Poets Remembering Parents, Part II

April 21, 2012

Li-Young Lee (Source: timesunion.com)

Turning our attention to Li-Young Lee’s poem “The Gift,” I began with the obvious but important fact that Lee’s poem establishes as we come to it from the work of Plath and Dove, namely, that men share with women this intense need to remember their fathers clearly, to ‘get back’ at them or to them, to understand them and love them, perhaps to forgive them, perhaps to get past them.  “Do you recall from the introduction what distinctions Lee’s father achieved?” I wondered.  Several voices responded with “physician to Chairman Mao” and “political prisoner in Sukarno’s Indonesian jail.”  “Right,” I said, “and our editors also credit Lee with using the same techniques that Dove used in resurrecting her remorseful but menacing father, relying on multi-sensory appeals to recreate his father and to remember him faithfully and accurately.”

Noting that the word “gift” never appears in the poem, except in the title, I asked, “What is it?”  Arlind responded with “his ‘stories,’” Dafina with “his ‘tenderness’ and ‘discipline.’”  Praising both answers, I asked how Lee uses sensory imagery to reveal that tenderness and firmness.  We then explored Lee’s use of synecdoche and metaphor, the “voice” that sounds like “a well of dark water,” the “hands” that embrace Lee’s young face but also raise “flames of discipline” over his head (ll. 1-13).  We then noticed the long-term effect of these remembered images, as Lee sees himself, years later, lifting a splinter from his wife’s hand with the same healing gentleness that his father had ‘planted’ in his hand decades before.  “And how does Lee express his gratitude for these gifts?” I asked.  Edita responded by citing “what a child does….I kissed my father” (ll. 33, 35).

“When you juxtapose Lee’s poem to Plath’s “Daddy,” or even to Miller’s play Death of a Salesman, what do you realize about the American family and about the need of grown children to look back and understand their parents?” I asked.  This prompt led to some interesting comments on the need of children to reconstruct family narratives of justice and love as well as stories of injustice and abuse.  “What do adult children receive, other than some joy and lots of pain, from remembering such stories?” I wondered.  “Is it just about assigning blame, condemning mom or dad for what we have become?  Or about kissing the parent who loved you well?”   Wisely, Merita responded, “It’s more about the adult child making a choice, saying ‘you had the wrong dream,’ or ‘I’m through,’ or ‘I choose to pass on your love to my family.’”

Applauding this perceptive insight, I asked the class where Louise Glück’s poem “Appearances” stands on spectrum of remembering family narratives and choosing what the next chapter will be.  After Laureta read the poem aloud, I reminded the class of the introductory comments on Glück’s “complex family relations,” her psychoanalysis to deal with the resulting pain (3000), and then asked where they saw pain and coping mechanisms in the poem.  We quickly caught the reference to being “analyzed” but also the humor, the reference to portraits of her and her sister hung “over the mantel,/ where we couldn’t fight” (ll. 2-3).  When I asked what she remembers about her mother, we reviewed key descriptors of the “strong,” ‘controlling’ woman who valued “order,” who grieved always over another daughter who died, who “ministered to” her living sister and, in so doing, “damaged the other” (ll. 28-36).  “So what does the adult child now realize about the consequences of her mother’s unequal love?” I asked.  Besa rose to the challenge: “She understands that because she always wanted to be “child enough” for her mother, she became “too obedient,” too ready to be shaped—“If you want me to be a nun, I’ll be a nun”—to earn her mother’s approval (ll. 26, 43-44).

Yusef Komunyakaa (Source: Indiana Review)

“Yes,” I responded, “and such realizations can liberate the adult, as we saw in Biff at the end of Salesman.  Isn’t it interesting that when adult children take a different route than the parents took, they usually do not try to ‘kill’ the parent, as did Plath; on the contrary, they try to preserve the parent, as did Biff.”  I then asked if they could recall where Yusef Komunyakaa got his name and how that naming might relate to the instinct to preserve the parent.  No one remembered, so we scanned the introduction for this sentence: Komunyakaa “adopted the lost surname of a Trinidadian grandfather who came to the United States as a child” (3075).

Noting, too, the statement that Komunyakaa devoted his poetry to restoring black faces—from rural Louisiana, from Bourbon Street, and from Vietnam—that have been ‘erased’ from cultural memory (3075), we sought to discover how he remembers his father in “My Father’s Love Letters.”  After Fidan read the poem aloud, we spoke of this illiterate alcoholic mill worker, who asked his son to write his love letters to his wife, “promising to never beat her/Again” (ll. 6-7).  “But what else does Komunyakaa refuse to erase?” I asked.  Arben answered, listing the tools of his trade, the “carpenter’s apron,” the “gleam of a five-pound wedge” that “pulled a sunset/Through the doorway of his toolshed” (ll. 12, 22, 24-25).  “Right,” I said, “and he also remembers that his father could look at a blueprint and instantly know ‘how many bricks/Formed each wall’” (ll. 30-31).   Asked for his conclusion, Arben added that the drunken brute also seems to be a true craftsman, an artist “almost redeemed by what he tried to say” in his letters (ll. 35-36).

