Blog

Poems That Celebrate Mothers

May 10, 2019

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

I am blessed with strong women in my ancestry. Like most women, however, I find that their strength is often invisible. This invisible strength appears daily, hourly, routinely, in the way they made time for others, spent late hours fixing others’ problems, carrying the weight of the household in more ways than one. I love Alberto Ríos’s poem “Nani” which eloquently demonstrates this idea of invisible love. In the poem, Nani serves albondigas to a grandchild. In the poem, they have apparently lost a common language. The narrator explains that he is full, but then asks for more, realizing that she intends to serve. He writes, “All my words/ make her smile. Nani never serves/ herself, she only watches me/ with her skin, her hair. I ask for more.” They speak through an unwritten language which involves gratitude, faith, love. The narrator calls her the “absolute mamá,” which is a phrase that puzzles me, but I imagine that this absolute power grants her an ability to intuit scenarios of right and wrong, to offer help and sustenance.

Much of his poem speaks of a language divide which embarrasses the narrator. Yet, the two do communicate, and even though the foreign words make her smile, she does understand the narrator. Furthermore, there is so much unspoken dialogue in this poem. The narrator notes grandmother’s wrinkles, or the way her fingers work tortillas. Ríos writes, “I watch her/ fingers in the flame for me./ Near her mouth,/ I see a wrinkle speak/ of a man whose body serves/ the ants like she serves me….” She tempts fire for her family. She tends the stove and hearth. She bears the burden of the dead. She works steadily, aware of her grandchild, attentive to his needs. Furthermore, the poet links her to mother earth, and the relentless nature of nature. In describing the essence of this strong woman he writes, “Her insides speak/ through a hundred wrinkles, now, more/ than she can bear, steel around her,/ shouting, then, What is this thing she serves?” Though there is no dialogue in this poem, the reader feels a real connection between the two. The dynamic imagery, the string of actions we observe really ask us to question the language barrier that divides them. What is language? What does it mean to serve someone? The poem ends with: “Even before I speak, she serves,” which makes me wonder in what way(s) is language important to this poem and these two characters?

“Nani” celebrates a matriarchal figure. The way that the speaker critically narrates their own language gives the poem a bit of nostalgia. In Ríos’s poem, the reader feels the narrative presence of two figures, of the stove and albondigas, of the mint that sustains them all. That food is central makes sense for this poem, as it is another form of conversation.

However, in a poem like ee cummingsif there are any heavens my mother will,” word and deed and life have all been abstracted. cummings replaces any actual lived experience with an abstract expression of love. This poem describes the mother by comparing her to flowers. He writes, “if there are any heavens my mother will(all by herself)have/ one. It will not be a pansy heaven nor/ a fragile heaven of lilies-of-the-valley but/ it will be a heaven of blackred roses.” The image of blackred roses invokes both strength and beauty, as opposed to the fragility of lilies-of-the-valley or the common pansies. The poet’s mother, then, is extraordinary in some important, and perhaps indefinable, way.

The poem also depicts the father gently swaying in this garden of blackred roses. His eyes are petals, and their faces sway, much like the poem’s line breaks, fluidly moving in and out. Regardless of what the father actually does for a living, cummings calls him a poet, perhaps because he lingers over beauty, or because he loves with such devotion. Whatever it is, the narrator describes the richness of love with the way his father lingers over the deceased mother. This man is tall and strong and devoted. The poet, too, recognizes the genuine beauty of love in the act of lingering. As the father sways, he performs an act of gratitude to this incredible woman. The poem ends:

(suddenly in sunlight

he will bow,

& the whole garden will bow)

The interconnected world of flowers is the same as the interconnected world of humans. cummings gives voice to, what I believe, is one of the most elemental aspects of humanity: the idea that one act has the potential to reverberate. Here we see the father bow and, in response, the whole garden is likewise moved.

These poems of love and gratitude are interesting because they both involve unspoken language. The two characters of “Nani” share a room, but not a language. cummings’s poem, on the other hand, demonstrates a type of nostalgic devotion that exists when the mother is no longer present. Their care and nourishment remains, however, and in fact increases as the poets discover language adequate to represent such forceful emotions. These mothers are strong, capable, enduring, much like mothers everywhere.

Happy Mother’s Day!

To leave a comment, click on the title of this post and scroll down.

