Lovers

Mandela & Slovo.JPG

2005

I want to begin with one of the first things I heard anyone say when I showed up for breakfast with all of you last Sunday morning. When I was growing up in a little town in Massachusetts, I spent my Sunday mornings singing in the church choir; I haven’t spent a Sunday morning like that in almost thirty years now, and have had to find my holiness elsewhere, and you helped me, with this sentence I’m about to repeat to you—a question, appropriately—which is in its way a holy sentence, part of my ongoing search for what Walt Whitman might have called letters from God dropped in the street. In a way it’s also a very Sarah Lawrence sentence, and one that has more to do with leadership and community, the world surrounding this campus and our shared human future, than might be obvious at first. I think Ken said it to Sumana: “Did you bring the handcuffs?”

Now Sarah Lawrence handcuffs, at least these Sarah Lawrence handcuffs, are somewhat like some aspects of a college education: they’re play versions of a real thing. So you can practice, in a context of protection. So when the real thing comes along you’re a little prepared. A year ago at this time I was seeing more real handcuffs than I would like ever to see again, as I walked all over my beloved Manhattan following and filming the demonstrations against the Republican National Convention. Those handcuffs were white, like yours, but plastic, and made to bite—and to be portable, to be carried in large numbers on the hips of large numbers of police officers, as so many people thought that holding the Republican National Convention in Manhattan was a bad idea that they would have needed wagonloads of the heavy metal kind of handcuffs to arrest them all. I saw these handcuffs put on many dangerous people: a skinny boy who was made to turn out his pockets and spill his change and chapstick and i.d. cards on 34th Street; a woman with white hair carrying a sign, walking up Sixth Avenue; and once on a whole orange-tape-corralled half-block of miscellaneous New Yorkers, for the crime apparently of standing on a city sidewalk, on the day the president came to town, next to where the World Trade Center used to be. And of course those handcuffs, our empire’s handcuffs, handcuffs we pay for, in so many senses of that word, are in widespread use now on men in soft clothes, on women in hijab, on children at checkpoints, in Mosul, in Fallujah, in Kabul, in Kandahar. In Ramallah. In Guantánamo. The kind you wear alone. The kind that don’t come off so easily, even when you know the trick of how.

Once you let yourself start thinking deeply about something—once you give yourself to thinking about something, head and heart, body and soul—once you hold out your wrists and say All right, let’s go—it comes to find you, it sees you as an opportunity for expression, it won’t let you rest. So yesterday morning I watched with great admiration as you all struggled through the second part of Debra Stern’s workshop, trying to spit out the poison of this country’s racism, trying to recognize each other through its agonies and distortions; I’d already decided I was going to talk about that sentence I mentioned, and was both surprised and not surprised as I watched Debra ask you to make a paper link for every everyday privilege you don’t have—to be late to a meeting without it reflecting on your race—to forget about your race—as I watched appear on some of your laps what Debra described as a necklace, and what might also be described as handcuffs, or as a chain.

Of course some of you may have smiled when I first started talking about handcuffs, not because you were thinking of the empire’s handcuffs or the Sunday escape exercise’s handcuffs, or of yesterday’s chain, but of different handcuffs. Lovers’ handcuffs. As some of you know, I teach poetry here, and my poetry class is usually called “The Making of the Complete Lover,” after a phrase of Walt Whitman’s, from a preface to Leaves of Grass, which is 150 years old this year. Happy birthday to the most beautiful book I know. Here’s his good sentence, to keep the handcuff sentence company: “The known universe has one complete lover, and that is the greatest poet.” If I call my class this, I guess I should know: what’s a lover? What do lovers do?

Lovers, like racism, can be lied about and disguised, and I see part of my work as a teacher as helping students make for themselves what Ernest Hemingway called a writer’s indispensable companion, “a built-in shockproof shit-detector”—but I suspect you’re already not fooled by the man who says he’s following the teachings of Jesus, a great lover, and thinks it would be a good idea to assassinate the president of Venezuela, nor by the man who says he’s following the teachings of Muhammad, another great lover, who thought it would be a good idea to tear apart the life of the city I live in, nor by the man who says he’s following the voice of God, the greatest of lovers, by making all over the world a war without end. And I suspect you know that to say ‘lovers’ doesn’t mean only sexual love, although we’ll get to that. Lovers come in many forms: like, for example, Joe Slovo and Nelson Mandela.

