She Is Still Burning 10 (November 2001)

By October 18th, 2001, according to my hand-written journals, I was already doubting that the 9-11 attacks had been the sole work of the people we were being told were responsible. But that doubt didn’t carry over from my private writing to the “She Is Still Burning” instalment below; what did carry over into my “Dear Friends” letter was my new journal-concocted self-identification as “earthling: being who lives on the earth.”

Sixteen years later, I still identify primarily as an earthling. Earthling is my “we,” and I must say it’s a “we” I’m forever thrilled to belong with.


SHE IS STILL BURNING
An Expanding Reader To Encourage Life Lovers
Installment # 10
6 November 2001

“Both day and night are good,” Agnes said. “Both speak a language. The language of the night is different from the language of the day. The language of the night is within you. Most two-leggeds have forgotten the language of night, but it would be good if they remembered, for a long night is coming before the break of dawn.”

– Lynn V. Andrews, Flight of the Seventh Moon

Dear Friends,

Since the last installment of She Is Still Burning (six weeks ago), we’ve passed into the madness-and-mayhem stage: the US and the UK drop their fabulously expensive and high-tech ordnance onto an already devastated Afghanistan, while the people starve; anthrax shows up in Kansas City, Kenya, Pakistan, Russia; American and allied governments begin operating under de facto martial law; the “Bush doctrine” enunciates policies that amount to a permanent state of war. From the point of view of your ordinary earthling (earthling = being who lives on the earth), bin Laden and Bush are pursuing the same chimera—”holy war”—and with the same probable result. The earth can’t take much more of this nonsense, and, as earthlings, neither can we.

Meanwhile, life in Saint John has become, if not peaceful, eerily quiet. The truck traffic that thundered day and night through the neighbourhood has slowed to a tractor-trailer every few hours. The Toronto-to-Europe jets that used to fly high over the city, one after the other after the other in the evenings, seem to have disappeared. Instead, a surveillance plane circles over the docks and oil refinery while a surveillance boat moves in and out of the harbour. On the tracks by Courtney Bay, two hundred railroad cars have been sitting for a month, their wheels rusting in the salt air. With the exception of the almighty Irving industrial empire, businesses have been falling like the autumn leaves. And the “Toronto fever” that had begun to grip this small city’s uptown vanished overnight: no one rushes around anymore with a cell phone glued to their ear.

In the midst of all this, I think about the fundamentalist forces that struck down the women of Afghanistan (who used to comprise 50 percent of Afghanistan’s government workers, 40 percent of its doctors, 75 percent of its teachers) then striking New York, and the worldwide economic and political fallout from that. I remember the saying of Native American tribes, “When the women lose heart, the people die.” And I think of the simple principle reinforced over and over by personal experience: everything is interconnected.

Under the omnipresent shadow of war, what to do, what to do? The only practical guideline I’ve come up with goes like this: whatever you love doing, do it now. I notice in the past few weeks that many of my friends and family seem to be following a similar self-directive—speaking their mind, forthrightly, and in public; beginning a new book manuscript; travelling overseas to a Zen peace camp; painting new watercolours; successfully agitating for the opening, on schedule, of the long-planned exhibition by Arab-Canadian artists at the Canadian Museum of Civilization, “Ces pays qui m’habitent / The Lands Within Me”; taking steps to realize a long-deferred dream. Living as boldly as they can, as fearlessly as they can, as creatively as they can, they become my “role models.” And they have my gratitude for being there, and for continuing to be themselves.

Bon courage (and happy reading),
Harriet Ellenberger
Saint John, New Brunswick, Canada


IN THIS INSTALLMENT

•Verena Stefan: Excerpts from keynote address to conference “Violence and Patriarchy in Art and Literature” (Ottawa, October 18, 2001)
•Ann Stokes: letter in response to SISB #9
•Albert E.B. (“The Bear”) O’Brien: “On the New Normal”
•Camille Norton: “After Reading Plato” (poem)


EXCERPTS FROM “THE ROARING INSIDE HER”
keynote address for the conference “Violence and Patriarchy in Art and Literature,” University of Ottawa, October 18, 2001
by Verena Stefan

Editor’s note: The essay/speech that Verena Stefan delivered on October 18, 2001, is a complex interweaving of literary and political analysis, poetry, mythology and story. I’m grateful for her permission to publish parts of it, but want to caution readers that the following two excerpts—one a story from literature and the other a story from life—do not give a fair representation of the essay as a whole. I selected the first story to honour Suzanne Boisvert’s fortieth birthday, because she has always loved the work of Carson McCullers. The second story I selected because it is a true story, and reflects both Verena’s life and her mother’s life. When the essay is published in its entirety and its final form, I’ll let readers know where to find it.

From the section “To whom does history belong?”

Do you remember Frankie Addams? Carson McCullers created her during WW II. She is the heroine of The Member of the Wedding.

Frankie is preoccupied with soldiers for specific reasons. In her twelfth summer, in 1944, the world seems shattered and torn, and it turns around way too fast, at a thousand miles an hour. The war in Europe is also happening so fast that Frankie Addams can’t keep up. War images and world images swirl in her head, overlapping each other, getting all mixed up together.

