had gotten up even earlier to help figure out and protect the day—Then Trump came along like an abusive spouse ready to hit us with a tweet if we dared to disagree—Hair Trump was always there an ugly orange cipher. Now here is Biden trying his best to not get in the way while trying to do the best that he can. That is all any of us can do these days. Try the best we can.
What follows is Stephen’s inaugural poem in three parts, the first taken from FDR’s 1937 inaugural speech speaking of economic pandemics; then the second is two marches on Washington, the Civil Rights March of ’63 and the Capitol Riot of ’06; and third is an address to students at St. John’s University for a commemoration that they never had because of the pandemic. There are links to actual speeches, sites, and videos in the poems below.
I enjoyed putting this Vimeo together; I hope you enjoy it too.
1937 INAUGURAL VACCINE
We of the Republic sensed the truth
that democratic government has innate capacity
to protect its people against disasters once considered inevitable,
to solve problems once considered unsolvable.
We would not admit that we could not find a way to master
just as, after centuries of fatalistic suffering,
we had found a way to master epidemics of disease.
We refused to leave the problems of our common welfare
to be solved by the winds of chance
and the hurricanes of disaster.
In this we Americans were discovering no wholly new truth;
we were writing a new chapter in our book of self-government.
THE OPPOSITE OF CAPITOL VIOLENCE
At the ’63 march on Washington
A. Philip Randolph says
“racists seek to strangle Congress.”
I find myself so between. On January 5, 2021,
We march to the sea in a good way,
Taking Georgia to roll back the 2006 voting rights rollback
Getting back to Reconstruction before we gave up on
The non-violence at the electoral heart:
What investigation needs to be taken?
My students can’t tell the difference
Between civil disobedience and violence.
For as long as they remember
Non-violence has been a copout,
An establishment distraction.
Truth has made nothing real.
For as long as they remember
The big lie has broken windows and
The big lie knows where it’s looking.
And the big lie is I don’t know….
The big lie goes off without a hitch,
Acquitting on a technicality,
The big lie actively encourages the big lie
And sleeps with a convenient one.
“Look for the enemies of Medicare,
Of higher minimum wages, of Social Security,
Of federal aid to education,” says A. Philip,
“And there you will find the enemy of the Blacks,
The coalition of Dixiecrats and reactionary
Republicans seeking to dominate the Congress.
We must develop strength.”
And that strength makes you look at the big lie through
The impressions of the impressionless: the truth of creative nonviolence
washing through us.
Even if the big lie is going away, even if it’s not here,
Even if you can’t remove it, impeach it.
The big lie is you don’t matter.
Join the March on Washington now
Like you are it forever, says A. Philip.
for you grads (a real June 2021 liberal arts convocation address)
Keeping vigil with one who has left
Never again responding
Not recognizing the time of death
One’s face in starlight.
What’s a poem?
A bunch of words
and taking off on it
not slowing on the curves
then climbing over
overtones in the valley’s midst graduating for now
now looking down—there’s global lit
where astral cams zoom hmmm you
are the stars in the night settling
down near a virus and a flu
both too tired to infect anyone—
they fall asleep in each other’s arms—
making it in New York—
Their camera is the star of
Busby Berkeley’s flying rug
Friends call him Buzz,
You know—the mind-altering choreographer
Of Gold Diggers ‘35 when
At last they let him direct
Even the non-dance
Parts in synchronized story rhythm—
Capturing multitudes flowing up full circle
In budding phantasmagoric Keynesian
Lenses as the first macroeconomy
Becomes us from sixty feet in the air—
Buzz punctures holes in every Warner’s studio ceiling—
and you’re now this dancer/camera mind meld
you you you too have been looking
down and still are though now you’re in it—
in everything for the first time—
the dancer and the Busby one.
Those flicks are superhero ground-zero—
in ‘38 Superman creator Jerry Siegel
adapts “Lois Lane” from Lola Lane—
star of Buzz’s ‘38 Hollywood Hotel
and maybe even takes “Clark” from
Jimmy Cagney’s Footlight Parade
torn producer/hoofer role—“Kent.”
From those mythic heights Busby films an
ethereal “Shadow Waltz” in Gold Diggers ‘33—Please see
You are spiraling on wooden ribbons,
dancing in and out of hanging mirrored floors
becoming one and many neon violin(s),
with one and many glowworm bow(s)
pulsing through Buzz’s dervish kaleidoscopic
eye till someone buzzes
Buzz’s Sufi perch and
just as with
our current pandemic…
and THIS is a true story! See
…lights go out
as the magnitude 6.4 Long Beach March 10 1933 quake
throws Buzz from his flying carpet
30 feet up….
Hanging by a hand
his cinematographer pulls him back.
Hearing dancers falling from
dark slanted vertical runways
“Open a door! Don’t move
till there’s light!!!!
That’s the president we need that’s you
Stephen Paul Miller