PIECES OF MIND:
A collection of shorter essays
TO THE READER
Around the turn of the century I joined the group of Madison writers who, under the direction of Kelly Warren, produced Mindís Eye Radio. The MER programs consisted of short contributions (maximum:5 minutes) by the participating members. Over the next decade, I contributed to the show several times a year. Sometimes my contribution would consist of a poem already written, but often I would write a new poem (generally of the expository or narrative kind) or a short essay. These essays, taken together, may express something like a philosophy of life, and so it seemed worthwhile, after increased responsibilities elsewhere necessitated my departure from the group, to gather up these fragmentary musings into an order associative rather chronological.
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In the Kitchen
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Inventions We Could Do Without
For Our London Listener
The Poet and Time
An Attic Potpourri
After the Wild Geese
The Number 14
With Bitter Words
Dolls Are Us
What I Never Learned
Home Is the Place You Are Stuck With
The Natural Prayer
That Suspicious Object
Train of Thought
Sonnet in Shaky Handwriting
Journey to Jebel Musa
The Temple of Memory
Going Out Into the Great Night
The Rain Forest of Good Ideas
Living by Fiction
The Lady of the Dark Chamber
A Tale of Two Centers
A Weather Forecast
Why Are We Laughing?
Giving Blood, Giving Poetry
A Serious Joke
From the Ground
Wearing the Mask
The Chain and the Ring
Ferlinghetti on the Eve of Yom Kippur
A Constructive Escape
The Hampstead Alternative
Let Us Keep One Another From Despairing
The Dream of Dreams One Chicken
The Edge of Imagination
Before You Break Those Eggs
THE MOON AND THREE POETS
One day in the summer of 1973 a friend said to me, "Let's drive up north and see Frances Hamerstrom." He told me that she and her husband were a naturalists, known for her work with birds, and that the Hamerstroms were always glad to welcome visitors; they would put us up for the night. We set out and arrived that afternoon, and were met by a hale-looking gray-haired woman in a plaid shirt and slacks. She led us into the house -- an older house, spacious, with zero pretensions to decor and yet with a certain grace, the house of a person who loved the out-of-doors.
Our mutual friend must have told her that I wrote poetry, because she mentioned that she occasionally did the same, and showed me a few poems. I especially liked one, which she told me was dedicated to a young man who was helping the Hamerstroms in their work with golden eagles. She said that when an eagle or other falcon molts it is confined to a room called the mews. Before being released it must have a pair of jesses, or leather straps, attached to its legs. The eagle is touchy coming out of the molt and has to be approached quietly.
OUT OF THE MEWS
until the moon slipped her silvery body behind a cloud.
I slid into the mews and spoke to my eagle -- not very loud.
In the deep of the night
the jesses you made my eagle moved onto each leg -- no fright--
O beautiful night.
Somehow it came out that this poem was written at the full moon in August of the previous year -- 1972 -- and I realized that one of the poems I had with me was written during the same full moon! Mine was as follows:
Whippoorwill calls from the corn.
In the twilight my brother stepped in amongst the cornstalks;
the shadows clasped him, made him one with them.
Larger than last month, the gold round
moon is something removed from behind a saint's head;
it stains faint clouds with liquefied dust.
My brother moves behind me
along the rise; the moon moves behind
his head, in my right eye.
He says the burrows of darkness in green alfalfa
are deer-trails, says the air on the hills
is warmer, still, from day,
asks if I can focus the moon. I cannot.
This thought beats at my head like owl's wings:
that, blinded, my sense feel through his
the cloth into which they are woven...
These poems have more in common than the date: the dedication to a younger man (her student, my eleven-years-younger brother), the sense of a collaboration, an action or perception that needs both the speaker and the dedicatee in order to complete itself. And an atmosphere that is not just the atmosphere of any full moon night but of that particular full moon.
The discovery of this connection must have led to Frances= showing me her children=s book, Walk When the Moon is Full, which tells of the nature walks that she took with her two small children at each of the thirteen full moons in the year. On one of these nights the boy gets mad at his mother and bursts out:
The cory cat
With the cobby tail
Walked straight into the salt blue sea
With a spider nesting on the end of his nose -- That=s you!
Frances assured me that yes, her son had really had said that. She said he had been three years old at the time.
I was awestruck. Not Alexander Pope, the master of the insult, could have topped that outburst by a three-year-old boy. On a few occasions since I=ve seen striking poems produced by nonpoets under pressure: as if poetry were not only an art but a phenomenon of nature, an element, like underground water, waiting to burst forth from any of us when the rock is struck. And since the matching of those August moon poems, many things have reminded me that all of us drink from the same aquifer.
Frances Hamerstrom died last fall. Under the August moon her golden eagle still flies as a sign to us to guard the air, the water, and the common springs of song.
Back to Contents
AAN DIE MUSIK@
Du holde Kunst... That song brings back a friend
Who sang it, sitting on a battered couch
(Salvation Army salvage) in a house
On Berkeley=s Derby Street, where I could spend
A student=s afternoon. The living-room
Was paneled in dark wood, and held a shadow
(Anchored, doubtless, in the square piano),
Of some ancestral mansion=s pleasant gloom.
Marion too, maiden yet matronly,
Bending above the fireplace in a dark-
Blue velvet robe (another junk-store find),
Appeared a Tyrian prophetess to me
And still appears (though friendship pulled apart)
An envoy of art=s grave and gracious mind.
(translation of F. von Schober=s words to the Schubert song)
O gracious art, in many hours of sadness When all the world around seemed dark as night,
You woke my heart to love and hope and gladness
Transported me to heaven=s sweet delight.
Transported me to heaven=s delight.
How many a sigh that from your soul came winging,
A chord of sweetness from the heart of song,
Has shown a better world to which I=m clinging,
For this I owe you thanks my whole life long,
I owe you thanks my whole life long.
Back to Contents
Many years ago an English teacher said to me, AYou should read Edna St. Vincent Millay,@ and I did. It was Millay=s influence that got me started writing sonnets.
By the time I got to college, Millay was no longer Ain,@ and I sought more prestigious influences. But at a crisis in my life and work, I found myself falling back on the sonnet form and the poetic language she had never hesitated to use. She may have saved me.
What is it about Millay that some people love her and others can=t see her at all? Perhaps the sheer physicality of her work, a sort of tidal pull. Let me see if I can read one sonnet so as to convey it:
Pity me not because the light of day
At close of day no longer walks the sky,
Pity me not for beauties passed away
From field and thicket as the year goes by,
Pity me not the waning of the moon,
Nor that the ebbing tide goes out to see,
Nor that a man=s desire is hushed so soon
And you no longer look with love on me.
This have I always known: love is no more
Than the wide blossom which the wind assails,
Than the great tide that treads the shifting shore,
Strewing fresh wreckage gathered in the gales.
Pity me that the heart is slow to learn
What the swift mind beholds at every turn.
Even by those who love her, Millay is often treated as a lightweight, and so here is one more poem, a poem of political disillusionment. Millay wrote it sometime in the >thirties, after the Sacco and Vanzetti trial; it came back to me after the elections last winter.
JUSTICE DENIED IN MASSACHUSETTS
Let us abandon then our gardens and go home
And sit in the sitting-room.
Shall the larkspur blossom or the corn grow under this cloud?
Sour to the fruitful seed
Is the cold earth under this cloud,
Fostering quack and weed, we have marched upon but cannot conquer;
We have bent the blades of our hoes against the stalks of them.
Let us go home, and sit in the sitting-room.
Not in our day
Shall the cloud go over and the sun rise as before,
Beneficent upon us
Out of the glittering bay,
And the warm winds be blown inward from the sea
Moving the blades of corn
With a peaceful sound.
Stands the blue hay-rack by the empty mow,
And the petals drop to the ground,
Leaving the tree unfruited.
The sun that warmed our stooping backs and withered the weed uprooted B
We shall not feel it again.
We shall die in darkness, and be buried in the rain.
What from the splendid dead
We have inherited B
Furrows sweet to the grain, and the weed subdued B
See now the slug and the mildew plunder.
Evil does overwhelm
The larkspur and the corn;
We have seen them go under.
Let us sit here, sit still,
Here in the sitting-room until we die;
At the step of Death on the walk, rise and go;
Leaving to our children=s children this beautiful doorway,
And this elm,
And a blighted earth to till
With a broken hoe.
Amid corruption the poet can still give us a lament that is dignified, rooted in a love of the word and of life. I=m glad Millay has made something of a comeback in recent years. We need her.
FOR OUR LONDON LISTENER
Long distance communication is an old theme in poetry. Various poets (among them Paul Celan, of whom you may have heard since you come from Germany) have compared the poem to a message in a bottle, sent out in the hope of finding a reader who, though distant in space and time, will understand. The twentieth century Russian poet Osip Mandel=shtam has an essay on this called AThe Interlocutor.@ But it is also a theme of a well-known American poem that used to be in all the schoolbooks and has inspired innumerable parodies B Henry Wadsworth Longfellow=s AThe Arrow and the Song@:
I shot an arrow into the air,
It fell to earth, I knew not where;
For, so swiftly it flew, the sight
Could not follow it in its flight.
I breathed a song into the air,
It fell to earth, I knew not where,
For who has sight so keen and strong
That it can follow the flight of song?
Long, long afterward, in an oak
I found the arrow, still unbroke;
And the song, from beginning to end,
I found again in the heart of a friend.
A couple of years ago I saw in a little magazine a translation by Seth Zimmerman of one of Mandel=shtam=s last poems. I may have read it in the original years ago, but hadn=t understood it. Mandel=shtam=s poems allude to a lot of things in a rather oblique way. But someone had figured out that this poem, which was written in Voronezh, about 250 miles south of Moscow, in 1937, was about Marian Anderson, whose voice he must have heard on the radio. With this information the poem makes perfect sense and is very evocative of her singing. This inspired a poem of my own, called AThe Mail from Voronezh.@
In Voronezh, where Mandelstam would stay
A few months more before they took him away,
The voice of Marian Anderson came over
The airwaves, and acquired a distant lover.
He listened, and the walls that he had seen
Closing around him, opened to let in
A tidal rush of awe that swallowed fright,
A gentle breath from islands of delight,
And from behind the stars a mother's voice
Calling her children home: Repent. Rejoice.
Dust is the throat that sang, the ear that heard.
Still rings the echo in the poet's word.
Zimmerman made it audible, back here.
Grant us grace, Mother. Space in which to hear.I=m Esther Cameron, here in Madison, for Mind=s Eye Radio.
THE POET AND TIME
The poet and time are natural enemies. Poets are always fighting with time, writing "in time's despite." Of course, we want our work to last, and the message of time is that nothing lasts. But there's more to it than that. The very nature of the poet's work brings us into conflict with conventional perceptions of time.
Time, we are told, moves in a straight line. What happens earlier affects what happens later, but not vice versa. The "deterministic world-view" -- as in "man is descended from the apes" -- is closely connected with the perception of time as linear. What can happen tomorrow is defined and limited by what happened yesterday. And the linear concept of time is also bound up with the market-oriented world-view. Where time is viewed as a straight line it can be divided into segments. And these segments can be equated with money; they can be bought and sold and owned.
The poet has serious problems with this way of viewing time. To begin with, it is impossible to pay a poet by the hour, because the amount of time spent writing a poem cannot be determined. One of my best poems, "Birthday of a Courier," was written in fifteen minutes after I'd sat down at the typewriter and started absentmindedly tapping the keys. Of course, it was based on a series of little incidents that had been happening for several days, awakening associations from my past experience and reading. How long had it taken me to acquire those associations? In fact it had taken me *my whole life* to write that poem. But try and put that on a timesheet!
The events around ABirthday of a Courier@ illustrate the non-linear nature of poetic time. A day or two *after* the writing this poem, I went to an open mike and heard a poet previously unknown to me read a long poem about *running.* The original meaning of "courier," is "someone who carries messages by running." This poet did eventually carry a message from me, by publishing a short prose piece of mine in his little magazine. Thus, "Birthday of a Courier" seems to have happened, partly because of the events that preceded its writing, but also partly because of a future event -- the meeting with the "runner" - which I had no way of predicting. You see, there is no past or future here. Events are related, but as nodes in a web, not as points on a straight line.
The prose piece of mine that the "courier" poet eventually published dealt with the work of still another poet -- Paul Celan, a Holocaust survivor whose work is animated by a sense of global concern. In a 1960 speech called "The Meridian," Celan speaks, in a very careful, roundabout way, about the relationship of poetry to time. He says that poetry "runs on ahead of us," that it is written in "a concentration mindful of all our dates." This seems to mean when you write a poem you are on some level aware of *all* the significant moments in your life -- *not just the ones that have already happened.* In Celan's own poems there are quite a few instances of "memories of things to come." And his influence on my own life did not begin at the fateful moment when someone opened a book of his to the first poem and handed it to me. That encounter, which left me with a sense of personal responsibility for the planet, was foreshadowed in a great number of Birthday-of-a-Courier@-type incidents, things that struck me as odd until this poet showed up as their explanation.
So how does this bear on the tale of time that we've been told? If events in the universe really occurred in linear sequence, there would be no room for incidents of this kind -- microscopic as they appear on the historical, let alone the geologic timescale. Something is wrong here.
According to the view of time as sequence the universe came out of the Big bang, and the galaxies came out of the universe, and the stars came out of the galaxies, and the planets came out of the stars, and on one planet first life and then intelligent beings just happened to evolve. All of this happened by the "laws" of physics, chemistry, and biology. (Where those Alaws@ came from, is a question often overlooked.) If we happen to make a mess of the planet, from our Darwinistic past that's only to be expected.
But suppose the origin of the universe is not in the "past"? Suppose time is just as much "pulled" by the future as it is "pushed" by the past? Then the rabbinic saying that "the world was created for the sake of Torah," i.e. for the sake of the laws that govern human conduct, would make just as much sense as the Darwinistic truism that we Aevolved from the apes.@ Moreover: if we are drawn toward a Aheart-bright future@ in Celan=s phrase -- if we are drawn toward a future in which humans will have come together to save the earth and our own dignity, then our attention -- "the natural prayer of the soul," as Celan puts it in "The Meridian@ -- will be drawn toward the knowledge and the encounters that are related to this task.
That's why, "impractical" though it may sound, the first thing to do in "saving the earth" may be to work on safeguarding and strengthening poetic concentration, one's own and others'. For poetry takes us out of the illusion of linear time where human events seem driven by events on a lower level and where "things fall apart" because the global nature of time, its wholeness, has been obscured. I still hope we can wake up from that illusion in time.
BIRTHDAY OF A COURIER
The high-relief of something in the mind
almost forgotten, remembered not by name
but rising, shedding water from bright flanks:
Follow the trails of water to their source,
enter the source, and speak. Let your eyes
protrude from tree-trunks, your hands
appear over intersections, in the air.
You companion is a thought that keeps pace
with you, dodging among the mirrors of the air,
surfacing in eyes, in eyes, ringing
voice after voice like a set of untried chimes.
Your credentials are: the constellation and the leaf,
the tokens under the tongues of the unborn,
and you are shod in thankfulness of the earth.)
AN ATTIC POTPOURRI
(Topic: AIn the Attic@)
Attics are or were places where the past accumulates. My grandmother=s house had one. It was really an unfinished third story, reached by a flight of stairs that were closed off from the bedroom floor by a door. We children were not often allowed up there. But when we were, it was a kingdom of wonders. Uncle Al had had a chemistry lab up there and there were still various substances in test tubes. And one time I pulled out from a pile a wooden ukelele with a green felt cover that had belonged to Aunt Nazleh, and they let me keep it. Back home in Madison, where the attic was a crawl space reached by a hole in the ceiling, it always seemed to me that life grew on shallower soil.
Perhaps my grandmother=s attic has something to do with my affection for archaisms. There is a little poem by Edna St. Vincent Millay, called ARosemary,@ that expresses this feeling. It ends:
Many things be dead and gone
That were brave and gay.
For the sake of these things
I will learn to say,
AAn it please you, gentle sirs,
Of course, attics also have other associations. Once, looking up the synonyms for Acrazy@ in an edition of Roget=s Thesaurus that is probably outdated, I found the expression Aa guest in the attic,@ which I rather like, though I=ve never heard anyone use it.
Who knows, perhaps the topic of attics had something to do with a rather nutty little poem on the subject of time reversal that I wrote last week. I must acknowledge that the gimmick of time reversal isn=t an original one. I know of one short story, one poem and one film that employ it. But hey, you wouldn=t expect to find anything new in an attic...
He didn't understand why objects dropped
fell upwards in this world, nor why their talk,
incomprehensible, was yet familiar,
nor why whenever he opened up his own
mouth, the words he had regretted saying
flew in and were abruptly swallowed down.
Some consciousness must have remained in him
from another world where things went otherwise,
for no one else appeared disturbed by how
they kept remembering all they had forgotten
even while forgetting all that they had learned
till clean of thought they were sucked back into
the womb that folded on its shrinking fruit.
He learned to understand their retro speech,
and gradually it was borne in on him
that this whole world was rushing back from some
outcome that had to be undone, undestined,
back into Adam, into Being's core,
to where they could unmake that first mistake.
Hoping to see you, maybe day before yesterday,
THE NUMBER FOURTEEN
Like everyone I had two grandmothers.
But mine were both 14's.
My maternal grandmother was born on February 14th.
My paternal grandmother was born on July 14th.
And their characters matched their birthdays.
My maternal grandmother=s middle name was Valentine.
She was a loving couple=s only daughter.
She had seven suitors
one of whom committed suicide for her sake
another kept coming round after her marriage
till her husband told him to keep away.
Her oval-framed photograph hangs in my mother=s room.
Features perfect as a doll=s
yet full of spirit and sweetness.
I hope I have made one verse
with a lilt like the tilt of her head.
My paternal grandmother=s name was Jessie.
Her features were regular but she was thin.
When I knew her she looked like an urban version
of the woman in American Gothic.
Whereas my maternal grandmother after a stroke
had gotten very heavy
though her upswept white hair and silk dresses were still elegant.
She was affectionate but I shied away from her.
My paternal grandmother was not affectionate.
That attracted me.
She=d had three sons and wanted a daughter
and I was her first granddaughter.
She had a way of taking you along
with whatever she was doing
while conveying that whatever she did
was very important.
She was the first person to survive to old age
with Addison=s disease.
She took protein at dinner
and gave herself shots.
Before she married she studied piano in Germany
and met someone her father would not let her marry
and was discontented ever afterward.
You might say she was a battle-axe.
My mother says that whenever I was around her
after awhile I would start to sound like her.
An astrologer once told me
AYour Venus is in Libra
and your Ares is in Mars.
That means whatever you love you really love
and whatever you hate you really hate.@
I write a lot of poems with fourteen lines.
I write a lot at the full moon.
When I was young I spent long hours looking in the mirror
hoping my Valentine=s Day grandmother=s face
would show up there
though it never did
but it was on my Bastille Day grandmother=s birthday
after a phony hearing up in Rhinelander
that I sang this fourteen-stanza song of freedom.
THE FOURTEENTH OF JULY
All in the dewy morning
On the fourteenth of July
I went to walk beneath the trees
That grow so green and high.
And there I met Tom Jefferson,
He was pacing up and down,
His head was sunk upon his chest,
His face it wore a frown.
"What is the matter, sir," I said,
"Or what is it you seek?"
"I'm looking for the people
With whom I wish to speak."
"What do you mean," I cried in fear,
"I see them all around."
"I see their bodies just like you,
But their spirits are not found.
"They do not hear, they do not see,
They walk with empty eyes."
"I guess you mean the media
That have got them hypnotized.
"Their ears are filled with crashing sound,
Their eyes with flashing lights,
Their minds too full of greed and gore
To sort out truth from lies.
"They have no time to meet and talk
And hear the liberty bell --
It is as if some evil king
Had bound them in a spell."
"Climb up, climb up into that tower,
"And ring that bell once more."
"That bell has got a crack," I replied,
The sound would not go o'er."
"Then you must forge it new," he said,
"In the flame of your desire,
Until they come together
To hear what freedom requires.
"Tell them to keep the Sabbath,
A day when all are free:
That day they must not buy nor sell
Nor sit and watch TV.
"It is a day to meet and talk
And find the ones they trust
To keep their hands from bribery
And on wisdom to insist.
"And these in turn together
Will meet in council high
To write a Constitution
For the coming century.
"For everything wears out at last
And needs to be renewed
Out of the ancient spirit
Of truth and rectitude.
"That spirit has a mighty power,
Although the odds be high;
Will you go and tell the people?"
I said that I would try.
DOLLS ARE US
Dolls are "just a toy" -- something you play with as a kid and then forget about. But there is also a spooky side to dolls. They can pop up in adult life and take us to strange places.
My first contact with the spooky side of dolldom came at age 5, when my father, who otherwise never bought pop records, brought home one single -- "Paper Doll," by the Mills Brothers:
I'm gonna buy a paper doll that I can call my own,
A doll that other fellows cannot steal,
And then the flirty, flirty guys with the flirty, flirty eyes
Will have to flirt with dollies that are real
When I come home at night she will be waiting,
She'll be the truest doll in all this world
I'd rather have a paper doll to call my own
Than any fickle-hearted real live girl.
Why, I wondered, would he prefer a paper doll to a real live girl? And what did "fickle" mean? Now having read some sociobiology, I would understand the song as a playful expression of that male drive to control the female which explains so much in human culture -- including, possibly, the way science conceptualizes nature. After all, that which is to be controlled is best imagined as inanimate. But long before I was capable of such speculations, the song may have helped to provoke my first poem, written a couple of years later, when I was seven:
Little doll, I wonder,
Do you each day
Have your hour of work
And your hour of play?
