Thoughts . . . by Mark Rich

. . . scribbled . . . scrawled . . . trimmed . . . typewritten . . . grubbed up . . . squeezed from circumstance . . .

Friday, December 21, 2018

Full Moon, Winter Solstice

Well must you know: what song are you? —— calls midnight
Crow. Though Solstice eve may lay day low,
dusk brings serene Selene to Moonmost glow.
Benighted, quieted: all things (amid light

growing, echoing occluded Sun)
melodically dispel their glooms —— despite
day's lengthiest night-muting. Full Moon's height
re-echoes off the Soul —— that Silent One,

of Many. Look, now, down this open well.
The deep shades, rounded, hush appearances
to singleness: all shapes, all distances.
But soon midnight's Moon-echoes, there, will swell
to carol in the year! Your Christmasses
are Solstices to me —— as you know well.

Sunday, November 18, 2018

On a "Tribute to Speculative Poetry" in Rattle, Number 38

One may well ask why one should review in 2018 a magazine released in Winter 2012. Unlike magazines largely available only in university libraries or private collections, however, Rattle makes past issues available on-line, so that the 2012 issue may be read at no cost save the electrical. More to the point, however, it had been bothering me, during my lengthy near-silence as a writer, that I had not responded in some way to that particular issue's "Tribute to Speculative Poetry."

I feel that I may fairly offer comments since my only input into the "tribute" came at its call for manuscripts for a special "science fiction poetry" section. I wrote to editor Timothy Green urging a term-change. As I recall I wrote but a short note without lengthy reasoning. I never submitted a poem. Had the initial call gone out for speculative poetry I might have felt obliged to do so. That the call was for "science fiction poetry" left me feeling obliged to ignore it.

Rattle has taken to running theme sections constantly; and these have come to seem to me "too much of a muchness," to use a wonderful phrase favored by an old professorial friend. When I received this Winter 2012 "tribute," with the speculative label slapped on, I felt a certain dread, and then, when reading it, a bit turned off, put off, and, unfortunately, bored. Reading it again this year I have made it a point to read all the issue's poems at least twice, due to having felt in 2012 that the only speculative poem in the issue appeared outside the tribute section. I must have been thinking of Kenny Williams's "The Return," which has entertaining natter but seems at heart a jazzlike riffing on denial, a voyage into a vacancy of meaning. Its conceit involves a far-future return to Earth, framed in language that should engage most listeners.

The tendency to make cleverness be a poem's point does turn many attempts at poetry into page arrays of words that easily can be read as "speculative" — as with Michael Meyerhofer's "Pasteurization," in this issue but not in the tribute, or John Lane's "The Poetic States of America," within the tribute. In such cleverness the verbal intellect rules. Richard Krohn's non-tribute poem "Pancakes," for instance, offers the associational chain that some poets enjoy taking to the level of absurdity, often to good effect. The absurd did play its role in speculative poetry's rise, without becoming necessary to its flourishing: for the impulse tends to favor a disregard for sense more than it does the reshaping of sense that may lead toward an altered view on existence.

I think that, rather than outward cleverness, the speculative poem must rely on wit as it does on wits. Wit reflects a deeper mental movement toward realization — toward a mental rapture, in large or small. We live in a world that largely goes along forgetful about wit — a world that keeps itself attuned to the current cleverness, which so often is a device, an automation. This situation should make it, you might think, a premium occupation to be a speculative poet, who is unavoidably devoted to the wits as muses, witty for a time after having burned candles at the proper shrines, and weak-kneed and immolated by the thought that society would like to force upon us all death by cleverness. A ruling society thrives by keeping us well out of our wits, and well into our emotions.

In my current readings in Rattle 38, Conrad Geller's "The Destination" has emerged as the highlight in the "tribute" and perhaps the issue. It reflects memory and desire meshing, in language that removes the listener from immediacy. It suggests motion away from this-worldliness. A particular reason to like it lies in that it has not shed its lyricism, it being loosely iambic, with one line breaking from blank-verse ("other January nights ablaze with stars"). In line-count a sonnet, it achieves sonnet-closure through its combined internal and ending slant rhymes.

