Dylan’s rhythms and the 13-year old poet

dylanSo, out of the blue on Saturday morning I receive a poem by a young boy, Domenic Feola, thirteen years old.  I don’t know him, never taught him, probably never will.  He is a suburban kid who runs cross-country at one of the city parks. But his ear is impeccable and his language is crisp.  And the rhythm of his poem is infectious (until the last couplet where in trying to sum up his feelings he loses is footing) .

             The City

     by Domenic Feola

Bright lights, fast trains
Cold nights, heavy rains
Dirty air, bus fare
Pigeons flying everywhere
Crowded streets, traffic jams
Music beats, grand slams
Bugs fly, kids cry
No stars in the night sky
Noisy bars, littered trash
Big cars, no cash
Garbage smells, huge hotels
In the shadows, spiders dwell
Scary strangers, taxi cabs
Hidden dangers, science labs
Museums of art, cherry tart
Broken beat up shopping carts
If you say I’m biased, I would agree
I think the suburbs are more for me.

Pretty sophisticated for a thirteen-year-old boy. Or for anyone, for that matter.  Great imagery, great confidence and impressive rhythm.  If I could, I would talk to him about the rhythm. That is the strength of the poem–but there are a few times where it needs to be tightened, where some minor tweaking would make it even better.  But it is impressive nevertheless.

Album Cover Subterranean Homesick Blues

Album Cover Subterranean Homesick Blues

In fact when I first read the poem I could hear Dylan–specifically “Subterranean Homesick Blues” –in the rhythm. Here’s the second verse from Dylan’s song:

Maggie comes fleet foot
Face full of black soot
Talkin’ that the heat put
Plants in the bed but
The phone’s tapped anyway
Maggie says that many say
They must bust in early May
Orders from the DA
Look out kid
Don’t matter what you did
Walk on your tip toes
Don’t try, ‘No Doz’
Better stay away from those
That carry around a fire hose
Keep a clean nose
Watch the plain clothes
You don’t need a weather man
To know which way the wind blows.

from “Subterranean Homesick Blues”

The short 5 and 6 syllable lines are similar. The grammatical “packages” the same.

Now, I read someone say that this Dylan song was one of the first rap songs.  But that’s not true, it’s utter nonsense.  Dylan was influenced by “talking blues,” Chuck Berry’s rock-and-roll, and the Beats like Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Ferlinghetti. (Notice in the iconic picture at the top, Alan Ginsberg talking to folksinger Bob Neuwirth on the left side of the photo.)

On the other hand, Dominic Feloa (who probably doesn’t know who Bob Dylan is) more than likely has been influenced by rap and hip-hop.  It is all around him, in the music he listens to, the advertisements he is bombarded with, the zeitgeist of the culture.  Yet his rhythms are a bit different. It might be that his non-urban background (and his youth)  gives his rap rhythms a subtle difference, a blunter edge. But they are working.

So, cheers to Dominic Feloa.  Keep writing. Show your work to your teachers.  Find someone to work with, to work against.  Write–revise–and write again.  Send your work out.  Expect rejection.  Work harder.  Good luck to you.  Thanks for letting me read your poem.

And, of course, I couldn’t leave without sharing a video, a promotion for the 1965 Dylan documentary Don’t Look Back, a promotion that did have an enormous influence on what was to become “music videos.”  This was the original…it has been copied/parodied countless times:

Central Station…more about a boy

MV5BMTc1MzU5MDgzMF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwMDQ4ODY2OA@@._V1_SX214_In the late November, I made a deal with my students. If they read Kerouac’s On the Road by Christmas, we could go see the film together as a class trip. (It was opening December 21.) However, for whatever reason, the film came, left, and went straight to video, before the first weekend was through. Needless to say, we did not go on our trip, (although one student claimed he could pirate it the day it came out and offered to show it in class.)

Later I told my boss this story. He hadn’t been aware of the On the Road film, but said that the director Walter Sayles was one of his favorites and that Sayles’ film Central Station was extraordinary and something I should see. And as he does often, he presented me with the DVD of it a week later.

Well, I finally got to watch last week. (I need to announce a spoiler here, but the ending is not the point. We all know how Romeo and Juliet ends but we watch it for what it gives us and makes us feel!)

Central Station (original title Central do Brasil) begins in Rio de Janiero’s enormous and busy train station, where Isadora (Fernanda Montenegra) makes her living writing letters for the illiterate. She scams most of them, never posting the letters she writes. One day a boy, Josué (Vinícius de Oliveira) and his mother arrive at her table. The mother wants to contact the boy’s father; she says that the boy has been asking about his father whom he has never seen. She dictates a letter that is both angry and accusatory.

The two appear again to Isadora’s table the next day to revise the letter, the mother wanting to erase much of the bile that was in the first. Astutely, the young boy is suspicious that Isadora still has the first letter right there and is able to retrieve it so quickly.

Central Station

Central Station illustration by jpbohannon © 2013

Afterwards, as the mother and the young boy leave the station, the mother is run over by a bus and killed, and by the end of the day Josué falls into the care of Isadora.

Central Station could have easily followed the film cliché where the rigid adult is paired with a rambunctious child and all sorts of mahem ensues–but it does not. It is not that kind of movie. Isadora does not want the boy; she has long been dealing with her own issues of parental abandonment. In fact, her first action is to sell him to an adoption agency. But that wracks her with guilt and she goes and retrieves him–keeping the money for herself which places her in some danger. Despite her bitter disposition, her jaded cynicism, and her own personal issues, she is responsible enough to want to get the child to his father. (And after all, she still has the address from the letter she never sent.) And so the two start the long trek by bus, kitted out with the money that she had originally sold Josué for.

Of course, the journey is difficult and there are a number of setbacks. Several times Isadora attempts to abandon Josué, but she fails–not because of pangs of conscience, but because of circumstances beyond her control. She dreams of running away with the kind truck driver who helped them out, but even Jopsué knew that that wasn’t going to work. She attempts to leave him while he is sleeping (his backpack secretly supplied with the money), but that doesn’t work and, in fact, goes horribly wrong.

And then finally they arrive, but the father is not where he last address indicated. Finding him is more difficult than they originally thought. In fact, they never do find the father–but they do find that Josué has two older brothers, who take him in.

In the history of film, there are certain moments that break your heart in both their beauty and their poignancy. The final scene where Isadora rides in a bus back home to Rio is one such scene. She has snuck away once again, in the middle of the night and leaving Josué with his brothers. As she attempts to write him a note, her anguish is palpable.

[caption id="attachment_2082" align="alignright" width="364"]fernanda_1 Brazilian actress, Fernanda Montenegra

The film is really a showcase for Fernanda Montenegra, one of Brazil’s greatest actresses. To be honest, her character Isadora is very unlikable –someone who cheats the poor and illiterate and sees a suddenly orphaned child as a get rich quick opportunity. Yet it is Montenegra’s talent that draws us into her, that makes us want her to do the right thing, and that breaks our hearts in the closing scenes. And the young Oliveira, who plays Josué, plays against her as if her were a veteran actor. Indeed, Josué’s uncanny and mature sense of what Isadora is up to is one of the delights of the film.

What Central Station is not is a showcase for Rio de Janeiro Except for Rio’s bustling train station and a street fair in a small outpost beyond the city, the film doesn’t dwell on location or even local color. Sayles, a Rio de Janiero native, sees nothing exotic about his home city…but perhaps that is to deliberately underscore the universality of this lovely and moving film.