Monday, April 30, 2018

Sherman Alexie Ponders Love and Poses Moral Quandary

Sherman Alexie.

When I saw Sherman Alexie’s new poem Hymn last August, I flagged it for inclusion in the National Poetry Month post.  Just last year I profiled the prolific and versatile Native American writer and his insightful and challenging poem Hey, Look, the Abyss! reflecting on a visit to Dachau by the survivor of the slow genocide of America’s indigenous peoples.  The new work seemed just as sharply on point.
It should have been a no brainer.  Alexi was on a roll.  A critically acclaimed poet since the publication of his first collection, The Business of Fancy Dancing in his mid-twenties he went on to publish nine more books of poetry, several popular young adult novels, and his stories of coming into adulthood on the reservation, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven and its sequel.  He shepherded that book to the big screen  in 1997 as Smoke Signals, the first major American film written, directed, and staring Native Americans.  His 2007 novel The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian won a National Book Award for Young People’s Literature and has become a favorite, if controversial, part of many high school reading lists.  

Alexie's 2017 memoir was garnering wide praise and reaping new honors when everything fell appart for it's author.
Long a favorite on the reading circuit, last year Alexie began an extensive tour for his new memoirs of his difficult relationship with his gifted but flawed  mother and growing up on and off the reservation, You Don't Have to Say You Love Me.  The tour for the widely acclaimed book was so emotionally exhausting that he abruptly canceled several appearances and when he resumed the tour did informal talks and interviews instead of readings.   
But it all fell apart last February.  Alexie’s Wikipedia bio summarizes what happened:
On February 28, 2018, Alexie published a statement regarding accusations of sexual harassment against him by several women, including author Litsa Dremousis with whom he’d had a consensual affair in the past and who claimed numerous women had spoken to her about Alexie’s behavior. Ms. Dremousis' response initially appeared on her Facebook page and was subsequently reprinted in The Stranger for March 1, 2018. The fallout from these accusations includes the Institute of American Indian Arts renaming its Sherman Alexie Scholarship as the MFA Alumni Scholarship. The blog Native Americans in Children’s Literature has deleted or modified all references to Alexie. In February 2018 it was reported that the American Library Association, which had just awarded Alexie its Carnegie Medal for You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me: A Memoir, was reconsidering, and in March it was confirmed that Alexie had declined the award and was postponing the publication of a paperback version of the memoir.  The American Indian Library Association rescinded its 2008 Best Young Adult Book Award from Mr. Alexie for The Absolute True Diary of a Part Time Indian sending the message that his actions are unacceptable.
Just like that in the wake of the #MeetToo movement, the shining star of Native American literature became a non-person.

Seatle writer Litsa Dremousis, a former consentual lover and freind, confronted Alexie about past sexual behavior or abuse of multiple un-named women and was named by Alexie in his statement.  This photo accompanied her response pulished in The Stranger.
For the record, here is Alexie’s original statement.  He has said little since then and has been largely in seclusion.   I know there are some who will object to my printing the statement.
Over the years, I have done things that have harmed other people, including those I love most deeply.  To those whom I have hurt, I genuinely apologize. I am so sorry.
I reject the accusations, insinuations, and outright falsehoods made by Litsa Dremousis, who has led charges against me. Ms. Dremousis has portrayed herself as simply being a “friend” of mine. She has withheld from the public the fact that she and I had previously been consenting sexual partners.
Our sexual relationship ended in 2015. But Ms. Dremousis has attended most of my public events in Seattle since then.  Without my knowledge or permission, Ms. Dremousis delivered food to my house after I cancelled my 2017 book tour due to emotional trauma.
On October 18, 2017, Ms. Dremousis sent my wife an email in which she informed her of our past sexual relationship, noting that all of our interactions had been consensual. Two weeks later, Ms. Dremousis posted something on my wife’s Facebook page that frightened my wife. Since then, Ms. Dremousis has continually tweeted and spoken in public about my behavior, making accusations based on rumors and hearsay and quoting anonymous sources.
There are women telling the truth about my behavior and I have no recollection of physically or verbally threatening anybody or their careers. That would be completely out of character. I have made poor decisions and I am working hard to become a healthier man who makes healthier decisions.
Again, I apologize to the people I have hurt. I am genuinely sorry.
—Sherman  Alexie
I have no way to confirm the truth of Alexie’s statement, or the details of Ms. Dremousis’s allegations concerning un-named women.  Alexie acknowledges inappropriate behavior even if he quibbles with the most serious allegations.  The #MeToo movement has taught us to trust the testimony of women who were often previously reflexively dismissed. No one says the Alexie must not personally bear the painful consequences of his misbehavior.
But are we required to expunge a once treasured body of work with deep insight into the Native American experience?  If that is the standard, literary canon is must be drastically diminished.  Writers and poets aren’t saints or role models.  In fact, like many creative people, they are apt every human foible and failing and often have more opportunities and temptations for misbehavior than others.  Not only have they committed every possible sexual transgression and perversion, they have often been physically abusive to mates, have committed every conceivable crime up to and including murder, and have held repulsive views like T.S. Eliot’s anti-Semitism or even abetted Fascism on a grand scale like Ezra Pound.  Robert Burns, featured in a post just yesterday, was said to have “strewn Scotland with his bastards.”  More modern writers including e.e. cummings and Jack Kerouac mistreated, abused, and betrayed women in their lives. 
Nor have women scribes been immune.  Collette took her husband’s teenage son as a lover in her 50’s, some abused or neglected their own children, and in a couple of notorious European cases aggressively tormented lovers to suicide.
But as offensive as some of these writers were, we continue to read and even enjoy them.  Perhaps that makes us accomplices after the fact to their crimes and abuse.
But I have re-read Alexei’s new poem, and I still find it moving and insightful.  Worthy of capping a month of poems by diverse voices.  I am sure some will disagree and accuse me of being an active accomplice to misogyny.  You be the judge.
Why do we measure people’s capacity
To love by how well they love their progeny?