Beyoncé Makes Lemonade

February 15, 2018

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

“Beyoncé doesn’t release albums; she creates cultural events.” - Daphne A. Brooks

According to Wikipedia, Beyoncé is the most nominated female singer in the history of the Grammy Awards (and she has also won 22 of them). Furthermore, Wikipedia cites: “In 2014, she became the highest-paid black musician in history and was listed among Time's 100 most influential people in the world for a second year in a row. Forbes ranked her as the most powerful female in entertainment on their 2015 and 2017 lists, and in 2016, she occupied the sixth place for Time's Person of the Year." In 2016 she made an album entitled Lemonade. It is known as a concept album and accompanied a one hour film by the same name. In it she narrates, dances, includes clips of family, and has many guest artists. She slips between genres such as reggae, hip hop, country, gospel, and blues.

Very few of us will ever have the chance to touch the whole world at once. I use dialogue for a living, but I do so in small groups and small venues. This allows for nice, intimate discussions which ensures that everyone can participate. Musicians, on the other hand, broadcast a message to the world instantly, quickly, and passionately. They embrace technological change in a way that questions how we use language effectively, potently, masterfully. Music is certainly not new, but music has begun to embrace a number of ways to increase its potential.

Lemonade is an ambitious project which addresses race, gender, and love. In it, Beyoncé unapologetically defends herself, her experience, and her right to be a strong, proud African American woman. By extension, her work inspires other women in tough situations. More than inspiration, though, she reminds us that we can (and should) aim higher. Beyoncé sends the message through lyrics like those found in “Freedom” where she says she breaks chains all by herself.

The album is not meant to show her perfections or even to tell the world that her experience trumps anyone else’s. It seems more closely aligned with owning the full complexity of experience. Life is full of decisions, and she tells all women to make their own decisions but also to own the past, not disregard it. Daphne A. Brooks, critic and scholar, writes, “The album encourages black women, in particular, to examine the wholeness of their beings and the complexities of their identities.”

While some dismiss her work as diva-like behavior, journalist Arwa Mahdawi reminds us that that would be a mistake. Beyoncé runs a business and knows it. Mahdawi suggests that we cannot ignore Beyoncé’s intentional branding. In fact, branding yourself is often expected of male artists, but dismissed in women. Mahdawi writes: “It’s a mistake to call Beyoncé’s notorious attention to her image ‘diva’ behaviour; it’s businesswoman behaviour. Beyoncé understood that she couldn’t let Beyoncé-the-person encroach on Beyoncé-the-brand. So she stopped saying much, and rarely gave interviews. In 2013, she made waves by appearing on the cover of the September issue of Vogue without deigning to give the customary interview that went with it. Her silence made her voice even more powerful, and reinforced the mythology she was creating.” She also surrounds herself with strong women. In music videos, she often dances among a group of women in step, herself at the front but always in step. The group dynamic is important, as is realizing that Beyoncé is a tour de force.

Lemonade begins with her grandmother’s 90th birthday in which her grandmother says, “Life gave me lemons, and I made lemonade.” Throughout the rest of the film, Beyoncé gives us the literal and figurative recipe of lemonade. I love to see an album that poses tough questions. This project made me wonder in what ways I interact with or participate in the world onscreen. What are the right questions to be asking? What does it mean to be female, powerful, and ambitious? How do we reconcile not just the past and the present, but the future? How can we address race relations in a healthy, powerful, and positive way? And, am I living up to my potential?

While not all critics think highly of Beyoncé (see bel hooks on the subject), so many people identify with her or her music that it would be impossible to dismiss her work. While she is talented, people often do not succeed based upon talent alone. Beyoncé has something extra that many people want to access. Taking a deeper look at her work has been a very worthwhile endeavor. She is sending a message and I, for one, am curious as to whether we are all receiving the same message, or if her work resonates for many reasons.

Contemporary success must attach to some objective desire whose impulse stems from the past. Success combines past reality with future visions in a way that seems visionary, but also still locates us in the present. Beyoncé participates in the past as much as she does in the present and future. In a way, progress always involves a stasis - the transcendent moment arrives only from an understanding of the forces which give rise to it. Beyoncé participates in the present by giving us a sense of opportunity which she has collated from history, experience, emotion, and public response. And for a few moments, the world moves in rhythm with her vision, her words, and her ideas, which are also our own.

To leave a comment, click on the title of this post and scroll down.

