Sunday, January 28, 2018

The Garden of Literature: Ursula Le Guin, Creator of Worlds Where People Can Find Themselves and, Possibly, Make Sense

         Ursula Le Guin was not only America's best writer of imaginative literature, she deserved a seat on the Council of the Wise, the body I am currently imagining to replace the increasingly corrupt and anachronistic US Senate.

           How many people do we have who invent universes of interconnected planets in order to explore basic problems of human existence such as loss, loneliness, the need for love, cloud control, societal conflict, war, interstellar communication, gender roles, youthful uncertainties, political dysfunction, and dragons -- to mention a few standout examples...?

           My encounters with Le Guin began with the fittingly named short novel "The Beginning Place," in which an invented society with its attractions and dangers provides a perfect setting to explore the adolescent and early adulthood struggle for identity. The story takes place in a parallel-world forest that you enter simply by passing through some invisible gate in an 'our-world' forest. When I was younger I used to stumble into such places, which are of course places inside ourselves. In "The Beginning Place," Le Guin leads her characters (and readers) into a Medieval forest village setting. I love stories with faux-Medieval forest settings. We can all think of examples. The relentlessly popular film "The Princess Bride," for one, plays itself silly with one of these.

            We can't spend all our lives in the presumably (though not really) safe worlds of our upbringings, even less so in mediated or 'virtual' versions of the world constructed for us by others. We have to get out of our other-conditioned selves to find our real 'selves' -- that is, the voice that tells us what we really think. We have to go where Stephen Sondheim does in that most philosophical of his musicals, "Into the Woods." 

             I think the books of the "Earthsea Trilogy" came next for me. Again, the hook that drew me is the story's unstated heart, the realization in the human soul of the young person's quest for self. We don't learn the deep personal truths by stories about people who are too much like ourselves, but those who strike us as really strange. That's probably why myths and legends and folk tales (sometimes called fairy tales) have lasted so long. Sophocles put the gods on stage. Wisdom teachers through the ages, Freud and C.S. Lewis, Tolkien, went back to the oldest stories we know.

             The Earthsea Trilogy are the stories in which Le Guin gives us the wizard Ged -- who I think of as the 'interesting wizard' to distinguish him from that other too-popular 'wizard' who is more commercial vehicle than prince of literature. The book I remember best of these is the second (though maybe I read it first), "The Tombs of Atuan," in which a child is separated from her family and raised in some ritualized condition of darkness that -- for my own needs, perhaps, or imagination -- seemed to symbolize the darkness in which all human beings are 'thrown' into existence. "Thrown," a term I learned from the 20th century philosopher Heidegger, represents the impossible -- or wondrous -- condition of all human existence. We don't why we are here, where we came from, and what this business we find ourselves part of is all about. (Hence the eternal question: does it mean anything?)

            In the "The Tombs of Atuan," when the heroine explores the obscure condition of her existence, actualized by Le Guin as a gloomy "Labyrinth," she has the good fortune to come across the wizard Ged. Most of us have to make do without anyone like him. 

            In these Earthsea stories as in her sci-fi novels set in deep space, we understand that these settings and situations are reflections of our own problematic times and places. All worthy scifi and fantasy settings are allegorical by nature. They are literary machines for barraging us with unstated questions: how do the dangers, hardships, pressures, bizarre customs, and mysteries of these imagined settings become dark mirrors for the circumstances -- social, anthropological, corporate, whatever -- in which people in our world are forced to contend with? Needless to add, the answers are unstated as well.  

                I'll mention a few of the books in the Hainish world, where some of her most widely read and enduring novels are set. "The Left-Hand of Darkness," the book most people mention first when they recall Le Guin's works, give us a human-enough race of people whose gender changes as a natural part of their biology. What would that do to sex roles? To personal identity? Le Guin stated long afterwards that she never solved the problem of creating a third-person pronoun that was free of gender -- and neither have we.

            In "The Dispossessed," I was excited to find a novel based on the stunning premise of a "world," a small planet, based on the theories of a foundational anarchist. But it's not a book of theoretical arguments; Le Guin's stories always have a plot. In "The Dispossessed," the the anarchist society fights for survival while its earth-like neighboring planet overpopulates and the rich oppress the poor, and the novel's central figure, a genius scientist who's a committed product of the anarchist world, realizes he has made a discovery that may help both societies out of their crises.

