Confrontation: Klingon-Style

I first started watching Star Trek: The Next Generation when it aired in 1987. I’ll admit it: back then, I just wasn’t that into Klingons. I didn’t mind them, per se, but I was not particularly intrigued by their aggression or their snarling politics. I was more interested in Picard’s eloquent speeches, such as in The Drumhead where he denounces witch hunts.  (Incidentally, Klingon Worf gets swept into the drama of the episode only to apologize later for not knowing tyranny when he sees it.) I also enjoyed the cool elegance of Vulcans. (Fun fact about Vulcans: they’re actually not so cool after all, or at least, they’ve learned self-discipline so that they don’t lose their shit like they used to, back when they let their intense emotions run wild.)

Vulcan Harp

Recently, though, I’ve gained a new outlook on Klingons, in general, and Worf, in particular. In this age of “alternative facts” and celebrated bullies, I long for Worf just to bust into Congress and announce that “This is not honorable!” Right now, I need a hero with a bat’leth and a firm grasp on ethics and transparency.

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I used to see Captain Picard as the main hero of STNG. He always seemed to know what to do, and he rarely broke a sweat. Lately, though, Worf and Picard seem to me like two sides of the same coin. Worf’s allegiance to honor and duty mimics Picard’s values, and Picard knows how to curse in Klingon like…well, a sailor. But lately, when I see Worf standing helplessly at his post, witnessing the dishonorable with his warrior mane safely bound, I identify.

Last week, I was summoned to jury duty, which I have never done before. I sat in a room that looked like a fairly nice bus station, with around 400 other people. Oof. Next to me on one side were two older women who complained incessantly about everything from the job market and family strife, to the supposedly disorganized jury duty process. (I actually thought it was well-run.)

Worf's had enough

The person on the other side of me got angry when I allowed two elderly women to exit a row in front of me during the slow, crowded walk out of the room and off to lunch. Of course, I channeled my inner Vulcan, but it was right then that I really wanted to bare my teeth and challenge her to a B’aht Qul.

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After lunch, I found a new location, hoping to be left alone. Instead, I was greeted by a new chatterbox with a bloodlust for child rapists. I mean, I get it; I do, but damn, was I the only one who brought a book?

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The next day (and blessedly my last on jury duty) I walked past Chatterbox and sat several seats away, used my long hair as a cloaking device, and fastened my earbuds like a teenager on family va-cay. Every once in a while, I’d tune into the garrulous public, complaining all around me. The mutterings, the wide-eyed guy who never stopped smiling in his workout shorts (even though he spoke to no one), the side glances, the snickering. I wondered what Worf—out of uniform—would have done to maintain his boundaries. Grimaced in his sharp armor? Cussed in Klingon? Bitten off the head of a raw meat slab that he had carefully packed for lunch the night before?

I am not a merry man

As for me, like an average, 21st-century human, I just bowed my head and turned up my podcast, until they finally called my name and sent me home.

This month, I’ve included Jane Hilberry’s “Crazy Jane Meets a Bear,” a poem about a woman who leaves her husband in romantic pursuit of a bear who finds her embarrassing. If you know of any good poems about maintaining authenticity in a rigid world, or if you just have some crazy jury duty stories, please let us know in the comments below! 

To read Jane Hilberry’s “Crazy Jane Meets a Bear,” click here.

Belong

Trigger warning: this post discusses abuse in destructive cults, including the mass suicide of Heaven’s Gate members. Proceed at your own discretion.

In spring of 1997, my roommates and I watched a news report about the discovery of 39 people who had helped each other  commit suicide. Members of the group, Heaven’s Gate, believed that the passing Hale-Bopp comet disguised an alien spaceship that, by committing suicide, they could board and finally find their true place in the universe. Videos surfaced, both of the cult’s wide-eyed leader, Marshall Applewhite (who, by the way, used to teach music at The University of Alabama, where I now teach English) and good-bye messages from happy, excited Heaven’s Gate members. It’s the latter that has always surprised me. They did seem legitimately pleased with their choice to dress alike and to help each other leave their “vehicles” in pursuit of a new beginning. They wore playful patches on their uniforms that read “Heaven’s Gate Away Team,” referencing the Star Trek television series. (Strange side note: Nichelle Nichols’ brother was a Heaven’s Gate member and also lost his life with the other suicide victims).

Nichelle Nichols
Nichelle Nichols in the role of Lt. Uruha.

