This is the Spread of Wings

9 October 2013
11:38 AM


My morning is positively humming with poetry.

I was waiting for the ModPo live webcast via PennSound Radio, and was able to catch the recording of H.D. reading from her book, Helen in Egypt. I found it fascinating—her work and her reading, both. Her voice gave me the shivers; I love her cadence.

I particularly loved this:

from Helen in Egypt

This is the spread of wings,
whether the Straits claimed them
or the Cyclades,

whether they floundered on the Pontic seas
or ran aground before the Hellespont,
whether they shouted Victory at the gate,

whether the bowmen shot them from the Walls,
whether they crowded surging through the breach,
or died of fever on the smitten plain,

whether they rallied and came home again,
in the worn hulks, half-rotted from the salt
or sun-warped on the beach,

whether they scattered or in companies,
or three or two sought the old ways of home,
whether they wandered as Odysseus did,

encountering new adventure, they are one;
no, I was not instructed, but I “read” the script,
I read the writing when he seized my throat,

this was his anger,
they were mine, not his,
the unnumbered host;

mine, all the ships,
mine, all the thousand petals of the rose,
mine, all the lily-petals,

mine, the great spread of wings,
the thousand sails,
the thousand feathered darts

that sped them home,
mine, the one dart in the Achilles-heel,
the thousand-and-one, mine.

I searched for her book and found myself paging through it. She also read this part:

Achilles said, which was the veil,
which was the dream?
they were one — on the horizon

— and I thought, how apt, how fitting for my life right now.

During the live webcast, there was a discussion on Claude McKay’s use of the sonnet form in his poem, If We Must Die. It touched on the reaction of the people at the time the poem was published—that is, the idea of a black man using the form that is ‘owned’ by the white male Anglo-Saxon tradition.

I find it interesting how it somehow always comes back to the idea of race. Someone mentioned something about “being a white reader”, and that phrase just caught me. (I might be speaking of it out of context, just to note—I have to watch the webcast again later.) I wonder what that means. I wonder if it’s important (imperative?) to think of oneself that way when reading text that touches on race.

One of my most memorable experience in ModPo last year was connecting with Sue about this poem. She was wondering if it’s crucial to understand the historical background of a poem in order to understand and/or enjoy it. My personal opinion? Not necessarily. At least, that is not how I initially approach a poem.

Perhaps this is the best representation at the moment:

That is, my appreciation is immediate and intuitive, and it is only after that sudden punch in the gut that I set to understand what it really means. It may include reading up on other analyses or historical context upon which the poem is based, if any exists—but not before I try to figure it out on my own first.

Sue wrote about our conversation here. This is partly what I said to her (thank you, Sue!). The links are my insertions:

As someone living in a country rich with its history of colonization and oppression, it is not a hard reach for me to respond to McKay’s work emotionally without knowing (at first) the context of when/why it was written in the first place. . . . When I read it I am brought back to our very own revolutions, of being called an indio, of how these very same indios fought back only to be ruled by another country, and on and on it goes. The use of the Shakespearian sonnet was also not lost on me, as I myself am now using a language we learned from being colonized, in order to communicate with the rest of the world (and even our national hero taught himself a foreign language so he can write two novels that sparked the revolution*, and also hit the colonizers where it hurts—to use language where they will be forced to listen).

I can’t remember the rest (it was quite a long response), but I think I was feeling very strongly about the form itself, and the language. That was my focus, not the issue of race, which a lot of people keep on bringing up. (Maybe it’s just me—I am wondering if it also has something to do with being who I am, and living where I am, where the self-consciousness about ‘being white’ versus ‘being black’ transforms simply into being someone other than Caucasian/American/First World. This was something that I also noticed last year—how some students are sensitive about racial topics. Sensitive for us—on our behalf, I mean. People of ‘my kind’, and by that they mean—other than American. It’s a curious thing.)

