“Once someone passes away they’re open to interpretation.”
So says Daphne Williams Fox, the grand-daughter of William Carlos Williams, as she responds to the new Herbert Leibowitz book on her famed ancestor. Leibowitz suggests that the Rutherford physician had an unconsummated affair with a Dadaist artist, Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven — and with names like these their mere introduction to one another probably sucked all the oxygen from the room. And can you imagine what might have passed for flirtatious chatter between the two poets, The Mind’s Games?
If a man can say of his life or
any moment of his life, There is
nothing more to be desired! his state
becomes like that told in the famous
double sonnet — but without the
sonnet’s restrictions. Let him go look…
Looking, of course, is always an option, and Williams undoubtedly engaged in the activity a lot. His optic nerve never grew tired. A coastline? “Today small waves are rippling…” Tomatoes? “Green/ in one basket and, in/ the other shining reds.” Violets? “Once in a while/ we’d find a patch… big blue/ ones in/ the cemetery woods…” An old brownstone church? “Among a group/ of modern office buildings…” Look! Look! Look! And finally–Look!
But what happens when someone looks back? When the writer as observer or as imaginator becomes the one who is seen and known and, as Daphne admits, “open to interpretation”? My sense is that creative writing, as a discipline, has no clear-cut answer. Nor does the practice of crafting a simple declarative sentence that is true come with an operators‘ manuel. No safe place exists for us — not even the library, not even the local delicatessen. Those people behind the reference desk are always watching. Those slicing lunchmeat have built-in baloney-detectors. And so, the conundrum that fascinates Leibowitz in telling the tale of William Carlos Williams is also the issue that Leibowitz himself may encounter some day. (He can only hope!)
Something Urgent I Have To Say To You stipulates that a poet’s subject matter cannot help but raise a window shade on what really happened behind closed doors. If Williams succumbed to certain philandering urges, for example, poems like Chanson and excerpts of Classic Picture might help to decipher the code. Daisy Fried falls in line with this tact in her New York Times Review of the biography.
Still I have to wonder whether speculation, neither confirmed nor denied, about the Pulitzer Prize winning author’s trysts really have a place in appreciating the following:
This woman! how shall I describe her
who is wealthy in the riches
of her sex? No counterfeit, no mere
metal to be sure –
yet, a treasury, a sort of lien upon
all property we list and transfer.
This woman has no need to play the market
or to do anything more than watch…
Oh baby! Someone, please call the National Inquirer! Chanson, in just two measly stanzas, has revealed a little cleavage in the way we know what we don’t know about a person. Where is Heraldo Rivera when we need him to dig up a little dirt? And what about this?
A woman’s brains
which can be keen
like a poet’s
to what deceptions she can muster
to lead men
to their ruin.
But look more deeply
into her maneuvers,
and puzzle as we will about them
they may mean
Now that’s just plain bizarre — and well within the context of the 1955 Greenwich Village milieu, when a female might aspire to the mentality of poet through simile alone. Today, of course, we would have to capitulate to the obvious every Classic Picture: whether or not women still fuss with their hair, as Williams observed, at least one woman’s brains are inherently poetic — Mutatis Mutandis!
In fact, the Baroness, as Elsa Von Fretag-Loringhoven came to be known, has finally broken into publication. In 2005, bookstores finally felt brave enough to display Body Sweats; The Uncensored Writings of Elsa Von Fretag-Loringhoven in full view of their paying customers. The title poem of the collection reads like so:
Well, there you and I have it. And, as Billy Joel has sung, we have what we have on the basis of “our respective similarities.” It turns out the condition of Ol’ Grand-Dad’s marriage is not important for Daphne. She has this: “Be patient that I address you in a poem, there is no other/ fit medium…”
So, I’m helping to teach a class of undergraduate students, and on the book list for the series of lectures are both Moby-Dick and The Vagina Monologues, back to back, one week after the other… This, it seems, is the nature of survey courses in literature. When we’re dominated with male writers and want to throw in a token female, among a series of classics, the 10th anniversary edition of Eve Ensler‘s screenplay works well…
Then, of course, comes the snickering and the under-your-breath, sneaky asides, those remarks that play on the title-images. ”Moby Dick,” as you may know, is a whale. But when the proper name for a man’s phallus isn’t readily available, there’s always some dick nearby to get the word on the public record.
By contrast, it’s nice to hear a woman’s bare essential characterized with a little decorum on a book cover. (When my younger six-year-old son, however, first heard the word in casual conversation, he thought my wife and I said “China,” and proudly blessed his parents with this health education ditty: ”Boys have Penis. Girls have China.”)
At this juncture, you see, the reader may appropriately expect a transition. That is, a hinge or a bridge or a nexus by which one idea or theme or description links with the next. And yet, lo and behold! We’ve already experienced at least one transition in the parentheses in the prior paragraph: we went from books, to whales (not to mention great literary archetypes), to the phallus, to one of the female reproductive organs… to an up- and-coming economic powerhouse, the People’s Republic of China. Isn’t this awesome?
Transitions, like these, are often called intuitive or implicit, as opposed to logical or explicit. And I’d like to make the case that we need many more of the former to be bantered about in academia today. And if these types of obtuse turns seem too much trouble, you might stick to reading cereal boxes and directions for putting together some Ikea furniture (although have you seen the eclectic bookshelves that can be built with an Allen-wrench?).
I will admit to having some hugely embarrassing moments lately.
Like the time we were reading some Kokinshu love poems aloud. About twenty of us in a circle went round and round, reading these brief, five-lines pearls of delicate beauty, and here’s mine:
does the beribboned
cock of Meeting House share my
is it for love alone that
we raise our solemn voices
Now, please understand. I’m not always this immature when discussing Japanese poetry from the 9th century or so. And probably, if I had made the effort to speak the original language, the verse wouldn’t have done what it did, which was send me into a seizure of junior high giggles. Alas, where to go from here?
My sense of things — first hand experience as well as second hand literature — is to make this broad and sweeping claim: IT’S ALL ABOUT IDENTITY. Transitions happen in wild and wonderfully creative ways, given the fact that we engage various moment with a unitary frame of reference. We ourselves — I myself and you yourself — relate Moby-Dick and The Vagina Monologues and Senator Marco Rubio of Florida lying about when his parents moved from Cuba to Florida (not 1959, fleeing Castro, but 1956, two years prior to Castro coming to power). You see how painless that was?
Anyway [transitional word de jour] — here’s an identity soliloquy on the lips of Captain Ahab, coming all the way from chapter 132 of Melville’s novel:
What is it, what nameless, inscrutable, unearthly thing is it; what cozening, hidden lord and master, and cruel, remorseless emperor commands me; that against all natural lovings and longings, I so keep pushing, and crowding, and jamming myself on all the time; recklessly making me ready to do what in my own proper, natural heart, I durst not so much as dare? Is Ahab, Ahab? Is it I, God, or who, that lifts this arm? But if the great sun move not himself; but is as an errand boy in heaven; nor one single star can revolve, but by some invisible power; how then can this one small heart beat; this one small brain think thoughts; unless God does the beating, does that thinking, does that living, and not I.