The only people who regularly come into the town from the outside and then leave it again are soldiers from the nearby barracks. For Frankie, they embody the big world, the whole world. Soldiers can be sent into any country on earth; they have entry everywhere. But how can she go out into the world, produce a connection? She dreams of going into the Marines and being honoured with gold insignia, but doesn’t know how this dream might be realized. Finally, it occurs to her how she might participate in the Second World War: she will give blood. She won’t bleed on the battlefield, although she is full of bloodthirsty ideas and attacks of rage and possesses a considerable arsenal of weapons. She will give her blood to those who go to battle, to the soldiers. In her mind she hears the doctors say that her blood, the blood of Frankie Addams, is the richest, reddest blood they have ever seen, and she dreams of it flowing on in the veins of all the possible soldiers in the whole world. And after the war the soldiers will thank her and address her, not as “Frankie,” but in soldierly style as “Addams.” But she is not allowed to give her blood; she is still too young. For everything, it seems, she is either too old or too young.

Frankie owns a stolen knife with three blades and a file she uses to sharpen the knife and also to file her fingernails, when they’re long enough. Once she shot bullets on the playing field with her father’s revolver. But when she commits a sin in the garage with the boy next door, she is unarmed, unsure, and doesn’t know what’s happening to her, what it is they’re doing. Something that makes her feel sick to her stomach. Before falling asleep, when the scene appears to her again, she imagines that she sticks a knife between the boy’s eyes.

She packs her suitcase. Where should she go? Everyone else knows where they belong: her father in his jewellery business, the soldiers in the army, Bernice, the housekeeper, with her family and the church. Frankie’s brother wants to marry, and only Frankie is completely alone. There seem to be but two options for her in order to enter public space and travel the world: war or love. Her rite of passage begins when she decides to join her brother and his fiancée on their honeymoon trip.

She walks through town like a queen, no longer separated from the world, although everything seems distorted to her: the unexpected doesn’t surprise her and the familiar seems strange. For the first time she looks a soldier on the street calmly in the eye, without envy and bitter jealousy in her heart. Instead she feels a kind of recognition in his look; in her opinion this is how free travellers look at each other. She interprets all encounters now out of this feeling, and when a drunken soldier takes up with her and asks whether they should go to her place or his, she is proud to be treated as an equal, as a traveller in a foreign country. She goes for a beer with him to the Blue Moon, a flophouse for soldiers and other adults who do as they please.

Here, Carson McCullers has the twelve-year-old girl speaking in sentences she has picked up from adults—”They say Paris has been liberated. In my opinion, the war will be over next month”—an eager, grotesque-sounding attempt to talk politics with the soldier without being able to give the sentences she speaks her own meaning. Finally, the author’s voice filters out the babble and names the girl’s situation on the threshold of the world: Nor would he talk about the war, nor foreign countries and the world. To his joking remarks she could never find replies that fitted, although she tried. “Like a nightmare pupil in a recital who has to play a duet to a piece she does not know … [she] did her best to catch the tune and follow, but soon she broke down and grinned until her mouth felt wooden.”

One can hardly imagine a more fitting description for the situation of the female stranger in the world. Like Lily Everit [the young heroine of Virginia Woolf’s 1925 story “The Invitation”], Frankie wants to participate in worldly affairs with her own knowledge. She simply wants to have a decent conversation with an equal. But the scenario McCullers describes is crazy-making, a game of confusion in which only one thing is certain: it’s a nightmare, and there’s no telling if one will wake up from it.

Many of the girls I have found in literature are lonely hunters, solitary runners—like Frankie Addams, seeking and creating a ritual of transition without the company or support of adult women or other girls. With their experience of ten, twelve years, they preserve an archaic female wisdom. They know what female freedom is; unlike adult feminists, they don’t have to reclaim it. The stress of becoming a woman, a REAL woman, doesn’t eat them up yet. Rather, they determine their own vagabond freedom, their own rhythm, their own life-preserving aggressivity. Theirs is a wild, unruly, primitive response, comprising day and night, the woods, every road of the world and of the mind, magic power, the stars and the aspiration to fulfil one’s dreams, to use one’s potential as a human being. Neither fish nor fowl … they defy the expectation that they unlearn their liberty. Then they discover that these are not the right traits for the true women they are meant to become, that only boys can inherit the world.

Still in the altered state of her lonely initiation, Frankie accompanies the soldier to his room. This time she recognizes the danger in the sudden silence, which reminds her of the silence in the garage. Immediately she turns to go, he prevents her, and without thinking, she bites his tongue with all her strength. When he goes after her again, she reaches for the nearest object and hits him over the head with a glass pitcher. With one blow, with her blow, she has broken the silence, averted danger. The soldier’s head sounds hollow like a coconut.

That night, distraught, she asks her father if one can kill a person by hitting them over the head with a glass jug. As usual, the father isn’t listening. She persists, and he takes the reality out of her question when he says he’s never done such a thing and consequently she hasn’t either. In his friendly way he confirms the adult principle: children are not to be believed. Beyond that his distracted answer says: you could not do anything that lies outside of my ability to imagine.

Frankie’s vision is that humans could and would meet as free travellers, not as women, not as men, throughout their lives, throughout the world. That she should be put into the category of the Other is beyond her imagination. I like to look at her as somebody talking to us about fundamental aspects of the human condition. Like other young heroines, she conveys messages to us from a time when the girl is still a human being, before she mutates into a woman.

From the section “What do I know about war?”

