Untitled based on C.S. Lewis

Note: Part of the poems sent are from an erasure of C. S. Lewis’ A Grief Observed (1961).

 

14.

 

All reality is iconoclastic.

I must stretch the arms and

hands of love to the

phantasmagoria

of my thoughts.

 

I mustn’t sit down content

and worship my idea. Yes,

we often make this mistake.

 

Talking and acting to

the picture before we even

notice the fact.

 

In real life there’s

always a reason for

assuming that we’ve

got one another

 

this time once more

I have to be finally

given up as hopeless

forever.

 

16.

 

I shall have substituted

for the real woman a

mere doll to be

blubbered over.

I did it for the

sheer pleasure

of being exposed.

Except at my job.

Even shaving.

 

They say an unhappy man

wants distractions.

A door slammed

in your face, and a

sound of bolting

and double bolting

on the inside. After

that, silence. There

are no lights in the

windows. It might be

an empty house.

A Review of “Women in the Church? A Historical Survey”

A Review of “Women in the Church? A Historical Survey”

Magistra 21.2 (Winter 2015): 51-80

 

In her article, Women in the Church? A Historical Survey, Magdalena Kubow begins her conclusion with “the argument that women have historically participated in sacramental orders does not wish to eliminate the apostolic tradition; however, it does not regard the exclusivity of males to the apostolic tradition as a timeless truth. It sees it as purposeful exclusion, acceptable in the past but no longer acceptable in the present” (76). This is a succinct, yet pithy summary of her work. Her premise is that women were, along with men, founders and leaders of the early Christian Church, and the focus of her survey is to demonstrate how this process of exclusion developed over time, slowly eroding away the female role until all traces of it disappeared by the Middle Ages. Unlike other writers on this topic, Kubow does not spend much time looking at what Scriptures say about it but concentrates on examining the historiography of more current Church documents and teachings. The primary underlying factors to which she attributes this erosion include the shift of church ministry from the private to the public sphere, the development of market economy, and the influence of Roman law on the formation and establishment of Church law. All told, this is a good overview of a variety of influences that led to the demise of female leadership roles over the first few centuries of early Christianity. And it is the perfect resource for an audience who knows enough theology, history, philosophy and cultural development to understand the implications of what she covers in it.

While I found the majority of Kubow’s composition interesting, creative and well-founded, her opening six pages were not as strong as they could have been. First, she offers an opinion that misconstrues a foundational Church document. Then she presents several of the Church’s current arguments against women’s ordination to the priesthood, to which she simply counters with historical evidence that women had once participated in the diaconate. And, to support a later argument, she includes a citation that misrepresents the theology behind a major liturgical element of the Catholic mass.

To my first point, that she misconstrues a foundational Church document, Kubow offers an opinion taken from someone else’s work in such a way that it is clear she shares it. She references Pacem in Terris, Pope John XXIII’s papal encyclical of April 1963, which she notes was interpreted as “opening just a crack the door to the priesthood for women” (51) based on his conclusion that man and woman have a right to “follow a vocation to the priesthood or the religious life” (51). In my opinion, either Kubow or Margaret Sittler Ermarth, whom Kubow cites, or both, are stretching to construe that the Pope’s comment refers woman-to-priesthood in this statement. Although Pope John XXIII often wrote about the Church looking to the future, and the Church is always referred to in the feminine, the correlations in his statement are meant to be read as man-to-priesthood and woman-to-religious life.

To my second point, that Kubow offers evidence that women were ordained to the diaconate in the early Church to counter the current arguments against women being ordained to the priesthood today, she is not comparing the same role. There is a major difference between being an ordained priest and being an ordained deacon in the Catholic Church, and while that has not always been so, it has been for most of the Church’s history. A priest holds the second highest position in Holy Orders, with the bishop taking first place. He assists the bishop, serves as a mediator between God and the human person, and confers all sacraments except for Holy Orders (only the bishop can do this) – which includes celebrating Mass and the Eucharist, Penance, Anointing of the Sick, Baptism and Holy Matrimony. The deacon holds the third position in Holy Orders, serves to assist the priest but reports directly to the bishop. Seminarians become transitional deacons on their way to priestly ordination, and as of Vatican II, laymen selected by the diocese can become permanent deacons. Their primary responsibilities include proclaiming the Gospel, preaching homilies at Mass, ministering the Eucharist, and serving the parish. They can baptize, as well as marry and perform funeral rites that do not include a celebration of the Eucharist. Consecrating the Eucharist is the realm of priests and bishops alone, and it is this action that renders the Mass Heaven on Earth.

As I continued to read, it occurred to me that Kubow may have been trying to make the point that evidence exists of women being ordained as deacons, or more accurately deaconesses, during the time before the structural hierarchy of the Church was established, when the only role of formal ministry that existed was that of the diaconate. And as the hierarchy strengthened, the role of deaconess met its demise. I chose to give her the benefit of the doubt, although I hesitated when I read the next few pages, as she cites dates that do not directly support the points she is trying to make. This tends to cause a bit of confusion and leads the reader to wonder which side of the debate she is advocating. This sense of uncertainty is disorienting and detrimental to the trust that should exist between reader and writer.

Kubow states in her opening paragraph that “the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith justifies their position by arguing that women have never been ordained into sacramental orders and that this has been the unbroken historical practice for the last two thousand years” (51). And she counters, but not for several pages, that “the constant tradition of which the Congregation speaks did not originate two thousand years ago, but was born in the twelfth century when the exclusion of women from the diaconate was formally established in canon law” (53). While her citations are factual, they are confusing as any student of Church structure knows the hierarchy was in place well before the twelfth century. And it is this hierarchy that eliminated the role of deaconess earlier than the twelfth century.

To my last point, that Kubow includes citations that misrepresent the theology behind a major liturgical element of the Catholic mass, she writes that women are not able to invoke the Holy Spirit for the celebration of the Eucharist in the Catholic Church. She also states that the Church teaches that women are “incapable” of doing so as if to suggest that we lack the actual capability. She rightly clarifies that it is the Holy Spirit “who alone transforms the bread and wine into the Eucharist” (54). But then she quotes Fr. Bernard Haring as questioning, when speaking about invoking the Holy Spirit, “‘how are women inferior to men?’ Saying ‘this is my body’ has nothing to do with the priest’s own masculinity as he is not speaking in his own name; therefore women ‘can cultivate Eucharistic memory as well as a man’” (54). What Kubow has done in this one paragraph is cobble together a series of thoughts that do not belong together, and I will attempt to untwist them.

To her statement about the Church teaching that women are incapable of calling on the Holy Spirit, incapable is not the correct word. The Church teaches that this is not a question of capability but a question of role, which is evident in Kubow’s correct statement that transubstantiation – the change of the substance or essence of the bread and wine into the actual body and blood of Christ – is the doing of the Holy Spirit. Then there are Fr. Haring’s quotes which look as if they are mixed in with Kubow’s own thoughts, and that makes me question whether she is trying to tie together bits and pieces of what he has said to support her point. The Church does not teach that women are inferior to men. While society may have been responsible at one time for that interpretation, bolstered by the misinformed teachings of a few church leaders, the idea of male-female complementarity – God’s deliberate design of male and female, which together comprise the covenant of redemption – is evident from the Book of Genesis to the Book of Revelation. The inclusion of Haring’s rhetorical question is as baffling as it is and distracting.

When a priest recites “this is my body” during the Eucharistic liturgy, he is quoting the

words of Christ to his apostles during the Last Supper. Throughout the whole act of consecration, the priest is serving in persona Christi, in the person of Christ, and because Jesus was a man when he was on earth and charged his apostles, who were all men, with the power to sanctify, we believe the role of in persona Christi is inherently male. There is a reason God created men and women differently, but as that topic exceeds the bounds of this paper, allow me to simply say that as we are different, so are our gifts. To wrap up the dissection of the preceding paragraph and answer the last sentence, yes, women have the capability to cultivate Eucharistic memory, but it is simply not their role. The theology is deep and wide beyond this statement; suffice it to say those who protest to the contrary are not giving that theology the authority and detailed study it deserves. It is inaccurate to say what the priest is doing during the liturgy is merely reminding us of the Last Supper, when, in fact, what he is doing is calling on the Holy Spirit to bring us into the sacrifice of Christ.

Why did I keep reading after plowing through Kubow’s first six pages, which were wobbly at best? Because right in the middle of all of this, she made a statement that is at the heart of this and many other issues in Christianity: “Only since Pope Pius XII’s encyclical letter, Divino afflante spiritu, issued in 1943, have Catholic biblical scholars been liberated to use the tools of historical criticism to assess the biblical foundations of church teachings. This suggests that the question of the ordination of woman has been considered in its modern formulation for no longer than 63 years” (54). Bingo! So, while I would approach any commentary she presented on theology or liturgy with skepticism, I felt her command of history might prove to be stronger.

Kubow’s historiography focuses on two historical assertions of the Roman Catholic Church, also known as the Western Church: that a female diaconate did not exist, or, if it did, it was not authentically sacramental. To address the first, she reviews the destruction of the wealth of ancient libraries over the centuries, which is enough to make any historian cry. And she points out that much of what has been used as source material for the Roman Catholic Church’s contention is what it decided to adopt when the Catholic Church split in 1054 A.D. The richness, the details, and most of the writings of the Early Church Fathers come from the Eastern Church, which is a subtle but important detail when one examines the history of the relationship of the two churches over the last millennium. At this point, Kubow gets into some of the New Testament evidence in support of the female diaconate, and also cites a bit of what the Early Church Fathers wrote in support of it. Then she reaches 325 A.D., when Christianity was established as the religion of state under Constantinople. At this point, “the Church began attracting members of municipal ruling elites who were professionally trained for public life and experienced in public politics… the new leaders of the church were not as comfortable with women’s leadership in the churches. By shifting church practice and ministry obligations from a largely private sphere into the public sphere, which was largely patriarchal in belief, practice, and law, the role of women was drastically reduced” (60). This is a rather unique thread.

Kubow then follows a path I have seen elsewhere, which nonetheless intrigues me and is bound to provide rich detail on closer examination. “Roman law in effect during the time of Jesus shaped much of Church law in the Catholic Church… As the Church became publicly institutionalized, it adopted Roman law as its own and in spite of a slight relaxation in laws (in later years)… the overall inferior status of women remained in place” (61). She makes a pivotal observation that “during the Middle Ages priesthood was redefined as a role of privilege, power and authority, not a life commitment to ministry and service” (77). And as we enter the medieval era, when religion was the underpinning of daily life, we see the “changing social status of labour and a shift from a generally private to public economic market” (64), which impacted both the role of women in society and the practices of the Church.

The change in the market economy and its impact is an interesting dynamic to ponder. She writes that “the primary purpose of mentioning these complex changes in labor, production and gender dynamics occurring in the secular sphere… is to provide a general understanding of the framework in which misogyny has been built into the very foundation of the symbol systems of Western civilization, that the subordination of women comes to be seen as natural, hence it becomes invisible” (65). And Kubow ties up this section with “It was medieval thinkers who constructed the theological framework that underpins the structures of ministry and hierarchy that society continues to uphold. They moulded the sacrificial focus of the priesthood, the feudal power structures of the Church, the exclusion of women from all authority based on Roman law which they had made the basis of Church law” (67).

The rest of Kubow’s survey consists of familiar ground, covering some of the ancient texts and a bit more of the primary evidence. Within the Apostolic Constitutions, circa 380 A.D., we see that “the female ordination rite, when juxtaposed on the male ordination rite, is essentially identical. This aspect is crucial when addressing the question whether in fact the female diaconate was fully sacramental rather than a service which was merely blessed” (70). Thus, Kubow observes, “it is evident that the exclusion of women from sacramental orders is based on patriarchal tradition, which was strengthen by Roman law, rather than a clear and convincing argument based on historical tradition, Scripture, or theology” (72). She goes on to write about St. Olympias, St. Hildegard of Bingen, and St. Catherine of Sienna, women she sees as having been particularly influential within the Church during their time (400A.D., 1098 A.D. and 1347 A.D., respectively). While none were deaconesses, the latter two are Doctors of the Church, a rare and distinguished title conferred to saints recognized by the Catholic Church as having particular importance, typically in their contribution to theology and doctrine. There are thirty-six Doctors of the Church, only four of whom are women (the others are St. Teresa of Avila and St. Thérèse of Lisieux, both Carmelite mystics – the former from the sixteenth century and the latter from the nineteenth century).

Kubow offers that “patriarchal religion supports and perpetuates patriarchy” (79). She concludes that “without the wisdom and collaboration of women in leadership roles, the church, a sign and instrument of unity with God and among all people, is diminished” (80). This echoes my sentiments exactly when I have written in earlier pieces that without the inclusion of women in significant, material leadership roles within the Roman Catholic Church, something will always be lacking.

In this article, Magdalena Kubow reiterated threads I am familiar with and introduced new ones. As this article is meant to serve as an overview, there is plenty of detail to uncover in the course of digging deeper. My only surprise in Kubow’s work was the absence of any commentary on the impact of ancient Greek philosophy on Roman law and society, as well as on the thinking of the Early Church Fathers. Regardless, Kubow introduces her readers to a handful of wonderful sources and authors, as well as presents several areas to consider when examining why women are not ordained in the Roman Catholic Church today.

Junk and Treasure

Junk and Treasure

 

Every now and then

I go through my “junk drawer”

and choose the things I want

or don’t want any more.

 

Now, here’s a rusty key

that fit an ancient clock

and when the key was turned

the clock would go “tick-tock.”

 

And here’s a perfect stone,

so round and smooth and hard.

Can you believe I found it

right here in my back yard?

 

And here’s a little troll,

his hair is blue and white.

And don’t his eyes look almost real…

so shiny, big, and bright?

 

And look, what’s this I’ve found?

A little soldier boy…

To think I played for hours

with this simple little toy.

 

And here’s a foreign coin

my uncle sent last year.

I tried to spend it once…

but they won’t take it here.

 

And look, what’s this I see?

A seashell from the shore.

A crab once lived inside it…

but doesn’t anymore

 

And here’s a handsome button

It’s green and smooth as jade…

It came off of a jacket

that I wore in seventh grade.

 

And here’s a magnifier

to look at ants and flies.

It has a tiny crack in it…

but it still magnifies.

 

And here’s a little ribbon

that’s made of satin lace.

I got it at a Spelling Bee

for winning second place.

 

I’ll take these things and others

and put them in a crate…

and leave them for the children

outside the garden gate.

 

For I have kept them many years

and now I set them free…

I know they don’t mean anything

to anyone but me.

