Reading to strangers: part II

A while back, poet J.lynn Sheridan asked on her blog, Writing On The Sun, if poets did anything positive with our poetry in the past year. One of the things I did was participate in a public poetry reading.

This post continues the telling of how I came to read to strangers in public. This is what it was like to grow up in the 1960’s and lose the natural desire to share. It happens in every generation. We all pass from innocence to experience. When young we all try so disparately to fit. Often we distort our internal shape doing so. This then is part two of four or what looks like five parts now.

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There was sharing I did when I was a boy in church. For many years my grandmother took my brother and my cousin and me to church. Our parents did not go to church but grandmother did every Saturday. She was not Jewish she was Seventh-Day Adventist like the original Christians she said. That is why we did church on Saturday which her church called the Sabbath. She said the Bible never said to stop worshipping on the Sabbath only man said that and we don’t obey any man only God. She was very much like a Jewish grandmother. She loved us fiercely and knew what was right for everyone. She did not spare her opinions on us children. She also made us wash ourselves before bed and in the morning. After washing before bed we would say our prayers kneeling at the bedside. Grandma who we called Mum kneeled beside us and helped us to remember all the people who needed our prayers. We said our prayers without complaint because we could stay up that much longer and liked listening to Grandma pray because she whispered and spoke quickly and never seemed to forget anyone who needed praying for. We resisted being washed but resistance was futile.

It was futile to resist learning our scripture verses too. Mum always asked if we learned our verses. Sometimes she would scold our parents outside when they dropped us off before they drove away if we hadn’t learned our weekly verses. She would have us recite them before bedtime prayers and in the morning before breakfast and on the way to church. Then we would read them before all the other children in Sabbath School. Each quarter we would recite not just read a good chunk of an entire chapter usually from the Old Testament. My favorite story was Balaam and the Donkey. A talking donkey was bound to be my favorite story. I liked that the donkey saw the Angel of the Lord first. Intuitively I knew animals saw deeply into things. More deeply than the adults I knew. And this it still true.

This sharing of verses was a kind of sharing and I am glad all those verses are wandering around inside of me now. This sharing was a little scary as all sharing is but as yet my father did not leave so it was possible to do it even though I was somewhat afraid because I had as yet no fear of abandonment and still lived with the hope of things not going inevitably sour. Reading them from a raised platform with a podium in front of everyone I was nervous and had that normal bit of fear of not remembering though our kind teachers never scolded us when we stumbled over a word or got them backwards or forgot some of the words altogether. When we stumbled our Sabbath School teacher who sat behind us would whisper a word to help us along. This was so much like the way we learned that the Lord always at our side to help us.

This was sharing too but it felt different than what sharing poems feels like now. There is little freedom in sharing what you are told you must share rather than sharing what you discovered in the freedom of yourself. If you are told to share and even if you are offered money it is not sharing not really sharing it is having to share and the life has gone well out of it.

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The Drag and Battle

Another prose poem mined from my private journal.

Whatever happened to youthful forgetfulness, the blithe freedom of living in the now with no thought of the past or the accumulated baggage that we drag behind us like ball and chain? This was the gift of youth before we were cursed by our own gnawing wants which can never be fulfilled, no matter how many things we buy or people we irritate or dominate. We still glimpse our gift on occasion: a young girl in sun dress, arms elegantly raised above her head, twirling in a parking lot or we see it in the ruddy-cheeked boy with skinned knees, carrying a stick like a staff,  a soiled bandanna wrapped round a sweaty brow, fresh from a great campaign battling dragons and demons — the creatures that threaten his secret cave. Oh, that we could fight this battle dancing without thought of injury or what others might dismiss. Who said you were not Gilgamesh, a true conquer, a hero in this world. Only the man no longer listening to his dreams.

Rereading A Country Between Us

There is that old platitude about reading widely to expand your horizons, yet once in a while a book comes along that convinces the reader to retreat into a literary cocoon. Some reading is painful. I have a hunch this is why some people retreat into sentimental novels and saphappy poetry. This may be the case for some readers of Carolyn Forché’s, A Country Between Us. After reading it in the early 80’s I was unnerved by her personal bravery and riveted by her literary sophistication. Rereading more than three decades later, it still provokes and disturbs. More than this is directs our attention where it should always be, on the human cost of tyranny, injustice and war.

I like to think the best literature is timeless and wrestles beauty from an ugly world. A Country Between Us, Forché’s second book of poems, accomplished this feat with pluck and grace. Published in 1981it made me aware of horrors I didn’t want to know my country’s government implicitly and sometimes directly supported.  Through the lens of this women’s poignant lyric poetry, I was shown how tenacious hope lives amid those who would crush it. “As she walked through her village // the site of her opened its windows. // It was simple. She had come // to flesh out the memory of a poet // whose body was never found.” This was a poetry both biographic, historic and metapoetic. These poems re-sensitize us to the beauty of the human spirit in the pitch battle against cruelties inflicted on innocents in the name of democracy.

