Tanya B. Avakian

Let England Shake – review

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Dec 152011

Let England Shake
By PJ Harvey, 2011
Reviewed by Tanya B. Avakian

The minstrel boy to the war is gone
In the ranks of death you will find him,
His father’s sword he has girded on
And his wild harp slung behind him.
“Land of song,” said the warrior bard,
“Though all the world betray thee,
One sword at least thy right shall guard,
One faithful harp shall praise thee.”

— Thomas Moore (1779-1852), “The Minstrel Boy”

Let England ShakeWe think we know PJ Harvey, after almost twenty years; we may not be surprised that she has made a concept album about war, since she has always inclined to forbidding themes. Her reputation for somberness would not on its own make it easier for listeners to take her seriously as the creator of Let England Shake. Spooky chicks are supposed to move on to war after having exhausted suicidal heartbreak as a topic, and from them, war isn’t supposed to matter except as a new way to explore suicidal heartbreak. PJ Harvey has written enough about romantic heartbreak, and in grandiose enough terms, for the ante to be upped very far if she turns to politics; beyond that, her physical presence is against her. The slight, gaunt-featured young woman with her soft speaking voice and genteel private manners must beg the question always asked of women who essay political violence as a topic: “What on earth does she know about it?”

She may know more than meets the eye. On previous albums, Harvey’s famous angst has often sounded more like real pain and recovery than the attitudinizing of many singers. It sounds specifically like the struggle of a gifted young person derailed from who she originally was, itself something rather peculiar. Her elfin looks would make it possible for her to drift through her career as someone to be seen, rather than known; but at some point, perhaps with what she herself admits as a dangerous period after her first album, Harvey became a person who had to grow self-consciously as a survivor, and thus to make the glimpses of her inner being more important than the surface of a persona. Not an English thing to do, and not something Harvey often does with emotions that are owned, as opposed to acted.

Her distance could make it harder to care about her inner being, let alone her personae; but it does the reverse. The secret of her charisma is that she resembles a character in a stage play. Harvey’s boyishness adds to the impression and lends it an additional, potentially tragic dimension, like that of the Minstrel Boy or Pup in Peter Greenaway’s The Cook, the Thief, his Wife, and Her Lover. If anything awful happened to her for real one would feel complicit, as the audience in classical tragedy is complicit: she invites us to relate to her as her stylized being is observed, with fascination, from outside, and this, then, would be what we had come to see.

PJ Harvey is like most creative artists and composes as if the world outside does know her, inevitably putting her at a remove from the randomness of the real thing. But at her best, she creates characters and viewpoints that suggest real trauma, approached from within, with the necessary appreciation of randomness and the staginess imposed by perception. The traumas in her songs may be mysterious but they are lived within the song: cajoled, joked with, satirized, worried at, cursed out, run from screeching, returned to in humility, integrated into an essential awkwardness; all very much as authentic human beings deal with things that are not going away. Like Emily Henochowicz, Polly Harvey is often a silly little girl. For instance, a lot of her sexual acting-out has been on the level of silliness rather than reality, at least on stage: her leotards, split-schoolgirl poses, lipstick applied as if in front of Gran’s attic mirror, and Minnie Mouse shoes were all in the tradition of British sexual naughtiness that includes Monty Python and Borat, that is to say, a lot of snickering by people who don’t know what they are talking about. The private reality for Harvey was clearly a lot more complicated, with much more to say about emotional ups and downs than about getting it on, in any real detail; she got away with it because her emotional ups and downs came across as being so physical. “Rub Till It Bleeds” and “Dry” were metaphorical in a way that Marianne Faithfull’s “Why D’Ya Do It” could never be. Harvey writes about sex like a cerebral person whose feelings wrack her body and are otherwise difficult to access. The “You exhibitionist” line in “Sheela-Na-Gig,” the song that first made her notorious, carried the most weight as an accusation against an emotional person in a buttoned-down culture, especially one who has admitted to pain. Indeed the role-playing Harvey engaged in after her first difficult encounter with fame may have been a way of hiding her real project behind lewd greasepaint, and writing it all off as a joke in very British fashion. She has said that she composed much of Rid of Me “at my illest” during the breakdown she suffered after Dry. If she learned how to distance herself from her material in performance, the purpose was to reduce the temptation to identify her with her work.

But this depersonalization has only increased a sense of risk: risk to her above all, if any one of her scenarios came true. It’s in this sense that Harvey really does resemble Patti Smith, though otherwise I agree with her that comparisons are sloppy. Harvey may well have learned how to exploit a similar vocal range by listening to Smith, as Joan Baez may have done with Amalia Rodrigues; but voice and words, though not unimportant, are not the center of Harvey’s art as they are Smith’s. Harvey is first and foremost a composer and a musician. When her massive guitar fire marks the bridge of “In the Dark Places,” it announces the distinctiveness of her personality as its own source of resistance to any received antiwar sentiment. Harvey’s keening voice may be saying one thing (protest, emotiveness) but her guitar says another: that Harvey does not protest so much as she wades into acceptance for her own purposes, with the big guns on her side. Her art is a theatre of cruelty with little in common with the punk theatre of cruelty. The main victim is Harvey, as in much of punk; yet unlike the punk rocker, this victim is celebrated as such in her music, less in self-defeat than in the kind of amor fati (in retrospect) that led Patti Smith to twirl off a stage and break her neck while singing “Ain’t it Strange”: “Hand of God, feel the fever,/Hand of God, I start to whirl…Go on, go on like a dervish/Go on, God, make a move.” Smith fell on that line, and believed that it had been taken literally. She absorbed the fall into the persona of someone who is perhaps not quite willing to take any punishment, but is ready to turn almost anything into what she has to give back to the world, in martial self-realization rather than lament; she announced on the knowingly titled Easter that she’d been “Heading for a spill, but it’s all spilt milk to me… Love’s war and love’s cruel and love’s pretty cruel, pretty cruel tonight,” but “I feel it feeling no pain.” It may have been God’s move, after all, and it may be incumbent on the victim to make it count:

Oh, I would like to see you one morning,
I would like to talk this over very sincere.
Maybe we could meet in this life or after,
But until that time I’m tabling Him.
He is the one who disabled these veterans
Veterans of pushing through next to Him,
There was only one liar over in the Garden,
I don’t know when we’ll get there again.
But for now this is my answer — oh, I must accept the truth.
But then again, is this answer forever,
Or is this just one simple question, in the quest from my youth?
“Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine.”

This 1979 version of her famous cover of Van Morrison’s “Gloria,” casting doubt on her own blasphemy (and sung while she seemed barely able to stand upright for pain), belongs to a clade of songs Patti Smith has written about her ordeal as a portal to expanded consciousness, of which the most famous is “Dancing Barefoot” from 1979: “I’m dancing barefoot, heading for a spin,/Some strange music draws me in,/Makes me come on like some heroine.” Twenty years later she was still at it, in “Lo and Beholden”:

Dove calls and God he notes it all
You know it’s true,
Here is my seventh veil and last
It will cost you.
The royal word it has been cast
The prophet’s head is all I ask
For beauty and the naked truth
It will cost you.

This sort of amor fati will be foreign to most of us, naturally. It was almost 30 years before I realized that “Dancing Barefoot” was about Smith’s literal fall, as well as her falling in love with Fred Sonic Smith of MC5, to whom she sings “Oh God I fell for you” at the end. When she returned to the stage after her husband’s passing, “Dancing Barefoot” became a direct reference to her brush with death, connected now with her widowhood but addressed directly to Him rather than him:

Oh God, I feel the fever,
Oh God, I feel the pain,
Oh God, forever after,
Oh God, I’m back again,

And oh God, I fell for You!

Though Harvey is not as brash, in keeping with her Englishness, she has some of the same tendency to masochism as a poke in the world’s eye, even a call to arms. The essential difference with Harvey is the plot she pulls out of this inclination. Smith’s is that of the adventurer humbled into giving of herself. Harvey’s story is about an innocent who must make something original of a plot not her own, that of an innocent’s betrayal and humiliation. Instead of the obvious and sentimental options she turns the plot into one of self-discovery, as if Mozart’s Cherubino were to be sent off with the Prussian army for real and find out he was really Figaro, the survivor.

Harvey’s last three solo albums renew her own cycle, following a pattern resembling her first three: Dry, Rid of Me, and To Bring You My Love. Dry and Uh Huh Her pick Harvey’s own pocket, just as critics noticed with the latter album. Were it her first, it would be hailed as the very impressive debut that Dry was, its limitations and its self-referential nature understood as those of a beginning artist at the end of the first round of things she had to say (that relationships are full of angst). Neither is a bad album, but neither gave any clue as to what was to come; Uh Huh Her bears no obvious relationship to White Chalk, a masterpiece almost equivalent to Rid of Me and resembling it closely.

To say this sounds like madness on the face of it, since no two albums sound more different. White Chalk finds Harvey singing in a soprano voice for the first time, to soft accompaniments of harmonium and self-taught piano. Rid of Me remains her most extreme album; Nirvana’s In Utero was influenced by it; it is scored for guttural vocals and bizarre electric chords, a little like Patti Smith’s Radio Ethiopia in its minimalist frenzy but written after, not before, some sort of terrible fall. Indeed it is tempting to imagine Rid of Me as the album Smith might have made in 1977 had she been able to record. The title track begins with a guitar riff that sounds like a heartbeat, weak but stubborn, going on for quite a while before Harvey’s voice begins with a similar sort of murmur. She sounds as if she is talking to herself, assuring herself she is alive, but barely able to find breath as she counts down a revenge fantasy up to and including rape. The rest of the album relies much on the sounds, as well as the thoughts, of a literally damaged person. “Legs” finds this proud woman humbled into a series of groans, shrieks, coughs, six-year-old revenge fantasies, and attempts at the stiff upper lip, alternating with such conviction that one can almost see her lying bloodied on a sidewalk and trying to pick herself up by first painful degrees. The lyrics to the song tell only half the story: each noise she makes in it matters, from the barely controlled but weak sobs at the beginning to the self-irony in the scream at the middle. It takes a few more songs before she can describe what happened, metaphorically if not literally, in “Hook,” which sounds to me like a rape song more gut-wrenching than X’s “Johny Hit and Run Paulene.” (PJ Harvey has sung that, by the way.) As such “Hook” approaches the transcendence of “Dancing Barefoot,” “Lo and Beholden,” and Smith’s rendition of the Rolling Stones’ “Play with Fire” in recent performances, with the difference that “Hook” sounds like what it means. In “Dancing Barefoot” Smith turns a messy trauma into an acceptance of grace and risk, and thus of love for a man; in “Hook” a woman prostrates herself before a supernatural male who goes on to beat the daylights out of her:

And rode in
Fucking mad
With a halo
Of deep black
Till my love
Made me gag
Called him “Daddy…”
Took my hand

Said “I’ll take you Kathleen, to your home and mine”
Good Lord he hooked me, fish hook and line

Now I’m blind
And I’m lame
Left with nothing
But his stain
Daddy your maid
She can’t sing
She can’t feel
She’s no queen

The lyrics are difficult enough, but the melody makes them unbearable, with a chorus that sounds like a person being stomped and has a moment on the musical bridge that leaves little doubt. There is enough of this sort of thing in Harvey’s corpus to make it understandable that some listeners cannot stomach her. Yet feminists have adored Harvey; if her treatment of violence turns people off, they are much likelier to be men. It is her honesty that wins respect, but it is a curious kind of honesty that turns an all-too-possible scenario into a metaphysical archetype. Harvey suggests that by laying her humiliation so bare, she is giving it back to the offender with interest. Nor do we know who or what that offender is. It could be a real-life man; it could be a demon lover; it could be fate or the world; it could be something in her imagination. It could even be God. (On 4-Track Demos, a collection of outtakes from this period, “Hook” is if anything more brutal than on Rid of Me and the battering in the middle is accomplished by an organ.) As a rape song “Hook” is hardest to take as an archetypical scenario, strongly resembling all those English folk songs in which “He’s laid her down upon her back and he’s asked of no one’s leave,” and the maiden’s redress is either to tell off the offender (“Stand off, stand off,/You’re a false deceiver” on Fairport Convention’s Full House) or, exceptionally, to name him in court as in “Royal Forester”:

She went up to the king’s high door, she knocked and she went in:
“One of your chancellors robbed me, and he’s robbed me right and clean.”
“Has he robbed you of your mantle, has he robbed you of your ring?”
“No, he’s robbed me of my maidenhead, and another I cannot find.”

The complement to “Hook” is “Ecstasy,” which has nothing to do with sex and everything to do with the triumph of the will. It may be the only song in Harvey’s corpus that releases her full power. Tempting as it is to ask what would happen when Harvey really gave it back, the answer is perhaps that one would finally see her at her strongest and that would be quite enough. The irony is that the strength is that of a Pyrrhic victory. Sung with confidence on 4-Track Demos, on Rid of Me the vocal part is a tatter, and a groan, that of a person at the end of her rope; but it brings in a guitar setting that suggests the arrival of an army — a power that is hard to associate with Harvey herself, or any one person, yet one which she and no one else on the scene is calling up. She sings that she is “flying, hitting heaven’s high/I’m head on brake too low… I’m telling you look at me.” While it could be a masochistic love fantasy, disagreeably exchanging the physicality of “Hook” for emotional obsession, the album gives other clues. “Hook” was followed by the gender-bending of “Man-Size Quartet” and “20-Foot Queenie” (“I’m coming up man-sized/Skinned alive/I want to fit, I’ve got to get/Man-size,” and “You bend over Casanova/No sweat, I’m clean, nothing can touch me”); the lesbian obsession of “Yuri-G”; and a reprise of “Man-Size,” followed by misery on “Dry” (“I caught it in the face/Coming round again”) as the first one recouped bitterly from “Hook.” “Ecstasy” seems to me to continue Harvey’s androgynous male identification. The ecstasy is that of the warrior who has realized his or her identity, at dreadful cost. The question asked by the guitar is if the warrior can be a warrior without a hundred bullies behind her as the real source of strength; or if she is flying on her own; or if both and more are true. Before they can be answered, the questions are lost beneath the magnificence and malevolence of the flight, as if turning into a mythical beast, or a holy warrior, is the best revenge. (In the film of The Man Who Would Be King, “The Minstrel Boy” is reworked as “The Son of God to the war is gone.”) It is an awesome track, literally, but it inspires the feeling Benjamin Britten had about the music of child gamelan players in Bali: that perhaps “it is not good that such things should be.”

Musically White Chalk is the opposite of Rid of Me. As on Rid of Me and all her other albums, one can assume that Harvey has not experienced everything she sings about on White Chalk, though the title song references her native Dorset and can be assumed to be first-person Polly Harvey:

White chalk south against time
White chalk cutting down the sea at Lyme.
I walk the valleys by the Cerne,
Down a path cut 1500 years ago,
And I know these chalk hills will rot my bones.

The intimacy of this song speaks to a talent of Harvey’s that cannot be begged or bought. She is one of those artists who can seem to be singing just for the listener. There is no way she can know how much a few particular songs have moved me, including much of White Chalk, which at first frightened me enough that I had to be careful about playing it; not because it is an eerie album, though it is, but because the third wall often seemed to break down. “The Piano” can be heard many ways, for instance: it sounds like a song about domestic violence; it also might be about a ghost; it might also be a metaphor for the piano itself.

Hit her with a hammer
Teeth smashed in
Red tongues twitching
Look inside her skeleton

My fingers sting
Where I feel your fingers have been
Ghostly fingers
Moving my limbs
Oh God I miss you…

Daddy’s in the corner rattling his keys
Mommy’s in the doorway trying to leave
Nobody’s listening, nobody’s listening
Oh God I miss you…

Whatever the true origin of White Chalk for Polly Harvey, it comes from a source of personal loss, going beyond grief into damage. Harvey herself does not suffer on each and every song and record — at least, the shadings of suffering that she explores differ far too much for her ever to be self-pitying, let alone confessional — but on these two albums she presents a persona that is piecing itself back together as it sings. The two are not identical in grief any more than they are in music. Rid of Me is an album of the first year, as it were, and White Chalk perhaps of the second or third. It has naked moments of pain (“Broken Harp,” “Dear Darkness”), but its clinical fineness of detail could only be mustered at a point when survival begins to be assured. Most comfortingly, Harvey’s stoicism here is intact, avoiding real disclosure in favor of pastiches of anger and grief that might always just possibly shade into truth, and are unforgettable when they do; the quality of pastiche retains Harvey’s English reserve at its most heartfelt.

PJ Harvey has much in common with Richard Thompson, whose greatness manifested itself after a severe physical and psychological trauma. She could not have less in common stylistically with Sandy Denny, and yet she recalls Thompson’s intimate musical partner in one key respect other than their Englishness: one never quite believes Harvey is telling us about something that really happened to her, or that she isn’t. This way, scenarios that partake of fantasy, soap opera, and low comedy retain at once a Shakespearean gravitas and the sense that we are looking into the depths of Harvey’s heart. On A Woman a Man Walked By, the second of two collaborations with John Parish and the last album before Let England Shake, one must be satisfied with good fragments, which on a solo Harvey record might always be incorporated into the one grand, advancing and retreating disclosure of the artist’s being and thus catch fire on their own. The title song carries conviction, not only because the lyrics are memorable, but because Harvey’s contempt for someone less brave rings true. Funny though it is, this is one place where the Harvey of “Ecstasy” may reappear, and once again the sight is not quite pretty:

I once knew a woman man
A courageous friend I thought
It turned out so wrong was I
When we were up against the wall
He had chicken liver balls
He had chicken liver spleen
He had chicken liver heart
Made of chicken liver parts.
Lily livered little parts, lily livered little parts!

Prematurely going bald, any passion long gone cold
Still I wanted to explore the damp alleyways of his soul
All the times I tried to help, he’d spit in my face and laugh,
That woman man, I want his fucking ass!
Hermaphrodite, he’s looking likely,
Cramped in a taxi, I see you too clearly,
Sucking on a little pea, sucking on a little pea
My my, you little toy — you’re just a mama’s boy
Where’s your liver where’s your heart
What’s with all your woman parts
Now it’s my turn to laugh
I’ll stick it up your fucking ass!

And so at last to Let England Shake, which I have listened to perhaps fifty times by now and have come to understand as more than a pastiche. I like and respect it enough to wonder if one day I will be embarrassed for having responded to it initially as a pastiche and worse, as a received and unearned antiwar statement of the kind so available to young poets and singer-songwriters, albeit with lovely tunes. After a while I warmed to its peculiar levity, somewhat like that of wartime poet Stevie Smith in this poem:

It was my bridal night I remember,
An old man of seventy-three
I lay with my young bride in my arms,
A girl with t.b.
It was wartime, and overhead
The Germans were making a particularly heavy raid on Hampstead.
What rendered the confusion worse, perversely
Our bombers had chosen that moment to set out for Germany.
Harry, do they ever collide?
I do not think it has ever happened,
Oh my bride, my bride.

Nothing on Let England Shake is on that level of wit, but it is possible that “I Remember” was not even meant to be witty, and “The Glorious Land,” for instance, creates a similar effect of tossing off its references in such a cavalier fashion that listeners cannot possibly be manipulated by it, whatever else they may be. American-style protest art manipulates or else “witnesses”; English war stories go through the motions.

And how is our glorious country plowed?
Not by iron plows.
Our land is plowed by tanks and feet.

And what is the glorious fruit of our land?
The fruit is deformed children.
The fruit is orphaned children.

To an American it sounds much too fatalistic for a protest song, but English war protestors are in a difficult position today. The English public is not comfortable with the servile role the nation has appeared to occupy in relation to America’s wars, but an uncomplicated pacifist identity has never been as easy for the English as for Americans, or for those in other violent societies such as Ireland (Sinéad O’Connor, Bono). The “protest” elements of “The Glorious Land” and “The Words that Maketh Murder” may be too twenty-first century English to register entirely on American ears. Harvey hits the nerve at which England must be aware of the factitiousness of its self-understanding as a pacifist nation — small, vulnerable, much-battered in living memory — and the ease with which these attributes inspire belligerence rather than any hatred of violence. It’s a masterstroke on her part to quote from a Russian ballad in “The Glorious Land.” Outwardly few nations look more different than Russia and England, rather as few records could seem more different than Rid of Me and White Chalk, but they have one thing in common: a victim complex when it comes to war, resting alongside a long history of bloodlust. And the options left each for emotional expression in the present are often restricted to a generalized concern with suffering, sympathetic in theory while in practice it can be tedious, as on the less-inspired episodes of Spooks.

But apart from the chords it strikes, particularly with English listeners, Let England Shake is the companion to To Bring You My Love, likewise representing a milestone in recovery from some kind of crisis. As with most recoveries, it’s artificial on the surface. The artificiality takes some getting used to, suggesting what my mother (born 1938 in Germany) describes with contempt as “war-as-scenery,” like the Biblical angst-as-scenery in which To Bring You My Love is drenched. What redeemed that album and made it striking is what redeems Let England Shake and makes it just possibly revolutionary. It is much more about the music than the words, the persona, even the singing, though it’s fine that all of these are accomplished and none are incidental. Once one begins to hear Harvey’s melodies as the complex living organisms they are, the suggestion of the received — that Harvey may have picked history’s pocket, or her own — is not relativized so much as it is made dynamic. The beautiful melodies of To Bring You My Love reworked the atonal Rid of Me into process as well as anguish, since the next album had found Harvey in such a different place; likewise Let England Shake could be shtick on its own but saves White Chalk from becoming shtick on one repetition, and so on. The elements of the received provide just enough distance to allow us to enjoy the music as music, and to realize that the whole point of these songs about war (as about rape and madness and religion) is what happens when we begin singing along.

So this record has repaid repeated listenings. That began when I decided that “In the Dark Places” is possibly her finest song ever, going directly where “Hook” and “Ecstasy” seemed to go while they left us teased. It too is based on a Russian song, creating a welcome change from the easily accessed British war references. This sort of indirection can be splendidly practical, as in much of Carolyn Forché’s poetry: the distance created by universalism allowing a more personal, earned way back into the historical particulars, with room for the reader or listener to add his or her own interpretations rather than being hectored. It can also lead straight back into the war-is-hell girl-with-guitar clichés that Harvey courts and flouts at the same time. “In the Dark Places” blows those clichés out of the water when a delicate, familiarly lamenting lyric gives way to a whisper of universal wisdom, pleading for what the victim of violence most needs, and then mows all the soldiers down in a way that cancels the lament. A record that threatens always to say too much turns finally on something that sounds as if it has been said before, but usually hasn’t been and isn’t. Its simplicity would be portentous in any other context but that in which it appears, bracketing the terrible and unfussy “So our young men/Hid with guns” bridge:

And not one man has
And not one woman has
Revealed the secrets
Of this world

It’s true for the dead of Stalingrad and Gallipoli, but also for Jean Stafford in “The Interior Castle,” for Patti Smith in 1977, for Dick Francis’ very English protagonists. In Isabel Colegate’s Orlando King, a twentieth-century retelling of Oedipus Rex, the title character reflects after being seriously injured in a fire: “Knowing what he suddenly did know about flesh and blood was not frightening although it was deeply serious.” That the truth of mayhem is serious in a private way is something nearly everyone uses too many words to say. By putting it in sixteen, Harvey speaks “no more than grace allowed/And no less than truth,” in the words of Stevie Smith, including that it is a truth that one does not need to have been to a battlefield to know.

She may or may not know what this is like, but Harvey has the stuff to communicate it honestly all the same, and having done that the rest of the album falls into place. Two much-admired tracks, “The Words that Maketh Murder” and “All and Everyone”, still seem to me to be trying too hard even though they are technically fine. But the other songs are all sui generis in a way that transcends protest, Gothicism, or any other externally applied labels that categorize lived engagement out of existence. That Harvey’s engagement is deeply private and her social conscience rests upon her talent for melody — the tune sticks itself in one’s mind and the words stick themselves to the tune, with personal associations soon following for the listener — is neither privatistic nor mystic, though it partakes of both elements. Let England Shake is most effective when it resembles a movie in which one overhears a woman singing to herself. “The Last Living Rose” and “On Battleship Hill” are thus far more political than “The Words that Maketh Murder.” The revulsion from violence in the latter is easily accessible to anyone with a television set, but “The Last Living Rose” carries a burden of idiosyncratic Englishness that will make anyone feel more strongly about any threats to it, together with the senses in which England deserves a good thrashing:

Goddamn’ Europeans!
Take me back to beautiful England
And the grey damp filthiness of ages
And battered books, and fog rolling down behind the mountains…
Let me walk through the stinking alleys
To the music of drunken beatings,
Past the Thames river, glistening like gold hastily sold
For nothing.