And, without further adieu, p. 87 of the Monologues:
I eventually named all the parts of my body. My hands–Gladys. They seemed functional and basic, like Gladys. I named my shoulders Shorty–strong and a little belligerent. My breasts were Betty. They weren’t Veronica, but they weren’t ugly either. Name my ‘down there’ was not so easy. It wasn’t the same as naming my hands. No, it was complicated. Down there was alive, not so easy to pinpoint. It remained unnamed and, as unnamed, it was untamed, unknown [sort of like Moby Dick].
I added that last part myself. Couldn’t resist.
Yes, yes, yes, for the sake of clarity and not blowing up the world and doing stupid acts of stupidity unto ourselves and unto others — some explicit, well-signaled moves are necessary!
Ah, but the identity which moves about the universe in the blink of an eye, aye, there’s the mystery that’s worth pursuing. Is it a great white whale, beneath whose blubber beats the eternal verities? Or is it the enigmatic parts of our anatomy, which send us wildly into the existentialist’s void?
Almost any transition can get you there.
Gene Simmons and Shannon Tweed have been married for almost a day now. After twenty-eight years of living together, and “raising” two children, and hosting their cable show, something about Family Jewels, they’re finally ready to commit. Amen.
TMZ has the exclusive details from Beverly Hills — so I’m going to spare you. Spare you the pomp and the pageantry. Spare you the glitz and the glamor. There’s nothing like nuptials when money’s no object.
But, for the sake of redeeming all that tongue-wagging, fire-breathing, “I wanna rock-n-roll all night” swagger, I offer Robert Burns:
A Fond Kiss
A fond kiss, and then we sever;
A farewell, and then forever!
Deep in heart-wrung tears I’ll pledge thee,
Warring sighs and groans I’ll wage thee.
Who shall say that Fortune grieves him,
While the star of hope she leaves him?
Me, nae cheerfu’ twinkle lights me;
Dark despair around benights me.
I’ll ne’er blame my partial fancy,
Nothing could resist my Nancy;
But to see her was to love her;
Love but her, and love forever.
Had we never lov’d say kindly,
Had we never lov’d say blindly,
Never met–or never parted–
We had ne’er been broken-hearted.
Fare thee well, thou first and fairest!
Fare thee well, thou best and dearest!
Thine be like a joy and treasure,
Peace. enjoyment, love, and pleasure!
A fond kiss, and then we sever;
A farewell, alas, forever!
Deep in heart-wrung tears I’ll pledge thee,
Warring sighs and groans I’ll wage thee!
A kiss, of course, is just a kiss. Humphrey Bogart taught us that. But then again — not really.
The other day, in a lecture hall, a studious professor tried to explain metaphor in all its glory. He made use of the Shakespearean phrase, “My love is a red, red rose,” and then broken things down like so:
- a rose, as a literal thing, is beautiful and fragile
- the female sex, for the most part, cannot bench press 200 pounds
- therefore, the poet is comparing his female love-interest to the flower.
The problem with this analysis, I realize, is that it took place in a class of about 300 undergraduates, and when teaching to a horde of non-English majors, it behooves the teacher to tame the ambiguity. Nevertheless, as we moved onto discussions of symbol and archetype, a mild-mannered occupant of a second row seat raised his hand and challenged the “red, red rose” synopsis. He observed, for instance, that Shakespeare may have been referring to the tenuous and delicate condition of his own “love” for another human being — how that emotion, so elusive and so much the cause for anxiety, may be compared to a rose. He went on to say that, in his humble understanding, a metaphor takes an abstraction and then relates that ornery, vague thing to something not so abstract with thorns. And then, while the rest of the class stirred and cavorted among themselves, it occurred to me: maybe this guy’s in love and maybe the feelings he has aren’t directed at a former Playboy centerfold. You know what I mean, Vernadeen? Am I coming through?
Stephen Dunn, I think, gets it:
She pressed her lips to mind.
How many years I must have yearned
for someone’s lips against mind.
Pheromones, newly born, were floating
between us. There was hardly any air.
She kissed me again, reaching that place
that sends messages to toes and fingertips,
then all the way to something like home.
Some music was playing on its own.
Nothing like a woman who knows
to kiss the right thing at the right time,
then kisses the things she’s missed.
How had I ever settled for less?
I was thinking this is intelligence,
this is the wisest tongue
since the Oracle got into a Greek’s ear,
speaking sense. It’s the Good,
defining itself. I was out of my mind.
She was in. We married as soon as we could.
Hugh Hefner, who attended the hitching of Simmons and Tweed, once declared a correlation between conservative politics and conservative sexual morays. On the History of Sex series, he claimed that he launched his magazine, featuring Marilyn Monroe, because he wanted to live life with a certain sense of “style.”
Okay. I guess so. We’ll give you that rationale. But over fifty years later, it’s all “style” and the kisses mean a lot less than they used to mean…
Well, it’s time to start wipe the slate clean and break out a new thing of lip balm. And for inspiration, there’s this scene from Spiderman, hanging upside down and having his mask pulled back, that’s just the stuff. No, nothing kinky. Metaphor. Take this image. Go ahead. Take it, and allow the significance of two faces, clasped at the mouth, to waft over you. Smell the aroma of Pepe Le Pew and believe once again in the tragic, comic kiss, that it actually goes somewhere, some secret place we might want to call… you know, wink-wink, nudge-nudge… love.
So I admit it. I will confess that when I heard of Holly Madison‘s breast-insurance policy, “I Sing The Body Electric” did not immediately spring to mind. On the contrary, I tried to imagine the Lloyd’s of London adjuster trying to re-evaluate their worth in decade or two. (Here’s the Reuters article.)
Okay, re-focus. A few snippets from section five of the Walt Whitman classic follow:
This is the female form, A divine nimbus exhales from it from head to foot, It attracts with fierce undeniable attraction... Hair, bosom, hips, bend of legs, negligent falling hands all diffused, mine too diffused... Be not ashamed women, your privilege encloses the rest, and is the exit of the rest, You are the gates of the body, and you are the gates of the soul. The female contains all qualities and tempers them, She is in her place and moves with perfect balance, She is all things duly veil'd, she is both passive and active, She is to conceive daughters as well as sons, and sons as well as daughters.As I see my soul reflected in Nature, As I see through a mist, One with inexpressible completeness, sanity, beauty, See the bent head and arms folded over the breast, the Female I see.
Now, although Whitman would be the very first to emphasize the spiritual nature of both male and female bodies, I wonder if he ever imagined the necessity of insuring his poetic observations. That is to say, Holly Madison wants to protect and preserve a valuable commodity, and the fact that that commodity happens to be a visual glimpse of her surgically enhanced chest makes no difference. (The price is probably set along the lines of ticket sales to the Las Vegas show in which the Playmate performs.) And yet, consider the unfading quality of the descriptive (and for the Victorian Era, salacious) verse that the poet penned for posterity.
What’s it worth to ya, ladies? Gentlemen?
Think of it. If some wild and crazy bard can somehow capture — or perhaps set free — the essence of your physical form, would you consent to actually being the subject matter? Would you permit the writer to sketch with the English language or with any language how your taut flesh is firmly fitted to your adroit bones? And wouldn’t that gesture in and of itself pay out more than what State Farm or Geico could ever promise to pay out?
No, I’m not inviting anybody to pose in the nude…
But, once again, I am suggesting that our pre-occupation with sexuality is out of kilter. It’s not that anything’s bad or sinful or dirty when it comes to our certain expressions of masculinity or femininity. It’s not that we can’t be honest about our proclivities, our anxieties, our orientations and fetishes. It’s simply that we need to get over trying to “insure” our value — and especially our innate value as it relates to a particular youthful exuberance that we might like to maintain well into our twilight years.
