She Is Still Burning 17-18

The following remembrance and celebration of Mary Meigs’ life and friendships was also the final instalment of She Is Still Burning, a fitting ending to a project that I’d begun simply because Michèle Causse sent me an e-mail saying, “Harriet, do something.” I don’t always rush to comply with the wishes of friends, but in this case, because it was Michèle issuing the order, I swung into action, and am glad of it. Thank you, Michèle. Thank you, Mary. And thank you to everyone who contributed to the brief fiery life of She Is Still Burning.

SHE IS STILL BURNING
An Expanding Reader To Encourage Life Lovers
Installment #17-18
21 June 2003

Now a thought trickles in like water giving life to dry clay. It is– “that bush over there is quite beautiful, it has been transformed by snow in less than half an hour. Once it was the flame tree, the vision that sang in October. Now it is a snow-blossoming March bush—and I croak my toad’s song under its roots.” (Mary Meigs, 21 March 2002)

Dear Friends,

This installment is a dual tribute: to Mary Meigs and to the powers of friendship. In it, you will hear her voice in the last year of her life, accompanied by the voices of friends grieving the loss of her and conjuring her presence back among us through their words.

There are many ways to know someone, even when it’s too late to phone her, send her a fax, mail her a letter or land on her doorstep. I hope you will enjoy coming to know Mary through these words and images, or coming to know aspects of her that you might not have known before.

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

note: Painter and writer Mary Meigs (1917–2002) was born in Philadelphia, but lived the latter part of her life in Montreal. Talon Books in Vancouver published all five of her books: Lily Briscoe: A Self-Portrait (1981), The Medusa Head (1983), The Box Closet (1987), In the Company of Strangers (1991) and The Time Being (1997).

Those who never had the chance to meet her in person can still see her on film, playing herself at age 70—the witty, compassionate, outspoken lesbian artist who is the driving force in Cynthia Scott’s film In the Company of Strangers (NFB, 1990). The film is available on DVD or video as part of the “Modern Day Classics” series, under the title Strangers in Good Company.

“Who She Was,” a charming comic-strip story by Eve Corbel about her friendship with Mary, appears in the Winter 2002 issue of Geist magazine (Vancouver).


IN THIS INSTALLMENT

1) Betsy Warland: “A Remembering of Mary Meigs”
2) Suniti Namjoshi: “Mary’s Dream” and an extract from “The Good Witch Sycorax”
3) Claire Saint Aubin: “À bientôt Mary”
4) Sylvie Sainte-Marie: “Elle est apparue dans ma vie” and “Soledad”
5) Verena Stefan: “Agitation on a Brick Wall”
6) Cynthia Rich: “Seeing Mary”
7) Lise Weil: “Freewriting with Mary”
8) “Feathers”: correspondence between Mary Meigs and Harriet Ellenberger
9) Mary Meigs, “Dead Flicker 1985”


A REMEMBERING OF MARY MEIGS

by Betsy Warland

(based on a talk given at the Memorial Service for Mary Meigs, December 7th, 2002, Montreal)

The night Mary died she “visited” me. As we have been hearing here today at this memorial service, Mary has been visiting a number of us since she died. And, happily, she seems to be fine indeed.

The evening she died, I was utterly preoccupied with preparations for a dinner party celebrating my partner Susan’s birthday. I had been working all day on the meal and had just begun to set the table when a voice spoke to me: “Put Mary’s bird on the table.” It seemed a bit strange but I have learned to listen to such voices over the years.

I went to my writing study where the bird sits on my writing table. Mary had sent it to me almost two years ago when I was in the midst of a life-threatening illness. She had carved it. It has a natural wood finish and an early American, Brancusi look and feel. I picked it up. Held it to my chest as I always do. Mary felt very close and I smiled. Then I realized it didn’t make sense to put it on an already crowded dinner party table and that my holding it was likely what was really meant to happen. I placed it back on my writing table and continued on with the evening’s preparations.

A day and a half later, my friend Lise Weil phoned to tell me that Mary had died. As we spoke it dawned on me that it was just around the time of Mary’s death that I had heard the voice telling me to go to her wooden bird. It was of deep comfort to know that the feeling I had had when holding her bird that night was so very gentle and calm.

Mary has been an inspiration and a precious writing companion to me. She has also been a very dear friend—a friend who fully engaged with me and who was remarkably loyal. I will always be grateful for our friendship. It is through Mary’s devotion to friendship that I am beginning to understand that it is friendship that is at the core of every kind of vibrant relationship: lover, parent and child, professional relationships, relatives, care givers and those who need their help, animals and those who love them. The forms of relationship vary but what comprises the core does not. It is the quality of friendship that makes it a nourishing or disappointing relationship.

I would like to read the final poem from a suite entitled “sight unseen” [from What Holds Us Here, 1998, BuschekBooks, Ottawa]. This suite interacts with a number of Vincent van Gogh paintings. I had “sketched” these poems out while staying in Amsterdam prior to the International Feminist Book Fair held in Amsterdam in 1992. During the Book Fair, Mary and I spent an elating afternoon encountering the major collection of van Gogh paintings in the Vincent van Gogh museum. Afterwards, Mary continued to follow the poems in this suite through my endless revisions and then later in a review she wrote of the book in which they were published.

I had trained as a visual artist in my early writing years but then shifted my focus to writing: Mary and I had this wonderfully charged and sometimes perplexing relationship between writing and visual art in common. No doubt you will recognize this well-known van Gogh painting. Vincent van Gogh and Mary Meigs both understood the power of friendship: van Gogh suffered from a lack of friends; Mary thrived in an array of them.

Boats on the Beach

Colour    memory
Memory    colour

The simple happiness
Of those four boats

No human figures; no destinations,
Just their boatness

While the four off-shore recede
Into a wave into a cloud

Foreground, center,
A yellow box
Washed up on shore
Robin’s-egg-sky arching land and sea
There are two words,

Is this your note?

On one boat, “Amitié”
On the box, “Vincent”

– Betsy Warland

 


MARY’S DREAM and extract from “THE GOOD WITCH SYCORAX”

by Suniti Namjoshi

(To be read at Mary’s Memorial Service 7 Dec. 2002 for her friends)

Mary’s Dream

From a fax from Mary dated 14 Feb. 2002: I dreamt last night that an elephant running freely with a group of young people up from a beach started angrily pursuing me. I said, “O mighty elephant!” and he stopped with a funny little drawing up of his lip.