            Another story of the Hainish world, "The Winter King" was the first book to posit a peopled world forced to endure decade-long stretches of a single season, a life-threatening winter; its plot imagines the consequences for the various peoples who share the planet. We who live on our own little planet are living with the comparable threat of climate change, though we may be facing the opposite condition: a hot, rainy season that never ends. 
          It turns out that Ursula Le Guin's prophetic storytelling is based on another human universal -- a love of our world. The natural one. 
          "My poetry and my fiction are full of trees," she wrote only last year in her introduction to a re-publication volume of some of her books, under the title Ursula K. Le Guin: The Hainish Novels & Stories, Volume One. "My mental landscape includes a great deal of forest. I am haunted by the great, silent, patient presences we live among, plant, chop down, build with, burn, take for granted in every way until they are gone and do not return. Ancient China had our four elements, earth, air, fire, water, plus a fifth, wood. That makes sense to me. But China’s great forests are long gone to smoke. When we pass a log truck on the roads of Oregon, I can’t help but see what they carry as corpses, bodies that were living and are dead. I think of how we owe the air we breathe to the trees, the ferns, the grasses—the quiet people who eat sunlight."
[ ]
            We eat sunlight too, only after it's been through the bodies of plants and, in many cases, animals. 
             Reading this great author's observations on her own canon makes me want to go get lost in the woods again. I wonder who I'll find there.  

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Garden of the Seasons: Changing Faces of January

January is pretty much a black and white month. A very light, but pretty snowfall two weeks back turned our Quincy neighborhood into a 19th century village. Very quiet; nothing moving. Softly falling snow in big visible flakes, many of them dusting the exposed surfaces of the bare trees, a graceful effect magnified by the presence of evergreen trees and shrubs. We may not be able to count on a White Christmas very often these days, though all the old pictures and nostalgic movies always give people a white Christmas. But we generally have a lot of white days, and often weeks, in January.
            This year so far January has treated us to one full-day rocking blizzard, piling up snow walls on the gutters and hard-shoveling to liberate cars and driveways, in the midst of a wicked cold spell that locked in the accumulation. A week-long gradual meltdown finally reaching bare ground. Then the gentle picturesque minor snowfall pictured in the top three photos here.
The fifth photo down shows the first dose of blue sky we experienced after that fall. It wasn't warm enough, and the sun hasn't shined long enough to melt the snow off this path in the thin wood near the Quincy shoreline. But the return of the snow changed the face of the landscape and coaxed me out of the car for the first time in days.
           Nights are still long in January, though we've picked up a half hour of daylight since the start of the month. That makes sunsets, lingering twilights, and the evening hush an even more attention-getting time of day than at other times. Inside a warm room we watch the sky turn color, then linger to monitor the fading tones as the darkness deepens. Posed against that twilight (fourth photo down), the red bloom of hibiscus, one of our summer annuals, gets to spend the winter indoor with us. Unfortunately we did not have space for the rest of the garden. 
            The remains of the snowfall, and its effects, are still evident in the photos that follow. These were taken last weekend in the Blue Hills Reservation, the largest land preserve in the Boston area. It's accessible from Quincy, Milton and a couple other neighboring towns. While most of the footpaths were free of snow cover, some stretches in lower, shadier spots had crunchy, half-frozen tracts. 
          But the big news, in the woodland, was the presence of fast-flowing streams, overflowing at points into wetlands. We saw a couple of green shoots emerging from one of the boggier lowlands -- skunk cabbage, we wondered, already? The sounds of flowing, tumbling brooks provided the music of the winter thaw. It sounded much like the soundtrack to March and April in the New England forests. And we were reminded that "meteorological winter" is more than half over; that begins on Dec. 1 and ends with February. 
          The final three photos show the face of the thaw. Snow melting into stream and wetland, water feeding the groundwater reserve. The ground nourishing the forest, and all the other life that depends upon it. 
            We heard a few birds, saw almost none. Nothing else was moving that wasn't human, or canine. But the waters were moving. And the season. And the ancient revolutions of the earth behind it all. 

