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.

It takes a heap of loafing to write a post

You know those projects kids get in school that are really projects for the parents, where you take clay and macaroni and pipe cleaners and end up with a gorgeous topological map of Virginia? Those assignments always filled me with dread, because I did not have the skill or will to do them myself, as some parents did; teach my daughter to do them, as a better parent would; or fail to care what people thought of my failure at the above responsibilities. I was much relieved, therefore, when the dioramas faded out. I CAN teach a kid to write a decent paper, when called upon, although my daughter is pretty much past the need for assistance.

I was alarmed, then, when she brought homework for me this spring break. She’d just read Gertrude Stein’s Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas and was supposed to get a friend or family member to write a brief pretend autobiography of her, then reflect on the experience. “You don’t have to imitate Stein’s style,” she said. “Oho!” I yelled and dropped my own homework in favor of this much more interesting assignment. “Oh, no,” she said.

Gertrude

The Autobiography of Madeleine W. Gavaler, by Lesley Wheeler

I was born in Fishersville, Virginia, and wherever that is, there is no there there. I have in consequence always preferred living in a cosmopolitan environment but it is difficult to find a cosmopolitan environment and live in it. I conceived in my infancy a profound dislike of fish, creatures with which the fishers of Fishersville were possibly also disenchanted, since that village is bereft of waterways.

My mother was a quiet charming woman overfond of poetry. My father came from workaholic stock. His father was a research chemist with a specialty in superconductivity. His father’s father mined coal in Western Pennsylvania after escaping Slovakia via snowy passes in the Tatras. My father was a loud charming man fascinated by superheroes. This is sufficient information about the patriarchy.

I myself have no liking for coal or super items but have always enjoyed the pleasures of bagels and fruit. I am fond of paintings, hiking, coffee shops, and Russian history. I like a view but when confronted with beauty I burst into tears and can no longer perceive it.

I led in my youth the gently neglected existence of professors’ children. I joined my school’s academic team the better to study my fellows’ lack of substantive interest in art and literature. I was also elected to the National Honor Society the better to observe how members’ parents bought them out of public service. My greatest adventure was a semester attending high school in Wellington, New Zealand where fellow students berated me for United States racism and economic policy. Upon my return Virginia friends drove me to mountain swimming holes and taunted me with my fear of fish.

We were all living comfortably together with our disparate attitudes towards wildlife when the acceptance from Wesleyan University arrived. There was at that time a great deal of email coming and teenagers going. My mother and father gnashed their teeth quietly and then permitted me to go and I came to Middletown where no one required me to eat fish or indeed have any interactions with fish. There I met Nabokov, Plato, and Oscar Wilde and a bell rang in me although I was exasperated by their genius. I met many other important people and Instagrammed their book covers alongside beverages. In this way my new full life began.

Toklas fake

 

Dancing to Loy: teaching modernist poetry and performance

This is the moment in the term when some of my craziest teaching experiments come to fruition (or wither pathetically on the vine). I always assign something fun or peculiar in the last week or two of the semester, in part to combat exhaustion as everyone faces down final papers and exams, and in part to make room for other ways of thinking through literary works. Analytical writing is important: by reasoning through ambiguous texts and bolstering claims with well-judged evidence, students exercise intellectual skills that can make them better writers, citizens, moviegoers, you name it. Analysis, though is far from the only way to come to terms with a poem. Some of us like to puzzle over how literature works, but analysis isn’t the foremost pleasure for most readers, I think. Many of us, for example, get most excited about literature when it provokes us to personal introspection or artistic imitation. Why shouldn’t those modes of response get some classroom time? Don’t we learn from them, too?

So this week, students in my upper-level undergraduate course on American poetry from 1900-1950 had to assemble into small groups and figure out some way to perform a poem that wasn’t on the syllabus. Some of them created videopoems inspired by Lorine Niedecker’s “My Life by Water.” Here’s a video response by Eleanor, Sam, and Kellie to Gertrude Stein’s “Sacred Emily,” with each of 370 lines represented by a single image flashing by quickly:

Another group provided a theatrical interpretation of Carl Sandburg’s “Chicago.” Here are Ben, Katie L., and Johnson before they smeared dirt on their faces and climbed on the furniture. Sandburg

Did you know Mina Loy designed lamps? So did Annie, Taylor, and Katie T., in response to her poem “The Widow’s Jazz.” With dramatic flair, they plugged their lamp in mid-reading, transforming an apparent blank spot in the shade into a sort of magic lantern illumination of Loy’s silhouette.

Loy lamp

By secret ballot, the class awarded “best performance” (and extra credit) to Amira, Danielle, and Caroline for their playful and insightful translation of a visual poem into an audiofile. Here’s their rendition of E.E. Cummings’ “rpophessgr.”

Another contender for the prize was a dance choreographed and performed by Alee, Alyssa, and Kiki, in response to Loy’s “Brancusi’s Golden Bird.”

I felt a little awed by the creativity and talent on display for what was, in essence, a minor homework assignment. And I’m fairly sure all these students understand the poems now better than I do, from the inside out. They devised great programs for their performances, too. Rather than including them all here, I’ll conclude with photographic testimony from Johnson, Katie L., and Ben, to the desperate intellectual seriousness of their artistic collaboration. Well, at least Katie looks serious. (P.S.: I really like my job.)collaboration