Thanking all for their patient, insightful readings, I asked for volunteers to read from their journals about their parents.  Bajram responded with a full-page tribute to his mother, the “goddess” who never failed him as he grew from childhood to adolescence and manhood.  Though he had not attempted poetry, we all praised the poetic quality of his prose, poetic in the sense that it relied on imagery from her kitchen table, site for buttering home-made bread and learning letters, and from his bedside to stress her nurturing tenderness, and from the war—school doors closed, soldiers ruling the streets—to stress her dignity and courage in a time when ethnic cleansings made it difficult to sustain either quality. Thoroughly impressed by Bajram’s tribute, I thanked him for celebrating the ‘gifts’ his mother provided, much as Li-Young Lee had done in his poem about his father.

Poets Remembering Parents, Part I

April 21, 2012

Sylvia Plath (Source: http:/www.poets.org)

At the beginning of the next session, as I gathered students’ drafts on Lesson, I noted that Sylvia Plath was born a full generation after Richard Wright, but that she died in 1963, a victim of suicide, just three years after Wright’s death. Circulating a picture of Plath, I then asked what they learned in the introduction that made her death hard to understand. Several voices spoke at once, mentioning her marriage to poet Ted Hughes, their two children, her prestigious degree from Smith College, her Fulbright scholarship to Cambridge University, her publications. Next, I asked the painfully obvious question: “Why would a young, attractive wife and mother and successful poet have to take her own life? Does your book offer any help?” Dafina then mentioned the death of Plath’s father when she was only eight, saying that “it seems she never got over the anger and grief.” Then Shkodran mentioned the father’s authoritarian manner, a quality shared by her husband, who also resembled her father. I congratulated both students on their attentive reading and mentioned another key point from the introduction, that the merger of father and husband in the poem makes “Daddy” more than self-expressive, suggesting an attack on all oppressive men, possessors of the phallus, abusers of power.

I then asked that two women, two female voices, read “Daddy” aloud, each taking eight of the sixteen stanzas of the poem. Merita and Edita obliged; we all followed along as they gave voice to this anguished, angry poem. Thanking Merita and Edita for their voices and their daring, I asked the class to think about the images—both visual and auditory—that give the poem its power. “What about in the first two stanzas? What images define the child’s experience of the father’s tyrannical power?” In response, many voices spoke of the “black shoe,” the child smothered in the paternal shoe “like a foot,” afraid to “breathe.” Stressing Plath’s craft, I mentioned the visual intensity she creates with the “shoe,” this specialized form of figurative language, a synecdoche, which allows her to define the whole man by focusing on a cruel, suppressive part. “But does the narrator’s voice sound submissive, defeated?” I asked. Several voices responded with the defiant line, “I have had to kill you.” “What images suggest her contempt for the father?” Ragip responded, saying that she mocks his self-importance by calling him a “bag full of God” with a disgusting, “ghastly,” swollen toe.

Moving to other stanzas, I asked the class if they heard any love mixed in with the anger and contempt. Kadrije said she “used to pray to recover” (l. 14) him, that she tried to kill herself to “get back to you. I thought even the bones would do” (ll. 59-60), and Edita added that she “made a model of you” (l. 64) by marrying Hughes. I praised their answers but wondered why she uses Nazi imagery to describe this man, these men, she loves. Perceptively, Blerta stressed the metaphor: all men become Nazis, and all their women become “Jews,” receptacles for his dominating “root” (32, 23). “Why does she shift to the vampire imagery?” I asked. Besa replied that the blood-sucking imagery further stresses the way men use up women, drain them of life after biting the woman’s “pretty red heart in two” (l. 56). “Does she leave you with this image of victimization?” I asked Besa. She answered by reading the last two stanzas aloud, sounding the anger as the narrator-daughter-wife drives a “stake in your fat black heart” and proclaims, “Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through” (ll. 76, 80). Complimenting Besa’s strong reading, I mentioned again Plath’s craft, her alliterative use of harsh “b” and “d” sounds, the sequence of strong stresses in “fat black heart”; such cacophony, I said, creates the angry tone and complements the violent images of her final rejection of her father.

Just nine years old when Plath committed suicide, Rita Dove as an adult also wrote about her father, and she did so, according to our text, with the same “friction” that we found in Plath’s poetry (3135). Reminding the class of this claim, I asked, “Where do you see and hear friction in Dove’s ‘Adolescence III,’ which begins with the father’s absence and ends with his presence. What happens in between? What’s going on inside of her as she shares gardening with her mom?” Dafina noted the simile, with the girl keenly aware that, like the tomatoes, she grows “softer, swelling out” (l. 5). “Why does she have to wrap her scarred knees in the second stanza?” I pressed Dafina. She answered quickly, “She also feels the consequence of her hard work, and she wants to cover the scars with fancy old dresses “that once went to big-band dances” (l. 9). Thanking Dafina for her sensitive answers, I asked the class how this ‘friction’ between a hard reality and romantic fantasy plays out in the third stanza. Fidan responded, saying that she stands in “rows of clay and chicken manure” dreaming of a young man who would come, profess his love, and make the “scabs fall away,” until the “father” ends the fantasy (ll. 14-21). “What do you make of the closing image,” I asked Fidan, “carrying his ‘tears in a bowl’ as ‘blood hangs in the pine-soaked air’?” “Maybe the tears show his regret for deserting them, but the blood shows that his return threatens more abuse,” he guessed.

