Tuesday, March 8, 2016

“I shed more tears than god ever required”: On Poetry and Memories, Pat Conroy, Arthur Rimbaud and Sister Outsider

Scenes from Berlin Alexanderplaz and Rimbaud in New York.
Bottom black and white photograph by David Wojnarowicz

For a while there two decades ago in San Francisco I hung out every Wednesday with a colony of Southern ex patriots.  One of my friends, Megan's dad went to school with my uncle at the Citadel.   Many loved him.  But they were family for me.  We had all traveled to Rome studying in Florence and found ourselves lost in San Francisco.  Today, I am thinking of her and all the fun we had, the adventures, making sense of an upside down world. Her dad, Pat, gave us a glimpse into both beauty and the cruelty of a world behind closed doors in the South, the world my father and uncle endured that we somehow escaped.  He also showed us how much there is out there to see... if you look at the waves and remember and feel long enough.

“To describe our growing up in the low country of South Carolina,” his alter-ego narrator wrote in “The Prince of Tides,” “I would have to take you to the marsh on a spring day, flush the great blue heron from its silent occupation. Scatter marsh hens as we sink to our knees in mud, open you an oyster with a pocketknife and feed it to you from the shell and say, ‘There. That taste. That’s the taste of my childhood.’ I would say, ‘Breathe deeply,’ and you would breathe and remember that smell for the rest of your life, the bold, fecund aroma of the tidal marsh, exquisite and sensual, the smell of the South in heat, a smell like new milk, semen and spilled wine, all perfumed with seawater.”

RIP Pat Conroy

Looking at the pain opened a space to see the exquisite, if only you could look at it.  All weekend, we talked about that place where unknown feelings, thoughts without words, find expression in poems and stories, paintings and memories, drag performances and readings, storytelling and quiet morning moments.

We ran around with Mom on Saturday, played in the trees in her backyard, and journeyed out to her favorite bookstore. 

That afternoon, I joined our reading group.

We were reading Sister Outsider by Audre Lorde.  Over and over, she reminds us that poetry can help us make sense of feelings, opening a new world, where we can act, and find agency.

Her essay, “Poetry Is Not a Luxury*” highlights this point.  

THE QUALITY OF LIGHT by which we scrutinize our lives has direct bearing upon the product which we live, and upon the changes which we hope to bring about through those lives. It is within this light that we form those ideas by which we pursue our magic and make it realized. This is poetry as illumination, for it is through poetry that we give name to those ideas which are until the poem - nameless and formless, about to be birthed, but already felt. That distillation of experience from which true poetry springs births thought as dream births concept, as feeling births idea, as knowledge births (precedes) understanding. As we learn to bear the intimacy of scrutiny and to flourish within it, as we learn to use the products of that scrutiny for power within our living, those fears which rule our lives and form our silences begin to lose their control over us. For each of us as women, there is a dark place within, where hidden and growing our true spirit rises, "beautiful/ and tough as chestnut/stanchions against (y)our nightmare of weakness/"** and of impotence. These places of possibility within ourselves are dark because they are ancient and hidden; they have survived and grown strong through that darkness. Within these deep places, each  one of us holds an incredible reserve of creativity and power, of unexamined and unrecorded emotion and feeling.

Through this feeling, we can transform silence into language and action.

Later that night, a few more friends came over and we watched Berlin Alexanderplatz, the Fassbinder film.  I had been assigned the novel in college, reading it as I sprinted away from the south, toward a new world and life.  The story reminds us, our pasts are rarely quiet.  They lurk beneath the surface, reminding us, changing, shaping us, surprising us, informing us, restricting us. They are friends, as well as limitations.

“What is this fag night at the Shepard’s?” asked Jim, laughing at the jovial crowd, including Caroline’s buddy Tony from college.   Jim brought a friend who edits a film magazine.  James and Barry brought wine and the movies.  We ate pasta, drank wine and talked about the movies, douglas crimp, and mentors. 

Jim talked about the movies he went to as a kid.  “My mother used to drop me off by myself at the theater.  That’s when I learned to be ok with myself in a dark room.  Bambi was the scariest, the forest fire scene when her mother died.”

“My mom used to always say the same thing,” I remembered.

Soon the conversation turned to mentors.

Michael Shernoff was my mentor,” noted Tony.

"Really?" I retorted, recalling meeting him in 1997. We both read at a different light in Manhattan that fall.  He was boyfriends with the kid one of my uncles from South Georgia, and had a thriving psychotherapy practice until his death a few years ago.

Tom told me a story about terminating with him after ten years of therapy in a twenty-minute session shortly before his death.  “A man in the building lobby just held me as I weeped for the last twenty minutes.”