In the vague luminosity it has, the poem moves beyond the realm reached by, for instance, a sonnet trio in the issue, Anna Evans's "Zeitgeber," concerned with a woman's courtyard garden and her dementia: quite fine as a sequence; quite this-worldly in its reaching. Conrad Geller's added quality might be the "glow/ you can't quite touch" — as the prosaic language cannot, in John Philip Johnson's "Stairs Appear in a Hole Outside of Town," even though that poem contains that line. I do wonder if it can ever be an issue, whether or not one can touch a glow. Johnson's poem, in the "tribute," may be the most unshakably speculative poem in the issue. Despite its prosaic, talky language (for what could be more prosaic and talky than, "It's creepy/ because it's so bland"?) I think it fair to call it a poem. In the speculative poem a music besides the music of words exists. The music of the idea, if lovely enough, carries the prosaic into the poetic. It has long seemed to me, moreover, that some notions, to reach the listener, must appear in prosaic guise almost of necessity — which suggests why open-form flat verse so strongly dominates in speculative poetry, and why the "prose poem" seems so congenial a quasi-form. In Johnson's poem, unfortunately, the idea will come across as music mainly to those too young to know that the endless staircases must be endless in number, in imaginative writing. Lacking both music of idea and of word does tend to leave a poem seeming broken prose, however skillfully executed. This poem's ending, with that mentioned glow, does nearly make up for its flatness. Had it more invoked the glow and less talked about it, it might have taken a reader farther.

It should leave me unsurprised that poets might lack historical perspective on imaginative writings. Personal, confessional, mock-emotional, and autobiographical writing has risen to so high a university-honed level in audience-pleasing excellence that it must seem silly to read older imaginative works, even if one feels inclined to write imaginatively oneself. I myself forever lack enough perspective in this area. A "tribute" poem, Laurence Snydal's "Eye in the Sky," for instance, shares its title with a 1950s science fiction novel that I have left unread. I recall reading once about how poor an effort it was; and its opening page inspired in me no turning to the next. Even so, in meeting with this poem, I doubted that the poet had read the novel — perhaps influenced by such instances as the one that occurred in the Winter 2014 Rattle, no. 46. This made it seem that it is the latest cleverness to appear to make a literary reference when one is simply exposing one's innocence of knowledge — a state worth having in Eden, perhaps, if one is unlucky enough to be there. The poem in no. 46 was Christopher McCurry's "The Man Who Was Thursday (after G.K. Chesterton)." Comfortably though it reads, the poem stands in no relation whatsoever to Chesterton's old, odd religious fantasy except in its having co-opted the name. McCurry left out from his subtitle a few words: "after (not bothering to read) G.K. Chesterton." History matters nothing to some would-be writers. Why study and consider it in a time when one simply trumps it? As so often happens, cleverness smooths over an emptiness.

To judge from an interview in the issue at hand, history seems even to be taught in erased form — insofar as here a university teacher says, "I think free verse is a form additional to metrical poetry." Any dictionary, at least any pre- or early-television dictionary, will describe free verse in a way that includes or involves the metrical. (From the 1948 American College Dictionary: "verse unhampered by fixed metrical forms, in extreme instances consisting of little more than rhythmic prose in lines of irregular length." Webster's Third: "verse whose meter is irregular in some respect or whose rhythm is not metrical.") In a Venn diagram of "writing with a sense of measure," I find it difficult to imagine that free verse's smaller circle could extend much beyond the larger one's. Blank verse's five feet constitute the constricting shackles that free verse burst and laid aside, with a glee that seems to me a little excessive: for Romantics had already loosened the tightly bound foot and often threw foot-counting and even line-counting to the restless winds. The term that has seemed best for what dominates, in our self-indulgent literary scene, is the "open form" — open for business, open to any influence, open versus closed, open to being dull or opaque in one's language — as in "open-form flat verse," the term I consider more apt. Yet obviously people are being taught about "free verse" by teachers who neglect history and logic. For if free verse does include the irregularly metrical, and also does include the "rhythmic," how can one say that it lies outside the bounds of the metrical and the rhythmic? If they mean flat verse, let them say so. Or simply "flat," since short writings so often seem verselessly that.