Friday, January 19, 2018

The Garden of Literature: Searching For Truth on "The Underground Railroad"

After reading "The Underground Railroad" by Colson Whitehead, awarded the National Book Award for Fiction in 2016, and being at least mildly surprised by the liberties the book takes with the historical record, I decided to see what facts I could learn about escaping slavery.
            Here's some of what I found out.
            The reality of the "underground railroad," as opposed to its legend, is that it was relatively unimportant in pre-Emancipation America. Contemporary historians looking at the records estimate that the number of white people who helped fugitive slaves free themselves from bondage throughout the lengthy period when slavery was legal numbered only in the hundreds. Despite the dramatizations of film and TV, no underground railroad 'stations' existed in the slave states; the so-called 'railroad' existed only in the North. And once an African American fleeing slavery managed to cross a state line into Ohio, or Illinois, or Indiana or Pennsylvania, any northerner willing to hide, enable, offer money, clothes, food, or a tip on where to go next was likely helping a runaway get to Canada. 
             For in most places and at most times throughout the history of slavery in the United States, the North was not safe. Slave catchers routinely followed the trail of runaways over the border. And after the Fugitive Slave Act became law in 1850, slave catchers (or any white person) had the right to claim any black person (even free ones) as his lost property and go before a kangaroo court that was legally encouraged to find for the white claimant in all cases.
            Most whites turned their back on slavery, or shrugged their shoulders, or were of the opinion that black people belonged in slavery rather than living among white people. Outrage over the Fugitive Slave Act fueled abolitionist feeling in states such as Massachusetts, but abolitionists were never close to a majority anywhere in the North. So there is plenty of guilt for white Americans whose roots lie in the North to share with fellow Americans with southern roots when it comes to assessing our nation's slave-holding past.
            The popularity of the underground railroad, a concept more myth than practical reality, stems from Americans' need for a story of brave and moral conduct in defiance of "the peculiar institution" to point to as a moral beacon -- somewhat analogous to the way the Statue of Liberty serves as a national salute to our image as a welcoming home for immigrants and refugees, even though the true story is a lot more complicated and a lot less benign.
            There was nothing, of course, at all benign about the institution of African slavery in America. The emphasis current day culture places on the underground railroad is an attempt to lift the moral scale at least a notch off rock-bottom moral evil. But might it not be better simply to face the facts. Slavery persisted for so long in this country because of its economic benefit. It led to accumulations of wealth by a white-dominated society that would not have been possible without the abundant resource of unpaid slave labor. Slavery was a good deal for the white majority. The advantage goes way beyond the oft-noted fortunes made by northern ship owners from the slave trade. The young nation as a whole benefited from a robust agricultural economy: from the rapid development of untilled land, cleared of its native occupants by national policy, and then cleared for agricultural uses and productively farmed by enslaved African labor to raise cotton and other market crops. 
             America's dominant export in the 19th century, the cotton trade was taxed and the funds raised turned to infrastructure development. Cotton exports played a major role in our trade balance with Europe. Texas and the American Southwest were taken by force of arms from Mexico by national policy under the impetus to seek new lands to 'open' for cotton production.
            So given that white Americans were in no hurry to abolish slavery -- as illustrated by the infamous compromises in our Constitution that recognized the 'peculiar institution' and established a slave's value as three-fifths of a person when it came to determining a state's representation in the House of Representatives -- how did slaves seek to escape their bondage?
            In a lengthy, statistically based article appearing in the New Yorker two years ago, Kathryn Schultz writes that "while fugitives did often need to conceal themselves en route to freedom, most of their hiding places were mundane and catch-as-catch-can—haylofts and spare bedrooms and swamps and caves, not bespoke hidey-holes built by underground engineers."
            The efforts of heroic "guides" such as Harriet Tubman were real enough, that is, but most runaways were faced with making it on their own without any systematic assistance.  
            Not only did the underground railroad fail to penetrate into the slave states -- the Carolinas, the infamous black belt states of George, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana where cotton production caused slaves populations to rise sharply in the 19th century -- "most people who slipped the bonds of slavery did not look north," Schultz writes.
             In fact, despite its popularity today, she writes, "the Underground Railroad was perhaps the least popular way for slaves to seek their freedom. Instead, those who fled generally headed toward Spanish Florida, Mexico, the Caribbean, Native American communities in the Southeast, [and] free-black neighborhoods in the upper South" known as Maroon communities.
