Sunday, October 31, 2010

Horrors transcended

Happy Halloween! I love how this day gives us a chance to play with fright and pretend we're someone else (and eat Reese's peanut butter cups).

Just before our mid-term elections here in the U.S., while politicians flood the air waves with last ditch efforts to get voters out Tuesday, Comedy Central's Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert held a Rally to Restore Sanity on Washington DC's mall, which brought out well over 200,000 people. Was the rally to support a political party or candidate? No. In his comments at the end of the comedic and musically entertaining event, Stewart asks, What exactly was this? What was the point? His point was to pull back from 24-hour media pundit craziness-inducing overreactions of the Left and Right and remind us that we are not made up of those caricature-warped portrayals of us Americans. I take great hope from the success of this rally that called out hate and reminded us not to let ourselves be driven by the media's polarizing takes on reality.

I'd like to use this moment when politics are all we're hearing on the TV and radio, on Halloween's day of pretend horrors, to talk about three of our human species who truly suffered under another kind of horror, the political kind. While I complain about the faulty systems of my country and the inefficacy of politicians to fix the mess, and while I feel myself getting more cynical and disengaged (but I will force myself to stop at City Hall on the way to work Tuesday to exercise my right to vote), there are far worse political nightmares in the history of the world. The three people I'm spotlighting lived through some of the most terrifying realities of the 20th century. Yesterday, October 30, was not only the day of the Rally to Restore Sanity, it was Miguel Hernández's centenary birthday. He is the third person in my spotlight, below. In the poem of his I share, he says something like Jon Stewart said yesterday:

You are the body of water
that I am— we, together,
are the river
which as it grows deeper
is seen to run slower, clearer.

Besides perspective-taking in today's context of political lunacy, this is also about the power of language and poetry to not only express the inexpressible, but to sustain us, even when life is at its most dire. Whether in the reading of it, or in writing it, these three show that poetry can transcend the worst that mankind offers and lift us on powerful and delicate wings into the shining sun at the core of ourselves.

For further biographical information on each of these three, please click on their names.

Nelson Mandela, Prisoner 466/64, born 1918
After spending more than twenty years working for equal rights for Blacks in apartheid-heavy South Africa, Nelson Mandela was arrested for sabotage and sentenced to life in prison. He served almost 27 years in three prisons – Robben Island, Pollsmoor Prison and Victor Verster Prison, until his release in 1990. He was elected President of the African National Congress in 1991, received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993, and was elected the first black President of South Africa in 1994. He said, “In my country we go to prison first and then become President.”

Nelson Mandela said the poem Invictus sustained him through his nearly 27 years in prison.

by William Ernest Henley

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll.
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

Anna Akhmatova, 1889 - 1966
"Before this sorrow mountains bow . . ."
Poet Anna Akhmatova lived during the most turbulent time of Russian history, and though she was not herself imprisoned by the Bolsheviks, her first husband, after their divorce, was executed, and her son imprisoned for seventeen months. Most of those closest to her were exiled, imprisoned or executed for their political leanings. Her poetry was banned, she lived under surveillance. Her masterpiece about the horrors and sorrows of Stalin's death camps, Requiem, was written and dedicated to the women she met standing outside Leningrad's Kresty Prison while her son was imprisoned there. The poem was not published until after her death. Please do read the entire poem in the link above. Here is one stanza from Requiem, followed by a poem called Solitude that speaks to her own lack of freedom and the writing that sustained her.

from Requiem
by Anna Akhmatova


Seventeen months I’ve pleaded
for you to come home.
Flung myself at the hangman’s feet,
my terror, oh my son.
And I can’t understand,
now all’s eternal confusion,
who’s beast, and who’s man,
how long till execution.
And only flowers of dust,
ringing of censers, tracks just
running somewhere, nowhere, far.
And deep in my eyes gazing,
swift, fatal, threatening,
one enormous star.
(Translated by Yevgeny Bonver)

by Anna Akhmatova

So many stones are thrown at me
that I no longer cower,
the turret’s cage is shapely,
high among high towers.
My thanks, to its builders,
may they escape pain and woe,
here, I see suns rise earlier,
here, their last splendours glow.
And often winds from northern seas
fill the windows of my sanctuary,
and a dove eats corn from my palm…
and divinely light and calm,
the Muse’s sunburnt hand’s at play,
finishing my unfinished page.

