Treasures of the TPNHA Collection - Scott Cleary

When Iona College was given the Thomas Paine National Historical Association Collection in 2013, it became the world’s second-largest archive of materials related to the American revolutionary, citizen of the world, and putative founding father Thomas Paine. Also included with that Paine–related material were documents and photographs created by William van der Weyde, founder of the Thomas Paine National Historical Association, notable turn-of-the century photographer and photo-journalist, and occasional poet. Still uncatalogued, van der Weyde’s materials are a hidden gem in the Ryan Library archive, ready and willing for any archivist and researcher to explore.

As my students will tell you, and I repeat ad nauseum, I am a “poetry guy.” I enjoy reading and talking about poetry, and I especially relish teaching it to unsuspecting undergraduates. When I first discovered that van der Weyde had written and published poetry under the pseudonym William Manley, I was intrigued by what he could have written. I was pleasantly surprised to find a poet of moderate ability, and whose manuscript poetry reveals a passionate, intense, self-reflectively romantic (not Romantic) poet whose verse, while not reaching heights sublime or cottages ruined, is nonetheless an intriguing mix of pathos and delight.

My contribution to this Iona College English Department blog will be small glimpses at van der Weyde’s poetry specifically, and the joys of discovering manuscript and typescript poetry generally. First up is this short poem from 1890.

Courtesy of the TPNHA Collection, Ryan Library, Iona College

It is a Valentine’s card writ poetic. Perhaps a little heavy on the opening line’s “doth,” the poem’s luminescent imagery, coupled with the anthropomorphized “day,” leads nicely into a kind of delayed zeugma, where the day’s smile alights both the new and true love, but likewise the poem’s central symbol for that love: “fond hearts united.”

The next stanza shifts the ground quickly and engages in a tonal and narrative position van der Weyde takes in a number of his poems: that of both defense and competition. It will surprise no reader to learn that van der Weyde had a few marriages, and his poetry is infused with pervasive, creeping doubt about his ability to love, and his lover’s desire to love him. Those are differences without distinction for van der Weyde, and in this poem the plaintive tone of those first two lines, “Then may not I, with lover’s vie,/ To call this fair day mine” are a surprise. Having just left “fond hearts united,” the reader now encounters the narrator calling the “day” “fair’ and “mine” and not his lover. The displacement of both beauty and possession from lover to the still smiling (presumably) day, almost perfectly represents a contemporary Valentine’s anxiety, where the Valentine is not as important as the object purchased, the experience reserved, or the memories created. The day itself, not the one loved or loving, is the object of affection.

This is why the narrator both “yearns” and “learns,” because to learn to yearn is the real meaning of Valentine’s Day. The rhyme hides the abiding sorrow,  and the reader notes what is both yearned and learned. Not true love. Not self-giving. Nothing save “To be your Valentine.” Nothing save a self -induced state wholly dependent on the absent (in the poem) love of and for the other. And so, in this poem with absences, displacements, and altered states, van der Weyde expresses the essential heart of  pre- (post) modern love.

An Unheralded Gem: Mary Wilkins Freeman - Michael Sacks

There are plenty of good writers who are not famous.  One such writer is Mary Wilkins Freeman. Freeman (1852 – 1930) was an American writer who wrote several remarkable novels and short stories. Her novels include Pembroke (1894), The Jamesons (1899), and The Shoulders of Atlas (1908).

Freeman’s novels are well-regarded by literary scholars, and some of her short stories are even more critically acclaimed. Freeman’s most celebrated short stories include “A Humble Romance” (1884) and “A New England Nun” (1887).  Many of Freeman’s short stories were published initially in periodicals and were subsequently collected in book form.

Freeman’s works frequently depict the integrity, the humility, and the independence of people in the small towns of New England.  The characters often face moral dilemmas, and the events usually reveal the inherent goodness of the protagonists.  Her characters are often poor financially, yet rich spiritually.  Freeman affirms the unassailable dignity of her humble characters.

“A Humble Romance” recounts the story of Sally and Jake Russell.  Sally, a shy yet courageous and determined woman, marries Jake, a traveling salesman, after Jake rescues Sally from a life of servitude.  The marriage goes smoothly – until Jake’s former wife (whom he believed had died) resurfaces.  The ex-wife (who had cheated on Jake) tries to blackmail Jake into getting back together with her.  The ex-wife threatens to expose Jake as a bigamist if he does not give her what she wants.  Jake handles the situation so deftly that he remains loyal to Sally while also preventing a scandal from arising.

“A New England Nun” tells the story of Louisa Ellis.  Louisa is described as a “nun” in a figurative sense of the word because of her devotion to an ascetic lifestyle.  Louisa is engaged to Joe Dagget.  Joe has just returned to New England after 14 years in Australia, where he went to make a fortune.  Having achieved his goal, Joe believes that he can support Louisa financially, so they plan to embark on their marriage.  However, the relationship between Joe and Louisa faces two obstacles.  Joe has developed feelings for Lily Dyer, who takes care of Joe’s mother.  Meanwhile, Louisa has grown accustomed to being single and has become set in her ways.  Though she still likes Joe, Louisa perceives marriage as a threat to “her happy solitary life.”  Louisa and Joe call off the engagement, and the story ends happily for both of them.

