Saturday, May 29, 2010

walking the songline

This weekend I am in Providence, RI, with my partner Shyam's family. Shyam's mother leaves books, magazines and news clippings throughout the house, and often there is a small pile waiting our arrival, each article addressed to its intended reader with a yellow Post-It. These articles might be notices of school, church or shop closings, notices of weddings or passings of classmates or neighbors from the "old" neighborhood. For me, there are usually recipes, general interest articles about things French (today, a piece on the delight that is the macaron) or fashion spreads. These clippings both flatter and charm me with a version of myself, as seen by Shyam's mom—in no small part because of the way these themes repeat in my own family's understanding of things I love. Perhaps the taxonomic ordering of identity, at the hands of a family member, is all the more special for the way particularities are framed--like curio cabinets, these clippings feeds us with shadows of ourselves, seen.

At the same time, these small signs of familiarity are a self-perpetuating phenomenon. Clippings on political correctness, perhaps one of my traits that Shyam finds (among others, I'm sure) trying at times, never make their way into these piles. Nor do clippings on radical political insurgencies, or the progress of the Khmer Rouge trials. I imagine in part because these interests of mine are not the kind any of my family members necessarily wishes for me...but then what parent or friend really wishes tragedy, violence or mundane hatreds to be in their loved one's world? As a younger adult I tended to view this kindness as a rejection of sorts. Today I think I begin to peer through another prism of the dodecahedron that is the ways of love, and am grateful.

Of course, I have friends whose parents' lives have been dedicated to radical social and political work, who prefer to recognize these strains of common interest in their children, rather than petty bourgeois inclinations. This, too, is a way of love—a self-loving self looking for self in future generations. I would imagine self almost always finds some strain of that shared family self, too, if one is looking thoroughly. I don't find this impulse to be negative, though I can understand why some might find it creepy, but one of the human drives characteristic of the parenting principle—of which teaching, if not other forms of social parenting, is certainly included.

Are not the selves we construct, the qualities we've developed on our own, not the values we often value for our children (wrongly or rightly) as well? All the more loving, then, when that child's combination of departures from and alliances with the family fold (for there is always this tangle) are recognized.

But what if I were to depart from this psycho-semiological mumbo-jumbo for one cotton-pickin' second, and consider these departures and alliances from another perspective? On the bedside table in the bedroom we often sleep in chez Oberoi, I found a copy of Christopher J. Moore's book In Other Words, an editorial compendium of words that are difficult, if not impossible, to translate, and what translation (however slant) reveals both to and about the translator. In the introduction, Moore mentions the Aranda* word for dreaming, aljerre.
For Indigenous Australians, dreaming is a vital way of holding the created world together. British author Bruce Chatwin writes, "Aboriginal myths tell of the legendary totemic beings who wandered across the country in the Dreamtime . . . singing the world into existence." If a tribe's Keeper of the Dreaming fails to carry out his or her "dreaming" task, walking the songlines that put the world together, the Earth as we know it would come to an end. (14)
"Tribe" is a term not infrequently employed as a synonym for "family" (at least, by me). I spoke with one of the Keepers of the Malloy Dreaming (my father) yesterday. He had been on summer vacation from his teaching job for a whole two days, and our conversation went something like this:
M: What're you up to?
D: Oh, just enjoying the heck out of myself, playing in the yard. . .
M: Any plans for the summer?
D: Well, I'm taking a trip next week to go visit some folks I haven't seen in a while.
M: Oh? Who's that? Where're you going?
D: Taking the bike [read: motorcyle] out to Texas and Oklahoma for a few days. I'm going to catch up with my dad's brother, Bobby, and see my old commander at Fort Sill.
I can count on one hand the number of trips my father has made without his beloved life-partner, my beloved step-mother, in the twenty years they've been together. I can count on one finger the number of times I've heard any mention of a Great Uncle Bobby. That would be during the conversation, loosely transcribed above.

My father and his siblings have been estranged (by choice) from my grandfather (now long deceased) and his family (more or less) since before I was born. There are histories of abuse that run long and deep, about which I know only a little, but which I felt composed a steady-but-minor theme in our family songline. My reaction to the news of this Uncle Bobby, and my father's impending trek on a 20th-century horse through the tumbleweed-y landscapes of Texas and Oklahoma, echoed otherwise.

Astonishing! This image of my father, a figure of a man almost wholly unknown to me, taking off for such an adventure, with characters to whom I am apparently connected . . . and yet not. The writer in me immediately was envious. I commented to Shyam that I wanted to be a camera trained on my father during his trip—I wanted to read his reactions, feel the landscape, interpret and know this Great Uncle Bobby through my father's eyes. All of which is not only impossible, but proprietary and perhaps creepy in the ways that children can be creepily proprietary of their parents.