Praising all for their close readings, I then asked if anyone cared to share his or her journaling on suicide or on adolescent memories. Gezim responded first, reading an entertaining account of adolescent sibling rivalries and his great sufferings as the ‘oldest child,’ always having to tend to the younger brothers and getting punished for their pranks. Changing the mood dramatically, Besa read of her opposition to suicide, calling it “weakness,” a choice never justified even in times of immense suffering. To support her view, she described the persecution her Albanian family suffered at the hands of Serbian soldiers in the 1990s, the loss of home, the fear of the ever-present AK-47s. She acknowledged that she thought of suicide then, just to escape the terror, but her parents’ heroic example made her put aside such despairing thoughts.

Seeing that everyone had been as moved to smiles and to deep sadness by this journaling, I thanked the readers for their candor and courage and the listeners for their attentiveness, and then asked everyone to prepare for the next session by reading three more poems packed with complicated memories about parents: Li-Young Lee’s “The Gift,” Louise Glück’s “Appearances,” and Yusef Komunyakaa’s “My Father’s Love Letters.” I also asked the students to prepare a journal entry, either in prose or in poetry, describing their fathers or mothers by using images, not abstractions, just as Plath and Dove had done.

Teaching A Lesson Before Dying: Part 1

March 31, 2012

Ernest Gaines

This posting introduces Ernest Gaines’s 1993 novel A Lesson Before Dying, which I have been reading with my students.  The two postings that follow highlight their responses to the novel.

Set in the share-cropping world of rural Louisiana in the late 1940s, this novel features the teacher-student relationship between Grant Wiggins, a thirty-five year old African American teacher, and Jefferson, a twenty-one year old, semi-literate African American on death row for a murder he did not commit.

Jefferson has, in fact, committed theft, as his attorney acknowledges at the murder trial, explaining to the all-white jury that his impoverished client panicked at the scene of the murder, looting the liquor store cash register as the murderers and their victim, the owner, lay dead at his feet.  But surely, he reasoned, this black “boy” could not be smart enough to plan a robbery and murder: “Why, I would as soon put a hog in the electric chair as this” (8).

Initially, Grant resents and resists his new charge, thrust upon him by his Tante Lou, to go into the local jail and, over the few months before Jefferson’s execution, to persuade him to go to his death feeling like a man, not like a “hog.” How, Grant wonders, can anyone expect him to reverse the legacy of slavery, the three-hundred-year-old cultural conviction that black ‘boys’ need not expect education or justice, need not aspire to the American Dream.

A Lesson Before Dying

In addition to tracing these interconnected themes of racism and justice, of literacy and liberty, this masterful novel also explores the relationship between Grant and Reverend Ambrose, the parish preacher, and between Grant and Vivian, a strong woman and committed teacher stuck in a bad marriage she seeks to end.  Naturally, the old black preacher and the young black agnostic come into constant conflict, for Ambrose wants Grant to teach Jefferson to “kneel” before he dies; instead, once committed to the process, Grant insists that he will teach Jefferson to “stand.”  Grant and Vivian also experience tension but of a much different sort, for their truly tender love story gets entangled with her Catholic faith and with a passionate cane-field conception that precedes her divorce.  Yet the conflict with Ambrose and the tensions with Vivian open Grant’s eyes to the futility of his own anger, a transformation that softens his heart and strengthens his resolve to coax Jefferson to his feet.  By the end, Jefferson walks to his death, having learned from Grant how to write his way to manhood; in turn, the student has taught his teacher the value of compassion, courage, and community.

Marxist Theory and Death of a Salesman

March 12, 2012

Our second class moved from Karl Marx’ central claim about capitalism, that the exploitive “bourgeoisie” dominated and suppressed the “proletariat,” to a glance at the impact of that nineteenth-century economic theory on twentieth-century literary criticism, especially the idea that great writers jar readers out of their willful blindness to the hegemonic tyrannies of capitalist culture (Abrams, Glossary, 155-61).

Arthur Miller in 1952, photo by Sam Falk, The New York Times

Having sketched this theoretical background, I reminded the students that Arthur Miller’s Salesman came to the American stage in 1949, just two decades after the Great Depression, the horrific economic and cultural upheaval that exposed the destructive side of unbridled capitalism and challenged the myth of the American Dream, the idea that hard work always yields personal and economic success; many viewers, therefore, saw Miller’s play as America’s proletarian tragedy.  Stressing these last two words, I challenged my students to think for themselves, to decide to what extent the play reflects Marxist ideology, to what extent it challenges the Marxist critique of capitalism, and to what extent it the play qualifies as a tragedy.

