What is a working class Christmas? It is two hundred homeless people spending the day in Euston train station, out of the cold and being fed. It is the Christmas Dinner’s Project founded by the poet Lemn Sissay, which provides dinners for those aged 18-25 leaving care. It is organisations like Crisis, the Quakers, the Sally Army, supporting the homeless. There are a whole host of volunteering initiatives on the day. Christmas is about not forgetting those more in need than ourselves, whether they are Christian or not and whatever class and/or religion you may be. And yes, it is the escape from work (not from family though), over-indulging, getting ratted, forgetting what Boxing Day is really about & having a punch up instead, the list I am sure is endless on depending on your inclinations. (more…)
One of the things I like about doing PP, is learning from the poems – not only the universal themes that have been the mainstay of poetry, but predominantly the history, past figures critical to left wings movements, whether at the global level, or in their own country at a particular time. I tend to be more interested in figures who fought against power, than those who went on to hold it (although being in power is the harder job, as countless leaders have shown in their failure). The lives of people like James Baldwin, Rosa Luxembourg, Langston Hughes, Paul Robeson, Audre Lorde are fascinating in the paths they took to try to change the structures of power, and arguably did so in the more difficult pre-Internet, world war and revolutionary times.
Poets thus far on Proletarian Poetry have covered a number of prominent, yet sometimes not so well-known individuals who tried to hold power to account. Ian Duhig’s poem about the Mexican revolutionary Manuel Palofax who advised Zapato; Malika Booker’s lament to Walter Rodney, the Guyanese academic activist who was assassinated in a car bomb; Matt Duggan’s poem about Wat Tyler the 14th century leader of the peasants’ revolt; Catherine Graham’s poem about the writer Jack Common feted by George Orwell; John Mole’s poem of the ‘peasant poet’ John Clare; Lemn Sissay with Sparkcatchers, about the Bow Matchwomen’s strike, and Jon Tait’s Kinmont Willie, a 16th century border raider against the English. Then of course there are the poems about people, (relations, friends of poets) who led so-called ordinary lives, yet did extraordinary things when looking back from our comparative prosperity and safer lives.
I’m very pleased therefore to add another such poem to the site, with Charles Lauder’s A Short History of San Antonio, which in fact brings the two aforementioned aspects into one; as Charles explains, ‘it started as a personal tale of my great-grandmother’s pecan tree but as poems often do, expanded into one also of Emma Tenayuca (pictured) in the Pecan Shellers Strike of January 1938, her life as a union organizer and fighter for workers’ rights (especially Mexican women).’ As Charles refers to her, she was also known as La Pasionaria (the Passion Flower), like the more well-known (in Europe at least), Isidora Dolores Ibárruri Gómez, who became General Secretary of the Communist Party after her role in the Spanish Civil War and coined the phrase, ‘no pasaran’ (they shall not pass). The juxtaposition of these of stories two women in Mexico and Texas, is so impressive in connecting the personal with the more general sweep of history, and makes for a great read.
Charles G Lauder, Jr, was born and raised in San Antonio, Texas, and has lived in the UK for the past seventeen years. His poems have appeared internationally and he has published two pamphlets: Bleeds (2012) and Camouflaged Beasts (2017). ‘A Short History of San Antonio’ is part of a new series of political poems. He is also the Assistant Editor for The Interpreter’s House.
A Short History of San Antonio
Sixteen men in dungarees and Zapata moustaches,
the dustiness of their skin revealing
how long they’ve been in Texas,
drink coffee on the newly built
front porch, legs dangling over the edge
while the foreman’s wife hangs doors,
strolls along the garage’s tin roof
hammer in hand, looking for loose sections.
This will be her house, this tree
her personal supply of pecans.
(barefoot La Pasionaria eats ice cream
with her grandfather in Plaza del Zacate
after Sunday morning mass at St. Agnes’s,
listens to an anarchist read newspaper accounts
of revolution in Mexico, of the FBI snatching
and deporting radical leftists, of the Klan’s plan
to parade through the city; it will be a few years
before La Pasionaria organizes her first strike,
spends her first night in jail, two hundred of them
in a space meant for sixty)
Underneath this canopy, the foreman’s wife thinks,
there will be a patio of crazy paving
with places to sit and drink iced tea,
a red-and-silver two-wheeled barrel
flavoring pecans overhead with barbecued
pork shoulder and chuck roast; in October
the tree will throw down a gauntlet of pecans,
their husks like swollen wrinkled yellow eyelids
that must be peeled back, the shell heel-smashed
or delicately cracked over a tin baking tray.
