Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Dark Charade: Courts, Banks, & Tax Collectors

"Courthouse," Sidney Larson, Acrylic, 1971

Robert Minor, Morgan, Mellon,
Rockefeller, 1922

The Minister—goes stiffly in—
As if the House were His—
And He owned  all the Mourners—now—
And little Boys—besides—

And then the Milliner—and the Man
Of the Appalling Trade—
To take measure of the house—
There’ll be that Dark Parade—

These astute lines come from Emily Dickinson's poem that begins "There's been a death in the house opposite." Great poetry goes so far beyond its nominal subject matter, and this poem has been haunting me. Yesterday my husband and I went to court because my credit card company is suing me. A year and a half ago, we had the choice of paying our credit card bill or our mortgage, and we chose to keep our home. From 9 a.m to 10 a.m. there were about twenty others on the docket also being sued by the very same credit card. They probably had to make worse choices. In the gallery we sat, the legions against whom other banks, a local dentist, vehicle sales companies, and the Boone County Tax Collector have brought suit. On the other side of the bar (which is called "the well," I've just now discovered, because unlike most of the defendants in the court, I'm educated, employed, have access to the internet, and can engage in research), at tables, in chairs lined up against the wall, and in the jury box, the lawyers lounged around, professionally dressed, sometimes smiling smugly or talking amongst themselves behind their hands. We spectators watched as “the dark parade” marched on, a Dickensian dark charade in which the justice system unjustly and systematically goes about its business of disenfranchising people of their homes, wages, automobiles, and well-being.
      I was crocheting an afghan as I watched the proceedings. The woman in front of me turned around to whisper, "That's so pretty." 
Thomas Hart Benton, "Kansas City,"1936, from Politics,
and the Law,  Missouri State Museum
      "Court is so boring," I replied, "I have to do something with my hands." The folks all around rolled their eyes and nodded. I'm fond of saying that if you have an imagination, you never have to be bored, yet somehow I think we turn numb to witness the "Appalling Trades" at work:  the corporations and the rich, in the guise of justice, stealing from the poor and middle-class, and sometimes imprisoning them for the crime of not being well-off.  The sweet lady who complimented me was dressed in jeans and a tattered sweatshirt. The bailiff gestured to her partner to remove his baseball cap. Then he came over for good measure, and gave them a stern lecture in low tones and threatened them with removal should they violate the court's strictures again.  I, who have the privilege of education and am a tenured professor, was dressed in a long brown skirt and blaser. I know how to comport myself in a courtroom—the appropriate dress, manners and language—because I've been taught from birth. In my senior position at the University of Missouri I have the luxury, if I feel like it, to show up for work in jeans and no one will think the less of me. Like the vast majority of the defendants in the courtroom that morning, my comrade in the gallery had no representation. Therefore, she  faced the inevitable ruling in favor of the plaintiff, who is amply represented not just by the attorneys, but by the elected legislators and judges. The plaintiff doesn't need this poor woman's money or possessions, though she desperately does. 
Eli Jacobi, All Night Mission, 1938
Meanwhile, the attorney representing our Boone County Tax Collector, a harried young woman, approached the bench with a foot-high stack of file-folders. Not a single person stood beside her to plead for mercy or leniency or more time. The judge seemed as bored as we were, as he pronounced, "Default ruling" too many times to count. I leaned over and muttered to Craig, "So, they're using our tax dollars to take away poor people's homes and make  them homeless. Instead the government could tax the rich, and use the funds to provide education and job training, so families can prosper, raise their children in a stable environment, and contribute to the community." 
     I was preaching to choir, of course, and Craig answered, "Some of these people probably don't even know they're about to be evicted and their homes sold out from under them." And he's right. On the Boone County Collector webpage we find that very warning, clearly stated in bold letters:
Failure to receive a tax bill does not relieve the obligation to pay taxes and applicable late fees.
Never mind that some poor people don't have access to the internet or the newspapers. Some, because the public schools have failed them, don't even know how to read. And what happens after your property is taken from you for failure to pay taxes you can't afford because your nation is in a depression? And what if the depression is the direct result of policies and laws made by the legislators and judges, who are in turn owned by the wealthy, their corporations and lobbyists? What happens is that the wealthy now have the opportunity to buy your home at a fraction of its value at a tax auction. The back taxes, which were more than everything to you, are next to nothing for them. They will buy your home and "flip it" and make a huge profit. They will dispossess not just the powerless and unrepresented and not just people like me, the employed and represented, but many, many of us, and they will make record profits. And what will happen to those profits? Will they go to making a better society? To education? To health care? To peacemaking? To feeding the hungry and putting a roof over the heads the homeless? No, those record profits will go to writing legislation that will further disenfranchise you, will make it harder to vote, will send your children to war...and so on. I can't believe I'm about to say this, as I'm loathe to echo the tea-partiers: this is taxation without representation, and it is tyranny.
     When we got home, I called my attorney, who is on a mission to help people like me. I was fortunate that I could cash out an IRA, and pay him his retainer. I was lucky because my attorney is patient and ethical and was willing to wait a month for me to come up with the funds. I told my attorney the latest: my husband, who is preparing our taxes, calculated that he’d made one-sixth the money he made in 2007, when our romance began. I make a good salary, and I am among the tiny minority of the middle-class who feels somewhat secure that I will keep my job. Until the crash, my husband, a small business man, was  making a fine living. (Well, he's doing very well, even now, in comparison to others in his field.) One of the things that I find annoying is the common wisdom, promulgated by most the media on the left and the right, that somehow those of us who have debts we cannot pay were irresponsible when we took them on. This is misinformation. We did the math, looked at the moneys we could reasonably expect to receive in the future, and we took one of those balance transfer deals: 0% interest for the first 6 months, 3% percent for the next 6 months, etc. My husband had a contract that would have allowed us to pay off the whole debt and have a good sum left over. But that contract was cancelled. No, we were not irresponsible; we weren't paranoid enough. We assumed that the world economy would have ups and downs, not that corporate greed would bring about another great depression. My attorney listened patiently, and then said: "Welcome to my world. Your case is just like so many others I see. Then there are the folks whose homes have been illegally foreclosed, whom we are also trying to help."
     I reported the courtroom scene and summed up, "The justice system is just a tool for the rich to rob from the poor and middle-class." 
     "Yes," my lawyer said, "We are governed by Wall Street," and so on, more preaching to choir. Or is it? Somehow I doubt that my attorney and I align ourselves with the same political organizations. The walls of our beautiful county courthouse in Columbia, Missouri are adorned with murals by Sidney Larson, whose teacher was Thomas Hart Benton. Benton, like Grant Wood, is often dismissed for his "regionalism" and his leftist political leanings. There was a time when I regarded these perhaps propagandistic murals as evidence that despite it all, this is a government of the people, by the people, and for the people, with an unassailable First Amendment. I still believed passionately in our system, for all its flaws, despite the fact that the Supreme Court appointed President Bush, despite the unpatriotic Patriot Act. Despite everything, I considered myself a lefty, peace-nik, patriot. I was so happy after Obama was elected and I could go to Greece and not be embarrassed to be American. The American Civil Liberties Union's Executive Director, Anthony Romero, has said he's "disgusted" with Obama's record on civil liberties. Bill Quigley, a human rights lawyer, recently wrote an article worth reading, 20 Ways the Obama Administration Has Intruded on Your Rights 
From George Orwell's manuscript of 1984
    I still want to have faith that people who witness injustice and express their outrage can make a difference. My husband doesn't like me to write about this because he feels that somehow he's done something wrong or failed. He absolutely has not failed. He's one of literally millions who works hard, gives as much as (if not more than) he receives, and who is suffering not just economically, but psychologically and spiritually. I believe the dominant narrative is a huge problem, if not THE problem: those corrupt forces in power are telling our stories, blaming their victims, and brainwashing the victims into blaming themselves. Change means occupying the narrative. So I asked my attorney, "Can I write about this on my blog? Will it harm my case?"
     "Yes, of course you can. Please do."
     "Well, that makes me happy. I'll go ahead and exercise my First Amendment rights."
     "Yes...oh, wait a minute. In one my cases, the other side used my client's blog against her...

