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 6 (March 2001)

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

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

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

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

Dear Friends,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


IN THIS INSTALLMENT

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


SEVEN SIGNS FOR HOME: OAKLAND, CALIFORNIA

by Camille Norton

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


NEW YORK CITY: RITUAL WITH TREMBLING

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

— Jane Picard


 

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

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

and always

                           — Jeannette Muzima

She Is Still Burning 5 (Jan 2001)

Remember this was published in 2001, not 2017 …

SHE IS STILL BURNING
An Expanding Reader To Encourage Life Lovers
Installment #5
30 January 2001

“Reality is the leading cause of stress among those who are in touch with it.”
– Jane Wagner

Dear Friends,

Now that the long-planned blitzkrieg of repression has been unleashed in the States, my heart begins thump-thumping like that of an old war horse abruptly called back to the front.

a) Protestors at Bush’s inauguration, holding signs reading “Hail to the Thief,” are beaten bloody. O familiar scene, if you remember being part of protests against segregation, the Vietnam war, the bombing of Cambodia.

b) Bush and crew begin work day #1 by falling to their knees to petition the guidance of an Old Testament war god. And yes, indeed, there’s a ready-to-hand four-syllable name in the English language for this sort of behaviour: “pa-tri-ar-chy.” (Did you know that in the archeological remains of non-patriarchal cultures, there exists no image of a human, male or female, worshipping on their knees?)

c) Bush continues his first day in the White House by cutting off funds for international aid agencies offering women abortion counselling. A bizarre political move? Not if you recall feminist analyses of the last 5000 years or so of human history.

The bad news is coming in fast and furious. Its rapidity brings to mind other seizures of state power by “crazy” and/or “stupid” patriarchal hardliners—the Taliban, for example (comment heard on Radio-Netherlands, 28 January 2001, regarding Bush’s cutting of funds for abortion counselling: “This is a U.S. version of the Taliban”), or the Nazis. Hitler came to power in a tainted democratic election, intimidating voters with his gang of thugs known as the Brown Shirts. Bush achieved the same end through non-violent use of the judicial system, which may indicate how much more refined state and corporate control have become in the last eighty years (we were already living under a “soft fascism”?). Hitler’s electoral victory would not have meant much without the backing of German industrialists—and this he had, since they were promised the contracts to build his war machine. Bush has the backing of US-based multinationals, for similar reasons. (The Bush campaign was awash in Big Money, with computer-industry magnates, led by Bill Gates, making especially hefty contributions.) Finally, even with election-victory respectability and big-capitalist support, Hitler still needed individual Germans in positions of authority and responsibility throughout the society to decide, “Hey, we’ve got to go along with this guy now; we have too much to lose.” Most apparently did decide to accept the new situation, thereby normalizing it.

It took years for the “new situation” in 1930s Germany to radically alter and/or prematurely end the lives of most of earth’s people. But the USA in 2001 is already the world’s dominant economic and military power, and the current speed of communications and transport is lightning-fast compared to what it was before World War II; consequently, the global repercussions of anything Bush does are immediate. The global repercussions of every single act of resistance to Bush & Company are also immediate—even if less visible, owing to corporate control of mass communications.

Under these circumstances, it’s wondrous luck to have a free-speech vehicle already on the road—especially one that’s small, fast and maneuverable (like an Arabian horse, I hope). She Is Still Burning arrived on time; now may she arrive on target.

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


IN THIS INSTALLMENT

•”The Light of the Deer” by Sara Wright (a recounting of personal experience in which Cherokee myth takes on new life in the Maine woods)
•”A Wing in the Crevice” by Ann Stokes (a mysteriously moving renewal/rebirth poem that resonates on many levels—appropriate for the times)
•”She Is Still Burning” Meets “RadVictorian Radio” (with e-mail correspondence from Barbara Mor)


THE LIGHT OF THE DEER
              by Sara Wright, Autumn 2000

From out of the mountain he comes
With his head held high in the wind
Like the spirit of light he comes
The little white chief of the deer …

One blue and gold morning a few weeks ago this poem came involuntarily to my mind, as I was thinking about bears. Bear killing season was underway. I was humming a little song I had put to the words as I walked, and remembering the first time I used them eight years ago to invoke the spirit of Awi Usdi.

