We are two part-time academics. Ellen teaches in the English department and Jim in the IT program at George Mason University.

Poetry for Tuesday: A Death and "Transcendental Etudes" · 28 February 06

My dear Anne,

Jennica has asked why I sometimes sign Sophia and sometimes Sophie. Yvette could explain from her knowledge of Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin’s way of naming Jack’s beloved, then bride, and then wife. Sophie is a nickname, a more casual, less formal or elegant from of Sophia. I know it’s a matter of simply dropping a single phoneme or sound. The difference between Caroline and Carrie is but one syllable. The Admiral calls me Sophie and Sophia interchangeably.

Octavia Butler has died. She was but 59. I’m no science fiction reader, but from what I’ve read about her novels and her, I regret I’ve not read any as yet—I think to myself I shall. I’ve never heard her work really described before nor seen pictures. She was in fact a writer of post-colonial post-historical novels. There’s been some beautiful obituaries online: by Stephen Hart where he quotes her:

Several years ago I wrote a novel called Dawn in which extra-solar aliens arrive, look us over, and inform us that we have a pair of characteristics that together constitute a fatal flaw. We are, they admit, intelligent, and that’s fine. But we are also hierarchical, and our hierarchical tendencies are older and all too often, they drive our intelligence — that is, they drive us to use our intelligence to try to dominate one another.

More fiction? Maybe.

But whatever is the source of our intolerance, what can we do about it? What can we do to improve ourselves? Of course, we can resist acting on our nastier hierarchical tendencies. Most of us do that most of the time already. And we can make a greater effort to teach children to resist their hierarchical impulses and beliefs and to channel what they can’t resist into sports and careers.

Will this work? Well, it hasn’t so far. Too many people will not, perhaps cannot, do it. There is, unfortunately, satisfaction to be enjoyed in feeling superior to other people.

This from the Seattle Post Intelligencer where we learn she never learned to drive a car, preferred buses, was the daughter of a "shoeshine man" and "maid who brought her along on her jobs," and also (I didn’t know this) that at least one of her science fiction novels is actually a post-modern historical one too:

Butler’s most popular work is "Kindred," a time-travel novel in which a black woman from 1976 Southern California is transported back to the violent days of slavery before the Civil War .. . Kindred was repeatedly rejected by publishers, many of whom could not understand how a science fiction novel could be set on a plantation in the antebellum South. Butler stuck to her social justice vision …"

A friend, Tanarive Due, is quoted:

"Due added, ‘It is a cliche to say that she was too good a soul, but it’s true. What she really conveyed in her writing was the deep pain she felt about the injustices around her. All of it was a metaphor for war, poverty, power struggles and discrimination. All of that hurt her very deeply, but her gift was that she could use words for the pain and make the world better.’

Due believed that Butler came to feel deeply at home in the Northwest after she relocated here with 300 boxes of books. The anonymity of her life in Seattle suited both her artistic devotion and temperament (‘I always felt a deep loneliness in her,’ [another friend, Steve] Barnes said)."

Perhaps a extraordinary poem & magnificent picture will help to honor Butler.

Sometime ago someone in the comments of this blog quoted Adrienne Rich’s "Transcendental Etudes." So I googled and found another passage. I was so entranced I bought (for 50 cents) an old volume in which it appears (The Fact of a Doorframe), and rediscovered how much I love this poet and how major she is for women—and men too.

Here then for today is Adrienne Rich’s "Transcendental Etudes" complete:

This August evening I’ve been driving
over backroads fringed with queen anne’s lace
my car startling young deer in meadows—one
gave a hoarse intake of her breath and all
four fawns sprang after her
into the dark maples.
Three months from today they’ll be fair game
for the hit-and-run hunters, glorying
in a weekend’s destructive power,
triggers fingered by drunken gunmen, sometimes
so inept as to leave the shattered animal
stunned in her blood. But then evening deep in summer
the deer are still alive and free,
nibbling apples from early-laden boughs
so weighed, so englobed
with already yellowing fruit
they seem eternal, Hesperidean
in the clear-tuned, cricket-throbbing air.

Later I stood in the dooryard
my nerves singing the immense
fragility of all this sweetness,
this green world already sentimentalized, photographed,
advertised to death. Yet, it persists
stubbornly beyond the fake Vermont
of antique barnboards glazed into discotheques,
artificial snow, the sick Vermont of children
conceived in apathy grown to winters
of rotgut violence,
poverty gnashing its teeth like a blind cat at their lives.
Still, it persists. Turning off into a dirt road
from the raw cuts bulldozed through a quiet village
for the tourist run to Canada,
I’ve sat on a stone fence above a great-soft, sloping field
of musing helfers, a farmstead
slanting its planes calmly in the calm light,
a dead elm raising bleached arms
above a green so dense with life,
minute, momentary life—slugs, moles, pheasants, gnats,
spiders, moths, hummingbirds, groundhogs, butterflies
a lifetime is too narrow
to understand it all, beginning with the huge
rockshelves that underlie all life.

