Maggie Nelson, The Argonauts

Can’t tell you how moved I am by this book. Opens my head and heart and spirit and helps me to love the great bawling mess of meat and lust and loss and peace all at once I am. I hope it speaks to my students also. Assigned it because they are, as a body, far more engaged with and alert to questions of gender, identity, fluidity, than I, and I wanted a book that would meet and maybe challenge us all there.

We’ll see how it goes next week. I’m guessing it will. Here are the assignments I put together for my creative nonfiction students this morning.

Journal no. 1

On page 5 Nelson makes the first reference to her book’s title. “Just as the Argo’s parts may be replaced over time but the boat is still called the Argo, whenever the lover utters the phrase ‘I love you,’ its meaning must be renewed by each use.” So we have an image of a voyaging entity that changes in all its parts and yet persists under a single name. And Nelson has named her book, not for the boat, but for those who voyage on it. What is she saying (proposing, hazarding, trying out) about love here? Is the image of the Argo, the Argonaut, applicable to anything else in or about the book?

Journal no. 2

The content of The Argonauts affirms fluidity over binaries and rigid categories – continuities. Gender is fluid. Eros itself is fluid, bonding lover to lover, parent to child, human to animal. Meanwhile the form of the book is full of discontinuities. Every time we move from one collage element to another, we leap across a gap. (Often even within a collage element, there are gaps to be leapt.) What do you make of this difference between the book’s content and its form? How might it serve Nelson’s purposes?

Writing no. 1

Begin a collage essay by writing two discrete (they need not be discreet) collage elements. Each can be about whatever you like, but they should be substantively different from each other, in content, technique, tone, theme, and/or diction. The differences between them should be alive – you, we, should feel a pulse of curiosity or excitement or WTF as we move from the one to the other. If you don’t feel that excitement, start over, because you’re not going to want to keep working with this material.  ¶ Other pointers. Remember the distinction between scene and exposition. When you’re doing scene, use your arsenal of fiction-writing techniques; rely on concrete significant details; embody your meanings in acts and events. When you’re doing exposition, avoid banal generalities, make your thinking interesting, fresh, alive, your own. Feel free to tear a page from Nelson and incorporate found materials – Deleuze, Irigaray, Plato, Lady Gaga.

An answer to a killing

Writ by my dear friend Barbara Nickel:

Sometimes I have loved the peacefulness of an ordinary Sunday. It is like standing in a newly planted garden after a warm rain. You can feel the silent and invisible life. All it needs from you is that you take care not to trample it.  

That’s John Ames, Congregationalist minister, narrator of Marilynne Robinson’s novel Gilead.

I love John Ames as I’ve never loved a fictional character; I sat at his feet and listened to his gentle voice. Not one to push himself to the front of a crowd and trumpet his views, John Ames; approaching death, he wants his sermons burned. (“The deacons could arrange it. There are enough to make a good fire. I’m thinking here of hot dogs and marshmallows, something to celebrate the first snow.”) I wish his voice haunting the ear of the gunman in Quebec before he fired at the praying men. You take care not to trample. The silent and invisible life of prayer, care not to trample, the three-year-old with his father at prayer.

Care is not to trample. Her whole post here.

Trump and the Diamond Sutra (I)

Worst case seems to be our case. Men of great sudden power – worldly power, outer power, power a manifestly decrepit political process has bestowed on them – are telling the media they are enemy and should just shut up. Are reinstituting torture at secret sites overseas. Are abhorring abortion abroad to placate a domestic audience though that jacks up illegal unsafe abortions in the Third World, and deaths by. Are waving threats of no-more-money at cities havening immigrants doing work few else want to and their DACA children, some my own very students. Oh if I keep listing I’ll never be done. The Constitution, frail bulwark, cries to think what comes next.

I’m not a marcher. Don’t like slogans, crowds, group thought. Guess I could suspend that, and may, for the import of opposing. Cuz this is real real bad.

Want to know what inner power is. Have started reading the Diamond Sutra again, Red Pine’s translation, thought I touched something in these lines:

After crossing his legs and adjusting his body, he turned his awareness to what was before him.

At the start of the sutra. Don’t feel qualified to comment on them, but what I hear is, the Buddha is in a body. And wholly in it. He needs to attend to it and knows it. Maybe his knee hurts, so he adjusts. He was out in the city begging for his one meal, walking barefoot, he’s an old guy by now, maybe his knee or his insole hurts. He adjusts his body. Doesn’t blame anyone for his discomfort, just does what he can to lessen it, and moves along. No arrogance.

No blame. Turns his care to what needs looking after – what was before him. Is human, not a god, not omniscient, it takes a choice and a turn to locate his mind here, in mindfulness. But he can, and because he’s love, he does.

What answer does this offer to Trump, at the apparent dawn of proto-fascism in a capital empty of competent political opposition? I think maybe none.

Nor am I helping the petitioners, demonstrators, agitators, and such, whom I admire lots and am glad for greatly but find I am not one of, much.

The only answer I know to the sickness of outer power is cultivation of inner power. I have not heard a resonant response to the ill spreading among us anywhere except in buddhadharma. Which I don’t understand, and tells me nothing specific about how to act.

