Reading: An Exercise in Unsettledness

Over the last few days, two books have pulled me back into asking my perennial question: why am I here and what can I do about it? The books were Olio by Tyehimba Jess and The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. The question was, as always, unanswerable.

In many ways the two books are very different. Olio is poetry about the pain and bondage of black American artists in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries; The Book Thief is a novel about the near-ordinary life of a girl in Nazi Germany, written from the perspective of Death. However, the themes of sorrow and injustice and pain run heavy through both, and they both feel like epics, tracing a larger history than the life of just one girl or a few artists into the tragedy of human nature that continues today.

Olio represents a conglomeration of what you might call “acts,” mostly ragtime pianists and singers who appear in dialogue with and across each other and their oppressors. A common page format throughout the book has two adjacent columns–two speeches by different people–that can be read either separately or as one paragraph: intertwined sentences that often represent hugely dissimilar thoughts. The contrast between the speakers, and the way the speeches fit together so naturally and almost ludicrously, really drives home the injustices that Jess portrays.

For instance, there is a page where one column is an actual quote from Irving Berlin countering the accusation that he stole Scott Joplin’s work, and the other column is Joplin’s imagined response, a seething and grief-filled reply. Joplin’s work never took off whereas Berlin’s hit it big, yet Berlin’s words were flippant and derogatory. It seemed incredibly unfair to me that Berlin ever got away with what he said and did, and though after a bit of research I’ve discovered the claims of the stolen work are not as clear-cut as the book implies, things like that definitely have happened in America’s history. Things where an unjust system took credit from where it was due and placed it in a white man’s hands. Things where the world was upside-down and totally unfair. And still is.

In The Book Thief, Zusak asks my question even more directly. A character dies; another wonders, why wasn’t it me? Even the narrator, Death, emphasizes the places where if a different choice had been made–if Rudy’s family had let him join the army, if Leisel had knocked on the door instead of stealing through the window, if Hans hadn’t given the starved Jew the piece of bread–things would be different. Rudy would still be alive. Leisel would have a friend and the mayor’s wife would, too. Hans would still be at home, and Max wouldn’t have had to leave. But even with all the choices, there are a thousand things that are still not under the characters’ control. Ultimately, Death comes for all of them, and it is not Leisel’s fault that her family was taken from her or that the Fuhror is an evil man. She is simply where she is. There is no good reason why, or why her.

The question of why has caused me a weight of unsettledness. I’m not sure it can be called guilt, and I’m not sure if it’s right to be guilty for a station in life that I never chose. But here I am. And I know that the unsettledness is right, because I am not a Jew in Nazi Germany, nor am I a slave in early America. I am not, but many people in the world were, and many are slaves and martyrs and mourners right now.

Maybe the unsettledness will drive me to action.

Or at least drive me to look for places where I can act.

Anyway, the only place I have found so far is in my writing. So here I am. Writing to recommend that you read these two not only painful but also extremely powerful books, and that you take my own poetry as an outpouring of unsettledness.  Reading books like this is hard and it hurts sometimes, but that is the point. If we are all unsettled then maybe one of us will begin to know what to do.

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To Be: In the Place We Are

“‘Things happen to people by accident,’ she used to say. ‘A lot of nice accidents have happened to me. It just happened that I always liked lessons and books, and could remember things when I learned them. It just happened that I was born with a father who was beautiful and nice and clever, and could give me everything I liked. Perhaps I have not really a good temper at all, but if you have everything you want and everyone is kind to you, how can you help but be good-tempered? I don’t know’–looking quite serious–‘how I shall ever find out whether I am really a nice child or a horrid one. Perhaps I’m a hideous child, and no one will ever know, just because I never have any trials.”

A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett

My sister is in Peru right now. In her blog (here) she talks about the living situations of the people there–their resilience, their humanity, and the things they have to fight against to survive. To me these things are entirely foreign. But for a lot of people in the world, you do just sleep in a tent, avoid the rabid dogs, and boil the water before you drink it. For a lot of people, that’s really the best they can do.

I’m not sure how to react to my life situation, since I was born into a loving middle-class American family, with parents who have a strong Christian faith, plenty of material goods to get through life comfortably, and the passion to give me the best education I can have. Millions of people lack one or all of these things, and the fact that I do not–a fact that has shaped every aspect of my existence, my interests, my beliefs, my character, and my relationships–unsettles me. Who would I have been if God had put me in the untouchable caste in India? Or a Norwegian peasant family in the Medieval Ages? Or the family of some cruel dictator? Why am I here now, in the richest 20% of the world, getting a college education, drinking clean water and buying manufactured clothing at the drop of a hat?