You were one step ahead or two or three,
like an older sister, who being born first,
is first – that’s how it is. And as though
we were children on a grand adventure
you would whisper to me, “Shhh, I’ll go first
and tell you what happens; then you’ll know
and needn’t be worried.”
That always made me smile.
I never was worried. What you talked about
was being alive. Your blue sky
was an accurate blue. And when a leaf fell,
it turned and turned even while falling
in just the way you said it did.
You spoke sometimes
of what you had dreamed:
that elephant on the beach
who played with the young.
When he charged at you,
you knew who he was and had sense enough
to be polite.
“O mighty elephant!”
The elephant stopped – sneered? sniggered? – turned
away and strolled down the beach.
That’s the one thing
you’ve told me about, that elephant’s expression,
that I’ve never been able to see clearly.

– Suniti Namjoshi

 

from “The Good Witch Sycorax”

Like anyone else old women metamorphose
at night. They drift like owls not knowing what
dreams they might light upon, nor whom they might
meet. Sometimes they sleep like kingfishers
on the charmèd wave and wake so refreshed
that when they look about them, they truly believe
that they have the power to control themselves
and the sea. Or they slip like seals through black
water from island to island and choose their dreams:
they’re rich and powerful, or, sometimes, merely happy.
Old Women do not desire desire. Behind
their eyes the sky burns a ferocious blue
and their skulls are lit by the sun’s energy.

– Suniti Namjoshi

note from Suniti: “The Good Witch Sycorax” is a work in progress. I had wanted to finish this section of the long poem in time to show Mary, but couldn’t.


À BIENTÔT, MARY

Claire Saint Aubin

La bourrasque est passée, l’humidité est tombée sur les arbres. La jungle fourmille d’insectes très affairés, les girafes, les hyènes, les zèbres, les lions, les papillons.

Une éléphante enroule sa trompe autour d’une branche et en arrache les feuilles. Ses soeurs vont partager le repas qu’elles ne pouvaient atteindre. Plus tôt, au lever du jour, elles ont recouvert de branches et de terre le corps de l’une des leur qui est morte dans la nuit. A l’étang, tout le monde s’amusera d’un frôlement de trompe sur la peau. Après avoir aspiré de l’eau, elles la font gicler de leurs bouches, se couchent dans la boue et en mettent partout. En plein soleil.

Un peu plus loin dans la grande plaine découverte où l’herbe est plus courte, de nombreuses gazelles paissent ensemble. Il y a aussi les autriches, les babouins, les zèbres et les rhinocéros.

Soudain plane une girafe comme au ralenti. C’est une illusion, elle est si grande et elle court sans toucher le sol.

La plaine est brûlante. En fin de journée, toute la bande se mettra en route vers des collines inconnues, lointaines, chercher de nouveaux territoires pour se nourrir. Hyènes, lions, léopards et antilopes.

La bourrasque est passée et nous sommes là, perdues tout à coup. J’aime imaginer que tu joues dan la boue Mary, que tu planes comme une girafe au dessus de la terre aride.

Rejoins mes déesses Mary. Un jour, je ferai le voyage aussi. Et tu la reconnaîtras, elle qui vociférait dans la nuit des villes comme une louve assoiffée. Celle qui souffrait encore de lucidité aigüe et qui pourtant était toujours la première à entamer la danse.

Au bal des animales, ta voix la calmera. Elle saura vivre autrement. Elle s’y applique déjà. Très fort. Très doucement. A superposer ses images sur le réel.

A bientôt Mary …

16 décembre 02


ELLE EST APPARUE DANS MA VIE

Sylvie Sainte-Marie

Elle est apparue dans ma vie. Regard bleu, halo de cheveux blancs, sourire inespéré. Nous avons parlé. D’art, de jardins, de livres, d’animaux, de relations amoureuses, de musique, de solitude. Et de ce monde à moitié détruit qui l’attristait tant. Nous avons ri aussi. Parfois timidement, parfois aux éclats. Son rire m’enchantait, m’enveloppait d’une joie qui m’étonnait. J’oubliais le temps, tout ce temps qui nous séparait. Un lien étincelant m’attachait à elle. Je posais ma main sur son épaule, je ne voulais plus jamais la quitter. J’étais un petit être atterri par hasard sur la fin de sa vie, un petit être amoureux et entêté qui avait décidé que la vie n’avait pas de fin.

Maintenant je marche dans la campagne avec acharnement, implorant les montagnes, le ciel, les nuages de m’arracher cette douleur. Mary, chère, chère, querida Mary, mon ange si fatiguée, je vous aime et je sais que vous me voyez pleurer.

Je voulais lui offrir un oiseau, une pierre, un arbre, quelque chose d’essentiel et de radieux qu’elle aurait contemplé avec une tendresse attentive.

Tout est devenu obscur, hostile brusquement. L’absence vertigineuse. Les gestes, les paroles, les pensées en suspens. La joie emportée. Loin. N’importe où. Nulle part.

Je ferme les yeux.

Je la vois s’avancer doucement vers moi. Je la vois penchée sur un livre. Je la vois écrire, calme, concentrée. Je la vois parler, manger, rire. Je la vois regarder par la fenêtre, pensive, redoutant l’hiver, espérant déjà le printemps, le jardin qui revit, les nouvelles fleurs que nous allons planter. Tout ce qui n’aura pas lieu. Matières fragiles et précieuses qui tournoient dans ma tête, ne savent où se poser.

Chère, chère Mary.

 

Soledad
“Soledad,” artwork by Sylvie Sainte-Marie, photograph by Maric Boudreau

 


AGITATION ON A BRICK WALL
(in memory of Mary Meigs)

by Verena Stefan

It is such a relief, she confesses when I visit her the first time after the stroke. It finally happened. Her face looks relaxed, different from the previous weeks when she was haunted by pre-stroke symptoms which she observed adamantly: high blood pressure, extreme pallor, shattered vision with fragmented patterns all of a sudden moving through the room.

She had been waiting for it, preparing for it, anxious and tense for weeks during that summer. How would the stroke hit her? As it had her mother and one of her brothers? From them she knew how a person looks after a left-brain stroke, how speech and language skills might be affected as well as the right hand, walking, balance. She was prepared for all of it, and she was lucky. Hers was a right-brain stroke that didn’t touch the language centre nor her writing and drawing hand. …

II

She would be sitting at the far end of her dining room table when the helper of the day arrived at eleven o’clock in the morning, inevitably interrupting her writing hours—her precious alone time for which she fought ferociously after each of her numerous falls and the hip replacement surgery and the pacemaker surgery. At times we would all hover over her, driving her mad with worries about her next fall and even more with the threat to shrink her alone time, expanding the helper’s presence instead.

I heard her raise her voice only once: So what if I fall! she exclaimed. If I fall, I fall. Either I’ll fall on a seat or on the floor. Either I’ll break something or I won’t. It is just there, worst-case scenarios included.

She fought for writing hours like a wild animal who has to go back into the cage for the rest of the day.

All day long now there would be somebody working in her rooms, crossing to and fro in front of her table, talking, maybe laughing loudly, singing loudly, turning the radio on, destroying the arrangement of her kitchen, removing items from places they had kept for decades and establishing an order of her own. She could do nothing but watch.

