Another Turn on the Writing Road

It’s been over a year since I published anything on “River Song,” and during those months I’ve been doing a lot of thinking. What do I want to write about now, with fifty-odd years of writing behind me?

For more of those years than I care to remember, my burning question has been the question of human survival. Will human beings learn how to take care of the earth and each other? Or will we refuse to learn, thereby becoming one more memory in the vast memory-stores of the cosmos.

My crystal ball was broken in the last windstorm, so I can’t see what’s coming next. At the moment, however, it looks as if some of us are learning, some of us are adamantly refusing to learn, some of us are immobilized by war and poverty, earth upheavals and political upheavals, and for some of us, the world begins and ends with our own skin.

The future of human children lies in the hands of this motley crew. Am I the only one who thinks we’re in need of an extraterrestrial intervention?

 

note: photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

She Is Still Burning 17-18

The following remembrance and celebration of Mary Meigs’ life and friendships was also the final installment of She Is Still Burning, a fitting ending to a project that I’d begun simply because Michèle Causse sent me an e-mail saying, “Harriet, do something.” I don’t always rush to comply with the wishes of friends, but in this case, because it was Michèle issuing the order, I swung into action, and am glad of it. Thank you, Michèle. Thank you, Mary. And thank you to everyone who contributed to the brief fiery life of She Is Still Burning.

SHE IS STILL BURNING
An Expanding Reader To Encourage Life Lovers
Installment #17-18
21 June 2003

Now a thought trickles in like water giving life to dry clay. It is– “that bush over there is quite beautiful, it has been transformed by snow in less than half an hour. Once it was the flame tree, the vision that sang in October. Now it is a snow-blossoming March bush—and I croak my toad’s song under its roots.” (Mary Meigs, 21 March 2002)

Dear Friends,

This installment is a dual tribute: to Mary Meigs and to the powers of friendship. In it, you will hear her voice in the last year of her life, accompanied by the voices of friends grieving the loss of her and conjuring her presence back among us through their words.

There are many ways to know someone, even when it’s too late to phone her, send her a fax, mail her a letter or land on her doorstep. I hope you will enjoy coming to know Mary through these words and images, or coming to know aspects of her that you might not have known before.

Bon courage (and happy reading),
Harriet Ellenberger
Saint John, New Brunswick, Canada

note: Painter and writer Mary Meigs (1917–2002) was born in Philadelphia, but lived the latter part of her life in Montreal. Talon Books in Vancouver published all five of her books: Lily Briscoe: A Self-Portrait (1981), The Medusa Head (1983), The Box Closet (1987), In the Company of Strangers (1991) and The Time Being (1997).

Those who never had the chance to meet her in person can still see her on film, playing herself at age 70—the witty, compassionate, outspoken lesbian artist who is the driving force in Cynthia Scott’s film In the Company of Strangers (NFB, 1990). The film is available on DVD or video as part of the “Modern Day Classics” series, under the title Strangers in Good Company.

“Who She Was,” a charming comic-strip story by Eve Corbel about her friendship with Mary, appears in the Winter 2002 issue of Geist magazine (Vancouver).


IN THIS INSTALLMENT

1) Betsy Warland: “A Remembering of Mary Meigs”
2) Suniti Namjoshi: “Mary’s Dream” and an extract from “The Good Witch Sycorax”
3) Claire Saint Aubin: “À bientôt Mary”
4) Sylvie Sainte-Marie: “Elle est apparue dans ma vie” and “Soledad”
5) Verena Stefan: “Agitation on a Brick Wall”
6) Cynthia Rich: “Seeing Mary”
7) Lise Weil: “Freewriting with Mary”
8) “Feathers”: correspondence between Mary Meigs and Harriet Ellenberger
9) Mary Meigs, “Dead Flicker 1985”

Continue reading She Is Still Burning 17-18

She Is Still Burning 12 (March 2002)

8 August 2017: One thing I’m discovering from republishing these fifteen-year-old installments of  She Is Still Burning: it’s the individual writer’s intensity, clarity of thought, attention to detail, that make a piece worth reading more than once. When they wrote it, and under what circumstances, matters much less.

