Saturday, September 30, 2006

On the Anniversary of Edgar Allan Poe's Death: A Channeling


Greetings, I’m Edgar Allan Poe. This is what I have to say about my life and my life’s work…. History has betrayed me. People think I was drug fiend, an alcoholic, a laudanum-addled madman. That is simply untrue. I am a man of extremes. My mind explores the limits. I am interested in the limits of the irrational as well as the limits of the rational. If you accept that about me, you will be able to understand my writing, and you will see how I blend the two extremes together. So, if you read my detective novels, you see a rational, logical, deductive individual confronted by crimes of passion, and by irrational, bizarre forces. The rational and the irrational come together, and the blend fascinates and disturbs.

I exist at the confluence of two streams of thought and influence. On the one hand, I am the aesthetic extension of the opium-addicted poet in the British writer DeQuincey's Confessions of an English Opium Eater. I come from the gothic tradition of Ann Radcliffe and Sheridan LeFanu, who wrote highly popular gothic tales of vampyres, mad monks, and ghoulish forces. I also echo the romanticism of German authors such as Goethe and E. T. A. Hoffmann. Hoffmann's tales mesh the fantastic with the real world, and they admit the possibility that our consciousness transcends the body, and that there are states of mind that explore boundary regions between madness and sanity, life and death.

On the other hand, I am known as the father of the detective novel. I am a scientist of the human mind, and of human motivation. I observe signs, symbols, and patterns, and I seek to place events in logical sequences, and to locate them within their causal chains. I was writing my fiction at the same time that Charles Darwin was developing his theory of natural selection. Natural selection, as you know, is process that is fundamentally based on cause and effect. If the climate is cold, the species with thick fur coats will survive. The species evolves in response to causal forces and environmental triggers. My detective, Auguste Dupin, who appears in "The Murders of the Rue Morgue," "The Purloined Letter," and "The Mystery of Marie Roget," uses deductive logic. He is a careful observer of evidence and he avoids the emotional excesses that one finds percolating through my gothic tales and my poems.

If you think about it, it is not surprising that I am caught in cross-currents of divergent thinking. I am the dark counter to the bright, optimistic mainstream approach to life that came to be known as an American vision. While the Americans around me gloried in the feats of engineering such as the Erie Canal, completed in 1825, which would provide a passage through waterways from New York City to the Great Lakes, and they spoke of "Manifest Destiny," which suggested that it was the Europeans' destiny to find America and to "civilize" it, I wondered where those technologies would really take us. I am a classicist at heart, and I studied work in its original Greek and Latin. There was something about the culturally philistine jocularity of the expansionists that troubled me. We assume our travels are to a destination of our liking. I question that assumption when I find myself traveling roads constructed in the service of conquest.

The American writers I meet in Baltimore, New York, and in Boston often trouble me. They adhere to a new philosophy of life, an aesthetic code, a philosophy which seems too good to be true. They are transcendentalists. They believe in a "self-reliant" neo-platonism. What do I mean by that? They pull themselves up to heaven, to unity with God and the heavens, by their own bootstraps. When I read the work of Ralph Waldo Emerson (especially his essay, "Circles"), Henry David Thoreau, or Walt Whitman, I recoil. Their boundlessness, their enthusiastic belief in interconnectedness, and their self-assured belief that mix, merge, and become all of humanity, strike me as distressingly invasive. Emerson thinks he envelopes and that he includes all of humanity when he thinks about himself and the world. To the contrary, I think he invades and engulfs. His energy is, to me, essentially violating and transgressive (but masked as virtue). Emerson frightens me. Manifest Destiny seems to somehow emerge from a transcendentalist ideal, and seems morally wrong to me. My characters live the antithesis of boundlessness. They experience the dark side of expansion. They have been engulfed, possessed, and controlled by forces larger than themselves. In my American psyche, I counter the cheery optimism that the Erie Canal and Westward Expansion engender with zombies, ghosts, demonic forces, and people possessed by the spirits of houses and the past.

I am known for things I was never guilty of. My real vices are less well-known. I was expelled from college for unpaid gambling debts. I enlisted in the military, did well and was promoted. But later, I was dishonorably discharged from West Point. Even my death has been used against me. No one really knows how or why I died. It remains a mystery. And yet, posterity has it that I died from extreme intemperance. That was just not true.

The Journals of Sylvia Plath - and a fictive voice beyond the grave

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Perhaps the most telling passages in Sylvia Plath's journals from 1957 revolve around her deep need to write. Plath writes “the central need of my nature [is] to be articulate” ... “if I am not writing ... my imagination stops, blocks up, chokes me” “I will write until I begin to speak my deep self” (p. 286)

Plath, who is best-known for her poetry and short novel, The Bell Jar, and for her suicide, which was followed by attempts by her husband, Ted Hughes, to suppress the publication of some work, rearrange others. Long vilified by her admirers as the true cause of Plath’s suicide, one finds a different story in her journals.