(La Pasionaria discovers Thomas Paine
and Karl Marx, marches and demonstrates
for Mexican women rolling cigars, sewing clothes
in dirt-floor homes lit by kerosene lamp
with no running water or electricity; she learns
about those in white aprons and thin cotton dresses,
with their Si and ¿Baño, por favor?
herded onto long benches in airless rooms
facing a line of washed-out oil cans and piles of pecans
that must be spun into gold by day’s end)
The foreman’s wife doles out pecans piecemeal
to children and grandchildren like an advance
on an inheritance to see what they make of it,
returning at Christmas with pies and candied yams,
sugar cookies and snickerdoodles,
served after mass to East Coast cousins
with a la mode tales of stupid Mexicans
and an admonishment that ‘a pee-can
is what you keep under the bed in case of emergency.’
(twelve thousand women gather in the park
chanting La Pasionaria’s name; she organizes
pickets, hands out leaflets, ladles soup;
police and Anglos fear the West Side tide
is turning from brown to red, storm picket lines
with bricks and bats while the Klan burn effigies;
the union fears she is too much a communist
and puts a man in charge to end the strike;
the shellers get three more brown pennies
and someone to fix the scales
while men roll cracking machines
into the spaces where they used to sit)
The foreman’s wife has to tear down
and rebuild the garage for being two inches
over the property line, her hammer stained
with the squirrel that bit her son’s calf.
On the garage walls, she hangs
old license plates, tools, and a bathtub
for making gin. Sometimes, she stays up
all night playing cards. She makes
her grandchildren hold the chickens
while she wields the axe. As a widow,
she transforms the house into a duplex,
takes in tenants. Her great-grandchildren
find her on the garage roof mending leaks.
(La Pasionaria runs through an underground tunnel,
as protestors storm the auditorium, rip out seats,
smash windows, where she was just speaking;
she tries to find work, but even under an alias
she is known; she flees to the West Coast
for twenty years; when she returns, she discovers
murals of herself on the walls of laundromat, gas station,
elementary school; she teaches literacy
to Mexican children in the old barrio;
mourners bring pieces of steel to her funeral)
Monday nights in pubs was games night. My father was in the dominoes’ team (5s & 3s) at his local at the bottom of the street, and I was in the pool team at my local at the top of the street. This was a strictly male affair, at least in the way traditions don’t change. We played pool across the city; it was the one time you could go to the roughest pubs and not fear a beating – sometimes the locals left that to taking chunks out of each other. The main fear however, was when the opposing team had a female member, sometimes even two, out of the eight. In that male repressed world of banter, if you drew the ‘bird’, you were in a no-win situation – you get the picture.
Society has been set up for men; whether in their increasingly outdated role of breadwinner, although this is still the predominant form of gender relations, or in social activities – pubs, sports events and team sports. Participation rates in sport between the genders has been massively skewed. In the US for example, 40% of boys played basketball compared with 25% for girls, and that’s one of the better examples. Walk around your local park on a Saturday or Sunday morning and you will see it populated by boys and men, from six to their mid-fifties, playing football. Things are however, improving; women’s football is becoming more prominent, and other sports such as swimming and cycling are being given a certain level of equal coverage.
Katherine Owen’s evocative poem, “Winner Stays On,” depicts a night when a woman takes on the men at pool in their habitat, similar to my own experience back in the 80s. “It’s winner stays on at The Brown Jack./ But after our game, Graham and I slip back/ to the shadows./ Not good enough to play the regulars.” On hearing this poem at the Swindon Poetry Festival, Katherine explained how she had been recovering from ill-health, and simply being able to stand at a pool table was a personal advance. “The balls go down in a slow, consistent way./ Now all eyes are on the table:/ the only woman in the pub shoots pool./ Inwardly, I laugh./Even to walk is something new.” I won’t give the game away (sic) by saying how it turns out, but as with any good poem, there is a lot more going on than appears on the surface; much the same as happens in a game of pool, of football, or more generally when looking at the gender make-up and politics of sport.
Katherine Owen started dictating poems during the 14 years of her life she spent bedbound with severe Myalgic Encephalomyelitis. A prize winning poet, Katherine is published in various anthologies, including The Book of Love and Loss. She is author of Be Loved Beloved– a collection of spiritual poetry. Katherine has given talks and readings throughout the country, as well as radio and blog interviews. She runs the popular websites: www.healingcfsme.com and www.a-spiritual-journey-of-healing.com.
Winner Stays On
It’s winner stays on at The Brown Jack.
But after our game, Graham and I slip back
to the shadows.
Not good enough to play the regulars
we invite up someone new.
But the man insists
so I, the winner, step up
apologising for ineptitude.
The balls go down in a slow, consistent way.
Now all eyes are on the table:
the only woman in the pub shoots pool.
Inwardly, I laugh.
Even to walk is something new.
The man gets anxious.
“Don’t let a girl win,”
shouts a voice from the crowd.
But she does.
Another man takes his place.
Now the atmosphere builds.
I resist apologies for misses,
‘I can pot the balls’,
‘I can pot the balls’.
And I do
benefit from mistakes made by a man
in fear of losing to
Another fills his place.
This time, at last, I lose and take my seat.
My friend smiles,
sharing the extraordinary.
Months later, back at The Brown Jack,
I chat to a regular.
“I was there that night.”
That night a woman walked