Noting Miller’s passionate belief that an ordinary man or woman could qualify as a tragic character, I referred the students to the first topic on their assignment sheet, which provides the classical definition of “tragedy” and asks them to write an essay on the extent to which they agree with the author about Willy’s tragic stature:

Critic M. H. Abrams defines “tragic hero” as a noble character with intelligence and compassion, a good man or woman who commits an error in judgment that harms those he/she loves and, ultimately, leads to his/her exile or death.  This “error in judgment”—the Greeks called it “hamartia”—grows from a tragic flaw, usually rooted in pride (hubris).  Eventually, when it’s too late, the tragic hero recognizes and accepts his responsibility for the error.  Because the hero’s goodness and flaw twine inextricably together, readers and viewers experience “catharsis” in response to the hero’s inevitable fall.  This catharsis or purge consists of two emotions: we pity the hero because he meant well; we fear his fallen condition, recognizing that we can make the same kinds of mistakes.  Paradoxically, the hero’s crushing defeat, though profoundly sad, uplifts us, causing us to recognize our capacities for loving self-sacrifice as well as for error.  What about Willy Loman?  Can a failed salesman who complains about his “goddam arch supports” (2329) qualify as a tragic hero?  Support your views with close analysis of action from the play, including appropriate quotations.

“Well, what about it?” I asked.  “Even though Biff at one point calls his father a ‘prince,’ Miller of course concedes that Willy lacks the aristocratic pedigree of the traditional tragic character—Prince Hamlet, King Lear, Oedipus Rex—but Willy otherwise qualifies, Miller insists, as a great-hearted man whose blunders crush those he loves but who uplifts us with his capacity to love self-sacrificially.  How about those of you who journaled on this question?  Will you share your thoughts?”

Kadrije quickly volunteered and proceeded to read a full-page entry, complete with quoted key phrases, arguing that Willy deserves our compassion for being “tired to death” but not our respect.  Unlike tragic characters, she said, Willy never succeeds, never reaches a pinnacle of achievement, and therefore cannot be said to fall.  He also fails to acknowledge, she continued, that his teachings to the boys have been “all wrong” and destructive.  Blerta disagreed, saying that both his blunders and his death give him tragic dignity because of the immensity of his love.

Having emphatically praised these candid, thoughtful responses, I asked if anyone else would read his or her preliminary comments of one on the other three topics, which invite papers on Willy’s wife Linda, on models of business men in the play, or on Biff and Happy, the troubled sons of Willy and Linda:

  1. Willy credits Linda with being his “foundation and support” (2331).  Do you agree?  Has her love for Willy been constructive?  Destructive?  Both?
  2. Training his sons to become businessmen, Willy proclaims that if they are “well liked” they will “never want” (2339).  Focusing on Willy, Charley, and Bernard, discuss Willy’s formula for success.  Does the play imply another route to success?
  3. After Biff and Happy desert their father in the restaurant, Linda calls them a “pair of animals” who never loved their father (2384).  To what extent do you agree with Linda?
Philip Seymour Hoffman as Willy Loman

Happily, more enthusiastic responses followed.  First, Xhemile read her entry, which supported Kadrije’s view of Willy, condemning particularly his lack of integrity as both husband and father; she then praised Biff, who finally acknowledges the truth about all their failures and tries to save Willy with his sobbing plea to let go of his “phony dream” that the “well liked” succeed.  Bierta next read her entry on Linda, conceding that she deeply loves Willy but insisting that her misguided support of Willy’s fictions makes his suicide inevitable, particularly after she refuses to confront him with the nipple he has placed on the gas pipe.

Encouraged by all these responses and the students’ willingness to read aloud, I reiterated my praise and asked them, for the next session, to commit to a topic and come to class with a rough draft.  Looks like I’m in for some good reading.

“Sexy”

Our first discussion in Twentieth-Century American Literature focused on feminist approaches to Susan Glaspell’s one-act play “Trifles” (1916), Zora Neale Hurston’s story “Sweat” (1926), and Jhumpa Lahiri’s story “Sexy” (1999).  We began by reviewing the feminist case against the patriarchal order and for ‘a literature of their own.’  By the end of the session, students eagerly shared their journaling on “Trifles” and “Sweat,” but first we talked about “Sexy.”  The results follow.

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When I asked what they learned about Lahiri in the introduction, one student noted her British birth, her Bengali ancestry, and her American PhD, facts suggesting that by century’s end women and non-whites had emerged as strong voices in the worlds of literature and academe.  After praising this apt answer, I asked for their initial impressions of Lahiri’s main character Miranda, as she learns from her friend Laxmi that her cousin’s husband shamelessly pursues an affair.  Another student volunteered Miranda’s conventional response, “It sounds awful” (3250), and, without any prompting, also mentioned the irony that Miranda offers this response while thinking of her upcoming date with Dev, her lover, another woman’s husband.

Delighted by these quick, insightful responses, I next asked for their take on Dev and the nature of his affair with Miranda.  “Does he seem romantic,” I asked, “as ‘sexy’ as he finds Miranda?”  This question, to my further delight, generated a barrage of comments on Dev’s seeming tenderness—the hand-holding, the ear-whispering, the pining phone messages, the flowers, the kissing at the movies (3253).  But when I asked what Mary Ellmann might say about Dev and Miranda’s behavior, the answers shifted to Dev’s cynical marketing techniques—the “flamingo pink shirt,” the missing wedding ring, his eye-rolling hint that his wife will be in India “for a few weeks,” his whining about being “lonely” (3252-53)—all suggesting a ‘love’ that has more to do with Miranda’s “sexy” long legs than with real tenderness (3253-54).  Another student also guessed that Mary Ellman would express dismay over Miranda enjoying herself as Dev “propped her feet on top of his shoulders,” pinned her to the bed, and claimed passionately that “he couldn’t get enough of her” (3250), a clear image of phallic domination.

