A Pause for Pure Self-Pity

While rereading my 1974 journal, I found a brief and very girly expression of Pure Self-Pity. At first I was embarrassed by the four-line poem and even more by the sentiment it expressed. But then I thought, hey, self-pity may be the human equivalent of crawling into a hiding place and licking your wounds after a spectacularly unsuccessful hunt. A natural thing, in other words. Even a good thing.

Why in 1974, however, I chose to express my wounded creature-ness through the voice of a Victorian housemaid, I don’t know. Any more than I know why I still love to write, when it’s clear that writing has created more problems for me than it has solved—and it doesn’t save the world either.

Maybe people read and write because they’re lonely for companions. If so, I offer the following tiny poem to accompany you in your own oh-gawd-I’m-so-inept-I’m-gonna-starve, I-should-go-away-and-die-already moments.

 

The Housemaid’s Lament

Little gimcracks are what I’m worth,
Nothing big or sweeping.
Little needles, little pins,
Little bits of weeping.

 

 

 

 

A Practice of Religion

The woods are my church
because everyone in them lives by the law.
If you take more than you need there,
your surplus will be stolen by brown bears,
for dessert.

I take to the woods
like wild geese to Northern skies,
like the red fox to her sensuous den.
The woods are cradle,
hearth fire,
roof,
spire.
The oak, my god;
the ladyslipper, my pleasure.

If I go to the woods,
it is not to flee humans —
I am a human too.
What I touch, I despoil.
My greed knows no bounds.
My jealousy sickens every sacred creature.

If I go to the woods,
without knowledge, without skill,
it is to ask the holy ones
for help.


– Harriet Ann Ellenberger

 

note: This old (mid-1980s in its original version) and defiant poem still speaks for me, and I still like it. Most especially I like it at this time of year, when the buying orgy known as Christmas is past its prime, and once again Mr. Bear and I have survived a religious/commercial holiday by ignoring it. Also, by assiduously avoiding shopping-mall parking lots from mid-November to January 2nd.

The owl photo is by Tina Rataj Berard, on Unsplash.

 

 

 

 

 

Whales and the Cosmos

constellations-dipper

 

What if whales are singing the music of the spheres?

What if whales sing in the rhythms and tones of creation creating?

What if whale song brings forth new being?

 

What if whale song travels beyond earth’s bubble of air?

What if whale song reaches the stars?

What if whales sing to the stars?

What if the stars sing back?

 

– Harriet Ann Ellenberger, 15 December 2018

 

note: “Whales and the Cosmos” was inspired by Helen Hye-Sook Hwang’s most recent work in reconstructing the old mytho-history of East Asia, in which whales, stars and creation-through-sound play a large part (see her articles in Return to Mago E-zine). The wild-eyed questions in the poem are mine, but she was the muse.

Scientists are still not certain what purpose is served by the lengthy and extraordinarily complex songs of whales.

The image is from the blog “Cosmic Reflections” by David Oesper.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Song of Souls

5 April 2003
Saint John, New Brunswick, Canada

Dear Friends,

Today at our peace gathering, when the son of a poet read a poem in Arabic on the steps of city hall, something broke loose in me. My mind comprehended none of the words, but my body understood the emotion carried by rhythm and sound.

No one knows where poems come from; we can only notice the circumstances in which they arrive. This one showed up about two hours after the rally ended.
SONG OF SOULS

Startled by death
that fell from a roaring sky,
we flew away.

We circled high,
higher than the war planes fly,
and we saw you far below,
piling our broken bodies
in the back of your truck,
driving to a hospital
where none could heal us
and none could heal you.

O hear our song
in the music of the wind —

We have found the forever place,
the place of no war.

We remember you, beloved.
We remember you always.

 

– Harriet Ann Ellenberger

note: photo by Jeremy Bishop on Unsplash

 

 

Confrontation with the Rapist

In dreams, the Rapist says,
Nothing is possible,
I will kill you,
I have already killed you,
She will not come for you,
You cannot have love,
There is only money
in this man’s world—
and (he hisses in my ear)
she knows it.
She is French, and practical.

He continues:
There is only money
and you don’t know how to make it.
There is only rape
and you are the rape-ee.
We serve up girls like you
for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
Your bird of love is a gull
who eats and shits our garbage.

His buddies join him:
Sex-crazed witch, they say,
your phantasming mind
will not save you from us.
Ineffective weapon,
when has it saved you in the past?

This is a description of Them.
They have the facts,
all the news that’s fit to print.
I have language and the spirits.
Both abandon me the moment
I balance my checkbook.

A wealthy friend once told me
I was the most impractical person
she’d ever met.
She hurt my feelings,
but she was only telling the truth.

I wish I were her.
I wish I were anybody but me.

I wish I were the poet
from a moneyed background
who said, when I solemnly announced
that I must put writing first,
“But, Harriet, how will you eat?

Damned if I know.

The practical nurse who was my grandmother
had a mantra for me:
If wishes were horses,
poor men would ride.

I do not want, I do not want,
I do not want what is.
I want to stay child.
I want a childhood I never had.
I want adventure
and the youth that passed me by.
I want my horse,
and a white banner flying.