I was stumped on what to think, as most people were at the time. Later, information surfaced on the various ways Marshall Applewhite and the other leader, Bonnie Lu Nettles (who had died in the 80s) had manipulated and isolated members of Heaven’s Gate in the way that all cult leaders do. And yet, the more I learned about its members, the more puzzled I became. Why did so many people who seemed otherwise intelligent and emotionally stable, join a cult that required them to leave everything and everyone in their lives behind and eventually, commit a gruesome act together? 

It’s easy to understand why the girls joined The Manson Family. Charles Manson—a misogynist p.o.s.—learned how to manipulate women from a pimp he met in prison. He preyed upon young runaways, lavished them with the love and attention they had never before received (he was, of course, faking) and then, after they believed that he loved them, abused and manipulated them into prostitution (and for a few—to participate in mass murder). But the Heaven’s Gate members were different. Many of them came from seemingly stable backgrounds.

Hale-Bopp Comet
Hale-Bopp Comet

A friend of mine suggested that perhaps people join cults because they’re lonely, but I think the reason runs deeper. Recently, I watched a documentary about Flat Earthers called, Behind the Curve. While I don’t think that the communities that develop around the belief that the Earth is flat necessarily meets the criteria for a destructive cult, it sure is strange. During the whole documentary, I wondered (among other things) why this group tries so hard to convince others to join. At a Flat Earth conference, one man tells the audience that for his “entire life [he’s] felt kind of separate, like nothing was quite right.” Another man says that, at this conference, he is in a room full of people who will never judge him. Others talk about feeling isolated outside of the conference.

Flat Earth

I wonder if, ironically, feeling like we do not quite belong in this world is something that most people experience, perhaps to different degrees. Certainly cults are not exclusive to the west; however, this part of the globe certainly flails in the face of chronic alienation. Mother Teresa once claimed that, of all the diseases she has witnessed, “loneliness in the west” is the worst one.

Our mainstream culture often seems keen to respond to people’s deep discontent with the suggestion that they’ve merely failed to purchase the correct products, which will then supposedly lead to “success,” which is to say, a higher social status. However, it doesn’t take long to figure out that the famous people around us are no happier (and sometimes, even more miserable) than us “nobodies.”

old ad

Personally, I think that the very normal sense that something isn’t quite right, that we don’t quite fit in, is the main reason that people fall prey to certain cults. While listening to Glynn Washington’s podcast, Heaven’s Gate, it was hard not to look around me and wonder, under the right circumstances, how many normally healthy people could have fallen under Applewhite’s spell. It was hard not to consider if, in a moment of vulnerability, we all could get sucked into the allure of unconditional love from a group that claims it would never leave us, despite the real possibility that, one day, we may desperately wish it would.  

Today, I offer you two poems by James Wright. In both poems, the speaker finds connection with nature. In “Beginning,” the speaker witnesses nature personified. At the end of the poem, he mirrors nature as he “leans toward” darkness. I like that this poem doesn’t suggest that nature heals alienation by wiping off the dirt and shining up the speaker; rather, the connection occurs when darkness is shared.

In “A Blessing,” there is a similar theme of finding connection to one’s self through nature, as well as contrast in nature itself. While the horses “can hardly contain their happiness,” the speaker claims that there is also “no loneliness like theirs.” In the end, the speaker realizes how close he is, through nature, to transcending his own human experience.

Beginning

The moon drops one or two feathers into the field.
The dark wheat listens.
Be still.
Now.
There they are, the moon’s young, trying
Their wings.
Between trees, a slender woman lifts up the lovely shadow
Of her face, and now she steps into the air, now she is gone
Wholly, into the air.
I stand alone by an elder tree, I do not dare breathe
Or move.
I listen.
The wheat leans back toward its own darkness,
And I lean toward mine.

—James Wright

A Blessing

Just off the highway to Rochester, Minnesota,
Twilight bounds softly forth on the grass.
And the eyes of those two Indian ponies
Darken with kindness.
They have come gladly out of the willows
To welcome my friend and me.
We step over the barbed wire into the pasture
Where they have been grazing all day, alone.
They ripple tensely, they can hardly contain their happiness
That we have come.
They bow shyly as wet swans. They love each other.
There is no loneliness like theirs.
At home once more,
They begin munching the young tufts of spring in the darkness.
I would like to hold the slenderer one in my arms,
For she has walked over to me
And nuzzled my left hand.
She is black and white,
Her mane falls wild on her forehead,
And the light breeze moves me to caress her long ear
That is delicate as the skin over a girl’s wrist.
Suddenly I realize
That if I stepped out of my body I would break
Into blossom.

