“Everything you have to wake?”
A Life of Learning
Senior Lecture, Sarah Lawrence College
One morning last month I was taking off my coat, turning on the computer, retrieving phone messages, checking the conference schedule and opening the mail all at the same time as usual when I found the letter asking me to be your Senior Lecturer. I can’t tell you how surprised and honored and happy I was to read it, and how closely thoughts of what to say to you have stayed with me from that moment to this. The Class of 2000. I remember looking at the beech trees outside my window and picturing you all on the lawn up the hill a month hence, your backs to one century, one long human chapter, turning your faces toward this new one hardly begun. Turning. Another word for which is revolution. More on that soon.
This lecture is traditionally called “A Life of Learning,” and each lecturer makes a variation on that theme; when I read that title I had to smile. I will be forty in January, and have only just started to notice that Manhattan streets are crowded with people who are both fully grown and younger than I am. But this year for the first time I had firstyear students with parents my age; so maybe I have finished if not a long life then enough of one to be able to tell you something useful you could take with you when you go.
A Life of Learning. It sounded so calm as I read it from the letter, both “life” and “learning,” when as you know neither of those processes is calm at all. It’s said that schools are places where people learn; but as you know real learning, as opposed to the passive receipt of information, is very rare--because it is costly. Because it means you have to risk what you think you already know. You have to be willing to look like an idiot, in that awkward crossing. You have to give something up. All of which takes courage, a word I love and have tried to keep muttering on my shoulder all my life. I thought maybe I should call my talk “A Life of Attempted Learning,” or maybe “A Life of Unlearning,” since many of my life’s efforts have been more directed toward questioning and turning away from what I was told than toward accepting it. There’s that turning again.
My own addition to the given title of this talk comes from a story I love, Tillie Olsen’s “Tell Me A Riddle.” I first read it the summer I was eighteen, just finished with my second year of college and working as a security guard, in a new department store’s parking lot two towns away from the town in Massachusetts where I grew up. When I put on my uniform in the morning my mother told me I looked like a twelve-year-old policeman. My job was to arrive very early and encourage the employees to park very close to each other, because they hadn’t yet painted the hash marks on the tar. Then I was to keep vigil over the cars all day and make sure no one broke into them. Instead I would sit on a metal folding chair under one of the wispy maples they hadn’t uprooted and read. Another word I love. I read “Tell Me A Riddle” sitting there with tears streaming down my face. It’s the story of a revolutionary, an old Jewish woman dying in America, who was born in a Russian village, who in her dying forgets to hide who she is and what she believes in, while her husband listens and quarrels with her and tries to understand. “You think you are still an orator of the 1905 revolution?” he chides her when she speaks on and on in her delirium and pain, “Where are the pills for quieting? Which are they?” Near the end, when she is almost gone, Olsen writes, “Words foamed, died unsounded. Her body writhed; she made kissing motions with her mouth...Still she believed? ‘Eva!’ he whispered. ‘Still you believed? You lived by it? These Things Shall Be?...He pulled his hand away, shouted: ‘Who wanted questions? Everything you have to wake?’”
From the first time I read it that summer afternoon I have never forgotten that exasperated question. Whose answer it seemed to me then and seems to me now is yes. I hear it now not as question but as imperative: Everything you have to wake. Or as Jesus via the Gospel of Thomas put it, for individuals, for peoples, for nations: If you bring forth what is within you, what is within you will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what is within you will destroy you.
I was born in New Bedford, Massachusetts, on a cold clear day. I lived my first five years in that city and in little towns along that coast; my father was a reporter for the New Bedford Standard-Times, and my mother worked as a secretary until she became pregnant and lost her job. My earliest memories are of the sea, the taste of it on my hands or in the air on rainy days, its small voice in those protected bays and inlets--and of a secret, a family secret, one we all kept from each other and each of us from ourselves, whose nature I did not discover until many years later--whose exigencies were woven into my bones, my skin, my dreams, my listening and my vision, whose lesson will be at my foundation as long as I live. Maybe some of you sitting here have secrets like this, unfolded or not, and you know that on bad days it can seem as if there has never been a home for you in this world and never will be--and on good days you can see your unlikely life as the answer to the prayer James Baldwin’s friend Beauford used to sing in his presence: “Lord, open the unusual door.”
