Letters

Exhausted and burnt

Asked by: S.

Answered by: Poetry Clinic

Dear Poetry Clinic,

Am with others demonstrating for a ceasefire. Not seeming to work. Conflicts with other members in group. Exhausted. Burnt. Thoughts?

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Dear Exhausted and Burnt, 

Wouldn’t it be great to have a poem you could share with others to lift spirits and bring solidarity to your group? That is not what I have for you. I’m guessing you’ve been down that road, more or less, and besides, we live in less idealistic times, which is, perhaps, part of the problem.

Also, I don’t think that is what you need. 

Edward James “Son” House wrote Grinnin’ In Your Face sometime before 1965. It’s a poem about total loss and also about what can’t be taken away. The image of an enemy grinning, or smirking, right in front of your goddamn face is one of the most powerfully horrible we can conjure, as is the image of being pushed and pulled at the whim of others and being totally- utterly- powerless to stop it. This short poem goes as far in that direction as it can. 

But in the midst of this despair there is something. There is a choice. Being totally powerless, we can, in the end, refuse to grant these insults our respect. It is our last recourse. 

Edward House was a blues musician and a sensitive, fragile person, although this song is not a blues. His music, like much in this tradition, was never direct. It was never straight ahead- it was crooked, tilted. It always left something just out of view. James Baldwin called this “ironic tenacity.” It meant that happy songs aren’t happy and sad songs aren’t exactly sad. This is not protest music, this is what comes before. 

YOUR PRESCRIPTION

Attention is a matter of will whose locus is in bellies, spines and hearts. Twice a day, once in the morning and once before sleeping, sit down and look at your right palm. Picture the words “Don’t You Mind People Grinnin’ In Your Face” emblazoned in your hand and press it to your heart. With your hand in place, tilt your head slowly at a 45 degree angle to the left and the right. Feel the things you don’t want to mind separate from the things you do want to keep. As you tilt, feel those things you don’t want drain out of your right and left ears. Check inside to see if your heart, belly or spine have grown larger or stronger. Do this (REALLY DO THIS) for a minimum of one week.

Grinnin’ In Your Face 

Don’t you mind people grinnin’ in your face

Don’t mind people grinnin’ in your face

You just bear this in mind, a true friend is hard to find

Don’t you mind people grinnin’ in your face.

You know your mother would talk about you

Your own sisters and your brothers too

They just don’t care how you’re tryin’ to live

They’ll talk about you still

Yes, but bear, ooh, this in mind, a true friend is hard to find.

Don’t you mind people grinnin’ in your face

Don’t you mind people grinnin’ in your face

Don’t you mind people grinnin’ in your face

Oh, just bear, ooh this in mind, a true friend is hard to find.

Don’t you mind people grinnin’ in your face

You know they’ll jump you up and down

They’ll carry you all ’round and ’round

Just as soon as your back is turned

They’ll be tryin’ to crush you down

Yes, but bear this in mind, a true friend is hard to find.

Don’t you mind people grinnin’ in your face

Don’t mind people grinnin’ in your face

Don’t mind people grinnin’ in your face, oh, Lord

And just bear this in mind, a true friend is hard to find

Don’t you mind people grinnin’ in your face.

–Edward James “Son” House

Yours,

Poetry Clinic

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