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 7 (April 2001)

Note, 16 May 2017 BE: The April 2001 instalment of “She Is Still Burning” below focuses on France and the work of Michèle Causse. I was just getting ready to post it when France held their presidential election, the results of which led me to imagine Jeanne d’Arc saying to her disembodied self: “Well, old girl, only a fool walks into a fire, and I  had been wondering why we thought it was such a brilliant idea to liberate France. But now it’s May 2017, and the French just threw a massive monkey-wrench into the onrushing wheels of fascism. Not bad. Not bad at all. Vive la République! Vive la France!

A few days later, South Korea did France one better, electing in a landslide a new president who was born the child of refugee parents from the North, grew up in poverty, and became a human-rights lawyer. Vive la South Korea! For showing how to do democracy under conditions of extreme duress.

And now back to the past …


SHE IS STILL BURNING
An Expanding Reader To Encourage Life Lovers
Installment #7
29 April 2001

“Put on your old jacket. We’ll fill our pockets with sugar drops, set off wherever the heart desires, without any plan at all, through quarters overgrown with camomile … ”
– Irina Ratushinskaya

Dear Friends,

After a winter onslaught that lasted until mid-April (there’s still snow in the New Brunswick woods), purple and yellow crocuses are now blooming; the robins are singing “cheer up, chérie.” Every time life renews itself, it catches me by surprise. What! You mean there’s hope at the bottom of that box?

Some day I’m going to learn not to let world events, as well as the weather, drag me into the slough of despond. But that day hasn’t come yet. And so I just have to say with regard to His Junior Bushness … my god, how reckless is this goofball front for the fundamentalists. First he gives the thumbs-up, green-light, go-right-ahead sign to Ariel Sharon (and speaking of Sharon, how did a child with a name that sounds like roses and true-love grow up to become the architect of a new “Final Solution”?). Then — after scraping through the international incident resulting from a Chinese fighter pilot’s urge to play chicken with a US spy plane — Bush intimates that he will not hesitate to re-arm Taiwan. Oh brilliant. A rerun of the Cold War together with a sure-fire recipe for hot war in the Mideast.

In mid-April, however, along with warmer weather, came the people’s summit in Quebec City and the 30,000-strong peaceful protest march (against the kind of “free trade” that has so far been governed by rules chiefly benefitting corporate investors), along with some cheering news from the south of France that you will likely not have found in your local newspaper. Read all about it in this installment of She Is Still Burning!

You may notice that, though this installment ranges over two continents and mixes together two languages, it’s still uni-voiced: I wrote almost everything in it. To remedy this lack of variety in authorship, why not send me something to publish in the next installment? The form can be anything you wish: letters, reflections on personal experience, poetry, stories, essays, reviews or a hybrid-sort-of-thing you invent. I publish excerpts from the letters I receive only if the writer explicitly gives me permission, so please let me know if I’m free to share the comments you send me.

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


IN THIS INSTALLMENT

•”Glimpses of Lesbian Politics and Culture, Stage II, in France” (text and translations by Harriet Ellenberger)
•”To the Beautiful Contradictions of Ariane” (a bilingual poem written for the birthday of a bilingual friend) by Harriet Ellenberger
•”Thunderer, Perfect Mind” (a poem with a title stolen from the Gnostic Gospels) by Harriet Ellenberger


GLIMPSES OF LESBIAN POLITICS AND CULTURE, STAGE II, IN FRANCE

text and translations by Harriet Ellenberger

“In French everything sounds like a poem,
in English it sounds like the bus doors opening above a sewer
and yet
one must go where these things meet.”
— Suzanne Cox

In 1993, shortly after her political fable Voyages de la Grande Naine en Androssie was published, Michèle Causse wrote to two friends, saying she was so stressed by the rise of fundamentalist movements that, if her health had allowed it, she would have begun a crusade and given to every woman she found a new “dictionary/bible.” That brief remark in a personal letter evidently signalled the beginning of a furious creative process because she did go ahead, despite medical crises, to write a new “dictionary/bible.” Originally titled “Bréviare de Gorgones” [“Book of the Gorgons”], it was published last spring in France under the title Contre le sexage [“Against Sexdom”] (Paris: Éditions Balland, 2000).

Taped to the wall above my writing desk is the announcement for the April 2000 book launching in Paris. It shows a colour photo of Afghani women after the Taliban takeover, sitting in a group. They’re shrouded in orange or white or grey fabric, with no opening for the eyes. Through a small piece of loosely woven material inset into the more tightly woven fabric draped over them, they look at each other or stare into space. Below the photo are Michèle’s words, “Et même Kaboul, la malheureuse, s’efforce parfois de rêver que les interdits s’assoupliront”… [“And even Kabul, the wretched, dares sometimes to dream that the prohibitions will be eased”].

