“I live in language on land they left”

Some troll tweeted at me the other day that since I seem not to like Lexington, Virginia, I should just leave. He styled himself as a lover of the Shire who’s not ashamed of being a hobbit. He even used Elijah Wood as Frodo for his profile picture. Good to know hobbit-hood is white supremacist code, I guess–a state of intransigent smallness.

“Love it or leave it” is a glib, narrow-minded slogan that’s already received more intelligent rebuttals than I could come up with (see my final paragraph on Kiki Petrosino, for instance–the title of this blog is from her poem “Farm Book”). The hobbit was responding to my tweet about the imminent renaming of local institutions such as Stonewall Jackson Hospital, the R. E. Lee Hotel, and, after a couple of long and contentious city council meetings, Stonewall Jackson Cemetery. A couple of years ago, R.E. Lee Church was rechristened Grace Episcopal (another hot and protracted fight that caused permanent rifts), and even my employer, Washington and Lee University, may be lurching toward a belated rebranding. Washington’s name needs to go as well as Lee’s, and it’s quite possible the trustees will hold out for a few more years against any change at all, but encouraging things are happening. The rising sway of clear-eyed young people has made a big difference here, as well as the hard work of others who have been putting their weight into moving the local culture for a long, long time. I know the activists, because Lexington, and W&L, are tiny. I remain moved and astonished by the opposition they continue to face and the grit they bring to facing it.

Yet fixing offensive honorifics feels so small! These names have always been aggressions, and if they didn’t matter, there wouldn’t be trolls and outraged alums and people spouting conspiracy theories at council-meetings. Still, they’re relatively superficial markers of a violence that goes so deep, that is so rhizomatically entwined with other aspects of town and university life, that expunging it would be more than a lifetime’s work.

For these obscene entrenchments and other reasons, I don’t like Lexington, and I thought about leaving right from the beginning. There’s a poem in The State She’s In, “Native Temper,” that ends with the line, “I’d rather die than die in these parts.” I don’t know if it’s a good line poetically, but it sang in my head for a while before I wrote it down, its paradox making me laugh with a hysterical edge. There’s always a reason to stick around a little longer. Some of the most serious reasons at various times have been a terrible job market, the exhaustion of raising very young kids, my spouse being hired to W&L’s tenure-track, fabulous tuition benefits for my older kids (damned if I wouldn’t take every cent I’d earned!), and fear of uncertainty, of hurting myself and my family by making a stressful move that turned out to make life even harder. W&L also did me a lot of damage–a plantation ethos entails systematic sexism as well as systematic racism and other noxious prejudices–and I think that paralyzed me, too. Staying hasn’t been good for me, as a friend observed after reading my new poetry collection. But here I am anyway, researching local history, writing about small-townness and southernness, thinking and teaching about complicity, continuing the small-scale work of making my spheres of influence some fraction better while very much doubting the rightness of my choices.

I feel particularly stuck right now because I don’t have the release of travel, of periodic escape to remind myself there’s a bigger world. I’m reading a lot but mostly books about small towns, too: Stephen King’s sin-haunted Maine villages (my stay in Salem’s Lot was unpleasant for a variety of reasons); plague-ridden Derbyshire mining country in Geraldine Brooks’ Year of Wonders (I loved that one); a prissy Ohio suburb in Celeste Ng’s justly-celebrated Little Fires Everywhere; the island horrors of Emily St. John Mandel’s The Glass Hotel and Lucy Foley’s The Guest List. Is that because I’ve been on a mystery-thriller kick, trying desperately to get out my own head? Do those plots work best in little bubbles? This spring, able to concentrate only in short spurts, my reading was mostly poetry that felt quite different, conjuring cosmopolitan places or a sense of global connectedness, as 21st-century poetry tends to.

