Mark Dery "shows a particular brilliance for collecting cultural detritus and bringing unseen connections to light," writes Tom Vanderbilt of Wired. Dery's writings on new media, technology, and the arts have appeared in such diverse publications as The New York Times, Rolling Stone, Wired, Omni, Salon, The Atlantic Monthly, The Village Voice, and others, as well as sites such as TalkBack!, the Discovery Channel Online, and Hotwired.
His critically acclaimed books include The Pyrotechnic Insanitarium: American Culture on the Brink (1999), Escape Velocity: Cyberculture and the End of the Century (1996), Flame Wars: The Discourse of Cyberculture (1995) and Culture Jamming: Hacking, Slashing and Sniping in the Empire of the Signs (1993). He is also editor of an essay collection, Flame Wars: The Discourse of Cyberculture (1995).
"My larger goal, as a writer, is to write a cultural criticism that combines the lapidary craftmanship of J.G. Ballard, the mordant social satire of William S. Burroughs, the historiography of Mike Davis, and the deadeye aim of Noam Chomsky. … I'm interested in the unspeakable and the unthinkable … in short, extremes and excess of every sort. I want to induce in my reader the vertigo that comes from leaning too far over the edge of the cultural abyss," writes Dery about his 1996 book Escape Velocity: Cyberculture and the End of the Century. In his most recent work The Pyrotechnic Insanitarium: American Culture on the Brink Dery takes the reader on a variety of Coney Island rides of pure Americana – with the degree of purity that tends to weirdness when considered by a reasonable mind, that is, one that has not succumbed totally to the bright lights, speed, and thrills. It's a "wild, sophisticated ride through 'fin-de-millennium' America" (Ingram).
The introduction to this book – "book" being defined as "an obsolete hunk of dead-tree hardware that went to sleep and dreamed it was a Web page" – is a slow ride up the roller coaster to the first hill. It sets the stage, is a brief explanation of some of the major contributing factors that make our world what it is. These include conspiracy theory, conspiracy theory, and conspiracy theory, which Dery defines as "a symptom of millennium angst and a home remedy for it"(12). Also in the mix are the fact that real wages fell 19% between 1972 and 1994 (33) causing real distress and anxiety to many people, and "the shifting landscape" where there have been "challenges to white male privilege on all fronts" by women and people of colors other than white (35), also known as progress toward equality. To top it all off, global capitalism has been rocking the ground under all of our feet (35), sending jobs out of the U.S. and presenting the possibility of a "one world government" in the giant multi-national corporation with allegiance to no nation, only to its bottom line.
In the "User's Guide" which follows the introduction, Dery begins:
The Pyrotechnic Insanitarium is a collection of essays. Each refracts the mega-trends and microshifts of American culture late in the twentieth century through the prism of a mass fad, a subcultural craze, a pop archetype, a work of art, a TV show, a corporate enterprise, a technological breakthrough, or the night-vision world-view of a mad bomber, a millennial cult, a conspiratorial underground. (43)
Readers who expect "point-by-point exposition" and loose ends tied up are advised to "abandon hope before entering" (43).
In "Have an Angst Day: The Scream Meme" Dery uneasily works with the "meme", a term coined by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkin as "a unit of cultural transmission" seen in "tunes, ideas, catchphrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches" (48). Memes, it seems, are everywhere and The Scream meme has become a friendly icon of the permanently freaked. Based on Edvard Munch's painting "The Scream" (1893), there is a pop-up, air-filled, stand-alone figure as well as the image on T-shirts, mouse pads, coffee mugs, etc. Though this image is "memed" all over the place the anxiety it represents is a modern rather than postmodern form of anxiety. In the modern case, the "Screamer's emotions color everything we see." In "contrast, the postmodern self is thoroughly colonized by the media reality outside it." The move from a book culture, which Dery associates with the modern self, to a screen culture, i.e. "hypertext, multi-user domains, and virtual reality" or the postmodern self is "the collapse of the critical distance between the inner self and the interface"(51). It's a "data deluge" that is bombarding people, fragmenting them and making them unable to sustain a coherent self. What do we do? We use irony. The irony of our world undercuts the anxiety and rising hysteria of The Scream, the image, the advertising. It's a defensive gesture, one that points, perhaps, to a fatalism about our media-saturated world. You can't get away from your anxieties, so mock them. Have a nice day. ;)
Clownaphobia comes under scrutiny in "Cotton Candy Autopsy: Deconstructing Psycho-Killer Clowns." Though it's mildly reassuring to know that there are many people creeped out by clowns, Dery sees the "psycho-killer clown" as personifying the happy/violent toggle switch mentality existent in postwar American culture:
The psycho-killer clown encapsulates what Stephen King has identified as the have-a-nice-day/make-my-day dualism that typifies postwar American culture. "We're not happy and sad," says King. "We're happy and violent." … All over the world, America stands for fun and death: Disneyland and the death penalty, Big Macs and murder (the highest rate in the industrialized world). It's surely significant that, as of 1992, America's top two export items were military hardware and "entertainment products," in that order. (79)
Again, it's sensory overload that Dery sees as driving the psycho-killer clown mentality. And here, too, this overload is seen as creating a self that is de-centered, which for Dery is associated with lack of coherence and imbalance.
Disneyland seems almost a required subject in a collection with a Coney Island theme. In "Past Perfect: Disney Celebrates Us Home" Dery considers the planned, gated, Disney-controlled community of Celebration, Florida. The community is a "re-engineering of participatory democracy in accordance with a more corporate-friendly vision of governance"(177). "Corporate-friendly" is an understatement in regards to the Disney holdings in Florida: Reedy Creek Improvement Area. This site is the worksite of 30,000 Disney employees and has "the status of an autonomous county" granted to it by Florida legislators in 1967. It is "empowered to levy its own taxes and enact its own building codes and [is] exempted[exempt] … from filing environmental impact statements or abiding by municipal or regional laws regarding development, zoning, and waste control" (179). Disney World is the government, and it's not a democracy: Disney has veto power over the homeowner's community association – the only place homeowners can contribute (178). Celebration, FL is a nostalgia-created, picture-perfect community drawn by someone who has forgotten or ignored the down side of small communities: loss of privacy, conformity to unwritten laws or social custom, the "wrong side of the tracks," and racism (174). If the mall has become Main Street, USA, and Main Street now comes with a corporate label that has veto power over citizens' boards, what's happened to democracy?
In "Empathy Bellies: Cloned Sheep and Pregnant Men" an apparently light-hearted topic, the wearing of a weighted canvas vest which simulates a pregnant uterus and swollen breasts so that men can experience what it feels like to be pregnant, can be construed as a contemporary example of ages-old womb envy.
Citing the esteemed literary critic Northrup Frye, Dery notes the obvious, the obvious which we have been taught not to see: everything human and animal is born from a female, yet the bible insists on a male origin for human beings, Eve comes from Adam. This urge to credit only males with creating life goes back even further, as Dery shows in the example of Pallas Athena. A powerful goddess, Athena is supposed to have sprung from Zeus's head. No mother, she's female power in a direct line from a male source. This again indicates a culture that does not want to credit the female with having anything to do with creating life, wants to make life-giving a male-only enterprise. Which brings us to cloning.
Dolly, the cloned sheep, has given birth, so why not men? Dery cites Dick Teresi, a science writer, who asserts that "we have all the technology we need right now to make a man pregnant" (217). And Dery also notes that some feminists regard cloning as "the latest in a series of increasingly science-fictional attempts to usurp women's procreative power" (216). Not surprisingly, this brings up allusions to Victor Frankenstein and his monster, as well as the historic move from female midwives to male doctors in child birth. However, and this is an important "however," Dery states that
… cloning reaffirms the indispensable nature of the female, rendering the sperm superfluous and realizing the lesbian separatist dream of being the only sex: genetic material is transplanted from one parent's cell into another parent's egg, which is then implanted in the mother's womb. (216)
So it seems that women can be fathers.
When trying to deal with biological essentialism, i.e., women defined by reproduction, Dery's argument falters, partly due to his use of 36 and 33 year-old scholarship. Certainly there are some feminists who voice aversion to maternity, and there are feminists who see power in female biology. But in the last 30 years, feminist scholars have investigated the complexities within these positions, particularly how aversion to maternity can be seen as reflecting patriarchal attitudes. It's also unclear as to whether Dery is being tongue-in-cheek in calling Janice Raymond's argument "shrill." It's a word commonly used to denigrate anything a woman says, certainly not a word Dery ever uses to describe any arguments made by men in this book. His use of "hysterical" is a more deliberate, obviously facetious use of a historically derisive term, so I'd like to give him the benefit of the doubt and consider his use of "shrill" as self-conscious as well.
Other chapters include "Anus Horribilis: Jim Carrey's Excremental Excess," "Mad Cows and Englishmen: Reading Damien Hirst's Entrails," "Trendspotting: I Shop, Therefore I Am," and "Wild Nature, Wired nature: The Unabomber Meets the Digerati" among others – a veritable Coney Island (including the freak show) of intellectual cultural criticism.
Mark Dery is the author of the column "Invisible Lit," which appears in the literary magazine Bookforum. He teaches in the department of Journalism and Mass Communication at New York University.
