When truth is reached through shadows and illusions–“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”

Since I’ve first read the play “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”  I’ve often casually wondered why the tale of an alcoholically debauched night between two academic couples, one seasoned and supposedly mature and the other neophyte, should have been given its title, with a major talent of the writing world (who was excluded from academia because she was a woman) featured by name.  At first, I followed up a suggestion, unfounded, made to me by someone who said that as neither of the couples purportedly have surviving children, it was named because Virginia Woolf was not allowed to have a child, due to her bouts of mental illness.  While there may be many truths that history, literary as well as other kinds of history, may hide, I could find no suggestion in what I know of Virginia Woolf to support the theory that she wanted children.  In fact, she apparently turned down Leonard Woolf a couple of times because she wanted to avoid sex and marriage.  Next, my theory became the idea that as marriage is often fearsome and turbulent for many, the title referred to this very desire to avoid marital intimacy.  But then, beginning with George and Martha, the older couple in Edward Albee’s play, all the dirty linen and even the hypothetical dirty linen of marital intimacy is aired in front of the opposite couple, the younger of whom are Nick and Honey, who after a while of this badgering begin to reveal some ugly secrets of their own.  So, I was no further along.

I was perhaps making my mistake, though, by my preference for George’s character, because he is the one who seems at some moments to be the ringleader of the group, though Martha plays a strong hand as well.  He, for instance, christens the “games” of societal frauds and truth-tellings between the two couples, who are spending a sodden late night visit together, Humiliate the Host, Get the Guests, and Hump the Hostess, and he is the senior academic of the group at the college where Nick is also employed.  But this didn’t get me much further, once I decided to try to look at the group more objectively, perhaps, certainly more equally, with each having a part to play.  It’s a funny play, funny in a biting, acerbic, sardonic fashion, which is George’s main mode of utterance most of the time, so I feel I may be excused for at first regarding him as more central than the others.  It’s an odd, surrealistic scene, typical of the ways many people going on a bender feel about their surroundings while they are doing it; I can speak from experience in this regard.  It’s sort of reality turned inside out, with people saying things they normally only think when they are in such a situation, where they mostly stick to polite manners, fighting off drunken impulses even when three sheets to the wind, only discussing the evening frankly with their mates when they arrive home.  But in this case, in different groupings of four, three, and two, they find themselves in a metadialogue, discussing what happens as it happens.

What actually happens here, though, does have something to do with a certain quote from Virginia Woolf, which I uncovered only today:  “A feminist is any woman who tells the truth about her life.”  Martha and George seemingly have a routine they go through around other couples, and an agreement not to discuss their progeny, a son, whom it is difficult to discern if they ever really had.  They keep threatening each other with the revelation of something about him in front of the guests, who are uncomfortable and want not to hear at first, and it’s difficult to know if it’s that he died in an accident caused by himself or George, or that in fact he doesn’t exist.  The suggestions run counter and rampant, but by the end of the play, it would seem (though the one truth is not for certain) that, as they end by telling the guests together, in a seeming truce between them which ends their war of words and threats, they never were able to have a child.  If this is the truth which has caused all their angst and pain, and their conflicts and battles, their use of the other couple to get back at each other, and then their mockery aimed at the other couple, then it has been revealed after a reaching through myriads of shadows and illusions they have created, and it ends the play.  Thus it’s not only a feminist who reaches some form of release and freedom, however temporary, by telling the truth about her life, but both Martha and George, in their drunken revelations and conflicts, who by the end of the play have rehearsed once again (and one feels this play has a repetitive loop sense reminiscent of others like “Waiting for Godot”), and come up with the truth(s) of their life, both the things they pretend, the illusions, and the haunting agony that compels them through their lives.  Martha’s drinking problem in particular is in the forefront of their diatribes against each other, though both imbibe heavily; it is  Martha (in the perspective of 1962, when motherhood was still believed to be more innate and stronger a feeling than fatherhood) whose tragedy it is a little more than George’s that either 1) their son died, or that 2) (as seems more likely, since it occupies the ultimate ending position in the play’s plot) they never had a son.  And yet, both of them tell Honey and Nick at the end that “we” were not able to have a child, which is a sign of their apparent strong and twisted love for each other.