Get over it. The aging of the human body is part and parcel of its charm — a huge component of its “soul,” as Whitman might have said.
O my body! I dare not desert the likes of you in other men and women, nor the likes of the parts of you, I believe the likes of you are to stand or fall with the likes of the soul, (and that they are the soul,) I believe the likes of you shall stand or fall with my poems, and that they are my poems, Man's, woman's, child, youth's, wife's, husband's, mother's, father's, young man's, young woman's poems, Head, neck, hair, ears, drop and tympan of the ears, Eyes, eye-fringes, iris of the eye, eyebrows, and the waking or sleeping of the lids, Mouth, tongue, lips, teeth, roof of the mouth, jaws, and the jaw-hinges, Nose, nostrils of the nose, and the partition, Cheeks, temples, forehead, chin, throat, back of the neck, neck-slue, Strong shoulders, manly beard, scapula, hind-shoulders, and the ample side-round of the chest, Upper-arm, armpit, elbow-socket, lower-arm, arm-sinews, arm-bones, Wrist and wrist-joints, hand, palm, knuckles, thumb, forefinger, finger-joints, finger-nails, Broad breast-front, curling hair of the breast, breast-bone, breast-side, Ribs, belly, backbone, joints of the backbone, Hips, hip-sockets, hip-strength, inward and outward round, man-balls, man-root, Strong set of thighs, well carrying the trunk above, Leg-fibres, knee, knee-pan, upper-leg, under-leg, Ankles, instep, foot-ball, toes, toe-joints, the heel; All attitudes, all the shapeliness, all the belongings of my or your body or of any one's body, male or female, The lung-sponges, the stomach-sac, the bowels sweet and clean, The brain in its folds inside the skull-frame, Sympathies, heart-valves, palate-valves, sexuality, maternity, Womanhood, and all that is a woman, and the man that comes from woman, The womb, the teats, nipples, breast-milk, tears, laughter, weeping, love-looks, love-perturbations and risings, The voice, articulation, language, whispering, shouting aloud, Food, drink, pulse, digestion, sweat, sleep, walking, swimming, Poise on the hips, leaping, reclining, embracing, arm-curving and tightening, The continual changes of the flex of the mouth, and around the eyes, The skin, the sunburnt shade, freckles, hair, The curious sympathy one feels when feeling with the hand the naked meat of the body, The circling rivers the breath, and breathing it in and out, The beauty of the waist, and thence of the hips, and thence downward toward the knees, The thin red jellies within you or within me, the bones and the marrow in the bones, The exquisite realization of health; O I say these are not the parts and poems of the body only, but of the soul, O I say now these are the soul!
I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking poetry like that is tame compared to the pornographic stuff of the novelist (John Updike is excluded). And maybe you’re thinking that a strip tease has more of the titillating charm that you’re looking for… Ahh… Maybe… But I would question the fact that you’re ultimately looking for that in the first place. You have to admit — reading the above (section nine of ”I Sing The Body Electric”) — does have certain esoteric charms that also include more than one carnal or enfleshed view on the subject. And that subject is what I believe we’re all looking for.
Anne Sexton wrote “In Celebration of My Uterus,” and perhaps, after you read it, you will agree that it’s hard to objectify any part of the female body:
Everyone in me is a bird. I am beating all my wings. They wanted to cut you out but they will not. They said you were immeasurably empty but you are not. They said you were sick unto dying but they were wrong. You are singing like a school girl. You are not torn. Sweet weight, in celebration of the woman I am and of the soul of the woman I am and of the central creature and its delight I sing for you. I dare to live. Hello, spirit. Hello, cup. Fasten, cover. Cover that does contain. Hello to the soil of the fields. Welcome, roots. Each cell has a life. There is enough here to please a nation. It is enough that the populace own these goods. Any person, any commonwealth would say of it, “It is good this year that we may plant again and think forward to a harvest. A blight had been forecast and has been cast out.” Many women are singing together of this: one is in a shoe factory cursing the machine, one is at the aquarium tending a seal, one is dull at the wheel of her Ford, one is at the toll gate collecting, one is tying the cord of a calf in Arizona, one is straddling a cello in Russia, one is shifting pots on the stove in Egypt, one is painting her bedroom walls moon color, one is dying but remembering a breakfast, one is stretching on her mat in Thailand, one is wiping the ass of her child, one is staring out the window of a train in the middle of Wyoming and one is anywhere and some are everywhere and all seem to be singing, although some can not sing a note. Sweet weight, in celebration of the woman I am let me carry a ten-foot scarf, let me drum for the nineteen-year-olds, let me carry bowls for the offering (if that is my part). Let me study the cardiovascular tissue, let me examine the angular distance of meteors, let me suck on the stems of flowers (if that is my part). Let me make certain tribal figures (if that is my part). For this thing the body needs let me sing for the supper, for the kissing, for the correct yes.
David Budbill‘s book of collected of poems, Happy Life, is wonderful. His attention to the seasons alone carries the wallop of a freshly cut cord of hardwood. I enjoy his bemused references to the ancient poets of China and to Oriental history. The way he likens himself to Buddhist hermit reminds me a bit of Thomas Merton, whose reclusive proclivities made him more a mystic for the world than apart from it. Even the Copper Canyon Press book jacket goes with the jovial theme when it notes how Budbill “continues a wry, joyful examination of life on his semi-metaphorical Judevine Mountain…” And yet, I wonder about the wisdom of following in his footsteps. Can someone like me — moody, irritable, melancholic and so restless about everything wrong in the world — actually be content like Budbill? And should I make an overture in that direction, sort of like testing the waters of happiness?
A Certain Slant of Light
A certain slant
this time of year
says more than
color in the hills
or chill air
Simple. Straightforward (in its handling of “slant-ness”). Concise. Just what I’d like to read on a mid-September morning. So?
So what the frick is my problem?
At my desk all morning.
In the woods all afternoon.
Headed home now through the yellow light.
Yang Wan-li said,
There’s enough to eat.
Who needs a lot of money?
I’ve led a happy life
doing what I want to do.
How could I be so lucky?
Alright, alright… Does someone need a spider bite in that posterior region? Would it be petty for me to inquire if Budbill owns these woods in the literal and legal senses of the word, owns — as his property? And I’m so curious if his wife’s ever complained about the bare cupboards… How ’bout it? The truth is — I’d like a dose of whatever gene pool this poet came from. I want a lifetime supply of whatever mental health drug he’s imbibing, or smoking, or rubbing on his chest at night.
Of course, the chances that I will be able to steal away with any or all of these cure-alls is extremely unlikely. The goose that lays the golden egg can no longer be taken by force:
If you come here
for a visit,
But if you just show up,
don’t be offended
I’m not here.
I may be out in the woods
putting up my firewood,
I’m just hiding,
wanting to stay
in this place.
Again — and more seriously — I crave and I covet. But I also know that’s never going to be me. I understand (though I haven’t fully embraced the fact) that the world needs whiners who practice the art of whining and even have the audacity to whine about their whining. I understand the dispositions of poets are as varied as the channels available on Direct TV.
