Universal Soldier (after Buffy Sainte-Marie)
now is the time
to stop the wars begetting wars.
are one of the many
set against the many by these ones.
It is yours
to lay your weapons down.
Perhaps in days to come
we will speak of the long, sad folly
of these ones who rob the many,
sharing the laughter of disbelief
that we ever let their triggers
silence our voices.
But your finger is on the trigger.
It is your voice you are silencing.
lay your weapons down.
Give yourself to open arms.
Though the blood of many
stains your hands, we will
press your head onto our shoulders.
And when the grief and guilt
and the blood and the revelation
that lust for death is your only ammunition
that you are pregnant with stillborn wars
that your humanity is the first prey you hunted
when the thaw comes
when you dissolve in our arms
we will collect you
give you bones to be whole again
but you must lay your weapon down,
burn that uniform – that one face
you wear so well.
Well, ye olde birthedaege came and went two weeks ago this day. Never that big of a deal to me, in all honesty, but this year something special happened: Buffy Sainte-Marie played a free concert at UVic on the day of my birthday. With no exaggeration, I could have died any time in the following two days (and being 27 now, I feel the risk is heightened!) and I would have gone with a smile on my face. As it is, and as happens to me fairly often, I find myself listening to her non-stop. I wrote the above poem two days ago, as a “response” to, or invocation based upon, “Universal Soldier,” a song that has long troubled me. I can’t sing the last lines of the song without choking up. But I’ve been feeling, as well, a powerful need to express the inexpressible love I have for this woman and her art.
There are certain artists who shape our lives. Released in early 1992, the album Coincidence and Likely Stories has come to impact my life more profoundly than any other work of art. Evidently my parents were big fans, because the album is the first distinct memory I have of loving music. Now, I’m sure I did earlier in my life, but I feel like Buffy’s songs awoke my musical consciousness. If I were to say that there are four songs that laid the foundation for my entire musical (and I might add, philosophical, and political) development as a person, they would be “Starwalker” and “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee” from Coincidence, and Neil Young’s “Old Man” and “Heart of Gold.” But Buffy was the standout. At that age, I used to take pleasure in enacting complex dance routines in our living room, both for friends and family and for myself, and “Starwalker” never ceased to be one of my favorite songs for this.
I speak about what a profound impact these songs have had on my life. I didn’t fully realize it until years later. Until I was living on my own, studying at UBC, and developing a more complex understanding of the socio-political conundrum that is This Land. As a child, I had little understanding of race, like most children. And certain lyrics confused me. I recall that every time “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee” played, I would spend a long time wondering why the FBI cut off Annie-Mae’s hands for talking about “geranium.” Needless to say, at five/six, the politics and history were beyond me, but I also recall that the song sparked an obsession, at around the age of 7, with Crazy Horse and the events surrounding Wounded Knee – which were still beyond my comprehension, much as I desired to understand. Fifteen years later, when I found a copy of Coincidence and Likely Stories in a used CD store, and bought it on impulse, my infatuation with Buffy was rekindled. And, listening to that album for the first time in over a decade, I felt as though I had discovered the seed of my worldview.
Fast-forward six or seven years, and I’m standing on a green sward at the University of Victoria, watching one of the few artists I could confidently call “my favorite” jumping around the stage. I could barely clap. I couldn’t move my feet. I stood there, wide-eyed, almost tearful with joy. And then, as though the Universe wanted to assure me this was going to be The Only Birthday I Ever Need to Celebrate, she came to the last two songs in her set: “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee” and “Starwalker.” These years later, having read Dee Brown’s history of the same name and learned a great deal more about the atrocious treatment of indigenous peoples the world over (including my own ancestors) at the hands of people who look a lot like me (maybe even some of my own ancestors), “Wounded Knee” brought me to tears, and cemented the realization that Buffy’s music was huge in shaping my politics – before I could have known what politics were.
But it was “Starwalker” that killed me.
She introduced the song with a dedication to “all our generations past, no matter where on this planet they come from. I don’t mean a couple hundred years ago, but what about our ancient ancestors? Hundred thousand years ago… This is for all our generations past.” I wanted to cry, jump up and down, and scream YES YES YES! when she said that. Maybe it’s just I’ve never met another artist who moved me on so many levels. Mostly I think I’ve just never met an artist who made me feel so joyously human – joyously, even as her songs speak to all the frightening, disgusting, and brutal things that humans do – to each other and the planet. And there is something about “Starwalker” that speaks on the level that children understand intuitively, that undermines the cynicism rampant in our cannibalistic, consumerist “syphilization.” The song calls upon a humanity that exists without cultural or racial boundaries – a humanity that struggles together, suffers together, and celebrates together. A humanity, it seems, most of us are struggling to rediscover.
And, of course, the song is fuckin’ great. And even into her 70s, Buffy hits the stage with more energy than most artists less than half her age. A Starwalker, indeed: