Teaching creative writing in a prison offers so many rewards along with many uncertainties. The reward is often hearing a story that reaches a depth or a power not often heard in a writing class. Or sometimes seeing something click with a student when you share a favorite poem that fits the theme for the week.
The uncertainty is wondering if the poems you pick will fall flat or if you will run out of approaches in helping the class understand it. I can't assume the students took a prerequisite class or assign them to go 'look it up.' Whatever we're going to understand we're going to understand right there right then.
So it's exciting watching students eyes light up as they take over the journey, hook after hook, of Plath's walk from an Edenic road surrounded by blackberries toward an unreachable sea, and notice the disintegration as the landscape shifts. So many have their interpretations of poems filtered by what they think they know, in this case the poet's depression, abuse and suicide - which are important subjects but should never obscure the fact that Plath was one hell of a poet. Seeing that realization in students that are not bound by what they think they already know is a powerful experience.
BY SYLVIA PLATH
Nobody in the lane, and nothing, nothing but blackberries,
Blackberries on either side, though on the right mainly,
A blackberry alley, going down in hooks, and a sea
Somewhere at the end of it, heaving. Blackberries
Big as the ball of my thumb, and dumb as eyes
Ebon in the hedges, fat
With blue-red juices. These they squander on my fingers.
I had not asked for such a blood sisterhood; they must love me.
They accommodate themselves to my milkbottle, flattening their sides.
Overhead go the choughs in black, cacophonous flocks--
Bits of burnt paper wheeling in a blown sky.
Theirs is the only voice, protesting, protesting.
I do not think the sea will appear at all.
The high, green meadows are glowing, as if lit from within.
I come to one bush of berries so ripe it is a bush of flies,
Hanging their bluegreen bellies and their wing panes in a Chinese screen.
The honey-feast of the berries has stunned them; they believe in heaven.
One more hook, and the berries and bushes end.
The only thing to come now is the sea.
From between two hills a sudden wind funnels at me,
Slapping its phantom laundry in my face.
These hills are too green and sweet to have tasted salt.
I follow the sheep path between them. A last hook brings me
To the hills’ northern face, and the face is orange rock
That looks out on nothing, nothing but a great space
Of white and pewter lights, and a din like silversmiths
Beating and beating at an intractable metal."
" So they were busied with their meal in the halls; but meanwhile Rumor, the messenger, went swiftly throughout all the city, telling of the terrible death and fate of the wooers. And the people heard it all at once, and gathered from every side with moanings and wailings" (The Odyssey.XXIV.412-415)
The image I can't get out of my head comes from Book 24 of the Odyssey, with Odysseus, his son Telemachus, and his father Laertes standing on the hill as the angry villagers storm up looking for payback.
We often overlook this, like we overlook the whole act of reconciliation when it comes to war. If Hollywood script writers wrote the Odyssey I'm convinced it would end just after Odysseus slaughters the suitors, Penelope would magically forgive the staff for their disloyalty, and hero and wife would have a kiss that made up for 20 years & embrace in a sanitized banquet hall just before the camera shot fades.
But the story doesn't end that way which makes me wonder how foundational it is to the rest of Western Literature. Maybe our desire to read rugged individualism into our heroes and for happy, resolved endings, keeps us from understanding what the hell we are reading.
Odysseus doesn't come home and take care of business. He comes home and realizes the culture of fear and the rumor mill that connects the townspeople have ensured that he can't just lay down his sword. The humans have no ability to stop the cycle of violence, and the hero no ability to turn off the switch that put him in warrior mode. The goddess Athena has to descend from Olympus and put everyone in their place.
I don't doubt that some teachers follow all the way through to the end, but of the scenes embedded in our cultural memory - reconciliation is nowhere in it. The 'hero' has to not only reintroduce himself to the family but also to the community.
As we're welcoming soldiers home (still) from the Forever War, or as we're processing the news of another flash point in the world or violence in our own neighborhoods we don't have the luxury of filtering what we see through a set of prejudices that we grip tightly with both hands. We wind up believing in our own agency and that we are still conquering rather than learning how to build communities.
The need to set down the prejudices that we're filtering all this information through, and read the words from beginning until the last letter, has never been greater. I don't think Athena's going to come down from Olympus and break it down for us.