And yet . . . I like to think that underneath these knee-jerk immaturities, the excitement I feel for my father's trip is one born of love—the same sort of love that makes my father demand I order in French when he takes me to a French restaurant. For him, pride in my capabilities express love. For me, the drive to know everything (creepy or not).

My father is walking the songline of his life, and the song will change in ways that touch, but do not include, me. Probably in ways I will never understand, even remotely. But him following his songline shows me how we continue to put the world together—parent and child, teacher and student—simultaneously. It also shows me the ends of a child's egoism—where the belief that the child's songline somehow becomes the entirety of the song—bleeds into an orchestra of Keepers young, old and—like Great Uncle Bobby—shadow.

*Caveat lector: For readers who, like me, have a bad tendency of demonstrating their minds when traveling or at urbane parties, I couldn't find any specific mention of a language called Aranda, but a list of languages spoken by the Arrente people for whom the Aranda district of Australia was named. Lord knows that Wikipedia should never be used as one's primary definitive source, but it is often mine.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

whose soul is not a clod has visions


I lie in the bath and I contemplate the toilet-paper.
Scottissue, 1000 sheets—
         What a lot of pissin and shittin,
         What a lot of pissin and shittin,
Enough for the poems of Shelley and Keats—
All the poems of Shelley and Keats.

—Muriel Rukeyser

My dear teacher and friend, Jan Heller Levi, introduced me to this Rukeyser gem a few months ago. This morning, spent in near-raptures with Keats' "The Fall of Hyperion," I couldn't help but think of Rukeyser's seeming-condemnation of Keats' work. I also couldn't help but wonder whether a 1,000 sheet roll would be enough to scrawl out the 530 lines of "The Fall of Hyperion" in my rapidly-degenerating script. (Note: will try this later. Rainy Sundays and railroad apartments were made for such tasks.)

I don't know enough about Rukeyser to say whether she despised the poems of Shelley and Keats, or whether this poem is more of a statement on the disposable, compost-able, ever-recyclable nature of poetries. This morning I lean toward the latter interpretation. For years I found Keats excessive, his lyric cloying in its enthrallment with sensuous beauty. Mayhaps—yeshaps—because I fight my own inner Romantic constantly. Like a man with a pretty mouth and pockets full of Goetze's caramel creams, Keats gave me the high I was most susceptible to—seasons of melancholy mists sweetened by mellow fruitfulnes, that chatty urn chanting, to the beat of my aesthete heart: "Beauty is truth, truth beauty [.]"

And then, "The Fall of Hyperion." I mean, SERIOUSLY, ya'll. This fragment-poem is described by Harold Bloom as Keats turning away from the "sentimentality" he felt drove earlier poems such as "Ode to a Nightingale." Yet, the question that ends "Nightingale"—"Was it a vision, or a waking dream? / Fled is that music—Do I wake or sleep?"—rings similarly throughout "The Fall of Hyperion," with a marked shift in the question's underlying anxieties. Keats' speaker in "Fall" takes the waking dream as a given—"Fanatics have their dreams" and "the savage too," but now the question is not whether the vision is to be doubted, but whether it can be written: "pity these have not / Traced upon vellum or wild Indian leaf / The Shadows of melodious utterance" (4-6). But most importantly—whether these visions may be written in ways that "save / Imagination from the sable charm / And dumb enchantment" (9-10).

The introductory stanza goes on to posit, in a surprisingly democratic manner (at least, in my shamelessly ahistorical reading), that anyone "whose soul is not a clod" indeed has the vision and drive to "speak, if he had loved" (in the way Keats thought love to mean something similar to Simone Weil's famous injunction, "Absolute unmixed attention is prayer," and the fruit of that prayer poetry). That is, "if he had loved, / And been well nurtured in his mother tongue" (14-15)—and what a tremendously important distinction that is!

Reading Keats in such a way takes me back to Rukeyser's riposte, and socially-conscious poems (such as "The Ballad of Orange and Grape") that ask difficult questions—and make grim insinuations—about what happens when one is not "well nurtured" by any tongue, mother or not. Do the "great" poems then become shit-smeared sheets because of illiteracy? Or is it the forward progress of poets, a progress Keats' "Fall of Hyperion" gestures to in spirit at least, that allows old visions to become fertilizer—that which, in their decomposition, foster the future?