The Dome and the Well

Umm Kulthum died in 1975. I had a passing acquaintance with the singing of this venerated Egyptian artist, but knew nothing of her life. I learn from this article by Tom Faber that Umm Kulthum’s singing was admired by western performers such as Maria Callas, Bob Dylan, and Robert Plant.

I also learn that her biographer Virginia Danielson, an ethnomusicologist, mentions Umm Kulthum’s “possible lesbianism,” saying that she showed little interest in men: “It is very, very likely she had relationships with women.”

Such discussions can be bumpy, and more so concerning deceased idols who span culture divides.

She is not a feminine singer, not at all. Her face lacks the prettiness appropriate to a woman’s face, and her lungs are extraordinarily large. Her breasts are massive, true; but her neck is thick as it encases her enormous throat. She draws, too, because her voice encompasses more than one sex, soaring high as the dome of the womb and falling as low as the well of the testicles. Her voice is saltiness and sweetness: an asexual voice, but a bisexual one, too. The lyrics to her songs are in a masculine voice, but one that encompasses the feminine.

The above remarks by Lebanese novelist Hoda Barakat are quoted by Iraqi writer Musa Al Shadeedi in the Jordanian LGBT magazine My.Kali referenced by Faber. The mention of Umm Kulthum’s possible lesbianism caused the Jordanian government to block the magazine’s website. Al Shadeedi’s comments reflect both temptation and reluctance to probe Umm Kulthum’s rejection of traditional gender roles.

“We don’t talk about strong or masculine women in our history… We only discuss [Umm Kulthum] as a singer… I don’t see how dragging dead people out of the closet will fix our society today… But we can ask: if she was lesbian, would that change how we see her? This might help people reconsider how they react to such taboos.”

In terms of reactions to such taboos, astonishing in its way is that of Columbia literature professor Edward Said, the Palestinian-American author of “Orientalism.”

“During her lifetime, there was talk about whether or not [Umm Kulthum] was a lesbian, but the sheer force of her performances of elevated music set to classical verse overrode such rumours.”

The remark is cited by Al Shadeedi from Said’s “Homage to a Belly-Dancer” in the London Review of Books (September 13, 1990). It is an extended tribute to Tahia Carioca. As Said warms to his subject, he makes this comment (not quoted by Al Shadeedi):

Whereas you couldn’t really enjoy looking at the portly and severe Um Kalthoum, you couldn’t do much more than enjoy looking at fine belly-dancers, whose first star was the Lebanese-born Badia Massabni, also an actress, cabaret-owner and trainer of young talent. Badia’s career as a dancer ended around World War Two, but her true heir and disciple was Tahia Carioca, who was, I think, the finest belly-dancer ever.

His remarks suggest that lesbianism and belly-dancing occupied two widely separate rungs of Professor Said’s sensibility.

(Tom Faber, “‘She exists out of time’: Umm Kulthum, Arab music’s eternal star,”, 2-28-20)

(c) 2020 JMN

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Dust-Up in ‘Bama

Life in these United States leads to comfort where you can find it: In this case, the theory by police that this is an isolated killing and not a spree killing.

Seven adults were found shot dead last night, June 4, 2020, in Valhermoso Springs, Alabama, near Huntsville. (“Valhermoso” means “pretty valley.”)

Four dead men and three dead women had multiple gun-shot wounds in a single-level, ranch-style residence. (Ranch-style homes became popular in the 1950s as a post-war white middle class settled into leafy suburbs around the country.)

“We believe it is an isolated, and not a spree, killing,” said a spokesman for the sheriff’s office.

“It is a horrific scene,” said the county coroner, but there is more comfort from police: It’s thought there is “no immediate threat to the public in the area.”

So: Not a spree killing — they’re of the worse kind — and no threat to the public in the area that could be deemed immediate; that tracks as good news in these United States.

(Christine Hauser, “7 People Dead in Alabama Shooting, Police Say,” NYTimes, 6-5-20)

(c) 2020 JMN

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View from The Shed

The knowledge and assumptions that determine The Shed’s personal path through the pandemic are excerpted below. As the science evolves, our behavior will adapt accordingly. Godspeed and safe harbor to everyone. May we reach a common goal of the greatest possible health and wellbeing everywhere, for all, bar none.

Long Haul Ahead
We will be in this pandemic era for the long haul, likely a year or more. The masks, the social distancing, the fretful hand-washing, the aching withdrawal from friends and family — those steps are still the best hope of staying well, and will be for some time to come.

Masks Beneficial
Most experts now agree that if everyone wears a mask, individuals protect one another… And when combined with hand washing and other protective measures, such as social distancing, masks help reduce the transmission of disease…

Asymptomatic Spread
… No one can afford to be cavalier about catching it. About 35 percent of infected people have no symptoms at all, so if they are out and about, they could unknowingly infect other people.

Herd Immunity Difficult
We can’t count on herd immunity to keep us healthy… The antibodies that protect people against viruses infecting mucosal surfaces like the lining of the nose [in diseases such as influenza and whooping cough] tend to be short-lived.