I know I perhaps should have issued a spoiler alert for the benefit of those who have not seen or read this play yet, considering the things I’ve revealed about it, but the point is to read or see it and perhaps get something new from it each time.  An excellent experience is to catch a revival theatre viewing of the version of this play with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, directed by Mike Nichols; I promise for searing, scorching dialogues and portrayals of marital pain, it won’t disappoint.

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Rupi Kaur and “The Sun and Her Flowers”–When simplicity is enough

Upon first perusing Rupi Kaur’s second book of poetry, The Sun and Her Flowers, published in 2017 hard upon the heels of her extremely successful first book, Milk and Honey (which I haven’t yet read), I was at first a little disappointed.  The complicated devices and figures I, at least, prefer to find in poetry were missing.  The poem was a long sort of prose poem of most short, declarative sentences, with a few questions strewn here and there, interspersed with clever sketches of the stages of a woman’s life.  The most complicated comparison seemed to be that of comparing people to sunflowers, which, in the titles of the various divisions of the poem, go through stages of “wilting,” “falling,” “rooting,” “rising,” and “blooming.”  That seemed at first not only too simple, but a little simple-minded.  But something kept me reading, anyway.  Perhaps it was the desire to see the “plot” fulfilled, which is one of the characteristic things analysts say drives the reading of a prose work.  I mean, given the organic governing metaphors, and the theme of “to everything a season,” a certain uplift at the end was to be expected, it was apparent.  Still, this particular evocation of the growing season had somehow become more interesting than just the generalized comparison:  she had sneaked it in on me.

As I read, I followed the poem through the delineation of a violently-inclined love affair and its end, the grief and desolation which follow the ending of even a bad love, the gradual recuperation that, if one is basically life-oriented and sensible, one tries to develop or find, the impulse toward re-growth that follows, and the also gradual rise into a new love and a community awareness of the family as a whole.  But let’s take that a little slower.  The first parts of the poem are addressed to a “you” who is a bad influence; then, gradually the “you” disappears; then it morphs into a “you” who is a sudden and surprising treasure; then, an awareness of the loves of different generations of the family develops; then, a recounting of the difficulties that migration presents even to two parents or forbears who love each other, and a detailing of the anxieties and separations they must endure for their families comes next; then, a modest gesture toward discussing the life of societal pressures and how this affects immigrants in a new country sums up the whole.  Really, by the time I finished the book, I was quite impressed with just how forcefully and completely this poetic vision had fulfilled itself, and all in a series of simple, non-capitalized, mostly unpunctuated sentences.  (Not that capitalization or punctuation are regular in poetry anyway, as a general rule, or that they are to be expected in free verse, but when one is confronted with apparent simplicity as a device, one can begin to question whether or not it’s overdone.  Happily, such was not the end result in this case.)

By this time, I was sufficiently humbled to want to read the graceful (and again, simple) biographical sketch of Rupi Kaur which takes place at the end of the book.  It was a bit vague, and I would have liked more details (which, like jewels, or buds, if one prefers to stick to the organic metaphor, were strewn throughout the summary).  Basically, the artist’s statement was that “I am the product of all the ancestors getting together and deciding these stories need to be told”).  One set of topics which I have not touched upon yet, and which the poem also dealt with in detail was female liberation from the restraints of a conventional and hidebound societal influence, and how various generations of women have achieved it.  As the blurb stated, and as I have in a general way sketched out above were:  “love, loss, trauma, healing, feminity, migration, and revolution.”  That’s just about said it all, but that’s saying a lot.

