Tuesday, November 25, 2014

You won't hear from me on Wednesday because I will be getting up at 3 a.m. in order to drive to Massachusetts in a snowstorm. Ugh.

The Death of the Heart

Following are three status posts that appeared on my Facebook wall this morning, responses to the grand jury's decision not to indict Darren Wilson, the white police officer who shot a young black man named Michael Brown on August 9, 2014, in Ferguson, Missouri:
150 years ago, whites went to war to free the slaves. Fifty years ago, whites marched together with blacks to Washington to demand an end to segregation. We need to stand united once again. We need to show that this decision to not press charges [and] letting Wilson off was unacceptable. As a country, we are better than this. As people, we are better than this. We need to demand change. We need to use this as a rallying point to stand up not just for what we believe in, but what is right.
      --17-year-old white male, rural central Maine

Really disgusted with America right now. Darren Wilson deserved at least some form of punishment for killing an innocent teenager. Has society come to the point where killing someone doesn't matter if you're a white policeman? Is it a coincidence that the majority of votes needed was nine, and out of the twelve jury members, nine were white? When will race issues ever end?
    --17-year-old white female, rural central Maine

I am appalled and saddened by a society that allows a man to shoot an unarmed African American teenager and get away with it. Or all the other terrible murders/shooting that people have gotten away with because the victim was colored. I cannot wait for the day when the US is officially the land of freedom and equality for everybody regardless of gender, race, sexual preference, sexual orientation, gender identification, religion, rich or poor or whatever else you can think of. We are all human and we all should be treated equally and strive to treat others equally. Live by the Golden Rule; Treat people the way you want to be treated. 
      --19-year-old mixed-race male, rural central Maine
I think it's safe to say that, like most Americans, these three teenagers did not comb through witness testimony, watch hours of video footage, or conduct interviews with law enforcement and family members. They watched or listened to news highlights, glanced at Internet updates, saw selected photographs or video clips. What they (and I, and most likely you) absorbed was the bare bones of the situation, buffed up for generalized public consumption. Nonetheless, facts emerged from that disclarity: A police officer shot and killed a young man. The officer was white. The officer did not first attempt to subdue the young man with a taser or pepper spray or anything less than deadly force. The young man was unarmed. The young man was black.

Meanwhile, administrators at the University of Virginia are dealing with allegations of gang rape at a fraternity and tales of a longstanding rape culture at the university. Though the story that broke in Rolling Stone doesn't specifically describe the perpetrators, the student body portrayed in the article reeks of privilege. This issue doesn't end with UVA, of course: it's endemic, and it's not going away. In 1960 my mother was kidnapped by a fellow student at a small Christian college, driven to the town dump, and threatened with rape. In 2013, according to the Rolling Stone article, a Dartmouth University student posted a "how-to-rape guide" online. This weekend, you, too, can watch frat boys reeling through the college-town streets closest to you--drunk, rowdy, predatory, and mostly white. Will police officers shoot any of them? I'd say it's highly unlikely.

I went to college with a young man who grew up to become a prominent human-rights lawyer. He recently visited Ferguson, where I'm sure he did comb through witness testimony and watch hours of video footage and do all of the things that the rest of us have not. Yet this was his Facebook status after the grand-jury decision was announced:
This empty feeling in your stomach right now happens when justice is sorely lacking . . .
His reaction to the decision in the Ferguson case was not so different from the reactions of the three rural Maine teenagers. Something, somewhere, somehow, had gone wrong. Or had stayed wrong. Once again, a young black man had paid the price for being a young black man. Rather than giving him the benefit of the doubt--perhaps paternally remarking, "Aw, he's just being a regular kid," or, in a more hopeful scenario, asking, "I wonder if that kid's had too much to drink and ought to go the hospital," the officer killed him.

So now a young man is dead, for no particular reason, other than being foolish in public. Meanwhile, another foolish young man on the street has broken a beer bottle against the face of the young woman who dared to tell a reporter that she had been raped at a frat party. As far as I know, he's still alive and partying.

This morning, in a comment on one of the teenagers' posts about the grand-jury decision, someone wrote, "You're too young become a cynic." That remark made me as angry as anything else I'd been reading. Sure, all three kids simplified the current situation, simplified history, simplified justice and morality. Yet they are not cynics but idealists, and their idealism has been crushed. The same goes for the woman who had the bottle broken against her face. She thought she was going on a date with a handsome, friendly guy. It never occurred to her that he was purposely setting her up for a gang rape. Would it have occurred to you?
Two weeks after Jackie's rape, she ran into Drew during her lifeguard shift at the UVA pool. "Hey, Jackie," Drew said, startling her. "Are you ignoring me?" She'd switched her shift in the hopes of never seeing him again. Since the Phi Kappa Psi party, she'd barely left her dorm room, fearful of glimpsing one of her attackers. Jackie stared at Drew, unable to speak. "I wanted to thank you for the other night," Drew said. "I had a great time."
After the decision not to indict, Michael Brown's parents released a statement through their lawyers:
We are profoundly disappointed that the killer of our child will not face the consequence of his actions. While we understand that many others share our pain, we ask that you channel your frustration in ways that will make a positive change. We need to work together to fix the system that allowed this to happen. Join with us in our campaign to ensure that every police officer working the streets in this country wears a body camera. We respectfully ask that you please keep your protests peaceful. Answering violence with violence is not the appropriate reaction. Let's not just make noise, let's make a difference.
Idealism is not dead, at least not insofar as public statements go. Brown's parents are maintaining their dignity; they are trying to help the rest of us angry onlookers maintain ours. But their lives have been ruined. How could they not be? Their child, scarcely older than the three teenagers I have quoted, was murdered. Nothing will stanch that wound. Jackie, thank goodness, is still alive. But I wonder how her parents felt when they read the description of her rape, when they saw the "blood-red bruise around her eye," relic of that broken bottle. The heart is fragile, and death isn't the only way to kill it.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Today I have to TAKE MY TEENAGER TO THE MALL, and CHRISTMAS-SHOP and SORT THROUGH SALE RACKS and unfortunately TRY ON PANTS in DRESSING ROOMS WITH FLUORESCENT LIGHTING and then wander around the parking lot in the COLD POURING RAIN