That kind of love is easy. Encoded.
Any lion can be devoted

To its cubs. Any insect, be it prey
Or predator, worships its own DNA.

Like the wolf, elephant, bear, and bees,
We humans are programmed to love what we conceive.

That’s why it’s so shocking when a neighbor
Drives his car into a pond and slaughter–

Drowns his children. And that’s why we curse
The mother who leaves her kids—her hearth—

And never returns. That kind of betrayal
Rattles our souls. That shit is biblical.

So, yes, we should grieve an ocean
When we encounter a caretaker so broken.

But I’m not going to send you a card
For being a decent parent. It ain’t that hard

To love somebody who resembles you.
If you want an ode then join the endless queue

Of people who are good to their next of kin—
Who somehow love people with the same chin

And skin and religion and accent and eyes.
So you love your sibling? Big fucking surprise.

But how much do you love the strange and stranger?
Hey, Caveman, do you see only danger

When you peer into the night? Are you afraid
Of the country that exists outside of your cave?

Hey, Caveman, when are you going to evolve?
Are you still baffled by the way the earth revolves

Around the sun and not the other way around?
Are you terrified by the ever-shifting ground?

Hey, Trump, I know you weren’t loved enough
By your sandpaper father, who roughed and roughed

And roughed the world. I have some empathy
For the boy you were. But, damn, your incivility,

Your volcanic hostility, your lists
Of enemies, your moral apocalypse—

All of it makes you dumb and dangerous.
You are the Antichrist we need to antitrust.

Or maybe you’re only a minor league
Dictator—temporary, small, and weak.

You’ve wounded our country. It might heal.
And yet, I think of what you've revealed

About the millions and millions of people
Who worship beneath your tarnished steeple.

Those folks admire your lack of compassion.
They think it's honest and wonderfully old-fashioned.

They call you traditional and Christian.
LOL! You’ve given them permission

To be callous. They have been rewarded
For being heavily armed and heavily guarded.

You’ve convinced them that their deadly sins
(Envy, wrath, greed) have transformed into wins.

Of course, I’m also fragile and finite and flawed.
I have yet to fully atone for the pain I’ve caused.

I’m an atheist who believes in grace if not in God.
I’m a humanist who thinks that we’re all not

Humane enough. I think of someone who loves me—
A friend I love back—and how he didn’t believe

How much I grieved the death of Prince and his paisley.
My friend doubted that anyone could grieve so deeply

The death of any stranger, especially a star.
“It doesn’t feel real,” he said. If I could play guitar

And sing, I would have turned purple and roared
One hundred Prince songs—every lick and chord—

But I think my friend would have still doubted me.
And now, in the context of this poem, I can see

That my friend’s love was the kind that only burns
In expectation of a fire in return.

He’s no longer my friend. I mourn that loss.
But, in the Trump aftermath, I’ve measured the costs

And benefits of loving those who don’t love
Strangers. After all, I’m often the odd one—

The strangest stranger—in any field or room.
“He was weird” will be carved into my tomb.

But it’s wrong to measure my family and friends
By where their love for me begins or ends.

It’s too easy to keep a domestic score.
This world demands more love than that. More.

So let me ask demanding questions: Will you be
Eyes for the blind? Will you become the feet

For the wounded? Will you protect the poor?
Will you welcome the lost to your shore?

Will you battle the blood-thieves
And rescue the powerless from their teeth?

Who will you be? Who will I become
As we gather in this terrible kingdom?

My friends, I’m not quite sure what I should do.
I’m as angry and afraid and disillusioned as you.