What do you do
When the night is still?
Do it in front of me, D
o what you will!
I want you to do it, you see
The toy that is really alive seems to be a common childhood fantasy -- the stuff of children's literature. Something in the child's mind wants to believe that the apparently lifelessness of the things by which she is surrounded (to a far greater degree, of course, than were our ancestors as children) is merely a form of enchantment, a mask for a hidden awareness.
From ages 6 through 13 I was crazy about the beautiful lady-dolls that were made in the pre- Barbie era. They were larger than the Barbie dolls and there was a kind of static, ideal quality about them. They had dignity. Before Christmas in the year I was nine, my mother called me into her room and showed me, ahead of time, the doll she was going to give me. It was a large bride doll with dark hair. The memory of the moment when that doll -- I called her Ruth -- emerged from the white tissue paper is still touched with awe. But the next year I wanted a bridegroom doll to match and was told they didn't make boy dolls that size. This made me so sad that I woke up for a moment from childhood=s dream; I remember thinking: Why am I so sad about this? I am just a child, this is just a doll. The Barbie doll at least has a Ken -- I guess that's one point in her favor. I still feel badly because some years ago, in one of those moods of divestment that visit us at times in our lives, I sold Ruth. I keep thinking someday I will search for a doll like her. Because of course dolls are never just dolls. In Ibsen's Master Builder there is a character who has been neurotic ever since a fire burned down her ancestral home. In the fire her twin babies perished, but what haunts her even more is that the fire also destroyed the dolls which had been handed down in her family for generations. It's crazy, of course, but The Master Builder is about the destruction of tradition in the modern world, and the dolls evidently symbolize the ancestral tradition. When I talked about this theme in the Mind's Eye Radio group, one member, Fran Rall, free-associated to a lecture she had given on Cameroon ancestor figures some years ago. These are also dolls.
In literature, of course, dolls live. There are robots, golems, statues that come alive, beautiful girls with clockwork hearts, automatons that turn out to be human after all, humans who ask themselves whether in fact a human is anything more than a sophisticated automaton, humans who feel they are being spindled, folded and mutilated into becoming an automaton. As in Sylvia Plath's "The Applicant," where the addressee, apparently a candidate for marriage, is told:
Now your head, excuse me, is empty.
I have the ticket for that
Come here, sweetie, out of the closet
Well, what do you think of that?
Naked as paper to start
But in twenty-five years, she'll be silver,
In fifty, gold
A living doll, everywhere you look
It can sew, it can cook,
It can talk, talk, talk
Obviously this is a satire on women's role in marriage. But in the final stanza of the poem I hear a different note, at least as an overtone:
It works, there is nothing wrong with it
You have a hole, it's a poultice
You have an eye, it's an image
My boy, it's your last resort
Will you marry it, marry it, marry it
Dolls are spooky because they confront us with a fixed image of ourselves. They cast a chill over our belief in our own spontaneity But at the same time they give us definition, help us keep track of who we are. For all our justifiable wariness, we seem to need them.
Stephen Crane is best known for "The Red Badge of Courage" and other fiction; but he also wrote a number of small, uncomfortable free verse poems, such as the following:
Perceiving the pathway to truth,
Was struck with astonishment.
It was thickly grown with weeds.
"Ha," he said,
"I see that no one has passed here
In a long time."
Later he saw that each weed
Was a singular knife.
"Well," he mumbled at last,
"Doubtless there are other roads."
I read that in high school, and it has haunted me ever since. I think it captures the quality of a kind of moment we all experience, what I call the "uh-oh moment." The moment when you see something you really would rather avoid thinking about (like a naked emperor). The twinge that marks it feels a little like the embarrassment of a social gaffe. Most of us are pretty good at smoothing such moments over, changing the subject of our mental conversation. But of course there aren't really any other roads. It always catches up with us at last.
It is often said that truth is elusive and difficult to come by, and no doubt that statement has been useful in defusing altercations. Yet I have this sneaking suspicion that the truth is there, somewhere, and most of us basically know it. We have just gotten very good at misplacing it. There used to be a saying that truth sits at the bottom of a well. Maybe those Auh-oh@ moments are voices from that well. If all of us were to keep track of such moments, we might eventually be able to compose a model of the elephant about which even seven blind men could agree.
The resolve and practice of listening to one's "uh-oh moments" might be the equivalent of a scientific discipline. With time, and no doubt with a certain number of lacerations suffered by the pioneers, the weeds might be trampled down a bit. There would be fewer "uh-oh moments" and more "aha moments," when you glimpse truth in its wondrous and delightful aspect. Of course, when people become too phobic about getting scratched, the weeds grow higher, the truth gets uglier and uglier, harder and harder to faceY
Looking around for the Band-Aids,
I'm Esther Cameron for Mind's Eye Radio.
WHAT I NEVER LEARNED IN KINDERGARTEN
When I told my mother that the next topic for Mind's Eye Radio would be "What I learned from...", she thought for a minute and said, "That would imply that I ever learned anything." Which had been my thought exactly.
A poem by the Russian poet Mandelstamm also came to mind (my apologies to Mandelstamm for the translation):
There's no need to speak of anything,
there's no need at all of studying,
just that way the darkened animal
melancholy soul is beautiful.
It has never thought of studying,
it has never learned to say a thing,
like a youthful dolphin see it ride
the grim gray billows of earth's ocean-tide.
And I also thought of something that was said to me by someone who was struggling with the top brass of his corporation: "People never really learn anything. They just keep doing what they know how to do as long as they can."
And finally, I thought of a story that I read when I first started to get interested in Judaism. It has said that before birth the soul of the child in the care of an angel who teaches it the entire Torah -- that includes whatever there is to know about the world. But when the child is ready to be born, the angel strikes the child on the mouth and the child forgets everything. The little groove between the nose and mouth is the mark of this blow. When the child afterwards begins learning, this learning is really a remembering.
This spoke to my experience as a poet. Poetry can be a way of understanding of the world, integrating one's knowledge. But the poem isn't a real poem unless it records some click of recognition between the inner and the outer world.
The insistence on this correspondence between inner and outer has made me a slow learner in some contexts. When I was five my favorite aunt took me out for a walk and afterwards told my mother, "She doesn't heel well." That was the year I should have been in kindergarten, but because of the wanderings of my family I missed kindergarten. I've always had the feeling that the other kids learned things in kindergarten that I have never quite caught up with. I never did learn to heel. I'm not good at reading expressions, nor am I good at silencing misgivings when everyone else seems sure there is no problem. This has made me something of a lifelong outsider.
The biggest crisis in my life was partly a refusal to learn something. I was supposed to be writing a dissertation on some poetry that had spoken to me quite personally. Academic convention seemed to require me to speak of it in a language that didn't acknowledge personal emotion. At a certain point I realized that I didn't want to learn how to do this. So I left the university. And that has made all the difference.
Maybe I was too impatient. In recent years I've often wished that I could go back to teaching. I dream about founding a different kind of academy, where people could talk about what they had learned without distancing themselves from their inner life, from the inward knowledge of the soul. Who knows, maybe someday it will happen.
Life is a learning experience. We just have to be careful not to learn too much.
Unteachably, I=m Esther Cameron from Mind=s Eye Radio.
THE NATURAL PRAYER
(Topic: AAttention Please@)
AAttention is the natural prayer of the soul@
That sentence, by the French philosopher Malebranche, was quoted by the poet Paul Celan in his 1960 speech AThe Meridian.@ It seems like the key to something.
But what are we supposed to pay attention to? So many things in this world demand our attention. If we don=t pay attention while crossing the street we=ll be run over. On the job we must give full attention to our work. In society we must pay attention to social dynamics. Entertainers, advertisers, politicians, charities, compete for our attention. Crimes are committed to get attention. If it was once considered important to keep the Sabbath day, this was perhaps so that people could get a chance to pay attention to something else.
In my own life-story, attention has turned out to be a central theme. Socially I am something of a feral child; until the age of six I had little to do with peer groups. It took me till college even to realize that most of what was happening between people was going right by me. The only world where I felt at home was that of poetry. And even there, intellectual and artistic fashions often made me uncertain that my own responses were worth paying attention to.
Then I was introduced to the work of Paul Celan, and it was as though a voice had spoken from my own soul. (Others have also said this.) One of his poems begins: AEyes, world-blind.@ Another concludes:
you stretch and grow
and I float on before you: a leaf
that knows where the gates are thrown open.
Under the guidance of this voice, it began to occur to me that though I didn=t see a lot of what others saw, maybe I saw some other things worth seeing. I still wasn=t very confident on the one occasion when I met him in person. But at one point he said to me, AYou are attentive.@ Knowing what that word meant to him, this remark gave me a hope in which I scarcely dared believe. After his death the following year, the only way I could see to bring good out of evil was to try to understand and convey that understanding B if I could get people=s attention.
In 1974 I wrote an essay called AThe Two Patterns.@ Its thesis was that attention structures our world, depending on how it=s directed. Attention to material and social power structures a world of power. But there=s an attention to the tokens of connection among people, that builds a world of love and wisdom and mutual aid. Often this potential world seems to try to get our attention by synchronicities, strange Acoincidences.@ For instance, I chose the Hebrew name Esther because of the way it is used by Celan (and also by Sylvia Plath). Only then did I learn that Esther was the name of my great-grandmother Bennett, who seems to have been a spiritual person. I hadn=t heard much about her before, perhaps because she didn=t fit the world-view of a scientific family. But thanks to this strange coincidence some memories of her were retrieved, the family archives even yielded a portrait of her which had previously escaped attention, and she has become a teacher for me (I am still learning).
By the way, my parents= scientific field was geology, and this has led me from an early age to pay attention to what was happening to the earth. Celan=s poetry talks a lot about the earth. Some years ago I wrote a song about it.
Yes, the word is written in the world today:
If we learn to work for life then we can stay.
There's a center we must find, a common heart, a common mind,
We must recognize the signs that point the way.
Close your eyes and listen deep inside you
You can hear the night wind moaning for the trees,
You will hear a sigh that's deeper than the seas,
It is Wisdom that's pleading for release.
Everyone must make a place deep in their soul
For the image of our planet round and whole.
By the light of Earth so clear your instructions will appear,
You will know what you must do to play your role.
Close your eyes and listen deep inside you . . .
It is Wisdom that's pleading for release.topic: Listening to Nature
THE RESIDUE AT BOCA RATON
B Paul Celan
Two tides meet here. The line of condos, villas,
hotels, resorts, that no one from Key West
to probably Nova Scotia can outwalk,
comes toe to toe with the Atlantic Ocean
as the edge between unravels: a six-
foot sand-step bites the beach down
to the waterline, ever since last winter=s storm
sent waves to knock on the terrace wall beneath
the pale-pink tower. Upstairs in my aunt=s
seashell apartment: high ceilings, white walls,
pink pillows. Paintings, prints with which I try
to start a conversation. AThey came with the place,
I never look at them.@ Must have seemed
the right sort of thing, unlike this un-
productive niece. APoetry? That=s nothing
for this time.@ Ninety years old, twenty years widowed,
still slim and smart. AYou can=t live in the past.@
The present is long distance phone calls, bridge, bingo, TV.
She knows about salt in the aquifers around Miami.
AIt=s the end of the world. Let=s enjoy what we have.@
Refers stoically to her daughter, dead of cancer at fifty,
shows my mother her collection of pictures,
her descendants: faces, repetitions, variations,
a numerous tribe but beginning to thin out
in the fourth generation, like my mother=s in the third.
She=s at her best when talking of their childhood,
and my mother also brightens then. I go down
to walk on the foreshore, trying to block out the buildings
but of course one can=t. With me there tag along
faint outlines of presences: Hoelderlin, Stevens, Yeats,
summoned by the surf=s gong, they come unwillingly
to the sea that *gives and takes remembrance*
and grovels beneath our *rage for* (violent) *order* (disorder),
growing sterile beside the diseased venereal soil.
But Homer has no problem with all this,
adaptable, like those pelicans that when the dawn
wind is stiff commute up from behind the condos,
strap-hanging on extended wings --
the Morse code of his verse tapping in my head
like the old-time tunes my aunt hears on the radio
in her sleepless nights. His scenes reenact themselves
like hauntings, the two chiefs scrapping over captive women
no different from a gangster movie really
but immortal in rhythm. And the ocean
rolls its hexameters impassively casting
the shells of her dwindling children. Perhaps
since the loss of the ammonoids -- great spiral wheels,
rainbow-colored for all we know, ten feet in diameter,
chased with increasingly arcane runes of sutures,
housing those plasms that sent forth their great roiling tentacles,
for all we know, with the cunning of the giant squid
-- but no cunning availed in those years of winter
when the sky was darkened and all the plankton died
-- perhaps since then it does not matter to her
what she goes on giving and taking: strewn
scarves of coquina, scraps of whelk and conch and turban,
what has formed itself in her eons and seasons
with her hands= finishing touches: the internal precision
screw of the conch laid bare, a shard of whelk
smoothed for the bowl of a spoon;
even returns our absentminded offerings
-- styrofoam float, polyurethane container --
reshaped into a semblance of her tokens,
like a poet throwing in a scientific term.
I walk along, churning words and disgruntlements.
*He went away by the shore of the many-thundering sea.*
*Hals atygretos.* The restless sea. Alternative
reading: the barren sea. Either works.
Host to a dysfunctional prehistoric compulsion,
peak experiences are not for me, noting coldly
that sunset or dawn turns sky and ocean to one pink shell
(rosy-fingered). Nor can I meditate, turn off
the word-machine. But I ask for a perfect shell
and, a minute later, find a fighting conch,
its opening glistens brown-black, color of old gore,
intact enough to give back the seething
in the veins of my listening flesh as an echo
of the many-thundering sea. Leaving the shore
I turn: AThank you.@ After all you can never be sure.
THAT SUSPICIOUS OBJECT
When the topic ALost and Found@ was broached, the first thing that came into my mind was a stanza by Paul Celan that I=ll translate as follows:
And I said to myself: hold on, Cameron. How metaphysical are you going to get in 5 minutes on the air? But then, as happens when I really want to write about something, I couldn=t think of anything else to write about. So this piece is about losing, and finding again, a belief in the soul.
As a child I was told in Sunday school that people had souls. I took this on faith, so to speak, without knowing what it meant. Later I came to understand that my parents didn=t really believe it. My father was a geologist, and my mother was trained as one. They had sent me to Sunday school to acquire moral principles, but they believed that life had developed from material causes, and both God and the soul were just fictions. My mother used to tell me that her grandmother had promised her mother: AIf it is possible to come back, I will@ B but she never did. As scientists my parents believed in facing the truth. And so for a while I accepted the materialist world-view as true.
It was through poetry, mostly, that I started noticing things that didn=t seem to fit with the materialist world-view. For example, in the summer of 1967 I wrote a poem about my brother, and the poem focused on his astrological sign, Sagittarius. That fall I was introduced to the poetry of Paul Celan, who was also born in the sign of Sagittarius and uses that sign in a poem. The imagery and tone of my poem seem influenced by a poem I hadn=t read yet. One such occurrence might be dismissed as Acoincidence,@ but I kept seeing more of them, particularly in connection with Celan=s poetry. I didn=t like to think about these things at first; it took a while before I was finally able to connect the dots and conclude that we have souls, souls that are connected.
When I came back to my parents after drawing this conclusion, I heard a couple of family stories I hadn=t heard before. Years earlier, during one of my father=s field trips to South Africa, my mother had known one day that my father was in danger. She sent him a cable asking if he was all right; he cabled back AEverything fine.@ When she met him at the airport she said, AOn such and such a date something happened, didn=t it?@ He admitted that he had been in a road accident that day. AHe didn=t like me to talk about it,@ Mother said. And she also told me that when she was five years old, a year after her grandmother=s death, she had fallen and hit her head and lain unconscious on her mother=s lap for half an hour. While unconscious she had seen her grandmother sitting beside her mother, and on waking up she had said, AGrandma was here.@ On hearing this I said, AWait a minute. You always used to tell me that your mother told you that your grandmother never did come back. Maybe that was Great-Grandmother=s way of coming back?@ My mother said, AI used to say this to my mother, but she would always say, >We can never know.=@
These and other things that came to light made me wonder: why had my parents not told me? Why, though they had reason to know, had I been raised in ignorance? Could it be that knowledge of the soul is repressed in our culture? Could it be that science, which claims to weigh all the evidence, is suppressing some?
I don=t believe that the answer is to relapse into fundamentalism. Certainly Paul Celan does not encourage that, although the trail I picked up in his poems did eventually lead me to the Jewish community. Celan=s poems, while encouraging us to attend to the evidence of the soul, also keep some of the scientific spirit of exactitude, caution, and objectivity. But I will confess that at that the time when I finally started to think consciously about this kind of experience, a well-known song kept running through my head:
I once was lost but now am found,
Was blind but now I see.
SONNET IN SHAKY HANDWRITING
(topic: AOn the Bus@)
Things change shape in motion, Einstein says.
I, late a solid citizen of Here,
Am becoming goods in transit, the dear
Departed of the ones who stayed in place,
A visitation to those toward whom the race
Carries me, and to myself a mere
Hint of reflection in the window-mirror,
Successive landscapes= thin if constant glaze.
But wasn=t this in fact always the case,
When one came to think of it, as no believer
In any thing that claimed a stable base,
Too conscious of the truth of road and river?
The moment of transition C a release,
A coming home to Nowhere and to Never.
THE TEMPLE OF MEMORY
For a while after television came in, some serious plays were written for it. One of these plays B I saw it sometime in the late 50's B was called The Death and Life of Larry Benson.
The play is about a family whose son returns after being reported missing in Korea. But when they meet him at the station, they see an altogether different person. Yet he greets them all by name and seems so convinced that he is Larry that they take him home. For several days they live with this person who is and is not their son and brother. Finally ALarry@ tells his sister about a prison-camp buddy named Danny, who had grown up in an orphanage, with whom Larry had shared his memories of home, and who had died. The family understand that it was Larry who died and Danny who returned B with Larry=s memories. In some sense he is, after all, Larry.
The story came back to me in the >70's, when I felt that, like Danny, I had become a vehicle for another=s memories. The poet Paul Celan, who had died, had not told stories about the family and friends and community that had perished in the Holocaust. But in some mysterious way his poems had conveyed to me a sense of who these people were, and so his past had become, in a sense, mine.
This experience also took me back to my own past B to the winter I was five, when our family lived in a rented house in the mountains of North Carolina. It was a lonely place, and there was no television yet, and my mother entertained my brother and me with stories that began AWhen I was a little girl@ -- stories about everyday things that let me see into my mother=s world, made me feel as though I extended farther back in time than my own brief existence. I had a similar feeling in the summers when my mother would take us back to New Jersey, to her mother=s large dark-shingled house with the front porch and the attic. I could draw you a plan of that house which was full of past lives, whereas our house in Madison was new and small and bare, and had no attic you could stand up in.
Strangely, it was in my grandmother=s house that I first encountered television and got the idea for a series of stories about space travel. In one of them, my travelers stepped onto a dead planet, which began to speak, in a poem called AThe Forgotten World@:
I, the wind, the cold cold wind,
I blow over the prairie, around dead volcanos,
I sing of a world,
A forgotten world,
A world long strayed beyond the sight of men.
I, the prairie,
The cold, stone prairie
Dotted with dead volcanos,
Earthquakes have carved crators,
Great, rocky crators,
Out of my surface
I that remain of a forgotten world,
A world long strayed beyond the sight of men.
We, the volcanos,
The old, dead volcanos,
We that remain of a forgotten world,
A world long strayed beyond the sight of men.
I, the darkness,
The cold still darkness,
I that remain of a forgotten world,
A world long strayed beyond the sight of men.
We are that world,
That forgotten world,
That world long strayed beyond the sight of men.
I thought: This voice is older than I am. (I was ten or eleven.) And then I forgot about the poem til twenty-five years later, when my mother found it among some papers she had saved. On rereading it I saw the post-holocaust landscape of Celan=s poems, or some dystopic vision of the planet=s future. And I heard in it, too, the grief for my grandmother=s house, which had come to stand in my mind for the loss of a culture based on the sharing of memory, instead of the fast-flashed stimuli that destroy memory and make us strangers.
In my writing since the encounter with Celan, notably in a long poem called AThe Hexagon,@ I have tried to imagine how the temple of our collective memory might be rebuilt. AThe Hexagon@ is a fantasy-building with a geometric plan; but as a repository for the memories, dreams and reflections of a people, it was inspired by the memory of my grandmother=s house. Someday, I hope we=ll meet there.
GOING OUT INTO THE GREAT NIGHT
(topic: AA Leap in the Dark@)
There was one decision in my life B the decision to drop out of academia -- that really was a leap in the dark, and everything that has happened with me since has followed from that.
I daresay I had been working up to it for a long time. I am a poet by nature, and poetry is often a leap in the dark. There=s a feeling about it sometimes, like stepping outside of things, into another dimension. I think of a song that Frances Densmore collected from an Indian shaman named Owl Woman, who used to sing it to people who were on the point of death:
"In the great night my heart will go out,Toward me the darkness comes rattling,In the great night my heart will go out."
I think she must have been singing not only about death but about her experience as a poet.
