Saturday, June 30, 2012

marriage vow

This year slaves; next year free people.
-- Hagaddah
Let my people go.
-- Spiritual
How did he do it?
OMG, how did he do it?
When an artist brings the revelation down, when the hem of the Lord's garment fills the temple, that's all I can think to say.  Sometimes not even that.
As when Lear, surfacing from delirium, admits to the daughter he has wronged, "I am not in my perfect mind."
As when the painter carves into his night sky the vortices we never saw but knew were there (and science now confirms).
As when I saw a man sing love to his woman, and win her.*  He deformed in body, she battered in body and soul.  Beggar and whore, rising out of bondage.
I've heard this song with full-out orchestra, the voices arrogant and operatic, no hint of doubt.  But this was so quiet, I didn't know it had started.  He was just talking.  Bess, he says, you is my woman.  You is.  You is.  And she at the other side of the stage looking away.  No words like these have been said to her.  You must sing and dance and laugh for two instead of one.  What you want from me?  Want no wrinkle on your brow.  What you saying? To me?
When she looks at him, it's in disbelief.  And yet.  I am your woman now.  What am I doing?  There's no wrinkle on my brow, nohow.  How can I say such things? To him?  I ain't going! You hear me saying, if you ain't going.  Now she steps toward him.  With you I'm staying.  They don't touch till the last notes.  We two are one now and forever.
Only then do I get what the lyric says, these words sung to me all my life.  We'll go swinging t'rough the years a singing.  These crushed people -- right now -- are marrying.  Morning time and evening time and summer time and winter time.  These words are wedding vows.  The capitalists of flesh had denied marriage to their fathers and mothers, splitting partners and disseminating their children.  So they learned to make their own Promises.  From this minute I'm telling you I keep this vow.  Two raising each other out of bondage into agency.  He must stand up, for his woman and community, against the brutality of Crown.  She must resist, for her man and community, the lure of happy dust and despair.  The history and destiny of America's involuntary immigration run through these words, this song, this vow.  True love makes its demands, and compels them to freedom.  There's more at stake here than sleeping arrangements.
And how did they do it? I ask.  How did the Gershwin brothers, two Jewish boys from Brooklyn, and DuBose Heyward, a Charleston poet who observed black laborers on the waterfront, penetrate the veil?
Well, maybe they didn't.  It's a debate that I must stand away from.  Every writer white or black who takes an inventory of the damage done to people of color by the forms of American contempt will be charged with "painting stereotypes" or "washing dirty laundry in public."
There aren't any Harvard graduates on Catfish Row: Harvard didn't allow that.  There are however honest fisherman and laborers, along with three three other kinds of man.  Crown the killer, Sportin' Life the drifter, and Porgy the beggar: three data from America's long assault on black manhood.  Porgy is not the only one disabled; but he is the one who, in submission to love, can become a good man.  Bess is what she must be, abused and brutalized, used and commodified; yet she hears the call of love and knows what it demands of her.  We do not know at the end whether her life instinct will win out.
I can't settle the ancient debate about about how to describe pains and prospects of a people on their way to freedom.  But I note that Porgy and Bess though degraded are not hopeless.  They are on their way to a heavenly land.  And that must be why so many of the best artists, for three quarters of a century, have taken these roles.  Todd Duncan, Anne Brown, John W. Bubbles, Etta Moten, Leontyne Price, William Warfield, Cab Calloway, Donnie Ray Albert, Clamma Dale, Larry Marshall, Simon Estes, Grace Bumbry, Bruce Hubbard, Robert McFerrin, Adele Addison, Norm Lewis, David Alan Grier, Audra McDonald -- I cannot say to those artists, who have walked a road to freedom through these imaginations of white men, that they are race traitors.  I have no standing that empowers such a judgment.
So I am left where I began, in the presence of revelation.  The foundations are shaking.  How did they do it, these dead white men?  OMG.
*"The Gershwin's Porgy and Bess," Richard Rodgers Theatre, New York City, June 14, 2012 (Audra McDonald as Bess, Norm Lewis as Porgy).

Sunday, June 10, 2012

por que

It is written.

-- Matthew 4:4

Human action can be narrated . . . because it is always already symbolically mediated.

-- Paul Ricoeur, Time and Narrative

There was a scream as I stepped out of the elevator.  Somebody died, I thought.  Wouldn't it be strange if it's Mr. Rodriguez?

I turned to the right, then to the left, had the ward in sight, and by now there were multiple shrieks, new entries of a fugal subject, piling on.  Mi padre, mi padre!  Por que?  Por que?