The brand-new poetry collection I just finished, though, is local without ever being small–and illuminates Kiki Petrosino’s relation to a place she can neither love nor leave behind. In White Blood: A Lyric of Virginia, three long poems are based on the results of a DNA ancestry test; one section, titled “Albemarle,” eviscerates Jefferson’s celebrators in breathtaking ways; and another sequence locates itself in Louisa County, where some of Petrosino’s ancestors resided. Petrosino herself seems to have departed the region after earning a B.A. at the University of Virginia, and is now back as a professor there, drinking tiny glasses of bourbon at gastropubs while researching and receiving dream-messages from her dead kin. As Terrance Hayes writes, this book is “wonderfully irreducible” to tweets and slogans, plus so honed and gorgeous that it reminds me that poetry has special ways of helping people struggle with intractable problems; I think it will strike others that way, too, and be on short-lists for many prizes. I’m on sabbatical for a while but I’d love to teach it one day, in whatever still-messed-up America we land in a year from now.

Copy-editing and fact-checking poems

As the New York Times reports, we’re seeing industry-wide hand-wringing right now about how rarely books are fact-checked, following scandals involving Naomi Wolff and others. I’m proud that Shenandoah editor Beth Staples makes fact-checking a priority: the interns comb through every piece we publish, following up on names, dates, and a host of other check-able details. Not every poem needs fact-checking, of course, but some do. For example, I posted my own poem about the moon landing recently. Most people wouldn’t notice if I got the date wrong, but some would, and spotting the error might impair their faith in me as a writer.

So what level of precision do poets owe their audiences? Spelling proper nouns correctly, and checking dates and quotes, seems important, if a poem references real-world people and events. The trivia doesn’t matter, really–if I tell you right now that my teapot is as blue as loneliness, but it’s actually an unromantic beige, that seems like a reasonable bit of poetic trickery. (Gotcha! It’s orange.) Even in a persona poem like “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” a piece that’s obviously fictional, you’d want to check the Dante quote before you hit send.

I just handed in copy-edits for my next book, The State She’s In–overcoming the usual Prufrockian abulia to do so, because finalizing a book makes me REALLY ANXIOUS–and the process involved a final round of fact-checking on my end. Several poems involve public history that’s important to get right. While I know I was careful during the period of composition, what if I made a bad mistake in a poem about slavery, say, or Confederate history? The vultures aren’t wheeling around my publications the way they do around high-profile nonfiction, but still, I’m addressing sensitive material.

For example, last year I published a poem in Flock. They nominated it for a Pushcart, bless them, although it’s a very tricky piece about studying lists of enslaved people once owned, then sold, by my employer. In it, I think especially hard about a boy named Albert, 13, who was the same age as my son at the time; his name appears on an 1826 list but has disappeared by the 1834 version, and I’m wondering what happened to him. This weekend, I went back to the sources one last time to check the names and numbers, and guess what? I’d made some mistakes. They didn’t change the tenor of the poem: I had to change “fourteen names further” to “thirteen” and the sum of “twenty thousand” to “twenty-two.” Still, I make the dodgy move in the poem of speculating about how Albert’s ghost might have answered me, if that were possible, and that’s enough risk for one poem. I’ll likely never know his fate, but I can damn well be true to the part of history that’s verifiable.

 John Robinson’s List, 1826
 
This ruled and foxed document the only
record of your name, followed by numbers
firm and fat: three-hundred-twenty-five flat
for Albert, age 13. Your face, nowhere.
 
Ma’am, you do not know the first thing.
 
Persons bequeathed by Jockey Robinson
to this university, along with a thousand
acres at Hart’s Bottom. A sepia squiggle
ties you to Jerry, 53, and Elsey,
36, blind. Your parents? Dick, Amorilla,
Claiborne, Pompey, sisters and brothers?
 
I couldn’t say
but it does look likely.
 
Some of the entries hint at stories. Creasy,
68, twenty dollars, but the note,
in a column usually blank, offers a hard “worth
nothing.” The cursive relaxed but well-groomed.
A breeze huffs at linen curtains. A pitcher
sweats on the marble sideboard. How unworried
the appraisal. How satisfied the gloss.
 
Or thirteen names further, James the Preacher,
40, costly, his wife Mary, their eight children,
eldest five hired out, down to eight-year-old
Isaac for five dollars a year. What did James
preach about to Creasy-without-price,
“club foot” Nero, and “lame” Dick McCollum?
 
Your son is thirteen. Would he listen
to a sermon or sleep right through?
 
Are you like him? A quick boy, loves a game,
strategizing always? I remember you,
eyebrows hoisted, forehead grooved with notions.
 
No one gains by your imaginings.
Unless you do yourself.
 