P.R. Dyjak, Poet
Carol Gilligan: Voice, Relationships, and the Psyche—From Dissociation into Association
Carol Gilligan is probably most well-known for her 1982 best-selling book, In a Different Voice, in which she showed how the traditional analytic models of psychology and the social sciences excluded women or painted a distorted picture by measuring females against a male model of development, under which females often were shown to lag. Using a feminist methodology instead, Gilligan demonstrated how characteristics of women that had been interpreted as weaknesses were in fact human strengths. She showed how women often gave up their true voices and adopted false ones, thus separating from themselves and what they know, as a way to appear selfless instead of selfish and to "keep the peace." In essence, they gave up themselves to remain in relationship within a social order that required them to sacrifice.
A member of the faculty at Harvard University for thirty-four years and now a professor at New York University, Gilligan continues this discussion of knowing and not knowing and of what is speakable and unspeakable in her newest book, The Birth of Pleasure. She explores how girls and boys come to dissociate from what they know as they pass through rites of initiation into a patriarchal society (with girls dissociating later than boys) and, in doing so, sacrifice relationships in order to stay in relationship. "Patriarchy, although frequently misinterpreted to mean the oppression of women by men, literally means a hierarchy—a rule of priests—in which the priest, the hieros, is a father," Gilligan explains. "It describes an order of living that elevates father, separating fathers from sons (the men from the boys) and placing both sons and women under a father’s authority" (4-5). Tracing the threads of an age-old tale of what is acceptable and what is not through such stories as Psyche and Cupid, Adam and Eve, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, Anne Frank’s diary, and Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, among others, Gilligan examines how love has been positioned as leading inevitably to loss, and not just for women.
In the story of Psyche and Cupid, Psyche becomes the object of Venus’ jealously and wrath when everyone begins calling Psyche "the new Venus" because of her beauty. Venus sends her son Cupid to cause Psyche to fall in love with "the most wretched of men," but instead Cupid falls in love with her himself. However, Cupid forbids Psyche to try to see him or to speak of their love, or he will leave her. "She knows him through touch and by the sound of his voice," Gilligan writes, "though she cannot see or say what she knows" (24). Psyche languishes under this arrangement, but resists her evil sisters’ urgings to break the taboo until she learns she is pregnant. Cupid again cautions her against looking upon him or speaking of their love. If she keeps her promise, he tells her, she will bear an immortal child; if not, the child will be mortal, an outcome Psyche fears because her sisters have reminded her that she is married to a monster who will devour her and the child. Psyche, thinking she is choosing the safety of herself and her child, lights a lamp and discovers she is married to the god of love. Trembling, she accidentally pricks a finger on one of his arrows, "falls in love with Love" (27, 135), then awakens Cupid when a drop of hot oil from the lamp falls on him. His vulnerability exposed, Cupid punishes her betrayal of him by leaving her. Gilligan notes that "by saving herself and her child instead of obeying her husband, by opening her eyes and seeing with whom she is living, Psyche has walked out of the Oedipus plot, but Cupid is heading into the heart of the tragedy" (40). Cupid, separated from and pining for Psyche, realizes that her punishment is his punishment, too.
Interwoven with this and other fictional tales are the stories of real people, such as those who participated in a study Gilligan conducted with couples therapist Terrence Real, on couples in crisis. In her analysis of the interviews, Gilligan used a voice-centered, relational model of language analysis that was "inspired by the early work of Freud and Piaget, by literature and music, and spurred by the challenge of listening to women within a cultural acoustic that distorts their experience" (8). As she explains it, "My research has center on listening for the voice of the psyche as it speaks directly and indirectly, in language and in silence-a voice often hidden in the structure of sentence." One technique she developed to do this involves extracting "I poems" from narratives. In The Birth of Pleasure she relates the story of a couple in which
Eileen had said that if Rick did not feel the same way she did, she would be wasting her love to stay with him. But she also had said, "I also think I can’t feel the way I feel without having somebody reciprocate it. I don’t think it’s in my head, and I don’t know."
I listen to her first-person voice in this passage, lifting its phrases ("I also think I can’t feel, I feel, I don’t think, I don’t know) out of the sentences. Strung together, they fall into a poetic cadence, composing an "I poem"—a sonogram of the psyche:I also think
I can’t feel
I don’t think
I don’t know (31-32).
Gilligan describes this I-poem as "an ode to dissociation. If she thinks she can’t feel; if she feels, she doesn’t think. In this way, she heeds the injunction ‘don’t’ that stands between ‘I’ and ‘know’" (32). The I-poem is part of a relational analytical model known as "The Listening Guide," which Gilligan developed with other researchers at the Harvard Project on Women's Psychology and Girls' Development. The Listening Guide involves working through a narrative or dialogue several times, each time listening for something different. Gilligan uses the term "listening" instead of "reading" to denote that this method requires active participation by both the one telling the story and the one listening to it. The first step involves listening for the psychological themes or plots, the second for the way in which the person speaks of "I," out of which I-poems, such as the one shown above, are constructed. The third step, which relates the analysis back to the research question, is a listening for contrapuntal voices, or the different layers, in which a person speaks in response to questions posed. A more detailed description of this method can be found in "On the Listening Guide: A voice-centered relational method," by Gilligan, Spencer, Weinberg, and Bertsch, which was published in 2003 in Qualitative Research in Psychology: Expanding Perspectives in Methodology and Design.
Gilligan also describes in The Birth of Pleasure how, in workshops for women conducted by her and Kristin Linklater, an expert on voice in the theatre, they used freewriting as a way to "bring [participants] back in relationship with a part of their history, and more specifically, with the girls they were before becoming women" (127). Freewriting—writing for a designated period of time without stopping—is most often associated with Peter Elbow and his well-known book Writing Without Teachers. In the "In Our Own Voices" workshops led by Gilligan and Linklater (some of which were also for girls), participants were asked to freewrite for three minutes in response to a series of prompts. In response to "I want to take you on an adventure," for example, one participant wrote:
With my new orange bike really big orange bike leaving the camp site going faster and faster along the river on the pavement but there down by the river warm but the cold wind blowing in my face my hair behind faster & faster no fear pedaling with power my body’s power the bike big & bright & orange & me big on the bike & me river big & the river faster & me faster & orange & bright & wild & alone me & the river & the orange bike (127-128).
"Frequently women discovered a girl whom they knew but had not remembered—like Anne Frank of the original diary," Gilligan says. She explains how Anne Frank’s diary exists in three versions: the original entries, a rewrite that shows how Anne Frank self-edited, and a third version that reflects her father’s editing and which became the published version. "In comparing the three versions, we can trace the evolution of what comes Anne Frank’s ‘voice,’" Gilligan notes. She recalls how, when she was a girl herself, she was able to trace the evolution of her mother’s voice, hearing it "splintering" between "the women with a soul of an artist" and "the mother raising her daughter in patriarch" (120). As she watched her father moving in and out of depression while her mother took on "an anxious cast," Gilligan realized that, much like girls and women she interviewed for her research or characters in fictional stories, she had come to see "what I am not supposed to see" (121) and regretted that she and her mother never spoke of it, just as Psyche came to see what was she not supposed to see and paid a price for her knowledge.
However, the story of Psyche and Cupid shows us "a way out of the Oedipus tragedy, and the tension between these two myths," Gilligan asserts (217). Cupid returns to Psyche and is at her side when she finally gives birth to their child; that child is Pleasure. It is from this that Gilligan takes the title of her book and also suggests that "the way in which one [story] eclipses the other . . . offers a way of locating our position in the historic struggle to end the contradiction between democracy and patriarchy" (218). So while love may lead at times to tragedy—the tragedy of patriarchy for both men and women—the possibility exists for us to overcome that tragedy and continue on to pleasure.
Gilligan has produced a notable body of work during her considerable career as a psychologist and writer. But while her work has received notice around the world, it has been both lauded and criticized. Although In a Different Voice was an international bestseller, Emily Eakin reports in The New York Times that the book "was attacked almost as soon as it appeared" with Gilligan being "accused of using unorthodox interview methods, of lacking control groups and of failing to publish her data in peer-reviewed journals." "Since then," Eakin notes, "trying to replicate Ms. Gilligan’s findings has become a virtual social-science subfield, employing a small army of researchers—with little success." However, Eakin adds, Gilligan did not dispute the findings of other researchers that women and men are more alike than different; "[Gilligan] said she had never intended to make grand statements about all men and all women and that her work had frequently been misunderstood."
Gilligan’s newest book is proving no less controversial. Terri Apter of the Times Literary Supplement writes of "Gilligan’s brilliant exposé of . . . canonical assumptions" and the "resounding impact" her new paradigms of girls’ development has had on psychology. Emily Nussbaum of The New York Times, on the other hand, asserts that "the book goes flying off the rails" when the author "attempts to apply her developmental outline to actual relationships" and dismisses the I-poem as "a parlor trick" because it is, along with Gilligan’s interpretations of science and literature, "reductive." Publishers Weekly says her "mastery of literary sources and her intelligent but nonacademic writing style make this an enjoyable, challenging work," and Stephanie Dowrick of the Sydney Morning Herald calls Gilligan’s writing "intelligent" and "a stimulating re-read of familiar myths and texts." Julie Mason of the Ottawa Citizen counters, however, that "sometimes it’s just plain silly and annoying [with] bits of sophomoric writing." Carol J. Binkowski, in her review of the book for Library Journal, sums it up thus: "Whether the reader agrees or disagrees with Gilligan, she raises crucial issues and is not afraid to state her beliefs with passion."
