On Libraries and Liberty

Hey, did you see that jackass in Forbes arguing that we should just replace all libraries with Amazon retail offerings? It was such an astonishingly bad take that Forbes actually took it down, presumably from shame.

your idea is bad and you should feel bad

I suspect that any of you reading this already have a great love for libraries, for a thousand reasons too obvious and also too personal to name. When I was a teenager, my family moved from the Great Lakes to the South, where I knew no one, sounded like an outsider, and was terrified of being assaulted for being queer. For an entire summer, I made it my mission to read (or at least check out and attempt) every book of 20th-century poetry at my town’s public library. That personal project, spawned from deep loneliness, led me to reading Adrienne Rich, who has been one of my polestars as a poet. And that was just at the small local branch in my shitty suburban strip-mall town. I would not be the person I am without that library. I know you have a story of your own.

After reading about that bad man’s bad ideas, I have been haunted all week by one of my favorite poems by Sharon Olds: “Mrs. Krikorian,” from her 1996 book The Wellspring.

She saved me. When I arrived in 6th grade,
a known criminal, the new teacher
asked me to stay after school the first day, she said
I’ve heard about you. She was a tall woman,
with a deep crevice between her breasts,
and a large, calm nose. She said,
This is a special library pass.
As soon as you finish your hour’s work
that hour’s work that took ten minutes
and then the devil glanced into the room
and found me empty, a house standing open—
you can go to the library. Every hour
I’d zip through the work in a dash and slip out of my
seat as if out of God’s side and sail
down to the library, solo through the empty
powerful halls, flash my pass
and stroll over to the dictionary
to look up the most interesting word
I knew, spank, dipping two fingers
into the jar of library past to
suck that tart mucilage as I
came to the page with the cocker spaniel’s
silks curling up like the fine steam of the body.
After spank and breast, I’d move on
to Abe Lincoln and Helen Keller,
safe in their goodness till the bell, thanks
to Mrs. Krikorian, amiable giantess
with the kind eyes. When she asked me to write
a play, and direct it, and it was a flop, and I
hid in the coat-closet, she brought me a candy-can
as you lay a peppermint on the tongue, and the worm
will come up out of the bowel to get it.
And so I was emptied of Lucifer
and filled with school glue and eros and
Amelia Earhart, saved my Mrs. Krikorian.
And who had saved Mrs. Krikorian?
When the Turks came across Armenia, who
slid her into the belly of a quilt, who
locked her in a chest, who mailed her to America?
And that one, who saved her, and that one—
who saved her, to save the one
who saved Mrs. Krikorian, who was
standing there on the sill of 6th grade, a
wide-hipped angel, smokey hair
standing up weightless all around her head?
I end up owing my soul to so many,
to the Armenian nation, one more soul someone
jammed behind a stove, drove
deep into a crack in a wall,
shoved under a bed. I would wake
up, in the morning, under my bed—not
knowing how I had got there—and lie
in the dusk, the dustballs beside my face
round and ashen, shining slightly
with the eerie comfort of what is neither good nor evil.

Excuse me a moment, my eyes seem to be leaking.

ancient antique architectural design architecture
Photo by Skitterphoto on Pexels.com

What I love about this poem, apart from its loving depiction of libraries and teachers and all those other necessary bits of culture that we can supposedly replace if we just give corporations enough tax breaks, is its internal logic. If we want to get fancy we could call it parataxis: the refusal to subordinate one piece of information or one clause to another (look at all those “ands,” with only one “and so”). To me, this mimics the way you experience the stacks of an IRL library: you find your book on the shelf, and then you look at the book next to it, and the book next to that one, and the book next to that one, and before you know it, you’ve read all the way from A Change of World to Dark Fields of the Republic.

The speaker then transforms this beautiful, one-book-at-a-time movement into a way of thinking about people and who she “owes her soul” to: not just Mrs. Krikorian, but “that one, who saved her, and that one— / who saved her, to save the one / who saved Mrs. Krikorian,” who saved the speaker. By the final lines, the dualistic logic of good and evil — which has seemed to control the speaker-as-child’s sense of self, trapped between God and Lucifer, and which haunts the poem through the speaker-as-adult’s understanding that Mrs. Krikorian was a survivor of the Armenian Genocide — has collapsed under the great, true weight of the library, which offers pleasure and respite for both body and mind. It’s not that there is no good or evil, but that there are spaces that provide refuge from moral fear: places like the library, where “spank” is a word among other words and not a physical assault.

So. Next time you encounter some libertarian dipshit talking about the uselessness of libraries, please remember this poem, starring a smart girl and an immigrant who needed asylum — two of the things that disphit libertarians seem to hate the most.

Advertisements

Tortured Syntax and Tortured Times

One of the strangest things about the 21st century is how much we all read, all the time: the news, our Facebook and Twitter and what have you, our phones. Reading is not a pastime anymore; it’s an essential skill in a surprisingly text-based culture. I love to read, like all writers, I suppose, but I am also wary of reading: when I sit down with an absorbing book, my mind always partially flickers to the void of the present. What am I missing in the world, daring to read? What am I tuning out? What words are being thrown in my direction?