 

But though they might seem useless,

they still could hold some pleasure…

For what I now consider “junk”,

some child may view as “treasure.”

Discourse on Anxiety: An Analysis of Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper”

Discourse on AnxietyPDF icon

 

Stories exist to act as a sort of virtual reality of the mind allowing readers to interact with various ideas and concepts that may require alteration.  Altering the definition of what it means to be a woman in any society has become an important arena for consideration.  In her short story, “Yellow Wallpaper,” Charlotte Perkins Gilman captures the essence of this anxiety of definition in narrative journal format allowing a first person view of the inner struggle and thought the process of self-identity.  Discourse, in the story, can be observed to be divided in a very Platonic way in the conception of two social spheres representing the enlightened men and the ordinary women, doctor and patient, and husband and wife.  Rather than placing women in a position to explore a self-realized identity based on education, Gilman’s story divides men and women into distinct categories where dialog becomes the means in which to explore women’s identity.

To streamline the examination of Gilman’s dialog this essay will be divided into three distinct parts.  First, the historical context of the place of women in the nineteenth century will be reviewed to better understand the place of the narrator as well as the purpose of the diagnosis.  Secondly, a review of previous interpretations of the story will be considered in light of a Platonic interpretation of the story.  Finally, the essay will examine discourse as a means of understanding the place of women as being the domestic sphere which acts as a metaphorical cave.

Historical Context

Perhaps one of the most important aspects of reading any work of literature is to understand the social and cultural contexts in which of a story is set.  While autonomous projection can serve a useful purpose for a contemporary interpretation of “The Yellow Wallpaper,” understanding the place of women in the late nineteenth century can also provide insight into understanding the story.  Essentially, it is important to keep in mind that the story was not written directly for a contemporary audience, and that can change the overall meaning within the story.

The story, published in 1892, during an era that promoted the concept of “separate spheres” where men and women were moral, ethically, and politically divided (Hughes).  The ideology tended to rest on hard definitions of “natural” characteristics of men and females.  Women were considered physically inferior to men, but they were also considered morally superior to men as they never left the domestic environment (Hughes).  Moral superiority was the quality that best-suited women to care for the “domestic sphere” where women would raise children, care for the home, cook, and clean.  They also acted as a ballast to ensure that when men came home, they would not also bring the taint of the immoral public sphere with them (Hughes).  Along with the duty of raising children, a woman who may have been middle or upper class would ensure that the servants were doing an adequate job in taking care of the domestic environment.

Women’s rights did not exist in any meaningful way during this era.  Both law and public opinion supported the family as a patriarchal institution in which the husband, and father, was considered the only legal “person” in a household (Goodsell 13).  While this may have operated to make the family a robust and coherent unit, it also legally recognized men as the land owners, property owners, and the owner of his wife and children (Goodsell 13).  In fact, women’s rights could only be considered within the framework of separate spheres.  There were many tracks, embellished with easy to remember poems, which encouraged the subservient behavior.  It was audaciously titled “Women’s Rights.”  These rights consisted of:

The right to be a comforter,

When other comforts fail;

The right to cheer the drooping heart

When troubles most assail.

The right to train the infant mind,

To think of Heaven and God;

The right to guide the tiny feet

The path our Savior trod.

The right to solace the distressed,

To wipe the mourners tear;

The right to shelter the oppressed,

And gently chide the fear…

Such are the noblest women’s rights,

The rights which God hath given,

The right to comfort man on earth

And smooth his path to heaven. (Hughes)

Women’s rights, then, were solely guided by the domestic sphere, and their foremost duty was to their husbands as they “smooth his path to heaven” in a “cheerful” manner (Hughes).  It also highlights an economy where the woman’s cares and concerns come last.  Her first duty is to her husband, next to her children, then to God, and, finally, the oppressed.  Not having any time for herself, the woman acts as a slave to her husband and the domestic environment.

Apart from being enslaved by social and cultural norms that dictated their vocation as raising the next generation, it was assumed that women did not seek sexual or emotional satisfaction.  As William Acton declared, “the majority of women (happy for them) are not very much troubled with sexual feeling of any kind” (112).  When young women were finally married, they were united with men who were at least five years older.  This served a dual purpose.  First, it allowed a man to pursue an education that would provide a foundational income for raising a family (Hughes).  Secondly, the age difference reinforced the perception of the natural hierarchy between the sexes allowing the man to maintain headship over a younger woman (Hughs).

While these marriages were essentially the enslavement of women, many women believed that they belonged in the domestic sphere.  Graves wrote in 1841 that, “Fathers should be the patriarchal sovereigns, and mothers the queens of their households…The sanctuary of domestic life is to her (the wife) the place of safety as well as the ‘post of honour’” (45,60).  The French thinker Alex De Tocqueville was greatly impressed by the fact that in America, “the independence of women is irrecoverably lost in the bonds of matrimony” (245).  While the single girl “makes her father’s home an abode of freedom and of pleasure; the wife lives in the home of her husband as if it were a cloister” (245).  Overall, women could be viewed as little more than property designed for the particular purpose of serving a husband as a nun might serve God.

Masculine Definition of the Narrator

Within the framework of the two spheres dichotomy, Gilman’s story becomes a recognition of two separate worlds in the form of the physician or scientist, and patient.  Contained in the title of “physician” is the complete history of Western Civilization.  All man-made philosophy has elevated John, and all those who remain unblessed by Enlightenment education are those who live in Plato’s cave watching shadows on the wall.  It is from his position as a “physician of high standing” that allows John to authoritatively diagnose and, thus, define his young wife.  He diagnoses the narrator with “temporary nervous depression” with “slight hysterical tendencies,” but found nothing physically wrong with her (Gilman 138).  In the absence of physical evidence of a malady, John subjected his wife to the “rest cure” pioneered by Weir Mitchell and applauded the world over for its innovation, seemingly only be men who would have dominated the medical field.  The “cure” would only work, however, if key elements were followed:

…isolation, complete physical rest, a rich diet of creamy foods, massage, and electrical stimulation of disused muscles, and complete submission to the authority of the attending physician.  All physical and intellectual activity is to be prohibited.  A patient is to be lifted out of her own social and familial milieu and transported to a neutral environment tended only by a nurse and her doctor. (Mitchell)

Based on the conception of women as inferior in every way to man, the concept of the rest cure was designed to provide respite from regular domestic duties that had become a source of stress and anxiety.  The removal to a neutral environment was intended to take all that was stressful from the woman’s life.  However, by the second page of the story, the narrator already feels helpless and frustrated in light of her husband’s diagnostic declaration:

If… one’s own husband, assures friends and relatives that there is really nothing the matter with one but temporary nervous depression- a slight hysterical tendency-what is one to do?…I take phospahtes or phosphites- whichever it is, and tonics, and journeys and air, and exercise, and am absolutely forbidden to ‘work’ until I am well again.  Personally I disagree with their ideas.  Personally, I believe that congenial work, with excitement and change, would do me good. (Gilman 138-139)

John has defined his wife, apparently, very publicly, and he has done so in such a way as to veto any self-identification from the narrator.  If the unexamined life is not worth living then, John has examined the narrator’s life for her and has decided that she requires more restriction to heal.  Further diagnostic definition becomes necessary on John’s part to restrict the narrator as a thinking and creative being to relieve her anxiety.

Despite the fact that the narrator may know what is best for herself, she allows her husband to exercise his authority over her out of social obligation to her husband but also out of a sense of inferiority.  Given the public nature of the diagnosis as being both declaratively professional and masculine, the narrator must adhere to the regiment despite the fact that she feels that something is wrong, but she is unable to contradict her husband.  The narrator then becomes “unreasonably angry,” but she reminds herself that she is overly sensitive given her condition further allowing her husband to tighten the chains that enslave her to his person (Gilman 139).

The narrator reacts to the diagnosis by striving to define John.  Her definition of her husband describes him as extremely practical to the point that he has no patience for faith, and he also has an “intense horror of superstition” (Gilman 138).  She initially identifies him as a cold scientist, that believes only observable fact and cares nothing for feelings and less for imagination (Gilman 138).  While John is representative of early modernist Enlightenment thought, he also embodies all of the Western philosophy.  He is the Platonic prisoner set free from the cave through education, and he no longer looks at the world as shadows cast on the wall (Bloom 194).  John can look at and contemplate the light of the sun believing he pursues the source of all knowledge (Bloom 195).  All is illuminated and bright for John, and he is the enlightened man of science.

John’s diagnosis of his wife’s sickness as a nervous disorder is indicative of Enlightenment concepts of women.  Her disorder is a product of the very fact that she is a woman and not a man.  Rousseau said of women, “Consult women in all bodily matter, in all concerns of the senses; consult men in the matters of morality, and all that involves understanding” (59).  Women, according to Hegel, also lack self-conscious reflection which would necessarily mean that women were weaker than men both intellectually and self-consciously as they would have not a human consciousness (Kant 78; Hegel).  Finally, Kant describes women, while beautiful, as being intellectually inferior to men and not cut out for the work of exercising logic or engaging in complex thought (77-79).  All of these definitions of women serve to illustrate the belief that not all were designed to crawl out of Plato’s cave, and, in fact, only a handful of men would achieve the prestige of coming into the light.

As John is dedicated to reason, he decides to remove his wife from the stressful environment of the home and moves her out to the country.  However, his choice of location for respite is worth exploring.  John rents a “secure ancestral hall for the summer” that the narrator also describes as a “colonial mansion, a hereditary estate” and, even, a “haunted house” (Gilman 138).  Considering that women are part of the domestic sphere, it would stand to reason that remaining at home where everything would be familiar would have been a healthier choice.  The narrator does not seem to appreciate the new surroundings, and she believes that there is “something queer about it” (Gilman 139).  John shrinks her world to a minuscule cocoon meant to envelop and heal, but in so doing he has condemned her to the impossible task of recovering without thought or vocation enshrouded with the vestiges of the shadow of patriarchy.

The “hereditary estate” can also serve as the idea of secluding the narrator in the darkness of Plato’s cave.  To this point, John has provided every definition by his education and gender.  Now, as she has a kind of existential crisis he prescribes a remedy that would take her away from her home and into the country.  Like the cave, the colonial mansion represents repression for those who are too uneducated or unworthy to be left to the steady upward slope toward the light of truth.  The ancestral halls embody the shadow of patriarchy that casts shadows upon the wall to allow the narrator some little understanding of why the rest cure is necessary.

Not only has John chained her to a metaphor for the cave, but he also uses condescending childish language as a way to explain why she must stay in the house.  He belittles her as a thinker and writer as he explains:

…that with my imaginative power and habit of story-making, a nervous weakness like mine is sure to lead to all manner of excited fancies, and that I ought to use my will and good sense to check the tendency. (Gilman 144)

He also, out of frustration, reminds his wife of the domestic hierarchy:

My darling…I beg of you, for my sake and for our child’s sake, as well as for your own, that you will never for one instant let that idea enter your mind!  There is nothing so dangerous, so fascinating, to a temperament like yours.  It is a false and foolish fancy.  Can you not trust me as a physician when I tell you so? (Gilman 147)

John not only controls the light of her life, but he also manipulates the statues that cast shadows upon the wall to help his wife understand what is best.  She is not to imagine, but to be practical and willful, both tendencies that suit the masculine.  When the narrator claims she is not feeling better, he tells her that she must get better, not for herself, but for him, their son, and that she just needs to trust him as a doctor.  There is no appeal for his sake as a husband, and she must become more like him if she is to heal.

The majority of healing in the narrator’s case also means identifying within her domestic sphere.  She is anxious and stressed because she may be trying too hard to be selfish and independent.  The diagnostic relationship, rather than being therapeutic, serves to reorient her to the established social order.  She does not belong to herself, and John not only continues to remind her that she does not belong to herself but he also never refers to her by name.  He refers to her by very simple pet names such as “blessed little goose” (Gilman 141), “darling” or “dear” (Gilman 145,147), and “little girl” (Gilman 146).  By not using her name, the narrator’s identity must attach to John to have an identity.  Treating her as a child also serves to allow John the advantage of continual definition to the point that narrator can only identify herself by John’s dictates.  While the narrator reacts negatively to these definitions, they still make self-definition much harder as she has undergone extensive re-description by the light of her life.

Self-Identity

While John defines the narrator using scientific language, the narrator fights to understand her personal identity.  Given the rigid definition of women in her day, the narrator struggles to understand who she is.  The conflict makes any definition bipolar as she swings from one extreme to the next in the space of a few sentences.  One moment she describes how much she disagrees believing that “excitement and change” would be better than resting (Gilman 138-139).   Above all, however, she strives to conform to her husband’s wishes, but there is no rest in conformity.  At first, she aims to become the expectation of her society, but the exertion is overwhelming:

… I take pains to control myself- before him, at least, and that makes me very tired…Nobody would believe what an effort it is to do what little I am able- to dress and entertain, and order things… (Gilman 139, 141)

The act of conformity to please her husband is a heavy burden that contradicts John’s edict as a physician, but the narrator seems to recognize that it is the only way she will be declared cured and released.

However, no matter how hard the narrator strives to conform, she has nothing to occupy her mind except the contradiction and confusion of defining herself.  The narrator allows the contradictory nature of her husband’s definition to oppose her desire for self-actualization.  Ford notes that “but,” the conjunction of contradiction, is used fifty-six times in the short space of the story (311).  Other words such as “and, so, only, besides” are also used as substitutes for “but.”  Even though her thoughts are written secretly on “dead paper,” the narrator seeks a small internal rebellion as a means of identifying separately from and contradicting her husband (Gilman 138).  Having nothing else to occupy her time, the narrator begins to study the wallpaper as it reflects the confusion she feels.

With no other stimulation, however, the yellow wallpaper covering her room becomes her focal point.  She reads it as she might read a book, and she wishes to interpret it as she is interpreting her life.  However, she finds that neither makes sense.  Just as the narrator is to be domestic, so too is wallpaper domestic and humble used to decorate a room or hide drywall or cover blemishes.  Outside her domestic environment, however, the wallpaper becomes a nightmarish symbol of being trapped in her domestic life. Both become:

Repellent, almost revolting; a smoldering unclean yellow, strangely faded by the slow-turning sunlight.  It is dull yet lurid orange in some, a sickly sulfur tint in others (Gilman 140).

Just as the yellow wallpaper has been warped and faded, so too has the narrator personified and projected her confused feelings onto that wallpaper.  She feels repelled, revolted, and she smolders against the definition that John has assigned her, but she still finds no self-definition since she can only describe what she is not as John provides her singular self-conception.