Sunday, November 27, 2011

And Hope That My Dreams Will Come True

The unconscious wants truth, as the body does. The complexity and fecundity of dreams comes from the complexity and fecundity of the unconscious struggling to fulfill that desire.

When I spent the night with Abigail, back in the ‘60s, we slept in her double bed under a pile of quilts—summer nights were chilly in Vermont. Her bedroom under the eaves had slanting ceilings, just like mine. I don’t think she ever got see my room when we were children because her mother wouldn’t allow her to spend the night at my house. Her mother and my parents were close, dear friends, and she must have known that they would protect Abigail as one of their own. But sadly her mom held fast to the fear that some harm would come to her youngest daughter if she left her side.
After supper, we ran upstairs to her room, and we became free travelers. Nestled together with our cold noses almost touching, we whispered late into the night. Just as we drifted into sleep, Abigail instructed me in dream-making. “If we concentrate hard enough, and only let ourselves think of the dream we want, we can go anywhere we want in our dreams and be with whoever we want. Let’s only talk about the dreams we want.” With that, Abigail, who is a great mimic, spoke in a perfect Liverpoolian accent, “We can have Beatle dreams! I want to be in London with George. Where do you want to go, Kiki?”
“I want to be in London, too, with Paul. Abby, would you like to go on a double date?” My proposal set off bed-shaking giggles, and we planned the flowers George and Paul would bring us and our outfits—long purple velvet dresses, pointy-toed lace-up boots, peacock feather boas, and wide-brimmed hats or Mondrian inspired mini-dresses and stack heeled shoes. We’d walk along Thames and see all the sights and go to the most expensive, luxurious, yummy restaurants in whole world.

