Monumental

Historical record is a palimpsest, erased in whole or in parts and reinterpreted, rewritten, revised, rebuilt, restructured, reconsidered, and–often–reviled. In the USA, we are once again evaluating our statuary monuments. Columbus. Juan de Oñate. Mayor Frank Rizzo. General Robert E. Lee. 

What a society considers beautiful, or of aesthetic value, usually differs little from what it considers to be of cultural value. Such judgment seems natural; but it frequently provides societal blinders because citizens want to avoid what’s ugly, brutal, and complicated. If it’s good, it must be beautiful; if it is beautiful, and has been around a long time, it must be a good symbol for our society.

One thing about a symbol is its simplicity–we think we know exactly what it stands for, and we can admire our own reflections about that shared idea. Except that human perspectives are annoyingly unique, and it turns out we cannot even agree about what a symbol represents, let alone what it means, and whether or not it should be interpreted in the context of the society that created the symbol or in light of the point of view of the person who now perceives it.

Monuments, though we think of them as commemorations or reminders, are intentionally raised up to become symbols or icons in a way at variance with the more common, individual headstones or grave markers. They are not art but society’s major markers. I learned about the difference a decade or so ago on a visit to the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (Penn Museum). A tour group was walking through the Ancient Egyptian galleries, and one of the visitors asked the docent about how and when the artistic styles of the large sculptures changed.

“Anthropologists seldom refer to these objects as art, actually,” replied the docent. She went on to add that while they are beautiful and most people think of them as art, the monuments really were indicators of society–status, leadership, importance in the world of the time. While they seem lasting to us, because they’re large or carved of stone, they were created by craftsmen, not artists. No one cared who made them; they were there to tell the people living in the cities, towns, and countryside who was in power, whom to worship, and what the governing powers valued. Many statues were destroyed or vandalized once a nobleman was out of power. It didn’t matter that they were made of stone, or whether they were aesthetically beautiful or made by a renowned craftsman–the figurehead kings or gods were no longer important. They could safely be demolished.

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Granite sphinx of Ramses II, Penn Museum

Or re-used. Speaking of palimpsests, read about this sphinx at the Penn Museum’s gallery. The cartouches show definite signs of having been repurposed from a previous pharaoh. “The previous king’s name is entirely eradicated.”

~

If you suspect I am making an analogy to current events, you suspect correctly. It is human nature to want things to stay as one remembers them, and we tend to feel confused when change occurs rapidly. But renaming, erasure, and destruction of socially-sanctioned monuments has been going on for a long, long time. We should not be as surprised as news media seems to want us to be when monuments become controversial.

~

The Online Etymology Dictionary says this about the word monument:

late 13c., “a sepulchre,” from Old French monument “grave, tomb, monument,” and directly from Latin monumentum “a monument, memorial structure, statue; votive offering; tomb; memorial record,” literally “something that reminds,” a derivative of monere “to remind, bring to (one’s) recollection, tell (of),” from PIE *moneie- “to make think of, remind,” suffixed (causative) form of root *men- (1) “to think.” Meaning “any enduring evidence or example” is from 1520s; sense of “structure or edifice to commemorate a notable person, action, period, or event” is attested from c. 1600.

Monuments relate to thinking, to memory. We want our thoughts to endure–our society, our “own way of life”–to last forever, because we know we will not last forever.

Monuments have the disturbing quality of often belonging to only one group in a culture, however. The victors, or those who wish they had been victors. The victims, mourned. The powerful, because they have the means to build monuments. Monuments can fade from significance; the culture can change its point of view, making the old statues controversial or useless; new leaders can appear.

I am rethinking what I consider to be cultural and social monuments.

Here’s something I love to hear when my head and heart get too full of complicated histories and emotions: Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come,” sung by Otis Redding. *

~~

* [FYI from Wikipedia: “In 2007, the song was selected for preservation in the Library of Congress, with the National Recording Registry deeming the song “culturally, historically, or aesthetically important.”[2]]

Just speak

Much has been going on in the blogger’s back-of-the-blog life, compounded with news of the nation. And frankly, I have been mulling for well over a week on how to say what I want to say; or how to say anything, for that matter. There are times in the life of a writer when said writer recognizes the limitations of words.