"I think its movie time gang," noted Jim and we made our way to the couch.

Tony saw the agoraphobia, the fear on the face of the protagonist as he left prison in the first scene of Berlin Alexanderplatz..

So we watched and talked and watched and gossiped.

Later that night, Barry and Jim suggested we go see the Rimbaud in New York show at BAM the next day.  We happily took them up on their offer.

There are periods in the history of art which inspire and inspire over a lime. But none of them are born from a vaccume.  The Renaissance in Florence would not have happened without the rise and fall of Rome.  Wojnarowicz and the East Village scene of New York would not have happened without the angst of Rimbaud. David Wojnarowicz owed his pathos to his abusing family, the streets of New York, and his muse Arthur Rimbaud, each born and died the same years a hundred years prior. 

Before the show, we wandered around New York, went to Judson, Bleecker Street records, played in Washington Square park, and enjoyed a bagel with Ruby Rims, the iconic drag performer.  When number two heard he performed in drag at the Anvil in 1977, she asked if he had ever eaten poodle poop like Divine had in Pink Flamingos.

“No honey,” explained Ruby laughing.

Over breakfast, we talked about HIV and memory and performing and the story of his life and survival with HIV over a quarter of a century.

“I survived,” Ruby confessed.  “I survived,” painfully aware that others were not as fortunate.  One of the joys of my life is the interviews with so many heros through time.

Leaving Manhattan, we wandered to BAM for the Rimbaud in New York show.

An homage to the merging of poetry and words, the play highlighted the ways poetry and visual arts open up a new way of living, a new space for agency. “His poems are in a sense a gateway drug, but in the best possible way – to possibility, an escape hatch out of all that is borning and and oppressive, and a bridge to a life lived fully awake,” noted  Steve Cosson.

Every 16-year-old falls in love with Rimbaud, explained one of the players, recalling the very queer sensibility of this writer, open with being different,  with longing.  Each song and monolog further traced this story of poetry, guiding us from the downtown scene of Lower Manhattan, through pasts of Walt Whitman and Allan Ginsberg through Jim Carroll and Patti Smith, all tracing their stories through Rimbaud. 

I chuckled recalling Allan Ginsberg’s "Sphincter" poem listening to his homage to the possibility of the prostate.

Little did I know he was writing in homage to Rimbaud.

“Sonnet of the Asshole” by Paul Verlaine  & Arthur Rimbaud

Dark & puckered like a purple floret,
it breathes; it hides humbly amid the moss
still moist with love that trails the gentle floss
of snowy cheeks into the heart of its skirt.

Filaments like strings of milk are wept—
above, the cruel wind drives them across
the russet marl, along the little clots,
& they vanish, lured in by the gradient.

My Dream often kissed its suction cup;
my Soul, jealous of this corporal fuck,
made it its musky trough, its tear-filled nest.

This the ecstatic olive, this the tender flute,
this the tube down which falls the celestial fruit:
o womanly Canaan in moistures fenced!

translated from the French by Aditi Machado

Rimbaud is still alive, so is the magic of the diaspora of downtown, where we meet, write poems, and create new stories, where there is nothing and everything.  Here we call take part.

Rimbaud in New York reminded me that many of my heros were poets: David Wojnarowicz, Allan Ginsberg, Judith Malina, rewriting what New York could be, and would be.

“A poet makes himself a visionary through a long, boundless, and systematized disorganization of all the senses," explained Arthur Rimbaud. "All forms of love, of suffering, of madness; he searches himself, he exhausts within himself all poisons, and preserves their quintessences. Unspeakable torment, where he will need the greatest faith, a superhuman strength, where he becomes all men the great invalid, the great criminal, the great accursed--and the Supreme Scientist! For he attains the unknown! Because he has cultivated his soul, already rich, more than anyone! He attains the unknown, and if, demented, he finally loses the understanding of his visions, he will at least have seen them! So what if he is destroyed in his ecstatic flight through things unheard of, unnameable: other horrible workers will come; they will begin at the horizons where the first one has fallen!”

The kids were moved with the stories and poems, the love letters to and from.  Listening to his words and anguish, I thought of Pat Conroy and Audre Lorde and all the other luminous kids who found a way to share their stories, translating their anguish into a larger than life story of our becoming.

“True alchemy lies in this formula: ‘Your memory and your senses are but the nourishment of your creative impulse,” mused Arthur Rimbaud.  But it started with the blues. 

“I shed more tears than God could ever have required.”

Arthur Rimbaud, Illuminations

Benjamin Caroline and friends at James's birthday.
Photo by James Wagner

Scenes from Rimbaud in New York by David Wojnarowicz

Scenes from Rimbaud and the Shepards in New York

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