In the voluminous writings, one gains insight into a maddeningly perfectionistic soul, whose conflicts with her mother and ideas about the father who died when she was young, are dealt with in agonizing detail. One sees first that Plath is brilliant and her ways of thinking are unconventional.

Her life and times make her very existence problematic – what is she to do as a young woman, locked by societal constraints into profound conflicts of interest? She writes herself alive. Perhaps that is what is most valuable in the journals – the absolute affirmation that it is, in fact, possible to “write oneself alive.”

My Life & My Work – a fictive imagining of what Sylvia might say if we could speak with her beyond the grave…

I’m not sure that I expected everything to be so final when I stuffed towels in the gap between the door and the floor, sealed the windows, and then opened the gas from the oven. It was a cold, winter day in 1963. London was dreary. My husband, Ted Hughes, had left me, and I had expressed the fear I would starve. I felt destitute – emotionally, financially, intellectually. There seemed to be no other solution. If you ask me, that is my answer to why I committed suicide when it seemed I had everything in the world to live for – two young children, a finely honed intelligence, extremely compelling fiction and poetry. True enough, no one had read the most powerful of my poems – they were to be published in a collection entitled Ariel, which would appear in 1965, two years after my death. My novel, The Bell Jar, which would later be a best-seller, was still published under a pseudonym.

Part of me probably expected to be rescued. After all, that is what happened in my first suicide attempt one strange, terrible summer when I was found unconscious in the crawl space in my mother’s home. And, coming back from the almost-dead is what I chronicled in my despairing, rage-filled poem, “Lady Lazarus.”

I certainly did not expect my final days to be analyzed, and I did not think I’d become the patron saint of a whole cross-section of young girls and women – usually highly intelligent, yet insecure, artistic perfectionists and honor students whose mothers never dreamed their darling good little girls were suffering so much inside.

Further, I became the iconic standard-bearer for feminists who claimed my work exemplified what it meant to be an intelligent, ambitious, and creative woman in the 1950s. Yet others focused on my depression, and suggested that I could have lived longer if Prozac had been available in 1963.

And yet, those were not my preoccupations. My life has been animated and illuminated by a deep-seated need to write, and to makes sense of my world by writing.

Instead of focusing on the subtle craft of my work, or the gallows humor that percolates through The Bell Jar, readers tend to focus on family dynamics, sexual politics, and ideology. How uninteresting. They get it wrong. I think it’s quite ironic that literary critics have made much of my father, and the fact that he was a German immigrant and a keeper of bees. In a way, I don’t blame them. After all, I did use him as the subject of my poems.

But, to say that I really thought my father was a Nazi or Nazi sympathizer seems really simplistic and reductive. My poem, “Daddy,” is not autobiographical. Some say I exploited the Holocaust to create poetry. I do not agree with them.

My poem is autobiographical in an emotional sense. I was seeking to capture the horror of Nazis, and of harsh, rigid mindsets. I state that men dominate women in society. But, more than simply stating that fact, I communicate the rage, the reactive anger, the despair, that accompanies the feeling of being cut off, psychologically annihilated, nullified. My poem is a painful excursion into a mindset and an emotional place. Sadly, it has been appropriated by others who use it in the service of their personal ideology.

Actually, the intensity of my writing makes it attractive for many people to use me to express their own inarticulated griefs, fears, and desires.

My father, his German heritage, the bees, and his early death (his abandonment of me) became a very convenient metaphor for the way our society treats women.

It hurts when men abandon me. I know, intellectually, that my father did not choose to abandon me. After all, he died. But my husband, who abandoned me for another woman, did make that choice. He actively chose to abandon me. I can’t make sense of it. No, not true -- I can make sense of it – but only if I write.

One could say many of my poems are about patriarchy, or male dominance. However, I think that we really need to look more closely. Our oppressors are often ourselves. My poem is also about how I respond to all the structures of society that make me fearful.

This is a fictive imagining of the voice, vision, and message of Sylvia Plath, if she were to send a message today...

Thursday, September 21, 2006

The Gates Open: Lock 7 Erie Canal / The River Styx?

Erie Canal Lock 7: Susan watches the massive hydraulic doors open to allow a boat to travel up the Mohawk River. Of course, this becomes a metaphor for all kinds of passage. Susan thinks of the River Styx. Others think of water-skiing. She thinks of our American history, literature, Ovid, From Nohow to Nowhere (Elting Morison), river journeys, Mark Twain, folk tunes. It's all about passage -- and perhaps transformation... (filmed by Dave Feiden)

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

9-11: The "Meaning" Overshadows the Story

mp3 file (podcast)

I have resisted seeing Flight 93 or Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center, even though I am assured that there is no maudlin sentimentality in either one. I guess I’m sort of waiting for the ultimate catharsis. I’m waiting for the Spielberg version. Eventually, someone will entice him to create the ultimate film that goes for the emotional jugular vein. He will pack the film with so much loss, abandonment, sad-eyed children, dead mothers, dead fathers, and sad, brave survivors that the viewers will feel drained for a week.