In the Cherokee myth this mystical white deer is called out of the mountain by the animals who are being slaughtered to species extinction by hunters. Awi Usdi is the justice maker and spirit of reverence who incarnates as this small deer. When the animals tell him about their fears of being wiped out by men, he assures them that justice will prevail. First he will visit the hunters in dreams and tell them that they must stop killing more animals than they need. They must use prayer to ask for permission to take an animal life, and then give thanks for the gift of each animal life given. Then Awi Usdi warns the hunters that if they do not curb their greed and continue to kill without reverence, he will cripple the hunters, making it impossible for them to ever hunt again. Most men listened, but some thought that their dreams were stupid and refused to stop killing. Awi Usdi put an end to their slaughter as he had promised the animals he would, and balance and harmony between animals and humans was restored once more.

This myth came instantly alive for me the first time I read it in Caduto/Bruchac’s Keepers of the Earth in 1993. I had just moved to the mountains and the continuous slaughter of so many animals left me stunned beyond comprehension and without resources to fight back. Everyone I talked to seemed hungry for the hunt. I didn’t know which was most revolting: the arrogance of the men, or the women who supported the right of these men to kill whatever crossed their paths. Either way both rationalized that often this meat was actually eaten. When I would mention that no one ate beaver these days, the women would frequently excuse the hunters’ disgusting behavior by saying that their men had to do “the man thing.” What’s behind this statement is one of the hidden truths of patriarchy, namely that many men just like to kill. I wonder now how I missed it. Hunting bears, beavers, minks, otters, deer, rabbits, moose, squirrels and anything else that was unfortunate enough to cross the human path in or out of “season” was accepted as normal, and I think it was this attitude of normalcy that frightened me the most. I felt completely alone, and I’m ashamed to say I became wary of stating my position beyond saying that I didn’t want hunting on my own land.

I had come across this poem, which I now know was written by Marilou Awiaka, around the same time as I read Awi Usdi’s myth, sometime late in the summer of 93. Today I also see the amazing synchronicity, but that day I was just desperate. Earlier that morning men with a van full of dogs had treed a bear just up the hill from me in the woods, and were closing in for the kill. Feeling such terrible grief, the words just spilled out of my mouth almost unconsciously in mantra-like repetition … “From out of the mountain you come … ” I repeated in utter desperation, choking on the poem turned song, and with tears running down my face. Suddenly the noise ceased. I listened for the fatal gunshots with a racing heart. No howling dogs. Not one sound, just silence. What could have happened? I crept through the trees to the edge of my property. I crouched at the edge of the woods road that the truck must have used, and waited, hidden behind some thick brush. When the van rattled down the mountain without a bear and full of quiet dogs, I felt incredible gratitude welling up inside me. Grace had intervened. I don’t remember when it actually occurred to me that singing the song might have helped.

My doubting mind kept me in terrible conflict after I had made the possible connection between my involuntary intention to prevent a bear killing by singing the song and the fact that no bear had been shot. However, I kept on singing … if he came once, he could come again. I was starting to believe it. I also began calling the deer to come to visit me when their killing time was passed. I hoped to be able to feed them over the winter, so my little song became an invitation too.

That year they arrived on the night of the Winter Solstice. I was in the middle of celebrating my ritual (which included Awi Usdi’s song) when I had an overpowering impression that deer were outside my window. Hugging the wall so I wouldn’t startle them, I moved to the window. There he was, standing about ten feet away, munching on the deer grain that I had just started to leave for them. “Awi Usdi, you came!” I breathed the words into the still room like a prayer. I was flooded with awe, and my skin prickled uncomfortably. My ears were ringing. He had an eight-point rack of antlers and a torn left ear, and he was staring in at me with luminous black eyes. How long I stood in that visceral and shining embrace I’ll never know. Later, when we broke eye contact, I saw that he had brought six other deer with him. He came all that winter. During this period of my life I never was able to escape the belief that this one buck whom I continued to call Awi Usdi was the little white chief of the deer. …

A pattern developed out of this first experience which I continue to follow each fall, and which always begins with me invoking the Spirit of Awi Usdi to assist the animals during the killing times. Last year when I came to this cabin and met Jeff the logger/hunter, I immediately began to sing the song. I could feel the danger pulsing in my body long before he ever remarked that he got high just knowing he could kill them (the deer). I will always wonder if the reason this man did not manage to shoot a deer on this property last November was because of my singing prayer. Since I already had learned that focusing psychic energy on the safety of an animal can also bring in the animals themselves, I knew that the deer would come to visit me when it was safe to do so, and they did.