But I do know this: I will resist hate. I will resist.
I will stand and sing my love. I will use my fist

To drum and drum my love. I will write and read poems
That offer the warmth and shelter of any good home.

I will sing for people who might not sing for me.
I will sing for people who are not my family.

I will sing honor songs for the unfamilar and new.
I will visit a different church and pray in a different pew.

I will silently sit and carefully listen to new stories
About other people’s tragedies and glories.

I will not assume my pain and joy are better.
I will not claim my people invented gravity or weather.

And, oh, I know I will still feel my rage and rage and rage
But I won’t act like I’m the only person onstage.

I am one more citizen marching against hatred.
Alone, we are defenseless. Collected, we are sacred.

We will march by the millions. We will tremble and grieve.
We will praise and weep and laugh. We will believe.

We will be courageous with our love. We will risk danger
As we sing and sing and sing to welcome strangers.

—Sherman Alexie

Sunday, April 29, 2018

Lilacs Bloom in Spring and Old Fashion Hearts

Caves of lilacs....

Kathy and I were driving home this afternoon after attending a family memorial service for son-in-law Ken Pearson when she mentioned how much she knew I loved lilacs.  She had been looking at some on-line and thought we might get a pair of bushes to flank the sidewalk leading to the house in Crystal Lake on the Ridge Avenue side.  Thanks to the hard work and effort of Daughter-in-Residence Maureen and her husband Kevin Rotter, the grounds of the Murfin Estate  have thoroughly cleaned up, pruned, and prettified in conjunction with an eminent house painting project.  It was all work that the slothful master of the manor has diligently neglected for years.  The lilacs would be a nice new touch.
Long ago, when the little subdivision of Leonard Heights was finally built with little post-World War II ranch houses about 70 years ago, the  back corners of the lots were marked by lilac bushes.  Some have died, but several persist—enormous old survivors that still manage to bloom.   The long cold spring has put them way behind schedule this year—they are just beginning to bud leaves.  But in due time I expect to see the purple blooms and smell their heavy perfume.
Our bush has been invaded, however with those junk weed elms crowding its branches.  About three years ago Grandson No. 2 Joe Gibson in a spate of helpfulness attacked the tangle with clippers and saw—and managed to cut mostly the lilac instead of the elm.  The bush is hardy, and has been making a recovery, but much was lost.  Also because the bush is behind the house and garage, it is better seen from the neighboring  funeral home parking lot than from the residence. We could cast our eyes on the new plants from our kitchen and living room windows.
My affection goes back to childhood when my late twin brother Tim and I would spend hours playing Davey Crocket and Daniel Boone or Roy Rogers and Hopalong Cassidy among the ancient lilac caves in the backyard of our rented house in Cheyenne, Wyoming.  Later in Skokie, Illinois where I lived during high school there were once again those sweet aromatic lilacs in the yard.
The newly planted lilacs on the Murfin Estate.  When Kevin Rotter snapped the photo on his phone a rainbow miraculouly appeared in the image.  We are taking it as a good omen.

So we stopped by a nursery on the way home and picked up two Classic lilacs, the rich purple kind that were planted all of those years ago.  Son-in-law Kevin has already got them planted.  They are beginning to leaf out and look like they might even bloom this year.  I am giddy with joy.   
So naturally, It’s lilac poetry time.

Amy Lowell in her garden.
First by New England’s Amy Lowell, the queen of the American Imagists.
False blue,
Color of lilac,
Your great puffs of flowers
Are everywhere in this my New England.
Among your heart-shaped leaves
Orange orioles hop like music-box birds and sing
Their little weak soft songs;
In the crooks of your branches
The bright eyes of song sparrows sitting on spotted eggs
Peer restlessly through the light and shadow
Of all Springs.
Lilacs in dooryards
Holding quiet conversations with an early moon;
Lilacs watching a deserted house
Settling sideways into the grass of an old road;
Lilacs, wind-beaten, staggering under a lopsided shock of bloom
Above a cellar dug into a hill.
You are everywhere.
You were everywhere.
You tapped the window when the preacher preached his sermon,
And ran along the road beside the boy going to school.
You stood by the pasture-bars to give the cows good milking,
You persuaded the housewife that her dishpan was of silver.
And her husband an image of pure gold.
You flaunted the fragrance of your blossoms
Through the wide doors of Custom Houses—
You, and sandal-wood, and tea,
Charging the noses of quill-driving clerks
When a ship was in from China.
You called to them: “Goose-quill men, goose-quill men,
May is a month for flitting.”
Until they writhed on their high stools
And wrote poetry on their letter-sheets behind the propped-up ledgers.
Paradoxical New England clerks,
Writing inventories in ledgers, reading the “Song of Solomon” at night,
So many verses before bed-time,
Because it was the Bible.
The dead fed you
Amid the slant stones of graveyards.
Pale ghosts who planted you
Came in the nighttime
And let their thin hair blow through your clustered stems.
You are of the green sea,
And of the stone hills which reach a long distance.
You are of elm-shaded streets with little shops where they sell kites and marbles,
You are of great parks where every one walks and nobody is at home.
You cover the blind sides of greenhouses
And lean over the top to say a hurry-word through the glass
To your friends, the grapes, inside.