'One of our biggest battles within our own borders these days is that some argue that there's only one way to be patriotic, one way to behave as a citizen. Soldiers who've seen all manner of reactions to stress, and to each other, know that’s not really the case. The biggest gap I’ve noticed is not the knowledge of fighting wars—there’s plenty of facts on the news—but in the way that the military places people of different beliefs into a cohesive team, while our civil society seems to be pulling apart, with people refusing to find common ground. Hopefully, describing that process can help build connections.'
I think this is the largest part of the divide. A public with little experience of fighting our wars but filled with a sense of national pride does not quite grasp the elements of cohesive team building that goes into the units that are serving overseas. Xenophobia and treating half the population as an elusive 'enemy' are concepts unimaginable to a veteran that embraced their training and the values of their Corps. 'Taking our country back' has never been a rallying cry among those in uniform because it has NEVER been lost, a source of pride for those who serve. Until those issues are wrestled with the divide will remain.
This was not meant to be a recruiting poster though. But there are things the war poet has to offer the public, from the time of Homer who crafted Epic Similes to bridge a similar divide, to now. The war poet can simultaneously express criticism and question both authority and experience, while loving the place he or she criticizes. That should be the tack of all conscientious citizens.
In 1995 I moved to a new home in Maryland, my fourth place in four years – which was not unusual for a junior Noncommissioned Officer. There were around forty soldiers moving into the same place, a new unit and the first of its kind. What that meant was each of us assumed a new duty that our experience and training had not prepared us for.
It was most challenging for the headquarters, where a group of mechanics, commo and security folks took over the administrative jobs of setting up a company. Job descriptions were developed based on what needed doing rather than any established SOP.
During that time a young Food Service Specialist knocked on my door and asked where she’d be working. I told her we didn’t have a mess hall and the closest was civilian run. For now, we’d both be doing whatever needed to be done.
She said ‘what you got?’ and I handed her a crate of pubs and said find a system and get these off the floor and onto shelves. Which she did quickly and then came back for the next job, and the next. Until we went to the field (which meant she finally had work in her specialty) she took care of much of the writing that her bosses didn’t have time to do, and became what some call the ‘glue guy,’ the person who does the unsung jobs that enables everyone else to focus on theirs.
While she was doing this she was raising two small kids, taking college courses and studying for her citizenship test. She’d flown to Florida from Haiti as an eight-year-old and enlisted to serve her new country at the earliest possible time.
She’d had bosses who hadn’t given her the time to complete her citizenship requirements yet managed to maintain the most professional of attitudes. Now in a new place, she had to go through the process of finding the office, taking the test. I’d like to say we helped and we did but minimally. She did most of the legwork often with a small child under each arm and while doing a full load of work as a US Soldier. And was sworn in as a US citizen by the end of the year.
Any work we might have done was worth it as she became a decorated soldier and a worker often requested by name when the commander needed a competent professional for whatever the project.
My soldier who got off a plane from Haiti at eight years old, grew up and became the professional leader who excelled at each job thrown her way, managed to do more for her country, this country, than the malingering bone spur that’s taking up space in the White House.
This started on another page and was directed to a politician. I'm sure you know the reference well by now. However, it's not the bigot at the top of the pyramid that concerns me. It's the citizen who has treated this level of hatred with a shrug of the shoulder, who has accepted the mischaracterization of people who came from various corners of the world to build this country and defend it - and not everyone by choice. It's the citizen too tied to political sides that they don't look at the people around them and see people. Without that, there's nothing that the removal of a hateful politician can accomplish other than leaving space for the next hateful replacement. Change has to happen internally, then in discussions around the dinner table and then by a knock on our neighbor's door. Time to stop being scared of difference.
My soldier is one person out of millions who've fulfilled the promise of Democracy by showing nobility is a character potentially present at all social levels, and not just a matter of inheritance. This is the truth those intent on destroying Democracy are trying to destroy.
Five years ago tomorrow. A draft written the day after, thrown away, written again. Part of me finally understood what Theodor Adorno meant that to write after such an atrocity is 'barbaric,' and the other part mourned - primarily for the children and the teachers who shielded kids with their bodies. Then the mourning shifted to the knowledge that groups of people would never have enough common ground to understand each other -- because when you accept children as 'collateral damage' in an ideological fight you have crossed a threshold past understanding.
Yet it was not about the evils of a weapon where the primary purpose was to kill. I'd had many conversations about responsible use, understanding the power we held and the danger of letting it into the wrong hands, while cleaning weapons. And it wasn't as simple as a mental health issue. It's also a rage issue. And a history of violence issue. And most of all an issue where we no longer see the person on the other side of our argument.
