Not fleeing

middle schoolWhen I was eleven, I started to plot my escape. Financial independence seemed like the prerequisite, but the 50 cents an hour I earned babysitting weren’t going to take me far. So, baby steps. I started by purchasing my own shampoo and toothpaste, keeping them separate from the family stuff. I figured I’d gradually work up from toiletries to food, clothes, rent, etc.

It’s funny, eleven-year-old-me making solo hikes through the woods to the drugstore for Colgate. It’s also awful, because my family was so poisonously miserable, so hostile to the person I was trying to become, that I couldn’t imagine staying in that house one second longer than I absolutely had to. And, of course, freedom was a long time coming, even with scholarships and summer jobs and, eventually, teaching assistantships. As my professional life has demonstrated, I’ll take a certain amount of abuse, playing the long game, as long as I have some safe space in which I can retain dignity, do work that feels worthwhile, and speak my mind.

Take that space away, though, and I’ll break, whether or not I break and run. This is one of the many ways poetry has saved me–reading and writing puts me in an honest place. Plus, while poems contain struggle of all kinds, they also constitute separate worlds it can be a great relief to enter, because good poems are not unjust or disruptive of bodily integrity.

Poetry’s doing just fine during the current political mayhem, but other spaces seem way less safe than they ever did. Not that I ever felt welcome and at home in Lexington, Virginia!–but I had friends’ houses, and a few public spots that I felt comfortable in, and a creek to walk beside. Ever since the co-owner of the Red Hen, a few blocks from my house, took her moral stand against hatred and lies by asking Sarah Huckabee Sanders to leave, the full ugliness of where I live has been on inescapable display. Media that are often depressing–from Facebook to the local paper’s editorial page–got vicious; picketers with offensive signs staked out the restaurant, which has not yet been able to reopen; the KKK leafleted our neighborhoods with fliers reading “Boycott the Red Hen” as well as “Wake Up White America.”

I want to get out of here. Aside from short trips, I can’t. My husband just got tenure; I also receive, for my kids, a major tuition benefit, which we need for the next five years. I’m finding it really difficult, however, to negotiate the fight-or-flight response that keeps ripping through my body. I hate living in the middle of the Confederacy. I hate how my government commits abuses in my name.

I said so to my daughter the other night, and she answered something like: I’m not leaving. I’ve committed. I’m going to fix this country.

I know that’s a better answer. I just have to figure out how to get through this woods of bad feeling. To feel peace in my body as a prerequisite for helping make peace in this damaged, damaging place.

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#RedHen

You’d Better Believe These Rhymes Are Slant
Inspired by the co-owners and staff of the Red Hen Restaurant

This sonnet politely requests the entire Trump
administration to leave the establishment.
It’s the seizing of children from migrant parents,
the cages and proposed internment camps,
that curdle the cream and knock the meter wobbly.
I lack space or taste, in this extremely small business,
for teen detention, warehoused toddlers, injustice,
deception, or the poisoning of democracy.

So very politely, so as not to shame
you, except for your white supremacy
and homophobia. How civil, your reply
from a government-owned Twitter account,
although unethically-sourced and slightly sour.
I’ll oust you from more than a poem, sometime.

red hen

Paternity suit

dc-obama

Father’s Day used to be a hard one. When my father was alive, I knew he wanted to be fussed over, but he was an unpredictably mean-spirited person who’d praise my intelligence one minute and mock me the next for my unattractiveness, my career choices, or my politics–and he was doing the same to my siblings and worse to my mother. There were times he and I weren’t speaking, but most years I shopped for funny rather than sentimental cards and kept the peace. Like everyone else he knew, as far as I can tell, I was relieved when he died.

So, like plenty of other ambivalent people, I watch all loving posts from friends about their sweet fathers with some wonder. It’s only the past few years that I can do so without grief at what I missed. I even used to feel jealous of my own kids, who (rightly) adore their dad.