And, too, I reject quietism.

Thus astray, as I dive into the Diamond Sutra, I may post a few of my misprisions here. Will share by tweet in case lonely sleepless sad POTUS eavesdrops.


NEXT DAY. This post started to turn to crap. Had I had a beer too many? (Been through a breakup, second time round with the same o so lovely heartful hurted beloved, some beers is cheery to me.) Maybe I just lost the bead.

“Group thought,” that’s out, everything I’ve heard about the Women’s Marches, they were astonishing harmonious various, true response, right action.

“I have not heard …,” that out. Soon as I said it, started hearing fierce meaningful responses all over. L. in Portland sent this from HuffPo on ethnographic blogging, its quilting of irreducibly multiple voices, as resistance to the One Voice of the State. Adam Gopnik’s annoying fondness for the sleek epigram has transmuted under a new pressure to become a majestic voice of true opposition. He wrote this in the New Yorker, from which a taste:

Whenever there is an authoritarian coup rooted in an irrational ideology, well-meaning people insist that it can’t persist because the results are going to be so obviously bad for the people who believe in it, whether it’s the theocratic revolution in Iran or the first truly autocratic Administration in America. Tragically, terribly, this is never the way it works. There is no political cost for Trump in being seen to be incompetent, impulsive, shallow, inconsistent, and contemptuous of truth and reason. Those are his politics. This is how he achieved power. His base loves craziness, incompetence, and contempt for reason because sanity, competence, and the patient accumulation of evidence are things that allow educated people to pretend that they are superior. Resentment comes before reason.

And this in the Sun, which arrived today, its dawn offering

Let America Be America Again
Langston Hughes

Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.

(America was never America to me.)

Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed –
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.

(It was never America to me.)

Ironies multiply and compound. The whole poem here.

Could be said, these are buddhadharma, yo? A sutra‘s what stitches you up.

I just – I just – I don’t know how to turn acts of mind, poems and posts, to act acts. I want to knock a government down. What use, following my breath?

John Berger, 1927-2017

And now John Berger gone. Who’s had more power and sway over my grown mind than any other. A whole man, upstanding.

This from his essay on the Chauvet Cave:

We have no word for this darkness. It is not night and it is not ignorance. From time to time we all cross this darkness, seeing everything: so much everything that we can distinguish nothing. You know it, Marisa, better than I. It’s the interior from which everything came.

The meaning there is, nothing is lost. And yet what a loss.

His love for the world shone in the care of the balance of each syllable.

Not a word he wrote was not about, in, and of, intimacy.

 

Exercise: Mythtime, mythworld

Their writing exercise for this week, and it’s a tough one:

Write a poem that taps into myth consciousness. Pointers. Not literary myth consciousness, Hera, Zeus, Leda and the swan, that sentimental crap. The myth consciousness of Ghandl’s poems, all the world potentially sentient, stuffed with spirit beings. Awe, wonder, the sacred breaking down the door. To help that happen – no names of any gods or goddesses.

That would be Ghandl of the Qayahl Llaanas, classical Haida mythteller, in Robert Bringhurst’s translation.1 

Tough for students for whom Thor is a Marvel Superhero. I try to get across that the Greek and Norse gods of popular imagination are attenuated forms – you have to go back to Sappho at least, the Homeric hymns, to get a whiff of the sacred those forms were to their makers. Don’t know if I get my point across very well.

I say, when we talk about mythtime in Ghandl, that’s not only a distant past – it’s also just under the skin of this moment. Other cultures call it dreamtime. It’s what people take hallucinogenic drugs to get to. When you wake from a dream supercharged with with meaning – that’s myth consciousness.

Write a poem from that place.

How I put it in an e-mail to a student wanting to retell an Arthurian story:

The key to the assignment is to tap into myth consciousness. The state of mind that finds an enlarged significance in anything it pays close attention to. In Ghandl’s stories that enlarged significance is expressed as spirit beings and metamorphoses – how a bird skin can turn out to be weather, or a wife can be revealed as a cloud. In Greek myths, originally, that enlarged significance got expressed as “Zeus,” or “Aphrodite,” divine beings that embodied something awesome and terrifying – sacred – about being in the world.

But those myths have long since been attenuated, turned to literature, pretty stories. So I think have the Arthurian legends (which are legends, not myths, there’s a difference, though also some overlap). So it might be hard for you to tap into myth consciousness retelling one of those stories, whether or not you use the names.

I’m not going to tell you not to do it though; I’d sort of rather you didn’t retell anyone else’s story, but if you’re keen on this one, it’s not my business to stop you. Do apply this test to your poem though: Does it express wonderment? Not second-hand wonderment, coopted from the story you’re retelling, but your own, discovered in your encounter with the material.

The trick? The emoji on our iPhones, the Pokemon chars they spent a while chasing after, they too’s attenuated forms of that. We’re still after scraps of awe. Some of them are called metaphors.