'Watching the Newtown Coverage While Cleaning a Weapon
Silence has blasted through the small screen
and his careless quarry lies testament:
a plate lies face down in the basin;
a towel sags lifeless on a cold stove;
empty jeans have rolled from the sofa, legs gone limp.
Only the bodies on the muted screen move
and time moves, forward, backward.
Armored police park cars into a fortress and run,
scattered, toward a building whose white walls
burn themselves into foreign homes,
and a helicopter delivers
armchair detectives and surrogate shrinks
their gods-eye view.
The sky, two thousand miles away, constricts;
somewhere, maybe my neighbor’s house,
a man loads shells by hand, and speaks
to a blue black barrel pointing skyward
against the wall. “I told you so,” he says
as if every face in every crowd
watched and waited. For what if the sun
prying through closed drapes threatened
to kill what grew in a dark, moist place
to take what is secured by four walls,
what he grips with cold fingers.
Some days it is what I have, to step past the door,
to say anything
that adds sound to a neighborhood gone mute,
to walk unarmed past windows, because
a constant vigil fed by fear
is not freedom.
These days even the air refuses to move.
Grass blades slice and the clouds form a dome
overhead. A truck passes, Stars and Bars
filling the rear window; a face looks with contempt.
With effort, I realize none of that is true.
Three doors down a child, playing alone,
retrieves his ball from a neighbor’s yard.
He has not learned to be afraid of boundaries,
does not wonder what eyes lurk behind each window,
and his breath comes natural.
Somewhere, a man prays for an unseen hand
to strike down what he fears.
Another man prays for the words, to walk next door,
and say “hello” to strangers.
I realize I am one of them
and I do not know which
but I am outside, wondering
if God has the volume turned up,
if he is tired of watching funerals,
if he is tired of both shooter and victim
screaming in his ear.
Or, maybe with the world on mute
he sees only a solitary hand curl, which
looks clasped in prayer, which
looks like a fist shaking toward heaven, which
looks like a lover’s hand holding another, which
looks like a mother’s holding the smaller hand of a child, which
looks like a hand wrapping around a pistol grip
as if nothing else matters.'
(c) 2017 from Contested Terrain
If we are to believe the media generated images, the commercials, the public values community and sacrifice. Problem is the same public rewards the voice speaking above all others. Be assertive, people say.
No. Not a new development.
In Army leadership schools we found ourselves evaluated on command voice, command presence, assertiveness. And these things have a great importance in a dangerous situation where hesitation can compound the threat and moving quickly can save lives. It’s less of a value when a soldier knocks on the office door and needs to talk about divorce, bankruptcy, violence or an inappropriate touch. Then, taking the time to listen, identify the problem and focus efforts on the solution (or on discipline for the offender) matters. But still, we value assertive, strong position rather than the right one that may require reflection.
If a hammer works for one job, it should work on all jobs, right?
And in our political landscape the illusion of strength matters more than a thought out position. A pause for needed reflection becomes equated with dithering. So some learn this and speak louder, over other voices.
Again. Not a new development.
A friend in the aftermath of an election used the term narcissism. A self-centered value scale that carries with it a lack of empathy for others outside one’s circle.
Bumper sticker ideologies appeal. Reflection doesn’t. Small steps forward in our society are met with manufactured angst over ‘our way of life’ as if even the thought of not hurting someone else was somehow a threat.
And yet in our public value of assertiveness we don’t notice it enough to call it what it is. A narcissistic disorder that can be manipulated through accusations of weakness.
I’m reminded of a prophet’s flight away from immediate danger. Elijah fled his ruthless king, finding a place in Mt. Horeb to await the next course of action. In the midst of his retreat he encountered an earthquake, a windstorm and a fire. We are told the voice he was looking for – God’s – was not in any of these strong assertive presences. It was in a gentle whisper (1 Kings 19) he would have been sure to miss if he were looking for messages in catastrophe.
A few thousand years later we are still valuing the earthquake scale voices – something that puts barriers between us. We are still trying to out bluster them, while ignoring the still quiet voices concerned with matters greater than their own self-importance.