—James Wright

Banner Photo Credit:

https://www.wmagazine.com/gallery/cult-classics-irina-shayk-joan-smalls#8

My Vampiric Summer: Death by Humidity

Ah, Alabama’s hot and humid summer is here. It’s the kind of weather that makes me hiss, whilst ducking under a cloak, as I run to pull in the garbage can.

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O, I love vampires. I never really joined the whole zombie craze. Perhaps zombies hit a bit too close to home for me, what with everyone’s head in a phone these days. But I like vampires for their complexities and their troubles with immortality. (See further explanation in “Vampire Connoisseur.”)

I don’t have much to discuss this month nor can I offer cohesion. It’s hot outside, and I’ve been often in a dark room, my hands and feet corpse-cold from the air conditioner, reading and writing by myself like a weirdo recluse. So, here are some thoughts on vampires to cool you down this summer:

Most people think of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, as the forerunner of vampire narratives; however, there have been many vampire stories before Stoker’s. For whatever reason, his novel stuck and provided a blueprint for future vampire tales. Before Dracula, though, there was Lord Byron’s 1813 The Giaour; the short story, “The Vampyre,” by Lord Byron’s ex-friend, John Polidori (who based his main character, Lord Ruthven, on old LB himself); and Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla in 1872, from which Stoker heavily “borrows” for his Dracula.

Here’s poor, delicate Lucy from the 1992 Bram Stoker’s Dracula movie. She is both a vampire victim as well as a fashion victim. I’ll tell you, I know she was about to eat a child, but that weird headdress alone would have spooked the hell out of me.

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I recently listened to Dracula on Audible and could not help but picture the Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode, “Buffy vs. Dracula.” Best line: “A guy like you should think about going electric.”

My VampireTurn Ons:

Horror

Humor

Camp

Seduction

Ironic lust for life

Black lace and bustles 

Black leather jackets

Screenshot 2019-06-29 23.06.27
Spike ❤

My Vampire Turn Offs:

Vampire narratives that ask the audience to believe that male vampires abusing women is sexy/true love/romantic/all you could ask for in life.

Women who buy the above stated narrative.

The patriarch that warped the above women into bogus, self-loathing thoughts in the first place.

Screenshot 2019-06-29 23.15.16
Ack.

Recently, a television series emerged from the mockumentary, What We Do In The Shadows, and it is hilarious. The vampires Nadja and Laszlo crack me up the most. They are married, which really means something if you never die, and Nadja’s eye rolls are priceless.

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Here are a few vampire movies that I’ve enjoyed in recent years:

Let the Right One In: A Swedish film about a child vampire, with a subtle but quite disturbing final scene.

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A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night: A female vampire targets misogynists in a small Iranian town. Favorite scene: The vampire skateboarding alone at night, chador floating behind her.

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Only Lovers Left Alive: A slow, moody, beautifully shot movie about the loneliness and the magic of immortality.  Best line: “It’s a full moon. Did you know that there’s a diamond up there the size of a planet? It’s a white dwarf; it’s the compressed heart of a star, and it’s not only a radiant diamond, but it also emits the music of a gigantic gong.” (Side note: I HEART Tilda Swinton! When I was writing my book, Sister Nun, I pictured her as the main character, and this was before she was cast as a bald, nun-type in Dr. Strange. I thought of her first, dang it!)

Screenshot 2019-07-02 16.33.43

I will leave you with the 1859 poem Goblin Market, by Christina Rossetti, which is a tale of vampire-esque creatures who suck the life and youth out of easily-seduced Laura. Although there are several valid interpretations of the work, I can’t help but focus on the seduction and addiction motifs, which are common in vampire narratives. A recent example of vampire addiction struggles can be found in the character Angel (in the television shows, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel). Angel struggles to maintain his humanity by abstaining completely from human blood, to mixed results. The Angel universe does not provide the benefit of “True Blood,” the synthetic human blood drink offered in the TV show by the same name, and Angel lives off rats’ blood…when he’s good, that is.

Screenshot 2019-06-29 22.43.24
True Blood’s version of “hugs not drugs.”

Another vampire-y thing about Goblin Market is that it seems ripe (no pun intended) with the fluidity of the vampire’s life: slipping in and out of society, as well as sexual identities. 

All right, I blogged. I’ve linked a performance of Goblin Market below. Now, back to my summer antics…

giphy

It’s the End of These Worlds as We Know Them, and I Don’t Feel Fine

SPOILERS AHEAD FOR THE DEADWOOD MOVIE AND THE SERIES FINALE OF GAME OF THRONES

This past weekend, the Deadwood movie came out on HBO. My wife had invited our friend over to see the movie, so I watched a few episodes beforehand and read a summary of the three seasons. Despite the fact that I was born and raised in the west, I’ve just never been into westerns. Nevertheless, I thought the series was well-written and provided complex characters. 

