And the blast from the past continues … below you will find the first SISB instalment, sent out to friends as an e-mail in October 2000. I re-formatted to make it look prettier, but the words are exactly as they appeared then.
SHE IS STILL BURNING
An Expanding Reader To Encourage Life Lovers
22 October 2000
We’re just at the beginning of this project, and already I’ve managed to confuse everyone, including myself. This is because I was trying to go back to the 1970s days of publishing Sinister Wisdom with Catherine Nicholson, when we put out issues that were designed like books and included original artwork. Real publishing, in other words.
In my imagination, the HTML version of She Is Still Burning was elegantly book-like too. But when I translated imagination into computer reality, the resulting e-mail was huge, unlovely, and took forever to send/receive—like stuffing a pig-in-a-pinafore through a narrow mail slot. Hence, oh sad revision of my original announcement, She Is Still Burning will appear in everyone’s e-mail box as “text only.”
But she will appear, and SHE WILL BE FREE, something that real publishing can’t offer.
That said, let me welcome you to the beginning installment of She Is Still Burning. The first writer to respond to my request for submissions was long-time friend Lynn Martin, a poet who works for the Brattleboro AIDS Project in Vermont. (We were born on the same day, in different years, so it seemed natural to me that she would immediately comprehend my intentions.) Below, you’ll find a poem and short-short story by Lynn; they go together, illuminate each other.
Next comes a sample of Suzanne Cox’s “Suzy Q. Reporter” pieces, which she e-mails to a group of friends and which, along with her letters, were a major inspiration for She Is Still Burning. Suzanne Cox is a poet and painter who lives in New Hampshire and works at the Dartmouth College library.
On 9 October 2000, the day I sent out the invitations to subscribe, the world experienced its first ozone alert. The hole in the ozone layer over Antarctica, already as large as three continents, had extended for the first time over land inhabited by humans, the southernmost part of Chile and the island of Tierra del Fuego. In the NASA satellite photo, the hole looked like a gigantic blue teardrop. I don’t think words exist to adequately respond to this, but the final poem in this installment of She Is Still Burning at least speaks to the causes of the event. It seems more timely now than when I wrote it in 1989.
Finally, I’d like to take this opportunity to thank Michèle Causse for years and years of encouraging me to keep on writing, and for her e-mail last spring pleading with me to DO SOMETHING again—which provided the impetus for this project.
With best wishes,
Saint John, New Brunswick
“There is the touch transmitted by sight of something — an electric communication with memory, the touch of an idea — or the touch which is the feel of space.”
–Angna Enters, On Mime
I am locked into this winter
with a heart barely beating
and a mind slushy as these dirt roads
melting under too much salt.
Dorothy, I could use your red coat.
The one you have on in the photograph
where I’m clutching a balloon
which threatens to take us both
up and out of the frame,
but only you left forever,
dying in the back room
before I was old enough for memory.
No, I don’t remember you
yet follow women in blushing coats
home, imagining, not one
but a fistful of balloons.
And when I fall in love,
the women look like you
even in the darkest room.
Dorothy, you left so perfectly.
I’ll never know such young success.
I grow old around the eyes.
Bless the balloons.
Please keep smiling, Dorothy.
I could use your red coat.
(originally appeared in the New England Writer’s Anthology in 1995)
ACQUIRING THE GHOST WITHIN
by Lynn Martin
Ma didn’t cry. She baked a dozen loaves of bread a day. She bullied the children with clean sheets, dustcloths, as if cobwebs and dusty corners were the enemy. Pa cried. He sat in his chair, staring out an unopened window, tears dripping down his collar, though he made not a sound. The death of Robert unhinged him. The death of Dorothy bent his back, tarnished his red hair. When the boys started to die of heart attacks in their fifties, Ma and Pa reversed roles. Pa stared down at each body in its coffin, and then went to work. Ma simply sat down and died after the third one, the dustcloth useless in her clenched hands. So my mother told me.
Family gatherings now wandered into anecdotes and stories of the no longer alive. I was born into the silence of Dorothy’s death and grew up with her whispering in my ear. Dorothy’s hands rested lightly on my four-year-old shoulders, and were never withdrawn. In a photograph she smiles forever and I forever lean into her. It took me fifty years to begin to write; I was born to write about her. I lived my normal life, school, marriage, raising a family of my own. I thought it was normal to live with shadows who spoke. Hearing voices was as much a part of me as my left leg.
Cleaning out a closet, preparatory to one of my many moves, I came across a stamp book Dorothy had partially filled in. I had been carrying it from place to place for thirty years. I don’t know who gave it to me; it just was always with me. It had a heavy green cover like a graduation book. I’d never opened it. In a burst of altruism one day, I concluded this book should belong to the cousin who was named after Dorothy. I wrapped it in white paper and gave it to her, explaining it had belonged to her namesake, and I thought she might want it.
She sold it for 750 dollars. I was shocked, heartsick, and angry. Then had to own up to my mistake. This Dorothy had not listened to the stories. They meant nothing to her. It was only an old green book worth money. Dorothy, holding it in her lap, pasting stamps in while her heart grew weaker and weaker, was my image, not my cousin’s. It was the first time I realized the gift of Dorothy was unique to me. It was my dreams she visited, my life she had haunted in such a gentle way.
Then I had a dream in which Dorothy gave me something that fit in my hand and turned the air golden. A year later, my Aunt Phyllis met an old neighbor at a wedding. This neighbor had a bracelet belonging to Dorothy. It had sat in her jewel box all this time. Did Phyllis want it? And so a delicate, child-sized, gold-colored bracelet, probably from Woolworth’s, found its way to me. It had three hearts dangling from it, engraved with the initials “DAW,” Dorothy’s initials. I had it dipped in gold.