This year I began in September by singing the song every time I walked in the woods where we often saw deer gliding and leaping through the holes opened up by butchering the trees. I hoped as usual to invoke the spirit of Awi Usdi to protect all the animals. At the same time I was also inviting the deer to visit the feeding place I had created for them out behind the house last year, but only when it was safe. On the Fall Equinox I left them a deer block for a present. I knew the deer would probably be moving around a lot over the next few weeks because mating season is coming up in November and I thought they might like a treat. If the block wasn’t demolished by November 1st, I planned to take it in. (One of the most disgusting things about human hunters is that even their guns don’t seem to be enough of an edge over the hapless creatures they pursue. For each species that they slaughter they wait until the animals are at their most vulnerable. Animals have only one “season” to reproduce, and all hunters take advantage of it, marking the season of each animal as the one in which to kill them. They call this sportsmanship.)

On the night of September 28th, Star and I were walking in the woods at dusk when Star alerted me to human presence with her peculiar low growl, which she reserves just for people. Jeff’s sudden appearance, followed by his aggressive verbal assault, cut like a knife, shattering the stillness of an autumn dusk turned night. It never occurred to me during his raging tirade that he was hunting illegally in the dark with a bow gun. I was too terrified to think. Because I already knew this man was dangerous, I tried to feign nonchalance and kept my mouth shut. The cruel irony of catching this man at some illegal hunting activity that involved killing deer was lost on me until after he “escorted” me back to the cabin.

The moment I could think again, I gathered up some deer hair that I had saved from last winter and with corn meal created a small circle in a dish. Next I squared the four directions within the circle, and put deer hair in the center along with a tiny bear fetish. Then I placed the dish on the north window in my bedroom that looks towards the woods. When I feel particularly desperate, I find that creating some kind of living prayer is helpful, especially when I am unable to stay focused on the intention behind the prayer myself.

The next morning I was writing in my journal, and felt a presence nearby. Looking up, I was startled. Just outside my north window stood two deer looking in at me! They were just a few feet away. Joy surged through me at this most unexpected visit. I felt like they had come in response both to my prayer and to the terrifying threats uttered by a madman to us the night before. There was no other possible explanation for these two deer to be gazing in at me through my bedroom window as far as I was concerned. Just having them so near brought me closer to returning to my own body, which I involuntarily desert whenever the stress and fear are too high.

This morning when three of them appeared on the knoll to munch at the rapidly disappearing deer block, I felt a deep gratitude stealing over me. I don’t know whether or not I’ll be around here this winter to feed them, but this relationship between the deer and me will continue, no matter where I am. The Awi Usdi song binds us irrevocably to one another—the deer and myself—through space/time with a tie that is more mysterious than any other I’ve known. “From out of the mountain he comes,” bringing reverence and justice in his wake. I’m waiting for him now.

Note: Sara Wright is a graduate student at Goddard College. (Many thanks to her advisor, Lise Weil, for urging her to send work to She Is Still Burning.) The following excerpts are from a letter Sara Wright wrote to She Is Still Burning in December, 2000: “I am a writer, and a naturalist who makes her home in the western mountains of Maine. I live with my dog Morning Star, my rabbit Moonflower, and two doves in a little cabin at the edge of the forest. … In my writing I am exploring the psychic edge between woman and nature. In this process I am discovering that the boundary between the two is remarkably fluid.

As an ecofeminist and a woman I believe that a willingness to explore these borderlands provides women with a way to heal themselves and the planet. Exploring the wilderness within my body through my dreams, and the wilderness without through my observations in nature, has helped me become an advocate for both myself and all life.
In my opinion it is difficult to develop a relationship with self/nature and not reach the conclusion that I have: namely, that mindless killing for recreation/sport is wrong. For years I have struggled with the despair that comes with feeling helpless in the face of animal slaughter. … ‘The Light of the Deer’ is the story of how I discovered that psychic activism really works!”