The Shroud of Language

“It is hardly surprising that those who hold power should
attempt to control the words and language people use.”
— John Ralston Saul

“dictionary: summary of the production, development and
classification of ideological monstrosities”
— Michèle Causse (from the glossary of Contre le sexage)

You might (and I would) call Contre le sexage the closing argument for the prosecution in the case of Life vs. the Global Sex-Class System. The book is a tour de force, and the philosophical culmination of Michèle’s lifework as novelist, essayist, translator, editor and teacher/activist. Its argument hinges on the political nature of language, making clear the distinction between the “androlect” (a word created by Michèle to name languages in which the sex-class hierarchy is both embedded and concealed) and “alpha language” (a name invented by her last-minute collaborator Éliane Pons, to signify languages freed from their sex-class straitjacket).

Anyone who has tried to think, speak or write clearly about overcoming oppression knows that when you start using words like “man,” “woman,” “heterosexual,” “homosexual” — words everyone supposedly understands — you sooner or later tumble into a conceptual pit and the fog rolls in. Why? It’s that ol’ devil androlect again — you’ve been trying to use a primary instrument of sexdom to demolish sexdom, an effort which has certain inherent limitations. But, given that the androlect is also our common tongue, what are we to do?

What Michèle has done is to create “radical-lesbian” theory [“lesbienne radicale” is a political term used primarily in Quebec and in France; probably the nearest relative to Michèle’s book available in English is Monique Wittig’s The Straight Mind], and she does this entirely without reliance on the words “woman,” “lesbian” or, for that matter, “human.” Instead, she invents a plethora of words to name states of embodied consciousness in varying degrees of submission to or revolt against the sex-class hierarchy. Below are a few examples from the glossary, to give you a sense of the direction she’s headed in:

a) Diviseur [the dominant who arrogates to himself the power to classify those similar to him, arranging them in a hierarchy according to the sole criterion he judges pertinent — their sexual organs]

b) dividue [she who who has been divided — that is, appropriated, named and spoken for]

c) dividuelle [dividue in the process of evolving towards individuality]

d) Individue [one who, having recognized the confiscation of the symbolic order by the Diviseur, does not allow the division to be exercised on her, and annuls the effects of it by making appear in and through language her own naming and her own representation]

e) Gorgones [Individues originating the Sapiens conception of the human world. Having denounced the unilateral point of view that organizes the rapport between beings, Gorgones have withdrawn their bodies from the exchanges dictated by the Diviseurs, and found in their face-to-face relationships the necessary and sufficient condition for the elaboration of an unprecedented symbolic order.]

f) Sapiens [reorganization of the human species, taking into account the totality of speaking beings, whatever the reality of their bodies, without arbitrarily privileging a discriminatory criterion].

Exodus from the Androlect:
Conversation, Friendship and Love in the Alpha Tongue

While Part I of Contre le sexage — abstract, dense, constructed almost like a legal brief — may prove slow going even for readers whose first language is French, it lays a solid foundation for the more lyrical and example-filled Part II, which centers on conversation, friendship and love in the alpha tongue: that is, the creation of egalitarian culture by conscious female rebels against the sex-class system. Rebels who, in fact, have constituted a transnational group-in-the-process-of-becoming since the 1970s, emerging in a few countries with the beginning of feminism’s “second wave,” flourishing briefly, dying back, re-emerging in new forms, and continually spreading across every sort of boundary. The reality of their intertwined lives and culture-making brings us to our second and very brief (but hopefully instructive) glimpse of lesbian politics and culture in France.

The 6th Lesbian Spring in the South of France

In the same year (2000) that Contre le sexage was published by Éditions Balland in Paris, Espace lesbien [“Lesbian Space”] was published in Toulouse by Bagdam Espace lesbien (an association whose name was originally inspired by the film “Baghdad Café”). Mid-April 2001 marked this group’s sixth year of organizing a 3-1/2 day spring celebration of lesbian politics and culture. The 2001 programme included, not only films, book-signings, concerts, dinners and parties, even a guided tour of the city, but also a European symposium on lesbian studies titled “La grande Dissidence et le grand Effroi” [“The Great Dissidence and the Great Dread”]. Among the speakers listed were activists, writers and scholars from France, Belgium, Quebec, Algeria, Italy, Germany and Spain: Marian Lens, Chantal Bigot, Michèle Causse, Danièle Charest, Éliane Pons, Dominique Bourque, Anne Legal, Groupe du 6 novembre, Giovanna Olivieri, Valeria Santini, Daniela Danna, Fefa Vila Nuñez, Traude Bürhrmann, and others.