Another dream followed in which a woman named Sandy linked the bracelet around my arm and smiled. Sandy, I puzzled when awake. Why Sandy? Sandy was a woman I hardly knew. She was the Activities Director at a local nursing home where I read my poetry now and then. But, I found myself saying to a friend, there is always Little Orphan Annie. Of course. Sandy, the dog who stays at Annie’s side through every adventure. Sandy, who protects Annie from harm. Dorothy was my Sandy. She may have died when I was four, but, throughout my life, it has always been Dorothy and me.
TWO THOUSAND WORDS
by Suzy Q. Reporter (Suzanne Cox)
September 2000: It has been more than half a year since the world danced in the new millenium. All the dire warnings seem to have been erased with the footprints on beaches near Sydney, or swept away with the paper horns and clickers of Times Square; the computers mostly kept humming along. In this past seven months here, something new came to town—a coffeehouse bookstore.
I drive down the road, September humid like August might have been. There is a car in the parking lot with every imaginable strange bumper sticker plastered to it: “The planet’s a playground and I have the recess whistle”; “Life’s a bitch and I’m not backing up.” I try to guess who owns it. Is it the nerdy guy with the blue baseball cap turned sideways or the intense young woman in black with the orange hair or the man with the white t-shirt, his belly hanging over his shorts?
Then I think of my own car with its shells and and rocks and driftwood, a skeleton and a monkey hanging from the rearview mirror, and wonder if someone could guess it were mine.
Here in the quiet part of the world, we are safe to walk into the bookstore late at night and pull off anything we want to read from the shelves—literature, women’s history, a range of psychology from the self-helpings to Alice Miller to Gestalt, housed near astrological wanderings of planetary aspects. Yet in Afghanistan, women sneak the written word into packages of food, in fear of their lives and the lives of the girls they are trying to educate. They must hide their faces and their books from the Taliban. I read the letter our New Hampshire senator has written me on the subject—no help there, so I look for the website of the organization here that helps them out, and find this: http://www.feminist.org/afghan/facts.html.
So hard to imagine from the land of plenty—words here a commodity printed on most everything. There, they are more precious than all our gold futures. A Chinese woman I used to have tea with went silent when I asked her about books in China. Before she left, she gave me a red carnelian heart on a silk-stringed necklace and said, “You must never stop writing poetry.”
Sarah Allen, a scholar from Dartmouth, is organizing a group going to Beijing to study jade tablets and rolls of silk and bamboo all painted with words by brush. The ties on the bamboo have rotted away, so the sticks are out of order and they will have to line them up to read the handpainted characters. The writings were stolen from the belongings of a woman who lived during the Yijng dynasty, around the 4th century B.C. Some say they can’t possibly be hers, since women then were not allowed to read philosophy. The scholars had thought everything written was burned under the oppressive regime of Qin Shihuangdi; yet these predate that regime, and may give us more Confucian texts.
Closer to home, it is my sister’s first holiday weekend alone—her daughter off to college, her son and soon-to-be ex-husband living only blocks away, but it might as well be Bangkok. I am happy to hear she feels all right. She tells me she found the “Oprah suggests” books in her daughter’s room, and as she thought of the evening ahead, she decided she might enjoy reading again. “One is by a Toni Morrison,” she says.
“Yes,” I squeak, “you’ll love her.”
My memory goes back to sitting on the porch at the Montgomery House when Toni Morrison was a visiting professor and one of the English faculty asked her if she were inspired by Virginia Woolf.
“Hell, no. All that whining white women do about a room of one’s own. Hell, I’d come home and write at the kitchen table while feeding my babies and after working all day, staying up half the night walking their crying, tired bodies while trying to keep the story in my head.”
The English professor’s face grew whiter; she is a Woolf scholar. I munched on the potato chips, and Ms. Morrison looked at me and said, “Want me to sign that?” It was the dog-eared copy of Sula I had under my arm. “Sure,” I said, sipping the ginger ale.
The first moment of opening a new book has a crisp feel; my hands hunger for this. The clean page reminds me of a pressed shirt. When I used to take the cardboard and pins out of my father’s new shirts, the long cuffs and the straight, stiff angles of the collar, I would read the numbers “15” and “3/4” like ink stamps of some ancient language. I read everything, books so limited in my family’s house.
To take the first sentence and hold it on your tongue to feel if its sensation will grab you by heart or head or throat—if your breath will fly or go deep. The surprise of each book’s ability to take you on its journey. I miss this. Since Dorothy’s death I haven’t read a full novel. I didn’t think there was anything more to know.
I have been reading reference materials and quick pieces, essays and newspapers, short chapters on subjects that interest me, taking notes from art books and studying the paint lines in Japanese woodcuts. But tonight for the first time I lean by the ladder they use to retrieve the top shelf books and I begin to read again as I pull off the shelf the book that my sister’s lawyer, Claire-Bette Newman, introduced me to, Exit into History. Such pleasure. I sink into the ladder’s rungs and keep reading. There is so much to learn!
I walk out and see the bumper sticker “Ban bombs, not books.”
Keep reading, dear friends!
PRAYER TO THE WHALES WHO COME TO TADOUSSAC, QUÉBEC
I remember you,
dying erotic poets of the sea,
surrounding the whale-watch boats,
in fog and in pain,
I sent up my silent love-calls to you:
O let me caress your mind.
We share a mortal enemy,
Yet you surround his boats,
Teach me to do the same.
–Harriet Ellenberger, 1989