“If Miranda enjoys the affair,” I next asked, “why does she dump Dev at the end?”  This prompt led to the students taking over the discussion, just as I had hoped, stressing the powerful impact that seven-year-old Rohin has on his sitter, Miranda, as this son of Laxmi’s cousin describes his philandering father and abandoned mother.  In making this case for Miranda’s epiphany, students wisely stressed the details Lahiri provides—Rohin’s  dark, “haggard” eyes, his description of his mother’s “puffiness,” her hours of crying, his definition of “sexy,” based on his father’s actions: “It means loving someone you don’t know” (3261, 3263).  All these details, students said, reveal the devastating impact on wives and children caused by every affair.  Realizing not only the pain of the boy and his mother but also her complicity in Dev’s cruel charade, Miranda, students concluded, takes a sisterly, feminist stance—“it wasn’t fair…to his wife”—and breaks off the affair (3264).

Not a bad start!

S. A Novel about the Balkans

March 2, 2012

Slavenka Drakulić, Zagreb, 27 Oct 09, by Goran Mehkek

Croatian journalist Slavenka Drakulić published S. A Novel about the Balkans in 1999, just seven years after Serbian forces rounded up Bosnian Muslims and moved them to concentration camps, where prisoners—women and girls, men and boys—suffered all manner of humiliation and abuse but especially “mass rape,” what Drakulić calls “the most horrifying means of humiliation….Rape is about power, about one group of soldiers sending a clear message of intimidation to another group” (Penguin Reader’s Guide, 8).

Yet this terrifying novel has a tender, some would say hopeful, ending, for the character S begins to rebuild her sense of humanity by finally accepting motherhood. Impregnated by her rapists, S initially loathes the infant growing inside her “like a tumour,” a “parasite” engendered by countless brutish ‘fathers’ (2, 178). But after a prisoner-exchange moves her from the “women’s room,” the site of the rapes, to a refugee camp in Zagreb, others’ acts of kindness gradually overcome her fear of a child conceived in rape.

Cover of Drakulić's S. A Novel about the Balkans

Cover of Drakulić's S. A Novel about the Balkans

First, a Zagreb cousin houses her in her cramped apartment, freeing her from an infinitely less brutal but still dehumanizing ‘camp’ (149). Then in Stockholm, where S goes to have her baby, she stumbles across a school-mate, now a refugee worker, who houses S, gives her wholesome food and warm clothes, and tries to coax her away from her plan to give up her rape-child for adoption (170). Clearly, S needs such tenderness, for she continues to struggle with the “shame and guilt” (183) suffered by so many victims of rape. Longing to forget (175), S only hopes that some adoptive mother and father can give her baby what she can never provide, a “better past” (194).

But once her son arrives, S instinctively moves to cover the sleeping child. First she “recoils,” but when the child “closes his tiny fist around her extended finger,” S feels “utter tranquility” and melts into motherhood, determined to teach her boy that “hate” can be “transformed into love” (196, 197, 199).

Asked about this ostensibly hopeful conclusion to the novel, Drakulić denies that “this ending is so hopeful” (Guide 8), stressing instead the ambiguity. Accepting her child changes everything, presumably for the good, for S and her son, but how, Drakulic wonders, will S tell her son one day the “horror” of the “truth” about his fathers? And of course this union of mother and son changes nothing about the capacity of men to make other men rape their sons before shooting them both (109), to gang-rape a woman and then extinguish their cigarettes on their victim’s breast before urinating in her mouth (62, 78).

Yet the novel does unfold the reality of friendship, as noted above. It also portrays characters who perform life-endangering acts of kindness and courage, such as N, who works in the kitchen, smuggling warm bread and edible soup to the prisoners (92). Consistently, too, the novel traces S’s manipulative seductions of her abusers, including the camp Captain, acts of courage and intelligence that enable her to survive (97-102). All such actions–in this novel about victimization, helplessness—underscore choice and, as Drakulić puts it, our “moral responsibility,” our humanizing duty to take another’s hand (Guide 3).

"Ruby Holding Mother's Finger," Barrie Spence , ©2011

The Bridge on the Drina

February 29, 2012

Ivo Andrić, 1961

Ivo Andrić, 1961 (Source: Wikipedia--click to view)

Yugoslavian diplomat Ivo Andrić died in 1975, but Bosnia and the Balkans honor him, as does the world, not only for his diplomacy but also for his fiction, particularly The Bridge on the Drina, which won him the Nobel Prize in 1961.