Confusion over who she is can also be examined in the simple nature of her confinement. Her prison is a nursery, with rings on the walls, and bars on the windows (Gilman140).  The only piece of furniture in the chamber is a large bed that is immovable as it has been nailed to the floor (Gilman144).  Here rests another absurdity suggesting that she is a child, but the bed fixed to the floor also defines her sexual life regarding being beholden to her husband.  The nursery has become a place of childishness as well as sexual slavery designed to keep her ignorant and subdued making her recovery an extreme return to Plato’s cave.

Given the contradictory nature of her existence, and having no intellectual stimulation, the narrator studies and observes the wallpaper:

…by daylight, there is a lack of sequence, a defiance of law, that is a constant irritant to a normal mind…it changes with the light.  When the sun shoots in through the east window- I always watch for that first long, straight ray-it changes so quickly that I never can quite believe it…by daylight it is subdued, quiet…in the day time it is tiresome and perplexing. (147,148-149)

While the sun subdues the wallpaper, it also becomes confusing to behold.  What makes the pattern complicated may stem from two similar reasons.  First, it could mean that the narrator is being exposed to the light of knowledge too soon and has no idea how to self-identify apart from John.  Just as in Plato’s cave, exposure to the light too soon may cause disorientation and confusion as the prisoner’s eyes are not yet accustomed to the light and must only receive definition from her husband.  Secondly, the wallpaper may be the narrator’s confusion as she realizes that she is a separate self, and is uncertain how to proceed without a voice.  During the day, in the absence of her husband, she can relax, her journal serves as her voice, and she writes with some certainty of opinion.  There is no burden to conform in the same way as when John is present.  In John’s absence, the narrator seems to use the wallpaper to reflect on her identity and what it means to be an individual.  In any case, the wallpaper becomes tiresome and perplexing as the narrator tries to force a definition of conformity upon it so that she may subdue it in the same way that she is subdued and wishes to overcome herself (Gilman 149).

While the narrator is unable to make sense of the pattern of the wallpaper under the light of the sun, she does discover that under certain dimmer lights she can make out a pattern.  The moonlight, however, becomes the most helpful light as it reveals the true nature of the pattern:

By moonlight- the moon shines in all night when there is a moon- I wouldn’t know it was the same paper.   At night in any kind of light, in twilight, candle light, lamplight, and worst of all moonlight, it becomes bars!  The outside pattern I mean, and the woman behind them is as plain as can be. (Gilman 148)

Just as in Plato, Gilman uses the moon to illuminate what cannot be observed during the day.  The narrator, then, can see the truth of the wallpaper, and the wallpaper’s true nature is that of a prison.  It may be the prison of her identity or freedom of choice based on the concepts of family and social structure that trapped so many married women of the nineteenth century.  The moonlight unveils the nature of wallpaper identifying by night what becomes impossible to fathom by day.

Besides the bars imprisoning the woman, the yellow wallpaper is also festooned with other designs.  The first designs that she makes out are the heads of many women, strangled, necks broken, and bulbous eyes that stare at her (Gilman 142).  Those women who tried to escape the bars by forcing their heads through it were strangled and killed.   It may be that this accounts for the rancid smell connected to the “yellow” of the wallpaper:

It is the strangest yellow, that wallpaper.  It makes me think of all the yellow things I ever saw- not beautiful ones like buttercups, but old foul, bad yellow things.  But there is something else about the paper- the smell!  I noticed it the moment we came into the room, but with so much air and sun it was not bad.  Now we have had a week of fog and rain, and whether the windows are open or not, the smell is here.  (Gilman 149).

The smell and the color may be tied to the idea of Gilman nodding to the mad woman in the attic in Jane Eyre as the segregation of the “other” where “yellow” can mean anyone who is not white (Lanser 428; Owens 77).  While this is an excellent interpretation of the color yellow, I would suggest that the color yellow becomes so pervasive because it is emanating from the narrator.  It’s in her clothes, her hair, and she notices it even when she is out riding in the open air (Gilman 150).  Perhaps it has always been her natural smell, and it was accepted because she took her role and definition in society without question.  Understanding that her definition does not come from her self-consciousness has allowed her to realize that she is part of the “yellow.”  Perhaps the whole world is yellow apart from the patriarchs of the West who form the definitions of not just their society but the world.  Women, ethnic minorities, gay and lesbian, and any who do not fit John’s misogynist definition may be yellow.

While this may generalize the color yellow, it also includes all those who would continue to be yellow even today.  Rather than making it a single group such as women or designing a concept of the Orientalization of the world from the color, it seems that any whose definition could be inhibited by a rhetoric of conquest and definition would fall into the category of the wallpaper.  In the case of the narrator, just as in the event of all who may be yellow, a new self-conception takes drastic action.  When the author finally does tear down the wallpaper, she liberates the shadow woman behind it, and they are united.  She becomes so convincing that she bends John to her will.  Having been out all night, John returns home to find the door locked, and no key.  He calls for an ax, but the narrator stops him:

“John, dear!” said I in the gentlest voice, “the key is down by the front steps, under the plantain leaf!”  That silenced him for a few moments.  Then he said- very quietly indeed, “Open the door my darling!”  “I can’t,” said I, “key is down by the front door under the plantain leaf!”  And then I said it again, several times, very gently and slowly, and said so often that he had to go and see, and he got it of course and came back. (Gilman 154)

Being free of the norms represented by the wallpaper, the narrator can stay the hand of her husband from destroying the door with an ax.  While it takes a repetition, John eventually leaves to find the key and uses it to open the door.

Finally, the door open, the discourse ends when John observes his wife creeping around the room.  Creeping is an interesting word that means to go without being noticed.  Throughout the story, the women of the wallpaper have crept, sometimes on all fours, but always the creep.  They do so, it would seem, in order not to be noticed.  Once they escape their prison and realize that they are human and intelligent, they have no desire to return.  However, lacking a definition, the narrator seems to have gone mad.  Finally, she has come from the cave, but she is just as confused as when she was confined, “I’ve got out at last…in spite of you and Jane.  And I’ve pulled off most of the paper so you can’t put me back” (Gilman 154).  John faints.  Patriarchy has been temporary reversed, but she creeps over him (Gilman 154).  She must continue to creep over him until he wakes.  There is the idea that he will wake at some point since he’s only fainted.  Patriarchy is only temporarily suspended, and while he cannot put her back behind the bars of the wallpaper, at some point, she will have to be contained to return her to the healthy society of her day.

Practicality

Gilman’s story represents an ongoing struggle for women as they seek to identify themselves separately from preconceived notions of the masculine social convention.  Language can become the chains that constrain and require conformity to social conventions.  One area that is rife with a similar dialog as Gilman’s is the concept of extreme complementarianism.  One such example is John Piper and his conception of living as a Biblical man or woman.  On his radio show, he was taking phone calls answering questions and providing a view of what it meant to live as a Biblical man or woman.  Piper accepted one particular call that interested me, and that was a woman who was interested in becoming a member of law enforcement.

Piper listened to the young lady, but his response to her was similar to reading the dialog of John as he berated and belittled his wife in his sarcastic, condescending fashion:

At the heart of mature manhood is a sense of benevolent responsibility to lead, provide for, and protect women in ways appropriate to man’s differing relationships.  The postman won’t relate to the lady at the door the way the husband will, but he will be a man.  At the heart of mature womanhood is a freeing disposition to affirm, receive, and nurture strength and leadership from worthy men in ways appropriate to woman’s differing relationships. (Piper)

Just as the wallpaper reflects the confusion of the narrator in “The Yellow Wallpaper,” so too does Piper use a language that confuses the identity of women trying to live in the public sphere.  Just as the poem “Women’s Rights” suggests, Piper draws a list of acceptable behaviors for women as, “the heart of a mature woman is a freeing disposition to affirm, receive, and nurture strength and leadership from worthy men” (Piper).  Piper seems to suggest that all men are entitled to if the postman, who is not the woman’s husband, has natural authority over a woman because he is a man strikes me as being very similar to the way in which John belittles his wife as if she were a child.

Despite the fact that Piper began his comments with a disclaimer that he would never make a declarative category that would divide people into distinctly male or female groups, he still felt that there was a difference between masculine and feminine jobs.  Police officers, doctors, lawyers, or, basically, any position where a woman would have authority over a man was unacceptable:

Some influence is very directive, and some are non-directive.  For example, a drill sergeant might epitomize directive influence over the privates in a platoon.  And it would be hard for me to see how a woman could be a drill sergeant- hut two, right face, left face, keep your mouth shut, private- over men without violating their sense of manhood and her sense of womanhood. (Piper)

Again, Piper uses words to bind the authority and ability of women.  A woman should never have authority over man as “it would violate his sense of manhood makes men seem weak in the first place” (Piper).  However, his language is also the language of definition intended to shape the future.

Patriarchal language begins developing the minds of people when they are mere children.  Lately, my ten-year-old daughter has experienced subjection to afore-mentioned language and practice of patriarchy.  She loves to play sports, but recently she was told by a group of boys at school that boy’s sports were all that mattered because their dads said so.  They told her that nobody cared “about girl’s sports.”  She came straight home and asked me if that was what everybody thought.  When I explained to her that was not what everybody thought, she seemed happier, but she informed me that she was going to prove all those boys wrong.  She would outplay any of them any day if they let her play.

Gilman masterfully captures these ideas in her story.  John embodies the social conception of women as being substandard.  Much like Piper and the boys at school, John mostly treats his wife as if she were complaining, and Rousseau suggests, “Women do wrong to complain of inequality of man-made laws; this inequality is not of man’s making, or at any rate it is not the result of more prejudice, but of reason” (571).

Even more than just complaining, however, Gilman represents the flawed logic of her day as well as the advice given by Piper.  There is a suggestion that men are necessary as logical beings to bring definition to women.  Piper’s language is indicative of the same linguistic category suggested by Gilman, namely that the justification for dominance over women through medical definition, family position, and social roles is due to women being merely creatures rather than fully formed adults that can reason and desire without outside definitions.

The dialog between John and his wife oversimplifies women.  He treats her as a child using language that would be more appropriate for a child.  He lords his scientific prowess and high reputation over her as if he were a god and her his creation.  The narrator strives to fit into the conception of what it means to be a woman for her husband.  She struggles to admire him, she obeys his orders as a doctor and a husband, and she struggles to appease him even when she has done nothing wrong.  The dialog has changed since Gilman wrote this story, but it has not changed so drastically to erase the image of the yellow wallpaper from out of the hearts of women in Western society.  The urge to perform according to the social standards still exists, and that desire can still be tyrannical.

In conclusion, “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gillman provides an astounding commentary on the desire of women to define themselves as individuals apart from social convention.  Just as masculine identity does not depend only on a profession, so women should not be defined by the social tendency to categorize women as “other.”  The concept of what it means to be a woman must not continuously and continually find definition through patriarchal cultural institutions; instead, women need the freedom to explore and identify who they are without the interference of so many overarching interpretations.  In the end, an institutional definition serves to confuse individual identity both socially and privately.  The idea of the yellow wallpaper provides a discourse on how women can be trapped desiring to know who they are and how they should act or be.

 

 

Works Cited

Ford, Karen. “‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ and Women’s Discourse.” Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature, vol. 4, no. 2, Autumn 1985, pp. 309-14. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/463709. Accessed 23 Apr. 2017.

Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. “Why I Wrote The Yellow Wallpaper.” The City University of New York, edited by Catherine Lavender, Department of History, 8 June 1999, csivc.csi.cuny.edu/history/files/lavender/whyyw.html. Accessed 25 Apr. 2017.

—. “The Yellow Wallpaper.” Points of View: An Anthology of Short Stories, edited by James Moffett and Kenneth R. McElheny, Mentor, 1995, pp. 138-54.

Goodsell, Willystine. “The American Family in the Nineteenth Century.”American Academy of Political and Social Science, vol. 160, Mar. 1932, pp. 13-22. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/1018511. Accessed 26 May 2017.

Hegel, G.W.F. Phenomenology of Spirit (1807), trans. A.V. Miller (New York: Oxford

University Press, 1977), Chapter IV, Part A: “Independence and Dependence of Self-Consciousness: Mastery and Slavery.” In the e-book below this is pp. 20-28.

Hughes, Kathryn. “Gender Roles in the 19th Century.” British Library, www.bl.uk/romantics-and-victorians/articles/gender-roles-in-the-19th-century#. Accessed 26 Apr. 2017.

Kant, Immanuel. Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime. Translated by John T. Goldthwait, University of California Press, 1965.

Lanser, Susan S. “Feminist Criticism, ‘The Yellow Wallpaper,’ and the Politics of Color in America.” Feminist Studies, vol. 15, no. 3, Fall 1989, pp. 415-41. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/317798. Accessed 26 May 2017.

Mitchell, S. Weir, M.D. “Google” [“Google Books”]. Google Books, Google, 1897, books.google.com/books?hl=en&id=ZRcLAAAAIAAJ&dq=Wear+and+Tear,+or+Hints+for+the+Overworked&printsec=frontcover&source=web&ots=cbohBdctgI&sig=G-oGw6nstW0xbg7_aOVzwEGqFNI&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result#v=onepage&q=Wear%20and%20Tear%2C%20or%20Hints%20for%20the%20Overworked&f=false. Accessed 19 May 2017.

Owens, Suzanne. “The Ghostly Double Behind the Wallpaper in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s ‘The Yellow Wallpaper.'” Haunting House of Fiction, edited by Lynette Carpenter, University of Tennessee Press, 1991, pp. 64-79.

Piper, John. “Should Women Be Police Officers?” Desiring God Ministries, DesiringGod, 13

Aug. 2015, www.desiringgod.org/interviews/should-women-be-police-officers. Accessed 21 Feb. 2017.

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. Emile. 1762. The Portable Enlightenment Reader. Ed. Isaac Kramnick.

New York: Penguin, 1995. 568-79.

St. Jerome. The Principle Works of St. Jerome. Translated by W.H. Freemantle, Amazon Digital

ServicesLLC, 2010.

Tocqueville, Alexis De, et al. Democracy in America. Pbk. ed., Chicago, U of Chicago P, 2002.

Treichler, Paula A. “Escaping the Sentence: Diagnosis and Discourse in ‘The Yellow Wallpaper.'” Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature, vol. 3, no. 1/2, Spring 1984, pp. 61-77. JSTOR. Accessed 26 Apr. 2017.

Winterer, Caronline. “Scholarship Versus Culture.” Chapter 5. The Culture of Classicism, Baltimore, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002, pp. 152-78.