How is it? I asked once. It was very hard at the beginning, she said. I always thought I knew the perfect way of housekeeping and felt the urge to teach everybody. She looked at me. I got used to it, she said. After all, I depend on helpers now.

My mind is seeping out, she said. I dream of prisons and confinement. I am confined, that’s a fact.

The helpers walked in the door, each one of us, always hoping that everything would be fine, that Mary would sit near the window and write. And there she was. She was always there. She had to be there. This was her bitter pill, to be confined to the house, to observe her mobility shrink to smaller and smaller loops, even indoors.

Not to go out anymore to concerts, art shows, book launches, to the movies. Not to drive. And shopping. How I miss shopping! she said. And birds. She always wanted to know what birds there were, when I came back from a trip to the country. Mary, I saw a cardinal, I would say. A cardinal! she would exclaim, clutching her heart. Doesn’t it have the loveliest song in the whole world!

What other birds were there? She fixed me with her eyes, and I squirmed, trapped between unfamiliar French and English names for birds and a scarce bird-knowledge to begin with.

Cut off from her studio in the country from one day to the next, from whole summers in the country. Cut off from her luminous writing office upstairs in her Westmount home too, and from her small drawing room. The inspiration is in the upstairs rooms, she said.

She lived downstairs now, in the semi-light behind milky curtains. …

During the last year of her life, she was in the company of artists and friends who would stay with her eight hours a day. Intense ephemeral states of co-habitation. The helpers were witnesses of her changing states of being, high soaring moments and what she called her collapsed state of mind. Since she could not go out anymore, the world and cultural life had to come to her house. Colleagues, friends, writers, artists, editors, with their buzzing lives and busy daybooks, kept streaming in, all of them with little time, though some of them would stay beyond Mary’s point of exhaustion.

We are not used to somebody staying at home all the time. To find a friend at the same place at every hour of the day, day after day, month after month, even in July and August. To be guaranteed that she will be there whenever we show up at the doorstep. It is a feeling we may know from our childhood if there was a mother, a father or a grandparent who stayed home. Other than that, it is an odd thing that is related to temporary or chronic illness, or to very old age. …

III

“Illness is the night-side of life, a more onerous citizenship,” writes Susan Sontag at the beginning of her essay “Illness as Metaphor,” and she continues: “Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick. Although we all prefer to use only the good passport, sooner or later each of us is obliged, at least for a spell, to identify ourselves as citizens of that other place.”

Mary adds another aspect to the image: “In old age we are forced to speak another language,” she has written in her last notebook. “We are people who are forbidden to speak our mother tongue. The process of deterioration is made easy for us by memory loss, the accidental breaking of bones, the dimming eyes; each body selects its own way of inflicting damage willy-nilly … ”

The mother tongue of colour remained the salient one in her life. Whenever I came to visit her in yet another hospital room I found depressingly ugly, she would make a comment on the play of light and shadow on a wall outside the window, sunlight that hit a tin decoration on a roof, the hourly changes in the leaves of a tree, the setup of a therapy room. “The whole place a visual joy,” she writes. “Yesterday saw something purple and yellow juxtaposed.”

There was a brick wall behind the neighbour’s garden at Grosvenor Avenue that served her as a screen until the end of her life. “The shadows of branches and a few blowing maple leaves on the brick wall today,” says one of her notebook entries, or “Agitation of shadows on the wall—a squirrel has run along a thin branch.” Those sentences are scattered on the pages of her notebooks like the small agitations she caught from the angle of her eye behind the window where she would write. She perceived life entirely with a painter’s eye, and being an avid searcher for colour and shape she found them everywhere.


SEEING MARY

by Cynthia Rich

I met Mary Meigs just once, last August, and I knew then it was the only time. For many years my partner—Barbara Macdonald—and I hoped to meet her, and we corresponded from time to time. As she said in one letter, writers feel we know each other from our writing. The Time Being showed the possible hazards of that presumption; still, in short order, sitting on her balcony, we were exploring illness and shame and aging. (Barbara had died of Alzheimer’s two years earlier.)

Mary’s writing amazes me by the ease with which it moves between lush, romantic, voracious love of beauty and uncompromising, unsentimental honesty. On that day in August I could feast for the first time on exactly such dazzling movement in the rich variety of paintings on her walls and the sketchbook of watercolors she shared with me.

I fell in love with three of the watercolors. One was a huge bouquet of spring flowers, exuberant in its joyous sensuality. Another—a series really—was her painting of her cats, profoundly loving yet entirely unsentimental, because the kind of love that does not project its own needs but can truly see the spirit within.

Mary told me I could choose one painting. The one I decided on was very different from the other two I loved—a self-portrait of Mary painting.

At first she disapproved my choice, she thought it ugly, until Marie Claire said, “But that’s just how you look when you’re working!”

In the painting, she holds her brush down, in a kind of firm discipline, not indulging that hand until she sees what is really there. Her eyes are fiercely determined to find out that truth, whether or not it is what she hoped for.

I feel lucky to see Mary every day, draw energy from her. Those eyes, looking down at my desk unsparingly, make demands on me. They insist that, if I can’t recreate the world’s beauty as Mary did, I can at least—or at most—celebrate her by working to tell the truth.

December 2002


FREEWRITING WITH MARY

by Lise Weil (with freewritings by Mary Meigs)

About two years ago, I talked Mary into freewriting with me. The cardinal rule of freewriting is that you keep your pen moving–you don’t stop to edit or correct. Mary had never tried writing this way before–which considering she’d written five books and tried her hand at every other kind of writing was mind-boggling to me–but once she got started she was hooked. We freewrote regularly together after that. We’d start with a line from a book of poetry and then just go . . . for five minutes.

If the samples of Mary’s freewriting that follow seem brief for five-minute exercises, it’s not because I’ve edited them down. Mary—anyone who knew her knew this about her—was not one to go on. Mary was dry, she was pithy, she was minimalist. In this respect her freewriting was like Mary herself. Indeed, it must be confessed that sometimes in the middle of a freewrite I would look over and see that Mary’s pen had stopped moving, that she’d lifted it from the page. Looking up I would find her deep in thought, evidently contemplating her next line. I scolded her for cheating but it never made any difference. What issued from Mary’s pen when it did contact the page was always so fresh and bracing that I finally stopped calling her on it at all.

March 21, 2002 (prompts drawn from M.S. Merwin’s The Lice):

Encouragement meant nothing. How I’ve struggled to feel joy but lo and behold I’m in a joyless state. Warm encouragement strikes like a dead pancake. This is called a negative state, it is called ingratitude or tepid indifference. It’s another form of hopelessness which is the eleventh deadly sin, for I know people who are saving the world. They have signed a peace pact with salmon, they have set them all free.