Sometimes Abigail told me that she met her father in her dreams, and she wanted to dream him with her again. On those nights I tried to help her bring into him being. I saw him emerge in light from the wooded hilltop, and walk toward us along the brook where iridescent dragonflies skimmed the water’s surface. He wore a black sports coat and baggy trousers and a fedora. When he reached us, he knelt on one knee before Abigail, and pulled an imaginary creature from his pocket—it wasn’t a mouse or a bird or any animal for which we have a name. “Remember?” he said. The little creature stood on its hind legs on his palm, and Abby nodded and stroked its head.
Other times, Abigail would cry bitterly, “I don’t have a father! I don’t have a father!” I was only six when Abigail and I began our friendship. I was too young to know that our parents, each of them, produced literally hundreds of poems about the suicides of Abigail’s father and my grandfather. I can’t remember not knowing that her father had hung himself, but somehow, I’ve since learned, that fact was kept secret from Abigail for years. I do remember when I tried to voice my intuition that my grandfather had also killed himself. When my mother described her father’s gentleness, his soft, healing hands—he was a doctor—she also sadly told me about her father’s death of “a creeping paralysis” (probably multiple sclerosis). When my father told me about his mother, her New England reserve and her properness, he also told me about her death: she’d fallen ill on a ship to Europe with my mother. So, sad, they never got to travel together. They immediately returned the U.S., and she died soon afterwards of pancreatic cancer. My father told exciting stories about his adventures with his father—they took a road trip out West and hit a deer in Wyoming; they sold watch straps on the train in order to fund going to see the Yankees; his father designed watches and branded them, Pierre Grange, which means Stone Barn in French—but how did he die? One day in the living room of our house in Vermont, I mustered the courage to ask, “Daddy, how did your father die?”
“We’ll talk about it another time,” he said, and I saw his body awkwardly scrunch up with grief or perhaps he was embarrassed by his evasive answer. I couldn’t bear my father’s pain, which I felt acutely, so I didn’t ask again. I knew my grandfather killed himself. I sensed that fact, as all children intuitively apprehend everything about their parents; for survival’s sake, they’re biologically programmed to know, to adjust, and to compensate. The way I compensated was to participate in the denial narrative, even after I figured out the story, through the poetry, I guess. Eventually, my father was able to discuss the suicide with me. But by then I’d already learned to distrust my perceptions. That distrust led me to allow other people to name reality. When I told my story, I hoped someone else would refine the raw materials of my speech and tell me the true, the good, the wise, and the real. 
You may say, “But you’ve been writing poetry since you were a child, how can you say your work doesn’t name reality?” For much of my life, my poetics could be summed up in Antonio Machado’s lines, “En mi soledad / he visto cosas muy claras / que no son verdad” (In my solitude / I’ve seen things very clearly / that aren’t true.”) Until recent years, I didn’t internalize his other lines: “La verdad es que lo es, / y sigue siendo verdad / aunque se piense al revés” :

The truth is what it is,
and still stays true
even if you think the reverse.

I wish when I asked my father how his father had died, he’d had sat down with me on the couch, and taken my hand in his, just as he did so many times when he read to me—“I take your hand, companion of the hills” he wrote in one my birthday poems. I wish he’d told me the truth in his even, steady voice, as he did in his later poem, “In Our Life Watch,” which tells the story my magical grandfather, a merchant of diamonds and watches, who made and lost many fortunes in what one newspaper article called his “Horatio Alger-like career.” Here are the last lines:

            He steps over the low railing, leaps,
            And floats in blind sorrow into May sun.

            Dad’s fallen again, but we can’t wake early
            and look up a small jewelry shop
            to peddle our wares and hearts,
            our soft Swiss straps or cold diamond,
            since death at last has cleaned us out.

How utterly simple, beautiful, and heartbreaking! I’m not saying that my poetry or anybody’s doesn’t name truth; it’s a striving toward it. Poetry – all writing, all art – is a process of discovery for both the artist and the reader. Shouldn’t this poem be enough? Shouldn’t all the poems be enough? My answer is no, I’m sorry to say. There’s a difference between art and life, between the artist and the person. There’s a difference between readers and a person’s family. Art isn’t the only place where one can be honest and insightful, one’s best self. Art might be mere practice for an ordinary person to sit face to face with a child and tell the truth that “is what it is / and still stays true / even if you think [or say] the reverse” or stay silent.

Abigail Stone
In our conversations, Abigail and I have discovered that we were practicing truth-seeking in our dreams. Sometimes it’s terrible to know what one shouldn’t know. I was told in a dream that my uncle had killed himself. I visited a friend in the hospital, though I didn’t  “know” he was ill, and my bed was two-thousand miles away. Not all dreams know and tell the unknowable and untellable. Yet the dreams (if that’s right word) that do invariably find a way to prove indisputably that they have uncannily told the dreamer the truth.