For years before I stepped out of academia, I had been blocked from writing poetry, partly because I felt that the contemporary literary world was unsympathetic: dry, hostile, self-protective. My years as a student were a semiconscious quest for something in the contemporary literary world that I could connect with. Finally, as a graduate student in German, I was directed to Paul Celan and instructed to write my thesis on him. Celan was a Jew and a Holocaust survivor. I was a gentile who had never experienced anything worse than playground bullying. Perhaps that unpleasant bit of experience did give me, as one perceptive friend conjectured, a handle on the Jewish situation. But beyond the experience of trauma which is reflected in them, his poems gave me the feeling that he had been Aout there,@ and sensing this in him also made me aware that there had been a few times when I had been Aout there@ too. It is the inheritance of shamanism or poetry or prophecy or whatever you want to call it.
From the first, the encounter with Celan=s work prompted me to write quite a few poems, and I was also moved to try and translate him. There was only one little problem. I was supposed to write a dissertation on him. My academic career depended on it. And in the language of academic criticism I could not write a single sentence that seemed true. The words seemed to fall apart on the page.
A lot of other things contributed to what I ended up doing. It was the end of the >sixties, it was fashionable to Adrop out@ and still more fashionable to talk about doing so. And on the other hand my parents had always been very protective of their ugly duckling, and I must have known that I could fall back on them. So when the shock wave of Celan=s suicide in 1970 arrived, the idea of dropping out of academic life as a protest suggested itself and was acted upon.
Celan=s poems always seemed to me, still seem to me, to be pushing the reader to take some kind of step. To make the words mean something by acting on them. Even if the step is in some sense self-destructive. Dropping out of academic life cost me a lot. And by the way it also confirmed my outsider status in the artistic world, because there too words aren=t expected to be acted on. I lost the chance to teach, to transmit what I=d understood to another generation. I lost connections that might have helped me get my work published. I lost security and social standing. But on the other hand without taking this step, without knowing what the words had to mean, I wouldn=t have had anything to say to the students. I probably would have stopped writing poetry. And if I had not been thrust outside of my earlier frameworks, I might well not have followed the trail to Judaism. Everything that I am glad of having done followed from that one decision.
Judaism, of course, knows a lot about leaps in the dark. Abraham=s leaving home. The exodus from Egypt. But then there is a further step. The unknown into which one leaps is also a space of encounter, a space in which covenants can configure. I still hope one day to meet with others who have understood Celan in that sense. In the great night, which is also the great dawn.
Six years ago I wrote a sequence of 72 sonnets entitled AThe World=s Last Rose: Sonnets for the Prince of Twilight.@
Twilight B the between-light, the two-light B is a time when light and darkness mingle, when the sharp divisions of the daylight world grow less distinct, and what-is begins to give way to what might be. In the poems of Paul Celan, to whom this cycle is dedicated, there is often a kind of twilight atmosphere.
This sequence tells a story about the relationship between a poet and a reader, a virtual relationship between two people who may never meet, one of whom may be unknown to the other. In this case the poet is a Holocaust survivor, the reader is someone who has grown up far away from such horrors. On the social level, in daylight reality, they have nothing to do with each other. But in the twilight world of poetry, it is another matter.
Here are three of the ASonnets for the Prince of Twilight.@
In many tongues I have essayed to speak
Of him who took all language to the grave,
Who all the instruments of song did break,
Since none had notes, with him his grief to grieve.
Poesy died with him, yet must arise
To sing his elegy, in his despite,
Lest this last triumph have his enemies:
To drown song's voice in silent endless night.
Therefore now I, to whom his word has lent
A life not mine, take up the dirge in this
No more than any other tongue forespent
To wrest him back from time's periphrasis:
Him do I praise, of him do I complain,
Who summoned me to summon him in vain.
This time, that tore so many things asunder
and made earth quake beneath the tramp of hate,
yet granted exiled love a single wonder,
in chaos' parliament one delegate:
one pupil of the earth, one troubadour,
one gatherer of names, one skilled in all
the mental paths that lead to the heart's core,
one master of the silent searching call
whereby mere words are cunningly aligned
so that the reader sees more than they tell,
one seer in the place where all are blind,
one speaker of the binding rightful spell.
That he might not have been -- O at that thought
the world's last rose dissolves to ashy nought.
Yet I did not believe myself alone
when first confounded by my own consent:
I heard far voices answering in my own,
felt distant hearts with my heart consonant.
The name to which I answered was the name
of all who hear and answer, all who live
at sentience' center, everywhere the same,
identity shorn of all adjective.
I could not think but that we would convene
by day, or in some chamber council-lit,
and speak as friends of what this thing might mean
and see whether our broken tokens fit
to an earth-circling ring of hope made new.
So much I really thought that love could do.
LIVING BY FICTION
Thomas Pynchon's novel The Crying of Lot 49 begins as follows:
"One summer afternoon Mrs. Oedipa Maas came home from a Tupperware party whose hostess had put perhaps too much Kirsch in the fondue to find that she, Oedipa, had been named executor, or she supposed executrix, of the estate of one Pierce Inverarity, a California real estate mogul who had once lost two million dollars in his spare time but still had assets numerous and tangled enough to make the job of sorting it all out more than honorary. Oedipa stood in the living room, stared at by the greenish dead eye of the TV tube, spoke the name of God, tried to feel as drunk as possible. But this did not work."
After this camp-Kafka opening, Oedipa drives down to Pierce's headquarters to begin her duties as executrix. But we do not hear much about probate procedures. Instead the empire and estate of her former lover morphs into a vast paranoid system underlying the reality of the California landscape. There seems to be a shadowy communications network, called the Tristero, which exists as a subterranean, perhaps unconscious collective protest against the anomie and meaninglessness of modern life. The Tristero uses waste bins for mailboxes and manifests its presence through synchronicities and symbolic connections. It is pervasive and yet elusive; Oedipa finds that her contacts to it have a way of disappearing. At a certain point she wonders if she crazy and goes back to her shrink, one Dr. Hilarius, in hopes he can tell her if she is crazy or not. She finds him in the throes of a paranoid breakdown, about to be taken away. When she says to him, "I came hoping you could talk me out of a fantasy," Doc Hilarius replies:
"Cherish it! What else do any of you have? Hold it tightly by its little tentacle, don't let the Freudians coax it away or the pharmacists poison it out of you. Whatever it is, hold it dear, for when you lose it you go over by that much to the others. You begin to cease to be."
The Crying of Lot 49 is a strange story, written in Mad Magazine style with a lot of tasteless puns and weird names. But it has attracted a fair amount of attention from literary scholars, some of whom interpret it as an allegory of interpretation: the dead lover who has appointed Oedipa his executrix stands for the writer, who creates a world of which the reader must try to make sense. Alternatively, (in line with the propensity of authors to see themselves as God) it's about a person who still feels impelled to carry out God=s will in a world where "God is dead."
The strangest thing is that something like this story actually happened B to me. The Crying of Lot 49 relates one version of the story of my personal obsession. In 1971, about five years after The Crying of Lot 49 was published and two years before I read it, I became convinced that a certain poet, who had been very real, had designated me, yes me, to be the personal representative, of his Utopian vision. Upon consenting to act, I soon found my world swarming with symbolic connections. There were plenty of people willing to talk me out of it. But I concluded, that indeed, as Dr. Hilarius might have said to me, what else did I have.
Not that I put it to myself exactly in Hilarius= language. It was actually a rather solemn undertaking, solemnized in a series of archaic-sounding sonnets, with references to the ghost scene in Hamlet (ASwear!@) and other literary models, calling the entire tradition to witness, so to speak. It seemed to me that the undertaking of the Quest required this way of speaking. And probably the consciousness of having sworn a great oath in high style has helped me to persist, despite the predictable series of quixotic discomfitures. The network of symbolic connections that blossomed for me around this strange encounter and undertaking, I have tried to record and develop; and I suppose they constitute a poetic identity.
So perhaps that makes me no different from any other poet. Every poet has an underlying set of symbols with which they're more or less obsessed. The difference is that I don't just write poems that express fantasies or create characters who have adventures. I personally am living this fantastic adventure. I have managed to keep out of the mental health care system by heeding the advice of Kipling to Atrust yourself when all men doubt you,/ Yet make allowance for their doubting too.@
That is, I'm well aware that I can't really expect others to buy into this fantasy of mine. I have to resign myself to attempting to play Hamlet on a stage where all the other players think the title of the play is Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. That's just the way it is.
And yet of course I'm not really resigned. I can=t be the only one who ever got a midnight phone call or had a moment of wanting to be more, as Joni Mitchell put it, than a name on a door. I keep hoping against hope that someday I'll meet up with some other people whose fantasies will lock into mine, and a different kind of play or story will begin. Maybe something like the Arthurian romances, or the Faerie Queene, where a lot of different individual quests are somehow coordinated. After all, don't there have to be connections between one personal fantasy and another, seeing that we all have to draw on the same set of symbols and concrete objects? And if we made these connections, couldn't we together -- in Oedipa's words -- "project a world"?
As the poet Jean Garrigue once wrote:
It is not entirely a fiction
If we live by fiction, if we keep up to the mark
Or as Bob Dylan put it: I'll let you be in my dream if I can be in yours.
Hoping to see you there,
I=m Esther Cameron for Mind=s eye Radio.
THE LADY OF THE DARK CHAMBER
There was a wizard in Paris town,
And a cunning man was he:
He called the Lady of the Dark Chamber
To come from beyond the sea.
He has seen her in a midnight glass
And written her name in sand,
He has summoned her up by candlelight
And whispered her his command.
The lady tosses on her bed,
She has not peace nor rest.
She dreams all night of a falcon dark
Lighting upon her breast.
And all she did to banish this,
It was of no avail
Till she went down to the cold seaBside
And for Paris town set sail.
And when she came to Paris town
She heard a man was there
Who could summon spirits to do his will
And walk upon the air.
She went unto the wizard's house,
She would not say her name,
But the wizard bade him let her in,
For well he knew who came.
"Thou cunning wizard of Paris town,
Know'st thou who I may be?"
"Thou art the Lady of the Dark Chamber,
Whom I called from beyond the sea.
"I have seen thee in a midnight glass
And called thee by night and day,
I have bound thee with the Threefold Spell,
And thou canst not get away.
"But fear thou not, thou Lady dark,
For I mean no harm to thee BB
I mean to be king in Paris town,
And thou the queen shalt be.
"Thou shalt sit upon a golden throne
And wear a golden crown,
And even I shall do thy will,
And thy words shall be written down.
"Thou shalt be mother to all men,
But thy children shall be seven;
They shall be fair as the sun and moon
And wise as the stars of heaven.
"And all the people in all the realm
Shall to each other say,
'Well to the Lady of the Dark Chamber
And to those beneath her sway.'"
He has taken her up to a window high
And shown her to all the town,
And his face was like the moon at the full,
And hers was like the sun.
And when those two lay down to rest
The bells of the town did chime,
And when he kissed her roseBred lips,
The clocks stopped at that time.
And never a clock has struck since then,
All is as he did say.
Well to the Lady of the Dark Chamber,
And to those beneath her sway!
A WEATHER FORECAST
AWeather@ can be a metaphor for other conditions. Some decades ago there was a radical politcal group called "Weatherman." One morning in October 1994 I awoke to the sound of rain on the roof, and it got me started writing a poem about the cultural and economic climate. I chose a form called the sestina, in which a certain set of words keeps coming back, and maybe that too was suggested by the drumming of the rain.
In some ways this poem may seem the opposite of contemporary. It uses a late medieval form and pays homage to a Alady,@ in troubadour fashion, though the Alady@ is an archetype of compassion and justice that has cropped up in many cultures. The Atower@ also sounded a bit quaint in 1994. But maybe now that image could serve as a reminder that the weather of September 2001 did not come out of the blue.
SESTINA OF THE OCTOBER RAIN
There is that sound in the sound of rain outside
That bids me to speak, what time I wake in sorrow
Before dawn, for thinking of that lady
Whose servant I would be, though she is poor
And for many days I have had of her no sign
That she remembers me in her distant tower.
Long have I known she is prisoned in the tower
And those who would serve her must roam outside
To receive on their brows, as the sign
Of her favor, the tracings of stubborn sorrow,
Sole livery of those who love the poor
And keep faith with them and their constant lady.
In this time she has few who call her lady:
The powers and principalities do so tower
Over all, systematically making poor
All who by will or hap remain outside
Their dominion; their minions sneer at sorrow
And count it folly to believe a sign.
The scored serpent, that is their only sign.
They strenuously boast there is no lady
Coin cannot charm, no tort or sorrow
It cannot compensate, no lofty tower
Of troth it cannot throw down. They sweep outside,
Mechanically, the refuse of the poor.
They have drawn from her even the hearts of the poor,
Who watch the strutting potentate's every sign,
Hypnotized by a glittering outside
Into spurning the counsel of the lady
And flocking round the foot of the dark tower,
As those whom fear and hunger rule more than sorrow.
For these in the early morning hours I sorrow,
And for many a one who dared be poor
Until a beam from the searchlight in the tower
Fell on them; then they fled, forgetting the sign
They had received, alleging fear that the lady
Would draw them, with arms of remorse, inside.
The rain outside is still. I have spoken my sorrow.
Lady, remember me among your poor
And make my name a sign against the tower.
GIVING BLOOD, GIVING POETRY
As an immediate response to the September 11 attacks, I felt the need to do two things: give blood, and write a poem. So over the next two days, at home, at the Red Cross, in intervals at work, I ground out 19 stanzas, trying to contain in them a whole landscape of tragic implications which the lightning-flash of the event had shown up.
The poem acquired a title, ATiresias Visits the Bombsite,@ a title which worries me a little. In Sophocles= AOedipus Rex,@ Tiresias is the seer who knows from the start that Oedipus, who is seeking the cause of a plague on the city, is himself the cause of that plague. I didn=t and don=t want to he heard as saying Ait=s all our fault@; the poem acknowledges a real fanaticism out there that wants to destroy us not just because of any guilt of ours. But at the same time B at the heart of the poem perhaps is the struggle of someone who must mourn the destruction of the World Trade Center after years of being concerned about the effects of globalization both here and abroad.
O weep, weep for the dead whose monument
Excelling modern art in harsh profile
Is this stark grid of steel, blackened and bent,
That juts above the settling rubble-pile:
The expert with his earnings still unspent,
The secretary parted from her child,
The fireman who heroically rushed
In to the workers, and with them was crushed!
Yet weep the more, if loss should make more dear
An edifice which when it glittered whole
Spelled slow disaster to the biosphere.
An outgrowth of the greed that rots the bole
Of government and public weal stood here,
A prison for the bought and managed soul,
A torture for the eye that loved to see
Earth-given forms in sweet complexity.
At the same time I worried about the ultimate effect on us of a standard patriotic-military response that might or might not be able to find its target.
From the slain
Among us now are vengeful spirits roused
Which if they find the trail, if they attain
Their rightful quarry, may then rest appeased;
But if it should, like a virus in the vein,
Stay hidden, we may find our infed ire
A foe, than many outward foes more dire.
The White Knight, the defender, sleeps and dreams
A challenger approaches, clad in mail
Of midnight. Through the lowered visor gleams
An adversary=s glance with fire of bale.
He charges, thrusts B and the opponent seems
To topple back. He sees the visor fall
Back from an empty helm. Then he hears
Around him B Where? Here? No, there! B taunts and jeers.
May that in us which holds to freedom still
Hold still a moment, while the voices tell us
What is the precious thing they must not kill
In us, no matter how what gods are jealous,
And what are our own fetters, which with skill
We must unbind. If we rebuild our palace,
Let it be open to the air again
And open to the pleadings of the sane.
Thus the end of the poem brought me back to the perennial predicament of the poet who, feeling the need to respond to the common situation, to see it whole and frame it in a way that might make a wise and constructive response possible, is then often blocked from conveying the result because too many people have gotten away from hearing poetry. Too busy building towers.
I, a poor poet, made this song B among
America=s deaf ears a doubtful bother B
Just for a croon to calm the pain that stung
These guts B to place one word upon another,
And on the harp of civic song, restrung
As best I could, invoke the common mother
Of song, of earth, and of community B
One of Her names, perhaps, is Liberty.
O Lady, may your torch have light to shine
On us even now, and show things as they are,
That we may rescue Ours from Mine and Thine
And bind to peace the god or gods of war,
Silence the curses that befoul the shrine
Of prayer, and turn again the peoples= ear
Toward the true word, the honest song, the Law,
That having known, we may repair the flaw.
In the weeks after the bombing, many other poets felt the need to set down what they saw and felt. I hope that we all go on doing this, and that we can strengthen our channels of communication with our fellow-citizens. As I put it in another poem prompted by the bombing, AWe have a culture to rebuild.@
FROM THE GROUND
(an alternative piece, not used)
The weeks grind on since the event that showed, like a flash of lightning, an unexpected landscape of menace. Where are we now?
I see the face of the President, at the memorial service in Washington, in his speech declaring war on terrorism. The face of someone waking to find himself in a position of terrible responsibility. My heart went out to him even though I have never, to put it mildly, been a supporter of his. Suddenly he was Everyman, every one of us.
Or so it seemed. What is real?
The towers falling. The people dying. That was real. Even if big media did milk it for all it was worth and base an entertainment feature on it a few weeks later, not to mention their making a star out of someone who wants to kill us.
Postal workers dying of anthrax because the government didn=t want to alarm the people by taking too many precautions, that is real. So are the refugees streaming out of Afghanistan, where we are playing the coyote in a Roadrunner cartoon. But after all we can=t confront the Saudis, who have been bankrolling fanaticism and terrorism for years and who haven=t even frozen the assets of the terrorists. It is easier to put pressure on Israel, though if Israel should fall (where would those refugees go, by the way?) America would then have the fanatics= undivided attention. By the Saudis= leave the rivers of automobiles flow in and out of our cities; they are business partners of the Presidential family. They probably invest in media too. Their money helped elect this man.
And there are those who would paper over the view of the abyss, who seem to want to think this is a diversity conference. Our faiths shudder from the contact with a foe determined to destroy, not only us, but the very possibility of human love and forgiveness B in the name of God. Denial beckons.
Amid all this, the American flags everywhere. I=ve never been a great flag-waver. But at this point I find it touching. The flag stands for a republic. Not a movement of fanatics, not an international corporation that by its nature cannot consider anything but profit, but a people committed to an ideal of liberty and justice, however often we may have failed that ideal. I=ll take it.
But this country is leaderless. The President is no help. The television commentators are no help. If there is to be leadership, it would have to come from the people themselves.
We should all be meeting regularly, in groups of trusted friends, in any religious communities we belong to, using some rule of order, like a speaking-stick, that would give each person a turn to speak B to brainstorm about the situation, to figure out where we are and how we can reach our nominal leaders, persuade them that we possess will and foresight and would rather make some sacrifices now than be led to the slaughter down the road.
A few weeks before September 11, an Israeli poet, Paul Raboff, wrote to me that this is a critical moment in his people=s history Anot so much for the outward or military challenge it represents but more for the inner challenge of facing up to illusions ... and return(ing) to firm, clear visions of actuality. The battle is very much in the mind [...] (a) mental struggle to return to clarity.@
I believe this applies here also. Please think about what I=ve suggested. I see the strain on a lot of faces. We=ll feel better if we give concrete form to our commitment to the struggle for clarity, if we take the responsibility for our fate into our own hands. Win or lose, we shall have risen to the challenge, made it an occasion for the development of our possibilities. That, it seems to me, is what liberty is all about.
Be well, safe, free and strong.THE CHAIN AND THE RING
The shock of September 11 caused many poems to be remembered and read aloud. At a reading organized by The New Yorker, Professor Mary Karr of Syracuse University chose to read a poem by Paul Celan.
There was earth in them, and
they were digging.
They dug and they dug, their day
passed in this way, and their night. And they did not praise God,
who, they heard, had known all this,
who, they heard, had willed all this.
They dug and heard nothing more;
they did not grow wise, they invented no song,
they thought up no kind of language.
There came a stillness, there came a storm,
there came the winds, all of them.
O you dig and I dig and the worm digs too,
and what sings there says: They are digging.
O someone, O no one, O No One, O you:
Where did it go when there was nowhere to go?
O you dig, and I dig, and I dig my way toward you,
And on our fingers awakens the ring.
This poem is evidently a memory of the poet=s imprisonment in a forced labor camp during World War II. But as the poet rings the changes on the verb "to dig," it becomes metaphorical. The prisoners who invented no language, supply the poet with a language. The ultimate "you" of the poem is the one who can now hear it, the reader, the poet's fellow prisoner in a system that keeps on producing suffering and devastation. The poem is written to us, it is a call to solidarity. And at the end a ring appears: a symbol of commitment and covenant.
We hear a lot about rings these days. Tolkien's AOne ring to rule them all, one ring to bind them@ B means subjection to the Dark Lord. But there also commitments that liberate. If we aren't bound together by commitments, by covenant, we are at the mercy of an inhuman system, in a
great prison that can, as we have seen, collapse on us. In that first liberation story, the departure from Egypt is inseparable from the giving of the Law. Which the rabbis often compare to a marriage.
I have been thinking about this ever since Celan=s death, which occurred at the end of the >60's B a time when people talked a lot about revolution, but perhaps less to the kind of commitments that are needed to sustain a free society. Law, order, structure -- these were not good words. I still hope that we could rethink this B begin to think about the Law again, not as a prison but as something we need in order to stay out of prison.
Here=s a song about that.
Fellow-human, can you hear me,
Can you know that we=re alone,
Tune out all the thousand voices,
Leave the roles you have outgrown?
You will go back to them later,
Be alone just now and hear B
All my words are shadows groping
In the hope that you are near.
Fellow-human, you are marching
On the road to God knows where;
There are chains upon our ankles
And your head is shaved of hair.