I can’t find you on the 1834
“List of Slaves Belonging to Washington College,”
with Amorilla, Claiborne, Pompey, although
I riffle all the bills. Eighteen months later
Garland purchases nearly everyone
to send to his Mississippi plantation:
“Old Jerry was refused upon inspection.”
After the commission, trustees count
twenty-two thousand dollars into coffers.
That money translated to red brick buildings,
lichened shady trees, and my salary.
Is that how you linger, a ghost of ink
boiled from walnut shells? A row of desks,
a library shelf, digits propagating
in some faraway white-pillared bank?
 
Ma’am, I cannot say.

I’ve posted about revision A LOT in this blog–I just went back and reread this post from 5 years ago, which contains most of the wisdom I possess about ordering and pruning poetry books, and then there’s this shorter one about reading aloud to revise. Revision feels like a big subject, though, almost as big as the subject of inspiration in the first place. I think often about the day I first drafted the poem above: I was sitting in my office in the supposedly-haunted colonnade, shivering as I read that brutal history, typing out my questions, and then hearing the answers float up, a gift from my own unconscious, I suppose. The various days I wrestled with the poem, though, to make it as accurate as I could–those are important, too.

A famous Michael Miley photograph of W&L

Flagging

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In the screenshot above, a racist organization celebrates my university president. It’s been quite a week.

Backstory: in August 2017, as neo-Nazis rallied in Charlottesville, W&L’s then-new president set up a Commission on Institutional History and Community to study how we teach and represent our history here. “Here” is Washington and Lee, a highly selective liberal arts college with a law school attached, named after one of our early benefactors, George Washington, and another university president, Robert E. Lee, who held that role for five years after the end of the Civil War. The violence and hate displayed in Charlottesville is relevant to W&L not only because of proximity, but because our campus and small town  have been strongly shaped by white supremacy. Three buildings on campus are named for Lee–who for 150 years has been the focus of Lost Cause nostalgia–as well as a city street, a nearby highway, a church (until very recently), and lord knows how many other institutions I’m repressing memory of. The Confederate general is buried on campus and his right-hand man, Stonewall Jackson, is buried in town. Confederate reenactors regularly march down Main St. and pool in sullen groups at intersections, protesting local resistance to displaying Confederate battle flags on city flagpoles. The KKK periodically leaflets the neighborhood, soliciting membership. Ground zero for much of this is our college chapel–Lee Chapel, of course–which is full of Lost Cause memorabilia and sits atop the Lee family crypt. If you think these conjunctions are terrifying, eye-rollingly stupid, offensive, pernicious, a tempting target for more neo-Nazi rallies: yes, yes, yes, yes, yes.

In May 2018, the Commission issued a long report recommending many changes, some of which involve altering the role of the chapel in university life; renaming buildings and changing the balance of what’s memorialized; and correcting myths to present a far more complex picture of Lee. After 24 years of being upset by the way W&L presents Lee, I appreciated much of the straight talk in the report, although I know plenty of people who didn’t think it went far enough. The Commission included stakeholders from many generations, backgrounds, and political persuasions, so its consensus surprised me and gave me a little bit of wary hope.

Well, the president just issued a response that started the flaggers cheering (and presumably plenty of deep-pocketed conservative older alums, too). Basically, he was very specific about keeping intact the tradition of whitewashing Lee, and very vague about how other report recommendations might one day, possibly, very quietly be partially adopted. I’m not surprised, but like all the other professors I’ve been talking to, I’m sad and disappointed. What a waste of momentum towards change. What a way, too, to disrespect an already demoralized teaching community. I feel particularly bad for colleagues and students who put hundreds of hours of work into the commission, many of which involved fielding bile from enraged right-wingers, who are invariably louder than anyone with a moderate or left-of-center perspective.

Am I angry? Not really; too tired. I am mad at myself for signing up to moderate diversity discussions during first-year orientation, which will add up to 10-12 hours of unpaid labor, some of them over this “holiday” weekend. Why volunteer to facilitate those conversations when the larger organization won’t support the values behind them? I am worried about the students, though–the first-years moving in this morning as well as my returning students and advisees. I want everyone to feel welcomed, supported, and able to be full participants in the intellectual and artistic community we try to foster. I know many students who felt disenfranchised and demoralized last year; I’m afraid the president’s letter just made things much worse. What DOES seem utterly worthwhile, and what I’ll try to keep my focus on, is continuing to give students what help I can in my classrooms and office hours. Aside from the extra dose of complicity in white supremacy (!!!), I like teaching here a great deal: small classes, great resources, talented students, talented colleagues. It’s not the worst corner a poet can get backed into.

