Archive for the ‘Witness’ category

Gold Spun from Straw

July 27, 2011


(“The Miller’s Tale,” can be read on pp. 55-56 of heart speech this (Atropos Press, 2009, ISBN 9 780982 530948)

Truth has this strange association with bareness: we assume so often that simplicity and nakedness are the essence of truth and that adding details and decorations is deceptive. What if we were wrong? What if innocence really did mean not knowing? Or what if nudity and exposure were not as true as they seemed?

“The Miller’s Tale” is a fairy tale that turns on lies. And yet, it’s also a story about belief. There is a belief in the value of beauty and innocence yet also a belief in the value of the ugly, the practical, and the known. There is a belief in the value of wealth yet also a belief in the value of poverty. A belief in the value of life is juxtaposed with a belief in the value of death.

Do you remember this story? Not the tale from Chaucer’s travelogue but the one from the Grimms’ collections. Not as bawdy on the surface, yet equally violent, equally absurd. A tale spun of self-importance and neglect in which no one lives happily ever after.

A miller, a man who takes the simple and makes it simpler by grinding and pounding grains into flour, tells a lie. He makes a cake of his floury trade rather than plain bread. He tells the king of his country that his daughter can spin straw into gold.

It’s an impossible claim. Straw is for weaving rather than spinning: gold is for beating and engraving. Straw has little value except as fuel or shield from heat and wind. Gold is not protective and doesn’t easily burn (remember Frodo and Bilbo’s attempts to melt the one ring).

Poor daughter! What is she to do? The king wants more gold; the miller wants more status. Neither man seems willing to admit the magic of this thinking. Instead, the miller spins his tale of fool’s gold. The king demands proof. Both sacrifice the truth (gold and straw will not become straw and gold). Both sacrifice the miller’s daughter.

Who becomes “lost to a look,” lost to a room full of dusty, sneeze-provoking straw. Imprisoned in a room, bound to a truth she doesn’t possess, the miller’s daughter sits, cries, wonders, and waits to die. The straw, lit by the sun filtering through the window, takes on the luminosity of gold. Silence becomes something other than golden, something other than truth.

What is she to do or say? More lies enter the room. “A story, prismed, flared and forgotten.” A little person breaks into her space, without warning or welcome. He is fully grown for who he is just as she is fully the innocent, incompetent female she is supposed to be. Only blameless uselessness could take on the fully grown lie conceived and born between the king and the miller.

This little person promises to do the impossible: he will make magic happen. Magic has no truth and therefore no lies. Magic is the surprise of making everything true, false, and inexplicable all at once. Spinning straw into gold is like turning lies into truth. In a more serious context, spinning straw into gold is the task given to torturers: they force lack of knowledge to become knowledge and unimportant details to become conspiracies and accusations. The miller’s daughter is in this sense a victim forced to be a witness and accomplice to something she’s never seen, never done, “refining story into strands, into morning forgotten and fallen.”

This poem explores witness in this sense, not at the moment when the little person’s identity is revealed, not at the moment when the miller’s daughter is rescued because she lied about what she knew (and her accomplice). “The Miller’s Daughter” “sears into silence to demand a name, a story” until “husks unravel stories, and story leaves the room.” Like a spindle, the sestina repeats itself in words at the ends of each line; the broken and short lines spin the poem into straw and gold.

And the poem, which is not about a traveler telling a bawdy story or even about an observer narrating a child’s entertainment, becomes a relocating of reader and poet, of daughter and father/king, of tormentor and rescuer, of straw and gold. What if this were your story? What lies would you tell? The truth may be in silence, may be in waiting for memory to change and make room for something new.


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.