Mary Wilkins was born in 1852 in Massachusetts.  Her maiden name is Wilkins; her married name is Freeman.  Wilkins grew up in Randolph, Massachusetts, a suburban city located about 15 miles south of Boston.  She and her family moved to Vermont and lived there for a few years before returning to Randolph.

Wilkins eschewed marriage for a long time – until she was 49.  Mary Wilkins married Dr. Charles Freeman in 1902.  The couple moved to Metuchen, New Jersey, where they embarked on a marriage that proved to be strenuous.  Charles Freeman’s alcoholism and mental instability took a heavy toll on their relationship.  The couple divorced in 1922.

Mary Wilkins Freeman died of a heart attack in 1930 at age 77.  Her work endures and remains available to readers today.

The collected works of Freeman are available at wilkinsfreeman.info.  This collection provides an invaluable resource for anyone who enjoys good literature.

Two of the best critical studies of Freeman and her work are the following: Mary Wilkins Freeman by Perry Westbrook (1967) and In a Closet Hidden: The Life and Work of Mary E. Wilkins Freeman by Leah Blatt Glasser (1996).

Although she is not particularly famous nowadays, Freeman was a household name during her lifetime.  Her fame peaked in the 1890s.  In the introduction to The Best Stories of Mary E. Wilkins (1927), Henry Wysham Lanier describes Freeman’s popularity in the following way: “To one who was a reader in the [1890s], it seems almost ludicrous to ‘introduce’ Mary E. Wilkins. (Just a little like introducing Babe Ruth anywhere in the United States, in these latter days!)”  One should keep in mind that Lanier made this comparison in 1927 – the year in which Ruth hit 60 home runs and helped the New York Yankees win the World Series.

Freeman received several prestigious honors for her work, including the William Dean Howells Medal for Distinction in Fiction.  In 1926, Freeman was inducted into the National Institute of Arts and Letters.

These honors are fitting forms of recognition for Mary Wilkins Freeman, a writer of extraordinary quality.

WHAT THE BODY KNOWS - DEAN DEFINO

There are things we know with nothing more than the proof of our own bodies.  We know the meaning of chaos because we once stuck a fork into an electric socket. We know that human extinction is inevitable because we did it again.  We know that people who say, “I love you” really mean, “I need you to love me.”  Just as we know that people who say, “There’s more to life than food” are…wrong.

We call this kind of knowledge “empirical,” from the Ancient Greek, ἐμπειρία, or empeiria, which translates as both “experience” and “experiment.”  I love that synergy: we experiment with reality through the sensory act of perception.  Knowledge is not so much drawn from experience as it is negotiated through the media of our senses.  Which isn’t to say that our perceptions, or the knowledge that results from them, are accurate.  Our senses, like those of other species, evolved to meet our own specific set of needs.  Which is to say, they are part and parcel of what makes us human.

We hear a great deal these days about the need for greater empathy.  We see our institutions—indeed, our very existence—threatened by our individual and collective inability to see the world through others’ eyes.  Some wonder if such a thing is even possible.  Some argue that it is enough simply to acknowledge and honor others’ perceptions, regardless of whether we can understand or identify with them, because all humans are entitled to that much.  Given how self-centered human beings are, that seems a lot to wish for.  Still, I have hope.  I believe we will endure, despite our tendency to make the same mistakes over and over, and despite our persistent inability to recognize the things that most matter until we lose them.  Those are emotional and intellectual failures that we may learn to overcome, or not.

But the body knows.  It signals dread to the heart and hamstrings long before the object of fear appears, and its skin prickles with desire long before the mind fixes on an object.  It says “run” and “seek,” even when mounded up on the couch, watching a seventh straight episode of Project Runway, season 12.  Despite the twin pillars of fear and laziness that shape so many of our decisions, it drags us along, demanding interface.  Regardless of our impulse to curse those who do not conform with our ideal of behavior, it forces our eyes to meet the glance of strangers, if only for a moment, seeking some sort of meaningful connection.  Irrespective of our persistent vision of a future cocooned in comfort and surrounded by lovers, family, friends, and well-wishers, our bodies demand adventures of the senses, whether at the top of a mountain or at the bottom of a bag of Doritos (and if you call that comfort eating, ask yourself why you don’t stop until you feel sick).

The body’s way of knowing—which is to say, through the friction and vibrations of the senses—pushes us to speak when it would be better to keep our mouths shut, to engage when it would be easier to retreat, and to direct our attention, and by turns our feelings, toward those who suffer and want, even as our brains try to convince us that whatever action we might take would be inconsequential in the grand scheme of things.   Our bodies know, perhaps because they are more immediately part of the grand scheme of things than our measly brains.  If experience is experiment, they are the lab and its apparatus.  The results they present are the facts.  All our brains can do is posit theories about them.