“On Battleship Hill” brings us closer to the pity of violence than the handsomely mounted, but predictable Gallipoli song, “All and Everyone.” In a land too saturated with history always to see the present, “On Battleship Hill” laments the passage, with time, of any trace of history, accessing the particular through the universal of “Cruel nature/Cruel, cruel nature.” Harvey says as much in an interview:

I was thinking about the cycle of conflict that’s ongoing, always will be, always has been, and long after we’re come and gone, it’s just going to continue, so—this nature of history repeating itself—so I wanted to look at conflict across many eras…and I think one thing that does connect is nature, the land, what we do to the land, the way it keeps going after we’re buried in it, you know, and so that was a focus…war’s just going to continue and the continuum is the land…but also great beauty there, as something of hope…I didn’t want to lose sight of that. (Interview available at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jSOMnKuYRy0&feature=fvwrel.)

This approach risks turning war into a trope, just another force of nature; on the other hand, it is honest. And anyone can identify with it. Like many people for whom particular places have inescapable associations, Harvey is sure that “On Battleship Hill, eighty years later,/A hateful feeling still lingers,” but observing that there is no evidence of this beyond what she wishes to see, she allows that “cruel nature has won again” and decides that this is what she hears “carried on the wind.” We are left to decide whether war is the same as “cruel nature” or not. But “cruel nature” exists; for some it will not be on Battleship Hill but closer to home that “a hateful feeling still lingers” because “cruel nature has won again.” Harvey’s answer to the riddle is sane: it is madness to project human pain onto parts of nature that saw it, when each and every inch of the world has seen it; yet knowing this, and knowing that nature will truly win in the end when no one is left to remember one’s grievance, would one want to be without that grievance, now? There is comfort in this; and yet like a true Englishwoman, Harvey recognizes the catch, as in Edith Sitwell’s observation that “Hell is just as properly proper/As Greenwich, or Bath, or Joppa.”

To communicate these things, Harvey’s style has changed, but remains very much hers. Those who have criticized her new debts to folk-pop and classical music ignore the elements of both her work has always possessed: much on To Bring You My Love recalls Steeleye Span, and her ugliest music on Rid of Me suggests that the basis of her guitar style is classical. In the same spirit, those who criticize the artificiality of the war-consciousness on Let England Shake should remember that her consciousness has always been expressed through a maze of artificial personae and been separated from her attitudinizing only with difficulty. Hers is the matter of Britain: less the question of who a person is when the mask is removed, than which mask pulls off which part of a person with it. The difference between Harvey and cookie-cutter English war poets is that she is aware of it in assuming this mask among others. Having realized this, “All and Everyone” has recently begun to grow on me, and “The Words that Maketh Murder” may not be far behind.

If she does not convince us that she knows war by anything but second- and third-hand, Harvey convinces that she is herself on this album and if she were forced to know “the secrets of this world” of violence, her response would implicate everything we’ve seen of her thus far. Her self is elusive, but its awareness of its own fragility is not. We know just enough about it to know what would be lost with it if the fragility of all life exacted too much of a price. “Ecstasy” suggests that it is complicated, and perhaps not always sympathetic, but perhaps also something better than sympathetic. Recalling “Ecstasy,” she points to what may be a key in the title of a B-side associated with the new album, and as good as most things on it: “The Big Guns Call Me Back Again.”

PJ Harvey is many, if not always an army as in “Ecstasy”; she may be too many for some, and she is not to be taken lightly; by her enemies no more than by her friends, I should think. One may not wish to meet all of her on a dark night. Fortunately, we are seldom all of who we are at once, and PJ Harvey knows the wisdom of embracing this fact. She remains adept at hiding in plain sight. It’s an English thing to do.

A Life in Secrets: Vera Atkins and the Lost Agents of SOE – review

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Dec 152011

A Life in Secrets: Vera Atkins and the Lost Agents of SOE
By Sarah Helm, 2005
Reviewed by Tanya B. Avakian

A Life in SecretsWomen who assume the power of life and death over others are often demonized. Failing that, they may be sentimentalized, as has happened in film and print to the thirteen female agents who were sent to their deaths in Nazi-occupied France by a branch of English intelligence, the Special Operations Executive (SOE). SOE’s goal was to subvert Nazi operations in Europe by means of sabotage and aid to the local resistance, employing men and women who could impersonate civilians and were usually sent by parachute drop. Its most famous agents were sent to France. Some of them were extremely useful to the Allies in fighting the Germans. Forest Yeo-Thomas, in particular, was potentially the equal of his friend Jean Moulin in uniting the French resistance movements, had he not been captured and sent to Buchenwald near the end of the war. Yeo-Thomas is one possible model for Bigwig in Watership Down: his code name was “White Rabbit.” He worked for the independent Gaullist (“RF) section of SOE. The main “F Section,” as it was known, was headed by Maurice Buckmaster, a naïve-seeming eccentric who came in for considerable criticism during and after the war for his decision to send women to France. The rumors of F Section incompetency and callousness toward the agents increased with their fame. Violette Szabó, a Vivien Leigh lookalike and by common consent the most romantic figure among the women agents, was portrayed in film-star terms by Virginia McKenna in the film that cemented the reputation of SOE’s women fighters, Carve Her Name with Pride.

The agents’ control is believed by many to have been the original for Miss Moneypenny in Ian Fleming’s James Bond books. She was Vera Atkins, an elegant blonde, with that sort of accent — “more British than the British” — that is guaranteed to rub true members of the ruling class the wrong way. In the beginning, SOE recruited specifically from the upper crust, and some public-school mythology has naturally accrued to the real-life heroism of the agents. This is especially so regarding the image of the women. The female agents who were sent to France were nearly all very young; many were attractive — several positively glamorous, like Violette Szabó — and, in the words of Buckmaster, they were “touchingly keen.” Vera Atkins was older, reserved, and a lifelong spinster. Thus the lost agents are remembered in conventionally feminine terms, with the allure and the measure of innocent, bloodless heroism allowed to some doomed women. Vera Atkins, on the other hand, tends to be remembered in sinister terms, in the absence of tangible evidence that her actions were suspect. The aura derives from her personality alone.

For most people this can be said quite literally: nobody knew anything about her. Upon learning that she was born Vera Rosenberg in Crasna, Romania, the most common reaction for her acquaintances was disbelief tinged with a kind of relish. The brother of one of the murdered agents was amused, in the midst of a conversation as to whether his sister had indeed been reduced to a “bloody mess” at Dachau, to learn that Atkins had this in common with Leslie Howard. Atkins’ origins were not secret but not at all publicized. Her Jewishness and foreignness satisfied a deep-seated desire among those who knew her to cut Atkins down to size. This was an impulse shared even by Charlotte Gray writer Sebastian Faulks, who has his Vera figure dye the hair on his heroine’s head while forgetting her pubic hair. It’s safe to say that the real Vera would not make this mistake.

It’s one of those touchstone moments of misapprehension that do much to tell us who the real person was: in this case, a woman so little sentimental that it was precisely her remembering such details in the face of death that many people couldn’t forgive her. She is now the subject of two biographies, one published in  2006 and one in 2005, to some acclaim, by journalist Sarah Helm. Helm’s book, A Life in Secrets: Vera Atkins and the Lost Agents of SOE, is a brilliant and unnerving piece of investigation, though not without flaws. It has been praised by none less than M.R.D. Foot, the doyen of SOE historians, and it is extraordinary in the amount of personal detail Helm has uncovered about this most secretive of women. Though some of the revelations about Atkins’ private life are striking, Helm is even bolder in unearthing a fetid aura of rumor that surrounded her and dictated much of what is still believed about SOE. Ian Fleming’s semi-comical character of Moneypenny bears little relationship to the real-life mythmaking: quite a number of witnesses testify that Atkins exuded menace. More than a few are frightened of her now, several years after her death and seventy years after the war. The menace exists in an abeyance that cries out for logical explanations. For some of Atkins’ contemporaries, that is the point: she did nothing as agent after agent, including most of the lost women, was fed into the black hole of the Prosper network, the largest SOE group in France, which collapsed under its own weight in 1943, and whose penetration was obvious to all except Buckmaster for almost a year. One person believes Atkins must have been a Soviet double agent, another that she really worked for the Nazis.

What startles the reader is how many people believed these far-fetched theories and how many of them in turn were people who should have known better. As a feminist, one is driven to ask what it was about Atkins that led her to be remembered in such malevolent terms. There were all kinds of rumors about SOE, but they did not adhere in the same way to its men — least of all to Buckmaster, perhaps the most culpable in the Prosper disaster, who’s remembered as a dear doddering daddy. In contrast to Atkins, something was known about the male principals. Buckmaster especially was an emotional man, given to tears when pressed about SOE’s mistakes later in his life. Helm’s impressionistic portrait of Atkins suggests strongly that this was just it: Atkins did not leave evidence of how she herself felt about things, which is considered to be of such importance in analyzing a woman’s character. Atkins may have been a megalomaniac of sorts, or she may have been a shrewd and realistic woman who didn’t care much for others’ opinions of painful controversy, but in any case she knew what most people do not: how to hide her relationship with herself. It’s this that one most needs in order to analyze motive. Lacking it, Helm tries to analyze Atkins by looking at or speculating about her deeds, themselves hard enough to pin down.

As a result, this is a book in which theory is not easy to separate from implication. Helm goes over the most significant conspiracy theories regarding SOE and tests them out against the fate of the women agents. Some of this ground has been covered before. It is a flaw in Helm’s book that she does not do more to credit Elizabeth Nicholas in particular. Nicholas’ book, Death Be Not Proud, is more amateurish in tone, but quite similar to Helm’s in many respects. The chief difference between Nicholas’ book and Helm’s is that Nicholas, who was personally acquainted with one of the agents and grew close to several of their families, was convinced that there had been double dealing. Specifically, she believed that the reason the collapse of the Prosper network led to the death of ten out of the thirteen female casualties was that they were somehow deliberately sacrificed in a counter-game, to mislead the Nazis as to British awareness of the tragedy. Helm is vigorous in blaming the worst of the Prosper disaster on Buckmaster, who refused to believe in it for a year and continued sending agents to join Prosper and its tributaries even after he heard a German accent pretending to speak in the voice of one of the male agents, over a captured radio. (Prosper himself, in civilian life a half-English, half-French barrister named Francis Suttill, would be suspected of making a pact with the Germans in the belief that his agents would be saved; he and many others did not survive the war.) But she does not go further than accusing Buckmaster of extraordinary obtuseness and Atkins of slavishness before his authority. Nicholas believed that women were used deliberately as decoy sacrifices: the belief in women’s lesser capacities would make their deaths less suspicious. Nicholas went out of her way to credit Atkins, pointing out the efforts she went to in tracing the lost agents. It is thus uncertain how much she believed, as Helm does, that Atkins was supine before Buckmaster or otherwise implicated, though Helm names Nicholas as one of Atkins’ exposers. (Nicholas’ contemporary and complementary writer, Jean Overton Fuller, would speak of Nicholas as if she were as suspicious as Fuller; but this was in the 1980s, after Nicholas’ death and many complex changes of position and suspicion on Fuller’s own part. One of the great frustrations in researching this episode of history is that it can be difficult to sort out who thought what about whom among researchers, as among principals, well after the fact — never mind at the time.)

Given the widely disseminated conviction that there must have been something fishy about Vera Atkins, Sarah Helm is perhaps under some pressure to deliver the goods. She milks Atkins’ hidden origins for drama, and argues that Atkins’ Jewishness at once provided the motivation for her fierceness in fighting the Nazis and for her timidity in opposing anything Buckmaster did or didn’t do. Thus Atkins’ Jewishness becomes a sign that she was on nobody’s side, somewhat in keeping with Kissinger-like Realpolitik — a tempting conclusion for people on various sides of the political spectrum, and a rich source of reflections on the price of survival.

The difficulty is that not all of it is necessarily warranted. Allied Jewish agents were valued, as the only nationality whose anti-Fascism could be guaranteed beyond a doubt. A number of SOE’s agents were Jewish, including Brian Stonehouse, who survived four concentration camps and drew a sketch of two women agents killed at Natzweiler, one of whom Atkins may have confused with Noor Inayat Khan. (This was Sonia Olschanezky, herself Jewish. Olschanezky bore a striking resemblance to Noor, but the sketch reproduced in Helm’s book and identified as Olschanezky is of Andrée Borrel, Prosper’s chief lieutenant. Stonehouse identified the woman in the sketch separately from a woman resembling Olschanezky.) SOE’s chief coder was a Jew, Leo Marks. Atkins’ enemy nationality would, to be sure, have posed a more serious problem; it was in defiance of the regulations. But it was not entirely unknown, and in many clandestine organizations, Jews from enemy nationalities were not considered as being German or Romanian rather than Jewish. If it does not necessarily follow that Atkins’ Romanian birth certificate would have spelled the end of her SOE career, how much less probable is it that her Jewishness represented such an insurmountable obstacle? It’s far more likely that Helm’s Atkins believed it might, in the face of all the evidence, because she wanted more than to stay in SOE: she would not have wanted to be a target for the kind of casual anti-Semitism remembered in Marks’ memoir, not after she had suffered the humiliation of losing the happy butterfly life she enjoyed as a pigtailed girl in Bukovina. Above all else, as Helm’s interviewees see Atkins, she wanted to be English.

If this is true, the mystery of Atkins’ self-image might be considerably elucidated by the affair she had with Richard Ketton-Cremer, a member of the Norfolk landed gentry, marriage to whom would have sealed her Britishness. Atkins did not marry Ketton-Cremer, but it’s possible that her acquaintance with him opened her eyes to possibilities that she could never again risk losing. And tantalizing indeed is the possibility that Atkins failed to confront Buckmaster, not for fear of being labeled an enemy alien, but for fear of losing entry to that club. Her personality was at once grand and guarded, and may have required the buttressing of social status for her to function. She somewhat resembles Alma Rosé, the Viennese musician who led an orchestra of female prisoners in Birkenau by styling herself as a combination of Toscanini and the headmistress in an English boarding school, to which one survivor compared her. This incongruity is played for all it is worth by Fania Fénelon in her eyewitness account, Playing for Time, in which she ridicules Rosé much as James Watson did a third tough Jewish lady, Rosalind Franklin, in The Double Helix. Fania Fénelon described Rosé as a megalomaniac, so insulated from the reality of the camp by her own delusions of grandeur that she was proud to play for Himmler (likely a fabrication on Fénelon’s part). A less hostile biography of Rosé presents perhaps an even more disturbing picture, of a truly brave woman whose heroism in saving lives (nearly all orchestra members survived, though Rosé did not) was inseparable from her bizarre ambitions for “her” girls: she planned, after the war, to lead the Birkenau orchestra on a world tour.

Vera Atkins was every bit as proprietary of her agents as Rosé of her musicians, as given to peacocking, as impassive before their mortality, and just as devoted. It is no wonder that so many suspected ulterior motives; in Atkins’ case, political machinations of the most Bondian kind. Atkins’ Jewishness is indeed of relevance here because it makes Nazism impossible and Stalinism unlikely, but a few of the people to whom Helm indicates as much react with seeming disappointment. She was the sort of person of whom it is said “I’m glad she’s on our side.” In Atkins’ case as in Rosé’s, the banality of good comes uncomfortably close to that of evil, and vice versa.

Two implications thus run parallel: that with so much smoke, there had to be fire, if only of a banal sort; and yet that Atkins was playing her own game, aware of Buckmaster’s limitations, unwilling to challenge him, but prepared to push her own anti-Nazi agenda through between the cracks. Helm runs into some trouble when her parallel implications contradict each other. Her excuse for Atkins’ behavior resembles nothing so much as the excuses many Vichy loyalists made for Philippe Pétain: that he did not know what was going on, or else that he was playing the Nazis for fools while scheming to liberate France. If she was seduced by ego, Atkins may or may not have known what was going on, assuming for now that it was restricted to incompetence on the part of Buckmaster. (There are other theories, focused on the tolerance shown toward a known double agent in Prosper: SOE historian Jean Overton Fuller, many French people, and a pack of conspiracy theorists each believe he was protected by the British for their own ends, though Fuller suspects further incompetence and the French and other conspiracy theorists imagine a grand plan to deceive the Germans.) It should also be pointed out that it is very unlikely Atkins would have been able to do anything about Buckmaster’s failures had she seen them clearly. That was not her job; to behave otherwise might well have indicated that Atkins had delusions about her own power. The final impression left by the book, apart from the mill of Gothic rumor it exposes, is that Vera Atkins may have been much as she presented herself. She did her job; it was tough; she did it well. If she were a man, that might be enough to make it unnecessary to defend him against baleful musings.

Helm gives full credit to Atkins for her extraordinary odyssey into postwar Germany, single-handedly tracing the fates of the thirteen women who did not return from the camps (together with over a hundred men). Yet the family members who owed it to Atkins that they knew anything about their daughters, sisters, wives and mothers all had uniformly negative impressions of her; they speak bitterly of her detachment in general and her coldness to them in particular. It remains possible that it was Atkins’ unsentimentality that most inspired paranoia. Tania Szabó and Vilayat Inayat Khan may have expected things of Atkins that they would never have dreamed of asking the tearful Buckmaster to provide: emotional involvement, above all.

Tania and Vilayat were the daughter and the brother respectively of two of the most celebrated agents. Helm draws many implications from Atkins’ relationship to Noor Inayat Khan, who was sufficiently her opposite to represent a fine dramatic foil. The unworldly Sufi girl, who was the only woman of color to die on an SOE mission, is often cited as the best example of the agency’s savagery in sending women to work in the field: she was slight and appeared defenseless. Helm uncovers evidence that she was tortured to death, which has, sadly, been verified since by release of Noor’s SOE file. But there is abundant evidence that Noor was an outstanding agent in most ways once she was in the field. Almost alone, she survived the fall of Prosper and kept herself alive for several months in the most dangerous job, that of radio operator. When she was betrayed, it was by a woman who was jealous of a male agent’s interest in her. Her own mistakes compounded the tragedy but did not cause it. She fought so fiercely when arrested and tried so hard to escape prison that she was eventually kept in chains.

The sentimentalization of the women agents has, itself, played into a subtle politics of gender that has done as much as anything else to gloss over SOE’s blunders. If women were sacrificed, the reasoning goes, the agency might be guilty of ruthlessness in sending them but not of incompetence in setting them up to be captured, when they could not be expected to survive long. The latter charge has been raised against the handling of the male agents, with some fairness: Prosper himself was encouraged to raise a huge army of resistors and then told to remain under cover for almost a year, guaranteeing that thousands would fall with him when the network was blown, and probably contributing to his paranoia about those in charge. (In France, many still believe that the “Prosper” network was given up as an act of disinformation about the true date of the Allied invasion.) The truth is that several of the dead women were brilliant Resistance fighters long before they joined SOE. Andrée Borrel and Madeleine Damerment, both in their twenties, survived for years in occupied France (the average life of an amateur résistant was three months), helping Allied airmen into Spain. M.R.D. Foot makes the same point in observing that SOE’s women agents did not expect special treatment and went into the field as prepared for death as any male agent. Nor does the legendary status of SOE’s female sacrifices do justice to the SOE women who survived and did magnificent work: Pearl Witherington, Lise de Baissac, Nancy Wake, Yvonne Cormeau, Anne-Marie Walters, Eileen Nearne, her sister Jacqueline Nearne, Virginia Hall, Yvonne Baseden, and many others. Of the agents who survived the war, one of the best known is Countess Krystyna Skarbek (“Christine Granville”), whose fame rests largely on her having been stabbed to death after the war by a jealous lover. (Her other claim to popular fame is that she may have been a model for Fleming’s Vesper Lynd.)

Interestingly, Yvonne Baseden, an agent who survived arrest and incarceration in Ravensbrück concentration camp, speaks with insight of Vera Atkins’ mistrust of her. “I think she was trying to put us at ease by looking herself at ease, as if it was something which a lot of people were doing and that it was nothing out of the ordinary… She had reason to be quite suspicious of me… I think she must have thought — you know — why had I been released? What had I done to be released and not the others?”

Baseden did not love Atkins, but she understood her. It leaves us wondering whether the other women agents might also have done. When women have the power of life and death, especially over other women, judgments of their ethics often hinge upon perceptions based on fine emotional distinctions and interpretations of correct behavior. Fania Fénelon gagged upon the thought that Alma Rosé could be proud of her orchestra while her people burned; the families of Vera’s agents noticed that she seemed “very pleased with herself.” At the Ravensbrück trial, Atkins sent postcards to her mother that might as well have been sent from some little spa on the Baltic coast. She might have been sociopathic in her calm; or else, she might have attended the trial and written the postcards on the same days in the awareness that both were her duty.

But she remains a disturbing figure. Helm’s research suggests that she could resemble a brilliant child, a prodigy, with a prodigy’s isolation and devotion to her elders’ precedent. After the work she did to uncover the agents’ fates, it is remarkable that so many of their families waited years to learn the most elementary details; the mother of one, Diana Rowden, did not know that her daughter had received the Croix de Guerre until Elizabeth Nicholas found out in the 1950s. One can speculate that Atkins was too enamored of her role as keeper of secrets to stop playing the game; another, somewhat kinder interpretation is that Atkins was inclined to solace herself by maintaining the sense that the buck stopped with her, just so long as nobody knew the details. In any event, the slipshod way in which the details crept out has provided fodder for conspiracy theories that may never end.

In classic gendered fashion, there is the same degree of unsubstantiated speculation regarding Atkins’ sexuality: some believe she was a lesbian, others that she must have been a man-trap. Neither is impossible; neither is substantiated. When asked to explain why, witnesses cannot allude to more evidence than a feeling she gave them. The imaginative Jean Overton Fuller remembers Atkins in a gauzy black top, obviously meant to seduce her. (It is possible that Atkins was in love with Violette Szabó, whom she insisted on seeing off personally.) No witnesses admit to being drawn to Atkins that way themselves, but it is intriguing to find how often it is said that she was “almost beautiful.” “Beautiful” is a designation of approval when applied to a woman, not idealizing her appearance so much as it simultaneously recognizes power and simplifies it into innocuousness. By saying that Vera Atkins was “almost beautiful,” witnesses appear to be wrestling with their incongruous perceptions — of an extraordinary woman, a noble woman in so many ways, who also scared the hell out of them.

Perhaps that is also why Helm’s biography goes soft in certain places, seeking emotional connections Atkins would have disdained; and perhaps that is why Helm returns instinctively to the spy story’s lowest common denominator of intrigue, the best self-justification we all have for meddling and snooping — next to the belief that the subject would have wanted it that way, which also comes up. Helm’s sleuthing on the likelihood that Atkins passed money to Nazi officials to save her Dutch relatives (one plausible reason for Atkins’ deference to Buckmaster) is dramatic, but spread a little too thin. Inevitably, these fillips of suspense also remind us of the journalist’s obligation to pry into other people’s soft spots, and the results can be uncomfortable. Helm interviews Yvonne Baseden and spots a purple balloon on the ceiling, reading “Happy Eightieth Birthday,” while Baseden’s eyes fill with tears as she recalls Ravensbrück. At the annual memorial to the SOE members lost in France, Helm observes a disturbed woman, “still mourning her fiancé, who was killed while serving with SOE in France, but she had never been told quite how he was killed or why. I wondered whether the woman in black had grabbed Vera’s arm and how Vera had responded.”

Up to a point these glimpses of SOE life behind the scenes are important even as they can make us cringe. It’s needed in the wake of the fictional representations of SOE, beginning with the sanitized biographies and films and continuing with Sebastian Faulks’ meretricious bestseller, Charlotte Gray. In writing on Quentin Bell’s biography of his aunt Virginia Woolf, Cynthia Ozick observed that what an insider can convey most valuably is “the smell of a house,” and this Helm does even as an outsider. It is instructive to observe how much of this SOE “smell” will be familiar to ordinary women. As indicated, the strength of Helm’s biography over an official version will probably lie in its attempt to do justice to the complexity of emotions surrounding Atkins and its revelations about the quality of these emotions. Male heroes are idealized after their death, but they also tend to disappear without clear emotional traces; their survivors resent their absence above all, the lacuna in a family left behind by means valorized in society. Prosper’s children remember growing up without their father in more ways than one: his wife erased all traces of him from their lives. This may have been the way Atkins wished to vanish from public sight. Helm begins to restore an outline, not of Atkins’ inner life, but of the effect she had on others. As she does so, she begins to recreate Atkins as a gendered figure. The resentment attaching to the memories of women heroes are likelier to concern lies, evasions, and compromises: in fine, the awareness we’re left with of the disconnect between real and official narratives of power and survival. They resemble the mixed emotions we have had about our mothers, the life-and-death choices they made when and as our fathers, their consciences protected by the demands of the masculine role, could not or did not.