(I'm sorry, but I don't know who translated this version of "Solitude") 

Miguel Hernández, 1910 (October 30) - 1942
Yesterday was Miguel Hernández' centenary birthday. I didn't know about Hernández until my dear friend Lorenzo of The Alchemist's Pillow offered a beautiful look at him in his post called Cicada Dirge. This special birthday was hugely celebrated in Spain and around the Spanish-speaking world this weekend. Coming out of poverty and his father's adamant rejections of his literary and poetic interests, Hernández beat incredible odds to become one of the most admired Spanish poets. As a supporter and soldier of the anti-fascist Republican forces against Franco's Nationalists in the Spanish Civil war, he was arrested and sentenced first to death, and then life in prison when Franco took power. He didn't survive long in prison, as the terrible conditions led to his death by tuberculosis at the age of 31.

Post script: Lorenzo at The Alchemist's Pillow has posted a new commemorative essay called Milking a goat and a dream, tenderly showing more intimate details of Miguel Hernández's story. He plans to continue his series on Hernández in future posts as well.

The world is as it appears
by Miguel Hernández

The world is as it appears
before my five senses,
and before yours, which are
the borders of my own.
The others' world
is not ours: not the same.
You are the body of water
that I am— we, together,
are the river
which as it grows deeper
is seen to run slower, clearer.
Images of life—
as soon as we receive them,
they receive us, delivered
jointly, in one rhythm.
But things form themselves
in our own delirium.
The air has the hugeness
of the heart I breathe,
and the sun is like the light
with which I challenge it.
Blind to the others,
dark, always remiss,
we always look inside,
we see from the most intimate places.
It takes work and love
to see these things with you;
to appear, like water
with sand, always one.
No one will see me completely.
Nor is anyone the way I see him.
We are something more than we see,
something less than we look into.
Some parts of the whole
pass unnoticed.
No one has seen us. We have seen
no one, blind as we are from seeing.

(translated by Don Share)


willow said...

I would venture to say that not many are fortunate enough to hear rousing renditions of "Invictus" around the house, like I do! (WT loves to belt it out.)

Excellent post.

Happy Halloween. Enjoy those Reese's.

California Girl said...

woooosshhh....(me exhaling after reading the 3 poems)

Ruth, a different poignant way to celebrate today. Like the way you linked Hernandez' poem to what Stewart was saying to the crowd. I found his speech to be heartfelt and sincere yesterday.

Happy Halloween.

Deslilas said...

You make me fond of Halloween today.
Usually in France it's so poor and without any meaning.

Ruth said...

willow, no not everyone, hardly anyone I'd guess! "Invictus" would be a most excellent poem to memorize and have whenever I can wield it!

Happy Halloween to you, most intriguing spooky manor lady.

Ruth said...

Thanks, California Girl. Yes, I liked his speech too. Don said he should run for President. But I think he gets way more done by not being a politician than he would as President. Becoming President seems like the kiss off to getting anything done.

Ruth said...

Daniel, that's a good thing, thank you so much for saying that.

Char said...

one i have admired for a very long time and two i am introduced to and somewhat breathless reading what i've read so far. thank you for the introductions. sometimes when i think about suffering and what we live through, mine is nothing but a simple drop in the bucket - there are many that have suffered before me and under far worse circumstances. bravery beyond my narrow realm.

Dan Gurney said...

The toxicity of the media does not have to be ingested.

One solution is to experiment with a media fast, that is, a day entirely free of news updates from papers, radio, TV, internet, whatever. (People sometimes manage media fasts on vacation.)

It's beyond refreshing to eschew corporate media. Your spirits lift enough to do things in your actual community to improve the quality of life.

Apart from reading a very few select blogs--yours is among them--I've been on a media fast for some months now.

Ruth said...

Dear Char, it's really just relative, I think. We have what we have, and we respond the best we can. I do think it is incredibly important to read biographies of those whose lives were full of struggle, so that I can recalibrate my attitude. Gotta just keep giving it away, all the things we're attached to. I hope that I would have grace if I faced such circumstances as these three souls.

I'm glad to be the one to introduce you to Akhmatova and Hernández (I assume those are the two you didn't know yet). I felt my self shift considerably after finding Akhmatova several years ago, and again a month ago when Lorenzo posted about Hernández. There is no end to what I do not know.

George said...

This is such a timely post. While I try mightily to maintain a state of Zen acceptance, I must confess that the current state of the world — highlighted, of course, by the totally insane political situation in this country — has left me in a state of mild depression. It is very encouraging to be reminded of people like Mandela, Akhmatova, and Hernandez, who have survived repression and reminded us of the need to press on with hope.