A couple of weeks ago Abigail posted a piece on her blog, House of Stone, about learning Hebrew. She wrote: “ I have learned to read ‘my father is coming,’ which is ironic, as my father has been dead since I was five years old, and yet I still believe at some point he will return.” He did return, many times. Now my dear friend has lost her mother, who happens to be one of the great poets of the world. Abigail, I’m closing my eyes and concentrating very hard before I sleep, just as I know you are. She is the dream returning, giving you the faith to tell the truth you know. 

Friday, November 25, 2011

A Poem about an Incident in the Life of Ruth Stone

Ruth Stone: Photo by John Lane Studio

I don't like to admit that my poems tell "what really happened" because I want the same freedom that fiction writers have to tell lies that tell the truth. As I wrote about in my post, "Occupy Imagination: Everyone is Invited!," I prefer to let the imagination speak and invent the happily ever after.

I confess that "Madly in Love" really happened, but not to me. I was just a child observing. I remember Ruth's response to the poem, her customary generosity: "How amazing, Kiki,  that you remember the incident in such detail." And then she giggled or laughed. I don't know what to call her particular expression of delight.

I wrote this poem in January of 1992, when I was living in freezing Madison, Wisconsin. I was collecting unemployment, my marriage was unraveling, and I was depressed—if you get the picture of an unmastered disaster—well, that's what really happened, I guess—or at least it's a part of what really happened. Ruth's life of poverty, loss, and loneliness, which she transformed so exquisitely in her poetry, gave me the courage to name my own destitution, which I'm happy to report was brief, at least in terms of employment. I wrote the whole of my book, Madly in Love, in 1992. Each poem had a kind of inevitability; beginning with "Madly in Love," the first poem in the book, the poems came almost exactly in the same order as they appear in published volume. I've never had that writing experience before or since. From her winter in Binghamton to her summer in Goshen, I believe that whole year Ruth sent her spirit to me in Madison, to stay close and encourage me to listen carefully and attend, as her speaker does in "Dream of the Light in the Shade:" "and all says attend! / The light so coldly spells in innocence / Attend!" 

Ruth said in her acceptance speech when she won the National Book Award that her poetry "just talked to me, and I wrote it down,” she said. “So I can’t even take much credit for it.” Amen to that. 

 Madly in Love
                                                    For Ruth Stone

Late one summer night he tore through
her latched screen door, his trousers
in his hand, and declared his love.
Then he lay down on the rug and screamed.
He was obliging when she asked him to leave
and hiked from Goshen twenty miles
across the Brandon Gap in his underwear.
At six AM, casually as if he carried
a sack of breakfast bagels, he rang
our bell, trousers still in hand.
Three days later he committed himself.
He was a librarian, a sensible man.

As a child it mystified me.
Now I think despair could make me
walk twenty miles in my underwear.
I could lie down half-naked and wail
for an audience for my articulate loins.
I've screamed--haven't you?--even though
screaming means no one will listen.
And he was a librarian--I imagine him
knowing all the proper places for books
and for the lover in the stacks
who wasn't there when he clicked off
the fluorescent lights and drove

into mountains where the Milky Way's
silk sash billowed above him
and crickets sang out crazy excitement
as he stood on the dirt road with mountains
rising over him, wonderful, dark,
breathing desire. He saw her lighted
by a lamp and the fire, reading. 
And for a moment, before he broke
through the obstructing screen,
liberating to the inside
mosquitoes and winking fireflies,
he thought she might respond.

Ruth Stone, June 8, 1915-November 19, 2011

Ruth & my dad, Willis
Thanksgiving Day, 2011: After putting the turkey in the oven, I went out into the sunny noonday to harvest greens for our salad. I stuck my trowel in the dirt to see if the carrots were ready to eat (no), and there among the feathery carrot-tops, the radishes, the peas, the clover, and the pesky creeping-Charlie was a dead mole covered with glistening flies. I heard this poem by Ruth Stone, as I do so often:

The Plan

I said to myself, do you have a plan?
And the answer was always, no, I have no plan.
Then I would say to myself, you must think of one.
But what happened went on, chaotic with necessary pain.
During the winter the dogs dug moles from their runs
And rolled them blind on the frozen road.
Then the crossbills left at the equinox.
All this time I tried to think of a plan,
Something to bring the points together.
I saw that we move in a circle
But I was wordless in the field.
The smell of green steamed, everything shoved,
But I folded my hands and sat on the rocks.
Here I am, I said, with my eyes.
When they have fallen like marbles from their sockets,
What will become of this? And then I remembered
That there were young moles in my mind's eye,
Whose pink bellies shaded to mauve plush,
Whose little dead snouts sparkled with crystals of frost;
And it came to me, the blind will be leading the blind.