Feminist commentators have tended to view all forms of militarism as a grafting of masculine values onto women’s lives. By contrast, other feminists such as Vera Laska, Margaret Collins Weitz, and Claudia Koontz have observed women adapting traditionally female modes of behavior to warfare on opposing sides of conflicts in such a manner as to make it less of a given that militarism and women’s lives are natural enemies. The significance of Atkins’ gender in her work was not that she was less female for engaging in militaristic activity but that she did not have the professional training associated with males in positions of equivalent responsibility. Atkins was an amateur, if a very gifted one, and she was capable of making mistakes. This may actually place her closer to the traditional role of the mother. Feminists who draw ethical prescriptions from the experience of mother stress that maternalism is by definition an improvisational ethic. The ethics of secret-keeping have also been traditionally female and improvisational. Atkins’ life drives us to ask whether a female “ethic of care” is not also, when necessary, an ethic of deception, secrecy, militarism, and downright ruthlessness, not to mention vanity and self-delusion. This may go a long way toward rescuing the figure of the mother from sentimentalization, but it raises further thorny questions for feminists. A mother is, first and foremost, a woman with power. Atkins may have been little maternal in appearance, yet she did function as a mother toward the agents in the simplest sense: of wielding the power of life and death and assuming it as her natural right. She thus removed the mental escape route most of us cherish, of imagining civilian life as the world of mothers and not fathers, demarcated from war and its horrors by the gender line. Her ambiguity as one of the “good guys” reminds us that women’s power has been trivialized in part because power of any kind has potential for destructiveness. Thus our desire to view maternalism and militarism as opposites can only be frustrated if we admit maternalism its full power. It may be significant that the harshest judgments of Atkins, including Helm’s, have come from women; several of the men she encountered remembered her as notably kind, even maternal.

Like the rest of us, Helm loves and hates her mother figure, and fills in the gaps of her story imaginatively with the intention at once of undermining and forgiving her; like the rest of us, she has some telling insights and others in which Atkins is unrecognizable, sometimes both at once. It is typically hard for her to accept that Atkins, as a consummate secret agent, had agency: that she made her decisions as an independent being, not as a victim of history. By intervals she assigns too little responsibility to Atkins, and then again too much. Copying Tania Szabó, Vilayat Inayat Khan, and many others, she wants approval and does introspective calisthenics on realizing she will not get it. She falls prey to the ultimate daughterly illusion by suggesting that Atkins wanted her personal story told. The story begins when Helm seeks out Atkins’ niece and sister-in-law in Cornwall, searching through the bland press clippings that constitute Vera’s personal files, and discovering uncensored oddments that she interprets as signposts which Atkins left to point the way for a future biographer. Most of them have to do with the guilt that Helm assumes Atkins felt over the deaths of Noor Inayat Khan and the others.

There is evidence that Atkins was not invulnerable. After her return from Germany, she went for a long time into seclusion. (She had just learned that Ketton-Cremer was also dead, killed in action on Crete.) Helm is believable on Atkins’ compulsive self-control, and the anguish it may have guarded. “Close friends felt only sympathy for Vera. Behind that controlled façade they sensed that she was all the time suppressing her own emotion and her own guilt.” But if she proposes a Vera racked by guilt over the agents’ deaths, and thus leaving clues scattered about on purpose, Helm is quite likely kidding herself.

In fact an official biography was commissioned by Atkins and has come out early this year, and perhaps that awareness of the rival biography caused some of the flaws in Helm’s. Though nowhere near as good in most ways, William Stevenson’s Spymistress is the superior work in terms of its presentation of the nitty-gritty details of Atkins’ work for SOE. Stevenson’s book goes even further than Helm’s in describing the miasma of anti-Semitism in which Atkins had to work and her awareness of her Jewish identity. It does not confirm Helm’s belief that Atkins had to lie low with Buckmaster as the price for her power; if anything, it indicates that Atkins was much braver as a Jew than Helm was aware, a judgment based not on what she may have done in the Netherlands but on many attempts she made to wake the British high command up to what was happening to Europe’s Jews. The unforgiving Leo Marks shared his high opinion of Atkins with Stevenson, a regard based in part on their common fate as Jews. But where Leo Marks filled a tome with his anger at SOE, Atkins kept loyally silent, and suffered the opprobrium of her peers. Stevenson’s book also turns up a few personal details that are easily as juicy as anything Helm has found. (Rather than Ketton-Cremer or Violette Szabó, the great Yeo-Thomas may have been the true love of Atkins’ life.) And if Helm as a woman relates to Atkins as a good/bad mother, Stevenson as a man seems much more concerned to “place” her as a romantic figure. He stresses Vera’s beauty and sex appeal, describing her black hair (most eyewitnesses remember it as blonde) and “smoky eyes.” Alma Rosé, as Fania Fénelon saw her, is perhaps conveniently replaced with the biblical Esther or Judith, or indeed the beautiful and heroic Alma remembered by some of the Birkenau orchestra survivors.

Yet of the two, Helm’s biography of Vera Atkins comes closer to an essential truth about power figures in a dark time. Helm’s book is in every way distinguished as a literary production — it is beautifully written — and impressive for the amount of clutter it has cleared away from a story that once seemed tangled beyond hope, even if in some places it adds its own. But the truest distinction of Helm’s book, imperfect though it is, may lie in the honor it pays to the emotional ambiguities that remain for the survivors of war, especially regarding the memories of its outstanding players. If Helm at times succumbs to the need all survivors have to force intractable details into a pattern that makes sense, like Atkins’ beloved England we can still be grateful to have such an ally on our side; and as with Vera Atkins, we can probably forgive her.


Baier, Annette. Moral Prejudices: Essays on Ethics. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1995.

Binney, Marcus. The Women who Lived for Danger: The Agents of the Special Operations Executive. New York: William Morrow, 2003.

Bok, Sissela. Secrets: On the Ethics of Concealment and Revelation. New York: Pantheon, 1983.

Enloe, Cynthia. Maneuvers: The International Politics of Militarizing Women’s Lives. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2000.

Escott, Beryl. Mission Improbable: Salute to the Royal Air Force Women of Special Operations Executive in Wartime France. Somerset: Patrick Stephens Ltd., 1991.

Faulks, Sebastian. Charlotte Gray. New York: Random House, 1999.

Fénelon, Fania, and Marcelle Routier. Playing for Time. New York: Macmillan, 1977.

Foot, M.R.D. SOE in France. London: Frank Cass Publishers, 2004.

Koontz, Claudia. Mothers in the Fatherland: Women, the Family and Nazi Politics. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 1987.

Laska, Vera. Women in Resistance and the Holocaust: The Voices of Eyewitnesses. Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing Group, Inc., 1983.

Marks, Leo. Between Silk and Cyanide: A Codemaker’s War, 1941-1945. London and New York: HarperCollins, 1998.

Millar, George. Road to Resistance. London: Bodley Head, 1979.

Newman, Richard, and Karen Kirtley. Alma Rosé: Vienna to Auschwitz. Pompton Plains, NJ: Amadeus Press, 2003.

Nicholas, Elizabeth. Death Be Not Proud. London: Cresset Press, 1953.

Ozick, Cynthia. “A Madwoman and Her Nurse.” In Art and Ardor: Essays. New York: Knopf, 1983.

Ruddick, Sara. Maternal Thinking: Toward a Politics of Peace. Boston: Beacon Press, 1989.

Stevenson, William. Spymistress: The Life of Vera Atkins, the Greatest Female Secret Agent of World War II. New York: Arcade Publishing, 2007.

Wake, Nancy. The White Mouse. London: Macmillan, 1986.

Walters, Anne-Marie. Moondrop to Gascony. London: Macmillan, 1946.

Watson, James D. The Double Helix: A Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA. New York Atheneum, 1968.

Weitz, Margaret Collins. Sisters in the Resistance: How Women Fought to Free France, 1940-1945. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 1995.

Blue Hour – review

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Nov 102011

Blue Hour
By Carolyn Forché
HarperCollins, 2003
Reviewed by Tanya B. Avakian

Writing is a means of retrieving from consciousness a knowledge irretrievable by other means.
— Carolyn Forché, interviewed in 2008 by Sandeep Parmar

Blue HourCarolyn Forché once saved my life. I would not meet her until almost ten years later, and it would be five years before she published Blue Hour, her greatest book and the one most completely in her own voice. It was Christmas Day and I spent it entirely alone in a basement apartment, reading and rereading The Angel of History and The Country Between Us while listening again and again to sacred harp singing on a cassette by the Word of Mouth Chorus, Rivers of Delight. The circumstances are private, but the experience is universal: at a particularly stressful time, to have been maintained in connection by the repetition of certain words and melodies. Many of the people who grew up with the hymns on the recording would have understood:

Farewell my friends I’m bound for Canaan
I’m travelling through the wilderness
Your company has been delightful
You who doth leave my mind distressed

I go away behind to leave you
Perhaps never to meet again
But if we never have the pleasure
I hope we’ll meet on Canaan’s land.

Shape-note singing provides a close parallel to Forché’s art. The words are received from an older tradition than that practiced by many who can still appreciate it; the voices are often beautiful, but not quite pretty, some louder and wilder than others, at times sounding like different people telling very different stories. Even in the artificially polished version we find on the CD (a far cry from the babel of some of Alan Lomax’s original recordings), there is something not fully disciplined, more conversational than musical, with the occasional voice that asserts itself over the rest, hears itself singing, or doesn’t hear its lack of melody. The strength and grace of the music is in the number of voices and in a format that builds in imperfection, never allowing the loveliness to become flaccid or the untidiness merely sloppy. It may have its ups and downs, but it will not go through the motions.

Forché may even have saved my life before. At an age when some career choice was becoming urgent, I found my greatest talent to be for literature, my greatest interest to be in European literature about the Second World War, and myself to be in the perhaps common position of being just as horrified by some of Israel’s actions as by the anti-Semitism on some of the left. Her anthology of war poetry, Against Forgetting, appeared slightly too late to help me through the worst of this, but well in time to offer some consolation for not having turned completely New-World-materialist in the name of progressivism. Inevitably, Against Forgetting is not perfect; yet the beauty of it that it isn’t meant to be perfect. One can imagine it the way one would have done it oneself, many times, making it more of a participatory exercise to read than a visit to a monument; and one must be in awe of Forché’s courage when among many of her radical colleagues of the time, it was simply not done to admit that one read Abba Kovner and Edmond Jabès, though some may initially be jarred to find them among poets of the Middle Eastern conflict rather than the Holocaust. Today it is still the case among some on the left that one doesn’t read poets like Kovner and Jabès; but the abstention bespeaks a more sharply defined attitude (that best exemplified by Norman Finkelstein) than it once did. One of the most interesting revolutions of attitude among a broad spectrum of progressives has been in the normalization both of high culture and of eclecticism. If once upon a time it was not done to admit to reading Jabès because it was also not done to admit to listening to Bach, or pursuing higher education for reasons other than being radicalized, among those who would have taken Forché’s poems from El Salvador most seriously, today there is a lot more leeway; and if there is even a little understanding of European history as worthy of respect among New World extremophiles, we can thank her. I did not have a choice. My parents, second cousins, were born in Tallinn and Germany in 1932 and 1938, and came to the States in the fifties. My father fled the Russians as a child, to Poland where he remembered seeing many Jews on the street one day and none the next, and from there to Germany with the Russians again in pursuit. So if my own crisis of conscience in 1989 could not be eased by Against Forgetting, a lot could already be done by a description of a course Forché was teaching somewhere at the time. It’s no exaggeration to say that my thoughts ran to “She reads… Akhmatova. She reads… Nelly Sachs! There is hope!” Then, if memory does not deceive, I held the college catalogue to my breast and wept.

For those of us who love her, Forché has the distinction of making us feel that way about poetry even when we are well past that age. Today I often wish I could care enough about anything written for it to bring about that kind of reaction, while being relieved that it won’t. And I have outgrown the need to have my origins validated. I remain intensely grateful to Forché but I no longer need her to carry the torch. I understand that the most common reason why she at times inspires reactions close to loathing is that given by Norman Finkelstein, on Claude Lanzmann’s references to the difficulty of creating art about the Nazi genocides: “[It’s] twaddle… drivel,” obviously meant to make us stop thinking about contemporary politics.

Forché would be the first to tell us that her fame has put her into a terrible double bind in this sense. The opposite pole of possibility open to her would be to go on writing explicit “protest” poetry in the sense that most people read The Country Between Us as representing. She did not write this handful of poems in order to take on a radical identity. Likewise, she has not written more enigmatically since then in order to confuse issues of justice and injustice. In such cases there is indeed a moral bias toward clarity, but as Forché put it in her introduction to Against Forgetting, the definition of a minimally functional society is that it contains space for experiences and relationships that are neither entirely private nor defined in a strict materialist sense by politics. She has called this the “social” sphere, somewhat in keeping with the insights of feminists who find that the experiences of women and children fall through the cracks when defined in too Manichean a way as either political or private. If anything, the missing element in Forché’s work has been that of the private. From earliest days she has been aware of herself as a link in history, beginning with her ties to her grandmother and others in her Slovak family.

In Blue Hour, Forché’s fourth collection, her subjects are private. They are not superficially autobiographical, unlike the early lyrics in her first collection, Gathering the Tribes. Her son appears as an allegorical figure, any woman’s child becoming any man. Forché herself has become faceless as a subject. Her perceptions here break down to such fine details that one is reminded of Erving Goffman’s famous observation in The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life: “The self, then, as a performed character, is not an organic thing that has a specific location, whose fundamental fate is to be born, to mature, and to die; it is a dramatic effect arising diffusely from a scene that is presented.” This insight is not unique to Forché; it is virtually a stock-in-trade of contemplative mystics, and the long poem “On Earth” attempts to rediscover the mental mode of prayer. But Forché differs from many postmodernists in that she does not embrace the fragmentation of consciousness in today’s world, though it may well lead us to the same conclusion. She sees it as endangering the forms of consciousness that allow us to engage in contemplation, and suggests that the only contemplation left to us is that of brokenness, though she also allows for the possibility that this in itself may be healing.

Her own relationship to this fragmentation is complicated. Perhaps suffering from post-traumatic stress after her visit to El Salvador, Forché experienced writers’ block for many years. She has talked of feeling broken, unable to complete a poem, and in fact she has published relatively little of her own since — The Angel of History and Blue Hour are each thin books. Yet she has become very famous for her brokenness. This statement leads to other thoughts which I would hope are taken entirely in context and not as personal or professional criticisms of the poet. She cannot help the time in which she writes any more than we all can. It’s a time in which one cannot publish without being typecast, and in which the poet is damned if she does (reach people) as if she doesn’t (and remains in isolation, writing for a tiny audience). Forché comes as close as any American poet can to doing both. She makes no concessions to public expectations, writing in a more and more experimental style and giving only a few interviews and readings at a time. But she is one of the most recognizable poets in English, one of the few who is admired for the content of her character as much as for her gifts, and the popularity of her work would suggest that its confounding sorrow speaks for many. She is in this sense a brand name. Inevitably this has been her blessing and her curse.

Forché is always clear that she is one of us, a housewife when she is not teaching or writing, as beset by lack of time and the banality of errands as we are. And inevitably, she is a Western white woman. Regarding her increasingly mystical writings, Forché has pointed out that it is just that status which has moved her further and further away from the directness of her youth. She went on the radical lecture circuit for several years after The Country Between Us, which made her name with its chapter of moving poems about the war in El Salvador. Typecast as a political poet in the Marxist sense, Forché found a climate in which she had the same forty minutes, time and again, to get on the stage and be radical increasingly oppressive and untrue to the complexity of her own views. As she had made clear in The Country Between Us, she’d had the luxury of witnessing atrocities by her own idealistic choice and then, the luxury of fleeing home in time to save her life. Archbishop Óscar Romero, who was instrumental in getting her out, was one of the few Salvadorans to share that freedom with her, and had chosen instead to stay home and die. Moreover, Forché was expected now to be fluent in a way that was anti-metaphysical, anti-ambiguous, anti-reflective in any sense except that which would produce condemnations of American foreign policy, and while the disconnect between the world she had left and the one that she now realized she had “never left” provoked her half to madness, she was profoundly disturbed by the sense that contemplation was for the bourgeoisie. Expected to show up before auditoriums of sensitive young faces and traumatize them on cue, she could not help but see a disconnect between the personal quality of her own experience and what she was now supposed to do to others. It appeared to her that a humane society must have more room for privacy and authenticity of experience.

As mentioned: there were then, as there are now, people for whom being influenced by Terrence des Pres’ The Survivor: An Anatomy of Life in the Death Camps, let alone by Celan and Sachs, was a sign of having joined the enemy’s side. In those years of the first intifada, suspicion of anything European and specifically of any debt to the literature of the Holocaust was very high among progressives. Perhaps less understandably, it was also not quite done to take an interest in Eastern Europe as a locus classicus of horror, when some of the same progressives clung to a belief in Stalinism. The pendulum would swing in the opposite extreme during the mid-to-late 1990s, likely because the end of the Cold War left America with the need for a new narrative of moral superiority and our deus ex machina entry into World War II fit the bill. The need for a Western-friendly narrative of recent Middle Eastern history was much older, and the excuse of the Holocaust proved extremely tenuous after 9/11; but for a few years, the sudden accessibility of Europe, the disappearance of Cold War barriers and the realization that fifty years had passed in which America too was beholden to this history, allowed progressives to balance suspicion of at least the American-style Holocaust narrative with the sense that Americans might be sincerely interested in Adorno’s, Celan’s, and Primo Levi’s dark continent. Whatever the reason, there was a grace period for Forché’s interest in her own roots and in the experimental literature that had grown largely out of those very “bloodlands” during the middle of the waning century. Nor was her discovery of links between Eastern and Central European and other war-torn poetry, and writing styles more associated with the Lower East Side, entirely far-fetched. For instance, the Fluxus movement was started by Lithuanian refugees Jonas Mekas and Jurgis “George” Maciunas, and taken up by Japanese artists such as Yoko Ono, herself a war poet (her childhood resembling the film Grave of the Fireflies, and Grapefruit weirdly reminiscent of the poetic enactment of traumas on the part of everyone from Wiesel to Forché). Andy Warhol’s family shared a similar background to Forché’s grandmother, Anna Bassarova.

Today there is perhaps a glut of second- and third-generation interest in the terrain covered by Theodor Adorno and George Steiner; much of it is undistinguished, being located more often in supposedly embodied cultural memories than in long-term, firsthand experience of the survivors, their own or their children’s of them. Forché is not in this category, but her recurrent need to survive success points up the role of magic in this peculiarly demanding realm of art, and the difficulty encountered anywhere that magic plays a role — that what is touching in the fan can be bothersome in the star: here, specifically, the belief that creativity is magic. In the best sense, Forché has access to a more naïve way of taking the spiritual direction in poetry than is open to many: her own experience puts her in touch with ways in which words are things, causing pain as a knife does when their meaning is that of an instrument. If this is anything but an effete, self-consciously sensitive way of approaching poetry, it is also one with an inevitable metaphysical component. Forché strikes me as a real-life pilgrim. All the other ways of taking her — radical sibyl, Detroit Yankee in King Adolf’s court, and so on — are subordinate to her identity as a faith-based writer in the truest and least objectionable sense. She has earned this much, surely; once again, it bespeaks the sickness of our time that this too should inspire suspicion. People still tend to respond to Forché with equivalents of “What’s a nice girl like you doing in places like this,” and her real-life niceness — a sincerity and straightforwardness, a lack of what the British call “side,” and a stubborn benevolence of outlook — still tends to etherealize the understanding of a woman who grew up in very gritty surroundings outside Detroit, knew real, unchosen poverty at various times, and whose being a fan dignifies the Frankfurt School and Lévinas rather than their corrupting her.

Yet the dark places of Blue Hour, while they include Chernobyl and Beirut, are also places we all are going to visit and where we are finally going to go. “On Earth” bids farewell to the twentieth century in the voice of a baby boomer herself facing mortality. It has been greeted as Forché’s most avant-garde poem, but it should not be read as if to understand it one must be a trauma buff, or an enthusiast of experimental poetry. One need only have lived long enough to know people break and are mortal. Blue Hour’s title comes from a French expression for the time between night and dawn. It is concerned with boundaries and membranes, points at which one thing becomes another. The images of historical extremity flicker in and out among the throng of personal ghosts; one can imagine them all convening as in Hades, among the shadows of a pine forest, a blue field of snow, viewed through a window at three or four in the morning. Blue Hour has been compared to Ginsberg and Whitman; my recurrent thought is of Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries, where an old man revisits the scenes and characters of his youth with a tranquility for which the price is his awareness that he is now alone with them. But Blue Hour has another dimension, close to speculative poetry. Chernobyl comes up more than once, and the prevailing political sensibility resembles that of William S. Burroughs: a wide-eyed, nearly catatonic paranoia intercepted mainly by the act of cutting and redistributing an unbearable consciousness into new patterns, one of which may offer the key to endurance if not escape.

The Angel of History was one long poem that read at times like a collection, even an anthology, the ghost that rose from the assembled wreckage of Against Forgetting. Blue Hour is a collection that reads like one poem. While nine poems precede the 46-page poem “On Earth,” and while they are intelligible on their own, they do not stand alone; they blend easily into this one work, representing the extreme of Forché’s humility and of her chutzpah. Its format is abecedarian, the lines organized by letters of the alphabet, and its language is deliberately naïve. As in the famous anonymous poem that begins “I saw a peacock with a fiery tail,” all is in the composition rather than the sense. Its first lines appear to be telling us how the poem is meant to strike us: “–with the resistance of a corpse to the hands of the living–”. Pathos breaks down fast over the full length of “On Earth,” and it resists being read easily with any meaning at all. Even as it begs a portentous and by now familiar interpretation in its opening lines, especially “open the book of what happened” — on its own, a beautiful and moving phrase for the work of trauma — it undoes facile readings of any kind; even more than any of her previous work, its subject is how little simple, and yet how disturbingly little complicated in an intellectual sense, “what happened” turns out to be. It need not be read as a gloss on the last century at all, or a warning to the next, though it is all that; it will serve as a guide through the memory, and experiencing fully only in memory and imperfect relationships, of any great trauma. One tracks the poem like the movement of waves, isolating lines in which they break against land and others in which they recede in foam, and experiences it best in retrospect; the reader may decide for herself the moment at which the longed-for, hopeless consolation possibly occurred.

I’ve already compared the plot of Blue Hour to Bergman’s Wild Strawberries. Visually, “On Earth” also resembles a film by Andrei Tarkovsky, with similar demands on one’s attention span and a similar effect of the senses being at once ravished and deprived. There is a cornucopia of images, a great heterogeneity, but little real variety; there are many, many nouns, with no context for the object other than that created by the passage of unseen events. The poem is likewise drenched in spirituality without apparent purpose, or even metaphysics other than the faith that there is another side at the end of experience. To enter into the experience with any irony at all, any preconceptions about the value of one’s own objective consciousness, is possibly to miss it. And yet as in Tarkovsky’s films, nothing happens that is in any way impossible to understand objectively. There is no mystification, only a transparency that mystifies. Everything is literal. Nothing is to be analyzed at first, and everything is to be enacted by means of attention; one does not read so much as watch and listen. Other than what we know through Forché’s prior work and reputation, while “On Earth” is haunted by disaster, we do not witness it; the disaster can be assumed to have happened, or to be happening, also on that other side of experience or consciousness.