Set in Andrić’s native Bosnia, this historical novel spans three hundred years, beginning with the new wave of Ottomans in the late sixteenth century and ending with 1914 and the start of World War I, the life-time of the magnificent bridge that spanned the Drina River.  Covering this period with the precision of a scholar, Andrić narrates the parade of Turkish and Austrian powers that occupied this stunning mountainous region, but with the eye and heart of a poet Andrić populates this vast canvas with images of human beings so ordinary in their capacities for celebration and passion, so extraordinary in their capacities for brutality and courage.

Cover of The Bridge on the Drina

Cover of Andrić's The Bridge on the Drina

The novel begins with indelible images of the brutality that grows from the lust for power and land.  Though eventually a work of engineering art, its “eleven arches…perfect and wondrous in its beauty” (64), the bridge begins when a Turkish Vezir arrives and conscripts laborers, beating and even killing any man who resists, turning this town on the Drina “into a hell, a devil’s dance of incomprehensible works, of smoke, dust, shouts, and tumult” (29, 31).  Painfully aware that the bridge will benefit Turks, not Bosnians, workers grumble; some even plot to sabotage the bridge. Enraged by such covert resistance, the Vezir finds a scapegoat, a brave peasant who pays for his alleged sabotage by having his toenails torn from his feet, his chest wrapped in red-hot chains, and his anus pierced by a pike that runs out through the back of his neck.  Raised high on the emerging bridge for all would-be resisters to see, the impaled peasant “writhed convulsively” for hours before dying, just as the Vezir ordered (49).

We see the same brutality at the end of the novel, when World War I releases the “wild beast” inside us all that “does not dare to show itself until the barriers of law and custom have been removed” (282).  That beast obliterates this town and even its seemingly indestructible bridge, as a bomb planted on a pier causes it to “crumble away like a necklace; and once it began no one could hold it back” (313).  Perhaps the greatest cruelty, the survivors have no home, no place.

Mehmed Paša Sokolović Bridge, Višegrad, Bosnia, 1900

Mehmed Paša Sokolović Bridge, Višegrad, Bosnia, 1900 (Source: Wikipedia--click to view)

But between these bookends revealing our hearts of darkness, Andrić paints lighter hearts of those over these three centuries who take joy in simple pleasures, like fishing under the bridge (15) or meeting on the bridge to exchange flirtatious glances, to celebrate weddings, or to drink brandy and tell stories (19-21).

When William Faulkner accepted his Nobel Prize in Stockholm in 1950, he called on novelists not to paint portraits of despair; instead, he challenged writers to celebrate our strength, our ability not only to “endure” but to “prevail.”  As though accepting Faulkner’s charge, Andrić describes hearts capable not only of simple joys but also of endurance, as these Bosnians must suffer floods and droughts as well as invasions (76-79).  Following another Faulknerian challenge, to tell stories of the human heart “in conflict with itself,” Andrić weaves together numerous tales of such inner-conflict we can expect to find in any  century, such as Peter’s struggle with his addictive gambling (145-152); Fata’s torment over a marriage, having to obey her father or to obey her heart (104-112); or Zorka’s agony over two men, having to choose a good man who loves her but for whom she feels no love, or to wait for a lesser man indifferent to her passion (276-281).

Finally, Faulkner urged writers to uplift us with stories of human beings—however few—who show “compassion” for others and the willingness to “sacrifice” to relieve others’ pain.  Among several of Andrić’s characters who fit this description, Lotte stands tallest.  We meet her first in the middle of the novel, a beautiful young widow with “ivory white skin, black hair, smoldering eyes,” and a “free tongue,” and therefore enough brass to start a hotel in a patriarchal culture (177).  Far more than a shrewd business woman, Lotte serves as benefactress to many families, providing counseling and money for those whose lives have run amuck (180).  By the end of the novel, Lotte has “grown old.  Of her onetime beauty only traces remained” (257).  Unconcerned about her physical decline, Lotte worries instead about her ability to help others.  As the town has declined, Lotte’s once prosperous hotel has declined, too.  As a result, she suffers nightly over those in “hopeless poverty” that she can no longer relieve.  Though “tired” to the soul, Lotte still gives others what she has left, her sage counsel (262).  When we last see her, just before the bridge falls into the Drina, Lotte crosses bridge with a few other displaced old women—and with a “sickly child on a push-cart” (300).

Thanks to this Nobel Prize winner, then, no history of the Balkans can be complete that finds only cruelty in the human heart.

Ivo Andrić at Mehmed Paša Sokolović Bridge, Višegrad, c. 1970?

Photo of Ivo Andrić at Mehmed Paša Sokolović Bridge, Višegrad, Bosnia, c. 1970?; on display at his birthplace in Travnik, Bosnia and Herzegovina (Source: Wikipedia--click to view)

“A Greater Love…”

February 14, 2012

In honor of Valentine’s Day, I’d like to recount a love story honored by Albanians throughout the Balkans, the story of Rozafa.  Though the love shared by Rozafa and her husband threads throughout this tale, the central story celebrates Rozafa’s love for her child and for her country.