Ruth said...

Dan, your months-long practice is so admirable and inspiring. I have been avoiding it too, but it seems more out of disgust than intention. It takes awareness to even begin to question what we are told over and over. What's frightening is how these truisms become memes that we believe deep in our culture and in our psyche, though there may be zero truth in them. But when someone says them often enough, it is very difficult to think for ourselves and go upstream. For one thing, there is an awful lot to study about the ways of the world around us.

I feel terribly honored that you read my blog while you are in a media fast.

Ruth said...

Hi, George. Something in your comment reminds me of Jesus' words in Matthew: The poor you will always have with you . . .

By the same token, corrupt and useless politicians, and wars, and hatred, and extremisms, and all of the heartache we will always have with us. I keep telling myself what Don Miguel Ruiz says, which is that I can change the world by changing what is in my own head (as in the Five Agreements at the bottom of my blog page). If everyone were to be responsible even for this, just what's in our own heads, the world would be a vastly different place.

I find such grace and hope in artistic expressions . . . of these poets and forces, and from the lesser known artists, but no less soulful and heart-filling, such as yourself.

ds said...

Oh, Ruth, what a powerful reminder that there are things more important than costumes and candy (except of course, for Reeses, the choice around here). I did once have Invictus memorized; have always liked its attitude. And I think you know how I feel about Akhmatova, "Anna of all the Russias" though I do not know the first translation. Hernandez is new to me; thank you for the introduction. I will come back to absorb and re-absorb when time allows (must now to work).
But I think of things I saw recently, the power and the poignancy, the "terrible beauty."
Will have lots to think on this afternoon. Thank you.
And Happy Halloween (save some of the Reeses for the kiddies--I tell Mr. L-S the same thing ;) )!!

Ruth said...

DS, my sweet friend, it's wonderful to see you back. It really wasn't too long, maybe a week, but it seemed longer.

How nice that we share the Reeses joy.

I have come to be more attentive and appreciative of poetry translations since Lorenzo has posted a couple at The Alchemist's Pillow. It really pained me that all the sites where "Solitude" was posted had -zero- mention of the translator. In some ways I think it might be as difficult, if not more so, to translate a poem into something that works than it is to "just" write a poem.

Lorenzo can tell you far more about Hernández, and I do hope you will read the linked post of his about him. There is so much heartache in his story . . . his wife, his infant son who died, the poverty they lived with. It is truly horrifying what he and his loved ones suffered.

By the way, we have no bowl of treats ready to hand out to trick-or-treaters, since we don't get them here at the farm. So all the Reeses stay right here, until they're eaten. :)

Ruth said...

There is something in my last comment that makes me miserably conflicted. A bowl of treats. Candy. When Hernández's wife and infant son barely survived on onions while he was in prison. Well, his infant son died.

Is life not a strange thing? Some of us are born with unimagined luxuries, and others live, and die, with unimagined grief and hardship.

dirt clustit said...

I haven't read everything you gifted us Ruth. But I have no doubt I will have read 3 times over anything you have written that you allow to be read and any other words you lead us to.

And when I finish I sure there will be some I go back to and read again. I'll probably continue til I run out of time.

Thank you for what you share with us Ruth

Marcie said...

Thank-you for bringing to light those who have come before us and offered hope and peace in the political whirlwind and wars. Beautiful!!!

Bella Rum said...

Happy Halloween, Ruth. Wonderful and thoughtful post. Thank you.

The Solitary Walker said...

'The power of language and poetry to not only express the inexpressible, but to sustain us, even when life is at its most dire.' Yes, indeed. Without the healing, sustaining, transcending power of poetry - and music - many of us would have been crippled by the horror long ago.

Oliag said...

I will save Requiem for tomorrow, when I am less brain works best in the morning:)...but tonight I savored "The World as it Appears" I am completely in love...I will go to Lorenzo's site tomorrow to learn more about Hernandez too...

My favorite sign from the rally for sanity said "I get my comedy from FOX and my news from the Comedy Channel" I wish I could have gone there:)

I only had 8 children visit I have way too many Reeses PB cups and Snickers, and Kit Kats here!

Ginnie said...

I especially like what Hernández wrote: No one will see me completely. Nor is anyone the way I see him. We are something more than we see, something less than we look into. Profound, Ruth.

Ruth said...

dusti, your comment is profoundly touching to me. Your validation, in such an expansive way, feels amazing in my heart. Thank you.

Ruth said...