I who run along beside you
Singing like someone who=s free B
You are free and I am captive,
For your chains all weigh on me.
Fellow-human, you have freedom
While you still know right from wrong,
Though your choices may have chained you
And you=ve got to move along.
Will you put your mind to planning
Against the man behind the line
Who still swings the whip and drives us
On the downward track of time?
Fellow-humans, do you know me?
Does this ring some kind of bell?
I was summoned to a vision
Outside our self-created hell.
There=s a way if we can walk it,
There=s a Law no man has made
That could link our minds together,
Bid our hearts be unafraid.
People, let us speak together,
Tell each other all we know B
We can build the town of wisdom
That shall have no earthly foe.
Pass the word on to your neighbor
Till one thought in every brain
Builds the city we inhabit
At the breaking of the chain.
Stone walls do not a prison make
Nor iron bars a cage.
Minds innocent and quiet take
That for an Hermitage.
These lines are found in Richard Lovelace=s ATo Althea from Prison.@ They refer to the fact that in medieval times certain people used to wall themselves up in a cell, the better to commune in solitude with the next world. Some of these anchorites, as they were called, were visited by their fellow-citizens and enjoyed a reputation as saints and sages. The difference between their situation and that of the prisoner for life was the difference between a self-imposed limitation and a limitation imposed by others. Emily Dickinson was perhaps the last of the anchorites. Most people these days find the idea of such confinement unbearable.
But there are confinements and confinements.
I have only been in jail once B for two hours. I was one of 45 faculty members at who staged a sit-in because the administration of a certain university had called the police to patrol the campus. The police were there for what seems to me now a reasonable reason: there were riots that threatened to get ugly, and someone had threatened to burn down the library. I felt even at the time that we were being a bit silly about this.
But I went along anyway, because I was trying to break out of a different kind of confinement. I had come from Berkeley, from a four years long conversation about how we were going to change the world. From hanging out with people, swapping songs and poems and ideas into the wee hours of the night. And now here I was in a place where people had ideas only for purposes of publication B where, as one colleague told me five minutes into our first and only conversation, AWe don=t entertain.@ It was especially hard, everyone said, for single people. Well, at the time I had not yet made my peace with being single. But I didn=t really envy the insularity of the couples I met there. More even than to get married I wanted the conversation back, the collective creativity. I joined the sit-in group in the hope of finding it again. I spent my two hours in jail scratching into the bench in my cell the words from a German folksong: ADie Gedanken sind frei@ B Thoughts are free.
Nothing came of our protest. The leaders of the group got scared, hired a politically conservative lawyer to get us out of the charge of trespassing in the university president=s office through some courtroom trickery which involved refusing to admit we=d even been there. To aid in this defense we were told to avoid talking about the episode. It worked. Otherwise I might have found out what jail is really like. Given the statute of limitations I suppose I can now reveal that I Was There. If I=m wrong about the statute of limitations, hey, come and get me.
Some months later I left that university and the prospect of tenured security because, basically, I couldn=t stand the stifling atmosphere, and I=ve been running from it ever since, like one of those people running down the street near the World Trade Center just ahead of the choking cloud. Trying to find the freedom which for me can only be found in the association of like minds.
I like to look into the origins of words, and it came to my attention some years ago that the English words Afriend@ and Afree@ are from the same root. The two words are apparently remnants of a society in which any aliens were likely to be slaves. But the relation, I think, still holds true. People are only free where others are committed enough to them not to reject them for speaking their minds. A situation in which everyone is free in the sense that no one is committed to anyone else or anything but the struggle to survive is a prison. A maximum security prison. It=s by breaking down commitments among people that capitalism has managed to stifle dissent more effectively even than Stalinism.
In trying to fight this over the years, I=ve often found myself doing something that many people consider paradoxical, namely resorting to, and urging others to resort to, form. I write a lot in traditional poetic forms. I talk a lot about the Sabbath, where people take one day a week to abstain from the struggle for survival and assemble on a different plane. I=ve urged many groups to adopt the form of meetings where people sit in a circle and speak in turn, for a fixed length of time, without interruptions. AConfining@ though it seems, it works. Within his or her five minutes each person has total freedom to develop their ideas, amid total receptivity. I=ve said and will say again that meetings in this form should become a regular part of people=s lives, should be held on the Sabbath, whenever that is celebrated. If enough people do this maybe we could get together enough collective consciousness to preserve our freedom.
It=s one of the ancient insights of Judaism that to preserve freedom requires commitments B commitments to form, commitments to one another. I think the anxiety which this realization arouses may be part of the reason why Jews have taken such a lot of flak over the centuries. But sometimes other people do seem to get it. As in those last lines of AAmerica the Beautiful@: AConfirm thy soul in self-control,/ Thy liberty in law.@
I=ll end with the last lines of that Lovelace poem:
If I have freedom in my love
And in my love am free,
Angels alone, that soar above,
Enjoy such liberty.
When I was a child someone told me that a generation was 21 years, I guess because 21 years is the age of majority. But since people are constantly being born etc., no one can mark off the generations on a calendar; we tend in practice to define a generation by some landmark event or perceived sociological change. Thus there was the generation of World War I, the generation between the wars which was then caught up in World War II, the generations of the 50's, 60s and 70s, the Me Generation, Gen X, and I'm not sure what after that.
Between generations there is always continuity and discontinuity, though continuity suffered greatly in the last century. Of course, the older generation has always criticized the younger, the younger generation has always tended to dismiss the older. But any community that wants to last has to work against discontinuity, keep the generations talking to each other.
I reached the age of 21 in 1962, early in the 60s which were and were not my generation. In 1964 I went to Berkeley, and throughout my years there I was peripherally involved in the counterculture, though isolated from it by the values of my parents' and even grandparents' generations, which I could not entirely let go. On the other hand I shared that generation's desire to break out of whatever constraints had prevented our parents from making a better world. Obviously we didn't succeed. Something went wrong.
In 1967 I was introduced to the poetry of Paul Celan. He was exactly a generation -- that is, 21 years minus two months and 13 days -- older than I was. His generation had grown up between the wars, nourished by socialism and Utopian intentions, only to experience the Holocaust. He existed in the post-Holocaust world as an isolated remnant; he felt the need to speak in a somewhat cryptic manner. But what he said started me thinking, and the thinking that thus took shape has always wanted to be a form of socialism. A socialism that would leave room for individuality, that would not submerge the insight of the individual in groupthink, in which poetry would play a central role, as a way of bringing individual perceptions to the attention of the community. I wondered if I was just reading this into Celan's work And then I went back to the people Celan had mentioned as his sources, and found most of my thoughts anticipated in the work of the socialist Gustav Landauer. Landauer was assassinated in 1919, the year before Paul Celan was born. Celan had read him as a youth and kept reading him to the end of his own life, in 1970.
Landauer had not only dreamed my dream before me; he had also foreseen the pitfall into which my generation would plunge head first. From his 1911 Call to Socialism I quote:
The spirit needs freedom and carries freedom within itself; where the spirit brings forth unions like family, comradeships, vocational group, community and nation, there is freedom and there humanity can also come into being; but do we know, are we sure, that we can bear what is now beginning to rage, in place of the spirit which is absent, within the institutions of compulsion and domination which represent freedom without spirit, freedom of the senses, freedom of irresponsible lust -- can we bear this? Must not the result of all this be the most horrible torment and desolation, the most debilitating weakness and the dullest lack of energy?
This I read as witness to a generation when the eros that should have brought forth unions, life-fostering institutions, was dissipated in mere sensationalism and exploitation, which proved quite consistent with the tendencies of capitalism.
Landauer saw it all, long before we were born. And nevertheless, the passage continues:
Shall there ever come again, for us humans, a moment of vibrant glow, of rebirth, the festival of the covenant of cultural communities? The times when song dwells with the peoples, when towers carry the united upsurge toward heaven, and great works as representatives of the greatness of peoples are created by tower-like human beings in whose spirit the people is concentrated?
We do not know, and for this very reason we know that the attempt is our task. Altogether cleared away now is every alleged science of the future; not only do we know of no laws of evolution; we even know the mighty danger that we may already be too late, that all our doing and attempting may avail nothing. And so we have cast off the last fetter: in all our knowledge we no longer know anything. We stand like primordial humans before what is undescribed and indescribable; we have nothing before us and everything only in us; in us the reality and efficacy, no longer of future humanity but of the humanity that has been and therefore is essentially in us; in us the work; in us the image of that which is to become fulfillment; in us the need to depart from misery and meanness; in us justice, which is doubtless and unerring; in us decency, that wills mutuality; in us reason, that recognizes the interest of all. Those who so feel what is written here; for whom bravery grows out of the greatest need; who want to give renewal a try despite everything, -- they shall now gather themselves, they are being called here; they shall tell the peoples what is to be done, show the peoples how to begin.
If I myself am not giving up, if I am still willing to try, it is because I hear in that voice the voice of the ancient spirit of truth and rectitude and creative will, that sounds from generation to generation.
Let us keep one another from despairing
though desperate matters in the world abound,
build bright the thought of one another's caring
to keep at bay the fierce eyes all around.
Let's each be witness to the other's world:
before the other's eyes let each unroll
those maps of truth that lie in darkness furled
when unperused by any kindred soul.
Granted, we lack the power to turn the course
of history, which tomorrow as today
declines from worse to worse and worse and worse;
yet, while we can, let's mock it in our play.
Each moment of shared truth and shared delight
sets a bright star against the faithless night.
THE DREAM OF DREAMS
"Dreams" means generally one of two things. There are the dreams we have at night, which some consult as a source of deep wisdom while others claim to know that they are just a cerebral reflex, a form of housekeeping the brain does while you sleep, no more significant than snoring. And then there's the popular use ofthe word "dream," or "dreams," to mean some goal or I desideratum more or less clearly envisioned, more or less purposefully pursued. It is considered good to have dreams in this sense, and bad to lose them. Two or three years ago I wrote a sonnet that uses the word in both meanings.
I had thick dark hair with a reddish glint
And brows that almost met above my nose.
Id take the stairs two at a time; I'd sprint
To catch a bus; sometimes I'd skip! Flash clothes
And ethnic beads were my delight. From time
To time I'd dream a myth, or write a poem
Whose deep-caught imagery dispensed with rhyme. Such are the gifts of youth. The gods bestow 'em,
And the wise do not grieve at growing older
If they can see the gorgeous garb of youth
Draped gracefully across another shoulder.
But Earth has suddenly grown old, and drouth
Seals up the souls. The young no longer dream,
And desolate age alone recalls the gleam.
Dreams mean more at some seasons than at others. Probably most people dream more vividly in youth than later on. As a young person one feels more intensely and does not yet know oneself very well, and so we tend to process experience and make ourselves known to ourselves in this unconscious and chaotic manner. This was the case with me. There was a period of several years when I had the leisure to write down my dreams and wrote many poems that were little more than dream transcripts. Rereading these poems, I can often still recall the dream and its atmosphere. And many other poets appeared to be doing similar things at the time. This was during and shortly after the "psychedelic" era, when it seemed as though the unconscious was a vast rainforest with inexhaustible resources for the creative life. And I was going through psychic upheavals that seemed connected with transformations that were taking place in the larger world.
What did it all amount to? I now often ask. And the answer might well be "Not much," except for one particular dream that I had in the late spring of 1968.
I am crossing a river along with J-- (another woman poet). The colors are muddy-brown and muddy-blue, and there is an anxious tone to the dream.· But once we get across, this feeling vanishes and the colors also become clearer. On the bank there is a stairway leading up a sheer wall. We ascend it, side by side.1 On the landing stands a beautiful bronze boy, like a faun, and when we reach him he begins to move and walks between us. We reach the top and see before us a broad meadow, of a clear, deep emerald green, the kind of color you only see in dreams. We line up at the edge, with J-- on the right of the bronze boy and myself on his left, our backs to the sheer drop, and stand gazing toward the horizon. Actually there is no horizon, the green simply dissolves into golden light, but through that light comes a lady, the most beautiful being I have ever seen. She has red-gold hair, and her face under a diaphanous veil is smiling; she is dressed in clothes of a soft fawn-color, that seem tailored and yet give the I effect of swirling draperies. She walks toward us, and when she stands opposite I the bronze boy, he takes a piece of bronze out of his side and hands it to her. I am thinking that this is very sad, but the lady, still smiling graciously, accepts the gift.
I could tell you about my life at the time, make a guess as to which circumstances were reflected in this dream. But it seems to me that the dream is not about those circumstances; the circumstances were maybe what the dream needed in order to get itself dreamed.
The fact that this dream had emerged out of the mental churnings of several months, out of struggles with relationships and running the poems of friends through my mind and attempts to see a future, kept alive for many years my hope that out of the discoveries and sharings of the psychedelic era would emerge some common vision that we could all live by. Several years after that dream, early in 1972, I found in a magazine an early essay by Paul Celan - "Edgar Jené and the Dream of the Dream" -- which I read as expressing a similar hope. It was the work of a young man, influenced by an earlier "psychedelic" movement, the Surrealism of the 40's.
During the '70's I was briefly part of a group that met for the purpose of telling our dreams. For a while it was a fruitful experiment. The dreams of different people were often connected, an~ it seemed as though through our dreams we were beginning to speak to one another. Unfortunately, tensions soon developed. People were not ready for that kind of mental fusion, they could not make the outward commitments that might have sustained it, everybody wanted to protect their own autonomy and keep their options open. Soon the group broke apart. And most of the spiritual experiments of the 70's likewise came to nothing, mostly, I think, because when it came to the point no one was willing to give up a small piece of the self. It occurs to me now that maybe that was what the dream I related just now wanted most to say.
Was the dream of the dream, then, just another vain dream? All is vanity, says the preacher, find at no time has that been clearer than at present. But perhaps such dreams came from a place that remains.
AThe sky is falling!@ Chicken Little cried.
And pretty soon, sure enough, they saw it slide
Down the slope to where the sun don=t shine.
AGee whiz,@ Chicken Little gulped, AI thought I lied.@
Someone told me a story long ago
about a Russian peasant who was asked
what he would give to the collective farm.
Would he, for instance, give ten horses? ABy
all means!@ And what about ten cows? A Of course!@
Ten pigs? AGladly@! And what about ten chickens?
ANo way!@ the peasant answered. Asked why not,
He said, Abecause ten chickens is what I=ve got.@
The teller then interpreted the tale
as a demonstration of why Communism
would never work. (I said that this was long
ago.) But having lived a while since then,
I=d say it states a problem that arises
with any program for the common good.
We all want social equity, world peace,
environmental sanity. We=d like
to see bad government replaced by good,
the corporations subject to the people.
To get these things, we=ll have to organize.
So far, so good. But then each one remembers
their personal stake in how things are B their ten
chickens B and no one wants to give these up,
so that the common cause only commands
the horses, cows and pigs that everyone
would gladly give, if only they had any.
Well, maybe folks will figure out someday
each needs to understand what his or her
ten chickens are, then find some way to give
one chicken each. Just one. But something real,
something that=s yours, and not somebody else=s.
Else we=ll keep running round like chickens with
their heads cut off, until we=ve bought the farm.
BEFORE YOU BREAK THOSE EGGS, MAKE SURE YOU HAVE A FRYING PAN
(Topic: AThings Could Always Get Worse@)
I remember my youth as a time of discontent. Why? Personal problems, mostly. I thought that if they couldn=t be solved life wasn=t worth living. And then as young people we were always protesting something. The bomb. Social injustices. Vietnam. There was cause enough.
All the same at that time B the 50's through the 70's B there were many good things. For us, at least, and Aus@ was a lot of people. Not only upper-class Americans, but also middle- and working-class Americans. Yes, and even some people on welfare, some of whom used it to educate themselves. In the fall of 1961 tuition at the UW was $150 for a semester, for a state resident. The work week was forty hours, and there were coffee breaks.
One thing I remember is the fruit. In the fall of 1960 I bought a dozen huge, deep-red McIntosh apples with a taste like Chardonnay, for twenty-five cents. The next spring, a dozen huge Valencia oranges from Florida, sweet as the large midwinter tangerines that peeled easily and fell apart into deep-orange sections. Such fruit I may never taste again. And the restaurants. It was easy to find a solid meal that had been cooked on the premises.
The clothes, too. Most of them were made in the United States, by people who got a decent wage. And the quality was good. There were many interesting patterns, a lot of detail in the sewing. Clothes were more formal then. This formality had its inconveniences, but there was a dignity to it, just as the dolls I played with as a child were more dignified than the Barbies that began to come in in the >60's.
Formality. On enrolling in college, we became AMiss@ and AMr.@ No one called strangers by their first names. Using the last name meant that the person had a domain of privacy to which others were not admitted without permission.
One=s surroundings were pleasanter. When I was a child we lived at the edge of the city. The city had an edge then. The houses came to the railroad tracks and stopped, and across the tracks was farmland. I remember looking out across the tracks one night, seeing the Milky Way.
Doctors and lawyers were not allowed to advertise. The idea was that these were professions of service, and so that wasn=t appropriate. Not advertising kept costs down too.
The music on the radio in the 50's was mostly love songs. Songs about people feeling nice about each other, wanting to be together. Most children still grew up with their fathers. A lot of people still read books.
And yet ours was a generation that complained, that protested, that called the people who were running things names. We made people angry who liked what they had. What we all had. All right, there was Vietnam. So now there=s Iraq.
I=m not saying we shouldn=t have protested about Vietnam. But maybe if we=d done it with a little more dignity, like not calling people pigs for doing what they thought they had to do. Maybe if we had been able to see things in a longer perspective. Poverty, war, cruelty, oppression B those weren=t the invention of the AEstablishment.@ They were conditions that had been with humanity since time immemorial. Yet by some miracle, whose conditions we didn=t pause to understand, we had grown up where it seemed that better conditions could be taken for granted. Never before had so much wealth been spread as evenly as it was. Never before had so many people had a chance. Never before had there been so much faith in the world that problems could be solved.
Could we have held on to all this, to any of it, while mending the system=s every flaw? I don=t know. And I certainly don=t mean to blame the protestors *primarily* for the well-plotted corporate takeover of American life. But maybe it is time for a different approach, one based on that ancient maxim of Hippocrates: AFirst, do no harm.@ If you set out to remedy some injustice, be sure that in the process you do not unwittingly contribute to the destruction of some good, such as people=s trust in each other, their commitments to each other, the belief in our basic good faith. Think in terms of preserving what we have left, rebuilding burnt bridges, creating bonds, helping those you can help. If we don=t do these things, then it won=t do much good to protest against the leaders the system produces.
Let=s be grateful for the life we have, for the time and freedom and human connections that are left to us. Let=s try to use them and treat them well. For if we don=t, things can always get worse.
Topic: AIn the Kitchen@
No kitchen tour would be complete without a stop at the Witches= Kitchen where, in the first part of Goethe=s Faust, Mephisto obtains a potion that transforms Faust from a weary, aging scholar to a dashing young seducer. The whereabouts of the original Witches= Kitchen is not known, but in your neighborhood there is probably a reasonable facsimile. The sign may say ABeauty Parlor@ B but don=t be fooled!
Cornice and counter, loft and curving wall
Are clad in textured plastic like the hide
Of some tough copper-colored animal.
An unclothed puce plush dummy sits astride
One of the half-walls that divide the stations,
Displaying leggy legs, pointing her toes
Amid a flock of crimson-bottled lotions.
The mirrored space through facing mirrors grows
And human figures too reduplicate
Ad infinitum, till one scarcely knows
Flesh from figment.
Here we sit in state,
And priestesses in solemn headdress wield
(While country singers softly ululate)
The spells that keep us pleasing to this world.
One thing I sort of miss is ash-blond hair,
Or any of the other shades of mouse --
Grounds for complaint if it was yours to wear,
But like the shingles of a Cape Cod house
Or wave-smooth driftwood, comforting to see.
Its unemphatic plainness let you trace,
As in good black-and-white photography,
Whatever was of interest in a face --
A fine-drawn eyelid, or a firm-set chin,
And often the mute tones of hair and skin
Made up unique, elusive harmonies.
Now everyone flaunts forth in gold and red,
You see the hair, but not so much the head.
WITH BITTER WORDS
Yes, I know,
You want me to say it=s all right.
All right in spite of the pain I am feeling.
All right in spite of the children we won=t have.
All right in spite of the home we won=t build,
The community that won=t get my volunteer time
Because I=ll be working two jobs
Just trying to make ends meet
While you draw your six-figure salary
And go from relationship to relationship
Never granting anyone security B
All right in spite of the studies that show
That children from broken homes don=t always get it together
That breakups are even contributing to urban sprawl
Because the separate households of two people
Trying to fill the emptiness with consumption
Take up more space than one home
Built on love and commitment B
All right in spite of the fact
That corporations are running this country
Because social bonds no longer hold
So that the community
No longer offers any resistance B
Of course that=s why the corporations wanted to sell us
This getaway car
Of no-fault divorce
And all the philosophical
Accessories that go with it.
Just don=t ask me to say it=s all right.
Just don=t ask me to say: People change.
I=ll tell you a secret:
People don=t change.
Your character and mine
Were set at age 6.
At the end of my 20's I went through fire and rain,
I got cut open, I got renamed,
I exchanged rings with the river,
I got locked up for three days,
And I came back to see someone who=d known me at 20
And he said to me, AYou haven=t changed a bit.@
If people think they outgrow each other
(Really? Exhaust the infinite possibilities
Of another human being?)
Maybe it=s because they were not looking
Quite deeply enough into themselves
When they made their choices
(The culture doesn=t encourage that, of course).
