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).

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