There are many different styles and kinds of poetry kicking around these days, and everyone can mostly choose for himself or herself which to pursue for edification, but if you read no other book of poetry this year, it’s at least arguable that you should read this one, which is based in technique upon the poet’s experiences in delivering performance poetry in places in Canada, her country of adoption.  After all, you can hardly go wrong with a long poem which has not only an organic metaphor governing its development, organic metaphors consistently expressing things “all flesh is heir to,” but which also describes a particular historical experience of a large group of people.  Give it a read; I think you’ll be both pleasantly surprised and greatly impressed, whatever your first impression, or your overall take on performance poetry.  As for me, at some time in the near future, I’ll be dipping into Milk and Honey by the same author, to see what word experience she started out by allowing me to immerse myself in!  Shadowoperator

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A Quick (and Overdue) Footnote to Yesterday’s Post!

Dear Readers,

Yesterday, I published a post on the horror novel The Jewel of Seven Stars, by Bram Stoker.  In it, I commented that my recollection of the novel was quite imperfect, since I hadn’t recalled it perfectly from when I read it about twenty-five years ago.  But my bad memory isn’t the only cause of that–I had believed it to be published in the late nineteenth century or early twentieth century, which turned out to be correct.  But when I checked out of curiosity this morning just to see, it turned out that there were two different versions of the book.  One was published in 1903, and it had a far more tragic ending; that’s evidently the one I read the first time.  The one I read this time was the 1912 version, from which the overall tragedy has been watered down to what I called a “frothy” or possibly weak-minded aftermath.  Wikipedia has an excellent explanation of the results of imperialism on such things as Egyptology and other researches, and I advise the reader in quest of more information about this book to look there.  Shadowoperator

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“The Jewel of Seven Stars”–Memory, the Visual, and the Tricks Played by Them

Many years ago, about twenty-five years ago now, I first read Bram Stoker’s The Jewel of Seven Stars.  Bram Stoker, you know?  The same Bram Stoker who wrote the original novel Dracula, about the now-famous vampire(s) and their hunters.  The book I’m writing about today also has to do with the subject of the undead, though of a different kind:  this book has in it as main interest a female mummy.  Other sub-topics include astral projection, reincarnation, and animal sympathies (or aversions), among others.

Now, when I think back on the book as I recalled it from memory, one main image dominated my thoughts; that was of the heroine, Miss Margaret Trelawny, being experimented on by her father and other interested male friends (that sounds lewd, but I don’t mean for it to, or just downright gory and repellent, which I don’t mean for it to either).  I recall an image of her asleep on a bed in a sort of dungeon, with one hand crossed upon her chest; her hand had seven fingers on it, including the thumb.  That was the main governing image I retained of the book, and in order to disenchant the reader from this image, I’m going to issue a spoiler alert, and tell some of the actual book’s secrets.

First of all, the book begins in a somewhat Victorian way, with a just-begun courtship of Miss Trelawny by a somewhat older lawyer, Mr. Malcolm Ross.  He gets drawn into her life because something mysterious is happening in her life, and she calls for his help.  It turns out that her father, who is somewhat stern and forbidding and not well known to her, has been mysteriously attacked in a room in which there was no other living person, only a host of Egyptian artefacts and remnants of a tomb, all of which he had previously transported to his house in England from Eastern sites.  In the course of the investigation, her father, who is unconscious from the first attack, gets attacked several more times, with a near miss or two as well.  There is no visible person or thing to be seen attacking, and this is in spite of a faithful watch kept in the sickroom by Miss Trelawny, Mr. Ross, and several friends and associates including two different policemen, two nurses, a research acquaintance and friend of Mr. Trelawny’s, and a doctor or two.  Which is to say, the contemporary forces of reason and intelligence at the time the book was set in.

The main part of the book takes place between the beginning of the courtship and the time when Mr. Trelawny awakens from his trance, and is comprised of all the guesses and questions (and partial answers) the other characters come up with, especially regarding the female mummy, who has seven fingers on one hand, and whose mummified cat has seven toes, just as Margaret’s pet cat Silvio also does (who for mysterious reasons all his own keeps attacking the mummy cat).  In fact, the number seven is extremely prominent in the story, turning up everywhere.