Even current history seems neglected, as it happens, in the "tribute." The world in which I exist contains astronauts, robots, and human-appearing automata. For Moderns these may have served as gateway tropes taking the listener from now to whenever or wherever. At present they take the listener from now to now, or from here to here. By themselves they imply continuity rather than disjunction. Similarly the poems that draw upon trademarked characters (Amorak Huey's "Rocket J. Squirrel Goes Alone to Couples Therapy" and B.J. Ward's "Wolverine the X-Man Kisses") refer explicitly to communal experience. Mannerist in nature, they borrow even the reader's character-recognition for sexual imagining — a central imaginary adventure for postmodern flatness. (The presence of such poems in the "tribute" does echo a similar mannerist tendency in genre prose.) These poems reflect a thinness in our culture. Compared to the steady and crystal-clear fantasy and violence found on comic pages and movie screens, the individual soul must be a flickering and fading-away one that should offer such borrowings as sustenance for other souls. The fact that these poems have quite positive qualities on their side — they did win placement here, after all — makes the conundrum the deeper.

In a similar vein the religious-influenced poems — "Seraph" by David Kutz-Marks and "One Possibility" by Marilee Richards, both in the "tribute" — reflect primarily consensus reality, playing upon belief structures that to participate in require little imaginative leaping, especially since religions keep hoping to have us off our toes in just these hackneyed ways. Both, as it happens, seem worthy efforts; and the Richards poem adroitly leavens its conventional nature with humor.

That such a range in poem-types should appear in this section seems only natural for a "tribute" whose editor has "let the community of writers dictate where the boundaries might be." The editor does well in his introduction, "On Speculative Poetry," by contrasting this form to poetry that is "self-oriented, pseudo-biographical, and set in something like the present reality." He then notes that old epics "might all be described by an impartial observer as 'speculative,'" and adds, "This is what we mean by 'speculative,'" — having invoking A Midsummer Night's Dream and The Faerie Queen — "a term often attributed to Robert A. Heinlein as a broader alternative to science fiction." Heinlein's coinage was "speculative fiction." Its "broader" aspect must be laid at the doorsteps of Michael Moorcock, J.G. Ballard, and Judith Merril. Green then turns to Suzette Haden Elgin for a definition of speculative poetry as "about a reality that is in some way different from the existing reality." In other words, he turns to the one person most responsible for the continuation, in the 1980s and afterwards, of that awkward 1930s flapping of ostrich wings, the term "science fiction poetry," to obtain a definition based on what The Magazine of Speculative Poetry was offering by the 1980s for the term "speculative poetry." To top this, the opening poem in the "tribute" relates a beach incident involving drinking, urinating, and the police.

Thus does "speculative poetry" appear with banners and cornets in a magazine that enjoys a high circulation, by poetry standards.

I should note, being not an impartial observer, that Homeric and other epics offered historical narrative in movement toward the mythic. In the speculative poem, as seems the case in Geller's — or as in Kirstin Berkey-Abbott's "Currencies," another fine work in the "tribute" whose theme has kinship to Geller's — the imagined scene inhabits a realm that approaches the mythic. The realm exists outside history, and outside the contemporary world picture — just barely outside the latter, in these two poems. In these, the speculative poem offers an invented motion to take the listener toward and perhaps into that realm.

Shakespeare's Midsummer, drawing from the mythic, offered its audiences a fairy tale. The Tempest as a fairy tale might have presented a happier example from the Bard, in that its early-Modern quality comes through in more pronounced fashion. In his times, fairy tales and the contemporary world picture were diverging, yet remained in touch with one another — as they would remain, in the folk mind, well into Frost's day.