Language in the Words of Helen Keller

October 19, 2018

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

I often study the idea of Language. I am curious about how language comes to be meaningful, communicative and permanent. Yet, at the same time, language is so flexible and manipulative. This elasticity allows it to grow, change and expand to incorporate new ideas and influences. Yet, language can also restrict in unseen ways. One thing that is often forgotten, however, once one becomes proficient in reading and speaking, is the power of learning how to communicate. In order to experience this, we can witness the curiosity of young children in the learning process. Rarely do we remember this process ourselves. But we have been gifted with the wonderful, powerful story of Helen Keller, who writes eloquently about her own dawn of language. The rest of today’s blog contains two long quotes from The Story of My Life, by Helen Keller, which demonstrate the magic and beauty of language, communication and connection.


From Chapter IV:

“The morning after my teacher came she led me into her room and gave me a doll. The little blind children at the Perkins Institution had sent it and Laura Bridgman had dressed it; but I did not know this until afterward. When I had played with it a little while, Miss Sullivan slowly spelled into my hand the word "d-o-l-l." I was at once interested in this finger play and tried to imitate it. When I finally succeeded in making the letters correctly I was flushed with childish pleasure and pride. Running downstairs to my mother I held up my hand and made the letters for doll. I did not know that I was spelling a word or even that words existed; I was simply making my fingers go in monkey-like imitation. In the days that followed I learned to spell in this uncomprehending way a great many words, among them pin, hat, cup and a few verbs like sit, stand and walk. But my teacher had been with me several weeks before I understood that everything has a name.

One day, while I was playing with my new doll, Miss Sullivan put my big rag doll into my lap also, spelled "d-o-l-l" and tried to make me understand that "d-o-l-l" applied to both. Earlier in the day we had had a tussle over the words "m-u-g" and "w-a-t-e-r." Miss Sullivan had tried to impress it upon me that "m-u-g" is mug and that "w-a-t-e-r" is water, but I persisted in confounding the two. In despair she had dropped the subject for the time, only to renew it at the first opportunity. I became impatient at her repeated attempts and, seizing the new doll, I dashed it upon the floor. I was keenly delighted when I felt the fragments of the broken doll at my feet. Neither sorrow nor regret followed my passionate outburst. I had not loved the doll. In the still, dark world in which I lived there was no strong sentiment or tenderness. I felt my teacher sweep the fragments to one side of the hearth, and I had a sense of satisfaction that the cause of my discomfort was removed. She brought me my hat, and I knew I was going out into the warm sunshine. This thought, if a wordless sensation may be called a thought, made me hop and skip with pleasure.

We walked down the path to the well-house, attracted by the fragrance of the honeysuckle with which it was covered. Some one was drawing water and my teacher placed my hand under the spout. As the cool stream gushed over one hand she spelled into the other the word water, first slowly, then rapidly. I stood still, my whole attention fixed upon the motions of her fingers. Suddenly I felt a misty consciousness as of something forgotten—a thrill of returning thought; and somehow the mystery of language was revealed to me. I knew then that "w-a-t-e-r" meant the wonderful cool something that was flowing over my hand. That living word awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, joy, set it free! There were barriers still, it is true, but barriers that could in time be swept away.

I left the well-house eager to learn. Everything had a name, and each name gave birth to a new thought. As we returned to the house every object which I touched seemed to quiver with life. That was because I saw everything with the strange, new sight that had come to me. On entering the door I remembered the doll I had broken. I felt my way to the hearth and picked up the pieces. I tried vainly to put them together. Then my eyes filled with tears; for I realized what I had done, and for the first time I felt repentance and sorrow.

I learned a great many new words that day. I do not remember what they all were; but I do know that mother, father, sister, teacher were among them—words that were to make the world blossom for me, "like Aaron's rod, with flowers." It would have been difficult to find a happier child than I was as I lay in my crib at the close of that eventful day and lived over the joys it had brought me, and for the first time longed for a new day to come.”


From Chapter VI:

“I had now the key to all language, and I was eager to learn to use it. Children who hear acquire language without any particular effort; the words that fall from others' lips they catch on the wing, as it were, delightedly, while the little deaf child must trap them by a slow and often painful process. But whatever the process, the result is wonderful. Gradually from naming an object we advance step by step until we have traversed the vast distance between our first stammered syllable and the sweep of thought in a line of Shakespeare.

At first, when my teacher told me about a new thing I asked very few questions. My ideas were vague, and my vocabulary was inadequate; but as my knowledge of things grew, and I learned more and more words, my field of inquiry broadened, and I would return again and again to the same subject, eager for further information. Sometimes a new word revived an image that some earlier experience had engraved on my brain.