In brief, the story opens with Rozafa’s husband and two brothers, masons all, building a castle atop the mountain above Shkodra, a fortress where they may defend Albania against its invaders.  Mysteriously, however, their fine work crumbles to the ground each night.  Just as mysteriously, while the brothers sit idle in despair, three consecutive nights having reduced each day’s work to shambles, a white-bearded old man appears out the mist and explains that their work will never stand until they make a sacrifice.  The oxen and sheep already sacrificed won’t do, the old man explains; instead, they must offer the mountain and God a human sacrifice, one of their own wives.  Before he vanishes, the old man swears the three brothers to secrecy, explaining that the wife who must die will be the one who brings them their lunches the next day.

Predictably, fearing the loss of their wives, the two oldest brothers break their pledges, whispering in the night to their wives that they must not come to the work site the next day.  The younger brother, Rozafa’s husband, has the same fear, but he keeps his pledge, his “besa,” the center of Albanian ethics and morality.

The next morning, when the brothers’ mother has prepared the lunches, the wives of the eldest sons make excuses when the mother-in-law asks for their help with delivery.  Rozafa, ignorant of the call for a human sacrifice, cheerfully agrees to take the food to her brothers-in-law and her husband.

When the youngest brother sees his Rozafa coming with their bread and fruit, their water and wine, he “dropped his hammer upon the stone, splitting it in two, as if his heart had just broken.”  With his youngest brother ghostly pale and speechless, the oldest brother, his head held in shame, explains to Rozafa that the castle walls “will not stay up without a living sacrifice,” that this person, chosen by “chance,” must be immured in the castle.  Recovering quickly from this shocking revelation, Rozafa comforts her husband with her “trembling hand” and pronounces herself “ready” to become one with the wall.  She also urges her husband and his brothers to play their roles in protecting Albania, to carry themselves “high, as high as the castle walls, for the people are waiting for you all to finish your work.”

Sculpture of Rozafa immured in the castle wall, still nurturing her son

(Source: Albanaian Canadian League Information Service--click image to view)

Before they begin their grim task, however, Rozafa pleads that they immure her in such a way so that “my right eye, my right foot, my right hand, and my right breast are left out through the stone.”  In this position, she explains, she can watch her baby, “cradle him with my foot, caress him with my hand, and nurse him with my breast.”  Such nurture will pay off, she prophecies: just as the castle will protect against invaders, so her son “may be king one day and reign upon this proud land.”

Though the narrator of the tale provides no details on the fate of Rozafa’s son, he does assure us that her wishes were “honoured” and that “even today, after many hundreds of generations, her castle remains high above the city of Shkodra in northern Albania.”  Having lived there for six months, I can vouch for the narrator’s veracity.  I can vouch, too, for his claim that “the white stones of the castle…are continuously damp,” damp, as legend has it, with “the tears of Rozafa and the milk of her breast” (see photos of the Citadel of Rozafa).

**Click on the first picture to scroll through the gallery in a larger format.

Credits: The quotes from my summary of Rozafa’s love story come from Mustafa Tukaj’s “Rozafa’s Castle,” published in Faith and Fairies,  a collection of stories edited by Joanne M. Ayers and published by Skodrinon Press, 2002.  Also, the last three paragraphs come, almost verbatim, from my article “Albania Immured: Rozafa, Kadare, and the Sacrifice of Truth,” published in the South Atlantic Review, Vol. 71, No. 4, Fall 2006.  Finally, since I would not be in Kosova without the support of my Valentines, I would like to picture them here, my mom Kay, and my wife Judy.

My Valentines: my mom Kay, and my wife Judy

My Valentines: my mom Kay (L), and my wife Judy (R)

Religion & Spirituality

February 5, 2012

Today I rediscovered the difference between religion and spirituality.  Overlaps abound, of course, both rooted in a longing for connection to something larger than self, to an energy that intersects our illusion of time but lives beyond time.  But if one may draw inferences from the pages of history books, religion has too often been about buildings, codes of conduct, sacred spots—and therefore about disputes, exclusions, and executions.  Spirituality, in contrast, has always been about visions of unity, with that “energy,” yes, but also with Others, with critters, and with the earth, the garden that sustains us and honors our work.

Fellowship of the Lord's People

Logo for Bashkësia e Popullit të Zotit (Fellowship of the Lord's People)

I experienced such spirituality this morning, when I attended a service at the Bashkësia e Popullit të Zotit (Fellowship of the Lord’s People)** in Pristina.  Centered on the Protestant Christian faith, the Fellowship offered plenty of religion in the best sense of the word, as reflected primarily in the sermon on Revelations 2 and the charge to show love for Jesus by doing his work.  But I found myself moved primarily by the spirituality in the room, a communal unity engendered by guitars, keyboards, and singing, by story-centered pleas—offered in Albanian and in English—to support on-going efforts to relieve poverty and suffering, and by the blend of humanity—Albanians, Germans, Canadians, Americans, women and men, kids and parents, babies and elders, black and white—eating bread together in peace.

