Archive for the ‘war’ category

Pashto: Rippling in a Sudden Silence

January 8, 2011

“Pashto” can be read on pp. 44-45 of heart speech this (Atropos Press, 2009, ISBN 9 780982 530948).

Write it. Take it all apart on the page and in the ear. Put the words back together like badly folded clothes tossed in a drawer, and then take out a few you thought were necessary but can do without. Get used to a poem that might feel a little odd, a little awkward, ready to fall off its edges into a tongue-tied heap at the bottom of the page. And then. And then reshape the drawer and its contents into echoes of their freshly laundered selves.

“Pashto” is one of these poems. It started as a pantoum (see the blog on “Baghdad”) with repeating lines and carefully interwoven stanzas. It started with an argument and an image. Arguing against while arguing for made for a poem that wrestles within itself and emerges tattered but fierce in its final lines.

While working and studying with the International Trauma Study Program, I was asked to view and comment on a rough cut of the documentary Echoes of War, directed by Joop van Wijk. It was an incredible film about the experiences of children in and after war, with a children’s book (A Little Elephant Finds His Courage, by Nancy Baron) being read to these children as a means of helping them to express their fears and grief.

The film convinced me that films could be designed as intricately as poems and that the form could tell stories that were lost to content. And the maker of the film, van Wijk, gave me the image of a yellow flag with an eye painted in its center that he rooted in each minefield and war zone he filmed, letting the eye serve as a witness to the children’s conversations.

This flag, flown in the minefields of Afghanistan, fights within “Pashto” just as the color yellow fights against light and poppies, symbols of fallen and wounded soldiers, fight for their opiate dreams rather than the reality of loss. Just as the children learn to share their experiences and to find their courage, the poem learns to tell its story by saying less, repeating only what brings silence, reflection, the promise of a future, the physical fragility of the living body. The poem is its own witness of grief, is its own conversation about violence and what remains.

Advertisements

The Sense in Making Nonsense: Penelope

August 31, 2010

The Penelope series, “Counterpoint,” can be read on pp. 97-117 of heart speech this (Atropos Press, 2009, ISBN 9 780982 530948).

Discouraged, exhausted, unable to breathe without the stale and greedy odor of unwanted guests clawing into her pores, her mouth and throat—Penelope was no heroine. She was just tough, stubborn, and disgusted with the paltry minds and men around her. After Ulysses, who could blame her? She’d had a husband match her cleverness, see through and undo her strategies, twine her in his own confusions of honor and faith. She’d let herself be second choice once, and now her cousin was again the cause of her being seen not for herself. Being seen as the next best thing, some thing to be won out of failure, a little more power because of who and where she was.

Unlucky guests, unlucky suitors. It’s a rare woman who does anything solely for another even if she sacrifices nearly everything she has. Poor, dumb guests. Aching for love even as they wrestled for bits of power like dogs tangling for food dropped to the floor. They wanted to believe someone could be that faithful, that a woman could be so devoted to one man as to refuse every single other one. And that such devotion could be turned, betrayed, and become as pure as before with a new husband. A new father. Fickleness craves fidelity.

These, and other bitter thoughts, went through Penelope’s days as she wove and unwove the same piece of shroud, her father’s funeral wrap, for twenty years. How she must have hurt from the winding and unwinding, carefully undoing what had already cut her palms.  Twenty years! Was her father still unburied, or did she come up with a new excuse? She must have been grateful for the interruptions of illness, menstruation, household tasks, emergencies. She must have worn through her skeins and had to start others, been carding and spinning as much as she wove.

And yet she must have been tempted to give up and give in, to let go and not have to continue to fight, to let her son find his own wars. Attention is intoxicating. There must have been some guests who raised the blood beneath her skin, who made her nights more sleepless than they already were. And yet she was stubborn, like Psyche, focused on her task, believing that if she waited long enough, she would either be alone or be married still with proof at home and in her belly. Yet she must have known she was close to menopause; her body must have given her signs of age and different wisdom.

Penelope. Clever, angry weaver queen. Helen was her cousin, Helen the unfaithful. Helen who ran away before her husband could. Helen whom Ulysses wanted and lost, making Penelope never the first. And yet they had been happy, she and Ulysses, enough that he feigned madness rather than leave her. Enough that after twenty years of Cyclops and sirens, lotos and Circe, he returned, determined to be with her. With HER.

Athena was her cousin, if Zeus fathered Helen and the Gemini. And Athena’s gift of weaving played in Penelope’s hands, frayed the edges of her dreams. Athena sent signs when Penelope wavered, reluctant for the cloth to fall from the loom. Just enough to lighten the dreariness. And then Ulysses came. Disguised, older, not with flowers or gifts. With violence and blood, clearing out her suitors and littering her floor. I can smell the sweet awful spatters on her dress, across the loom. So much time and effort put into protecting the bleached wool, the semblance of purity. And her husband slaughters his way to her and expects a welcome. Penelope is no romantic, no heroine with long enchanted hair or special skills. She is old, tired, filthy. And spitting, hornet mad.