Here’s the problem:  Margaret only has five fingers on each hand, not the seven I remembered, and it’s not Margaret who, near the end of the story, is experimented on by being placed in a sarcophagus and going through the magical resurrection ceremony that Mr. Trelawny had discovered in his research of the female mummy:  it’s the mummy herself!  All the mysterious suggestions that Margaret and the female mummy are related in spite of space and time are suggestions left tantalizing and unresolved.  And the book has, I will spoil this part too, a happy ending.

While this book is not a masterpiece, not nearly as thrilling and chilling as Dracula, for example, it is a “good read,” and I would certainly recommend it for a few nights of minor suspense.  There are in the book a couple of author’s plot mistakes (places where he contradicts something he previously said).  And, you may find the sentimentality of the love story silly, or annoying.  Never mind; this is a book with sheer entertainment value, and not much actual Egyptology of a genuine kind.  This is a couple of cuts above such books as King Solomon’s Mines and She by H. Rider Haggard, with a frothy charm all its own; or, perhaps given the constant mention of the odor of embalmed beings with all their enchantments and inducements to trance, I should say this book has a smoky charm all its own.  In any case, I’m very glad I read it a second time, and got both the visual image and the plot straight, at least.  Isn’t memory a funny thing?  That one image could leap out at you, and so dominate the surrounding landscape of the rest of the novel as to change one’s memory of the actual plot.  This book has no sense of humor, but it doesn’t need one:  it has mystery, and a mild form of creepiness.  Why not give it a shot?Shadowoperator

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Women without men–short story traditions about toughness and resilience

In 1927, Ernest Hemingway published a collection of short stories called “Men Without Women” in his famous and much-imitated minimalist style.  The stories contained few female characters, but were grouped rather around themes relating to toughness, resilience, and the things which challenge and sometimes defeat these characteristics, especially in the lives of men.  Seventy years later, in 1997/98, the noted Hemingway imitator Richard Ford, writing in his own variation of the tradition, now known as “dirty realism,” published “Women With Men,” in which the toughness of the tone and the themes of finding ways of being resilient (and sometimes not making it) were also prevalent.

Taking place in the same time span, however, two other authors in other parts of the globe were writing on the basic subject of “women without men,” and about the toughness and strength required not of men, but of women, in their places in male-dominated societies.  One was Amador Daguio, writing from the Philippines, and sometimes from other places where he studied away from his home.  The other, a little younger, was Bessie Head, writing from South Africa, living some of her life in exile in Botswana.  Both wrote of tragic situations in the lives of their characters, one, Daguio, of the unhappy end of an otherwise happy relationship, the other, Head, writing about the horrific end of an unhappy relationship.  I’ll delineate some of the plot details of the story I’ve selected from each one, even though to do so is perhaps to spoil somewhat the outcome.  Still, both stories will bear up time and again to readings and re-readings, and the quality is in the writing, not alone in the plot.

In Amador Daguio’s story, “Wedding Dance,” the story takes place in a traditional Kalinga society.  The young man in the story, Awiyao, is on his way to his second wedding, a marriage undertaken purely for the purpose of conceiving a child.  He stops by the home of his true love, his first wife, Lumnay, whom tribal custom allows him to set aside because they have been unable to conceive, after seven years.  Though both of them tacitly acknowledge that the fault may lie with either or both of them, they both adhere to tribal custom, and consider it inevitable, though later Lumnay has a wild moment of considering rushing into the elders’ group and protesting, in effect ending the custom.  He offers her both the hut they have shared together and the field they worked together as hers to keep, but the only thing she asks for is her string of marriage beads, valuable in their own right, and personally valuable to her.  He urges her to attend the dance, and to think of finding a new husband, but she refuses.  The story ends, after she has made an abortive walk to the outskirts of the dance but withdrawn, with an extremely poetic passage, the very opposite of “dirty realism,” and somehow full of the desperate kind of hope that is all she has left, in emotional terms, anyway.  She has gone to the bean field:

“A few more weeks, a few more months, a few more harvests–what did it matter?  She would be holding the bean flowers, soft in the texture, silken almost, but moist where the dew got into them, silver to look at, silver on the light blue, blooming whiteness, when the morning comes.  The stretching of the bean pods full length from the hearts of the wilting petals would go on./Lumnay’s fingers moved a long, long time among the growing bean pods.”