Women in America. New York, Harper and Brothers, 1858.

Harry’s Last Trick

Harry’s Last Trick PDF icon

1.

 

The most innocuous way to begin this story is to tell you that I hit a dog.  This happens to hundreds of people every day with not much recourse.  Yet, I had somehow avoided this sad fate for forty-three years.  The requisite guilt was intensified by all of my years as a non-dog killer.  The morally upright person that walks around during the day doesn’t hit animals.  The only marginally aware, emotionally consumed, and half blind idiot apparently does.  I don’t know if this story has any clear “moral,” but that might be a good one.

 

2.

 

I started this story off in a manner that I referred to as “innocuous.”  Now I would like to fill in that skeletal portrait with a few (possibly) hard to believe details.  I will begin by describing the car that I was driving on the particular night of the accident.  This would be a standard issue 1975 Volkswagen Beetle.  (These, obviously, are better known in popular language as “Bugs.”  The cars that were shamefully clunky and unloved until Walt Disney gave one of them a human consciousness and mediocre cast mates).  My “bug” was originally the conventional color of yellow.

Many years ago, I had repainted the hood and body to look like a person wearing a tuxedo.  The hood was the bowtie, shirt, and jacket while the rest of it was the body of the suit wearer.  A black “top hat” I had fashioned out of Plaster of Paris completed the “suit”; this was secured to the roof of the vehicle.  I had wanted to finish this transformation by attaching a mannequin arm holding a magic wand to the passenger door.  This had been done, and resulted in a rather costly ticket because the city court was convinced it was a “hazard.”  (I even spent an hour arguing with a judge about that arm.  My defense entailed me stating that it “brought joy” to the thousands of city dwellers I passed ever day.  This was clearly not successful, and the arm came off the next day.  I would add that my suggestion to perform a few card tricks in the court room was also very poorly received.)

The arm with the magic wand should be a tip off to my profession.  For the last twenty years, I have been a professional magician.  The kind you see struggling to entertain children at various birthday parties, or laboring at “gigs” in the back of bookstores and libraries.  If I am unduly lucky, I might get a slot at the depilated theater that holds events for “charity.”  (I have never figured out who is benefiting from these said “events.”  I just know that I can go home with a cut from the store.  I can lay in bed and stare at the door money stuffed in my hot little hand and ruminate about having finally “made it.”)

The car had lived for much longer than I ever thought it would.  Unfortunately, it was currently serving as my home when I ran mercilessly into my four-legged friend.  The evening before I had returned to the place where I was staying and found the lock had been changed.  I had been bunking in a friend’s magic shop (sleeping on a couch in the storage room).  I have come to believe that this unhappy outcome was far beyond my control.  I looked in the window after struggling with the door with several minutes.  Everything was gone and the room was covered in a sickly white color from a nearby streetlamp.

You now have a solid picture of what the car looked like.  Now I need to tell you about the beast itself.  The mongrel in question was well over a hundred pounds.  The pitch-black night obscured many other details (the most obvious one being the actual breed).  The one detail that can’t be overlooked; the dog completely demolished the front of my car.  There was an inescapable dent and a very large plume of smoke that followed the metallic crunch.

The damage is not the remarkable thing about this story.  The fact that the dog looked directly in my eyes and then walked off very much alive is.  I didn’t see where he went, but I got out of my totaled magic mobile with a purpose.  I was off to find what was left of the dog.

 

3.

 

Here are a few details to consider as “setting the scene.”  This was one of the coldest nights documented in a very long time.  I got out of my car and realized that I was in a part of the city that I didn’t even recognize.  Typical “urban” elements like telephone polls and brick buildings were contrasted by dirt alleys and unpopulated roads that led out of town.  I was to discover that very few of the citizens of this area believed in leaving their lights on.  (My imagination conjured up every explanation from devil worship to shameful nudity to explain why all the windows were dark).  I was dressed in my “uniform” for shows.  I had invested in a highly tailored suit that I had horizontally outgrown (my gut burst over the pant line).  A back length red cape made out of velvet that collected asphalt as I walked had always complimented the suit.  The red from the cape was most likely the only detail that the occasional driver could see with their headlights.

I always have painfully clear insights after a car accident.   They don’t always have a logical succession, but they do have a sick sort of staying power.  The first major one; my “career” in magic was probably over.  My trademark (the bug) was permanently damaged and my income was not going to provide for a replacement.  The very thing that got from one gig to another had committed suicide by dog.  I might be able to salvage the material from the back of the car (old props, costumes, and the same “how to” books I had studied since childhood).  All of that stuff was now horribly dated.  When I was still living in the magic shop, I had caught a ritzy cable special of a much younger and hipper magician.  The idiot had toys I couldn’t even imagine, not to mention a fully articulated light show behind him at all times.  This was the sort of example I had been seeing lately of talent being only “optional.”  The crowd was sedated by memorization and distracted by charm and showmanship.  I just had the same old jokes followed by the plethora of tricks for eons now.

That is what led to another realization; there was nothing extraordinary about me.  Magicians all over the country were doing various versions of my act right now.  They were far from plagiarists, because every good magic show should have an element of the familiar.  I just began to wonder if I had ever done anything completely unique.  I wasn’t just talking about my show…I was turning over every unexamined aspect of my meek little existence.

My eyes kept scanning for the dog as I walked into the darkness.  As I continued walking, the question: “Why?” popped into my head.  I thought I could ignore it and move on.  To make matters worse, I started imagining the word: “Why?” appearing like a neon sign in front of me.  The sign in my head would point to a formerly unspecified destination that would contain all the mythical answers I could possibly desire.  What was the “why” really asking?

I didn’t even have to ask because I inherently knew.  “Why magic?”  I was about to discover when I turned another corner that I had become lost on a back road.  Nothing looked even remotely familiar to me at this point.  I started to turn around and walk back in the direction I came from.  I found myself thinking: “Fine.  I clearly have a walk in front of me.  Why magic?”

 

4.

 

My very first memory has to do with a soup can that was on my mother’s kitchen counter.  I was all of about two and a half years old; I can remember thinking that if I concentrated hard enough the can would move.  The next image that comes into my mind is of the can being in a completely different spot.  This wasn’t like watching a ghost drag a inanimate object across the counter.  The can had very much been transported by what I saw as my own willpower.  I know that any rational person can shoot this full of holes and I don’t need a believer.  This was simply my own experience of what I thought I saw.   This led to other incidents; causing the TV to turn off and on, causing the school bus tire to blow out, and even willing a black out during one of my bored school days.

I might not have thought I was directly responsible for any of it, but I couldn’t help but forge a connection in my mind.  I was dreadfully bored during that school black out and just as my frustration reached its zenith: “Pop!”  The bus incident was also similar; this was after I had grown to hate going to school.  My younger psyche had been filled with various escape plans and a nagging, eventually all-consuming dread.  What could be done to ensure that the bus didn’t arrive at school when we hit the end of the line?  After all of the grotesque children had been collected, and the bus door shut for the final time…there had to be an escape.  The moment I brought that thought into my consciousness the tire exploded and the bus was barely maneuvered to the side of the road.

What about the TV switching off?  That mostly had to do with a leak my family had in the roof.   I walked by one night feeling flushed with power and a giant torrent of rain came storming through the leak.  The TV had been displaying a particular program I didn’t approve of and I took this as more circumstantial evidence.

These brief examples are all just previews for the main attraction.  I have large chunks in my memory leading up to making this decision.  However, when I was sixteen, I decided that I desperately wanted to end my own life.  There was a crumby bridge by my house that overlooked a marginally crowded intersection.  I had written some self-indulgent poetry (in lieu of a suicide note) and stuffed it in a pocket.  I figured that whoever found my mangled corpse might be able to read whatever was left decipherable.  (There clearly wasn’t strong logic operating inside me at this time).  That particular night I arrived at the bridge around one a.m. and teetered on the edge.  I read my bad poetry to the world and then got up the gumption to make the descent.

The miracle happened when I decided half way through the jump that I wanted to live.  This is what I swear to you happened; a breeze came and redirected my ninety pound frame into a row of bushes.  Don’t get me wrong; I still attained several serious injuries (broken bones and a long gash across my forehead).  That wasn’t the point to me.  I had once again willed myself to circumvent fate and ended up alive.   That meant that I had some particular destiny here on the planet.  I was supposed to do a ‘GREAT THING” that I perhaps had yet to discover.  (The phrase “GREAT THING” might as well be another one of my directionless, neon flashing signs.)

Then, after the bridge incident, I had to go away for a while…

 

5.

 

I was jolted out of my pleasant recollections by my first sighting of what I would refer to as: “The Mongrel.”  I suddenly spotted the dog hobbling towards a giant empty space in front of me.  The space was populated by what looked like dark and misshapen structures.  (I had a distant memory of a TV program I had seen once about elephant graveyards.)  I stuck my hand up (almost as if I assumed the animal could see me) and started to run after it.  As I approached the empty space, my eyes spontaneously adapted to the darkness surrounding me.  I realized I was in the middle of a large dirt lot.  The “dead elephants” turned out to be circus tents.  I was in the middle of a traveling show that had obviously closed up for the night.

The Mongrel was nowhere to be found as I walked around the perimeter.  I saw a couple of the carnies wandering around the corner and decided it was best to hide.  I didn’t want to go into a long explanation of what I was doing or why.  I found a particular (and perfectly sized) spot to hide at the exit of one of the tents.  That is when I noticed a smaller tent directly in front of me.  The word MAGIC was displayed proudly on the roof and the tent was illustrated with pictures.  There were magic wands, cards, dices, and a rather pitiful looking rabbit popping out of a hat.

I couldn’t believe it; my “GREAT THING” was staring me right in the face.  I knew the tent probably housed another performer.  (One I assumed was infinitely more talented than I was).  That didn’t prevent me from walking into the unprotected entrance.  I found myself in a relatively cozy environment with only about thirty seats and a small stage.  The stage displayed a coffin and a saw (without the lovely assistant).  There was an oversized deck of cards on top of an ancient picnic table.  There was also a velvet backdrop that hardly covered the canvas wall.  I was home, and I decided to perform a few tricks.

I leapt up onto the stage and bellowed: “For my first trick…”

 

6.

 

“For my first trick…”

That was a very old line in my life from when I first started doing tricks.  That was after I went away for a while to The Place Which Shan’t Be Named.  I found myself surrounded by human beings in various stages of emotional turmoil.  We were all constantly on watch by a man I liked to call “The Specialist.”  The Specialist was a dry humored, bald, and overly diplomatic man that we all had to spend at least an hour a week with.  The other half of the time was spent with the Specialist and the rest of us seated in an awkward badly formed semi-circle staring at each other.  I was never quite sure of how any of this was supposed to translate into anything productive.  I wonder if we all were led to believe that a cure would present itself at just the right time.  The good news was that we had the evening (mostly) free and there was a wide selection of books.

I was having one of my bouts of sleeplessness when I decided to go wandering the halls.  There were various bookshelves tucked away and completely ignored in just about every corner.  The books and shelves collected more and more dust as they were spread further out.  I eventually got all the way to the end of one of the hallways and found a case with a single book.   By this point, I was in almost complete darkness with nothing but a bit of moonlight shining through the venetian blinds.  I attribute that fact to my motivation for picking up this oddly orphaned volume.  In any other circumstance, I would have turned a blind eye and kept on walking.

The moonlight fell on what I perceived to be a diagram that held little appeal.  That was before a bit more study illuminated the fact that it was instructions for a card trick.  That was enough for me to tuck the book under my arm and walk away with it.  I was fortunate enough to have a room to myself.  (That had to do with my last roommate having an unfortunate encounter with the ceiling and his shoelaces.)   I could flip on the light at random and read for many hours on end.  I found entire nights vanishing under the influence of obscure “magical spells” and slights of hand.  This allowed me to sleepwalk through just about everything else.

The final culmination in becoming a magician was to give my first real show.  I was pleasantly surprised that the Specialist was all for this “opportunity.”  He even donated me an hour or so on the cafeteria stage after our “medicine” break.  I found myself performing magic tricks in front of a bunch of zonked out patients.  There were two sizable takeaways from this particular experience.  The completely unreceptive members of the audience were hazing me for the future.  I also did a full out stumble when I first took the stage that brought down the house.  This was the unintentional creation of a personae; the bumbling idiot that was at least marginally competent.  I would go about pretending that I didn’t know what I was doing.  That would make the pay off of each magic trick a surprise.  All of these events seemed accidental until I thought about it later.

My mysterious streak of self-appointed “luck” was continuing.  I was “approved” to leave The Place Which Shan’t Be Named.  I was never to lay eyes on the Specialist again.  He might not have been visibly present, but he was forever in my thoughts in a nightmarish way.   The voice of unintentional deterrent is a pleasant way to refer to him.  I always have his voice in the back of my head saying: “Is that really such a great idea?”

 

7.

 

The small stage I stood on was now consumed with a wash of magic supplies.  I had found a stack of boxes stuffed in a corner.  Each one of them had been badly taped together and was clearly overflowing with the tricks of the trade.  I had started to perform almost on autopilot.  I was only dimly aware of stage lights slowly rising on me as I did my usual “competent idiot” act.  I didn’t even notice a dark figure seated at the end of one of the aisles.  That might have continued if I hadn’t heard oddly incongruous applause after one more card trick.  I looked out into the darkness.

That is when I saw a familiar face; the Specialist was watching me intently.  I couldn’t mistake the face or the antique pair of spectacles.  The only thing that had changed was that he was wearing a clown suit.  There was even remnants of white make-up around his eyes (he didn’t finish cleaning himself up).  I looked directly at him and he exaggeratedly clapped again.  I was so dumbfounded that I had to wait for him to speak.

“You’ve gotten better,” the Specialist said.

“Was I bad before?” I said as I walked towards the edge of the stage.

“You were…unformed,” the Specialist told me.

He got up and walked towards the edge of the stage and I helped him up.

“Why the clown suit?” I asked.

“Sort of a childhood ambition,” he said.

I had never noticed a beach ball that was rolling around on stage.  (I fully acknowledge the fact that it might have always been there I just hadn’t noticed it.  That is a completely unimportant detail to me).  We started to pass the ball back and forth in a standard game of catch.   That was until the game mutated and the Specialist must have grown a new set of limbs.  The man was infinitely more agile than I ever could have imagined.  He would dart from one point to another and I could never quite locate him.  I would toss the ball into the darkness and watch the clown suit materialize out of nowhere.   The ball would plummet back into my arms and simultaneously release itself.  I found that I could dash away just in time to catch the ball at another location.

