LORD, LET ME DIE WITH A HAMMER IN MY HAND
America has never been easy, and is not easy today. Americans have always been at a certain tension. Their liberty is a thing of sheer will, sheer tension: a liberty of THOU SHALT NOT.
This is a crime story in a large and violent place. Too large for subject and object.
An American is a complex of occasions.
A change in attention is a change in culture.
It’s fall time in NC. The old mill that we just moved into in Sugar Grove (about six miles outside of Boone where we are teaching) is surrounded by fog most every morning… I’m up early enough walking Franklin that I’ve already been wearing a winter jacket. One of the first things that we hear after our slatted door creaks open is the sound of overripe apples hitting the asphalt. I have been listening to Gillian Welch at night, driving in the dark on mountain roads and I have been thinking a lot about Welch’s meditative and radiantly frayed journey through the American underworld “I Dream A Highway” (Time, The Revelator)—a song that scrapes rock bottom (“an empty wagon/ full of rattling bones”) to inhabit and pay homage to the isolations, busted hopefulness, dangerous lures and shattered ecstasies of American experience “blind and blistered by the morning white.” Patron saint: Jack of Diamonds. Clocking in just shy of fifteen minutes, “I Dream A Highway” initiates a trance and a sacrifice of breath—a desperate prayer for occupation and renewal.
As the crumbling “silver vision” of America gives way to exhaustion, anxiety, and paranoia, Welch turns to embrace American audacity and American stubbornness: “John,/ he’s/ kicking out/ the footlights.// The Grande/ Old Opry’s/ got a/ brand new band.// Lord,/ let me die/ with a hammer/ in my hand.” Welch’s wrenching desire to die with a hammer in her hand like John Henry acknowledges America as a dangerous proposal and a call to wakefulness that often comes at great cost because wakefulness requires us to live with (to carry) the burden of American experience. Calling to Lazarus to step out from the edge of the window shade, Welch attempts to provide the comfort of company, asking, “Let me/ see the marks/ that death/ has made”—a request for dark knowledge that will occupy and overtake her. Lazarus’ timid reluctance also foretells a shaky experienced resurrection that is perforated by loss. It marks an edge exhilarating and shot through with terror that reminds us how the end of HD Thoreau's Walden anticipates F O’Conner’s brutal conversion narratives: “The light which puts out our eyes is darkness to us. Only that day dawns to which we are awake. There is more day to dawn. The sun is but a morning star.” The Misfit: “She would have been a good women if someone would have been there to shoot her every day of her life” (“A Good Man is Hard to Find”).
“I Dream A Highway” is dark prophecy. Welch looks inward and finds that the most intense locality is a dark forest. DH Lawrence: “My soul is a dark forest” (Studies in Classic American Literature). She responds generously, in kind, making way for the world-weary, poor and disenfranchised, the lost and left behind who can’t “get with it.” She calls to country singers, killers, junkies, gamblers, and exhausted Hollywood waitresses eclipsed by their demons and the broken narratives of “progress” with the dignity and dogged force of John Henry. And we need her. (Especially now that Johnny Cash has set out for the next place.) Ghosts come with the full weight of their experience and transgressions and we need them too. Welch: “What will sustain us/ through the winter?” How do we do better? “Last year’s lessons” don’t hold. Welch: “Walk me out into/ the rain and snow.”
Allowing ourselves to merge with the dissonance, joy and terrors that haunt the American landscape is to be turned over like the soil—it means we must learn to commune with the dead: “Give me/ some of/ what/ you’re having.// I’ll/ take you as a viper/ into/ my head.// A knife/ in my bed,/ arsenic/ when I’m fed.” Welch is willing to be occupied and the seductive rhythm and lull of her voice and guitar pulls us into the wake of the transformation with her (“You be/ Emmylou and/ I’ll be/ Gram”). She’s willing to draw the short straw.
One of our great American prophets, C Olson, claims that “SPACE,” “the central fact” of American experience, “comes large, and without mercy” in Call Me Ishmael, his thrilling, innovative reading of H Melville’s Moby-Dick. Olson frames Melville as a harbinger who forces us to read and, thus, confront the darkness that we nest and carry beneath our exuberance and optimism: “Whitman we have called our greatest voice because he gave us hope. Melville is the truer man. He lived intensely his people’s wrong, their guilt. But he remembered the first dream. The White Whale is more accurate than Leaves of Grass. Because it is America, all of her space, the malice, the root.” “I Dream A Highway” is harrowing because the weird energy and warped momentum of American life is harrowing. It overtakes us. It will. Stepping out into the space manifest by “progress” is a means of acknowledging that there must be a change of attention. It’s our way “back to you,” to step into the expansiveness of Whitman’s “you” on the open road (“I Dream A Highway”). We simply cannot afford to proceed without being mindful of the fact that we are in momentum with (married to) the wreckage of our origins because American experience is “a winding ribbon/ with a/ band of/ gold” (“I Dream A Highway”). Like Olson’s Ishmael, Welch brings our darkness to light: “It was Ishmael who learned the secrets of Ahab’s blasphemies from the prophet of the fog, Elijah. He recognized Pip’s God-sight, and moaned for him. He cries forth the glory of the crew’s humanity. Ishmael tells their story and their tragedy as well as Ahab’s, and thus creates the Moby-Dick universe in which the Ahab-world is, by the necessity of life—of the Declaration of Independence—included” (Call Me Ishmael). Moby-Dick is a primary American parable. Ahab is a captain of industry, locked in self-sight. We live with his darkness (death drive) every day. His cruelty, greed and ambition (idolatry) are a part of our experience. “I Dream A Highway” traces wrenched echoes to remind us that this darkness extends to us, to real people. (One way or another.) Our humanity is complex; it’s full of strife and heartache. We fall and find opportunities for grace and redemption. (Or don’t.) We find our way together.