And maybe it is because they do not understand
Or do not want to understand
That their faithlessness really is
The end of the world.
Well, I=ll go now.
Thank you for listening.
Thank you for hearing.
Let me end with a song I made years ago
The first time you left me
With bitter words.
WITH BITTER WORDS
Why did you leave with bitter words?
Come back, though love be gone,
And speak to me one gentle thing
Before you travel on.
Oh, in this town are many roads
For to wander to and fro,
And one road leads to my true love's door,
And that way I may not go.
And through this town the people pass,
I pass them night and day,
And any of them would speak to me,
But you would turn away.
Love is like the falcon
That flies away at night,
And love is like the darkened sky
That cradles him in flight.
Why did you leave with bitter words?
Come back, though love be gone,
And speak to me one gentle thing
Before you travel on.
Friend of my friends, let none think to disjoin
By telling tales, my thoughts from them or you;
Whatever wrong you did, or they may do,
I grieve for it, as for a fault of mine.
All faults are but the fractures of one being
Beneath the hammer of an angry foe,
Or else the echoes of one voice decreeing,
"In the world where you live, it must be so."
I will believe that all are as they seemed
In the holy mirror of the One Desire,
Even such as the martyrs might have dreamed
The living, from their sleep beyond the fire:
However Time those images betray,
I will believe these dead shall rise someday.
A HEALING STRING
(topic: AA Piece of String@)
The following poem was written sometime in the 90's, after a ritual devised and enacted by members of Shaarei Shamayim, a progressive Jewish congregation in Madison. The ritual was based on older traditions connected with the tomb of Rachel, the archetypal mother of Israel, and also with the graves of certain rabbis. People go to these places with prayers for healing, and sometimes the visitor receives a piece of red string. I guess that is because red is the color of life, and life is often compared to a thread. And there is also the idea of the soul as a thread leading back to the ultimate source of life. In the pictures of the Israeli artist Nachum Arbel there is often a thread leading from a landscape in the foreground to a scene projected somewhere in the background, like a city in the clouds, that stands for the spiritual world.
The Shaarei Shamayim ritual was a non-traditional one, and I don't know of its having been performed since. But I still have my piece of that red string in a box with some special pieces of jewelry. It is the kind of thing that you don't throw away.
In the half-light of Jackie's living-room
we crowd into a circle, leaving open
the space where each of us will lie at length.
Yael unwraps a skein of scarlet yarn,
telling of how the women walk and wind
threads around Rachel's tomb in Bethlehem
where she lies waiting for her children's return.
The yarn begins to travel round the circle
as one by one we grasp and pass it on,
an umbilical cord (says someone, and we laugh),
an artery, from which the new bright blood
flows from a heart, now beating, to each one;
invisible it flows beneath the words
of prayer and telling, as each one relates
their version of the story of our exile
in flesh that feels but its own wound alone,
in mind bound to the flesh, divided with it,
until the space within the circle fills
with the dark matter of our pain and fear.
Now, in the middle, one lies down full length,
becomes the body of our pain and fear,
becomes the body of our exiled wholeness,
on which the rest lay hands and cry to God
to heal him, her, us, all; and then arises,
another one becomes the one we pray for,
and when the central space again is empty,
we say the Kaddish, and at last let go.
Shall we divide the thread, give each a piece?
We keep it whole, and roll it in a box,
but from the same skein Yael cuts a length
for each of us to wear around our arm,
sensing each other sensing, as we move
along the separate pathways of our weeks,
that we stay roped together like mountaineers,
each of us made more fearless yet more careful
by this connecting thread, by this new life.
HOME IS THE PLACE YOU ARE STUCK WITH
As the 20th century recedes into memory, certain lines keep coming back, as if to sum it all up. Auden=s AWe must love one another or die.@ Yeats= AThings fall apart, the center cannot hold.@ Frost=s AHome is the place where, if you have to go there,/ They have to take you in.@
Frost=s line states the great appeal of home and family: home is something you can count on. The catch is that home is something you are stuck with. Being home means that if a family member B whom you may not even like B has to go there, you have to take them in.
In the culture of the twentieth century, which emphasized free choice, the family appeared as a conservative institution. Think of James Joyce=s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, where the family is portrayed as a stifling, repressive institution from which a free spirit will escape at the earliest opportunity. But suppose you should have to go home? Would anyone be there to take you in?
To put it positively: if the family constricts freedom in one way, in another it can be a foundation for freedom. So I=ve found it, at least. My parents= politics were not always mine, but I could freely tell them so, without their throwing me out of the house or cutting off the support I needed to write my books. I was a boomerang kid B an early example of the genre B precisely because I started writing in order to figure things out for myself and tell others if possible, and I soon learned that telling home truths to academia or a grants committee or a political group that already has its set of fixed ideas, is problematical at best. I was lucky in being able to go home, an undeserved gift I=ve tried to use to the best of my ability.
You know where I first heard that great socialist slogan, AFrom each according to his ability, to each according to his need@? In a 50's teenage novel B sorry I forget the title B about a talented girl whose family decides, at some financial sacrifice, to send her to college.
Often I have felt as though I were writing from my maternal grandmother=s house. It was large and shadowy, with a lot of rooms, with family history written on every piece of furniture, and with an attic from which deeper layers of past could be retrieved. We moved away when I was very young, I grew up in the nuclear family, entertained by my mother=s stories in which her parents and siblings appeared as fascinating, magical beings. In the world outside the home, what did they become? A secretary, a realtor, an architect for a large firm. How prosaic all that sounded, as pebbles taken away from the seashore lose their translucent colors.
Over the last three or four decades I=ve worried about societal and economic fairness, environmental health, the shrinking sphere of the humanities. I=ve tried to join various groups and movements. And again and again I=ve found that the people in these groups and movements, whatever their commitment to the cause, weren=t committed to one another. The only cement was groupthink. Say the wrong word, and you became the Enemy and were cast into outer darkness. But in order to address a real situation, you have to be willing to process all messages, take in whatever has to come to you.
In the end, we all have one home: the planet Earth. And we are all, genetically, one family. Maybe someday it will come home to us that what we need above all is not movements and demonstrations and PACs but a family council. That all those who are awake enough to worry about the family future are stuck with one another. That we only start making progress when we decide to go home.
She would have loved the Internet.
I sense her leaning here
With chin upon my shoulder.
Her Eyes deep-seeing peer
Beyond the screen into a room
Where she has never been,
Yet to the chambers of her Brain
A Phrase conveys the scene.
At "Virtual Experience"
She looks exceeding Sly --
And wonders softly -- what they had
Supposed, of Poetry --
If you are in Antarctica
Or India, she regrets
She cannot send her Verse to you
With bread -- or Violets --
But such a Transport she must know --
With Minds all over Earth
Like Empyrean Seraphs --
In Lightnings -- to converse B*
I always have been on the Internet.
Before they had the chips, the ISP=s,
I=ve always, always had you in my head.
Once for two hours I sat in jail, and read
the walls and bench, and scratched there, AThoughts are free.@
I always have been on the Internet,
When I got up and when I went to bed,
Sitting at home or walking down the street,
I=ve always, always had you in my head,
I=ve heard your words and answered what you said,
known you were there although I could not see.
I always have been on the Internet.
That server can=t go down, though war and dread
sever our ties and slice the world in three.
I=ve always, always had you in my head
and you (unknowing?) stood me in good stead.
You=ve fought it, but we=re branches of one tree.
I always have been on the Internet.
I=ve always, always had you in my head. (EC)
Back in 1967, in Berkeley, I asked a science student to explain to me the Second Law of Thermodynamics. He thought a moment and said, "My room keeps getting messier and messier until I clean it up." This example gave me the first inkling that organization is a function of the energy that is being put into the system.
We were always talking about Organizing, back then. But we never did get very organized. We had our private lives, in which we did what we wanted, subject of course to the demands of the government, the university, the corporation, and one's significant other, and then there were various movements which we joined if we felt like it. The way these movements seemed to get organized was that an issue or a cause would be identified, and a group of people identified with the cause, and an ideology - invariably pretty simplistic -- would crystallize to define who was with the group or the cause and who was against it, and leaders would emerge who were felt to represent the cause, and then actions would be taken that were supposed to advance the cause. There would be a demonstration or a sit-in or a boycott, which would dissipate a lot of energy, after which the participants would go home. Eventually a professional organization might form to advocate or agitate for the cause on an ongoing basis. It would hire staff and rent an office and then it would lobby and conduct publicity campaigns and collect money from people who subscribed to the cause. The mass of supporters remained amorphous and anonymous, communicating with the leadership only by means of their checkbooks, and with each other, in most cases, not at all. Eventually some of us began to wonder whether our checks on behalf of Brazilian orange tree toads fueled anything more than a series of noble gestures.
Already by 1970 a lot of the impetus was gone. Most of us had realized that we couldn't afford to drop out, and communes weren't going to assure our personal futures. When demonstrations and sitins and other ad hoc protests failed to shift the establishment, revolutionary fervor quickly turned to revolutionary nostalgia. And that's pretty much the way it's been since, with the political system approaching ever nearer to a state of heat-death, isolated monads scattered farther and farther from each other in a dark, cold space. Even though on another level it's getting pretty crowded, and the crowdedness is also a function of lack of organization. When things are packed into efficient and meaningful patterns they don't seem crowded. You can put a lot more things into a neatly packed suitcase than when you just try to jam everything in. In The Crock of Gold. a fantasy novel by the Irish poet James Stephens, one character holds that "the art of packing is the last lecture in wisdom."
What has kept me from getting totally discouraged over the last thirty years is learning about organization from my own creative process, in the course of my own development as a writer. I'd like to think some of the lessons could eventually be applied in the political sphere as well.
The secret of poetic organization is that it is, well, organic. It's an expression of the selforganizing nature of the universe. It isn't just superimposed. It grows out of the materials, as the most meaningful arrangement you can make of them.
I first learned this when someone gave me the job, on short notice, of teaching an eight-week summer course on the modern novel. As it happened I'd read a lot of modern novels, but had never studied the genre theoretically, and couldn=t think of any generalizations about it. In desperation I got the idea of picking just one novel I liked, and then picking seven more novels that would harmonize with it, sort of- going on nothing but a vague aesthetic hunch. In the course of class discussion it turned out that the novels I had chosen were in fact related in all sorts of intricate ways. A kind of larger structure, which I called a metanovel, seemed to be taking shape among them. I called the manuscript describing this metanovel The Web of What Is Written, which I abbreviated to WWW - this was in 1974. I'm still trying to get the manuscript published.
So now let's assume we have a set of people who agree among themselves that their political system is running down. It needs to be more organized. They're willing to put some energy into it, maybe at this point they don't have much energy left over from their quest tor a living wage, but they want to put some energy into it and this time they want to use the energy efficiently. Well, it seems to me that such a set of people might start by sitting down and taking inventory of what they've got. Their interests, concerns, knowledge, skills. As they look over this material they begin to see connections and to think about who might work well with whom and toward what ends. No doubt some people still want to work on behalf of Brazilian orange tree toads, but the most important thing is that they are in touch with one another, and aware of one another's other dimensions. They form small interrelated groups which are connected via the Internet B and thereby, perhaps, begin to organize this enormous mass, this informational hubbub, into an intelligible symphony. Eventually maybe they reach out to and hook up enough people to identify and elect some reasonable leaders. Meanwhile the movement is not an office somewhere in California, and it isn't some form of groupthink that everyone has to adopt. It's a growing, organically organized set of people holding a commitment to build, with the materials at hand, something that will eventually shelter us all.
Could it work? I don't know. But if you're willing to put some energy into it, I am.
TRAIN OF THOUGHT
There are many things that people have invented
that do not turn the muse of poetry on.
Take the electric light-bulb, or the tractor,
or the X-ray machine, or the dishwasher,
Even the automobile, even the airplane.
An invention may be useful, may have made
itself ubiquitous and indispensable,
and still be not a symbol, but just a thing
that doesn=t resonate, doesn=t strike a chord.
Whereas the train has, from the first, brought out
things like Emily Dickinson=s ode beginning:
I like to see it lap the miles
And lick the valleys up.
And where would blues have been without the railroads?
The longest train I ever saw
Was seventeen coaches long.
The only gal I ever loved
Was on that train and gone.
Trains kept their hold on our imagination
after their usefulness was pretty much
over. In 1971 I heard
a song by ALittle Harry@ with the refrain
ANobody cares about the railroads any more.@
So I am not alone in this perception,
though I have special memories of trains.
Between the ages of six and eleven
I lived beside the Illinois Central
track, that=s been torn up now for a bike path.
A freight train would come by there twice a day.
My brother and I would dash out on the embankment
and wave and wave, and if the engineer
was looking our way, he=d wave back to us.
Naturally a caboose with one or two
railroad men a-lounge on its back porch
would make our day. Someone told me it wasn=t
high-toned to live beside the railroad track,
but to us it was royal privilege.
So what was it about the railroad train
that struck this chord? Well, for a start it=s something
that binds the near and far with strings of steel.
It brings together and it separates.
The coming of the train is regular,
timed to circadian rhythms. Like: AHow long,
how long has that evening train been gone.@ The train
is long, like a sigh, and has a whistle made,
it seems, just to give lonesomeness a voice.
And then the fact that if you board a train
at A, that=s scheduled to get in at B,
you are committed pretty much to reaching
that destination. Once the train pulls out
you can=t turn back, and you can=t take a detour,
and you can=t, at a crossroads, on a whim,
just take the road to J or Q instead.
So there=s this feeling of finality
about a train departure, which enhances
the symbolism Freud perceives in all
departures, of the last one.
Though if you=ve
been saved, then you can get aboard that Gospel
Train, then you are bound for glory, you
have paid your ticket and don=t need to worry --
Just don=t mention trains in Israel,
where every listener without exception
will flash on cattle cars with human freight.
And maybe some of you out there remember
from a year or two ago, a song I sang:
My father was an honest man,
He rode the Devil=s train B
That song, written in 1972,
reflected my perception that the system
my father was a part of and believed in
was taking us to some place I for one
had no desire to visit, far less move to.
If you are on a train it is important
to like the place you=re headed for.
Which brings me,
by train of thought B here let me jump the track
for just a bit, to point out that expression
is older than the railroad. The word train
comes from the French trainer, meaning to draw
or drag. So it applies to any sequence
where one thing seems to draw the next, appearing
inevitable (Freud somewhere says that free
association isn=t all that free).
So let me, as I said, pick up thought=s train
from where a previous Mind=s Eye Radio
piece left off, and ride it a bit further,
even at the risk of substituting
for the locomotive my own Hobby Horse.
That piece B I called it AOrganic Organization@ --
was one of many attempts to switch our thinking
on social change onto a track that might
get us somewhere. If instead of marching
and scattering, sending our checks and letting
public figures do our thinking for us,
we would sit down and put our heads together,
figure out who knows what and who knows whom
and what steps could be taken, now, by each,
we=d form a complex, differentiated
body, that would grow by leaps of faith
and bonds between one person and another.
So, I=d just like to follow that by saying
that such a body would need, as vehicle,
some not-too-flexible forms of interaction.
Such as the practice of devoting one
day of the week to meeting and reflection
(keeping the Sabbath, as they used to call it),
also an architecture that would link
the cells of members. AStructure@ wasn=t a nice
word in the >60's. But if we still desire
transportation to a better world,
we must evolve some algorithms, like
the rules for sonnets, like the railroad tracks.
Those lines that started at your feet and sped
off toward the horizon, humming even in
the quiet, assuring you that there is
a way from here to there.
THE JOURNEY TO JEBEL MUSA
It was not that I thought there would be anything up there,
but I had to climb up Mount Sinai once anyway.
Ten years before, on a winter walk in the country,
some weeds on the snow had looked like the words
on a certain page in the work of a certain poet
who=d gone off in my ear like an alarm clock -- and suddenly
this idea had sprouted in my mind that the ecological crisis
would be like another kind of Sinai experience
for the human race. You know, we would be confronted
by the Earth, by the Universe and its Creator,
and receive the Law. So one thing led to another
and I landed in Jerusalem in the fall of 1979
and started studying in a women=s Orthodox yeshiva,
and during the few months I was there the school
organized this trip to the Sinai Peninsula
which was still in Israeli hands at the time. We set out,
thirty or forty long-skirted women in a bus.
When we started we said the prayer for the journey and when
we stopped to eat we always said the blessings
and washed our hands if we were having bread.
I was pretty much into all of that at the time
despite my reservations which you can imagine;
you=d be surprised how natural it comes to seem.
I don=t remember much about the trip --
took a roll of film but never got it developed.
One night we slept out under the stars. One day
we saw a man hunkered down on the hard desert ground,
baking bread over a fire of dried dung.
The bread was thin, soft and white. We handed the man
a few coins, washed our hands, said the blessing and ate.
Then we were at the foot of this mountain. Its name
was Jebel Musa -- the mountain of Moses. It was black,
jagged but more or less cone-shaped, I=ve seen higher
but it was easily the highest thing around.
There were stairs cut in the mountain. It was customary
to start before dawn and arrive at the top before sunrise,
to escape the desert heat. I remember
the crescent moon suspended in predawn grey
beside the mountain shoulder, and how steep the steps were,
and the rust-black rock formations on both sides.
We got to the top a few minutes late for sunrise,
and another group were opening their tins of sardines
on the highest rock. There was a small Christian chapel,
which was closed, and an abandoned mosque, open.
We looked inside and quickly drew back. Someone
was sitting there, apparently in meditation.
But a woman from the other group banged on the door
and the lady inside emerged.
She was tall,
dressed entirely in white. Blond hair, parted and drawn back
beneath the white shawl. She was smiling in a way
that made me think of this goddess-like figure I=d seen
in a dream, twelve years before, at the start of events
that had started me moving on what I hoped was the way
to a different future. She put her finger to her lips
and handed us a sheet of paper, enclosed in plastic,
that said she came there once every year to pray
for all the world=s religions, not that they should merge
but that they should respect one another. A schedule
of prayers was given: one day for Christianity,
one day for Judaism, and so on; finally
a departure date. The one young man in the group,
who had come along with his wife, pointed to the word
ADeparture@ and then, inquiringly, at the sky.
She smiled, a little wryly, and pointed downward.
Then she went back inside and we climbed back down.
I didn=t last long at the women=s yeshiva
and after ten years, had to leave Jerusalem too,
that meeting-point of so many journeys
that even if you didn=t believe in the Messiah
it was hard not to believe that something amazing --
miracle or enlightenment -- might happen there.
Well, we=re not always sure when and how things are happening.
The road doubles back
and nothing comes forth in its own form.*
But even in moments of skeptical despair, since then,
I have been glad there was someone on top of Mount Sinai.
There are such memories that stop your slide. That hold.
The neighborhood called Bayit Ve-gan, or AHouse and Garden,@ occupies a hilltop on the south side of Jerusalem. Its highest and central street B Rehov ha-Pisgah, or Summit Street B extends for several blocks, and the other streets of the neighborhood are arranged below and around it, like outer rings. All the streets are lined with apartment houses; here, as in Jerusalem generally, single-family dwellings are a rarity. When I knew the place, in the >80's, the wadis on either side of Bayit Ve-gan were empty spaces, setting the nieghborhood off as a self-enclosed community, a world in itself.
Bayit Ve-gan was and is a religious neighborhood B an Aultra-Orthodox@ neighborhood, as the newspapers like to say. It was not quite the most religious, it was not Mea Shearim, say, or Geula, where all the men wore long sidecurls and black hats and all the married women wore tight-fitting kerchiefs. There was a mixture of styles, the inner streets being the most religious; there, especially, life centered on religious observance. As you walked down Summit Street you could see several large synagogues, but there were also a lot of small ones tucked away in the apartment houses and only revealed to the casual stroller by the sounds of prayer issuing from them. Before and after prayers, on a Sabbath evening or morning, Summit Street was thronged with people strolling along, greeting each other. Friends would eat the Sabbath meals at one another=s tables, even staying overnight when it was too far to walk. On the Sabbath you are not supposed to carry things from one house to another, because that is considered work; but if there is a string stretched around a neighborhood or a city B they call this the eruv B the whole neighborhood or city is considered as one household, so that you can take your bottle of wine or whatever to your Sabbath host.
There was a women=s yeshiva located in Bayit Vegan, and that was how I came to spend several months there. I had hesitated between the yeshiva in Bayit Vegan and a more liberal one where women were allowed to study Talmud and not all modern ways of dressing and thinking had to be left behind. On the surface the more modern yeshiva was the more congenial, but something drew me to Bayit Ve-gan.
One of the people who made me feel there was something there that I must get to know was a woman I=ll call Mrs. Rothman. She was the wife of one of the rabbis who taught at the yeshiva. Her apartment was dark, lined with bookshelves filled with the heavy dark volumes of religious lore, she wore an elegant wig, and she radiated serenity. One of the things she did was matchmaking; yeshiva students, male and female, were encouraged and helped to find partners. (Sometimes this worked out beautifully, and sometimes it did not.) I had a sense of Mrs. Rothman, the matchmaker, as an artist of a sort, and I wanted to see more of the creation she was involved in. So for four months I stayed in Bayit Ve-gan, studying at the yeshiva and being invited to various people=s houses for the Sabbath.
How can I tell you what it was like? Years before, on a visit to another city, I=d happened on one of those clocks where at a certain hour figures come out and move around and go back in. It was almost time for the hour to strike, so I sat down and waited. Over the next few minutes other people began to gather, old men, women pushing baby carriages, young couples, kids, all standing and looking up at the clock. Then the hour struck, a tune began to chime, a door opened and the little figures emerged. It was all so graceful, not only the music and the figures on the clock but the pattern formed by the watchers as well. I used to think of that while watching the people in their Sabbath best strolling down Summit street. A friend of one of the friends I made while living in Bayit Vegan said once that the Orthodox way of life was like living inside a great poem.
