Land of My Daughters
by Marvin X
Reviewed by Rudolph Lewis
Marvin X (El Muhajir) is a marvelous writer in a black skin situated in America, and proudly a Muslim in these days and times when it ain't safe to be nowhere near or associated with Arabs and Muslims. He knows that White Supremacy is strutting mightily on the global stage, with no military and economic peer. Worst, the FBI got their bloodhounds out, kicking-in doors to save America from Muslim terrorists. So Marvin plays the odds, when the poor and weak need a voice, but mostly because like all artists he can stand momentarily outside the turmoil, challenged to take chances, just for the experiential hell of being near the fire.
For three years, in me, he has had a sympathetic observer. He is one of the most intellectually engaged black men in America making use of cyberspace to communicate nationally and internationally a unique, vital, and provocative African American perspective. His writings are at once political and personal, religious and secular, academic and street. And this integration is all done so seamlessly. As one of the proponents of the Black Arts Movement (60s and 70s), one might expect Marvin X to be rigidly ideological. Marvin X is rather a chameleon. Most of all Marvin is Marvin. But to become one's self is no small achievement. And that's the wonder of him as a contemporary poet.
Marvin uses the past rather than glorifying it as some romantic poets tend to do. He confronts what is now happening straight up, straight on. That is what is so delightful about Marvin, who is much freer than many of us could ever be. His was no freedom given, like Abe in '63. Marvin's run the gauntlet, the gamut, and came through it all like High John the Conqueror. He freed the Sisyphus, lodged in all our souls. And the rest is gravy.
He has come out the other side whole, far beyond his youthful work as a proponent of the Black Arts. He deals now with subjects other than race and race pride and race oppression. He deals with the ethics of the actual life we live moment by moment, the daily agents that confront you daily for food clothing shelter and a bit of joy. He has lived the horrors of America and filters all through the harshness and victory of that world he has lived as both a man and a Muslim. .
There's no sugar coating deception in Marvin's writings. Expect to get it the way it happens, get it like you would from an Uncle or an Aunt. The real deal, the low down, the mamma-jamma. His vision is as diamond hard as the gunpowder night streets he frequents and the street people he saves from a life of drugs, prostitution, and criminality. He sympathizes with the outsider, the down and out, because he's been there, and knows everybody needs a chance and a little love and understanding.
Marvin's last decade can be experienced vividly in the recent collection of poems, Land of My Daughters (2005). Often dated, these poems are strong responses to some event, some feeling, some word that required nurturing introspection and report. And Marvin was there ready to put his contribution on the table for consideration. Many of the poems in this volume are already familiar; Marvin shares his poems and his essays with those on his email list and those on Kalamu's e-drum. Because Marvin be writing because he be on the case every day dealing with local, national, and international events trying to make sense out of a world being reshaped disastrously by Democrats and Republicans.
In any event, there ain't no poem that ain't special in Land of My Daughters. Because that's how Marvin loves his people, every individual as if she the One. A poem unfamiliar "Why I Love Lesbians" is a controversial poem of such simplicity and honesty -- it is disarming. Marvin says, "I love them cause they hate me / In their hatred is drama / . . . / They step backward / At my manly aggression."
Marvin bees the man ("arrogant masculinity") he been trained to be. But the times have changed; Cleaver the Id (Super Gun) is dead. And Marvin is Man Plus: "But I wouldn't take the pussy / Have become wiser / In old age." Marvin, sixty years old, is still adapting to his environment (like a Green Beret) yet retaining his own integrity and worth. Violence solves nothing. He now believes in the power of the word, to transform the thinking, change the training not only of others but himself (the poet) as well.
This gender reorientation and realistic appraisal of women is also mirrored in the popular How to Love a Thinking Woman. Get me right, Marvin ain't gone soft or nothing, just "wiser." And it's good advice to listen to those who have gotten their ass whipped over foolishness, those who have traveled the trail we now trying to traverse. So a "Thinking Woman" is about more than women: it is about how to be a man in contemporary times:
Make her laugh til she comes in panties
With serious jokes to get her mind off the world
Never let her figure you out
Be always a mystery
When she figures you out you're through
Don't be that dumb
Giving the Other what she wants or thinks she wants is not enough. There is more to man than just repressive patriarchy and violence. A manly identity is not all that needs or solicits hatred. Viva la difference. There's a sacred place man and woman can meet beyond yesterday's crimes.
Marvin has a few dedicated poems of those who have come and stood on the world stage and made their notable contributions to the struggle: for the Barakas on the loss of their daughter (When Parents Bury Children and "Remembering Shani Barka"); Eldridge Cleaver ("Soul Gone Home"); Stokely Carmichael ("For Kwame Touré"); Lil Joe ("Revolutionary Rain"); Dudley Randall ("Black Man Listen"); and Sherley A. Williams ("Two Poets in the Park").
Sherley was the girl that got away, the girl his Mama told him he "ought / to marry" and didn't -- "a bad relationship was better than no relationship." So there they were "sitting in the park after 17 years of silence . . . now there is only one." It is a poem of love without sentimentality.
Marvin, I believe, has integrated Islam into his sensibility and thinking and it has provided him a certain mental discipline which in turn is reflected in his poems. "I Am" is such a philosophical poem, and Marvin concludes "If you are the best / pass and go." "The Devil Stole My Children," a poem of loss, might draw on some Islamic folktale. I'm uncertain what Jerusalem and Damascus symbolize in this landscape. I suspect Christianity, or, at least, a certain form of commercial Christianity. It's not unusual for Marvin to take swipes at Christianity in the Malcolm tradition, which is done very openly in the poem "Jesus and Liquor Stores": "JESUS / CAN'T HELP YOU / COULDN'T HELP HIMSELF."
This rough kind of humor, primarily mockery and sarcasm, this putting to shame approach can be found in "The Negro Knows Everything." But I like Marvin's humor. He's persuaded me that we should take ourselves so less seriously in that stiff ass way of being unable to learn to laugh at ourselves again: "On her dying bed, my Mama said, / 'Marvin, leave then nigguhs alone. . .' " And, of course, one cannot leave one's self alone "And Mama died and I love dem nigguhs." Here's a poet committed to his people despite their weaknesses and evils or rather, in a way, because they have them.
Doubtless, Marvin X is a revolutionary poet. In these days and times of the Repression of the Poor, the era in which every dime is contested, and corporations have the executive key to our lives, how can one be anything else but? "Yesterday, more than 20,000 people perished of extreme poverty." And we suspect the same to happen tomorrow as far as we can see. That kind of action will make even the dullest think there is something amiss. That we are not getting "all of the news."
And here is where we need the most skillful of poets, to fill in the gaps, to show us what really has value, in a world in which human life is being steadily eroded to objects (resources) for profit, and endless money making. In his "Poetics 2000," an update of Amiri Baraka's Black Art, poems don't kill. "Poetry will raise the dead / Make Lazarus stand." The poet must struggle against opportunist rhetoric and "Speak straight and plain about the world / Like Clay in Dutchman."
"Joy" and "You Are Spirit" are just delightful. For Marvin the spirit or soul of man is reflected in how he uses and to what purpose he delivers his body to man or woman. He believes that right love can transform lust into love, into meaning, and purpose. But there is lots more to sink your teeth into like "Terrorist" and "Poem for 9/11/03." If you want serious artistic writing, a bit of comfort in the evening by the fireplace, Land of My Daughters will make you feel alive and whole again.
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Land of My Daughters is available from Black Bird Press, 11132 Nelson Bar Road, Cherokee CA 95965, 19.95. Or email Marvin -- email@example.com