Which is not to say our bodies know better.  They have a limited view, and lack imagination.  They feel, and translate that feeling into knowledge, relying on our brains to draw out kernels of wisdom and insight.  But where brains drift and doubt, unsure whether to apply the curious fork to wall socket or feast, bodies are persistent, and insistent.  They insist on identifying and prioritizing our needs.  Indeed, they help us to survive, when our brains are occupied elsewhere, by warning us against the chaos of the electric current, and driving us toward the communal table.

So doing, our bodies help us to learn to live with each other, to recognize how our needs and the needs of the collective are one.  As our minds prompt us to run from the danger we perceive in others, our bodies remind us that safety and comfort can only be found in others.

All to say, I suspect empathy isn’t about transcending the self, but embodying it. And that what saves us in the end may not be our ability to love others, but our need to be loved.

AN OPEN LETTER ON THE POLITICS OF ALLYSHIP - TIMOTHY LYLE

An Open Letter on the Politics of Allyship

Dear Future Ally-Worker (or Student, if you prefer):

First, thank you so much for attending the Diversity Lecture Series event with Jose Antonio Vargas last week. I greatly appreciate your attentiveness and your kind words after the program. Hearing that our students feel seen and heard by events like these makes the months of planning worthwhile.

If you wonder why I am writing to you tonight, it’s because something you asked me—though kindly and sincerely—has not stopped ringing in my consciousness since we interacted.

As you expressed your excitement, you asked the following: “You were so great last year on stage, why didn’t you take the mic again to interview Mr. Vargas. Aren’t you like the person in charge of this?”

Unfortunately, due to my role as an organizer and the hustle of that last 30 minutes, I did not respond to you in the way you deserve. In addition to the coffee I hope to buy you and the dialogue that I hope we will have over said coffee, here I am nonetheless– writing to you and to whomever stumbles upon this blog—to answer your initial question and to share some of the thoughts that shape my thinking.

Your question isn’t the only thing on my mind as I write this, though.

As you were bidding me farewell in person last week, you closed with the expression that you want to “be an ally – but not in the bullshitty way.”

Though your description and the matter-of-fact delivery made me chuckle, I share your commitment (and underlying fears). I have spent countless years devising approaches to that work. For what it’s worth, I’d like to share some guiding principles that feel right to me as I work to support marginalized folks without the regular accompanying bullshit.

When you complimented my on-stage work last year with Janet Mock at the 2017 Diversity Lecture Series event and asked why I wasn’t on-stage this year with Jose Antonio Vargas, you ignited my thinking yet again about how to approach work in diversity, equity, and inclusion in a body that most read as white, cisgender, (sometimes) heterosexual, able-bodied, and at least comfortably middle-class—all of this is regardless of how I self-identity.

As the event neared, honestly, it might have been easier and maybe even more glamorous in terms of professional accomplishments to take the stage again. Less planning, to be sure. And I admire Jose Vargas a lot. But re-centering my body because of my institutional capacity as Chair of the Committee on Diversity when I have colleagues more qualified is just a small example of how I think ally work can go awry. To let you in on my thinking a little bit, here are some of the ideas that I think through when I try to do the best work I can—while always holding myself accountable to do better.

Please know the list I share with you tonight is always growing, evolving, and developing in collaboration with some of the most intellectually sound, piercing, and loving ally-workers and community organizers I know.

I hope it helps you fight back the bullshit that far too often muddies our best intentions to labor with and/or for others. More than that, though, I hope it motivates you to think through and devise your own.

 

  1. EMBRACE THE WORK: As Janet Mock often reminds me, allyship is far more effective when we think about it as a verb rather than a noun. Instead of taking refuge in an identity, strive to think of it as working with and for the well-being of others. This is work that is always collaborative and work that you must always re-assess under the guidance of the folks you aim to help. Work, werk, or werq—but always do it.

 

  1. LISTEN: As my grandmother (and Pulitzer-prize playwright Eugene O’Neill) taught me, plenty of folks know how to hear but very few actually take the time to listen. If you want to engage others who move through the world differently than you do and make a difference in their lives, listen to them on their own terms and without interruption. Avoid demanding more information from them (if they haven’t welcomed you to do so) and never busy yourself preparing your reply (or, more likely, your defense) when they are sharing experience and knowledge with you.

 

  1. EDUCATE YOURSELF: Keep in mind that it is not the job of marginalized folk to educate you and others (and institutions) on how to avoid abusing them. Though this invisible (and often traumatic) labor is regularly thrown on them, ally-workers should take it upon themselves to self-educate and then to share resources with others in their communities on similar preparation journeys. Things that are “new to you” are often quite old or tiring for them, so use your resources (Google is often a great—though incomplete—start). Identify books, blogs, films, and more to guide you on your path to knowledge. Follow competent folks on social media, for they will inevitably lead you to more and more capable and urgent voices. In short, get thyself a bibliography.

 

If folks volunteer their already-marginalized labor or welcome you to ask them questions, great. Still try to check your curiosity and make sure that your questions are value-added for people other than yourself.

