8 August 2017: One thing I’m discovering from republishing these fifteen-year-old instalments of She Is Still Burning: it’s the individual writer’s intensity, clarity of thought, attention to detail, that make a piece worth reading more than once. When they wrote it, and under what circumstances, matters much less.
I may be a little slow in coming to this realization—I think the rest of the world calls these things-worth-rereading “Literature.”
SHE IS STILL BURNING
An Expanding Reader To Encourage Life Lovers
Installment # 12
01 March 2002
“When my mornin’ comes around
From a new cup I’ll be drinkin’
And for once I won’t be thinkin’
There’s something wrong with me”
– Iris Dement
Scientists have recently determined that the colour of space is turquoise. For reasons unclear to me, I was delighted with this announcement. And here’s another: last July, astronomers discovered a previously unknown planet on the edge of our solar system, eccentrically orbiting between and beyond Neptune and Pluto. The planet has not yet been named by an official committee of the International Astronomical Union (it’s currently referred to as “2001 KX76”), but the union will accept naming suggestions from anyone. Suzanne Cox submitted the name of the ancient Chinese goddess Nu Kua (because, after the universal holocaust, she repaired and restored the shattered columns that hold up heaven; she patched the torn heavens together, making the world whole again). I have kept wishing that something would repair the human-made hole in the ozone layer, so invoking Nu Kua by naming a newly discovered planet after her seems to me just the ticket. Why wait for an official committee to be similarly persuaded? Let’s all welcome Nu Kua to the planetary family, and hope she can do what she did before.
Invoking goddesses, ancient or otherwise, makes me feel slightly foolish, but I’ve reached the limits of patience with all these fundamentalist Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, etcetera-etcetera who monopolize the naming of the mysterious, who, in effect, colonize the invisible. At the moment of their triumph, their time—as far as I’m concerned— is up. We will henceforth create our own religions, thank you very much. Based on kindness toward life forms (a novel idea when applied to the political/economic/military sphere).
Truth to tell, the political/economic/military sphere has become so lunatic that I’m finding it nearly impossible to write about clearly. Last night, Bert and I were watching a video of the film “Illuminata,” and we both latched onto the line, “In the name of all that is real, I’m going [away].” My sentiments exactly, but go away where? I used to relieve my frustrations by writing scathing commentary about Bush & Co., but, frankly, that doesn’t work anymore. How, for example, does one parody an “axis of evil” state-of-the-union address that is already a parody of itself?
Two days ago, on the excellent Montreal-based website Centre for Research on Globalisation, I ran onto the alarmingly titled article by John Stanton and Wayne Madsen “The Emergence of the Fascist American Theocratic State”. It has the virtue of compiling events from November 2000 through February 2002 into a coherent story, as told by future historians relating the demise of democracy in the U.S. The problem with the article is I couldn’t come up with much in the way of counter-arguments; the authors make too much sense. But read it for yourself, please, and let me know what you believe they may be exaggerating or omitting.
The question of what exactly the U.S. government has become in the last fifteen months seems to me crucial for those outside as well as inside its borders, since this is a state apparatus which has planted military bases throughout the world and which dominates the world economy, tracks global communications, and so forth. We need to know what’s being decided behind closed doors in Washington (as well as in those two fortified underground locations where the Associated Press today reports that a “shadow government” has been operating since “the first hours after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks”), and CNN isn’t telling us. So it’s a matter of putting together the scattered pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, seeing the picture that emerges.
Gertrude Stein reportedly once remarked that when there’s everything to fear, there is nothing to fear. Which makes a kind of psychological sense. When there is no security (no privacy either), what do we do? We do what it pleases us to do, simply that.
Bon courage (and happy reading),
Saint John, New Brunswick, Canada
IN THIS INSTALLMENT
•Sara Wright: letter with poems
•Ariane Brunet: letter
•Lynn Martin: “Like an egg” (poem)
LETTER FROM SARA WRIGHT, 10 JANUARY 2002
I am writing in response to the last issue (#11) of She Is Still Burning, but also because I want you to know how much I have appreciated your sending me each previous installment. … You’ll be pleased perhaps to know that a couple of the feathers you sent me ended up as part of a mask I created this fall called Shapeshifter, the Blue Voice of the Forest. I have been consistently moved by these ornithological offerings and wanted you to know …
I am hoping that your cat Pookie is mending still … I have special empathy for those of us whose relationships include non-humans …
In installment #11, I hungrily devoured those parallel letters that Lise and you wrote. You are so right—one certainly does illuminate the other. I don’t think I realized how truly isolated I have been here in this small mountain community, or how starved I have been for words from others of like mind. I do know how depressed I’ve felt. I also know that as a result of reading and re-reading those two letters I have made a decision to investigate the possibility of hooking up to the internet to help me tap into a couple of web sites (the ones you suggested) that might help to relieve my sense of isolation. This is a drastic step for one who dislikes machine chatter as much as I do.
After re-reading installment #11 one more time this morning, I also wrote a poem that is a first attempt to articulate my own distress, instead of giving into what has become pervasive fear and a terrifying sense of powerlessness. Most frightening is the realization that these powerful feelings have been present on some level just below the threshold of my own consciousness since the events of September 11th first occurred. My initial response to the bombing was one of rage towards the American people for believing that Americans could go on destroying human lives everywhere on earth but in this country without ever having to take the consequences. When I walked in the woods that first night, I wept with the trees.
Don’t for god’s sake feel you need to publish this poem. I’m sending it to show you that your words have moved me, and helped one person to break a silence too dangerous for words.
THE AMERICAN MASK
I am a woman without a country
Repelled by the iconic ribbons plastered on store windows—
That flap wildly from the phallic poles of speeding cars.
What new monstrosity does this American mask hide
Behind its horizontal slashes?