Now, that’s entertainment.

I went to Fahrenheit 911 mainly because Michael asked me to. It was appealing to me because it essentially deconstructed the hyper-patriotic response to the hijackings of September 11, 2001, and suggested that Americans have been zombified by propaganda and that our elected officials are kleptocrats.

According to Amy Biancolli of the Houston Chronicle, Oliver Stone has created a film about patriotism, optimism, and human courage.

Sorry. That’s not appealing to me at this moment in time. It makes me feel exhausted. I guess I’m not wanting to be fanned into a frenzy of anger or hate or sadness or fear.

It might be interesting to watch a film that attempts to put 911 in the background. Bickering with one’s spouse, deciding what to wear, fretting over car repairs could be put in front, and the attacks to the back. But, it would undoubtedly be a failed attempt. The colossal nature of the event just torpedoes all attempts to create a story.

The “meanings” of 911 overshadow any attempt at a story.

There are a few inescapable “meanings” of 9-11 that insert themselves into any narrative that has any contact at all with the event.

A few of the Meanings (with capital M) are:

1. 9-11 ushered in a whole new world, with a new consciousness. We, as Americans, are vulnerable in ways we never imagined before.

2. After 9-11, life could never be “ordinary” again.

3. 9-11 showed New Yorkers how kind, generous, self-sacrificing, and patient they are, despite generally held beliefs to the contrary.

4. 9-11 brought us together as a nation, but then divided us into “red” and “blue.”

5. Homeland Security. We didn’t try hard enough before 9-11.

The list could go on and on. Right now, I’m at Starbucks, and I’m listening to Gang of Four. It brings back memories of the summer of 1981 in Colorado where I attended Field Camp outside Canon City. It was near Florence and Phantom Canyon. I shared a cabin with three other female geology students. I had brought a big boom box and a stack of cassette tapes I had recorded from vinyl. They were all my favorites, primarily “New Wave” – between the Split Enz and The Buggles, I loved listening to “Anthrax.”

I remember that summer through the small things, the tiny details. Thankfully, there was nothing overwhelming. The tragedy of the summer occurred when a skyway collapsed at the Kansas City Hyatt Regency. I had spend a week at the Hyatt in San Francisco and I remember wondering about the stability of the glass elevator in an earthquake.

It’s pretty much impossible to construct an emotionally meaningful story from the Big Events of one’s life. The “Meanings” just overwhelm the narrative. The Big Events impose their big, hairy narratives and you’re stuck – “like a beetle on its back / my love is like anthrax” – that’s from Gang of Four’s “Anthrax.”

If I were to do a movie on 9-11, I think I’d try to focus in on the non-9-11 elements. The night before 9-11, for example, I was trying to convince myself that it was okay to barge into a house I was sure was being used as a horticulture center.

On the eve of 9-11, I drove my 1989 white Honda Accord to the house where Michael's friend Evan lived before he went to military school outside Tulsa. His mom had gotten a job in Houston and had a choice – go with her, or stay in Norman, then finish high school at the military school. He moved. The house was empty. The house, a three-bedroom house on Camden Drive was located near Norman High School off Berry Road. As we approached it, I could tell it was completely dark, as though the electricity had been turned off.

I was not too interested in going there, but Michael had promised Evan he would check on it.

“What are you supposed to check?” I asked. Michael was not listening.

We parked in the driveway and walked up the sidewalk badly in need of weed-eating. “What are we supposed to do?” I asked.

Michael indicated that he was supposed to check on things, and to make sure no one was living there. “What if they are?” I asked.

No answer. Instead, Michael fell very quiet. “Mom. Let’s go.” There was an urgency in his voice I had not heard before.

We walked quickly back to the Honda and drove off. “What was that about?”

“I think someone was there,” he said. I had the flash-thought that Evan ’s house had been appropriated by homeless teenagers or those who decided to use it for their “commerce” or “horticulture” of sorts. Specifically, I could imagine bedrooms filled with mushrooms and closets with gro-lights and monster marijuana plants.

I never found out. The next morning was 9-11. Evan did not come back to Norman. He ended up going from the military school to Afghanistan. Then, he did come back. Unfortunately, the war was very hard on him. It was shocking to think that a person could already be on disability at age 18 or 19.

And, already I feel the “Meaning” of 9-11 starting to overtake this narrative.

Five years. It is a key marker moment. I’ll do my best to keep from slipping into the over-deterministic world of the 9-11 narrative that imposes its unwieldy and bulky presence into everything it touches.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet: Thoughts on a Walled City

Lock 7 on the Mohawk River on the Erie Canal inspires Susan to think of themes in Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. (filmed by Dave Feiden)