            It doesn't play well for white American audiences to watch fugitive slaves from the Carolinas struggling to reach Florida or Mexico rather than following "the drinking gourd" north with the assistance of brave black guides and white abolitionists. One of the reasons the United States forced a weakened Spain to cede Florida to us was the complaints of slaveholders that the sanctuary of the Spanish colony was attracting their valuable property. After Florida became a state, fugitive slaves living there as freedmen had to find somewhere else to go.   
            And just to put the story of the 'escape' from slavery in a less dramatic, but still more realistic context, Schultz offers this assessment: "Moreover, most slaves who sought to be free didn’t run at all. Instead, they chose to pursue liberty through other means. Some saved up money and purchased their freedom. Others managed to earn a legal judgment in their favor—for instance, by having or claiming to have a white mother (beginning in Colonial times, slave status, like Judaism, passed down through the maternal line), or by claiming to have been manumitted."
            In many cases aristocratic slave owners followed the custom of freeing their slaves upon their own death in their will, in part as a reward for loyal service. This appears to have been a tradition in Virginia that father-of-our-country George Washington was unable to follow because most of  his slaves actually belonged to his wife. Thomas Jefferson didn't free his slaves because his estate was in debt. Somehow, an analysis of available figures suggests, about ten percent of slaves found their way to freedom, only a very small percentage of these via the underground railroad.
            Colson Whitehead's invention of actual underground tunnels fitted with rails and small trains to assist runaway slaves in states such as Georgia and the Carolinas, while it appeared to please the critics who praised it as a bold device, to my mind serves no real purpose in his novel.
            It's hardly needed to tell the dramatic story of the challenges and dangers fugitive slaves faced, and even in the fictional context of the novel is shown to do very little good since it fails to help any of his characters reach freedom. The book's central character, the runaway Cora, is  abandoned in one disconnected station after another.
             While the fiction of a 'real' railroad has charmed a lot of readers and critics, it strikes me as arbitrary, intrusive, inessential to the plot, and serves only to make this reader wonder what we do know about escaping slavery.
            Whitehead takes the same liberty in including other fictional and anachronistic elements into his story, including forms of racist discrimination and exploitation that took place beyond the era of slavery -- the Tuskegee experiment (involving untreated cases of syphilis in black men); research into schizophrenia; forced sterilization -- and belong to America's later, and often shameful post-Emancipation history.
            These inventions include the imagining of a paternalistic apartheid state in South Carolina, where such experiments take place, and a genocidal North Carolina where the worst, most murderous and sadistic examples of race hatred become a kind of statewide sport celebrated with regular execution festivals. The obtrusive presence of these fictional devices caused me to question my knowledge of American history. Did North Carolina actually practice genocide? Not really. Slave catchers of the sort the author places there operated everywhere. And executions of runaways took place throughout the Deep South, as they likewise did, for instance, in Haiti.
             I'm not sure what we can learn about the 'truth' of slavery in so fantasized a depiction. Many fiction writers do play with history, of course. Books are written on the premise of 'what if Germany had won the war.' Or what if the South had won the Civil War. Scifi-fantasy writer Orson Scott Card wrote a series of books on an alternative American history; in which, for example, William Blake turns up on the frontier in a pre-Civil War America. These books tend to be classified as genre works. National Book Awards, on the other hand, tend to go to books considered 'literature.'
            If Whitehead's book does have meaning for us that goes beyond the 'what if' sort, it has nothing to do with the underground railroad, and everything to do with the pure hatred shown by almost anybody white in this book (aside from a few railroad operators) to anybody black.
            I'm not sure a writer has to make anything up to tell this tale about American history, this persistently dark strain in the American character, the country's second "original sin" (after the theft of the land from the Indians).
            Certainly writer James Baldwin made this point a half century earlier, as last year's eloquent documentary "I Am Not Your Negro" reminded us. His fear for his country's future, Baldwin told us, is that white Americans' hatred for black people has seriously warped their own character. It's a self-inflicted moral wound that -- even after MLK, civil rights, Obama, and everything else that has taken place in the 150 years since slavery -- white Americans have been unable to overcome.
            The strongest elements in "The Underground Railroad" -- how the constant presence of physical fear in the of life of slaves warps their relationships with one another and hamstrings their own plantation communities; and, to take another example, what it's like to spend months hiding in an attic room watching the world through a tiny hole in a wall -- come from the author's imaginative delving into the psychological and emotional realities of slavery.
            These qualities can be more widely applied in writing about slavery in America. The critical success of Colson Whitehead's book comes from an appetite for that kind of imaginative exploration of a true American story that still haunts us -- as it should. Exploring that terrible truth is the job of literature.
            I would have liked to see more such truth in this book.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