Beneath its two faced feigned unity?
I am a woman without a country.
How can I survive the paradox?
Living as a creature whose love for this land
Crosses every known boundary artificially created by man?
I am a woman without a country
Living on the threshold of a culture killing Wilderness
Who feels the Earth’s pulse drumming softly but persistently—
The song of the Universe pushing up from her feet.
What will become of this land and its woman
who keens with dark tree roots tangled in her hair
if her senses keep numbing
if her voice becomes mute?
It might interest you to know that on the morning of September 11th I was in the process of painting a watercolor called The Acorn Story when I suddenly felt compelled to paint a fiery orange sky on the left hand side. It was later that day that I received the news that the bombing had occurred. Instantly, I recalled my orange sky, understanding that I had inadvertently tapped into the collective without realizing it.
On the day we began to bomb Afghanistan I was attending a retreat and had just returned from a silent walk up Spruce Mountain when I had a very peculiar thought: namely that death and creativity were on the same edge. Feeling upset and curiously unsettled, I went into a quiet room and wrote the following poem without understanding the source of its imagery. It was noon on 10/7/01.
THE VOICE OF THE FOREST
winds her way
around the bark.
Up and down
spiraling in both directions,
engraving her life in wormwood
Breathing tearful tree prayers.
In her wake
A wave breaks …
While slashed beech
and white pines burn,
An arid stench of death
Stunts the air.
A solitary presence
the barred owl takes flight,
her wide eyed vision piercing illusion.
Soaring on silent wings
she slices through the deeply troubled sky—
Marking this threshold passage
As her own
Crossing over into other worlds.
On a lighter note I am feeding the deer and wait with childlike anticipation for their arrival each night.
Blessings, Harriet, and warmest regards —
LETTER FROM ARIANE BRUNET, 22 JANUARY 2002
[note: Ariane Brunet and I met by serendipitous accident on my first trip to Montreal, in 1984. Later, we were both part of a group that founded the women’s bookstore L’Essentielle in Montreal and began organizing for the 1988 Third International Feminist Bookfair. And much water under the bridge later, Ariane began working for the International Centre for Human Rights and Democratic Development, where she now coordinates their Women’s Rights Programme. The following letter is excerpted from correspondence between us when we reconnected, again by serendipitous accident, over the internet this past winter.]
From: Ariane Brunet
To: Harriet Ellenberger
Sent: Tuesday, January 22, 2002 6:33 PM
Subject: Re: happily satisfied …
Ah! I can only agree! You have no idea how good it feels to read you and to link with my literary radical friends! Good for the soul.
There is so much I would need to say about the human rights field … how women have learned to use it, but also how States have learned to use human rights as a post-colonial ideology. Yet my friends in Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, India, Indonesia, Congo, Uganda, Rwanda, Kenya, Columbia, Bosnia, Croatia, Serbia, etc. need to use the mechanisms that enable them to shame their country into changing a policy, acknowledging a violation from time to time. It doesn’t always work, of course, especially since Northern governments have used rights as a way to escape their own responsibility in the socio-economic domain. Yet, more aware then ever of the double-edged sword it has become, I keep trying to use this framework to make a dent here and there with other activists.
Right now, we would very much like to:
1) ensure that impunity for violence against women in war be a thing of the past (so we work on the International Criminal Court and the International War Crimes Tribunal for Rwanda and Ex-Yugoslavia; and develop strategies to engage Japan to apologize for the sexual military slavery of the 30s and 40s in Asia Pacific and, more importantly, to take legal responsibility for what they did to “comfort women”;
2) contribute to the work of Sima Samar and activists of Pakistan and Afghanistan to integrate women’s rights in the new constitution of Afghanistan;
3) establish an informal network of women activists to analyze the policies at the root of fundamentalism, be it Catholic, Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu or Buddhist, nationalistic or cultural;
4) create an international coalition so Congolese women have a chance to sit at the peace negotiation table.
I write this, and on a good day I say to myself … yeah maybe we can get some of this done. Other days I feel we are fools. But fools are much needed these days. … Southern activists have certainly given me more than I will ever be able to express: their resolve, their endurance, their clear mind, political savvy, sense of humour, sense of joy, the way they share their vision …
Well, Harriet, reading all of your SISB made me realize that the writing women’s world also does that, and that I needed to get in touch again with that world as well. Sharing poems, reflections, ways of observing the world, transforming into quiet thoughts the noises of the world, is also essential in order to keep faith. So thank you, Harriet, for doing that. …
Amelia [Ariane’s cat] died two years ago after 23 years of life, 14 of which she lived with three legs. In fact, she used her tail as a rudder and could keep balance turning corners, running like no one else! So if cancer does not pursue its ravages, Pookie [Harriet and Bert’s cat, who recently had a leg amputated] will join the incredible agile ones!
love to you and a nice allo to your loved ones!
LIKE AN EGG
I crack my car open
shatter glazed windows, smash
a mounded roof, set loose a buried hood
rediscover and unblind headlights,
all the while caught between
fragility and imminent destruction,
as if I needed to be reminded
the same as when I take pen to paper,
stubborn, no matter what goes down,
what computer winks out.
Gloved or huddled by candlelight
makes no difference, my soul
insists on release.
Emily, I can understand why
you sewedthosebooks together,
wrote the desired against
the freezing night. If that’s insanity
I choose it over pretense, voices insisting
there’s nothing new under the sun.
If I have to crack cars open
to get where I’m going,
wear crampons to grip the ground,
don a hard hat
it’s no different than trying to shape
this poem, walk it firm
to meet the dawn of any new beginning.
Among tornadoes, volcanos, avalanches, nor’easters,
a hanging on, going on
with love a thin insulation
against the skin.
– Lynn Martin