Spencer, lastly, conceived visions with allegory, not false reality, in mind. Whether he was drawing more from chivalric history and myth than he was moving toward it and into it may be known to one who has read and studied farther in those pages than have I. Separations between worlds do appear, naturally, in both Tempest and Faƫrie Queene, as they do in Paradise Lost after them. They achieved their power through their converging, as narratives, with cosmological visions common to the time. The diverging from common vision, by separating the irrational from the rational and placing the former upon the landscapes to be found within the mind, constituted the innovation found first, to the best of my knowledge, in Poe.

(Completed, as with the previous essay, 13 March 2018)

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Treaders of Starlight, the 1974 Coinage, and Rebecca S. Marcus

In some ways traveling back in a life seems but the matter of a moment. Now we are here; now, there. Yet to take anyone else into paired moments of the Now and the Then becomes an exercise in drawing lines — between vagueness and precision, between the dimly possible and the clearly impossible.

I cannot help the vagueness. As to the precision, I have kept records, if incompletely, as well as copies of publications, all now scattered and hidden on shelves and in boxes. Sometimes I have kept journals, though where they might be the mouse telleth not. And I may have old correspondence, since in mythic times people wrote on paper, gave them wings of perforated postage, and had "correspondents" afar who opened envelopes to have their lives changed, in small.

At an early point in my life I became a drain on my parents' pocketbooks due to my correspondence. While stamp collecting had not yet died for me, there in the early Seventies, rejection-slip collecting was gaining its hold on my affections. I long have had the memory that my first poem appeared when I was thirteen, the age I was through most of 1972. In 1973, having been in correspondence with writers in a circle surrounding a fantasy-magazine effort named Wyrd, it came to me that I should attempt the same for a type of poetry that was as much imagination-based as was the fiction in Wyrd or The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, where the classified ad appeared that had led me into the small press.

I have wondered about putting words to memories about these small-press efforts — which did result in tangible publications in 1973, 1974, and 1976. I long have avoided it. I did feel curious as to whether facts about them, meager that they are, would sift out without my help, through anyone else's sieve. Yet I think my tendency to silence and avoidance prevailed, with my curiosity being simply a blind in which I could hide myself from myself. That tendency has served me sometimes poorly — as I know all too well after the self-imposed silence following my Kornbluth biography's publication.

I dwell often, these days, on the hide-and-seek motif in Robert Frost's early poems "Going for Water" and "A Revelation," which he paired in A Boy's Will in 1913. The injunction appears in the latter that those "who hide too well away/ must speak and tell us where they are." When first I learned these lines they stood out for me since they refer, I believe, to Frost's own Symbolist instinct and practice, while offering an injunction, a homily, that easily I could take personally. Having seen too many creative people advancing their own interests with finger-cymbals and party horns, I have tended to let works speak for themselves — and to speak for me, if necessary. Yet the taciturnity in my Grandpa Kikuchi, so formidable and impressive in him, to me as a child, also made him unreachable, and perhaps unknowable. Often upon this, too, I dwell.

I needed to go back to handwritten records, just now, to write those 1973, 1974, and 1976 dates. At hand now, too, I have the first Treaders of Starlight: The Magazine of Speculative Poetry, with its October 1974 cover date. I have been meaning to set hands on a copy since late in 2015, when I learned, thanks to a conscientious instinct on her sister's part, that Rebecca S. Marcus, my co-editor for that issue, had died. Born 1958; died 2015. I know little about what life held for her after her middle-teenaged years — although the sister relayed that Rebecca did continue working on her poetry.

