Terrible Human Beings
The Orwells: it’s not just one George Orwell laying us down 1984, but a band of them, troubadours of this society’s recklessness in garage-punk tongue. The one before the new album was Disgraceland, on which they told tales of what it feels like to be swimming in “it,” the muck of guns, drugs, etc; the truth. Terrible Human Beings, the new one, their third album, is poetry, dark balladry as garage music: especially enigmatic music.
“They never came to town
He really gets me down
Take off that plastic crown
Coke nose and a pretty sound”
Terrible Human Beings rolls into being with the lines written above, in “They Put a Body in the Bayou.” A harmonic whirlwind, it’s first a grand display of magnificent drumming, then guitar, then singing: enchantment. Lyrically, we’re listening to town versus glam, but glam’s take on town (who put the body in the bayou / who left the tracks on the road.)
“Fry” produces enticement out of contemporary protest, poetry out of bewilderment. “There must be something in the water / in our obsession with mass slaughter” addresses the countless predatory practices that asks one to hold a sign up against. Its drumming is infinitely elegant, but it’s the singing, obviously from the heart, that enlivens. The instruments entrance, but it’s the singing that holds up the lamp.
The lyrics of Terrible Human Beings, in simple language, which make the Orwells are perfect troubadours for our age of texting and social media, of beauty worth listening past layers of garage for.
“Just because you took the easy way out
Doesn’t mean you know what you’re talking about.”
The two lines above, from “Hippie Solider,” manifest the album in its entirety. Terrible Human Beings was recorded at Chicago’s Electrical Audio over a month. These are finely written songs, however, that take slow years, of observation, of coming to terms with, to compose. It also takes some time to comprehend garage enough to play us what’s at this point traditional rock and roll.
It is beautifully written, so, from beginning to end, the poem’s solute is evenly distributed within its solvent; it is a solution. All solutions (poems) are fluid. Sometimes some, rightfully, claim to be some sort of medicine. Others are folly.
Well written black poetry, Phillys Wheatley’s, was first born to make a hero out of its poet. Clarity, the writerly kind, was the solution to indignation and to poor social standing. It was like most written poetry of its day, though a lot less of a communication than a signification than the usual. Whatever’s in Wheatley’s poems that seem “in solidarity with blackness” (To S. M., A Young African Painter, on Seeing His Works) should not cloud one’s judgement: the rhythm of her work and her language choice attest to the fact that clarity, to readers, would help her signify in her society. Becoming a hero to literate set has been the case since Wheatley except for a few exceptions, outliers: Maya Angelou. Langston Hughes, Sonia Sanchez, etc. These outliers dared new solutions and some become bards, each because of it. They wanted to produce a new public with their poems, the sort of public that will demand and work for something else. They still do.
Elhillo is one these outliers, like Audre Lorde was. Like Lorde she tackles with poetry, solutions, rooted in deep, politically existential, thought. In Elhillo’s case, the reader mostly feels the weight of the issue through the poetry’s rhythm.
Let’s take her poem ‘Origin stories (reprise).
i was born in the winter in 1990 in a country not my own
i was born with my father’s eyes maybe i stole them he
doesn’t look like that anymore i was born
in seven countries i was born carved up by borders
i was born with a graveyard of languages for teeth i was
born to be a darkness in an american boy’s bed or i
was born with many names to fill the quiet i forget
which one is mine i forget what is silence &
what is a language i cannot speak i was born
crookedhearted born ticking born on the
subway platform at 103rd st fainting blood sliding
around thin as water in my body i was born
to the woman who caught me floating into the train & to
every pair of hands keeping me from dying my mother’s
cool fingers snaking my hair into braids my grandmother’s
thick knuckles collecting my feet in her lap & my own
cupped for rainwater raising every day to my own mouth
The poem immediately plunges its reader into another’s concerns. The solution, like medicine, begins at ‘I was born in the winter’; it will be lyrical. It does not begin at ‘I. ‘In 1990’ adds and then so does ‘in a country not my own’; it will be a bitter solution.
The solution kicks in: the puzzle, the title and body of the poem, is hard to solve. Then, why is “I was born in a country not my own” in the same poem as “born on the subway platform at 103rd st.” We have no idea; we aren’t given an explanation.
The poem is, in the end, an enigma, though each line is clear, that charges its reader with emotion. It is read, and felt, as a political conviction, and its lines together, in the end, bring weight, and even introspection, to its reader.
Her counterpart in Haiti is the now renowned writer Makenzy Orcel (memory from now on / will be made of water.) and in France Julien Delmaire (I don’t tolerate / a beggar’s beard); each society presents readers enigmas. They are puzzles to be completed as directions to take in life. & Puzzles are, in the end, play. Can one have fun, pursue a fulfilling life, fixing? At a march? Solving? I think so.