By the time I was five I had two younger brothers, without whom I would not be standing here this afternoon; my father took a job doing public relations for New England Telephone in Boston, and we moved to a town halfway between Boston and Plymouth called Scituate--where I lived until I left for college at sixteen, and where after that security guard summer I was telling you about I never lived again. By then I had already fallen in love with words. When my mother and father met, she was engaged to another man; he changed that in one night at least in part by reciting poetry to her, placing it firmly at the core of my existence. By the time I was five my mother had read to me, my grandmother had read to me, my great-grandmother had read to me more hours than I could count; with an intensity that has never waned, I loved the sounds of the words of my mother tongue, the feel of them in my mouth, the music of them no matter what they were saying, the mystery and power of the bond between those sounds and the strange black marks on a printed page, and between those marks and the world. Over the years that followed, in matters of writing, of politics, of the spirit, in matters of love, I have had many times that sense of being summoned, pulled by the sleeve, called to look over my shoulder, to turn; that was the first, that summoning to the ecstasy and the work of words. “Allí estaba, sin rostro/y me tocaba,” I read years later, in a poem by Pablo Neruda that made me shiver. It’s called “La Poesía,” “Poetry”: “There I was, without a face/and it touched me.”
So at five I was touched by the word ‘Scituate.’ I knew the word ‘Mattapoisett,’ a village on the beach where we lived one winter; next to Scituate was the town of Cohasset, and the brook that ran through the woods behind our house, Bound Brook, ran into another called Satuit. One elementary school was Wampatuck, one pond where we played hockey Musquashcut, all in the state of Massachusetts, which I was learning to spell. These were not English words--and as I discovered in asking and listening, whose words they were was a kind of secret with which by then I was familiar.
Scituate is about twenty miles north of Plymouth; we were all brought every year to Plymouth Rock, told to lean over the wooden enclosure and to look down as if to the bottom of a well, at the boulder where a white man’s boot first touched that shore. We were brought through Plymouth Plantation, where actors playing Pilgrims and Indians enacted a pageant of handicrafts and mutual respect and understanding. But in Scituate, whose citizens were about 2% Cape Verdean, about 95% Irish Catholic and about 98% white, it was clear that half of that supposedly cheerful dialogue had disappeared. More than one adult told me as I was growing up that I had the map of Ireland all over my face; where were the people who had the map of Scituate all over their faces? Gone. If anyone had told me, at five, at ten, even at fifteen years old, that the land’s first inhabitants were no longer there because the Pilgrims and their descendants had killed them-- that we were living on land stolen from them, without reckoning or recompense--let alone that their ghosts lived there still, with the land they named, and would not rest until this was made right--I would have looked at that person the way I looked at old people in the nursing home who talked to themselves, the way I looked at people I called ‘freaks,’ or ‘queer,’ as people outside of the social compact, outside of the village, people who were not really people at all.
A poet named Samuel Woodworth, mostly mercifully forgotten elsewhere, is well remembered in Scituate; he lived there in the nineteenth century and wrote a poem called “The Old Oaken Bucket,” for which a local street is named. I read this poem many times growing up and cannot at this moment remember a word of it beyond the title. Many years later someone with whom I went to junior high school--Nick Flynn, who has also become a poet--sent me quite a different poem, by Charles Olson, who exists only outside of Scituate, but like Samuel Woodworth refers to the town in his poem.
It’s called “There Was a Youth Whose Name Was Thomas Granger,” and its subject is not the dear old oaken bucket drawn from the well but a young man executed for sodomy in Plymouth Plantation; the Mr. Bradford in the poem is William Bradford, the second governor of the colony. This is the first section:
From the beginning, SIN
and the reason, note, known from the start
says Mr. Bradford: As it is with waters when
their streames are stopped or damed up, wickednes
(Morton, Morton, Morton)
here by strict laws as in no place more,
or so much, that I have known or heard of,
and ye same more nerly looked unto
so, as it cannot rune in a comone road of liberty
as it would, and is inclined,
it searches every wher (everywhere)
and breaks out wher it getts vente, says he
Rest, Tom, in your pit where they put you
a great & large pitte digged of purposs for them
of Duxbery, servant, being aboute 16. or 17. years of age
his father & mother living at the time at Sityate
espetially drunkennes & unclainnes
incontinencie betweene persons unmaried
but some maried persons allso
And that which is worse
(things fearfull to name)
HAVE BROAK FORTH OFTENER THAN ONCE
IN THIS LAND
This is the same William Bradford who called this land “a hideous and desolate wilderness full of wild beasts and wild men”; but we did not learn that in school. One local historical society bulletin puts this poem into distorted translation and illustrates the tenor of most of my--I hesitate to call it “learning” :
“The first mention of ‘Sityate’ in Governor William Bradford's Journal is dated 1639, three years after Scituate was incorporated ... These people expressed a great respect for the beliefs and ethics of one's neighbors; this spirit has always marked Scituate as the most liberal among many New England Towns.”
