January 31st, 2018

I didn’t blog last week. I was thinking.

About Neruda. And that was because I was thinking about Burns.

I was not thinking about their poetry. 

When I met my partner just a few years ago, one of the first things he gave me was a book of Neruda’s love poems. Since his reading (at the time) was largely restricted to non-fiction and Dan Brown, it meant a great deal to me. He’d done his homework. But just a few months later I saw an article about newly uncovered letters, in which Neruda boasted about raping a woman.

The Neruda poems just sit there on my shelf now. And every few months, I notice them, and consider tossing the book in the trash. When we were looking for poems for our wedding ceremony, he suggested we look through the volume of Neruda’s love poems.

Hell no.

In the end, my best friend chose a read a poem for the ceremony: Naomi Shihab Nye’s “So Much Happiness”.

The following year, a group of our friends threw us a wonderful anniversary dinner party in a communal garden. The evening was filled with poetry. One of the highlights was our Scottish friend reciting “A Red, Red Rose” with his beautiful, softly percussive accent.

This month our Scottish friend and his wife hosted a Burns Supper. Such a cool thing to do: bagpipes, haggis and poetry. Great company. I was thrilled to get the invitation, and I brushed up on my Burns.

And regretted it.

At the dinner, our hostess was amazing. She is savvy and elegant, and she managed to bring up the dilemma of celebrating Burns in the atmosphere of our #MeToo culture, without ruining the evening.

Still.

In case you haven’t seen the articles circulating last week: Burns also left a letter — in which he boasted about raping his pregnant wife on a bed of horseshit in the barn.

Over the years, I have been quick to say that I can separate the person from the artwork. Once they are dead. (I will watch Woody Allen’s films after he is dead.) Both these letter-writers are dead. Have been dead for a while. So it shouldn’t matter.

But I can’t shake this feeling.

And I have had a little epiphany: the realization that this feeling I can’t shake is shame, actually. Somehow, somewhere along the way, my body has conflated feelings of anger and shame into one monster emotion that lurks in the closet.

And in the shared — then ignored — stories that are shared on social media.

Part of my personal definition of art is that an art object conveys the experience of being human, in a recognizable way. That’s it.

But then there is that other idea: that artworks are ennobling. When biographical facts color and contextualize the experience that is being conveyed through a work of art in a way that is exceedingly human, but not ennobling, do we toss the bibliographical context (and does that falsify the content?).  Or do we toss the work of art?

Burns and Neruda are still on my shelf. And when I glance at them, my body still vibrates with a conflated emotional state — that is being human.

 

 

 

 

January 19th, 2018.

… Then, there is the wisdom of old women.

I tried to wrap myself with that once, and my 21 year-old son said, “Mom, you’re not that old yet.”

*

It’s the weekend, and after meditation this morning I pull Words Under the Words from the bookshelf and settle onto the couch with a cup of tea. Naomi Shihab Nye’s poem “Grandfather’s Heaven” ends with these two stanzas:

I think Grandpa liked me too
though he wasn’t sure what to do with it.
Just before he died, he wrote me a letter.

“I hear you’re studying religion,” he said.
“That’s how people get confused.
Keep it simple. Down or up.”

I once wrote about my Grandfather telling me, “Stay away from philosophy. There’s nothing of God in it.” (I must have shoe-horned that into a poem, because I can’t remember the rest of the poem.)

When I try to remember if my Grandmother ever gave me this kind of straight-up advice, I remember, “Don’t slouch.”

And, “Don’t tell your mother. She is going through a lot, and can’t handle this right now.”

Looking back, I try to understand how people make simple rules, and routes of least resistance.  I remember asking my Grandmother if she saw Goodnight and Good Luck when it came out. She said, “I don’t have to watch it, I lived through it.”

But she didn’t want to talk about it with me.

I’m sure she knew I thought I had something to “contribute to the discussion“. I really was young then. I hadn’t learned to listen — even if I ‘d known the right questions — the way in. It would have been a waste of time.

If she had opened up about the complexities of her experience,  I might well have tried to solve them, simplify them with labels and analysis. I’d gone to college, after all. I would have made absurd parallels in an attempt to empathise.

I must have been an ass. If she hadn’t loved me, she wouldn’t have liked me. Looking back, I don’t like me.

*

When I look back at that woman I was, not that long ago, I love/h– no, not hate. Is there a word for that tender but oh-so-indescribably-annoyed feeling one has for the foolish people we love? Ourselves?

Maybe that is love/love.

*

How do you pass on the wisdom of knowing that you only know of fraction of all that you don’t know — and nothing else?

How can you teach that the decision not to put a dog in the fight isn’t apathy, but perspective?

Not every route of least resistance is the foolish choice.

*

When I do the math, I see my grandfather must have been about 60 when he told me to stay away from Sartre. And at 80, he stopped going to church. The thirty-something preacher kept preaching about women obeying their husbands, and Grandpa called, “Bullshit.”

I didn’t ask him how he squared that with God’s rules.

*

When my Grandmother was 89 she stopped referring to African-American men as coloured boys. She voted for Obama. She laughed when I told her that her grandson was gay, and said that she “used to give a fig” about things like that.

*

I am afraid I’ll die before I become wise.

*

I am afraid time will move backward and reveal that wisdom itself is an illusion. It’s just a matter of the “right” answers, according to the prevailing opinion.

*

Or maybe it’s all about learning not to give a fig.

*

I read poetry. Poetry that asks questions, and never offers answers. Poems that aren’t tied up with bows. Plays that don’t have “messages”.

*

I was making the rounds on the blog revival this morning, and the concept of empathy in poetry popped up twice. I was thinking about the links between empathy and sympathy.

About the impossibility of the surety of empathy. The narcissism of surety of knowledge. The quagmire of identity politics and reading, writing, theater-making.

And does all this empathy lead to catharsis? And it catharsis really a valuable experience? Does bypassing empathy — pure intellectual understanding — lead to social activism? Does unfettered narcissistic immersion in “feelings” lead to personal growth that contributes to a greater good?

(Forgive me, I have been teaching Brecht and Artaud again this term.)

Or does it all simply lead to self-satisfying, simple answers?20180120_182901

Maybe: “I just don’t know” is one of those.

*

Or maybe “I don’t know” is the wisdom of knowing when no one is listening for the questions.

The negative capability of wisdom.

The recognition of the ego-driven nature of persuasion.

*

Maybe all poetry is love/love poetry.

*

So I read. And I learn that I don’t/can’t know. (Like all the implications of Naomi Shihab Nye’s poem.)

And I write. And I feel misunderstood, and overlooked.

But I’ve grown up. At least grown up enough to drink. So now, I drink when I get rejection letters. Or when my writing is met with shrugs.

After a glass of wine, my inner critic no longer tells me I need to get the answers right for anyone.

After a glass of wine, she actually sounds a lot like Dorothy Parker — ’cause when she’s tipsy she sides with me, and turns on everyone else. She love/loves me. And I, her.

*

Like I said. I am afraid I’ll die before I become wise.

So, in the meantime. I’m going to go write a list of questions. Maybe if I leave enough questions in the world, someone will wrap my corpse in the mantle of old women’s wisdom.


Dave Bonta and Jennifer Saunders have some nice resumes of what they enjoyed from the revival last week. And Eric M.R. Webb lets us know Treehouse is up and running again.

And I am still ruminating over Jim Brock’s post about Virginia Woolf’s writing. And, oh, yeah – there’s that word again: empathy.