There are at least three endings to this myth. Happily ever after is the dullest and least believable, that she and Ulysses reconciled and stayed Ithaca-bound for their remaining years. Another ending undermines them both, adultery with Circe matched by infidelity with a guest, named and yet early and easily killed, forgotten, when Ulysses swung his club. Ulysses is less forgiving of Penelope’s betrayal than she of his—he exiles her, and she wanders, cursed not by gods but by the man who could never find his way home without divine intervention.

The third ending is odd; a new player appears. Penelope leaves Ulysses and wanders, yet meets Hermes on her travels. They marry, and Penelope has a second son, the god Pan, who in his wildness and cleverness is music and desire, promiscuity with no urge for faith or faithfulness.

Which is true? The archetype that speaks the most in the story you create of and for yourself. They’re all archetypes, these myths, not really real yet speaking for each of us in some experience of desire, lost love, belief, despair, and weariness. The women are weary, or they are lost. The men are unable to realize their desire without ruining that which they desire. What is found eludes the finder, or destroys what touches its form. And yet we wait; we try; we make different endings to the same story that keep us wandering and coming back. Finding our way home to unravel at night what we’ve made through the day, choosing what works. Rejecting the ideal for real. “Believing in something like air” (Jill Leininger), believing in something like truth.

Book, Title, City

February 3, 2010

Why title a poem for a city about to be fractured by war? Why title a book not for the war but for something both more general and more individual? “Baghdad” is an inexplicable poem that insisted on its becoming.

“Baghdad” can be read on pp. 139-140 of heart speech this (Atropos Press, 2009, ISBN 9 780982 530948)

Before and After

The inspiration: it was March 2003, shortly before the invasion of Iraq. A former student of mine was living in Riyadh; we were communicating about the transitions in our lives. My heart hurt for him and the other Arabian students whose lives and assumptions had been already torn apart by September 11; I was deeply concerned for their well-being as the war became closer and closer to its violent and uncontrollable being.

I wrote this student to apologize and express my concern for his and his family’s safety. I assumed that this war, as the previous had, would expand far beyond the borders of the targeted country and that cities and citizens with little connection to the protagonists would be destroyed.

He responded with a phrase that comes from learning to speak one’s own tongue in a second, giving meanings a language might not have known it was capable of expressing. “It hearts me,” he wrote, “to speak of this.” And his heart/hurt became the voice wanting response, the voice pushing me to make a poem out of his fragmentation and mine, out of the shattering that had been part of the world I’d always known and that was now surfacing more urgently again.

The poem was revised to its present form in the spring of 2006 shortly after the death of my fiancé, who had suffered a stroke and struggled through six months of coma before waking and fighting to recover his voice and strength. He was unable to survive a heart attack on April 2, 2006.

The pattern: it’s an ecstatic poem, a pantoum broken across the page. Images repeated and broken, wounded in their reappearance, bearing traces of coherence like scars. Pantoums in English are simplified from a Malaysian verse form: it’s repetition that works like a braid, with the second and fourth lines of each stanza’s becoming the first and third of the next grouping of lines (four lines grouped together make a quatrain). The poem curls back on itself by bringing by the first and third lines, in reverse order, as the last set of even lines. And the end, like the snake swallowing its tail, is in the beginning.

The images: The Splintered, Howling Self

“It hearts me, he writes, to speak of this.” In a written statement about a written statement, the writer is not named. The “this” is not made explicit. The poem opens with statements that call themselves into question, following not the response to what is written but the response to a word used out of expectation, a word that calls the self as reader into question.

The next line pushes the participants further from each other, further from the line. “We furl back from these notes, you and I.” The he and the you disappear until only the 1st person is left. The reader of the poem is now face to face with the speaker. The he in profile and the you that were addressed can no longer be seen.

There is a recoil here (“coiling like a knife-stroked ribbon”), a forced shape and a flexibility that enact a physical transformation to the cutting off and artificial containment of something formerly living and connected to a larger organism. The lily’s stem, once cut and left to stand in water rather than soil, splits itself and begins to spiral toward the surface where exposure will drain its sustaining fluid and speed its decay.

The lily’s stem is named here but not the lily. One sees the flower without seeing the flower. It is the stem as support and self-destruction that is described, the evidence of action in a setting of inertia.

As the stem becomes cord, the body itself becomes a line, stretching across the poem as a tension between the retreat of the plural first person and the resistant stasis of the lily, now seen un-stemmed. The body is strung: it is intentional, constructed, segmented and fluidly connected.

Again, it is a poem of identity destined and created, self destroyed and reconstructed.

The question of shape appears: “Like beads in the form of melons.” The artificial represents the natural, the round/oval represents wholeness and maturity, the ripeness ready to be harvested and consumed. Is that the aim of developing the self? To ripen to the point of consumption?

There are multiple ways of seeing refracted here. In this poem, seeing is challenged to reconcile and balance opposites not as opposites but as options. There is an impossible depth to sight suggested by “in the eyes behind my eyes.”

Then the I asserts itself by falling, another falling back or retreat from the stability and centrality associated with identity. The I not only falls but startles (“clatters”) and disintegrates (“splinters”). The lost balance is broken control. The fall is liberation, release from intentionality into accident and happenstance.