Plus, in meetings yesterday, I saw a revolutionary glimmer in some colleagues’ eyes. Roanoke College professor and general education expert Paul Hanstedt was leading an outstanding workshop on general education and I think the hard-core university citizens in the room were realizing: maybe donors will win all the debates about names, statues, and institutional rhetoric. But the FACULTY is in charge of the curriculum. We can make CHANGES that COUNT.

In the meantime, I loaded some extra protest poetry into fall syllabi. More on poetry teaching soon, and on reading poetry for Shenandoah, which, it turns out, I LOVE–it’s so much fun to read new work pouring in. W&L’s distinguished literary magazine, currently being redesigned by a new Editor in Chief, Beth Staples, is open for submissions now, all genres, no cost to submit, and if you’re accepted, it pays actual money! We’ll do good work with W&L’s resources yet.

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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.

 

 

Current weather and forecast for the Confederacy

track 1973

I’m often proud of my brainy, big-hearted students and colleagues, and I’m occasionally even proud of an administrator–when I hear, for instance, that someone deployed funds to help my advisee get through a crisis. Wealthy small liberal arts colleges can be very good places to work and study. And in ways I did not expect when I arrived in 1994, I’ve developed strong feelings for the land I live on. Sometimes, however, all the good resources make it harder to accept my college’s failings.

One of the strangest, most upsetting aspects of being at Washington and Lee has been the university’s uncritical reverence of that second namesake. I know many white southerners were raised to think of Robert E. Lee as an honorable, heroic leader during a terrible war, but most faculty, and a good proportion of staff and students, come from elsewhere and find the mythology alienating. I never really got over the shock I felt about those narratives at first–in fact, my shock has deepened, as it becomes more and more obvious that white supremacist ideals have not lost their grip on our country, that violence against people of color remains epidemic. I worried that white supremacy was in fact part of what my college was selling–come here, white students, and feel validated in your prejudices! I know that is NOT what happens in our classrooms, but nostalgia for the Lost Cause is nevertheless the lesson imparted by our architecture, some of our publicity materials, rhetoric at some events, and even by our name. I’ve felt despair about reconciling the goals of liberal arts teaching with the fundamental unkindness of, say, marching students into Lee Chapel for required events while denying that the building, standing above Lee’s actual crypt, is a shrine to the Confederacy. History is complicated and no one is innocent, but still, these are men who might have enslaved my students’ great-great-grandparents, lashed them, poured brine in the wounds. It’s that plain, that brutal–not something you can fairly ask a person to be politely silent about.

Which is why I want to use my last post before a ten-day trip to give a shout-out to two amazing projects. First: look at this report just issued by W&L’s Commission on Institutional History. It’s very long and detailed–I confess my first move was to read the prologue and then skip to the recommendations–but all of it is worth careful reading, if you’re at all interested in this corner of the world. The conclusions about renaming and repurposing certain buildings are spot-on, and the history the committee tells is the most honest and even-handed I’ve ever seen in a W&L publication. I’m just stunned by its scholarly fairness (oh, those hundreds of footnotes!).

The report does NOT recommend changing the school’s name, or at least not yet. I respect the opposing view, and I suspect we’ll revisit the issue eventually, but I’m personally in agreement with the commission here, even though everyone I meet, these days, hears my institutional affiliation, pauses for a beat, and says, “They’ll be changing that name.” I read the report on my phone between sessions at the Bridgewater Poetry Conference, where multiple people made that remark, in fact. But at the same conference, I also talked to a professor from Randolph College, who recounted how tough their name change has been. It’s a costly step in all kinds of ways, and I’d rather put resources into making more substantive changes, at least at first.

If we DO change. The report itself, posted online in its full glory, gives me hope, but will W&L act on those recommendations, and if so, at what speed? There’s a massive culture gap between trustees and current students, for sure, and since the former have the money…well, in my experience, change happens very, very slowly here, with many constituencies fighting it every step of the way.