The little mole lay on its back, its pink paws, so much like hands, lay on on its fur. I wondered if one of our dogs had killed the mole, or was it Christopher, our muscular black cat, whom I call little jaguar. I wondered if Abigail was in Vermont for the holiday. Inside, washing the greens, arranging a purple pansy and some curly parsley to garnish the humus, I remembered our days in Providence, telling Phoebe how much I love the way purple and green look together. She was pregnant with Ethan, and I asked about the drawings she was making with graphite rubbings on rice paper, using household items like cheese graters. I've used the same method in some of my drawings. I made the cornbread dressing and gravy, and the meal was prepared. Time to take a shower, wash away the smell of onions and garlic from my hands. When the blind leading the blind entered my mind, I gratefully sang "Amazing Grace," because I'm no longer afraid to sing; I sing as freely as I did when I was a child in Vermont, singing Beatles songs with Abigail. Then I sat down at my computer, and wished Abigail a happy Thanksgiving on her Facebook wall, sending lots of love.

Our guests began to arrive and then my dad called with Thanksgiving greetings and he said, "I have very sad news. Ruth died." When I met Ruth, I was younger than I am in this first grade photo.  I have no memory of life without her and now she is memory on a new earth.

Tonight I remember something so simple—or strange—I don't know. Maybe I'm numb. She'd arranged a reading for me at Binghamton University, and she put me up in her home there. In the morning, we drank tea and ate toast on beautiful bread, with ginger preserves. How delicious the preserves! And I recalled our teas in Vermont served on her Blue Willow tea set, and the delicacy, the ginger preserves. I held the jar in my hand, admiring the old fashioned label, the opaque white glass, which is made to look like porcelain, I guess. It was a winter day in Binghamton, with that kind of gray that has heft. Nonetheless, talking about how she keeps those preserves on hand to treat herself, Ruth sitting at her kitchen table glowed with warm ginger and her palpable delight to share such yumminess.  Yes, her poetry is a gift to the world. Yes, she influenced me. Without her, I would not be the poet I am, or the person. I've written about the poetry; the poetry remains. Tonight I want to run to the grocery store, and treat myself to ginger preserves—and bites of toast that make me feel the warm rush of her love on my forehead, hear her spicy words, sharp wit, her sweet laughter, and taste her presence again.

Monday, October 31, 2011

The Ruins of Mega Livadi, Serifos

This past week, with what the Greeks call "the crisis" intensified, with the protestors in Thessaloniki saying "NO!" to the military parade celebrating "Oxi Day," I got to thinking about this little tractate, "The Ruins of Mega Livadi," that I wrote several years ago, when people were optimistic about the economy. Mega Livadi was the site of the 1916 Miners' Strike, a response to the terrible working conditions in the iron ore mines. Four miners were murdered for protesting and demanding an eight-hour work day. The 1916 Miners' Strike was one of the defining moments in the Greek Labor Movement and marks its inception. 