A friend whom I haven’t seen for thirteen years comes for breakfast. Our conversation sparks through the kitchen and weaves into a brilliant mellow September morning. The phone rings. My lover, who knows I don’t listen to the news in the morning, leaves a message about the attack in New York City. At noon, by myself again, I turn on the TV, stare at a plane that enters into a tower and leaves it on the opposite side. Though I have never lived with a TV before, never witnessed a war “live” on the screen, and don’t watch horror movies either, the image bears an eerie familiarity. Has this been the last conversation before World War III? I ask myself. Then I feel the ocean, the immensity of the Atlantic Ocean between North America and Europe. It eludes the conceptual mind. How did anybody ever manage to cross it? It is vast, infinite, cold. The void. I am cut off from Europe. The mind jumps again. The towers keep crumbling like sandcastles. Berlin … Berne … there are invitations to teach and to read. But I don’t want to get stuck over there either, is the third flash in my mind. I want to come back to Montreal.

In moments of shock the body’s memory speaks out. The reptilian brain shoots its “fight or flight” reaction through my system. War has been close to me since I have been conceived. One of my deepest emotions before falling asleep is Nicht auf der Flucht. Not fleeing. Then I sigh. Tonight I am safe. The emotion is linked with physical delight: I am in a dry place, it is not humid, I am not freezing. But always have the bags ready. Better to be prepared.

Some things about war I learned from my mother: losing a house, fleeing, being bombed, being on a trainful of refugees, fear of rape, hope for protection by state authorities, being turned down, being trapped on a train, becoming a prisoner of war, defying the enemy with her mother tongue, empowering herself by her mother tongue to a degree that defied rape. It comes to my mind now that it was she, in our family, who had a heroic war story—not Father.

She wants to leave Prague with her two little boys to head for Switzerland. She has already left behind their Berlin home of six years. My father was drafted with the pitchfork troops only for the last shabby battle. The Prague railway station is overcrowded with scurrying people. Were the gilded spheres on the roof, the magnificent glass dome, still shining? May 1945, and the Russian Army arrives. Everybody German or speaking a Germanic language instantly becomes a prisoner. She is arrested with hundreds of people in a cinema. The rapes start immediately. The first time she refuses in French, one of her boys who is in the grip of dysentery in her arms as they leave the bathroom. After two weeks they are transported to a camp in the countryside where they have to work in the fields for Czech farmers.

The rapists, both Russian and Czech men, come every night to pick some of the women and girls. I got so furious, she would tell us. You can’t imagine how indignant I suddenly felt when a soldier tapped my foot one night, ordering me to follow him. It was out of the question. Night after night we would lie there, our hearts hammering. But now I heard myself yelling at him in Bernese German with all my strength. The words just broke out of me. Never before in my life had I told anybody to go to hell, let alone called them a bastard.

The soldier, baffled by a vernacular he didn’t know and that wasn’t the enemy’s language, let her be.

Her story of the power of language belongs to my life like a recurring tune of which one doesn’t remember the beginning. It transmits the secret of gut language, of being outraged to the point of not giving permission to let rape happen, of language use that is hysterical in the true sense of the word.

Note: Verena Stefan’s first book, a memoir published in 1975 by Frauenoffensive, became known as “the touchstone of the German women’s movement.” Translated into eight European languages, it was first published in English by Daughters in 1978, then later republished along with short stories and essays as Shedding and Literally Dreaming (Feminist Press, 1994). Rauh, wild & frei (Fischer, 1997), her most recently published book in German, is an exploration of girls as literary heroines. A landed immigrant in Canada, and living in Montreal since 2000, she now writes in both German and English, and offers creative writing workshops.


LETTER IN RESPONSE TO SISB #9

Sunday, October 14, 2001

Dear Harriet,

This day seems more in tune with the demise of the world—drizzling damp unpleasant: a pall of hopelessness, i.e. stupidity.

It does feel like the world cannot piece back together, what is happening now. I have never felt this dread before. Your She Is Still Burning has the heaviness—it sinks into me. Susan Wood-Thompson’s excerpt from her poem is really something which knocked me out. Your words, your re-dedication, superb. God, you can feel the depth and desire in this issue. (I thought Lynn’s poem the best I had ever seen of her work.) The desire to live, with intelligence and utter necessity. They are within the Petition, also.

A heightened sense of life: I looked at a spider with its legs separated on a tree trunk in the sun, the other day. It was, each leg, soaking up the last warmth of summer. I found her beautiful. Walking in the woods, sort of peering for a deer—instead, an almost-black goodsize garter snake, sunning. It didn’t move away; instead, it glared at me and was ready to attack, should I come nearer. I liked that. I loved seeing a snake. It made my day. The black and dark grey New Yorker cover I found stunning and excruciatingly sad: someone commented on it “how cool” in this flip knowitall voice. I roared to its defense and chopped her head off verbally. She shrunk away.

It’s all or nothing now. Can’t deal with grey, “cool,” nothing.

Your writing is succinct clear determined tender. You are burning brighter—

Love,
Ann (Stokes)


ON THE “NEW NORMAL”
by Albert E.B. (“The Bear”) O’Brien

There’s nothing really new about what’s happening this time around — only the weaponry, the protagonists and the reason(s) for killing have changed.

The challenging questions we now have to face are: (1) are we in the West willing to  accept and therefore legitimize the “New Order” which is now in the making? And (2) what consequences will this war on terrorism have for the future of humankind? No one in our respective governments seems to know and, I dare say, no one therein even wants to think about it at this point because it is imperative that the infamy committed in New York be avenged, that bin Laden be punished, that certain regimes be held accountable for the harbouring of terrorists—and then and only then will they worry about the consequences of their actions! Typically human, isn’t it?