I thought it was important that McKay used the sonnet. He shaped the form that is used to talk about love into a vehicle that became a call to arms and resistance. That turn in “O kinsmen!” I thought was genius: how it becomes a metaphorical turn, how it paints the image—the idea—of the oppressed turning to face the oppressor. I saw a similarity in how Rizal used a phrase in the bibletouch me not—to title his novel that was about the corruption of the church and government. However, I have never really, truly understood (and thought about) the significance of that piece of history until I encountered this poem, until these two ideas met in the middle, and I am left reeling with thoughts on language—how it is a weapon, how it is a landscape, how it is limiting, how it is limitless.

Sue writes:

“It’s not that I’ve altogether evaded the slings and arrows of misfortune: no one does. But I’ve never had to speak in a language not my own to command respect.”

There’s more to her post and I encourage you to read it. I especially liked how she draws another comparison—her experience of listening to Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 7. I love Shostakovich, but had no idea about the backstory of the Leningrad. Learning how it was created—it makes even more sense now, and I will always be grateful for that.

(*I must note that Rizal didn’t actually push for freedom from colonialisation, but his choice of form and language incited a sequence of events that eventually lead to revolt.)

Some notes from last year on If We Must Die (insights from the lectures and fellow classmates):

• It’s problematic to dictate that one should be writing in a particular language. → He is in fact defining his own voice; greatest act of resistance is to say, No, I can write this
• Subconsciousness → that poetry by its very form can indicate humanity where content might not always do that
• Doesn’t matter if most people can’t tell what’s a sonnet, you can’t miss the control of the language, a control that plenty of white people at the time probably believed was the province of only their race
• Content: pure rage. Form: utter restraint. Result: heartbreaking.
• “by opposing me, you are opposing yourself”

A reading/dancing/chanting of the poem:

My friend C. shared this morning that she read poems by Carolyn Forché and has fallen in love. I eagerly told her about one of my favourites:

For the Stranger
Carolyn Forché

Although you mention Venice
keeping it on your tongue like a fruit pit
and I say yes, perhaps Bucharest, neither of us
really knows. There is only this train
slipping through pastures of snow,
a sleigh reaching down
to touch its buried runners.
We meet on the shaking platform,
the wind’s broken teeth sinking into us.
You unwrap your dark bread
and share with me the coffee
sloshing into your gloves.
Telegraph posts chop the winter fields
into white blocks, in each window
the crude painting of a small farm.
We listen to mothers scolding
children in English as if
we do not understand a word of it–
sit still, sit still.

There are few clues as to where
we are: the baled wheat scattered
everywhere like missing coffins.
The distant yellow kitchen lights
wiped with oil.
Everywhere the black dipping wires
stretching messages from one side
of a country to the other.
The men who stand on every border
waving to us.

Wiping ovals of breath from the windows
in order to see ourselves, you touch
the glass tenderly wherever it holds my face.
Days later, you are showing me
photographs of a woman and children
smiling from the windows of your wallet.

Each time the train slows, a man
with our faces in the gold buttons
of his coat passes through the cars
muttering the name of a city. Each time
we lose people. Each time I find you
again between the cars, holding out
a scrap of bread for me, something
hot to drink, until there are
no more cities and you pull me
toward you, sliding your hands
into my coat, telling me
your name over and over, hurrying
your mouth into mine.
We have, each of us, nothing.
We will give it to each other.

In an interview, Forché talks about travel and “tourist poems”:

CF: …these judgements about “tourist poems” are usually leveled by people who don’t have very much knowledge of what the person did what it meant to them and how it formed relationships.

DW: It’s the quality of that experience that you’re talking about.

CF: It’s the quality of it, and it’s your commitment and it’s what you’re willing to do when you’re there…

DW: Denise Levertov calls that the “migrant muse.” She has an essay about rooted plants and air plants where she calls herself an air plant — a plant without roots because in her own way she was in so many different places over the course of her life.

CF: That’s right. Fascism never tolerates itinerancy or difference but condemns it. Itinerancy has never been an acceptable mode of being for a fascist context. I’m descended from itinerants and migrants and so I don’t have that same bias against it.

DW: And those immigrants and itinerants fled fascism, yes?