Also: words can be dangerous–inflammatory, distracting, powerful, persuasive, false, painful, hurtful. People get defensive at words they feel are “aimed” at them. Aimed, a weaponized word. I have had people (okay, white people) tell me they are tired of hearing about their privilege, because they and their families worked hard for their place in the world and because many, many white people are underprivileged and suffering, just as people of color are suffering.

While this is true, it is also fails to address the argument. Defensiveness is a diversion tactic used when people are too uncomfortable to address hard discussions. A student at my university recently exhorted us–“us” being mostly the uncomfortable white people who teach or take classes here–to speak up. “Even if you’re afraid you’ll say something the wrong way,” she said, “if you let me know you are uncertain but that you really want to have a discussion, speak up anyway. Because then at least I know that you’re reaching out to me, and I’ll dial it back a bit.”

It’s easy to understand why people would want to avoid the topics of privilege and of systemic racism. We are taught to be polite; one of the social contracts I was urged to respect was to keep conversation friendly, to avoid religion, politics, and other hot topics in order to get along with my neighbors and coworkers–to maintain friendships with people whose perspectives are different from my own. This approach does work, to a degree. Politeness, though, is not the same as compassionate interest and doesn’t always encourage listening and reflecting.

So it stops the conversation just when the conversation might be getting interesting. Or difficult. I have seen this play out in the course I teach time and again. Some students try to mediate as soon as a disagreement starts. Some tune out; some get embarrassed; some shut it down. Some talk to me after class, individually. Only a few times are my freshmen confident and mature enough to speak up assertively but in a way that admits of, and permits, other points of view.

That behavior is what I try to teach and to encourage. We need to admit of other perspectives rather than keep comparing this with that or bring up side arguments or shut people down with ad hominem attacks. That means ideologically “liberal” people also have to listen and to allow opposition, by the way. I teach in a fairly conservative university; and as a rather unconventional thinker in that environment, it can be a challenge for me to let students express views with which I disagree. But that’s the point: to listen and try to understand, and then to show where the argument goes awry–if it does–and acknowledge the validity of the stance, as there often is some.

I am not defensive about my privilege because I can admit to it. I acknowledge that things I have little control over–the society into which I was born, the family that raised me, the historical structures of the social contract norms, the assumption that I would be educated–have randomly assigned me to accepted norms of privilege. In simplest terms, I’m lucky, randomly fortunate.

Which had little to do with how hard my ancestors worked. They scraped and toiled and suffered, they may have been run out of Europe for their beliefs, or out of poverty or risk of prison, they may have arrived with nothing and been poorly treated by the elite in the early USA. All true. They worked their butts off for generations and never became wealthy or politically powerful.

They were permitted to attend school, however. They were permitted to own land. They were permitted to vote.

These foundational opportunities for equity were denied–often by the laws of this democratic nation–to black slaves, who were brought here completely unwillingly and indeed by main force under even worse conditions than any poverty-stricken European on a ship headed to this continent. These opportunities were denied to the Chinese who labored on our railroads. They were denied to the original residents of this continent, whose own nations and norms were largely and purposely erased by the European immigrants. The historical barriers became legitimized into social norms.

Do I have privilege? Yes. Do I value my privilege? Yes. Do I think I’ve earned my privilege? Absolutely not.

I am for equity. I have no idea how we can possibly achieve it in the United States, and I cannot say I have a lot of hope. My dad was working for civil rights back in 1965;  55 years later, there are more female than male students at my college, and more students of color or of diverse national, linguistic, and religious backgrounds…so some things have changed, though mostly due to “leg up” approaches rather than “barriers down” actions. It is a start.