For whatever reason, I’m okay now, and more genuinely able to feel glad for people cherishing that relationship or remembering it fondly. The more love in the world, the better. Plus I enjoy my kids’ enjoyment of time with Chris, which helps, too–one thing I definitely didn’t screw up as a parent was marrying him. This weekend he and I stayed overnight in Washington, D.C. visiting my daughter, who is interning at the Friends’ Committee on National Legislation. It was fun to take her commute from Foggy Bottom to the Hill and see the garden where she eats lunch (when she’s not in the Senate cafeteria), and just to catch up with her about the good work she’s up to. We ate well, too, and saw a decent play (The Remains at the Studio Theater), but I was especially grateful for museum time. For a palate cleanser after hanging around the Senate, we visited the Obamas in the National Portrait Gallery. Chris took the shot above, in which you might be able to spot Madeleine taking her own picture of the Chuck Close portrait of Clinton. The images below are mine of James Weldon Johnson, Marianne Moore with her mother, and Paul Laurence Dunbar brooding behind Gertrude Stein.

Today, lots of people are also posting about the ironies of celebrating Father’s Day even as our government is brutally separating parents and children at the border–a devastating continuation of a long history of destroying families, as the U.S. did through enslavement and the American Indian boarding school system, not to mention the dangers to children now from gun violence, rising addiction rates, unjust public education systems, and many other crises. I want to be able to talk about U.S. human rights abuses in the past tense–admitting them, trying to heal and make a better future, but also firmly locating them behind us–like I can in a personal way with my father. Clearly, that’s not yet. I hope it’s more possible when our own kids finish growing up and help vote some of these jerks out of office. I see a lot to hope for, in the generation beginning to come of age.

In the meantime, here’s a poem about other fathers that I never managed to publish anywhere–from 2011, when my father was in his final downward spiral. Some of the poets I cite were good fathers to me, and a couple not so much, but they all shaped who I am.

Paternity Suit

My father Langston hands his camel jacket to the coat-check lady.
He lifts his menu with a flourish and says now you order anything, anything.
My father Thomas Stearns says use your inside voice.
Embarrassment beads his forehead.
My father Ezra chants a grace to drive the waiter mad.
My father John Keats urges a scalpel between cork and bottle.
A candle-flame repeats in glass, wine, his hectic cheeks.
My father Walt pries open mollusk after mollusk, grooves on his thumbs adoring the grooves of each inky shell.
My father Allen insists I eat my broccoli broccoli broccoli and the outrageous curry of hilarity anoints his beard.
My father James Merrill, tortoiseshell-buttoned, conserves naked chicken bones for broth.
I will bathe them, he says, with bay leaves, peppercorns, and whole onions quartered through paper to root.
When the liquid alchemizes I will strain its gold and measure in cubes of potato, crystals of salt.
This soup will be for you.

My father father sits with another family in a dining room I have never visited.
I used to peer downstairs at two in the morning, when only the streetlight shone into the kitchen;
he hoisted bergs of chocolate ice cream to his mouth with a shaky hand.
My father wore short pajamas, cotton striped with lines so faint I only imagined I could read them.
Maybe I heard the clink, clink of his spoon.

Hundred-year nap

For the last week, I’ve lived in the land of the long blink. We arrived home eight days ago from the aforementioned intense trip to Europe, and I dutifully took sunlit walks to reset my body clock, swallowed melatonin at the appointed hours, and vigorously swept out my email inbox–begone, reference letters and peer review!–while getting organized for a spousal birthday and our son’s impending six weeks at the Ross Mathematics Program in Ohio.

I was plenty busy, in other words, but not desperately so, and as I ticked off the most urgent tasks, I found myself revving down. You know, my brain said Wednesday morning, before you work on permissions inquiries, there’s this poem idea. And on Friday morning, over breakfast by an open window, Hey, you haven’t taken a three-day weekend just to read and cook and hang out for a long, long time. As I let myself do less, I started getting sleepier and sleepier, “After Apple-Picking” style. The past few nights I’ve been unable to keep my eyes open much past 9 p.m.