Black Elk with wife and daughter, c. 1890-1910

Black Elk with wife and daughter, c. 1890-1910 (Source: Wikipedia--click image to view)

After the service, I found more such spirituality in John Neihardt’s Black Elk Speaks and in N. Scott Momaday’s The Way to Rainy Mountain, works I will read with my Pristina students. Having interviewed Black Elk in 1930, Nebraska poet John Neihardt then wrote his book celebrating the vision of world unity this Lakota holy man experienced as a boy, a vision that empowered Black Elk to preserve his people from the relentless westward movement of the Wasishus on their “iron road” and on the mounts of the US Cavalry.  By securing his “nation’s circle,” Black Elk would also unite animals and people “like relatives”; he would then ensure that the “hoop” of his people blend with the hoops of all peoples, forming “one circle” around the “holy” tree of life.

Bringing his love and respect for his grandmother to her grave on Rainy Mountain, N. Scott Momaday offers an equally passionate vision of unity, focusing not on what might have been but on what was, the “courage and pride” of the Kiowa people, great “horsemen,” warriors, and artists who derived their power from the Tai-me, the sacred Sun Dance doll.  Kiowas expressed this spirituality not only in dance and in “reverence for the sun” but also in their love “for the eagle and the elk, the badger and the bear,’ for the “billowing clouds” whose shadows “move upon the grain like water,” for the Big Horn River, for the Devil’s Tower, where “in the birth of time the core of the earth had broken through.”  And they prayed.  Momaday recalls the last time he saw his grandmother: “She prayed standing beside her bed at night, naked to the waist….Her long black hair…lay upon her shoulders and across her breasts like a shawl.”

Devil's Tower, c. 1900, US Geological Survey, Photographer: N. Dalton

Devil's Tower, c. 1900, US Geological Survey, Photographer: N. Dalton (Source: Wikipedia--click image to view)

Of course, Black Elk’s vision of unity never came true, and the Kiowas one day “surrendered to soldiers at Fort Sill.” Deprived of their Sun Dance, many spent the rest of their days with “the affliction of defeat,” tormented by a far darker vision of “deicide,” their nation crushed by another with “Manifest Destiny,” religion at its worst.

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**Links related to the Fellowship of the Lord’s People:

“To Your Own Blood”

February 2, 2012

The bitter cold continues in Pristina, and the snow has returned, though so far just flurries, no new drifts. I did face the elements long enough to get a haircut (which, alas, didn’t take long) and to buy more time for my local cell phone.

Serbian Empire 1355 AD

Serbian Empire 1355 AD (Source: Wikipedia--click image to view)

The rest of my day took place inside, where I continue to enjoy preparing for my American lit class. As I prepared a background lecture on psychoanalytic theory as a critical preface to Faulkner’s “Barn Burning,” I pondered several parallels between Faulkner’s 1938 tale and the current situation in Kosova. Though independent just four years, Kosova has always been cultural hub, not just in the old Yugoslavia but also in the ancient Balkans, a land where blood feuds have always continued because patriots on all sides, like Faulkner’s Abner Snopes, had and have a “ferocious conviction in the rightness of [their] own actions.” Of course, Snopes lays no claim to patriotism, having ‘served’—as a horse-thief—both the Federals and Confederates in the American Civil War. Still, Snopes feels justified in burning barns of rich white men like Major de Spain because his “wolflike independence” tells him that he has been unfairly labeled ‘trash’ and barred from wealth and power, the ‘phallus’ of American culture.

Former Yugoslavia

Former Yugoslavia (Source: Wikipedia--click image to view)

Unfortunately for pre-adolescent Sarty, his father Abner’s strong character yields only destruction and therefore only fear for the boy, a fear as strong as the smell of cheese that fills the store where Abner, at the beginning of the story, stands trial, again, for burning a barn. A good Jungian, Sarty understands “the old fierce pull of blood” and the myth of fire that informs his clan’s survival; he therefore will lie if he must to defend his father. Sarty will also fight men twice his size who shout “barn burner” at his father as they leave the courtroom store, with Abner free again, owing to lack of evidence, to burn more barns, more symbols of the phallic power he has always lacked.

Yet Sarty, just like many Kosovarans, longs to escape the cycle of violence, longs for his father’s reformation, so that he can love him without fear. Suspecting Sarty’s disloyalty, Snopes beats his son, teaching him that being a man means sticking “to your own blood,” not cow-towing (as Freud might say) to his “superego,” the internalized values of justice that make Sarty hope his father can “change…from what maybe he couldn’t help but be.”

But Snopes, indeed, cannot change, as he proves when he sets out to burn the barn of his new employer, Major de Spain. When Sarty breaks free from his mother’s restraining arms, he knows that he must betray his father to de Spain, that he must betray him to save him. After the betrayal, as he runs away, Sarty hears repeated shots in the distance, knowing then that his intent has back-fired, that he has enabled the killing of “Pap…Pap…Father.”

Kosovo Today

Kosovo today (Source: Wikipedia--click image to view)

Such names underscore Sarty’s love for his father, a man who he still believes fought in the cavalry under Colonel Sartoris. Yet he does his mourning on the run and does not “look back,” knowing the direction of freedom and peace.

While it may seem a stretch to make a Balkans allegory out of Faulkner’s post-Civil War story, the parallels seem compelling, at least as I sit here in Kosova, where fidelity to blood has assured its continued spilling. Yet an equally important difference stands out: Sarty did not look back; the Balkans must.

The Balkans

The Balkans (Source: Wikipedia--click image to view)