Dear friends and readers,
This seems to me a beautifully appropriate poem to end this past week with:
in the attenuated light
of the Church ofle Sacre Coeur
(early evening and folk songs
on the mausoleum steps)
only with 2 instamatic cameras
(not a terrorist among us)
in that Parisian downpour
Black women (2 of Asian 2
of African descent)
could not catch a taxi
I wondered what umbrella
would be big enough to stop
of our collective impotence
against such negligent
And I wondered
who would build that shelter
who will build and lift it
high and wide
— June Jordan
I found it in an omnibus volume by Adrienne Rich (I mentioned her the other day), originally published in What Is Found There as the opening of Rich’s meditative essay, “Tourism and promised land.” . The poem caught my eye because of the sentence just before it:
June Jordan turns this genre of tourist-pictorial memory and landscape poems inside out in a poem called “Solidarity.” She balances the spoken word “terrorist” against the unspoken word “tourist.” But the tourists here are four women of color visiting Paris.
On June Jordan, a fine foremother poet, see this on-line biography, from The Poetry Foundation, it poems by her, and a list of books and article about her.
Rich’s framing indites herself and is dated since she refers to US cities as “unscorched,” “unblasted:” today the US landscape is as filled with “sacrificed” (by whom?) areas as any European or other country on the planet.
Tourism. Can be a trap for poets, especially poets of North America who may elect to be escapist, breezy, about our empire, the sands we are lying on … we sought not the European present, traumatized and hectically rebuilding, but the European past of our schoolbooks. Being mostly white, we saw European culture as the ancestor of ours: we romanticized that ancestry, half in awe at its artifacts … a huge outdoor museum … Many of the poems in my.second book were poems of such tourism. It was a difficult, conflicted time in my own life, from which I gladly fled into poems about English or Italian landscape and architecture. Only once, in a poem called “The Tourist and the Town,” I tried to place myself as I was, alongside an ackknowledgment that life in the foreign town was as “ordinary” as anywhere else.
Poems of tourism: like travel snapshots taken compulsively, a means of capturing, collecting, framing the ruins, the exotic street, the sacred rocks, the half-naked vending child, the woman setting forth under her colorful burden. A means of deflecting the meanings of the place, the meaning of the tourist’s presence, in a world economy in which tourism has become a major industry for poor countries and in which a different kind of travel-immigration in search of work-is the only option facing a majority of the inhabitants of those countries.
She’s a bit hard on travel writing & pictures; escape and a quest for a non-existent refuge is a decent natural response to life in the US and many places today, to a dream world that never was. Many such poems and whole books do use the occasion to meditate the war-ravaged world and centuries of history and memory the ruins testify to, from Radcliffe’s 1794 Summer Journey book to Christa Wolf’s Cassandra: A Novel and Four Essays (see my “No Place on Earth”).
I’ve been asked why I write my conferences reports: I just spent a number of long evenings describing the sessions I went to at the APA/ACA (archive) and ASECS conferences (archive) this spring, as well as what social experiences I managed. Well, I write them for myself, so I can remember what was said. I found when I didn’t write up my notes, I would lose or misplace them; I couldn’t transcribe them eventually if I had been able to keep them orderly. Most of the time I would have a much vaguer sense of what was said until I wrote them up — that’s why not being able to take down detail in stenography is a loss. It’s also a thing to do at night; I’m in an imagined world where I talk to others and I reach others this way, I become part of the world of the Net. I can contribute this way, be read, known a little.
Of course fundamentally I am a compulsive writer and write because I need to, resembling Frances Burney D’Arblay in this, with the important difference I cannot get myself to narrate my own life centrally in a sufficiently triumphant way to be (even if after her long long life) eventually publishable. I have at long last understood why I fell in love with her diaries and journals when I found a 3 volume version of these (from 1904) in the then 6 floor Argosy used bookstore across the street from Bloomingdale when I was 18.