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Another Witness Against the Beast

Against the Picture – Window: A Time of the Phoenix Compendium
by Society Editions

7.25″ x 10″
175 pp
$25.00

Friend to foe/ And back to friend/ Some to none/ Then none again.

– Doug Youngblood

While late night television and the revival circuit still play the occasional ancient western or one-reel comedy shot in Chicago’s Uptown, once a rival of Hollywood during the silent age, other things also return from the past of this haunted section of the city. Four chapbooks composed in the late 1960s & early 1970s, a testimony of Uptown’s radical socialist history, have now been edited and republished as Against the Picture – Window: A Time of the Phoenix Compendium. This extraordinary book gathers poems, songs, and documentary photographs of Uptown’s people – hillbillies, migrants, blacks, East Asians, Indians, Puerto Ricans – who lived, stood, and fought against the power of city hall, the rentier land barons, and the bloodwork of the police. In old mute films, the landlord and the cop were always the heavy.

By the time Appalachia arrived in Chicago in the early 1950s, Gilded Age Uptown had fallen down. Capone and Gloria Swanson were long gone, though Chaplin’s Essanay Studios building still stands today. Several of the great music halls also remain, mostly vacant and neglected, although the most beautiful of the movie moguls’ old houses have again become hot properties. A part of the neighborhood has been renamed ‘Sheridan Park’ to expel the demons of the half-way house and the drunken Brave we call up when we say ‘Uptown’. In the birth, the blood was lost (Carson Hansel).

Uptown had become even poorer by the late 60s and early 70s. Doug Youngblood, who compiled, edited and transcribed the original books, called it Hillbilly Harlem and like Harlem New York, there was music and the thrill of resistance. Working class groups like the Young Patriots Organization formed the Rainbow Coalition with the Illinois Black Panther Party and the Puerto Rican Young Lords. They built clinics, resisted urban renewal by planning a Hank Williams Village, worked day labor, gave blood and some wrote poetry. Civic organizations like JOIN (Jobs Or Income Now) were created with SDS assistance; other allies came to Uptown. The sociologists came, too, naturally. The cops and the landlords remained, naturally. We will not live in hell/ But we will live/ And in our death/ Soft laughter… (Roland Seward). A common refrain, the music of the cops: “Another dead hillbilly”. Dead but not silent, submerged but busy. The people of Uptown marched on the police stations after each official murder. A noise, a shaking, dry bones come together. Hillbilly Power.

In these poems, the infamous major streets like Wilson Avenue and Sunnyside all lead to the Pigs so the continuous process of monster can thrive in Uptown (Rhoda Eisner). Human names appear too: Daley and Custer, but also James Dean, Spartacus, Huey Newton, Sitting Bull, the civil dead of the strip mines and the coughing all-nighter in a clinic with his old familiar, Black Lung. Uptown is transformed into other places in the world: Viet Nam, Harlan County and Ludlow, Wounded Knee. Twice the parking meter expired with no trace of us (Mike Lally). Specters of the great rise up and are questioned by poems. It turns out they are merely reports from that adjustment of the poor, the mental asylum: You’re Napoleon?!/ Ah, then join the ranks/ of we/ for there are thirty-two of us/ in this ward – 203 (J. Schmidt). Reagan would later free them and give them a republic of debris and mirrors.

It is easy to imagine Against the Picture-Window as a film with a voice-over made of many speakers. The camera-page follows each new narrator from place to place, from time to time. Certain poems are interior shots: a person sitting in a small room at the hour of the wolf, a girl with her child and measles. Others create busy, chattering streets or riff on old tunes like ‘Streets of Laredo’. Others are flashbacks, jagged jump cuts from the outline of the blue mountain to the leaky roof. The most famous modern film about Uptown is Haskell Wexler’s Medium Cool (1969). Verna Bloom plays a main character based on the great activist Peggy Terry, Doug Youngblood’s mother. It seems that Uptown cannot escape the cinema.

We should miss a necessary hatred. It comes back here, even in the shape of a fist sunk in damp plaster walls or in revolutionary suicide, from the sailors who drown when your ill-found ships go crashing on the shore (Harry McLintock). Uptown would not let City Hall muzzle its anger or stuff its arteries with a narcotic made in the standing pools of oil on Wilson Avenue. Echo of the old ballad “Sam Hall”, with its choral God Damn Your Eyes: My country, tis of thee/ This land of shit and fleas (Victor Rosa) and We hate in the forge, in the mind and mill, in the field of golden grain (Harry McLintock).

‘Cause there on the north side’s a sight to behold

Forty thousand hillbillies shivering in the cold

–Bill ‘Preacherman’ Fesperman

Every exile or migrant feels half-turned to their past, but Uptown’s writing is too hard-won to be sentimental. Every song implies a dance, even if it is a danse macabre. The Time of the Phoenix makes what Harry Smith called a ‘social music’. Things move fast: from white port wine to a lousy job to an SRO with chicken wire for a ceiling. The modern world is a tributary of speed. But I got those waiting in line, wasting my time, day labor blues (Doug Youngblood).

The book is bound in stark yellow split by a lightning red pattern, recalling the best early Soviet design. An interview with Young Patriots co-founder and present Chairman Hy Thurman introduces it all with admirable precision and shows that nothing is ever really finished in Uptown. Several recent poems, printed on blue paper, use elements of the old in an interesting way. There are also photographs, reproduced newsprint-style, slightly faded but still clear and captivating: musical jam sessions, the Young Patriots smiling on their street corners, Harry Belafonte smiling at the JOIN office, rallies with the Black Panthers, Peggy Terry sitting on curb, people in a city… The sun hangs over Uptown/ And I’m hung over, too (Bob Bacon).

A very minor criticism: as a supplement, there is a short dialogue between three of the people behind the Society Editions imprint. Hiding in medicinal-sounding Latinate neologisms stuffed like sardines into the unwilling gerund, these fairly inscrutable pages act like an NGO in Uptown’s verse. ‘They cannot represent themselves; they must be represented’, as Marx said with irony.

It was late yesterday evening

Some letters I was reading’

The candle burned slowly

Leaving traces on the curtain.

— Tim Bradbury

Books like The Time of the Phoenix wait for a future to complete them. Every possibility exists because of, and in spite of, the despised on earth and the both earth and the greatest of all deceits hang over the cruel miracle of political power like a shadow. But a shadow at midday always gives a shock, before which even the sun may be called to justify itself and cannot.

More articles by:

Martin Billheimer lives in Chicago.

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