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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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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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Purity, blankness, innocence, guilt, and knowledge–An attempt at philosophy in “The Blank Slate”

Occasionally, I make an attempt at a philosophical/rhetorical poem, though sad to say, it’s difficult to make it a truly “poetic” poem at the same time, at least for me.  But I hope, at least, that what this poem loses in meter, or rhyme, or word play (though there are a few paradoxes here and there), it gains in comprehensive, overall clarity in covering the subject.  I think the subject of purity is still a riddle for most of us, since we leave the safe confines of total ignorance and innocence from the moment we are born and steadily accumulating impressions and knowledge.  At any rate, here is an attempt to comment on the subject of purity from an adult’s perspective, after the fact:

The Blank Slate

Scholars, people of learning
Have spilled oceans of ink
Have typed, have dictated,
Have processed, have created
Countless words
About the tabula rasa.
Yet none were so innocent
As to simply shrug
Or keep silent.
And none of their words
Were so guilty
As to tell the real truth.
Purity, of a sort,
Is like their ignorance.

Purity’s feet stink
Because an honest person sweats;
Purity cries out
Because an injured person
Grieves aloud;
Purity is like that.
Purity stares at you, uncertain
What you mean
And waiting for you to explain.
Purity is like that.

Purity, like yin or yang
Paradoxically
Has an element of knowledge in it
Some slight awareness of the other
Or else how would you know
What to compare it to?

Purity
Gets tripped up easily
By its opposite,
Maybe knowing there’s something
To avoid,
But not sure of what, how, or why.
It is too unschooled.
Purity is like that.

Purity and existence are at odds most often–
Just as Sartre claimed we all have dirty hands,
And “existence precedes essence,”
So we always have to ask ourselves,
“What price purity?”
If someone is pure, who made them so?
Who kept them in the dark
About starving hordes, and ticks,
And malevolence?
What makes them so special,
That they are allowed to be ignorant
Of what hurts?
Yet, we are still wistful
For the days when we too were somewhat blank,
Even if guilty by birth.

Purity, in sum,
Is something that,
Whether we ever had it or not–
We had in our mind’s most fervent imagination
From the first time we were asked,
“Who did this?”
And we were able genuinely to answer,
“Not I.”
Yes, purity is like that.

©by Victoria L. Bennett, 8/10/18

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A poem for true denizens of the temperate zone–“The Comfort of Dread”

Oh, if only it were always summer!  But then, perhaps if it were, we wouldn’t appreciate it, so goes the temperate zone dweller’s argument.  The last winter (winter 2017-18) was so severe here in the American Northeast, however, and lasted so long into Spring that one shivers in advance, even at the end of July, especially when we’re already having (and have never stopped having) storms and rain and yucky skies.  Right now, though, I can afford to be a bit blasé, perhaps, at least enough to write a poem on the topic which is not totally despairing.  It does perhaps have one of those human contradictions in it that we often run across when listening to people discussing the weather.  Here goes:

The Comfort of Dread

It’s almost the end of summer,
There is only one month left,
I’m dreading already the winter,
And the cold weather’s mighty, strong heft.

The ice, and the snow, and the chilblains,
(What are chilblains?)
What one used to have
When the frozen air got on one’s knuckles,
And one couldn’t afford a fine salve.

Yes, I dread even antique disasters,
Such as visited people of yore,
When the wind whistled ’round the high turrets
And the snow blew in under the door.

It’s useless to tell me I’m modern,
And I live in apartmented bliss,
After all, these things are so comparative,
And someone lives better than this.

Oh, it’s almost the end of warm greetings,
From one’s family and lovers and friends,
For on cold days they’re bundled and shivering,
And they all complain so without end.

Why, oh why, can’t there be a fine climate
Where we can determine the air,
Where the heat and AC are like indoors,
And follow us everywhere?

But I guess I wouldn’t be happy
Not to live through the change and to bitch,
So the temperate zone, chill or hotter,
Is where I will serve out my hitch.