The only good thing about this adventure will be the TEENAGER. But he will be hungry, so we will have to eat MALL FOOD.

Ugh.

See you on the other side.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Letter from the 142nd Pennsylvania Infantry (1862)

Dawn Potter

I received the sad intelligence
Of Juliet’s demise.
That sweet good girl now peaceful sleeps,
At rest in Paradise.

We lay last night in Snickers Gap,
Endured a foul brass band.
Midst sharps and flats, I wrote to Jane;
My friends and I shook hands.

We hope that we shall meet again
As victors on the field.
Without a faith in God above
What thorns this life would yield.

Our cavalcade has halted
In a meadow by a stream.
Two drovers work to drown a mule.
We listen to it scream.

***

This is one of the "Chestnut Ridge" poems I've included in my new manuscript, Vocation. Along with incorporating mid-nineteenth-century-esque rhythm, rhyme, and themes, the poem borrows incidents from a collection of Civil War-era letters:  Extracts from the Letters of Alfred B. McCalmont, Late Lt.-Col., 142d Regt., Col. 208th Regt., and Brev. Brig.-Gen. Pennsylvania Volunteers, from the Front during the War of the Rebellion, which were privately published by McCalmont's family in 1908. I have not been able to ascertain where McCalmont himself was from, but the regiment drew recruits from many western Pennsylvania counties, among them Fayette, Somerset, and Westmoreland. McCalmont took command of the regiment at Gettysburg, after the colonel fell, and led the men through many terrible battles, including those at Spotsylvania and the Wilderness. The regiment was present at Appomattox, when Lee surrendered.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Eight degrees outside this morning, but the house is warm and the coffee is strong and hot. Paul's school is closed all next week, so the holiday starts today--not that I'm doing anything special this morning other than getting my hair cut. Still, I have a warm happy feeling about not getting up at 5:30 a.m., starting a fire, waking the boy, heating up his breakfast, packing his lunch, and rushing around the house with him as he helplessly hunts down his phonerunningshoeslatinhomeworkmandolinpickipadwintercoatetcetera.

I invented a pie yesterday that turned out rather well--a pumpkin-ricotta pie, though I used winter squash instead of pumpkin because that's what was sitting on the counter asking to be eaten. Basically, after baking and straining the squash, I followed a regular pumpkin pie recipe but substituted 1 cup of ricotta and 1/2 cup of milk for the usual 1 1/2 cups of milk. I also made sure to whip the ricotta, squash, and sugar thoroughly with an electric mixer before adding the eggs, milk, and spices. This gets rid of the cottage-cheesy lumps and turns the mixture into something resembling cannoli filling, which is a much more delightful texture. I pour the filling into an unbaked pie shell and baked it as I would any other pumpkin pie. The result was a delicate amalgam of custard and cheesecake, pumpkin-flavored and not at all heavy.

In other news: I am recovering from complex and vivid dreams involving New Jersey, a motel room, outlaws wearing thick plastic-rimmed glasses, four oddly shaped personal watercraft, a cocktail party, and the high seas.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Lately I've had a few people ask me to write up proposals for a possible lyric essay workshop. I led one a couple of years ago in Portland, under the auspices of the Maine Writers and Publisher Alliance; and I am now booked to lead another--in early June, way, way downeast at the Cobscook Community Learning Center in Trescott.

I enjoy teaching this class: for me, it's a way to examine the distinctions and connections between my urge to write poetry and my urge to write prose. However, most of the people who sign up for it do not think of themselves as poets, which is to say they tend to come to lyric prose from informational prose, whereas I am coming to lyric prose from narrative-lyric poetry. So the conversations are interesting . . . as is the fact that a poet keeps getting hired to teach prose. I think that's a financial decision, at least to a certain extent. In Maine, prose writers are more likely than poets to sign up for writing workshops. Are there more prose writers? Or are poets just too poor or iconoclastic to consider signing up?

Anyway: if you're interested in having me lead an lyric essay workshop (in or outside of school) or you have access to a venue that might host one, let me know because I am on a proposal-writing roll.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

This morning I'm headed south to visit a university English class--reading some poems, answering some questions, that sort of thing. Apparently a number of the students are under the impression that all of my poems are deeply coded symbols for SEX!SEX!SEX! so the visit should be interesting.

[P.S. When I mentioned the class's assumptions to my husband, he said, "Well, aren't they?"]

[P.P.S.
We played with her cat and it fell asleep. We
seem very mild. It's humid out. (Are they spelled "dikes"?)
People say they are Bacchantes, but if they are 
we must be the survivors of Thermopylae. 
--from "Poem" by Frank O'Hara]