We in the West have ignored history for too long and have also failed to see that the world which surrounds our comfortable societies has evolved during the past forty years or so into a festering pit of misery, despair and anger. Tenuous coalitions, air-dropped ration packs, blankets, never-ending rhetoric and offers to rebuild a country after bombing it to smithereens will only serve to worsen what has already proven to be historically unattainable for humankind: there will always be war, there will always be poverty and hunger, there will always be a new “bin Laden” and there will always be a need for the eradication of “Evil.” Such is our destiny or so it appears.

Let’s keep religion and religiosity out of this please! Let’s also remember that “we of the human species” are programmed at birth with the ability to kill indiscriminately and we feel completely legitimized in doing so when given the right reason(s). History has confirmed this time and again: all one has to do is to look up the history of ancient Rome, Egypt, Peru; and more recently, that of Germany, the Balkans, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Ireland, just to name a few.

The bottom line: no one really wins in war. Only the military-industrial complexes of this world, and the new groups of “terrorists/militants” spawned by war, will benefit—as they always do—but at what cost to the rest of us?

My UN Peacekeeping experience during a Middle-East war in the 1970s tells me that we haven’t seen the worst of it yet, on both sides.

I also hasten to say that we in the West will not be able, this time around, to gracefully exit from war nor will we be able to conveniently walk away from the suffering that we will have so liberally dispensed during this, our “Jihad” against terrorism.


AFTER READING PLATO

I’m thinking about the hummingbirds in the tree behind you.

What do you think about when you see hummingbirds?

I think about their shadows whirring against the acacias.
And I think about the first hummingbird.

Where is the first hummingbird?

In Maine, on a logging road near Mount Katahdin.

It has a ruby throat.
It startles me now like the shape of bliss.

Like something unimagined that is suddenly there?

Like something unimagined.

I’m six, I’m wearing a red coat.
My mother walks ahead of me on the road and she is sad.

And for a moment I look away from my mother
and see the hummingbird

a slashing green jewel of a bird cutting between
my body and my mother’s body

like an arrow from the bow
like the knife of happiness.

– Camille Norton

 

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She Is Still Burning 8 (August 2001)

Republishing the instalments of She Is Still Burning is having a peculiar effect on my psyche: I’m moving constantly between the past and the present, between then and now.  It’s a little like rocking in a boat, just before you start getting seasick.

In the August 2001 “Dear Friends” letter below, I’m reporting on a trip to North Carolina to visit Catherine Nicholson, with whom in 1976 I co-founded the journal Sinister Wisdom.  In 2016, Sinister Wisdom celebrated its 40th year of publishing, but Catherine didn’t live to see that anniversary happen. She would’ve been so pleased about it.

SHE IS STILL BURNING
An Expanding Reader To Encourage Life Lovers
Installment #8
8 August 2001

“Women and poets believe and resist forever:
The blind inventor finds the underground river.”
– Muriel Rukeyser, “Letter to the Front,” published 1944

Dear Friends,

It seems a long time and a lot of mileage since the last installment of She Is Still Burning. The first two weeks of May I spent in Durham, North Carolina, visiting Catherine Nicholson, voraciously trying to read everything in her apartment, browsing the bookstores on 9th Street, seeing an exhibit of Stanton Macdonald-Wright’s paintings and a new play about Lou Andreas Salome, being wined and dined by old friends and new friends, listening to life stories of every woman I met, enjoying sun and warm air and the scent of flowering magnolia trees.

At one point, Wynn Cherry, who is completing a book about Southern U.S. lesbian writers, asked to interview me about the experience of publishing Sinister Wisdom with Catherine in North Carolina in the mid-70s. When she arrived with her tape recorder at the sidewalk café, I had a sudden vision of myself as a dinosaur who had somehow escaped extinction (I’m not used to being interviewed), but then I forgot the tape recorder and we were launched into one of those long passionate conversations that to me have always been the hallmark of Real Life: 1976 … 2001; then … now; what has changed … what remains the same. At the end she asked me, after my wild hand-waving attempts to convey what it was like to live for a movement, Was it worth it? It took me a few moments, but finally I said, Yes, I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. And that felt like the true answer.

One of the books I discovered on Catherine’s coffee table (a prime source for reading material I’m unlikely to run across in Saint John) was Feminist Interpretations of Mary Daly, edited by Sarah Lucia Hoagland and Marilyn Frye (Pennsylvania State Univ. Press, 2000). Marilyn and Sarah are old friends from Sinister Wisdom days, but, more to the point, both are philosophers who have written feminist classics (Frye’s The Politics of Reality and Hoagland’s Lesbian Ethics). And Mary Daly’s Beyond God the Father was a primary inspiration for the creation of Sinister Wisdom in 1976, while her most recent book Quintessence was likewise a primary inspiration for the creation of She Is Still Burning twenty-four years later. So a volume titled Feminist Interpretations of Mary Daly and edited by Hoagland and Frye was guaranteed to capture my attention. It lived up to my hopes too. It’s philosophy done in a way I used to dream that philosophy might be done (ought to be done) when I was a thoroughly lost, mute and alienated undergraduate, majoring in philosophy.