 

  1. AVOID RE-CENTERING YOURSELF AND EXPERIENCES: I cannot tell you how many community organizing meetings that I’ve been to in which the “new ally” holds the meeting hostage with their needs and experiences. They arrive unprepared but yet still manage to have lots to say (usually about how much they don’t know). Be mindful of the communities and the purposes at stake and avoid the temptation to re-center yourself and your viewpoints, especially if you are in a privileged body that has always trained you to occupy the center of the world and rewarded you seductively for a job well done. This is part of what I worked to avoid when I chose not to take the stage last week. I have an esteemed colleague who is more qualified for this particular event, is a student-favorite, and is vital to our institution. Why (other than arbitrary power play) would I re-center my body in that discussion? Instead, do the labor quietly behind the scenes, partner with folks when necessary, and then get out of the way.

 

  1. BE AWARE OF HOW YOUR BODY OCCUPIES SPACE: Recognize that whether we like it or not, our bodies carry all sorts of complicated narratives into a room or into a situation when we arrive. Being aware of how your body occupies space and questioning why that might be so are both crucial first steps to thinking through your own situatedness. While you might not ever be able to erase those narratives, you can contend with them, call attention to them (sometimes only in your own head or in conversation with other privileged folk), and work to navigate them to minimize adverse impacts.

 

  1. PRACTICE UNBECOMING: Devon Carbado has this useful expression that he cites as he talks about engaging feminist labor as someone who identifies as a cisgender man. Because the world has constantly acculturated him to “become” and remain a member of the patriarchy, and because the world will continue to do so (rewarding him for succeeding and punishing him for failing), he says the best he can do is always work at “unbecoming” the dude the world wants him to be, which—of course—necessitates that he do all sorts of violence to women to accomplish the goal. What Carbado’s idea of “unbecoming” reminds me of is the need to navigate a constant tension between resisting what is expected and foregrounding what one values. For instance, because I have been acculturated in and through a racial contact that prizes white supremacy and regularly denigrates blackness, I know that I will never just wake up one day and no longer be impacted by the seductive qualities of white supremacy that elevates me arbitrarily –and calls to me to be its glove puppet—its mouthpiece—even when I am not conscious of its power. Unbecoming is the never-ending work that I must reckon with daily if I am to labor diligently towards a more just and equitable life for as many as possible.

 

  1. REFUSE SILENCE: Part of the ally work, at least as I see it, is using my voice and the protection or power that I don’t necessary deserve to speak about inequities of power. Please note that speaking up about violence and speaking for others is not the same thing. In my efforts to speak truth to power about issues that disproportionally impact marginalized folk, I never speak on their behalf, or ask them to speak with me as I am talking, or use them and what I think are their experiences as my examples. Oftentimes, this can create a kind of epistemological violence that only does more hurt, but ironically, this hurt is done in the name of allyship. Speak for yourself only and remain focused on issues. As Audre Lorde reminds us, our silence won’t save us, so I encourage you to find ways to use your voice—whether that is in person, in writing, or through other actions that make your dissenting views clear.

 

  1. EXPAND YOUR CIRCLE OF INFLUENCE: Though the term “get your people” has always made me uncomfortable, I do powerfully believe in the idea that ally-workers should help other aspiring ally-workers do better. And, honestly, this work extends beyond dialoguing with folks who openly want to better themselves and their work with others. It also involves using your privilege (always check that, by the way) to talk to those who disagree with you and the marginalized folk whom you aim to help. As bell hooks urges, call them in rather than call them out, and work to share your views with them. As you know well, these conversations are often riddled with complexities and sometimes violence, but imagine being the person living the experience and having to endure these conversations. Doing this particular kind of labor is often where you can be the most helpful. You, too, might have your limits, so as you prepare for protracted, meaningful transformation, pace yourself, reflect, re-strategize, and always recognize the power you have and the urgency of the issue.

 

I hope it goes without saying that this list is wildly incomplete and shared with you somewhat casually, but if it gives you a tiny glimpse into how I approached my decision last week and how I approach a lot of my work in my research, teaching, and service about marginalized communities, I am thankful.

Oh, and please don’t forget that last week I actually was able to choose to de-center myself. Any number of marginalized folk are often not in the position to choose at all.

Looking forward to coffee and more…

Timothy

 

“Melt”, a series of poems - Martin Delgado

1.) 9:19 am 2.22.18
wooden floors
creak and cry
under the weight of wet socks
dried tears
stockpiled nostalgia
restless bones
slowly close the curtains
silently strip down to under garments
so as not to wake your mind
eyes hanging low
drape yourself in that caramel coloured fur blanket
close your eyes
and let dreamworld consume you
2.) 6:53 pm 2/16:18
water investigating the crevices of my body
a sliver of light peeks through a crack in the door
i stare at the switch, the crack , the switch
fog flirting with the mirrors
olympians racing through my mind
the comfort
warmth
i search,
sensations refracting
3.) 10:03 pm 2.27.18
the mystery of my heart
which taints every last thought
which crosses the expansive pond
that is my mind
eludes me
like a puma catching its prey
gnawing at bone and blood
ignoring the confidence said prey once exuded
i suck the venom from each snake bite
those of which crawled out of my imagination
and intentionally swallow every last ounce of acid
no tears no fears
slowing down of mental gears
i lay,
back to quicksand
child to earth
letting my eyelids take me
at their own pace
always
at their own pace

THEM, APPLES - Dean Defino

A boy sees a farmer feeding apples to a pen full of pigs, one apple at a time. The boy asks, “Wouldn’t it be quicker to just dump the whole bushel into the pen?” “What’s the rush?” asks the farmer. “The pigs have nothing better to do.”