While we learn almost nothing about it, the telling of this disaster might still leave those whose griefs are private and deliberately contained with a sense of being violated. Forché’s language is never sentimental or poetical in itself, though it invokes shamelessly poetical, rather Gallic tropes on select occasions, like the white doves that “batter the wind” here and there throughout The Angel of History. The very stiffness and seeming apartness of these touches strips them of sentimentality, as the freed doves complete the trauma survivor’s manifesto in Georges Franju’s Les Yeux Sans Visage (whose heroine, Édith Scob, resembles Forché facially); though it is understandable why not all critics have responded to them as such. Finding the key to “On Earth” is going to be a personal endeavor for everyone; one possibility is to pull apart those lines that seem literary in this way and read them together, followed by others in which no artificiality is possible. One has no difficulty guessing at a measure of pastiche in these lines, for instance — here some more Franju, perhaps in Judex, there some Latin American soap opera:

a corpse broken into many countries…
a life in which nothing is lived…
a memory through which one hasn’t lived…
a war-eyed woman…
a white rain, then your face becoming another’s…

a hotel haunted by a wedding dress…
a locket’s parted lovers face to face…
a veiled window where appears a revenant…
a woman rubbing the mirror until she is gone…
air filled with ash, notebooks with sorrowing ink…

And then one encounters others, whose only chance at melodrama is if they came singly, but they don’t:

biting hard the fear
black corn in the fields, crib smoke, and bones enough to fill a sack
black fingernails, blue hands, lost hair
black storms of dream
black with burnt-up meaning…
bones smoothed by water
book of smoke, black soup…

corn black in the fields, crib smoke, bones, a rib cage…

canticle, casement, casque, cerement, cinder…

flowering trees: trumpet, bottlebrush, cassia, frangipaini, flame, sea grape
flowers rotting on mounds: air plant, allamanda, amaryllis, spider lily, bougainvillea, shellflower,
      hibiscus, ashanti blood, trumpet vines, oleander

garbage fires along the picket lines
gasoline coupons and rations, an event no longer remote
Georg leaning against the winter pine eating a sparrow
ghost hands appearing in the windows, rubbing them clear
ghost swift, grisaille, guardian spirit

For some, the thought that any one consciousness has this power — of unmaking as much as making — must be a fairy tale, all the more so if it is a consciousness in the West. Forché’s self-forgetting as a poet is in its way as willful as Simone Weil’s as an activist. So many years after Gathering the Tribes, her identity now is cosmopolitan and only partly tribal. But Forché’s tribal Slavic identity is still apparent in the revulsion “On Earth” shows for the destruction of kin privacy in an age of atrocity: the sense that now, one grieves like this about things that are none of one’s business. And as the poem goes on, that seems to me to become its ultimate note of tragedy. Its story is one of a farewell to empathy, all the ways in which people do not come together in pain. Empathy falters or isn’t good enough; it intrudes or leaves a person alone; the bearer of empathy is not personally good enough to be welcome here; there are too many to feed; the circumstances make it impossible, in the sense of being frustrating or of being literally impossible. The words are there but may not be spoken. The words are not there, but babble comes out. Selfishness, confusion and wickedness get in the way, one’s own and others’. It would be comforting to add “and yet it must all be done,” but “On Earth,” for once in Forché’s work, does not write out of an imperative so much as an inevitability — the doing of empathy continues like tape chatter long after any hope of its relevance has gone. Empathy persists because human selfishness and folly are inexhaustible: we give up the belief that it matters, last of all. “How” and “I,” two important words in the English language, have only frustration associated with them, over less than half a page:

how did this happen? how it always happens.
how it reads its past

how secretly you died for years, on behalf of all who wished for themselves a private death
how the soul becomes an inhabitant of flesh

I am alone, so there are four of us
I am here, blowing into my hands, you are in the other coffin
I can’t possibly get away, she said

I lit a taper in the Cathédrale St-Just, a two-franc candle, birds flying in the dome
I remember standing next to his bed
I see myself in their brass coat-buttons but not in their eyes
I stand on the commode for a glimpse of it
I tried once, it was just before the war, and she had no time for me. I can’t possibly get away
I was to bring him music for the left hand

Grace is not in relationships, but in the nouns that march on as if in oblivion:

light and the reverse of light
light impaled on the peaks
light issuing from the wind’s open wounds
light mottling the forest floor, crows leaving one limb for another
light of cinder blocks, meal trays
light of inexhaustible light

lighted paper sacks sent downriver to console
like the handkerchief road
like the whispering in a convent garden
like tomb flowers, the ossuary’s skull works
lilac and globeflower, clouds islanding the tilled fields

The ultimate message of this poem appears to be that as death approaches (or as great pain is endured), the social in Forché’s sense must be given up. Others must be allowed their aloneness and one’s own must be accepted. The healing of which Against Forgetting was meant to speak must be allowed to fail for the individual in private. At times it is possible to read the meaning of this as salvific, a form of emptying-out of the self that allows the social membrane not to exhaust itself, but to continue consoling others up to the point at which they, too, must give up:

memory did not survive that loss of sequence
memory does not interfere…

near the lake, where the fireweed was
neither a soul nor a body
neither for us nor near itself
never repeating itself
nevertheless, noumenon, november

new pasts, whole aeons are invented…

no breath of God, no words, and no possibility of restoration
no content may be secured from them
no one prayer resembling another…

nothing as it was
nothing other than mind
nothing was exiled from itself
now and again like a voice grown suddenly tired…

their bedclothes soaked in music
their bruises, aubergine
their refusal to accompany us further

there is a reason you have lost him. for the rest of your life you could search for it
there is no absence that cannot be replaced
there is no reason for the world
there was black corn in the fields, crib smoke, and bones enough to fill the sack
there was no when there
there was nothing that wasn’t for sale…

what crawled out of the autumn wood was dementia
what did we retrieve? empty spectacles?
what do these questions ask?

what do we have to forget?
what end? what uniformity?
what fragmentary light?

x does not equal

you spit out your teeth, give it up…
your things have been taken
your things have been taken away


One still hears some of the voices against Forché, those who would point out that only an American would be able to expose herself to a civil war voluntarily and then be able to afford to spend thirty years in partial recovery. Yet perhaps it privileges in its own way to spend time exclusively with such concerns; perhaps it presents the right-thinking Westerner as too good for any private life — just as if nobody in Palestine or Thailand or Cameroon has had any private interests or experiences, any delight in literature or spirituality for their own sake, or indeed any private horrors; as if no rapes or automobile accidents or final illnesses or misunderstandings between friends ever brought them to such a dignified exhaustion, such a need to accept what does not end. Indeed it is worth keeping in mind that the European poets who influenced Forché were humbled just as we may all deserve to be again, by our own selfishness and folly and not-enoughness for a world that has outgrown us now as in 1939, and part of what they were asking for on a plate was the awareness that people in any culture are flesh.

It would be easy for Carolyn Forché to write poetry that one could love without respecting it; what she has achieved instead is a poetry that some who don’t love it, such as her tireless nemesis Eliot Weinberger, have ended by respecting. If the whole were not greater than the sum of its parts, if what went into the parts were not flawed, and if the outcome did not at times seem unfinished, Carolyn Forché’s work would not do what it means to do; nor would she so stubbornly resist any attempt to imitate her, although to do so seems easy, as easy as shape notes.

I know dark clouds are hovering o’er me
I know my way is rough and steep
But beauteous fields lie just before me
Where the redeemed their vigil keep

And when my journey’s finally over
When rest and peace upon me lie
High o’er the roads where once we travelled
Silently there my mind will fly.

Author Emile Habiby – two reviews

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May 172011

The Secret Life of Saeed the Pessoptimist
By Emile Habiby
Translated by Salma K. Jayyusi and Trevor LeGassick
Saraya, the Ogre’s Daughter: A Palestinian Fairy Tale
By Emile Habiby
Translated by Peter Theroux
Reviewed by Tanya B. Avakian

I imagined I’d left her in a monk’s cell on a mountaintop. Had it been Montfort, I’d have understood that I left only her apparition. But if it was al-Carmel, then it’s still waiting for me to finish what I have to do and set out searching for Saraya. And if I don’t manage to find her in this lifetime, I’ll wait for another. I do not think death will come to me before Saraya, because we haven’t yet set a time and place to meet in a future life, for a meeting that will be longer than our separation has been in this one.
–Emile Habiby, Saraya, the Ogre’s Daughter: A Palestinian Fairy Tale

Emile Habiby is perhaps one of the hardest of great writers for Americans to read, in more ways than one. His writings are beautiful but determinedly inaccessible to the noninitiate into the Palestinian tragedy. This is so on more than one level. Naturally, he wrote all his life to a world that did not want to hear. But he is also atypical among Palestinians, having stayed in his birthplace of Haifa after the Israeli takeover and thus possessing a consciousness that retains the whole Palestinian territory and history. He writes from a perspective that is tortured with itself, realizing at once that he stands closer to a complete nation and reality than most Palestinians or Israelis, and yet that this stance is the nearest to madness of all. Habiby’s books read like lucid dreams, or hallucinations. Their lucidity makes them a torment to the creator who knows there is no way out of the hallucination. His genius is to transfer his sense of being trapped to the reader. In this he is not alone in the twentieth century, of course. It would be somewhat invidious to compare Habiby’s lucid nightmares to those of the “cousins,” as he calls the Jews, but the parallels are everywhere. One may think of Franz Kafka’s aphorism: “The arrows fit exactly into the wounds for which they were intended,” which in this context has a double meaning. Like Kafka and like another Central European Jew who did in fact move to Israel-Palestine, Aharon Appelfeld, Habiby communicates in fragments and parables balanced delicately around an overwhelming “presence of absence.” But the cousin of whom I am most inclined to think in reading him is the late Joanna Russ, who might have gone ignored as a science fiction author if her themes were such as to be taken politically in an international sense, from the outset, to the exclusion of anything else. Habiby’s two main books in translation, The Secret Life of Saeed the Pessoptimist and Saraya, the Ogre’s Daughter: A Palestinian Fairy Tale, are essentially alike, consisting in vignettes linked intricately to each other, to the author’s life, and to reality, easy to quote and annotate and hard to describe. They wallow self-consciously in the fantastic while resisting reduction to fantasy elements.

However, both novels can definitely be read as sff, The Secret Life of Saeed more as science fiction and Saraya more as fantasy. And to read them as such, rather than searching self-consciously for political symbolism, may be to do them less of a disservice than otherwise. Habiby’s politics are difficult to separate from his sense of fantasy. He writes as a man aware that his chief project is entirely fantastic: to remember Palestine in every detail. It is a madman’s work not only because most of Palestine no longer exists in the mind of the world, but also because a human being lives only a few decades and the land lives forever. Habiby writes against time above all, aware of the narrow span of his years in comparison to the eternity he must commit to eternity.

The Secret Life of Saeed is the more famous of the two, a loosely plotted picaresque told from the point of view of the ne’er-do-well Saeed, who begins as an informer for the Israelis and ends as a limited man still, but a proud Arab. He is changed by the intervention of two beings from space, making Saeed a science fiction tale in the same way as The Female Man by Joanna Russ. The Female Man has a number of characteristics in common with The Secret Life of Saeed. The “signal from outer space” is announced by Habiby’s identification with the rational and scientific side of Arab history, even though his main two books in translation are in no way realistic. He distinguishes himself from his forebears who are always looking for coins to turn up at their feet, therefore went through life with their heads down. “As a child, I decided not to die with a bent back like my forebears and so have never searched for treasure at my feet. I began, instead, looking for treasure above, in the endless reaches of space, in this ‘shoreless sea,’ as the mystic poet Ibn Arabi described it.” A parallel is drawn between the servile posture and the belief in luck, even though Saeed believes the night he encounters the space beings to be “his own very special night of good fortune.” Science is invoked not as a Western invention nor as an alternative to “supernatural power,” but as another form of it, one that requires a different stance:

Fate had granted us, when we were in elementary school, one God-damned teacher who was mad about astronomy. He told us all about Abbas Ibn Firnas and Jules Verne and expressed a fanatical pride in all the old Arab astronomers; from Averroes, who first studied sun spots, to al-Batani al-Harrani, who first deduced that the time equation changes slowly over the generations and who first accurately computed the length of the solar year…This infernal teacher used to keep us in class after school, close the windows, and tell us proudly of the scientist al-Biruni, who had discovered that the earth was round and, some eight hundred years before Newton, that all bodies were attracted to it. He used to gabble constantly about al-Hasan ibn al-Haytham, who was—and here the fellow would lower his voice to a conspiratorial whisper—the first to develop today’s scientific methodology which requires deductions based only on observation of concrete reality and reasoning by analogy. For the Arabs, so said this accursed teacher, would first act and then dream, not as they do now—first dream and then continue to dream.

I dreamed that history would remember me as it had our ancient astronomers…This same miserable man used to assure us that the Arabs were the first to use zero as we use it now. Then they divided one by zero and proved to us that outer space is limitless and that the universe in it, as Ibn Arabi wrote, “swims in a shoreless sea, in the jet black of eternity.”

There must certainly be worlds other than ours, and better too. No doubt they’ll find us before we find them. Well, the Turks left and the British came to us without that teacher wavering in his theories; so how can I doubt them—I, a young man whose life is still before him, the British having left and Israel having come in?

Yes, ever since that time I began looking upward and awaiting their arrival. Either they will transform my monotonous and boring life completely, or they can take me away with them.

Is there an alternative?

It is an upward trajectory of political integrity that is expressed in vignettes of increasing surrealism and depersonalization. Reading the two books together, it is almost as if Saeed is being groomed to become the narrator of Saraya, probably Habiby’s masterpiece, an exquisite poem of grief addressed to a lost, archetypical woman who might or might not be Palestine, or a particular woman, as the woman with whom Saeed is obsessed, Yuaad, is a particular woman, indeed two particular women: the first Yuaad, and then the second, the elder Yuaad’s daughter, who appears to Saeed looking exactly like her mother at twenty and foreshadowing the eternal Saraya in the later novel.

Women play an important role in Habiby’s work. Whereas his men are compromised, weak, self-divided, women for Habiby are voices of modernity and ancestral integrity at the same time. It would be going too far to call him a feminist. Yuaad and Saraya both exist mainly in relation to the significance they have for the protagonist. But there is no question that they get the best lines and interrogate business as usual both among the “cousins” and the Arabs. It is Yuaad who gives voice to Saeed’s growth beyond being something of a Pasqualino Settebelleze of Haifa, into a man a little more like John Yossarian: true to himself amid universal irrationality, if without illusions as to the significance of integrity, or the likelihood of his winning. Yuaad approaches the status of a real woman rather than an archetype in that she renders Saeed more aware of other people and multiple answers to his dilemma than anyone whom Yossarian encountered in Catch-22. And Yuaad does so facing other Arabs, rather than the more convenient bad guys, the Israelis; she does so facing down the ease of the conspiracy narrative in favor of realism and confrontation, including with the facile promises of Arabs outside Palestine:

“They say that our cordon moves the conscience of the world, which Zionism would totally enclose in a cordon if it weren’t for the Communists. Did you read about our cordon in the newspapers of the Arab countries, those which have not been cordoned off by Zionism?”

Yuaad, her eyes glittering in anger, commented, “The papers of the Arab world cordon us with ‘victories,’ like haloes over the heads of saints: there’s no space for reports of your cordons. They’ve kept on encircling us with the cordons of their victories, until there’s nothing but chaos and we can no longer differentiate between them and the wreaths of flowers set on graves.”

“And Zionism raises hell all over the world for so much as a scratch on a finger!”

Yuaad, her anger thoroughly aroused, positively roared, “Gentlemen, that’s enough from your viewpoint! You see utter calamity in what’s happened to you, whereas our lives are now one big cordon. You have a phrase: ‘from the cradle to the grave’; we have one that goes, ‘from cordon to cordon!’ Don’t expect those living their entire lives under cordons, under constant inspection, at the mercy of every kind of bloodhound, deprived of their very roots, to have much sympathy with your particular ‘calamity’ when it has become the life experience of a particular nation, from the Gulf to the Atlantic!”

That this speech is put in a woman’s voice may be read as a respectful gesture on the one hand or as a distancing one on the other. Habiby represented several unpopular positions in Palestinian politics. He was not uprooted; he remained in Haifa all his life. He never changed his belief in a one-state solution or in coexistence with the Jewish population of Israel-Palestine. As double-edged as his reference to the Jews as “cousins” may be, the longing it represents is real. Yet Habiby’s longing for a condition of shared humanity with Israeli Jews is inseparable from his longing for the Palestine that was. The two things cannot be undone even as they represent each other’s undoing. Saraya, the Ogre’s Daughter resurrects a figure from Palestinian folklore: that much is apparent to a non-Arabic reader; but a symbolic or allegorical reading risks misprision, and too much homage to the painful beauty of this prose poem risks sentimentality if unearned in the reader’s experience. Sentimentality is condescending, but reading and rereading ought not to be. To do this begins to take up the burden that Habiby has assumed for himself in inscribing every feature of the world around him with meaning, however futilely. Futilely, and unwillingly, one thinks again of the “cousins”: of those Jewish writers, too numerous and here inappropriate to list, for whom the former significance of Lviv or Bolekhiv or Zhytomir or Ternopil or Sighet or Mukacheve or Hrodna or Vitebsk exists only in their memories, and now perhaps only in memories known at second- or third-hand, with the potential of being transferred illegitimately to Israel even if it was once understandable for this to be seen as a brave move. Once upon a time, it was precisely with the intent of not making a circus out of mourning that Jewish writers turned from horror-film details to the lyricism of memory; now that lyricism justifies its own circus, of chauvinism, in effect if not in intention. It will remain to be seen whether Habiby’s lyricism remains radical or is also distorted by the passage of time as virtually everything must be; perhaps his answer to that would be in the hope represented by women whom the calamity’s development might yet release from the need to be Saraya, though it might scarcely be a lighter burden to be Yuaad. Habiby’s perspective is unrelentingly male, but his female characters transcend the representation of hopelessness that Lawrence L. Langer found, perhaps correctly, in the literature of the European disaster. Habiby had enough sympathy with feminism to admire Andrea Dworkin’s radical feminist (and deeply Jewish) novel Mercy.

Emile Habiby is very little known in America. In earlier times one could blame the eclipse of Palestinian culture in the Western mind to the extent that the latter was ever aware of it, but that is no longer an excuse. The poet Mahmoud Darwish, Habiby’s friend and contemporary, has been translated and is read. Habiby stands for a similar political position to that of Darwish, liberal but not assimilationist; Darwish’s popularity makes it seem likely that if Habiby is not as well known, it is because he is not as easy to get to know. Like Joanna Russ, he can be an exasperating stylist. The non-Arabic reader will not always know if the teasing quality of his stories with their fits and starts, their indirections masked as picaresque twists, is due to things lost in translation, though there clearly are some. The translation of Saeed by Jayyasi and LeGassick is adequate; that by Theroux of Saraya is often inspired, making Habiby’s allusiveness shimmer rather than dither, but in each case the reader may lose the thread. But though his work is difficult, at times resembling the soliloquies of a Palestinian Hamlet, the halting quality of his narratives reflects Habiby’s refusal to hate: the forward-driving narrative of justified resentment is always choked off just as it gathers steam. This has the most subversive consequence of all, in making the land his heroine: the people on it, Arabs, Jews, Muslims, Christians, are all ghosts. In a part of the world about which some are over-rich in certainty, Habiby is brave to hold back from it, to turn toward mortality and other universals in a way that relativizes politics even as it does also radicalize them. It puts to shame the fantasies of some far-right racists among those of European descent, who have hijacked the Palestinian tragedy to their own ends in a manner far less understandable than the Arab politicos disposed of by Habiby’s Yuaad. But anyone who would write him off as a sentimental humanist does not understand the implications of the inscription on his gravestone: “Emile Habiby, stayed in Haifa.” Still, his work is dated now in some ways; though a one-state solution remains the most attractive in idealistic terms, the ethical and perhaps the ethnic terms have been redrawn by all that has happened since Habiby died in 1996. A more contemporary perspective on Palestinian goals may be found in an anonymous website put up by a British sympathizer, at http://www.palestine-primer.com/Palestine_Primer/Homepage.html. But while the hope that this site represents, at an appalling price, is real, the world will never be without its Habibys, the men and women who must be content that courage is giving them their only victory, measured in the right to quote Hamlet’s words: “If thou didst ever hold me in thy heart,/Absent thee from felicity awhile/And in this harsh world draw thy breath in pain/To tell my story.”

(NOTE: Habiby’s surname is transliterated in several different ways. The most common is Habibi, though there is also Habeeby, etc., just as his first name can appear as Emile, Emil, or Imil. I have used the form that appears on the most easily available editions of these two books.)

Food for Our Grandmothers – review

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May 172011

Food for Our Grandmothers: Writings by Arab-American and Arab-Canadian Feminists
Edited by Joanna Kadi, 1994
Reviewed by Tanya B. Avakian

This excellent collection of essays, memoirs, poems, and other writings by Middle Eastern (nearly but not all Arab) feminists in North America announces its relevance to sff writers as soon as one gets to the table of contents. Hoda M. Zaki has contributed an article called “Orientalism in Science Fiction,” taking aim at Dune, but also at Joanna Russ (1937-2011) for her stereotyped Islamic dystopia in The Two of Them. One should not be surprised, but it may still come as a shock. For antiracist and feminist readers of science fiction, Joanna Russ is one of the “good” writers, author of a seminal text in How to Suppress Women’s Writing that has also been used as a casebook for race. It is a useful example of the politics of reputation. There is no reason for Russ to be “good” and others to be “less good” just because Russ was once seen as a radical, and has written in caring terms about race. Much of the discourse around racial sensitivity in sff has been personality-centered, sorting out the “good” people from the “less good,” but Zaki’s insights suggest that it is essential to get away from personalities: it is entirely possible for an individual, limited by time (generation) and space (country of origin) to be good in some areas and less good in others. This is not to excuse Russ’ bigotry in The Two of Them; it is rather to challenge readers to find appropriate role models for “good” on this particular topic—Arab feminists, for a start, who at least know what they are talking about. The issue that Zaki leaves us with implicitly is why there was no Arab voice in sff to balance that of Russ, the equivalent to her Ashkenazic lesbian perspective relativizing the “less good” and, for some, maybe allowing the “good” to shine more brightly. Once the answer might have been that Arabic lesbian feminists did not exist or were not writing science fiction and fantasy. Today that isn’t an answer.

Joanna Kadi’s collection aimed for some of the assumptions about “good” and “bad” in the women’s movement in very much the same way as Hoda M. Zaki’s article continues to aim at “good” and “bad” in sff. Kadi is best known for Thinking Class: Sketches from a Cultural Worker. Published in 1996, this was a keynote work in popularizing the concept of the interconnectedness of oppression, not necessarily in the sense of finding a “magic bullet” to stop all oppression (the kind of thinking most often satirized by the misnomer “political correctness”). In 1994 Kadi was brave enough to raise the question of whether there is such a thing. One of the most salient characteristics of Arab feminism is its resistance to being made yet another marker of excellence for white feminists and progressives to take on board. At the time of publication one way to do that was to engage in the politics of sympathy, not yet coping well with race but doing so more easily when it came to immigration. Though immigration is its central theme, Kadi’s collection pointed a way forward, past the often querulous emphasis on “brokenness” and “fragmentation” in postmodern theory and toward the beginnings of earned confrontation with the reasons for brokenness.

The collection is naturally dated in some ways, though its core concerns remain painfully contemporary. There are the obligatory nods to then-fashionable postmodern theory and the sense of “things falling apart” that prevailed at the turn of the century. Marilynn Rashid introduces herself by writing “I am a piece of the cultural entropy of the age, forever falling away from many centers.” She points out that she has “kept her name” but reflects that it is her father’s; her non-Arab mother’s was that of her own father. When it comes to “returning to one’s roots,” Rashid points out that it is impossible:

If we truly knew who we were, our names would not be such a problem. It is difficult to find one’s way in a world divided not only by war and racism, but by freeways, television, and the technological projects of so-called progress. If we could, in fact, go back where we came from, as some would like us to do, we would still not find ourselves, for those places are changed or destroyed or occupied or part of the same industrial grid we find ourselves in here. And some of us, many of us, would have to cut ourselves into twos and threes and ship pieces of ourselves all over the globe. And surely that wouldn’t help our sense of fragmentation.

By contrast Joanna Kadi’s own essay, “Five Steps to Creating Culture,” has some of the cavalier attitude to the concept of culture that tended to balance such pessimism—if freeways and television were enough to destroy culture or undermine it as a source of nourishment, recipes were enough to resurrect a faith in culture that was gainsaid by the age’s concern with political or commercial taint. Kadi puns on culture by describing the steps to making a culture for laban or yoghurt, and associates them with political integrity:

Step I. Heat the milk and let it reach the boiling point. Reach the boiling point. I have reached the boiling point many times. I know about Lebanon’s suffering, Palestine’s dispossession, Iraq’s devastation. I know how many times I have been called names, how many Arabs have been beaten on American streets… All of this knowledge is what leads me to the boiling point. It makes me angry. And I think it is good for a cultural worker to be angry, not with the kind of anger that poisons our insides and drives people away, but with the kind of anger that gives us momentum and courage… Step II. Check to see if the milk has cooled enough. When you can keep your finger in the milk for ten seconds you will know it is the right time. The knowledge resides in the bone, in the body… I wait to write, wait until the time is right, until anger is not the most overwhelming emotion. The time is right only when thoughtful reflection, love and humor catch up with anger so that they all mix together.