There were rare but important exceptions to this attitude; with my junior high school social studies teacher, Bill Corbett, we watched the Watergate hearings on television, studied the difference between de facto and de jure segregation, and researched and discussed the massacre at My Lai. Just under the ceiling of his classroom was a frieze of brown construction paper letters that said, THOSE WHO DO NOT REMEMBER THE PAST ARE CONDEMNED TO REPEAT IT. But for the most part my first education was in learning to live with lies, to make myself at home among them--to put this historical society description beside Mrs. Lucchese who moved from Hyde Park to the end of the lane because, as she told my mother, she didn’t want her kids going to school with niggers; to put the school stories of the glory of industry next to the Boston factories spewing soot into the sky, the tide line awash with tampon applicators, the gull who died in our back yard once, strangled by the plastic rings that held six- packs together; to put the stories of the first Thanksgiving next to the absence I felt walking in the woods, the whispering always just out of my hearing, the question buried in the local Native names. The lies were interwoven with the way the maples caught fire in the autumn, the speckle- backed crabs in the tidepools, the tall, dense pines with snow in them, the voices of people who helped me and took care of me, people I loved, to the point where I didn’t recognize them as lies at all. Eventually it becomes impossible to distinguish between listening to lies and lying oneself; then lying becomes like an anesthetic, which, depending on what one wants to do with one’s life, may be a not entirely unpleasant experience, particularly when compared to its alternative. But I was to become a poet--and as Lewis Hyde points out in his essay on John Berryman and alcohol, “An anaesthetic is a poet killer.”
I did one thing all through my childhood that mitigated against anesthesia: I sang. In school I sang every chance I got; and every Sunday from when I was five until I left for college, I sang for two morning church services at the local Congregational church--the church of William Bradford, which had changed a bit by then--where my parents had become members when we moved. Both my parents had been raised Protestant, but neither in this particular denomination; I wonder now whether my father was drawn to it because of its historical associations, because of his desire to ally himself with one half of his background and disavow the other. Although his mother was raised as a foster child, after her mother’s death and her father’s abandonment, she had a blood ancestor many generations back who was a Congressman from Massachusetts, Henry Shaw; his father Samuel was a Congressman before him, and was imprisoned for sedition by John Adams. Their ancestor John Shaw emigrated from Yorkshire and lived in eastern Massachusetts by the 1640s. The Robert Gould Shaw who captained the first African-American regiment in the Union Army was a distant uncle of mine. Henry Shaw voted in favor of the Missouri Compromise, and the abolitionist sentiment in his state was strong enough to keep him from being elected again. The family fortunes declined quickly in his wake, but he was not forgotten; Shaw is my middle name.
On my father’s father’s side, he was the first ever to go to college; the first Gardinier in this country was Jacob, who came from Amsterdam as a timmermansknecht on Kiliaen van Rensselaer’s estate, under the auspices of the Dutch West India Company. ‘Timmerman’ means carpenter; ‘knecht’ is sometimes translated with words like ‘manservant’ or ‘bondsman’, sometimes more like ‘slave.’ This is not to be confused with ‘lijfeigenen’ or serfs--the word for ‘life’ plus the word for ‘own’--who also lived in Rensselaerswyck in our own local version of feudalism, throughout much of the Hudson Valley and into the Mohawk--nor with African and then African-American slaves, some of whom were baptized in the Dutch church and renamed Gardinier because they were owned by my ancestors.
Jacob Gardinier worked off the term of his indenture and became a colonist; and as the colony charter put it, “The Company will use their endeavors to supply the colonists with as many blacks as they conveniently can.” I didn’t learn all this until many years later--around the time I read Adrienne Rich quoting Puerto Rican poet Julia de Burgos: “That my grandfather was a slave/is my grief; had he been a master/that would have been my shame.” Before this known shame there was the unspoken, unquiet ghost of it, and there was the anesthesia of lying, and there was singing, which was the closest I ever came to understanding what people meant when they talked about God. The last song I ever sang in church was this: “Way over yonder/Is a place that I know/Where I can find shelter/From hunger and cold./And the sweet tasting good life/Is so easily found/Way over yonder/That’s where I’m bound.”
