Emily Dickinson wrote: “‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers–/That perches in the soul–/And sings the tune without the words–/And never stops–at all–“…. This is a very well-known quote, to which even Woody Allen felt the need to respond (by titling one of his comic books Without Feathers, for example). We all feel hope for one thing or another, aspirations of one kind or another, desires that we cannot perhaps meet in the present, but which we hope to fulfill in the future. In the nature of the thing itself, it matters not whether it’s a hope for a particular education, kind of job, one specific individual to share our life with, or our poetic “muse”: whatever may be the inspiring element of our own hopes, it reaches fulfillment because of some of the same characteristics, which might be called “persistence towards the elusive future, capitalization on the possible present.” (That last phrase is just something I made up for lack of a better one, it’s not a quote.) First of all, we have to persist in hanging on to the future, which seems to be trying just as stubbornly to elude us at every turn. Secondly, we have to capitalize on anything good in the present which might lead us to that ever receding goal. We all face these challenges, and it’s in the documents of our successes, failures, and survival on the path that we enrich and entertain and inspire each other.
One writer who has composed for us a story very much of this encouraging and rugged nature is the Chicana writer Sandra Cisneros, another graduate of the University of Iowa’s Writers Workshop, who has written several books and volumes of poetry about her experiences, somewhat fictionalized but always true-to-life. The book of hers about which I want to comment today is the book of short “vignettes” (as the blurb writer denominates them) composed around the life of Esperanza (a word for “hope,”) who doesn’t like her own name and would prefer to be called “Zeze the X.” The book is entitled The House on Mango Street, published some time back, in 1984 (this is the paperback date; the hardback date may well have been earlier. The story appears in a slightly different form in the anthology I mentioned in an earlier post a day or two ago).
In the autobiographical note in the anthology, Cisneros is quoted as saying that she has discovered for herself a way to write stories “that were a cross between poetry and fiction….[I] wanted to write a collection which could be read at any random point without having any knowledge of what came before or after. Or, that could be read in a series to tell one big story. I wanted stories like poems, compact and lyrical and ending with reverberation.” (The only other writer I am aware of who has written by a similar method is the writer Julio Cortazar, who wrote a book named Hopscotch, of which the chapters can be read in any order.)
The House on Mango Street opens with a terse, tense, though melodic relation of all the many houses (and streets) Esperanza has lived in (and on) with her family during their urban migrations from apartment to apartment building. Esperanza first becomes aware of her own and her family’s poverty when a nun from her school points to the apartment from the sidewalk and says “You live there?” Esperanza remarks only, “The way she said it made me feel like nothing.” But true to the nature of her being (and living up to her name and her quality of mind) Esperanza relates, “I knew then I had to have a house. A real house. One I could point to. But this isn’t it. The house on Mango Street isn’t it. For the time being, Mama says. Temporary, says Papa. But I know how those things go.” Thus, Esperanza’s dreams are at variance with her worldly wise awareness of the things adults say and do, even though she herself is still a child. Her experience and attitude are much the same regarding the friends she sometimes hopes to have. Other incidents and conversations which are well-imagined and which are perhaps remembered concerning the writer’s comrades and friends are told in a lyrical style all their own, achievning what Cisneros herself aspires to do in her work.
In the penultimate story in the book, entitled “A House of My Own,” Esperanza adds evocative details to what she wants in a house: “Not a flat. Not an apartment in back. Not a man’s house. Not a daddy’s. A house all my own. With my porch and my pillow, my pretty purple petunias. My books and my stories. My two shoes waiting beside the bed. Nobody to shake a stick at. Nobody’s garbage to pick up after.”¶ “Only a house quiet as snow, a space for myself to go, clean as paper before the poem.” Here, the rhythmic flow of the sentences creates the “space” for the readers to dip into Esperanza’s world imaginatively, adding their own like feelings and experiences of being crowded/longing for release, with the final line of “clean as paper before the poem” being the line that vindicates both Esperanza’s desire to escape and the reader’s persistence in following the writer’s exploration of the nature of hope. Virginia Woolf and A Room of One’s Own, move over (or at least make room!): Sandra Cisneros and her whole house are coming through!
(Today’s a short post, but I hope a worthwhile one. I’m having a great time with my family members who’re visiting, and I hope your weekend is going well too.–Cisneros’s book is available from Vintage Contemporaries of Vintage Books, a Division of Random House, Inc. Get it soon, and enjoy the fine combination of poetry and prose which is a goal well-realized by Cisneros.) shadowoperator