When the movie ended, I was interested to hear what my wife and our friend thought of it. The sentiment from both was that they enjoyed it, but that the movie, which takes place ten years after the series ends, pretty much left everyone and everything the way it had been. There were no surprises. “I’m not sure we needed the movie,” my wife said, thoughtfully. 

Initially, I believed that I didn’t care about Deadwood, but as the weekend progressed, I found myself bothered by its ending. I remember when the series first came out, a female friend of mine proclaimed that no one should be upset by the way women are treated in Deadwood because “that’s the way it was back then.” I’ve always thought that response is far more complicated than its simplistic facade. Why do we want to watch a show where women are treated in a way that supposedly ended long ago? I propose it’s because it actually hasn’t ended. We often identify with characters. But with whom are women identifying when they watch abused hookers from the 1800s (or the lovable, yet miserable, alcoholic, Calamity Jane)? Even more disturbing, with whom are contemporary men identifying? Of course, one doesn’t need to identify with characters to enjoy a story, but that still leaves me with the question: then why are we watching men abuse women in television shows meant to entertain?

Good storytelling is powerful, though. Even I felt myself sympathizing with the brothel’s pimp, and main character, Al Swearengen, played by the talented Ian McShane. Swearengen is dying of alcoholism, in the movie, and wills his establishment to his favorite prostitute, Trixie. However, the first episode of the tv series was still fresh in my mind, and I couldn’t help but recall that Al beats Trixie for shooting a customer, who wouldn’t stop beating her. He tells Trixie she’s “bad for…business” and then steps on her throat until she squeaks out “I’ll be good.” At the end of the movie, though, due to convincing writing and good acting, I felt as though Al loved her and that Trixie (who earlier urges a young prostitute to consider that she’s been gaslighted into turning tricks) has just won by inheriting an establishment that will no longer “run girls,” as Al puts it. 

I had similar feminist issues with Game of Thrones, although I was heavily invested in that storyline. Season 8 aside, I felt that most abused female characters (main characters, anyway) eventually found inner strength and exacted terribly satisfying revenge on their antagonists. Here are a few classics: 

Daenerys Resolves Some Family Issues: 

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Arya: The North Remembers

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Dracarys for Stealing My Babies

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Dracarys Down the Patriarch

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And my personal favorite: Doggone, Ms. Sansa!

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Although these women’s situations are worse than I’ve experienced, I can still identify with having to deal with abusive men and the society that enables their behavior. The women on Game of Thrones find justice that the rest of us can only dream of. That’s the appeal of watching them suffer: my inevitable relief when they become empowered and take revenge.

Of course, the narrative does not always show an awareness that women are human but instead, often remains stuck in old notions. For instance, Daenerys gets raped nightly by her husband until she learns how to seduce him through her eyes. (Seriously.) Then, they fall madly in love, and yours truly—despite my inner feminist (or really, inner NORMAL PERSON)—felt sad anyway when Daenerys’ “Sun and Stars” gets cursed by a witch, who, by the way, had previously been gang raped by ol’ Sun and Stars’ men! I can forgive Daenerys’ Stockholm Syndrome, but I can’t forgive the authors for roping me into it nor for implying that if women would just “get on top” they wouldn’t get raped anymore and would be stronger for it. In fact, they’d fall in love.

Similarly, Sansa’s own repeated marital rapes are implied as necessary for her character development and for her own empowerment, as if we’re supposed to forget that, often times, victims of sexual assault become depressed, anxious, and suicidal. Of course, I was relieved when she escapes by jumping off a castle roof, runs through an icy river, and returns home to mobilize troops and win the north’s independence, but I cannot get on board with the sentiment that her strength could not have manifested but for her husband’s abuse. She makes such a comment to the Hound, implying that she would never have grown up without the rapes. To correct the suggestion that the audience should believe that rape, for women, can be good for their personal growth would have been easy. The writers could have had the Hound reply to Sansa’s statement that she had found her strength despite her husband’s abuse. Again, I can’t blame Sansa for trying to make meaning out of her trauma, but I resent the writers for asking me to do it, too. 

I guess that’s how I felt about Trixie in the Deadwood movie. Who can blame her for her response to an abuser, especially when “that’s the way it was back then”? But why end the movie with the focus on comforting the abuser with yet another dominated woman rubbing his feet? I guess the scene’s comedy and sentimentality somehow eases our resistance? 