Il n’y a pas de magie,
a friend informs me.
We wish magic were real,
she continues firmly,
but it is not.
Lucky her, she appears to derive
a measure of satisfaction from this.

If wishes were horses,
poor girls would ride,
you told me in so many words.
Everyone, in fact, from the beginning,
has been telling me the Same.
A Greek chorus.
Five thousand years of plunder
are not, I admit,
on my side.

In dreams, I am being raped.
It hurts in my vagina
and in every particle of my bones,
visceral humiliation
that goes on and on and on …

Just a bloody minute!
I suddenly say to myself.
The practical thing to do,
when being raped,
is to go for the jugular.

And, with the sharp teeth
of my phantasming mind,
in the nightmare that begins my new day,
I do.

God rest his soul, I say,
and let me be.

 

– Harriet Ann Ellenberger, 1989, revised 2015
   

note: The image of Leda and the swan, an Italian 16th-century bronze casting, was found on images.nga.gov. “Confrontation with the Rapist” was first published in Trivia: Voices of Feminismissue 17, “Radical,” Winter 2016.

 

Love in the Crosshairs

Reflections on Dark Matters: a novel by Susan Hawthorne

 

I am asking myself what accounts for the haunting power of Dark Matters, this latest in a long line of books of poetry, fiction, and non-fiction by Susan Hawthorne. One clue may simply be the length of that trail of published work which precedes Dark Matters. No one creates a profound work of art by staying on the surface of life, but it is equally true that no can do it before they’ve taught themselves to be at home in their own language. Each sentence of Susan Hawthorne’s Dark Matters says what it says — and it also says, “my writer knew what she was doing.”

frontispiece SapphoDark Matters vibrates through time, in part because the line of writing which leads to it includes more than Hawthorne’s own: that line begins with Sappho, the tenth muse, the rockstar of the Mediterranean, of whose multitudinous lyrics only fragments have survived the attempts to eradicate them, along with the memory of her and her companions. A whole machinery of cultural destruction has been brought to bear on the poet of love, and we are left with bits and pieces that nonetheless retain their power to evoke and to move.

Like the remnants of Sappho’s lyrics, the novel Dark Matters itself is made up of fragments. Its structure echoes the story being told as well as the background story of lesbian history, a zigzag trail through landscapes and timescapes of erasure and memory. Telling the love story of Kate and Mercedes in fragmented episodes allows for intensity (both in the scenes of beauty and in the scenes of terror), alternating with relief from intensity. And the fragments are arranged in such a way that the reader, along with Kate’s niece Desi, gradually moves through a mist of unanswered questions and mysterious gaps toward a feeling for what drew Mercedes and Kate together and a comprehension of the forces that tore them from each other’s arms.

The love story that is the heart of Dark Matters begins with Mercedes teaching Kate the tango, and from there they dance their way into a shared life. Mercedes’ family has fled torture in Chile to resettle in Australia, but when things go bad politically in her new home, the torturers show up again. In a dawn raid, armed and hooded intruders kill Priya (Kate and Mercedes’ beloved dog), shoot Mercedes, and seize Kate, transporting her to a remote detention center, where she is subjected to the textbook methods of torture, which few survive.

For Kate, the lesbian and feminist, however, there is an added twist. The most sophisticated of the torturers, the one she calls Velvet Voice, is a man who has gone beyond his job description. He’s been tracking Kate as obsessively as a rejected suitor bent on revenge: he’s read her poetry and her political writings; he’s gone through her library and studied her performances. When he grinds his heel into her left hand, breaking the bones, he calls her “sinister sister.” He knows Kate, and breaking her spirit along with her body is not only his work, it’s his pleasure. He intends to turn everything she’s ever loved against her.

Kate doesn’t know where she is, why she’s there, who authorized her being there, who else is being held in the building nor what is being done to them. She doesn’t know if Mercedes has survived. She doesn’t know what to expect next. She has been systematically robbed of situational awareness, the cues to orient herself in time and space blocked by her captors. All she has is her mind and her memory. And this is where the great richness of Dark Matters comes in because, as it turns out, Kate’s mind is very full.

There are the memories of her life as a child, memories of her travels to her mother’s Greek homeland, later memories of journeys and conversations with Mercedes, and then there are the memories extending back thousands of years, to the time of the Eleusinian rituals, to a time when women had not yet been de-authorized, to a time when the old goddesses were a living presence in the life of the Mediterranean peoples. Memory is the mother of the muses, and as Kate remembers, she begins to write archaic-sounding poems in her head and one night she dreams, like her grandmother, in the old language of Classical Greece.

To tell more of Dark Matters might be to ruin it for new readers, so I’ll stop here with one last thought: there is so much wisdom woven into this book, you can spend weeks teasing out the strands and pondering them. As Desi says, “Those goddesses are not dead. I mean not dead-dead! Not really dead! They keep coming back in cycles. It all depends on who you talk to.”

 

Note: Susan Hawthorne’s Dark Matters: a novel was published in 2017 by Spinifex Press, an independent feminist press in Australia that has been putting out cutting-edge books, winning awards for them, and distributing them internationally since 1991.

This review of Dark Matters: a novel was first published in Return to Mago E-zine on December 27, 2017.