A sorry nostalgic chase, I say, when leaves, wind, rain, sun, deer 953.

photo-23


1. Around which controversy skirled awhile. Whether Bringhurst had the right to. Whether those who said he didn’t spoke for the whole Haida people or no. I feel tender, tentative, around it all, but from what I can tell, Ghandl knew what he were up to, when he sold and told his stories to John Swanton, an anthropologist committed (unlike most – astonishing) to transcribing the stories he heard word for word. Was Ghandl coerced just the same? His culture was in grave peril. He could have had his stories die with him – perhaps let many to. He also, for reasons we can’t ask him, chose to sow this killing culture with seeds that flourish even today. Though the book‘s out of print.

Rape culture / Peace on earth

When the truth comes it comes to the body. My limbs go tense suddenly, electric. Arms ready to punch or flail but there’s no one to punch or flail so they stay still. Thighs and calves tight, prepped, coiled, but what to run from? I’m leaning back on the couch, cat on my lap as I read the news on my laptop, what threat? Why has my attention gone taut? But it has – everything at the periphery has grown larger, brighter. Word for it is hypervigilance. Tears leak from my eye holes.

The trigger is the opening of an article in the NYT:

“Women: tweet me your first assaults,” [Kelly Oxford] wrote on Twitter at 7:48 p.m. “They aren’t just stats. I’ll go first: Old man on city bus grabs my ‘pussy’ and smiles at me, I’m 12.”

Why does this break through me when DT’s own words, I could, with SNL, hold at a distance, laugh off? Because I thought I heard in them his death knell? Because no victim was audible in them? Because here there’s a child?

What’s empathy anyway? Where are its edges?

There’d been signs my empathy was blocked. “Oh, this is good, he’s bound to lose now.” “Yeah but guys just talk like that.” (Do we? really?) “How is this worse that all the other shit he’s said?” (Okay, fair question – incitement to assassination?!) Happens when I don’t want to feel something through, till it breaks through.

Here’s it breaking through:

“I won’t give details, but I was 12, and he went to jail,” Emily Willingham, a writer, posted on Twitter.

and

Sasha Stone, an entertainment journalist, told of being forced to perform oral sex on a man “after he offered me a ride home and then threatened me. I was 14.”

and

Wendy Luxenburg, 45, a hospital administrator in Chicago, recalled being in a Florida department store with her mother: “She was an aisle away. Man walks by me, rubbed by crotch. I was 11.”

and

And the actress Amber Tamblyn wrote on Instagram of being accosted at a nightclub by an ex-boyfriend who grabbed her by the hair and, with his other hand, lifted her by her vagina, bruising her badly, and “carried me, like something he owned, like a piece of trash, out of the club.”

and

“Grabbed from behind on the street. Thought it was my fault because I was wearing a dress,” Lynne Boschee, 50, of Phoenix, wrote on Twitter. “Never told anyone. I was 14.”

I hope this would break my heart and inflame my fury even if nothing such had happened to me. But it did also happen to me, and so I want also to say, it happens to men and boys, too. That’s where the taut limbs and the tears come from. Trauma is an equal-opportunity demon. Gail Sheehy has a good piece in Politico about how Trump is rousing terror and post-traumatic stress in ethnic minorities and vets and LGBTQ folks and their therapists alike.

I’ve been listening tonight, because curative, to Arvo Pärt’s Fratres, and reading John Taggart’s “Peace on Earth”:

To lift to lift up to lift without
effort to sing tene
to relax the circling rays to
stand still that the citizens of my city
may be drawn as with visible
chains to this splendor splendor of coronation
that they may see the shape of
the dance that they may see the lily-flower.

Carol heart’s ease ring of flower’s thought.

To lift up bones in the lily-flower dance
in the flower’s leaf ranged around
leaf splendid
bones and leaves as petals curled around each other.

Peace to you, brother, sister.

Heather for president

I find this paragraph beautiful:

Whenever Heather entered a patient’s home for the first time, she knew that she was walking into a long, long, complicated story that she understood nothing about, a story that was just then reaching its final crisis. She was extra alert on those first visits, extra careful, trying to figure out what was going on – the conflicts and rivalries between members of the family, tension over who wasn’t doing enough, who was doing too much, unresolved bitterness, and nearly always grief and anxiety and fretting about how to take care of the patient and what to do.

–Larissa MacFarquhar, “The Threshold”

It’s about being a hospice nurse, but dial down the stakes some, and it’s what it feels like to enter a classroom, not knowing what the nexus of needs is, but knowing there is one, feeling the strands of the web of it stretch against you, each step you take. Binding you into it and yielding to you its intelligences.

Broaden the scope of it some, and it’s just the alertness evidently massively lacking at the helm of a certain rightish party, even more than uge.

See these two beautiful women –

New Yorker - MacFarquhar
Heather Meyerend examining Mary, 92, at her home in Brooklyn, Sept. 2015. The article.

I’m afraid of dying alone. Oh yes I am. Has nothing to do with this, except a presidential candidate unable to self-inquire? has no right to ask the time of us.

Maybe I’m a sucker for charisma. But I’d vote for Heather Meyerend over any of the fools who’ve been on parade this dismal season, yes Sanderistas even yours, on the basis of what I’ve read about her so far, and seen in her eyes. Which I can’t see, but her body’s eyes, Avalokitesvara’s.