Since Carol Gilligan is coming to the University at Albany-SUNY on April 30, 2003 to conduct a workshop and do a reading from The Birth of Pleasure, it is worth noting that she has several ties to the New York State Capital Region. In the 1980s, Gilligan conducted research at the Emma Willard School in Troy, New York, which led to the publication of Making Connections: The Relational Worlds of Adolescent Girls at Emma Willard School in 1992. She had been invited to do research there by Robert C. Parker, the school’s principal at that time. The Robert C. Parker School in North Greenbush, New York, which was named after him and at which his wife, Marlisa Parker, now serves as director, is co-sponsoring Gilligan’s visit to the University at Albany along with the NY State Writers Institute. Additionally, Miriam Raider-Roth, an assistant professor in the Department of Educational Theory and Practice at the University at Albany and one of Gilligan’s former students, teaches a graduate course on feminist research methodologies in which students learn how to use the "The Listening Guide" as a qualitative analytical tool.
References and other selected works by Carol Gilligan:
Apter, Terri. "Will You Still Love Me?" Times Literary Supplement, August 9, 2002: 32.
Binkowski, Carol J. "Gilligan, Carol. The Birth of Pleasure." Library Journal 127, no. 9 (2002): 115 [database online]; available from Expanded Academic ASAP, accessed March 17, 2003.
"The Birth of Pleasure." Publishers Weekly 249, no. 17 (2002): 55 [database online]; available from Expanded Academic ASAP, accessed March 8, 2003.
Brown, Lyn Mikel, and Carol Gilligan. Meeting at the Crossroads: Women's Psychology and Girls' Development. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992.
Dowrick, Stephanie. "Prescriptions for a Calmer Life." Sydney Morning Herald, October 5, 2002: 3 [database online]; available from LexisNexis, accessed March 17, 2003.
Eakin, Emily. "Listening for the Voices of Women." The New York Times, March 30, 2002. Available from http://www.nytimes.com, accessed March 8, 2003.
Elbow, Peter. Writing Without Teachers. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1973.
Gilligan, Carol. The Birth of Pleasure. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2002.
———. In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women's Development. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998.
———. "The Centrality of Relationship in Human Development: A Puzzle, Some Evidence, and a Theory." In Development and Vulnerability in Close Relationships, edited by G. Noam and K. Fisher, New York: Erlbaum, 1996.
———. "Teaching Shakespeare's Sister: Notes from the Underground of Female Adolescence." Women's Studies Quarterly 29, no. 1/2, (1991): 31-51.
———. Making Connections: The Relational Worlds of Adolescent Girls at Emma Willard School. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1990.
Gilligan, Carol, Lyn Mikel Brown, and Annie G. Rogers. "Psyche Embedded: A Place for Body, Relationships, and Culture in Personality Theory." In Studying Persons and Lives, edited by A.I. Rubin and R. Zucker, 86-147. New York: Springer, 1990.
Gilligan, Carol, Annie G. Rogers, and Deborah L. Tolman. "Women's Psychological Development: Implications for Psychotherapy." In Women, Girls, and Psychotherapy: Reframing Resistance, edited by Carol Gilligan, Annie G. Rogers and Deborah L. Tolman, 5-31. New York: Harrington Park Press, 1991.
Gilligan, Carol, Renée Spencer, M. Katherine Weinberg, and Tatiana Bertsch. "On the Listening Guide: A Voice-Centered Relational Method." In Qualitative Research in Psychology: Expanding Perspectives in Methodology and Design, edited by Paul M. Camic, Jean E. Rhodes and Lucy Yardley, 2-31. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association Press, 2003.
Mason, Julie. "First Comes Love, Then Comes Marriage: Or Something Like That. Feminist Scholar Carol Gilligan Explores What Happens after Boy Meets Girl." Ottawa Citizen, December 8, 2002, 15 [database online]; available from LexisNexis, accessed March 17, 2003.
Nussbaum, Emily. "Ms. Lonelyhearts." The New York Times, June 30, 2002. Available from http://www.nytimes.com, accessed March 8, 2003.
Taylor, Jill McLean, Carol Gilligan, and Amy M. Sullivan. Between Voice and Silence: Women and Girls, Race and Relationship, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995.Jill Harbeck
Graduate student in English and Educational Theory & Practice, UAlbany
Gail Godwin Introduction
Through eleven critically-acclaimed and best-selling novels, two collections of short stories, and one nonfiction book, Gail Godwin has explored issues of the human heart. Matters of love and rejection, life and death, spirituality and secularity, personal fulfillment and expectations, independence and limitations, permeate her work. Her main characters are mostly strong women who are at a cross-roads, struggling to define themselves and take responsibility for their own lives. And in that search comes the strength, passion, intelligence, and grace of Gail Godwin’s work. Her characters are so realistically portrayed that you find yourself wanting to engage in conversation with them as they slowly unravel the complexities of their own situation to reveal universal truths.
Gail Godwin’s writing career began in 1970 with the publication of The Perfectionists, a draft of which was her Ph.D. thesis at the University of Iowa. She followed that book with Glass People in 1972. Both books were well-received, earning attention and praise from Kurt Vonnegut, who described The Perfectionists as a "darkly beautiful book," and Joyce Carol Oates, who praised Glass People as "a powerful and sinister study of a young woman’s transformation, very deftly plotted and imagined." And for Gail Godwin the books and the accolades have just kept coming. Very briefly, here is her most impressive list.
Her third novel, The Odd Woman, released in 1974, won Godwin her first of three National Book Award nominations and firmly established her literary reputation.
In 1976 her first collection of short stories, Dream Children, was published, followed in 1978 by another critically acclaimed novel, Violet Clay, which won Godwin her second National Book Award nomination. Jonathan Yardley wrote in the Miami Herald, "Violet Clay is filled with wonderful language, wonderful people, and wonderful insights. . . . it is the work of one of the very best writers we have."
Gail Godwin’s fifth novel, A Mother and Two Daughters, published in 1982, reached number one on the New York Times best seller list and outsold all her previous books. Edmund Fuller, in the Wall Street Journal praised the book as "The wisest, most sensitively balanced novel I have read about women in the enormous social transition of our time." A Mother and Two Daughters completed the hat trick for Godwin earning her her third National Book Award nomination.
More success and critical acclaim followed with a second short story collection, Mr. Bedford and the Muses, published in 1983. In 1985 came The Finishing School, praised by the New York Times Book Review as "a wise contribution to the literature of growing up."
Godwin’s next two novels—A Southern Family,1987, and Father Melancholy’s Daughter, 1991—were set in her native South and drew on experiences of her own life—the death of her half-brother, and her father’s bouts with depression.
In 1994 she published The Good Husband, her ninth novel, which Publishers Weekly proclaimed was "a landmark achievement." In Evensong, novel number ten, released in 1999, Godwin continues the stories of characters we first met in her previous novel Father Melancholy’s Daughter. Publishers Weekly described Evensong as "comforting and evocative. . . . Gracefully written." And the Boston Sunday Globe praised the intelligence of the writing and Godwin’s gift for storytelling, calling the book "a deeply considered, even dignified novel . . . one stays engaged with the story for the sheer narrative hook: . . . you simply want to find out who does what to whom."
In Father Melancholy’s Daughter, Margaret Gower’s father, the Reverend Walter Gower, has died from a stroke on Good Friday. In dealing with his death Margaret says, "I could write a handbook on mourning: how it weaves in and out of the ordinary traffic of your days, for weeks and months (and maybe years), sometimes diverting you with just a sharp little blip of reminder . . . other times bringing you to a full stop with a piercing, extended wail, requiring you to leave traffic altogether, turn your ignition off, put your head down on the steering wheel, let yourself be overwhelmed by the incredible words "Never Again," and wait for your breath to come back."
With her latest, highly autobiographical novel, Evenings at Five, Gail Godwin has written Margaret Gower’s "handbook on mourning." With haunting prose and a quiet intensity, Evenings at Five exposes the psyche of the one left to carry on after the death of a lifelong partner. In the book, Christina is a writer; Rudy a composer. Together for almost 30 years they spend their days at opposite ends of the house working on their art. They come together each evening at five for cocktails and conversation. In the months following Rudy’s death, Christina reflects on her profound sense of loss and tries to make sense of, as she puts it, "the gulf between absence in presence, and presence in absence." Explosions of memory, triggered by sensory cues—the sight of Rudy’s Stickley armchair, or the sound of one of Rudy’s musical compositions—evoke painful and pleasurable emotions, a mixture of clarity and confusion. Evenings at Five reveals a heart in perhaps its most vulnerable moment.
Given the themes of her works of fiction, it should come as no surprise that Gail Godwin’s first book of nonfiction, published in 2001, is called Heart: A Natural History of the Heart-Filled Life. It combines scholarly research with her own personal experience to illustrate how the heart has been represented throughout human history in politics and religion, literature and poetry, philosophy, psychology, and medicine. The Christian Science Monitor called the book, "engaging and witty." And the Washington Post Book World termed it "Charming . . . [Godwin] generously lets the reader watch the process by which her mind, and her heart, work."
Gail Godwin is currently working on her twelfth novel, "Queen of the Underworld." Whatever the circumstances in which her characters find themselves in this new work, it is sure to take us on another journey of the human heart.By Suzanne Lance
Assistant Director, NYS Writers Institute
Top of Page
Rhoda's Dad. That's how many of us think of actor Harold Gould, as Martin Morgenstern – or possibly we think of him as Miles Webber on the TV show The Golden Girls. But Harold Gould's career has greater breadth and depth then exampled in these two TV sitcoms. He was leading man to Katherine Hepburn in Mrs. Delafield Wants to Marry (CBS 1986), a "wonderfully manipulative" Louis B. Mayer in Moviola (NBC 1980), and as King Lear in William Shakespeare's King Lear (1992) and Prospero in The Tempest (1995) at the Utah Shakespearean Festival. With impressive roles on stage and in movies, as well as on the small screen, Gould has garnered five Emmy Award nominations and won an OBIE Award for his role in the off-Broadway production of The Increased Difficulty of Concentration (1969).
