I’ve been thinking about who/where I imagine my readers to be. Maybe it’s a problem that I can’t come up with a clear picture. Maybe it’s not. I have zero opinion (a rarity) on where or how folks read my stuff. I suspect that some people who liked my first book might be a bit shaken by my second, which is very differently voiced, I think, and in that sense I find myself occasionally wanting to apologize to the folks who bought the second book thinking it’d be like the first one, which is a little silly. So far, I have managed not to do that. Mostly I just hope I have readers, and they’re welcome to read the poems however and wherever they choose. I remember reading an interview with John Grisham years ago in which he was asked how he felt about the various film adaptations of his books and whether he had a hard time seeing someone else’s take on his work. He said he liked the checks and otherwise figured they were out of his hands and not his problem beyond that. Minus the big, fat, lovely checks, I think that’s sort of how I feel. Once the poems are out there, I would very much like them to be read, but beyond that, they’re in other folks’ hands and hearts and heads and not really mine in some sense. Of course, I also assume that all my readers are smart as all get out, thoughtful, playful, and gorgeous, but that goes without saying, right? This whole question is interesting to think about in terms of Robert Frost, who famously fought against certain readings of some of his poems and carefully cultivated a public persona that was geared toward creating a very broad and affectionate reading public (this being back in the day when there were more than 2 poets in the country who could actually make something like a living as poets), but while he did not like the darker readings of “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” I wonder how he’d feel about the consistent mis-reading, mis-teaching, and mis-understanding of “The Road Not Taken” as a simplistic, Kipling-at-his-worst, “buck-up sermon. Maybe he’d have been fine with it as long as it got the poem enshrined in the cultural consciousness and brought in royalties, maybe he’d be repulsed, maybe a bit of both. I doubt I’ll ever have that sort of problem. It’d be nice in some ways. But mostly, I’m just very fond of my readers, whoever they are, wherever they are.
In fact–this is a first!
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Time seems to be moving fast, and not in a good way. The women’s march, and its attendant euphoria, is less than two weeks ago, but the news has moved on. I’ve been flush with activism and events, and this morning I’m staying home. I want to respect the march not just as a flash in the pan but as something historic I was honored to share with me friend Devon. Here is her report below.
“For over 20 years I prayed to God for justice, but I received no answer until I prayed with my feet.” — Frederick Douglass
I was too young for Woodstock, too young to demonstrate after Dr. King and RFK were killed, and too young to go to DC by myself to protest Viet Nam (parents were not “political” in that way). I did demonstrate locally, and I wore a black armband EVERYWHERE from the day we went into Cambodia until we more or less officially left. I stopped saying the Pledge of Allegiance in 9th grade when it dawned on me that I was pledging my body and soul to a piece of cloth. I stopped singing the National Anthem about the same time and only sang it again for a while after my god-son was killed in Afghanistan 5 years ago, but I can’t keep singing it any longer, and I’m pretty sure Will would understand.
I did march against nuclear weapons in NYC in the ‘80s. There were half a million of us then. I know what half a million feels like. There were more of us than that in DC. Many, many more. All, in one sense or another (atheist and religious and every shade in between) praying with our feet.
It hasn’t taken very long for our new President to enact vengeful executive orders. Nor has it taken long for fights to start among the various constituencies of the no-Trump wing. The march was too white, and the only reason there were no arrests is that there weren’t enough black people marching to set the cops on edge. There were too many vulgar signs. There were too many causes. I will pass over in silence the generally uninformed and nasty responses from those who didn’t approve of the march in the first place. I’m too busy watching chunks of my family break each others’ hearts over this election.
My crew wasn’t close enough in for me to say whether the DC police showed up in riot gear. I do know that they had the equine cops out, but only used them to clear the way for ambulances. And that the DC cops took down the barriers they’d erected when it became clear that there were many more than the 500,000 they’d planned for, and the Metro did a much better job at the end of the day than at the beginning, when they were overrun. Did all this courtesy happen because we weren’t a BLM march? Almost certainly. Is that okay? Absolutely not.