My spouse says that I haven’t really exhaled for the last two years and I’m just tired–I should indulge my sleepiness, says the kind unprince. I don’t feel depressed or sick, so I guess he’s right. And it’s a pleasure to continue with the novel-reading I did on various planes and trains in late May. The recent read that’s staying with me most powerfully is Overstory by Richard Powers, in which trees are major characters. I felt artistically irritated a couple of times at polemical passages or how he handled exposition, but at the same time, I’m deeply impressed by the book. It has actually changed my brain–I’m observing landscapes differently. Even watching the last few episodes of a favorite show, The Americans, I kept getting diverted from  human spies doing their dead drops in parks or sitting on benches, becoming lost in admiration of trees that shared the frame. That’s a big accomplishment for a work of fiction, to shift a person’s angle of vision away from human beings toward the more-than-human world.

Now I’m catching up with poetry in books and magazines. The new Ecotone is on my desk and, as always, it’s full of loveliness. It often contains a powerful poem by a writer I’ve never heard of, and this time that’s “Coywolf” by Katie Hartsock. I also especially enjoyed the opening note by Anna Lena Phillips Bell discussing the departure from the magazine of Beth Staples, who will move to this sleepy town come August and take over Shenandoah. I’ll be reading poetry submissions under her editorship and I’m beyond excited about the magazine’s transition. I’m nervous about the workload, too, but my term on AWP ends in October, and being a trustee during that organization’s recent changes has involved plenty of time and worry. I’m eager, at any rate, to spend time in a different region of the po-biz.

The picture below tells you, too, that I’ve been reading a beautiful chap by Sally Rosen Kindred, who often works at the fringes of dream and fairy tale, from Porkbelly Press. In Says the Forest to the Girl, Sleeping Beauty is a recurring character, and sleep can be a dangerous condition–a response to trauma that, by hushing struggle, puts you at risk again–but also forest-like in a good way, a zone of growth and strange associations. From “Sleeping Beauty Says Goodnight to Little Red”:  “A lullaby is a broken cup waiting to slice your lip.// Close your eyes, hope for a hundred years.”

Personally, I’d rather enjoy a solid eight hours, stop yawning, and get back into summer writing now. I’m not a princess or even a girl, and I’ve got uses for daylight. But what the body says to the poet deserves attention, too.

says-the-forest.jpg

Venus/ dodo

I didn’t even know the Venus of Willendorf inhabited Vienna’s Natural History Museum when deciding to spend our last afternoon in the city there. My son was weary of paintings, so while Madeleine and Chris headed to the Leopold Museum, Cam and I staggered through flocks of taxidermied rare and extinct animals. The museum was mostly non-air-conditioned so we were dizzy and wilting, fascinated and sad. I’m attracted to natural history dioramas but find them gruesome, too–all those creatures killed and stilled in the name of learning. I don’t know why Venus was among the early human life exhibits rather than in an art museum, but I was awed to meet her there.

I’m still jet-lagged and processing, but the whole trip was like that: lucky and wonderful, tiring and tricky. The intense itinerary was arrived at by family negotiation. I don’t love Vienna and argued to go elsewhere, but then decided to go with the flow–museums, beer, and pastries in any European capital are pretty great, after all, for tourists with Euros. Earlier in the trip, seeing Prague through our daughter’s eyes was especially amazing. She’d been studying there for months and planned itineraries that included not only the obvious sites but her favorite vistas and gardens, banh mi and coffee houses. Then, during the middle 3 nights of our 10-day holiday, we visited Chris’ second cousins in Slovakia, driving from Bratislava to the eastern village of Hranovnica, where Chris’ grandparents grew up before moving to Pennsylvania coal-mining country. Everyone was kind and generous, toasting the Americans with shots of brandy before large meals, walking us round to the graveyard and then to more relatives’ houses for more brandy and sweets (sour cherry and cinnamon pancakes–a religious experience). The next day, we hiked to a lake at the foot of the High Tatras–some of the most stunning scenery I’ve ever seen.