I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know. All I know is that God has entrusted me with A LOT and expects me to do a lot with it, and that’s why I write like there’s no tomorrow. (Who knows? Maybe there isn’t.) God gave me a gift and a passion–and I don’t know why He gave it to me, but here I am. I guess, if He put me here, He intends to use me here. But I don’t know why He chose me. He could have switched my place with an illiterate Bengali woman, and if she had been born into this home and country she could have been a better writer, a more considerate friend, and a stronger follower of Christ than I am–and I could have been a weaker and less independent (and really, a generally hopeless) sweatshop-laborer. That Bengali woman is probably taking care of five children, alone, and works ten hours seven days a week. And here I am, with a humane forty-hour work-week, nobody depending on me for anything, and barely the energy to handle it. I don’t know why it is that I’ve been given the opportunity to make a mark on the world–I have more of a shot than most, with the amount of resources I have–and she hasn’t. The only thing I can say is that I trust God knows what He’s doing when He puts people where they are.

Anyway, that’s the reason I write. It’s because I can–because I’m here, and not somewhere else, and I have an education, and I’m able to impact the lives of others through my words. I may not make much of an impact on very many people, and my words will probably fade from history at the moment of my death. But I am totally convinced it is worth doing because God gave me the gift. It’s the only reason I can think of that He would put me here, of all places.

This is not a very polished blog post; I have no argument, no main point. But I ask that you think about it. That you have compassion on the deaf community in Moyobamba (a stop in Lindsey’s journey around Peru) and put yourself in their shoes for a few minutes. That you question the way you’ve been spending your money–some people live for a year on the amount you just spent on that dress. That you do your homework because you have been blessed with an education and not because you want a 4.0. I don’t know what to do about any of this, and I don’t know why you’re where you are and I’m where I am. But here we are. I guess we just need to use the things we have to their utmost and trust that God placed us in exactly the right spot.

To Be: As Poetry

Marianne Moore and Archibald MacLeish have both written poems on the nature of poetry: Moore’s conclusion, in her “Poetry,” is that

…nor till the poets among us can be
    ‘literalists of
    the imagination’–above
        insolence and triviality and can present

for inspection, imaginary gardens with real toads in them,
            shall we have
    it. In the meantime, if you demand on the one hand,
    the raw material of poetry in
        all its rawness and
        that which is on the other hand
            genuine, then you are interested in poetry.

In other words, the things of poetry are “important not because a//high-sounding interpretation can be put upon them but because they are/useful.” Poetry is not about large words and fancy interpretations, but about being useful to us. It is meant to show us “real toads”–true reflections of life–in all their rawness and genuineness, even if the poem itself is only an “imaginary garden.”

MacLeish concludes something similar in “Ars Poetica.” A series of rhyming couplets begins with “A poem should be palpable and mute/As a globed fruit” and ends with

A poem should be equal to:
Not true.

For all the history of grief
An empty doorway and a maple leaf.

For love
The leaning grasses and two lights above the sea–

A poem should not mean
But be.

He, too, rejects the idea of poetry as something to be interpreted. It should sit silent, “Palpable and mute.” It’s something to touch. To taste. Not to explain.

I think these are ideas that should resonate in all art, not only poetry. I mentioned in my last post that art is something we make in order to cry out with others, a vehicle to share our humanness; and I think that’s what Moore and MacLeish are getting at, that if you’re so busy incorporating large words and sophisticated philosophies into a piece of art, nobody else can breathe it in, can taste the juice from the globed fruit. It’s a hard line to walk. For me, a girl who defines herself by intellectualism, it’s difficult to stop asking what things mean and start tasting them. But I think it’s important.

I also think that sometimes a poem actually means more simply by “being.” The more I read the Bible, the more I come to see how meaningful it is through its very nature as a work of art. We evangelicals tend to read poems like Psalm 133 and think, now this shows us we need to be nice to each other and “dwell in unity.” We rarely stop to soak in the image of precious oil and robes, of Aaron the priest in his anointing, of how satisfying and cleansing it is for members of the Church to live in love. We are always moralizing; but the Bible is really not meant to be a book of rules as much as it is a picture of them. There are rules, yes, but there is also a story of a Man who saw a woman drawing water whom He should culturally have ignored and loved her. There is a song by someone who is wounded, mocked, and parched with thirst, who knows in his head God will save him but still cries out for the pain. There is a vision of a dragon who is hurled forever into a lake of fire and sulfur for the deceptions and torment he has wreaked.