I confess that the extent to which my radicalism/progressivism has been dominantly that of a privileged white feminist—one of those “Seven Sisters Dykes” Steve Bannon thought he was insulting when he used the phrase. I went to Mt. Holyoke, I’m white, Protestant, and my father was a dentist. I’m also straight. The only real understanding I have of what it means to be a minority—someone judged automatically/autonomically on the basis of my surface–comes from being fat. If that’s 1% of what it’s like to be any of the things I am not, it sucks, breath by breath.
Here’s what I know about The Women’s March: it was not about white, straight women. Some of us surely haven’t awakened fully to the issues of intersectionality, and it’s true that I was thinking pretty hard about my white grandchildren when I decided to march. But the signs were overwhelmingly, about an un-boundaried, aware feminism. So, while my daughter took pictures, I wrote down what was on signs. I’ve seen pictures of wonderful, witty, fierce, pointed signs at the DC march and others, but these were my favorites from among those I actually saw in DC, starting with my own:
What if we’re right? (Lots of folks took pix of it, but I haven’t seen it show up anywhere, still, it’s the question I most want to hear Trump voters answer.)
Black Lives Matter (carried by white men and women)
This is NOT normal.
F**K ALL the –isms that brought us here (surrounded by smaller stickers covering everything from climate change to… well everything DJT hates and plans to crush)
Basic Bitches for Basic Rights.
Hello, I’m white and privileged. (on an enlarged name-tag design)
(over a picture of General Leia) Women belong in the Resistance.
(enormous anatomically correct 3-d uterus)
I CAN BE PRESIDENT (held by a small black girl)
..all the yard signs lining East Capital with quotations from the non-bland-ed MLK—hundreds of them. East Capital was the street on which we walked from the busses parked at RFK stadium in to the march. Residents and church ladies cheered and thanked us all along the 2 miles.
Muslims support Justice & Equality for All.
Feminist with a To-Do List.
…the group of blind marchers following a sighted guide carrying sleigh bells.
I hate crowds & I resent having to be here for this in 2017.
Trump is a Slytherin.
A Girl has no President (superimposed on a picture of Arya).
I met God. She’s Black.
I’m with her (many variations on this one, all with arrows pointing in every direction).
Words mean. I’m not a big fan of Deconstruction—I know poets who are, but it’s always seemed antithetical to me for poets to deny the meaning and power (no matter how complex those meanings and powers are) of words.
Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” is not a Kiplingesque ode to the value of choosing the harder path, no matter how many 4th grade teachers teach it that way. It’s not what the words of the poem say. If you want THAT poem, for crying out loud, teach “If” (in which only male humans are presumed to need what used to be called character, and which is far from being Kipling’s best work) or “Invictus.” Frost’s poem is, far and away, the best known American poem (for a more thorough discussion of the poem and its place in culture, as well as it’s consistent misinterpretation, go here: http://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2015/09/11/the-most-misread-poem-in-america/ ). For a brief take, let’s just focus on the WORDS here and what they say:
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black…
So the roads are pretty much the same. This means that the speaker CANNOT have taken a harder road, because there was no harder road to take. The speaker goes on to say that this is a story he’ll be telling “ages and ages hence,” you know, way in the future. So the poem, as many before me have noted, is a juicily complex exploration of the ways we make peace with our lives. Typical Frost. Also much richer and more humane than the frankly cheap misreading that is so popular.
This matters more now than ever, I think. I am already sick of the term “post-factual.” It’s one of those journalistic fads that offer a sort of linguistic comfort to the people who are trying to explain to themselves and us any sort of radical, important, baffling cultural moment of the sort we are in. Fox News is conducting a poll into whether its viewers want an actual investigation of Russia’s cyber-interventions recent US elections, both presidential and congressional. I voted, just for the sake of standing up for facts, but the vote tally was running against real investigation. This is not anything as mild as “post-factual,” it’s ferociously willful denial of truth. Also, no matter how often journalists and editorial-writers use it, the FACT is that the FACTS aren’t going anywhere, and calling the world “post-factual” somehow implies that they can be/have been buried. We communicate facts with words, though not exclusively. Therefore words and their meanings, no matter how contextual and contingent, matter. And repetition does not, in truth, create fact no matter how often it creates belief. Denial does not change facts. Facts can be buried, but like feelings (interesting, that—it kind of suggests that feelings have a parallel reality in some sense), they tend to rise back up eventually. And the rising tends to be unattractive, icky, gut-wrenching, shattering. At the worst, it is too late for course-correction or healing.