I thought of them because I have a picture of them on the wall over my desk, torn out of a French newspaper, two old men leaning their shoulders together on some public stage in Soweto, talking; but they met when they were young, just where you are now, when they were college students, in Johannesburg, apartheid South Africa, in the early 1940s, Mandela a Xhosa from the Transkei and Slovo a Lithuanian Jew. The words Mandela used to describe his friend at his funeral in 1995 could apply to either of them: “a leader, a patriot, a father, a fighter, a negotiator, an internationalist, a theoretician and an organiser.” The woman who became Slovo’s wife was a student then too, Ruth First, daughter of two founding members of the South African Communist Party, and she and Slovo helped build key links between the Party and the African National Congress. She was a journalist and an organizer, and she didn’t live to see South Africa’s transformation, as she was killed in 1982 in Mozambique, by a bomb sent by the South African police, in the form of a parcel addressed to her husband, who was military leader of the ANC at the time. One of the policemen responsible later admitted that "it made absolutely no difference to me whether I killed Joe Slovo or Ruth First.” They were part of each other, and the three of them were part of each other, three of the many South African lovers engaged in an arduous lifelong affair with their country. Sometimes love can seem only a private word, or a sweet word, but make no mistake:  love’s range is substantially wider than the bedroom, and love’s risks and costs are high. As Mandela said at Slovo’s funeral, “he knew fully well that he would walk again and again through the valley of the shadow of death to reach the mountaintops of his desires.” And his desires, his loves—that to which he was bound, you might say—included individual men and women but also something else: the struggle for justice in his country. What Mandela called at his funeral, “the journey that was the passion of your life.” When the present historical moment seems too difficult for hope, in the ways David Peritz spoke to you about, I like to see that photograph over my desk, these two men who had for so long no reason to hope, but persisted: as your institute program’s poet says, “two people fighting/back to back.” Comrades—in the spirit of what Che Guevara said on a t-shirt popular when I was a college student: "Dejeme decirle, a riesgo de parecer ridículo, que el revolucionario verdadero está guiado por grandes sentimientos de amor." “Let me tell you, at the risk of appearing ridiculous, that the true revolutionary is guided by great feelings of love.”

Mandela’s Xhosa name means ‘stirring up trouble,’ and that’s part of what lovers do—because, quiet as its kept, this world is not organized around the ways and requirements of love. So when you love, you walk a different way—you’re pressed there, you can’t help it—and you may find that the roads already made and marked have no place for you. So you get hungry for new ones. When I was in college and wearing that Che Guevara t-shirt, in the late 1970s, I was what you might call a born-again lesbian, lucky enough to be living in a historical moment in which that meant I had comrades, not only in bed but also in the street—and there was a slogan we used to holler as we walked together: “An army of lovers cannot fail.” (Time makes change: when I Googled ‘an army of lovers’ I found that it’s now “a multicultural Swedish dance-pop group.”) I wasn’t so sure about the army—it was, as Carol Queen points out in a book called I Do/I Don’t: Queers on Marriage, “the heady years just after Stonewall, when more queer men I knew joined Faggots Against Facism than wanted to join the army”—but I liked the lovers part—although as Carol Queen writes, “Later we had to alter the slogan a little, to ‘An army of ex- lovers cannot fail.’” Theoretically I know that marriage is a civil right and that gay men and lesbians should have equal access to it, but I find it hard to get my heart to rise to this occasion for struggle; that’s not what we were fighting for then, when it seemed another world was possible, from the most public facts of human life to the most intimate, from how nations conducted themselves—ourselves—to who kissed whom and how. We wouldn’t have disagreed theoretically with the idea that lesbians should be able to get married, or that a black man and then a black woman should be able to be the secretary of state; but it wasn’t what we had in mind when we heard or said the word ‘freedom,’ in a way that awoke and aroused and sustained us as much as love words did, when we said we were fighting for a world where people would be free. I remember once being in the Cambridge backyard of a college friend’s house, where I lived for a while; it was a summer afternoon and our particular faction of the army of lovers and ex-lovers was cooking and playing music and dancing and laughing and arguing about politics and drifting in and out of the house, about a dozen multicultural lesbians in their twenties, most with no shirts on. At one point my friend’s grandmother, a Viennese refugee from the Nazis, then in her eighties, came downstairs and surveyed the scene, sucked her teeth and shook her head and said, “I guess this is what paradise must look like.”