I first went to college at Drew University; my first English professor was a woman named Joan Weimer, who ran the campus chapter of Amnesty International, and who has remained my friend these more than twenty years. The New York Times was delivered to my dorm, and I read it every day; within a couple of weeks of my arrival, I read that Steve Biko had died in the custody of the South African police. I say ‘died’ because that’s what it seemed at least the South African authorities and even the newspaper at first were saying had happened; I don’t remember whether they said he had starved himself or jumped or run himself into a wall. I do remember even in my stunned provincial ignorance the sudden knowledge that I was being lied to--to hide the obvious but unstated fact that Steve Biko had told the truth about racism in his country and his country had murdered him in response. He was thirty years old. I remember sitting in the hallway outside Joan’s office, waiting for her and studying the poster on her door, about the desaparecidos in Argentina--this was in 1977--and holding my head in my hands, seeing all the events of my previous life transformed in the light of this new way of looking at the world. Difficult as it is to remember now, the people of my generation were young children in a country that seemed on the edge of revolution; my earliest memories are of one world seeming to die and another struggling to be born. The taste and smell and ache of that new world trying to manifest itself were part of my first days and have never gone away. But I made no coherent sense of the television’s blurts of war, the vicious Boston battles over school integration, the death of Martin Luther King when I was seven years old, until I left home for college, where my life of learning of a different kind began.
There was no part of my life that these revelations left untouched; that spring I was seventeen and kissed another woman for the first time, after we’d played lacrosse all day, in the locker room after everyone else had gone. I still remember the fear that some alarm would go off, some repelling magnets or mines in our lips would make kissing impossible--because this was not only forbidden but almost literally unimaginable. But no. She had a roommate and so did I; we used to sneak into the windowless basement of the married students’ dormitory and lie down between the storage cages of bicycles and strollers, emerging later with our hidden blankets not knowing whether it was night or day. I spent that summer at my grandparents’ house in southern New Jersey, babysitting a two-year-old girl, at night with the Atlantic muttering a block away reading Marx and Engels and Audre Lorde, Susan Brownmiller and Rita Mae Brown, a drugstore copy of The Fire Next Time, reading about Vietnam and Argentina and the civil rights movement, looking up the words ‘fascism’ and ‘socialism’ and ‘democracy’ in the dictionary, holding my head, hoping I wouldn’t reach the limits of its capacity, listening to my grandmother snore across the hall. I read with a particular intensity Adrienne Rich’s The Dream of a Common Language, which came out that same year I did:
The rules break like a thermometer,
quicksilver spills across the charted systems,
we’re out in a country that has no language,
no laws, we’re chasing the raven and the wren
through gorges unexplored since dawn--
whatever we do together is pure invention
the maps they gave us were out of date
The following year, when I was eighteen, my parents defaulted on the loan that permitted me to be at Drew; I had my first short haircut at the time, and when I went to apply for a job at Dunkin’ Donuts was hired not as a waitress but as a baker, which paid much better, I think because the boss thought I was a boy. I worked four night shifts a week and transferred to the University of Massachusetts at Amherst the following year, where they had a terrific Women’s Studies program, and where I could pay the bill myself. My work-study job at UMass was with a group called SCERA, an organizing branch of the student government; we were divided into teams, each to address a particular set of campus issues. I worked on the Anti- Racism team. By then I’d had two CETA jobs in Scituate, filing--my father lost his job when I was in high school, and we relied on that public assistance for two years--and a job cleaning restaurant toilets, and the jobs babysitting, baking doughnuts, and car-guarding I told you about earlier; so it seemed a miracle that at UMass I could do political work that meant something to me and actually be paid for it.
There were persistent incidents of racial violence on the campus, of white students jumping black students and beating them up; our team went into the dorms and held discussions and workshops about race, similiar to the ones I often do here at Sarah Lawrence during orientation. Most of the people I worked with were politically active around many different issues; many of my friends took a class taught by Johnetta Cole, on Cuba, culminating in a trip there, and it was probably one of them at one of Johnetta’s fundraising dance parties who first spoke the word ‘revolution’ in the way I’ve remembered it ever since, in spite of all ravagements and skepticisms and despairing. I had read the word by then, but I’d never heard it spoken that way--as if some of the devastating sufferings I’d been taught were eternal had a chance of being changed, in our lifetime, now. At the same time, in my own country, the revolutionary spirit of the time I’d grown up in was coming to a close--symbolized most dramatically in the results of the first election I ever voted in, in which Ronald Reagan was elected president.