©by Victoria L. Bennett, 7/29/18

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Yet another poem on the commonplace of “the vanity of human wishes”–“The Department of Crossed Wires”

Perhaps you have heard an English instructor or professor use the expression “commonplace” in referring to an idea or topic for a poem.  This is not a casual usage of the term “commonplace,” such as occurs when we are speaking of the notions used in casual conversation with our friends; instead, it is an actual technical term in English and literary studies, referring to a topic or subject written on traditionally many, many times by different writers and poets, each of whom has his or her own “take” on it.  The particular commonplace known as “the vanity of human wishes” is in fact the subject of a poem by Samuel Johnson by the same title, “The Vanity of Human Wishes,” which in turn was based upon Juvenal’s Tenth Satire.

Not to be too grand, but I’ve come up with a little, less austere and more playful variety of a poem on the commonplace of “the vanity of human wishes.”  It’s called “The Department of Crossed Wires.”  One word of warning about a possible caveat–a beta reader pointed out that in stanza five, the impression is produced that a cow was conceived and brought to birth by a man, a double impossibility.  My response to that is that the main intent was to suggest the ridiculousness of what fate sometimes deals us out, such as having a farmer needing to get rid of his three-legged cow to another farmer.  But I willingly accept the other possible interpretation as well, being as it’s the sort of story which usually turns up in cheap tabloids such as The National Enquirer, wherein stories as fantastic as the one suggested regularly appear.  I still recall a story about a cross between a rabbit and a cat being born, a story that I allowed my bemused glance to fall across while on a train once, picking up someone else’s discarded reading material.  Anyway, here we go:

The Department of Crossed Wires

Somewhere in the universe
There is that special department,
That lone mountain,
That strange star
Of crossed wires.

There reside a little old man
And a little old woman
By his side,
Busy with so many things,
So many, many things,
That they constantly
Cross the wires
Of human wishes and desires.

It’s not their intention
To be difficult,
Rather, they are more offended
And frustrated themselves
By their shortcomings
Than anyone else, they think,
Could be,
For it disturbs their few moments
Of tranquility.

I love you, but you don’t love me,
She wants to go to college,
But her folks want her to work
right away, and show earning potential.
He is married to a woman who doesn’t
value him, while his son still looks up to him
And he fears
That it won’t be long now before
His son weeps for him, and shares his tears.

“Tsk!Tsk!” says the little old man, then,
Relinquishing his model of himself in his mind,
“Damn it all to hell!” he exclaims,
“Why won’t these things come right!”
“Dear, if you have to swear, then do it
On your own time, for we’re behind now,”
The little old woman preaches,
Meanwhile wondering how
To find a farmer who will take
A three-legged cow
Which she couldn’t prevent from being born
To a man in Lucknow.

They have to believe, the little old man and woman,
That even they, somewhere, have an arbiter
Of their destinies,
A Fate for them, the minor Fates,
Something to blame, someone to believe in,
Even a godling to hate.
Or is it all circular?
Does the lowest worm, deep in the ground,
In the circuits of its digestive system,
Determine the why and how
Of what will become of the crossed-up
Little man and woman
And the ruminant from Lucknow?

©by Victoria L. Bennett, 7/28/18

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“Life is a comedy to those who think, a tragedy to those who feel”–Ludmilla Petrushevskaya’s “There Once Lived a Girl Who Seduced Her Sister’s Husband, and He Hanged Himself”

As the French playwright and thinker Jean Racine once claimed, “Life is a comedy to those who think, a tragedy to those who feel.”  Horace Walpole echoed the sentiment, but put the two clauses in the reverse order.  Whatever the order, the sentiment is one that often applies to the way fiction, not to mention drama, works.  The unique thing about the work of Ludmilla Petrushevskaya is that it produces both feelings at the same time in those who read it, not the usual sense of tragicomedy, but a studied blankness of effect and affect both at the end of each of her short stories in this book, which bears the subtitle “Love Stories.”  And this is not a case in which one can blame the translation, which those who know Russian claim is an adept one (by the translator Anna Summers, who has translated others of Petrushevskaya’s works as well).