Moreover, I do acknowledge my tendency to look at the grass that’s always greener and then realize it’s been brown and weed-infested and hey! Whatever! Budbell occasionally will admit as much — like when he says in “Sex and Ambition”:
Sometimes I leave this mountain home and go to the City where I see young and beautiful women everywhere, all of them preoccupied with sex and ambition, none of them able to imagine themselves white-haired, wizened, bent, and sore.And I, approaching my own old age, beginning to know myself as white-haired, wizened, bent, and sore, I am -- I am happy to say -- I am still, like those young women, preoccupied with sex and ambition.
But, did you notice how he says he’s “happy to say”? I’m guessing that shame and regret are specters of self that I’ll have to encounter elsewhere, maybe myself… And maybe what I’m hearing in David Budbill is a poet who’s powerfully been through what I’m going through now. That is, a tag-team wrestling match with angels, or a sumo-match with Buddha himself. And the goal is that I won’t let go until they bless me.
Pray for me. I’m happy to confess that the weight class of this existential grappling scares me to death!
A New Mexico State Trooper has been caught having sex with an unidentified woman on the hood of a car… in broad daylight. The cop, with his back to the camera, has his uniform on. She does not. A small chihuahua can be observed in the surveillance video, watching the couple… And millions of voyeurs catch a blurred glimpse as the images go viral.
And what would I do with another picture
of her nude? The ones I have I show to no one,
not even her anymore, for fear she might
want them back, or worse. But the one
I regret not taking most was that hot
summer night I rose for a drink of water,
not even noticing at first I was alone,
until, in the hallway of the too-small house
we lived in then, I saw her fully extended
on our son’s bed. He had a summer cold
and a little lifelong jones for the breast.
He was two, almost. He’d been fussy from the heat,
so she went to him there, and then there
she was too, sleeping — and all her long back, head to heel.
In my half-wakefulness I stood, ciphering
such a photographs’s mechanics: tripod, cable release,
the long moon — and night-lighted, sepia-toned exposure ….
When I told her years later how close I’d come,
she said I should have, it would have been fine,
and there lies the source of my regret: her late permission.
Though I think of it now only as I slip others
from the safe place they’re hidden in,
six in all: three along a mountain river;
one in a galvanized tub at the hot springs;
another, fishing from the shore of a mountain lake, in sunglasses –
and then the absent one, framed by the doorway:
on the nearest edge of a twin bed,
a stuffed bear looking on from the cast-off sheets,
the rasping boy out of sight on the other side of her,
and a particular sheen on her skin, as if
she’d been basted or entirely, relentlessly kissed,
even the bottoms of her slender, delectable feet
Now, let’s play a game of Compare & Contrast. On the one hand, we’ve got the authority figure in his “position,” which is presently embedded on countless websites of good repute and ill-repute… And on the other hand, we’ve got this intimate snapshot that was never actually caught on film. The poet tells us about what he briefly encountered and the sheer beauty of the moment as it vanishes. We, in turn, read his words with a sense of profundity and deep appreciation. What a gift! And rather than wanting the (untaken) photograph for our own viewing pleasure — perhaps we are more tuned to that spectrum of channels that no cable package can offer.
I’m talking about the possibilities that are not taken, but received. The ones that we have permission to see and to savor without that cruddy aftermath of regret and shame.
You see, there’s something about the optic image that either defiles or demurs. (My hunch is the Amish know all about this.) That is, the paparatzi can only possess our souls if we indulge in that appetite which says ‘I must seize and consume this encounter while I have the power.’ Given this lapse in judgment, we then allow our very identities to be encased like mannequins in lifeless forms. By contrast, each voluptuous vision may be an invitation — and by invitation I don’t mean a promiscuous proposition or a pick-up line. I mean a real invitation to what Denise Levertov calls, “The Freeing of the Dust“:
Unwrap the dust from its mummy cloths.
Let Ariel learn
a blessing for Caliban
and Caliban drink dew from the lotus
open upon the waters.
Bitter the slow
river water: dew
shall wet his lips with light.
Let the dust
float, the wrappings too
Drift upon the stir
of air, of dark
river: ashes of what had lived,
of ancient sesame,
pure dust that is all
in all. Bless,
weightless Spirit. Drink
Caliban, push your tongue
heavy into the calyx.
These are sensitive issues, and if you presume the verse above to be crude and beneath your aesthetic dignity, you’re missing the point. Think about the proper names who are mentioned, perhaps allusions to Shakespeare’s The Tempest and beyond that to other mythic repositories of truth.
Ariel, as the mischievous spirit, meets the entirely enfleshed Caliban. What action follows this coupling may not resound with the Seize the Day mantra that we learned from The Dead Poet’s Society. On the contrary, Ariel and Caliban may guide us to that passageway through which Spirit and Dust are utterly intermingled and rendered indistinguishable from one another.
You know what I’m talking about… “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust…” The whole nine yards of funereal quotations from Genesis to Revelation…
And the point is — IF we leap to spiritualize our language too quickly, what we get, in residue, is that depraved stuff of the State Trooper from New Mexico and his wanderlust cronies. IF, however, we stay with the stuff of intimate relationships — the gift of seeing a boy being breast-fed in the middle of a summer night — there’s a chance that the heavenly realm is not too far off.
“Even as some of your own poets have said…” When I consider those words, recorded in Acts 17:28, I wonder about the fuss over ancient idol-worship. The apostle Paul, it seems, had no scruples about strolling up and down Mars Hill. He could appreciate what these objects of faith meant to the people who venerated them. Even so, he goes for the jugular of hegemonic religiosity. He grabs dualism by the throat and declares that groping for God is not in vain… as long as we realize that something entirely Other reaches for us like a lost coin that has fallen down between two cushions. Relax. Be discovered. Let the Sublime take your picture… even as Robert Wrigley and Denise Levertov have written of the images that got away.
With nearly ten percent unemployment in the U.S. — this is the baseline of work: A WOMAN HAS TAKEN CARE OF US, or tried to, or has become disoriented or battered in the process of trying. A woman has made an effort and allowed each conscious soul to slide into being through a birth canal. That’s all I’m saying as we contemplate the true nature of getting a job and making a living.
A woman, whose tides are stirred by the moon, has anguished until the midwives or the gynecologists have wiped the membranes from our nasal passages and snipped the umbilical cords. A woman has necessarily put her body and her mind at risk on behalf of another — you, me, the countless billions. And a woman has usually done much, much more than that barest of minimums.
But here’s the thing that intrigues me about the poetic work of Rita Dove, Lorna Dee Cervantes and Carol Ann Duffy among others. They are women who may not only have procreated in the sense of getting pregnant and bearing children into the world. These writers — for all of their innate other-centeredness — push into our purview the peculiar struggle of being… Of being women... That is, women who do more than adorn Hugh Hefner‘s mansion or some gala red-carpet affair… women who do more than provide taxi-services for future sports starts that we reward handsomely, (and who are later remembered in Campbell Soup commercials).
Anyway… Dove. Cervantes. Duffy. Their poems, like Labor Day itself, will be coming toward you from the bottom (of this very blog) very soon…
Occasionally (more often than I realize) my wife will succeed in convincing her predominantly male household that a “chick-flick” is in order. Typically it’s a Jane Austen novel that’s been spun by Hollywood or by the BBC, and although initially reluctant, I’ve grown to appreciate these films very much. What I like is the subtext of every conversation in which power is at stake (in the form of a dowry or a reputation), and a woman may either suffer or survive. There is no middle ground — even if the suffering carries with it more psychological than economic ramifications.