The book generated a barnstorm of critical literary reflection that continues to this day. It broke new literary ground by placing the political prominently into the personal poem. She was not the first or fortunately the last to do this but she did it with astonishing results. The Country Between Us spread across the American poetic landscape like a flash flood fertilizing sterile valleys. Her slim volume of poems won the Lamont Poetry Selection prize and even became a bestseller — an almost impossible feat in American poetry. Since then, Forché has become one of the most decorated of American poets, yet like all contemporary American poets, she is not a household name.

Poetically, The Country Between Us unveiled new possibilities for the poem. Up to this time, the poetry establishment (like the majority of Americans) ignored the messy, murky and arcane business of international politics. The support of dictators, despots and deadbeats (read Manuel Noriega, Papa Doc Duvalier, Myanmar Gaddafi) went under the radar of the general public and the mass media. With great skill she brought inside the poem horrific images, yet she did so without dulling our emotional responses with overwrought poetic effects or putting us off with didactic rants—never lecturing us on corrupt foreign policy. What she did do with unflinching aim was show us the enormous cruelties, both physical and emotional, inflicted on innocent people caught in the cross fire of  civil war. “…people who rescue physicists, lawyers and poets // lie in their beds at night with reports // of mice introduced into women, of men // whose testicles are crushed like eggs.”

The book reads somewhat like a lyrical travelogue exploring the themes of admiration and alienation. It addresses the tender and painful emotional distance between people – thus the country between us. “I am the women whose photograph // you will not recognize, whose face // emptied your eyes, whose eyes // were brief, like the smallest // of cities we slipped through.” Another explores the world of strangers she returns too: “…a woman who has so rubbed her bright grey eyes // during grief that all she has seen can be seen in them //the century, of which twenty years are left,  // several wars, a fire of black potatoes.” Yet another tells of a naïve young women being admonished by an older,  savvy woman: “Your problem is not your life as it is // in America, not that your hands, as you // tell me, are tied to do something. It is // that you were born to an island of greed// and grace where you have this sense // of yourself as apart from others.”  In addition to this unifying theme, these poems are memoirs of witness of regional wars which leave lasting personal scars and haunting memories.

Like many writers, Forché had the curious luck as a young writer of traveling in a country torn by war. She traveled with an Amnesty International group as an activist when the El Salvadoran civil war of 1978 began.  There she met activists and legendary figures of the leftist revolution, the beleaguered poor and a wealthy colonel who became the subject of what would become a well known prose poem (excerpted below). In her presence this  unnamed colonel becomes unglued and issues a terrifying rant because he mistakenly believes Forché and her companion were U.S. government operatives. This moment among others changed her forever and helped to shape one of America’s outstanding contemporary poets.

As you read this excerpt from The Colonel, you find yourself in the room, not merely as a fly on the wall but as a potential victim. As the narrative progresses the tension rises and terror and fear overtakes the room. This is a rare picture of an evil man capable of civility and hospitality or cruelties and mass murder. This prose poem reminds me of those circles of hell described by Dante, but in this hell there is the uninterrupted terror of unchecked abuse of authority and no sense of social or divine justice. This is a portrait of a man blinded by his rationalizations from which he can justify any murderous cruelty in the name of civil order.

This poem, like the book it appeared in, is useful in understanding contemporary literary history and revolutionary history of democratic movements at large. It also gives us some perspective on contemporary democracy movements not only in Central and South America but those of the Arab world. There seem to be no end of men willing to shed innocent blood in the name of order, progress or patriotism. We should remember too that our history is littered with the blood of people who ran afoul of the cruel arm of governmental authority and out of this blood freedom was hard won in but a few places.

Warning: though this excerpt is no more distasteful then what most people see in action films or nightly television, its impact and greater since it represents historic crimes and atrocities against once living and breathing human beings — atrocities that continue around the globe in the name of law and order, leadership and governance.

…On the windows there were gratings like those in liquor stores. We had
dinner, rack of lamb, good wine, a gold bell was on the table for
calling the maid. The maid brought green mangoes, salt, a type of
bread. I was asked how I enjoyed the country. There was a brief
commercial in Spanish. His wife took everything away….There was
some talk then of how difficult it had become to govern. The parrot
said hello on the terrace. The colonel told it to shut up, and pushed
himself from the table. My friend said to me with his eyes: say
nothing. The colonel returned with a sack used to bring groceries
home. He spilled many human ears on the table. They were like
dried peach halves. There is no other way to say this. He took one
of them in his hands, shook it in our faces, dropped it into a water
glass. It came alive there…

You can read the entire poem and hear it read by the author hereThe Country Between Us, by Carolyn Forché, Copper Canyon Press, 1981.