To me, these images convey a world more about God’s greatest command–love–than any fancily-worded moralistic rule book can. The Bible does, obviously, have meaning, and it can be interpreted and exegeted and hermeneutically examined, but it can also be mute as a globed fruit. Psalm 44 doesn’t have answers, it’s just some people who need help begging a God who made a promise to follow through. The meaning in that is not something we can explain adequately with scientific interpretations. It is, however, a feeling we’ve felt before, and it means a whole lot simply by being the way it is.

That’s the way true art should convey meaning. It’s the way humans experience our humanness, by biting straight into the globed fruit. Art should show you a real toad. It shouldn’t need to tell you what to do with it.

To Be: And To Make Art

I think it’s sad how great literature deteriorates in reputation as it gains fame. What I mean is, I’ve never heard anyone seriously speak of Hamlet’s soliloquy. The words “To be, or not to be? That is the question,” have become a sort of a joke. We say, duh, that isn’t even a question.  Who asks whether they want to be or not? Then, if the words ever appear in conversation, we apply them to trivialities and slogans: “To ski, or not to ski? That is the question.”

And yet, the question Hamlet asks is a question. Not everyone wants to take his or her own life, but we’ve all wondered why we’re here and if it’s worth it. We wonder what it means to be and what it means to be here and what it means that we age and get tumors and die, that there are tyrants who mistreat others for no reason beyond a love of cruelty, that there are rich white kids who throw disgusting jives at the less-privileged, that there are men who beat the women who love them, that governments are corrupt institutions made of corrupt people and won’t bring justice where justice is deserved. “Who would bear the whips and scorns of time,/Th’oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,/The pangs of despised love, the law’s delay…” We ask the same questions Shakespeare was asking five hundred years ago, because the world hasn’t changed, and it goes on and on in the same cycles of horror and misery and death that it has always known.

If you don’t believe in a God, there are no answers to this question. If you do believe in a God, the answers are not easy ones. But I don’t think Hamlet’s words should be taken lightly whether you believe there is life after death or not. It is the same question as we’ve been asking all our lives.

I think one of the primary reasons for art is this exact thing: it reminds us that there are others who have walked where we walk now. It allows us to ask whether being here is worth it, as Shakespeare asked so many years ago. The ancient Sumerians asked it too, showing in the Epic of Gilgamesh that even a glorious, heroic life must end futilely, in death. Art allows us to cry out with the poets of the Psalms, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

My poetry is not going to survive for four thousand years as the Sumerians’ did, or five hundred as Shakespeare’s. Likely it will be long forgotten in the year after my own death. But I hope, for the brief time it lasts, that it will give others a chance to cry out, to ask questions. You are not alone in this world. I, too, am grieving, and asking, and begging God for answers I don’t always have. I can’t explain why the people of Yemen are dealing with famine, war, and a cholera epidemic all at once. I don’t know why a boy in my year in college and another in my brother’s year in high school had freak accidents within two months of each other, and I don’t know why they both died. I don’t know why, even for me who for all intents and purposes is a rich white kid, nothing I do on this earth is quite enough to make it worth it; and I don’t know why it’s so much easier to mourn those two people who were so similar to me than the thousands who have cholera in a country far away. But you’ve felt the same things I have. You, like Shakespeare, like the Sumerians, are human.

That’s why I think it’s sad that we don’t give any weight to the questions Hamlet raises in his soliloquy. Those questions are there to help us, to mourn with us. We feel alone in this world, but there are billions who have gone before us. There are billions walking alongside us even now. So, please,

sip poetry with lemonade,
drink it in and feel it slipping coolly
down your throat
into your chest to calm
your heartbeat and lull it
into the rhythm of the universe.

sip poetry with spiced herbal tea
and stir it with a spoon to
make the sugar dissolve
and slake your thirst with sweetness
and sourness
and spiciness
and everything you needed,
with everythingness.

sip poetry or gulp it
quench your image-hungry thirst
taste the variance of flavors and colors
and let them wash for a moment through your chest:
translucent concoctions of
squeezed lemons or crushed leaves:
for poetry
is extracted from experience
and must be drunk.

–Slake