All summer I’ve been working on Whirlwind Press’s magazine release, and finally here it is. This issue collects poems and art together from a diverse range of voices, all of which bear witness to injustice as well as beauty in urban and natural environments. We’ve gathered local poets and artists as well as some nationwide and even international contributors for the debut issue. The launch party was hosted at the nation’s oldest journalist club, The Pen and Pencil, and it was a huge success, a full house, and featuring big names like Nzadi Keita, Jim Cory, and our founder, Lamont B. Steptoe. Visit us at www.whirlwindmagazine.org to learn more, and even submit some poems and art of your own!
The following is the foreword to Rocky Wilson’s upcoming book of poetry, which will be published by Whirlwind Press. It was a pleasure editing and collating Rocky’s poems for this collection. Mr. Wilson has been a friend, mentor, and inspiration. His collection should be released by the end of this year.
The bus ride to Camden from the JFK Airport felt longer than I’d expected. The passing scenery of post-industrial New Jersey was depressing in contrast to the rolling green pastures of western Ireland that I’d grown used to in the past week. I owed a fellow traveler a couple hundred Euros borrowed out of desperation. I was to immediately head to an ATM as soon as we arrived at the Rutgers campus in Camden, and pay him back with even more borrowed money from my parents. Human Resources decided that I didn’t work enough hours to earn vacation pay.
It was hot for early June. I was a sweaty mess. My mindset was in self-centered, pissed off at the world mode. As my friend and I got off the bus we encountered a bronze figure on a bicycle calling out in a high pitched voice to passer-bys while waving a monkey puppet. I smiled, but my creditor-companion had a look of mild concern on his face. I turned back and saw the figure approaching us while walking his bike. This man was darkly tanned with wavy gray hair, wearing a black tank top, shorts, and sandals. His bike basket was filled with fruit and miscellaneous items. He was dazing off at the Philadelphia skyline behind us.
“Sean! I thought you were in Ireland!”
We hugged each other.
“I just got back. You’re so tan.”
“I was in Atlantic City. Where’s my post card you promised?”
I apologized to Rocky for not being able to send it due to something called a “Bank Holiday.” I almost didn’t recognize him without one of his signature rainbow tie-dye shirts. We talked briefly about the Aran Islands and western Ireland, as he’d been there a few years earlier for a poetry festival. He said he stayed in the same house on Inishmore as John Synge. I asked him when the next Pizza and Poetry reading was taking place (the date changes every month, a reflection of Rocky’s mercurial personality). I told him that we’d have to meet up for a Blue Moon at The Victor beforehand, but that I had something I had to take care of at the moment with my friend. Rocky said hello and introduced himself, as well as Bongo, his monkey puppet, then they both took off toward the Delaware River.
My friend was baffled.
“Was that a hobo?”
“No. He’s a poet.”
Serendipity allowed Rocky to welcome me back home, making me smile in the moment I needed it most. Rocky actually lives one block away from where we had stood, on Penn Street in Camden. His house is a beautiful three story brick row-home built over a century ago. This wasn’t the only time that I’d introduce Rocky to someone and they thought that he was an eccentric homeless person. This is because Rocky Wilson is the epitome of what it truly means to be anti-establishment. Although he grew up in comfortable Haddonfield, he’s far from a bourgeois poser. In the 70’s, Rocky felt the need to return to the decaying city of his birth, Camden, not to evangelize, but rather to spread enlightenment. And to Rocky that involves both poetry and puppetry.
“The puppet man” some people call him, he prefers to declare himself the Puppet Laureate of Camden. Why not? Rocky Wilson is one of the few who actually makes a difference in America’s most infamous city, along with priest and poet, Father Michael Doyle (famous for being one of the Camden 28). However, Rocky isn’t a grassroots activist. He’s much more than that. He is in the grass, one blade among many; he lives the pure life that the beatniks could’ve only wished to have led. Rocky brings joy to the hearts of strangers, especially children. As a substitute teacher in Camden, Rocky has built relationships with residents of the city that have endured for decades. It seems like every time I walk down Cooper Street with him someone calls out “Mr. Rocky! Where’s Bongo?” Rocky replies with heart-warming sincerity, a virtue which is present throughout his poetry as well.