CF: Yes. And that differs so much from tourism. A tourist is someone who takes in the world, or appropriates from the world what he or she can find useful. But tourists don’t really effectively change in themselves. They go to a place, and they come home. They may have some experiences to talk about, but they are fundamentally unchanged by them…if you’re willing to be changed, and if you submit yourself to the community in such a way that you are vulnerable to whatever happens, that’s not a form of tourism that I would recognize.

DW: So this ties up then with your recent work on Emmanuel Levinas, on the idea of looking at the face of the other as the face and not as something…

CF: …to be appropriated or known or incorporated into the self or used or modified in some way. And I came to that not after reading Levinas but after some dramatic shifts in my life, in my consciousness that were the result of being in different places. Some of those shifts happened without my knowing, but there are a few that I recognize and remember as having occurred at a certain point in time.

I had two such moments in El Salvador. I think when I first arrived in El Salvador I was seeing it as an exotic place I would see women walking gracefully by the side of the road balancing jugs on their heads very gracefully and you know it was almost the postcard vision of the world. Then of course you step into a crowded bus and a woman gets on and asks you if she can place the jug on your lap because she’s standing, and you recognize that the jug weighs 100 pounds and it’s filled with water because she has no potable water within 3 kilometers of her village. Or it’s filled with whatever equally weighty material. You no longer view her gracefulness in quite the same way.

DW: And the tourist either wouldn’t be on that bus, wouldn’t accept the jug, or would be annoyed.

CF: Annoyed — well possibly, yes.

DW: As opposed to being taught in some way.

CF: Yes, they would certainly recognize their discomfort and want it to end. I recognize that desire too.

The second real shift for me happened when I went into a prison to try to make a map of it. I was asked to go inside and to pretend to be visiting someone whom I was to pretend to know. He was a young man who had phlebitis in his leg. He was very ill. He’d been a political prisoner for quite some time. It was obvious that he was not going to be released and that if the phlebitis remained untreated he was not going to live. So he was the person who tried to show me the layout of the prison. He knew what I was there for and what his task was.

It was a very wrenching experience. The prison conditions were gruesome…because of the physical and psychological intensity of the experience, I got into the truck and as he drove us away I started to cry and become violently sick to my stomach…So I begged him to let me rest and shower and have some time to myself and couldn’t we postpone this meeting.

Unbeknownst to me, of course, the meeting was very difficult to arrange. The people we were meeting were under surveillance by the military. They were in danger all the time. It had been a very intricate operation to arrange the meeting. But I wasn’t aware of it and I wasn’t registering it that way. I thought he was being unsympathetic and insensitive toward me. This was the last moment when I would identify myself as being in a tourist mentality.

…instead of saying “Oh, poor you, that was rough, you know, I’m sorry,” he told me something.

He said, “I want you to pay attention to how you’re feeling because this is what the oppression feels like. When you ask me why don’t the people organize and why isn’t this like this, or that like that, remember this feeling. This is what the oppression feels like; this is what people live with every day. And this is the ground of their being. And if you pay attention to what you’re feeling, you may begin to understand what they’re going through.”

Bits and pieces from the webcast (things I will take with me the whole day):

“Poetry as science that has yet to be revealed” — Ali

( the value of voice, but also the trouble of having your voice recognised )

the poet in his predicament is dealing with two identities: being created black, and being created a poet

Notes from last year: “When his creator made him a poet, it was henceforth the most important thing he was.” — Al

“the ideas are thick in the ether and we’re all picking up the vibes”

Good morning,


4 thoughts on “This is the Spread of Wings

  1. T.: THIS post is beautiful, exhilarating, and so much more, and your “letter from Manila” that I received the same. I savor and cherish both. I promised myself a long walk out in the autumn leaves today, and now it will be all the more lovely, thinking of your words. More to come, just right away, I wanted to reach out back to you to say thank you so much.

  2. Hello again T. Sue Schein shared your inspiring chain of associations of this post with the ModPo community. I love the way the modes of conversation from Modpo keep branching out, crossing, recrossing. Good morning!

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