Equity means that no mother residing in this nation would have to worry about the safety of her young adult son while he is driving to work, walking down the street, taking a jog or a bike ride, or going to a pool or a beach. That’s been one of my privileges. Of all the concerns I may have had as my son grew up (he’s past 30 now), I never needed to think about the danger of “walking while black.”

Because he isn’t black.

And that’s not equitable.

~

Untitled-writer

Events in the world

Tough week in many ways, for many of us in the world. I am posting just this poem, written five or six years ago, which is part of a new manuscript.

~

Late May

The events of the world
enter my house via cable lines
and satellite.

Family fabric frays,
children fledge. I free a robin
tangled in fence wire,

harvest spinach,
prepare a meal no one
stays home to eat.

After dinner, during
that spell between
afternoon and twilight

I watch the meadow—
two deer, thirty yards apart
in the tall weeds.

One drops a fawn, a swift birth
and the creature is on its feet
in less than two minutes.

They wander into woods
as the second doe delivers,
christens yarrow and milkweed.

I stand at my window. I say,
to hell with the events
of the world.

agriculture clouds countryside crop

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

 

Unsettled sentences

One of those unsettled-weather days…rain all night, cloudy mild morning. I weeded the vegetable patch and made note of bean sprouts and zucchini sprouts, pea blossoms and strawberry blossoms.

Then, more rain, so I worked on some housekeeping and writing tasks indoors. I wrote sentences and thought about the loss of syntax and vocabulary.

~

Eastern Bluebird-4299_Laurie Lawler_Texas_2013_GBBC_KKThe day warmed and brightened. I harvested spinach, found more weeding to do (it never ends), watched a pair of bluebirds perch like sentries and swoop toward their nest in the magnolia tree. Fast-moving clouds morphed and swashed overhead. We had a sunshower, and I had a flashback to one of our son’s earliest sentences.

We were indoors on a day very like this one–he was not yet two years old. I was nursing his infant sister while he perched on a chair and peered out the window.

“Sun out, rain coming down!” he said. Observant, expressive (communicative), and properly syntactical (though missing the to-be verbs). A moment of major language development!

Also, cute.

~

I cannot visit my mother, whose aphasia worsens by the week. It hurts me to listen as she struggles to get her point across, endeavors to employ expression which used to come so naturally. Loss of vocabulary and syntax: unsettled sentences.

~

A funnier anecdote about sentences: our daughter’s first full sentence likewise made an observation about the environment around her. She pointed to a corner of the rug and said, “Look–cat barf, Mama!”

We rarely lose that urge to get our point across. Let us be listeners.

 

Wild places

I’ve been reading Robert Macfarlane’s book The Wild Places slowly, chapter by chapter and pausing between, enjoying his sentences immensely and feeling quite the milquetoast in comparison with an author who climbs snowy peaks by moonlight and sleeps outdoors, like John Muir, in scooped-gravel beds in seaside cliffs. I do not require luxury, but I get chilly easily and my hips and back are seldom forgiving when I sleep on the ground.

Still–I might put up with a considerable amount of misery to see the stars or the northern lights above Stornoway on a clear night (admittedly, a clear night is rare up there). And not by cruise ship. Given current circumstances, however, I am not going anywhere, which gets a bit tedious. Macfarlane’s last few chapters begin to focus on specific ways to view and consider wildness–finding wildness closer to home, in the flora and fauna and earth, rocks, topography even of regions that are tamed, farmed, suburban. One’s backyard walk might reveal wildness, though in miniature.

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terrarium-sized wildness cultivating human-made cinderblock

There lies inspiration; I can do that–walk in my yard. Look for wildness. Indeed, I have often proceeded that way, slowly and quietly looking about, creeping low to see the small things, overturning old logs, crouching beside vernal pools and driveway puddles, listening for rustlings in the hedge, noting hawk- or vulture-shaped shadows on the path and raising my eyes to find the birds in flight. What are these things but wild? Just because I am familiar with them, I tend to forget their inherent wildness.

