Sunday, April 30, 2006

Shrink Age: Poets Caring for Elderly Parents

Several friends and acquaintances are right now dealing with the anguish of aged parents whose health is failing. By coincidence, I've just met with an informal group of teachers who think that there might be something unique in the perspective of teachers on this very issue.

This brought to mind poets who have written about this theme, Linda Pastan and Jane Kenyon.

Kenyon prepared her last collection of poems with her husband during her own terminal struggle with cancer. Among the last poems she wrote before illness claimed her are several that deal with caring for her husband in a battle with cancer that he won, and with the final illnesses of his parents and hers. "In the Nursing Home" begins,
She is like a horse grazing
a hill pasture that someone makes
smaller by coming every night
to pull the fences in and in.
I read the poem during the last of my grandmother's 106 years, and was struck deeply by the idea that shrinkage is the essence of the condition of extreme age. Another poem of hers, "Eating the Cookies," makes a ritual of packing away the great-grandmother's belongings into boxes and plastic bags after her funeral. Finding a tin of cookies in the house, the poet rewards herself with one cookie for each room she empties, until the house is empty, and only one cookie remains. Reading this to children, I asked, "So, what should she do now? Just gobble it up?" Immediately they "got" it -- when the cookie is gone, so is the grandmother, and eating it has become something akin to Communion.

Linda Pastan's collection Carnival Evening: New and Selected Poems 1968-1998 touches often on this theme. With bittersweet humor, "The Cousins" describes those strangers that see each other only at funerals, remembering their ever-more-remote childhoods together. "Go Gentle," similar in brevity and sentiment to Kenyon's nursing home poem, is addressed to the grandfather who taught her to swim. "The Death of a Parent" begins,
Move to the front
of the line
a voice says, and suddenly
there is nobody
left standing between you
and the world...
and grows stronger from there, building to a common image of sunset, in an uncommon way, "as the sun drops/ its rusted padlock/ into place."

Shrink Age: Poets Caring for Elderly Parents | Category: Poetry

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Plays Personal and Political

( responding to Bus Stop by William Inge, Master Class by Terrence McNally, and a report on NPR's Weekend Edition Sunday concerning Alan Bennett's play History Boys. Drama | News and History )

A Times essay around 1981 quoted a British critic deriding American "diaper dramas" which build up to the revelation, "Oh, that's why I'm so miserable! It's (choose one: Dad's, Mom's) fault." British plays, said the article, were all about "politics." That seemed odd to me, because I could think of two dozen British plays that never mentioned elections, -isms, or policies. What did "politics" mean in that context?

About ten years later, I heard American writer Robert Olen Butler respond to a question about his being a "political" writer. He, a Vietnam vet, had just published a set of stories about Vietnamese expatriates in Louisiana. He replied that everyone's politics are deep-seated, established long before they grow old enough to vote, and it was at that deep level, he said, where his stories take place. I read his book, then others, and began to understand what he meant.

This morning's interview with Alan Bennett about History Boys intrigued me. The snippets of dialogue that I heard were what I love: ideas diametrically opposed and elegantly expressed. Like characters in American dramas, these too, have a past, giving their convictions a personal context, and giving the clash of ideas an emotional power.

Now, last night I enjoyed Bus Stop at "Theatre in the Square" of Marietta, Georgia. The characters are all endearing, the conflicts keep us wondering what will happen next, the funny bits "land," and the resolution elicits "aww" and applause. There's a theme that emerges in dialogue, and the characters all exemplify different angles on that theme: love requires courage to let go of the self and to move into something new. Those who can't, we're told, are "left out in the cold." A wise character says something like that, and so does a foolish character, while two most colorful characters illustrate that theme. In the very last moment of the play, we're left with two peripheral characters who haven't had the courage to love, one trudging upstairs to her empty apartment (something she said she hated doing in her very first scene), and one literally left out in the cold.

This is an old-fashioned style of play, and it's what most people have in mind when they think of a "play." It keeps unity of time, place, and action, a realistic setting, and all the characters' pasts and dreams revealed in natural-sounding dialogue. Is it also one of those risible "diaper dramas?" Yes, in the sense that the focus is only large enough to see these characters confronting their own personal failings, which all stem from past experiences (the cowboy's an orphan, the singer's a youngest child escaping a neglect, the owner has been burned by a bad marriage). If Inge hadn't made it a comedy, I think it would have been pretty hard to bear, something like an old Hallmark Hall of Fame program.

Is the more recent Master Class different? Terrence McNally's previous hit Love! Valour! Courage! Compassion! was the old-fashioned sort of play: single setting, representative types, coming to terms (or not) with the present by hashing out their pasts. (Note: I've seen the movie adaptation only.) Master Class seems different: the star addresses the audience directly -- "No applause, please!" -- and sometimes retreats into her past, speaking both parts of dialogues with a couple of husbands, and sometimes recorded singing overlays the action. Other characters are little more than props for her monologue. Still, the overarching action is to learn enough about the diva's past to forgive her for what she has become.