I don’t remember where I first heard this joke, but I remember wondering what it meant. Obviously, part of its meaning is clear enough: the farmer mistakes the intent of the boy’s question, which is to suggest that the farmer is wasting his own time, not the pigs’. But like any good joke, it is shot through with absurdity and irony: that is, it attempts to hold up two opposing views of reality (human and pig), while mocking the ludicrous notion that it is possible to do so.

Ludicrous or not, we do this sort of thing all of the time. In fact, it has become something of a cliché to measure a person’s level of intelligence by their ability to hold two or more opposing perspectives in their brains at the same time. Some might see this as a form of madness—an endless loop of equivocation—but “smart” people (and I will presume to number myself among them) see it as an essential part of critical thinking, believing that we must let in at least two opinions to test the validity of any particular one. Which isn’t to say that high levels of intelligence do not sometimes appear to correlate with madness. To return to the joke in question, perhaps the truly mad are those who finally refuse to come down on the side of human or pig, who refuse to finally nail a banner to their mast and pledge allegiance, who refuse to be held to account. Or to introduce another metaphor, at some point we have to stop spinning plates, take one down, and tuck into our dinner. Which, in this instance, is probably pork-based.

But jokes do not need to declare themselves one way or another. They are only critical frames and not sentient things (human or porcine), and therefore beyond any moral or social obligation. The teller of the joke does bear these burdens, but the joke itself, like any text, remains stubbornly separate and—because it is built on absurdity and irony—unresolved. That’s what makes it powerful, and hopefully funny.

Which brings me back to the farmer, the pigs, and the boy. Several things strike me about this joke. Some might not be of general interest, like questions of age and gender (why a boy and a man?), and social class (what does it mean to be ‘the farmer,’ besides the obvious, that he ‘farms’?). But other questions press themselves on all hearers, because it is in the nature of jokes to do so. Whether we are able to say with finality what the message or meaning of a joke is, we still need to take a position within it. Quite literally. To use the old slip-on-a-banana-peel gag as an example, we need to ask ourselves whether we identify as the spectator to the slapstick, as the person dropping the peel (wittingly or unwittingly), or as the person slipping on that peel.

So, who am I on this imaginary farm? The farmer, the boy, or one of the pigs? The boy seems like a safe bet. He’s the most apparently rational, framing reality in a way that is familiar to us, in terms of human time and value. If the farmer works faster, the boy’s implied logic suggests, he achieves a higher level of efficiency, which increases productivity and/or leisure for the farmer. In other words, he is better compensated. That compensation is measured in money and time, yes, but also in pig flesh. From the boy’s perspective, the pig’s value is measured in purely economic terms, as something traded upon. And if he’s grown up on a farm, he’s probably looking at the pig and thinking, “pork chops,” or “bacon.”

The farmer’s view is a bit more complex. He is a kind of poet in the piece, who acknowledges the validity of alternative states of being (pig time vs. human time). Like the Surrealists, who refused to give greater weight to waking reality than dreams and hallucinations, he does not assume that his experience of reality is the only one with merit. Of course, this does not prevent him from trading in pig flesh. Even poets have to eat.

The pigs, if I may presume to speak for them, are less inclined to think in terms of time or money, or indeed leisure vs. productivity. All they see is the apples. Red, green, ripe, rotten: all are indiscriminately gobbled with the same greedy determination that has led pigs to be identified with gluttony and excess (“Don’t be such a pig!”) and stubborn, single-minded pursuit (“Don’t be so pig-headed!”).

Of course, there is another perspective: that of the apple. Like the banana peel, it looks to play the role of the vehicle rather than the subject of the joke, because it lacks a will of its own. At best, it is the currency of the joke, the verb in the sentence that is the joke (okay, there are more than one sentence in this joke, but you see my point). The farmer ‘apples’ his pigs, and the boy wonders why the farmer ‘apples’ so inefficiently. But the apple is also done to. Or maybe it is better to say that it is done in by the joke. If the boy makes the farmer the butt of the joke, the apple is its more concrete victim. Even the pig is prized for its flesh. But the apple is just the fodder that makes the pig flesh, that in turn feeds farmer and boy (and, in industrial farming, other pigs).

By all appearances, it sucks to be the apple. As it has, seemingly from the beginning. In Eden, the apple was the instrument of damnation; in the story of Johnny Appleseed, it is the currency, rather than beneficiary of abundance. In myth anyway, apples have ever existed in the service to others’ transformation, but never their own. They remain, despite genetic cross-breeding and the occasional caramel coating, apples, plain and simple.

Which is why, I suppose, my first impulse is to speak for the apples, as the Lorax presumed to do for the trees. And also why I pause. After all, the Onceler might have been an amoral free-market capitalist without a thought for the environmental impact of his massive Thneed operation, but he was right about one thing: the Lorax was a self-satisfied, self-righteous, humorless scold. I certainly don’t want to be seen that way.