Austen’s heroines survive. Miss Emma Woodhouse survives in that she eventually recognizes the genuine affection of Mr. Knightly. Miss Elizabeth Bennet survives via the tormented love that Mr. Darcy confesses a couple of times… And while these are period pieces, what comes to our attention is the integrity with which these female characters receive. They receive graciously — not assuming that they deserve the relational bliss that comes their way. And yet, somehow, Jane Austen conveys this mysterious truth: Human beings have been made for this relational bliss ( not necessarily marriage between a man and a woman). And it is this bliss that’s worth fighting for. Moreover, it is the reason that we work — the reason that women must continually show us.
Claudette Colvin Goes To Work
–By Rita Dove
Another Negro woman has been arrested and thrown into jail because she refused to get up out of her seat on the bus and give it to a white person. This is the second time since the Claudette Colbert [sic] case… This must be stopped. — Boycott Flier, December 5, 1955
Menial twilight sweeps the storefronts along Lexington
as the shadows arrive to take their places
among the scourge of the earth. Here and there
a fickle brilliance — lightbulbs coming on
in each narrow residence, the golden wattage
of bleak interiors announcing Anyone home?
or I’m beat, bring me a beer.
Mostly I say to myself Still here. Lay
my keys on the table, pack the perishables away
before flipping the switch. I like the sugary
look of things in bad light — one drop of sweat
is all it would take to dissolve an armchair pillow
into brocade residue. Sometimes I wait until
it’s dark enough for my body to disappear;
then I know it’s time to start out for work.
Along the Avenue, the cabs start up, heading
toward midtown; neon stutters into ecstasy
as male integers light up their smokes and let loose
a stream of brave talk: ”Hey Mama” souring quickly to
“Your Mama” when there’s no answer — as if
the most injury they can do is insult the reason
you’re here at all, walking your whites
down to the stop so you can make a living.
So ugly, so fat, so dumb, so greasy –
What do we have to do to make God love us?
Mama was a maid; my daddy mowed lawns like a boy,
and I’m the crazy girl off the bus, the one
who wrote in class she was going to be President.
I take the Number 6 bus to the Lex Ave train
and then I’m there all night, adjusting the sheets,
emptying the pans. And I don’t care or spit
or kick and scratch like they say I did then.
I help those who can’t help themselves,
I do what needs to be done. . . and I sleep
whenever sleep comes down on me.
Cannery Town In August
–By Lorna Dee Cervantes
All night it humps the air.
Speechless, the steam rise
from the cannery columns. I hear
the night bird rave about work
or lunch, or sing the swing shift
home. I listen, while bodiless
uniforms and spinach specked shoes
drift in monochrome down the dark
moon-possessed streets. Women
who smell of whiskey and tomatoes,
peach fuzz reddening their lips and eyes –
I imagine them not speaking, dumbed
by the can’s clamor and drop
to the trucks that wait, grunting
in their headlights below.
They spotlight those who walk
like a dream, with no one
waiting in the shadows
to palm them back to living.
Warming Her Pearls
–By Carol Ann Duffy
Next to my own skin, her pearls. My Mistress
bids me wear them, warm them, until evening
when I’ll brush her hair. At six, I place them
round her cool, white throat. All day I think of her,
resting in the Yellow Room, contemplating silk
or taffeta, which gown tonight? She fans herself
whilst I work willingly, my slow heat entering
each pearl. Slack on my neck, her rope.
She’s beautiful. I dream about her
in my attic bed; picture her dancing
with tall men, puzzled by my faint, persistent scent
beneath her French perfume, her milky stones.
I dust her shoulders with a rabbit’s foot,
watch the soft blush seep through her skin
like an indolent sigh. In her looking-glass
my red lips part as though I want to speak.
Full moon. Her carriage brings her home. I see
her every movement in her head… Undressing,
taking off her jewels, her slim hand reaching
for the case, slipping naked into bed, the way
she always does. . . And I lie there awake,
knowing the pearls are cooling even now
in the room where my mistress sleeps. All night
I feel their absence and I burn.
Work. Work. Work. A woman’s work is never done… And perhaps someday we’ll all be doing it.
I sit on my porch and watch the blackbirds rising and settling and the clouds hurrying toward the hurricane like latecomers to the kickoff …
Walker Percy has a series of lines like the above which are now being drudged up like crude oil from the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico. Living around New Orleans, his existentialist musings have a certain context, which folks along the eastern seaboard may soon understand very well. Irene is on her way. Look out!
And yet, for those seeking alternatives — look in! Look in! Percy’s point, I think, is not that we aspire to be that person who is actually happier enduring the life-threatening effects of the storm than he/she is on an “ordinary afternoon,” but that we wonder why that’s the case.
I recalled the novelist’s outlook today as I watched, from a distance, the track of Irene through some major population areas. (Bat-ton down the hatches, you Outer Banks bastions! But also, you theater-goers on Broadway! And for those who are wisely stuck in evacuation traffic, well done! Better to watch a 15-foot wave from the perspective of a satellite feed than to be churned up like the laundry!) Still, I must confess that I can appreciate the tumultuous atmosphere of an impending 75-mile-per-hour wind. In fact, on those occasions when I have stood in the face of a horizontal rain pelting my eyelids, the rush of adrenaline is powerfully corporeal. That is, I feel there. I feel rooted like the palm trees that bend but do not break. And I know, in the moment, that the “there-ness” will not last for very long, that eventually I’ll have to barricade myself in a living room with boarded-up windows.
Now, with regard to “Being There” (which Peter Sellers discovered is more difficult that it looks on T.V.), there are a few poems that may still be read in the eye of any storm. Two, by Mark Strand, raise some fairly disturbing philosophical questions about what it means to exist when the forecast seems prime for a picnic:
Keeping Things Whole
In a field
I am the absence
always the case.
Wherever I am
I am what is missing.
When I walk
I part the air
the air moves in
to fill the spaces
where my body’s been.
We all have reasons
to keep things whole.
You sit in a chair, touched by nothing, feeling
the old self become the older self, imagining
only the patience of water, the boredom of stone.
You think that silence is the extra page,
you think that nothing is good or bad, not even
the darkness that fills the house while you sit watching
it happen. You’ve seen it happen before. Your friends
move past the window, their faces soiled with regret.
You want to wave but cannot raise your hand.
You sit in a chair. You turn to the nightshade spreading
a poisonous net around the house. You taste
the honey of absence. It is the same wherever
you are, the same if the voice rots before
the body, or the body rots before the voice.
You know that desire leads only to sorrow, that sorrow
leads to achievement which leads to emptiness.
You know that this is different, that this
is the celebration, the only celebration,
that by giving yourself over to nothing,
you shall be healed. You know there is joy in feeling
your lungs prepare themselves for an ashen future,
so you wait, you stare and you wait, and the dust settles
and the miraculous hours of childhood wander in darkness.
You see, whether we find ourselves inside the protective shell of a house/apartment or outside, amidst the elements, the real storm swirls around the individual’s conscious center. Strand’s tact, however, appears to take us out from that center. “Nothing” provides a haven of sorts. It’s actually the outer bands of events and tangible things that do the damage for which ultimately we must pay. Or perhaps not.