All these things are worth having, and it is no fun for me to say that I’ve seen too many written or filmed pieces ending with ethnic feminists happily cooking together for me to read this piece with pleasure. I can see people I know and love being moved by Kadi’s words as I type my own rejection, when her piece is not mine to refuse. Others who may identify with it are encouraged to benefit. But one only needs to read a few of the pieces Kadi has collected to know it is all more complicated than she presents it here. Beginning with a desirable outcome risks sentimentality; worse, it risks confusing integrity with an inevitable measure of sentimentality about either brokenness or essentialism (“in the bone, in the body”), implying that either means we “truly know who we are.”

For me the warning bells begin with sentimentality about anger. Kadi knew what she meant in beginning her “culture” with anger, but not all readers can be presumed to know. Although there is a great deal of reason for anger in these essays, Kadi’s writers usually do not write about anger with pride in the manner that many American progressives are used to. It is not a marker of integrity. (Kadi herself has written elsewhere about the difficulty she faces in accepting her own anger, after a lifetime of internalized racism and classism; the commentary here is restricted to this one essay.) In addition to the writers’ terrible sense of helplessness, this may be due in part to the fractured sense of identity referred to again and again. All people get angry, but it is a luxury to be able to respond with the decisiveness of an undivided self. If one’s identity is multiple, the concision of righteous anger is an expensive luxury in situations where it is often entirely appropriate, such as the political situations in Iraq, Palestine and Lebanon during the time of writing. I do not want to say that Kadi is wrong to valorize the right kind of anger, but instead to point out that it may be a misprision to present most of these writers as possessing the anger of the progressive cultural worker. What we can fairly assume in many cases is the anger of the victim, which shrinks to a pale shadow beside her grief. If there is any one emotion that Kadi’s writers associate with personal honor in the expression, it is an overwhelming and destabilizing sense of grief, to which rage is only the handmaiden. Naomi Shihab Nye gives voice to this desperation in a touchstone poem:


“A true Arab knows how to catch a fly in his hands,”
my father would say. And he’d prove it,
cupping the buzzer instantly
while the host with the swatter stared.

In the spring our palms peeled like snakes.
True Arabs believed watermelon could heal fifty ways.
I changed these to fit the occasion.

Years before, a girl knocked,
wanted to see the Arab.
I said we didn’t have one.
After that, my father told me who he was.
“Shihab”—“shooting star”—
a good name, borrowed from the sky.
He said that’s what a true Arab would say.

Today the headlines clot in my blood.
A little Palestinian dangles his toy truck on the front page…
I call my father, we talk around the news.
It is too much for him,
neither of his two languages can reach it.
I drive into the country to find sheep, cows,
to plead with the air:
Who calls anyone civilized?
Where can the crying heart graze?
What does a true Arab do now?

It’s as if the anger valorized by the American or American-influenced feminist can be presumed to exist in Nye, as an Arab, even before she is a feminist, and yet its meaning has been pulverized by history: all that is left to her is to turn it on herself. The creative anger of the “cultural worker” (a Marxist-inflected term for a person blending creativity with activism) reads as a pale substitute, even if that is only a matter of how it draws the reader’s attention to the same thing.

The search for integrity preoccupies a majority of writers in the collection. In 1994, most of them blamed themselves, global politics, or both for their sense of lacking it: racism and sexism in the Arab world are touched on but not usually named as deal-breakers, much as among the Franco-American women profiled in Kristin M. Langellier’s Storytelling in Daily Life. Seldom if ever do the writers report that they cannot identify with their background at all, or communicate with their families. This is very different to the experience reported in memoirs such as Charleen Touchette’s It Stops With Me or Arlene Voski Avakian’s Lion Woman’s Legacy, which also feature heroic grandmothers. (It may still be true for some of Kadi’s writers and just go unreported.) Also different is the seeming unwillingness of Kadi’s writers to identify with a progressive political community as their new home. Kadi herself expresses that wish by implication, but hints at its difficulty for her as well, given what divides her from Western activists. The essay that comes closest is Bookda Gheisar’s “Going Home.” Gheisar is clearly involved in a positive choice of cultures: “The trouble with looking for a home in the United States is that the mainstream patriarchal and racist culture will never allow me to make this my home. I am not allowed to be angry or criticize the American system because then someone will always say, ‘If you don’t like it here, why don’t you go back to where you came from’… It would be easy to give up, considering all the violence, wars, and injustice that surround us everyday, but I continue to find my power by connecting with other people of color, writing, and finding my voice. And I continue to follow my heart to a place where I can fully belong.”

Like Kadi’s in her essay, Gheisar’s ideals represent things well worth having. Both Kadi and Gheisar write from a standpoint perspective as defined by Nancy M. Hartsock and others. Hartsock distinguished the feminist standpoint from a “woman’s point of view” by locating the feminist standpoint in the conviction that relations between the sexes must change. Born to a privileged background in Persia, Gheisar, like most standpoint activists, finds her “home” in the people working with her for this change and others, to the extent that different concerns can find common friends. Feminist essentialism by contrast appears in Nada Elia’s article “A Woman’s Place is in the Struggle.” “In my mind, we women have measured our achievements in terms of masculinist history for too long. To examine international feminism in terms of the [first] Gulf War would, once again, validate the patriarchal, militaristic discourse feminism seeks to undermine.” But she rejects essentialism about her own national origins. Here the standpoint shifts. As much to the point, when it shifts from feminism to national or racial identity it finds no one place to land:

I am Lebanese, or so I tell people I think I will not be seeing again. Friends get the longer version. My parents are Palestinian. My birth occurred in Iraq. We moved to Beirut when I was still a baby. I grew up in Lebanon. I also make it a point to specify that although my family is Christian, I grew up in West Beirut, that is, that part of the city the media refers to as “mostly Muslim.” Why should my narrative be simple? Can any narrative be simple if one of its themes is related to the Palestine question? I also identify with Muslim culture, because it is my experience that, whether you are a believer or not, you carry values of the predominant religion. Thus, in the United States, you need not be Christian to identify with certain Christian values, or to punctuate your calendar with Christian dates. Similarly, I believe Islam to be part of Arab culture, my culture. I am sure the Lebanese Christians will choke on this one…

This anti-essentialism was once the certificate of excellence among academic progressives, and provided the ticket to choose one’s own culture within progressivism as Bookda Gheisar does; but its being valorized for a sense of brokenness ignored the moral essentialism, implicit in the privileging of the choice, in a way that Kadi’s writers largely do not. Gheisar welcomes it that she has a choice, as do nearly all of Kadi’s writers in one way or another. At the same time Gheisar and every single other woman represented here is aware that the existence of this choice on her terms as a person of multiple identity, rather than simply as a woman, represents an undermining of her host culture that is no fin-de-siècle accident. It means she is not her sitti and not by her own, her parents’, or her sitti’s choice. Most commonly, the writers describe having to “pass” in all their cultures. We can see the postmodernism of the 1990s on its way to becoming the antiracism of the 2000s. The postmodern perspective was fairly described by Marilynn Rashid in terms of a sense of loss and being forever compromised, the loss often as not blamed on a multicultural, technological global village that was still embraced up to a point. The antiracist perspective takes a clearer moral stance against the need to give up so much by asking who demands that it be given up in the first place: who is to say that there is anything mutually exclusive about being Arab and American, for instance, or feminist and either, if it were not for enforced systems of oppression that mark one pole as a privileged state and the other as not.

The most significant marker of the collection’s publication in the nineties is that most of the writers either identify as white or describe themselves “passing” as white. Laila Halaby puts her finger on it in a poem called “Browner Shades of White”:

Under race/ethnic orgin
I check white.
I am not
a minority
on their checklists
and they erase me
with the red end
of a number
two pencil.

This has changed at least among Middle Easterners who identify as antiracists, enough so that it is a telling surprise to find how many women not only passed as white twenty years ago, but were preoccupied by their ambivalent relationship to whiteness. The ambivalence is not easily resolved. Some Middle Eastern groups such as Armenians are officially white to this day. Martha Ani Bedoukian chooses not to identify as white, in an essay that raises the question of whether socially assigned whiteness can be cast aside voluntarily. Today Arabs and most other Middle Easterners are considered nonwhite by antiracists, even though for a long time they identified as white. There is no logical reason outside convention for Armenians to be identified as white if Arabs and Persians are not, though long habit carries weight when it is accompanied by so much social privilege. It crosses a line for most antiracists to call Jews nonwhite, in the same way as it does for people of Irish descent to point out that they too were once considered nonwhite. Yet Kadi includes one poem by a Sephardic Jew, Lilith Finkler, that focuses entirely on the question of whiteness:

In the synagogue of the Ashkenazim,
I ululate at night,
a lunatic from Libya,
One Generation removed.

I am the kaddish, the prayer of mourning.
I ache for the Jews of northern Africa,
living among white-skinned peoples.

I am the yahrzeit candle
Europe will not light…

I am the fear of the Arabic
that resides within me.
Of the shrill curses
shouted in desperation.
Of the foods I craved,
the lentil soup and couscous
my mother never cooked.
Of the darker tone of skin,
olive shades,
black eyes and hair.

It was brave of Lilith Finkler to publish this poem in Food for Our Grandmothers as it was brave of Kadi to accept it, and both must surely know it raises more problems than it answers. Kadi’s choices represent a hard line on Israel-Palestine that is necessary in context. It is so in more than one way. To ignore the rights and wrongs of Israel-Palestine—at least to avoid looking at them in any way that is categorically critical of Zionism—serves in affect to disappear (and to demonize) real-life Jews by suggesting that if Zionism can be criticized, it means Jews must be evil. That plays directly into the hands of anti-Semites in white-majority countries, whose racism is as easily transferred from Jews to Arabs except under particular circumstances when sympathy for Arabs flatters the white hater of Jews. Instead we need to look hard at the racial politics of anti-anti-Semitism after World War II and how whiteness was implicated in the choice between Zionism and assimilation, as in the forms Zionism took: we must also ask whether it is fair to Jews to rearrange our pre-existing categories of “good guys” to say that some people were always white, and some always not (as in the Cold War era some might always have counted as belonging to the Third World, and some not); so that if the uncritical sympathy some progressives muster for their deserving victims of the day was once given to the wrong “good guys,” it was always wrong and thus didn’t call the politics of sympathy into question. (See, for instance, Karen Brodkin Sacks’ How the Jews Became White Folks.) One of the magnificent things about Food for Our Grandmothers is that it categorically spurns the politics of sympathy, and interrogates their presence in any viable form of antiracism.

At the time of writing, unifying experiences for Middle Easterners in the Americas tended to be understood in terms of politics and ethnicity rather than race in American terms. Kadi made a conscious effort to subvert this trend. But the results in 1994 suggest that while the increased progressive sympathy for Middle Easterners and specifically Muslims (and Arab Muslims) on the grounds of race today is welcome, certainly better than nothing, it distorts the case to use this sympathy as one more certificate of excellence for white progressives: there is a lot more we will need to overcome. This should not be read as a dismissal of race in this context. Race is deeply implicated in American attitudes toward Israel-Palestine (Jews are seen as white, Arabs are not) but the current status of critical race theory in America is that of a strongly American-centered discipline, focusing on the meanings of race in this country. To understand Arab nationalism properly we will have both to understand our own lenses and to put them aside, including but not limited to those of race as we know it in this country. Arabs in the Middle East are scapegoated by Americans according to racial perceptions that do not match those of the Middle East itself and which may represent an erasure of its realities even when American racism toward Arabs is understood in a manner sympathetic to Arabs. In other words we need to be careful that the sympathy does not confirm the misperception.

It is painful to say so, and on one level I hope I am wrong. It would be heartening to imagine that an increased understanding of the social meanings of whiteness and race in America would be enough to bring about a sane foreign policy, and certainly it is hard to see how it could happen without that. But while white Americans who are invested in antiracism might also become invested in treating the Middle Easterners/Arabs/Muslims they know personally with more humanity and humility, it will not be enough to make all the necessary changes in attitudes to foreign policy. There, attitudes and actions which are understood by Arabs as attacks on all Arabs and tolerated by Americans due to racist beliefs are justified and carried out with hatred at times, but also with the conviction that what Arabs most need is to be welcomed into the loving democratic world that will teach them tolerance. American progressivism has more in common with this viewpoint than it dares recognize.

One reason is that American progressivism has for almost fifty years been anti-nationalist, and Middle Eastern nationalism matters to Middle Easterners in ways that Americans can barely understand. The single exception is Zionism, and even that is not a good example given that left-wing American progressives tend to oppose it on grounds of being opposed to nationalism in general, or else to Western imperialism, rather than on the grounds of Arab nationalism on its own terms. Our most lasting encounter with our own racialized social system was in the 1960s, when the nationalists were the white Southerners—the “bad guys”—and the antinationalists the men and women of the civil rights struggle. Today, we still tend to see racial or racialized conflicts in terms of “bad guys” who persist in a misguided nationalism and “good guys,” or at least victims, whose cause can be assimilated into a generalized concern for all who suffer; once the “good” victims make nationalistic claims our lexicon is forced to resort to the canard of “both sides.” However seemingly progressive about race, and despite its real potential to inspire opposition to racism, this viewpoint has the disadvantage of replicating the very attitudes that fueled America’s drive toward the West: a nation that spanned a continent would be big enough to give “all sides” shelter, while this very freedom from the ethnic fortresses of the Old World would in fact be predicated on the destruction of peoples who did not look like “nations” in the same way owing to their race.

It is thus understandable that those Middle Easterners who are still officially white should resent having to pay for their forebears’ decisions in this regard. Martha Ani Bedoukian writes eloquently, and at times arrogantly, about her desire to be rid of a whiteness that imposes an arbitrary separation between her and other Middle Easterners. Her longing is most poignant given the genocide of Armenians in Turkey, in the name of pan-Muslim politics. But Bedoukian’s self-identification as nonwhite rests uneasily alongside her nationalism. Though Armenia receives nowhere near as much American aid as Israel, it receives a lot relative to its size through the efforts of the Armenian diaspora. The West sides with Turkey against Armenia but tolerates aid to Armenia because Armenians are seen as an ethnic rather than a racial or national interest group, thus read as “white.” Nationalism on the part of those inscribed as nonwhite is seen as being a source of dual loyalty whereas nationalism among the white becomes a lobby within the melting pot. One reason why American Zionism caused such rage is that this was one example to the contrary of the arguments raised against Arab identity—a case of Americans supporting self-determination for a strongly nationalist state, partially, if not entirely, in recognition that its people had needs for self-determination outside of diaspora that had been created through the tragic intervention of history. In a culture where the concept of respect is paramount, it cannot be overemphasized how much the Arabs felt they had been disrespected if any of them were to be forced into diaspora (cut off from the whole) to allow another people to leave theirs. The ethnic kinship between Jews and Arabs did not help. So long as Americans simply do not understand or care to honor the specific cultural needs of Arabs, among them the concept of respect for their sovereignty as Arabs rather than generic inhabitants of the Middle East, we must put aside the “both sides” approach to integrating the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with our own culture and acknowledge that the sides are at the very least different. Too much comparison risks eliding a difference in treatment if nothing else, all the more aggravated when and where the concerns have been similar.

Thus the postmodern grid onto which this anthology fit, albeit very roughly, and which a few essays such as Marilynn Rashid’s court, did the Arab world in particular no favors. The theme of deracination with which postmodernism was obsessed could easily be presumed to exist because the Arabs could not bear their own people, especially Arab women, just as some Jews could not exactly be anti-Zionist but suffered from what was done in Zionism’s name—or else, because they had suffered, however much they might dislike it they could not exactly be anti-Zionist. (Either might have been a rationale for Carolyn Forché’s having placed Abba Kovner alongside Mahmoud Darwish—whom she has translated—in her essential anthology Against Forgetting; to take only one wincing example of this phenomenon.) Packaging aside, Kadi’s collection was valuable for all the contrary evidence it presented: it showed over and over that these women and their forebears were not in the Americas due to the oppressiveness of Arab society but because of a home environment made intolerable by foreign powers. One poem by Laila Halaby combines this theme with almost every other one touched on in this collection:

Two Women Drinking Coffee

They sit in jeans and drink their coffee, black
As kohel on their eyes. They pour their tales
Of broken romance through a sieve: the words,
While cardamom in flavor, are in English.
Today they’ve met outside a café;
Their work is done and each is going home.
It’s here they punctuate each other’s day
With stories, lively jokes, and cigarettes.
The mood is soft, the laughter not so strong.
The talk is dominated by their thoughts
Of home, to which there’s no return: like love
That’s lost and leaves a stinging sadness there
To bite the heart without a kind of warning.
The one who’s lost most recently then sighs.
Her hands are silent, her head turned away
As she speaks in words with orange blossom scent:
The angel I believed was always here
Has flown to heaven and I now must cope
Alone with love that’s in a different tongue
I understand too well to misinterpret.

Among other things, Halaby’s poem describes a dimension of Arab culture occupied by relationships between women as friends, not just grandmothers, mothers, and daughters. The “coffee,” “cardamom” and “orange blossom” belong to the two women together rather than an objectifying gaze. Sadly, that objectifying gaze can also be feminist. Therese Saliba points out that “the dominant discourse’s emphasis on the Arab woman’s body and her position within an alleged despotic family structure allows external forces of racism and imperialism to continue unquestioned,” and in one of the strongest political essays, Carol Haddad tells how her and other Arab feminists’ opposition to the Israeli invasion of Lebanon was undermined by white feminists—some Jewish, but by no means all.

In some ways the title is a misnomer. The women in the collection are all exiles from their grandmother’s worlds. Though there is no bald rejection of this world, there is a clear sense that it is never to be recovered, and the grandmother herself appears seldom, despite Kadi’s assurance that she is everywhere. One keystone essay is Therese Saliba’s “Sittee (or Phantom Appearances of a Lebanese Grandmother),” bordering on fantasy with its evocations of the grandmother’s presence (like the ghostly female in Emile Habiby’s Saraya, the Ogre’s Daughter). Sitti appeared so often in the submissions Kadi collected that the title was obvious to her even though the subtitle locating the collection in North America was not. The disparity sums up that between a world in which there are clear female figures of power in the sittis, and a world in which female power is propagandized as being there for the asking but is often not there in practice. If there is relatively little about specific feminist issues apart from Western objectification, it may be less because Middle Eastern culture is antifeminist and more because the gulf between sitti’s world and her Americanized granddaughter’s is widened by dislocation with an outside cause. It is interesting that the closest approach to original folkways and folklore is made by lesbian writers such as Kadi and Saliba. The other Armenian voice in the collection, Zabelle, begins to introduce folklore by telling the story of the magical horse Lulizar. Lulizar delivers a lost princess back to the king of Armenia together with a young village woman dressed in boys’ clothes:

Complications arise on the wedding night, when the princess, who had after all been living with the young woman prior to her marriage, “discovers” the sex of her new spouse. From then on the princess plots to get rid of her by having the young woman sent on various dangerous quests, but each time the magical Lulizar helps her to succeed. Finally she is sent to recover a rosary from the “mother of the devs,” who curses the unseen thief with an instant change of sex—a solution which satisfies the princess. 

I believe it is time for a new telling of the story, one in which the women have names, the mother of the devs cures the princess of her homophobia, and Lulizar receives the freedom that is her just reward. Then everyone can live happily ever after.

We don’t know what would be different in a collection of this nature if it was published today, because there hasn’t been another quite like it. What would surely remain and have only grown in strength would be the psychology of self-division, though it is no longer fashionable to speak in terms of fragmentation and contradictory oppressions. Today the pendulum on the left has perhaps shifted again to finding a “magic bullet.” One may thus be worried by the example of Israel-Palestine, when a person oppressed in one context can be the brutal oppressor of another in another context, and none of the explanations of intersecting oppression appear to fit all the facts. It is not clear if there is a “magic bullet” that can be aimed at the origins of all oppression, or if, as people of good will, we will turn out to have more in common than not. But in the face of the kind of hatred given expression by Elizabeth Moon, it is very clear that we dare not tolerate a world where in the name of ending one hatred, we underwrite others. Whether this will mean an end to “passing” or whether the passing will continue is yet to be seen.

This is a powerful set of writings. The objective tone I have taken in writing this review risks making it invisible that for about forty-eight hours after reading it, I was unable to function, and shelved many pressing obligations to write several pages of personal reflection on my own experience as a woman in an adopted Middle Eastern culture. I decided, eventually, not to include these reflections, influenced by Therese Saliba’s warnings about white women in the culture replacing Arabs and others to whom it is in some way native as we share our experiences. My experiences are not irrelevant, but they belong elsewhere. This is true for more than one reason. Despite the folksy-sounding title and section headings, Food for Our Grandmothers is not about folkways. But it is also not about deracination for its own sake. In “Five Steps to Creating Culture,” for all its partially simplistic approach to what “culture” is about, Joanna Kadi makes some outstanding points:

When I pondered my grandmothers’ activities I realized we have not noticed them. They are not what springs to mind when we think of cultural achievements. There may be several reasons for this: let me name two that I think are important. First, our community has not always noticed or affirmed women and the things we do. Second, these parts of our culture are so common and so present that we tend to overlook them. When you watch someone make laban once a week for years and years, you do not notice the importance of what they are doing.

I did not sit in the kitchen smelling warm milk and think to myself: My grandmother is engaged as a cultural worker. But that is what she was… One point of my confusion had to do with what it meant to have culture. Growing up, my only understanding of culture was what white, middle- and upper-class people achieved and did. I could not translate that understanding to my identity as Arab and as working-class. So, although my family listened to Arab music, danced Arab folk dances, and ate Arab food, I did not perceive any of this as culture. Perhaps if we had not been so isolated from a larger Arab community things would have been different. But as it was, the people around us, and society generally, perceived our music and our food on good days as a series of weird, isolated, and exotic behaviors that for some reason my family engaged in. On bad days they perceived it as disgusting as well as weird.

It is only now with the benefit of hindsight that I understand I grew up surrounded by Arab culture. It is only now that I understand what happened in my grandmother’s kitchen… Gram is making laban. As is always the case when she cooks and bakes, there is no recipe. No directions, no reminders. Still, she knows exactly what to do [my emphasis]… I want to create things that allow my loved ones not only to survive but to flourish. But there is a big, big difference between my grandmother and I… She is secure in the knowledge of what to do. I am not. I am foraging for a recipe, a tradition, one that originated in the east and will serve me well in the west.

This knowledge was not written down and the creation of the need for it to be written down is itself political: the sittis are not in the villages where many of them expected to live their whole lives. Understanding this, one has a better sense of the tragedy represented in Emile Habiby’s masterpiece Saraya, the Ogre’s Daughter, where Habiby’s narrator has made himself a “book” in the same way as people in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 103 became “books,” memorizing as much of Palestinian folklore as he can and situating it in the landscape of historic Palestine. In this he is doing what his forebears did: the difference is that he has to do it on purpose, and also write it down. Martha Gellhorn Sa’adah writes: “This is the way a generation ends. By writing a recipe down.”

One can hope that Sa’adah is wrong about this and Kadi is right, and still fear it is the other way around. Either way, Kadi’s collection must still be taken very seriously indeed.

Storytelling in Daily Life

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Sep 302010

Storytelling in Daily Life
by Kristin M. Langellier and Eric E. Peterson, 2004
Reviewed by Tanya B. Avakian

Storytelling in Daily Life is an important book that has dated little in six years. Co-authored by Kristin M. Langellier and Eric E. Peterson, it is shaped most by a series of oral interviews Langellier conducted with Americans of French-Canadian descent. Although it is written from a communications perspective, it touches heavily on folk content, particularly the issues involved in drawing from oral history and other firsthand sources. It is a worthwhile resource for any creative artist mining folkloristic or other ethnic material and interested in negotiating the barriers of cultural appropriation, other issues touching on racism and gender prejudice, or simply in knowing how families tell their own stories. Langellier’s and Peterson’s book will help a reader understand better where some of the fault lines are, and what to be aware of in writing about these areas. For those with a special interest in the subject matter it is also a pleasure to read.

The first pages of Storytelling in Daily Life are full of the postmodern terminology that was virtually required at the time. This should not put readers in 2010 off the book. At the time of Langellier and Peterson’s writing, the principal sources of insight into the contested nature of storytelling were heavily indebted to postmodernism; the available discourse was that of Michel Foucault and Julia Kristeva. Perhaps with the return to moral absolutes on both sides of the political spectrum in the wake of September 11, 2001, some of this perspective has dated; at the same time its key points have taken hold in most considerations of narrative, such that they no longer need to announce allegiance to what might be called “official” postmodernism, as Langellier and Peterson’s book still does. It is no more than an announcement; Storytelling in Daily Life gets down to business pretty quickly.