No one ever told us we had to study our lives,
make of our lives a study, as if learning natural history
music, that we should begin
with the simple exercises first
and slowly go on trying
the hard ones, practicing till strength
and accuracy became one with the daring
to leap into transcendence, take the chance
of breaking down the wild arpeggio
or faulting the full sentence of the fugue.
And in fact we can’t live like that: we take on
everything at once before we’ve even begun
to read or mark time, we’re forced to begin
in the midst of the hard movement,
the one already sounding as we are born.

At most we’re allowed a few months
of simply listening to the simple
line of a woman’s voice singing a child
against her heart. Everything else is too soon,
too sudden, the wrenching-apart, that woman’s heartbeat
heard ever after from a distance
the loss of that ground-note echoing
whenever we are happy, or in despair.

Everything else seems beyond us,
we aren’t ready for it, nothing that was said
is true for us, caught naked in the argument,
the counterpoint, trying to sightread
what our fingers can’t keep up with, learn by heart
what we can’t even read. And yet
it is this we were born to. We aren’t virtuosi
or child prdigies, there are no prodigies
in this realm, only a half-blind, stubborn
cleaving to the timbre, the tones of what we are,
even when all the texts describe it differently.

And we’re not performers, like Liszt, competing
against the world for speed and brilliance
(the 79-year-old pianist said, when I asked her
What makes a virtuoso?—Competitiveness.)
The longer I live the more I mistrust
theatricality, the false glamour cast
by performance, the more I know its poverty beside
the truths we are salvaging from
the splitting-open of our lives
The woman who sits watching, listening,
eyes moving in the darkness
is reheasing in her body, hearing-out in her blood
a score touched off in her perhaps
by some words, a few chords, from the stage,
a tale only she can tell.

But there come times—perhaps this is one of them
when we have to take ourselves more seriously or die;
we when have to pull back from the incantations,
rhythms we’ve moved to thoughtlessly,
and disenthrall ourselves, bestow
ourselves to silence, or a severer listening, cleansed
of oratory, formulas, choruses, laments, static
crowning the wires. We cut the wires,
find ourselves in free-fall, as if
our true home were the undimensional
solitudes, the rift
in the Great Nebula.
No one who survives to speak
new language, has avoided this:
the cutting-away of an old force that held her
rooted to an old ground
the pitch of utter loneliness
where she herself and all creation
seem equally dispersed, weightless, her being a cry
to which no echo comes or can ever come.

But in fact we were always like this,
rootless, dismembered: knowing it makes the difference.
Birth stripped our birthright from us,
tore us from a woman, from women, from ourselves
so early on
and the whole chorus throbbing at our ears
like midges, told us nothing, nothing
of origins, nothing we needed
to know, nothing that could re-member us.

Only: that it is unnatural,
the homesickness for a woman, for ourselves,
for that acute joy at the shadow her head and arms
cast on a wall, her heavy or slender
thighs on which we lay, flesh against flesh,
eyes steady on the face of love; smell of her milk, her sweat,
terror of her disappearance, all fused in this hunger
for the element they have called most dangerous, to be
lifted breathtaken on her breast, to rock within her—even if beaten back, stranded again, to apprehend
in a sudden brine-clear though
trembling like the tiny, orbed, endangered
egg-sac of a new world:
This is what she was to me, and this
is how I can love myself
as only a woman can love me.

Homesick for myself, for her—as, later the heatwave
breaks, the clear tones of the world
manifest: cloud, bough, wall, insect, the very soul of light,
homesick as the fluted vault of desire
articulates itself: I am the lover and the loved,
home and wanderer, she who splits
firewood and she who knocks, a strange
in the storm, two women, eye to eye
measuring each other’s spirits each others’
limitless desire,

          a whole new poetry beginning here.