The people in Bayit Ve-gan came from many different backgrounds: the U.S., England, South Africa, Holland, Poland, North Africa; there were even native Israelis, people whose families had been in the country for several generations. At each Sabbath table you heard a different story. The person in Bayit Ve-gan to whom I became closest B her name was Keren B was a survivor of Bergen-Belsen. Her mother had also survived, a great lady full of dignity and humor. I still sing a song she wrote, a little ditty for the close of the Sabbath. To hear it you would never guess that the author had ever had a care in the world.
The way of life in Bayit Ve-gan was too rigid for me. And of course people were people in Bayit Ve-gan just like everywhere else. But whenever I think of Bayit Ve-gan, I remember something Keren told me after the death of one of her neighbors, a grocer. He had not been a person of wealth or learning, she said, but he was a good man, and nearly everyone in Bayit Ve-gan had come to his funeral. AThat made me feel proud of this neighborhood,@ she said. And I think of two lines by Yeats: AHow but in order and in ceremony/ Are innocence and beauty born.@ I feel fortunate to have spent those few months in Bayit Ve-gan.
THE RAIN FOREST OF GOOD IDEAS
Ordinarily I am a person with a lot of ideas, but, the way these things work sometimes, the assigned topic AWhat a Good Idea@ made my mind go blank. I came to the first meeting without an idea in my head. In the course of the evening it occurred to me that maybe I might talk about ethical wills, an idea that has become popular recently. Besides making a will to dispose of their material wealth, many people are trying to put together statements of their values and reflections on life to leave for future generations. This idea comes from the Jewish tradition. In 1926 a scholar named Israel Abrahams put together an anthology called Hebrew Ethical Wills, and the idea got talked about until it became the basis of a new profession B helping people write their ethical wills B which I am thinking of getting into. One current practitioner writes that he mentioned ethical wills to an assimilated Jewish friend, who was surprised to learn that this had existed in his ancestral tradition. Another practitioner stated in a lecture that the idea of ethical wills is appealing today because many people sense that the world is out of control, that values are eroding, that the generations are out of touch with each other. Traditional Judaism has always had this sense, and has quite a few ideas about what to do about it. Some of these ideas though not all of which have been picked up by outsiders and applied, with modifications that may or may not constitute improvements. There is no copyright on spiritual traditions, and expressions of gratitude have not always been forthcoming.
So I thought I might write about ethical wills. But then toward the end of the evening someone said to me, AYou went to Israel recently. Why not write about that?@
I wondered if that would be a good idea. After all, this is Madison, which almost became a sister city of Rafah a couple of years. Tune in to a political program on WERN or WORT, and pretty soon you will hear someone blaming Israel. At the university, I=m told, it is a given that Israel is in the wrong, and those who think otherwise keep a low profile. You probably couldn=t get police protection for a pro-Israeli speaker in this town, while there is a veritable parade of anti-Israeli speakers. Around the time of the Rafah debate the pro-Rafah faction sponsored an event at one of the three mainline churches on the West side. Three women from Israel spoke B a Muslim from Gaza, a Christian and a self-hating Jew, of a type with which the Jewish people has been saddled from time immemorial. The Muslim woman wore Western street clothes; I wonder how she is doing these days. So for maybe an hour and a half they held an ecumenical anti-Israel hatefest, while the nice Protestant ladies and gentlemen B very much like the people I grew up with B nodded their heads. When the time came for audience reactions I stood up and voiced my perceptions, and at least they let me finish. But it all seemed a bit surreal. While I was growing up it seemed as if the one positive thing to come out of World War II was that anti-Semitism was finally dead and buried. But now it walks again, no doubt for the same old reasons. You can read all about it in Psalms. So, as said, I was not sure it would be a good idea to talk about my recent Israeli trip. But I wasn=t able to think of a better one.
So what can I say about my trip to Israel, in the time remaining? With a timing that was not my idea, I booked my ticket the day before hostilities broke out, and spent two weeks wondering if I=d have an airfield to land on. But Jerusalem, where I stayed the whole time, was perfectly safe. All people there had to do was pray for their sons or their neighbors= sons at the front, give charity for relief, take in relatives and in some cases strangers who were fleeing from the suddenly inhabitable cities of the North, listen to the news reports (AThey bombed Hadera yesterday, that=s half an hour south of Haifa@). Oh, and recite Psalms, the standard recourse in times of trial.
Through all this, the people in the Orthodox community, where I mainly stayed, went on keeping the Sabbath, praying, studying Torah and trying to apply it. For them the struggle has few surprises, they=ve been at it a long time. Still there was a pervasive sense of being in a country that is small, with defenses that are not very deep in the physical dimension, and that has a lot of enemies. There was reportage, too, on the way the conflict was being reported in the outside world, mostly with finger-pointing at Israel for the damage caused to the other side and little understanding for the fact that when others are trying to kill you you have to do something about it. There were shots of prominent enemies. One of them B not a Palestinian or Lebanese by the way, just an officer of the global We Hate Israel Club B was shown saying, AI hope my son will grow up to be a martyr.@ The face from which those words issued was not a human face.
On the afternoon of the ninth of Av, a hot day when we were all fasting just and trying to keep quiet, a sound truck came round announcing the funeral of a Alone soldier,@ Michael Levin of Philadelphia, who had come to Israel by himself to serve in the army and had no relatives in the country. My hostess called her friends and we set out for Mount Herzl. We couldn=t get very close to the grave site because of the great throng. We stood there for about an hour while the prayers were read and Michael Levin was eulogized by his superiors and comrades. No words of hatred were spoken; there was only a deep sense of loss and sorrow that this sacrifice had been necessary.
So I say to you: if for you life has value, you will back the Israelis. Regardless of who else is or isn=t backing them, in the weird puppet play of world politics. You will do what is in your power to see that they are not forced to give up any more territory, and that their just cause is represented as such.
Or let=s put it this way: When urging preservation of the rain forest, people often point out that it contains many species that are not even known, and that might one day be of great use to humans, in medicine and so on. The Jewish people and the Jewish tradition can be viewed as a kind of rain forest of good ideas on what to do about the human condition, many of which you have never heard of, I have never heard of. The lung of the planet. Let=s keep it breathing.
from Sonnets to the Prince of Twilight)
At Lag b'Omer, in Jerusalem,
a bonfire they had built up wide and tall
drew me near, nearer, like a house of flame,
till the heat stood against me like a wall
I could not pass. A limit of my being
gave notice, as when pain and fault and fear
make plain the bounds without which I am nothing,
the strait and shrinking smallness of my sphere.
Afloat upon a northern marsh I saw
white petals gleaming round a saffron heart,
and comprehended in the selfsame awe
all that would tear the ivory globe apart,
which seemed to trust as strength, in form's strange pride,
the fragile spell that cloaks the frail untried.
A few weeks ago I chanced to drive out to Verona along the road that represents the current waistline of the city of Madison. The east side of it is lined with duplexes and apartment houses that for now command a lovely view of the open fields west of the road, which will likely be built on next year.
Indeed, coming to the top of a hill, we looked down on a development that had already metastasized to the west of the road. This development did not consist of apartment houses, and it did not consist of duplexes. It consisted of single family houses.
Big, fat single family houses. Maybe fifteen or twenty of them. Each on a small lot which it filled very nearly to the edge. They didn=t all look quite the same, it looked as if they had different floor plans, and the streets were curved to avoid the impression of a grid. But they all had siding B undoubtedly vinyl B of similar colors, gray-green to pale mud. The easiest colors to take care of. The place looked bare and treeless. I didn=t notice any of the little stick maples they usually plant in new developments, so that after about twenty years there=ll be some shade. But it looked as if a maple tree wouldn=t have much room to stretch out its branches. Maybe they skipped it.
I couldn=t see inside the houses. But I felt I could guess what was inside them. Cathedral ceilings, of course (big energy wasters, like the SUVs in the three-car garages). Fireplaces, natch, probably with fake wood. Big, fat sofas and chairs. Maybe a baby grand piano B a player piano, because who has time to practice? In the basement, for sure, a wet bar, probably a pool table. Wide-screen TV, a must. A huge, space-wasting staircase. How many bedrooms B four, five? Only one or two inhabited; what did they put in the rest? Exercise machines? Beds for guests that never arrive? A few art objects, looking expensive but reflecting no personal taste: the decorator would have been hired by the builder. One thing I=m pretty sure there wouldn=t be: books. Probably not even coffee table books. That=s one thing I=ve noticed in recent years in upscale homes to which I have been briefly admitted: no books.
Who lives in these houses? Probably the people who have offices in the huge, faceless, power-is-everything office buildings of the industrial parks. Maybe some of those university administrators who are always feeling the need of another fat raise, while the rank-and-file employees might like a hike in their health care premiums.
Some months ago I read an article by Greg Critser,ALet Them Eat Fat,@ in a book called The Best American Science Writing 2001. Critser described how fast-food restaurants and snack-food producers and even drug manufacturers combine with the media to encourage obesity and diabetes in the poor, especially the children. Giant Cokes, big-girl milkshakes, supersized portions of French fries, humongous apple fritters, and on and on. Staying slim has become something of a status symbol.
But as the term AMcMansions@ indicates, houses like the ones in that development (or plunked down in older neighborhoods, like a cuckoo=s egg in a songbird=s nest) are the exact counterpart of obesity in the poor. The common denominator is consumption. Long ago, consumption used to be the name of a disease in which you wasted away. Well, now it is the name of a disease in which you waste the earth away and swell up, inflated with emptiness. It signals the loss of substance, of proportion, of meaning, of significant social relations.
Another thing I=ve read recently is a slim volume by Tim Kasser called The High Price of Materialism. Kasser documents the impoverishment of personality that comes with the relentless concentration on money, stuff, and status. It really, truly does not make anyone happy, any more than compulsive eating of sugar and fat. It=s an addiction. The fat cats, I=m sure, don=t like to think of it that way, so there probably would not be much money available for treatment programs, initially. But for those who still care about social justice, the obesity model might be a place to start. After all, justice is something quite similar to a sense of proportion.
INVENTIONS WE COULD DO WITHOUT
Invention has created many problems, but it is hard to imagine rolling back the calendar. Invention is part of what humanity and life itself are all about. I became keenly aware of this while writing The Consciousness of Earth, an epic poem on the history and future of our species= relation to its environment. One of my favorite passages, from Chapter 5, is about nature=s invention of the hand:
While still the terror of the dinosaurs
was on the mammals in their tiny niche,
the garment of the continents was changed
to flowering plants, deciduous trees that offered 160
a maze of branches, ready for new tenants;
and after that great dying, when the mammals
grew swiftly into their bequeathed domain,
limbs formed for grasping limbs of trees reached out,
claws flattened over padded fingertips
against whose skin crowded the tactile nerves
reporting to the brain what hold the hand
had closed on. Eyes that scanned from side to side
swung forward, fixed together on a point,
and from their differing reports the brain 170
measured the distance, gauged the leap. Likewise
the sense of color now was worked into
the subtle nerves behind the eye, discerning
tree-branches motionless in even shade,
ripeness of fruit. Between the reaching forelimb
that grasped with fingers and opposing thumb,
and the keen eye, coordination grew;
thus with the primate hand came apprehension,
the world of separate things to be distinguished,
picked up, examined and manipulated; 180
the brain amid its ramifying choices
redoubled and reorganized its networks,
and with it grew the primate social web,
the mind that lives beyond the single brain.
In a poem written a few years after that passage, I thought about all the hand has gotten us into.
THE BLACKBERRY PICKER
Where blackberries with brighter dark
Articulate the leaf-layered shade,
Hand reaching in among the sharp
Thorns, relearns its ancient trade:
Surely for this the swivelling wrist,
The supple finger-joints were made.
And as they pluck, the smooth palm's cup
Makes and unmakes itself to hold
The loosened berries as they drop,
The prudent seconding the bold.
From such cabal of skill and skill
The rest might well have been foretold.
Who would have heard what no one said?
Here no one thinks aloud but I.
The birds are gone; amid the dead
Leaves of the floor, a cricket's cry;
An airplane, somewhere overhead,
Furrows the wind's unending sigh.
This hand, once having gashed the ground
To feed when Earth could nurse no more,
Found itself quick to many an end
And learnt to learn, and write its lore;
Yet never found a work that wore
So smoothly as this first, uncursed.
It wishes, Earth, that it could close
The wound it struck so heedlessly
And at your dole, with all that grows,
Take dearth and bounty, live and die,
Since the fulfillment of its will
Proved sharper than necessity.
But if I could name one invention that I wish hadn=t happened, I guess it would be radio. (Sorry, folks.) Before radio, people were more in their own space. To communicate they had to write it down. OK, before radio they had the telephone. Before the telephone people had to write it down or actually go and see their friends. They got together and sang songs around the piano, they read poems like The Consciousness of Earth, which is about 8000 lines of blank verse, and they actually thought and talked about them. Now we have advanced communication technology and a brain-dead culture. Or as I put it, again in The Consciousness of Earth:
for as the crystal of the number sets
around us, in us, reaching to the cell,
the nucleus, the synapse B so the word
of mutuality and admonition,
of consequential pondering, on which
the house of moral order sought to rise,
seems to go fragile, shiver into fragments
not to be added up again, mere echoes
twisted by tunnels of frivolity
into a chaos of unmeaning sound!I=m Esther Cameron, under protest, for Mind=s Eye Radio.
This is an extract from the book which the puppet-masters of the post-democratic sound bite culture do not want you to read: The Consciousness of Earth, an epic poem on the ecological crisis in all its dimensions, including political.
The Consciousness of Earth tries to imagine, as a supplement to democracy, a form of organization through which those who see that reform of the political system is necessary, might acquire some leverage over the system. The emphasis on form is also related to the decision to write in a regular meter: form and organization are inseparable. (Part of the reason why the Acounterculture@ failed is that it didn=t have enough respect for Astructure.@) The Hexagon, referred to in the passage I will read, is the imaginary (so far) meeting place for the guild of instructors of democracy, for which The Consciousness of Earth aspires to be a training manual.
Democracy: that is the name by which
we know that leave of absence from compulsion
which still is granted us. Its premises
are: that each one of whatsoever rank
shall have one voice to choose those who shall rule,
and that the authorities shall recognize
as greater than themselves the laws that shield
the citizen from the high hand of power.
The law and universal suffrage keep
watch on the hierarchies built by function,
so that the dignity of all is guarded
and a place cleared for free exchange of thought.
That is democracy; it is a form
effective while, to the extent to which
we truly live within it, have not moved
elsewhere and left the empty scaffold standing.
And if that has occurred, then it must be
(seeing that we have placed our faith in form)
that in our freedom's diagram some corner
was left unfinished, or an entire side,
so that we have walked out into compulsion
unawares, and find ourselves benighted,
far from the house in which we thought to dwell.
It is perhaps that in their haste to bar
the door against the power to coerce,
the founders did not wholly have in mind
that there's an obligation to instruct,
which is not won by contest at the polls,
nor purchased with the chair of any office,
but laid by knowledge, insight, conscience, on
the one who sees. Whoever has felt that hand
upon the shoulder, knows that truth is not
decided by majority approval,
so that to step into the election ring
to prove it, but betrays it at the start.
And therefore where the people place all faith
in the electoral process, those who see
have little choice but to look tongue-tied on
while multifarious temptations tunnel
their way into the house, and clear it out.
Not all at once perhaps, but gradually,
as weeds and vermin gradually discover
the fields we clear, the houses that we build,
and change themselves, the better to infest them,
did those who take the pollsfor their foundation
learn how to play to ignorance, appeal
to prejudice, hold up the seeming-easy
answer to the questions of the crowd
that less and less knows what it asks. Until
today they sell themselves to those whose hands
are on the dials that synchronize the music,
the simulacra, for the mind-stunned mass.
They speak like actors what they did not write
and thereby win the power to decide
on what they little understand, as pressure
by bloc and contribution may determine;
starting perhaps from the hope of doing good,
they soon find strings being tied around their wrists,
till the watchers tire of the too-evident
puppet-play, and leave their choice uncast.
To twist the lures for hypnotized opinion
that strikes at any bait, so shape and color
be fashioned to its reflexed expectation,
and to map out, through the mined field, the sea
dotted with Scyllas and Charybdises,
the one course that would get us through unscathed B
these are two different arts. The second must
begin far from the market and the polls --
and maybe far, for now, from learning-places
that seem but markets of the intellect,
where technical contrivance overtowers
humanity, and profitable theory
thrives upon differences that advance
the individual career, but seldom
tend to the building of a common world.
But now let us suppose the Hexagon
founded, if only in the mind as yet, (...)
that House of Wisdom, Sabbath-space to which
the seekers of the peace of Earth, however
schooled and however occupied, repair
with tithes of thought, to linger in the company
of friends, listening long to song and story,
then once again depart toward various fields
that now divide the Earth.
Dwelling in Possibility, I=m Esther Cameron, of the Hexagon and Mind=s Eye Radio.
My mother sighed, telling me of the blight
That fell upon the eastern woods to seize
Only the loveliest, the great chestnut trees,
That martial summer before she saw the light.
She knew them as those great trunks, weathered white,
Fresh saplings danced around; but even these
Sickened in few years of the old disease:
Lately we heard: some lived, in its despite.
Lives then the single Soul of man's great race?
-- A rain-bleached trunk, and yet a stubborn root
That keeps on sending up shoot after shoot
That we forget not quite the primal grace
But hope, and weep, and hope again, till one
Shall live, and strengthen, and attain the Sun...?
Damage is being done to the large green
hearts, the catalpa leaves. Even as the white
cumulus of blossoms, honey-sweet,
was building up into the clear blue sky of early June,
the small inching lines, each with its tiny thorn,
had hatched and were beginning to fan out.
I have seen the trees almost stripped, heard the minute
dung pattering like rain on the leaves that remain.
Now, on the undersides of leaves, the logo, the three-inch black stripe
with the weaving head. Though I=ve called the sprayers, I rake down
as many as I can and stomp them on the ground,
shuddering, thinking of our fouled franchise-eaten landscape,
and at night when I close my eyes I see them again
and wonder if I shall ever see anything that does not remind me of them.
I know that I will never see
anything so wretched as that tree --
a maple, winter-bare and thin --
planted outside the Holiday Inn,
that temple of aesthetic sin,
and dedicated by a plaque
to Joyce Kilmer. Taken aback,
I stood not knowing what to say
to that poor tree, that ghost astray,
then shook my head and turned aside,
passed through the doors that opened wide
untouched by hands, past tourist-bait,
into a cavernous hall where smote
from four directions on mine ear
the noise of water falling far
through the dark and starless air,
and trees that never saw the sun
(I could not tell if made by man
or nature, and it seemed all one)
stood by the tables here and there
like waiters. Mother Earth, despair!
AFTER THE WILD GEESE: A PHILOSOPHY
Alpha. They are leaving us, the companions of our soul.
One small flock of wild geese this year, soon over.
The whippoorwill now haunts the evening woods
in a meaning not intended: as the mute
memory of a voice. The meadowlark --
shameful to confess, I took their song
so much for granted that I can't remember
how it sounded, nor recall the feeling
it gave; I only know its name was joy.
Shelley's left us his "Skylark." But that poem
is so hard to get into, nowadays,
so easily picked apart, just as we've picked
the world apart, less beautiful this year,
in an autumn more than autumn that will last
through spring, when once again I'll count the missing.
It isn't that first robin that I dread
with dread like sirens tearing through all song.
Feeling can kill you. Better stuff your ears
with wax, turn on the answering-machine
of irony, palter with form, talk tough,
think yourself cleverer than the elder bards
who had earth's unspoilt music in their ears;
easier still to cut the meaning-nerve,
block out the voice of poets altogether,
beget on speech obtuse monstrosities,
on intellect confusions with brass knuckles,
merge mind with meganetwork, and be done.
Beta. And if it happens, so what? Isn't earth's
whole ecosystem just one great big network,
each gene as selfish as a CEO?
Isn't blind war the father of all things,
including consciousness and visioned peace?
The dice-throw has no chance of cancelling Chance,
the back-thrown ripple won't reverse the stream;
the snake will get its tail into its mouth
and what will be will be what was before --
less beautiful in the eyes of the beholder,
but then there's no beholder anymore,
to make short what undoubtedly will be
a drawn-out painful tale.
Gamma. Shall we curse God,
or make a god to curse, kicking the void
as if it were a chair that did us wrong,
kicking the earth, on which we stand to kick?
Someone once handed me a little black
box, with a lever sticking from the side;
you pressed the lever, and there came a whirring,
the lid came up, a hand came out and pressed
the lever, and the lid clapped shut again.
And so, with us, a mystery came out
and was, perhaps, meant to go back again --
why should we be ungrateful to the world?
Think of the primate's brain, the songbird's throat,
evolving through unnumbered ages toward
that apogee where mind and matter mate
freely, in recognition that's unquestioned,
unforced, and from their union springs Delight?
Perhaps that's all eternity intended
with the making of the world; and though the moment
passes, yet somewhere the joy remains.
Beta. Meanwhile, god knows, there's work enough to do
to summarize an agonizing world,
although the summary must go unheard
what time the world-tree falls, amid the silence
of those vast gulfs.
Alpha. But till and during that
end, how live? Of course, one always can opt out.
Gamma. The game goes on, and your elimination
has consequences in the game. Nobody's
really out. We're in it to the last,
and while our voices call to one another,
the universe is not quite dark and mute.