The heart of the book is in its exploration of storytelling in families, with a focus on Franco-American families of Québéçois or Acadian descent in the state of Maine. It is set in a landscape well known to me. I walked across French Island twice daily when I lived with family in nearby Milford, to get to Old Town and the local bus route, and to go back. Though the Franco-American culture is not the same as the one I grew up in, it has some things in common with the Armenian-American culture into which I married and the Baltic German culture of my parents. All the cultures originating in French Canada share an allegiance to the ideal of la survivance: maintaining a French identity amid the majority Anglophone culture, well before any such concept as multiculturalism existed.

What was passed on was a culture that had already taken on a separate identity from the European French, as in the Americas it would distinguish itself subtly from the Québéçois. Since the French were not going to rewrite the history of the Americas and French immigration to the Americas was severely limited, the French enclaves dedicated themselves to carrying on a culture and a dialect owing much more to the old France they had left than the France of contemporary Europe. France became a modern society after the world wars, but Québec did not begin to enter the modern world until the “Quiet Revolution” of the 1960s and did so as a society that had missed the French Revolution and largely missed the Enlightenment. In Canada la survivance changed its tune to concern itself with Québéçois identity in the modern world, including political separatism.

This was not an option in the United States and as with other immigrant populations, the questions were those of juggling an American identity with a culturally distinct way of life; here as elsewhere in America la survivance was and remains the work of several generations who each have to ask the question of what exactly must survive. Classically, the triad of elder (often a grandparent), contemporary, and future generations share the burden of sorting the question out.

Langellier’s own way of being a Franco-American feminist is different from the negotiations made by some of those she speaks to, the women in particular. Many live within a more traditional structure than Langellier herself would choose, as in a keynote story told by “Marie”: her parish priest baptized her second child with approval, telling Marie he hoped she would be back next year. Marie told him it was not likely, and when scolded, she told the priest “I want more children, but you’re not going to see me next year if I can help it.” Langellier interprets Marie’s story as a compromise between Franco-American and Québéçois pronatalism and her own autonomy: she will do her duty for la survivance, contributing children to “the revenge of the cradle”–the drive to very large families as a counterbalance to the Anglophone majority–but planning the times. It’s also possible that Marie meant she would have the children but she would stay away from that priest, an interpretation Langellier doesn’t consider. Either way, it’s clear these stories are matters of practice as well as content–how an individual makes peace with her culture and her conscience while ensuring herself the minimum needed for her own survivance. Marie’s tactics and Langellier’s are both different from Charleen Touchette’s in It Stops With Me: Memoir of a Canuck Girl. Touchette found it impossible to remain in contact with her birth family or much about its culture, instead choosing the Jewish culture to which she belonged by marriage and the Native American side of her Métis heritage. She emphasizes that her mother didn’t believe one could be a “Canuck” without being Catholic and was unable to accept Charleen’s conversion to Judaism. In another story told by Langellier, a woman stops practicing her family’s religion but considers herself no less a part of its culture; nor is she cut off from her family in the way described by Charleen Touchette. The key difference may be that Touchette’s family was violent, while “Aimée’s” is imperfect but functional.

Touchette remembers “Foi, langue, et famille” as the cornerstones of French identity in her home town of Woonsocket, Rhode Island. Langellier turns up a very similar triad of “faith, French, and food” among her interviewees; “family” might not be mentioned as such because most of her subjects remain in viable family settings, and faith, French, and food can all be presumed to be experienced in the context of family. French and food are open to subtly varying interpretations in the same way as faith. The French language as spoken in Québec is older in some ways, having been split off from European French for centuries, and newer-styled in others, containing a far greater number of English borrowings, and is overall as different from standard French as American or Australian variants of English are from British English. One man interviewed by Langellier is proud of the fact that he has learned French again after putting it aside for a while in order to “pass.” (People of French-Canadian descent were treated as inferior in much of New England.) But he notes that it is European French, and recognizes this as one of the compromises he has made with the competing poles of la survivance and assimilation. He notes similar compromises relating to faith and food–he is a churchgoer, but he argues with an anti-abortion demonstrator outside his church; he cooks some Franco specialties, but avoids others as being too high in cholesterol, and it is a change from usual Franco practice that he is the cook rather than his wife. Another interviewee tells a story having to do with food as if it is subversive, while Langellier notes that it shores up male domination in its own way: her husband was used to very plain food in his family and would eat out if he saw that she had used onions in her cooking. So she would use whole onions in her cooking, and remove them before it was time to serve. Her husband finds this funny and now admits “you can’t cook without onions.”

This multivocal identity within the same person or group of people is obviously double-edged. One of the pleasures of Langellier and Peterson’s book is that it does not opt for a simple “subversion” plot in its own narrative of how individuals come to terms with the expectations of community and heritage; nor does it favor an unbelievable plot in which the heroic central character, usually a woman, at once subverts the dominant cultural narrative and patriarchal expectations and rediscovers it, perhaps contrasting the blandness of the assimilationist culture into which she grew up (raised by a mother beholden to both) to the heroic survivance of an ethnic grandmother. As Langellier points out, what this means is often that women simply end up doing everything as always. Langellier doesn’t fall prey to this stereotype, but remains more or less nonjudgmental. More exacting commentators such as Charleen Touchette, or Arlene Voski Avakian among Armenian-Americans, have told versions of the ethnic plot in which the only hope for the individual is to break ties more or less completely, and pursue her own survivance by rejecting both the “ethnic” culture and assimilationist culture; the “happy end” is found through her newfound allegiance to progressive culture, often identified as feminist and sometimes as pan-ethnic (more rarely as American in its own way, though it is). Langellier includes no stories with this ending. Otherwise the variety of options she explores bear a strong resemblance to the experiences of Middle Eastern feminists in the Americas, as explored in Joanna Kadi’s collection Food for Our Grandmothers. (Some parallels are surprisingly precise. The “revenge of the cradle” as practiced by the French in North America has a close cognate among Palestinians, for instance, as among some Orthodox Jews after the Holocaust.)

By contrast, a chapter on blogging is severely dated, though valuable as a historical capsule. It is interesting to note that this chapter, like the following two, depart entirely from the grounding of the first half in a specific community and within the setting of the family. Nor is any effort made to tie the insights of one group of essays with the remaining three. It is somewhat frustrating, because the grounds for doing so are rich. Langellier would be interested in the debates about identity and politics going on among feminist blogs today, including those within the sff community. The other two chapters, one about storytelling in live performance and the other about illness narratives, with a focus on breast cancer, are less dated but also written as if they have nothing to do with Langellier’s insights. One might have wished for more integration with the sensitive and thorough exposition the authors have performed previously, regarding storytelling in families.

Storytelling in families is particularly relevant to the subject of illness narratives. In fact it seems to me one cannot consider one without also incorporating the other. Family storytelling is put to its acid test when it has to incorporate a traumatic event. Likewise illness narratives face many of the same challenges as family narratives: who gets to say what, how, and when; what it means that this particular person is telling the story in his or her way, or else in a way that has been chosen for him or her by other people; whether other people agree with him or her that the story was as he or she tells it; what to do when healing narratives are taken over by others, who may or may not have differing levels of access to the same content and differing degrees of a right to tell their own story about the traumatic event. In an influential work by Shoshana Felman and Dori Laub, Testimony: Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis and History, the authors tentatively explored ways in which the experience of listening to a recounted trauma involves the listener in the story as well as the teller. These are also performed stories taking place within a context of intimate relationships, especially in families, where the experience of the person suffering the illness is sometimes hard to separate from that of those around him or her. A person living alone can control the narrative to a significant degree; a person living in a family often cannot or may not. The same goes for other family members affected by the event. As soon as we do share our experience, we impose expectations on the audience as to how they will respond, and will relate to us accordingly. In a family setting this is inevitably affected by the politics of the family and serves to affect them in turn.

Not everyone will be happy with the extension of the illness narrative at least to the intimates of the patient. Kalí Tal referred to Testimony as “an appropriative exercise of stunning dimensions,” and one doesn’t have to go that far to appreciate the awkwardness of “witnessing by adoption” (for example) as a category of experience, as Holocaust-influenced literary scholar Geoffrey Hartman proposed it be. But while listening to a story does not make one a literal witness of a traumatic event, certainly if one has a loving relationship to the person telling the story it will have an effect and more so if the teller experienced the event. Moreover, these listeners are likely to be involved in one way or another in caregiving for the trauma survivor, especially if they are members of the same family; in turn the survivor may find himself or herself caring, sometimes inappropriately, for loved ones traumatized by his or her experience. I find Deborah Spungen’s category of “co-victims” useful here, though “witnesses by adoption” definitely risks appropriation. It is supremely relevant to Langellier’s project of tracing family survival through storytelling, since it is through these secondary categories of experience that a narrative is or is not passed on. The degree to which secondary experience is relevant in general can be argued, but there is no doubt that within a family and/or a small group setting it can become much more relevant than the firsthand experience of the individual. It is often at this point that the fault lines between individual/family and individual/small group are most significant and often the most painful.

But to say this is not entirely a criticism, because if a work like this does what it intends, it cannot possibly be complete; it must leave doors open for further exploration. There is much in the first half of the book that begins to suggest the ways in which family narratives incorporate trauma with the aim of passing on the family’s guiding narratives as proof against most evils, or conversely leave some traumas out because the family may be too vulnerable to awareness of them. Indeed the attitude of the family to the world outside itself bears some resemblance to the role difficult experience plays in the development of most individuals. Langellier acknowledges that families are constructed in part to protect their members from the outside world, but she points out that this role is meaningless if there is no exposure to the outside at all: “The nature of continuity of ethnic groups depends on the maintenance of a boundary through interaction rather than its avoidance.” (p. 127) Likewise the task of la survivance depends on a constant sorting-out between individuals and generations of what is to be kept and what will be allowed to fall away. “Alain,” for instance, tells a story of his rejection of a distinctive family role. It concerns the tradition of bloodstopping, a healing practice among the French that developed in the northern woods when accidents occurred and no medical help was available. The ability to heal depended upon the belief of both the bloodstopper and the victim. Alain’s father was a bloodstopper, well-known and sought out within the French community, and Alain is the son designated to succeed his father in the next generation. However, Alain states:

I never believed in it
and it’s supposed to be passed on to me from my father
my mother used to say I used to have wicked toothaches
she’d say well ask your father
he’d get rid of them
I’d say Mom I don’t believe in that
I’m a young man now
I don’t believe in that
so ah it was never passed on to me

Despite this disclaimer in which he declines the passing of his father’s mantle, Alain offers a gripping story in which his father saves a man’s life after a shooting accident. The historical moment may contribute to Alain’s skepticism: bloodstopping animates the lore of older people and earlier times. Alain is not his father. Still he continues to embrace the place of its roots, living on French Island where he was born.

Alain’s decision represents a loss from the point of view of a single tradition and a single family (presumably a nuclear family: in the extended family, Alain may have siblings and cousins who could have learned bloodstopping). Langellier points out that this is normal: “Families, however, are always in flux, always undergoing internal change through births and deaths, marriages and divorces, new and waning relationships. Put another way, families are always incorporating new members as children are born or adopted and raised, and as new members enter by way of marriage and conjugal relations. Conversely, families are always losing members as children grow up and leave home, as well as through deaths and divorce.” As Marian Mesrobian MacCurdy has shown in her work on trauma narratives, the ordering process of narrative may exactly parallel the work the self needs to do to survive trauma. The danger often comes into play when the ordering of the individual challenges that of the culture too deeply. “At a family dinner, for example, a twelve-year-old child was asked by her mémère, ‘what do you eat at home?’ The granddaughter first distinguished between the before and after of her parents’ divorce, and then what she eats at home with her mother and stepfather, and then with her father and stepmother.” Although the child meant this sensibly, Langellier’s extended interpretation of the answer suggests that it was not acceptable to mémère–perhaps not wrong on the part of the child, but not a survival story that contributed to the survival of the family and the culture as mémère could understand it, coming as she did from a generation in which divorce was rare. The coping and support mechanisms for dealing with the traumas may already be in place (“what she eats at home with her mother and stepfather, and then with her father and stepmother”) without this particular crisis being resolved; it may in fact only become a crisis when it demands telling.

The same can be said for other stresses threatening the identity of the ethnic family as a reproducible whole. As in Charleen Touchette’s case, a member who does not practice the group’s core religion can convert to another religion, a far more threatening event than simply falling away from the religion of birth. Touchette “divorced” her parents after her beloved mother told her Jewish children that “the Jews killed Christ.” The revelation of abuse in families can certainly function in this way. Touchette’s family has tried to remove her memoir from the library in Woonsocket, in a case that is beyond the scope of this article. She will certainly find some sympathy among those who prefer narratives like Charleen Touchette’s in which the “happy end” is that the old, non-viable ethnic family is permanently dislocated in favor of a new progressive family, chosen voluntarily, if with certain elements such as the Native that the individual can accept. But since this answer will itself not be acceptable to everyone it is problematic to make it normative, even if it is equally problematic for survivors in Touchette’s position to know that the old ways go on. To be sure, some feminist or gay family members find it impossible to be themselves and remain a part of the family narrative, though this is slowly changing.

Illness narratives, as an emerging genre, have tended to favor a parallel to the “subversion” model of the family narrative as told by some feminist or otherwise nontraditional tellers: the highly artificial and stressful authoritarian setting of modern medicine is replaced with a personalist, individually centered narrative of what happened to this particular patient. It is significant that Alain’s example involved trauma and medicine: his disinclination to believe in bloodstopping represented one of his most personal choices, and a triumph of sorts though one about which he is ambivalent. If however we take the personalist focus of the illness narrative, with its emphasis on the social and emotional context of illness, we find it inevitably returning us to the web of relationships in which people live and structures that resemble families, whether or not they are birth families. In such a context there can be no “right” way to tell even the most personal story, as Langellier emphasizes repeatedly in telling her Franco stories: when it comes to sticking points of trauma, politics, gender, class, religion, sexuality and increasingly race, sometimes the best we can do is to observe that these things create differences.

As a resource for writers interested in “writing the other,” this book is invaluable. It will make clear to any interested reader that neither peoples nor families are monolithic, and the narratives of individuals within these groups reflect the need to balance individual self-awareness with the demands of a group that is itself not all one thing. The writer’s inhabiting of an “other” voice is less likely to be invasive or appropriative if it recognizes that otherness is multiple, not single, and even more crucially, that it is shared: that the person whose voice one assumes exists in relation to others of his or her own kind and to the rest of the world. Such a person lives in more than one dimension and his or her negotiation of this complexity is not reducible to a few markers of identity: however significant the “French, faith and food” markers of Franco-American cultural identity, each person in Langellier’s sample has made a different set of compromises with them. They also share a need to compromise with folk practices, such as Alain’s father’s bloodstopping, which are the stuff of fantasy literature but were part of real life within the living memory of individuals. The negotiations made with religion and women’s roles–too easily dismissed from mainstream progressivism as antifeminist by definition–will be especially interesting to a culture that has yet to begin to come to terms with Muslim identity, though women are significant among the few sff writers of Middle Eastern descent (such as Ann-Marie MacDonald, Vera Nazarian, JoSelle Vanderhooft and Amal El-Mohtar). This book is not for everyone, being written in clear but densely explanatory prose and superseded in parts, but it is recommended without reservation to folklorists, oral and family historians, researchers into ethnicities, and anyone else with more than a consumer’s interest in storytelling.

The Birds of the Air

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Sep 302010

The Birds of the Air
by Alice Thomas Ellis, 1980
Reviewed by Tanya B. Avakian

When Beryl Bainbridge died earlier this year, it marked the passing of a literary moment little known in this country but apt to be recognized by a British reader of a particular chronological and intellectual generation. Bainbridge was one of the last important survivors of a group of writers associated with the Camden Town district of London and the Duckworth publishing house as it was run by Colin and Anna Haycraft. They were born mostly before the war, the largest number sometime in the thirties; they were the peers in age of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, but it’s symptomatic of their overall tastes that Anna Haycraft’s cross-Atlantic version of The I Hate to Cook Book–Darling, You Shouldn’t Have Gone to So Much Trouble doesn’t include a recipe by either Hughes but instead by Dido Merwin. Others represented are Sonia Orwell, Ursula Vaughan-Williams, Seamus Heaney, Lucian Freud, Jonathan Miller, and Bainbridge herself; we can however assume that most of them are the creation of Haycraft herself, whose skills as a cook and hostess lay at the heart of the Duckworth presence during the latter third of the twentieth century. The Haycraft home became known for alcohol-lubricated parties in a large, somewhat chaotic house that in off hours doubled as the seat for a large, somewhat chaotic family. Anna, a conservative Roman Catholic convert, was devoted to her own motherhood and conceived seven children. Visitors could expect to find her in her kitchen, equally likely to be nursing a baby, stirring a pot or correcting a manuscript; cigarettes and a glass of wine were a constant, as was Anna’s misanthropic wit. The three slender, huge-eyed, smoke-wreathed sirens of Duckworth–Haycraft and her two best friends, Bainbridge and Lady Caroline Blackwood–became a trope unto themselves in the mind of visitors, and in retrospect it’s clear that the key figure was Haycraft, who touched the other two with her air of unearthly, unsmiling hilarity. She left many of the boring details of running her establishment to a treasure named Janet, but there was no question who was the star.

For a while Anna Haycraft lived a charmed life, according to her own lights. Her choices were not for everyone but they made her happy. They were put to the test when they brought her just as much unhappiness, and the value of her eccentric’s wisdom for others was tested as suffering made her increasingly isolated and waspish. One of her children died shortly after birth; another, disastrously, died in an accident aged nineteen, after a prolonged coma. Thereafter Anna Haycraft waited impatiently for death, for all the joy her remaining five brought her. She was consoled by her faith but only up to a point. Like Evelyn Waugh, another right-wing convert, Haycraft was distraught to find much that had attracted her about the Church falling away after Vatican II. She and her husband Colin were an odd couple–he famously commented that “religion is for women and queers,” not as a compliment–and his skepticism kept her on her toes, writing from deep belief but with the awareness that it was not the easiest sell among many of the people who provided the Duckworth bread and butter. After Colin’s death, Anna Haycraft became something of a crank, if a crank is a one-issue person with little regard for others’ feelings or intelligence. Her writings on British Catholicism in the nineties turned increasingly bitter and hysterical, and she was not mellowed when the Catholic Herald, no less, fired her as a columnist after her posthumous attack on the Bishop of Liverpool. She found other outlets, but never got over the sense that she had nurtured a serpent in her bosom for reasons she was ill-equipped to understand. As a convert, she was not always sensitive to the anguish her co-religionists had endured in England for a long time, or the roots of what she had admired about them in their centuries of near-total deracination. Predictably, she did not meet with much sympathy among readers who preferred banality and freedom to haunting mystery and persecution. When she died in 2004, she may not have been the only person to be relieved.

It’s a pity that her notoriety risks obscuring the fact that she also possessed a streak of genius. Even as diehard a fan as this writer cannot claim it was more than a streak; her books were short and deliberately slight, and the best of them are undermined by a self-consciousness about their own merits. She was not an admirer of the human race, which is excusable, but she was an admirer of her own prejudices, which is less so but can be forgiven in a writer if it pushes her to try harder, damning the torpedoes of popular opinion. Haycraft can write very much in this vein, like Waugh, and also like the feminist writers she absolutely refused to be identified with; if Margaret Atwood can at times sound like an agnostic Canadian feminist Evelyn Waugh, Haycraft can sound like one who is none of those things, but still manages to touch some of the same nerves of unease. It is harder to put up with her when she plays to the crowd, albeit one that may sometimes have existed only in her own mind. No doubt many readers of her Home Life columns–approximately weekly reports from Duckworth-land, having to do with Anna’s children, leisure interests, and pet peeves–took her as something of a role model; they were however likelier to sympathize with her overall sense that the past was nicer than with some of her phobias, such as science, the women’s movement, and judges.

A streak of genius is still a lot. She was the least consistent writer among the three Camden Town Fates, and not the most innately talented; that might have been Lady Caroline, though Beryl Bainbridge worked the hardest and thus had the greatest success. But Haycraft may have been the most singular, and the truest to her own uniqueness. It’s symptomatic of many things about her that this review has gone on this far without mentioning that all but her cookbooks were written under a pseudonym, Alice Thomas Ellis. She joked that she was “Alias Thomas Somebody Else.” She claimed she had chosen the name for its total anonymity, but this is unlikely: the three sibilant rhymes create a memorable hiss in the mind, and each name tells us something about her. The name Ellis might be Welsh, as Haycraft was. Thomas of course suggests her Catholicism, intercepting the near-identical beginning and end. Alice suggests Alice in Wonderland. The two last names raise questions: the author is married, of course; Haycraft was very attached to her own marriage and domesticity. This is no dotty spinster or liberated gadabout even if she writes mostly about women and their power in their own right, separate from the distractions posed by men. Or, if she’s not married, perhaps she’s relatively high in class. Haycraft was a snob, as only a Liverpudlian Celt with a Finnish father could be in her generation, even before one gets to English Catholicism and its debt to the true aristocracy. But the name isn’t hyphenated; the hint of class consciousness may owe more to meritocracy than breeding, as was definitely the case for the chattering classes in postwar England.

It was a name that lay dormant for some years. We will never know what sort of writer Alice Thomas Ellis would have been, or if she would have been, had Anna Haycraft’s son Joshua not died of injuries suffered in a fall. Prior to this catastrophe the Ellis name appeared on one novel, The Sin Eater, a sharp, amusing take on post-Vatican II Catholicism in England, competent but unmemorable on its own. It was the work of a writer who might write one other book, ten others, or none, as the mood took her. After Joshua Haycraft’s death Caroline Blackwood, who had also suffered the death of a child, behaved like a true friend and helped Anna put together her book of sleight-of-hand recipes. (I can vouch for the excellence of most of them; Darling, You Shouldn’t Have Gone to So Much Trouble has been a mainstay in my house for the past few years, even allowing for English-to-American translations across two decades. Favorites include Marianne Faithfull’s Different Sweet-and-Sour Pork and Dido Merwin’s omelet with cream cheese and sorrel.) But Alice Thomas Ellis did not reappear until 1980. Her name was on The Birds of the Air, a book written from the farthest reaches of grief.

The plot is minimal, provided by the English version of conspicuous consumption around Christmastime. The characters do not strictly matter except as they are deployed to set up the situation of the monstrous holiday and its disintegration into havoc. The one exception is Mary, whose son Robin has died; less distinct, but important as a stock figure, is Mary’s mother, Mrs. Marsh. She is determined that Mary will recover. “Mary felt rather like someone for whom a marriage was being arranged by people who doubted the suitability of the match but could think of no seemly way of retiring. Her family and friends behaved like outsiders privy to a secret and dubious courtship, treating her with an arch, considered and wholly unnatural care, whispering together and falling silent when they remembered her sitting by the window and possibly listening.” These sentences describe the plot of three linked Alice Thomas Ellis novels of the later eighties and nineties, the Summerhouse trilogy, and their heroine’s rebellion against marriage takes on a new significance if, as sometimes appears to be the case in the later story, Ellis views marriage as half pagan and roots for a dissident as exercising her rights within Christianity. To be sure Ellis finds Christmas to be half pagan, and draws heavily on imagery relating to Christmas as Yule, Saturnalia, Feast of Fools, rather than “God’s birthday,” as Mary calls it to everyone’s horror. Though it might be God’s birthday, Mary’s name and status move us along somewhat in the church year. The poles of paganism and Christianity are complicated by their respectively representing propitiatory gluttony and freezing grief.

A person who has suffered such a blow must inevitably be faced with the task of reconciling two distinct versions of the self, that before the loss and that created provisionally afterward. During the extremity of grief, which never goes away forever and recurs at intervals for the rest of one’s life, a third self also appears, beholden to neither past nor future nor anything else outside the anguish of the moment. The Birds of the Air is the biography of such a self. The bravery of the enterprise outweighs the relative significance of Anna Haycraft’s conclusions. Mary is a soul in torment, in whose pain no good can be found; she is also more in touch with spiritual truths than those around her. These things may be true, but they are hardly original insights.

What is remarkable and original in The Birds of the Air is its attention to craft over self-expression. Ellis could be excused for making the novel an autobiographical unburdening; she does not. Mary suffers in a way Anna Haycraft can identify with, but she is not Anna Haycraft. She is clearly defined by her own demographic details, in a way that spells character like nothing else in England: the socially conscious Catholic who coexisted alongside Haycraft’s more frenzied moments might say Mary is a more important person than the privileged publisher’s wife. She has lost her only child. She is at the mercy of expectations imposed by others in a way that Haycraft, the woman, may not have been; unable to draw upon a certain status and its accompanying authority to tell others to boil their heads, Mary is constrained by appearances. The theater of cruelty in which Mary negotiates these expectations forms the novel’s true setting, and furnishes the elements of its denouement. Ellis identifies all of it with the pagan festival of Christmas and contrasts it to Mary’s acceptance of what will not change.

