Friday, May 29, 2015

Class conflict & reading Henry James and Malcolm X

After 5 1/2 months of no posts, this sudden appearance of a long piece might seem odd. I simply want to post it, and I have no other place that seems appropriate. Do not feel obliged to read it, oh dear and old friends! If it interests you, then by all means, please do! :)

Please understand that I do not see African Americans as the only oppressed ones!

* * *

How can a person read The Autobiography of Malcolm X for the first time and a novel by Henry James, concurrently? Of course it's possible to simply read the words on the page, to continue with one's program of reading through all of James's lush 19th century novels about Americans and Europeans in sequence, and to also read the story of one of America's tragically eloquent sons who found himself at the bottom of society's ladder, the same ladder where James's characters enjoy a leisurely view from the uppermost rungs. But reading is not simply traversing. It is pleasure. It is also acquisition, assimilation, reflection, and answering a desire to understand.
The next novel in my reading-through-James program after starting Malcolm X's autobiography was The Princess Casamassima. I had encountered the mercurial title character in James’s previous novel Roderick Hudson, and while that book presented characters from opposite ends of America's and Europe's class structures, it still reveled in the delights of long leisurely months exploring Rome and Venice by individuals who didn’t lift a finger to earn their keep. Only slightly did James ask me to sympathize with someone poor — the artist Roderick Hudson — who nonetheless was endowed by a wealthy American friend, thus able to sustain a dissipating life.

Out of desire and shame, I had also begun reading through a list of African American must-reads. I had gotten my bachelor’s in English literature before diversity lit was required as it is rather universally today, and since I advise students in the same department where I earned my degree, my sense of this reading gap grew until I just had to bridge it. I began with Zora Neal Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God and then The Color Purple by Alice Walker. My intention was to read one AA book, then another James novel, and keep alternating through the lists. Please don’t judge me for my tardiness.

I tried, tried and tried again to dive into The Princess Casamassima while immersed in Malcolm X's story, he who was raised so close to where I live, in Lansing and then in mostly-white Mason, Michigan, in the home of a foster family. He moved on to a dreadful but fascinating life on the streets of New York and Boston to, in his words, find “some kind of hustle to survive” and “to stay high in some way to forget what [we] had to do to survive.“ I kept telling myself in opposing parts of my brain that there is great value in James’s writing, reminding myself of the many times I had already been informed by the thought processes of his characters. Weighing pros and cons in complicated situations in my job or personal life, I kept turning to him, like a counseling friend or professor. But the lifestyle, the wealth beyond imagining, the goods and comforts and delights of the upper crust! How could I reconcile these with the violence, poverty and systemic obstruction of black people in my country, suppressed beneath even the poorest white folks, treated as less than human?
Whatever I told myself, I just couldn’t stomach it. It wasn’t only that I tried reading them together. It was that I was asking myself to resolve the distinctions, to bridge them in meaningful ways, to live with them, because I recognized myself as a person born to white privilege in a context of still-horrifying racial conflict.

While this reading struggle took place, massive protests in Baltimore were erupting over the death of Freddie Gray at the hands of the police. Simultaneously with Malcom’s description of the death of a black Harlem man after police shot him in 1943, I read media coverage of the same country in 2015 rising to fever pitch over the same abusive police practices in Ferguson, New York, Baltimore, and virtually everywhere else. How could anyone believe that much has changed?

Then one night in bed with my iPad Kindle app I got past the first few pages of The Princess Casamassima and realized that the hero of the novel, Hyacinth Robinson, is dirt poor. Not only that, the novel is actually about the remarkable class struggles in England mid-19th century, and how the Princess Casamassima becomes involved. (I refuse to read summaries of these books before reading, because of spoilers.) Here was a topic congruous with the struggles of Malcolm X!

The truth is, like James’s hero, poor Hyacinth Robinson, I love living vicariously in the cool, sophisticated salons of wealthy aristocrats. Gorgeous art, polished furniture, windows the size of walls opening out onto serene lawns, bibelots arranged on tables that cost a common man’s annual wages, rustling silk, shuffling servants — I find it all bedazzling. When the Princess Casamassima renounces her monumental possessions and turns to a London ghetto homestead for the cause of a rebellion against nobility, I feel a certain pleasure flicker and fade. Now whose splendor will sparkle through the rest of the book’s pages? Am I kidding myself that I want to read James for his characters’ wise and deep critical thinking processes? Am I really more smitten with their private landscapes, vast halls dressed in mirrors and paintings, their delicate teacups, spotless gloves and elegant manners?

I have not finished either book. I interject these reflections as a sort of album of snapshots mid-way. I just read a lovely piece by Adrian Nicole Leblanc in The New Yorker about the photographer Mary Ellen Mark, who just died. The author's perspective reminded me of my own feelings reading the books I write about here. Is it possible to live in a world of ugliness, poverty, shame, degradation, violence, and find humor and warmth as photographer Mark did, to bring elegant thought and beautiful egoless observation and action into scenes of tragedy?

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Winter comes, with heat

I’m just home from an icy drive
and the first arctic blast has frozen
the floor through the crawl space.
I sit in the big old robe
with socked and blanketed
feet on the ottoman.
My husband is working late.
In the corner, the wood stove
reaches for me with aromatic heat
as if I am the one craved.
On top, the last of the chicken soup,
that final glow of chili and garlic,
tomatoes deep and bright, flickering
onions, all velvet on my tongue now.
Inside, flashes of mystery—
red finger-snapping oak  
erupting instantly
from crusty ash, flames
beating at the window
with lust. And something
else I cannot fathom
about desire: my hands
cradling this bowl,
just right not too hot,
and splayed in the soup
two thigh bones and a knuckle,
surrendered for me, to me,
and my pleasure in this death.

Sunday, October 26, 2014


We are at the cider mill, which has become a massive festival of blow-up toys and pay-as-you-go corrals, the sale of cider, doughnuts and apples apparently insufficient.

The two babies are happy to be outside on their mommies' bosoms in identical, identifiable Ergo carriers, blissfully unaware of economics. 

Distancing ourselves from the festival of apples and pumpkins, we go for a walk on a path along the woods. James, two and a half, straddles Grandpa's shoulders. Grandpa plucks a hickory nut from a tree. "Look, this is a hickory nut, James." 

James takes and throws it indignantly back into the woods. "That is not our own!"

Then Grandpa breaks a small dead branch off a tree and hands it to James, now on the ground, to walk with. Instantly James throws it back. "That is not our own!"

The grassy road undulates ahead, woods on the left, a field of corn on the right. Grandpa picks an ear of dry corn and hands it to James. "That is not our own!" and he throws it back. Grandpa goes and picks up the corn where it landed. "Maybe you can just carry it a while and throw it back later."

And so he begins to eat the dried, borrowed corn. 

Monday, October 6, 2014

Arranging stones: poems and quilts

A tiny airliner
crosses the sky,
without sound.

I type one
more word
on the page
and the seam closes.

Indian muslin
sewn to
French toile
means that pale young boys
play with a dog
in a beautiful garden
of dark-leafed paisley.

We pry
stones apart
just wide enough
to let another thing

and with all
that is in our power
sew them

this scar
that is