She cannae take any more, cap’n

Trying to teach Robert Hayden on Friday, I had such a mother of a hot flash that my glasses fogged up. I’m not sure my students even noticed. We were discussing Hayden’s complicated elegy for Malcolm X, a small star releasing its own fire, and the seminar is full of canny astronomers with their own strong opinions and expertise. On the whole, it felt like a good space in which to vent the engines–for them, I hope, as well as for me.

I probably won’t blow–my inner Scotty has always been an alarmist–but the past few weeks have certainly been a test. I feel terrible, but not surprised, that after his public temper tantrum of privilege challenged, Kavanaugh is about to join the nation’s highest court. I feel terrible, but not surprised, at how some of my students feel unheard and disrespected on my own campus, which continues to be roiled by arguments over its racist history. And I feel sick about irreparable harms to immigrant children, voting rights, and the more-than-human world that sustains us despite our poisonings. The damage feels so massive–and so gleefully perpetrated–that it’s hard to know where to stand while voicing your own small resistance.

Literature sustains me more than anything else–reading it, teaching it, editing it. Less so writing it, in October, but I’ll get back to drafting someday, and in the meantime I’m trying to keep serving the writing by handling proofs and edits of articles, interviews, and poems in a timely way, plus keeping work under submission. My inner Mr. Spock, that is, keeps the priorities rational and the ship on course, knowing I’m precariously low on fuel. AWP labors dominate this weekend, and I’ll be attending my last AWP board meeting as a trustee next weekend (San Antonio), although I’m on the search committee for a new executive director and that work will continue for months yet. My work for the AWP has felt useful and important, but I’m ready to turn to other modes of literary service. Beth Staples has now appointed me Poetry Editor of Shenandoah, which honestly is a role I don’t feel quite deserving of yet, and hence I’ve been shy about announcing–but I’m working hard and learning a ton from her and also from the great teacher that is the submissions pile, so full speed ahead, I guess, on this little enterprise through which maybe I can help do some good.

I’ll probably skip next week’s blog post–lots of grading to do on the plane–but I’ll leave you with a Hayden poem my students loved, even though including it here means screwing up its spacing (see the link for a broadside version). Some took it as a meditation on self-care for activists. Also, here’s “American Incognitum,” kindly featured by Cold Mountain Review in its special issue on extinction. And last comes another poem of mine, one with an angrier or more desperate tone, with thanks to the Cimarron Review. The italics aren’t quite right but the gist still comes through, I think. I wish it weren’t so timely. Here’s hoping you can find solace and/or solidarity in art you love, because we’re going to have to hold it together, crew.

Monet’s Waterlilies

Today as the news from Selma and Saigon
poisons the air like fallout,
I come again to see
the serene, great picture that I love.

Here space and time exist in light
the eye like the eye of faith believes.
The seen, the known
dissolve in iridescence, become
illusive flesh of light
that was not, was, forever is.

O light beheld as through refracting tears.
Here is the aura of that world
each of us has lost.
Here is the shadow of its joy.

cimarron

#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

W&L Writers Resist

mlk-parade
photograph by Stephanie Wilkinson

The work ahead of us is overwhelming, so how to prioritize? I’m watching my friends make various choices, and I respect all of them. Some have stepped up their political activism and local volunteerism. Others have turned off social media and are writing their hearts out. Still others, feeling their words stolen away, unable even to read the news, are focusing on the small good things they can do for their families and in their jobs and classrooms. What kind of effort counts most? Ask me in twenty years.

But I’m proud of my town, which has not always been the case. Friday was Lee-Jackson Day in Virginia, as in Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, leaders of the Confederacy. (If you’re a puzzled reader from outside the U.S. wondering why my state honors a history of treason and slavery, well, don’t get me started.) Lexington, where both generals are buried, is ground zero for the “flaggers,” so we get swarmed annually by outraged white people in period dress. It is seriously intimidating to walk through a cordon of men in Confederate uniforms, some of them waving battle flags on heavy wooden staffs. Then you reach the corner and your sigh of relief is stifled by the apparition of a group of women in hoop skirts, à la Scarlett O’Hara. I hurried along, feeling sick, resonating with that shock many of us felt at election time: when and where do I live?

Yet Saturday, hundreds of people marched down Main Street waving rainbow flags and images of Martin Luther King, Jr. I was at the Bridgewater Poetry Festival, where I heard several really outstanding–and politically urgent–readings, but my phone was buzzing with heartening pictures like the one above. My kids are in that beautiful crowd.

I’m also proud of my colleagues in English. Many of them marched; Sydney Bufkin labored mightily to help organize the marchers. Like most of our efforts to communicate, a parade is ephemeral, but surely this work matters enormously to many, many people. On to the Women’s March in Washington next weekend, to manifest our resistance in the capital.

The creative writers at Washington and Lee are dazzling me, too, with their efforts to make change real. Ellen Mayock and Chris Gavaler are among the founders of a new activist group, 50 Ways Rockbridge, so in addition to blogging fiercely, Ellen about “gender shrapnel” and Chris about the politics of comics, they’re basically trying to counter-balance the Tea Party with kinder voices and grass-roots power. (At least one national umbrella group for these local energies is emerging, as well: check out Indivisible.) For both of them, this activism has deep connections to their research agendas. I admire this synergy even as I struggle with the problem of where best to spend my writing energies, an issue I blogged about recently for Modernism/ modernity under the title “Scholarship and justice.”

W&L writers are also publishing POEMS of resistance, bless them. Many of my recent efforts have had an incantatory quality, like spells or prayers, so it’s interesting to see other local poets wielding similar strategies. Not that we weren’t writing political poems before–we all were–but I see a strong attempt in recent work to summon all the force words can carry to fight, transform, and heal. See, for example, Deborah Miranda’s “Prayer of Prayers,” dedicated to “The Water Protectors at Standing Rock.” Or, more recently, in Terrain.org’s excellent “Letters to America” series, R.T. Smith raining down curses in “Whirling Disease.”

My own most recently published poetic take on the election appeared last week in the journal Rise Up Review: “Imperfect Ten.” I’d been reading Rattle‘s “Poets Respond” series, especially Barbara Crooker’s “Election Ghazal” and Richard Garcia’s “Canada.” Why ghazals? I wondered, then tried my own. I felt compelled to break a rule of this elegant form–the tradition that each couplet is self-contained–because, as another poet said, something there is that doesn’t love a wall, especially lately. You’ll also see that I was reading about the spike in hate crimes reported by the Southern Poverty Law Center. And, finally, that I was stinking mad. I still am, although starting to try to channel it differently. Rage is important, but you can’t set up house there forever.

P.S.: For a more skeptical picture juxtaposing the MLK marchers against the Lee-Jackson “history and heritage” banner, see my daughter on Instagram. She’s right. I confess to feeling some hope these days, but it’s probably irrational. I have great friends. But this country: still crazy.