The ball finally landed and my feet and I didn’t have the inclination to toss it again.  The Specialist appeared out of the darkness and started to cradle the ball like a baby.

“When did you ever want to be a clown?” I asked, out of breath.

“More of a direct route to happiness,” the Clown informed me.

“How so?” I found myself sitting down.

The Specialist sat down next to me, still holding the ball for dear life.

“What I did,” he started to explain, “There’s theories and techniques.  There’s charts to follow.  But clowns make people laugh.”

The Specialist smiled, which was also something I didn’t know he could do.  He eased the ball into my lap and pushed it down with his hand.

“I thought of a final trick for our act,” the Specialist said.

“What act?”

“The one we were doing just now.”

I wanted to push the ball away from, but found the same kind of paralysis.

“Okay,” I said, “What is the grand finale?”

The Specialist looked me dead in the eye: “I want you to make this ball disappear.”

I placed my hand on the ball and concentrated.  Wasn’t the ball just like my childhood soup can?  I closed my eyes for a fleeting moment and felt the strangeness of the rubber.  The ball wouldn’t recognize my willpower.  I didn’t feel the cold air that my imagination desired.  The emptiness that would signify that I was just as powerful as I had always assumed.  When I opened my eyes, I found the dead looking beach ball staring back at me.  The Specialist, however, was completely gone from the stage.

 

8.

 

I had vague ambitions when I got out of The Place Which Shan’t Be Named.  The title “magician” was wonderfully evocative but aimless.  This trade, if you can call it that, doesn’t have a clear path.  There aren’t clubs that people join or signs that sprout up on the side of the road that say: “Magicians Welcome.”  I didn’t go to school; I just read many books and slept out in parks at night.  That same crazy faith was with me at all times.   The faith was made worse by the various wild and almost tangible daydreams.  In my head, I had reached the absolute zenith of success.

Here is a sketch of that particular doubled headed monster.  I had somehow found an abandoned house in my wanderings.  The door was open when I found it and everything was relatively clean.  This, in my crazed state, was now a wonderful place to “rehearse.”  This was directly after I had decided on my new nome de plume: “Harry the Magnificent.”  Have you ever created an alter ego?  They give you a wonderful excuse to blame everything on a ghost.  The skeletal, hungry version of me could say that “Harry” stole the candy bar out of the convenience store.  “Harry” could have a total disregard for sleep when I spent all night pouring over magic books.

“Harry” was the person who transformed this house.  “Harry” found various bright colors of paint in the garage and mercilessly splashed them on the white walls.  “Harry” decided that he needed a bonfire in the living room to stay warm.  “Harry” painted crude pictures on the walls of what should have been the children’s rooms.  Little by little, I imagined that the entire home was my stage.  The original home started to fade away as “Harry” entertained his millions of adoring fans.

I would also tell you that “Harry” was the person who chased off the people who showed up to reclaim the house.  I believe that “Harry” rushed at them and yelled at the top of his lungs: “Now I will make you all vanish.”

 

9.

 

“Harry” was with me tonight.  “Harry” was the one who started to decorate the stage.  He pushed the coffin and saw in the center of the stage.  He was the one who made a vain attempt to clean the debris off his stage with his foot.  “Harry” was setting the stage for a certain person to show up.  I had rather ambivalent feelings about her, but “Harry” needed her to come.  The question was how long both of us were willing to wait.

 

10.

 

I found myself wandering again after having to leave my house/auditorium.  “Harry” would appear to me from time to time as the laziest travel guide who ever lived.  He would be my guiding instinct when it was time to eat, sleep, or move on.  I only have dim memories; there is a traveling circus, a few children’s birthday parties, and a disastrous appearance in the back of a bookstore.  The wisest thing would have been to stay in one area and try to truly establish myself as a “name.”  This just didn’t suit my dual personality.  The best way to deceive myself (and “Harry”) of my mysteriousness was to show up as a foreign object in each new environment.  I would perform (many times illegally) on various street corners.  There was even a few times when my fear of the law got so great that I gave “late night shows.”  The various non-human and human vermin would gather around me as I used streetlights as stage lighting.  On some nights, there might only be five or six audience members.  That mattered very little to “Harry” or myself because the applause always sounded deafening to both of us.

This was around the same time that I discovered that joy was an oddly tradable currency.  People would take me in with no questions asked.  There would be the opportunity to shower and stay two or three nights.  My trademark suit appeared because I met a tailor with a few extra pieces of clothing.  (The cape was his idea and it fit me just right with the exception of a few inches that trailed behind me.  He even offered to correct it but I absolutely refused.  This was, in my mind, part of the “Harry” gag.  How does this idiot even walk around without tripping on his cape?)

My sense of time completely eroded while I was traveling.  I can’t tell you precisely how long I was out roving.  There was only the exact moment when it stopped cold.  I had found some other anonymous city to wander through.  I was right in the middle of scouting my spot for tonight’s late night show.  I was crossing a bridge when I saw a pale skinned, black haired girl standing a tad too close to the ledge.   She was wearing what looked to be a ball gown.  This was not the most important detail; she had an elaborate pair of angel wings strapped to her back.  The logical part of my mind knew this was just a costume.  “Harry” was the one who saw her, as she would like to be seen.  The fact that it looked like she was about to jump off the bridge had not escaped either one of us.

 

11.

 

The inside of the tent felt like it had expanded.  There were new rows of chairs that I hadn’t noticed before.  The stage grew in size; the interior of the tent (which had originally felt cramped) was now oddly cacophonous.  The canvas on the back wall was slipping down and starting to reveal some kind of poster.  I walked away from the coffin and saw towards whatever the piece of the art was.  I was about to find a piece of artwork that I had fashioned years before.  The woman I just told you about stood on the bridge with her wings.  She faced the onlooker with a radiant, death-defying smile.  I had illustrated her standing under a streetlamp just in the way I used to.  The younger version of me stood next to the woman.  That’s when I was reminded of the unfortunate truth that I was once considered handsome.  The obscene handsomeness canceled out the over all ludicrousness of the magician’s costume.

Bold lettering at the bottom of the picture read: “Amelia Flies!”  I checked to see if I could find a date for this performance.  (The date of the original performance had long escaped from my memory).  I finally found the date hidden at the very bottom of the picture.  That is when I found tonight’s date staring at me in the face.  There was no other way than to see that as the final sign; Amelia was going to be here soon.  I had started to feel my anticipatory nervousness when the picture shifted.  The reflection surface of a mirror replaced the two figures and the magic proposition of flight.

I can’t remember when I had made the habit of intentionally not looking at myself.  Perhaps I had begun to assume that a youthful profession would keep me from the ravages of age.  That was not going to be the case; I could only see remnants of my formerly handsome visage.  Everything had unfortunately dropped or receded to an uncorrectable degree.  My suit was severely distorted by weight gained over the long course of a life filled with health related neglect.  The most disturbing thing to look for me was my own set of eyes.  They have oddly changed to a darker, battle weary color of green.  I looked like a person who physically couldn’t stand waiting for another second.

How much longer would I have to wait?

 

12.

 

As you have no doubt gathered, Amelia was the woman on the bridge.  The heroic piece of me felt the need to somehow intervene.  I approached her and magically made a bouquet of flowers appear in my hand.  I handed it to her and she accepted without giving me eye contact.

The very first thing Amelia ever said to me was this indicative statement:

“My dear, I’m not sure your magical flowers will ever quite be enough.”

“What would, then?” I asked.

Amelia turned her face to me and said: “Make me fly.”

Amelia was a classically beautiful woman with one minor exception.  She had a long scar that ran from the top of forehead to the bottom of her nose.  As I was going to find out, her explanation would change constantly for why she had this.

“How am I supposed to do that?” I asked.

“With your magical powers,” she retorted, “You do have powers, don’t you?”

“I would like to believe so,” I said.

“Use them now!” she exclaimed.

That is when Amelia hoisted herself off the bridge into the shallow body of water below.  There was at least a brief moment I could have sworn that her wings organically flapped.  I did everything I could to concentrate (much in the same way that I had on the soup can from my youth).  I can’t really attest to how much help I was.  The worries over my true abilities were canceled out as I rushed down to help the woman I had just met.  I even went as far as to jump into the water without any concern for my suit or cape.  Amelia surfaced from the water with any superficial injuries and an eerie smile.  This was a regular practice for her (as I was about to find out).

I dragged Amelia out and set her on the ground.

“Magic doesn’t exist!” she proclaimed, before passing out cold.

That one line might have been enough to cement our history together.  Disproving it became more than a hobby; it slid into the world of a deeply sick obsession.

 

13.

 

I realized the surface of the mirror at the back of the tent had faded.  I was watching my first encounter with Amelia in front of me like some dreadful movie.  I’m still not sure where the mirror shifted back and I could see the inside of the tent.  The night was still very much in tact outside.  The arena was cast in dull shadows that just seemed senseless to me at this point.  That is when I saw the mongrel I had hit wander into the space and to the edge of the stage.  I bolted around to confront it and just saw a sad dog smile.  The animal was still mobile and almost didn’t look damaged.  The only hint of the accident came in the form of blood dripping out of the mouth.  I wanted to utter an apology and found myself unable to do it.

Then the dog was gone from the space.  I walked slowly around the room looking for any sign of it.  I walked back up on the stage and found the mirror flickering again.

 

14.

 

Amelia and I had found each other during another one of my bouts of homelessness.  She offered to let me sleep on a dilapidated couch in her living room for an indefinite amount of time.  I assumed that she wanted intimacy; instead, I was going to be subjected to months of not being touched by her.  The constant denial of any kind of physical bond just made me more desirous of her.  Whenever I made overtures, she would push me away and say: “No, I care about you too much.”

Over the next few months I was going to discover that Amelia had “gentleman callers.”  They would show up at her home; each one looking more hopeless than the last.  They were the absolute dregs of society; men with unsightly skin conditions, amputees, and those with an almost unfathomable sadness. She would pull them into her tiny closet-sized bedroom.  If I didn’t want to hear the sounds of their encounters, I would have to retreat to the hole in the wall diner below her apartment.  There was a pretty waitress there who would take pity on me and give me free coffee.  I would let it seep into my very being as I seethed about what I was denied.  The fact that the waitress was paying me attention was completely lost on me at the time.  (Sometimes when I can’t get to sleep, I find myself thinking about the waitress and what become of her.  I have invented numerous scenarios in which she has nothing but infinite security and happiness.  The thought that someone is at peace helps me rest a bit).

What kept me there?  That would be the nonsense of what was to be deemed our “project.”   Perhaps I should explain how Amelia’s mind worked.  She was haunted by a singular childhood dream about flying over a range of mountains.  This was done completely without any kind of assistance (the way many of us fly in our dreams).  She had a similar GREAT THING in mind to me.  This led to a childhood full of near accidents; higher and higher surfaces from which to plummet off of.  Somewhere in her lost years she started wearing the angels’ wings as a trademark.  The fundamental difference between Amelia and myself was relatively simple.  She had stopped believing, and I didn’t understand how that could happen.

On the second night at her place, I found myself vowing to give her a functional set of wings.  That led to months of scouring libraries for every kind of book on aviation.  I discovered that I was capable of doing very complex mathematical problems.  I even was to discover that I had somewhat of a gift for elaborate construction.  I had to find a way to conceal all of the mechanical inner workings of the wings in the right amount of feathers.  The wings, in turn, had to look naturally attached to Amelia’s tiny body.  The last pair I was ever to produce was almost credible as a real set of angelic limbs.

I was to discover that this was mostly “baptism by fire” work.  Each new pair of wings had to be subjected to a number of rigorous tests.  Amelia would hurl herself from a high surface with frantically flapping arms.  I would use this an excuse to “catch” her.  By the time we developed the last set of wings, a strange and miraculous thing occurred.  Amelia stopped flapping and flew for a magnificent thirty seconds.  She glided to a safe landing on a nearby piece of dirt.  I had closed my eyes and concentrated as hard as I possibly could; this time I let my desperation bleed out into the atmosphere.  When Amelia and I looked at each other, there was a silent understanding that magic had been achieved.

The next few weeks were spent plastering the town with our “Amelia Flies” posters.  This mystical event was going to take place on the same bridge where I met Amelia for the first time.  I have forgotten most of the details of the actual day.  I wish I could tell you how many people showed up.  I even wish I could repeat word for word my introduction.  My distorted memory would have me believe that it was one of the great oratory performances of all time.  Truth be told, I can’t even the sensation of giving it.  The words left my mouth and then Amelia took her position on the ledge.

The next few minutes always expand in my mind to be longer than they were.  Amelia flapped her wings, glided, and then crashed into the ground next to the water.  I heard gasps from the audience as she became motionless.  Her eyes closed, and I found my first impulse was to run.  That’s right; I didn’t stick around to see what happened or how I could help.  No one chased after me because there was a dying woman on the ground.  The armchair psychologist could tell you that I didn’t want my naïveté shattered.  My steadfast dedication to belief in magic would have taken a severe blow.  Was that really it?  The fundamental truth is that I have no earthly clue why I bolted.

 

15.

 

I stopped looking in the mirror after the last image of Amelia on the ground faded.  The theater remained empty, and the stage remained silent.  I could feel the sensation of disappointment as a knot in my stomach.  I started to head towards the exit.  That is when the tent was swamped with light.  The seats were instantaneously filled with a crowd of well-dressed spectators.  The sounds of wild applause deafened me.  Through no action of my own, I found myself back on stage with a confidence I hadn’t known before.  The marginally competent “Harry” was nowhere in my body.

My voice boomed as I said: “We’ve all had impossible dreams!  Dreams that haunt us with their impossibility.  What would you do if nothing stopped you?  Maybe you would fly!”  As the last line bellowed from me, I saw an elderly woman with a pair of wings begin to flutter down from the ceiling.  I would have recognized her anywhere at any age.  This was Amelia; but her black hair had turned grey and her distinctive scar had gotten longer.  Amelia’s style of dress had gone from revealing dresses to what respectively looked like a hospital gown.  The crowd loudly voiced its approval as Amelia whirled around the top of the tent.  There were moments when she would just vanish into darkness only to emerge triumphantly in light.  The vanishing act was supplemented with elaborate summersaults and mind numbingly excellent flips.  The final trick consisted of Amelia coming to a dead stand still in mid-air.  I could physically feel the audience holds its breath until she descended down to the stage.  She bowed to wild applause that I thought would never end.

