Friday, November 2, 2007

Día de los Muertos

(Two Jungalas at Warlukurla by Clifford Possum Japaltjarri)

Octavio Paz once said that with regard to death, a Mejicano "...chases after it, mocks it, courts it, hugs it, sleeps with it; it is her/his favorite plaything and her/his most lasting love."

In a Kenyon Review interview in 2000, MacArthur Fellowship recipient and poet Edward Hirsch says:
"...Praise and lamentation are two of the deepest impulses in lyric poetry. The earliest poems we have—the Egyptian pyramid texts, the ancient Hebrew poems, or the earliest Greek poems—all include poems of lamentation and poems of praise. To me, the two elements go hand in hand. I wouldn't want a poetry of praise that doesn't take up the countertruth of lamentation, and I wouldn't want a poetry of lamentation that doesn't remember the gifts, to praise. Rilke says something like this in The Duino Elegies—praise walks in the land of lamentation. (...) I find the impulse to praise in the earliest poems, in the great archaic poems of people everywhere, in Christopher Smart and Walt Whitman and Gerard Manley Hopkins. It's one of the deepest and strongest impulses in poetry. I'd love to be a poet of praise. So, too, the poetry of grief and lamentation is one of the deepest and most long-standing elements in poetry. The elegy is one of our necessary forms as we try to come to terms with the fact that people around us die, that we, too, will die. We need the ritual occasion, ritual making of the elegy. That dimension of poetry is fundamental. I would very much like to see myself as part of both traditions. To me, the two greatest impulses in poetry are elegy and praise. I would love to write a poetry that brings those two impulses together."

And in my novel Ginny Bates, during the first serious conversation Ginny and Myra have together, Myra gets Ginny's complete attention and lays some of the groundwork for Ginny coming to see her as a potential life partner when she explains, as a writer:

"I read somewhere that American poetry tends to be elegaic in tone. We tend not to write the kind of political or funny or celebratory poems that other cultures do, we write about something that's been lost. I think it's because we're a nation of exiles. We separated from our homelands and had to act as if it was this great choice, moving here for freedom and new opportunity. Except I think the opposite is mostly true -- we moved here because we had no choices left. For whatever reason, we could not survive in the homeland. I think it's possible that a majority of immigrants were people who were dysfunctional in a particular way. And certainly a big chunk of our population either fled outright slaughter -- like your people -- or were kidnapped and brought here against their will. (...) And then, even with those of us here now for a generation or two, we can't find a place of safety in our families of origin. We flee to the cities on the coasts and live as exiles there, longing for our families but not able to ever go back home. We make new families together, bands of exiles. Some of them, like the lesbian community, are very satisfying. Some of us love each other as well as people have ever loved each other. But it all began from a place of exile. I think if you don't acknowledge that, and grieve it, you'll never be happy."

Grief and praise in equal amounts, a banquet table. Described by Edna St. Vincent Millay in Childhood is the Kingdom Where Nobody Dies thus:

To be grown up is to sit at the table with people who have died, who neither listen nor speak;
Who do not drink their tea, though they always said
Tea was such a comfort.

Run down into the cellar and bring up the last jar of raspberries; they are not tempted.
Flatter them, ask them what was it they said exactly
That time, to the bishop, or to the overseer, or to Mrs. Mason;
They are not taken in.
Shout at them, get red in the face, rise,
Drag them up out of their chairs by their stiff shoulders and shake them and yell at them;
They are not startled, they are not even embarrassed; they slide back into their chairs.

Your tea is cold now.
You drink it standing up,
And leave the house.

There are so many at my table now, I don't know where to squeeze in. I'll come at it indirectly.

When I was ten or eleven, when I knew that I was a writer and a Lesbian but not sure how I'd ever get to live as either one, ABC aired a special production of Brigadoon starring Robert Goulet as Tommy the American who finds true love in the past wilds of Scotland. The premise of Brigadoon is that of a small town which, centuries ago, allowed itself to be suspended in time so that it only came to life once every hundred years. For the inhabitants, there was no gap; one day followed another. But the rest of the world went on without them. The question it posed -- if you fell in love with someone from Brigadoon and had to either go with them, losing everything else you had known to the mists of eternity, or stay in this world and lose your love forever, which would you choose? -- hit my preteen heart like a sledgehammer.

I literally lay awake nights thinking about it. Even though I had not yet been in love.

It's what come up when I am reminded of Robert Goulet, what I remembered when I heard he died this week waiting, sedated, for a lung transplant. His big deep voice, from an era when men were not afraid that singing passionately would make them seem "faggy", belting out:

Can't we two go walking together
Out beyond the valley of trees
Out where there's a hillside of heather
Curtsying gently in the breeze
That's what I'd like to do
See the heather -- but with you


What a day this has been
What a rare mood I'm in
Why, it's almost like being in love
There's a smile on my face for the whole human race
Why, it's almost like being in love
All the music of life seems to be like a bell that is ringing for me
And from the way that I feel when that bell starts to peal,
I could swear I was falling, I would swear I was falling,
It's almost like being in love.