Do not come down. I’m living an incoherent day because I came down, obeyed gravity and hit my head. Now a thought trickles in like water giving life to dry clay. It is– “that bush over there is quite beautiful, it has been transformed by snow in less than half an hour. Once it was the flame tree, the vision that sang in October. Now it is a snow-blossoming March bush—and I croak my toad’s song under its roots.”

The following samples were written two days before Mary’s death. She’d just gotten back from the hospital and was not getting around very well. I came over to visit, expecting to find her in bed. But as soon as I entered the house I heard her calling from the dining room–“Leeza”?– and walked in to see her sitting up and waiting for me at her very cluttered writing table. “Mary!” I said “There you are!” “Here I am,” she said, with that irony, that pithiness, that never deserted her. With that slightly open “a” that betrayed her mainline origins. “Mary, do you think you’re well enough to write today?” “Well my brain feels a little foggy, but I want to try,” she said. And write we did. Since I hadn’t brought any poems to write to we chose lines from the book I happened to have in my bag, Helen Cixous’ Book of Promethea (in translation).

November 13, 2002:

I realize that this is an impure desire of mine. The question is what makes it impure. Is there an alchemy in each of us that works at refining desire or do dreams alter desires by changing their images? Last night I dreamt that twelve pairs of coal-black horses passed me, drawing a small carriage (black) along a railroad track.

Our history has a bumpy geography. We are reduced to translating time into landscape. But perhaps rocks are more eloquent than cries of pain. In a hospital sound speaks volumes but I would rather be on a beach, a dictionary of pain. Today I found a polished grey pebble that said ouch.


FEATHERS

Excerpts from correspondence between Mary Meigs and Harriet Ellenberger

28 July 2002

Dear Mary,

Suzanne Boisvert and Verena Stefan have given me news of you, so I feel as if I am a little bit in touch still. And then, a few months ago I started rereading back issues of Trivia and found the piece you wrote for issue #13, “Memories of Age.” I loved that essay when it was first printed, and it feels even more resonant now than it did then. I would like to ask your permission to reprint it in the Internet magazine I publish, She Is Still Burning.

Last nite we watched again a public-library video copy of “The Company of Strangers.” It was astonishing to see you on the small television screen, moving and speaking exactly as I’d remembered you. That film is like nothing else …

I remember that years ago you gave me the excellent advice to join the Canadian Writers’ Union, which I still haven’t done. But it’s on my list of things I ought to do. I keep on writing and not publishing; this is a weird form of writer’s block. But at least She Is Still Burning forces me to put something of my own out on the cyberwaves, and it gives me pleasure to publish and republish friends’ writings too.

Bert, my partner who spent 30 years in the Canadian military and is a big fan of “The Company of Strangers,” says to tell you that the old flyboy sends you his greetings.

And I send mine!

Most affectionately,
Harriet

****

02 August 2002

Dear Harriet,

It was wonderful to get your letter today and of course I give my permission to reprint “Memories of Age” and it makes me happy. I’m probably one of the few people in North America who doesn’t have a computer or failed to learn how to use one. By the way, there’s a lovely French translation of In the Company of Strangers by Marie-Josée Thériault. She’s the daughter of my first translator, Michelle Thériault, who did Lily Briscoe, which is a nice coincidence. The French editor is Anne-Marie Alonzo, whom I’m sure you know … The French title is Femmes dans un Paysage.

Thank you for the exquisite feather. Do you know what it is? I used to collect feathers, I had a wild turkey feather or a great black backed gull and lots of partridge striped like the one you sent but not so yellowish or soft. Then I realized that they were being devoured by moths, the scourge of this house, so had to throw them away. I’ve been thinking with piercing nostalgia about the birds in Wellfleet …

Give my greetings, too, to “the old flyboy” —

and love and thanks to you,
Mary

***

02 October 2002

Dear Mary,

I think the feather I sent you before was a breast feather from a wild turkey. In 1986, I was living on Ann Stokes’ land in New Hampshire & she came to tell me one morning that a fox had caught a wild turkey — I’ve been carrying the feathers around with me ever since.

In this letter is a wing feather and breast feathers from the yellow-shafted flicker. (They have little hearts on their breast feathers & Native Americans say they bring joyfulness.)
Also enclosed a printed copy of SISB 15, which will go up on the website this week. …

Sending love to you along with the feathers,
Harriet

***

10 October 2002

Dear Harriet,

Thanks so much for sending me a copy of your website paper, with mine. SISB is like a voice in the wilderness and I’m so proud of being in it (or on it) and having some relevance now.

The flicker feathers are in front of me all the time. The little hearts are beautifully visible on the breast feathers; I’m sending you a very inaccurate watercolor I did of a dead bird I found — the little hearts aren’t there and the wings are much too short — but at least I give some idea of the astounding gold that blazes from it. I was glad to read that the sexes are identical. I think that little thing sticking out of its mouth turned out to be a tongue. I miss terribly seeing birds in this quartier; we’re going to do some serious luring next spring. Too many cats!

I get news of SISB from Lise Weil and it sounds as if there’s lots of interest in it —

Love,
Mary

***

note: An hour after I put the following letter in the mailbox, I received an e-mail from Lise Weil, saying that Mary Meigs had died three days earlier. The unopened envelope was returned to me a week later with a sticker placed over the address that read “moved / unknown / démenagé / inconnu.” Mary may have moved, but she is definitely not unknown. Therefore, I re-post the letter in cyberspace, in the hope that somehow she’ll receive it. Or that somehow I’ll feel less forlorn.

19 November 2002

Dear Mary,

Going to start calling myself “Turtle Girl” because it takes me so long to carry out my intentions. Ann Stokes once told me that I’d slow down after 50, but I had no idea she meant “slow down to a crawl.”

I was so excited to receive the watercolour of the flicker that you made, and I don’t think it’s inaccurate because it looks just like the flicker whose feathers I sent you. This was a bird who’d been hit by a car on the highway, and Ann brought me its body because she knew I was collecting feathers for some mysterious purpose. I plucked the bird and buried its body beneath a pine tree and sang a made-up song to console its spirit (this last inspired by guilt and by having read an account of a woman shaman in Manitoba, who always sang to the spirit of a deer that she had hunted for food). Anyway, maybe their wings sort of contract when they die. For sure, I know that you can only see that the black splotches on the breast feathers are heart-shaped if you hold a feather in your hand. On the bird, the splotches just look like splotches.

I seem to be going into too much detail here, but it truly did seem a magical event to me, that you sent that watercolour. It brought back a whole afternoon to me, sitting in sun-dappled woods with the flicker …

Last week, I finished rereading your first book — it was new all over again to me. This writing lasts; it is always relevant. I don’t know why exactly — but it feels as if you’re completely present in your voice. To me, it is like the voice of birds, and always makes me glad, no matter what you’re writing about at the moment.