Apparently she taught for a time at a Christian school, where she must have done well, since she was intelligent and adept at the written word. In the brief time that I attended Gateway High School in Aurora, Colorado, she and I served as teacher's aides to our mentor-friend Mary Ella Langsford, whose name and spelling I hope I recall aright; and no doubt Becky went on and made similar work her calling. Her interest in Christianity already existed. Since my father taught the philosophy of religion and since as a family the Riches belonged to First Baptist in downtown Denver, I felt not entirely awkward in Christian territory, even though I felt less so outside it — say in the state historical society museum next-door to the church, where sometimes my mother allowed me to go that I might avoid the liturgies and sermons that droned so grayly. Rebecca and I both read C.S. Lewis; I remember the Denver pastor being surprised that I had read and enjoyed The Screwtape Letters. Yet Rebecca would dip into his nonfiction, where I delved only into his fiction. My exposures to other influences, especially the glimpses given me of Japanese Buddhist life — which in Denver seemed to maintain a cheerful influence within the Japanese community alongside the quite strong Japanese Christian life — no doubt helped me feel that a person could flourish outside the Christian churches, ever-present though they seemed to be. Somewhere early I acquired a distaste for the word god if capitalized into a name; and surely had not circumstances intervened, my impulse to look cockeyed at Christianity would have made spaces between Becky and I, however inseparable we were as companions for a time in those, our middle-teenaged years.

In looking again at her poem in Treaders, "Crowns," I learn now about another difference that existed between us, invisible to me at the time. The relevant words were but names to me. I admired in 1974 and do still today those closing lines in her poem: "The sky no longer red, but grey,/ The sea no longer surging." I had no specific influence on this poem, beyond possibly the spelling for "grey," since back then I preferred it that way, and was the typist for publication. With those lines it seems apparent to me now that the poem completes an arc that reveals its Romantic nature. In Romantic idealism the individual emerges against the backdrop of a ruined age:

Crowns and cups and silver candles,
Golden wings lofty in the dawn.
Dragons roaring fierce defiance,
Clouds of glory ascending to the sun.

Mortal rankings rise and fall,
Yet man stands upon the earth,
And throws his challenge to the skies;
Lightnings slash the crimson plain.

Once this was, but now man gazes
On asphalt, where his battlegrounds stood.
The sky no longer red, but grey,
The sea no longer surging.

The last lines ring with the plaint that "we have given our hearts away, a sordid boon." It echoes those laments for mythic powers that were there for us in Wordsworth and somewhat still with us in Frost, as, in prose, in E.M. Forster. These motifs — the sense of a vanished age, of our diminished selves, of the draining of myth — might seem strange from a teenaged poet, except that teenagers so often flare once or twice into glorious perceptiveness, with apt and canny insight, before fading into and struggling against the grays and sea-calms that the adult world forces against the maturing soul. Whether these motifs reflected movements in her own soul at that age none can probably say, if I cannot. My recollection fails as to whether she wrote the poem before we Riches left Colorado for Kansas, or after. Yet I do know that I read it gladly and thought that nothing about it was not like her; and those last lines left their impress.

It has occurred to me that the Romantic idealist's view upon Robert Frost's poems would be the common one: that he is a New England realist, as opposed to the Scottish Symbolist he might rather have had the world see him be. He left evidence as to that preference. This thought that occurs does have relevance to Treaders of Starlight, insofar as this little magazine happened to present Rebecca's Romantic idealist poem, flavored with the quasi-Medievalism of Modern fantasy, against the poems that are Symbolist expressions. Whether or not those other poets knew what they were about, their poems took that tack — such as Ron Nance's "Palingenesis" and "The Sound of Frightened Breathing," JeanPaul Jenack's "Sun Dream," Duane Ackerson's "Old Uncle Willie," and my own "We, Starlight Treaders." (Other poems beside Rebecca's express Romantic idealism, especially Walter Shedlofsky's "Ephemera" — but also Amos Salmonson's "A God of Virtues.") These works by Nance and others I specifically regarded as speculative poems, although I was willing to have the related, congenial, or simply handy-at-the-moment other poems and verses to place alongside them. Nance's "Amanacer Exit," for instance, took a personal and realist turn, as I remember he himself noted in a letter. Yet it bites at and almost swallows thoughts and images yearning toward the Symbolist leap; and I wanted to publish it, quite liking it.