If Ellis had written a more or less realistic novel, she would be obliged to focus on the relationship between Mary and her mother and humanize it to some degree. But The Birds of the Air is a comedy. We all know comedy and tragedy like one another’s company, but they don’t always appear together for the same reasons. Ellis is not interested in release from tension or the caricatures that can sometimes objectify pain. She has written a comedy because that is the kind of story she usually wants to tell, and especially here. It has been observed more than once that the deepest grief is inaccessible to tragedy. We have to pick ourselves up and get on with it, or if we don’t, those around us do; either way the story ends in life going on. No justice can be dispensed. Or as John Dowland wrote in 1603:

Time can abate the terror
Of every common pain;
But common grief is error,
True grief will still remain.

Indeed in his two grimmest plays, King Lear and its funny-horrible dress rehearsal Titus Andronicus, Shakespeare included at least as much violent farce as tragedy in deference to the unspeakable. Some things are never over.

So Mary’s mother bullies her into Christmas and farcical encounters with other beings. They include Mary’s sister Barbara, Barbara’s children and husband, Barbara’s lover, Barbara’s husband’s lover (“the Thrush”), Vera and Dennis the neighbors, a grown cat and a kitten; they might as easily include any of a limitless variety of other types, most of them stock figures of fun in that British time and place, and unfortunately one of the weaknesses of the novel and some of Ellis’ other novels is the sense that while she was writing a medieval morality play, she was also writing with the BBC in mind. The characters of Vera and Dennis belong nowhere but in a British sitcom and have their equivalents in The 27th Kingdom, The Inn at the End of the World, Unexplained Laughter and other novellas which should either be no more than fairy chill, or else funny in a way that doesn’t lend itself to the laugh track. Elsewhere, the sense in which Ellis was an amateur can add to the pleasure of reading her: she said she never wrote more than one draft and never corrected, which, if true, makes her fineness of language and construction all the more striking. If she could be awfully pleased with herself, it was balanced by the many occasions on which she showed she didn’t give a rat’s what other people thought of her. And it’s not as if television never achieves the moments she was most interested in–I have no trouble believing that Fawlty Towers was her favorite show, and some of what she writes about in Home Life is funny in the same way. The difficulty is that in Home Life, one believes a vignette like this one:

The man who mends the tumble-dryer wended his way through the clematis the other day and when he reached the laundry door, fending off the castor oil plant, he said, as I greeted him, “Dr. Livingstone, I presume.” I explained that the tumble-dryer had been incapacitated by a brassière hook which had caught in its metal perforations and tied all the other clothes into a knot. For some reason this had caused all the machines in the basement to give people electric shocks when they touched them–a sort of contagious hysteria–and everyday existence had assumed a dangerous aspect. He said that was nothing. Last time he’d had to treat a tumble-dryer with this complaint it had brought about a divorce. A steel reinforced brassière had become detached from its cantilever which had gone through the barrel part to foul the engine. The housewife said, as he retrieved, and triumphantly displayed it, that she herself never personally wore that sort of bra and she’d have to have a word with her husband when he got home. That, however, is not the point.

In The Birds of the Air one would have to find this not only funny, as it is in what purports to be a slice of Haycraft home madness; one would have to believe in the significance and the motives of the people involved, and while Ellis’ fictional characters can bear the weight of theological symbolism, they can’t always bear the weight of slapstick. The line is often fine, but it is still real. The author who manages to walk on that fissure again and again without falling flat is Flannery O’Connor, to whom Ellis is sometimes compared. The difference is that O’Connor’s comedy was all her own, as Ellis’ is when she trusts her voice. When Ellis’ pratfalls are secondhand they are worse than unfunny, they pop the suspension of disbelief like a balloon, and they leave behind a sense of meanness and poking fun at people her faith should bind her to defend. This doesn’t mean her every comic turn fails; the scene in which a hysterical Barbara is doused with coffee grounds is just as funny and painful as it’s meant to be. But the jokes involving working-class Vera and Dennis seem like little more than sniping at those whom the Camden Town crowd found to be their inferiors, and so do some of those involving Sam, Barbara’s son.

In the end, we can forgive this if Mary behaves according to the requirements of fable and allegory, because the great strength of The Birds of the Air is in its symbolism. This is not symbolism in the modern literary sense, or even in that of what is called “folk symbolism.” It is transparently artificial, in the manner of a medieval bestiary, and as such it is able in its limited scope to convey acceptance of a state of being (grief) that may define a person forever. Anna Haycraft might have been chuffed to have her tale compared to a fable as analyzed in the introduction to Vernon Jones’ famous 1912 translation of Aesop’s Fables, by G.K. Chesterton:

But the fable and the fairy tale are things utterly distinct. There are many elements of difference; but the plainest is plain enough. There can be no good fable with human beings in it. There can be no good fairy tale without them… for a fable, all the persons must be impersonal. They must be like abstractions in algebra, or like pieces in chess. The lion must always be stronger than the wolf, just as four is always double of two. The fox in a fable must move crooked, as the knight in chess must move crooked. The sheep in a fable must march on, as the pawn in chess must march on. The fable must not allow for the crooked captures of the pawn; it must not allow for what Balzac called “the revolt of a sheep.” The fairy tale, on the other hand, absolutely revolves on the pivot of human personality. If no hero were there to fight the dragons, we should not even know that they were dragons. If no adventurer were cast on the undiscovered island–it would remain undiscovered. If the miller’s third son does not find the enchanted garden where the seven princesses stand white and frozen–why, then, they will remain white and frozen and enchanted. If there is no personal prince to find the Sleeping Beauty she will simply sleep. Fables repose upon quite the opposite idea; that everything is itself, and will in any case speak for itself. The wolf will be always wolfish; the fox will be always foxy.

One of Alice Thomas Ellis’ best-known witticisms has to do with love, and the love of pets versus human beings. “There is no reciprocity. Men love women; women love children; children love hamsters.” So it’s charming, but also poignant to go from Chesterton’s reflections on the fable to his dated but still relevant reflections on the significance of fables being about animals, as The Birds of the Air takes its title from bird imagery that underlines the protagonists’ closeness to nature:

Something of the same sort may have been meant by the animal worship, in which Egyptian and Indian and many other great peoples have combined. Men do not, I think, love beetles or cats or crocodiles with a wholly personal love; they salute them as expressions of that abstract and anonymous energy in nature which to any one is awful, and to an atheist must be frightful. So in all the fables that are or are not Aesop’s all the animal forces drive like inanimate forces, like great rivers or growing trees. It is the limit and the loss of all such things that they cannot be anything but themselves: it is their tragedy that they could not lose their souls.

So Mary must be true to her own grief and the others must be as the blind, but have the scales fall from their eyes to differing degrees; their awakening to the reality of death, and thus of the beyond, must be conscious as well to differing degrees, while whatever self-consciousness Mary possesses must be in the service of her role as visionary. The privilege she enjoys as such must be balanced by its accompanying burden, which is that no consolation will ever be hers. It is Mary’s tragedy that she cannot be anything but herself and cannot lose her soul. And all this must be brought off in language the present-day reader can believe. Alice Thomas Ellis delivers on every count, so effortlessly, with such economy and power, that one wonders why she ever needed to bother about anything else; perhaps she included the sitcom touches because they gave her something to think about, whereas the breath of the grave may have come too naturally.

Anna Haycraft never recovered from her own loss, of course. She did write many more books, all of them worthwhile in some way; even her fulminations against liberal religion, reaching their peak in God Has Not Changed: The Collected Thoughts of Alice Thomas Ellis, are at least literate, while her main identity as a novelist came up with at least one major work in the form of the Summerhouse trilogy: three characters’ view of the same event, a nearly disastrous wedding subverted in a way that would assuredly not meet with the approval of Mother Angelica (who Haycraft admired, perhaps most for her sense of humor). Photos of Anna Haycraft in the last two decades of her life make her look a little like Susan Cohen, wife of popular science writer Daniel Cohen and the mother of a young woman who died on the Lockerbie flight, and also a lioness of justice or hell’s spawn depending on who you talk to, and when. Both have a face that is neither old nor young and never will be, its old definitions lost, now serving primarily as a home for the minatory stare; it is the face of a person no longer loyal to the world. One’s heart can break for this person and one can still know she means one no good, if no harm without cause. Alice Thomas Ellis’ novels are modest, but they are written from a place that requires as much deference in its own way as the perspective to which Lawrence L. Langer makes reference in The Age of Atrocity, beginning with a tartly selected quote on neuroses from a psychiatric perspective:

“They all refer to the terror of the human condition in people who can’t bear up under it.” But Améry sheds light on the terror of the human condition for people who have endured it, not through neurotic defenses but through actual experience. The result is a sort of grim lucidity, a clarity beyond tragedy that Charlotte Delbo, another survivor, would call “une connaissance inutile”–a useless knowledge. Memory is not a mental illness which can be cured; and insight that discredits all illusions, including the illusion of hope, is not a perversion of human nature to be treated by therapists.

Flannery O’Connor arrived at this place as a young woman with a terminal disease; for her, it was the true ground of Christian belief, to be embraced not with bitterness but with stoic joy. She had the gift for happiness that comes to light in some people who have endured extremity. Anna Haycraft lived in the same place and endured its good and bad weather for a quarter of a century, and if her nature was not inclined to be happy at the same time, she was probably more like most of us than those who can be–as Langer has also pointed out in the context of atrocity. Langer’s analyses of the videotaped testimonies of survivors of the Nazis return again and again to the point that just because a life is outwardly functional, even bright, does not mean that it does not go on indefinitely at the limits of human endurance. One can forgive a person almost anything under those circumstances: Susan Cohen’s crusade against less vocal Lockerbie survivors or Anna Haycraft’s (literal) filing cabinet full of the dope on clergy who had watered down the Mass, ready to be sent to the Pope at a moment’s notice.

Acknowledging the Church’s own ill fame, O’Connor wrote to a friend: “Human nature is so faulty that… the Church does well to hold her own; you are asking that she show a profit. When she shows a profit you have a saint, not necessarily a canonized one.” Haycraft was no saint, but her life showed a profit; she slogged to the end for her five surviving children and achieved exquisite moments in her writing. She believed she had a vocation, often threatening to go into a convent when her family irritated her; it is still not quite true that The Birds of the Air immortalizes the moment of her taking the veil, in the sense of a vocation to grieve, because grief is equally the fate of all human beings and the facts of it are impervious to our attitudinizing. Its distinction is rather in capturing Haycraft at the moment of accepting her separateness from the world whether she had chosen it or not. Whether it would be as memorable without knowledge of the facts of Haycraft’s life is another question. But it’s not always clear that this is a good thing in every case. Given the choice to be moved by a woman or a book, the critic must choose a book but the human being may be better off choosing a woman. Haycraft’s works were not always the equal of her life, which was marked by a courage beyond what we believe should be asked of us; that it so often is asked proves at least some of her points.

Liege and Lief

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Sep 182010

Liege & Lief
by Fairport Convention, 1969
Reviewed by Tanya B. Avakian

Most people know that the history of Fairport Convention is complicated. Since its definitive album Liege & Lief appeared in 1969 and confirmed its future as a fiddle-driven electric folk band, relatively few of the group’s diehard fans have known that one of its first complications was in wanting to be a psychedelic pop band, for which none of Fairport’s members was confident enough as a singer. Soprano Judy Dyble was photogenic, but with a faint voice like Vashti Bunyan’s she was miscast as lead vocalist for a band that styled itself originally on Jefferson Airplane. After their first album Fairport replaced her with Alexandra “Sandy” Denny, an intense, fair-haired ex-nurse from Wimbledon, the granddaughter of a Scottish traditional singer. Denny had already made a name for herself singing traditional material; perhaps more to the point, she was also well-connected in pop and American folk, having dated such as Jackson Frank and the Strawbs’ Dave Cousins, with whom she cut an album. She had a voice at least as strong as Grace Slick’s, with a distantly similar “high iron” quality (though she was as English as Slick was American), and had gained some attention for her own composition, “Who Knows Where the Time Goes.”

For the first time the band had a member with real star quality. The new arrival was also a mixed bag. Denny could be erratic, with a touch of Celtic dourness and defiance to her character and the weakness for drink that sometimes goes with it. But she gave the band a frontperson, and though barely out of her teens, she was an accomplished professional who pushed the men to rise to her standard. Perhaps more importantly, her style was so distinct that it stamped what had been a talented, but amorphous band forever in her image and made a great musician out of the other wild talent in the lineup, young Richard Thompson.

It may be heresy to say that Sandy Denny did not have a beautiful voice. Of course she did; but the qualities that we are predisposed to attribute to a beautiful voice, especially a female voice–softness, gentleness, vulnerability–were not inherent in her curious timbre. She imbued her phrasing with these qualities while her style remained brutal and strangely preoccupied. Reserve was the key to her power, insofar as it can be reduced to a formula. She could indeed raise her voice: if one had heard her loud, strange alto at full strength, one never again quite believed in her delicacy. But she was as far from melodrama as the infamous schoolmarm who never raises her voice because she never has to. If she was not the most versatile singer–her technique is that of a powerful wind instrument, held sometimes at a higher and sometimes at a lower pitch, but always going the same way–she was one of the most paradoxically subtle. Such was the force at her command that she had only to hint at it to introduce a note of terror into the sunniest or most wistful moments. Denny’s interpretations were wonders of delicacy in practice, but their humanity was like that of a warrior in a private moment. And at high gain she meant business. Her uniqueness is demonstrated on one of the most famous tracks from Liege & Lief, “Matty Groves,” if one compares it to another well-known version by Joan Baez. Both are showcases for the singer’s voice, with the result that Baez (raised in Baghdad) turns the song into bravura lament almost in Middle Eastern style, by way of the Portuguese fado. On Liege & Lief, the song’s violence comes off as understated even as Denny has told it using sheer muscle, her plainchant literally shouting down the tale over some eight minutes.

It was improbable that Sandy Denny would ever be paired with Richard Thompson. As much discipline as Denny had in singing, she had none in real life; by contrast Thompson was so reserved that those around the band feared Denny would intimidate him, and so dedicated that he would turn up for rehearsal after working days in a stained-glass factory, hands bleeding. But it was Denny around whom Thompson first developed his lacy harmonies and massive bass notes. On the first classic-lineup Fairport album, What We Did On Our Holidays, Thompson had not fully emerged as Denny’s counterpart; instead she was played off against tenor vocalist Simon Nicol, who would soon be relegated to backing vocals. The Denny-Thompson partnership begins to emerge on Unhalfbricking. It is announced on the opening track, “Genesis Hall,” with a lyric that went for the throat:

When the waters run thicker than trouble
I’ll be there at your side in the flood
It was all I could do to keep myself
From taking revenge on your blood.

These two were not harmless folkies, though they had little interest in revolution, sex, drugs, or rock and roll as topics and the record also included “Who Knows Where the Time Goes,” the song that did most to establish Denny’s misleading image as a spiritual dreamer, eyes always on an ocean sunset. “Genesis Hall” was about the class divisions of England, written from the point of view of Thompson’s father, a policeman witnessing riots in London, and of a people for whom friends across class lines might also be enemies. The record’s centerpiece was Fairport’s first setting of a traditional ballad in “A Sailor’s Life.” On What We Did On Our Holidays Denny had sung “She Moved Through the Fair,” which is often taken for a traditional piece but is not. However, it showcased all the strengths Denny would bring to true folk songs and which would appear in spate on “A Sailor’s Life”: scrupulous timing, emotion without sentiment, and an ability to inhabit the song impersonally, yet so intimately that it might have been written yesterday. Thompson’s percussive guitar winds around Denny’s singing with a creativity that seems fated in its own right, like a knight’s moves around a rook. The electric amplification on “A Sailor’s Life” is the reverse of the art-rock folkiness of bands like Jefferson Airplane, Jethro Tull, and Genesis, all of whom would experiment with related effects. The early Fairport’s secret may simply have been in the power of its personalities. However psychedelic “A Sailor’s Life” becomes, the amplification serves only to strip the band further down to its essential pair–Denny in the role of the piper, always the most fearless man in battle, and Thompson not far behind her as the drummer.

The next album, Liege & Lief, is the most famous of the Thompson-Denny era in Fairport’s history and represented a turning point in several senses. Though it is not all true folk material, it is all British, about half traditional and half the band’s compositions in a traditional style. The addition of gonzo fiddler David Swarbrick allowed the traditional pieces to include instrumentals. Another change, from Martin Lamble to Dave Mattacks on drums, was of rather a different nature. Lamble had died in May 1969 when Fairport’s van crashed following a gig in Birmingham. All but Sandy were on the van, and were injured to some degree. The worst suffering was Thompson’s, since his girlfriend had been killed outright as well as Lamble. It now seems miraculous that Liege & Lief was put out only months later, but it is no surprise that every moment on it breathes menace, cruelty and sorrow, with guilt as the overriding theme. So far from being a resurrection of the band, as it was hailed at the time, Liege & Lief makes it clear that this version’s days were numbered. On Unhalfbricking “A Sailor’s Life,” “Genesis Hall,” and even “Who Knows Where the Time Goes” (and a car-crash song of Bob Dylan’s, “Percy’s Song”) all had seemed to foreshadow the disaster: on Liege & Lief each side contained a ballad, “Matty Groves” on the first side and on the other, “Tam Lin,” in which the price for love is violent death or might be and the male lover bears the punishment. On “The Deserter,” a young soldier escapes execution by the army only by royal command, to be sent back to the front lines. Add to that two Thompson compositions about his loss, “Farewell, Farewell” and “Crazy Man Michael,” and a version of “Reynardine” that seems to touch on it pretty directly:

She said, “Kind sir, be civil,
My company forsake,
For in my own opinion
I fear you are some rake.”

“O no,” he said, “no rake am I,
Brought up in Venus’ train,
But I’m seeking for concealment
All along the lonesome plain.

“Your beauty so enticed me,
I could not pass it by,
So it’s with my gun I’ll guard you
All on the mountains high.”

Sun went dark, she followed him,
His teeth did brightly shine
And he led her over the mountains
Did that sly bold Reynardine.

There were other problems as well. From the point of view of the band’s future, Liege & Lief represented an embarrassment of riches, with several hugely talented individuals predestined to seek different paths. Swarbrick clearly was in hog heaven, and it was just as clear that Thompson and Denny had only to keep working together, with or without him, for Fairport to be a huge success in this particular niche. But the old Fairport had always been a group of songwriters first and foremost. The two new musicians contributed an unheard-of power but did not share the experiences that bound the rest together. The sophistication of the musical settings meant that Denny had to sing her hardest on almost every number, an intensity that would be difficult to sustain over many albums. She was comfortable keeping pace with Thompson, whose reserve allowed her to stay just within reach of full strength until key moments. Swarbrick on the other hand was an undersized party animal like Denny and one whose sinuous fiddle could, if need be, replace her voice. What was worse, Denny didn’t mind being replaced. She was still only in her twenties and deeply conflicted about show business, especially the hard-drinking, male-oriented world of British traditional folk as represented by such as Swarbrick and Dave “Peggy” Pegg, who would play bass beginning with Fairport’s next album. Though some within the band foresaw it developing along the lines of Steeleye Span, Denny wanted no part of that.

There is little doubt that Denny would have had a spectacular career as a traditional singer, especially making her start in 1969 when her voice was at its peak; she might have become the genre’s lodestar. But Denny had ambitions as a singer-songwriter and an American-style pop singer, like Joni Mitchell, and tended to regard British folk as something of a booby prize, associated with her strict parents, her sexist colleagues, and her distance from the contemporary Bond-girl ideal of female beauty. Denny’s insecurity about her looks may have been the one thing that ensured Fairport would not survive in its essential lineup. She was in fact irresistible, strongly resembling a British character actress–Annette Crosbie, or even Felicity Kendal–and too attractive to men for her own good, while her short, square, pit-pony’s build gave her the strength to project her voice as she did. Still, in an environment of “fair dinkum blokes,” as David Swarbrick admitted, there was a lot for her to be sensitive about. To this must be added a probable depressive disorder that she medicated with alcohol, making her life in this lads’ environment doubly dangerous. It is, perhaps, remarkable that she survived as long as she did.

So Denny left after Liege & Lief and Fairport clearly wouldn’t be the same. Nobody has ever exceeded Denny on the “muckle ballads”: the lengthy, morbid traditional fare building up at caterpillar’s pace. Within a few years, Denny would have forfeited much of her own voice to her Churchillian indulgence in drink and nicotine, and things would never be quite the same for her either, though each of her subsequent albums includes unforgettable moments. To listen to her recordings of the later seventies, including two with a cobbled-together version of Fairport lacking Thompson, is to be made aware of just how much her early greatness was a matter of physical capacity. When it was all gone she resorted to standards and mediocre pop tunes, while her renditions of audiences’ favorites among her own work grew ever weaker and her substance abuse became critical, and she died of a brain hemorrhage when she was just thirty. (The circumstances are murky. For a long time it was believed that she fell down a flight of stairs, but recent evidence suggests it was due to a combination of prescription drugs and alcohol that may or may not have been aggravated by a fall. The story was told in such a way as to hide the fact that at the time of her death, Denny was living separately from her husband and young daughter, and the conflicting interests of her survivors–her husband in turn accused her parents of not seeking medical treatment for her in time–ensured the full truth would be lost.)

Her work with Fairport is thus shadowed in retrospect by her early death, but death had never been far away after the 1969 van crash. Although Denny was not involved, she became that tragedy’s voice: many have remarked that on her unforgettable rendition of “A Sailor’s Life” she seems to be telling the story of Thompson’s bereavement (to be named by Linda Thompson as a correspondent in divorce proceedings on her album One Clear Moment: “He spent all his time with a memory/And he left me so alone”). And on Liege & Lief Denny would sing the only song he ever wrote directly about his loss, “Crazy Man Michael,” as if she were trying to comfort him. But she could only comfort him from the standpoint of her own anguish. Denny’s voice is very quiet here, shrinking to a whisper when one expects it to rally to its old iron; she sings as someone who knows she herself has survived by the luck of the draw. The song is uncanny today, foreshadowing her own death. It can only say what happened, in the tones of one who knows it from the bottom up, and one suspects that was the only comfort either would ever accept. “Crazy Man Michael” remains a song that Thompson will not perform in concert. It closes Liege & Lief.

Though Denny and Thompson were never lovers, they didn’t need to be, any more than Billie Holiday and Lester Young. That two such difficult people should have had perhaps their easiest relationship with each other suggests that they recognized an essential likeness, beneath their surface differences, that went beyond friendship but required only music to express itself, and perhaps they parted after Liege & Lief because the album had said all that needed to be said about it. Had they explored further variations on the theme, Liege & Lief might not have had such a powerful effect on what was to come. As a one-off it remains the gold standard in part due to the time-preserved Shakespearian quality of its leads. Telling their story as they do, together and separately, it gives us, in Denny, a woman who created the path for Sinéad O’Connor with a bare handful of songs, as well as for Maddy Prior, June Tabor, Loreena McKennitt, and countless other folkies; and in Richard Thompson, the likeliest musical father of PJ Harvey. That the analogies straddle the borders between pop and folk is in keeping with the way this album has become a cultural touchstone as well as a musical one. If one doubts this judgment, consider how little it has dated even forty years hence, after Thompson at least put much of it behind him for a long time. The development of Thompson’s style would soon owe as much to the other great female singer whose voice he set, Linda Peters, known to fans as Linda Thompson and legally such for a number of years. She was everything Denny was not, as a singer: halting, rough-textured, emotionally transparent, and sexual. Time had marched on.

But not forever. Denny would be in her mid-sixties now, while Thompson has recently entered his own seventh decade. One wonders, had Denny lived, if she would have come to realize how much she was appreciated and stabilized, or if it took her death, and the near-Arthurian legend around her to follow, to bring her reputation to the point where she was recently named one of the past century’s 100 essential voices on NPR. Still, neither the ghost of Denny nor the living Thompson are at an age where it is impossible to imagine them, as they would be now, on a reunion tour singing the songs they created when they were both very young, perhaps with not quite as much youthful energy but with the savor of lives lived. Yet given his despair at the time of Liege & Lief, it slots neatly into the tale’s already improbable share of dramatic ironies that it was Thompson who lived to grow old, and to contribute a lion’s share of “worldbuilding” in the sff sense to British folk rock. In Full House, Fairport Convention still had at least one more great album in them. This was entirely due to the continuing growth of Richard Thompson, though the musical contributions of Swarbrick, Pegg and Mattacks are solid and Swarbrick added a fine tenor. Thompson also was learning to sing. Though it would be several more years before his off-key growl turned into a real voice, it was perfect for the snippets of funny-dreadful verse he was writing, like “Mary and Joseph” and “The Angels Took My Racehorse Away” on his first solo record, Henry the Human Fly, and the great “Doctor of Physick” on Full House.