A better place to rest that optimism is in the students themselves, and in how, generation after generation, they challenge the status quo and strive to push crucial conversations forward. Witness “The Black Experience @ W&L,” a website just completed by the 12 general-education students, from all years and a wide range of disciplines, in my spring term African American Poetry class. In addition to reading and writing about poems from four centuries, we heard from an archaeologist, a genealogical researcher, and a specialist in Black Arts; talked to a visiting poet; and worked in Special Collections. For this final digital memorial, one group conducted interviews with eight current black students (audio posted online) and compared them to a series of interviews conducted in 1997. They’re all worth listening to (the seniors are the most blunt), but the upshot is that while academics have changed in a positive way since the nineties, the social life hasn’t–black students still get kicked out of parties and challenged to show ID, as if they couldn’t possibly be enrolled here. “How can you explain what it’s like to live in Confederate Virginia with, like, 83% of your fellow students being white?” one interviewee laughed–explaining it pretty well, I thought. Another group investigated integration on athletic teams and discovered that while there was a big jump in the seventies, the numbers of black players on teams has stayed the same since then. Other individuals created exhibits on protests and controversies, from offensively-themed formal dances to peace marches. I’m proud of their hard work and, again, the unvarnished honesty of the stories they tell.

We can do better, but there’s no moving forward without remembering where we started, and being honest about who paid for the privileges we now enjoy, musing about Lucille Clifton in well-furnished, sunny classrooms.

Occasional poem on coeducation

bookmark

One of my students is currently researching coeducation at Washington and Lee, a guy whose father graduated in W&L’s last all-male class (’88) and whose mother studied here for a semester after women were finally admitted (class of ’89). He’s writing a series of poems based on interviews, newspaper articles, and even obnoxious graffiti from that era, so I gave him a copy of the bookmark pictured above. When an Associate Dean was asked in 2005-ish to organize a celebration of 20 years of coeducation, she asked me to write a poem for the occasion. I was originally supposed to read it aloud at an event but a poetry-phobe in Development nixed that idea. Ergo, bookmark.

The poem printed on that slip of blue cardstock is mostly sweet, remembering the aspect of coeducation I am wholly unambivalent about: all the great women students I’ve worked with during however many office hours I’ve held here in the past 24 years (if you do the math, don’t tell me). Before it, however, I wrote a spitting-mad sestina based on the research I did on coeducation in Special Collections. The phrases in quotes are all things W&L faculty and students said to the media.

I told my student about having to write my way through a poem inappropriate to the occasion before I could get to more celebratory language. He asked me if he could see it and I lost track of his request until this afternoon, when I finally finished a massive piece of committee work. It took some digging.

No Marthas

A veteran professor declared, seriously, ‘The education of women is a trivial matter.  The education of men is a serious matter. I don’t think the frivolous and the serious should mix.’ -from a Newsweek article by Ron Givens on co-education at Washington and Lee University, October 1985

The banner, a bedsheet really, cleared its throat as day-
light changed George Washington to gold: “NO
MARTHAS,” it politely recommended. Serious
banter draped beneath a finial, a wooden gentleman,
whose once-warm original gave a useful sum,
and his name, to Washington Academy. Tradition

honors his largesse even though, says tradition,
George liked Marthas. “A Roll in the Hay, but Not All Day,”
bumperstickers prescribed, heedless of allergy, but some
feared that constant exposure to women, with no
respite from estrogen, could harm young gentlemen
more than sexually-transmitted rhinitis. Serious

fears in frivolous words but frivolity is seriously
funny, admit it, while shocking, too, as if tradition
might really mean privilege only for gentlemen,
gentlemanly in wallet more than character, not today
of course but back in the eighties, when privilege brought not
just good cars, shoes, and liquor but keys to some

fraternity-shaped hay barn. Respectable capital, sums
and debits, eventually admitted women. Serious
money ebbs and flows with SAT scores, and, no
joke, Goshen was in drought. Wealth is a tradition,
too. Brushing hayseeds off the sheets, Yesterday
went to bed low on cash; Tomorrow woke the gentlemen

with pink curtains and higher enrollments. A gentleman
does not lie, cheat, or steal, suggested somebody.
Or gripe about “girls” during African famine. So days
of swimming naked in the gym pool sank into serious
dusk. Of course, we still pontificate about tradition
with little frivolity and less sense of history. No

school year stumbles by without slurs and assault; no
one drinks bourbon in legwarmers or whines, ungentlemanly,
that “everybody is worried about academics” now. Tradition
originally meant surrender or betrayal. Some
say it does still. Is Martha lucky to be here, seriously,
or does she surrender, betrayed, every day?