Being awake is T Carlyle’s prerequisite for voting. (Sleepers don’t get a say.) In America, the sweaty loudmouth, privileged enough to believe he speaks for everyone, who pounds on the table in Black Cat Burrito, our local burrito place, to assert that “lazy poor people” should “stop complaining and get a job” between mouthfuls of food gets a say. We carry his ignorance and self-love/ loathing (as if our own wasn’t heavy enough…). I come up the steps into the apartment, boil water for coffee, and watch newsreel of a Tea Party mob crying out for us to let the uninsured poor die: Yahoo News.
*Note: I’m assuming that the uninsured poor also stand in for any number of other scapegoats that the Tea Party mob might be able to point to. I’m fallen. I have fallen again and again... I’m sure that I’m on this list alongside my mother who is good enough to mail me her inhaler because, even though I have health insurance this year (for the first time in many years), I still can’t afford the medicine I need to treat my asthma. I’m sure that many of the people I love are on this list. “Let [them] die.” CHEERS.
In America, we are haunted by the emptiness of our own rhetoric and by a terrible misreading of our place in the grand scheme of things (unreadable to us). We are haunted by the zeal of the Religious Right and by fanatics who write God on every brick that they throw through our living room windows. We are haunted by our own ignorance and we continue to pay attention to (empower) people who want us to stay that way. We are haunted by a cheap and amazingly narrow reading of J Edwards’ terrifying Great Awakening sermon “Sinners at the Hand of an Angry God” (that I’m sure haunts many of our scapegoats too):
O sinner! Consider the fearful danger you are in: ’tis a great furnace of wrath, a wide and bottomless pit, full of the fire of wrath, that you are held over in the hand of that God, whose wrath is provoked and incensed as much against you as against many of the damned in Hell: you hang by a slender thread, with the flames of divine wrath flashing about it, and ready every moment to singe it, and burn it asunder; and you have no interest in any mediator, and nothing to lay hold of to save yourself, nothing to keep off the flames of wrath, nothing of your own, nothing that you ever have done, nothing that you can do, to induce God to spare you one moment.
That’s one awful sentence. We puppet a terrifying Old Testament God of wrath that the first generation Puritans drafted to scare us into submission by rattling the chain and holding ourselves over the pit. God is waiting, displeased. His patience is wearing. He’s going to drop us into the lake of fire if the crowd doesn’t devour us first. Best to serve someone else up instead. (Melville’s Bartleby: “I would prefer not to.”) Edwards’ sermon makes us crawl down the aisles on our hands and knees begging for forgiveness. Sound familiar? America sings for the rich and for the God who holds us over the pit.
Here’s the problem: Edwards’ “Sinners at the Hands of an Angry God” sermon isn’t a continuation of the old Puritan rhetoric. It’s not really a sermon about incorporation. On the contrary, it actually marks the beginning of a splintering departure from the power structure of his day that still undercuts the entire Right Wing Conservative “Gospel of Wealth [Self]” narrative because it recasts God in the mysterious fire of original Calvinism. Breaking the safety of the contract (“Covenant of Grace”) that the first generation Puritans imagined bound God to behave in ways justified to human conduct, Edwards caused pandemonium for milk toast third generation Puritans by restoring God to incomprehensible, overwhelming activity (P Miller Errand into the Wilderness). The upheaval of Edwards’ teachings posed an immediate threat to the church because they called the privilege and necessity of church leadership into question by offering parishioners a jarring reminder that their relationship God was fraught and dynamic—an unmediated psychological experience that is always, finally, a matter of individual conscience (“Tyger, tyger, burning bright”). God was (is) a mechanism of control. Wake up. God is not a mob. (Never was.) God is a visionary proposal. We go there alone. And, in America, we are alone together. Each is responsible for their soul. This is exactly the realization that allows the loathsome Sherburn to diffuse the mob that wants to lynch him to satisfy their own bloodlust in Twain’s Huck Finn: “The pitifulest thing out is a mob…they don’t fight with courage that’s born in them, but courage that’s borrowed from their mass…a mob without any man at the head of it, is beneath pitifulness.” Disgusted by the town folk’s cruelty, Huck goes to the circus instead.
Calling for “sleepers” (a term he draws from Carlyle) to wake up in Walden and elsewhere, Thoreau attempts to rewrite Manifest Destiny as a spiritual endeavor into wilderness that out speeds empire. He calls us to a wider perspective that costs the same uncertainly. (Read Cape Cod if you don’t believe me…) We risk everything. We risk stability, contamination, disintegration and assimilation. We risk being trampled by the crowd en masse. We risk being responsible for ourselves. DH Lawrence: “My soul is a dark forest.” We risk Young Goodman Brown’s spiritual collapse: “My Faith is gone!” We go there alone.
Translating Confucius in a guerilla cage at Pisa at wit’s end, E Pound turns inward to face a dark forest: “like an arrow, and under bad government/ like an arrow/ Missing the bull’s eye seeks the cause in himself.”
Thoreau: “In Wildness is the Preservation of the World.” (Read: the world; not ours.) Wildness destabilizes our agency. It destabilizes our institutions and our rhetoric and allows them to evolve.
All else is delusion (sleeper).
Just yesterday, my dear friend Ely texted me that he had a dream that we were all living in the same neighborhood again. Our houses were unfinished. Our dogs were playing in the grass.
G Welch: “I dream a highway back to you.”