#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

May the river/ remember you

bricks

“In Berlin, you can’t go anywhere without seeing stones and markers dedicated to the Jewish and Roma residents who were forced from their homes and taken to the concentration camps,” Bryan Stevenson, a civil rights lawyer, says in “A Lynching’s Long Shadow” by Vanessa Gregory. “And that iconography creates a consciousness of what happened that I think is necessary for that society to recover. In the American South, we’ve done the opposite. We’ve actually created symbols designed to make us feel great about our history, about the 19th century, about the good old days of the early 20th century.”

That quote from Stevenson, also a MacArthur winner and founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, really struck me. We should be tripping over memorials for enslaved people here in the south, and for descendants of those enslaved people, who were subject to decades of terrorism while huge portions of white America stood by. Those lynchings were, instead, cheered on by white audiences, who brought their children to the festivities and collected souvenirs (read some basics about lynchings in Virginia here, but know in advance this Encyclopedia Virginia article contains upsetting pictures). It’s not that I think memorials would fix racism. But it’s pernicious how centuries of racist oppression are not just under erasure, where I live. They’re actually celebrated as “heritage” in a way I will never get over.

So what do I do, aside from the occasional march, phone call, editorial, donation? I’ve been deliberating these questions mostly through my poetry and in my classrooms. During our four-week May term this year, I’m teaching African American poetry with an emphasis on history, and the class will culminate in a digital memorial project framed in some way by excerpts of poems. It’s a talented group of students, mostly non-majors, and I’ve been working hard to introduce them to resources like our university’s wonderful Special Collections, but what they focus on will ultimately be up to them. This is a public project, so I’ll post a link in about two weeks, when it’s done.

At the moment, we’re waiting to scrutinize the report of the Committee on Institutional History, which was released to the president last week but not, yet, to the community. We’re also reading Kevin Young’s amazing long poem Ardency: A Chronicle of the Amistad Rebels, from 2011. I think my students are struggling with it, much more so than with the shorter poems we’ve read, and I understand why–Ardency is not only long (250 pages), but Young steadfastly refuses to simplify this vast, complicated, powerful story. Instead, the book riffs on the languages and structures of religion, education, and music, with a section each focused on Covey, the free Mendi translator; Cinque, a captive who came to lead the rebellion; and a chorus of survivors on trial, often represented through letters. For a sample from Cinque’s extended “Libretto,” listen to “Choir (Morning).” Or read 1/250th of the book below. (I prefer to link to poems if I don’t have permission to post them, but I can’t find anything to link to. Just read this and buy the book, please. I believe Ardency will be judged one of the top poetic achievements of the century.)

Confession

The rage I have
not felt till now is not

what is, here,
called red–raw, rare

meat it is not.
Instead, steady green.

Is no flowering,
not a sudden thing

but the tallest tree.
Not the swift climb

to the top–or, timber
the chop–

But the termite’s steady rot.
-Kevin Young, from Ardency

Can a poem be a monument? I think so. A book doesn’t have the simplicity of a pillar or the accessibility of a garden, but there’s a public role, too, for the productive difficulties of intensely patterned language. We need to read poetry, alone and together, because it helps us remember (and imagine) what’s lost and imagine (and remember) a way forward.

 

Anthroposcenery

Washington and Lee students often refer to their version of Lexington, Virginia as “the bubble,” as if were a protected from the world by those soft, old mountains. It’s not, nor would that be a good thing, and they know that. But seeming out-of-time is part of the attractive weirdness of some universities in the U.S. I know the damages people sometimes suffer even this privileged place, sometimes because of the privilege, and yet I appreciate the fantasy too sometimes as I walk through my gorgeous campus with arms full of library books, thinking poetic thoughts. It’s gothic, as my well-read firebrand of a daughter recently commented. Beneath the floorboards of wonderful intellectual conversations, a heart is beating out an accusation, and everyone tries to ignore the sound. (She really does talk like that and it’s part of why I miss her.)