A WING IN THE CREVICE

Pale pale sun sifted from an invisible sky
its pallid weight shrinking trunks,
putting their sturdiness in question.
No sign of flame to pierce the eyelid
no root to trip over, waking ancient dreams
pressed in cliffs the short-tailed
albatross widens its feet on.

The near-extinct bird flies months
without solid touch, coming to nest
solely on this rough black rock
fierced with storms only a lover
would take years charting cross then climb,
to inhale that pink of its beak.

What’s locked has lodged its fearsomeness
deep in protection from the thrashing
cold waters, dowsing eyelids down.
Stifling beginning breaths.
See-saw askew, unpliable in clay
aloft in fantasy, the once-possible
firm foot has slid into sleep,
marooned and unwakeable.

On land far away in the pressure-stilled sun,
the dream flings out a terrible
lonely harsh light.
Shuddering shoulders.
Breaking open an encrusted lung.
Air! Young flame and feather,
the albatross wings out to transform grief.

— Ann Stokes


A Week of Syn-Crone-Icity
“SHE IS STILL BURNING” MEETS “RADVICTORIAN RADIO”

With alarum bells ringing all over the globe at the ascension of Bush (“our Cowboy Caligula on the Throne of Terminal Rome,” as Barbara Mor puts it), my e-mail in-box was exploding with messages. And in the midst of several startling and fast-paced synchronicities, I received finally the full address for Barbara Mor’s new website, “RadVictorian Radio.”

“RadVictorian Radio” is visually beautiful and, writerly speaking, the most imaginative use of the medium that I’ve seen. I happily plunged into Installment I of the adventures of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Matilda Joselyn Gage, reincarnated respectively as a beatnik poet and an L.A. waitress, with the mission of bringing “19th c. radical feminist agendas into 21st c. brains.” Then I broke off reading to write a rave e-mail to Barbara and send her all the back installments of She Is Still Burning. And received a day later the reply below. Her letters are such a wild infusion of energy-and-ideas that it seemed a shame to keep this one to myself.

From: Barbara Mor
Date: Thursday, January 25, 2001
Subject: Amazonian Times

Dear Harriet, thank you so much for sending BURNING, She Is Still Burning indeed. It is true that extreme challenge by the BushWorld fundamentalists will activate many who assumed the Worst was over. But so many of us Olde War Horses are also tired, and what does it require to rouse us one more time? Hey, maybe this is it, the Electronic Ullulation. i don’t know if that is spelled right, but does Xenna care??!! I’ve copied out the wonderful Jane Picard piece to read as I read – slowly. Yes, many tremendous lines. That you are receiving such quality response just out of the gate, really impressive! And a good idea; distribution is the obstacle to all publishing. Finally, a free gift, and it is a beautiful gift to all of us, as well as to yourself. Your writing is very moving, Harriet, never doubt it. I spew out clever lines like this, not “writing” (which traumas me into silence normally) but just “blowing” – are you watching the american PBS Ken Burns series on JAZZ? My mother was a Charleston dancer in the 20s, and played piano in a Pittsburgh jazzband briefly, so she raised me on the piano bench. I was never very good, but music was her gift to me (she died when I was 12, and it was indeed this gift that kept me going) – so very young I was going on the bus at night to downtown San Diego to see travelling Jazz at the Phil concerts, was a FREAK thru cool jazz and bebop and MJQ periods. Anyway, watching this Ken Burns series is making me cry, in memory of all this, memory of social change occurring mightily via MUSIC and the heroic lives of the musicians (they gave their lives literally, many of them). SO, blubbering away, I am thinking: What HAPPENED to feminism, which began in this spirit and then just dribbled away, morphed into — real gains, I know; I’m sure Hillary Clinton feels empowered! But that origynal spirit … people hate to say it outright, but the great utterances come up from under, and women who have “made it” – Hillary, Oprah, whomever – do not have that powerful SWING, what I mean: Billie Holiday, Dinah Washington, Anita O’Day, they growled, and roared, and wept blood, incarnadine sweat. So, in this Spirit, WE BEGIN AGAIN! swinging my ax arthritically … well, i want to tell you that I have a hard time sustaining any work, even a website, because i’ve been “rejected, boohoo!” so often I think what’s the use. But, knowing you are there putting yourself into “Burning”, this inspires – no, kicks my butt into KNOWING I have to get up and join the fight with no excuses. SO, thanks, I need that! And, please use anything I send in e-mail that works, it is my version of jazz improvisation, letters that is – a few good lines spew out because I’m not thinking: This is my real work! Writing, in other words, scares me. Standing in the street screaming and ranting like the baglady of Babylon, this doesn’t scare me. Ergo, that’s what letters and e-mail are for me. Things ARE moving so fast; California’s energy deregulations, behind the current disasters of blackouts and utilities bankruptcies, are said to have been begun by the utilities selling their energy sources to – ehem, heehaw, some TEXAS oil companies. Which are in turn demanding hijack wholesale prices which California’s utilities can’t afford without raising users’ energy rates skyhigh. Well, the usual demonic tangle of instigators and instigated, except imagine George Bush’s week: stop international abortion/reproductive rights funding, give the finger to feminists and enviros, go to bed and wake up King of the World, and – best of all – being a Texan suckering the elitist state of California. Big oil! wins again. And again. And again.