Yes, it was Mr. Rodriguez.  His three daughters, a sister, a granddaughter, nieces and nephews, in-laws, each in turn closing on the bed, touching the dead man's face, clutching his hands, turning away, extending their arms to the sky, then turning back toward the bed.  By the time I entered the room there were people jumping up and down and stamping the floor with both feet, like toddlers in a tantrum.  There were people going rigid and keeling over backward, requiring others to catch them before they hit the floor.  Some of them believed they had a deal with God -- that if they prayed and kept the faith he would rise from this bed and walk.  They felt personally betrayed.

Every word I just wrote is accurate, but in telling the story I show that I was a foreigner here.  I'm an Anglo-Saxon from New England, poor but genteelly so, with manners if not the appurtenances of old wealth.  The script of my people is the stiff upper lip.  We keep going, and our tears are for later, in a private place.  There would be decorous quiet, with Bach's cello suites in the background, and discrete expressions of sympathy in intimate tones.  I had stepped into a different script and I didn't like it.

"Por que, por que?"  Well, why not?  Did you hope that his ravaged organs would toss off their tumors?  Did you think he would live forever?  Did you want him to be immortal and watch all his children die?  Come now!  This is sad and sorrowful, but it's not a personal insult to you!

This was the voice of a counter-transference, an emotion from my own life taking root in a foreign place and time.  It's my business to spot such invasions, to name, disarm and chart them, so that I can walk around them.  This writing is part of my naming.  Not my will but thine.

A counter-transference may be the engine of compassion, or it may be a warning bell.  Perhaps I see a brother or sister, a parent or child, a friend or (in an alternate universe) lover.  Perhaps I see my old enemy, the bully on the playground, the girl who cut me, the friend who threw me to the wolves, the teacher who held me in scorn.  Good can't be done in the abstract, but the flesh is blemished, and we read emotional topography through instruments of our particular historia, informed and deformed.  I understand you only by metaphor, but I must contain the metaphor.  My love is, after all, not exactly like a red red rose.

As I offered to speak prayers of commendation in the wrong language, the priest arrived and I gladly gave stage to him, to his ecclesiastical authority and his sacraments.  They quieted for him -- calma te -- but as he left the fugue was starting up again.  And now Alice the social worker, as hopelessly Anglo-Saxon as I, appeared at the door.  We locked eyes across the room, dos gringos stranded in a ceremony of grief from a strange land, this cantata risen from the soil of a Dominican village.

So here, professionally speaking, was our problem.  In the old country this score could be played out with all its repeats, to the fullest length of hours and days, till grief's first shock was spent.  But this family, whether they liked it or not -- whether we liked it or not -- had to encounter the mores of the hospital, and the hospital's script of grief was more like mine than like that of the grieving family.  This was not a Dominican village, or the family's home, or even a private room.  Something had to be done for the other patient.  As each new cousin entered the fugue -- por que, por que? -- the other man's peace was violated.  He couldn't share this grief; he had his own problems.  And it wasn't just the roommate -- the whole unit was in turmoil.  The chorus of their hallelujahs resounded down the hallway.  A dozen families were at the nurse's desk, asking for respect, and quiet.

The floor staff rolled the roommate's bed into the corridor.  And this is what Alice and I did.  We spoke, inadequately, of our sorrow at their loss.  We confided in Luz, one of the daughters, who had leadership quality and a little more English than we had Spanish.  Luz alternated between her tears and her guidance of the family, and one by one and two by two, we escorted them to the lounge, where they could commiserate at greater distance from other families.  There they told us they were waiting for Mama, the wife now widow, who lived only a short distance away, was walking here and would say her good-byes in person before the body could be moved.  Who could say no?

Mama came to the bedside, and her grief was a great one, and they all came back in the room to comfort her, and the fugue started over -- por que, por que -- and then, one by one and two by two and three by three, Alice Luz and I brought them back again to the lounge.  And we sat with them.  I met the granddaughter appointed to be health care agent, but who had been overwhelmed by her elders and their powerful scripts of grief.  And I met the grandson, just arrived from Cambridge where he was studying law at Harvard.  And something began to turn.  Conversations in two languages began to flow.  Telephone calls were made to yet more family members, in other boroughs, other states, in the home island.  The funeral director was called.  The body would be moved, and the family would meet at home.  They were moving on.  Mama asked me to pray for her, and with Luz's help and with Mama's hand in mine I said words of blessing and hope, that even now something wonderful can happen.  As Samuel Beckett has written, something was taking its course.

I wasn't the ideal person for the situation.  My empathy was far from perfect.  This was difficult.