One day before his 45th birthday, on April 1, 1984, the Prince of Soul, Prince of Motown, the iconic and widely beloved singer songwriter Marvin Gaye was assassinated by his father in Los Angeles, California.
His death happened 13 years after he recorded the single “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology),” the brilliantly mournful environmental elegy openly pleading for mercy in our world and calling out the destructive impact of toxins, pollution, oil, radiation, and overpopulation. Just shy of 13 years after, the single was also released as an album track on What’s Going On, with the earlier revolutionary call for love and understanding, peace, juxtaposed against war (Vietnam), as the title track.
Offering lyrics with so much love, so much consideration for peace and planet, for all of life and the living, Gaye, perhaps unable to bear more pain in the world, or himself in it, entangled in grief and paranoia, fought with his wives and then, with some sense of intentionality, the one person who never wanted him alive. “I got what I wanted […] I couldn’t do it myself, so I made him do it.” Gaye’s last words to his brother Frankie were testimony to knowledge of his father’s lack of love and understanding for him and his deeply distraught, troubled, and depressed state. He’d attempted suicide previously, and the defining moment stemmed from an argument with his father, who’d abused him throughout his life, and a gun Marvin had gifted to him, for protection of his home, until it was over, forever.
Gaye’s written, sung, and spoken word calls—for compassion, for climate, for change—were generously rich, utterly masterful renditions throughout the 23-year recording career of one of the greatest multi-instrumental musician/singer/songwriters to ever perform. The works serve as anthems still, in their sensational and essential calls for love of planet and embrace of one another. They also serve as a glimpse into and indictment of the impact of dangerous and destructive forces on the quality of life of animal and humankind, of integral forces that may both compel one to create, and despite the beauty of the work rendered, may shift the energy to one of stunning strife of the interior self.
I don’t know a world without Gaye’s music, without the embodied inspirations from his calls to peace and for planet. I don’t know that I’d want to. It’s been there since early childhood, through my challenging youth, through years as a laborer and later as a non-trad student in art school, and only grew more necessary throughout my adulthood, and, as psychologists name it, “intrinsic maturation.”
Like many poets and creative people influenced at an early age by someone who graced the world with so much to consider, so much genius, speaking to the exact matters at the heart of everything even today, his guidance gave millions good energy, good ways to be in life, gave me inspiration to endure times I was challenged physically, emotionally depressed and suicidal in my own youth, yet clearly did not do the same for Gaye, himself. Still, we have the music, and the message remains clear for anyone to realize who is up to the task; mercy mercy me.
Forgiveness is a big ask.
Mercy, for mankind, for what violent unkindness man has done to Earth and continues to do. Mercy for all of us writing lyric lines speaking to life as we know it, articulate it, call it, move through it, imagine it, ultimately, maybe, hoping our offerings can bring about some collective approach to greater grief, to move us along into the active process of grieving, the understanding of massive loss, toward a more unified intentional protection of our planet, its peoples in different forms, and to further pathways to a more peaceful, healthy existence, with a deeper understanding of mankind’s place, among all living creatures, and in attending to Earth, herself.
Mercy for so many caught in some entanglement of work related to creative process, particularly as our work engages with the dire dilemmas of climate, extinction, hatred, the hardships taking the abundance of Earth more and more every generation. They’re killing us on so many levels, the same remnant fixtures of resourcing industry—oil, radiation, pollution, political invasion, brutality—which Gaye called out. Here we are, speaking to the same issues, half a century later. Resisting with full resolution, invoking change through our own lyric, narrative, hybrid, and experimental offerings, with the ecology at the core of so many features of muse and with sincere hope for great peace, for a world without hatred, violence, and for our political fortitude, our wherewithal to flourish in the face of the oppressive and often violent states of actualities, of vast inequities, pain, and loss, as we bring our poems into being, those anthems of our own reflective words today.
And through reflection, introspection, and, moreover, translation of our lived navigations through the state of the environments and ecologies we mitigate, dwell in, create from, our interior kinship with creative process; the inhale/exhale, muse and extol, our lived and imagined habitat in the poet-mind we work through and in the surroundings that we exist within and seek; the balanced, reciprocal value of our relationships to our surroundings call for us to seek kinship, unity, mutual coping techniques to survive ourselves. Here is perhaps the place where we might begin to locate a bit of hope, a bit of possibility, a call for investment, for collective, deep community building, to deepen community on a collective scale, to strengthen our chances for greater survival, together—to flourish in this state of being—as poets.
In November, at the finalist reading for the National Book Awards, held the eve before the awards banquet night, I experienced something exceptional, profound, endearing, in the fantastically engaging mutual appreciation and camaraderie of nominated poets reading for one another and our presses. It seemed apropos, in this time, that my offerings included a nod to Gaye’s lyric plea for mercy and a grieving of his assassination. For that entire evening, the room felt full of some kind of wonderful rapport and admiration. I believed anyone in the room would be thrilled for any one of us being there, in the most beautiful collective moment, and for any one of us who would individually take the stage to be celebrated the following night. This graciously open-community love, compassion, solace, peace, inspired me immediately and mightily, and since that penultimate night, has called me to seek out places of comfort where one might find respectful and gentle embrace despite the pressures of what might compel one to create and/or impact the creator.
It dawned on me that the mutual appreciation already existed and what allowed for it to be present in the (phenomenal) way it permeated the night came down to feeling cared for, gathered, accepted, in a public manner. Our relationship to what we created with purpose of something far greater than ourselves, brought us together joyously acknowledged by principal players seeking to feed our creative ecosystem. A sense of peace was present and a sense that each person’s purpose, or at least that of our poetry, was accepted, acknowledged, and for that moment in time, publicly realized in a way that offered the sense of everything being worthwhile to anyone who may be challenged by experiences that deem otherwise.
It’s that otherwise that compels me to account for the matters in many poets’ experiences of the literary field and our singular ways of finding peace, while actively engaging in the ecology of creative process and ecologically engaged in a three-part essay.
For now, I’ll leave you with a prompt, and a handful of poems.
Poem Prompt: Collective Grief
The whole world is losing loves. The contagion rate hard to fathom fully. The amount of people dying is mind blowing. We have been in some state of what I’ve been calling collective grief since March 2020. I believe it affects everyone, on some level. Some far more than others, as these things go.
Allow yourself the time to feel this. To honestly take it in. To mourn. Begin writing whatever comes to mind within this process and keep writing continually during it.
Relax, breathe, let go, sing a bit, let go.
Return to the moment, now, with the knowledge of having been there.
Take the free writing and pull the best moments of writing to glean markers of grief and of this time, your process of it.
Write a poem from this material, with it as fodder, to host something toward a measure of collective grief in a poem form.
Take your time with it.
Close the work with a bit of witnessing what is in front of you this very moment.