Born in Schenectady on December 10, 1923, Gould graduated from the University at Albany (when it was known as the Albany State Teacher's College) and earned a M.A. and Ph.D. in theater at Cornell University. While studying at Cornell he met his future wife, Lea Shampanier Gould, who performs under the stage name Lea Vernon. It was not until after ten years of teaching, at Randolph Macon Women's College and at the University of California, that Gould decided to become an actor himself.
He made his professional stage debut playing Thomas Jefferson in The Common Glory (1955) in Williamsburg, VA. In 1969 Gould was in New York City in the off-Broadway production of "The Increased Difficulty of Concentration" for which he won his OBIE. His first feature film was a small role in The Coach (1962), which led to many more roles, but he is probably best know for his TV roles.
In 1972 Gould was Howard Cunningham in "Love and the Happy Days" on Love, American Style, but was replaced by ABC with Tom Bosley for the series. As Martin Morgenstern, husband to Nancy Walker's Ida Morgenstern and father to Valerie Harper's Rhoda, Gould worked his way into the homes and hearts of television audiences on The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Rhoda. As Miles Weber, sometime suitor to Betty White's warm-hearted but ditsy character Rose on The Golden Girls, Gould continues to charm audiences in syndication.
Harold Gould will present the Seventh Annual Burian Lecture on May 6, 2003 at 8:00 PM in the Recital Hall, Performing Arts Center, University at Albany Uptown Campus. Earlier in the day, he will also conduct a 4:15 PM Informal Seminar, also held in the Recital Hall.P.R. Dyjak
Graduate Assistant, NY State Writers Institute
Poet, graduate student in English and Women’s Studies, University at Albany
Sunday Gazette Article
Burian Lecture Series
Top of Page
Songdogs and Mongrels:
An Introduction to Colum McCann
For a writer whose career began with the same blank sheet of paper sitting in a typewriter for six months, followed by two years spent, more or less, in a situation not especially conducive to typing—that is, bicycling across North America, Colum McCann has produced an impressive body of work. His two collections of short fiction and three novels have garnered an even more impressive array of literary honors: The Hennessy Award for Irish Writing, the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature (1994), a Pushcart Prize, and the inaugural Princess Grace Memorial Award (2002). His second novel, This Side of Brightness (1998) was voted a Boston Globe Best Book and named as a New York Times Most Notable Book. In addition, he is an accomplished journalist as well as a fiction writer, and has published in Atlantic Monthly, The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, and GQ.
My own introduction to Colum McCann came with the epigraph to his first novel, Songdogs (1995), and I turn to it—despite the ominous overtones—to introduce him this evening. The lines, in fact, describe the narrator’s introduction to these eponymous animals:
Just before I came home to Ireland I saw my first coyotes. They were strung on a fence post near Jackson Hole, Wyoming. An eruption of brown fur against a field of melting snow, their bodies hanging upside down, tied to the post with orange twine. The neat bullet-holes had pierced their flanks where brown merged white. They were foot-dry and rotten with stench. Muzzles and paws hung down in the grass and their mouths were open, as if about to howl.
The hanging was a rancher’s warning to other coyotes to stay away from the field . . . But coyotes aren’t as foolish as us—they don’t trespass where the dead have been. They move on elsewhere.
The speaker, Conor, does not heed the coyotes’ warning and returns to Ireland after a failed five-year quest to locate his Mexican mother, who had left the family many years before. He finds the river that he swam in as a child befouled by a meat packing plant; his childhood home awash in the detritus of his father’s decayed and indifferent existence. Conor feels himself a trespasser in his own home—and homeland. His incursion into the past of his parents does not produce a story of his own. There are flickers of illumination—the glimpse of a magnificent salmon residing in the depths of the polluted stream—but no epiphanies. Conor can only like a songdog "move on elsewhere."
The theme of trespass, in differing guises and variations, is subtly woven throughout many of Colum McCann’s lyrical and poignant narratives. Readers of Irish literature might more readily expect to find a keynote in the term "exile" or "emigration"—words that resonate in Irish history and literary experience and that seem particularly apt in the case of a writer, like McCann, born in Ireland but living abroad, and that further suggest the choice of a figure like Nureyev as the subject of a novel—his latest, Dancer. McCann has, in fact, described New York City where he now lives in positive terms as "an amalgam of exiles . . . [an] international mongrelization." "Trespass," by contrast, above and beyond the sense of dislocation often associated with exile, denotes a transgression. It conveys an ominous sense of territory and boundary, not restricted to the concepts of nation or even culture; it intimates the potentially severe consequences of crossing borders, whether one does so knowingly or not. A trespass is an incursion, a crime subject to being strung up as a warning to potential violators.
The postmodern sense of trespass is not so much a historical condition as dimly understood and ominously experienced existential one. In this regard, it heightens the deracination of early twentieth-century moderns, for example, William Gerhardie’s polyglots, fluent in many languages but at home in no country. Paradoxically, in a world of global economies and mongrel identities, the ease of travel and relocation is inversely related to the sense of place or home. This Side of Brightness (1998) recasts the problem of Conrad’s Stein, who observed, as you may recall, "The question is not how to get cured, but how to live," in terms like these: "The question is not how to get home, but how to get on." In this novel, sandhogs replace songdogs and the expanse of the western skies narrows to the shafts of light penetrating the subway tunnels occupied by the homeless of New York. The literal tunnels of this book and the structure of both novels, which move back and forth between past and present, recall Virginia Woolf’s metaphoric account of the "tunneling process" in the work that would become Mrs Dalloway:
I should say a good deal about The Hours and my discovery; how I dig out beautiful caves behind my characters: I think that gives exactly what I want; humanity, human depth. The idea is that the caves shall connect and each comes to daylight at the present moment.
McCann’s tunnels open onto the present as well, though it is often a sombre sort of daylight that greets the excavators.
This is especially so for the youthful protagonists in the three stories in Everything in this Country Must, who can but dimly understand the world of adult suffering and loss into which they are thrust and from which they escape by tunneling into the bedcovers at night (33, 35). Their journeys into maturity in the midst of the sectarian violence of Northern Ireland pose all the dangers of which silent songdogs warn. Their voices and thoughts compellingly document this confusion. The title story concludes with a fifteen-year old girl thinking: "oh what a small sky for so much rain." "Wood," the second tale, ends with a young boy looking "at the oak trees behind the mill. They were going mad in the wind. The trunks were big and solid and fat, but the branches were slapping each other around like people." Joyce Carol Oates describes Everything in this Country Must as "beautifully cadenced and moving" and praises its "understated, luminous language." The luminosity of the art and the compassionate yet detached rendering of the characters accentuate this somber but fully human work.
I have said nothing of the new novel, Dancer because, happily, we have that to look forward to this evening. It is a book as graceful as the movements of its subject are on the stage—and to hear more about that, please join me in welcoming to this stage, Colum McCann.
By Randall Craig
Top of Page
Telling the Story is the Easy Part: The Life and Works of Malachy McCourt
Malachy McCourt is a master storyteller, with a genuine ability to weave tragedy and comedy into one wonderful whole of a tale. He is the author of five books, A Monk Swimming (1999), Singing My Him Song (2000), Danny Boy: The Beloved Irish Ballad (2002), Voices of Ireland: Classic Writings of a Rich and Rare Land (2002) and the forthcoming Up Your Sobriety (April 2003). He also provided the forward for a book of photographs entitled Through Irish Eyes: A Visual Companion to Angela McCourt’s Ireland (1998). The first two books on this list comprise a rich and fascinating two-part autobiographical tale. Danny Boy is a historical exploration of the melody and the lyrics of the song, "Danny Boy," as well as a brief look at the Irish history so deeply embedded therein. Voices of Ireland is an anthology of works by writers from the past three centuries, who were either Irish by birth, or who had become profoundly intertwined with the land and its politics. In addition, McCourt co-wrote a play, A Couple of Blaguards, with his brother, author Frank McCourt, about their lives, especially their poor childhood in Dublin and their transitions to the United States. Malachy McCourt is also a working professional actor who has appeared in a multitude of stage plays, films and television series, and can currently be seen as Father Meehan on the HBO series, OZ.
Voices of Ireland is an exciting anthology, for the most part limiting itself to the highly canonical Irish writers of the past three centuries, with some intriguing exceptions. A work not strictly focused on the literature of Ireland, this collection seeks to explore the world of Ireland and its movement, both forward and backward, from 1729, when Jonathan Swift wrote the delightfully vicious satire, A Modest Proposal, until the middle of the twentieth century. There are those writers who would without doubt be included in any literature collection of this period, such as Swift, Wilde, Yeats, to name but a few. However, there are also some writers included who could not be understood to fit within the literature of the day, but are necessarily included in a collection depicting the political life of Ireland. The starkest example of this is Michael Collins, a man whose general familiarity amongst Americans increased exponentially due to the popular 1996 film about his life starring Liam Neeson. However, Collins’ fame was for political intrigue, rather than writing. The essays included in this collection are political tracts, primarily written in an attempt to push the Irish to accept the British offer of Home Rule and to end the Civil War, which had begun as a result of violent disagreement over the Home Rule question.