The Ruins of Mega Livadi

Port of Mega Livadi
In Mega Livadi a donkey lies in the shade of the town’s ancient plane tree. Geese honk. Hens and their chicks peck in the dust near a few cars parked in the shade. Ruined houses where miners once lived dot steep hill plunging in the port, a good port, sheltered and so deep the waters already extraordinary blue approaches black. The neo-classical villa, built by the German mine-owners decays. Patches of stucco fall away. There’s no glass in the long, elegant windows or in transoms above heavy wooden doors, though the palm trees flanking the wind entry are tall and healthy (the word for palm is phoenika, phoenix).
Villa can seen on the left.
            Next to the villa is a monument to four miners who in 1916 were shot demonstrating for higher wages and an eight-hour workday. Their names, cut in marble, are Themistoklis Kousoupis, Mihalis Zilis, Mihalis Metrofanis, and Yiannis Protopappas. Oleander blooms profusely by blazing marble. We’re dizzy in noonday sun.
      The village is quiet. Maybe there are twenty of us here. Some eating, some swimming, some fishing, some sitting with friends observing the summer day. On the terraces of the two beachfront tavernas people sit, sip ouzo and gossip. Old women wear black dresses and white headscarves. One still wears the traditional stiff sunbonnet, cardboard covered with calico. Blue, red, and yellow plastic chairs glare against whitewash while painted boats on the sea or banked on the beach upside-down under trees radiate their oranges and turquoises. Children playing in the shallow water call out to their siblings and cousins, “Come play!”—to grandmother, aunt, and mother, “Look! Look!”
Painting by Aliki
       Canaries sing from cages nailed up on either side of the taverna door. Kirea Maria watches soaps as she peels potatoes. She brings us a salad garnished with capers picked from the bushes which grow wild on the mountainside, bread baked in the island bakery’s wood-fired oven, and mizithra, the homemade goat cheese that’s sweet and sour and creamy. She has one gold tooth in her big smile and talks lovingly about her potted plants: scented geranium, jade, begonia, amaryllis, carnation, aster, crassula, vinca, basil. She directs us to the old springhouse, built by the miners for their pleasure and later damaged by an earthquake, so the thermal waters run into the sea rather than into the baths.
      The iron-ore mine gapes huge in the hillside of blooming euphorbia and yarrow; beside it a slagheap tumbles into the sea. The old technology rusts—tracks, carts lying on their sides, their wheels sometimes a few feet away, the cantilevered loading bridge reaching the port where no freight ship or ferry has docked in years.
The Cyclops, the wild, cannibalistic shepherd, imprisoned that intruder Odysseus in a cave on Serifos. And you can see his rage in these buckling tracks, upturned carts and far-flung wheels. His hands would be stained with rust, just as ours are after we pick through the slag-heap looking for the extraordinary quartz-crystal laced with red ore. But it’s so peaceful here, in spite of the monument to protest and martyrdom. Perhaps the ruin is simply ruin, and we can identify the monster, who’s one-eyed, who helps and destroys. For in a later story, the    Cyclops assisted Hephaestos, helping him make the arms, armor, and metal ornaments of the Gods.         
       Before the iron-ore mines in Mega Livadi closed, twenty-five thousand people lived on Serifos. Now there are eight-hundred year-round residents, though in summer, on the other side of the island, Livadi, the harbor village, and Hora, the mountain village above it, are packed with near-naked Athenians and Europeans eating, drinking, swimming, sleeping in the sand, wandering the maze of flagstone streets. So in a country where they say everything happens late, new hotels and restaurants go up rapidly and cover the austere mountains.
       In 1987 we celebrated the first gas station on Serifos with a panayiri, we ate a feast at long tables. Musicians played and we danced between the pumps. Until the gas station opened, you had to get gas from Halidas, the storeowner who used to be the richest man on the island. You had to know the village and you had to know Greek. Now they’ve opened a rent-a-car and a rent-a-bike. They transformed donkey paths to roads and built condominiums beside them. The beaches we used to hike to on special occasions are crowded with tourists talking on cell phones.
     Imagine it. When the ferry arrives, a mini-van stenciled with HOTEL MEGA LIVADI waits to take you to the newly renovated villa where each room has a bath, a phone, and a refrigerator. You walk ten steps to the beach. You explore the old mine shafts and dig crystals from the walls. You hike high, well-marked paths by the sea, pay a small fee, enter the restored springhouse, soak in warm curative waters, then cool off in the sea. You meet the same woman we met today, a smiling woman wearing a flying-nun sunbonnet and herding her goats over ruined railroad tracks. She calls out, “Kalimera!” (good day!). She asks questions and approves each of the answers you give in faltering Greek with “Bravo!” She wishes you a good road and a good trip, then climbs to high rock to watch her herd and look out to sea, same as the ancients.
Painting by Aliki


Saturday, October 22, 2011

Occupy Imagination: Everyone Is Invited!

I figured out how to fix the terrible thing that happened to the people who were hurt and killed. We’ll invent a happy ending and invite everyone to it.
—Zoë Barnstone-Clark, age 3 ½, after 9/11

Once upon a time, in the past week, a confluence of events—the “end” of the Iraq War, the death of Gaddafi, the growing Occupy Movement, and rekindling my friendship with Abigail—got me thinking about this essay I wrote on March 8th, 2003, just before the beginning of the Iraq War,  which the U.S. waged despite the protests of millions around the world. Like the Vietnam War, the Iraq War was justified with lies. Just as Vietnam dominated my childhood, so the Iraq War dominated Zoë's. I was a teenager when the last troops withdrew from Vietnam;  Zoë is now 14, and American troops are scheduled to leave Iraq before the New Year. 

I still believe that we can bring peace and justice into being, if only we occupy our imaginations. Here is the essay I wrote on the eve of the Iraq War, with some added illustrations and edits.

The Practical Power of Fairy Tales

Do you remember when you
Were read to as a child?
—Anne Sexton

In a utilitarian age, of all other times, it is a matter of grave importance that fairy tales should be respected.
—Charles Dickens

Zoë - Pink Phase
Once upon a time, before I knew better, I tried to keep my daughter Zoë from Barbie dolls. Sometime before her third birthday, she refused to wear anything but pink dresses—the frillier, shinier, and fluffier the better—and she deeply wanted a Barbie. Not to be defeated, I ordered her a Smartee brand doll, marketed to people in my socio-educational bracket. The doll, Destiny the Doctor, came in scrubs, with a tiny medical bag, stethoscope, thermometer, a comb and brush for her long hair, and a story book about how Destiny, with her smarts and hard work, became a doctor and mentored a little girl who also wanted to be a doctor. Destiny looked exactly like Barbie, was three times as expensive, and was poorly made (her impossibly long thin leg fell off immediately and was lost). After I read her the book, an uninspiring utilitarian endorsement of the work ethic, Zoë said, as she often did, “Now let me read it to you.” Here is an abridged version of her tale: “Once upon a time there was a girl named Destiny. She always wanted to be a doctor. So she worked hard and she became a doctor in the hospital, where she met the handsome prince, who fell in love with her because she was very smart and very beautiful, and they got married and lived happily ever after.” 
          Zoë, like Alice in Wonderland, chose the enchanted rabbit hole instead of the boring book that her sister read that “had no pictures or conversations in it, `and what is the use of a book,' thought Alice `without pictures or conversation?'” 