Ditto. Sister, round up the ponies. Let’s STAMPEDE!!!!!!!!!

 

War Babies

War babies are babies
who make war
without knowing what war is.

War babies make war
on nature,
on drugs,
on anyone who crosses them,
on each other.

War babies have guns
that are big and mean.
War babies have money
that won’t buy them more time.

War babies hit a telephone pole
at 100 miles an hour,
and expect to walk away.

War babies stay babies
because they don’t learn.

Oh look, they’re doing it again.

 

–Harriet Ann Ellenberger, 11 February 2016

 

Farewell For Now to a Beautiful Mother

Kathryn

On 19 May 2013, my mother died, four days after her hundredth birthday.

She’d been living for weeks on ice chips and low-dose morphine, regularly leaving her body to walk and talk with my father, then returning to report to my brother at her bedside and to me via long-distance phone. No one knew when she would leave and not return, but everyone believed that her departure was imminent.

Five days before her centennial, however, she suddenly said to my brother, “It’s only a week away; maybe I can make it.” And she revived, sending the nursing-home staff into a frenzy of last-minute party planning. When the morning of her birthday dawned sunny and warm, they came to dress her for a convertible ride around the small town of Reinbeck, Iowa, and she said, “Hallelujah, I thought I’d never get out of this place alive.”

The convertible was a bright yellow muscle car with the top down, and the route had been planned so that town residents could come out on the curb to sing “happy birthday” to her at various stops along the way. It all worked like a charm, and she made the driver stop three times in addition, to listen to the birds singing and to watch squirrels run up and down the tree trunks. After a half-hour ride, they returned to her room, which had been transformed into a festival of balloons and cakes and flowers and visitors with cameras.

The next morning, she slipped into a coma and was gone three days later. And the morning following her death, I woke with the realization that there was no one left but me who knew the stories of her early life. In a rush to send something to my brother before her grandchildren and great-grandchildren gathered for her funeral, I wrote the following:

Some Things You May Not Know About the Young Kathryn Louise Truitt Ellenberger

When she was four years old, the family doctor told her parents that she would not live to grow up and all they could do was make sure that her childhood was happy. After that, her father stopped drowning the barn cats’ new litters, and soon she had over thirty kitten playmates.

She rode her own pony to school, trying to keep up with her older brother Keith’s horse.

When she was eight, her father died and their farm was sold, and her mother’s parents built a second story on their house in town to make room for their daughter and her children. The house was full of books, and there were large flowerbeds, a vegetable garden, and fruit trees.

She was an avid tennis player. When she was thirteen, her mother became alarmed at the amount of time she was spending with older boys on the town’s tennis court, and sent her to work for the summer as a hired girl on a relative’s farm. Kathryn did not like working in the kitchen from dawn until the supper dishes were washed, followed by a pile of mending until 10 p.m.

Kathryn thought she might like to be an interior decorator, but everyone assumed she would become a country schoolteacher, following in the footsteps of her older sisters Mabel and Lucile. She did not do this. After high school graduation, Lucile gave her the money to go to business school in Des Moines.

When she graduated from business school, she was offered a job in the Des Moines Public Library system. She worked in the downtown library and lived in the Brown Hotel with several roommates.