James Stephens is another writer whose work is possibly less interesting as literature than it is as history, especially with regard to the all-important question of who determines history. Stephens’ tale is a first-hand account of witnessing the Easter Monday uprising and its aftermath. There existed a jarring difference between what he was experiencing and the accounts that were carried in the official Irish paper, the Irish Times. On the Wednesday following the uprising, Stephens wrote:
To-day the Irish Times was published. It contained a new military proclamation, and a statement that the country was peaceful, and told that in Sackville Street some houses were burned to the ground.
On the outside railings a bill proclaiming Martial Law was posted. (1020)
McCourt’s own writing in this book is limited to his Introduction, but what he includes there helps to explain how, for the Irish, literature and politics cannot be neatly separated:
For hundreds of years, the Irish were kept enclosed in a spiritual concentration camp, imprisoned behind a magisterial, somber, and imperialistic phalanx of British jackboots whose spokesman told the world that behind them were millions of mad Irishmen who if they were unloosed into the world would inundate it with torrents of revolutionary prose, seditious song, and penetrating poetry and that all that stood between an unsuspecting civilization and the rampaging literary hordes were the guns, the cannon, the pitiful artillery and the mere might of the British Empire. They slaughtered as many of them as they could but still they came, the pagan Irish, the Catholic Irish, the atheist Irish, the Anglo-Irish, even the suborned English-Irish. They didn’t have guns to turn into ploughshares and they didn’t have ploughshares to turn into anything. Just words, waves of words, drowning out and overwhelming the hangman, the roar of artillery, and the rattle of musketry, and it wasn’t at all bad for a world made fearful by British propaganda. It is axiomatic in the annals of colonial oppression that if the victim speaks against a regime, takes up arms for freedom, or takes up the pen in the cause, he/she is labeled a terrorist or simply a criminal. With hardly an exception all the leaders of the Irish rebellions were writers and many of them simply poets. An ineluctable crowd they were, who may not have entirely believed that the pen is mightier than the sword but that it can inflict a larger array of wounds not necessarily fatal. (10)
McCourt’s belief that the war for Ireland was fought as much with language as with military weapons is certainly borne out by the abundance of strong Irish political writing. Whether it is literature or not is probably a question that McCourt felt could be left for others to worry over, while he was busy enjoying and sharing with his readers the writings of his countrymen.
You certainly don’t have to be Irish to appreciate the pathos found in a good rendition of "Danny Boy." McCourt’s Danny Boy takes on the multitude of myths and legends that have sprung up around this very popular song. Covered is the history of the melody, which is several hundred years old, and the lyrics, which were written by a British barrister in 1910 (45). A quick romp through Irish military history and the history of Irish songs shows their intersection. McCourt mentions a common belief that the Irish are only good at dealing with death, loss, and other forms of tragedy, and "Danny Boy" fits nicely into supporting that argument. McCourt disagrees, however, and notes that many outside of Ireland cannot appreciate the irony and humor that many of these songs possess. He also dismisses many of the American versions of Irish songs as sentimental and misleading representations of the Irish national character. Many of the songs that appear to be dwelling on the loss of an individual were actually patriotic songs that promoted rebellion by personifying Ireland in order to avoid the British censors (59). This is not, however, a dry, historical tale. McCourt is incapable of such writing. Even amidst the myriad of facts and dates, McCourt inserts not only his comfortably humorous voice, but also his politics. In a discussion attempting to track who the speaker of the song could be, he examines the possible reasons for using "Danny" and not "Daniel." His argument is that the more formal name would be used by parents who were angry or the official voice of the government or the law, but not by an affectionate family member or friend. His example of this is quite telling of his political bent as an American, not to mention, quite humorous: "[This] technique is used by judges when sentencing convicted criminals to death, i.e. ‘George Walker Bush, I hereby sentence you to be hanged by the neck until you are dead!’" (62) While an avowed Republican might find this less humorous than others, McCourt manages to slide many such laugh-out-loud moments into what could easily have become a dry piece of scholarship.
While both Voices of Ireland and Danny Boy are interesting and well-crafted works that can teach a reader much about the history and culture of Ireland, for sitting down with just a damned good page-turner, nothing can beat the two autobiographical tales of Mr. Malachy McCourt. A Monk Swimming undertakes the first part of Malachy’s life, starting with his early years in Dublin, through his emigration from Ireland to the United States, his first marriage, his early celebrity as a New York City barman, and some intriguing run-ins with both the law and the famous. Singing My Him Song picks up this tale early in the 1960’s as his first marriage is ending, and continues his on-again, off-again battle with fame, celebrities, the seemingly constant threat of poverty, his second marriage, and alcoholism. McCourt has a knack for telling tales that are equally filled with pathos and amusement. In the 1951 play, Steel Magnolias, Robert Harling has one of his characters note that "laughter through tears is my favorite emotion." McCourt has managed to write two books that exemplify that particular emotion. Often the tears and the laughter will spring from the same page. McCourt spent many years working in bars and as a personality on radio talk shows. His talent for telling tales is well transferred to the page.
In Singing My Him Song, McCourt takes on political and social events from Kennedy’s assassination, to Vietnam, to the horrors found in state institutions for the mentally challenged, to the irony of having his freedom of speech stifled when he was fired by a New York talk radio station in 1976, the 200th anniversary of the establishment of a country that has become famous for its guarantee of free speech. He deals with his absent father, his anger at his imperfect mother, his less than stellar role as husband and father, and his tumultuous relations with his brothers. He takes on his rocky career in the bar business, the acting business, and all of the business of being an alcoholic.
Some of the lighter moments of this tale include his friendship with Richard Harris and the time when Harris became a celebrity bartender at McCourt’s bar. The word got out and the place was packed, except that Harris was giving away everything he sent over the bar. McCourt’s fear that he was going to have to confront Harris about this was alleviated at the end of a week by the end of Harris’ interest in the project. Fortunately for McCourt, Harris had been keeping tabs on what he gave away and he left a check behind to cover it all. The generosity of his friends is a major theme in this work, as McCourt again and again depends on his friends for shelter, money, or jobs during the ups and downs of his acting career.
Anyone who is a fan of John Huston’s production of The Dead will probably want to skip the section where McCourt tells of his treatment at the hands of a production crew who gives to him, and then just as quickly takes away from him, several roles in that film. McCourt credited his new found sobriety with permitting him to have a relatively measured response to these actions, but a reader just might be tempted to go through the book and past the grave to throttle Huston for his callous treatment of a character who, by then, will have become quite endearing to the reader.
At some points, McCourt seems almost Forrest Gump-like in his encounters with the famous and infamous. Following his stint in The Molly Maguires, where he "came to be one of the highest paid one-line actors in movie history" (54), McCourt and his then pregnant wife were looking at homes in Los Angeles. They visited one that was perfect, but for the group of young hippies who were squatting there. During their visit, they encountered several of these young hippies, including one very hostile young man poolside.
Diana had told me that she had never in her life felt such malevolence before, and that she felt the people in that house were a threat to the baby she was carrying. I, being full of bravado, was going to boot them all out and take over the manse, but was glad I hadn’t tried. The assorted gang in possession of the house were the followers of Charles Manson, the young man with the hate-filled eyes seated by the pool. (55, 56)
There are many fascinating tales, both positive and negative, about the interactions that McCourt had with celebrities and with history itself. However, the most compelling aspect of his story is his willingness to share with the reader his path from an unconscious, but determined, blindness about himself to a deep and intensive investigation of his own life.
Even when I felt I was the cock of the walk in New York, I was always on the alert for the slight or the put-down, the sneer at the Irish people, the witless mocking of my accent. At the same time, it was convenient for me to play the part of the wild Irishman, the fellow quick with the tongue and just as quick with the fists, and quick to romance the women.
If ever there was an unexamined life on this earth, it was mine. (72)
McCourt finally quit drinking on July 22, 1985, which allows this tale, so often dominated by pathos and woe, to have a happy ending after all. Although, from the reader’s perspective, even during those moments when desperation must have been omni-present in his life, the storyteller in McCourt keeps the reader completely engrossed and begging for more.
There are many different styles, genres, and voices with which to write. Malachy McCourt has chosen to use what appears to be his natural gift for telling stories to do just that, whether they be personal stories or more scholarly tales. He is a talented writer whose gift to the reader is that he chooses to share his stories with us. This particular style is not only completely engrossing on the page, it also promises a lively, exciting, and above all, humorous talk when he arrives at the Writers Institute on March 11, 2003.
By Kathleen McDonald
It starts when you care to act.
Marge Piercy is one of the most significant and prolific feminist poets and fiction writers of the late twentieth century, and at age 67, she is still producing important work. Her resume spans from 1962 to the present, and includes the following entry for the period of time between 1963 and 1971: "I make my living as a novelist, poet, essayist, reviewer." Her website, hosted by Archer-Books.com at www.margepiercy.com, catalogues the curriculum vitae of this writer, teacher, and activist, including her fifteen novels (her sixteenth novel, The Third Child, is to be released this November), sixteen volumes of poetry (including this year’s Colors Passing Through Us), and the plethora of literary journals and magazines that have published her poetry over the last forty years. She is also recognized for her Jewish spiritual and liturgical poems, and published The Art of Blessing the Day in 1999. She and her husband, the writer and publisher Ira Wood, teach master classes in the art of writing fiction and personal narrative, and they published a writer’s workshop handbook entitled So You Want to Write in 2001.