The gentlemen were seriously lucky that Martha
respected no tradition, marched in past Gorbachev,
Reagan, New Coke. Like some kind of day, breaking.

Our Declaration and our declaration

An interesting coincidence: after an intense conversation about the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, my department commissioned a group of volunteers to draft a public statement. I was among the group of, at various times, six to eight people crafting the text collaboratively over Labor Day weekend. The brief we received from other professors who attended the English Department retreat was not just to decry neo-Nazi terrorism, but to point how Robert E. Lee, one of our college’s namesakes, is a hero to white supremacists. If the institution we gladly teach at doesn’t address this–if we don’t address it in our classrooms and office hours–we’re giving cover to the haters.

At the same time, I was preparing to lead a discussion section of our first-year reading, Our Declaration by Danielle Allen. One of Allen’s main arguments concerns the collaborative composition of the Declaration of Independence. She traces the negotiations that, over months, shaped that document, and holds it up as a model for how a group of citizens can reason their way towards a political judgment.

I wasn’t always persuaded by Allen’s book, but I was often moved by it–not just by her personal stories, but by her evangelical passion for “slow reading,” democracy, and equality. I enjoyed discussing it with our very smart students, who walked away still in debate, and then hearing Allen’s speech at Convocation. I sat up high in the auditorium and watched shock ripple through the audience when she suggested renaming the institution “Chavis, Washington & Lee” (in 1795, John Chavis was the first African American to graduate from a college or university in the US, and that was from an earlier version of W&L, Liberty Hall Academy). One of my first thoughts is what a former student said later: “Sounds like a law firm.” Reasonable people can differ on whether our institution, which has already had a few different monikers, should be renamed. But it is time to talk about it, so I appreciated Allen’s provocation.

Likewise, I found the process of composing our English Department declaration inspiring. I know our document is trivial. But although the co-composers had various backgrounds and temperaments, urgency united us, as well as what I think of as the core values of my profession: openness to respectful debate; honesty; precision; and a belief that words matter. Across differences in rank, too, the writing process was democratic. I’m sure I’m being sentimental, but our wrangling over words felt like one of those rare moments a university lived up to its own idealistic rhetoric. I remain happy to have been a part of it.

In the department’s passion to make a joint statement, however, we didn’t agree on a process or timeline, and we all came out of the retreat with different expectations as to what would happen next. Things got messy. We voted to put it on Facebook, where it generated an extraordinary range of responses (although angry voices quieted somewhat after one right-winger identified himself as a Thor-worshiper), and also on the department web page. A senior member of the administration asked us to take it off the latter and we did so (screen shots below).

english statement capture part 1

english statement capture part 2Ever since, people have been asking me some version of the question, “so why is this controversial?” Sometimes it seems impossible to to describe to those outside the W&L bubble what the view looks like from here, and vice versa. And I can’t speak for the whole department–these answers are my own.

But what seems plain and honest to me personally is that W&L has a history of celebrating Robert E. Lee without acknowledging the context or consequences of that legacy. In the mid-nineties, I attended a baccalaureate ceremony in which the speaker, a minister, commended Lee to us as a proto-Civil Rights leader, because he’d taught his slaves to read. My Yankee jaw dropped right to the well-groomed lawn, but eventually I picked it up and got back to work. I had apparently time-traveled back to the Confederacy, but I just did my best to ignore the crazy rhetoric and teach my heart out. After all, I’m helping to provide a top-notch education to deserving students, and that’s work I believe in.