Lewis Carroll's Original Alice
from Lenny's Alice in Wonderland Site
I take pictures and conversation to stand in for the imagination; a book without pictures and conversation has no use, according to Alice, because it is merely informational and practical. Zoë chooses to live in wonderland, to narrate constantly and animate, not only Barbies, but all her dolls and animals.
Terri Windling has said, “Fairy tales were not my escape from reality as a child; rather they were my reality." I, too, believed then (and maybe now) that I could fly; my dolls and stuffed animals came to life at night; animals talked, humans became animals and visa versa; tiny people might live beneath a leaf; true love heals, saves, even transforms the physical world; all children are princesses and princess, regardless of external material wealth or social rank or ethnicity. One of my favorite fairy tales is Charles Perrault’s  "The Fairies" (“Toads and Diamonds"): 
Once upon a time a beautiful and good girl lived with her ill-tempered and ugly sister and widowed mother, who made her work all day. When she went to the fountain to fetch some water, a fairy disguised as an old peasant woman asked for some water. The girl gladly served her water and the fairy rewarded her generosity. Every time she spoke, flowers and jewels came from her mouth. The mother sent her favored daughter to the fountain, so she would receive the same gift. This time the fairy disguised herself as a princess. The ugly girl rudely refused her request for water and the fairy replied, “I will give you a gift to equal your discourtesy. Every time you speak, a toad or snake will come from your mouth.” Of course, the prince fell in love with the good and generous girl, they married and they lived happily ever after, while the ugly and selfish sister was so disgusting, even her mother turned against her and drove her into the forest, where she died miserable and alone.
I see “Fairies” as a paradigm for or story of the making of the poem itself. The fairy tale does what the poet (or this poet, anyway) wants to do—make the word into flesh, into a thing, into matter. Words are more than the spiritual manifestation of the self, they are the self’s visible embodiment, separate and acting in the world. “Fairies” enacts metaphors: "Your good words are flowers and diamonds; your bad words are snakes and toads." So, too, do other fairy tales make the metaphor perform in the narrative. In “Rapunzel” love is blind, for the prince is blinded; but love also heals and makes us see, for Rapunzel’s kiss of true love heals the prince’s  eyes. Fairy tales show the poet the muscular energy of metaphor to transport and transform. 
Ad for Trucking Company in Greece
In Greek, μεταφορά (metaphora) means transportation, and in Greece freight trucks are painted with the word. Emerson was probably playing with etymology when he wrote in "The Poet": “For all language is vehicular, and is good, as ferries and horses are, for conveyance.” By contrast to the metaphor, the simile attenuates the power of imagination; it is like consciousness, in that the mind makes those comparisons, but it is rational and explanatory, doesn't risk leaping into a new shape or skin. The simile says, this is merely a shade, not reality. I don't want to engage in the kind of extreme political statements about simile that some contemporary poets have made. Sometimes a simile is wild and right in a poem. Anyone who listens to children can hear that they express what they see in marvelous similes. I'm positing the idea that in adult poetry the rhetoric of the simile often creates a distance between the two elements, while the metaphor yokes the elements together. In terms of I and thou, the simile is at a remove (like pity) while metaphor is empathy. Fairy tales have no use for similes—nothing is like anything else because in that world goodness comes into its physical form, as does badness. A man isn’t like a frog until the kiss of love makes him like a prince. He actually is a frog then a prince. A girl’s latent sexuality isn’t like sleep, it is sleep, and so on.
There are other dualities that fairy tales yoke together. Because we are introduced to fairy tales at such a young age, the fairy tale returns the adult poet to her child’s eye of wonder and to the unconscious. When I write a poem, I feel myself in the zone, where the adult and child selves, the conscious and the unconscious, the me and the not-me, the self and other are united and conversing, as in the following poem by Ruth Stone. (I spent every summer of my childhood in Vermont, imagining and living fairy tales with Ruth’s daughter, Abigail.)

Fairy Tales

The ugly duckling…
I stood behind my father’s chair so he couldn’t see my tears
When he read it to me. Hans Andersen,
I rise from your feathers every spring
And shake the snow from my windows. The sulfur sears
My eyes in a world of match girls’ luminous poverty.
I hear your hosannas that life is real and cruel.
The mad stream that takes the brave tin soldier down the flood
Flows by here. While he passes, impractical child,
On his way to death in this strange dream;
Is he still seeing the beautiful, the good?   