Marilyn Hacker, in my estimation, offers another angle. In “Year’s End,” the lesbian writer emphasizes the body’s participation in something-that-ain’t-nothing. Consequently, she doesn’t celebrate the phone calls that have come to her at those inopportune times:
Twice in my quickly disappearing forties
someone called while someone I loved and I were
making love to tell me another woman
had died of cancer.
Seven years apart, and two different lovers:
underneath the numbers, how lives are braided,
how those women’s deaths and lives, lived and died, were
Does lip touch on lip a memento mori?
Does the blood-thrust nipple against its eager
mate recall, through lust, a breast’s transformations
sometimes are lethal?
Now or later, what’s the enormous difference?
If one day is good, is a day sufficient?
Is it fear of death with which I’m so eager
to live my life out
now and in its possible permutations
with the one I love? (Only four days later,
she was on a plane headed west across the
Men and women, mortally wounded where we
love and nourish, dying a thirty, forty,
fifty, not on barricades, but in beds of
tell me, senators, what you call abnormal?
Each day’s orbits read as if there’s a war on.
Fifty-eight-year-old poet dead of cancer:
laid down with the other warrior women.
Both times when the telephone rang, I answered,
wanting not to, knowing I had to answer,
go from two bodies’
infinite approach to a crest of pleasure
through the disembodied voice from a distance
saying one loved body was clay, one wave of
mind burst and broken.
Each time we went back to each other’s hands and
mouths as to a requiem where the chorus
sings death with irrelevant and amazing
Somebody has been here. And there. SomeBODY. However much we don’t appreciate the inconvenience of being or not being embodied, we might as well get used to it.
Upon reviewing the nice compilation of “Uncollected Hecht” in the September issue of Poetry Magazine, I glanced at the photograph of the young poet, Anthony Hecht with his first wife, Patricia Harris. [Sorry: I can't reproduce it.] That glance, of course, then turned into a gawking stare. Then a voyeuristic trance. Then a gaze into the sublime possibilities of marriage. And then I had to take out the garbage… What was I looking at anyway?
A happy couple? A pairing of pitiful, star-crossed lovers who were about to have their dreams dashed to pieces? (Hecht’s marriage to Patricia lasted from 1954 to ’61.) A match made somewhere short of heaven? Or, as the Billy Joel song, “Summer Highland Falls,” puts it:
As we stand upon the ledges of our lives
with our respective similarities
it’s either sadness or euphoria…
All I can say is that I am mesmerized by the image of the two, Anthony’s trim, dark beard… Patricia’s enfleshed collar bone catching the light just right. I see them as so freakishly young and exuberant, and yet know they’re both dead. I understand that their nuptials fell through and had been falling through from the outset: “… I worry about how things are going to work out…” (Letter from Anthony to his parents in 1955). And I understand, that as individuals they each went on to live productive and fruitful lives, with Anthony getting happily re-married to Helen, and dying only seven years ago in 2004. I get it.
With profound grief, I get it. That of which I have caught a glimpse is merely an ephemeral snapshot, nothing to be treated like a religious icon in any way, shape or form. Even so, wow! Damn! Hot Damn! There’s something else here. Check out this poem, published in the thick of Hecht’s relational vicissitudes:
The End of the Weekend
A dying firelight slides along the quirt
Of the cast iron cowboy where he leans
Against my father’s books. The lariat
Whirls into darkness. My girl in skin tight jeans
Fingers a page of Captain Marriat
Inviting insolent shadows to her shirt.
We rise together to the second floor.
Outside, across the lake, an endless wind
Whips against the headstones of the dead and wails
In the trees for all who have and have not sinned.
She rubs against me and I feel her nails.
Although we are alone, I lock the door.
The eventual shapes of all our formless prayers:
This dark, this cabin of loose imaginings,
Wind, lip, lake, everything awaits
The slow unloosening of her underthings
And then the noise. Something is dropped. It grates
against the attic beams. I climb the stairs
Armed with a belt.
A long magnesium shaft
Of moonlight from the dormer cuts a path
Among the shattered skeletons of mice.
A great black presence beats its wings in wrath.
Above the boneyard burn its golden eyes.
Some small grey fur is pulsing in its grip.
And so, I suppose I want to linger here — in the clutches of that hungry owl — and declare that marriage is worth it. Even if there’s a terrible and traumatic dissolution, the effort to stay in face-to-face, monogamous, loving relationship has the alternatives beat by a long shot. Yes, I’m aware of those who promote the bohemian mode of either committed promiscuity or anguished chastity. I’m aware that there are different strokes for different folks, so to speak. Divorce can sometimes be the most healthy choice for each of the “respective similarities.” Nevertheless, if it’s union of sensuality and spirituality that we’re after, the institution of marriage has my hands-down affirmation.
If it’s the union of the sensuality and the spirituality…
Of course, according to today’s CNN article, the Bible-Belt boasts the most religiously ironic data there is. That is, couples who choose to get hitched by the Southern Baptist minister, lest they be overcome with desire and have sexual intercourse prior to the wedding night, are among those who are more likely to crash and burn in the break-up of that marriage. More often, we must point out, than those who take their vows in front the “godless” Justice of the Peace.
My point in mentioning this statistic, however, will not be to rub anything in the faces of fundamentalist preachers — “divorce rates for women above the U.S. average, ranging from 10.7 to 16.2, were in the South. They included Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas and West Virginia.” It will be to invite a discussion on what it is that married partners can expect from one another…
Do we expect salvation? Do we expect the other to “complete me”? Do we expect that the “respective similarities” to collapse in a heap of quivering and cosmic oneness. Ugh. Ugh. And double Ugh! You make me cringe. You make me wince when you push me into that co-dependent calculus. You are in no position to draft me as your soul mate… SIMPLY ALLOW ME TO BE WITH YOU.
Here’s part of a poem, “An Offering for Patricia,” which I will lift from page 454 of Poetry. Notice, if you will, the ways by which Hecht’s marriage provides him a lens to see deeply into…
These textures solicit of us our instant homage
But are disparate senseless things
Unless a reigning image
Bring them to purpose as your presence brings
The world in offering, like a chaplet worn
In Aphrodite’s name,
The furious unicorn
Come to the virgin’s lap tethered and tame.
And thus it is as you stand in this morning’s shadows
Where ancient chamber pots
Are grown to little meadows
Of mint and parsley; surely it’s love unknots
The winds for Ulysses and recalls to man
A summer without cease;
Sprung from the same dishpan
Onion and lily work their primal peace.
Again, I’m intrigued with the focus. That mode of disciplined, self-willed life which puts us in relationship with another human being. You may, of course, love ALL of humanity in general and in theory and according to some grandiose, contrived principle — and what’s not to love? But to love another person erotically — and however briefly — this is an infinitive that draws “disparate senseless things” into a captivating new light.
I just discovered poet Marge Piercy, and that’s great! Her work thickens as it’s read, taking on a social substance like a regal statue at the center of town. Piercy challenges convention. She articulates a feminist point of view without any apologies. She celebrates the body and seemingly begs us to accept the fact that we are embodied in precious ways that need no gaudy embellishment… I just discovered poems like “What Are Big Girls Made Of?” and “Barbie Doll” and “The Woman In The Ordinary.” But I discovered these free-verse stanzas right next to the news of yet another missing person in Aruba… and yes, this missing person happens to be a beautiful woman.