And there are other complications, as well. By what right do I claim to know the plight of apples, or to serve their welfare? Who am I to say what it feels like to be an apple, and what an apple wants or needs? I see them as victims of an oppressive narrative, a hierarchy where they are rendered powerless, incidental. But isn’t that critique informed by my own limited view of power dynamics?

Here’s something I do know: there is no joke without the apples. They are not merely the vehicles of the joke, but—if you’ll excuse the pun—the core of the paradox within. They are the creative tension, the frisson that makes meaning, both grist and grease for the mill. Whether as symbols of the transitory nature of existence (‘stuff’ as energy in a constant state of transformation), or digestible, but otherwise irreducible objects (‘stuff’ as ‘stuff’), they are essential. But like so much that is essential, they also appear to be indifferent to the transaction of the joke. They have no clear stake in it, which is why they may be fodder for the joke, but they are never the butt. Talk about a paradox!

So even if I can’t presume to stand up for the apples, I want to stand with them. They may pay the ultimate price in the joke, but they never submit to its tyranny. Within the many transactions of power and meaning, and the web of intersecting human and pig realities that complicate those transactions—in which I, the hearer, invariably get lost-they remain, stubbornly, themselves. Apples. Which of us can make that claim?

Besides, isn’t the underlying truth of any joke the same? That we all get eaten in the end?

Writing on Paper - T.J. Moretti

#howIwrite

I like to write. I haven’t published much, so I wouldn’t call myself a “writer,” certainly not a poet, though I started writing things when I wrote poems to cope in junior high. They were cheesy love poems for my first or second crush. Rejected, I wrote more poetry, either sighed a lot, or (more likely) bingewatched Video JukeBox until Green Jelly’s “Three Little Pigs” or Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” or Dr. Dre and Snoop Dog’s “Nothin but a G Thang” came on (YouTube it all, folks), or (just as likely) gorged myself on Super Nintendo or Genesis games to prepare for my first year in high school.

I don’t have those poems anymore. Don’t ask.

I wrote those poems on paper because it wasn’t until my second year in high school that I learned how to type on a computer and format a document.

I still write on paper whenever I can: poems, drafts of short stories, character sketches, ideas for novels, dreams, parts of an academic essay. I didn’t write this post on paper, I admit, but I tend toward paper, because writing on paper helps me remember what I wrote, what I changed.

My last writing: I wrote a poem for an Advent booklet distributed through Iona’s Office of Mission and Ministry. I started it on paper. Take a look at a section of an early draft.

See how messy it gets? I cut here, squeezed there, interrupted myself twice. I look back and flinch at some of my early word choices, like “numbing cold,” (like really, I could have done something else there, I mean, there was no need for me to even write that phrase down).

When I write on Word or Google Docs, I lose a history of those edits, those lessons in real-time, those signs that I was really thinking hard, really struggling to find meaning in an image, to find meaning at all. (I could just use “Track Changes,” but all the colors and lines seem too messy for me to untangle).

I don’t keep all drafts of all my writings. I’ve scrapped drafts of articles that have been published, or early, terrible versions of dissertation chapters that took my advisor hours to edit. I don’t feel the need to hold onto that history.

The poems, though, and the short stories, and the ideas for stories, and any drafts of unfinished scholarly articles demand that I document the changes, in the body of the writing or in the margins.

I want a written record of those changes.

I don’t want to tap “Backspace” or “Delete” to erase the history of my thought-process, my habits of mind, my search for meaning in art and my search for art in meaning.

Those writings demand that I take stock of my work, that I study the documents of their past, that I learn from those documents what I thought, felt, or thought I felt.

I need to write on paper to remember.

I can still write on Word and still make the final version permanent, but I find myself in the quirks of the drafts. Without a record, I don’t have a way to remember the quirks I changed, even if I can notice in the permanent version those quirks I can’t change. Take, for example, the final version of my advent poem:

The Advent Wreath: A Vigil

You fear what the dark means,

or might, you don’t know enough

to know why the holly, why the pine,

why four candles on a wreath

when coal for boys and girls

gone bad, born to the bad they know,

they know not, they know not what

they know.

Round and round

trace a bruise around an eye or wrist,

purples wrenched from pinks,

hope numbed cold.

Round and round loop the yarn by a lamp

near a hearth into stockings empty for more

quick picks, scratch offs, Crayola wax

to waste on stick-figure-family smiles

and North Pole lists next to Guida and Oreos

on the oak veneer table.

Round and round the barrel bomb

in Aleppo once, twice, more than three,

smote your peace.

Your hara feels what the dark means,

what excretes through pancreatic ducts

toward your right, your core—

call it your duodenum—

for food that feeds your life for more

than round and round until aground.

A square of candles, vertices on a circle of pine.

Light one, two, the third, four the sum.

Purples into a pink to purple,

you see in flickers—

dawn rays through dew on hydrangeas,

there is a peony—

the halo like a white oak

aspiring from winter’s ground

to rival the snow: I will green again.

Wax melts and puddles and sets

into the wounds of the world.