I don’t need all abusive characters to die by dogs or dragons, but I can’t help observing that, many times, there’s an awful lot of sympathy and comforting and, in the case of Daenerys’ husband, reward for misogynistic violence. I also don’t need sexual assault narratives erased completely. These stories are valid. I’d just like more thought put into the narrative and an acknowledgement that women are not that different from men: we don’t flourish from rape. 

For this month’s post, I’ve chosen Rita Dove’s “Persephone, Falling” for its use of timeless mythology and contemporary sarcasm to illuminate the patriarch’s method for maintaining female captivity.

Until next month: Dracarys Down Misogyny!

Persephone Falling

One narcissus among the ordinary beautiful 
flowers, one unlike all the others! She pulled,
stooped to pull harder—
when, sprung out of the earth
on his glittering terrible
carriage, he claimed his due.
It is finished. No one heard her.
No one! She had strayed from the herd.

(Remember: go straight to school.
This is important, stop fooling around!
Don’t answer to strangers. Stick
with your playmates. Keep your eyes down.)
This is how easily the pit
opens. This is how one foot sinks into the ground.

—from Mother Love by Rita Dove

School’s Out for Summer—or—I’ve Caught My Students’ Senioritis, So This Post’s Gonna Be Short and Sweet

Well, I’m itching to start my summer writing, reading, and porch-sitting. In the next few months, I will be working on my Star Trek: The Next Generation poetry book, as well as my novel; sitting on my red swing, under my backyard’s rose canopy;  swimming with my sweetheart, at the Y; and playing with our dogs and cat. I have much to do! So this month, I’ll just leave you with Gwendolyn Brooks’ “We Real Cool,” along with her discussion of the poem’s inspiration and the potential aphrodisiac,  jazz. Saucy! 

Morning Magic and the Tyranny of Planning

Earlier this year, I was in bed with the creeping crud. I didn’t feel well enough to read or even to stay awake for a whole movie, so I started watching YouTube videos. I don’t know why, but YouTube suggested that I watch a rich, young woman’s 5AM routine. Here’s the rundown: She gets up (with make up on and her hair brushed), gets out of bed and does a bunch of stuff to her face, dresses in expensive workout gear, and drinks lemon water before heading to the gym. After her workout, she showers, does more stuff to her face, and gets ready to work from home in cozy slippers. I watched it twice. 

I’ve always been fascinated with the idea of getting up before everyone else. There’s something both romantic and satisfyingly productive about it. In practice, though, I have never wanted to get up before 7AM. Truth be told, I’d rather rise at 8. When I hear of people I know getting up at 5AM, it’s either because they have kids (and need a moment to themselves before the offspring awaken) or because they’re high-strung lawyers who like to brag about how hard they work. Despite the fact that I neither have children or a desire for early bird smugness, I continued to scroll, and seeing that I was interested in “early rise” accounts, YouTube suggested more “early morning routine” videos. One woman after another set her alarm to rise before the sun, with the grace of a forest nymph, and to wander into her pastel kitchen for lemon water. 

Also, because organized people wake at 5AM, apparently, YouTube offered me more suggested videos: calendar blocking, Sunday re-set, “clean with me” videos, and “night time routines.” I watched them all. I don’t know why, but they made me feel less lonely, as I lay in my sickbed. I thought about how nice it would be, once I felt better, to clean my house and to get my to-do list back on track. I’ll admit, I did feel renewed when I recovered. I cleaned my house; I diffused lavender oil; I wore make up. It felt so great to check off my tasks, so great that I decided to watch more YouTube videos. I think that’s where the vision began to curdle.  

I started to notice the number of YouTube channels that focus mostly on “organization.” There are so many of them out there. But the problem seems to me that there’s only so much organizing that one can accomplish without life becoming as bland as a YouTube star’s beige wardrobe. Sometimes, I found myself talking back to the screen: “Aren’t you just kind of making up work for yourself to organize, though?” and “I thought you did all this last week.” As a child of a hoarder, I completely understand the need to clean and organize more than the average, but over time, I’ve also realized that organizing can become an addiction. Nothing can ever be or stay organized, unless the person dies after cleaning, and her home is immediately transformed into a museum. 

Recently over lunch, I confided to a friend my conflict between wanting life to tick like a perfect clock, with my need for spontaneity (and eight hours of sleep).

“I don’t want to get up at 5AM,” I told her. 

“You just want to watch other people do it on YouTube?” she laughed.

“Yes!”