Robyn Gardner, from West Bethesda, MD, is the tattooed and tanned epitome of what Vogue, Entertainment Tonight and a thousand infomercials peddle as the desirable female. The dental assistant is the 35-year-old version of the previously reported “disappeared” Natalee Halloway. Halloway, recently graduated from high school in Alabama, had last been seen at a bar in Aruba with Joran van der Sloot, who has been convicted of the young woman’s murder. Whether or not the Aruba authorities can find enough evidence to charge Robyn Gardner’s traveling companion hangs in the balance. The 50-year-old Gary Giordano evidently took out a $1.5 million life insurance policy on the pair and tried to cash it when Gardner went missing. And so, connecting the dots of this tragedy is the obvious horrendously sick and nihilistic behavior of the male gender. Of that there is no doubt.
Amid the vaporous pornographic matrix that passes for the real world, it’s easy for men to objectify women and therefore to discard them as objects when they don’t conform to certain demands. (I’m sure that women can reciprocate in their treatment of men, as well as men their treatment of other men and women in their treatment of other women.) And yet, what poets like Marge Piercy bring to our attention are the ways that women sometimes embrace and cultivate their own false self-imagery.
By pursuing this tack I am in no way trying to blame the victims or to justify the criminal acts that have occurred in Aruba or anywhere. What’s crucial, however, is that we begin to reflect on the poetics of beauty and the mystery of what cannot be possessed — namely, an embodied soul. Here’s Piercy at her best (at the beginning of “What Big Girls Are Made Of?”) negotiating through the traffic of sleek mannequins and anorexic models:
The construction of a woman:
a woman is not made of flesh
of bone and sinew
belly and breasts, elbows and liver and toe.
She is manufactured like a sports sedan.
She is retooled, refitted and redesigned
Cecile had been seduction itself in college.
She wriggled through bars like a satin eel,
her hips and ass promising, her mouth pursed
in the dark red lipstick of desire.
She visited in ’68 still wearing skirts
tight to the knees, dark red lipstick,
while I danced through Manhattan in mini skirt,
lipstick pale as apricot milk,
hair loose as a horse’s mane. Oh dear,
I thought in my superiority of the moment,
whatever has happened to poor Cecile?
She was out of fashion, out of the game,
disqualified, disdained, dis-
membered from the club of desire.
Look at pictures in French fashion
magazines of the 18th century:
century of the ultimate lady
fantasy wrought of silk and corseting.
Paniers bring her hips out three feet
each way, while the waist is pinched
and the belly flattened under wood.
The breasts are stuffed up and out
offered like apples in a bowl.
The tiny foot is encased in a slipper
never meant for walking.
On top is a grandiose headache:
hair like a museum piece, daily
ornamented with ribbons, vases,
grottoes, mountains, frigates in full
sail, ballons, baboons, the fancy
of a hairdresser turned loose.
The hats were rococo wedding cakes
that would dim the Las Vegas strip.
Here is a woman forced into shape
rigid exoskeleton torturing flesh:
a woman made of pain…
There’s more, but “made of pain” is an apropos place to come up for air. Every decade — and perhaps every year — we become bored with ourselves and invite the latest style to cheer our ennui. How sad for us — both women and men! How sad that we can’t seem to escape the powers and principalities that keep us enslaved in a hall of cosmetic mirrors!
Moreover, if we assume that in the physical appearance — in the prurient interest — resides some spiritual incantation, think again. With Whitman we might croon about the “Body Electric,” but the photo-shopped stuff of cyberspace is not the same thing. The plastic surgery industry depicted in the Nip/Tuck cable series does not deliver goods. And this is the point of Piercy’s poem, “Barbie Doll.” She continually unmasks that veneer of “life” that is not life at all, but death:
In the casket displayed on satin she lay
with the undertaker’s cosmetics painted on,
a turned-up putty nose,
dressed in a pink and white nightie.
Doesn’t she look pretty? everyone said.
Consummation at last.
To every woman a happy ending.
The only escape from this madhouse, it seems, may be the redemption of the ordinary and the plain. Piercy pushes us to believe in what blooms in time. As far as I can tell, she’s not asking anyone to boycott Mary Kay cosmetics or to forgo the close shaving of a leg or an armpit. Yet, in “The Woman In The Ordinary,” there’s a volatile and restless radiance that any woman, traveling to Aruba, may want to nurture:
The woman in the ordinary pudgy downcast girl
is crouching with eyes and muscles clenched.
Round and pebble smooth she effaces herself
under ripples of conversation and debate.
The woman in the block of ivory soap
has massive thighs that neigh,
great breasts that blare and strong arms that trumpet.
The woman of the golden fleece
laughs uproariously from the belly
inside the girl who imitates
a Christmas card virgin with glued hands,
who fishes for herself in others’ eyes,
who stoops and creeps to make herself smaller.
In her bottled up is a woman peppery as curry,
a yam of a woman of butter and brass,
compounded of acid and sweet like a pineapple,
like a handgrenade set to explode,
like goldenrod ready to bloom.
“Imagine a city,” writes Adrienne Rich.
And this morning, as I read and re-read an Associated Press article, I did. I imagined a city — Tehran, Iran — where a woman had been terribly disfigured and blinded by a man who threw acid upon her face. Ameneh Bahrami lost her ability to see the city in which she lives because her suitor said No. Majid Movahedi apparently had proposed marriage. And when Bahrami made her feelings plain, she became the victim of this most bizarre and heinous crime…
So imagine. Rich, in her poem, Rusted Legacy, invites us:
Imagine a city where nothing’s
forgiven your deed adheres
to you like a scar, a tattoo but almost everything’s
The city, of course, is a potent and popular image. From the “New Jerusalem” that’s envisioned by the Hebrew prophets… through Saint Augustine’s masterpiece, “The City of God…” then staying to the right on the circle at “Camelot…” and all the way to San Jose — artists of every stripe have aspired to get there. Are we there yet? Has the Atlas or the GPS failed us completely? Have we arrived at that mythical metropolitan area without blight and where gentrification is unnecessary?
It seems like this trip has taken forever, and without bathroom breaks, the toll road has truly taken its toll on our hearts, minds and kidneys. And now, in an age where The Bachelor and The Bachelorette slither their way into the American Psyche, we learn about the televised broadcast of this: a blind woman, standing over the man who tortured her, seeking revenge under the laws of the government. And here’s the most surreal kernel in the whole scenario… Just as this “doctor” is about to enforce the Islamic law and exact an “eye for an eye,” Ameneh Bahrami shouts, “I forgave him, I forgave him!” And before the viewers, watching in the comfort of their own homes, Movahedi is spared.
I tell you — there is trouble. Trouble with a capital T and that rhymes with V and that stands for Vengeance. What in the world is going on?
Adrienne Rich, please help us:
Imagine a city partitioned divorced from its hills
where temples and telescopes used to probe the stormy codices
a city brailing through fog
thicket and twisted wire
into dark’s velvet dialectic
sewers where are also rivers…
You see, the drama going on for Iranian voyeurs is, of course, unspeakably sick and sad. I love the “forgiveness” that’s on display. But the broadcast-culture itself is what may never forgive. That is, even here, you and I may find ourselves on the receiving end of a corrosive caricature of our true selves. The acid may not render us literally blind, but blind at least to the mysterious depth of the people we dismiss as mere entertainment.