I see an early version of this in William Carlos Williams’s famous lines, written so many decades before we had the internet:

 

It is difficult to get the news from poems yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there
From “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower”

 

He’s not wrong; it is difficult to get the news from poems. It’s also difficult, as a writer, to get the news into poems in the first place. How do you make what’s horrifying, brutal, and factual into a poem?

Robin Coste Lewis, in her astonishing book Voyage of the Sable Venus, provides one answer in “verga:.”

verga:

by Robin Coste Lewis

“…women don’t want the men to go into the
bush because the women will only be raped but
the men will be killed…I have seen a woman
who was caught in the bush by several men.
They tied her legs to two trees while she was
standing. They raped her many times and before
leaving her they put stones in her vagina…”

—Abshiro Aden Mohammed, Kenya, 2000
Dagahaley Somali Refugee Camp
from A Camel for the Son,
by Fazal Sheik

Before leaving her they put stones in her vagina
The men will only be raped but the stones will be killed
The bush caught many men to go into the stones
The stones will be killed by several trees before leaving
The bush tied the men to the trees in their vaginas
Before bush go to trees they kill many stones
Many men will be caught by the trees in the bush
Several trees will be raped by the bush and killed
Only the caught men will be stoned and bushed by the trees
Several men were caught by the trees before leaving
The men will be killed but the stones will only be treed
The stones put many trees into the men’s killed vaginas
By the bush, the trees were raped only several times
Before leaving, the vaginas were seen standing in the stones

This poem embodies the traumatic nature of its subject by using a traumatized syntax, embodying the unthinkability of its epigraph inside its twisted sentences. This poem both presents and destabilizes the “news-y” tendency to use passive voice to discuss sexual assault: women “get” raped, but no one seems to be the agent of rape. Here, everything in the epigraph, every noun, becomes both assailant and victim. No one and nothing is left untouched by war.

I know this poem is not exactly a stay against despair; it is, however, a way of responding to despair, and to quote Lorde again, “give name to the nameless so it can be thought.” What I learn from this poem’s use of syntax is that sometimes surrealism (or anti-realism?) is a clear response to atrocity (think of Maus). Sometimes the difficult world requires difficult artistic practices to navigate it.

This Difficult World

The world feels hopeless to me, writing in the middle of 2018, in a way it has not to me before. The difficulty of the world is not new, and this is not the first time it has threatened to destroy individuals, communities, lifeways, nations. But to me, a white cis queer woman in her late 30s, this is the first time that everyone I know — and I mean everyone — is daily fighting despair.

The best way I know to fight despair is through poetry: reading it, writing it, sharing it. Poetry is sometimes an antidote to despair, yes — but sometimes it is also the perfect distillation of it, a lens through which we can finally see ourselves, a barbaric yawp. In a time where everything that is not profitable is discarded and dismissed, engaging with poetry is a form of extreme resistance: a refusal to grant our time and attention to those who would monetize them.

In her essential 1977 essay, “Poetry Is Not a Luxury,” Audre Lorde wrote:

[Poetry] is a vital necessity of our existence. It forms the quality of the light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change, first made into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action. Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought. The farthest horizons of our hopes and fears are cobbled by our poems, carved from the rock experiences of our daily lives.

Picture of Audre Lorde, Meridel Lesueur, and Adrienne Rich in 1980
By K. Kendall – originally posted to Flickr as Audre Lorde, Meridel Lesueur, Adrienne Rich 1980, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8104615

I am trying to find ways to make language into tangible action. I am trying to think through and past what I already know. So I am reading, and rereading, poems that speak to our times. I hope you’ll join me.

This blog is named after the first book of poetry that I read that seemed to be directly about the world I live in: Adrienne Rich’s An Atlas of the Difficult World. I was 16 or 17 when I read this book, and it electrified me. I come back to it every few years, when the world becomes difficult again.

From “Through Corralitos Under Rolls of Cloud”:

IV
That light of outrage is the light of history
springing upon us when we’re least prepared,
thinking maybe a little glade of time
leaf-thick and with clear water
is ours, is promised us, for all we’ve hacked
and tracked our way through:     to this:
What will it be?     Your wish or mine?     your
prayers or my wish then:     that those we love
be well, whatever that means, to be well.
Outrage:     who dare claim protection for their own
amid such unprotection?     What kind of prayer
is that?     To what kind of god?     What kind of wish?

 

 

I struggle with this question every day: who am I to wish for those I love to be well, when so many are not well? What kind of prayer is that? What kind of god would grant it?

An atlas doesn’t tell you where to go. Instead, it presents you with a map upon which you can plot your own decisions. Poetry is the same: it does not tell you how to be a human. It simply shows you what a human can be.

Let’s read it together.