I think what is missing from YouTube, though, is the every day magic of an early rise. In these videos, everyone’s running on treadmills and doing “mind dumps” in their journals. They’ve videoed themselves “waking up” and pose-stretching. But I don’t see anyone who wakes to wipe sand from her eyes and stare dreamily at her cat, who meows for wet food. No one rushes for pen and paper to write down a dream that has answered the philosophical question that they had asked their subconscious years ago. No one even seems surprised to wake up in a room or in a human body; no one reaches around wondering where the hell they are, what this planet is, only eventually to nod and remember corporeal life.

Of course, these women are just making videos and (who can tell from videos?) seem to live happy lives, with the one exception of the nagging emptiness that dogs us all, no matter how much has gone our way! 

Ok, that got intense.

But for today, I offer you a poem about rising in the morning that marries the desire for creativity with the mystery of the sun. Sleep well, y’all!

A True Account Of Talking To The Sun On Fire Island

by Frank O’Hara

The Sun woke me this morning loud 
and clear, saying “Hey! I’ve been 
trying to wake you up for fifteen 
minutes. Don’t be so rude, you are 
only the second poet I’ve ever chosen 
to speak to personally

so why
aren’t you more attentive? If I could 
burn you through the window I would 
to wake you up. I can’t hang around 
here all day.”

“Sorry, Sun, I stayed
up late last night talking to Hal.”

“When I woke up Mayakovsky he was 
a lot more prompt” the Sun said 
petulantly. “Most people are up 
already waiting to see if I’m going 
to put in an appearance.”

I tried
to apologize “I missed you yesterday.”
“That’s better” he said. “I didn’t 
know you’d come out.” “You may be 
wondering why I’ve come so close?” 
“Yes” I said beginning to feel hot 
wondering if maybe he wasn’t burning me 
anyway.

“Frankly I wanted to tell you 
I like your poetry. I see a lot 
on my rounds and you’re okay. You may 
not be the greatest thing on earth, but 
you’re different. Now, I’ve heard some 
say you’re crazy, they being excessively 
calm themselves to my mind, and other 
crazy poets think that you’re a boring 
reactionary. Not me.

Just keep on 
like I do and pay no attention. You’ll 
find that people always will complain 
about the atmosphere, either too hot 
or too cold too bright or too dark, days
too short or too long.

If you don’t appear
at all one day they think you’re lazy
or dead. Just keep right on, I like it.

And don’t worry about your lineage 
poetic or natural. The Sun shines on 
the jungle, you know, on the tundra 
the sea, the ghetto. Wherever you were 
I knew it and saw you moving. I was waiting 
for you to get to work.

And now that you 
are making your own days, so to speak, 
even if no one reads you but me 
you won’t be depressed. Not 
everyone can look up, even at me. It 
hurts their eyes.”
“Oh Sun, I’m so grateful to you!”

“Thanks and remember I’m watching. It’s 
easier for me to speak to you out 
here. I don’t have to slide down 
between buildings to get your ear. 
I know you love Manhattan, but 
you ought to look up more often.

And
always embrace things, people earth 
sky stars, as I do, freely and with 
the appropriate sense of space. That 
is your inclination, known in the heavens 
and you should follow it to hell, if 
necessary, which I doubt.

Maybe we’ll 
speak again in Africa, of which I too 
am specially fond. Go back to sleep now 
Frank, and I may leave a tiny poem 
in that brain of yours as my farewell.”

“Sun, don’t go!” I was awake
at last. “No, go I must, they’re calling
me.”
“Who are they?”

Rising he said “Some
day you’ll know. They’re calling to you
too.” Darkly he rose, and then I slept. 

 

 

Photo from https://everwideningcircles.com/2016/03/04/olafur-eliasson-art-that-challenges-us/

 

Eat Your Heart Out: True Love Ain’t for the Weak

There is a story of a saint in India named Mirabai, who lived in the 16th century. As a child, she saw a wedding procession outside her window and asked her mother who would be her bridegroom. Her mother humored the girl, pointing to a small statue of Krishna. “There is your husband! Gopala himself. Love him and serve him as a good wife would her husband.” Mirabai took her mother seriously and devoted all her time to singing and dancing for Krishna. At night, she meditated in front of his image. 

When she grew older, she was married to a prince, and although she did perform her wifely duties, she spent her evenings worshiping Krishna, whom she considered to be her true husband. Her in-laws did not approve of her love for Krishna and told her that she had better fall in line with their goddess, Durga. However, Mirabai refused, citing that she had already committed herself to Krishna. One day, her sister-in-law told the prince that Mirabai was making a fool of him and had taken a lover that she meets in the temple. Enraged, he drew his sword, ready to slaughter his wife’s lover. Instead, he found Mirabai in a state of spiritual ecstasy, pleading to her Krishna statue for love. Figuring that his wife was mentally ill, he decided to humor her, and he built her a small temple of her own. 