I may be a little slow in coming to this realization—I think the rest of the world calls these things-worth-rereading “Literature.”

SHE IS STILL BURNING
An Expanding Reader To Encourage Life Lovers
Installment # 12
01 March 2002

“When my mornin’ comes around
From a new cup I’ll be drinkin’
And for once I won’t be thinkin’
There’s something wrong with me”
                                      – Iris Dement

Dear Friends,

Scientists have recently determined that the colour of space is turquoise. For reasons unclear to me, I was delighted with this announcement. And here’s another: last July, astronomers discovered a previously unknown planet on the edge of our solar system, eccentrically orbiting between and beyond Neptune and Pluto. The planet has not yet been named by an official committee of the International Astronomical Union (it’s currently referred to as “2001 KX76”), but the union will accept naming suggestions from anyone. Suzanne Cox submitted the name of the ancient Chinese goddess Nu Kua (because, after the universal holocaust, she repaired and restored the shattered columns that hold up heaven; she patched the torn heavens together, making the world whole again). I have kept wishing that something would repair the human-made hole in the ozone layer, so invoking Nu Kua by naming a newly discovered planet after her seems to me just the ticket. Why wait for an official committee to be similarly persuaded? Let’s all welcome Nu Kua to the planetary family, and hope she can do what she did before.

Invoking goddesses, ancient or otherwise, makes me feel slightly foolish, but I’ve reached the limits of patience with all these fundamentalist Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, etcetera-etcetera who monopolize the naming of the mysterious, who, in effect, colonize the invisible. At the moment of their triumph, their time—as far as I’m concerned— is up. We will henceforth create our own religions, thank you very much. Based on kindness toward life forms (a novel idea when applied to the political/economic/military sphere).

Truth to tell, the political/economic/military sphere has become so lunatic that I’m finding it nearly impossible to write about clearly. Last night, Bert and I were watching a video of the film “Illuminata,” and we both latched onto the line, “In the name of all that is real, I’m going [away].” My sentiments exactly, but go away where? I used to relieve my frustrations by writing scathing commentary about Bush & Co., but, frankly, that doesn’t work anymore. How, for example, does one parody an “axis of evil” state-of-the-union address that is already a parody of itself?

Two days ago, on the excellent Montreal-based website Centre for Research on Globalisation, I ran onto the alarmingly titled article by John Stanton and Wayne Madsen “The Emergence of the Fascist American Theocratic State”. It has the virtue of compiling events from November 2000 through February 2002 into a coherent story, as told by future historians relating the demise of democracy in the U.S. The problem with the article is I couldn’t come up with much in the way of counter-arguments; the authors make too much sense. But read it for yourself, please, and let me know what you believe they may be exaggerating or omitting.

The question of what exactly the U.S. government has become in the last fifteen months seems to me crucial for those outside as well as inside its borders, since this is a state apparatus which has planted military bases throughout the world and which dominates the world economy, tracks global communications, and so forth. We need to know what’s being decided behind closed doors in Washington (as well as in those two fortified underground locations where the Associated Press today reports that a “shadow government” has been operating since “the first hours after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks”), and CNN isn’t telling us. So it’s a matter of putting together the scattered pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, seeing the picture that emerges.

Gertrude Stein reportedly once remarked that when there’s everything to fear, there is nothing to fear. Which makes a kind of psychological sense. When there is no security (no privacy either), what do we do? We do what it pleases us to do, simply that.

Bon courage (and happy reading),
Harriet Ellenberger
Saint John, New Brunswick, Canada


IN THIS INSTALLMENT

•Sara Wright: letter with poems
•Ariane Brunet: letter
Lynn Martin: “Like an egg” (poem)

Continue reading She Is Still Burning 12 (March 2002)

She Is Still Burning 7 (April 2001)

Note, 16 May 2017 BE: The April 2001 installment of “She Is Still Burning” below focuses on France and the work of Michèle Causse. I was just getting ready to post it when France held their presidential election, the results of which led me to imagine Jeanne d’Arc saying to her disembodied self: “Well, old girl, only a fool walks into a fire, and I  had been wondering why we thought it was such a brilliant idea to liberate France. But now it’s May 2017, and the French just threw a massive monkey-wrench into the onrushing wheels of fascism. Not bad. Not bad at all. Vive la République! Vive la France!