~

I took a walk in and through the meadow, which has  not yet grown tall with grasses and milkweed and solidago. I took notice of the perennials starting to emerge. Also of the quantity and variety of nutsedge-like plants.  I had not realized there are so many kinds. Amid the low-lying, pale purple violets, the milkweed and eupatorium shoots are emerging. And I found golden ragwort in the field–never had seen it before.

packera aurea

packera aurea, golden ragwort

This time of year, the does give birth; I have found fawns lying still among the grasses before and ambled the field perimeter slowly in hopes of such an encounter again. So far, not yet. But yesterday morning, a doe grazed along the edge of the tractor path, her spindly, spotted newborn scampering around her legs. So I know the wild ones are present and going on about their usual spring business.

Of course, the avian realm of wildness gets active in April and May. We found an eastern kingbird nest perched on the flat of a canoe paddle that rests on rafters in winter, under our outbuilding. Discovering the nest meant we had to put off our intended initial canoe float in May.

Recently I learned about bumblebee nests, too, and found an abandoned one under an oak tree in the hedgerow while I was looking at jack-in-the-pulpit, mayapples, fungi, and solomon’s seal. Thrashers, ovenbirds, numerous sparrows, and a noisily-protesting red squirrel raked about under wild black raspberry canes.

ann e michael

waiting for mama

There with the native plants, and aggressively overtaking the undergrowth, are amer honeysucke, asiatic rose, barberries, wintercreeper, japanese knotweed, mugwort, ragweed, burdock, thistle, garlic mustard, and whole hosts of plantains and creeper vines. One part of me abhors them. But I admire their tenacity and their ability to adapt to new circumstances. They’ll probably be thriving long after humankind has departed the planet.

As, perhaps, will the whitetail deer–a century ago, become scarce in the wilderness, considered almost “hunted out”–they managed to recover their numbers through adaptation to suburbia, where they are now “pests.” They graze on front lawns, nibble at ornamentals, gobble the leaves and bark of decorative trees, and gather at street-side puddles to drink, leaving heart-shaped prints in the mud and grass. But on my walk yesterday, I observed a doe lying amid the brambles; and she observed me. With the eyes of the wild, darkly liquid, meeting my gaze with her own. I did not move. Nor did she. I made no sound. We watched one another until, with a fluid motion and almost soundlessly, she leapt to her feet, twisted in the air, and fled in an instant. A brief rustle of trampled branches in her wake.

 

Flurries

Every 20 years or so, my region gets a truly late freeze.

This is one of those years. It seems strange when snow flurries alight upon dogwood blossoms, but this period has been strange in many respects. What’s one more weirdness? We can adapt. It just requires employing strategies we haven’t used before.

Which brings me, today, to Marilyn McCabe’s chapbook Being Many Seeds, just released by Grayson Books…like my own chapbook, a publication somewhat muted by the coronavirus. Make note, though, that you and I can still purchase books online. It just may take a little longer to receive the text. And isn’t anticipation fun?

Her chapbook has a lovely cover. [Readers may know I’m a fan of milkweed.] And the poems fascinate as they unravel–almost literally–on the page, in a form of erasure poetry followed by brief prose that is not so much interpretation as deepening. McCabe tries strategies with her poems as words and also as meanings. If that makes any sense. Want to know more? McCabe posted about the evolution of this collection on her own blog (which I suggest you follow) here.

beingmanyseeds-graysonsite_orig

~

I walked out into the meadow and scouted the broken stems and perennials emerging, on the lookout for seed-silk. I found several varieties, mostly dandelion, milkweed, coltsfoot, and eupatorium. Translucent puffs that evolved to disperse lightweight seeds through the use of breeze. Or breath.

Effective, and also quite beautiful. When the seed is stripped from the silk, the puff drifts away. The seed, however, now has the opportunity to sprout and grow. Even when the air is full of flurries.