News of Mirabai’s beautiful voice and dancing spread far and wide, and people began to visit her, enthralled by her ecstasy. One of her husband’s enemies decided to visit Mirabai, but knowing that his presence would cause problems, he disguised himself in beggar’s clothes. After hearing her sing, he was so moved that he offered Krishna a necklace, and he touched Mirabai’s feet, a sign of respect. Unfortunately, news of this exchange reached her husband, and he was so incensed that he told Mirabai to go jump in the lake—literally. As she was a (somewhat) obedient hindu wife, she tearfully said goodbye to her friends and prepared to commit suicide. However, just as she was about to jump, Krishna appeared to her and intimated that she should not kill herself. 

Meanwhile, the moodiest man on Earth began to feel bad about overreacting to Mirabai’s…well, she didn’t really do anything, did she? When he finds that she is still alive, and living in a different city, he goes to her and begs for her forgiveness. She takes him back and lives without too much drama until his death, a few years later.

At this point, her in-laws really started twisting the screws. First, they demanded that she commit Sati, the absurdly gruesome and misogynistic practice of a woman throwing herself on her husband’s funeral pyre. Luckily, Krishna had already told her not to kill herself. Her refusal to die infuriated her in-laws, and they proceeded to try to assassinate her on three separate occasions. 

Attempt 1: “Oh, here’s a basket with a garland in it for your Krishna. I hope you like it.” (Just kidding, it’s a cobra.) However, when Mirabai opens the basket, it damn well is a garland. You know someone got fired that day. 

Attempt 2: “Let’s see how Mirabai likes sleeping on poisonous needs. I’ll just cover them up with these luxurious rose petals.” Mirabai sleeps like the dead but isn’t. 

Attempt 3: “Here’s some poison…uh nectar…” Mirabai gulps it down, no problem. 

Finally, she gets tired of all the distractions and goes to live with her uncle, who leaves her alone. 

The first time I heard this story (and there are many variations of this narrative) it was through a comic book that my parents bought me from our church’s book store.

 It was my favorite “book,” and my mom would often try to talk me out of choosing it as a bedtime story because it was so long. I think I was particularly attracted to the idea that a deity could protect a person, even from snakes and volatile family members. Self-preservation is strongest in the young. Also, I liked that Krishna is depicted as having blue skin and a kind face. He is often drawn as feminine: soft features, long eyelashes. In fact, for part of my childhood, I thought Krishna was a woman. 

In graduate school, I was assigned a world literature class to teach and was excited to find Mirabai’s poetry in the Norton Anthology. Actually, very little can be confirmed about Mirabai’s life. It appears that she did experience a troubled marriage and the worst in-laws on Earth. There may have been attempts on her life. What I found most surprising, though, was the poetry itself. There are some poems that mostly focus on praising Krishna and describing Mirabai’s devotion and sacrifices:

I’m steeped.
steeped
in the dark one’s color.

I dressed up in my finery,
put on my dancing anklets,
abandoned all shame, and danced in public.

Gave up reason, went crazy,
kept the company of holy men,
found the true form of a devotee.

Sang and sang the praises 
of Hari’s virtues, night and day—
so saved myself from the serpent of mortality.

Without my lord, the whole world’s brackish—
merely a mouthful of salt.
Apart from him, everything’s disposable.

Mira asks her lord who lifts mountains
to give her the kind of devotion
that seeps with sweetness—that’s luscious, flavorful.

(NOTE: The poems I have provided in this post are not indented properly. While I am very disappointed in how ridiculously difficult WordPress makes the simplest of formatting, I have also submitted to its tyranny. #corporatehatespoets #theman)

As a child, I recognized that Mirabai was rebellious; however, I did not realize the extent of her conflict with society. I was unaware, at that age, of the seriousness of India’s caste system, as well as the general history of misogyny. Also, my child’s comic book was riddled with mixed messages. For instance, Mirabai refuses to worship the goddess of her husband’s house. However, when her husband tells her to commit suicide she (according to this particular narrative) dutifully visits the river. The caption above the image of her bidding her friends a tearful goodbye reads, “Mira, the true Hindu wife, did not protest. She fondly took leave of her tearful companions…” (Fondly? She cries in three images leading up to her attempted suicide and looks miserable as she prepares to jump. I suppose she could be fond of her friends, but the word feels flippant, considering the heavy circumstances.) However, moments later in the text, she directly disobeys her husband by agreeing to listen to another man’s order. At least Krishna doesn’t want her to drown herself.  