What is the significance of Toulouse? It seems to me, judging solely from descriptions in the pre-conference publicity, that the breadth, depth, seriousness and sophistication of the presentations constitute clear and startling evidence that a freedom-and-justice movement which many have been strenuously attempting to consign to the dustbin of history did not die at the hands of the backlash, but rather came of age. And that is what I call good news. Since the fate of one liberation movement is inevitably linked to the fate of the others, April in Toulouse 2001 marks a hopeful sign of spring for us all.


POÈME SPONTANÉ AUX BELLES CONTRADICTIONS
D’ARIANE,
 POUR FÊTER L’ANNIVERSAIRE DE SA NAISSANCE

Elle est tendre pooh-bear
with impressive teeth,
home-body and visionnaire …
Who can comprehend her in a single phrase?
She doubles the image.

You can only follow her eccentric progress
across the night sky —
late-rising, inevitable star,
paradoxically dreaming roots in the soft brown earth,
I wash my hands of this, she says,
but the imprint of destiny remains.

A friend advises her to be glad
she is not like the one-dimensional others.

— Harriet Ellenberger


THUNDERER, PERFECT MIND

Purple clouds mass along the horizon,
Sheet lightning crackles.
Black winds cut,
keen as obsidian knife.

Out of the dark west she rides.
From the yellowing east she comes.
Her white flags fly to the north.
In the south her red fires are lit.

She speaks.
The rock peaks split.

She speaks
and the past is laid open.

She speaks.
A light rain falls.

She speaks
and the future rises,
vapor on her breath.

She speaks.
Death is real.

She speaks again
and death is not an end.

— Harriet Ellenberger

 

She Is Still Burning 1 (Oct 2000)

And the blast from the past continues … below you will find the first SISB instalment, sent out to friends as an e-mail in October 2000. I re-formatted to make it look prettier, but the words are exactly as they appeared then.

SHE IS STILL BURNING
An Expanding Reader To Encourage Life Lovers
Installment #1
22 October 2000

Dear Friends,

We’re just at the beginning of this project, and already I’ve managed to confuse everyone, including myself. This is because I was trying to go back to the 1970s days of publishing Sinister Wisdom with Catherine Nicholson, when we put out issues that were designed like books and included original artwork. Real publishing, in other words.

In my imagination, the HTML version of She Is Still Burning was elegantly book-like too. But when I translated imagination into computer reality, the resulting e-mail was huge, unlovely, and took forever to send/receive—like stuffing a pig-in-a-pinafore through a narrow mail slot. Hence, oh sad revision of my original announcement, She Is Still Burning will appear in everyone’s e-mail box as “text only.”

But she will appear, and SHE WILL BE FREE, something that real publishing can’t offer.

That said, let me welcome you to the beginning installment of She Is Still Burning. The first writer to respond to my request for submissions was long-time friend Lynn Martin, a poet who works for the Brattleboro AIDS Project in Vermont. (We were born on the same day, in different years, so it seemed natural to me that she would immediately comprehend my intentions.) Below, you’ll find a poem and short-short story by Lynn; they go together, illuminate each other.

Next comes a sample of Suzanne Cox’s “Suzy Q. Reporter” pieces, which she e-mails to a group of friends and which, along with her letters, were a major inspiration for She Is Still Burning. Suzanne Cox is a poet and painter who lives in New Hampshire and works at the Dartmouth College library.

On 9 October 2000, the day I sent out the invitations to subscribe, the world experienced its first ozone alert. The hole in the ozone layer over Antarctica, already as large as three continents, had extended for the first time over land inhabited by humans, the southernmost part of Chile and the island of Tierra del Fuego. In the NASA satellite photo, the hole looked like a gigantic blue teardrop. I don’t think words exist to adequately respond to this, but the final poem in this installment of She Is Still Burning at least speaks to the causes of the event. It seems more timely now than when I wrote it in 1989.

Finally, I’d like to take this opportunity to thank Michèle Causse for years and years of encouraging me to keep on writing, and for her e-mail last spring pleading with me to DO SOMETHING again—which provided the impetus for this project.

With best wishes,
Harriet Ellenberger
Saint John, New Brunswick

Continue reading She Is Still Burning 1 (Oct 2000)