Greenwood Encyclopedia of African American Literature

Monday, June 25, 2007

Chores

My family and I are moving from a house with some serious landscaping, including a koi pond, to some temporary housing, and then ultimately (God willing and if the creek don't rise, as the saying goes) to the place where so many in our generation now seem headed: a condominium.

One impetus for the move is that, at long last, I am weary of all the chores associated with gardening and with owning a house. Working in a garden used to energize me. No more. Chores (routine tasks) have become a chore (a burden); it's nice how that word does double-duty.

At dinner with friends the other evening, someone expressed the view that she didn't think middle-class or even working-class kids had "chores" anymore. I'm not sure that's true. Probably a lot of children and adolescents help raise families. But I took her point; the idea of teenagers, especially, being asked regularly to weed a garden, cut grass, help repair the house, etc., may belong to a bygone era.

Here's a quasi-philosophical poem about chores, as I say goodbye to some kinds of chores and hello to others in the coming months:

Chores


I am what I do, and I
do what I can, so I am
what I can do,
which now is watching pale
rose light, dusk after some
day we had. I used to be
cutting grass. That
was a long moment ago
when things were so what then,
the grass a long example.


I bow my head, evening,
acknowledge tasks, which
add up to me,
a who whose having done
is such as he is to be.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Rabbits At Airports

I saw on the televised news the other day that a military airfield had been over-run by rabbits and that, somehow, the rabbits were interfering with radar. I'm not quite sure how rabbits can interfere with radar, but I guess it's possible; at any rate, some of the personnel at the airfield were rounding up the four-legged, long-eared usual suspects--and transporting them elsewhere, I hope, not killing them.

The episode reminded me of when my wife and I flew to Paris from Sweden, on Swedish airlines (SAS). We landed in Paris, but the planes were in quite a queue, so we had to wait out on the tarmac for a long time. The Swedish pilot was a bit miffed and came as close as a polite Swede could to saying something snide about the French. I also remember that two things were going on at the time that made Swedes nervous because both meant that Sweden would have to get closer to mainland Europe and be less autonomous. A bridge from Sweden to Denmark was being proposed and debated, and Renault and Volvo were thinking about merging. The former ultimately happened. The latter deal fell apart, chiefly because the Swedes didn't trust the French, I'm afraid.

In any event, as our plane sat on the tarmac, we looked out the window, and on the rather lush grass between runways were . . . many rabbits! It was quite a humorous site. Huge planes, small rabbits. Ridiculously, we were sitting in an aluminum tube, and we had paid for the privilege of doing so, while the rabbits, who had no bank accounts, were enjoying themselves, outside, near Paris, munching away in the fresh air. Out of this experience came the following poem:

French Rabbits


Rabbits greeted our airplane in Paris.
On grass between tarmac strips, they
looked like brown pockets plump
with tobacco and francs. They
moved cautiously, as if we
were hungry or German. Some
of them were shopkeepers, worried
and energetic like Balzac’s people.
Others were grand in their
miniature arrogance, standing
on hind legs like DeGaul, looking
down and up at once, saluting the sun.

Copyright 2006

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Revisiting Europe

I'm scheduled to give a paper at an the international conference of a Law and Society academic organization. I'm talking about Langston Hughes's political poems, especially the ones he wrote about specific issues, in some cases even specific legal cases, such as one involving a House of Representatives member named Arthur Mitchell, who sued railroad companies because of their Jim Crow rules, and who prevailed ultimately at the Supreme Court level. I think I may be the only literary scholar amongst social scientists; that should be interesting.

The conference is in Berlin. The last time I was there was in 1981, and of course to visit what was East Berlin, I had to go through checkpoints, return to West Berlin within a short span of time, and buy a certain number of East German deutschmarks. Now the wall is down, Germany is united (although I'm sure issues remained to be worked out), and the Cold War has seemingly been replaced by something as constant but nebulous and as easy to manipulate, politically: "the War on Terror." Obviously, terrorists who want to harm the U.S. exist, but at the same time, I think politicians like Cheney have a worldview that somehow requires, needs, a bifurcated world. But I'll leave this to the Law and Society folk.

On a more routine level, something called the Chunnel exists now--a highway under the English Channel. When I traveled from London to Mainz (Germany, where I was to teach for a year at Gutenberg University) in one very long day, I took a small ship from Dover to Ostend, and virtually everyone but me and a young Irish woman got terribly seasick because the waters were so rough. It was quite a spectacle. Of course, she and I didn't really know why we didn't get sick; something to do with our inner ears. I think at one point we just looked at each other and shrugged.