I remember the morning that I first asked the meaning of the word, "love." This was before I knew many words. I had found a few early violets in the garden and brought them to my teacher. She tried to kiss me: but at that time I did not like to have any one kiss me except my mother. Miss Sullivan put her arm gently round me and spelled into my hand, "I love Helen."

"What is love?" I asked.

She drew me closer to her and said, "It is here," pointing to my heart, whose beats I was conscious of for the first time. Her words puzzled me very much because I did not then understand anything unless I touched it.

I smelt the violets in her hand and asked, half in words, half in signs, a question which meant, "Is love the sweetness of flowers?"

"No," said my teacher.

Again I thought. The warm sun was shining on us.

"Is this not love?" I asked, pointing in the direction from which the heat came. "Is this not love?"

It seemed to me that there could be nothing more beautiful than the sun, whose warmth makes all things grow. But Miss Sullivan shook her head, and I was greatly puzzled and disappointed. I thought it strange that my teacher could not show me love.

A day or two afterward I was stringing beads of different sizes in symmetrical groups—two large beads, three small ones, and so on. I had made many mistakes, and Miss Sullivan had pointed them out again and again with gentle patience. Finally I noticed a very obvious error in the sequence and for an instant I concentrated my attention on the lesson and tried to think how I should have arranged the beads. Miss Sullivan touched my forehead and spelled with decided emphasis, "Think."

In a flash I knew that the word was the name of the process that was going on in my head. This was my first conscious perception of an abstract idea.

For a long time I was still—I was not thinking of the beads in my lap, but trying to find a meaning for "love" in the light of this new idea. The sun had been under a cloud all day, and there had been brief showers; but suddenly the sun broke forth in all its southern splendour.

Again I asked my teacher, "Is this not love?"

"Love is something like the clouds that were in the sky before the sun came out," she replied. Then in simpler words than these, which at that time I could not have understood, she explained: "You cannot touch the clouds, you know; but you feel the rain and know how glad the flowers and the thirsty earth are to have it after a hot day. You cannot touch love either; but you feel the sweetness that it pours into everything. Without love you would not be happy or want to play."

The beautiful truth burst upon my mind—I felt that there were invisible lines stretched between my spirit and the spirits of others.”

To leave a comment, click on the title of this blog and scroll down.

Shakespeare's Troilus Versus Chaucer's Criseyde

September 14, 2018

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

Shakespeare is a favorite topic of mine, and of many of our students. Recently, I read and discussed Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida. Though we didn’t have time to compare it to Chaucer’s poem Troilus and Criseyde, I wanted to spend a few moments doing just that. Before I do, however, I will list a few of my lingering questions about Shakespeare’s play.

1] Based upon the title, I thought this play was about love, but where is the romance?

2] Why, after lamenting about the loss of order, does Ulysses allow Ajax to face Hector? If Ulysses is so concerned with the natural order of things, shouldn’t Achilles, the best Greek fighter, face Hector, the best Trojan fighter?

And 3] Why does Shakespeare end the play with Pandarus moaning about his own degradation? I thought this play was about the romance, not the middleman.

It would be safe to assume that a story titled Troilus and Cressida would mostly be about Troilus and Cressida. Yet, if you have read Shakespeare’s play, then you’d be surprised to find how little time is spent upon the love affair. In fact, Shakespeare’s Troilus laments about love for a few scenes, and only one scene involves the actual love affair. The play’s focal points involve talk of war, such as Ulysses’s long speech on order in Act III, and Achilles’s tragic slaying of Hector. The play questions what it means to be noble or heroic. Framed by an unjust war (stemming from a love affair), these characters face the very modern problem of living in a fallen society. Troilus and Cressida become lost in the societal conflicts at the play’s center. Love becomes a lens with which to judge the nobility of the characters. Often labeled one of Shakespeare’s problem plays, Troilus and Cressida offers difficult, but very worthwhile, questions.

Some differences between the two works are easy to note, such as the fact that Chaucer wrote a metered poem, whereas Shakespeare chose to write a play. Chaucer’s poem does focus on the lovers. Shakespeare’s play, on the other hand, spends much of the time on discussion of war. Shakespeare wrote long speeches for Ulysses, Hector, and even Nestor. They discuss war at length, introducing the idea of honor in a fallen state. After Criseyde has been sent to the Greek camp, Chaucer focuses on Troilus’s plans to wait for her each night. Shakespeare’s characters must decide whether or not to fight a dishonorable war.