“Home is the place where, when you have to go there,
they have to take you in” from Frost’s Death of a Hired Man
I’ve been fortunate, and perhaps not grateful enough, to have amassed 49 years of Thanksgiving feasts without the uncomfortable family drama staged in a living room
I couldn’t flee. Which means to say there hasn’t been drama I wanted to flee. There have been hard feelings from lingering disagreements. Sure. But a holiday feast has always meant placing our desire that the other person is well, and that we get to see them another year, over any desire to win an argument or to make someone feel slighted for choosing the wrong side of an issue.
I thought it might be a result of years on the road, living in a new place every other year, deployment, hardship tour, etc. But that only comes from hindsight and doesn’t explain the years living on the same farm. Politics did not come up, or an opinion was put forth, heard, and then the tableful of family moved on to the next thought. There were many other nights when a tense topic would come up, when as children we would question whether this belief was inherited or whether we were free, with maturity, to decide for ourselves.
There were also holiday feasts when an issue hung like a dark cloud – the year or two I got arrested and spent a night in jail, the time a family member arrived noticeably pregnant out of wedlock, the time I swore ‘I’m never going back to that **** ing church, shaved my head and changed religions, the times we argued, or more often, grew silent on the subject of racism.
The ability to get along never constituted agreement, or a solution. More of an uneasy truce and an acknowledgement that the relationships came first. And unlike Warren, from Frost’s ‘Death of a Hired Man’ that never felt like it was given grudgingly.
“I should have called it
Something you somehow shouldn’t have to deserve.”
from the next line
Maybe that’s because, while we remembered Warren’s line, quoted often out of context a hundred and two years later, we lived Mary’s line, a statement of grace. Mistake riddled teenagers that we were we didn’t have to earn the spot at the Thanksgiving table. In fact we walked up the stone steps to our back door, knowing what was shared with us we could never fully earn.
Still, that did not constitute agreement. Nor would it ever.
I’m thinking of it more as we grow older – the time to put our arms around each other gets shorter. The time to decide which beliefs we’re going to take with us and which we’re not going to inherit – it gets shorter. I read recently from Contested Terrain about farming and fishing and the spectre of racism hovering over each, something that gets more vivid as the culture of fear and hatred grows, only to have someone speak to me afterward of difficult relationships and uncomfortable visits – which hasn’t been true for me – perhaps because of an education that involved setting it aside over food, and when someone traveled 900 or more miles to say hello.
We are still learning to balance the beliefs we know are worth fighting over and the need to put an arm around family. We are still learning not to make the person we grew up with a two-dimensional character in the allegory of our imagination.
We are still, after all this time, learning to be human – which is an identity we already own, not something we’re still trying to earn.
What the Revelator Said
(An Unfinished Idea)
The danger of focusing all your outrage on one person
is in drawing attention from the conditions that allowed
them to do their damage. If multiple sources say it
was common knowledge that an attorney cruised
the mall for underage girls, an entire community
was ok with predators as long as it wasn’t too
embarrassing. Just like sixty two million people
were ok with giving the rantings of a white supremacist
a chance – yet angry that they are publicly identified
with white supremacy. It’s the crimes that are
allowed in one’s home and shared from generation
to generation across the dinner table that
have always been poisoning our communities –
it’s just now the poison has found a faster way to spread.
The marchers in this morning’s parade are assembling on a stretch of road from the elementary school to the VFW. Vehicles, trailers, horses being soothed by their riders, and plenty of flags. Men in their 20s, men in their 90s, gathered.
I’m in a military town so I know less about any civilian military gap. Even growing up where soldiers were not a daily sight, most everyone through their past or through their relatives, were affected by war.
It seems way too simple to assume that those who don’t serve don’t understand the warriors, just as it’s too simple to assume that everyone who has worn the uniform does understand sacrifice. We have courageous warriors, cowards, and various shades of grey in between – in both cultures.
Perhaps the gap is in those who’ve grown from their experience and those who’ve been hardened by it. Something Whitman saw in four years of serving as a civilian volunteer during the Civil War. His writing during this time began with the broadest patriotic calls to ‘do one’s duty’ and ended with a narrow focus, altered by the experience of tending the wounded, burying the dead, and family who became institutionalized from what was then called ‘shell-shock.’
His poem ‘Reconciliation’ in a few short lines travels this path from abstract patriotism to human empathy – a journey many of us are still trying to complete:
WORD over all, beautiful as the sky,
Beautiful that war and all its deeds of carnage must in time be
That the hands of the sisters Death and Night incessantly softly
wash again, and ever again, this solid world;
For my enemy is dead, a man divine as myself is dead,
I look where he lies white-faced and still in the coffin- I draw
Bend down and touch lightly with my lips the white face in the
The word ‘beautiful’ can only be expressed from great distance has he imagines invisible forces of Death and Night doing repairs. This is unsatisfactory when faced with a human face up close.