The book on Daly’s pre-Quintessence work is part of an entire series published by Pennsylvania State in which feminist philosophers reinterpret the works of Hannah Arendt, de Beauvoir, Foucault, Derrida, Kant, Kierkegaard, Aristotle, Plato, Hegel, Nietzsche, the list goes on. Scanning that list, I felt half-ecstatic and half-anguished. What if this series had existed in the mid-1960s? I would have cried for joy at discovering it in the university library; it would have set my mind on fire; I would have flung myself into the collaborative making of meaning like a young Fury. It would have altered the world for me. But in the mid-1960s there was no such series (the closest thing I could find to inspiration was the later Wittgenstein and a few fragments from the pre-Socratics), and there were no feminist philosophers. Imagine how precious, how precious and how fragile, their existence now is.

Speaking of the precious and the fragile brings me to my second key discovery on Catherine’s coffee table: the glossy March 2001 issue of Girlfriends, with its excellent article by Kathleen Wilkinson, “The Closing of the Feminist Press,” wherein I learned that Feminist Bookstore News had ceased publication, for lack of revenue. Merde, I thought. Carol Seajay, the moving force behind FBN, has done as much as one human can in a single lifetime to help create and sustain the international networks of women writers, publishers, librarians and booksellers that have been central to the transformation of feminism into a global movement. That FBN has run out of support is, to understate the matter, not a good sign.

The women interviewed by Wilkinson point to a variety of reasons for the unraveling, at least in the States, of a women-in-print network, but the remark that struck me most was made by Nancy Bereano, former publisher of Firebrand Books, who said, “I think we underestimated the capitalist maw and we were swallowed up by it.” In the brief time since October 2000, when I put out the first installment of She Is Still Burning, that same capitalist maw has 90 percent swallowed up the Internet too, in great part thanks to a predatory Microsoft monopoly. (Ho, Billygate, you win again: those millions spent on wooing politicians … ) To put it briefly, we’re in merde up to our ears and on all fronts. Add to that my belated discovery that publishing on the Internet can be as complex and arduous a process as publishing on paper, and you have the reasons for a brief plunge into the bitter-bitter-blues on my part.

My spirits picked up again, though, when my partner, Bert O’Brien, solved the 5-megabyte problem. (Five megabytes for a personal website is what you’re allowed when you pay for your e-mail address; 5 megabytes is comparable to a broom closet, but paying for a larger, commercial-size website was out of the question.) In a technological tour de force, he redesigned the entire website, still within that 5-megabyte limit, so that you can now read and VERY easily download to your computer all installments of Burning. In other words, She Is Still Burning becomes on the web what I’d originally intended it to be: an expanding reader.

In closing, let me say that I habitually keep one ear to the ground, and it seems to me I’m detecting the beginnings of a faint rumble. Though I don’t have “proof” beyond that furnished by intuition, I think that the next volcanic eruption of women is coming, it’s coming soon, it’s coming in the midst of circumstances that are the most dangerous humans have yet faced, and few of us will be able to rely on our usual paper or electronic or telephonic means of communication. Wherefore, let’s polish up our survival skills, dear friends, our telepathic skills too. And let’s create up a storm, because when we create, we’re in synchronicity, one with the other.

Bon courage (and happy reading),
Harriet Ellenberger
Saint John, New Brunswick, Canada


IN THIS INSTALLMENT

•Notes on Our Time (excerpts from Maureen Dowd, Toni
Morrison, Mary Daly)
•Reader Response
•”Three Slaves by Michelangelo Buonorotti” (poem by Camille Norton)


Dowd, Morrison, Daly: NOTES ON OUR TIME

“We want big. We want fast. We want far. We want now.
We don’t have limits. We have liberties.
We will let our power plants spew any chemicals we deem necessary to fire up our Interplaks, our Krups, our Black & Deckers and our Fujitsu Plasmavisions.
We will drill for oil whenever and wherever we please.
We will perfect the dream of nuclear power.
We will put our toxic waste wherever we want, whenever we waste it.
We will thrust as many satellites as we want into outer space, and we will surround them with a firewall of weapons for their
protection.
We will modify food in any way we want and send it to any country we see fit at prices that we and we alone determine in the cargo ships we choose at the time we set.
We will fly up any coast of any nation on earth with any plane filled with any surveillance equipment and top guns that we
possess.
We will buy, carry, conceal and shoot firearms whenever and wherever we want. We will kill any criminal we want, by lethal injection or electrocution.
We are America.”
(Maureen Dowd, excerpts from “Drill, Grill and Chill,” New York Times, May 2001)

“I am not certain, nor should you be, that somehow a burgeoning ménage à trois of political interests, corporate interests, military interests will not prevail and literally annihilate an inhabitable humane future. It is possible that with the company of obedient, quisling media such an unholy trinity can arrange things so that that human invention called the future will encompass that inhuman invention called fascism.”
(Toni Morrison, commencement speech, Smith College, May 2001)

“Facing the ultimate horror that is all around us can free Fiery Women into Fearlessness, so that we can Spring ahead, ready, finally, for the greatest adventure of our lives. It really is a case of Now or Never.”
(Mary Daly, Quintessence… Realizing the Archaic Future: A Radical Elemental Feminist Manifesto, Beacon Press, 1998)


Reader Response, 8 May 2001

Dear Harriet:

I did want to write you before more time passes to express appreciation that you continue to publish this wonderful journal, that you continue to write and live — we need you — and that you remind us to take courage. I need that. We all do.