Fallen, the I is “fierce to stretch beyond myself and run.” This is no beaten victim on the floor, no shattered identity unable to gather itself. There is more power and desire in the scattered self than in what was contained, delimited, and erect. This is the first mention of desire and the first constructive extension beyond limitations. The self desires to be more than itself, more than self, to overcome in an explosion of movement.

“For time has never been my problem.” Why has time never been the self’s problem? Either it is not a question or it is not a factor. Perhaps for this self there is no conception or ripening toward a goal. Perhaps there is no temporality. No mortality.

And yet, within the self the heart is as contained as the lily, as oval and ready to splinter as the beads shaped like melons. The heart is wounded and trapped. It “howls.” The heart is the self’s voice, the self who has addressed the you but not itself as self until now.

“I am smeared with dreams, bloody and chaste.” Unlike Gerard Manley Hopkins, whose self is “smeared, bleared with toil,” the I here is blurred with the unconscious self, an unconscious that is itself ambivalent, innocence and implication confused like fingerpaints slurred across paper and skin.

The unconscious, confusion, and clairvoyance leave the I literate and dumb: “I read my future in leaves fresh-plucked from branches,/my past lost to my tongue.” The future is visible the immediacy of the present. New growth is plucked like petals, like the lily whose stem is echoed in these branches. The past, however, is lost as the branch is lost to the leaves and the roots are lost to the stem. What cannot be held cannot be spoken. Broken connection=not only silence but an inability to break silence. The tongue cannot find what would make its identity coherent. The self de-stabilizes through the plucking, coiling, and reading. Is presence the silencing of the past?

The search for another present, a different spatio-temporal consciousness, persists. “Still, I twist, seeking somewhere else to wake.” Perhaps the self is the root here and has confused its self-consciousness with its extension and appearance in a world where the unconscious has been self-presentation rather than an intentional, woven identity, the knife-stroked ribbon sought at the return, an image in which both ends are also beginnings, and the fabric of the I can be re-formed both externally and internally to reach for “heart, speech, this.”

The resolution: A Knife-Stroked Ribbon

The chain set in motion by the pantoum coils back on itself in the repetition of lines and images. The chain, like beads, like melons, splinters in the self’s turning away from an external relationship with a familiar other into self-examination as an internal relationship with an estranged, scattered self. The form reflects the content; the broken self that cannot retain its past is itself the source of its own movement and cohesion. Repetition and return indicate a self capable of relation and continuity. It is resiliency in the spiral followed down the page and through the ribbon, the stem, the unstrung beads, the self that twists toward futures, spaces, somewhere else to breathe. In the act of respiration and inspiration, the speaker recovers the loss of identity, expression, and place.

heart, speech, this–introduction

January 28, 2010

There are stories within stories in this book, myths and memories and might-have-beens. Love stories, ruptures, alienations. And like all poetry, what the reader brings to the work creates a different poem with each scanning of a line, each taking apart and putting together of images and sounds.

In these essays, I will think and feel through some of what occurs to me as I reinsert myself in this work that in some ways is no longer mine as if I were reinserting myself in a life I no longer own.

Here is what the book came to be: seven series of poems exploring women of Greek myth, each series with its own poetic form and voice, interrupted and conversing with poems more contemporary, less narrative, in both traditional and nonce forms. These women, some goddesses, some mortal, some half-mortal, half-divine, are more often described than given voices in the myths. And I wondered, still wonder, what they might say, how they might understand the fear and violence and brokenness in which they found themselves, and I wondered, still wonder, what it would mean to interpret these stories as experiences of ambiguous loss (see Pauline Boss’ work), of knowing and not knowing the presence of those they loved.

Although the myths explored are Greek with Roman additions, many of the poems evoke other parts of the globe. Persia, Iraq, Egypt, Afghanistan, Italy, England, Arizona, New Mexico, New York, Japan—the poems wander and tangle themselves in places and times of earth and sea and fire. Exile is as strong a theme of love fractured and made more than it was.

“Scheherazade” opens “heart”, the first half of the book, with warring desires between words and sense—hunger, thirst, and affection grabbing for the space that wanted to be a story. And the story becomes the “fleet desire” of Diana chased by Actaeon, Orion, and the dogs with which they hunt.

Diana is followed by Persephone, confused by her own violent responses to desire, and Persephone gives way to Psyche and the desperate, impossible work of rescuing the disappeared. Athena finds desire within herself and the development of strength in isolation, refusing just as her half-sister Diana to be caught.

“Speech”, the book’s second half, goes deeper into ambiguous loss with the experiences of women at war—Leda’s rape, Penelope’s wait for Odysseus, Helen’s infidelity and return, Athena’s anger, Athena’s peace. They are women connected by blood as well as conflict, and my re-tellings of their myths imagine greater independence, justice questioned and applied, resolutions that sustain the impossibility of solutions.

At times, these essays will explore the series and at times, the individual poems interspersed in each section. Feel free to comment, question, add more information, and post your own poems, stories, reinterpretations in response.