False blue,
Color of lilac,
You have forgotten your Eastern origin,
The veiled women with eyes like panthers,
The swollen, aggressive turbans of jeweled pashas.
Now you are a very decent flower,
A reticent flower,
A curiously clear-cut, candid flower,
Standing beside clean doorways,
Friendly to a house-cat and a pair of spectacles,
Making poetry out of a bit of moonlight
And a hundred or two sharp blossoms.
Maine knows you,
Has for years and years;
New Hampshire knows you,
And Massachusetts
And Vermont.
Cape Cod starts you along the beaches to Rhode Island;
Connecticut takes you from a river to the sea.
You are brighter than apples,
Sweeter than tulips,
You are the great flood of our souls
Bursting above the leaf-shapes of our hearts,
You are the smell of all Summers,
The love of wives and children,
The recollection of gardens of little children,
You are State Houses and Charters
And the familiar treading of the foot to and fro on a road it knows.
May is lilac here in New England,
May is a thrush singing “Sun up!” on a tip-top ash tree,
May is white clouds behind pine-trees
Puffed out and marching upon a blue sky.
May is a green as no other,
May is much sun through small leaves,
May is soft earth,
And apple-blossoms,
And windows open to a South Wind.
May is full light wind of lilac
From Canada to Narragansett Bay.

False blue,
Color of lilac.
Heart-leaves of lilac all over New England,
Roots of lilac under all the soil of New England,
Lilac in me because I am New England,
Because my roots are in it,
Because my leaves are of it,
Because my flowers are for it,
Because it is my country
And I speak to it of itself
And sing of it with my own voice
Since certainly it is mine.

—Amy Lowell

Hyam Plutzik looking very litterary
Hyam Plutzik was born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1911. During his lifetime, he published three poetry collections: Aspects of Proteus in 1949, Apples from Shinar in 1959; 2011), and Horatio in 1961, all three of which were finalists for the Pulitzer Prize.  He died in 1962;
Sprig of Lilac
Their heads grown weary under the weight of Time—
These few hours on the hither side of silence—
The lilac sprigs bend on the bough to perish.
Though each for its own sake is beautiful,
In each is the greater, the remembered beauty.
Each is exemplar of its ancestors.

Within the flower of the present, uneasy in the wind,
Are the forms of those of the years behind the door.
Their faint aroma touches the edge of the mind.

And the living and the past give to one another.
There is no door between them.  They pass freely
Out of themselves; becoming one another.

I see the lilac sprigs bending and withering.
Each year like Adonis they pass through the dumb-show of death,
Waxing and waning on the tree in the brain of a man.
—Hyam Plutzik

Robert Burns pitiching woo...

Far earlier Robert Burns, the beloved national poet of  Scotland conjured a lilac to seduce a lass—a time honored function of verse.  

O were my Love yon Lilac fair

O were my love yon Lilac fair, 
  Wi’ purple blossoms to the Spring,
And I, a bird to shelter there, 
  When wearied on my little wing!
How I wad mourn when it was torn        
  By Autumn wild, and Winter rude!
But I wad sing on wanton wing, 
  When youthfu’ May its bloom renew’d.
O gin my love were yon red rose, 
  That grows upon the castle wa’;   
And I myself a drap o’ dew, 
  Into her bonie breast to fa’!
O there, beyond expression blest, 
  I’d feast on beauty a’ the night;
Seal’d on her silk-saft faulds to rest,
  Till fley’d awa by Phoebus’ light!

—Robert Burns

Lilacs in a cold rain.

A certain obscure Midwestern poet mused on a cold wet spring and lilacs in his little-read 2004 collection We Build Temples in the Heart.
Lilacs Again
Lilacs in the soft gray glove
                               of a cold wet spring—

“Where has spring gone?”
                               demanded the shivering lips
                               as the asker speeds
                               to a cozy nest
                               of cappuccino and scones.

As if spring were all red and yellow tulips
                               brilliant, tall and proud,
                               swaying with God’s breath
                               amid the verdant sweep,
                               dappled with sun and shade,
                               filtered through a glory of apple blossoms
                               under a perfect sky.

And when the days pass and the gray is vanquished,
                               the sun restored to its throne,
                               the lilacs, past perfection,
                               wilt and brown along their tips.

“Too bad the lilacs failed this year,”
                               the morning voice
                               refreshed by proper spring,
                               chirps with the barest trace
                               of disappointment.

—Patrick Murfin