The wreath, the pine,

the wicks aflame,

the mess below,

or nest, a womb, dark aglow,

you know you know

you hope you know

See? Nothing I can change there, even in stanzas 2 and 3, which really need work. And stanza 1…

Well, I could edit this blog post, I suppose—take a screenshot of before and after or something. But that just sounds like so much work, you know?

Words I Loathe (part 1) - Aaron Rosenfeld

Aaron Rosenfeld

As my students know, I loathe the word “relatable.” They know because I always tell them, usually early in the semester, and there is always a casualty (and to those unfortunates, I offer an overdue apology, along with my unstinting gratitude for supplying me with my teaching moment).

I had not even heard the word “relatable” until about 10 years ago. In his “On Language” column in the New York Times, Ben Zimmer traces the evolution of the word “relatable” from “able to be related,” as in a story that can be told, to the new usage, “something you can relate to.” He partly blames the influence of television: mass culture requires mass relatability. Since television traffics in flattery of its target demographics, “relatable” is a proxy for profitable. As long as characters on screen offer easy access to fantasies of “they’re just like me,” albeit slightly better looking and with better apartments, our eyes stay glued to the magic mirror.

The problem with “relatable” is that, like the passive voice, it dupes the reader by smudging out the subject. When I say something is relatable, I mean I can relate to it. But, instead of taking responsibility as the one that does the relating, with all the attendant limitations and qualifications that attribution implies, “relatable” pretends what I experience is actually a quality of the object. This might seem like a venal sin, but it has mortal consequences for the intellect.

Vladimir Nabokov, one of the great literary stylists of the twentieth century, calls “impersonal imagination” (Lectures on Literature, 4) the reader’s most important tool; identifying with a character is “the worst thing a reader can do” (4). We need “scientific” aloofness to balance emotional intuition if we are to recognize the specificity, the otherness, of the author’s experience. When we identify, we replace the author’s experience with our own; we find – yet again – our same old selves. I can think of no greater horror than being sentenced to bump forever against the bars of my own brain. Say goodbye to the sudden insight that might cause us to reevaluate who and what we are; say goodbye to the exhilarating leap into strangeness.

“Relatable” is the perfect word for a narcissistic age, insisting on the adequacy of the receiver’s experience, even though perhaps the most important reason for reading is to acknowledge our own incompleteness. Writing about student evaluations, Mark Edmundson tells of a professor’s solution to this form of self-satisfaction:

It’s said that some time ago a Columbia University instructor used to issue a harsh two-part question. One: What book did you most dislike in the course? Two: What intellectual or characterological flaws in you does that dislike point to? (Harper’s, September 1, 1997)

Edmundson’s cheeky professor raises a real issue. When we cannot relate, maybe we ought to look inward; the fault is not in our books, but in us.

I will admit, I have heard reasonable defenses of “relatable.” Just the other day, a student pointed out, “it doesn’t mean others have to relate, only that I do.” Maybe so, but framing it as a matter of relatability at all presumes we are central to the business at hand. Do authors write for us? Or do they write for themselves, out of a fascination with a feeling, a voice, a story, or a texture that they feel compelled to put into words? If it is the latter, then we are not the destination; we are no more than a bathroom break along the way.

Or, you might argue, “relatable” is like “edible,” just a way of describing whether or not something is ingestible by mind instead of mouth. But not exactly: “edible” describes an empirically verifiable state of being - either something can be eaten or not – the burden of which rests entirely with the object proposed as food (unless we mean it figuratively as hyperbole). Our ability to relate to a work of literature, in contrast, evolves depending on the effort we put into it. A shovel will always be inedible, no matter how good you get at chewing.

Edmundson and Nabokov point to how “relatable” makes intellectual laziness an approved category. We all have a tendency to treat the new things we encounter as confirmation of what we already know. This is how Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” became a poem about following your own path in life rather than a poem about self-deception and regret. Writers play with expectations—they trick us into thinking we are reading something familiar, only to twist it into something new. When we reflexively reduce what they have written to confirmation of our half-formed thoughts, we get it exactly wrong; in our rush to hear our common sense reflected back at us, we miss the meaning entirely.

Ultimately, calling something “relatable” undoes the real work of reading. Reading means hearing the voices of the others that inhabit the texts we read. Some effort is required. Empathy is not a thing that we all simply have in equal measure, it is to be cultivated, and reading is a tool for this end. Reading well can make all things “relatable,” but this is the outcome, not the precondition for our encounter with a work of art or literature.

A work of literature is only as large as the mind that contains it. So next time you find yourself thinking about whether a work is “relatable,” I have a suggestion: look for what is not “relatable” in the text; that is where you are most likely to find its genius. But I imagine you knew that’s what I would say.