Yet how is it honorable to commend the good without acknowledging the harm? W&L is academically stellar, but it’s also the least racially diverse top liberal arts college in the country. Lee made laudable contributions to our school, but he also dedicated his military genius to defending the dehumanizing violence of slavery. To praise him without, in the same paragraph or page or oration, admitting the damage he helped cause–it’s ethically indefensible. See W&L’s “Our Namesakes” page for one of many public failures to get the balance right. Or look at our art and architecture. To hold school events in Lee Chapel, as if it’s normal to celebrate academic achievement with a portrait of the general in Confederate gray in the background–that damages the spirit of inclusiveness many of us work daily to foster.

Many community members have grown up with or just become used to this soft-focus hero worship of Lee, while also considering themselves anti-racist. Those positions are inconsistent in a way that becomes more obvious daily. I do hope for better, but we’ll see. Change comes slowly. In the meantime, here’s an article from The Lynchburg News I found during unrelated research yesterday. It turns out that the centennial of the Civil War was much celebrated in these parts, starting in 1960 and 1961. While the Civil Rights movement was in full swing, The Lynchburg News ran an intermittent “Confederacy Column” so that no one would forget to honor those southern soldiers.

It’s the partial forgetting I worry about.

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.

Pound, Eliot, and vintage radios

I’m between stations with a head full of static. I just finished teaching–submitted my last grade, for an honors thesis on Wallace Stevens–but my sabbatical doesn’t officially begin until July 1. I’m also signing off on an interim year as Department Head, and the final hours involve an unbelievable amount of writing. The letters for colleagues feel important, the reports feel trivial, but in any case, none of it is remotely literary. I’ll be glad to remove my needle from this particular groove in a few weeks.

Another reason I’m not fully here, or anywhere, is that modernism’s greatest hits have been playing relentlessly in my head. I recently visited Washington and Lee’s Special Collections to visit a dazzling new acquisition: 100 letters from Ezra Pound to Thomas Henry Carter, once a student editor of Shenandoah. Old issues of the latter literary magazine aren’t online, so you can’t easily look up Andrew J. Kappel’s 1980 article about the correspondence: “Ezra Pound, Thomas Carter, and the Making of An American Literary Magazine” (31.3: 3-22), but librarian Jeff Barry sent it to me and it’s pretty interesting. In 1952, Carter was a W&L sophomore who wrote to Pound at St. Elizabeth’s for publishing guidance. Carter was also hoping for, say, a Canto or two, but Pound didn’t oblige for a few years. When Pound finally did send in part of Canto 88, a different student editor rejected it–and Carter died young, at home in Martinsville, Virginia. The letters had been housed at Patrick Henry Community College for decades, and now a Digital Humanities class at W&L is trying to figure out how to preserve and promote the legacy. There are also boxes full of other materials, including Carter’s great little magazine collection and a Wyndham Lewis portrait of Pound that really should be hanging somewhere (I vote for Payne Hall). I will be thinking about how these collections can inform my teaching of modernism, but in the meantime I’m preparing to give a lesson to the DH class–Pound 101, basically, or Modernism: Quick and Dirty. Whoops, did I say I was done with teaching?

In the meantime, I’m preparing to review a new biography: Young Eliot by Robert Crawford. At some point you’ll find my remarks in the T.S. Eliot newsletter, but the short version, although I’m only up to Tom’s undergrad years, is that so far the book is rich, detailed, fresh, and useful. I guess it’s trivia if you’re not a fan, but it’s satisfying to learn that the poor air quality of the early poems–all that soot and yellow fog–is not just informed by Boston or European cities, but by St. Louis, where industry was fueled by burning soft coal. Eliot seems more American all the time (even as biographied by a Brit who really should write “tornado” instead of “cyclone”).

AND my teenage daughter just wrote an essay about “The Hollow Men” so she’s reading further and demanding on-the-spot “Waste Land” lectures over grilled chicken. AND, as I finally relax a bit, seeing enough time enough next year to finish my current critical project about 21st century verse, Taking Poetry Personally, I start wondering what comes after. Is it some version of Taking Modernism Personally? From contemporary poetry, back to golden oldies?

Well, before that comes a quick trip to Swarthmore, and graduation here, and finishing the damn assessment report. Plus, I have to finish pulling together my fall poetry collection, Radioland. Photographer and vintage radio collector Mark Meijster of Amsterdam has just given me permission to use his gorgeous photograph on the cover. I am jazzed. Hey you out there in radioland: stay tuned.

Radioland cover image