Thursday, August 05, 2004

The Red Beating Heart of San Francisco

San Francisco writer Carol Tarlen wrote short prose pieces, one called “Nellie Perkiss Speaks Her Mind” in the totally believable voice of an elderly feisty Appalachian coal miner’s wife. When there were ferocious layoffs in factories in the 1980s, she wrote the poem “Work Slows Down at the Plant” about a trapped husband, fearful of losing his job, hitting his wife, showing compassion for both husband and wife. Her poems broke your heart again and again.

In the mid-1980s when mothers in Atlanta, Soweto, Argentina and El Salvador were mourning their children being killed she wrote a poem “Cholo” where she witnesses her daughter suffering in an inner city high school in San Francisco. She teaches her own daughter about politics by speaking of the women of “Atlanta/Soweto, El Salvador, ask the mothers circling the plaza/ in Argentina. They write history/with the photos of teenaged faces/they hold to the sun which is not/blind to their witness.” She even becomes these women in the poem, standing in front of a “locked gate./I am facing the silence and I am/crying your name.” In “As an Angel Glimpsed by Blake” she sees Blake’s angel in the face of a hungry man “in a worn, black suit … standing near the doorway of steel-/encased office building.” She saw Blake's angel near a Montgomery Street skyscraper in the financial district.

She knew her roots: knew her ancestors were indentured Anglo servants come form Britain to U.S. She was a Quaker and took me to the Quaker meeting hall south of Market Street. She knew about the Diggers, those English landless peasant communists who during the 1650s went to establish communes on abandoned land. When Cromwell, servant of the rising bourgeoisie, sent out troops, they decimated the Diggers who inspired a group of young hippie anarchists during the 1960s to start regular feedings to give food to runaway teenagers. The S.F. Diggers inspired Food Not Bombs, which Carol joined for ten years to feed the hungry in Civic Center, work for which she was repeatedly arrested. After one arrest, Carol wrote a prose piece about the prostitutes she met in jail, her fellow human beings.

She introduced me to radical English culture of singer/song writers Billy Bragg and Leon Rousellon, playing for me Rousellon's two great songs The Digger Song (aka "The World Turned Upside Down") and "Bringing the News from Nowhere" about William Morris. To paraphrase Rousellon, she like William Morris came with a vision and walked through the river of fire.

Carol like Whitman was a poet for democracy. During the Gilded Age of the 1980s, 1990s and the 2000s about the working people who were increasingly smashed and pushed aside and who fight back with verve and passion, she was writing a poem necessary for America just as Whitman had in the Gilded Age of the late 19th century. To write such a poetry, she adapted the poetics of the international avant garde of Breton, Valejo, and Neruda just as Whitman had adapted an international avant garde poetics in an earlier generation.

She knew the people she was writing about: her people, knew them in her bones. Her family. She was the red humane beating heart of the city of San Francisco. She had heart bypass surgery about the same time as Ferlinghetti did--knew him from North Beach where the lived the last years of her life--and compared notes with him about their surgeries. She wrote a poem answering Ginsberg’s ‘Howl” about the “best chests of her generation” cracking in a marvelous evocation of the North Beach she so loved. But her North Beach was made up the working people like the poor Chinese woman with fragile bones walking against the hard wind.

Her attempts at having her work published in a full-length book of poetry were repeatedly rejected, but she did have her work circulated widely in magazines and anthologies. She was marginalized in the Bay Area literary community for being working class. As the years went by and her diabetes and heart disease worsened, she lost her blonde beauty; in her fifties she walked stoop shouldered, making her even more marginalized . She knew it. Well, Whitman was marginalized. Dickinson was marginalized. They knew it, too

With worsening diabetes and heart disease, she retired from her job in January, 2005, and applied for disability, as her retirement wasn’t enough to live on. The insurance company turned her down, knowing full well that 80% of applications for federal disability are rejected. With her limited pension she couldn’t afford to move and had to live in a third-floor walk-up in North Beach. Still, she remained active, going out daily to meet friends and family, read at poetry events and take part in demonstrations for the homeless and against the war in Iraq. She had to daily walk up the stairs to her third-floor walk-up, running out of breath on each landing as her heart disease was getting worse. June 15 she died of a heart attack.

July 20 (Tuesday) 7:00 PM the free event “Words, Music, War and Labor” (New College, San Francisco) which is part of the 11th Annual 2004 San Francisco Labor Fest poets Adam David Miller, Jack Hirschman, Alice Rogoff, Roland Carrillo, read in an event held in the memory of Carol Tarlen. Her family and poet friends are working to put out a full-length book of her work.

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