One of her roommates, Bunny, wanted to take the civil-service exam and asked Kathryn to take it at the same time, as moral support. Within a few days, Kathryn received a telegram offering her a job in the Navy Building in Washington, DC. She immediately sent a telegram back, accepting the job. Only then did she tell family and friends, and soon she was boarding a train for the East Coast.

Her boyfriend Carl Ellenberger was classified 4-F because he had lost the thumb on his right hand in a corncob-crusher accident. Kathryn’s boss, an admiral, waived a few bureaucratic rules and soon Carl was in Naval Intelligence.

When Kathryn delivered certain materials to other government departments in DC, she was driven in a chauffeured limousine and carried a revolver in her purse.

Kathryn was well-dressed in wartime Washington because she cut out magazine photos of the clothes she wanted to wear, and mailed them to her mother in Iowa. Her mother designed the pattern, found the fabric, sewed the outfit, and mailed it back to her.

Carl Ellenberger had first asked Kathryn to marry him when they were both seventeen. In 1942, when they were both twenty-nine, he told her it was the last time he’d ask and she believed him. She said yes.

The specifics of what Carl and Kathryn were doing for the Navy during World War II are known only to them. Kathryn and my partner had a tacit telephone understanding: she knew that he knew that she knew that … But I remain clue-less.

Postscript, October 2013

Despite over sixty years of conversation with my mother, it’s not only her wartime activities I’m in the dark about. We had a meeting of the minds on two things: the allure of good food and the beauty of Chopin’s waltz in C# minor, op. 64, no. 2, which she liked me to play for her. With most everything else — politics, religion, the nature of reality — we tended to be stationed on opposite sides of the barricades.

I couldn’t fathom what drove my mother, and she had the same difficulty with me. But we kept on talking. And — judging by the evidence of my dreams — the conversation, in some mysterious way, continues.

note: This essay was published first in Return to Mago on 28 October 2013.

Sunrise Over the USA

for Barbara Mor

In place of the old dream
and the old lies,
I wish for my country of origin
a new story,
one that goes like this:

We rode roughshod,
we drove pedal to the metal,
we blew our own cylinders.
We squeezed the life from all
we could lay hands on,
converted our kill into currency,
bowed low before the greenback god we made.

Then — an inch from extinction —
in the midst of brawling, bawling,
blowing each other away,
we woke from our nightmares.
Watched the sun rise.
Said this is a good day to live.

We started to share food
and keep house.

It was astonishing
how quickly the tall-grass prairie,
intricate forest that bends with the wind,
grew back.
Astonishing how quickly the milkweed pods shot up
and the monarchs laid ever more eggs on them
and the great butterfly migration strengthened.
Astonishing when legions of Canada geese flew south again,
barking and writing long flat V’s in the sky.

We woke,
and the earth under our feet
decided to live.

It was that definitive,
that clear a turning.

− Harriet Ann Ellenberger, February 2012

Note: “Sunrise Over the USA” was first published, with working notes, on Return to Mago, 1 October 2012.

The Watcher and the Watched

for Susan Robinson aka Susan Wood-Thompson

I send a poem to my friend,
asking her, Do you think it is finished?
My poem speeds off to join internet traffic,
passing through the super-computers of US intelligence
before it reaches her.

If I call long-distance to read her my poem,
each word I say,
each word she says,
travels through the same computers.

This gives me an idea.

What do these super-computers do?
They scan for keywords selected by humans
following the daily threat assessment.
And what do poems do?
They tell the truth of human feeling.

What if the world of poets
scanned the news for probable keywords?
What if we scattered them liberally
throughout our poems and shared our poems
prodigally, far and wide—
would humans who answer to no one
be forced, by the exigencies of their job,
to read poetry?

Poets too assess the real behind the rumour,
and should our keywords catch their ear,
what then—spy to spy—shall we say
to the boys and girls at the NSA?

We’ll say that humans are become
a single suffering tribe,
wandering far from the tree of life,
moving into unmarked territory,
hungry and hallucinating.

We’ll say, here’s a truth of human feeling:
it hurts to be awake out here.

–Harriet Ann Ellenberger
21 May 2012

“The Watcher and the Watched” was first published in “Counterpunch” on 23 November 2012, and later, with working notes, in “Return to Mago” on 12 December 2012. The image is from Tech Week Europe.