The Garden of Verse: Words That Roll Through These Marvelous Poems About Bicycles, Hard Times, and 'Guys Like Us'

Some poems make music; some words just work together. These virtues are on display in many of the fine poems appearing in the January 2018 issues of Verse-Virtual, the online poetry journal.
            As, for example, in these lines by William Greenway in his poem "as she watches through the window":

...There are kids, I guess,
who live in a money-feathered nest
of Magic Kingdoms, Disney days
and firework princess nights,
the jingle-belled hooves and snowy thump
of Santa’s’ boots on the roof, every day
three-rings of enchantment until, inevitably,
the circus leaves town.

"Jingle-belled hooves," a musical combination in itself, grooves our ears for the flowing long vowels of 'boots' and 'roof .' And the phrase "boots on the roof" ring in the ear just a like a "snowy thump."
             The language in Greenway's poem "At the Writers Conference" -- a lament that captures the essence of any 'big name' conference (writing or otherwise) I've ever attended -- effectively conveys the poem's sense of the event:

Finally, all this hoopla and high-mindedness
came down to a lobster roll and some tandoori chicken
for this hick from the sticks and the tapped-out steel mills.

 'Hoopla' and 'tandoori chicken' strike me as the kind of words just aching to get into a poem on an oversold event. And the third of these three lines rolls at a pace and rhythm that a 'stick' might make 'tapping' its way home to the mills -- a folksy, fitting sound.  

            In Linda Fischer's "Digression," the magic lies in images that are just right to convey a wintry grinding down sensation. After whacking the snow off her conifers, the poet asks:

would it take for the geese to change
their course mid-flight, the wind
swallow their cries and plow
them back to a creek swollen
with early snow?  Or the sap
to gather itself for one last
shudder before the darkening day
surrenders to one long night?

            The implicit answer, it appears, is 'nothing we could ever do.' The geese will not change their course, and the sap no longer flows.

            In Christine Gelineau's "Nothing To It," the language of the lines below sounds to me just right for the sensation they're talking about: the temptation (and appeal) of the unforgiving gesture, the burned bridge.

Demolition is the instant payoff
—volatile, thrilling, an aphrodisiac
of power.

In contrast, building something up has a stop-and-go pace. as the words in the next lines suggest:
                   Creation drags along
in slo-mo, a chick flick
of unfolding and relationships

And the language of the lines that follow illustrate their meaning by their own aural attractiveness:

how we’re drawn to the swing, the bang,
the rubble, rubbernecking by the wreck 

This final observation serving as the perfect summary of the lure of 'rubbernecking':

as if we thought
obliteration was some kind
of an accomplishment.  

            Sydney Lea's "1959" is an affecting poem about the power of certain moments to stay with us forever not because anything particularly wonderful has happened, but because their meaning cannot be captured by any clear message or storyline: they don't lead to happy endings, or new beginnings, or obvious crises, or moments of decision in which we take the right course, or the wrong one. They are simply (but also complexly) so real:

If I could just stay right there like that on that bench.
Those slight waves lisping. That gravel strand.
St. Jean de Luz. That breeze and mollusky stench.
That sun melting on the far Low Pyrenees.
If the people around me could just keep keeping quiet
like that, not because the music was good
                                    but because it was long and awful

Sometimes -- this poem says to me -- people, or nature, or the world, or our own minds do manage, in this poem's superbly apt phrase, to "keep keeping quiet."

            Another apt expression, "guys like us," appears in the poem of that name by Alan Walowitz. After a student is killed by a policeman in a minority neighborhood where the speaker teaches school, a previously friendly student begins to draw away:

I swear I saw him eyeing me each afternoon
as the cops escorted us to our cars which would take us home,
to a neighborhood safe for guys like us.

It's the 'the cops' escorting the teachers to their cars to go home to a 'safe' neighborhood that got to me. Though I was never faced with running that sort of gauntlet, I know I'm one of those 'guys like us.'

            In a poem about the pleasures of cycling, "A Bicycle Poem" by Robert Wexelblatt, lines like these below convey the speed and pleasure and sensation of freedom involved in the ride.  

Earbuds pumping out Brahms’ Second Serenade
or Soler’s Fandango as you outstrip mosquitos
on a Sunday morning—a moving Mass, solitary
Sabbath—biking past the SUVs arrayed outside
St. Aiden’s, communing with I-Pod, sky, and road,
the Camelbak preserving cold, sacramental water,
knees, hips, and muscles all in proper working order:
on the seventh day you pedaled and it was good.

All these elements, the pumping music (suggesting, of course, the petal-pumping muscles), leaving the heavy vehicles behind, the 'cold, sacramental water' of the biker-geeky Camelbak bottle, the glancing spiritual references, go together to sell the truth of the last line. We may at some moments in our life, this poem tells us, to be the god of our experience. And when that happens, as the poem persuades us, it surely is good.
             What a ride poems like these offer us.
             See these and more at