The uncanny pulse gets louder this time of year, when the town hosts a different crowd every few days–family weekends for the two colleges, or trustee meetings, during which stray piles of cash drift over our academic mission like fallen leaves. Good work depends on that fundraising, so I’m happy it succeeds, but it makes me uneasy, too, because the emphasis so often falls on the wrong things. This past weekend was homecoming at W&L so the streets were rowdy with young alums. The graduates I’m closest to are often skeptical-minded literary types, too clear-eyed for unreserved cheering about a very good college with some very real culture problems. I ask if they’re coming back and many say, um, not my scene, unless they’re a retirement bash for a favorite professor in the offing, or some other content to the weekend than rah-rah-school-spirit. 

So it was unusual but very cool to walk downtown Saturday for a beer with a former student (and football-playing-poet) who became a college counselor and a fierce advocate for literary study at small liberal arts colleges. On the way I bumped into other former English majors, now passionately committed to teaching middle and high-schoolers. All are vocally grateful for those hours talking critically about books, writing and revising essays, figuring out what kind of people they wanted to be. My own elder child, a first-year at Wesleyan University, loves English but worries about focusing on it—will she be able to afford organic vegetables when she grows up? (She is really fixated on the cost of produce.) This question does not make me anxious at all. She’s smart and engaged and will graduate with skills employers want, no matter what undergraduate specialty she chooses. Finding the right path, the kind of job that satisfies employee as well as employer, can take time but I have no doubt others will value her intelligence and fire. My own graduates—lawyers, ministers, physical therapists, doctors, HR professionals, writers, editors, artists, arts administrators, diplomats, FBI agents, teachers at every kind of institution—give me high confidence that studying poetry can lead to a good life, however one measures that. (They could level some pretty smart arguments, in fact, for better ways of measuring of the good life.)

On Sunday, however, I fell into a bleaker mood, worrying about my mother in hospital, so I picked up a little book by Roy Scranton, whose first-year-seminar my daughter can’t stop talking about. I ordered it a few weeks ago, but hesitated to jump in, given the title: Learning to Die in the Anthropocene: Reflections on the End of a Civilization (City Lights, 2015). And it is, in fact, a dark book, full of facts and figures about climate change—a rational person can’t deny a catastrophe is unfolding, but most of us prefer fictional televised zombie apocalypse to consideration of how our grandchildren, if they make it at all, might be subsisting on farmed algae in the new temperate zone of the Arctic Circle. That is the future to worry about.

Scranton was deployed to Iraq in 2003 as a private in the US Army. He managed his terror by following advice from an 18th century manual for samurai: Meditation on inevitable death should be performed daily. He ritually contemplated his own demise in graphic detail, then, “before we rolled out through the wire, I’d tell myself that I didn’t need to worry anymore because I was already dead. The only thing that mattered was that I did my best to make sure everyone else came back alive” (22). He applies the same logic to human civilization: the Holocene is already over; we have to come to terms with living in a different era, with a very uncertain future.

There’s a lot to disagree with in Scranton’s book, but I was moved to watch it turn, eventually, into a fervent argument for the humanities. “Through the ice ages of the past and into the long summer of the Holocene,” he writes, “we carried tools, furs, fire, and our greatest treasure and most potent adaptive technology, the only thing that might save us in the Anthropocene, because it is the only thing that can save those who are already dead: memory” (95). And: “The study of the humanities is nothing less than the patient nurturing of the roots and heirloom varietals of human symbolic life. This nurturing is a practice not strictly of curation, as many seem to think today, but of active attention, cultivation, making and remaking. It is not enough for the archive to be stored, mapped, or digitized. It must be worked” (99).

When we make literature central to our thoughtful lives, generate new art out of ancient myths, or read poetry to remember the dead, we are working the humanities. I’m glad people fund and value the labor, although I wish we could talk more openly and seriously outside the classroom, as well as in it, about the costs and benefits of the apparent bubble, who’s excluded from it, and how. In any case, it’s good to be part of the heirloom-seeds-relay, so that my students can go on to share their favorite poems in Baltimore schools or embassy outreach classes in the Czech Republic. I’m also grateful my daughter has such a humane, eloquent teacher to plant Gilgamesh and Blake in her brain. We need optimists—hopeful people focused on the practicalities of getting each other out alive—but we direly need our bleak rememberers, too. We lose so much, so constantly.