Thompson was still traumatized, as can be seen in his famous liner notes for Full House where most of the characters in the Child ballads are massacred on a rugby field, and as would be apparent in his songwriting for years to come, but his writing songs at all was a sign of hope. In this sense Full House is Sandy Denny’s last album with Fairport, as the songs Thompson was beginning to write sounded much as if written for her until they began to be written for Linda. He followed Swarbrick as one who remembered doing the same for Denny. “Doctor of Physick,” the penultimate song on the album, is the greatest song that Denny and Thompson never did together, and it is tempting to consider that it might revisit the same ground as “Crazy Man Michael,” referencing their shared grief in the crucial line: “If you think upon improper things the Doctor will know.” Innocence can be lost while one isn’t looking, after all:

O father dear,
I dreamed last night a man sat on me bed,
And I fear
When I awoke I could not find my maidenhead.
Every sigh he’ll hear,
So wear your relic near,
Dr. Monk unpacks his trunk tonight.

Nor had Denny forgotten. She wrote one of her best songs expressly for Thompson, though she would perform it with her husband’s band rather than with Fairport. Thompson’s friends still speak of it as the truest portrait of him ever written. “Nothing More” was in some measure also a song for Denny herself. It is thus appropriate that it ends with a riddle, a sudden farewell to speech, and the word “alone.”

My friend, I know you’ve suffered,
Although you are still young,
Why was it you would not take help from anyone?

O it’s true, it’s very true, he said,
Some hard times I have known
But I have always overcome them on my own.

O the pearls that you hold in your hand
They are beautiful to see
But you show them not to anyone
Not even me.

For you are like the others, he said,
I never can be sure
That you wish just to see the pearls and nothing more.

O my tune it does not change, he said,
And neither does your song,
And words I use them rarely when I’m all alone.

All the Fishes Come Home to Roost

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May 182010

All the Fishes Come Home to Roost
by Rachel Manija Brown, 2005
Reviewed by Tanya B. Avakian

My horse had stumbled on the field of battle, breaking her leg and throwing me. The cavalry had ridden on ahead and been slain in that last desperate battle.

So it was that I, a calvarywoman without her horse, had come late and yet just in time, the highest-ranking officer yet living, to rally the troops and hold the breach. Fighting on though mortally wounded, I had kept my feet until the enemy had retreated. Only then allowing myself to fall, I sank to my knees in that bloody field, and said–

If it hadn’t been for Mom, I would have kept on daydreaming, oblivious to a sight even more dramatic than the one before my mind’s eye…A car was partially off the road, on its side with its windshield shattered. A man lay sprawled on the road in front of the wrecked Ambassador. His head was also on the road, but several yards away.

Once we’d driven far enough that neither car nor corpse nor head could be seen, I broke the silence.

“That man was decapitated,” I announced, pleased with the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to use the word in casual conversation. “That means his head was cut off. I’ve never seen a decapitated body before. Have any of you?”

She was named Manija Mehera Brown. Manija is a Persian name, meaning “precious jewel.” American classmates called her “Money”; Indian classmates called her Mani-Mao, Kitty-Cat. From an early age she knew she would change her name, eventually choosing Rachel after Rachel Summers in The X-Men. Age seven to age thirteen, she lived in India, where her parents went to live in an ashram. Because she had to go to school, Rachel spent much of her time at a Catholic school called Holy Wounds of Jesus Christ the Savior Convent School. It was the only English-speaking school in the town of Ahmednagar. But though she walked twice every weekday under “an immense painting of an anatomically correct veiny heart, wrapped in thorns and bleeding realistically,” and although she would be so traumatized by the teachers’ punishments that in adulthood she would be asked by a combat veteran which war she’d fought in, the stifling religious miasma in which Rachel spent her childhood was mainly that of the ashram.

(Spotting Baba’s face was a common hobby at the ashram. Urmila saw it in the black-and-brown mosaic of a burnt chapati and kept it in a box until it fell to dust. Harry Carroll crushed a scorpion against the wall with his shoe, and lo! Baba’s face appeared in the smear of arachnid guts and tread marks. He wanted to preserve it as a memorial, but his wife Grace, who said she could see a face but it didn’t look like Baba’s, removed it from the wall with a disinfectant-moistened sponge.)

Rachel née Manija was the daughter of left-wing Jewish parents, her father a red diaper baby and her mother a hippie. Specifically, her mother was a “Baba-lover,” the official term for a disciple of the Parsi Indian mystic Meher Baba. But though she was a Baba-lover before her daughter’s birth, “Da-nonna” Brown was up to giving Rachel a relatively normal childhood until the age of seven. Rachel read constantly (getting in trouble with a teacher for “pretending” to read The Miracle Worker at age three), kept many pets, and enjoyed the company of other children from diverse backgrounds. When her parents took her to Ahmednagar, she was just old enough to be able to make comparisons between her old and new worlds. She was also old enough to catch lies.

Rachel Manija Brown would eventually perform the greatest act of justice toward herself and her Indian peers by immortalizing her Ahmednagar in her haunting, quirky, and very subtle memoir, All the Fishes Come Home to Roost. It tells a taut and terrible story in the droll, episodic style of James Herriot’s All Creatures Great and Small, which Brown herself has acknowledged as her model. Like most memoirs by abused children, it performs the most delicate balancing act in its treatment of Brown’s parents. It’s likely Rachel wouldn’t have had an easy time in America either, though without absorbing so much of the madness of another culture that she would have little in common with peers who’d experienced only the madness of parents. As she writes of her family, “[i]t was like a cosmic scale weighing Mom’s hysteria against Dad’s imperturbability to maintain a universal balance.” Brown’s mother comes off as not being in touch with reality; Brown’s father, as so committed to his wife’s minimal stability that he was prepared to follow her to an ashram, never considering any obligation to his seven-year-old daughter or, indeed, to Da-nonna’s long-term well-being. This was the reality for young Rachel; explanations, to the extent that there are any, come much later. Reflection is implicit in the many opportunities for it that are given the reader; it is not usually spelled out. The book is so dense that it is tempting for a reviewer simply to tell Rachel’s story. But the distinction of Brown’s memoir is that what happened to her becomes less important than the way she tells us about it, both in keeping us reading and in bringing home the depth of trauma she suffered. The unique personality that emerges from her narrative is sufficiently compelling to provide its own suspense element: instead of turning the pages to find out the next awful thing that happened to Rachel-Mani, we read to find out who she is becoming.

Brown’s style at first seems artless, with bubbles of sardonic hyperbole sometimes replacing precise description in places where today’s memoir reader, used to imagery, might want the latter. But after a while one grows accustomed to the jerkiness of the narrative and eventually experiences it as a reflection of a child’s innocence, true, but also a child’s impatience and lack of reflection. It is this which distinguishes Brown’s book from many other memoirs of displaced childhood, in which the voice is more clearly adult. Yet few young adult works feature a heroine with Brown’s ambivalence about her own relative privilege. Race is an inescapable topic in this book. Brown was indirectly abused through her parents’ negligence but directly abused by members of a society in relation to which she was still privileged in terms of nationality, race, and class: eventually her parents could make the decision to leave, or send her home. The parents of Darshani, a poor girl crusted with sores whom Brown befriended at Holy Wounds, could not. Thus though they figure distantly in relation to the immediate crisis in which Rachel found herself, her parents become enormously important as ciphers of power in abeyance. They take on almost the same relationship to Rachel as the First to the Third World: we are forced to look at them and ask, they could behave differently, so why don’t they?

The memoir of which this reader is most reminded is Joel Agee’s Twelve Years, also the story of a bright Jewish child uprooted by his parents’ acting on their idealism. He was the son of playwright James Agee and his ex-wife Alma Neuman, who remarried a German Communist and followed him to what was then East Germany. Agee’s memoir is more finely written than Brown’s, and consequently more distanced from the impressions of the child Agee was. Agee also suffered much less in the way of physical hardship and threat. But Brown’s book resembles Agee’s in its refusal to tell a sad story, or to objectify the experience of those with whom she grew up. Eventually, Brown found out that her mother was the victim of her own father’s sexual abuse. Brown does not take this revelation as the prompt to excuse Da-nonna but rather to expand the implications of Da-nonna’s behavior into a reversal of her original favoring of her father: “I believed that he was willing but unable to help me out. This made me prefer him to Mom, whom I thought was able but unwilling.” As she learns more about her mother, she comes to see the reverse as the truth. This and other discoveries within the memoir represent a larger process than personal reckoning. It is, instead, the creation of a political autobiography.

“‘You are so adorable!’ people would exclaim and pinch my cheeks. I ignored them. I was a tragic hero, a valiant warrior. I was tough and brave and doomed, but I was not adorable.” Though the humor of Brown’s writing is worthy of praise, too many reviewers have done the equivalent of pinching her cheeks. And it is tempting; everything would be so much easier if Rachel the child can be explained away as a tragic victim of her parents’ foolishness, though she was that. Nor is she unaware of cultural dissonance as a way in which she was especially unfortunate, though saying so risks supposing that the same horrors are fine for people of color because “they’re used to it.” It’s rather to say that being assumed to be privileged, as the only child at the ashram and the only white child at Holy Wounds, Rachel lacked even the consolation of solidarity, let alone the appearance of misfortune that could have brought some to feel for her and a few, those in power, to do anything, as they would presumably have done for an American child who was suffering in this way—and whose implicit privileges would have been seen to set her apart from Indian children. She was beaten and made to stand in the hot sun, but Rachel was also reading everything she could get her hands on, including the genteel English boarding-school stories of Enid Blyton; never mind that every child in India also was reading Blyton, “the girls destined for arranged marriages with men three times their age, the children who hid with their parents when the religious riots broke out, the overprotected urban kids who always had an adult or three checking up on them.” By her teens Rachel knew more about Indian history than most white people learn in a lifetime, but Rachel’s grandmother rounded on her father and “badgered him to return to America and sometimes even hinted that he was an irresponsible parent to bring me up in a Third World backwater. That suggestion must have struck home, for it never failed to send him into a rage.”

Rachel’s response is ambivalent: “On the one hand, I agreed with her. On the other, go Dad!” “Go Dad” could mean many things, and one wishes it had been a little better explained. To be sure, Brown avoids a direct explication of the contradictions of her history in favor of a cumulation of details, and the many lyrical invocations of her imaginary self as an Indian woman warrior, compared to the limited options she has in real-life Ahmednagar and the even poorer ones open to native Indian children in the town, tell much more than most college term papers on critical race theory. This is so because Brown writes deliberately from the child’s perspective and thus often with the child’s disinterest in being seen to be well-meaning. “When I was in America, I missed India’s countryside and my freedom to explore it, but once I was back in India, I missed India’s lack of rock-throwing kids and ruler-wielding nuns.” The glimpses of the adult Rachel Brown on her return to India are thus especially precious, as when she is recognized by a troop of young people who immediately begin to shout “Mani-Mao” and throw stones at her vehicle. In a few sentences, Brown conveys her tangle of emotions in facing a lot of kids who would never go to college or own a book, but of whom she is afraid.

Brown is to be credited for not making her book entirely about toilets and fans when she could get away with it in too much of American culture and when the most delicate aspect of Brown’s story is also the one to which she is most unequivocally entitled, because she was a child. It would be no reflection on her character if she were to make her entire memoir a variation on the funny-horrible postcard genre of which she gives us brief, potent doses to relieve the tension: “Vladimir got out. But only as far as the less favored of Ahmednagar’s two commercial hotels, the cockroach-ridden Chandra, which was mostly notable for a menu featuring Uncle Chips, Happy Chips, Plane Chips, Cronchi Chicken Ball, Veg Ball with Cronchi, Tomato Soap, Chicken Soap, Veg Soap, Chicken 65, Roast Leg of Lamp, and Leeches with Ice Cream.” Given Brown’s humanitarian concerns and distinguished record of progressivism and antiracism, another “out” for her would be to explain away her particular misery as a byproduct of American cultural colonialism, the punishment for her parents’ condescending belief in a welcoming India. She does not take this path either, though it might be the most tempting. (And it is true that her ashram was populated to a large extent by foreigners, and among them mostly white people.) As she tells her story, with noble honesty, she was an American child who also grew up as an Indian one, and she knew just enough to know which country was easier for her to live in.

When Rachel was in her teens, she begged her father, now separated from Da-nonna, to take her back to America; when she had won her freedom, understandably counted in terms of “Cokes and hamburgers and cold milk and cookies and Hershey bars,” her troubles had in some ways just begun. “I had fled the country without a second thought for the other kids at Holy Wounds. In my entire stay at Ahmednagar I had never, not once, done anything to stand up for them.” Given that she was at their mercy, and physically attacked by them almost every day, it would be difficult to separate out their ignorant malice from the shortsightedness of the parents who believed these things would not happen or who, if they did happen, saw them as the inevitable price on the privilege of living in India, though nearby Pune offered amenities including “non-abusive schools.” Nor would it help that Da-nonna would continue to live in India and grow so used to it that on a visit to America, a cell phone would strike fear to her heart because it looked like a scorpion. “Mom was an adorable immigrant in her salwar kamiz, bravely navigating a land that had grown up without her, and I was her ungrateful citified daughter.”

As she matures a little, Brown as she remembers herself moves somewhat from being lost in India to being lost in her parents’ India. One recurrent trope of the memoir finds Rachel begging a driver to stop to rescue the victim of a road accident; in this case the victim is “an adorable little puppy.” (This is a weakness in the prose: on occasion things are described in the sort of jerky, value-laden adjectival style that makes sense in email, but tells the reader too much about how he or she is supposed to react, detracting from Brown’s usual subtlety.) The vehicle of course doesn’t stop, Rachel’s pleas to turn around are in vain, and she spends the trip “counting camels and car crashes. By the second week of the journey, I was up to fourteen camels and thirty-nine wrecks, most of the latter on ghats.”

I was sick of Gods. Gods were the indirect cause of all my problems. If we had to look at statues, I wanted to see the statue commemorating Rani Lakshmibai, the queen who died fighting the British in the war that is known in England as the Sepoy Mutiny but in India as The First War of Indian Independence. Or to the Marantha queen Tarabai, Shivaji’s daughter-in-law, who carried on the fight against Aurangzeb (by then extremely old and extremely frustrated) after her husband’s death.

I resented everyone’s insistence that I look at the pretty pictures instead of staying in the car to read about how Baji Prabhu and a few hundred soldiers had fought a vast army to buy Shivaji time to escape their doomed fort. The wounded Baji Prabhu had held on to life long enough to hear the cannons sound from Pratapgad, the signal indicating that his king had reached safety. And then he had died, his task complete.

Brown’s style is extremely objective, at times resembling commentary on a graphic novel. The clipped style creates a silence around the more harrowing episodes that forbids hackneyed responses of pity or dismay, allowing instead for contemplation. Thus it is also through an accretion of detail that one finds not everything in Brown’s story is dismal. There were nature (described with moving love), boyfriends in time, and above all books. Some of the books were taught at Holy Wounds, others found in the ashram library, where pilgrims of all kinds left books behind. Brown became especially devoted to the martial history of India and to its national hero Shivaji, with whom she identified very much.

Nobody had intended for me to develop a passion for military history. I was supposed to be passionate about God… But the space in my brain reserved for obsession, which they gave to God, filled instead with dreams of history and heroism, of the bloody reality, the elegant legend, and the points where they intersected. Perhaps it was the gap between what people told me my life was like and how I actually experienced it that made me fascinated by the contrast between history and legend, between ideals and reality. Or maybe I just liked stories about undersized underdogs who kicked ass.

Books would be as much of a defense and escape for Brown in Los Angeles as in Ahmednagar, following her return. Her life in America would continue to be difficult; naturally she did not fit in with other American children; and like a lot of young outcasts, she found some reflection of her differentness in science fiction and fantasy. It is not a surprise to learn that she played Dungeons and Dragons; it is to learn that she played it in Ahmednagar, where a person might not imagine her doing so if (like me) she was told, in her own red-diaper background, that nobody acquainted with the true suffering of the world outside of America would bother with imaginary swords and imaginary blood. But Rachel did. She got an annoying American kid to accept a D & D character named Flower-Flinger the Puking Elf (or, as the boy pronounced it with his lisp, Elpth). She arrived for a visit with her mother clutching The Mists of Avalon like a shield, mentions Barbara Hambly, and tells us that when an adult (later her stepmother) first showed signs of knowing what Rachel’s life was like in Ahmednagar, the coded message—her deliverance if you will—was found in Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonsong, the story of an abused girl. Although reading itself was an escape, fantasy literature was more of a validation. “It was hard to be gripped by first crushes and squabbles with parents when my everyday life featured madmen on the loose, decapitated corpses in roads, and teachers with a license to kill. The metaphors of fantasy, in which a lover’s heart might literally be made of stone, childhood might literally last forever, or your neighbor might literally be a monster, resonated with how my life felt from the inside.”

Brown has been a consistent force in the internet wars regarding racism in science fiction and fantasy, making it all the more of interest to speculate on whether she began to adopt an Indian identity over the years in Ahmednagar and how much it might have owed to fantasy, to Western influence, or both. It is hard to tell these things exactly, and in any case no one is to be judged in adult terms for the fantasies of an abused child or to be censured for presenting them as they were. So any observations on the identity formation at work in All the Fishes Come Home to Roost are to be taken as just that. Inevitably Rachel’s identity became a mixture of Indian elements and Western fantasy, fused around heroic elements:

If I was forced to stand in the sun, I was a prisoner of war, and I would stand and not collapse. If the teachers hit me, I would not pull back my hand or flinch away and make a sound. I would be brave. I would stand and fight when I could, and if I had to run because I was outnumbered, it would only be to fight another day. I would never forget how brutal and harsh my life really was. I would not let anyone brainwash me into thinking that what was done to me and the other children was right. I would not give up. I would not go crazy. I would not let them break me.

I would be silent.

She knew that she was still relatively privileged. “Girls were hit less and less hard than boys. I was hit less and less hard than the Indian girls.” She also had a chance to learn some things that thrilled her. “Year after year, the Indian history class provided stirring tales of rebels and tyrants, heroes and villains, dismemberments, disembowelments, disinterments, last stands, daring escapes, woman warriors, and giant lizards. Some of it was as apocryphal as George Washington’s cherry tree. But several of the least likely stories turned out to be entirely true.” Though she had to conform to some details of femininity imposed by the school and by Indian culture, wearing skirts, closing her legs, and keeping her hair in braids, she had much more of a chance to identify with the heroic elements of Indian culture than girls whose destiny was early marriage: “If I couldn’t go a day without being beaten, stoned, and humiliated, I needed a way of seeing myself and my life that lent me some scrap of dignity.” And although Shivaji became her hero, Rachel did not fantasize about being a man. “I was a woman warrior. Not a general, not a queen, just an ordinary cavalrywoman in Shivaji’s army… I had seen that dainty little women like Mrs. Joshi could be capable of horrifying violence. Girls stood their ground under the punishing sun while bigger, stronger boys passed out. Indian history was filled with accounts of women who fought. Tarabai, Rami Durgavati, Chand Bibi, even Phoolan Devi, the bandit leader who became a member of parliament.”

But being female would provide the occasion for her almost to be finished off. Despair comes with a climactic episode, when she is tied up and left for Malik the holy man to fondle, symbolic of everything her parents have done to her already—rendering her impotent and leaving her at the mercy of a culture’s most backward representatives. “I had thought that to have one’s will broken was a metaphor. But something snapped like a small dry twig.” Rachel came close to suicide, holding a knife to her throat shortly after the tying-up: “Baba was love, they said, but no one who loved me and was all-powerful would have let Harry tie me up. Baba said life was a dream, but no dream-knife had ever felt as hard and cool or smelled as faintly of garlic and metal as the one I held in my hand.”

We already know that this was not the end because we have encountered the adult Rachel in several flash-forwards. One of the happier discoveries of these flash-forwards is that Rachel became a feminist, and realized after a while that the world of Indian male heroism would have been closed to her, as in one encounter with an Indian mcp: “It occurred to me that Shivaji’s peasants-turned-soldiers had probably been a lot like Khan, pushy and hostile and always jockeying to prove their manhood. If Tanaji could meet me, he would despise me as a poseur.” The inability to strike any pose marks her as a true outsider everywhere, since all natives of cultures assimilate by learning how to present a face. This extends to her unwillingness to sentimentalize the role of truth-bearer, always a temptation when the survivor of an abusive family speaks out. Brown knows her truth is only hers and thus partial, fierce though she can be in defending it. She also knows that the value of the truth has little to do with the dignity of the teller, also a hard lesson for the tellers of painful stories. “I might not be Shivaji’s brave commander, but perhaps I was Guru Gobind Singh’s water bearer. Or maybe not a soldier of any kind, but a war correspondent keeping the stories from going untold: a publicist for India’s ruins, like Shivaji’s faithful dog.” The phrase, “a publicist for India’s ruins,” is so haunting that one is tempted not to explain that Shivaji’s faithful dog did not exist, but was dreamed up to make a monument to Shivaji more marketable. This is one aspect of Brown’s life at the ashram, as a mascot whose official role was to make her family’s story seem like one of sweetness and light. Identification with Guru Gobind Singh’s water bearer provides a viable way out, because the story is one of a man who escaped death by his compassion for the injured on all sides:

After one battle, a Sikh water bearer was seen giving water to the wounded and dying men of both sides. Other Sikhs who saw this became angry. They reported him to their leader, Guru Gobind Singh. So the Guru called the water bearer to stand in front of everyone and asked him if it was true. The water bearer said yes, it was. The men who had reported him waited to hear if he would be executed, or only flogged and exiled.

“Instead, the Guru gave the water bearer a box of healing ointment. ‘Take this,’ he said, ‘and tend to all the wounded soldiers, no matter which side they’re on.’”

“That’s a great story,” I said.

Brown actually comes off as having a gift for happiness, akin to the “talent for life” that Terrence des Pres noticed in some survivors of extreme experience. The child has emerged to attack life as a warrior born, while balancing the immense contradictions of her background like a book on her head. We leave her as she is poised to go forth, tough, fragile, frugal, and brilliant, with a very real appreciation of her life as it is now. It is not the end of the story, of course. The book was written in Brown’s early thirties and represents a relatively early stage of her adult rapprochement with her past. The book ends with a maybe wry, maybe sneering quip offered Rachel by her father, in the form of the well-known cartoon: “Dear Mom and Dad. Thanks for the happy childhood. You’ve destroyed any chance I had of becoming a writer.”

Rachel Manija Brown writes as if she knows she will be dealing with Ahmednagar for the rest of her life. All the Fishes Come Home to Roost is deliberately unresolved and even incomplete, a dashing first pass at the author’s demons, and a letter of introduction for what is to come. It is near enough to perfect in places to make one frustrated in others where a sensitive final edit, removing a few infelicities and repetitions of phrasing, might have made it even harder-hitting; it also reads at times like a book which has been cut down too far from a longer book. Despite the ease of the author’s style, the book takes patience, hopping around rather than telling a linear story, which I believe is deliberate in its mimicking of the chopping-up of the mind in trauma, and not a fault. But in another sense, there is a quality of completeness to this work that one will not find in many memoirs. After finishing it for the review, I found myself sneaking back to reread pages I found especially funny or poignant, a giveaway that All the Fishes succeeds on its own terms as an entertainment. It may seem odd to compliment the author of such a difficult story in this way. But Brown plainly meant her story in this book to be entertaining, and it is sometimes part of healing to observe the effect one’s narrative has on others. One can hope that she will have many opportunities to relish the sight of readers wincing, laughing, but also reflecting in response to her memoir: reflecting on the compromises we all make with our upbringing and with extremity, the resources we bring to these compromises, and their implications for our relationship to the rest of the world.

Absorption in a book, the scent of rain on moss, hot mint tea drunk outside before dawn, water pistol duels with Rupali, the weight of history in the gray stones of Sinhagad, the luscious perfume of a fresh-plucked lychee, Walter’s hands boosting me up a tree, a gecko’s golden eyes, the haunting melody of the Muslim call to prayer, the blaze of stars in a sky undimmed by electric light–those things were real and meaningful and precious. How could I stop wanting more of them? Why should I?

How could I sacrifice the rest of this day? I was safe at home, and nothing terrible was likely to happen until tomorrow.

I got up, replaced the knife and the chair, and picked up History of the Marathas.

I could always kill myself later.