In addition to making her living as a writer, Piercy was active in the Vietnam anti-war movements, working as an organizer for Students for a Democratic Society and helping to found the Brooklyn chapter of Movement for a Democratic Society. Her writing has always reflected her commitments to feminism, peace, and human rights, and because she actively composes in more than one genre, her work enables complex, multi-layered grappling with these issues. When asked why she’s a feminist, she responded, "I can’t imagine not identifying strongly as a woman and not wanting things to be better and safer and more fun and less dangerous for myself and other women." Her writing is as fearless as it is wise, addressing inequality, violence against women, body image, and abortion rights. She also writes fervently and dauntlessly about sex and sexuality, and a single volume of Piercy’s poetry will contain lovely, erotic stanzas celebrating both the physicality and spirituality of sex as well as verses that advance compelling arguments for collective political action. Carolyn Kizer, a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, writes in the Washington Post, "This is a woman who can write breathtaking poetry about making love to a man, and then move into a brilliant diatribe about their inequality." Piercy’s readers are certainly aware of another of her passions: her loving affinity for felines. In her early poem, "The Correct Method of Worshiping Cats," she suggests it is we who merely inhabit our cats’ universe when she writes, "We are the cat servants, some well-trained and some ill,/and they give us nothing but love and trouble." Her 2002 memoir, Sleeping With Cats, chronicles her life through poverty, political choices, passionate and problematic entanglements, and throughout offers loving homage to the cats who have shared these journeys with her.
In a September 2002 interview with Johnette Roderiguez of the Providence Phoenix, Piercy discusses ways that feminism has not yet advanced women’s lives in the last thirty years. She asserts, "One way in which things have not improved is body image. The standard required body image for women to achieve or maintain is impossible for 90 percent of the population. The media is so powerful that they are constantly pushing the image of these perfect, skinny blond women which doesn’t correspond to the genes, body structure, or health requirements of most women. And this matters a lot because women are always comparing themselves to these media images. Just about every woman we know is dissatisfied with their body and feels inferior. This is insane. It’s gotten much, much, much, much worse." Piercy’s poem "Barbie Doll" is frequently included as reading in women’s studies courses examining images of women, addressing how cultural pressures affect self-esteem and inscribe gendered standards of behavior and appearance. It describes a female child encouraged to play with dolls and wear makeup, the kind marketed at children. This same child grows into an adolescent who is called "fat" by a classmate, and the label remains etched in her psyche, affecting her self-image and self-worth:
possessed strong arms and back,
abundant sexual drive and manual dexterity.
She went to and fro apologizing.
Everyone saw a fat nose on thick legs. She was advised to play coy,
exhorted to come on hearty,
exercise, diet, smile and wheedle.
Her good nature wore out
like a fan belt.
So she cut off her nose and her legs
and offered them up.
"She went to and fro apologizing" placed after adjectives describing the subject of this poem as healthy, intelligent, strong, sexual, and dexterous not only suggests that this young woman frequently uttered that she was sorry, but also conveys that she was sorry for the very qualities one ought to be proud of, seeing them as lacking or unimportant when compared to what she imagined are tiny noses and svelte legs. Piercy’s use of the analogy of a fan belt wearing out to describe the loss of pre-adolescent self-worth is particularly grave. Anyone who has ever experienced a fan belt snapping while driving realizes that when this happens, one can go no further. One is halted in one’s tracks, idle but wishing to be what one can’t be: mobile, moving forward, reaching one’s chosen destination. While the first stanzas of "Barbie Doll" describe the female childhood and adolescence of the subject, the final stanza describes this same young woman prematurely made up in her coffin: "Doesn’t she look pretty? Everyone said./Consummation at last./To every woman a happy ending."
Piercy’s political commitments are clearly articulated in her poetry, and she writes compellingly about the need to challenge authority and organize coalitions. Her poetry collection, The Moon is Always Female, was originally published in 1977, but has been reprinted several times since, most recently in 1999. The volume is divided into two sections, "Hand Games" and "The Lunar Cycle." "Hand Games" is comprised of 49 individual poems that Piercy herself describes as "the artifacts of loving in a personal way, of struggles in a wide or narrower frame." "The Lunar Cycle" contains fifteen poems, an opener and a closer surrounding thirteen others, one for each month of the lunar calendar. This book of poetry is an example of how Piercy is at once a sensual and political poet, writing as she does about love, friendship, and cats as well as about collective action and feminism. Piercy writes poems about the difficulty and the necessity of coming to action, and of how complex and intertwined are the politics of claiming to value life while waging war. Her website features a protest poem she wrote this year entitled "Choices: A Poem About Bush’s War." Her readers may recognize a similar theme to a poem in The Moon is Always Female: "Right to Life." In "Choices" the speaker asks, "Would you rather have health insurance/you can actually afford, or bomb Iraq?" and concludes caustically that "More dead people is obviously what we need." In "Right to Life" the speaker argues,
that none ever go hungry, none weep
with no one to tend them when mothers
work, none lack fresh fruit,
none chew lead or cough to death and your
foster homes are empty. Every noon the best
restaurants serve poor children steaks.
This idea of de facto practices contradicting the values a social system claims to enact reappears in "Choices." Here, the speaker questions the idea of destroying life because we ostensibly value it:
dote on embryos the size of needle
tips; but people, who needs them?
Collateral damage. Babies, kids,
goats and tabby cats, old women’s sewing
old men praying, they’ll become smoke
and blow away like sandstorms
of the precious desert covering treasure.
Both poems cause the reader to think about what it really means to say we value life: which lives, whose. "Choices" questions how we can allow the "treasure" of a Middle Eastern desert to determine our choices about preserving life and causing certain death. The poem suggests that among the expendable are children, animals, and the elderly. The anger evident in the above stanza is echoed in many of Piercy’s political poems, and the theme of how the decisions of a powerful few affect the lives of many appear in her poems "The Wrong Anger" and "The Low Road," also published in The Moon is Always Female. Both address the feeling of helplessness when the interests of citizens are not considered by the powers that be, and the struggle of fighting to have the vox populi heard and recognized. Consider these lines from "The Wrong Anger":
too powerful to show us faces
of billboard lions smiling
from bloodflecked jaws. Their eyes
flick over us like letters
written too small to read,
streets seen from seven miles
up as they spread the peacock
tail of executive jets
across skies yellow with greed.
Their ashes rain down
on our scarred arms, the fall
out from explosions
they order by memo.
"Like letters written too small to read" is a powerful analogy for the near-invisibility of innocent people affected by decisions "order[ed] by memo." The poem acknowledges "how hard" it is to "war against" the "greed" of that percentage of the population who controls wealth, and reflects the anger "Choices" expresses over the possibility of havoc wreaked over a "precious desert covering treasure." This feeling of helplessness resurfaces in the beginning of "The Low Road":
to you? Whatever they want.
They can set you up, they can
bust you, they can break
your fingers, they can
burn your brain with electricity,
blur you with drugs till you
can’t walk, can’t remember, they can
take your child, wall up
your lover. They can do anything
you can’t stop them
from doing. How can you stop
them? Alone, you can fight,
you can refuse, you can
take what revenge you can
but they roll over you.
The solitary fight, Piercy suggests, is well-intentioned, but ultimately ineffective: "they roll over you." "The Low Road" suggests an answer to such helplessness is collective action, beginning with two
back to back can cut through
A dozen make a demonstration.
A hundred fill a hall. A thousand have solidarity and your own newsletter;
ten thousand, power and your own paper;
a hundred thousand, your own media;
ten million, your own country.
The final stanza of "The Low Road" counters the despair of the isolated individual fighting alone in the first, suggesting that collective action, "car[ing] to act" and becoming part of a capital-W "We," is the path to social change:
it starts when you care
to act, it starts when you do
it again after they said no,
it starts when you say We
and know who you mean, and each
day you mean one more.
Piercy’s poems make bold statements about action and choices, and her work helps us to consider the implications of both. There is a tension between the hope in "The Low Road" and the anger in "Choices" that speaks to the decisions both made for us as citizens and the decisions we make, ought to make, or often avoid making–decisions about what kinds of action to take and what kinds of action to support, and what our choices and the choices we support say about how we value the lives of others. Piercy is a fiercely political poet and "Choices" contemplates the consequences of choosing war, thoughts which are difficult to acknowledge, certainly, but acknowledge them, Piercy perhaps would argue, we must:
people is obviously what we need,
some of theirs, some of ours. After
they’re dead a while, strip them
and it’s hard to tell the difference.
By Deanna DiCarlo
Empathy as Resistance: Piercy’s Legacy to the Feminist Futurist Novel
In Marge Piercy’s 1976 novel, Woman on the Edge of Time, the protagonist, Connie is a "catcher" (a psychically receptive person) who attracts Luciente, a "sender" from the future. But their story is a story within a story. The story that frames their story is the battle of Luciente’s utopian society with a dystopia, and this dystopia can be imagined as what would result if our current social ills were left unchallenged.
Arriving for the first time in utopia, Connie saw "[small buildings] randomly scattered among trees and shrubbery and gardens … wildly decorated and overgrown with vines" (62). The only signs of the technology she’ll later learn about are "strange structures like long-legged birds with sails that turn in the wind …" (Piercy 62).
Alternatively, while on the hundred twenty-sixth floor of an SG’ed (segregated and guarded) building in dystopian NYC, Connie asks, "Can’t you see the city?" She’s told "You can make out some other towers in this plex. But you can’t see down or any farther. How could you? It’s thick. It’s air. How could you see through air?" (Piercy 287).
Luciente’s utopia is therefore fragile, and in order for it to come to be, let alone prevail, Connie will have to shift the process of change in her lifetime so the future can move in that direction. Connie, Consuelo, Conchita, a middle-aged Chicana whose body and heart bear the scars of every type of horrific "ism" known to man, is at the pivot of their battle. So that’s the set-up: a gritty, reality-based present which will develop into a dys/utopic future in response to the actions and choices of ordinary, oppressed people today. But the choices of this particular person, Connie, are inspired by her contact with the future.