 

 

 

 

 

What I Read Wednesdays - Alyssa Quinones

Alyssa Quinones

 

For me, Wednesday is the day of the week that causes me the most stress. I spend my Tuesday evenings and the entirety of my Wednesdays with my nose in a book. As a grad student, having two lit classes back to back that are novel-based is no small feat. The permanent dark circles under my eyes and coffee shakes in my hands are a representation of my perpetual tiredness. But the one thing that makes it all worthwhile—I’m greatly enjoying the books that are being brought my way, books that, if it weren’t for these courses, I probably would have never picked up myself. My Images of Women in Modern American Literature class has been one of my favorite courses I have taken in my collegiate career. Books in that class have not only broaden my scope but have also pushed against my comfort barrier. They have made me cry in sadness and in anger, but have also made me immensely happy. Everyone should read them.

americanah

One of those books is Americanah by Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. This book was a roller coaster of emotions for me, and after Adele dropped ‘Hello’, I couldn’t handle life anymore. If you occasionally jam out to ‘Flawless’ by Beyoncé (if “occasionally” means every day) than you already know who this woman is. Beyoncé sampled words from Adichie’s Ted Talk entitled “We should all be feminists” in her hit song.

Nigerian writer Chimamanda Adichie gestures in Lagos,Nigeria, Tuesday, Sept. 16 2008.(AP Photo/George Osodi)
Nigerian writer Chimamanda Adichie gestures in Lagos,Nigeria, Tuesday, Sept. 16 2008.(AP Photo/George Osodi)

Adiche, with her authoritative voice and boundless humor, takes you on a sensational journey of race, love, and class by transporting you from the past and the present to tell an unforgettable story about a young woman named Ifemelu. What makes this book so important is how acutely relatable it is because it is of our time. It is rooted in our decade, in our history. The prominence of technology, internet culture, sense of community within the blogging world, the 2008 election and the microscope held over race in America as a result are all aspects of what makes this novel such a prominent and essential part of our culture.

From the beginning of the novel, it becomes clear to the reader that Adichie has a firm grasp and understanding of what makes people tick. Her narration is a flawless examination of race through the lens of “otherness.” We perceive of race through Ifemelu’s eyes whilst in America and in Nigeria, where race is something she never had to truly acknowledge. Back home, the issue at hand wasn’t race, it was class. While going to college in Nigeria, Ifemelu is bogged down by bouts of discontentment. She wants a better life and education for herself.

One of the main complications I had with this novel was the protagonist herself. Although I greatly enjoyed the novel and found Ifemelu’s strength, perseverance, and intelligence to be refreshing to read, I came away with mixed feelings. Ifemelu’s general fickleness and self-sabotaging manner made her a difficult character to like at times. Her relationship with her old boyfriend Obinze conflicted me the most. Unlike a majority of my classmates, I did not view this as a love story and, by the end, was not rooting for the two to be together. But like every relationship Ifemelu has in this novel, she finds a reason to end it. Curt, her first American boyfriend, commonly referred to in her blog posts as the “hot white ex”, provided her with a life too easily lived, too comfortable. His race, wealth, and high social standing provided her with numerous ways to better herself and her standing whilst in America, but she sabotaged herself out of the relationship. She was playing a role if you will, involving herself in an experiment. She was happy, but not content. Her second American boyfriend Blaine, an African-American professor at Yale with high intellect and a false sense of maturity, appeared at first to be the perfect man. Before they had begun dating, Ifemelu could see their lives together quite easily. Once together, the only basis of longevity in their relationship was Obama’s campaign for the presidency. She found it difficult to fit in with his friends. Again, she found pleasure, but she wasn’t content. Obinze was the great love of her life, having met at school in their youth and dating into University, they had a strong and seemingly unbreakable bond. Bouts of depression and feelings of hopelessness regarding her situation caused Ifemelu to feel outside of herself and give up on the relationship.

At times during my reading, Ifemelu came off as petty and selfish. Now and again, her behavior is what caused me to find this book so harrowing to read. I’m fairly certain I had to stop reading out of anger and frustration at least 5 times towards the end of the book. (Note to self: ‘Friends’ is always a great distraction when literature or real life becomes too stressful. Naps help too.) Though, looking back on the novel, now I see that, that is something Adichie was blatantly trying to do. She is able to find the balance between impactful characters that both entertain and enrage whilst offering an important social and cultural commentary.

I hope I didn’t come out sounding too preachy in this post, but my class discussions are only 2 hours long, and I’m fairly sure half of the class would have crucified me for my opinions on Obinze x Ifemelu (#Obinelu? #Ifeminize?). I think I may be the only one who feels this way about Ifemelu. I’m sure the Internet dwellers are sharpening their pitchforks, but, even though I had my problems with the two protagonists of this novel, it was still one of the greatest novels I have ever read. I hope my interpretation of Ifemelu as a character can spark some conversation. She is a character that, like any human being, is riddled with many flaws, but flawed characters are usually the most interesting ones to read.

The end of Americanah brought with it a sense of longing and melancholy. I found I was not yet ready to leave the story or the characters within it. I wish we got to see more of Obinze’s point of view. Although I disagreed with some of his actions, I found him to be a very fascinating character and his time in England was some of my favorite parts to read in the novel.

Although I wasn’t the biggest fan of Ifemelu and Obinze as a couple by the end, I liked the idea that there is a certain dullness to life without the one you love. They both were living a life removed of color because the person they wanted to be with was no longer in it, a life of black and white, separations and categories, decisions and paths, all leading them to their true adventures.

One of the many securities of literature is that it can offer its readers an escape from their lives. In light of recent events in Paris, please stay safe and love one another.