A few days later, South Korea did France one better, electing in a landslide a new president who was born the child of refugee parents from the North, grew up in poverty, and became a human-rights lawyer. Vive la South Korea! For showing how to do democracy under conditions of extreme duress.

And now back to the past …


SHE IS STILL BURNING
An Expanding Reader To Encourage Life Lovers
Installment #7
29 April 2001

“Put on your old jacket. We’ll fill our pockets with sugar drops, set off wherever the heart desires, without any plan at all, through quarters overgrown with camomile … ”
– Irina Ratushinskaya

Dear Friends,

After a winter onslaught that lasted until mid-April (there’s still snow in the New Brunswick woods), purple and yellow crocuses are now blooming; the robins are singing “cheer up, chérie.” Every time life renews itself, it catches me by surprise. What! You mean there’s hope at the bottom of that box?

Some day I’m going to learn not to let world events, as well as the weather, drag me into the slough of despond. But that day hasn’t come yet. And so I just have to say with regard to His Junior Bushness … my god, how reckless is this goofball front for the fundamentalists. First he gives the thumbs-up, green-light, go-right-ahead sign to Ariel Sharon (and speaking of Sharon, how did a child with a name that sounds like roses and true-love grow up to become the architect of a new “Final Solution”?). Then — after scraping through the international incident resulting from a Chinese fighter pilot’s urge to play chicken with a US spy plane — Bush intimates that he will not hesitate to re-arm Taiwan. Oh brilliant. A rerun of the Cold War together with a sure-fire recipe for hot war in the Mideast.

In mid-April, however, along with warmer weather, came the people’s summit in Quebec City and the 30,000-strong peaceful protest march (against the kind of “free trade” that has so far been governed by rules chiefly benefitting corporate investors), along with some cheering news from the south of France that you will likely not have found in your local newspaper. Read all about it in this installment of She Is Still Burning!

You may notice that, though this installment ranges over two continents and mixes together two languages, it’s still uni-voiced: I wrote almost everything in it. To remedy this lack of variety in authorship, why not send me something to publish in the next installment? The form can be anything you wish: letters, reflections on personal experience, poetry, stories, essays, reviews or a hybrid-sort-of-thing you invent. I publish excerpts from the letters I receive only if the writer explicitly gives me permission, so please let me know if I’m free to share the comments you send me.

Bon courage (and happy reading),
Harriet Ellenberger
Saint John, New Brunswick, Canada


IN THIS INSTALLMENT

•”Glimpses of Lesbian Politics and Culture, Stage II, in France” (text and translations by Harriet Ellenberger)
•”To the Beautiful Contradictions of Ariane” (a bilingual poem written for the birthday of a bilingual friend) by Harriet Ellenberger
•”Thunderer, Perfect Mind” (a poem with a title stolen from the Gnostic Gospels) by Harriet Ellenberger


Continue reading She Is Still Burning 7 (April 2001)

She Is Still Burning 3 (Dec 2000)

By December 2000, I’d become ambitious for my little e-mail publication and was promising readers that if they printed the installments and kept them in a notebook, eventually they’d have a book-length anthology. And it did come true that by the time her editor pooped out, “She Is Still Burning” resembled a book. Following is the third chapter, with many more to come …

SHE IS STILL BURNING
An Expanding Reader To Encourage Life Lovers
Installment #3
3 December 2000

Dear Friends,

Am pausing in the midst of a whomper of a translation contract to send greetings to you, along with a piece by Jane Picard, “Gestures of War and Lament.”

Jane says that this piece is “like experiencing a car crash in slow motion,” a description which fits my experience of reading it the first time. Like the front-seat passenger in a car headed straight over the embankment, the reader feels zero control over her fate. “Who, what, where, when, why” are questions that belong to some other universe, the only remaining question being “is this thing going to kill me?”