Received very enthusiastic response to reprinting your piece on the website — Michèle Causse, among others, wrote an e-mail saying it was beautiful and timely.

The flicker is in a frame and under glass now, in the hallway. It looks quite wonderful, I think.

The enclosed feather this time is an “urban feather” — I found it on a sidestreet running parallel to St-Denis, in the early 90s sometime. I liked it, but can’t figure out its source. It looks like something that fell off a lady’s hat, circa 1930. Maybe it time-travelled.

Love from Harriet


Dead Flicker 1985
Mary Meigs, “Dead Flicker 1985”

NOTES ON CONTRIBUTORS

Betsy Warland was born in Fort Dodge, Iowa, in 1946, and immigrated to Canada in 1973. A writer, editor and teacher, she has published nine books of poetry and prose, the most recent being Bloodroot: Tracing the Untelling of Motherloss (Sumach/Second Story Press, 2000).

Suniti Namjoshi was born in Bombay in 1941, later taught in Canada and now lives in England. Among her many books of poetry and prose are The Bedside Book of Nightmares, Feminist Fables, Flesh and Paper (with Gillian Hanscombe), Conversations with Cow, and Goja: An Autobiographical Myth. Building Babel, her most recent book published by Spinifex, is a novel with an electronic chapter to which readers can add.

Claire Saint Aubin is one of the group of women who took care of Mary Meigs in the last year of her life. Thanks to Lise Weil for persuading Claire to send in this tribute to Mary.

Sylvie Sainte-Marie is a visual artist. She was taking care of Mary Meigs the day that Mary died.

Verena Stefan, poet and prose writer, translator and creative-writing teacher, was born in Bern, Switzerland, in 1947. Her first book, Haütungen (Shedding), was published in Germany in 1975, and later translated into eight languages. Since the year 2000, she has lived in Montreal, and now writes in both German and English. Her most recent publication, “Learning Winter,” appears in Geist (Winter 2002).

Cynthia Rich is an activist and writer living in California. Her book Desert Years: Undreaming the American Dream was published in 1989 by Spinsters Ink. With Barbara Macdonald, she co-authored Look Me in the Eye: Old Women, Aging and Ageism (reprinted by Spinsters Ink in 1991).

Lise Weil lives in Montreal and teaches at Goddard College in Vermont. From 1982 through 1991, she edited the radical feminist journal Trivia: A Journal of Ideas. Her essays and reviews, as well as her translations of French and German writers, have appeared in several feminist journals.

 

 

 

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She Is Still Burning 11 (December 2001)

Re-formatting this instalment from 2001, I’m struck by the fury against the American Empire that fills my own essay, “Arundhati’s List.” Nearly sixteen years have gone by since I wrote it, and now the remnants of that empire’s influence lie all around us, but the machine itself is direction-less, moving in fits and starts, like a robot whose programming has gone haywire.

I have no notion what the berserk robot will do next, but I am relatively clear about the past. So I invite you to hop in my little time machine and head for the final month of 2001, when the writing was on the wall and several Cassandras were busy reading it.


SHE IS STILL BURNING
An Expanding Reader To Encourage Life Lovers
Installment # 11
21 December 2001

“Some say cavalry and others claim
Infantry or a fleet of long oars
Is the supreme sight on the black earth.
I say it is
The one you love. And easily proved.”
– Sappho

Dear Friends,

On the domestic front, it’s been a tumultuous six weeks since the last installment of Burning. While US war planes continued to pound Afghanistan, tragedy struck at home: Pookie, beloved feline companion with the startling intelligence, martial temperament and ballet legs, had one of those legs amputated, owing to bone cancer. She came through the operation with flying colours, but then succumbed to a week-long temper tantrum after discovering that she’d been reduced from speed, elegance and great hunterly feats to hopping around on three legs. By the time the stitches were out, however, she’d concluded that hopping was the new normal, and regained her dignity, if not all her playfulness.

Small things are emblematic of big things. Or, as Jane Picard reminded me two weeks ago, everything is a metaphor. I’d rented a car for the weekend to visit her at her niece’s house in southern Maine, where we took up again those long, spinning and magical conversations of fifteen years before. Renewing my somewhat dented faith in the restorative powers of the universe.

And, in the midst of travels and travail, the Harriet-and-Bear think tank rolled on. I’d been urging Bert (the aforementioned “Bear”) to continue his intelligence briefings for the non-establishment (i.e., us), but he became so angry over current events that he quit writing, saying he’d just like everyone to ponder the ramifications of this sentence: “We in the West have been hoodwinked into submission.”

Meantime, unbeknownst to each other, Lise Weil and I were writing parallel essays on America as viewed by girls who don’t live there anymore. Which is why this installment is double-long: the essays are written from two different perspectives and hit separate points, but they illuminate each other. Special thanks goes to Verena Stefan, who gave each one a thoughtful reading and suggested clarifications.

Camille Norton suggested that she’d love to read more letters in Burning, so this time we have two: one from Suzanne Cox, the other an excerpt from a letter that Lynn Martin sent as a “December wishes” e-mail to friends. Which reminds me to add that letters from readers are always welcome, and that excerpts from back-and-forth letters between friends are a new hot genre, as Camille points out. So if you’ve got some of those, consider submitting them, as well as stories, poems, essays, whatever. (We are nothing if not flexible.)

Finally, in my quest for news and views from outside the war-propaganda media machine, I ran across an e-zine Feminista! It’s good, very good. And its collection of  articles on the 9/11 crisis led me to a more general site called Common Dreams, which led to still more alternative news and analysis sites. I thereby discovered, years behind the times, that there’s a wealth of provocative writing out there, but you have to own a computer or use public library computers to locate most of it.

At this winter solstice, may we all find renewed energy and inspiration … and may Lady Luck come out of hiding.

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


IN THIS INSTALLMENT

• Lise Weil: “On Being American”
• Suzanne Cox: letter
• Lynn Martin: “To All the Musicians I Know”
• Harriet Ellenberger: “Arundhati’s List”


ON BEING AMERICAN
              by Lise Weil

Breathes there a man with soul so dead who never to himself has said “this is my own, my native land, this is my native land.” (first line of “This is My Country,” a popular American national anthem)

I am an American, born and bred in the USA. My parents were not typical Americans: my father, though born in Chicago, styled himself a cosmopolite, an internationalist; my mother is Norwegian. They spoke French and German at home and entertained mostly foreign guests. I’ve often thought this is how I ended up in Montreal, a city where I never presume anyone will speak to me in my native tongue, a city where I feel more at home than I ever did in any American city.