Yet again, though, the text contradicts when her husband asks her for forgiveness. In the image, it is Mirabai who bows to him and says, “Has Mira ever gone against the wishes of her husband? Yes, I will come to Chittor!” Yes, Mira has gone against her husband’s wishes—repeatedly. 

There is an interesting short program from BBC (“Mirabai: I Go the Other Way” from Incarnations: India in 50 Lives) that discusses how Mirabai’s narrative is used in modern times. One of the conclusions is that, while Mirabai is used to protest the caste system, India is not ready to see her as an inspiration for women’s autonomy.

I find that inability disturbing. Such a large part of her rebellion (and her sacrifices) were based on the fact that she was a woman. Her experience would have been different, if she had been a man. The danger she willingly faced would not have existed, or at least, not to the same extent. The same imbalance exists today as does society’s need to suppress progress and not just in India. In most parts of the world, including the U.S., women’s “honor” is fragile, mostly controlled by men, and when shattered, results in the woman’s destruction or, in the very least, abuse. 

The cowherd who carries mountains
is the one for me—
I want no one else.

I’ve looked and looked 
all over the world—
I have no other savior.

I’ve left my brothers,
left my bondsmen,
left my blood relations.

I’ve been hanging out 
with the likes of roaming holy men—
I’ve lost my honor in the world.

I’m delighted to see 
my fellow devotees,
but I weep and weep when I see the world.

I’ve sown love’s vine—
I water it 
with my flowing tears.

I’ve garnered the butter
from the curds,
and thrown away the whey.

The chieftain sent me a poison cup—
lost in love,
I gulped it down, straight. 

Just to complicate love and feminist matters even more,  Mirabai often proclaims such devotion to Krishna that she doesn’t even mind if he enslaves her.

My lord who lifts mountains—
I’m off to his home.

He’s my one true love.
The moment I see his form,
I’m entranced.

When night falls, I get up and go to him—
when day breaks,
I get up and return.

Night and day, I play with him.
I keep him happy
any which way I can.

I wear whatever he asks me to wear—
I eat whatever 
he gives me to eat. 

Our love’s an ancient love,
I can’t survive
a single moment without him.

I sit wherever he tells me to sit—
if he were ever to sell me,
I’d be willing to be sold. 

Mira’s master is the lord
who lifts mountains—
again and again, she sacrifices herself to him.

Somehow, though, the poem I find darkest (and the poem that most appalled my students) is when she becomes violently angry at a bird for singing happily, while she’s miserably awaiting Krishna to take away the pain of this mortal coil:

Hey love bird, crying cuckoo,
don’t make your crying coos,
for I who am crying, cut off from my love,
will cut off your crying beak
and twist off your flying wings
and pour black salt in the wounds.

Hey, I am my love’s and my love is mine.
How do you dare cry love?
But if my love were restored today
your love call would be a joy.
I would gild your crying beak with gold
and you would be my crown.

Hey, I’ll write my love a note,
crying crow, now take it away
and tell him that his separated love
can’t eat a single grain.
His servant Mira’s mind’s in a mess.
She wastes her time crying coos.

Come quick, my Lord,
the one who sees inside;
without you nothing remains.

The violence in this poem always surprises. Clearly, the bird can’t win, but it’s the honesty and rawness of her feelings that impress. Can true love justify destruction? In Mirabai’s poem, it does. The bird’s happiness belongs to her, either to snuff out, if her love does not return; or to wear as a crown, if he does. Although problematic, there is something pure about her emotions. Despite the complications and dangers with which the world tries to encumber her, she feels that her love is simple. 

What I like most about Mirabai’s work is her determination to buck the current. Although she shrouds each poem with the notion that she wears her “dancing anklets” and abandons “all shame” only to please Krishna, she still succeeds in making her own way, while negotiating abuse from her family and a violent, patriarchal system. 

It’s hard to say if Mirabai was indeed sincere in her love for Krishna or if she invoked his image as a cultural shield to combat the relentless oppression that followed her. As a powerless woman of that time and place, I wonder if her love for Krishna was more so a defiant declaration of self-respect. Perhaps, Krishna was a symbol of freedom, for which she gladly, and ironically, welcomed bondage. 

* * *

Dear Reader,

As Valentine’s Day approaches, whether you are giddy because you have picked the most perfectly cheese-tasctic card for your wife (as I have) or if you are prepared to twist the beak off an offensively cheerful bird, I hope you find love, respect, and satisfaction!

xoxo,

Shanti

P.S. Please check out Online Enlightenment, which is accepting new music, art, and poetry submissions!