These plays about characters' recovering their pasts can be diverting, touching, fun, as both examples here are. And the "political" plays are often built on the same structure. But after a "diaper drama," I always feel that I've been manipulated, whereas I always come out of one of those plays of ideas feeling on fire. One type of play takes you on an emotional trip; the other, in the words of my student Josh Cox responding at intermission to Shaw's Misalliance, makes you want to buy the script and underline every word. I wouldn't want to see Bus Stop again, good as it was: been there, don't need to go back. But I'd see Stoppard's Arcadia again any day, both to re-connect with the characters and to try again to capture the elusive truth in the dialectical dialogue.

Hmmm -- Miller's Death of a Salesman and All My Sons would both seem to be the quintessential diaper dramas, both climaxing with a child saying, "It was all Dad's fault, and Mom was just in denial, and that's why I'm a failure!" But both also have that broader political base. The latter play in fact indulges in direct Marxist propaganda near its end, and loses its power right then.

So there is a kind of "political" writing that goes much deeper than any pamphlet.

Plays Personal and Political | Category: Drama

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Reading, Writing, and Pet Ownership, circa A.D. 800

review of "Pangur Ban," translated by Seamus Heaney, in POETRY magazine, April 2006: the Translations Issue. (text available at Poetry's web site at the time of this posting).

I love to get POETRY in the mail every month, and I keep it in the car with a pen, to check any poem that I "get," and any review in it that says something that I wish I'd thought. Each issue has a few of those, and others that get a question mark.

The latest issue features translations, and I've checked every poem I've read so far. This posting is about the one that earned a check ++.

Although Heaney slants some of the rhymes to take off the sing-song edge, the rhymed couplets of four feet per line sound like a nursery rhyme. But the content speaks to any adult for whom reading, writing, and pet ownership are important.

It's Seamus Heaney's translation of "Pangur Ban" (a.k.a. "The Monk and His Cat"), an anonymous poem found in a ninth-century manuscript. I had run into this poem before, in Thomas Cahill's wonderful history - essay, How the Irish Saved Civilization. If I remember correctly, this poem was written in the margin of a page of text that the Irish monk had translated, along with a little self-portrait cartoon by the monk. According to Cahill, the monk would have been one of dozens who worked in isolated huts on the coast of the Irish isles. Each quatrain draws out a parallel between the cat's hunt for the mouse hidden in the wall and the monk's hunt for the exact meaning hidden in an ancient text.

It sounds like a lonely, cold, hungry life. But across a millennium, the monk tells us how he and his cat are contented to be absorbed in worthy work. More than once, the Monk writes of his being equal, a partner to the cat named Pangur Ban, which Heaney tells us means something like "white clay" (literally, white-colored-"fuller's earth"):

Truth to tell, just being here,
Housed alone, housed together,
Adds up to its own reward:
Concentration, stealthy art.

So here I am, nearly 1200 years later, dogs at my feet, typing on a web blog, searching for the precise phrase to express my wonder at how the essentials of life (at least, the life of the mind) have not changed. Except: I'm multi-tasking, keeping an ear out for the clothes drier, listening to the radio for tips and entertainment, thinking ahead to tasks I must complete before an appointment at 3:30. So there's a bit of envy here, that he may have had less distraction than I. Of course, think what he had to deal with: fleas (his own, not Pangur Ban's), leaks, finding something to eat, fresh water, tooth ache (probably), keeping a fire going, and escaping the attention of Viking raiders.

Following Heaney's appreciative comments about a predecessor, I've tracked down the earlier translation by Robin Flowers via Google. Flowers chooses rhymes more perfect than Heaney's sometimes slanting ones, making the earlier translation a bit more like a child's poem. I've sent both versions to a friend who specializes in Celtic art, hoping to interest her in creating an illustrated book with the look of childrens' books.

Reading, Writing, and Pet Ownership, circa A.D. 800 | Category: Religion, Poetry

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Exodus, Holocaust, Immigration, and More on "Myth"

Categories: Religion, News and History

At the school where I teach, our seventh graders had a couple of programs related to the Holocaust. So I was primed to listen to a Public Radio program devoted to an overview of interpretations of the Exodus myth on the weekly show, "Speaking of Faith." Host Krista Tippett helpfully included this passage in her on line journal about her remarkably thoughtful show:

But Exodus also qualifies lavishly for my favorite definition of "myth" — a word we've diminished, equated with things that are not "true." Myth, said the Greek statesman Solon, "is not about something that never happened. It is about something that happens over and over again." In a paraphrase I also love, Rabbi Sandy Sasso once said to me about the Exodus story, with its irresistible dramatic potential: "What happened once upon a time happens all the time."