Here’s Walt Whitman’s vision of paradise:

Loafe with me on the grass, loose the stop from your throat,
Not words, not music or rhyme I want, not custom or lecture, not even the best,
Only the lull I like, the hum of your valvèd voice.

I mind how once we lay such a transparent summer morning,
How you settled your head athwart my hips and gently turn’d over upon me,
And parted the shirt from my bosom-bone, and plunged your tongue to my bare-stript heart,
And reach’d till you felt my beard, and reach’d till you held my feet.

Swiftly arose and spread around me the peace and knowledge that pass all the argument
of the earth,
And I know that the hand of God is the promise of my own,
And I know that the spirit of God is the brother of my own,
And that all the men ever born are also my brothers, and the women my sisters and lovers,
And that a kelson of the creation is love...

When Whitman wrote that beautiful part of “Song of Myself,” most of the poetry around him sounded something like this: “Romance, who loves to nod and sing,/With drowsy head and folded wing.” Gerard Manley Hopkins called him “that very great scoundrel.” Joe Slovo and Ruth First and Nelson Mandela were called traitors and terrorists, jailed, censored, exiled, hunted; while they were making a vision of a just nation and pledging their lives to it, many people in their country and out of it thought they should be going to work and attending to their families and agreeing to occupy the racial and sexual slots assigned. But they were lovers, all of them. Lovers walk another way, and partly because of this lovers fight—and as Lyde pointed out, fighting sometimes takes place “with volume.” With everything you have. When you’re found. When you can’t help yourself, when you’re bound to what finds you. When someone gets under your surface of false civility, as Malcolm Turvey said about the Spike Lee movie this morning. When you’re touched—which where I grew up meant not only moved in your soul or laid hands on in your body but something else: as in “Yeah, she’s a little touched”—as in crazy. I’ve been studying Arabic with my son this summer, and the word for crazy in Arabic is ‘majnun.’

Majnun is also someone’s name; the famous story of Majnun and Layla, lovers, predates Islam by about a century. Before he was a lover Majnun had a regular name, Qays, but once he met Layla, whose name also means Night, his name was the least dramatic of his transformations. This is a section about him in a long poem I wrote called “Dialogue with the Archipelago”:

Dialogue 65 / Majnun

He said her name to rhyme with his breath/Everything else was lost to him
Until he came to be called Majnun/Madman He lost his other name 
He lay in his tent thinking of her and breathing/They sent him to Mecca but he wanted no cure
He laughed at the holy stone Forgive me/I have seen her I have seen her face

Sometimes in the cool darkness she finds him/Her hair falls against his cheeks
Her nipples brush his mouth He’s thirsty/so he makes songs and drinks them when she doesn’t come
She sends notes then Shall we pay a ransom/to the thief who has stolen our secret place Under the olive Where we touch each other/He closes his eyes Where we’re free

Of course there’s a battle The angry fathers/turning the morning to iron The night 
Bitter in a way familiar to them/The elders tossing war dirt on their heads 
He weeps for the enemy because they’re her people/He’s an absence A song where a man should be 
He grows thin saying her name Layla/Who loved him Who came to the prison with a key

In the cells of her father’s house she remembers/the way he trembled His translucent voice
His ignorance with the ways of killing/Majnun who couldn’t walk the straight way 
Majnun starved for her nearness Who stumbled/on both sides of the desecrated field 
Weeping and calling so she could hear him/in the prison In the market In the secret place

Last Sunday Annika talked about one of the perils of being an activist, of falling into the exhaustion of what she perceptively called “a hollow momentum of participation.” “The things I knew I loved were being ignored,” she said; so she moved, to where she could find nourishment—for what I called in the Majnun poem “the secret place.” The place where you don’t get tired, even if you don’t sleep all night. The place that makes you sing, as Lyde reminded us, “It drives me crazy but I can’t help myself.” The place of the things you know you love: your sustenance, what Whitman calls a kelson, what would be a backbone if you were a boat: the place of love, and I don’t mean love as besotted delirium or greed or a private fire that touches no one but you and yours. I mean the kind of love Martin Luther King talked about in his last sermon at Ebenezer Baptist, two months before he died, discussing what he wanted said at his funeral: “I’d like for somebody to say that day that Martin Luther King Jr. tried to love somebody.” I mean the kind of love in Mary Dillard’s voice when she talked to you about her friend Okan, how she said, “I couldn’t think of anything else I wanted to talk about.” I mean love as maybe the plainest and most common experience we can have of what’s real. Of what’s true. I mean a living human power strong enough to sustain you on this long hard joyful shared road of loving justice and working for it. One of the items on the list read at Mary’s friend’s memorial was Become a lover of music. We could shorten it tonight and stay true to its purposes and say: Become a lover.