Alpha. The earth still breathes, and we are breathing with it,
our hand upon the testaments of joy,
reciting still, like an asthmatic prayer:
If winter comes, can spring be far behind?
Some years ago I became aware of a problem I will call kalophobia, a word I have coined from the Greek words for Abeautiful@ and Afear or hatred.@ Kalophobia is the fear or hatred of beauty.
If the problem has not been named before, it may be that we are reluctant to admit it exists. We still (I hope) think of beauty as something we are drawn to, that we like. But once your attention has been drawn to kalophobia, you see a lot of it. For instance, those famous lines from Rilke=s first Duino Elegy:
.... For the beautiful is nothing
but the beginning of the terrible, when we can still just bear it,
we admire it so much because it calmly disdains to destroy us.
I wonder how many people, reading these lines, have asked themselves, AWait a minute. What=s so terrible about beauty?@
I was first made aware of kalophobia by a scene from The Adolescent, or A Raw Youth, the least discussed though the most insightful of Dostoevsky=s long novels. The Adolescent got panned when it first came out, and few have wanted to look at it since, though Kafka is said to have liked it. The Adolescent revolves around an extremely self-centered man named Versilov, a former serf-owner. Some years ago he seduced one of his serfs, Sofia, the wife of the saintly Makar. Versilov and Sofia have two children, and Versilov has made a solemn promise to marry Sofia after the death of Makar. The question throughout the book is whether he will keep his promise. After the funeral of Makar there is a showdown scene. Versilov comes to see Sofia and it is understood that he will officially propose to her. He arrives in an agitated state. He hands Sofia a bouquet of flowers and tells her that on the way he had an almost unconquerable impulse to throw the flowers down and trample on them Abecause they=re so beautiful.@ After a long, out-of-control monologue, he smashes the ikon which Makar had bequeathed to the couple, and runs out of the room.
Versilov=s kalophobia is related to his basic problem B all too familiar today B of commitment anxiety. Commitment and the love of beauty both mean acknowledgment of and submission to an order that transcends the self. They mean giving up a certain amount of power and control. Not everyone is uncomfortable with the idea of an order which we are meant to serve and to uphold, and which sustains us and preserves us from chaos. Versilov=s illegitimate son Arkady, the narrator and title figure of The Adolescent, has had enough of chaos, he wants to be legitimized, he wants to live in an orderly and life-fostering world. And he doesn=t find beauty terrible at all.
In the Modern period, beauty has taken quite a beating. I think of Picasso=s women with both eyes on one side of the nose, for a start. It used to be that the artist was supposed to create beauty, but instead the idea has taken root that to be original you have to deface and offend. This plague is now so ubiquitous that you can point to it blindfold -- just swing your arm B from high art down to pop cultures and subcultures. One of the most notable victims of kalophobia has been the reputation of Edna St. Vincent Millay, whose work unabashedly pursues beauty and often attains it. One could also speak of Sara Teasdale, Leonie Adams and Ruth Pitter, who are seldom held up as models these days in creative writing classes. It isn=t very smart of poets to buy into kalophobia, because a kalophobic society is also poetophobic. Of course misogyny is also involved here.
Misogyny and kalophobia are closely related. But if I talk too much about this it may generate confusion. When it comes to relations between the sexes the perception of beauty is intertwined with erotic attraction. Features get supersized that promise sensual gratification, or signs of submission and self-abasement (e.g. self-starvation) are flaunted to attract, and these things get mixed up with beauty. I think that beauty in the true sense B whether physical or inner B is meant to arouse a desire not just to enjoy but to cherish and preserve. Beauty is meant not only to attract but to elicit commitment. Yes, some people have more physical beauty than others, life isn=t fair, and so egalitarian ideologies have often condemned beauty for what they take, I guess, to be well-intentioned motives.
But without getting too far into that briar patch B I don=t want to talk about current women=s fashions, except to point out that in recent years colors have been concocted that clash with themselves B it is possible today to see signs of kalophobia all over the place. One small example: jigsaw puzzles. It used to be easy to find puzzles of classical paintings or beautifully-photographed natural landscapes. Putting them together was a nice exercise that helped one to see the patterns differently. But now you can leaf through a ABits and Pieces@ catalog and see only the most nauseous kitsch. On a larger scale, the typical corporate building has a style like a snarl: ATo hell with aesthetics B what counts in this world is money and power, so cut the illusions!@ SUV=s, of course B the ugliest of the ugly car designs that make the Aclassic@ cars seem so elegant by contrast B send the same message. Yes, of course, kalophobia is also connected with contempt for the environment, because all beauty in the end comes back to natural beauty, to the order that bore and meanwhile still sustains us.
I wonder: could kalophobia possibly be the most urgent issue in the world today? There are certain points where the application of small amounts of energy can have large consequences. If the world, as some physicists believe, is a hologram, then the small contains the great. So I would like to address to each and every one the plea: think hard. Look into your heart. Consider what in your world is beautiful, and how you are responding to it. Is there any point at which you have given way to kalophobia., and can you imagine responding otherwise? Do you see anything around you that is beautiful and struggling for existence and is there something you can do to help out? If so, please do it. The world you save may be your own.
Praying that the hint may be taken,
I=m Esther Cameron for Mind=s Eye Radio.
WHY ARE WE LAUGHING?
Long ago, as a high school student, I read a statement by George Santayana: "The young man who has not wept is a savage, and the old man who will not laugh is a fool." At the time I did not find this observation sympathetic. There is nothing that the lyrical or tragic or grandiose mood of youth fears more than the intrusion of humor, or the suggestion that one=s lyrical or tragic or grandiose concerns could recede into a humorous perspective. Not that I never laughed, of course, but there were a lot of things I wasn't prepared to laugh at. In graduate school, I was astounded to hear that Kafka's friends used to roll on the floor when he read those stories aloud. Later still, someone lent me an anthology of Jewish humor, and it made me cry.
So it was with surprise that I found myself, on the north side of middle age, becoming a writer of light verse. Not all the poems I've written in recent years have been humorous, but a fair proportion. I guess George Santayana would not consider me a fool, at least not the kind of fool who has not learned to laugh in old age. But B is it really wisdom that makes us laugh?
Whenever someone implies that there is a connection between humor and wisdom, I think of something that once happened to some friends of my father=s. They were motoring through the jungle and got stuck in the mud. They looked around for something they could use as a lever, and found a log. They fitted it under the wheel and leaned on it and slowly pried the car up, while a band of monkeys gathered in the trees overhead and watched in an intense silence. Just as they had almost gotten the jeep out of the mud, the log broke, the jeep slammed down into the mud again, and all those monkeys in the branches burst out in raucous laughter. So much for humor and wisdom.
I think, too, of a joke I heard in Jerusalem. The parets, the Polish landlord, decides to tax the Jews. So he slaps the tax on them, and then he sends his bailiff down to see how they are taking it. The bailiff reports back that they are weeping and wailing. The landlord says, "Tax them another fifteen percent." Then he sends the bailiff down again. This time the bailiff reports that they are taking out the Torahs and calling a fast. Again the landlord says, "Tax them another fifteen percent," and then sends the bailiff down to see how they are taking it. The bailiff comes back scratching his head: "I don't understand these people. They're sitting around telling jokes!" The landlord says, "We've gone too far."
Freud, of course, says that a joke is something like an electrical discharge, a release of tension. Both in the story of the monkeys and in the story of the overtaxed population, there is an element of release from strain: the strain of attention, the strain of trying to cope with an impossible situation.
If humor has anything to do with wisdom or intelligence, the connection must pass through the etymology of Asmart,@ which originally meant Apain.@ Or as Ecclesiastes puts it, "increase of knowledge brings increase of pain." The more knowledge of the world one accumulates, the clearer it becomes that the only thing to do is laugh. And of course in growing older one accumulates knowledge.
Yet that cannot be all there is to it, for in a few of my recent pieces B just a few B the dominant mood is delight, and the laughter seems to be about the neatness of the way things work out. It's a commonplace among actors that tragedy is easier to play than comedy. (A dying actor, asked by his friends how it feels, replies: "Easier than playing comedy.") To play tragedy is to descend into the depths, to become a vehicle for the dark forces that govern human fates; to play comedy is to display poise and control in the face of those forces. Thus, Shakespeare, having written the tragedy of Hamlet, took his leave of the stage in the comedy of The Tempest. The comedy of age is a sign of mastery in the art of living, perhaps even a premonition of the
soul's happy release from the bonds of this dark world.
Yes... there is all that. But there is also the humor of the bully and the scoffer, where what the laugher is released from is empathy and reverence. There is that laughter in the presence of which one cannot speak of what one loves. That laughter of which people in the literary world are so afraid that any expression of love and reverence is quickly stamped Asentimental.@
"The young man who has not wept is a savage, and the old man who will not laugh is a fool." I guess that statement still galls me. One thing I've noticed in the last couple of years -- since September 11, actually -- is that I have lost the ability to weep. There's a Jewish tradition
that when you weep while praying it is a sign that your prayer is accepted. Perhaps tears are only possible to those who feel the presence of some compassion, divine or human. If that is so, I would give all the humor of my mature work to be that kind of fool again.
"Laughing," as the Yiddish idiom has it, "with green worms..."
A SERIOUS JOKE
One of the main themes of my work first tapped me on the shoulder in the form of a joke.
It was in the spring of 1966, about 20 years before the word AInternet@ was first breathed. I was living at I-House in Berkeley. At the table where I ate there was a mathematician who one day told the following joke:
They hooked all the computers in the world together into one big computer, and held a ceremony to inaugurate it. After cutting the ribbon they thought they should ask it a really good question, just to start things off right. Finally they asked it, AIs there a God?@ The answer came back: AThere is now.@
Six years later, in 1972, I used this joke as an epigraph for my dissertation, which was entitled AAnticomputer.@ The dissertation reflected my discovery, under somewhat melodramatic circumstances, of what I guess academicians call intertextuality. I had started out half-consciously assuming, as most people still seem to, that every author creates his or her own poetic universe, which is sort of a closed system. But then through a very peculiar chain of events I came to feel that I had linked up with another poetic mind. I felt that I could see into the world of his poems, and it was also my world. This gave an incredible stimulus to my own writing, and set me thinking about what poets could accomplish if they would give up this illusion of creating separate worlds and think about orienting themselves within a single creation. Like a play we are all writing together, each one writing their own lines. It seemed to me that if we could do this we might really, among ourselves, begin to approximate the Divine intelligence.
This idea got a further nudge from an unexpected assignment that came my way a year later, in 1973. Out of the blue, I was asked to teach a summer course in the modern novel. At a loss how to begin addressing the subject, I decided just to pick a group of novels that seemed to me, on some aesthetic hunch, to go together. I figured that in the class discussions some connections among these works would show up, to tie the course together. This paid off in spades. By about the third week it began to seem to me and the students as if we were discussing the same book. The coherency was so remarkable that after the course was over I decided to write it up. I called the manuscript B a work of around 500 pages that I have since rewritten three times B The Web of What Is Written. WWW, for short.
A few years ago a much shorter book called The Talmud and the Internet, by Jonathan Rosen, appeared in print. Rosen feels that there is an affinity between the Internet and the infinitely dialogic world of the Talmudic sages. The Talmudic sages, of course, were not each trying to create their own intellectual world. They weren=t like philosophers, each of which has his own Asystem@ and invents his own language. They were trying instead to build a common world. Paul Celan, the poet whose words had set off such a reaction in my own mind, was not a Talmudist, but he was Jewish, and to me it is now evident that with his assertion that poetry is Adialogic@ he was really trying to reshape Western poetry in the image of his ancestral tradition.
Of course, for the linkage of Talmudic or poetic minds the Internet is just a metaphor, and not really a working metaphor either. The dialogue which the Internet carries does not appear so far to be of a profound sort. Compared to what human dialogue should be, the whole Internet is a joke and mostly a pretty bad one. Still, it=s interesting that this joke put me on to something that does appear to me profound.
But I guess it=s no secret that serious things sometimes do reveal themselves in jocular guise. In the Jewish tradition, the holiday of Purim is one big joke. People are encourage to dress up in funny costumes, get drunk, and lampoon their teachers. But the Purim story is actually about a threatened Holocaust, averted by what appear to be lucky chances. And moreover there are commentators who find deep mystical meanings in the story.
Hoping I have not marred the hilarity by injecting too many serious ideas,
I=m Esther Cameron for Mind=s Eye Radio.
WEARING THE MASK
It would happen to be on Purim that I logged on and was made aware, through our producer=s message, that the next topic for MER would be AImpressions or Impersonations.@ In the Jewish calendar, Purim is the holiday when masks and costumes are donned, and skits are put on that parody the sacred writings and lampoon the authorities with many a double entendre. The Purim holiday commemorates the events related in the book of Esther B a story built around the theme of disguise.
The title figure of this story, Esther also known as Hadassah, is taken into the harem of Ahasuerus, the king of Persia, and becomes his queen. For a long time she does not does not tell him she is Jewish, but when Ahasuerus= wicked adviser Haman plots against the Jews, she intercedes with the king to save her people. It is very much a story of diaspora and assimilation. Esther-Hadassah not only conceals her Jewishness but is also the first person on record with a Jewish and a non-Jewish name. Moreover her non-Jewish name, Esther, sounds like the Babylonian mother-goddess Ishtar. Similarly the name of her uncle Mordechai seems derived from the name of the Babylonian god Marduk. As Paul Dunbar of the African-American diaspora put it, AWe wear the mask.@
But there are deeper layers of meaning B as usual in the Jewish tradition. For that matter, other traditions also understand that the mask can serve not only to conceal what is ordinarily seen, but to reveal what ordinarily hidden. It is precisely Esther=s *non-Jewish* name, her disguise, that reveals the deepest meaning of the Purim text. For the rabbis relate this name to a verb that means Ato conceal,@ as in the Torah passage where God says, AI shall hide, hide my face from them.@ The Diaspora situation is a Ahiding@ of the Divine countenance in secular history, where the people can no longer rely on direct Divine intervention and are apparently at the mercy of historical forces. Thus, the name of God is not mentioned in the Book of Esther. And yet, God=s hand is felt behind the scenes, as when the king, at a critical moment, just happens to open the chronicle to the account of Mordechai=s service to him. To a feminist, the theme of hiddenness is significant in still another way, since the name of the protagonist is that of a goddess. The people are saved by the return of a mother-image that is ordinarily obscured, or at best relegated to the esoteric depths of the Kabbala.
And so this story has always given me a bit of hope B that=s one reason why I chose the name when converting to Judaism B that someday there could be a serious Purim, when the mere anarchy that seems to have been loosed upon the world could be held in bounds again through the revelation of some deeper aspect of human being. It can=t really be true, after all, that we are condemned to go forever through this bloody farce in which the world seems to be run by the Ahasueruses and the Hamans (substitute, as Purim skits often do, any contemporary names that come to mind). We have the resources to turn it around. We just have to learn how to call on them, how to bring them to light.
In his one novel, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, the poet Rainer Maria Rilke wrote:
AIst it possible that despite discoveries and progress, despite culture, religion and world-widsom, one has remained on the surface of life? Is it possible that one has even covered this surface, which might still have been something, with an incredibly uninteresting stuff which makes it look like the drawing-room furniture during summer holidays?
Yes, it is possible.@
But then it should also be possible to pull off the dust-covers. And paradoxically, as I=ve been trying to suggest, one possible way of pulling the covers off is through impersonation. There is after all a school of therapy which tells people to Aact as if@ they are happy, brave, competent. Or as Hamlet says to Queen Gertrude: AAssume a virtue, if you have it not.@ Maybe we just need to hold that thought, pursue it a little further.
When I was in grad school someone came up with a game called AWho wrote you?@ Each person was supposed to look at himself or herself, and ask himself or herself who among the authors of world literature could have created this character. Some years ago it occurred to me that one way of making a start would be to impersonate a character in a story where change is possible. If we could just get a few characters together and agree on a script, we could play out... say the Fellowship of the Ring, or the Knights of the Round Table, or the court of the Faery Queene. Or the Hexagon...
I=d like to share with you a poem dedicated to the Young Shakespeare Players of Madison, about the power of make-believe.
Children play Shakespeare on a summer=s eve,
Their theater a house they=ve hollowed out.
On a black-painted stage they move about
Among black crates and pallets, props that leave
Much to the imagination. We receive,
Likewise, a maid-child of eight years for stout
Fortinbras. Why, >tis brave, and conquers doubt!
But isn=t that the way of make-believe:
Less to resemble than to represent,
To posit, more than simulate. To say,
ALet this be that.@ And in the mind=s eye rises
All of the splendor that the poet meant.
Cynic, behold, be changed! The human play
Is not yet done, and still may hold surprises.
See you, in costume, next year. Or maybe sometime soon?
I hight Esther, aka Beatrice, the Lady of the Sorrowful Countenance, for Mind=s Eye Radio.
FERLINGHETTI ON THE EVE OF YOM KIPPUR
[On the eve of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, I received an E-mail entitled "Ferlinghetti on the Eve of Yom Kippur," and containing a free verse poem which invokes Ferlinghetti before attempting to contemplate the pain of a mother whose child has been murdered. This prompted me to put the thoughts I had been revolving on the subject of word-play into a reply. And perhaps a letter to a fellow-poet is indeed the best format for these thoughts.]
Dear J., shalom,
ADVANCE \d4Thank you for this latest poem, although it confronts me with two problems, one of which I have been grappling with a good deal recently. My poem but one dealt with this first problem. Written after reading a poem on Darfur, it is entitled
THIS IS NOT A POEM
These are such news as snap the strings of song,
Make fairest euphony appear as paint
Upon a dying visage, crack the gong
Of conscience, turn the heart of mercy faint.
Can we join word to word, when limb from limb
The human form with fiendish glee is rent;
When metaphor can only serve to skim
This Tophet's cauldron? Unless in covenant
This join both those who write and those who read,
Seal mind to mind and hand to steadfast hand,
Lest all G-d's field be choked by one foul weed,
Lest G-d's true image find no place to stand
On Earth (may G-d forbid!) and naught remain
But sin past all atonement, cureless pain.
Similarly, after someone brought to a workshop a poem on some atrocity, Richard Moore responded with a poem that ended:
The subject is so easy,
It is impossible.
Of course, this problem has been noticed before. You've doubtless heard Adorno's saying that to write a poem after Auschwitz is a barbaric act. He is said to have retracted this after reading Paul Celan's "Death Fugue." But I suspect that Celan's own conscience was never entirely easy about precisely this poem; he refused to read it in Jerusalem. The man who "plays with the snakes" is also -- alas, alas -- the poet.
At the core of every real poem, regardless of its subject, there is a strange delight, arising I guess from the play of words and forms together. The delight of Art. What Adorno meant to say, I think, is that in the face of certain subjects this delight must be refused, because to accept it makes one complicit. And yet as a poet it is hard to help writing poetry. This I perceive to have been Celan's dilemma, which ended, as you know, in the river.
But in pondering his tragedy I have glimpsed one possible way out, and that is if the experience of reading the poem could serve as basis for a bond, a covenant, among poets and readers. We have all partaken of the forbidden delight, shared in the same transgression, and can only redeem ourselves by pledging ourselves to help one another in our various tasks, each of which is part of tikkun ha'olam, the repair of the world. "All for one, one for all." "Our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor." What greater delight could there be than to hear again words like these. That could also be a play, you know, a play for real stakes, but a standing occasion for courage and magnanamity and ingenuity, for the best qualities of the best poetry.
Well, I have been saying all this for upwards of thirty years; but each year I feel it more keenly.
The second problem, specific to this poem, is that I don't think Ferlinghetti is a good model at this or any time. Long ago a friend's husband in Berkeley, a Texan lawyer not otherwise given to epigram, referred to him as "Fallingspaghetti," and I think that admirably describes his lines. There's no art in his poems at all; his innovation was that to be a poet, all you need is the chutzpah to get up on the platform, expect attention, and strike a series of poses. And to ask for attention in the face of the sort of event we are witnessing takes an even greater chutzpah. The poet who wrestles with form, be it only blank verse, is engaged with something other, and is attempting to offer value in return for the desired attention. To return to form could be a step toward that recognition of the other which is a precondition of covenant.
So I wish very much that the next thing you send me could be in blank verse, at least, and reflect a wish not just to express but to impose on yourself some difficulty, some task, for art's and for all our sake.
Thank you for listening, thank you for being there.
A CONSTRUCTIVE ESCAPE
There=s a Hasidic saying to the effect that Awhoever works for the coming world, lives in the coming world.@ Constructive action is valuable not only for the benefit that one hopes will result in the future but also for the sense that it gives us in the present of escape from a world of limited possibilities. The poem I am going to read is about an escape I believe could be constructive.
It actually starts out as an escape to the past -- as a fairly faithful translation of a poem by Walther von der Vogelweide, who wrote in the early 13th century. Walther was depressed about the way the world had changed since his youth B sound familiar? Among other things Walther felt that people weren=t dressing as well as they used to. In the early 90's, when I wrote my version, students in the U.S. were not yet dressing like the workers in China, so I didn=t include that line about clothes as I began replacing Walther=s observations with some comments on what I was seeing. But I did include some of Walther=s melancholy reflections about the nature of human existence as a whole. Walther=s third stanza is devoted to the escape route that he chose, which was to urge participation in the current crusade.
