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.

S. A Novel about the Balkans

March 2, 2012

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

Slavenka Drakulić, Zagreb, 27 Oct 09, by Goran Mehkek (Source: slavenkadrakulic.com)

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

Photo by Barrie Spence, Spence Photography, ©2011, used with permission.

The Last Kosovo Serb Won’t Leave

March 4, 2012

Cover of Southworth's The Last Kosovo Serb Won't Leave

Cover of Southworth's The Last Kosovo Serb Won't Leave

Susan Southworth’s 2007 novel uncovers, as the title promises, the horrors that always transpire whenever one people, usually in the name of liberty, redefines another people as objects, a reclassification that characterizes ethnic cleansing as patriotism.  But this beautifully written novel does so much more.  Peeling back the labels resulting from centuries of warfare and hate, Southworth shows us the fears, yes, but also the dignity and nobility of Others, a revelation that should inspire us all even as we weep for their pain.

Map of Kosovo

Map of Kosovo (Source: pbs.org/newshour)

By end of the novel, we follow Donald, a retired American linguist, into southwest Kosovaran town Prizren, where the Kosova Liberation Army celebrates its 1999 triumph over the Serbs, a victory made possible by NATO bombing.  Absent from Prizren for a month, Donald expects to find what he left five weeks before: his Turkish friend and fellow linguist Bayram, with whom Donald can share his experiences living with Serbian peasants and resume their discussion of the Albanian language and culture.

Instead, he finds Bayram’s house trashed and valuable manuscripts scattered all over the grounds, acts of the new owner, an army thug.  Bayram himself Donald finds in a make-shift jail, cuffed and beaten, lying on a floor littered with feces and surrounded by walls splattered with other victims’ blood (100-108).  Though beaten himself, Donald escapes the Kosovaran violence via Macedonia, but not before witnessing Serbs shot in the street (120).  In the final chapter, the narrator shows us the fate of the Serbian peasants that had welcomed Donald: Petar has been beheaded, and his wife Leposava wonders off in a daze, looking for the “home”—their cabin and their country—now a “bloody mosaic,” the work of soldiers, not much more than boys, intoxicated by liberty and by a culture of retribution and guns (122).

Before this bloody ending, however, primarily through Donald’s eyes, we learn to see Albanians, Turks, and Serbs not as oppressors or victims but as human beings worthy of our understanding and respect.  Through Donald, for instance, we learn to revere the ancient Albanian language and culture (33), and that respect helps us understand how Donald can look at an angry Albanian soldier and see a scared boy, a “sweet-faced teenager” (104) with baggy fatigues on his “skinny frame” (100).  Through Donald we also learn to relish coffee, dates, water pipes, baths—all things Turkish, especially his courteous friend Bayram (32-40).

Serbian Gusle & Bow

Serbian Gusle & Bow (Source: Wikipedia)

Through Donald we learn as well to respect Serbs who “won’t leave.”  Bogdan the Serbian policeman, for example, earns that respect by risking his life daily helping peasants to steer clear of the Liberation Army (5-15, 88-96), as does the young Serbian mountain man by hiding Donald, suspected of being an enemy courier (56-59).  Through Donald’s month-long sojourn with the Serbian farmer and his wife, we also come to admire Petar and Leposava, their spiritual intimacy with the land, their domestic harmony and peace, their generosity.  Revering their American guest, they feed him hearty bean soup, fresh eggs, and oatmeal cakes; they teach him to hoe the garden and to trap rabbits for supper; they show him how to bathe in the rain-water, how to dance with abandon, how to smell the seasons and fish in the stream (64-86).  They also share with Donald their Serbian epic poems, accompanied by Petar’s gusle, a one-string instrument that can come to life “like a snake” (83) under Petar’s bow and moan “like a sad wind” (77).  All Serbs, Petar sighs, “have too much history,” and he relates to Donald their own stories of grief over a grandfather lost in the war with Bulgaria, over an infant son who should not have died (80-83).

Possessed of these histories, we can no longer vilify oppressors and count victims; we can only acknowledge human beings and cry for the Balkans.

The Battle of Kosova

February 25, 2012

Battle of Kosovo, 1389, by Adam Stefanovic, 1870

Battle of Kosovo, 1389, by Adam Stefanovic, 1870 (Source: Wikipedia--click to view)

In 1389, the Turkish army defeated the Serbian army at the Battle of Kosovo (Serbian spelling); blackbirds feasted on the carrion (Pettifer, James. Albania and Kosovo: Blue Guide, 3rded. New York: Norton, 2001, 309).

Albanian novelist Ismail Kadare focuses on this battle in his Elegy for Kosovo, where he recounts the long history of “the Serbs cursing the Albanians and the Albanians cursing the Serbs”; he also laments more than once that “we ourselves have brought this disaster on our heads, my brother!  We have been fighting and slaughtering each other for so many years over Kosovo, and now Kosovo has fallen to others” (68).

Cover for Elegy for Kosovo

Cover for Kadare's Elegy for Kosovo

The narrator, of course, refers to this fourteenth-century battle on the Plain of the Blackbirds (Elsie, RobertA Dictionary of Albanian Religion, Mythology, and Folk Culture. NY: New York University Press, 2001, 122), but Kadare alludes to a struggle that has continued into his own time, as evinced in 1989, 600 years after the Ottomans crushed the Serbs, when Serbian leader Slobodan Milošević, standing on the same Field of the Blackbirds, urged Serbs to resist, with violence if necessary, what he called the Albanian aggression in Kosovo (Kearney, Philip.  Under the Blue Flag: My Mission in Kosovo.  Beverley Hills: Phoenix Books, 2008, 66-69).