Vision begins to happen in such a life
as if a woman quietly walked away
from the argument and jargon in a room
and sitting down in the kitchen, began turning in her lap
bits of yarn, calico and velvet scraps,
laying them out absently on the scrubbed boards
in the lamplight, with small rainbow- colored shells
sent in cotton-wool from somewhere far away
and skeins of milkweed from the nearest meadow
original domestic silk, the finest findings
and the darkblue petal of the petunia,
and the dry darkbrown face of seaweed;
not forgotten either, the shed silver
whisker of the cat,
the spiral of paper-wasp-nest curling
beside the finch’s yellow feather.
Such a composition has nothing to do with eternity,
the striving for greatness, brilliance
only with the musing of a mind
one with her body, experienced fingers quietly pushing
dark against bright; silk against roughness,
putting the tenets of a life together
with no mere will to mastery,
only care for the many-lived, unending
forms in which she finds herself,
becoming now the sherd of broken glass
slicing light in a corner, dangerous
to flesh, now the plentiful, soft leaf
that wrapped round the throbbing finger, soothes the wound;
and now the stone foundation, rockshelf further
forming underneath everything that grows.



It might seem impertinent to make any comment after that. Still I’d like to say that this is poem in a tradition: numbers of the lines remind me of the georgics of the 18th century, the kind of poems which imitated Vigil, using a Miltonic prosody and imagery Wordsworth called "poetic diction"—using a metaphor in lieu of a concrete word, at its best a way of making dense elliptical phrases rich with meaning. It seems to be appropriate to vatic style and the above is vatic women’s poetry.

Women did write quite a number of these, burlesque, comic, & serious, e.g., Mary Leapor’s Crumble Hall; Anne Finch’s "Fanscomb Barn" which ends up visionary and about poetry. It’s not really true that women have avoided the vatic stance the way Margaret Homans claims in her book on women’s poetry.

There have been modern variants too: Vita Sackville-West’s
book length cycle, The Land and the Garden, a beautiful book-length work with woodcut illustrations. I’ll send you a few lyrics eventually, Anne.

To conclude:

John Singer Sergeant (1856-1925) Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth (1889)

Vatically yours,

Posted by: Ellen

* * *


  1. A P.S. Octavia Butler was a lesbian. On two lists I’m on people described themselves as not altogether content with how she avoided "queer" issues. I have now noticed that only one obituary of the 6 I’ve come across (in The Advocate) mentions she was a lesbian. Yahoo’s approach is typical:

    "Butler described herself as a happy hermit, and never married."

    chava    Mar 2, 7:36am    #
  2. Dear Jennica,

    I deleted though I thought your comments on the subject of your paper very good. It deserved an A.

    chava    Mar 4, 8:01pm    #
  3. Thanks for thinking my comments were good and that it deserved an A! What I wrote about the paper and my grades had nothing to do with why I wanted it deleted. If you want to know why I can tell you, but I don’t want to tell you on the blog, it would have to be another form of communication, perhaps e-mail. Or I could put the comment back on with the part that I don’t want on there deleted, and then what I wrote about my paper will still be there because what I wrote was good. I saved my comment on microsoft word so that it wouldn’t go away completely.
    Jennica    Mar 4, 8:26pm    #
  4. Dear Jennica,

    It’s okay. I guessed it was the last part. If you want to put back just the ones you’re comfortable with, go ahead.

    I sometimes do that too.

    chava    Mar 4, 10:53pm    #
  5. This was fun to read. I can tell that hierarchy is something that you think about and it’s important to you.

    I wrote an anthropology paper on a book called "All Our Kin," which is a poor black community in America. People in the flats don’t get married, because it is more economically beneficial for them not to get married. They help their friends by giving them money and sharing a washing machine to do their laundry, and sharing other resources. They take care of each others’ children; children often have several houses they can sleep at. Fathers of the children are expected to give the mother money and diapers for her baby, etc. Sometimes the father is the biological father, but sometimes the biological father says he’s not the father and says she must have been sleeping with someone else, and sometimes a father who is not the biological father claims parental rights by helping the mother. A man who is in a sexual relationship is expected to give the woman money and food, and supplies, etc. The professor said that it has been suggested that it looks like prostitution, because the woman says, "If you give me money and help me with the child, I’ll have sex with you and do your laundry." So it’s an exchange for sex. One reason men don’t get married is that their wives would want them to help her and help the baby and his money should go to helping her, but his mother and sister, and the rest of his kin are also demanding help from him and want his resources. Men don’t have enough resources to support their wives and their kin. Also friends help each other, friends are expected to help each other. A quote from the book is, "When friends more than adequately share their exchange of goods and services, they are called kinsmen."

    Then in my paper I suggested three reasons why the Flats community has not integrated into mainstream middle class American culture. One reason is that black families did not stay together when they were slaves, because the members of the family would be sold to different slave owners. They didn’t have nuclear families to support them and help them with the children, and the children were often produced by the slave owners, so the slaves relied on each other to help them raise their children.

    The next possible reason is that it is necessary for economic survival. And I just summarized a whole page of my paper in just one sentence and didn’t give detail, but I’m not trying to write my whole paper in this comment.