At first glance Rocky Wilson’s poems could be dismissed as confessional or romantic. The former being over-killed by the beat poets of the last century, the latter even more so in the century before that and since. However, there’s something deeper here, a myriad collage based off of an awareness of all that has preceded it, but with a subtlety that does not explicitly acknowledge it like too many contemporary, “post-modern” poets do. The status quo has been stagnant for decades. In the age when Anne Carson is touted as the avant-garde of North American poetry, Rocky Wilson brings us back to our poetic roots. He does this in the spirit of Walt Whitman, which may seem trite to some, but it’s necessary in our fragmented and bewildered society.
Rocky Wilson proves that what’s needed isn’t art which reflects more confusion, but art which cures confusion. Rocky does this through recognizing subconscious pain stemming from a lost baby brother, bearing witness to natural beauty surviving in urban ruins, reflecting on the potentiality of love, observing camaraderie between whales, and in many more ways. These poems may seem more like stories at times, prosaic, narrative driven, and even conclusive. That’s because Rocky sees life as poetry, and vice versa. He does all of this and still manages to avoid cliché, which is one of the many remarkable yet simplistic traits that can be found in his poetry. This is what America needs.
-S. W. Lynch
Is he sleeping now in his chair by the alley?
Is he passed out cold
with a warm beer can in his hand?
He’s in the open air where strangers walk idly chatting
drunk like him at 2 am,
but not yet at the bottom of everything.
His fingers calloused.
His lips bleed.
His hair has turned to dread.
And his eyes,
oh what his eyes have seen.
Baldassare Castiglione’s The Book of the Courtier exemplified Italian Renaissance humanist ideals by making use of the author’s own memory of conversations in court at Urbino. Although Castiglione tactfully did not include himself in the specific situation proposed in the book, he wrote in a style that was in accordance with having an appearance of humility, which was one of his main rules for being a courtier. And yet, like Alberti’s writing on the values of a virtuous family, Castiglione cautioned for moderation in striving for any attribute, (such as humility) while pursuing perfection in the court, by adding that the courtier should want to abound with confidence as well. Through ensuing conversation between many different participants, (presided over by Elisabetta Gonzaga, her sister-in-law Emilia Pia, and including Count Ludovico Canossa, Federico Fregoso, and Giuliano de’ Medici) the author urged the aspiring courtier to be eclectic, although without being pompous, nor visibly trying too hard.
Castiglione began his book with an imagined situation in which Duchess Gonzaga decided that the court should play a game of rhetoric in order to find what attributes would make the perfect courtier. Emilia Pia jestingly chose the Count to begin, saying that he would know the least and so would not cause the affair to become tedious too quickly. Count Canossa humbly yet humorously agreed, and began by claiming that it would be best for a courtier to be of noble birth, “…because it is far less unseemly for one of ignoble birth to fail in worthy deeds, than for one of noble birth, who, if he strays from the path of his predecessors, stains his family name, and not only fails to achieve but loses what has been achieved already; for noble birth is like a bright lamp that manifests and makes visible good and evil deeds, and kindles and stimulates to virtue both by fear of shame and by hope of praise” (The Book of the Courtier, p 21). However, Caspar Pallavicino promptly contradicted the Count, (as per the rules of the game, according to “ancient rhetoric”) and responded that he believed more in the graces of Fortune than the responsibilities and expectations of noble birth. His frequent reference to the concept of “Fortune” was another similarity incorporated into the book that Castiglione shared with Alberti, in which both Italian authors agreed that chance could topple the achievements of any courtier or noblemen, no matter how calculating and prudent the man was. In arguing against the necessity of noble birth for courtier-ship, Pallavicino added that, “…the highest gifts of nature are found among the most obscure…” ( p 23) referring to examples of men starting from humble beginnings and gaining prestige through their own virtue.
Although at the end of this bout of words, Castiglione leaned the reader more towards the positive points of being noble in birth. However, Castiglione transitioned the argument through the Count’s response in favor of nobility by connecting that idea with the need for a courtier to be skilled in the art of arms, to the point where it would be his “…principle and true profession…” (p 30). From there on out, the Count took the reins of the debate by describing in detail what exercises the courtier should be adept at in order to be a competent warrior. And yet this was argued not necessarily for warfare in and of itself, as the Count repeatedly stressed that a man should be fit on foot and horseback more so in order to carry grace in all aspects of life. This is in implicit opposition to the previous understanding of the art of being a gentleman, as Castiglione was keenly aware of the prevailing medieval idea of what a courtier ought to be, primarily a knight. In acknowledging the need for a courtier to be a man of arms, and yet at the same time stressing that the man do so in order to also excel at other activities, Castiglione was alluding to the trend of Renaissance states to rely more on foot-soldiers than the mounted knights of old.