I find the last lines of these two works very interesting. Chaucer ends his poem with Troilus’s death which grants a final release of Troilus’s damaged soul. In this poem, it is fitting that Troilus dies by the heroic sword of Achilles. Chaucer writes, “And having fallen to Achilles’ spear,/ His light soul rose and rapturously went/ Towards the concavity of the eighth sphere,/ Leaving conversely every element,/ And, as he passed, he saw with wonderment/ The wandering stars and heard their harmony,/ Whose sound is full of heavenly melody.// As he looked down, there came before his eyes/ This little spot of earth, that with the sea/ Lies all embraced, and found he could despise/ This wretched world, and hold it vanity,/ Measured against the full felicity/ That is in Heaven above” (273A)*. In other words, Troilus is released from his earthly cares and upon reflection he realizes that earthly life is a truly “wretched world.” There is a feeling of rejoice as he rises. Throughout the poem, Troilus is consistently loyal, honorable and (other than his inability to act on love unaided) he demonstrates virtue. Clearly, then, Troilus find peace, not in love, but in heaven.

On the other hand, Shakespeare gives the play’s final word to Pandarus, who appears to be the least honorable character in the play. In the last scene, he asks the audience to weep at “Pandar’s fall.” These ironic lines underscore the brutality and depravity of the previous scene in which Achilles and his men slaughter an unarmed Hector and then drag his brutalized body behind Achilles’s horse. Through Achilles’s actions, Shakespeare questions the often idyllic view of ancient myth. Pandar’s words, then, become doubly painful. Hector is the true hero, not Pandarus, but it is Pandarus who lives to beg for the audience’s sympathy. He also invites the audience to join him in this fallen future. In Shakespeare’s play, Hector, perhaps, comes closest to attaining nobility, but even he falls prey to tradition or pride or duty. In this play, the characters act as pawns, which makes Pandarus’s final words even more fitting. Troilus and Cressida is about the fallen state. The tangle of love affairs play off each other nicely to demonstrate the fallen state. Through these characters, we must ask: What is love? What is honor or nobility? And how do they display any signs of love?

Chaucer clearly elevates the idea of love from earthly to celestial. Though Troilus’s passion is true and he remains loyal to Cressida, he realizes the folly of this love as he leaves earth. Cressida, likewise, understands that earthly love will not save her soul. Chaucer’s Cressida is complicated. She sincerely loves Troilus, but is unable to stay with him. Her choice of a Greek lover seems more rational, more necessary, than Shakespeare’s. The reasons for this decision once again highlight the impossibility of earthly love. Furthermore, by forcing Cressida/Criseyde away from Troilus, both play and poem reflect how little choice women have in their lives. The one man she wants is the one man that she cannot have.

Shakespeare turns that idea of love on its head by the parallel stories of Helen and Paris, Troilus and Cressida. In the following passage, Shakespeare treats love (brotherly love, romantic love and patriotic love) with irony and sarcasm. (It is good to know that the Trojan war began because Paris stole Helen from King Menelaus.) During the play, Greece offers to trade a Trojan prisoner for Cressida. Hector accepts the trade, much to Troilus’s dissatisfaction. Then, Troilus laments to Paris (his brother, and also the cause of the war) the fact that Cressida must leave Troy. Troilus says, “I’ll bring her to the Grecian presently;/ And to his hand when I deliver her,/ Think it an altar, and thy brother Troilus/ A priest there offering to it his own heart.” Paris offers only this: “I know what ‘tis to love;/ And would, as I shall pity, I could help!” (128A)*. How ironic that the man who began this war by stealing Helen, could not find a solution to Troilus’s problem. He feels pity, but very little remorse. If Troilus’s love is true, Paris’s feels rather covetous, rash, impersonal and selfish. The play highlights the immorality of these actions purportedly based upon love.

There is so much more that I could say. Reading Chaucer’s Troilus in tandem with Shakespeare’s version enlightened great ideas of love, world, and honor. With wonderful skill and wit, these authors question nobility and virtue. Both pieces are worthy of much discussion, more than I have given them here. If you have a thought on these works, I invite you to post it below.

If you enjoy this topic, you may also enjoy this lecture on more of Shakespeare's play: Harvard lecture (~1.5 hours).

* All citations are from the Great Books of the Western World, volumes 19 (Chaucer) and 25 (Shakespeare), published 1990.

To leave a comment, click on the title of this post and scroll down.