Well, that escape route didn=t quite work for me, so instead of translating Walther=s third stanza, I put in a signpost pointing to my own mental refuge, to wit, the Hexagon, an imaginary center for poets as the recorders of the community=s inner life. The Hexagon is described at greater length in a poem by that name on my website B www.pointandcircumference.com . The website also has a some suggestions in prose for how the fantasy could be realized if poets would work for it. And meanwhile, as that Hasidic saying has it, they would in a sense be living in it. It seems to me that this would be a great escape from just staring at the marginalization of writers in a deteriorating social environment.
The last line of the poem, again, is Walther=s.
LAMENT AND GOOD COUNSEL
Alas, where have my years gone? They fled so fast away
I know not if my life was real or shadow-play.
I wake and look about me and do not understand
what used to be as plain to me as my own hand.
The land where I was born and bred appears more strange
than a traveller=s tall tale, a scene of monstrous change.
The children that I played with are weary and old,
the field is built upon, the forest has been sold.
Lucky for me the water still flows downhill,
or I would truly think that my affairs go ill.
Slow greetings have I had from many a former friend;
the world is full of ungrace, wheresoever I wend.
When I remember good days with friends at my side
that have vanished like a stone skimmed on the water wide B
woe=s me forevermore!
Alas, how careworn go the young: not hope but dread
fills their minds with thought of future yearly bread;
even at play they practice violence and scheme;
they have lost love=s high heart and freedom=s higher dream.
They have no use for poets: they cannot share the joys
of true and fitting speech, but stop their ears with noise;
They do not seek the sunlight nor good society B
on a computer screen they seek reality.
When I think where things tend, the whole creation
often appears to me only a slow damnation.
Ay, earth is fair to look upon, green, white and red,
but inwardly a darkness full of charnel dead.
Within the gold of honey I see the drop of gall,
things sweetest to the taste have turned to poisons all B
Woe=s me forevermore!
Alas, I speak but idly, letting the craft of fools
intimidate me into laying down my tools!
There still is much within this world that I can praise,
imagination was given me that I might think up ways
to show and to commend it, inspiring folks to care
and learn to keep the world they=ve got in good repair.
While I=ve a word to speak, I may as well make it count,
and if there are others like me, our words may yet amount
to council and to wisdom, and justice in the end.
And lately I have heard from a trustworthy friend
that poets are combining to build the House of Song,
a place for poetry they call the Hexagon,
where poets can foregather and keep the things they write,
and make the Center manifest, in fools= and time=s despite.
Once I have found a way there, a way that I can go,
Then I will ever sing for joy, and nevermore cry Woe!Hoping to see you there, I=m Esther Cameron for Mind=s Eye Radio.
THE HAMPSTEAD ALTERNATIVE
Announcer: Good evening, friends, and welcome once again to Radio Free Literature. Tonight we have a guest who is not present in the studio, who'll be talking to us long distance ... over a very long distance. I'm sure you are going to find this interview unusual, to say the least. Would you ... ah... care to introduce yourself?
Merlin. With pleasure. My name is Merlin Keats.
Announcer. And where are you speaking from?
Merlin. I am speaking from the town hall of Hampstead, England, in a universe that branched off from yours somewhat less than two centuries ago.
Announcer. In case some of our listeners are not familiar with the concept, could you explain?
Merlin. Certainly. The flow of time consists of a succession of events, any of which could have
turned out in any number of ways. All of these possibilities are in fact realized, generating an infinite number of alternate universes. The inhabitants of each universe are aware of only one succession of events, which thus comes to seem like a chain of inevitable causality.
Announcer. I had heard about the theoretical existence of other universes, of course. But it was
my understanding that the alternate universes did not communicate with one another.
Merlin. Yes, well, that process has so far been invented only in our universe. It entails an
improvement in the use of the imagination.
Announcer. You have said that your universe branched off from ours some time ago. Can you tell us at what point the branching occurred?
Merlin. Yes, quite precisely. On July 18, 1818, a Scottish peasant named Andrew McLachlan, who sometimes guided British tourists, was crossing a burn on some stepping-stones covered with unusually slippery moss. In your world McLachlan kept his footing; in ours he slipped and fell and broke a leg. As a result he did not go, a few days later, to the inn at Oban where he would have met John Keats.
Announcer. Your name is Keats, if I heard right. Are you --
Merlin. One of John Keats' many descendants, yes. In your world, he accepted McLachlan's offer to guide him on an excursion to the island of Mull. The excursion turned out to be extremely strenuous and gave Keats a cold which was the beginning of his end. In our world, Keats did not go to Mull nor catch that cold. He met Fanny Brawne as a healthy man and had no difficulty in obtaining her commitment. Under her influence he returned to the healing profession and to writing poetry for an expanding circle of friends. Instead of those death-obsessed great Odes he wrote the AEpithalamion@ for Fanny Brawne, the AOracles@ for each of their five children, and the epic Health of England.
In our world, you see, Keats was quite a key figure, due to his supreme intelligence and his experience of the suffering of the common people. His survival affected the lives of all the Romantic poets, very much for the better. Attracted by Keats= circle, Shelley returned to England instead of drowning in Italy. Wordsworth came back out of his shell. John Clare kept his hold on sanity. Blake lived two years longer in our world; his last work, The Second Jerusalem, was finished by Shelley and appeared in 1830, simultaneously with Keats' Health of England. Shortly after, Keats and his friends founded the Free Association of Bards, with its center in Hampstead.
Announcer. The AFree Association of Bards@?
Merlin: Yes, the central governing body of our world.
Announcer. The poet as acknowledged legislator, in Shelley=s phrase?
Merlin. Indeed. But Keats was a far more genuinely social person than Shelley, if you reread Keats= early work. The Romantics had been going on about the Druids, without really focusing on the fact that for the Druids poetry was a collegial undertaking B not just solo singing, but harmony and counterpoint. Shelley just guessed that the revival of collegial poetry was the only possible counterweight to the accelerating development of technology. It was Keats who developed this insight and founded a praxis consistent with it.
Announcer. What about the Socialists? Were they part of it?
Merlin. Collegial poetry is the method of what you call socialism. Without it, socialism is a
mass movement that turns into another tyranny. Our solutions are always individual. The
formula "From each according to his ability, to each according to his need" can't be worked out
Announcer. Wasn=t there any opposition to the reforms? Weren't there any repressions? any revolutions?
Merlin. It was mainly an intellectual struggle. A Mental Fight, as Blake put it. A matter of helping people to imagine the worlds their choices led to. Certainly there was resistance, but eventually persistence won out.
Announcer. I'm sure most of our listeners out there are wishing they could live in your branch of
the universe. Do you think there is any way we might get to where you are?
Merlin. Oh yes. Just as there is no absolute guarantee that another slip on a stone somewhere might not eventually put us back to where you are. Paths of choice branch out from this moment. Nothing is inevitable. It's just a matter of using your imagination.
For the topic AWriter=s Choice,@ my contribution was some abridgement of my poem AThe Hexagon, which now forms the centerpiece of my website www.pointandcircumference.com. I can=t find this abridgement now, but in lieu of it, here=s the text of a brochure for the AHexagon Foundation.@
THE HEXAGON FOUNDATION: A THOUGHT-EXPERIMENT
In the middle of the city
Stands the house of song and story
Built of stone, its rooms are many,
And the rooms are all six-sided,
Large the lower, small the upper,
Ranged around a central courtyard
Where a single fountain plashes;
And the fountain has ten basins:
From the highest flow the waters,
Now divided, now uniting,
To the lowest and the largest
On whose brim the poets often
Sit and scan, their eyes half marking
How the ripples in their motion
Touch the brim and seek the center,
Then spread outward once again.
Underneath the ground is hollowed
To one room, a mighty kiva,
Where, amid those pillars chiseled
In the likeness of great tree-trunks,
All the poets of the city
Stand at equinox and solstice
To hear read the formulation
Of each season's task and tidings
And give counsel where they can.
. . .
In Esther Cameron=s poem AThe Hexagon,@ the reader is taken on a tour of a building situated at the center of a future city and dedicated to poetry. Around the central courtyard of this building are ranged a poets= cafe; an Archive of Life-Stories; a second archive comprising the poems that constitute the Ajournal@ of the city, going back to the time of the construction of the Hexagon; classrooms, small meeting-rooms and more. This imaginary building embodies a view of Art as a record of the community=s experience and a source of wisdom for future generations.
The Hexagon Foundation is an entity -- virtual, as of this writing -- dedicated to the construction of the Hexagon in Madison and in other cities throughout the world.
This is, clearly, an enormous undertaking.
However, it is an undertaking that could be pursued in small steps, each of which would have value in itself.
As a first step, a local group of poets might pursue the establishment of a reading room and archive for their works and those of any poet willing to join in their effort. They would advocate the inclusion of a provision for such an archive in the city and county ordinances (see draft of proposed ordinance below). To gather support for this project, they would seek contact with organizations and with individuals who share their desire that the community be guided by awareness and concern. They would meet periodically to report on their progress, using poetry as a tool of concise and thoughtful communication. They would constitute themselves as a local Council of Poets, establishing a constitution, setting membership requirements, and electing representatives in accordance with their commitment to the craft of poetry and the goals of the Hexagon Foundation.
DRAFT OF A CITY ORDINANCE
WHEREAS the poetry being written in the city of Madison constitutes an important record of the community=s life which should be handed down to further generations;
WHEREAS a meeting place for poets can enable a thoughtful and tolerant exchange upon matters of current importance to the people of this city; and
WHEREAS it is known that the work of important poets is not always recognized in their lifetime, and each generation should preserve as much as possible of the poetry being written in order to allow future generations the possibility of choosing:
NOW THEREFORE there shall be and is hereby established a Reading Room and Archive for the poets of the city of Madison, to be known as the Hexagon Foundation, Madison branch.
1) The city will support the said Reading Room and Archive at a cost of not less than (amount to be determined) per year, and the City of Madison obligates itself to levy and collect an annual tax for the support and maintenance of such Reading Room and Archive of not less than (amount to be determined) per year.
2) The management of the archive and reading room shall be under the supervision of a Board appointed by the Madison Council of Poets, subject to the approval of the Mayor and the City Council.
The Hexagon Foundation is more than an idea for an institution. It is the dream of a redefinition of poetic art so as to include individual vision in a larger structure.
The hexagon was chosen as symbol of this foundation, in part because it is the cross-section of the cell constructed by the bee, which is an ancient symbol of both poetry and community. The hexagon is the largest polygon that will tile a plane. It is the figure produced by arranging six circles around a seventh; the circle, in turn, stands for the universe and the microcosm of the individual. Thus the hexagon can be a symbol of reconciliation and peace.
A TALE OF TWO CENTERS
In March of 1998, in a certain city which shall be nameless, a poet with more dreams than dollars made up a brochure, courtesy of Kinko=s, for a phantom organization called The Hexagon Foundation, which would advocate for the construction in the city center of a building called the Hexagon, which would serve as a gathering-place for local writers and an archive for their works, and would also give employment to local visual artists.
The Hexagon, according to a poem by this poet, was to consist of hexagonal rooms ranged around a central courtyard. The entrance was to be a porch with seven pillars, carved with scenes from the poetic traditions of various peoples. The entry hall was also the library, with book-lined galleries tiered several stories high and topped by a "crystal-pointed skylight." The building also housed a coffee-house, archives, classrooms, and rooms for healing and mediation (through poetry, of course). Each of these rooms offered space for appropriate murals or carvings.
A cooperative work of art, mirroring a society based on mutual understanding. A romantic, a Utopian fantasy.
It just so happened that five months later, the arts world of that same city was agog with the news that a local businessman had decided to donate a very large sum of money for the creation of an "arts district"!
A committee was quickly formed to decide how to spend the money and what the arts district would look like. Naturally the abovementioned poet thought she might give input. Her overtures, however, were rejected. In fact, it soon became clear that there would be no space in the arts district for writers at all!
No local architect was thought worthy of the task of designing the center. An internationally renowned architect, who had designed many corporate showplaces, had to be hired, and this took up most of the original gift. The gift was increased, but the extra was quickly absorbed. Local arts organizations soon found out that their rent would increase, since none of the gift had been allocated for maintenance. That meant higher ticket prices, within the reach of fewer citizens. Some distress about this was voiced at meetings. But perhaps such things are hard to explain to people who can afford to give millions.
On the proposed site of the center was a department store with a stone front in the style of the previous century. It was felt that to tear this down would have been too controversial, so the architect was obliged to include it in his design.
At last the center opened, with a week of expensive concerts in the large, state-of-the-art concert hall and free events (by local performers) in the studios. By chance someone gave the poet a ticket to one of the expensive concerts; and she was also in one of the local performing groups.
On the night of the concert, the poet and friends entered the center=s grand atrium. A huge, empty central space, stretching up several stories with "the biggest plate glass windows ever cast," someone said. (Had nobody worried about the heating bills, the energy?) In writing about the building, the journalists had emphasized the quantity of expensive materials used. So and so many tons of travertine, so and so many logs of such and such a wood for the veneer paneling. The paneling was pale gold, the bare floors and the carpeted surfaces were off white, reminding the poet of a desert, actually.
Before the performance she explored the building, and came to the part that occupied the space where the department store had been. And there was her "crystal-pointed skylight" atop several tiers of galleries. But the galleries were not booklined; and they were accented by white tube lighting that made her think of a jukebox. It was like a distorted dream-image of her dream.
The same predilection for ornamental lighting was evident in the grand concert hall, where orange neon stripes accented the front of all the balconies. As one queasy about heights, the poet found the walk to her seat, between many pairs of scrunched-up feet and a very low railing, a terrifying experience. Settled in her seat, she looked around the hall. It was certainly big, and the organ at the back of the stage was nothing if not imposing. But why was the lighting so much in evidence? Over the boxes hovered clusters of black spotlights, like huge beetles. It certainly got in the way of any artistic illusion. You couldn=t forget the technical means by which all this artistic experience was to be brought to you B any more than you could forget the financial largesse that had made it possible. The performances that evening were on the light side, serving mainly to demonstrate the much-touted acoustics.
A couple of nights later, at the studio (pale gold paneling halfway up the walls, more ostentatiously technical light fixtures overhead), one of her colleagues passed the hat and netted $75.00 for a local high school that was having to cancel its yearly musical for lack of funds.
On leaving the center, she turned to look back. There was that department store facade, elegant in its time, but now, beside the white stone of the new walls, a bit dingy. Above it, through the skylight (which someone had already dubbed the Ajello-mold@), she could see the waning moon. That at least was magical.
No doubt it was well meant. Generosity is a rare thing in this world; that it should be accompanied by a grasp of the real needs of those on whom the largesse is bestowed, is a great deal to ask. And money is a hard thing to control; it tends, unless carefully watched, to control its possessors as well as its recipients and non-recipients. To impose, wherever poets are not consulted, its own vision, a vision of money.
The poet asked herself whether that desert of white travertine and white carpeting and endless blond paneling could ever be made to bloom. Maybe a few murals. Would paint stick to that varnish, so smooth, the genuine wood felt like formica to the hand? Perhaps the Hexagon could be built in that vast empty atrium. At least a scale model, big enough to house the archives in computer form, might stand on that huge platform that so far seems intended only to keep whatever might fall from way up high on the ceiling, from hitting the ground floor.
Will a fairy prince of a businessman ever be found in the real world to donate a modest sum for that model?
THE EDGE OF IMAGINATION
Writers are by definition creative, and creativity implies imagination or openness, i.e. the ability to go beyond what is and envision a different state of things. That=s why it puzzles me that writers can be quite rigid when comes to thinking about the roles they play in the literary and social world.
Whether from natural competitiveness or economic pressures or some mysterious mental block, most poets (I=ll talk about poets because that is what I know best) get caught in a standard pattern of sending poems to magazines, bracing themselves for the probable rejection slip. Sooner or later, if they keep on trying and reading the magazines to see what kind of thing the editors are looking for, someone will publish something, and then they can put that in their bio to impress the next editor, and pretty soon they have a list of published poems and can submit a chapbook manuscript, and then they can start trying for a full-length book, until finally their name becomes droppable at creative writing workshops, whether or not anyone remembers a thing they said.
This pattern is so deadening, so boring, so depressing, so discouraging, and so futile, that I really don=t understand why poets have not long ago stood up and said, AWe=d better use our imaginations to think of something different.@
For our own sakes, and for everybody else=s. Poetry always seemed to me like a sacred calling. It has always seemed to me that we poets are in charge of keeping track of what is really going on in this very mysterious world, where realities that defy analysis will often let themselves be summed up in a stanza. And if that is so, then those in charge of keeping track should be helping each other, listening to each other, debriefing each other, pooling their observations to create a map that the rest of the world could use B if I may be permitted the use of a metaphor that has been so terribly misused in recent years.
With respect to this metaphor, I can at least claim a bit of seniority. My parents spent the summer after their marriage surveying together in New England, and my father worked for the U.S. Geological Survey for some time after that. In surveying, the location of a point is determined by taking bearings on it from two other points. And a map is commonly made by combining the measurements of a number of different surveyors. So why, I ask, could there not be something like a U.S. Poetical Survey?
A few times in my life I have been privileged to be in situations where poets seemed to be listening to each other, learning from each other B not, of course, from each other=s critical comments, which were almost always mistaken because critics are a lot dumber than poets even when they are the same people, but from each other=s revelations and the resonance of each other=s voices. It never lasted long and people seemed half afraid of it while it was going on. Later sometimes I=d see a poem published by one of the recipients in a magazine. But it was always like a pebble removed from the beach and dried off, looking dusty and opaque instead of wet and glowing.
We don=t have to do this to each other, to ourselves. Most of us will never make a cent out of this anyway. If, on the other hand, poets were to make a practice of listening to one another, they=d at least set an example for the rest of the world.
Well, I=ve said it, once again, in prose. I=ve also said it, many times, in poetry. A few years ago I tried to imagine what one of the ancient bards would say if a modern poet could travel back to the past and describe the literary world of the present.
Let me be certain I have understood you.
You tell me that you have no guilds of bards
pledged to convene and sing to one another
in sacred measures of what has transpired
between the full and dark, the dark and full,
each offering the fragments of their vision
until an image of the hour take shape,
which the most skilled then set before the people
to put them on their guard against the guileful
and rectify the laws and names of things?
That poets vie in speaking idle words,
promising nothing, making nothing happen?
That for their labors most have no reward
save to be printed on a page perused
by none, except their rivals studious
of the judge=s mind, that they too may be printed?
Ochone, the harp of concord thus untuned
and bardcraft made into a trade for fools!
It is the dark age you must live in surely,
the age our eldest bards foretold last solstice
in such a cold as no one could recall.
But, traveler, if you hear me, as I you,
And if your well of wit is not quite dry,
will you not now return and tell your comrades
the time has come to win word=s honor back,
reforge the canon and the sacred forms,
reconvene the counsels of the wise,
send forth your strongest voices to beseech
the people to return to reason=s measure?
The words of all who say so will be deeds,
worthy of space in the memory of the gods;
the rest is vanity, the trash of time
which time will sweep away.WATER JOURNEY
(with Kathy Miner=s flute accompaniment)
Despite its Egyptian scenery, the following poem B AFlute Song@ B has a Madisonian background. It came to me nine or ten years ago, during a conference on AAlternatives to Violence,@ organized by Madison Urban Ministry. I felt a lot of tension, and this poem with its strange landscape just sort of popped out. It may be about the kind of transcendence that would be necessary to make a really peaceful society.
In Egyptian tomb paintings, death is portrayed as a journey by water. The Egyptians called the individual's vital energy or tutelary spirit the ka. That is the archeological background, though as far as I know there is nothing in Egyptian sources about the return journey that is described here.
I have been a king upon the river Nile,
gliding in stately funeral barge downstream,
my limbs all linen-wound, and in my veins
an ichor that precluded pulse and breath;
and yet I was aware that in the prow
the spirit that had guided me, my ka,
stood and steered, and sang from time to time
with a voice like that which vessels make when wind
blows over them and they cannot but sigh.
And other barges moved upon the stream,
each with its passenger silent and supine,
its upright singing steersman, all whose voices
made up one instrument of many pipes
played on by one in desultory dream.
And thus through many a change of day and night
we glided on, till near the river mouth
we came to port. I do not know what helpers
descended to the waterside, took up
each bier, conveyed it past the fertile land
to its predestined tomb and laid it down,
then sealed the entry-stone and went away.
Now each reposed amid the pictured walls
which to the unbreathed air rehearsed forever
the tale of all that each had been and done --
Yet not confined, for wakefulness had gone
into a talisman worn round the neck
of each one=s ka. And now the kas assembled
in silent conference, and took the way
back to the city which our death had emptied.
From shrine to shrine they moved, performing rites
to cleanse it of the plague. Somehow there were
new people in the city, and they lived,
yet they could see the kas and heed the signs
they gave. So all was well within the city
for many ages yet, as from the breastplates
of our undying kas, we woke and watched.
They appear in the green shadows
like stars coming out:
I see only the red
unripe fruit, then the black ones
were there all along.
As I move
among the canes, picking, something
scuffles close by. My coming
has interfered. And here
the vines are flattened, as if
a deer had lain down
one of the owners, the masters,
no longer in the secret.
when I close my eyes, the black raspberries
will appear once more, on stems
fragile as the lines connecting
the stars that guided the tribes
before they named the Great Bear
Like stars, these clusters
have led me forth
from the cities into which time
drove us: I can imagine
the grandmothers move beside me, picking
and gossiping, or singing, in their language
of which no word remains, unless a place-name --
It is summer, the days
have just begun to shorten,
the cool bright sunlight that comes
after a berrymaking rain
falls through the leaves,
the hand reverts to a movement
reflexive as sucking.
I have all that I need.