When I moved here I was vaguely aware of wanting to get out of my country; it was 1990, Bush senior was in office, we were gearing up for the Gulf War, and when the war finally broke out, it was a relief to watch it being waged from the other side of the border. But there were personal reasons for my move which overrode the political. And my politics at the time were mainly radical feminist. When I went down to Washington to demonstrate against the war in the spring, my banner read “don’t let the dickheads screw up our planet.”

Notice my use of “we” back there. “We were gearing up for the Gulf War.” This is what has begun to change now, I see, after ten years of living on foreign soil. That “we” jumps out at me now. It gives me away, betrays a sense of national identity I thought I’d long since discarded. And now, after Sept. 11, I notice, that “we” repels me.

In a way this makes no sense. My country has been deeply wounded; I should feel sympathy, I should feel some sort of solidarity. Yet as people in countries all over the world (even here in Quebec) display the stars and stripes in sympathy and solidarity, I find myself responding to that icon with mounting embarrassment and distaste.

Partly this can be attributed to the crash course in US foreign policy in the Middle East I’ve been receiving ever since the attacks, almost entirely via the internet. Like any counter-culturally inclined person who grew up in the 60’s and 70’s, for most of my life I have been vaguely “anti-American.” I’ve been aware that the US is the most powerful nation in the world, that it sees itself as the world’s policeman, that it’s propped up dictators around the world, that it’s the planet’s major polluter and takes no responsibility for this fact. Nothing about Bush junior’s response to this crisis has surprised me: not his good vs. evil, you’re either with us or against us rhetoric, not his crass manipulation of humanist and now yes even feminist sympathies to further US economic interests.

And yet in some ways it seems to me I am now seeing my country for the very first time. I did not know, for example, about the CIA’s arming and bankrolling of the Taliban with full knowledge of their atrocities towards women. I did not know Madeleine Albright, when told about the 500,000 infant deaths resulting from six years of US sanctions on Iraq, said “all things considered, we think the price is worth it.” And somehow though I knew about the staggering loss of life caused around the world by our policies, it took these thousands of deaths on New York soil for me to start thinking concretely about those hundreds of thousands of foreign deaths—to start feeling them. So maybe what I’m saying is in some ways since Sept. 11, I’ve been seeing myself for the very first time. To this extent, and to the extent there are others like me, the terrorists, whether or not this was their intention, have accomplished something positive.

Meanwhile, down there in my country, the flags multiply epidemically. Crossing the border you start to see them right away crowning the antennas of pickup trucks. As you approach New York it seems they wave from every other car. In the city they are everywhere. Huge banners adorn the entrances to the wealthiest apartment buildings on Park Avenue and Fifth Avenue. Down at ground zero the walls are plastered with tributes to God and country and firemen. Oh yes, and photos of people who have come to show their support. “Hi we’re Ted and Lois, we came all the way from California to let you know we care.” No personal jottings of grief or rage. No lines of poetry. No reflections. As if all thought and feeling has been channeled into sentimental cliche. Flag vendors raking in money hand over fist.

I’ve heard a lot of different arguments about the flags. “It’s their/our way of showing solidarity.” “A way to feel united in a time of grief.” “It doesn’t mean they/we agree with Bush’s policies.” It’s become a sensitive subject, a litmus test. I see a flag decal on the back of a friend’s car, I rib her about it, assuming it came with the car, which she just bought. She points to the words beneath the flag which I hadn’t seen: “forever in peace may you wave.” I think: what’s wrong with me that that doesn’t make it okay. And after awhile I think: what’s wrong with her that she thinks it does. And it comes between us. I don’t want it to but it does.

You’re a grand old flag you’re a high flying flag, and forever in peace may you wave . . . Suddenly I realize how many flag-waving songs I know by heart, beyond the “Star-Spangled Banner.”

This is my country, land of my birth! This is my country, grandest on earth!
I pledge thee my allegiance, America the bold!
My country tis of thee sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing . . .

I understand that Bush has recently asked the movie industry to do its part in the war effort by relaying patriotic messages. As one who has been watching US TV almost compulsively these last months, I can attest to the fact that Hollywood has been sending virtually no other message since Sept. 11. Beginning with the celebrity telethon in the week after the attacks that culminated with Celine Dion singing “God Bless America, land that I love” against the backdrop of a gigantic flag and all the stars joining Willie Nelson for a final round of “America America God shed his grace on thee.”

How many national anthems does one country need?

As for major network news broadcasts, at this moment there is little to distinguish them from Defense Department communiques.

Of course I am aware there are many Americans who want no part of this patriotic orgy, who have thought deeply about the events of Sept. 11 and their aftermath and who have voiced absolute opposition to the war. Their voices, most of which I am aware of only thanks to the internet and those few alternative publications which remain in print, give me sanity and hope.

But theirs is not the face that America is offering to the world. And, even among thinking people in the US, some of them friends of mine, I often hear a tentativeness about our foreign policy, a qualified critique: “I’m not for the war, but we have to do something.” What they mean is: we need to stop the terrorists. But what I always hear behind this is: we need to preserve our way of life, what we stand for as a nation.

Deep in the souls of most of my fellow Americans, even the thinking ones—this is what I’m starting to see—there dwells a national pride that’s been wounded by the attacks on our country and is now on the offensive. Deep down, I sense, most of them identify—proudly—as American, and if asked how they’ve been changed by the attacks might offer some version of what I heard Brad Pitt say recently on TV, with tears in his eyes: “It’s made me appreciate our way of life. Our freedoms.” (Though they might be horrified by what came next: “We need to rebuild those towers, make them bigger, taller. We’ll just leave the floors where the planes hit empty, as a memorial.” )

Most of my fellow Americans, in other words, do not see what I see. A country so swollen with hubris, so bloated with its wealth, so in love with itself that its only response to this unprecedented threat to its power its ideology its very identity is to gird its loins, ram its greatness down the world’s throat, and order its citizens to do the same.

A country that just might end up sleeping through the grandest wake-up call it’s ever had.

So I have to wonder: is it because I’ve left my country that I’m able to see what I see? Ten years of learning to operate without the assumptions that govern life on the other side of the border. Ten years of not presuming I will be spoken to in my native tongue, ten years of making myself as small as possible in stores because the aisles are narrow here. Ten years of watching news on CBC and BBC and RDI, ten years of seeing my country through the eyes of Quebecers, of Haitians, Syrians, Egyptians, Brazilians, Hungarians, Algerians. Ten years of slowly taking in that though the US may be the most powerful country in the world, the one everybody has to watch, it is most certainly not the center of the world.

The flag, they say, is a way for Americans to feel we’re united, we’re together. A way for us to feel we’re a community. God knows we all need more community in our lives. But a community in the name of what? In what ways will this togetherness be manipulated in order to trash other parts of the world? Isn’t this feel-good moment for America even now translating into thousands of corpses, widespread famine, mass destruction, and millions of displaced people in Afghanistan, into anti-terrorist measures that threaten to wipe out years of efforts to stem the tide of corporate globalization, into a mandate to this president who withdrew his country from the Kyoto protocol to drill in the Arctic oil fields?