Marcie, I am glad you found hope and peace through these three lives, and the small but with a big heart appreciative summaries I've posted here. Thank you.

Ruth said...

Happy Halloween yesterday to you too, Bella. Thank you for your kind words. I'm so glad you are feeling better and things are humming along.

Ruth said...

Robert, it was powerfully moving yesterday, to share your post of Gorecki's sorrowful songs while I was feeling the weight of these stories posted here. I will go back and listen to and watch that extraordinary video again and again. It takes a skilled hand to create beauty that bears, heals and transcends the sorrow, but does not throttle with it. I really was comforted, while also bearing the despair.

Ruth said...

Oliag, I am so glad you savored "The World as it Appears" and fell in love with Hernández. There is much to grieve over in his story and writing, but there is also so much incredible delight and beauty, that it somehow gets reconciled. This poem is a perfect example of how he transformed the pain of his life into beauty.

That is a great statement on that sign at the rally! Don says he saw that too. I think it would make an interesting documentary just to show people in the crowds at rallies, and their signs and getups.

All those leftover candy bars? You could stick them in the freezer and eat one a week for a year. Or you could just eat them nonstop. Or something in between . . .

Ruth said...

Boots, I was really struck by those words too. You and I could talk a lot about those statements, from our own experience.

Friko said...

Thank you for reminding me of the greatness the human spirit can achieve.

I have come from George where I clicked on your 'meadow'. I too have a place where I go to be filled with the miracle of solitude, where all fear leaves me and I become one with nature.

rauf said...

Ruth, i want money. By honest and dishonest means i get rich and have all the comforts and security

Not happy, something is missing.

i want to be famous, not all succeed but some get fame, for right and wrong reasons. Then i have to stay famous, stay in the news.

Not happy again, something is still missing. i want to be rich, famous and now i want to be respected.
i want Power.

i start doing good deeds more for publicity.
Big reason for doing good deeds and earn respect is, i want to get richer. Politics is a good medium for people like me. Money and politics go together. It becomes difficult to find honest politicians, US or any where in the world. Same everywhere.

Now comes the deadliest part

i want to be rich, i want to be famous, i want to be respected i want power and i want to be feared. Money politics and crime join hands. i destroy all the opposition, get rid of all who oppose me.

Now it is lot easier to get there. Thanks to the willing media. Once i have money i can buy media. and i get away with all the crimes i have committed.

Ruth said...

Hello, Friko, and I've just read about your Aunt Little Kate, and I feel that same greatness of what the human spirit can achieve.

I'm so glad you have a haven of solitude where you let go of fear and reconnect with who you truly are. I appreciated George's post, for his honesty at the onset, and voices and images that help him get back to his soul. When people share these processes, it helps all of us.

Ruth said...

rauf, it's a frightening evolution you paint, and it's so regrettable that it's only too true.

I often wonder what and who is behind the news that gets run, on the TV evening news, or on the hourly rundowns on the radio, or on the front page of newspapers. There are editors, and their are broadcast bosses, and there is someone or some movement or advertiser behind them.

What's hard for me to figure out is how to find the real and true information in these times. I think you have made a lifetime of doing just that, rauf.

♥ Kathy said...

I would much rather listen to you (aka read your blog) than the political ads on TV & the radio (and let's not forget MY's gotten to where I don't even want to answer the phone if I don't recognize the number!). I hope you got lots of Reeses..they are wonderful things :)

Vagabonde said...

The media in the US has more power than the politicians it seems. They can change elections by pushing the sides they like, either the left or right, or ignoring selected news. They certainly sensationalize non-news too.
We just come back from 2 days in the North Ga Mountains and it was oxygen to our brains.
I have always liked the poem Invictus. I had read it years ago in a second-hand book of poems for young people. Did you know that the author of Invictus, William Ernest Henley (an atheist all his life by the way) was a big fellow with a red beard and a crutch. His friend Robert Louis Stevenson was inspired by Henley when he created the character of Long John Silver in his book Treasure Island.

Susan said...

Such a powerful post, my friend. Indeed, it is difficult to discern "who's beast, and who's man", especially when it comes to politics. That is why it is so easy for some of them to be so deceiving. I agree with Vagabonde about the media. They will make you or break you, at least for the voters who don't dig deeper.

David's cousin Rene' went to the rally. I can't wait to hear about it from her.

Terresa said...

Beautiful poem by Miguel Hernández, as are the others. Thank you for them.

Jeanie said...

Every time Ivisit you, I learn something new, I see things differently, and I think. Thank you.