Here's hoping all goes well with my journey from the U.S. to Berlin via Amsterdam, and here's hoping all goes well with your travels. In the meantime, here's a poem remembering the channel-crossing some 26+ years ago:

Channel-Crossing


Irish Girl sat on a crate,
topside. Cigarette-smoke
out of her mouth joined
English-Channel mist.
American Me stood beside
her oafishly. Everyone else
but a bemused British crew
was puking. A man threw up
into the wind. Wet, pink
pebbles flew our way.
Below-decks, a danse-macabre
of vomiters staggered,
careened. Irish Girl and I
didn’t know why we
weren’t ill from the heaving,
pitching barrel of a boat. Her
smoke smelled fine. I
made her laugh, once only,
can’t remember how. Her
eyes were dark blue,
her hair dark brown but
with secret plans to become
red. This was when
the Tunnel was still
a Jungian blueprint beneath
the ocean. We docked, Ostend.
Irish Girl took a train
different from mine. A
widening channel of years
later, I do hope she’s alive,
never been sea-sick, and
laughing.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Midsummer

I have a colleague whose husband is extremely fond of the longest day of the year in the northern hemisphere: June 21, a.k.a mid-summer. I told her that he should become an honorary Swede because the Swedes are enthralled with mid-summer, have large celebrations, and see all that sunshine (almost 24 hours worth) as due recompense for those long winters.

I've spent a few days in the far north of Sweden at both the bottom of winter (New Year's Eve) and the height of summer. In the former, the sun just gets above the horizon and then goes to sleep again--only a brief hello. In the latter, you have to cover the windows if you want to get any sleep. My grandfather came from a large family in Boden, a garrison town up north; he came to the U.S. in the very early 20th century and became a gold miner--that is, one who works full time in a gold mine, drilling, setting dynamite charges, loading ore cars: nothing glamorous about that. Allegedly he was well known for being able to use very few dynamite sticks to produce large amounts of ore.

When I taught for a semester as a Fulbright Scholar at Uppsala University in Sweden, I mentioned to students that I had roots in Boden, and they had a good chuckle. Let's just say Boden isn't considered the most cosmopolitan town in Sweden. But actually it's a nice town--great old railway station, wonderful farms nearby, a fine old church--which I saw represented on a pewter plate my whole life. Actually to visit the church in my mid-twenties was a bit disorienting. One gets accustomed to something being only art, not reality.

Here's a small poem about being in a cafe in Boden in the summertime:

A Café in Boden, Sweden


There were tables under trees, dappling
on white table-linens, waitresses snug in skirts
and starched white shirts. There was the fresh
Swedish breeze, a tinge of Swedish sadness,
which is composed of history, stoicism,
and routine. There was Swedish spoken:
efficient, supple, sounding like a creek.
There were we; we were there. Some
laughter, not much. There was cardamom
in the rolls, a flower in each vase. There
was a sense in which our lives had been
established by others for others and were
to include this interlude at an outdoor café—
a kind of play that wouldn’t presume
to have a major theme or conflict. There
is this clarified memory of the scene,
Swedish café, outdoors, Boden, far north.

Copyright 2007

Avalanche; Landslide

I'm reading a terrific little novel published in 1947 (in English) by the Swiss writer C-F Ramuz. His native language and the novel's original language was French. I don't know what C-F stands for or why it's hyphenated.

The novel concerns the village of Derborence, high in the Swiss Alps, but not high enough, for it was wiped out by a landslide that was really a mountain-collapse. A tall, massive piece of the Alps simply fell one summer, covering the village, which was used chiefly in the summer by shepherds. Of course, the mountain fell in the summer, just after many of the shepherds had arrived. There was at least one survivor.

Here's a link to a photograph of the mountain, post-collapse, and if you look hard enough, you can see a little chalet that was spared--it was up just high enough, I think:

http://www.trekearth.com/gallery/Europe/Switzerland/photo23337.htm


The novel's in the plain style of French realistic prose that I like a lot: novels by Balzac, Anatole France, Zola are in this style, or at least I think so. The last time I read French not in translation was about 1973. My teacher sarcastically complimented me on my Spanish accent when I spoke French. C'est la academie. Other readers prefer Proust to Balzac and A. France, I realize. Flaubert is somewhere in between, I think, but leaning toward the realists. But please consult scholars of French literature for the real story, so to speak.

According to the OED, "avalanche" applies only to a snow-slide, not to a land-slide or a mountain-collapse. Apparently "la valanche" was once in use, but the l fell away, so to speak.