In those last two years of college I went to meetings of women’s studies scholars and students that dissolved in shouting matches over racism; I sat with my friends and drank too much and mourned what we feared was our work’s uselessness; I argued with people my age at the edge of demonstrations, who thought US support of the murderous government of El Salvador was a good idea. But I also met Ruth Hubbard and George Wald; I worked with their daughter Debbie at SCERA, and she invited several of us to her house on Lakeview Avenue in Cambridge. Ruth and George taught biology at Harvard; they had done breakthrough work in understanding the retina, for which George won the Nobel prize, and were outspoken critics of the Vietnam War. George gave a speech at MIT in 1969, replying to the idea that nuclear weapons and the war in Vietnam were “the facts of life”; “Those are the facts of death,” he said. “I don’t accept them, and I advise you not to accept them.” I first walked into their big, rambling house on an evening early in the winter, at the end of 1980, a house filled with books, with art, with leaflets and arguments and commitments; it was a kind of house I had never seen, one I didn’t really know existed, the house of intellectuals who believed in and worked for social change. I didn’t really know what to call it then; I only knew that when I first stood in the entryway, looking all around, I wanted never to leave. Ruth had fled Vienna as a girl, in 1938; her mother Hella lived upstairs. “Who has red hair, your mother?” Hella asked when she met me. I shook my head. “Your father?” I said no. “Grandparents?” No again. “Ah,” she said, nodding and smiling. “So you are the cuckoo’s egg.”
Cuckoos are known to lay their eggs in the nests of other birds; the eggs are then adopted and hatched by the biologically unrelated hosts. Hella was more right than she knew; my relationship with Ruth and George was one of many familial connections I’ve been lucky enough to have, with people who are not my biological relations, without whom my life would not be possible. People in this family-not-of-blood have offered me places to live, lent and given me money, argued with me, challenged me, listened to me, read what I wrote, told me how the world works in ways that became inseparable from my own vision, and showed me honorable ways to live, for which I will always be grateful.
As I was in many ways breaking with much of my biological family, I was at the same time faithfully mirroring some of its lessons--most notably that of alcoholism, which stretches back on both sides for many generations, among my father’s people whom you’ve now met, among my mother’s Welsh ancestors who came to this country with their Latin and Greek books, among her Irish ancestors who came to escape the famine, with nothing. My father was an alcoholic, as were three of my four grandparents, two of whom I was lucky enough to see get sober. My ancestor Jacob Gardinier appears in the index to the court records of New Amsterdam under the following citations: “sued by director; complaint against; denies drinking; submits differences to commissioners; buys lumber; drinking; dispute with Hendrick Andriessen; fighting; drinking.”
Almost 350 years later this was a family tradition my father had not interrupted. During college I played rugby--one team t-shirt read ‘My drinking team has a rugby problem’--and missed out on classes held at nine in the morning, because I knew hangovers would ruin my attendance. After college I moved to San Francisco, lived at the corner of Haight and Fillmore streets, and worked in the Haight-Ashbury, at a liquor store called Liquid Experience, which was obviously both good and bad. I tried to write poems there, a labor which requires enough clarity and courage to tell some part of the truth; as often as I could, I erased myself, and the lines I wrote were at best fragmented, at worst invisible. Lewis Hyde quotes Carl Jung saying that the “craving for alcohol was the equivalent, on a low level, of the spiritual thirst of our being for wholeness, for the union with God...‘alcohol’ in Latin is spiritus, and one uses the same word for the highest religious experience as well as for the most depraving poison.” I had started that particular spirit relationship, with alcohol, in Scituate, with my pal Nick, when I was twelve years old; in San Francisco in 1982 I was making it as deep and wide as I could, when my friend Gaye Williams from Cambridge came to visit, to interview Alice Walker, for a project with a group of black women filmmakers. Because of Gaye I read The Color Purple, just out then, in one day: “You better never tell nobody but God,” it begins. “It’d kill your mammy.” And then Celie writes, “Dear God. I am fourteen years old. I am --crossed out-- I have always been a good girl. Maybe you can give me a sign letting me know what is happening to me.” At some point during her short stay, Gaye and I made a trip to Mt. Tamalpais; it was a warm day, sunny once we’d crossed the foggy bridge, and we walked through a grove of old redwood trees, eventually on a path designed for blind people, with Braille markers and a guide rope, the trees near enough to touch. One had been damaged by fire, so the bark was seared through, gapped in places, many different shades of raw brown and red; at first I thought it must be dead, but the green crown high above reflected the sun and moved in the breeze. We stopped there, and I put my fingers against the scarred places that had healed. I can only say that it was as if the tree looked at me, more closely and deeply than anyone ever had, with both sternness and love, and said: What do you think you’re doing? It meant with my life. A few months later I left San Francisco, spent the New Year’s Eve before I turned twenty-two at Lakeview Avenue with Hella sleeping upstairs, and figured out that I was never to take a drink again. And I haven’t--not because of principle or virtue or willpower, but because I was “cured of personal silence,” as Carolyn Forché once put it--because some door opened that I didn’t and still don’t understand, through which I was informed that my life was not to belong exclusively to me anymore, and that there was work to do.