Hope and the celebration of moments of love and affection are all that are left as well in the starker story by Bessie Head, called “The Collector of Treasures.”  In it, Dikeledi Mokopi, the heroine, has been deserted by the husband of her three children, Garesego, for a number of years.  This is after she has already had a hard life as a child and young woman.  Yet still, she is spoken of as “the collector of treasures” because she finds isolated moments of happiness and contentment to buoy her up and carry her through, these moments being her “treasures.”  “She had filled her life with treasures of kindness and love from others and it was all this that she wanted to protect from defilement by an evil man.” Garesego has in fact moved in with a concubine, whose children he treats as his own, and  he never comes to see his own children or take any responsibility for them.  As a counterpoint to this relationship, her new neighbors, who celebrate and come to love her, also take the place unofficially of her lost breadwinner.  Paul Thebolo and his wife Kenelepe, who become her fast friends, supply her in abundance with foodstuffs and household goods in exchange for her crafting and cooking and small hand manufacturing jobs, for which she refuses to take any pay.  Their relationship with each other is one of love and understanding, and Kenelepe, to her husband’s amusement but implied refusal, loves Dikeledi so much that she offers to lend Paul to her for lovemaking, after Dikeledi discusses it with her and she discovers that Dikeledi’s husband never even attempted to love her properly.  But of course, after eight years of happiness, there’s bound to be a snag:  the eldest son of Dikeledi is ready for school, but with all her savings, she hasn’t managed to save enough.  When she approaches Garesego for it, he insults her by casting a supposed relationship with Paul in her face, and then says he will come home so that they can settle their differences.  Dikeledi knows that this means he wants sex, so she sends a message of apparent compliance, and prepares her home.  After he has had one last meal there, and she has given him one last opportunity to say that he will help, which he more or less refuses, she allows him to fall asleep from his heavy meal.  Then, using a knife she had placed in secret at the ready, she cuts off his genitals.  When Paul Thebolo finds out what she has done, he swears to her that they will take her three children and raise them as their own, sending them to school.  The conclusion (which actually takes place in a flash forward at the very beginning of the story) happens in a prison area which Dikeledi shares with other women who’ve committed the same crime.  She settles in and makes herself happy there too, finding someone to love, a friend, and prepares to live out her life sentence.  It is made clear that this is her fate because this is her nature, to be resilient and strong, and to find good things wherever she can to be happy and pleasant about.

Though both men and women in the tradition I’m writing about show strength and resilience, toughness, what the British call the “stiff upper lip” quality of not overly complaining about one’s difficulties, in the stories about women what is emphasized more is the ability simply to endure, to wait, to bear the burdens of life, often in societies that don’t offer them the same outlets as men have.  The story “Wedding Dance,” which ends with an implied parallel between Lumnay’s chances for happiness and the returning of the harvest season each year, suggests that perhaps she will after all accept the offered bean field from her erstwhile husband, and find a way to go on, thus changing in a small way the tradition she speaks about at the beginning, of returning to her parents.  The tradition is broken, of course, in a much more violent and what is usually thought of as a “masculine” way with Dikeledi, who commits murder with a knife in order to keep her life undefiled.  She has, of course, defiled her own hand with the deed, but this crime is a crime for which the author clearly and under the given circumstances shows sympathy and understanding, and implicitly asks the reader to do so as well.