The lifeways of Luciente’s utopia are shown to Connie and discussed with her in a series of visits. She learns about ecology, alternative family structures, honoring of madness, fluid gender roles and displays, self-esteem and self-knowledge, healing touch, the sharing of biological roles that had been solely women’s (children are not live born, and men can nurse them), genetics ("appropriate" use of), ethnic and cultural diversity (diversity is maintained but is detached from "race"), economics (there is little private property), community, parenting (by three "co-mothers" of either biological sex), negotiated relationships with plants and animals, rites of passage (children choose their own names and leave their parents young), the dignity of work, deconstruction of hierarchy (rotating jobs and positions), appropriate technology, aging, the honoring of differing abilities, practical education (learning by doing with adults), evil, sex and sexuality, government (by consensus), competition (in fun and games) versus cooperation (in everything else), shared luxuries (items are checked out of a library), art’s intrinsic social role, and the place and function of emotion – Luciente’s world is an exhaustive catalog of thoughtful and complex alternatives to social ills. It’s presented in layered descriptions and a breezy futurespeak:
"Zo, are we running to crack the new test today or not?" A sharp voice rose from her wrist. "We’re limping with Bee off till three and Luciente off till who knows when."
"Flying," White Oak sighed. "Since coordinating this six, Corydora watches the clock as if it could couple with her!"
"No slinging mates. Corydora’s doing a good job," Luciente said. "Even if person does try to hand me guilt on a plate about being called up for the time proj. Too bad you lugs have to stiff it twice as hard." (Piercy 116)
As Connie spends more and more time in this utopia, the initial empathy that opened her to contact deepens and strengthens, so that Luciente and her friends become Connie’s new family, intimate and mutually supportive. She would like to stay there, but although she can taste the food she eats, it doesn’t nourish her. However, this is no obstacle to lovemaking, which due to time travelling, turns out to be an ethereal menage á trois: "Once more night gave her a big, generous mouth on her arched throat, her breasts burning like bonfires, her belly rolling under his hands …" (Piercy 181). But, Connie wonders, how can she be having this moment without the link Luciente provides? She can’t. Bee explains:
His knuckles gently trailed across her cheek. "How not? How else could we be together?"
She sat up straight and clutched the cover around herself. "Aware of us … in bed?"
"Pepper and salt, don’t be silly. We all care for you. But you’re of a society with many taboos. It’s easier for me to hold you for all of us." (Piercy 181)
In contrast, Connie’s brief visit to dystopia reveals a world in which dominance and subjugation are the staples, and all sex is purchased. Except for a few ancient "richies" who live off planet, everyone plays one of three rigid roles: they are chemically altered into Barbies and awarded a series of brief sex contracts, after which they are sent to the organ bank that maintains the longevity of the "richies;" they are members of the bureaucracy who are rewarded with the Barbies; or, they are cyborg/eunuchs who police the whole shebang and are undyingly loyal to the "multis."
As Connie’s education in these alternative futures proceeds, her contemporary situation gets worse and worse, in a downward spiral that was set in motion before her time traveling began. She undergoes brutality at the hands of lovers, husbands, family, society, and ultimately, a mental hospital; whatever form of oppression she herself doesn’t endure is embodied in other inmates. Thus current ills are just as exhaustively developed as the utopia, and both are described with gut-wrenching skill.
It seems as if Piercy’s virtuosic imagination leaves little work for our own imaginations -- things inexorably, grindingly, progress -- that is, until the final episodes, in which tension between the present and the future culminate in Connie’s personal declaration of war. She has been inspired to strive for survival and freedom by her contact with utopia, and discovers that to gain it, she must be willing to kill. But she gains only a very slight and possibly temporary victory.
What will happen to her? And thus to the future?
At the end of the book, Piercy finally opens the door to irresolution, opens a space into which we must proactively step. If we have been lulled by her explicit style so far, this can be jarring. But it is part and parcel of her brilliantly structured strategy. At the heart of this strategy is the paradoxical potential of empathy as a form of resistance. Until the last sentences, empathy has seemed somewhat of a literary device, but at the shock of the indeterminate ending, we realize that our own empathy has been fully engaged by Connie’s story. In the last few succinct sentences of the book, Piercy places the responsibility for the future squarely in the readers’ hands. If we, like Connie, have previously felt that we had little choice (within the relentless and explicit text), we now find that, like Connie, we are ourselves co-creating a future in response to our choices, beginning with how we choose to imagine the rest of Connie’s story.
Several decades later, in Parable of the Talents, Octavia Butler takes up the task with which Piercy ended Woman on the Edge of Time. Her futuristic protagonist, Olamina, struggling in a dangerous dystopia, has a hyperempathy syndrome that she bears as a result of her mother’s drug addiction: "To be a sharer is to feel the pleasure and pain -- the apparent pleasure and the apparent pain -- of other people" (Butler 254).
Butler shows us that when we are attacked, there is a moment at which, if the potential for utilizing anger in self-defense has been immobilized by violence or circumstances, we can either repress our feelings, numbing ourselves as a form of protection, or remain fully alive to all our feelings. Hyperempaths are faced with this excruciating moment, but without the choice of numbness. If we were to remain fully alive to our feelings, they would include empathy, and produce the double pain of the hyperempath which Olamina endures; that is, we would, like her, experience both our own pain and the pain of the aggressor's "pleasure."
Olamina experiences this chilling combination upon being raped. But empathy for one’s rapist is so repulsively counterintuitive that Butler uses the device of a medical disorder to introduce this almost unthinkable notion to us. Despite ourselves, she enlarges our possibilities; although we are not Olamina, her experience inserts another choice into consciousness for our consideration. Butler emphasizes the idea that the implementation of aggression against "othered" humans requires a repression of empathy. Connie too experiences this; while she is at war, she finds it difficult to reach Luciente.
When Olamina’s narrative of rape is concluded, Butler moves to an Earthseed verse: "Self is. Self is body and bodily. Self is thought, memory, belief. Self creates. Self destroys. Self learns, discovers, becomes. Self shapes. Self adapts. Self invents its own reasons for being. To shape God, shape self" (Butler 257). Thus Butler situates us in the body, attributes power to bodily knowing, and, through the raped body of the hyperempathic Olamina, redefines possibilities of selfhood to include bodily knowing of both self and other. In this way she raises the concept of empathy as a possible response to border violations.
How do Olamina’s possibilities compare to Connie’s declaration of war? Unlike Piercy, Butler does not rouse us to action with an indeterminate ending. Instead, she shows us Olamina’s successful future. Is it in spite of, or because of hyperempathy that Olamina was able to survive bodily, and thus survive to negotiate a position of power and security in society, the body politic?
Perhaps hyperempathy is not a far-fetched fiction, but an exaggeration. The choice to stay alive to the complexity of the whole can be seen as an act of resistance. Refusal to respond to violation with either emotional self-violation or retaliation can be seen as a refusal to use "the master’s tools" to "dismantle the master’s house" (Sister Outsider, Audre Lorde 110).
Piercy shows us that Connie’s education to alternatives, her only hope for changing a hopeless present into a hopeful future, arises through her empathy. Piercy, through Connie, wins our empathy, and positions us as active participants in the co-creation of the future. Perhaps Butler, by presenting hyperempathic Olamina in her hypertroubled world, wishes to add that in a world rife with desensitization and transgression of boundaries, empathy can be, in and of itself, an empowering form of resistance, motivating actions that facilitate survival and thus, the possibility of negotiating justice and peace.
By Menoukha Case, interdisciplinary artist
Franz Wright is one of the leading poets of his generation. With a distinctive voice and sensibility, he ventures places other writers are unwilling or unable to go. Wright has been the recipient of a Guggenheim, a Whiting Fellowship, two fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, and the PEN/Voelcker Award for Poetry.
The Library Journal describes Wright's latest collection, The Beforelife (2001) - which won the Voelcker Award for Poetry/International PEN in 1996 - as "Intriguing and always accessible, with no 'irrelevant/lies,' this book will expand the audience for poetry by showing readers that, in spite of stunning obstacles, it is always possible to live." Kirkus Reviews notes that "In these short meditations of anguish and hope, Wright achieves the clarity of seeing hard won wisdom." Ernest Hilbert says "The humor may be bitter and even regretful, but it is compassionate and self-effacing. He[Wright] drives the lyric form to its limit … [and emphasizes] the paradox and irony that underlie our most sincere endeavors." In this collection, Wright journeys from the world that lies between madness and sanity, addiction and recovery, from a place of isolation and wordlessness "to health in a state of skeptical rapture" (Random House, see link below). Given the concerns of the book - depression, alcoholism, drug abuse, low self-esteem - the art becomes a testimony to life, writing is life-affirming.
While reading The Beforelife, it becomes clear that each poem is integral to the creation of the book, as if the book is a long poem, each individual poem a separate sub-section. That is, from the poem "Written With a Baseball Bat-Sized Pencil" we get "You can meet them all/ here, these are the people/ who aren't coming back," about being in an institution. This is integral to the "I was/ having a fairly nice time/ for a cockroach// in a psychiatrist's kitchen" from "The Midnight Snack." This, in turn, builds to "My dad beat me with his belt/ for my edification and further// improvement and later that other/ stranger took over// … which both learned from their fathers// … from Plato's cave// to Darwin's - …/ So that's how it is done" in "Primogenture." In this particular poem the speaker ends with an assertion that he will never hit a child. This personal oath stands surrounded by a history of fathers beating sons, "from Plato's cave// to Darwin's," making the comment not solely a personal claim, but a societal critique. Many more parts of life contribute to this state of not-living-yet, of depression, of before-life. These include experiences of slander, the "kissy little knives" in the poem "Slander," and an apology for an abortion in "I'm Sorry," as well as many other memories and moments.
Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Donald Justice describes Ill Lit: Selected and New Poems (1998), as "a terrific book by a terrific poet. Never has any poet, anywhere, been so dark-minded and at the same time so almost playful, so childlike about it all. A unique and major talent." Poet Denis Johnson says, "These poems break me, they're like tiny jewels shaped by blunt, ruined fingers - miraculous gifts." Writing in Rain Taxi (online edition, Winter 1998, see link below), Brett Ralph describes Wright's work as "obliterating the boundaries of the inner and outer worlds, self and other, art and life. Wright's work oscillates between these poles." In some ways, such oscillations reveal the artificiality of such dichotomies. I'd say that exclusion is a human commonality. All our particular pain can be understood by other people because they have had pain, too, which is why readers can appreciate Wright's poems of severe isolation and alienation. Such a poem is "Entry In an Unknown Hand," which exemplifies the terror of daily living, the exhaustion of it:
And still nothing happens. I am not arrested.The poem swings from paranoia to an exhausted respect for the great amount of energy life requires. It is a desperate poem, but one with a sense of humor.
Wright has published more than a dozen books, including Rorschach Test (1995), The Night World and the Word Night (1992), And Still the Hand Will Sleep in Its Glass Ship (1990), Entry in an Unknown Hand (1989), and an expanded edition of translations entitled The Unknown Rilke (1990). Franz Wright is the son of poet James Wright; his wife, Elizabeth Oehlkers Wright, is a poet and translator.
Top of Page
Internationally acclaimed Adam Zagajewski has been described as the "preeminent Polish poet of his generation," and as "one of the most interesting poets of his generation writing in any language." A poet, essayist, and fiction writer, Zagajewski divides his time between Paris, where he is co-editor of Zeszyty literackie, and Houston, Texas. Zagajewski has published ten books of poetry, four of which have been translated into English, Tremors: Selected Poems (1985), Canvas (1991), Mysticism for Beginners (1997), and Without End (2002). Three of his five collections of essays are also available in English: Solidarity, Solitude (1990), Two Cities: On Exile, History, ad the Imagination (2002), and Another Beauty (2002), which is sometimes described as a memoir. Zagajewski has written three novels, which have been translated into German, but are not yet available in English.
Zagajewski was born in what is now the Ukraine, and spent his youth in Krakow, Poland. In 1982 he settled in Paris, and since 1988 has been an Associate Professor teaching a poetry workshop and a literature course every Spring semester at the University of Houston in Texas. Adam Zagajewski has won a Guggenheim Fellowship for Poetry, a Prix de la Liberté (Paris), the Kurt Tucholsky Prize (Stockholm), and a fellowship form the Berliner Kunstlerprogramm.
Another Beauty (2002), translated by Clare Cavanaugh, is Adam Zagajewski's most recent book. It is an essay, a memoir and a meditation: a monologue that has the familiarity and approachability of a conversation. It is a conversation with a poet about his student days in Krakow after World War II, poetry, music, Polish destruction of German cemeteries, the search for joy/wholeness/beauty. As a descendant of Polish, Lithuanian, and Ukrainian immigrants, I was particularly struck by traits I thought peculiar to my American family – a sensation probably familiar to other descendants of immigrants reading authors from their ethnic background. "Sonofabitch" was a term of endearment, exclamation, and curse on my mother's side of the family, and appears to be the favorite curse of the drunks Zagajewski heard on the streets of Krakow (36). Hoarding every piece of string, paper bag, worn-out towel and broken chair continues to be done by my parents and grandparents; Zagajewski's relatives keep old refrigerators, three deep (60-1). Drinking too much is, perhaps, too prevalent to be claimed by any one ethnic group, but I like to think that there is a particular mix of gloom and stubbornness in Polish drinking, a defensiveness about one's right to grieve as if even that can be taken away.
This book is not broken into chapters, or divided up. There are, occasionally, inch long solid lines at the end of some paragraphs to indicate more of a break, but usually the shifts in thought, or the additions to thought done by adding other anecdotes, observations, or information, are indicated by having large white spaces between these shifts.
Moments of revelation are like boundary stones, separated by several hundred yards of no-man's-land. The poet experiences an epiphany in setting down the key line of his latest poem. But days, weeks, even months of shadow stretch between these moments of majestic clarity. And here the poet plays the historian's role, sharing not just his ecstatic humanity with his readers but his dull, dreary, doubting humanity as well.
I'm strolling through Paris. Neither children nor cats pay the slightest attention to me as I mumble bitterly under my breath. This is the emigrant's lot. Suddenly I burst out laughing, at myself, at my own exaltation. The children stop short, the cats beat a hasty retreat.
Our spiritual life is shaped by alternating currents of exaltation and demystification. Since we're now in a period of universal demysticization, we should expect a return to religious dogmatism in the foreseeable future. Which would place me in an awkward situation; I prefer opposing decadence to butting heads with fundamentalists.
"…You will never love art well, till you love what she mirrors better."
This doesn't mean that art, and poetry with it, are simply a mirror held up to reality, as the advocates of realism would have it. No, Ruskin has something else in mind: that art springs from the most profound admiration for the world, both seen and unseen. (And also that it isn't just for aesthetes.)
I like writers and philosophers who know how to rebel against themselves. For example, when someone asked Maurice Barrès near the end of his life what action he was most ashamed of, he said, "That I always voted for my own part." Barrès, an ardent nationalist, nonetheless remarked in Mes cahiers that "nationalism manque d'infini" – "nationalism lacks infinity." (29-30)
This meditation invariably, and not surprisingly, comes to poetry, again and again. In her foreword "The Wisdom Project," Susan Sontag unabashedly cites poetry as the supreme form of writing: "It is, to be sure, something of a misnomer to call Zagajewski a writer: a poet who also writes indispensable prose does not thereby forfeit the better title." There is an associative, evocative quality about Another Beauty, as well as quick shifts that turn the direction of the book but stay related to the topic, which lets the reader know she is reading a poet.
Without End: New and Selected Poems (2002) is Zagajewski's latest collection of poems translated into English and contains both a selection of new, current work, plus a section entitled "Early Poems (1970-1975) (translated by Clare Cavanaugh)" and selections from the previous English publications: Tremor (1985), translated by Renata Gorczynski, and Canvas (1991) translated by Renata Gorczynski, Benjamin Ivry, and C.K. Williams, and Mysticism for Beginners (1997) translated by Clare Cavanaugh. Since it was Gorczynski who translated the earlier collections, it is interesting, to those intrigued by the art of translation, to see how Cavanaugh handles these early poems. It's especially interesting to see, side-by-side, Cavanaugh's and Gorczynski's versions of the poem "Another Beauty" which Sontag includes in her foreword (xix - xx) to Another Beauty (2002). (The poem originally appeared in Tremor under the title "In the Beauty Created By Others.") The translations, and hence the poems, are different. How similar they are, perhaps, is most striking. The differences in word choice and line breaks provides an indication of how poetry opens up to the world, indicates how many possibilities there are for different ways of saying the same thing. This is, of course, the dilemma and art of the translator. It's particularly ironic to consider translation in this poem "Another Beauty" as the poem's speaker considers how "Every "he" / is a betrayal of a certain "you" /"[Gorczynski] and ends with the "calm conversation," the "Salvation," which comes in "other's poems" [Cavanaugh]. How "other" is a poem in translation, the reader is left to wonder.
Reading Mysticism for Beginners (1997) creates another kind of wonder in the reader. Zagajewski has "picked-up the mantle of mystical, Catholic Romanticism offered by Herbert and Milosz" writes Publishers Weekly, citing his "loose, abstract, dreamy lyrics" in its description of Without End. No where is this better exampled than in Mysticism for Beginners (1997).
The poems "A Quick Poem," "September," "Mysticism for Beginners," "The Three Kings," "Dutch Painters," "Postcards," and "Shell" are stellar, hitting the reader with taut images, deft shifts, and an amalgamation of detail that builds to a sigh. Simon Moss, writing in the Houston Chronicle, states that Zagajewski's poems "exhibit wonderfully slightly self-deprecating irony in insights, observations and notations in which the familiar intertwines in surprising ways." An examination of "A Quick Poem" will serve to demonstrate this.
The poem begins with the speaker listening to Gregorian Chants while he drives
on a highway in France.
We're in France with a Polish poet listening to Latin chants: this pulls in a world of European history, ancient and modern. It creates an implied comparison of the secular to the spiritual. The calm of the singers is juxtaposed with the pointless speed and angst of the speaker, "Where was I going?" and "My life … brittle as a paper map." That this map is tattered and "on both sides of the road" is both indicative of a sense of being worn out and of the inability to become whole and useful again.
The speaker goes on to present a short list of differences between himself and the monks. The monks have "walls," "vigil," "remembrance," and "hymn" to the speaker's "sheet metal," "flight," "travel," and "quick poem." Is it enough? Is a secular poem comparable to hymns of devotion? The "sweet monks" seem to have it all calmly in place, until one remembers the minor key of Gregorian Chants, the quality of lament, which is not unlike the "night, widow of so many dreams" the speaker experiences. And "a quick poem" is a good thing, mystical, a lament yet a testimony to continuing.