 

~

Delights

May begins with its usual pleasures of redbud, dogwood, cherry blossoms, camassia, mayflower, lily-of-the-valley, jack-in-the-pulpit…spinach in the garden, peas starting to send out tendrils, swallows and orioles returning, bees and other insects waking to the work of pollination and feeding the birds.

And yes, a time of anxious confusion and maybe a little more rain in April than necessary and adapting to working conditions that aren’t entirely satisfactory due to a situation beyond our control–though human beings like to pretend we have control. It’s a belief that keeps us from despair, probably.

In a time of pandemic, I sustain my sanity the usual ways. Garden. Poetry. Walks. Family. Reading. Tai chi. Going, most of all, for balance and observation. On the lookout for the things that delight me, though those things may seem “small” or easily overlooked.

Which brings me to the book I’ve been savoring, Ross Gay‘s The Book of Delights. 41ZEJWNt9CL._SX360_BO1,204,203,200_Nicole Rudick, in The New York Review of Books, has already composed a wonderful write-up about The Book of Delights–so I don’t need to. (Do read it: here). But, back to last month’s posts about responses to poetry collections, Gay’s latest–not-poetry, mini-prose, essayettes–evoked from me the response I suppose the author sought from his readers: delight. Delights, plural. Gay’s close observations and slightly goofy sense of what is funny (fallible, silly, skewed but not skewered) feel kin to my own, though my perspective differs from his due to how we are differently embodied and differently socialized, or non-conformist as to said socialization. For any human being, perspective’s inherently lodged in the body; and other people’s perspectives about us, or assumptions about us, are socially based upon the bodies in which we dwell.

Which is to say that he is a Black man in his 40s and I am a White woman in her 60s; yet Ross Gay and I have overlapping backgrounds and interests. Hoosierism and Philadelphia-dwelling, for a time. Poetry. Students, whom we love. Gardening. Passion for figs, awareness of pawpaw fruit and hickory trees. Observers, the sort of people who want to learn more about animal scat and bee species. “Jenky” gardeners. [My term is jury-rigged, but it means about the same thing, without the urban/ghetto connotations: adapting to one’s immediate need without overmuch consumerism…which is to say, making do with a crappy substitute. I learned that from my folks, too.]

And the urge to recognize, and celebrate, delights.

 

Just grand

For my last National Poetry Month blog post, I respond to Grand Canyon, a mini-chapbook by Pennsylvania & Baltimore, MD poet Barbara DeCesare who, I confess, was a fellow student of mine when we were in grad school; and therefore I am tremendously biased about her work. But while bias enters into response to some degree, this post responds to the book, not to the poet. Well, okay–bit of both.

What’s different about this chapbook is 1) it is a long poem in 13 sections and 2) it is not available; I have a ‘self-published’ version personally photocopied and inscribed by the author. Therefore, I am reading what most of my readers do not have a chance to read. It’s kind of like finding a personal letter in a long-unopened drawer, and similar to the small chapbooks and photocopied zines of the late 1970s and 1980s. It is not easy to find those anymore, either.

barbara decesare poetry

DeCesare’s chapbook fits right in with my 1980s zines.

~

Grand Canyon is a long poem structured as a series of shorter poems and came to me with the following back story:

“A friend visited the Grand Canyon recently with his wife and two preteen daughters.

He told me about how terrified he was that someone was going to fall from the narrow path that descends in. Not just one of his kids, but anyone. It was more than he could bear.

So he left the trail and went back up alone. He didn’t want his fear to hold his family back.

It made me think about parenthood, empathy, fear, and love in my own life. About the balance between care and detachment, and the weird places where they overlap, like my friend’s experience.”

~

“He didn’t want his fear to hold his family back.” –This introduction felt oddly profound. I sat and thought about it for a long time before I turned to the first page of the poem itself.

Of which the first line goes: “An echo reminds you of your place in the world.”

Canyons, heights, fears. Echoes. Yes–as a person, especially as a person who has raised other people–I have felt those resonating. Often. The poem-pieces here are brief, poignant. They find me wrestling with my own worries, in my own life, which is not the poet’s life, nor her friend’s.