I sing these two more often than you might guess, and it always brings my cat Dinah running, though usually she either ignores my singing or retreats from it as offensive. I suspect it's the vibrato in my voice on these particular songs that draws her curiosity -- my version of channeling Robert Goulet.

Years later, I saw the 1940's Gene Kelly/Cyd Charisse film of Brigadoon at the Castro Theater in San Francisco, and while I loved Gene Kelly, the music was lackluster in comparison. I have the vinyl soundtrack from the TV show, though I read online there is no known video of the broadcast. So, either you know what I'm talking about, or you don't.

RIP, Tommy.

(Washoe in 1995, Central Washington University, with Deborah and Roger Fouts)

Today we also lost Washoe, the chimpanzee who learned to speak American Sign Language -- bringing to three the total of remarkable animals who've died this season. The New York Times and other articles about her stated:

"Washoe, a female chimpanzee said to be the first non-human to acquire human language, has died of natural causes at the research institute where she was kept.
Washoe, who first learned a bit of American Sign Language in a research project in Nevada, had been living on Central Washington University's Ellensburg campus since 1980. Her keepers said she had a vocabulary of about 250 words, although critics contended Washoe and some other primates learned to imitate sign language, but did not develop true language skills.

"She died Tuesday night, according to Roger and Deborah Fouts, co-founders of The Chimpanzee and Human Communications Institute on the campus. She was born in Africa about 1965.

"The chimp died in bed at age 42, surrounded by staff members and other primates who had been close to her."

(Fup, store cat at Powell's, The City of Books -- photo courtesy of Shopcat)

I subscribe to the Powell's Bookstore newsletter, primarily because of the weekly "column" written by/about Fup, the Store Cat. I've been to Powell's (in my dreams, I win the lottery and spend a week buying it out) and saw Fup briefly. The store website has a tribute to her by Ron Silberstein that states, in part:

"Fup, the resident cat at Powell's Technical Books, passed away on October 25. She was 19 years old. She continued to greet her admiring public to the end, when her health failed and there was no choice but to put her to sleep. Her lifelong veterinarian made the trip out to the store to perform the task and Fup died peacefully at home with several of her longtime co-workers present.

"Fup was born on or about June 30, 1988. She was adopted as a kitten by the Technical Store's first manager, so her exact birthdate is unknown and she was always quite coy about that. As for the origin of her name, legend has it that the manager's sister had a cat named Puff, so he sort of spelled that backwards. There was also a book titled Fup by Jim Dodge, published in 1983, which may have played into it as well.

"When Powell's Technical Books moved to its present address in November 1990, Fup made the move as well. After clearing the building of any remaining mice, she claimed the store as her own. She showed little interest in the outside world, except to watch birds and falling leaves outside the window. She didn't care for toys, either — Fup took her position quite seriously.

"In her youth, Fup would sometimes climb ladders and hide at the top of book fixtures to look down upon the humans in her domain. Over the years, Fup acquired a well-earned reputation for biting employees who intruded on her time for more than about 30 seconds. However, she would always be sitting in front of the office to greet whoever came to open the store in the morning, demanding her serving of canned food for breakfast. She was more patient with visitors; Fup played the celebrity game well. She received many gifts and cards and emails from fans, which she appreciated.

"In her later years, she mellowed out quite a bit and even became friendlier towards her co-workers, especially if they shared their lunches. Her favorite foods were canned tuna, chicken (especially Tandoori), and pulled pork. Cold cuts were also welcome.

A website devoted to her, Shopcat, states "Her main duties are to walk around and keep an eye on things, and to act as a paperweight. Her favorite places are in boxes of any size. She usually naps in the fax paper box, but we caught her jumping in the 'Outgoing Store Transfers' box."

(Alex the African Grey Parrot)

And in September we lost Alex the African Grey Parrot. The website sparked by study of him at Alex Foundation states:

"Known as one of the most famous African Grey parrots in history, Alex pioneered new avenues in avian intelligence. He possessed more than 100 vocal labels for different objects, actions, colors and could identify certain objects by their particular material. He could count object sets up to the total number six and was working on seven and eight. Alex exhibited math skills that were considered advanced in animal intelligence, developing his own 'zero-like' concept in addition to being able to infer the connection between written numerals, objects sets, and the vocalization of the number. Alex was learning to read the sounds of various letters and had a concept of phonemes, the sounds that make up words."


Anonymous said...

I cried and cried for Alex.
I'm very much a bird person, and I'd love to have an african grey eventually (not in the current tiny apartment, of course). He was so cool. As smart as a 4 year old, too!

Jesse Wendel said...

This sucks.

First we lost Robert Goulet and his amazing voice.

And now I read we've lost Washoe and Fup?

Bleah. How am I ever to go into Powells again?

Bad 2007. Bad.