It seems striking, now, that this split should occur between us, the two editors. I had suggested the magazine project, thinking it might be nice to have a reason for our keeping in touch. Since manuscripts came in the mail to Kansas, whatever passed before Rebecca's eyes had been seen first by mine; and since some contributors were my correspondents, such as Nance and Salmonson, my influence over our choices was undoubtedly too strong, while Rebecca probably too willingly heeded my preferences. Her own poem tells me now that she might have assembled the issue with a different flavor, given the chance, and had a wider range in submissions arrived than what we actually received.

Frost's poem "Revelation" may be Symbolist or, more simply, serious verse. It depends on how you read it. Yet the thought that it is a pity "if the case require ... that in the end/ we speak the literal to inspire/ the understanding of a friend" becomes striking when taken in relation to the Symbolist realm. There, the symbol reigns within its kingdom without exposing the fact that it is the king — or is not the king, if it happens in the poem to be called the king. In other words, the poem never speaks the literal. I understood this in a skewed and partial manner already as a teenager; and even though I would come to define speculative poetry in a similar way, the close kinship, and the necessary kinship, between speculative poetry and Symbolism has only become clearer to me in relatively recent years.

The poem in the speculative mode speaks from the world it inhabits, without reference to the listener's; or perhaps it assumes the listener is moving into that other world, abandoning briefly this one that is shared with other readers of the page, other listeners to the poem. I usually have used the term "consensus reality" for the realm that is slighted or ignored by the speculative poem. The Symbolist poem moves along with that same attitude, that same conceit, usually doing so nearly invisibly, so that a king may hide his symbolic true self behind the outer fact of being a merely factual king; or a leaf may pass unnoticed as a persistent, unrevealed symbol because it is what it is on the page: a leaf. The listener hears the word "leaf," and believes it to be simply that, even while being moved into a second realm. Speculative poetry takes a step just a little beyond, and some might say too much beyond, in that it aims for — in the terms I was using by the 1980s — mimesis of that which is not here in consensus reality. Mimesis of the nonexistent. Imitation of the unreal.

Perhaps from the beginning I have practiced avoidance, having some sense that whatever I had in myself to say would never quite come across to others if spoken directly. To "speak the literal" would fail me. And while I felt attracted to what was being called "science fiction poetry," to me it seemed not the thing to do, to call it such. I read Peter Dillingham's article about it, in the genre small-press zine Eternity SF, and argued with his having embraced that term. I also had Edward Lucie-Smith's anthology Holding Your Eight Hands. Being a fascinated delver into the New Worlds anthologies that somehow had become mine, I knew the term "speculative fiction" as one to apply to the works that strained old boundaries. For me, taking a like approach to poetry only made sense.

At this point I regretted having announced the Treaders title, since now I yearned to name it The Magazine of Speculative Poetry. I exchanged advertisements with Steven Gregg at Eternity SF, and there announced the new subtitle. I have little doubt, though, that I also sent off a letter to Rebecca with the subtitle idea, being excited over this simple coinage.

I have no doubt, moreover, that I did coin the term, since I arrived at it through a conscious process. All the same it seemed, and still seems, quite possible that someone else had the same idea. Simultaneity so frequently marks innovations, large and small. So I made no claim to priority, then or in later decades. In small part I felt that any show of proprietary interest might slow its adoption; in larger part, that time would resolve questions that I could answer only for myself, as to the term's beginnings.

The term itself I assumed would take care of itself. I had trouble thinking that anyone could accept "science fiction poetry" as anything but awkward and embarrassing, and imagined others would soon accept a better name, whether mine or another's. In some ways my choice did take immediate hold. In others, it slumbered in backwaters. I disappeared into college, a stimulus that put to sleep some matters in my mind, for a few years. By this time I had released a second, extremely low-budget Treaders issue two, with only my name on the masthead. Rebecca's and my correspondence, already having lessened, ended not long after I entered college in 1976. Having seen her last when I was age fifteen, I was now a half-worldly half-adult, age seventeen.

While the part she played in speculative poetry was perhaps simply a role to play, without the undertones that an involuntary, intellectual passion gave the part that I played, Rebecca must have been among the first to learn of my coinage; she was one of the two first editors to be associated with it; and, thanks to small-press and "zine" historians, she has seen her name preserved in its connection.