The Battle of Kosova, 1389

The Battle of Kosova, 1389, old Russian miniature (Source: Wikipedia--click to view)

In view of the parade and celebration here in Pristina on Friday, February 17—the fourth Independence Day for Kosova—I try not to despair over the vision painted by Kadare, especially because talks continue in Belgrade, where the Serbian government, hoping for EU status, inches toward recognizing the independence of Kosova, its former province.  Still, I can’t shake Kadare’s elegiac mood, perhaps because Serbs living in northern Kosova just voted 97% against recognizing Kosova’s independence from Serbia, a vote that renders prophetic Edith Durham’s remark in High Albania over a century ago: “the real policy of Serb and Albanian should be to unite and keep the foreign intruders from the Balkan Peninsula.  But this will never be” (276).

The poem below reflects this mood.  Though it begins domestically, it ends on the same Field of Blackbirds, where it tries to honor both Albanians and Serbs and to lament their shared pain.

Pigeons on my sill

Pigeons on my sill

Pigeons and Blackbirds

 Each dawn they perch on my sill, grumbling and

 Gray, iced, unpreened, like old men swaddled in

 Great coats, huddled and waiting for spring.  Then

 They spy my porch, littered with crusts, seeded

 And brown, manna torn from my loaf.  Swooping

 Down, beaking the prize, they jack their tails and

 Strut like victors.  Then blackbirds screech attack,

 Driving my guests from the feast, tearing the

 Bread like flesh they plucked from the Serbian

 Plain, then circled the Field for six hundred

 Years, ravenous still, always hot to gorge.

Under the Blue Flag: My Mission in Kosovo

February 16, 2012

Cover of Under the Blue Flag: My Mission in Kosovo

Cover of Under the Blue Flag: My Mission in Kosovo

In 2001, when assistant district attorney Philip Kearney left San Francisco for Kosova, he found himself driven by generous motives: he wanted to help “rebuild” this former Serbian province shattered by a decade of ethnic warfare (4). He would do that rebuilding “under the blue flag” of the UN, serving as a prosecutor of war criminals. But early in his brilliant book bearing the title above, Kearney acknowledges that his selfless wish to help heal the Balkans rooted in personal needs: his mission would help him to squelch the “feeling” that his life “was half over” yet he had not made his “mark” (2). He would fill the “hole” in his life, then, by helping Kosova restore the rule of law.

Early on, Kearney’s mission filled that hole, giving him a sense of “vigor and purpose” that he “hadn’t felt in years” (21). Yet after a year of service in Kosova, where Kearney found the justice system truly in “tatters” (14), one might have forgiven him had he returned to the comforts of San Francisco and written a judgmental book about the cowardice of some Kosovarans who won’t bear witness against murderers and rapists (84), and about the incorrigible corruption of some police and judges: “the same people who were supposed to be upholding the law were the people I needed to go after” (197).

But instead of complaining at home, Keaney stayed to pursue his mission, for the Balkans “had gotten into [his] blood” (224). Having lost himself in Kosovaran stories of suffering and endurance, of courage that sometimes overcomes terror, Kearney no longer had time to worry about making a mark.

Mesmerized by Kosovaran stories, Kearney quickly discovered the hatred—“still very real and still very alive”—that threads through both Albanian and Serbian narratives (39). Those hatreds, now and always, have made “retributive murder…commonplace” in the Balkans, and Kearney found in Kosova “no justice system to reign in the violence” (45). With no rule of law, either during or after the war, Kearney heard stories of Serbian death camps, where Albanian women suffered beatings and rapes daily (159), and of raids on Albanian homes, where rapes in front of family members preceded the lootings (108). Kearney also heard stories of Albanian retribution; one such case involved an Albanian with an AK-47 slaughtering a dozen Serbs, including a four-year-old boy, in front of a store (56). “Nobody here,” Kearney concludes, “has clean hands” (226).

To work toward ending this cycle of hatred and vengeance, Kearney used his Kosovaran courtroom to persuade both sides that “justice had to be blind—especially to ethnicity” (243). Sharing the UN’s commitment to “conquer ancient tribalism and replace it with the rule of law” (256), Kearney argued passionately that atrocities “committed either by military winners or losers” must be prosecuted by one high standard of human conduct, especially when committed “against the civilian population” (257, 259).

Amazingly, Kearney and his legal team won convictions against both Serbs and Albanians. Predictably, however, set-backs followed, like the acquittal of a Serb Kearney thought he had put away (268), and then the 2005 Supreme Court decision that “with the stroke of a pen” reversed “convictions we had fought so hard to achieve” (282). Yet even such reversals, Kearney hopes, persuades Serbs that international tribunals can be fair to “both sides of the conflict” (268).

Looking back on his mission, Kearney stresses two key lessons he hopes that we all take from his narrative: that “good governance takes time,” and that “our need to engage actively in the broader world” remains “stronger than ever” (294, 295).

Additional Links about Kearney

Radio interview with Philip Kearney and Verena Knaus, Here On Earth: Radio Without Borders, Wisconsin Public Radio, February 17, 2009

Interview with Philip Kearney, San Francisco Chronicle, March 1, 2009

Philip Kearney, Richard Reeves*, and Geoffrey Robinson^, Rising Above Oppression, Panel Discussion at Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, April 24, 2010

*Richard Reeves, Daring Young Men: The Heroism and Triumph of the Berlin
 Airlift - June 1948 - May 1949 (Simon & Schuster; January 5, 2010)

^Geoffrey Robinson, "If You Leave Us Here, We Will Die": How Genocide
 Was Stopped in East Timor (Princeton University Press; November 16,