Warm Weather No Guarantee
We can’t count on warm weather to defeat the virus… If someone infected sits near you and coughs, or talks a lot or sings, it doesn’t really matter where you’re sitting and how nice a day it is… [The virus] has a world population with no immunity waiting to be infected. Bring on the sun; the novel coronavirus will survive…

Goal of Many Over 50
“As an older person, what I want is not to end up on a respirator…”

(All excerpts are from “Six Months of Coronavirus: Here’s Some of What We’ve Learned,” NYTimes, 6-3-20)

(c) 2020 JMN

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They Says It

the tru-est words they says is that there are no per se

true words for it for ev-‘ry thing has a no-thing if

a sin-gle per-son ut-ter it they is the ip-so

fac-to ut-ter-er of it if a sin-gle per-son

ut-ter o-ther than it they has such

right so be it is e plu-ri-bus

u-num cun-ning con-sti-

tu-ted by the coun-

try fa-thers

of them.

(c) 2020 JMN

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Poetry Barasingha

My dog with the candy name goes off at the drop of a hat. When the washing machine rumbles a cycle-change from the tenebrosity of its cave, I wish I could say Taffy ululates, but it would overdress the event. She does peal like popcorn at the sinister clank.

Loving waggy Taff nonsensically is my segue to the poetry of unknown words. Words to me unknown are new words; and known words used new ways have an unlikely hood to them that also stretches a body no-pain-no-gainfully.

Poets can’t be trusted to call Jane merely plain — due respect — or a thing by its first name. It’s the storied glory of the tribe, and keeps me toeing each new line in the sand they raise.

Here are sonorous fragments ripe with newness and reverence from Pascale Petit in Poetry, April 2020:

Green Bee-Eater
More precious than all / the gems of Jaipur— / the green bee-eater […]
with his space-black bill / and rufous cap…

Swamp Deer
The barasingha bears his twenty-tined rack / like a crucified forest […]
he crosses the highway / with all the birds of Kaziranga / balanced on each fork…

barasingha: swamp deer (Rucervus duvaucelii); native to India; status Vulnerable (population decreasing).
green bee-eater: (Merops orientalis); a passerine (perching!) bird in the bee-eater family; status Least Concern (population increasing).
Jaipur: capital of the Indian state of Rajasthan.
Kaziranga: a national park in the Indian state of Assam.
rufous: reddish-brown in color.

(c) 2020 JMN

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Poesis in the Age of Wienie Grease

I’ve discovered that what’s called poesis, said to be the making and shaping of poems — they must be shaped as well as made! — is not straightforward.

For one, you have to follow your feelings rather than steer them.

For another, it takes thought and craft. Line breakage oft leads but to wrack and rune — smite my nasty afflatus.

Such dawnings don’t rustle and bustle in a fake-headline sort of way; they hit home psychoactively, but in a delayed burn.

Cherubim in my belfry do not choir, if they ever did. My God-light is a smoke signal puffed from a campfire pissed on by poesis.

(c) 2020 JMN

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Respect for the ‘Bloody’ Irish

“You have to keep them as your friend,” [Trump] said while presenting the traditional shamrock bowl to the Irish prime minister at the White House last year. “You don’t want to fight with the Irish. It’s too tough — it’s too bloody.”

More than 33 million Americans claim Irish ancestry…

[Trump’s] campaign… is hawking Trump Luck of the Irish whiskey glasses, two for $30.

During the Iowa caucuses, Joe Biden, the great-grandson of a blind fiddler from Ireland’s Cooley Mountains… [circulated] a two-page endorsement letter handwritten by a nun.

(Shawn McCreesh, “Donald Trump, Joe Biden and the Vote of the Irish,” NYTimes, 5-25-20)

Whiskey glasses, a nun’s handwriting — these are potent symbols. However, the race may come down to which man can say “taoiseach.”

(c) 2020 JMN

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Memorial Day, 2020

This gallery contains 1 photo.

Memorial Day, 2020.

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Farse Alarm

View from a manhole; damage dam-break; dom of dommage; taurine feces fence; chicanery chiclet; rush-to-fudge; jeerleader; freedom-loafer; warlard; crested mask-mocker; pharmacological jiggery-poker; spatchcocked eaglet; church-grade yellowcake; count no-count…

No matter how you pencil-whip it, Wharton-school it, or word-smith it, the bully virus — made great again in America — just keeps juking past every coughed-up hairball and tossed-up word-wall.

Poetry kicks in at such times — when farse alarms go off in decapitated duchies.

Build That Poem! Build That Poem! — A shield and bulwark ‘gainst the wooly bull*.

(c) 2020 JMN

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Art Is God-Light

In my language, the one I recall now only by closing my eyes, the word for love is Yeu.
And the word for weakness is
How you say what you mean changes what you say.
Some call this prayer. I call it watch your mouth.

(Ocean Vuong, “Not Even This,” Poetry, April 2020)

God knows. God being, and being God, speaks something and the thing is (or was). It’s begot — by God!

God said light, and Alexander Graham Bell’s mother conceived.

Art is similar. Art says something in its medium — the chosen one — and something’s there.

Whether it’s Velasquez populating a room with his paints, or Cecil Taylor illustrating Eternity with seventeen minutes of his piano, Art is God-light.

Art and God both are light-like, are they not? Faith calls it He. I call it wash your mouth.

(c) 2020 JMN

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