There were stresses, too, and not just from having a headcold and being tired and itchy (Chris and I had bad rashes, probably allergic reactions to Virginia creeper, and still have them, despite rounds of cortisone and prescription creams). I have about ten words of Slovak now, and two of them are “black” and “white,” because of a racist joke at dinner about the Roma people and Obama that led to a long, irresolveable conversation in halting language. The US is notorious for a wide variety of human rights violations, but so is Slovakia, where the chiefest involve the Roma population: segregated education, forced sterilizations. Madeleine has been studying the crisis and knows way more than I do about its complexities, but trying to talk from that schoolwork just dropped us into an all-too-familiar education vs. life experience quagmire argument, deepened by tensions among the Slovak relatives themselves. It was hard to talk across our cultural and linguistic gaps, many of them springing from our relative wealth.

Even as we disagreed, I was feeling or imagining some hard-to-articulate connections. I was watching middle-aged and older women, most of whom spoke little or no English, work incredibly hard at making up clean beds in village houses without clothes driers, and feeding us elaborate meals cooked from scratch in small kitchens, although they, like the men, have demanding jobs. I was attending to them so closely that a couple of times, when someone said something in Slovak, I responded correctly in English and got accused of telepathy. There was lots of emotional eye contact, some of which I thought I could translate, although much is surely beyond my understanding: a mixture of pride, watchfulness, resignation to the hard work women do, and sadness at how family disperses further and further by the year, generations less and less intelligible to one another–perhaps a common frame of mind among postmenopausal Venuses.

In other words, I was thinking about race and gender the whole trip, just as I was before I left. I was also struggling with complicated emotions about a colleague’s angry reaction to my last blog post, particularly my sympathy with a commission‘s recommendation that changing the name of Washington and Lee, my university, was not as urgent as other transformations. After I caught up on that Facebook thread, I was kept awake by surges of horror that I’d hurt a friend who is undergoing difficult transitions. I also felt misread by him, suspicious that my defensiveness was an eruption of privilege, hurt at the harsh and public way he’d called me out, and a host of other messy things.

This is not a digression but the bedrock of my response to my friend, and my feelings about art and work and travel: I often wonder if I’ve wasted my life at Washington and Lee. I’ve been told by a wide range of people, in ways that are always demoralizing but occasionally frightening, that I’m not allowed to refer to my experiences at this university as harassment and discrimination, but I know how seriously I’ve been damaged by 24 years of employment here. I’ve done good work, too, and used my income to support two brilliant kids who are going to make the world a better place, when some of us old people finally go extinct. Complicity/ struggle, privilege/ damage–I’m riding the slash-mark, uncertain of the value of my work and the costs of my choices, undecided about everything except that talking, and writing, are hard but worth attempting.

Well, given how my private apology to that upset friend was received, and that it was followed up by a thinly-veiled and soul-crushing Facebook post criticizing white women who center conversations about race around themselves, I guess some of those attempts have failed and one friendship is toast. But to anyone who reads this blog who thinks I’ve been a dodo but perhaps one with redeeming qualities, please know I’m sorry for all obtuseness and bad translation. Also know that I’m listening, always. And writing hard, because I decided long ago that I’d rather fail by speaking than fail by silence.

As I reread that last blog, for instance, what seems most blameworthy is not what I wrote but the unspoken understory, how other oppressions surround but do not surface in the report and my response to it. The Commission focuses on cruel exploitations of black Americans and, to a lesser extent, the undervaluing of women, and begins to reckon the reparations due. Almost no one is talking about the Monacans and other area tribes whose lands and livelihoods were stolen, who were also segregated and sterilized and otherwise profoundly harmed, to my institution’s benefit. What reparations are due in that quarter? Or how about the Latinx population doing so much of the domestic and construction work in Lexington, on and off campus, often ignored but also frequently threatened by omnipresent right-wingers who think all recent immigrants should be deported?

Again, not a digression: there’s a theory that the Venus of Willendorf was carved from limestone and tinted with ocher by a woman artist, based on how the proportions and facelessness suggest a woman looking down at her own body. My delight at the notion doubtless springs from my identity as an obscure woman artist, increasingly pudgy and trying not to be depressed about it, looking down at my flawed self and wondering how to make something good from my life. That ringing question implies an ongoing journey rather than a destination, I suppose. Best take a few deep breaths and get some sleep before the next leg.