The entire time I watched Amelia’s flying out with a professional distance.  Her wings were even more realistic than anything I could fashion.  They moved with organic grace and precise birdlike timing that I couldn’t help but marvel at.  I even found myself wanting wholeheartedly to believe they were real.  They even folded up as Amelia went into a second bow for her delighted audience.

The lights shut off we were covered in complete blackness.

 

16.

 

I found Amelia and I engulfed in a floodlight that made very little else visible.  I realized in the moment that a person’s smile never changes.  Amelia’s was just as paradoxically distant and warm as it had always been.  I felt my smile plaster onto my face as tears welled up in my eyes.  She stole the exact thought from my mind as she began to speak.

“I was finally able to fly,” she said.

“You fly beautifully,” I answered, “No thanks to me.”

“That’s unimportant now,” she said, reaching for my arm.

We walked together in the darkness for a while.

“Was it everything you expected to be?” I finally asked.

“I wouldn’t necessarily say so,” she stopped walking.

“Why?”

“The most satisfying feeling came after I landed for the first time.  The knowledge that I could finally look back and know that some kind of miracle was achieved.  You can’t spot a miracle when you are right in the middle of it.”

“I’ve been trying to my entire life.”

She laughed gently and touched my face.

“Have you still not done it yet?” she said, laughing.

“I keep thinking that I’ll be able to spot it.  Be able to look around at the world transforming around me while smiling.  I’ve spent so much time imagining it…shouldn’t I just be able to freeze time and know it when it comes?”

“No,” she said, “you should feel it in your gut.  Here…”

She grabbed my hand and set it on the wings.  This was just as I imagined it to be.  There was no separation from her flesh; the wings moved underneath my nervous fingers.  That was when she started to vanish from my sight.

“Wait,” I said, “how is this possible?”

“I stopped wishing,” she called back, “and then it happened.”

After that, Amelia was completely gone.  I could just hear her laughing from somewhere in the pitch black.  I suddenly realized how long it had been since I heard her distinct brand of chuckle.  The one that accompanied every single part of our flying “work.”  She would laugh at every single fitting of a new pair of wings.  She would even chortle after thousands of rough landings.  There was nothing that would ever stop her from a certain pleasing ironic distance.  Was that why I did it all?  Just to hear a beautiful woman laugh?  The women that I just let vanish again from my sight.

The Specialist appeared out of the darkness dressed in his clown suit.

“Should I have just been a comedian?” I asked.

The Specialist just raised his eyebrow and snapped his fingers.

 

17.

 

I was back on stage again with the Specialist with the house lights up.  I could see every one of the joy filled faces as they applauded.  The Specialist stood at a microphone stand off to my left and gestured at me wildly.

“Please applaud Harry,” he proclaimed, “Please applaud Harry the Magnificent in his final performance.”

Two words were clearly etched in my memory; and they were final performance I wanted to ask The Specialist: “Is this really it?”  I knew from personal experience that I wouldn’t get anything back but a non-answer.  I turned to another direction, and that is when I saw the dog again.  The dog was laid on its side and breathed in a terminal sounding shallow manner.  I turned around to see the Specialist nod at me to approach the dog.  I turned my back towards the Specialist as I heard his authoritative voice boom through the microphone.

“For his last trick ever,” the Specialist said, “Harry will save the life of a dying dog.”

I found myself crouching down by the dog and putting my hand on its midsection.  Hadn’t my entire life trained me to do the impossible?  The journey that began with an innocuous can of soup was about to end.  The crowd was relying on me to save this animal that my Beetle had such an unfortunate run-in with.  I closed my eyes and tried to imagine the animal well.  I attempted to imagine its entire life as the most blessed existence a dog could ever have.  I extrapolated that this was a life the dog wanted to return to desperately.  The only way to do that was to rediscover his vitality that was right at my fingertips.

Nothing happened.

I opened my eyes to discover that the dog was even more distant.  The dog’s eyes were now closed and the body was even stiffer.  My magical touch was not being summoned; I suppose that would lead more logical people to realize that it was never real.  I was so much concerned with the discovery of my own delusions at the moment.  If I couldn’t save the dog, what could I do in this moment?  I took off my cape and covered the dog.   I gave it one final pat on the head and then stood up to face the crowd.

“I couldn’t save it,” I cried out, “But I could make it disappear.”

I heard the crowd laugh approvingly and then begin a loud applause.  The Specialist walked up behind me and put his hand on my shoulder.

“That was exactly the right answer,” the Specialist told me.

The crowd rose to its feet and I waved one last time and began to exit the stage.  The lights snapped off again and I found myself in an empty tent.  The space was back to its tragically original size.  I could detect a few early morning sunrays streaming through the cracks in the canvas.  My cape was still on exact same spot that I had left it when I covered the dog. At any other time in my life, I would have hurried to pick it back up and reattach the thing to my suit.  I knew that I wouldn’t do that again as I continued to study it.  That is when I realized that I wasn’t alone.

A burly, tattooed carny was staring straight at me with a combination of confusion and menace.

“Old timer,” he said, “I’m afraid I am going to ask you to leave.”

“Just one moment longer?” I asked.

The carny shook his head and pointed to an exit.  The frown was the most prominent thing I noticed as I took off my top hat.

“Maybe what you need most,” I said, “is a top hat.”

I jumped off the stage and placed on the hat on his head before he could protest.  Then I rushed out the exit into the burgeoning sunrise.

How to Find a Black Hole in Your Kitchen Table

How to Find a Black Hole in Your Kitchen TablePDF icon

Seating for Four Series:  How to Find a Black Hole In Your Kitchen Table; How to Understand Acoustics, How to Drink Tea in the Colonies, How to Fix Broken Toys, How to Know God at the End of the World, 6’ X 8’ X 27”, stoneware, 2008

I.

My brother’s fourth grade science report:

A black hole happens when a large star dies and becomes as small as a pin, but still has the big-star stuff. Its gravity is so great it will suck you in.

Even light can’t escape.

Beneath, a drawing:

dark marker bleeding into lined paper, fibers saturated and separating like cloth.

12

II.

Two a.m. our mother

the kitchen, darkness

arms raised expecting

to catch the sky.

This is what the end looks like:       sepia tones,                        fish-like, Vaseline film       with the sheen of                         metal, sleeping.

Breath. Robe.

A quiet distance at two in the morning.

III.

Come.

Standing in the center of the room.      Shut your eyes.

     Spread your arm Fingers comb the air.

Feel the cold rising to your skin, heat condensing at your center, the air sucked from your lungs.

 

These sensations may be slight. A black hole in the kitchen is necessarily small, but no less destructive.

 

13

IV.

From afar, my brother calls.

He won’t talk,

Best not to bother now.

She speaks of him, fourth grade, the way she had to search his room

night after night so that in his

sleep a black hole would not

inhale him into darkness and nothing.

 

She has a knowing smile.

Seating for Four Series: How to Find a Black Hole In Your Kitchen 28” X 8’ X 24”, stoneware, 2008

 

V.

When you are too weak to stand, you

can also find a black hole like this:

 

Sit where you can rest your head,

close your eyes, slow your breathing.

Your heart will beat in your

ears.      Your muscles will tense,

feel gravity pulling from      the

center of your body.

 

Then it will draw you in.

 

 

     THE BURGEO GUT
When I was dying
You spoke to me in low whisper,
a tremble, the shadow of a city sunk
beneath a swallowed coastline, in dammed reservoir.
Above: the trample of industry, diesel motors, electricity.
Below: the ebb and flow of breath and migration.
I should have been thinking of survival, flight,
but I was enchanted by the sun
slivered into shards so small.
You waited.
You called.
The womb-shaped bay, the strangled umbilical chord
choked before it reached the sea. I heard you
though your words were only song.
It did not matter what they said,
the meaning was ours.
Who would have thought we would travel so far
to meet an end in shallow water?
The majesty of the deep released
in last exhale, a curse
upon those who took so much,
and blessing for a humble shore.

 

 

HOW TO KNOW GOD AT THE END OF THE WORLD

 

I.

Wait.

In silence a pulse rises. Breath solidifies.

Feet wash in numbness.

A voice:

This is how it feels to walk on water.

You will fall;

You will think you are falling. Sky and earth collapse.

16

II.

1999, religious cults predict apocalypse— the promise of the new millennium.

But I am in Australia—a forgotten land.

Sydney prepares for the Olympics.

I hope for computer failure to erase student debt. Surfers paddle out to sea. The Blue Mountains burn—

a children’s game gone-wrong. Oil-filled trees erupt. Smoke spreads the smell of peppermint and wet fur.

Amid chaos a Canadian tourist vanishes Rescuers find a trail in the Outback— one sock, the other.

When they discover his bible, they predict: he is dead.

III.

Posted.

If lost:                    1. Stay still

  1. Preserve energy
  2. Wait

IV.

I had nowhere to go. At an age— too old for home, too young to find a way.

I wandered the beach collecting glass shards like seashells, poking jellyfish—helpless and deadly.

I should have been looking for jobs.

I was watching the way shadows flowed from the downtown traffic, to the lilt of strand, then out to sea.

V.

Things are heavier in the desert.

The desert opposite the moon—buoyancy an anchor.

 

17

A towel over the head shields the sun.

Boots covering ankles protect against snakes.

Keep your eyes away from the sand.

Breathe through your nose.

Stay clean.

 

Carry only what you need.

 

How to Find a Black Hole In Your Kitchen Series: How to Know God at the End of the World, 13” X 13” X 27”, stoneware, 2008

VI.

Recovered, the tourist carried a likeness.

Desperate. Euphoric. Thin.

Ghost-like. Made of clay. Hollow.

 

I thought of a man I’d seen years before

standing waist-deep in cold water, his

business suit clinging like a second skin.

 

The whale, beached in his arms.

Their breath escaping together—

steam at the water’s surface.

 

VII.

I left Australia before the New

Year, before the end of the world,

before explosions of fireworks,

stocking of water, hoarding of food,

building of shelters, praying to and

forgetting God.

 

I thought of the man who

could not move the beast.

The beast who could not

comfort the man.

 

This is how we are cast-out

and dragged-in.

 

 

18

HOW TO FIX BROKEN TOYS

Dysfunctional Toy Series: Express Yourself; 8” X 5” X 14”; stoneware, moveable wire parts, screws, decals; 2005

I.

If the paint scraped away leaving an eye without definition, or a hinge loosened a limb, or “the head popped off,” these things are readily fixed:

Sharpie, paperclip, twist of hand.

If it is something more: translucent plastic cracked, hair torn from pin-sized follicles;  eyes gouged in or out—this requires different care.

II.

When my dad remarried  he began sending our childhood belongings in cardboard boxes softened with mold and damp.He included messages: “Here you go,” “Thoughtyou might want these,” “Hope things are great.”

He needed to make room, we knew, for his new wife,

her children in their twenties, but still younger than us. They didn’t want our toys.

My brother and I did not want them either—childless, nomadic, city-dwellers short on space. We left the boxes seeping smells of our once-upon-a-time home.

III.

A friend comes to stay.

In tow: a three-year-old left by her mother.

They arrive with the clothes on their backs, a favorite stuffed frog, a book about a dinosaur, a princess crown.

“They let anyone have children,” says my friend. I present boxes of toys.

IV.

Our father did not forget, but never knew which toys were mine, which my brother’s.

In the mail my brother receives the china tea set;

I find the Marvel figurines.

 

20

Dysfunctional Toy Series: Treatment Options; 12” X 16” X 34”; screenprinted stoneware, screws, wire, railroad stakes, 2005

The three-year-old cradles

Wolverine and Spiderman,

 

“This is the mommy, this is the daddy.” By afternoon she has snapped leg from body, an amputation below the knee. After years of battle-

play, Spidey is bettered by a toddler. In jest my brother will smash my teacups, pink flower-patterned china in shards. We have long abandoned these,

run from our house— before our father kicked us out.

Before he remarried.

Before our mother died.

We are Hansel and Gretel, raised in the woods, in the gingerbread house, by things more misguided than wicked.

Such a strange delight to be malnourished on candy, how jealous was everyone we told, but also: the entrapment, slavery, seduction. And worse,

the things we did: telling lies, playing tricks, pretending to be what we were not, escape through that push into that firey oven.

We emerged from the woods scorched and starving.

 

V.

“Fix it,” the three-year-old says to me,

Spiderman in one hand, leg in the other.

Some broken toys cannot be repaired. New stories must be told.

A hero is born:  one-legged, lighter, impeccable balance.

 

“Look at him,” I say. He stands like a bird.

“Now he can fly.”

 

21

VENDOR

In the one-seater at the bar in Deep Ellum, Dallas the vending machine takes the space of sink and toilet combined, offering tampons, condoms, BJ blast, clit ticklin’ bunny, pink-opal mini vibrator, purple feather nip clips, But no change.

It makes sense: everything you need for a night-out at a venue occupied by twenty-somethings serving both beer and wine in plastic cups.

So different than the machines in the entrance to the grocery store. Stacked, hip high, holding gumballs, stickers, temporary tattoos, plastic charms in opaque plastic eggs to occupy any two-to-eight year-old for the duration of a shopping list.

In the hotel lobby beside the ice dispenser the machines are in categories: “caffeinated beverages,”

“stuff you only eat on vacation,” “smaller versions of things you forgot at home.”

The pleasure of dropping coins through the

slot, the privilege of selection, the anonymity of the machine, the magic of the correct arm twisting to release.

 

22

Carved Urn Series: Enough, 13” X 13″X 31”, stoneware. 2003

As much as it is about offering the right thing at the right time— predicting type, purpose, preference, need or desire—it is about being offered anything at all,

being considered, being known,

encountered by a stranger who says, “I knew you would be here,”

“I thought you might like this,”  “You look like you could use a good ________________.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

HOW TO WALK ON WATER

I.

If it is frozen. Or shallow. Or thick with reeds.

Also,   by dispersal of weight over space less than the pressure of surface tension:                                Tension (T)    =        ________Force (F)_______

Length over which the force acts (L)

 

II.

Devastating to see the world clearly, when the shore becomes a marsh, eroded, beaten by storm and sea; the piers of plank and metal; the house on the hill—overtaken by mold— never enough for what we needed.

Once we needed next to nothing.

“You eat like birds,” they told us. Proof that we were avian waiting to grow wings.

We played this was our island alone, the dock a concept on the verge of completion, the house learning to grow like a tree.

You believed it wholly. I believed it also.

 

26

III.

        Gerri·dae  Pronunciation: \ˈjerəˌdē\ Phylum:  arthropoda Class:

Insecta      Order: Hemiptera      Suborder: Heteroptera

  1. a family of insects with the ability to run atop the water’s surface.