    My third reason was racism. When there were laws that separated blacks from whites and couldn’t eat in the same restaurants, go to the same schools, separate drinking fountains and bathrooms, etc, the lack of social ties and interactions with the white race could have prevented the people in The Flats from integrating. And there is still racism and blacks are still not equal to whites. A black person might not get hired for a job, and often blacks have lower paying job than whites. So they might not have been able to integrate because it was hard for them to get enough money to be able to integrate. It is difficult to change your status in our culture, so poor people usually stay poor. It is a catch 22: they need more money to have a higher status, but they need a higher status to get more money.

    I got an A on the paper, and it makes me happy. One of my classmates and I were surprised that we got As, because it was our first time writing an anthropology paper, so we didn’t know quite how to write an anthropology paper or what the teacher was expecting. But I like my paper. I think I did a good job. Now I don’t have to worry about what if I get Bs in all my classes, because I’ll probably get As in most of them. Hopefully the fact that I never pay attention in my music class and write letters to my friend instead won’t make me do badly on the midterm and final and do badly in the class. I write letters during class because it saves time, because I don’t have to write e-mails after class. And the instructor isn’t a good enough instructor to make the class interesting enough to keep my attention. I wish I had taken the class last year with the good professor. I probably would have enjoyed it more. I’m still learning stuff, so I don’t think writing letters is taking too much away from my learning. And I’m enjoying the music we listen to in class. I wouldn’t write letters in a psychology class, or any class that I’m doing well in, because I don’t want to be disrespectful by not paying attention to the professor, and in psych and other classes I’m doing well in, I might ask them for letters of recommendation if I decide to go to grad school, and if I’m writing letters they might not have as many good things to say about me. But I wouldn’t ask for a letter of recommendation from this professor anyway. And in the class that I write letters to my friends, I will have a handwritten IM conversation with my friend next to me, and he’ll see that, because it’s hard to hide the fact that I’m putting a piece of paper on my friend’s desk. Oops, I guess that means I should stop writing notes to my friend in my social psych class, because the professor will see that, and that’s bad, because she’s my academic advisor, so she might be writing letters of recommendation for me. Maybe I shouldn’t take classes that my friends are taking, but what I really need is to wait until after class to talk to them instead of writing to them during class. Or I can just sit somewhere else so I’m not next to them so I can’t give them notes. It would be really bad to get up, walk across the room, and hand my friend a piece of paper.

    Now that I’ve gone off on a tangent, I was talking about my grades. So I’m doing well in anthropology, and I should do well in my music class, I am doing very well in social psych, and I am also doing well in my behavioral medicine seminar. So I don’t know why I’m worried that I’m going to get all Bs. The only class that I’m not doing excellently in is English, because I got a B on the first paper. But I can always get As on the rest of the papers and get an A in the class. He said I have solid ideas and I investigate them logically. What he didn’t like is that my phrasing is repetitious and it makes my argument move slowly. And there was an idea in my paper that he wanted me to go into more depth about. If I write repetitiously, why have all my other professors said I’m a good writer?

    I feel like I shouldn’t have told you about my grades, because aren’t people not supposed to talk about their grades? It would be amazing if I get straight As this semester. The highest GPA I have gotten is a 3.46, which means I just missed the Dean’s List, and I would have been on the Dean’s List if I had gotten an A instead of a B in my dance class, or not taken the dance class at all, so now I’m thinking I’m never going to take another PE class with a grade, I’m going to take them pass fail. But if I take them with a grade and get an A, it will help my GPA. I need three As and two Bs to make the Dean’s List, and it seems like I only have two classes that might be Bs, and the rest are probably going to be As, and I could even get all As. So this is a great semester academically. And everything else about the semester is great too. I love all the extracurricular activities I’m involved with. I’m enjoying all my classes. I applied to be a SweetPEA and an FYA next year. I might have mentioned those in a previous comment, but if I haven’t and you want me to tell you what those are, I will. And the other thing I like about this semester is how great my friends are. I was considering switching to a different school the first three semesters I was here, but now I won’t switch, because I have too many things to lose by switching. I’ll lose my friends, my extracurricular activities, the possibility of being in four more activities, the Leadership Certificate program, which is wonderful, the traditions, the fact that I know the professors now; if I went to a new school I wouldn’t know any professors and I wouldn’t know any students; I’d have to start over. And antyhing else great about Sweet Briar that I might have forgotten to mention.
    Jennica    Mar 5, 11:05am    #
  6. The comment is back! What you thought I was trying to get rid of wasn’t what I was trying to get rid of.
    Jennica    Mar 5, 11:07am    #

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