I am happy to report that “Gestures of War and Lament” did not kill me on first reading. And on second and third readings, it did leave me with the memory of many stunningly beautiful lines. I still would be at a loss to describe what it is about (the last 7000 years of history?), and I still don’t understand how it does what it does … but that’s ok. The major point is to feel it.

When asked for a bio, Jane replied, just use this quote from Gertrude Stein instead: “And that is all there is to good writing, putting down on the paper words which dance and weep and make love and fight and kiss and perform miracles.”

If I don’t get out the fourth installment of She Is Still Burning before winter solstice (owing to aforementioned whomper translation), please accept my solstice wishes a little ahead of time. May you happily ignore the commercial/political/religious onslaught; may your hearth fires burn brightly; may your friends be sweet with you; may the fire of the stars blaze in your heart.

Bon courage,
Harriet Ellenberger
Saint John, New Brunswick, Canada

Continue reading She Is Still Burning 3 (Dec 2000)

Never Underestimate a Fox

Nine-Tailed Fox
Nine-Tailed Fox

for the man who gave himself
the street-name “Tonto”
 

At a loss for everything
but words,
I’m writing in the sunlight
of a sidewalk cafe
when someone falls
over an empty chair and
lands on the table
in front of me.

I’m as drunk on language
as he is on booze.

A foxtail hangs from a leather cord
at his throat, like a necktie
over his T-shirt,
and when I ask him about it,
he tells me his story.

He killed the fox,
and then his mother said to him,
You took the life
of a free and beautiful animal
so you could feel like a bigger man.
Now the spirit of the fox
will make you pay.

He believed his mother.

I believe her too.
And beneath her words,
I hear the soft, alluring
voice of earth:

I dreamt each one of you,
you are just as I wish —
Go now,
walk your path,
breathe
and live.

– Harriet Ann Ellenberger, January 2012

  Continue reading Never Underestimate a Fox

Eclipse of Hope

A moon blots out a sun.
Darkening silence comes between us.

In place of my house,
stands a tower of stone.
At its crown —
the lightning catcher,
she who writes on the blank rune.

Below, my departing selves
wait with their boats.

Driftwood burns.

I mark in sand
the sign of migration.

My eyes sting.

At my wingbones
four winds rise.

– Harriet Ann Ellenberger, 1985-2011

 

Acutely Personal, Eerily Collective

In early autumn of 1985, I had been living for four months in A Studio of One’s Own, a beautifully airy structure built by women for women artists on Ann Stokes’ land, a low wooded mountaintop in New Hampshire. (For photos of the land, see Welcome Hill Studios.) It was the first time I’d lived alone and the first time I’d lived in the woods.

I was there to write a serious book of prose and to chart a new direction for my life. Instead, I’d been getting up at the crack of dawn to write in my journal, walking the trails all over the old mountain, and skidding wildly from ecstatic vision to paralyzing despair. My journal entry for 1 October 1985 reads: “11 a.m. I am EXHAUSTED. 11:30 a.m. Well, shit, I just wrote a poem.”

It was, astonishingly, a real poem, one of the first I’d written since childhood. But in the second stanza there was a tongue-tangle, marking a conceptual muddle, that I couldn’t for the life of me untangle. Eventually, I put the poem away and half-forgot I’d written it. Twenty-six years later, in the midst of an e-mail to a friend about something else altogether, the lines as they were meant to be surfaced in my mind.

In the mid-1980s, it was clear to any witness of my life that I personally was in trouble, my past gone and my future unknown. But I couldn’t altogether articulate what that felt like. By the summer of 2011, though, human beings were clearly and collectively in the same kind of trouble: past gone, future unknown. And suddenly, with so much company, I could say how that feels.

Note: “Eclipse of Hope” first appeared in the Spring 2012 issue of Trivia: Voices of Feminism; it was published with more extensive working notes on 11 February 2013, in Return to Mago.

Photograph courtesy of AP Photo / Tourism Queensland