Iranian State TV is in league, I think, with that Science-Fiction Game Show, starring Richard Dawson and Arnold Schwarzenegger. The Running Man is about convicts who must run through a series of deadly traps while the audience at home makes wagers. Is this where we’re headed? Is this the destination of our secret dreams — rather than the City of God? I confess a fascination with Gotham City, with its Batman lore, and the way that caped crusader must do battle with himself as well as the Joker. But “Holy #$%@!!” Batman!
And here’s where I have to take a stab into my own darkness…
The whole relational mystery should rip our insides out and put them back again, just a little out of place. In other words:
I have forced myself to come back like a daughter
required to put her mother’s house in order
whose hands need terrible gloves to handle
the medicinals the disease packed in those linens
Accomplished criminal I’ve been but
can I accomplish justice here? Tear the old wedding sheets
into cleaning rags? Faithless daughter
like stone but with water pleating across
Let water be water let stone be stone
Tell me is this the same city.
Much, much more can be expressed in a variety of ways about forgiveness and vengeance and our resilience to endure. But suffice to say that Muslims don’t have the market cornered on the bizarre belittling of human hurts. I once read a bumper-sticker: ”Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven!” — and then realized how flippant that would sound if the driver got drunk and killed someone I’ve come to know and love.
So, Adrienne Rich has taken us closer. Closer to the city, I think, than we’d like to be. Her final stanza concludes: “This I — must she, must she lie scabbed with rust …”
crammed with memory in a place
of little anecdotes no one left
to go around gathering the full dissident story?
Rusting her hands and shoulders stone her lips
yet leaching down from her eye sockets tears
–for one self only? each encysts a city.
Leon Panetta, the new Secretary of Defense, has raised the issue again. The Joint Chief of Staff agrees. President Obama made the promise to lift the ban on gays and lesbians serving in the armed forces during his campaign in 2008. Now, prior to the next election cycle, might be a good time to honor it. And yet, what continues to trouble me is all the rhetoric that propagates TELLING as the only way of communicating the truth of a person’s identity (sexual or otherwise).
Consider, for example, the sad news cycles that surrounded the scandal of then President Bill Clinton and intern Monica Lewinsky. Of course, it was under this wondrous communicator and esteemed empathizer (I feel your pain) that DADT became the law of the land. Ironically, when asked about his indiscretion with a woman, dressed in a blue dress, the commander and chief elected not to tell.
Telling, I submit, is overrated. Even when we want to tell others directly what we know to be the truth about our actions and dispositions, we often fail. Moreover, this failure may have little to do with our attempt to elude the consequences. It may correspond to something that Emily Dickinson once wrote, which is, “Tell all the truth — but tell it slant.”
Tell it sideways. Tell it at an oblique angle. Don’t be disingenuous. But when it comes to writing and speaking your sexuality, your sensuality, your spirituality into the world, describe actions and reactions. Evoke the feeling of immediate experience by giving us — including your local recruiter — the landscape of who you are or who you might be if given the chance to serve. In other words, show it.
During World War II, William Stafford balked at the opportunity to fight the Japanese or the Germans, but instead became a conscientious objector. That is, he built roads, battled forest fires and mostly engaged in a process of asking questions of the world and showing how he felt about it. And about the discipline of writing poetry Stafford says the following:
Poetry is the kind of thing you have to see from the corner of your eye. You can be too well prepared for poetry… A poem is a serious joke, a truth that has learned jujitsu. Anyone who breathes is in the rhythm business; anyone who is alive is caught up in the immanences, the doubts mixed with the triumphant certainty, of poetry (Writing the Australian Crawl, p. 3).
So here’s what I’d like to see next on the political agenda (aside from more emphasis on education and infrastructure). I’d like to probe and to ponder what Robert Wrigley has to show in “Miss June, 1971.” For instance, he sets the stage like so:
Daily a deuce-and-a-half truck pulled up outside
the barracks and left to dispense a dozen of us
two-by-two to the host of brainless details
contrived to make us useful: COs, gays,
bed wetters, the strangely too violent to be trusted
with guns. That day, cool and serene Devereaux and I
were to scrub the floors of the Nursing Command Center.
That was how I came to be on my knees under the desk
of an oddly smallish command sergeant major,
in such a position that my dog tags slipped from my shirt…
What the officer spies, carved on the dog tags, is a peace sign that the poet had apparently etched next to his name, rank and serial number. And, you see, without even displaying the remainder of the poem, these ten lines alone are enough to suggest the inner turmoil of serving your country during the Vietnam era. We have not been told a thing.
Now, bringing the poetics up to the present state of camouflaged warfare, Dorianne Laux starts her poem, “Staff Sgt. Metz,” in a local Starbucks. She writes what she sees and then feels:
… His hands
are thick-veined. The good blood
still flows through, given an extra surge
when he slurps his latte, a fleck of foam
caught on his bottom lip.
I can see into the canal in his right ear,
a narrow darkness spiraling deep inside his head
toward the place of dreaming and fractions,
ponds of quiet thought.
From here the poet ventures on, allowing a memory of her serviceman-brother to surface. And then, a boyfriend, to whom she promised a letter every week after his deployment… And then, as Laux zeroes in on the living body and soul of Staff Sgt. Metz, she spills her poetic beans outside the coffee shop:
I don’t believe in anything anymore:
god, country, money or love.
All that matters to me now
is his life, the body so perfectly made,
mysterious in its workings, its oiled
and moving parts, the whole of him
standing up and raising one arm
to hail a bus, his legs pulling him forward,
all muscle and sinew and living gristle,
the countless bones of his foot trapped in his boot,
stepping off the red curb.
Now, the dilemma in which we find ourselves is twofold. On the one hand, “Don’t Ask, Tell Tell” has been a crappy policy. Within the ranks of the military it has hampered rather than helped professional relationships and within the society at large it has given the American People permission to draw hard and fast lines between their private selves and their public selves. However we slice it or dice it, the culture wars regarding sexuality have done the spiritual damage of roadside bomb in Iraq and Afghanistan. We have been rendered lame when it comes to the most courageous journey upon which anyone can embark. That is, the inner trek into the precious self and the return trip of rich, authentic self-expression…
At this point, though, I refuse to leave off and capitulate. Beyond D.A.D.T. is the stuff of “August Nights,” by Andrew Hudgins. And as he writes, pay attention to the turn that is made in comparing homosexual behavior to the sounds of a late night emergency:
The men downstairs are making love.
With all the oohs and yelps, it sounds
a little like the ambulances that whoop
along the highway, then accelerate
toward Baptist Hospital. At night
the sirens moan and throb like passion –
or so it seems as I lie in my bed,
no breeze, the thick air wet and sticky.
From ten P.M. till three, the horns
race through the sweat-soaked night: race out,
return with bodies, their long moans
sometimes in rising harmony
with my loud neighbors down below…
I’ve come to count on them. At times,
when there was someone here with me,
the sirens kept her up, and tense,
because she wasn’t used to them.
And I tried to explain: They’re lullabies,
they sound like making love…
Perhaps, you may think, I’ve said too much. Or, rather, that Andrew Hudgens has said too much. Regardless, what the poet has said is something so powerfully life-giving and incredibly vulnerable. He has shown us that society’s biggest sirens are meant to get us further down the street, to a place of healing and hope.