Everyone is busy talking about how crappy 2016 has been. No kidding. But it’s a way of ignoring what 2017 could look like. Losing Prince, Bowie, Redbone, and the election could pale in comparison to the results of having a narcissistic, fact-allergic, language-mangling, Putin-flunky in the most powerful office in the world.
Obviously, teaching the younger generation to read Frost’s poem as something other than a mushy addendum to The Boy Scout Handbook will not change or fix any larger situations immediately, but the same sloppiness about language that misreads what may be THE American poem (at least statistically) is cousin to the sloppiness of mind that lets intelligent people not only vote for a monstrosity, but continue to ignore the lies he spews and threats he poses. Where the heck has “paying attention” gone. We’re not post-factual, we’re post-attention. If we’re not bloody careful, we could end up being post-human, and the least of our worries will be making up a story about two roads in an autumn forest and how taking one changed our lives for the (we swear) better. Bull. Frost’s poem’s words tell about an aching attempt to make sense of the choices the speaker’s living with. It isn’t going to work for him. And trying to make words mean what they don’t isn’t going to work for us either.
Just to go for the most obvious cases: “Shell-shock” somehow implied that the shattered men coming back from the Western Front were damaged from having to listen to too many bombs go off. “Slaughter-shock” might have been more honest. We replaced it with “Battle Fatigue,” as though soldiers only needed long naps and coffee to be good to go again. We finally gave it an accurate, if initially confusing, name when we had a war so effed-up and unpopular that it nearly rent the nation—Viet Nam. Now we call what happens to humans who’ve experienced horrors “Trauma” and understand that it fundamentally changes the way their brains work, permanently. I have many days when I think that the Trump election, aside from the enormous factor of misogyny, is the direct product of the trauma of 9/11—that a culture can experience PTSD, and behave very badly in response to the feelings and facts it has attempted to bury. If so, we’d better find a therapist soon, and a good one, because therapists, like poets, are in the business of getting at truth/facts, and rebuilding patterns and lives based on those facts rather than on lies.
So we’ve kind of become, collectively, the speaker in “The Road Not Taken.” We’re trying, with varying degrees of desperation, to justify/explain to ourselves/understand our lives and our choices. And it isn’t going well. The roads are all the same. It only matters what we do once we’re on them. And we’d best make sure we can live (in every sense of the verb) with that. There is nothing inherently noble in choosing a road “just because.” If believing in facts and in the importance of words are going to constitute acts of resistance for the next 4 years, then this is me joining the resistance. This is the road. I am taking it. What difference it does or does not make in the world is not what drives the choice. What difference it makes to my being able to explain my own life in years to come, that is crucial.
Letter to My Younger Self,
You are, in fact, almost as smart as everyone keeps telling you. But it means a lot less than they tell you it does. And your teachers and parents talking about it constantly is as invasive as you feel it to be, especially when they turn it into a weapon with which they expect you to beat yourself into conforming to some idea they have of what you should be doing with your “smart.” And it will turn out that you had trouble reading and trouble dealing with both too much and too little stimulation and with memorizing things because that’s how your brain is wired, not because you are lazy or defiant or defective.
You are not responsible for your parents’ happiness. You cannot fix their marriage, and you did not break it in the first place. Furthermore, your mother is not the “Good Guy” and your father is not the “Bad Guy.” His bad behavior is just a lot more obvious. It’s okay to love them both anyway, and you will get to a point where doing that doesn’t hurt. It’s also okay if they have to die before you get there; it won’t mean you’ve failed.
You were not fat at 14, and even when you become the size you were told you were, you will have a life full of love and adventure and wealths you can’t even begin to define now.
You are not going to win the Nobel Prize for literature. Stop caring about being “Norton Anthology Great.” It’s the wrong standard. You will keep writing. That is much more important than some definition of greatness you’re holding on to. Being a working artist is going to turn out to be enough. Well, not really enough, but close enough for gratitude.
Let that nice young man teach you Tai Chi. He likes your body and wishes it well.
You’re going to regret not letting those two boys you didn’t know teach you to surf, but it was probably a good call anyway.