As some of you might know, there’s an inspiring gathering of lovers happening right now in Texas, just outside the president’s extremely well used vacation quarters; it’s an antiwar encampment started by Cindy Sheehan, whose son Casey was a soldier killed last spring just outside Baghdad, and she wants to know from the president in person: Why? You can find out more at www.truthout.org/cindy.shtml. Amy Goodman of Democracy Now reported that some of the people there walked one day recently as close to the president’s ranch as they could get. Leading the procession were two women, Beatriz Saldivar, whose nephew Daniel Torres was killed in February, and Mimi Evans, whose son, a marine, is awaiting deployment. They were stopped at a checkpoint on the way to Bush's ranch. Here’s a little bit of love’s dialogue with the state. (Annika has kindly agreed to be Mimi Evans, and Jasmyne-Nicole to be Beatriz Saldivar, and I didn’t want to stick anyone with the Secret Service part so that will be me.)

SECRET SERVICE: Hello. How are you doing? I'm B.J. Flowers, Secret Service. How are you doing? What can I do for you this morning?

MIMI EVANS: Hello, we have something for the President of the United States. My name is Mimi Evans. I’m with Military Families Speak Out, and I have a letter for the President.

SECRET SERVICE: Okay.

MIMI EVANS: And this letter says—

SECRET SERVICE: Well, ma'am, I cannot accept—

MIMI EVANS: I'm not reading it, and I know you cannot accept it.

SECRET SERVICE: Okay, I can’t accept it, and I don’t believe there's anyone from staff here to take your letter at the moment, okay?

MIMI EVANS: Will they be here later?

SECRET SERVICE: I don't anticipate them to be here. No, ma’am. Sometimes they’re here—

BEATRIZ SALDIVAR: Can you call somebody?

SECRET SERVICE: No. Can’t call them down here. That's up to them whether they want to be down here, you know, to address any complaints or [inaudible]—

BEATRIZ SALDIVAR: Can you ask them that all the mothers of the fallen soldiers are asking somebody from the White House to come in and accept this letter?

SECRET SERVICE: They—there's no one here to accept it, ma'am. I'm sorry. I can’t take it. Thank you.

MIMI EVANS: As Secret Service, would you be able to convey the message that we are still down at the camp, and we intend to stay there, the mothers and the families, please?

SECRET SERVICE: I will relay that information.

MIMI EVANS: We are not going anywhere.

SECRET SERVICE: Okay. Very good.

MIMI EVANS: Thank you.

Amy Goodman reports that Mimi Evans and Beatriz Saldivar then walked hand in hand up to the barriers blockading the entrance to President Bush's estate. They dropped the letter on the ground and laid flowers on top. Then Beatriz Salvidar said this:

"I want to say to President Bush one thing, okay, and in the name of Cindy and all the mothers, that letter that's laying there with those precious flowers on top is laying there. Our soldiers when they killed—get killed in Iraq, the men next to them, the other fellow soldiers, picks up their body, their pieces. Sometimes the bodies are not recognized. Sometimes they come back in one piece, and sometimes they have their eyes open and they're dead. We ask you, President, to have the courage to pick up that letter. It’s just a simple letter. We cannot pick up our sons and daughters and husbands and nephews, but you can—we cannot bring them back alive, but you can have the courage to pick up that letter and talk to this nation and the world. The whole world is listening."

I’m going to end with part of a song—a handcuffed song—an Army of lovers cannot fail song—a Love is stronger than death and stronger than just about anything else I know song—called “Comes Love.”

Comes a rainstorm, put your rubbers on your feet. 
Comes a snowstorm, you can get a little heat. 
Comes love, nothing can be done.

Don’t try hiding, cause there isn’t any use. 
You’ll start sliding, when your heart turns on the juice.

Comes a heatwave, you can hurry to the shore. 
Comes a summons, you can hide behind the door. 
Comes love, nothing can be done.

That’s all, sister. If you ever been in love. 
That’s all, brother. You know what I’m speaking of.

Come the measles, you can quarantine the room. 
Comes a mousie, you can chase it with a broom. 
Comes love, nothing can be done.