I was living at Lakeview Avenue and working at a bookstore in Harvard Square when I applied to MFA programs; “Did Goethe go to poet graduate school?” Hella scoffed, “Did Rilke go to poet graduate school?”, but I persisted. When I was admitted to Columbia I sent a form letter to everyone I knew, outlining how desperately I wanted to go, asking them to help close the gap between the costs, breathtaking, and my assets, zero. They answered--and because of their generosity and kindness I was able to move to Manhattan in the fall of 1984. If only to honor their investment, I began to call myself a poet for the first time. Each day I gazed out the window of my ninth-floor apartment on 107th Street, setting down in free-verse lines anesthetized versions of childhood memories. Sometimes I was mildly satisfied with the results, sometimes not; but I never felt that pulling on my sleeve I told you about before, nor that head- lolling intoxication with the rhythms of words, which had drawn me to poetry as a child. My room suffocated me. In the spring of that first year, students staged a blockade of a campus building to insist that the university withdraw its investments in South Africa; I joined them and slept on the steps of Hamilton Hall for two weeks in April, each morning awakening to someone playing a radio too loudly, someone handing out hot orange juice, someone sticking a knee in my back, someone announcing a message of solidarity sent from afar--in other words, to the dappled joy of being part of a community of strangers, united to make change in our collective life, one that included the lives of more strangers, thousands of miles away. I left only to go to my poetry workshop and share the power I felt coursing through me, and the bad poems I had written about it.
It was only after the writing program's weekly deadlines were done that some new strangeness began to creep in. In the fall of 1986 I started a poem called "This Land," in which, to my surprise, one voice telling a mythic story of a woman who had lost her hands alternated with another voice, in parenthetical interruptions, which spoke in blurts of words I didn’t write: "wounded carried on waterproof sheets"; "Sidra Fonseca Tonkin"; "ozone layer a precondition for multicellular life"; "my life had stood a loaded gun". I didn't understand what was happening, and wasn't sure if this was permitted, to make a poem like a collage, from words I didn't invent, but found; but I did know that once I finished I felt that fluttery short-breathed ecstasy again, that reeling, that huge love, as I did when people read to me as a child, as I did when I wrote my first sonnet--that sense of looking down at the page in sweat and tiredness and trembling, wondering who had made what lay there.
In May of 1988 I took a train up the Hudson to Croton, to lead a poetry workshop for teachers; near the end, we all wrote together, and I read them my page of notes, about the city I'd seen from the train window, twenty-five unpunctuated lines. On the way home I read it again and had the odd feeling that although it was halting and scattered and stiff, it was something I would live with for a while. It made me wonder uneasily if everything I'd written up to that point was like a series of photographs with my own face stuck into every frame. It was like a scarf or a letter dropped by someone I didn't know, whose face I couldn't see, awkward and plain but with some fragrance I couldn't forget and couldn't help but follow.
That began the four-year journey of writing "The New World," a long poem which changed what I thought "writing" was forever. Instead of trying to relate the literal facts of my life, I walked the city and let it pour through my body, until I almost forgot where it left off and I began. Again and again, when I stood in a particular place, that pulling would come--a wind stirring, an unease, a clatter of moving water--and I would go to a local library and find that a burial ground lay under the housing development where I’d been walking, or that many people had been killed there, or that some stranger with whom I felt a kinship had lived there and left some savor behind. Turn, that pulling kept insisting; and what I found when I turned in this case was history: not the dry thicket of dates and coronations, not the lies, but as Adrienne Rich puts it, those old things lying strong across my heart, that vast mute world of the dead and of the land they left marked by their living, those restless ghosts to whom only the telling of the truth could bring rest. The world I could see was no longer the whole world, but one circle of it. Instead of the bounded individual I had been taught I was, I became many; instead of an agent, a crossroads; instead of an author, a gatherer. Instead of trying to find my voice, I tried to learn to listen and set down what I heard.
The history I had been taught in school was the exclusive province of warriors and kings; the religion I had been taught was a dry room of benches where people gathered once a week without touching each other to speak decorously to no one, where music made the only coursing, unruly life. The essential characteristic of the writer's life I imagined I would someday lead was its isolation; but none of these teachings made any difference to this beast I had somehow joined myself to, singing, tickling, muttering, crying, pointing out the work to be done, rolling me in its arms. This history excluded no one; where what I thought of as religion had been was this democratic sanctuary, where nurses and tailors and pigeons and statues, lichens and exiles and scientists and ghosts, the children of former slaves and the children of former slaveowners, argued and despaired and killed and died, fucked and learned and destroyed and sang, and dreamed into being the land they shared. My work as a writer grew from the fact that the dead can no longer speak, or can no longer speak a language we can understand; I was to listen and tell what I heard, so that the severed bonds among and between the living and the dead could be made whole, as poets have done since language was born. When the poem was finished, in January of 1992, I sent it to a contest of which Lucille Clifton was the judge, and she gave me a compliment I hold dearer than any other: that when she read the anonymous manuscript, she couldn’t tell if its author were old or young, black or white, a man or a woman. That’s become the standard by which I’ve judged my work ever since.
I came to Sarah Lawrence in 1994, as part of the relatively recent phenomenon of writers teaching writing in colleges--a phenomenon I once heard someone refer to as tantamount to inviting in elephants to teach zoology. Although I have written essays, I am not a scholar; my mind tends relentlessly toward creation, and toward criticism only when pressed firmly in that direction, usually by a magazine editor. I believe rationality is one way of knowing, but not the only way; I try to keep true to one of the teachings of the UMass Women’s Studies program, which urged that we think with all our passion and feel with all our intelligence. Like Tillie Olsen’s Eva, I am a believer, in an atmosphere of skepticism, of unbelief. Although not in any orthodox way, I pray. I think the land is alive. As I’ve already told you, I listen to trees. As you probably know, there used to be many more trees to listen to than there are now; when I walk in the woods where I grew up, I can see all the way to the village in full summer, in a place where light hardly touched the ground when I was young. The pines are translucent--just as they are outside this building we’re in right now, those beautiful pines you’ll see when you leave, just outside the door. In a book by a man named Charles Little, I read that when white people first came to this land, “It was said that a squirrel could travel from the Atlantic shore to the Mississippi River without once dropping to the ground.” About five per cent of that forest remains; you can see the light pass through the ones left uncut because they’re sick, because they’re dying. They’re dying everywhere, as Charles Little puts it, in the Northwest, “on the ridges of the Appalachian chain and in the sugar bush of Vermont...in the mid-South border states, in the thick forests of central Michigan, on the mountainsides of Colorado and California, on the Gulf of Mexico, and in the deserts of the Southwest.” And in the town where I grew up, and out there on the lawn. He calls it a pandemic--”which means an epidemic which is everywhere.”
In the summer of 1995, schoolchildren in Minnesota began to find frogs born with malformed limbs; then more were found in other parts of the state, then in Canada, then in Vermont, and they’ve been found in large numbers now, throughout North America. Frogs have been around about 350 million years, since before the dinosaurs; as long as there have been humans by water, they have heard the sound of frogs calling each other at night, starting in the spring, when they wake up from their hibernation. The same industrial practices that affect the trees are affecting the frogs. Obviously, inseparably, they’re affecting us as well. Some scientists call the frogs a sentinel species; they show signs of environmental distress before other animals, because they are permeable. They breathe through their skin. The world they live in pours into them without barriers, and they helplessly reflect it. It’s a terrifying reflection--one from which the temptation is to turn away.
One of the things I do at Sarah Lawrence is say to poets--I’ve said it to some of you sitting here--You can do this. Some of you have sat in my office and said, This is impossible. This is hopeless. I can’t do it. This is as good as it’s ever going to be. I’m never going to get it right. Probably I’m never going to get it at all. Et cetera. And my job is to say: You have to do it anyway. Even if it seems impossible. And more often than not, as the poets among you know well, what seemed impossible was maybe difficult or agonizing or terrifying but not really impossible at all.
Given your accomplishments here, I’d like to use this occasion to give you a slightly more challenging post-graduation assignment: Make a new world. Identify what anesthetizes you-- television, drugs, alcohol, protecting your family, hiding from your past, lying about your sexuality, the pursuit of money, despair--and turn away from it. Wake everything. Make a world with no people who are not people--a world that will hold all the people, as Margaret Walker wrote. To smash all ghettos that divide us, as Tillie Olsen’s Eva said. A world in which everyone’s work is sacred, and everyone’s love. A world in which people die equally of the same sicknesses and kill each other rarely and from personal animosities, not because of structured relationships of inequality. A world not without difficulty and agony and tragedy, but without state executions and dizzying accumulations of personal wealth, without station house torture, without police murders of citizens, without unlegislated apartheid. A world whose everyday practices do not inevitably result in the end of life on this planet. Meet the challenge James Baldwin outlined fifty years ago now, in “Many Thousands Gone”: “(We) must undergo a metamorphosis so profound as to be literally unthinkable and which there is no doubt we will resist until we are compelled to achieve our own identity by the rigors of a time that has yet to come.” That time is here.
People will tell you you’re crazy even to think of this, that it’s really not so bad, that it’s very complicated, that this is the way it’s always been and always will be. Listen but don’t let them make your mind for you, and don’t let me make it for you now. You’ve had a peerless education in that here. You’ve majored in nothing but independent thought, in intellectual initiative, in questions and in listening. Don’t let that go. Don’t be surprised if your questions raise animosity; as Bernice Reagon of Sweet Honey in the Rock puts it, You gon’ catch hell if you don’t do it the way they say do it. But what hell could be worse than what awaits us if you don’t make something new?
People will roll their eyes when you clear your throat in meetings and classes and conversations to say that things cannot continue as they have. People will look at you with exasperation at best, at worst with hatred and contempt. Or they will not look at you at all. When that happens, don’t forget: there were people here who did not look at you that way-- who loved your questions and your courage--people who’ve loved listening to you, who’ve loved watching you make your interruptions in the way things have been done so far, who will always be proud of you for that. That belongs to you always now and no one can take it away from you.
Make a new world. Look clearly at this tired sad vicious old one, at the end of its five- hundred-year experiment in the possibilities of steel and domination--and turn. Make a revolution. Make one that looks so different from any one yet made that you’ll need to invent a new word to describe it. Don’t wait to be brave. Maybe being brave is less a character trait than a behavior; as the Buddhists say, Put your bitter feet in the sweet steps. Give up the thought of your helplessness, of everything that tells you you’re small. You’re not. I’ve seen you. And you can’t do it by yourself. Stand near each other. Wake everything. Look everywhere. Who knows what rock may hide the seed? Make a vision of a new way together, in this season of possibility, the spring, sudden and fervent, when none of the land’s lessons is moderate--April which means and insists on opening, May like a verb in a revolutionary tense: It may not be possible, but it may. Let the foundation of homework and discipline and boring meetings in November run under it. Make a new world. Please. And do it quickly, because we don’t have much time.
Between now and Friday you could rest on your laurels a little; when I asked my daughter Eve, who is six, what I should tell you, she said, “I think they should have a last talk with their teacher, and then go to the pub and go out for ice cream.” About two weeks ago she wrote me a letter, the first piece of writing she’d ever done completely on her own. It’s in two lines, so you could call it a poem. It goes like this: “Never give me a time out./Never your whole life.” She’s learning early to use writing for revolutionary purposes. To make a just world. An adult who’d met her for the first time told us, “She’s one of those kids who goes through life with her hair on fire,” which is as good a guiding life principle as I can think of, my parting wisdom to you. Go through life with your hair on fire.
I’m going to end by singing you one more song, a piece of a civil rights song; when I die and they bury me, in Woodlawn--we have the spot all picked out--on a hill under pine trees not far from here, this is what it’s going to say on my grave:
(Woke up this morning with my mind set on freedom)
Congratulations. Thank you.