Just because you’re “spoiled” doesn’t mean you have to have a sense of being “special.” “Special” turns out to be pretty meaningless. See paragraph #1.
Take the anti-depressants the first time they’re offered to you, not the 12th. It will save a lot of anguish for everyone. They don’t mean you’re weak. You don’t deserve and didn’t earn the pain. Your genetics suck and your environment was infelicitous—which is to say, you were screwed from the get-go. Get over it. Your pain does not make you special, either, though your ability to keep moving against it is pretty spiffy and it’s okay to be a little self-congratulatory about it; gratitude will still do you more good.
Thanks for sticking around.
A friend posted on FB today about how wretchedly sick she is. A bunch of folks (students, friends, grandson) have gotten flu this year in spite of having had their shots (proving what they always tell you, which is that the vaccines aren’t 100% protection). Not only do these people feel that staying home is the right thing to do, all the humans with whom they don’t share their viruses are rightly grateful. Flu is a disease, right? You get to be guiltlessly sick and are urged to take care of yourself.
Depression is a disease, too, right? It’s not, in epidemiological terms, contagious. But it is an illness, a system failure, and it makes you as miserable as flu, though not as non-functional. I can’t count the number of people I know who just keep going while depressed. There is no vaccine, but there are medications. Many are convinced that taking medication is a surrender, a failure of character, even people who wouldn’t think of condemning other depressives for doing so.
And the blessed truth about anti-depressants is that they are not “happy pills.” They’re maintenance drugs for a disease that is frequently chronic. Of course, anti-virals for flu are also not perfect. But when you recover from flu, you are not only “better,” you are immune to that particular strain. When anti-depressants function, they mean that you can live and function, which is a powerful kind of “better.” But there is no immunity, and circumstances can override whatever drug(s) had been keeping your difficult balance.
All of which is saying that my difficult balance is not working today. And that, in an act of ferocious rebellion for my Puritan self, I decided to skip a committee meeting at church this evening because I am sick, not with flu, but at heart. I wouldn’t be guilty if I’d stayed home with the flu or a nasty cold, but I will be about this. Maybe not. There are lots of chunks of my life where I don’t have the option of staying home when the Black Dog is eating me alive, and I am mordantly aware of how good I am at faking sanity/health. But just for tonight, I need a sense of agency. I need to choose to stay cocooned where I won’t be watching myself fake my way through time with people and loathing myself for it.
Why so Black-Dog-ridden? Stress, anxiety overload, and a sense of having no agency. The “no agency” thing is different from hopelessness. The two issues over which I have no agency are both subject to hope: my mother’s anguished existence (in my house) will end (hopefully before the stress of it kills me), and I will wake up one morning not praying both that she did not wake and that the day will be a good one for her. Other than promise her that she can be here until the end (many of you are familiar with the long, unhappy story of the attempt to have her live elsewhere, but if you’re not, trust me, it’s not an option). My job situation might improve (though I have many reasons not to succumb to hope—and it’s funny how knowing you shouldn’t waste energy on either worry or hope doesn’t help the brain keep crap secret from your heart). A couple of heavy rejections haven’t helped, but they’re not the drivers here, just more negative noise in a metal-band-chorus of anguished discombobulation and aggressively paradoxical emotions. I have Bach playing on Pandora as I write. Usually, it takes relatively little Bach to convince me that everything will be okay. Today, it just makes me want to cry. But so do Joni Mitchell, Bill Evans, Steeleye Span, and The Chieftans, which pretty much covers my range.
Lots of things do help—writing, walking, being in the classroom, being with my kids and grandkids. Many parts of my life are highly privileged, lushly interesting, and as secure as anyone’s can be, not to mention full of love and friendship and all that stuff that is supposed to make me feel better. And they do. But I always have to come home to my mother, I am likely to always be an adjunct, and my brain chemistry is ALWAYS going to be frangible.
Some of this is genetic predisposition. I have a family tree full of depressives, alchoholics (who doesn’t?), epileptics, migraineurs, and psychics. As nearly as I can understand it, that genetic quirk can be tripped by trauma. Another person with different genetic structures could live my exact life and not be so bedeviled. But me and my genetic imprint, including a tendency to live in my head, we gave birth to mucked up brain chemistry that decades of therapy, several attempts at yoga, a remarkable marriage and family, lots of education and work I love, as well as a metric ton of hard work on my part have not dislodged the chemistry. I just understand all the traumas and their tangled tributaries VERY well.