Yes, Bush is nuts, but we all knew that, they all are, and in a way, what comforts me is to remind myself that we and the earth will prevail through all this horror, REGARDLESS. We see signs all around the world that we are rising up, yet again, in small ways, but as the water wears away the rock, so we too will wear away the patriarchy. I still believe the patriarchy is dying, and these antics are the kicking and screaming of a passing of a consciousness woefully undeveloped. So, yes, courage, kindness, and kaleidescopes. We carry on.

Love and light,
Jeannette Muzima


Three Slaves by Michelangelo Buonorotti
c. 1530, after the Gallery of Slaves, the Accademia, Florence

The Young Slave

A slave is not born but made.
The same has been said about women.

The abject position of the knee as it prepares to bend,
the lowered gaze and tilted head, the torso’s sinuous swivel–

all bear the marks of the master’s chisel.

If you run a hand across the cuts you can feel
the master’s intention to make stone speak as if it were a body.

Perhaps the master’s body emerging into suffering.
Or the body of a boy he was caught desiring–

a rent boy from the Trasteveri, a Sicilian.
Did the boy prefer women?

Did he turn his face away in boredom,
signaling the end of the transaction we call love?

This boy’s unfinished.

His genitals rise, his tipped nipples
lift away from the master’s hand.

You’re there to look at him and so you look
at the prison of his beauty

at the way he is neither subject nor object
but both incompletely

as if he were practicing

in front of a mirror, imitating that look
we call femininity.

O take me.

Master. Slave. Slave. Master.
All along the traces of his young body.

Feeling for the gate between
control and pleasure.

He keeps doing it
one way. Then the other.

 

The Awakening Slave

It’s not easy to wake when sleep is sweeter than reason.

Consider the light surrounding Giorgione’s reclining Venus,
its muted russets and tempered golds, its soft green

mosses, its umber road
unfolding sensuously inside a world of shadow.

As Venus sleeps, her hand caresses
the cleft beneath her pubic bone.

Who could wake her?

In The Awakening by Kate Chopin,
Edna Pontellier startles awake from a life of pleasure

and drowns herself within the year.
A kind of erasure it seems to me though my students say no

she is free and besides we are all slaves, Professor.

But wisdom lies in the awakening of the entire soul
from the slumber of its private wants and opinions.

To see the world whole, apart from one’s self.
To love the world anyway, for its own sake.

But how many ever do this?
And what about the danger

of awakening partially or half-way
like Michelangelo’s half-hewn man

hurtling inside his marble brace
half in, half out like a moth trapped in a chrysalis.

He’s running in place.
What’s worse, he’s running in place for all eternity

and he knows it because he’s awake
after the long dream of passage

in which he is always facing forward into shadow
or back into the sweetness

of night falling in a dark blue meridian
that is elsewhere and in between

the waking body
and the dream.

 

Atlas

The slave we call Atlas is attached to an unshaped immensity.

Atlas lived in Atlantis once.
Now he lives in the Gallery of Slaves at the Academy in Florence.

There is a block of stone where his head should be.

Unlike David, who has a head wrapped in acanthine curls,
a slingshot, buttocks, and inescapable genitals,

Atlas has only the burden of the material
against which he struggles —
raw marble, a torso, one shoulder, one heroic arm.

His arm pushes mightily against a dead weight
and disappears inside it, as if weight itself had a secret chamber

where one could think things through, away from the crowd.
His head’s in there too, thinking

of mind over matter or matter inside mind or the other way round.
Big Mind is like a sky vault or like a mountain,

hard to support with the head alone.
And yet one needs a head to figure out

how mind attaches to the stuff we’re made of.

Atlas attaches through tendon and nerve.
Atlas has a spinous process.

Atlas is the first vertebra of the cervical spine.
Atlas is a winged bone with a hole in it.

Atlas is delicate.
Atlas curves and breathes

up through the hole to the great sky dome
where the Pleiades light up the dark and private life

of the mind where we are, all of us, alone.

– Camille Norton

She Is Still Burning 6 (March 2001)

I decided to re-publish all the instalments of “She Is Still Burning” in their original form, not only because they give a vivid history of the times, but also because the contributions were too good to reside only on the Digital Library’s Wayback Machine. The “Harriet’s Home Page” I’m so gleefully announcing on International Women’s Day in 2001 was a teeny webspace that came with my e-mail address. When I switched internet providers, it disappeared and so did “She Is Still Burning.”

The publishing technology I was experimenting with in 2001 seems archaic now, but the writing is still alive. Which makes me wish I’d spent less time struggling with computers and more time propped up in bed with my pen and notebook.

SHE IS STILL BURNING
An Expanding Reader To Encourage Life Lovers
Installment #6
8 March 2001, International Women’s Day

“The road to a friend’s house is never long.”
– Danish proverb

Dear Friends,

In the past five weeks, I seem to have leapt on my war pony and headed off in all directions at once. The result being that there’s now half-written or half-assembled material enough for two installments of Burning, ideas enough for six more … and I’m facing my usual problem of organizing the altogether-too-many-ideas.

In the meantime, the Bush Tank continued to roll on, with “test and provoke” military exercises in the Middle East and onslaughts on no-longer-protected wilderness in the US. Is there any life form these people intend to leave standing?

But I do have one victory announcement: She Is Still Burning has finally made it to the web. … My hope is that “Harriet’s Home Page” will attract more readers and writers to the She Is Still Burning dialogue.