In The Book of the Courtier, Castiglione argued again and again through his non-fictional characters that universality in activities without excess in one too much was essential in learning to live as an ideal Renaissance courtier: “Our Courtier then will be esteemed excellent and will attain grace in everything, particularly in speaking, if he avoids affectation…” (p 37). Castiglione often used analogies through his characters, which livened up the debate and allowed the participants to transition to the many different topics that were necessary to touch on, as humanism required variation in study. The Count and Federico argued whether if there were boundaries between speaking and writing, where the Count argued against using ancient, obscure Tuscan words in writing, as he said that no one would reasonably incorporate those phrases into everyday speech. Federico begged to differ, saying that using difficult words gave the writer an authoritative voice, and would force the reader to slow down and pay attention, adding that “if the ignorance of him who reads is so great that he cannot overcome those difficulties, it is not the fault of the writer, nor on this account ought that style to be deemed unbeautiful.” (p 40). Pallavicino then interjected and claimed that speech-craft was more important for the courtier, and yet was drowned out by the others whom successfully counter-argued that writing was of utter importance, especially, (although Castiglione did not repeat it explicitly) since the courtier’s primary responsibility would be that of diplomacy.
Regardless of the competing importance of speech and writing, The Book of the Courtier was clear in its intent that the aspiring courtier should be an educated adviser, as opposed to the traditional court medieval knight. The author set his treatise on courtliness in 1507, at the height of the Italian Renaissance, and his advice largely hinged on classical writings on being a gentleman, mainly that of Cicero. Unlike in the Middle Ages, Italian court life in the Renaissance, (when not based in a republic, such as Venice or Genoa) depended on educated humanists who would advise the king on matters, and would also advocate culture and the arts. A groundbreaking theme in The Book of the Courtier was the status of women, as the Duchess called on Medici to defend womanhood against men such as Pallavicino, whom still held the belief that women were only good for childbirth. Medici argued that women were not only necessary as muses, but were capable of artistic endeavors themselves.
Like in art, the Italians were the vanguard in developing politics in ways that other Europeans would only start to learn from decades later; this meant that at the time of the book’s writing, the French were still following the medieval ways of being a gentleman through valor on the battlefield and knighthood. With The Book of the Courtier, Castiglione set a precedent that would be taught and followed for centuries to come by all Europeans, especially the French. The book’s main objective, and Castiglione’s main occupation in life, was diplomacy. Since knighthood was becoming continuously unimportant in Renaissance nobility, the court life increasingly became a game of words in which courtiers would be in residence at, or write letters to, foreign principalities in order to represent the interests of their lord or king. According to Castiglione, the perfect courtier should have had all of the attributes of a humanist, but most importantly writing. The epistolary craft, (through developing rhetoric and logic) was most helpful in learning the art of persuasion, which was what the quintessential courtier/diplomat needed. This is what made The Book of the Courtier a seminal work in Modernity.
These fingers have grasped ceramic and glass,
turning and scrubbing dishes and instruments
of consumption. These hands have been immersed
in hot and murky fetid water, working and toiling
until the night has worn down to the final minutes
when hours of work must be finished.
The grime and grease of more than thousands
of leftovers stained on dishes must be obliterated.
These callouses break and reform through bleach and detergent,
these fingers have grasped plates, bowls, glasses, mugs, pots, pans, and every kind of utensil
imagined, cast away food half eaten, not eaten, thrown away food dumped in plastic
bags mixed with poison, for those just one step below to dig through and savor.
These hands have contemplated searching for sustenance, and so the mind
wanders, spine slumped over, the dish washing machine compact and half-working.
These fingers have ended nights with desire for a cold clean glass,
while the hand rests upon a common grail and ponders whose hands it has passed
through and ponders more the covenant between each proletariat.
That each and every person mind their own, and drink and sometimes moan,
but never belabor too much the plight of pointless labor.