There are several lists/memes floating around the internet containing things NOT to say to your depressive friends, so I won’t reiterate them here. But let me be clear: I am intensely grateful for my life. And I live much of it in pain. I am exactly the same as someone with intractable post-surgical pain who keeps going. It’s just that she can show you scars. Neither of us is a hero (in my definition, heroes save other people, or provide extraordinary succor in extraordinary circumstances—think Malala Yousefzai or Januscz Korchak), or put themselves in harm’s way for others. Many days are good, most are mixed-but-do-able. But some are like trying to climb mountains with a knife in my heart and huge black mastiffs fastened to both ankles. Yes, it’s a pretty dramatic image. Tough.
I’m a lousy Christian, though I work a little at being a better one. This is only relevant insofar as I need to say that prayer gets me nowhere. I don’t feel singled out for un-love in this, just kind of interested and a little baffled. In my experience, when The Divine wants me to hear, it thumps me pretty hard on the head/heart, but otherwise we pretty much leave each other alone. I think I’d probably have this slightly odd relationship to the Universe even if I were not a depressive. Maybe not. No way to know. I do know that I grew up with an acute sense of having to EARN everything good in my life and that that is, in some cultural way, connected to the overwhelmingly Protestant ethic that runs like an aquifer under everything in American life, or at least in WASP-American life. I believe in Grace (which, by definition, cannot be earned) abstractly and concretely, but none of this changes my cellular conviction that there is something keeping my hands around my throat.
So today the Black Dogs were exercising their jaw muscles, and the knife was turning around and around. Sure, there were triggers, but it’s not like the triggers (my mother was intentionally cruel to one of my daughters, and the stress of the not-knowing about my career path has just hit one of its periodic boiling points) are new, these just happened to coincide with the dogs being hungry. And so I’m going to be Not Okay and stay home from a meeting that doesn’t actually need me. Maybe even a couple of meetings. Maybe the dogs will go to sleep for a bit if I don’t feel like 47 people are asking me for things while I’m just trying to breathe. And I will get through another day. Because that’s what we do, those of us who live with the Black Dogs. We get through.
Some of us recite the chorus of Leonard Cohen’s “Anthem” to ourselves. Sometimes it helps:
Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.
Earlier this year, I wrote about reading slush, and set up a list of reasons I’d reject a poem.
1. A dull underutilized title, often one word, like “Love.”
2. An opening that over sets context: I was in the kitchen, it was snowing, on Tuesday I went shopping.
3. A simplistic metaphor carried all the way to the end.
4. An unambiguous emotion—I’m depressed, suicidal, happy I won the lottery.
5. An ending that reiterates context and wraps up already wrapped emotion.
6. No form, structure, or technique except for some predictable rhyme.
7. A self-satisfied, melodramatic, or cutesy tone.
Looking at it later, though, I realized it might actually be a weird kind of writing prompt—a challenge. This idea had already occurred to Devon Miller-Duggan, contributing writer at “Miriam’s Well.” Below is the hilarious outcome.
by Devon Miller-Duggan
There was blood soaking the feathers
In the bottom of the cage of my heart.
The cage followed me everywhere.
It tried to climb into the La-Z-Boy with me
When I tried to settle my soul down with a sandwich and a glass of tepid milk.
All the feelings of this ilk
Wrap around me like silk
Ropes, you know, the ones you saw once in the tattoo parlor book
With pictures of ladies, naked or in flapping kimonos,
Tied way more elaborately than
Trussed fowl and looking pleased about it. Even
More elaborately than that chicken recipe of Julia Child’s
I made once
Back when I had
Energy for that sort of thing,
Anyway, you could just tell those ropes were silk.
I’m so sad all the time now.
I always see the feather in that
Poem about hope,
Which I have none of,
Always see them as black and shiny.
Now I even see them bloody
In the bottom of a dog cage
That follows me around
Getting blood everywhere.
Bad poem! Sit! Stay!
Stop rolling in the bloody feathers of my hope!
No treats for you!