The first writer so attracted turned out to be my brother. The website had no sooner gone up on February 28th than I received the following:

“Would you be willing to put some info onto your web site for us? Here’s the deal. We have five extra dwarf hamsters, free to good homes or snake farms. The blessed event happened this morning just before Sarah went to school. This time she pulled the males from the nursery, so the little critters have a chance of living. We can ship worldwide if we can find a source for dry ice. Instructions for resuscitation will be included in each shipment, but no warranty is made, expressed or implied, international or otherwise.

“Please have your people contact our people as soon as convenient. Remember, supplies are limited, but we expect another delivery from our suppliers in 30 days or less.” [Signed “BAB,” short for “Bad-Ass Brother,” alias Jim Ellenberger]

Well, what could I say? I wrote back, “Sure, glad to help out.” And then didn’t hear anything more on the subject until a recent communique from Sarah Ellenberger indicated that the hamsters are now “growing hair” and “are cute.” I think this means the free-rodent offer no longer holds.

And now welcome to the sixth installment (that’s half a dozen! I can’t believe it) of She Is Still Burning.

Bon courage (and happy reading),
Harriet Ellenberger
Saint John, New Brunswick, Canada


IN THIS INSTALLMENT

•”Seven Signs for Home: Oakland, California” by Camille Norton
•”New York City: Ritual with Trembling” by Jane Picard
•”I am not a river” by Jeannette Muzima


SEVEN SIGNS FOR HOME: OAKLAND, CALIFORNIA

by Camille Norton

TURRETS, BEHIND THEM. Shadow of the cement factory. Shadow of ConAgra and the low-lying cement boxes of the toxic waste facility. High up on its ashy pole an electricity box crackles as it feeds the quarter with light. At night, I walk by that light to the cement island at the foot of the bridge to Alameda. I walk with the dog. There’s a store there that sells cheap goods and comestibles 24-hours a day. Behind the counter, the sign reads, “Cashier never has more than $50.00 in change at any one time.” I know about the drop box behind the counter from my past life as a cashier. Now I like to watch my image projected by the video cameras that film the customers and the clerks. I look foreign to myself, potentially dangerous or comical, depending on the angle of light. Last night, as I was walking home, a thin, hunched man in a black cloth coat pulled up beside me on his little bicycle. I felt afraid but was too polite to show it. He nodded hello briskly, then pedaled along down Glascock Street, going home I realized, to the tent city in the pallet yards, with his can of Miller High Life tucked under his arm. I pulled the gate shut, rolling it to its lock, as I do each time I enter or exit the compound. Living among the poor one must have a gate. This one slides on wheels.

PATCHES OF STANDING WATER. Deep in the recess of the yard I found a bucket of pond scum growing green fur and oily lights like swirls of paisley. A chemical wash the dog drinks when I’m not looking. I overturned it with my boot, defying the inevitability of sick dog in the night, myself on the stairs in striped pajamas and overcoat at 3 A.M. The yard burgeons with potted trees. Misshapen lemons one must never eat. Sickly oranges bulging in tumorous sacs. Basins of basil so polluted with cement grit and truck exhaust that they are coated grey and limp, even after rain.

THE CANAL. PEOPLE WHO SLEEP BY THE CANAL. The warehouses are secured behind bolted metal plates. A German Shepherd sleeps with his head on his paws in a dirt lot bounded by barbed wire. The canal churns between inlet and inlet. A barge belonging to the Fire Department, City of San Francisco, sloshes in its berth. Tiny irradiated fish bob against the muddy bottom between rays of starlight and iron ore filings that poke up from the canal floor. The bay moves us, displaces us and still we hunch down in place. At night, the old neighborhood, the one that has disappeared, breathes. Wooden houses sink deeper into their pilings. The bus people, who move their bus every night to a new corner in order to evade arrest by the police, sink deeper into their sleeping bags. They are the most discreet denizens of the quarter, as quiet as the dead and as invisible. The two who are lovers draw closer, imagining life on the road. In the compound behind the locked gate, the painter in studio #24 draws the blinds. We can no longer admire the orchids arranged in rows by the windows. Crimson. White. Crimson. Magnetic blue hybrid. A wall of books giving way to a wall of abstraction. All things are private now, contained. The man on the top floor of 2889 takes another pain tablet, running his tongue against the wound in his mouth. Alone and in pain and getting older. But one must never show any of that to other people. We smile when we pass each other on the stairs. A sympathetic greeting now and again. So many of us sleep alone in large spaces we fill with books and paintings and computers. Out of doors, the illegals sleep in crowds. Four to a bed in the pallet yard. In the morning, the cotton batting is rolled up, packed behind a wall under plastic sheeting. Then the men go out into the street, walled up inside the mother tongue, walking one by one to the day-laborer pick-up corner on International Boulevard.

PEOPLE IN CROWDS. Day labor consists of — if you can dig this — cleaning toilets at the old stadium; tearing down dry wall in a building scheduled for demolition; painting a dentist’s new office; weeding a garden in North Berkeley; slopping out the port-o-potties at a construction sight in San Leandro; stuffing tube after tube of sausage casing with chicken and herbs; rolling layers of brown cotton into futons special ordered by Buddhists; raking mulch; raking gravel; sweeping the ashes out of the crematorium; driving cars in and out of the car wash, towel-drying the cars, hand-waxing the cars. All labor performed for $3.00 an hour. Under the table. No questions asked. No stories told.