Sometimes called water bugs, water striders, pond skaters, water

skippers, Jesus bugs.

 

Carved Urn Series: Afraid to Fly, 12” X 12” X 39”, stoneware. 2003

Always in summer

the water bugs,

legs outstretched

to corners of a cross, bodies hovering

above                            still reflections.

This is why

the stones skip, the glass overfills                    without spilling.

Water

not one thing, but

many things

attracted;

children

holding hands,

singing,

Red Rover, Red Rover;

the brace

before impact,

the breath                      in unison.

You said, “magic.”

You said, “hold your breath.”

 

27

IV.

Some places exist in time rather than space.

Certain memories are constructed in collaboration. In the city the rain hits the only window. My apartment floods. The carpet sodden. I think of you.

You would have loved the outside                                                        flowing in.    You would have imagined                                                               we were at sea.

You would have claimed

we could live an entire life treading water.

 

KROOS

 

 

Half-way above. Half-way

below.

But

the touch

so delicate

to that thin film of surface;

 

the stone            never settles

long enough            to sink.

 

V.

I could never hold when it mattered,

your palm clenched in my

palm. Red Rover, Red Rover. I

feared

 

the collision; the pain of

the chain broken so much

greater than that of release.

 

I promise, this is not a coffin, but a

boat; beneath the ground there is a sea

with islands the shape of clouds racing

across the water.

Editor’s Note

 

Many an interdisciplinary researcher will question themselves, and rightly so. Altogether, disciplines are merely puzzle pieces, that when combined, lead to a bigger picture. As suggested by Allen Repko and Rick Szostack in Interdisciplinary Research: Process and Theory, to ignore one or more of the other pieces would make for a fairly haphazard puzzle by denying “the focus [on the particular] problem or issue or intellectual question that each discipline is addressing” (7). In order to construct the larger picture, there are calls for unbiased research. Not surprisingly, interdisciplinary can, at times, be confused with neutrality.

Even if neutrality were attainable, it might not result in good research. As Katrina Griffen believes, “preferences and inclinations can fuel a person’s enthusiasm or provoke attempts to comprehend the facets of the universe” (3). When taking a biased stance toward research, it’s a sort of driver. Understandably, too much bias is bad, but a nugget of bias can be beneficial to research. A certain kind of bias guides passion for knowledge. If everyone were neutral all the time, their dispassion would lead them nowhere.

Perhaps neutral or objective is not a word that should be placed alongside interdisciplinary studies, but rather, an open-mind. The terms might seem similar, but they are different. Neutrality or objectivity is assuming a stance from a distance, and how can anything be learned from a distance? However, keeping an open-mind allows for proximity, while utilizing the nugget of bias necessary for research results. Admitting to and assessing disciplinary and personal bias can help toss out the bulk of it. Yet, Griffen contends that it’s impossible to get rid of bias, and scholars should avoid pretending it’s not there. Not taking all the facts into account is a sort of bias all by itself. It is the mission of Penumbra to encourage transformative ideas and storytelling, which means calling for greater interdisciplinarity of research.

Interestingly, there is a bias towards interdisciplinary scholarship, which as Tom McLeish notes, is often seen as a periphery concern. Scholars should strive to synthesize foundational knowledge with multiple facets, to lead them to a larger and illuminating summation. Indeed, identifying bias allows for richer interdisciplinary conversations, and a niche from which to begin research.

 

  • §

 

This issue of Penumbra includes seven critical articles, two essays, two short stories, and various poems. The work comes to us from scholars in academe and out, established and emerging writers and artist in the U.S. and abroad, individuals using traditional and experimental styles to explore the power of critical and creative expression as it relates to the interdisciplinary approach.

In his essay, “The Power of Poetry: Story, Symbol, and Incantation”, Robert Ratliff examines three elements fueling the healing power of poetry: story, symbol, and incantation by breaking down the meanings of these basics, and shedding light on how poets who possess an understanding of them can use this knowledge in making their own poems more powerful. Similarly, Dr. Dana Kroos’s “How to Find a Blackhole in Your Kitchen” is an all-encompassing series, condensed with emotion and beauty, including photographs of enthralling carvings, with accompanying poetry. “Harry’s Last Trick”, by Dusty McGowan, echoes the epic narrative as shown by Kroos, and places it in short story format. In another deviation on storytelling, Matt Grinder offers his essay, “Discourse on Anxiety: An Analysis of Gilman’s ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’.” His research suggests the rift between men and women has been a social construction that began taking profound roots in the nineteenth century Western conception of what social spheres men and women should occupy, as exemplified in Gilman’s work.

Rollin Jewett’s poem, Junk and Treasure, focuses on the unwanted material possessions, and the true meaning of treasure. Another poem collection by Jose Duarte, is untitled, based on the work of C.S. Lewis to examine imagination and form. Sherri Moyer reviews Magdelana Kubow’s article, “Women in the Church: A Historical Survey”, to assess the arguments made about why women are not ordained in the Roman Catholic Church today.

In keeping with perception and change, Jose Duarte shares his untitled poetry collection based on the work of C.S. Lewis. Next comes a fictional piece from Dr. Matt Weber, who combines science fiction variations and post-apocalyptic themes to underscore the use of weapons in this timely satire of violence and the police.

In conjunction with domestic affairs, Jacinda Lewis proposes new methods for dealing with sex offenders in “Trends in Substance Abuse Treatment and Applications for Sex Offenders.” Likewise, Dr. Kendra Preston Leonard offers political commentary about her year in Syria in her poetry collection, including the piece Highway Drone. More on domestic policy comes from Olatunbosun F. Leigh in “America’s Drug Policies: What Works, What Doesn’t.”

Once again, Robert Ratliff shares his writing, this time in the form of a poignant creative non-fiction, “The Dead Television.” Picking up on the emotional elements of Ratliff’s work, Dr. Sandy Feinstein’s poetry collection boasts strong selections, such as Learning to Write in Two Languages and 40 Martyrs Church.

Danielle Johnson writes of the need to study magical ruralism in “No Place Like Home: Magical Ruralism as Cultural Discourse.”

“Mr. Big Stuff” is the last short story featured in this issue, written by the illustrious Alex Pilas. Likewise, the last poetry collection comes from Michael S. Begnal: Five Homage Poems.

The last critical article underscores philosophy and a need for a post-structural analysis in “Kant We Hegel Our Way Out of This? The Problem of People in Postcolonial Studies” by Charlie Gleek.

Adding greater perspectives is the mission of this journal. Indeed, the above submissions encompasses a myriad of disciplines, such as art, history, literature, education, law, and more.

Overall, by distilling issues among different perspectives, the spectrum of possible solutions and/or theoretical approaches becomes clearer. Additionally, the formalities of methodologies and epistemologies will help to sharpen learning skills, and narrow focus by acknowledging and moving past bias. Part of that focus is what Repko and Szostak term “telescoping down”, which is a “strategy that forces us to think deductively, to move from the general to the particular,” and then later we will understand “how the parts interact, and […] identify gaps between the disciplines.”

As emerging scholars, the ultimate goal should be to see what has not yet been seen, to explore what has been missed.

 

—JONINA ANDERSON-LOPEZ

 

 

The Powers of Poetry: Story, Symbol, and Incantation

The Power of PoetryPDF icon

Introduction

The healing power of poetry has been apparent to many throughout the ages. Arguments to this effect can be made by informed poets at the drop of a feathered quill. The complications we face in life: the suffering associated with failed relationships, sickness, the deaths of love ones, and so on represent, in a sense, the beginning of the healing process. Writing or reading poetry can mark a commencement to such healing. Healing through poetry begins, as Gregory Orr contends, “when we ‘translate’ our crisis into language—where we give it symbolic expression as an unfolding drama of self and the forces that assail it” (4). That is, by putting our suffering to page, we have given it a healthy distance from us as well as allowed a sort of reshaping rather than bearing it in an unresponsive way. A single step marks the beginning of a journey. Probing more deeply, however, it becomes evident that collective elements within the personal lyric serve to enhance and fine tune a poem’s healing power. In the following investigation, I will consider the questions of what these poetic rudiments are and how they work, both independently and cooperatively. Orr has it that “there are three abiding and primordial powers that shape language into poems: . . . story, symbol, and incantation” (94). The journey from the chaotic effects of trauma to an ordered understanding, or making meaning, is accomplished through setting symbolic stories to incantatory rhythms. I would argue that a study of these fundamentals may reveal some instructive possibilities concerning the making of lyric poems. Following Orr, I shall explore the poetic essentials of the power of story, the power of symbol, and the power of incantation.

 

The Power of Story

An examination of the element of story may offer clues as to how we can create our lyric poems to be more powerful. Perhaps the most revealing and persuasive means of communication between people is the relating of stories. For instance, I could tell you that my Uncle Larry is a great car salesman. At this, you might shrug as if you are not convinced. Or I could tell you the story of how he sold twenty cars in one day, two of them to passersby who did not even know how to drive. In this case, the focus of the story is Uncle Larry’s prowess as a salesman, and focus may be the central element of story. This story not only lets us know something about Uncle Larry, it also lets us know a little something about the world in which we live, of our societal values, of how we in the U.S. tend to honor those who perform well in their occupations. As the theorist Jerome Bruner might say, it helps us to “make sense of the world” (qtd. in Orr 95), which is another way of saying that through storytelling, we are establishing an ordered mindset in the face of disorder. In writing lyric verse, opposed to prose, the focus of our poems is particularly important because, as Orr points out, all that does not reflect the focus is “stripped away, and meaning is compressed into action and detail that reveal significance” (95). The final version of the lyric poem, then, is a scaled down portrait of the poem’s thematic focus.

While maintaining focus is imperative, conflict is another essential element of story. In personal lyric, nearly always there is conflict, often with someone. Someone close to us has hurt us in some way, is sick, or has died. This conflict does not have to be that outlaw meets sheriff at the O.K. Corral kind of dramatic action. In the words of Orr, “Merely introducing two pronouns into the opening line of a poem creates the tension essential to story” (95-6). That “I” and “you” tends to have the effect of drawing readers in because they naturally place themselves and their own situations into the equation. Cindy Goff’s “Turning into an Oak” is a good example of the merging of focus and conflict:

I looked down at my husband leaving me.

I’m seventy feet taller than he is now.

The bones in my arms splinter into thousands of twigs;

my legs grow together and twist

into the ground. It doesn’t matter

where my car is parked or where my house keys have fallen;

I no longer care what I weigh.

I am sturdier than a hundred men.

From up here I can see Cape Cod,

shaped like a lobster tail.

I watch my husband become a speck

and consider how I’ll miss

being touched. (108)

Nearly anyone could relate to the “I” and “you” in the first line of this poem; that is, any lover who has suffered the pain of a breakup. The conflict becomes apparent in line 1 and lies with the speaker and her husband. The focus begins to reveal itself as the message from each of the following lines meld into a single shattering idea: that empty, disheartening feeling we get when we are suddenly alone after having become used to being together with someone. Not a single line or word in this poem veers from this focus. If one did, as Aristotle reasons, it should never have been there in the first place, “for that which makes no perceptible difference by its presence or absence is no real part of the whole” (1463). The conflict between speaker and husband is not resolved in the poem; rather, the conflict merges with the focus. The husband becomes “a speck” and is gone. That which remains is the speaker with an inner conflict, which could well describe the true nature of the heart of all personal lyric.

It is true that the focus of a lyric poem is usually on an idea, but this idea, however tragic, would do well to be grounded on a metaphoric center. While it is true that the story in a lyric poem evolves in a narrative fashion, it also, as Orr insists, “wishes to disclose meaning by focusing on something central and leaving out peripheral details unless they reinforce the central subject” (98). Goff’s title, “Turning into an Oak” offers a barefaced clue as to her metaphoric focus. In line 2 of Goff’s poem, her speaker has suddenly grown to an enormous height. In line 3, her arms transform into branches. In line 4, her “legs grow together and twist / into the ground” (108). Goff’s thorny language, that of splintering arms and nothing matters anymore confirm that she considers the metaphor of becoming an oak to equate with the hardhearted nature of her speaker’s newly found single situation. In reflection, Ariel, in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, was not turned into a tree, but was confined “into a cloven pine; within which rift / Imprisoned [he] didst painfully remain / A dozen years” (1.2.77-79). I bring up the Bard because of the possibility that becoming a great oak could be seen as a metaphor for a good thing; however, this is not the way I read Goff.

While abstract ideas have their merit in certain forms of narrative, it is the concrete details that give lyric poems their power. William Blake emphasizes this idea in verse: “Labour well the Minute Particulars:” he writes, “attend to the Little Ones; / . . . / He who would do good to another must do it in Minute Particulars. / General Good is the plea of the scoundrel, hypocrite, and flatterer; / For Art and Science cannot exist but in minutely organized Particulars” (Blake). It is usually crucial that lyric verse be written using specific details from title to the final line. Goff’s title is not only precise, but it suggests the metaphoric center of the entire poem. As for concrete sensory details, her depiction of seeing “Cape Cod, / shaped like a lobster tail” presents a visual image that is novel and unique. As Orr notes, the “who, what, where, and when” (100) is organic to most all good writing. This includes lyric poetry! Goff shows in very specific detail the who: speaker and husband; the what: husband left speaker lonely as a tree; the when: the present; the where: at their house near Cape Cod. All these minute details merge to form a cohesive, barebones, and stirring portrait of experience. But they do so much more: such as, fill with affirmative narrative the place where silence might turn into shame or fear and rob us of our present experiences.

 

The Power of Symbol

While story is often the primary vehicle that carries lyric verse right through to its ending, the narrative is commonly rife with symbolic meaning. Some poems, however, seem to state only the trauma of an experience, offering no solution, no enlightened realization, no healing. In fact, these personal lyrics would seem to affirm the disorder, letting it into our minds and lives. Yet Orr insists “that it is precisely by letting in disorder that we will gain access to poetry’s ability to help us survive. It is the initial act of surrendering to disorder that permits the ordering powers of the imagination to assert themselves” (47). In essence, the mind, when it confronts chaos in narrative, begins to allow compensation to occur, like a person who loses one eye, and the remaining one compensates naturally by developing a wider peripheral range of sight. As Fox asserts, there may be some growing pains to deal with here, but “poetry can be a safe guide, a wise presence, so you don’t feel alone while moving through the inevitable dark place in life” (29). Bottom line, in lyric poems, such recompenses happen due to the symbolic language in the narrative. Marie Howe’s “The Dream” is a good example of just this kind of personal lyric:

I had a dream in the day:

I laid my father’s body down in a narrow boat

and sent him off along a river bank with its cattails and grasses.