I say that there is a “studied blankness of effect and affect both” because there is:  the blankness of effect is contained in the continual twist which takes place at the end of each short story, where one is expecting a sense of resolution.  There is in each case a sense of nothing really being resolved, but a sense of reality, of truth to real life and to the way thing actually happen, of the oftentimes inconclusive result even of big events in life.  Just because so many other fictions proceed by well-worn formulas, this lack of final effect produces its own sense of surprise and shock, and often a rueful chuckle at one’s own expectations.  The blankness of affect relates to the marked restraint of feeling in the narrator’s exposition of her characters and their situations:  she doesn’t feel sorry for them in the conventional sense, doesn’t play sad little violin solos on her creative instrument, and doesn’t encourage the reader to feel sorry for them either.

And yet, one does feel for these characters, when all is said and done.  It’s the author’s own sense of balance and discipline in dealing with the sorrowful facts of these character’s lives, with their strange and funny solutions to their predicaments, with their often unmerited suffering and undeserved rewards, which make this book the book it is.  It’s as if the author took a whiny, mournful, disgruntled little series of events, and removed the vital connections of characters’ trajectories up and down in feeling and action, and instead put a laugh here, and a poignant remark there, in places where they weren’t before expected.  And she doesn’t pull her punches, or bestow or waste any sympathy on her characters; such sympathy as they deserve, they may or may not get from the other characters (and in a final way from the reader, at the end of each story), but they don’t get it from the narrative voice, which is calm and full of detail and fact, but which only supplies these and insists that the reader come to his or her own conclusions.  Yet, from this restrained puppeteering, there is tenderness, coming from who can say where?  All one knows when reading is that Petrushevskaya is like a canny and watchful parent, who without apparent doting or pride harshly pushes her progeny forth, in such a way that she cunningly wins that doting for them from the audience, who feels for them that they have such a dragon of a progenitor that they surely deserve to be lauded and made much of by their auditors.

Even the title of this book is one which bestows that strict tone of restraint on events:  the major events of that story, “there once lived a girl who seduced her sister’s husband, and he hanged himself,” are ones which are taken away from the reader who hopes to follow the path of major events.  The title instead insists that there is something else of importance, and it is thus that the reader must enter the story and supply the feeling, the startlement, the connections between event and feeling.  This is a book which rewards curiosity and investigation well, and which gives the reader sated by ordinary fictional motifs and sallies the charge of a lifetime.  I hope you will read it soon, and discover just how original a talent Ludmilla Petrushevskaya is.

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Autumn Days Revisited–“A Change of Seasons”

Other than love, probably one of the most tried (or trite) and true subjects for poetry is the change of seasons.  There are a few new things to say on the topic, however, sadly enough.  Here goes:

 

A Change of Seasons

The fall is come
And the days are doing what they call
"Drawing in."
And I too am drawing in,
Shutting down and pulling in
My seasonal feelers
Like a snail's antennae,
Because sounds will be different in winter,
When they are muted by the snowfall.
My aspirations too
Are becoming flat characters,
Losing their roundedness,
No longer speaking of fully realized possibilities
But now only signaling outlines of things
Which may or may not come.
We have no hope of escaping
Without leaving the temperate zone,
Though meteorologists are already disputing
Inches of white, feet of rain,
Days' light, Nights' dark,
While what will come will come
Whether they argue or not.
And it's not especially dread that I feel,
For I'm used to it by now.
The unsettling element is rather
That things are now topsy-turvy,
And for certain days of autumn, it's summer,
For some days of winter, it's autumn or even July,
For some days of spring too, it'll be
An early and undue warm season,
Then back into a retrograde deep freeze on days
When we expect the sun to be smiling.
We are even getting used to climate change,
The adaptability of humans
Being apparently our biggest selling point.
But perhaps the question is due to Nature,
Or the gods, or Fate, or whatever you may happen
To believe in,
"How hard is it to change?"
What else should we be asking,
We, who are at least partly to blame
For this untoward state of affairs,
Given our ability to adapt,
Shouldn't we practice
Adapting our selfishness and greed,
Instead of trying to figure out how
To make the earth spin round in the opposite direction?
Even now, experts try to figure out how we can control the weather--
Wouldn't it be easier, and more economical,
All things considered,
To learn to control ourselves?
That would be a change of seasons I could really get into.

©Victoria Leigh Bennett, 10/17/17

This isn’t a particularly “poetic” poem; in fact, it more than borders on the prosaic.  Nonetheless I wanted to share the point of view.  There may be better poems for other days.

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