Speaking of Faith

The Exodus program reminded me of the Jewish tradition of "midrash," inserting alternative interpretations and speculations in gaps of Biblical stories. The featured scholar wonders at signs that God mourns the deaths of the Egyptians.

Also, Exodus called to mind current events in the USA, as I heard again the description of the immigrant laborers called the Hebrew - how they alarmed their employers by their vigor and fecundity. Too late, the Pharoah attempts to stop the growth of Hebrew families that built Egypt up.

Moses, conceived a Hebrew, nursed by his (secret) mother, raised by the Pharoah's daughter as a prince, privileged, educated, changes when sudden violence by Egyptian guards wreaked upon slaves makes him aware of his people's suffering and his connection to them. The same pattern applies to some prominent figures:

  • Gandhi was educated an English scholar, emulated the meat eating British giants, and enjoyed British privileges until he was thrown off of a South African train: new life followed, driven by recapturing of his culture of origin.
  • Martin Luther King, Jr. was nicknamed "Tweed" because of his dandified clothes and ostentatious vocabulary. He scorned the emotionalism of traditional sermons in his family's church. Everything changes when he becomes aware of suffering of his people from which he had mostly been shielded.

Exodus, Holocaust, Immigration, and More on "Myth" | Category: Religion Commentary

Monday, April 17, 2006

Easter Metaphor, Faith, Fact, and Myth

Categories: Religion, Poetry

To the pastor interviewed on Public Radio the day before Easter who said that his church celebrated the real Resurrection, "not some metaphor of spring and inner rebirth":

I've thought often about your statement this Easter Sunday. I bet you think that you have recovered the faith of our fathers, while the Episcopal church is far down a slippery slope into relativism and compromise with Charles Darwin, materialists, and all manner of permissive liberals.

A reading from St. Paul's first letter to the Corinthians 15:1-11 includes this church pioneer's assurance that Christ's resurrection in the body was witnessed by the apostles, then by more than five hundred at one time, "most of whom are still alive" at the time of his writing.

Without doubt, Paul is sincere, but the distinction you draw between what's "true" and what's "metaphor" is something that the authors of scripture and the originators of the Church never considered. It's a distinction that Charles Darwin would make, but not the Apostles, or Jesus, or any of our church fathers.

Why, even during our Easter service, we sang a ninth century lyric by Fortunatas that turns the Resurrection into metaphor for our own experience, as we sing to our own souls, "Now feel thy own third morning." Years ago, I heard a scrap of poetry from the early middle ages that became the basis for my own Advent cantata, "Four Candles": "What use, Gabriel, is your message to Mary, unless you also bring me the promise of God growing inside of me?"

While this way of reading scripture as a metaphor to apply it to present circumstances is an old one, it also works the other way. I've adapted in verse a letter from Petrarca, early in the 1300s, in which he describes his day's expedition to the top of Mt. Ventoux (where Lance Armstrong fought a memorable stage of the 2001 Tour de France). Every event along the way, from meeting an old man, to catching in briars, to reading an apt quotation at random -- every event becomes in Petrarca's mind a metaphor for his own life, and God speaks to him in these metaphors.

Dante once entered debate over the rightness of overthrowing a bad king: both sides argued from a metaphor, that the King is like the Sun. One side argued that the King thus nourishes the kingdom. The opponent didn't point out that the metaphor was flawed or irrelevant to the facts; he argued that even the Sun can be blocked by clouds, etc. etc.

So, fact and metaphor were not separate compartments until recently, say, the 1700s. Life was an allegory, allegory was a guide to life. This was comparatively recently in history. Where were the authors of Scripture, then? Way ahead of their time?

Now, let's take something we know to be historical: Jefferson's authorship of our Declaration of Independence. We know that what he meant when he wrote "All men are created equal" was not what Lincoln meant, or what we mean. We have transformed and reinterpreted it. Neither knowing the facts about what Jefferson thought, nor learning that (as I suppose might happen) John Adams really wrote it changes what it means to us now.

For that matter, if the Resurrection was historical in our sense of the word or not, our memory of it is only a memory unless we ALSO treat it as a metaphor for our lives.

You want to draw distinction between fact and metaphor; I see blurring.

I bet you use the word "myth" as a synonym for "lie" or "fairy tale." The Episcopal Church has taught me to use it as "a story that may or may not have been factual, but that is true again and again." In this way, every child and every community experiences a Garden of Eden, and then a moment when a choice brings about the knowledge of good and evil and personal responsibility for one's actions.

Paul believed the Resurrection was real, factual, eyewitnessed, and he staked his life on it. He was not a witness; his vision was an inner vision. We hear of his experience second hand, in metaphorical language of blindness and sight.

Your emphasis on the "real" resurrection misplaces emphasis on a pugnacious distinction between you and people you scorn. Sorry, that's just not part of the Gospel message at all.

Easter Metaphor, Faith, Fact, and Myth | Category: Religion