In both cases, the prose, though it mentions rough circumstances and cuts the characters no slack, is clearly different from that of the American precursor authors.  The entirety of “Wedding Dance,” though slightly and strangely atilt from the fact that it is not the two lovers in it who are going to be married, is extremely poetic and flowing, and indicative of love as is often displayed in a line of dance.  In “The Collector of Treasures,” the story uses language as simply as possible, but it looks deeply into the heart of Dikeledi and analyzes her thoughts and feelings in a way that Hemingway and Ford prefer generally not to do, their forte being to get the reader to do the work.  Yet, all four authors are placing their characters in situations that anyone could relate to, and though they are situations very different from each other, they all stem from basic human relations and needs, as all good short stories do, as all good writing does, for that matter.

I hope you have enjoyed this post, readers; it’s the first I’ve had time to do for quite some time, but I hope to be posting more again soon.  If you’re looking for a place where these two stories can both be found together, along with many more, some of which I may also write about soon, look for a 1995 Harper Collins volume, quite large, called Modern Literatures of the Non-Western World:  Where the Waters Are Born.  The editors are Jayana Clerk and Ruth Siegel.  Spring approaches!  Shadowoperator

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“Wistfulness”–A poem for “the one who got away” (so far!)

This is probably one of the shortest poems I’ve ever written, but sometimes, when saying is simple and enough, however justified or not, it’s enough.  The title is, of course, a key feature of this poem.

Wistfulness

You and I shall meet again, in the darkness
Or in the light, should by chance we see God’s face,
The surprise may be yours, mine the glory,
Still unknown to both of us the time, the place.

The things we say, the things we do leave our warrant
And our deed, and our habits, and our trace,
Still, I hope to enfold you in my welcome,
And to share with you in God’s most loving grace.

©9/28/2018 by Victoria Leigh Bennett

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More love poetry for the misadventurous–“Destiny’s Mayflies”

As I wrote to friends to whom I sent this poem this morning, if one is constantly vocal and expressive of one’s great misery over someone, chances are that one is mostly healed already, as the severely injured don’t usually mourn aloud.  Anyway, here’s my latest mournful love poem:

Destiny’s Mayflies

Me in my little, tight, hurting world
And you, somewhere in the great world
out there
Are both objects
Of the same grammarless sentence,
A sentence passed by what passes for fate,
A cruel joke made by a sentinel over people’s
fortunes,
A cunning lout with hair sprouting from his ears
and nose,
A subordinate who need not fear the distant
authority he represents,
His particular jest those people who try
To maintain some dignity in the face of
what confounds them
And makes them look silly or confused.

My partiality for you,
Your need to withdraw
He sneers at, picks that monstrous organ
In the middle of his face
And wipes the proceeds on his trouser bottom,
Not even having the grace to envy us
Our drama.
What is drama to him?
What irony? what compositional strategies?
He just guffaws at all these as words,
And says, “Not worth my time.”

Our tale doesn’t need to compose nicely
To suit him,
He’s the sort to watch a bug, fascinated,
For a minute or two,
Then, when it is trying loop-de-loops
Just in reach of his hand,
Performing, writing its name across the stars
As a miracle of nature,
He lifts his big, fat thumb
And squashes it flat
Against the table in front of him,
Indifferent to artistry.

But back to us, and our responsibilities:
I loved you, and it was all I could do,
For you were so worthy to be loved.
You could not love me the same,
And so gave it up as a bad job,
A trick with smoke and mirrors,
Something I had imagined
Or cooked up to fool the fates.
Enter our surly lieutenant,
And here I am back to him,
As if we had had no hand
In it at all.
Could it be, is he devious enough
To have brought us together in the first place?
Is he even sufficiently attentive
To the jokes he plays
To extend his feeble concentration
To the experiment
Of placing us together?

Whatever the case,
I still think of you, and wonder
Whether you are looping-the-loop
Somewhere else,
Daring to face him down
Perhaps by flying out of his range,
Your wings lighter
For having lost the burden of me.
I sit, quiet and still,
Or all wound up in knots,
Escaping attention for the moment
By my lack of motion.
He is evidently confident
That I am already dead,
And so all I have
Is my little, tight, hurting world,
And you in my thoughts,
Somewhere in the great world out there.

©by Victoria L. Bennett, 8/14/18

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