PEOPLE DANCING ALONE. But it’s only cold El Norte talking through their bones. The ones who didn’t get work wear thin-as-a-sheet bomber jackets and high-top Converse sneakers with no arches. Elvis Presley pompadour hairdos slicked back with water. The thing is, you keep moving. Keep moving so the cops don’t stop you. Keep clean, alert; learn how to carry yourself so you don’t look hungry. Nothing free here, amigo. Little girls push by with their babies in supermarket carriages piled high with paper diapers and formula in cans. Thirteen. Fourteen. They flick their eyes at you, as if to say, “I got a man.” But you can tell just by looking that the man is gone back where he came from because nothing is free here.

RAILROAD TRACKS. The tracks in the quarter are out of use except once on Fridays when the Iconco train eases out of its stall and chugs slowly along Glascock Street to Jack London Square. A comical sight, a train without a caboose and only one driver, a man who has to crane his neck out of a side window in order to yell at the dogs and cats who linger on the tracks. Every once in a while, after the train passes through, old Oakland begins to speak, Oakland just after the second war, when the quarter belonged to African-American men and women who grew cabbages and chard in the bright sun near the canal. In those days, you could ride the train downtown for five cents, eight cents roundtrip. No fences then except low picket fences to keep dogs out of gardens; no warehouses; and no freeway, just the road to the bridge crossing over to the island, where no black folks were welcome. If you were black, you belonged on this side of the canal and built your wooden house high in case of floods. You built a root cellar under the house because you never knew about the lean times, when they would come or what they would bring. Today, when you dig a little under the spoiled dirt, you find canning jar lids and smashed glass glittering under the topsoil; a bit of red cloth; a child’s top lost long ago, corroding now under the chipped blue enamel but spinning free as the weight of time slides clear. Then someone kicks it aside, someone new to the place. The top drifts away like trash. Then it knocks and blows the length of a city block before it disappears once and for all into the island trash that blows all the way into the bay.


note from Camille Norton: “I write poems about landscapes under erasure, about microcosms, lost objects, and the sound of white noise as it is lyrically distilled and remade as something we might use. I teach literature at The University of the Pacific, where my students do not know who Louis Armstrong is, let alone Simone de Beauvoir — so I work as a cultural transmitter. I do not watch television, but listen to the radio on long commutes between Stockton and Oakland, California, where I live in an old factory next to a canal.”


NEW YORK CITY: RITUAL WITH TREMBLING

There is eloquence in repetition
saying it once then again
a jolt to the spine, then
in its wake a trembling
a trembling again

I dreamed I was following
a trail through New York City, a trail
of cornmeal and ashes
a trail that wound
through a marketplace
where women in black hats
kept moving in and out of doorways
changing their minds. One said
she was pretty, she said she was bitter
kept turning away, her hands full of snakes.
The other one said: Watch out for me
I’m in the field of your desire
and I go for the heart. She handed me
a necklace of rosehips and thorns.

There are no mystics these days
only performers in catastrophic states,
drama obscuring the real issues.

We go where our love takes us
trembling like two small beasts
returned to the wild, the question
is: will we bond?
Why mark it by saying in Love?
Why not just say, they took to the trees.

Morning falls apart into day.
Bodies collapsed in doorways
rise and reassemble. Bones
grind into place. Geared up
against last night’s resistance
they go where they are told to go.

I see boomboxes carried on shoulders
ringed with fading light. Sounds
as bright as Johannesburg diamonds.
Real citizens band radio. Angels
with soot-covered wings, home girls
dance like young geese, their
arms thrown out slapping the air.
Flight divas practicing their V for-ma-tion.

I see people lining up to buy
art and brown-skinned babies from Peru.
Women lean weary into small faces
with upturned mouths. they croon
dreamy, they croon tremolo, they sing:
nothing human can thrive here anymore.

I see a relay of small lights
inside crack buildings, capsizing bodies
staggering through doorways,
men sitting in a room counting numbers
taking names, compulsive orderliness
obsessive, repetitive fixation
upon minute detail.

Darkness immanent I sing
for the abandoned I sing
for the outcast.

Freefall at 5000 feet. The heart bursts
into five fragments, a bloodline
from New York City to San Francisco, a pulse
from coast to coast, arterial repetition.
a constant rocking locomotion
a side to side commotion
there and not there, sex and desire
darkening the landscape like a shadow play.

We are side by side, two faces
on a train. You close your
eyes and I dream of you, your mouth
on my lips. Blood and cinders.
I think about all those people, all
that energy jamming the face
of the earth. I imagine an elephant’s metabolism, this
train moving slowly out of the station.

Now raise your hand love, and let the dead walk.
So that the soul I love that lies
sleeping, couched in all its
clumsy maneuvers may rise. Heart’s
desire headed homeward. Lover
every journey begins with a refrain
a heart crossing a body of water.

I feel the pull of the beast
in front of me pacing in its cage.
If I free the beast, will it
put out the pain
with the light of its tongue?

We are waiting for the signal, for the
GO that sets us running.
We engage like each car
with the next, singular but connected
with a purpose, a mission, a motive.
Like two halves of a moment in time.

— Jane Picard


 

I am not a river
you can launch your gorgeous body on
to swim from one bend
to the next

I am an ocean
between two continents
one death the other life
if you have no particular
destination
you may float on me
anytime

and always

                           — Jeannette Muzima