It’s a Saturday night some two months after the attacks. I decide to check out Saturday Night Live just to take the country’s humor pulse. Since TV comedians have dutifully abstained from making fun of our eminently laughable president since the attacks, I am delighted to tune in to the very first skit of the evening and see George W. Bush updating the country on the latest advances in the war effort. His jaw is clenched in an “I mean business” look, but behind it he’s gloating as he announces: “We’ve frozen Bin Laden’s assets. He won’t be able to use his ATM card now anywhere in Afghanistan, not even in Kabul.” The audience roars with laughter.

And I feel such relief! The taboo has been lifted. The blinders are coming down now, I think, maybe people in the USA are starting to see. Then the camera pans to the show’s host as he emerges from behind the curtain, some aspiring actor who prances to center stage in a red and blue t-shirt sprinkled with white stars. Written on the front of his shirt in big block letters: AMERICA RULES. As the audience takes in the words on his chest it sends up a huge roar of applause. In a matter of seconds, my delight is replaced by horror, disbelief.

AMERICA RULES. I’ve enjoyed enormous privilege as an American. As a woman, being born in the USA has made it possible for me to live a life of freedom unheard of fifty years ago and still unheard of in most other countries in the world. I don’t want to deny the benefits I’ve derived from “our way of life.” I don’t want to deny this “we,” this “our,” that trails me wherever I go, that I’m apparently unable to shake, that will no doubt stay with me for the rest of my life.

The fact is, living outside my country has made me appreciate that privilege and those benefits as never before, for it has thrown them into relief. At the same time it has forced me to ask: at whose expense were they won? Freedom if it’s only for Americans is not true freedom. And freedom is meaningless if you don’t have the means to enjoy it. In this sense there are far too many people within the borders of the US who are not living “the American way of life.” So much for this funhouse image of America being shaped and wielded in our names, this fake unity being cobbled together in the name of “enduring freedom.”

So what am I going to do with this “we” that sticks to me like velcro? That sits in my blood and bones and my TV preferences too? That was as shaken by the collapse of the towers as anyone on that side of the border and is still hungrily devouring anything written about the victims, almost all of whom led lives more like mine than the people I encounter on the streets of this city where I live. I have to grieve, of course, and to take in the unimaginable grief of the many thousands more who loved them. But as a genuinely privileged citizen of the USA, I also have to ask myself what I can do, how I can take responsibility for its actions throughout the world. Because it’s clear to me by now that as long as America rules, this planet doesn’t stand a chance.


LETTER FROM SUZANNE COX, NOVEMBER 11, 2001

Dearest thouest of the power of words,

Tis true I keep thinking the pen is mightier than the sword. Maybe this is why I stopped writing so much—I have few war words. Maybe this is why the government hired an ad campaign person to do the war PR. She was a coca-cola woman I think. Or she said something like “this won’t be about cokes—we’ll be using athletes and movie stars.”

Anyway, I’d rather read your words and SISB. I soak this up like sunshine, which seems so limited in our gray November days and also in the world’s spinning away from anything warm.

I keep thinking about when the women lose heart. I lost heart for my own words with images of the women who taught girls about books—being killed by Taliban in the stadium; of people going to work in the WTC one morning and they were gone—never had the chance to know it was their last moments. I am thankful I can still paint the watercolours. They delight my heart. So I keep hope somewhere, which has been a struggle.

Did I tell you my niece wrote to ask for my advice about going to a protest. This gives much more hope. Young women and men who are awake to how things are going. I call my mother. I ask, “How are you?” “Living,” she says, “that’s about all I can say. Come home as soon as you can.” I can hear the catch in both of our throats.

Last night I went to the movie Himalayas. The Tibetan people move their yaks and bags of salt across the mountains so they can get grain to live on. It is one of those haunting, breathtaking movies that takes your emotions to the height of the mountains and drops them, like life only more so because you fall in love with the people. I said to my friends who were there, “I shan’t complain ever again … ” What a rich, stupid life I have. How ridiculous for one person to have so much junk. One bag of grain for a bag of salt. My life for all these bags of stupid absurdity.

Tomorrow I shall print SISB at work and take it to lunch with me. I like all the different perspectives very much—from all sides of the war and peace stories. Thank all the writers for me please. I like thinking about each piece—the long treks of everyone’s life and memory in shared story.

I have a tiny perfect pumpkin I like to look at. It has an unusual twisted stem as if it had danced while growing on the vine. Every night I turn off the news after supper and dance for awhile. Eat, drink, and be merry may be some of the greatest words ever written.

Thank you for yours and for sending it to me.

Love,
Poetkin [Suzanne Cox]


TO ALL THE SINGERS I KNOW
        by Lynn Martin

Birds dart around continually and flash such explosions of color. They have been trying to get our attention for centuries. Listen, they say, it’s all in the song.

Song, the ornithologists say, is a bird’s way of marking out its territory.

The air outside my window is awash with squares, rectangles, circles, pentagons laid out on a grid and fenced in with musical notes. The borders are noted and delineated by song hung from a bush, a berry, a towering hemlock. I can, on one spring morning, hear as many as 50 different birds singing around the house.

I am drawn to them on a primitive level. Like the Greeks I see birds as divine messengers. And their ability to fly is as awesome to me today as it must have been to the ancients. As a child I believed I could talk to the birds. A cousin teased me out of this. But I wonder if I did understand the language of the birds when I was a child? Even today when I hear them calling it feels just on the edge of a language I know. Observing them over the years, it is obvious different species have worked out a way to live together and share the earth. And song is what they share.

That’s why I think humans should investigate more closely. We could do away with Summits and International Conferences, and, maybe, even war. Each nation could mark their own national borders with song. If each soldier sang, then you could hear an army coming for miles. Tanks could provide the bass; jets the soprano; infantry the alto. Generals, admirals, dictators and war lords would be named Mozart, Beethoven, Bach. The “war” would be a concert, and the winner the side with the most original composition. Each of us would have our own variation on a theme learned in childhood.

Singing takes incredible energy. You can’t sing and fight at the same time. Let’s work out a way to live together and share the earth. Let’s start right now.


ARUNDHATI’S LIST
          by Harriet Ellenberger

4 December 2001: A few nights ago I watched on CBC television an Afghan refugee father being interviewed with his son in a makeshift hospital in Quetta, Pakistan. One of the son’s legs had been blown off by a US bomb (pinpoint targeting is not possible when you’re flying at 50,000 feet). The son said, now I can’t work, I’m useless. The father said, I don’t believe the Americans are after terrorists, I believe they want to kill innocent people.