Literary Lexington in the 1920s

“First came Vachel Lindsay and gave a ‘reading’ (if you could call it that) of his poem in the Washington and Lee Library. One of them sounded to me like a hog calling. Then came Carl Sandburg whom I liked much better.”

This is from an obscure memoir called Mrs. Ecker’s Lexington, 1918-1929, edited by Dr. Charles W. Turner, billed on the title page as “Retired Professor of History Department of Washington and Lee University,” and printed in Roanoke by the Virginia Lithography & Graphics Company in 1990. Grace Glasgow Dunlop was born in 1878 in Georgetown; in 1906 she married John Ecker and they had four children. Ecker died of tuberculosis around 1914, and as Grace Dunlop Ecker, a smart and energetic young widow, reflected some years later, “When war finally came to my own country it was a veritable mental boost for me, for it changed my train of thought and having no man of my own to send I threw myself, my soul and body, into the work of the Red Cross.” Eventually, however, with Washington “swarming” with war workers, and everyone suffering from food and coal shortages, she decided to move her family to Lexington for a while.

Her memoir of the town I live in is lively and interesting, full of funny detail about the Virginia Military Institute and W&L, where I work. Comical tensions between Presbyterians and Episcopalians; the lassitude of local summers after students clear out; Robert E. Lee idolatry–they ring true to the place I first came to know decades later, in 1994. While she lived first in a rented house on Letcher Avenue, between the two campuses, she later built a home around the block from me, on what became Barclay Lane. I’m pretty certain the painter Cy Twombly lived there later.

I’m not precisely sure why I’m doing so much side-reading in local history, except that poems keep coming out of that exploration. But it’s fun to stroll around the neighborhood with Chris in the evening, book in hand, and figure out which houses various eccentric Lexingtonians lived in by Ecker’s idiosyncratic descriptions. There are several references to literary culture here, too. I love the sound of the Wednesday morning Reading Club. Mrs. Derbyshire read dramatically from Sandburg, Lindsay, Amy Lowell, Robert Frost, and others, while her listeners darned stockings.

Ecker had taste and a fierce appetite for culture, as well as a longing to lead, to be useful, in a way her life rarely allowed. She isn’t an entirely sympathetic character. She thinks wrongly, for example, that she’s a good employer to a servant she keeps referring to as “fat, freckled, yellow Lucy,” who is homesick for D.C. and eventually walks out without notice. Ecker failed to understand her own prejudices, but she was a thwarted person too, a woman whose talents and desires had little enough scope beyond volunteer work and dancing at Hops with lonely cadets. She suffered too many losses, as well–not only her husband’s death and her mother’s but her young son’s too, suddenly, as she read to him on the sofa.Ecker

I’m glad she ventured out to hear Lindsay and Sandburg and wish she’d said more about them. The little passage I quote above, though, is followed by a fuller description of another literary event:

“Then on a strange October day came John Drinkwater who had become famous for his ‘Abraham Lincoln.’ I say a strange October day for we had a heavy snow, and I shall never forget the effect of the red and yellow leaves and the evergreen trees among the white snow. The event was to take place in the Doremus Gymnasium at Washington and Lee, the largest place in town. All the electricity was off and when the audience arrived the place was lit with candles and lanterns. When Mr. Drinkwater took his place at the reading stand, which was trimmed with greens and red candles, his first remark was he felt like a Christmas tree. He had to leave before eight the next morning, which he did not relish at all, to keep his engagement at Sweet Briar, nor, I heard did his English taste relish the salted butter served at the Dutch Inn, but I understand that he considered the campus of the University very beautiful and impressive.”

It sounds magical, doesn’t it?–despite the horror of salted butter. Ecker moved back to Georgetown not long after, grieving her child and ready for another change of scene. She died in her nineties, in 1973. You can find her better-known Portrait of Old George Town on Project Gutenberg (John Drinkwater’s Lincoln play is there too). I’m glad to have visited with her. All these familiar places are becoming even more haunted than they used to be.