An avalanche hit the small Sierra Nevada town I'm from--before I was born. It destroyed a schoolhouse, that is to say, THE schoolhouse, and the town chose never to rebuild it. So after that, children and adolescents in the K-12 bracket had to be bussed 12 miles to Downieville from Sierra City to go to school. It's still that way. My elder brother was in the transitional group that started in the Sierra City schoolhouse but was induced by the avalanche to board the bus.

Apparently Sierra City, when it was a wild, woolly, youthful mining camp/town was wiped out, or nearly so, twice by avalanches in the 1860s, but those camps were pretty make-shift affairs, tents and shacks, whereas nowadays, there are many well built, well established residences, above which loom the Sierra Buttes, at 8,000 feet or about 4,000 feet above the town--with nothing between the town and the mountain except a precipitous slope on friendly terms with gravity. An avalanche has not hit the town since the 1950s, when the aforementioned schoolhouse was destroyed--with no children or adults in it, thank God.

Here's what I think is a whimsical poem about the avalanche, but first let me give props again to C-F Ramuz and his novel, When the Mountain Fell.

Avalanche


In my hometown, an avalanche ran over
an empty shack, crossed the highway,
crushed the schoolhouse. The children
were all home eating boiled peas,
scratching themselves, wanting to go
outside in the snow once more before
bedtime.

That evening’s event ended
schooling in the town. Children ever
since have traveled twelve miles to go
learn in the next town.

Cameras remembered the sight
of snow versus building. People
would recall the sound without
describing it. They couldn’t go
around talking about how loud
snow could be—how long the sound
lasted, how it was sustained, patient,
and terrible. No, better to say,
“That was really something, that was."

So far,
all descendants of the avalanche have
stayed on the mountain, melted,
slipped into the river, and traveled
toward San Francisco—there
to continue their education in
the Bay.



Copyright 2007

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Ghosts

I need to search library-holdings on line to discover the extent to which anthropologists have studied ghosts across cultures. Has there ever been a significant human community that was without some notion of ghosts--spirits of departed people that coexist with living humans and that prefer to occupy--haunt--certain places or times? Hard to imagine a ghost-free culture. Intriguing to imagine the differences, across cultures, in concepts of ghosts.

Some 25 years ago, an uncle of mine died, around Christmas time. He and his wife, my father's sister, lived about 100 yards from us all throughout my childhood. For a long time they had horses, and the pasture featured one of the greatest frog-ponds in history. I worked for my uncle for a couple summers; he ran heavy equipment, built roads, and operated a rock crusher. I spent one summer busting up boulders with a sledge hammer. It was like old-school prison with hard labor--except of course I got paid a minimum wage, was not surrounded by criminals, and could go home: quitting time was 3:30, I remember, because we started at 7:00 a.m.

One year after he died, we decided to visit his wife, my aunt. It was cold outside--winter in the Sierra Nevada. My father decided to drive the 100 yards in his pickup, so my brother and I, then in our 20s, got in the back of the pickup. We pulled up near our aunt's house; all the lights were out. We assumed she had made an early evening of it, and we decided not to go over and knock on the door. The truck was parked and turned off, and my brother and I sat in the back, freezing. Suddenly a blast of warm air came out of nowhere and poured down on us, disappearing as quickly as it had appeared. We were far away from my aunt's house, so the air could not have come from her fireplace chimney. The truck was turned off, so the heat didn't come from the truck. No doubt it was some explicable pocket of warm air. No doubt. Nonetheless, I'm still 40% convinced it was the spirit of my uncle, chiefly because the visitation was so mischievous, impulsive, mercurial, and not a little intemperate, just like him. Later I read that some African Americans, especially in the South, among others, think of such anomalous blasts of warm air as spirits.

I never wrote a poem about the incident because I couldn't find a way to do it in a way that seemed fresh. I just couldn't quite get the right strategy for the poem. These things happen.

But I have written ghost poems. Here is one. It imagines that ghosts can and may produce memoranda, and it attempts to empathize with ghosts, rather than demonizing them. I've often found it appealing to blend the language and rhetorical situation of something bureaucratic, like a memo, with a subject that is not bureaucratic. The blending creates a kind of torque, in my opinion. At any rate, the poem:

Memorandum From a Ghost


I prefer not to think of myself
as a ghost. The term “assertive absence”
stands nicely for me. After a while,
I exist if you want me to. If
you don’t materialize, nothing
will represent what represents
me. Imagine a connection between
me, you, and the building. Imagine
me, and I’ll brush you lightly
with a cool caress, just enough
to send some of your oldest instincts
scrambling up the ladders of your
DNA, then jumping into the fluid
of your spine. It is my pleasure.


Copyright 2007.