In this poem Ruth doesn’t retell the fairy tales so much as she creates the person who hears the stories read to her. The speaker’s child self in the poem rises from Hans Andersen’s “feathers every spring,” and sees anew, the snow shaken from the windows. And how does the child self see? The child endows full existence to “this strange dream,” the imagination; as Ruth writes, “The mad stream that takes the brave tin soldier down the flood /Flows by here.” “The mad stream” is the fairy tale, the flow of consciousness, and brings to the here and now, the girl standing behind her “father’s chair so he couldn’t see my tears / When he read it to me.” The power of the fairy tale isn’t simply the “happily ever after,” but that the happily ever after sometimes comes after suffering. Not only does the speaker “hear your hosannas that life is real and cruel,” she feels “the sulfur sear” her  eyes “in a world of match girls’ luminous poverty.” The reader becomes the freezing and starving match girl who lights each of her last matches, and sees in their small heat, the opulent world of familial love, a table brightly lit, laden with food, a warm room. In this transformational poetics, as the fairy tale enacts the metaphorical play, reading generates the metamorphosis of the self into the other, and ultimately into the writing of the poem.
Crucially, the poem sets up a tension between the “real and cruel” and “the beautiful, the good,” with the rhetorical question at the end: “While he passes, impractical child, / On his way to death in this strange dream; / Is he still seeing the beautiful, the good?” The answer is yes. We know the brave tin soldier is in true love and never stops seeing the beautiful, the good paper ballerina, no matter if he is swept downriver, to be taunted by a rat and swallowed by a fish. The question, overheard internally, is asked by the poet, who wonders whether she still sees “the beautiful, the good,” in the face of the “real and cruel.” But the adult self, who reads with the empathic child standing behind her, has already reentered the magical realm. She has emerged with a poem, not just any poem, not a pretty poem that would please former First Lady Laura Bush; ours is a poem that in a few lines deals with suffering, and class, and love. The poet becomes the “impractical child,” who suffers with the world and sees “the beautiful, the good” alternative. All poets, I would say, are “impractical children”—let’s face it, no one who’s practical, in the usual sense of the word, is going to be a poet in the twenty-first century.
Yet the practice of returning to the wondrous hopes and sorrows of the child has practical power, beyond the artifact, the poem itself, which I think is one of the many meanings of Brenda Hillman’s line, “the poem is the story of the writing of itself” (25). Freud posits that myths, legends, and fairy tales are the “wishful fantasies of whole nations, the secular dreams of youthful humanity” (440). The poetic revision of the fairy tale is also a revision of the cultural text, a creation of the utopic dream of the impractical child who in Ruth Stone’s poem cries for the ugly duckling, even knowing he is a beautiful swan; who suffers with the match girl, and with her creates a room in which she lives, warm, fed, and loved; who in Olga Broumas’s “Sleeping Beauty,” wakes the public up to “a public kiss” between women.
At the end of “Experience,” in which Emerson contends with the problem of evil, he writes: “there is victory yet for all justice, and the true romance which the world exists to realize, will be the transformation of genius into practical power." I never understood or believed him until millions across the globe marched against war, a legion of impractical children transforming genius into practical power, until Sam Hamill woke up the sleeping beauty in thousands with poets against the war. If you think I’m being impractical, let me pose an epistemological question: how do you know the world? Through the boring book Alice’s sister reads? The news media? Textbooks? Movies? By falling down the rabbit hole and remembering “when you / were read to as a child”? Fairy Tales? All of the above, of course, and much more. Emerson also writes, “that it is the universal impulse to believe, that is the material circumstance, and is the principal fact in the history of the globe” (209). Both the “real and the cruel” and “the beautiful, the good” are acts of the imagination. Alice sees no use in her sister’s book without pictures and conversation. But her sister reads her book because to her it is eminently useful. What is possible is an act of imagination. We know this because John Lennon, another impractical child, asked us to imagine peace. A preemptive strike is also an act of imagination, derived from the universal impulse to believe. Ultimately, both are equally expedient; both are fairy tales. Yet we are socialized to believe that one is more realistic than the other. Our ethical task is to understand self-reliantly that the useful, the practical are constructions, and out of that understanding to create a reality that is not cruel, but beautiful and good.
Once upon a time, before the world changed, I tried to protect my daughter by keeping my daughter from Barbies. After 9/11 Zoë taught me the practical power of fairy tales: “I figured out how to fix the terrible thing that happened to the people who were hurt and killed. We’ll invent a happy ending and invite everyone to it.” Happily ever after.

Works Cited
Sigmund Freud, The Freud Reader, edited by Peter Gay (New York: W.W. Norton, 1989).
Heidi Anne Heiner, SurLaLune Fairy Tales
Brenda Hillman, Death Tractates (Hanover: Wesleyan University Press, 1992).
Ruth Stone, Topography and Other Poems (New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1970).