Reconciliation becomes the job of each of us, not only to reach out to the family member but to see the humanity in our enemy, who was also doing his patriotic duty, who also dreamed of returning to his family.
The people we see today, the marchers and those gathered roadside, probably did not think about the abstractions politicians use to drum up support for war. In fact, realizing the thoughts run from returning to family, to not losing a battle buddy, to filling the long moments of boredom between action – it’s a wonder anyone is inspired by abstract talk at all.
Today is a day of reconciliation. I’m thinking about the handful I know didn’t make it back but also about an Iraqi Lieutenant and Captain who each wanted to help set up a hospital with western equipment that would last long after the war, and an advisor who had blind faith his country would be safe for him and his family even though he had supported the Americans, and I’m thinking of one hundred twenty thousand I did not meet whose lives were ended, who are not remembered in American parades, who are ‘divine as myself.’
Two Thoughts on Gratitude
1. One of the best parts of bringing a book to completion – it temporarily assuaged the fear of ‘will anyone bother to read it’ – was the chance to send copies to a couple of professors a couple of decades in the past. Two professors who managed to tolerate my flaws, lazy on the editing, tardy, too stuck in my own head (and depression) to write meaningfully about the world outside it.
Somehow in the waves of hurriedly written first drafts and poorly researched ideas they managed to find the positive. I remember one particular morning when the cloud seemed so heavy I struggled to pull myself out of bed. There was a knock on the door of my dorm room. My professor had decided if Muhammad couldn’t come to the mountain, she would bring the mountain. In the form of my entire class standing outside the door. I don’t remember the words but she ended with, ‘and we’ll be at the cafeteria having coffee and waiting for you to join us.’ An event both humorous and effective.
My other professor welcomed me into a class that I’d failed to register for in time. Didn’t know much about my ability but welcomed me to participate rather than just be an auditor in the back of the room. Which was a stroke of luck since I ended up learning more about the craft of poetry than I had in the previous years.
I had no illusions and wondered briefly if there were a stack of books by former students sitting in an office corner like refrigerator art. Until getting letters back with responses to the poems.
Long story short (or less long), gratitude has such an important role both for the sender and the recipient. There’s no expectation when you send it out, yet there’s a healing process in sending it, if only from the realization that we haven’t been alone.
I remember a football coach who started his career in my hometown and made it to the NFL eventually, who made a name for himself by leaving tickets for Elvis at the box office window of every home game. While there’s no expectation it still registered high in importance for him to leave the tickets. And yes, Dr. Barbour and Professor Miller there will always be a copy with your name on it.
2. ‘Listen /with the night falling we are saying thank you’
There is a kind of gratitude that has little to do with receiving some good fortune, that is more of a way in which we conduct ourselves than in relation to some event. Even in the approaching darkness, if we’re practiced in gratitude, the mindset can carry us through. This is not something so trite as ‘it could always be worse.’ Rather, a realization that the world doesn’t revolve around us.
‘after funerals we are saying thank you / after the news of the dead /whether or not we knew them we are saying thank you’
Which can come to seem crazy to a person looking at us from the outside. ‘Why,’ someone might ask, ‘would you be grateful for that misfortune, or for that person who did you harm?’ However, living in a tit for tat world only acts as an accelerant for whatever combustible waste is lying around in our mental attic. Laughter may get increased with more laughter but certainly hate gets amplified with more of the same. Responding in kind often fails to lift anything.
‘with the cities growing over us /we are saying thank you faster and faster’
And I doubt Merwin intended for us to ignore harm being done, or to passively accept it, just not to get bogged down in treating everyone as an abstract idea or as a threat. Try being human. Which is coming to look insane in a world judged by clicks and likes and frowning red emoticons.
‘we are saying thank you and waving / dark though it is’
Yet this is perhaps the two pictures of faith. Viewed from the outside it looks like a clueless reaction to events that do not deserve a kind word. It’s incomprehensible to smile in the face of a collapsing world. Viewed from the inside it’s a profound experience of grace, one in which we keep walking forward courageously because that may be the only way to walk forward.
The entire poem, by WS Merwin, © 1988, is here: