This week there has been lots of work-related “hurry-up-and-wait.” And so, in among the waitey bits, I let myself read an essay from this month’s issue of Poetry Magazine. The essay is titled “The Aesthetics of Silence: Prison, Rehabilitation, and Poetry.”
In clicking through—and perhaps in part because the writer’s name feels a little like it’s leaning eastward—I think for a moment of another piece I have read recently, that merges something poetic with something imprisoned—dark and broken and glittering at the same time...
Anyway. This essay, today, is on prison rehabilitation (and what poetry has to do with it). It begins by mentioning a letter to The Guardian, from a certain Dr Clare Coggins, who is writing in exasperated response to an interview with the author Valeria Luiselli, in which Luiselli refers to literature and art as things that are “questionably useful.” The essay quotes a part of Coggins’ letter:
I am a doctor; I work in a hospice. I am painfully aware that science keeps us alive. But what keeps us living is art. The overstretched, underfunded NHS still finances an art therapist and a music therapist at my hospice. When patients need something to keep them going they look to the arts.
There’s a spot in our kitchen... It’s maybe the first place you look, as you walk into our home. It’s usually the last place I look, as I leave. It’s a spot of wall-space above the wine-cart where we keep the kinds of things that need to be kept near the door: a set of keys, a letter-opener, and a buono sconto for our next time at Todo-Modo. From here when you look up, you’ll see a poster of Chagall’s Pair of Lovers and Flowers, from a show of his works (“Love and Life,” 2015) at the Chiostro Bramante in Rome. Also a very large and delightfully-detailed map of most every vineyard, wine, and/or varietal in Tuscany. A bookmark-sized print of a detail from Edward Hopper’s Railroad Sunset. A postcard-flyer for a live reading and re-enactment (with song and accordion) of Boccaccio’s Decameron at Villa Bardini. And finally, a bookmark featuring a quote (in Italian) from Henry Miller: “L’arte non ci insegna nulla, salvo il significato della vita.”
I finish the essay. It’s alright. There is at least one difficult question it asks:
During the initial months I found myself confronted with a moral dilemma. Why do men who have hurt, maimed, and ruined the lives of innocent people deserve my time? I wondered if being allowed the amenity to develop your writing should be seen as a privilege, not something readily available in a prison.
And there is a lovely line about art as the final frontier—where the mind is free to [...] to reckon truly with itself.
But then in the end it peters out, with an almost ridiculously robotic march through the language of anesthetized nothingness:
Many of these men will be released back into the general population. The skills and apparatus we help establish before release and onward will play a vital role in the likelihood of them reoffending. [...] I like to believe that granting opportunities as precepts in favor of the betterment of people will, in the long run, advantage us all.
I know it’s his way—a kind of a way—to answer that difficult question from earlier. But still, it leaves me feeling like I’ve swallowed a ball-bearing. And so maybe just to feel better, I go looking for the rest of that letter, from Dr Coggins to The Guardian. When I find it, I discover there’s a whole bit the essay didn’t quote, in which I can almost hear the voice of this wonderful Dr Coggins—anguished, angry and thoroughly unanesthetized:
...one minute [Luiselli] makes an admirable case for the value of fiction, and the next she asks, “If you’re going to devote your life to something as questionably useful as literature or art, I think there’s a commitment that you make to understanding others”. Questionably useful? I was tearing at the paper in frustration. Why do we feel that the arts are inferior to science? Who made us believe that?
It feels like a question to put to some kind of gigantic, collective mirror. Who indeed?
[Santo Spirito, Firenze]
[domenica 20 maggio 2019 ore 19:06:09] [¶]
A friend posts on Facebook, about how hard it is to present her queerness to the world, and the constant misunderstandings she has to deal with, around her gender. A friend of hers (or at least, enough of a friend to be a Facebook friend of hers) responds with some thoughts on how we’re all different, odd, or “queer” in some way (his choice of quotes), but that we’re all on the same rock spinning around the sun, and so we should focus on common causes and common ground.
I have the kind of reaction I’ve been having on and off for years now, whenever I hear someone speak of such things. How we’re all the same, or (if they’re of a religious inclination), how we’re all God’s children. How there’s no difference between us, or (my personal unfavorite these days), that “I don’t see color.”
Since sometime in January of this year, I’ve gotten better at understanding the mechanics of this reaction, and sometimes, better even at engaging with it. Because some time in January of this year, I read Sister Outsider by Audre Lorde. And since then I have, if not my own words with which to articulate a response, Lorde’s words.
Here are some of Lorde’s words, on difference:
The need for unity is often misnamed as a need for homogeneity...
...we have been taught either to ignore our differences, or to view them as causes for separation and suspicion rather than as forces for change. Without community there is no liberation, only the most vulnerable and temporary armistice between an individual and her oppression. But community must not mean a shedding of our differences, nor the pathetic pretense that these differences do not exist.
It is not our differences which separate [us], but our reluctance to recognize those differences and to deal effectively with the distortions which have resulted from the ignoring and misnaming of those differences.
Too often, we pour the energy needed for recognizing and exploring difference into pretending those differences are insurmountable barriers, or that they do not exist at all. This results in a voluntary isolation or false and treacherous connections. Either way, we do not develop tools for using human difference as a springboard for creative change within our lives.
[F]orms of human blindness stem from the same root — an inability to recognize the notion of difference as a dynamic human force, one which is enriching rather than threatening...
What is she saying? She’s saying that our differences exist. Don’t euphemize them away with your talk of the rock and the sun, of God’s children and of sameness. We are different. Not less or more important, but different. The difference matters.
Sometimes, it’s what matters most.
[Santo Spirito, Firenze]
[giovedì 16 maggio 2019 ore 20:53:00] [¶]