Whoever that man was (either the interviewer didn’t mention his name, or I missed it), he was saying out loud what I’d been thinking privately. By a massive bombing campaign that, among other things, cut off food aid at a critical moment, the US government has just committed mass murder in Afghanistan. I think they did it on purpose. I believe they wanted to send a message: this is what we can do; this is what we will do.

It’s the same message they were sending to Stalin when they dropped nuclear bombs on two cities in Japan, a country that was already defeated, already trying to negotiate a surrender. This is what we can do; this is what we will do.

Reportedly (but the US media is now filled with misreporting as well as the usual nonreporting), some 90 percent of US adults surveyed supported Bush’s bomb-them-to-hell campaign.

It’s times like these that I feel lucky to have left the States in 1987, lucky to have been accepted as a citizen by Canada—however controlled it may be by its big brother to the south. But personal good-fortune aside, the whole business makes me feel violently ill, and guilty by way of origin.

How could they do this? How could the US government keep on doing this, my entire lifetime? How could US citizens (not “Americans”—a name that belongs to all the inhabitants of North, Central and South America) allow their government to do this, yet again? And call it patriotism.

The rhetoric currently thundering forth from the States doesn’t sound like patriotism to me. Lust for revenge, lust for power, lust for dominance, yes. Love of country, no.

If you retain even the slightest shred of common sense and concern for your people, you do not lead them on their very own high-tech suicide mission. Yet that is what Bush-and-advisors have done. Bombarding the most war-ravaged place on earth: what a brilliant way to turn the world irrevocably against you. What a superb ploy to ensure that every person in the US remains a walking target.

I could spit nails, I’m so upset. Nothing seems to calm me these days. I can say to myself, well, what empire in history didn’t destroy itself by biting off more than it could chew? I can say to myself, well, if people insist on having an empire while at the same time refusing to admit that they have one, what do they expect—wise governance? I can say, none of this is new news; all of this is old news, more of the same, more men-on-men and war-on-war, and so it goes to the weary and whimpering end of the world. I can say whatever I please, but what’s really getting me down is that words—in particular, words of sanity and moderation—don’t seem to make a dent in events.

To echo Jeanette Winterson’s October 30th essay “Life on Planet Earth,” published in the London Guardian, it looks as if the inmates have taken over the asylum. And she names the malady they’re suffering from as a specifically “male madness”: “Everywhere I look, men are talking about nuclear capacity, about germ warfare, about dedicating 50 years to wiping out terrorism. The Bush administration is delighted not to have to worry about tedious environmentalists and Kyoto protocols and world trade protestors. This is a war—and the ‘big trousers’ are back in charge.”

In London, apparently, you can still write what you think as vividly as you’re able. If, like Madeleine Bunting writing for the Guardian, you’re a British woman commentator opposed to the “war on terrorism,” you may receive e-mail messages from US readers advising you to “get laid, get pregnant, shut your fat legs, shut up.” But that’s a long-distance response, from the far side of a very large body of water, and less personally endangering than, for example, the tongue-lashing in the Canadian Parliament and press followed by anonymous death threats that Sunera Thobani experienced after her anti-war speech to a women’s conference in Ottawa, or the death threats Susan Sontag received for her comments in the New Yorker about the September 11th attack. In North America it’s put-on-the-kid-gloves time for writers. And, interestingly, the taboo subject appears to be US foreign policy since World War II.

On November 24th, Reuters ran a brief interview by Stephanie Holmes with Gore Vidal. One of the essays in his forthcoming book The End of Liberty: Toward a New Totalitarianism (forthcoming in Italy, not in the States) was originally commissioned by a US magazine (probably Vanity Fair) following the September 11th attacks. Once the editors read the essay, however, they refused to print it. (And who is Gore Vidal? Only one of the States’ best writers, a fifty-year stellar career as novelist and essayist, knows US history like the palm of his hand, born into the old-line ruling elite, the gadfly they loved to tolerate.) “I’ve listed in this little book,” Vidal says, “about four hundred strikes that the government has made on other countries. War, undeclared. Generally with the excuse that they were harboring communists. You keep attacking people for such a long time, one of them is going to get you back.”

And then there’s the other male éminence grise famous for knowing US policy inside and out: Noam Chomsky. On the Media Education Foundation website I find him described as “America’s leading dissident” and “the most-quoted writer in the world.” But try to find him quoted in the mainstream North American press. I figured he’d have something illuminating to say about the September 11th attacks, and so he did—in an interview with a Belgrade radio station and a speech at MIT, excerpts of which were published in Cairo’s Al Ahram. For centuries, he says, Europe practiced terror on the peoples it subjugated. Then an offshoot of Europe, the USA, took over the job. September 11th marked the first time the guns had been pointed the other way round.

A third writer who’s done her homework on the subject is Arundhati Roy—screenwriter, novelist, essayist, practitioner of an astonishing fusion of analytic, emotional and spiritual intelligence (falling under the spell of her novel The God of Small Things, I wished the book never to end). In Outlook India (October 18), she writes:

When he announced the air strikes, President George Bush said, ‘We’re a peaceful nation.’ America’s favourite ambassador, Tony Blair (who also holds the portfolio of Prime Minister of the UK), echoed him: ‘We’re a peaceful people.’ So now we know. Pigs are horses. Girls are boys. War is Peace. …

Here is a list of the countries that America has been at war with—and bombed—since World War II: China (1945–46, 1950–53); Korea (1950–53); Guatemala (1954, 1967–69); Indonesia (1958); Cuba (1959–60); the Belgian Congo (1964); Peru (1965); Laos (1964–73); Vietnam (1961–73); Cambodia (1969–70); Grenada (1983); Libya (1986); El Salvador (1980s); Nicaragua (1980s); Panama (1989), Iraq (1991–99), Bosnia (1995), Sudan (1998); Yugoslavia (1999). And now Afghanistan.

So now we do know. By the time we’ve reached the end of Arundhati’s long list, we know perfectly well why references to relevant US history are being greeted with hysterics and silencing. And we have a good notion of why the US government, in response to the September 11th attacks, cobbled together a strange-bedfellows coalition, rather than working through—and thereby strengthening—the United Nations. And we can make an excellent guess as to why, rather than recognize existing instruments of international law by using them to punish those who planned the attacks, US leaders preferred to launch an undefined, unlimited and self-destructive war against “terrorism” (terrorism being, as Kanin Makiya points out, a tactic, not a side).

Just put yourself in their boots. You’ve been head outlaw for a long time, and suddenly you’re under siege by rival outlaws. Do you call on the sheriff for assistance? No outlaw worth his salt would do a girly thing like that (and, besides, when it was all over, the sheriff might be wanting to take a look at your own checkered past). You don’t call in the law, you shoot it out. You make one long last stand.

And to hell with humans who get caught in the crossfire.