…I wonder/how long a mother can hold her child/before she needs that other hand on the railing.

The long poem, comprised of moments: short poems that feel so true I have to stop between each one, catch my breath, steady myself.

~

Thank you, my friend, for writing this poem for your friend–for your children–for yourself. For me.

(Someone ought to publish this poem/book.)

~

 

 

 

Intermission w/reflection

First, many thanks to Lesley Wheeler for her Virtual Salon series–in this one, she reviews/interviews Elizabeth Savage and Yours Truly: Virtual Salon No. 6

~

Herewith, a different sort of response for National Poetry Month; and I’m not sure I would call it a poem so much as a reflection–indeed, a prayer. It’s too sentimental to work into a finished piece, perhaps. Let’s call it an intermission, as I have at least one more poetry collection to respond to before April closes.

~

Easter Prayer for My Dad

A wedge of mackerel clouds points to the southeast horizon where just beyond
a low hill church bells ring for Easter morning and a woodpecker states
chuck chuck chuck as it makes its straight flight across field from one dead
ash tree to another, blackbirds calling wooker-chee after the bells cease chiming.
I think of Dad, standing at the pulpit, hands raised in grace or supplication, his
voice sonorous in the high-ceilinged church, a man wearing a robe and collar
and white silk embroidered in gold having laid away the purple of sorrow and
preparation. All the church’s raiment white, and we the congregants wearing our
best clothes not to impress our neighbors but to let God know we are grateful and
this is the best we can do. We know it’s not enough, Dad tells us, the huge Bible
open before him, but God will understand our good intentions.

Years later I develop questions such as if no human can understand the mind
of God—thank you, Job—or know His ways, how can a human assure us of such magnanimity on God’s part? To which Dad answers, faith, which has no reason,
ergo the question’s moot. But years-ago Easters I sat on the smooth oak
pew, staring at my best shoes, which always pinched, and pretending that
left foot and right foot were conversing or perhaps arguing until the organ’s
major chords and the words “All rise” brought me back to the community
of believers and Dad’s bass voice led us along the five-barred staffs, stacked verses,
and triumphant alleluias of “Jesus Christ Is Risen Today.” And I knew
I was not good enough but believed that I could be forgiven, and if Dad has
offered me anything I can rely on it has been forgiveness—so today, as the
woods begins to soften into green and the chickadee pronounces its name
incessantly from the beech—Dad, I’ve so much to be grateful for.

                          Amen.

CH Chucrch

Church of my childhood, First Presbyterian Church of Hamptonburgh, New York

Reading, eagerly

Another of the books I got from Alice James is the 2018 collection pray me stay eager by Ellen Doré Watson. 9781938584688_FCMy initial responses to the poems herein vacillated between the intellectual and the…ear? Sound? I guess what I am trying to say is that a significant part of Doré Watson’s poetic craft employs sonic crushes of alliteration and internal near-rhyme, storms of assonant wordplay and sudden stops in syntax; just when the lyrical narrative seems almost to narrate a story, other pressures intervene. The feeling reminds me of times I cannot concentrate, when I’m full of either ideas and intentions, or fears and concerns.

So I felt, “These are hard to read.” Because it can be uncomfortable to stay, purposely, in such ambiguous moments. I found the poems puzzling for awhile until I stuck with the reading and settled into the poet’s sound and methods. And then, response, reward: ideas and experiences that struck chords, places evoked, sentences that capture the way human beings think and process their circumstances. Revelations, even.

Maybe I was just in the wrong mood for reading when I started this book…there are times when I want an “easy read,” a comforting novel with a happy ending for example. Such texts, though, seldom teach me or show me anything new, whereas pray me stay eager has made me think about the mechanics of a line of poetry as well as sound, and touched me deeply as the poet writes of her aged father and the deaths of friends and her keen appreciation of the world and the word.