And the boat (it was made of skin and wood bent when it was wet.)

took him to his burial finally.

But a day or two later I realized it was my self I wanted

to lay down—hands crossed, eyes closed

—oh, the light coming from down there,

the sweet smell of the water—and finally, the sense of being carried

by a current I could not name or change. (83)

In Howe’s poem, the speaker dreams of sending her father off on a watery burial, but the conflict becomes apparent when, “a day or two later [she realizes] it [is her] self [she wants] / to lay down—hands crossed, eyes closed” and cast off upon the river of expiry in that small boat. The speaker and her father exist in a state of dramatic tension, connected undeniably by the poem’s focus: the idea of letting go to that impenetrable death experience. As far as the narrative alone is concerned, this is all we have to go on. However, to come to an understanding concerning the healing effects of the poem, we can look to the symbolic language for clues. The biblical story of baby Moses comes to mind. As an infant, in order to save him, he was placed in a small boat and hidden among the grasses and cattails “beside the bank of the Nile”. (Complete Bible, Exod. 2.3). Is Howe’s poem, then, about saving the speaker’s father? I think not because it is the speaker herself who desires death, so she really wants to save herself, but from what? The symbolic language Howe uses to describe the father’s death ark may provide clues: “(it was made of skin and wood bent when it was wet.)”. This wood covered in skin could be symbolic for the body, and the fact that it is wet and bent could describe some form of trauma (both wet and bent tend to possess negative connotations) which would explain the speaker’s obsession with death, both her father’s and her own. The death Howe describes for the speaker is not a dark and scary death; on the contrary, it is one of surrendering to a state of illumination accented by the sensory image of “the sweet smell / of the water.” Howe’s speaker puts her faith in an afterlife myth associated with being carried along safely on a river of patriarchal benevolence, an experience she had not found in life. So, the poem confronts a trauma associated with the speaker’s father and fills the vacuum of silence allowing her to regain her identity, or create one. Having reinterpreted her trauma metaphorically centered on a slow ride down the tranquil river of death, the trauma now has less power over her. The writing or reading of the poem stands in the place of an actual death. The speaker is free to live and write another day. What sort of trauma is Howe really writing about? I’d say there is not enough information to say for sure. Abuse, neglect, the father not living up to the speaker’s expectations of what a father should be? Who knows? In basing such speculation on a few symbols, it would be entirely possible to get off the mark concerning Howe’s meaning. Symbolic meaning tends to vary from reader to reader, and readers tend to respond to symbolic language in accordance with their own unique experiences.

It is very likely that most any given symbol will possess more than one meaning, or that the meaning remains ambiguous. The small boat among the reeds and grasses is an ancient symbol, one that could hold a multiplicity of meanings. “All the meanings,” Orr writes, “do not and cannot emerge; they lurk still in the object/symbol, refusing to give up all their mystery to the need for understanding and explanation” (104). There could be a hidden meaning within an ancient symbol that we cannot recognize, or, moreover, meaning of which society no longer makes use. For instance, Isler, et. al point out that poetic incantation has been used throughout the centuries for not only relief of headache, but for the general maintenance health of all the body parts. Here’s a poem from an 8th century monastery at Lake Constance in Switzerland:

O King, o ruler of the realm,

o friend of Heaven’s hymn,

o persecutor of turmoil,

o God of the Heavenly Host!

In the first stanza, the poem repetitively and rhythmically invokes and calls on the Christian God. Today’s society certainly has a very good idea of the symbolism connected with God, but our ideas are very contemporary. The 8th century Westerners were very likely, as a whole, way more conservative in their outlooks concerning dogmatic Christianity, and so the symbolism, from their points of view, would necessarily be interpreted differently than most conservatives would interpret it today. Not to mention our societal liberal progression. I’ll move ahead to stanza 2 where God is called upon to cool “the noxious fluxes / that flow heated in my head.” We do know something of the symbolism concerning the “fluxes,” those excessive and flowing discharges associated with various health problems. But, again, medical conditions are looked at differently today than they were in past centuries. The third stanza of the poem takes the healing theme beyond the headache to other parts of the body:

that he cures my head with my kidneys,

and with the other parts afflicted:

with my eyes and with my cheekbones,

with my ears and with my nostrils. (Isle, et. al)

God is beseeched to heal and protect the individual parts of the body. Today, doctors would check all these parts but rely on scientific medicine rather than the spiritual for healing. I wonder if we have, in following science exclusively, found ourselves off the mark. At any rate, no one knows what all the body parts may have been symbolic of for the people who used this poetic remedy. Such symbolism is no longer needed. As society evolves, the minds of the people expand. As we learn more about the past, old meanings may become increasingly clear. New meanings will be discovered throughout the generations. Bottom line, we do not know all there is to know about symbols, but grappling with a poem’s meaning in light of its symbolic language is certainly one way of coming to a subjective understanding of it.

 

The Power of Incantation

While story and symbol merge to make powerful and healing expressions, it is through implementing incantation into our lyric poetry that we, like our ancestors, can confront the more serious traumas that come our way. Incantation, that rhythmic replication of poetic reverberations, according to Orr, “is like a woven raft of sound on which the self floats above the floodwaters of chaos” (106). The incantatory effects of a poem have to do not only with repetitive language but also with rhythm. Rhythmic or musical verse alone can be described as incantatory, but when the element of linguistic repetition is added in the spirit of high emotion, the personal lyric becomes forcefully and dramatically puissant. American poet Edward Hirsch observes that “Incantation [is] a formulaic use of words to create magical effect” (Hirsch). “Healing Incantation,” performed by Mandy Moore in the Disney movie Tangled is a good example of incantatory verse:

Flower, gleam and glow

Let your power shine

Make the clock reverse

Bring back what once was mine

Heal what has been hurt

Change the Fates’ design

Save what has been lost

Bring back what once was mine

What once was mine (Healing Incantation)

In the movie, the animated character Rapunzel, voiceover by Mandy Moore, uses this incantation to heal the character Eugene’s injured hand. I deliberately chose it because it presents an unobstructed view of incantatory verse; that is, it possesses no story and very little symbol and can be a universal panacea, effective in healing just about any trauma one could name. With her opening line, “Flower gleam and glow,” Moore summons the healing light; common in many of the light religions such as Paganism, the light is representative of an omnipotent healing force. Right away, readers sense the rhythm or musicality evident in the prosody of the metered lines. Flower, of course, is symbolic of beauty, so the poet healer confronts trauma with the combined powers of light and beauty.  “Make the clock reverse” seeks to bring the injured person back in time to where the trauma had not yet occurred. Here I get a sense that this poem could be used as a charm against aging. Many feel traumatized by the effects of getting older, our beautiful bodies sagging and wrinkling before our eyes. The poem probably would not stop this natural process, but it could possibly help to slow it down and certainly help a poet or reader to make the psychological adjustment to the change. After all, is it our young bodies that we miss, or is it really our youthful outlooks? We come to the beginning of the repetitive incantatory effect of the poem with “Bring back what once was mine.” Here, Moore is referring to ownership of wholeness. Things were good before, and she wants them to be good once again. The following lines all reiterate that which has already been stated: “Heal what has been hurt,”  “Change the Fates’ design,” “Save what has been lost” are all just other ways of claiming that ownership of wholeness that was the norm before the trauma set in. In a sense, the repetition occurs throughout most of the poem, and then we get toward the ending with the reoccurrence of “Bring back what once was mine.” And then the final haunting, echoing ending: “What once was mine.” As powerful as Moore’s poem is, I cannot help but wonder if it would be all the more prevailing written in concrete terms and ripe with symbol.

Many popular poets write in just this rhythmic, incantatory style, Walt Whitman among them. Further, many of Whitman’s poems are also written in story form and packed with symbolism. Here is scene 18 of Leaves of Grass, which inspired Martin Espada’s latest book, Vivas to Those Who Have Failed.

With music strong I come—with my cornets and my drums,

I play not marches for accepted victors only—I play great marches for conquer’d and slain persons.

 

Have you heard that it was good to gain the day?

I also say it is good to fall—battles are lost in the same spirit in which they are won.

 

I beat and pound for the dead;

I blow through my embouchures my loudest and gayest for them.

 

Vivas to those who have fail’d!

And to those whose war-vessels sank in the sea!

And to those themselves who sank in the sea!

And to all generals who lost engagements! and all overcome heroes!

And the numberless unknown heroes, equal to the greatest heroes known. (18.353-63)

In the area of story, Whitman celebrates not the “winners” as many do in the U.S.—America, it is said, does love a winner—but the losers. The way I read Whitman, he does not celebrate the losers of battles because he believes such people are ethically or morally superior. Rather, he celebrates them because he has realized the value of seeing everyone as being the same. He sees men as being the same as women, a very enlightened concept for his time, 1819-1892. He sees the so called physically normal as being the same as those with deformities. Those of color being the same as those of no color. Those of same sex sexual orientation being the same as those of opposite sex orientation. The list goes on and on. The man was a social justice warrior! I believe he realizes this sameness not because we do not have our differences, we do, but because, when we look to our likenesses, we begin to heal our differences.

Whitman’s sketch is also packed to the brim with symbolism. Cornets and drums are symbols of music, that marching band sort of music played as a call to battle. Whitman describes it as strong music. Marching bands at sports events play fight songs to rally the spectators for the benefit of the home team. During the American Civil War both the North and the South used drummers and buglers on the battle field. Those sounds had the power to move soldiers emotionally to the place where they were willing to kill or be killed with musket, sword, or bayonet. In modern warfare we no longer bring marching bands onto the battle arena. But in the ceremonies before and after, those bands are still playing those celebratory songs. All this from Whitman in one symbolic line. Whitman, of course, gives us a new slant on old symbolism. His idea is to raise readers’ spirits for the benefit of those who lost their battles, that ship of a person’s life that sank into the sea of oblivion, that forgotten soul. Whitman seems to believe that the losers of battles are just as important to remember and celebrate as the winners, that, effectually, those who lost are the same as those who won because they share a commonality of spirit.

The incantatory effects of Whitman’s verse begin in the first lines with the rhythmic ordering of words. “The presence of rhythmic patterns,” according to Harmon, “lends both pleasure and heightened emotional response, for it establishes a pattern of expectations and it rewards the listener or reader with the pleasure of a series of fulfillments of expectation” (416). Whitman seems to very generally use a rising rhythm beginning with his own combination of iambics followed by anapests, terms which refer to particular schemas of stressed and unstressed syllables. I would say this rising rhythm works so well in this case not only because of the repetitional effect of the metering but because those reoccurring couplets also raise the scene to a final climactic quintet. And, in that last stanza, Whitman uses actual repetitive language: And to those, And to those, And to all, And to accented by three exclamation points drives the incantatory effect of the entire scene to an explosive peak.

 

Conclusion

I have followed Orr throughout this inquiry, and it seems on point to relate, in conclusion, his personal statement concerning the healing effects of poetry. Early in his life, he experienced a great trauma; being responsible for his brother’s death. Of course, he suffered emotionally for a number of years before he found poetry. On finally finding his way to poetics, he gives the following account:

I wrote a poem one day, and it changed my life. I had a sudden sense that the language in poetry was ‘magical,’ unlike language in fiction: that it could create or transform reality rather than simply describe it. That first poem I wrote was a simple, escapist fantasy, but it liberated the enormous energy of my despair and oppression as nothing before had ever done. I felt simultaneously revealed to myself and freed of myself by the images and actions of the poem.

I would certainly argue that such liberation from the energy of despair could only promote healing. Continuous worry without reprieve seems like a sickness in itself. This might well be another topic to take up in a future study citing healing poems from various sources.

At any rate, in considering story, the question comes to mind of which comes first, the abstract idea or the concrete details describing it. Good poems possess both. Perhaps this is not an either/or question. Perhaps in looking through the prism of our poet-self, it is essential that we remain open to discovering a priori ideas as we experience life in the concrete. I think, however, that every particular experience, no matter how seemingly trivial, is in reality central and necessary. It is the poet’s job to understand this and help others to understand as well. With an idea and a set of details in mind, as we write within the scope of some particular metaphor, those rudimentary symbols will appear quite naturally. In revision, we can shift those raw stones of symbolism into likely places where they can be polished to a glossy finish. Last, as we set our verses to a rhythm for incantatory effect, it may be helpful to be familiar with the various metering techniques, but it is through sounding out our lines that the arrangements are composed. We must write in a solitary cave in order to do this else we be thought insane by passersby.

 


Works Cited

Aristotle. “Poetics.” The Basic Works of Aristotle. Trans. Ingram Bywater. Ed. Richard McKeon. New York: Random House, 2001. 1454-87. Print.

Blake, William. “Jerusalem.” Bartleby.com. Bartleby.com, 2015. Web. 24 Oct. 2016.

Espada, Martin. Vivas to Those Who Have Failed. New York: W.W. Norton, 2016. Print.

Fox, J. “Heart, who will you cry out to? Giving silence words.” In Poetic Medicine: The Healing Art of Poem-making.  Los Angeles: Tarcher, 1997. 1-31. Print.

Goff, Cindy. “Turning into an Oak Tree.” Gorham and Skinner 108.

Gorham, Sarah, and Jeffrey Skinner, eds. Last Call: Poems on Alcoholism, Addiction, and Deliverance. Louisville: Sarabande, 1997. Print.

Harmon, William. A Handbook to Literature. 12th ed. Boston: Longman, 2012. Print.

“Healing Incantation.” Perf. Mandy Moore. Tangled. Dir. Nathan Greno and Byron Howard. Disney, 2010. Film.

Hirsch, Edward. “Incantation: From a Poet’s Glossary.” poets.org.poets.org, 2015. Web. 29 Oct. 2016.

Howe, Marie. “The Dream.” Gorham and Skinner 83.

Isler, H., H. Hasenfratz, and T. O’Neill. “A Sixth-Century Irish Headache Cure and its use in a South German Monastery.” Cephalalgia. 16.8 (Dec. 1996): 536-40. EBSCO.Web. 27 Oct. 2016.

Orr, Gregory. Poetry as Survival. Athens: U of Ga. P, 2002. Print.

Shakespeare, William. The Tempest. 1611. New York: Signet, 1998. Print.

The Complete Bible. 1939. Ed. J.M. Powis Smith and Edgar J. Goodspeed. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1975. Print.

Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass. Bartleby.com. Bartleby.com, 4 July 1855. Web. 30 Oct. 2016.