For me, in my own inner life, I believe she was the focus for a poem whose words if not page-arrangement I recall — "I am afraid/ of the gardener/ and his hoe// Sometimes I think/ our roots will touch/ forever" — which appeared in the Denver Post not long after I wrote it. The same holds for a second poem I wrote that was worth publishing, which may or may not have appeared somewhere, whose words I cannot conjure without help from some old paper slip that I hope still exists somewhere.

I leave it at that. For a year or two, or more, we were great friends — youthful, enthusiastic, and constantly trading thoughts. The constancy stretched thin over distances first geographic, then temporal. Time always alters for the worse the wonders that we are as youths, even if it makes up for any diminishment with the far-stringing, the knotting, the stretching of those strands that hold us to others — those strands that present our most obvious and most outwardly turned semblances to the world — that define us and seem indistinguishable, in the end, from who we are. Even when one of us goes, those strands linger, connecting us to a place that never quite can be called an emptiness.

(Completed March 13, 2018)

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Moon Tea and Whiteface (I)

An essay in two parts: June 2014 and April 2018

Part One: June 2014

Days after Wiscon, in our back yard, I set a quart jar with water and tea bags for sun tea. At breakfast the next morning, looking out the window at birds and flowering apple trees, Martha said, "I see you made moon tea." After having been out overnight it tasted much as it might have after the usual few hours in the sun. Yet I had been thinking earlier about how one sets out to do one thing and ends up, deflected by circumstance, doing something else. Making moon tea seemed just the phrase for saying that we have this way of accomplishing the unintended.

Later that day I happened to see a photo related to an old theatrical revue, and that brought to mind the word "blackface." I recalled a Wiscon panelist making passing reference to the vaudeville tradition, during an "Afrofuturism" discussion, that Sunday afternoon previous. The panelists had been addressing the question whether writers who were not tracing their personal, non-ancient ancestry to African sources might participate in helping create the body of creative works covered by this particular umbrella. The panelists noted that Afrofuturism itself, as a term, had been coined by a white observer. This to my mind seemed not quite akin to blackface performance, although somehow allied.

The term tied, too, to another strand of thought arising from the scattered panels that I attended over Wiscon's main three days. This related to the "default white." It seems that this term refers to a character's race when a story leaves race unspecified. The reader presumably assumes the characters are "white." The contemplative reader, it would seem, might further guess that the author assumed that the characters were so.

Do authors set out with a full knowledge of the racial make-up of their fictional characters? I am not at all sure — even being a writer who does spend time thinking about his characters, and who occasionally — I do think occasionally may be the right word — feels moved to consider "race" as a leading consideration during the creative act.

I feel quite clear about this being-not-at-all-sure: for by accident, or at least through no careful planning on my part, my Wiscon hours partly went into revisions on a new story. Between those work sessions, the panels I was attending made me ask myself, "Does my story reflect the racial diversity found in our world?" At first I thought not. Yet after revisiting the question at various hours during the days and nights of Wiscon, but especially in the relatively clear-minded morning hours when I devoted myself more to my revisions, I realized my ultimate uncertainty. In the story I was working on, I saw two characters, an off-stage son and an on-stage father, as distinctly Caucasian. The focal character, a woman, however, I saw with no such distinctness. I truly felt uncertain. Not until the convention was in its ending moments, when I happened to be talking about the experience of reading aloud my story the day before, did it sink in what she was, in racial terms.

Conversation can start a mind to improvising differently than it does in reflection, or in writing; and in this instance it opened to me connections between default whiteness and the woman character in my story, and between those thoughts and my own difficulty in knowing distinctly what sort of creature I am, myself, being partly one thing and partly another. I said, in this conversational moment, that I had been thinking about this idea of the default white, and had been considering introducing my story to the audience by saying that I feared all the characters in it were default white. In the event, when I looked out onto the room, which ended up surprisingly full, I saw myself addressing a white audience. Whether or not my perception encompassed the true state of things I naturally cannot say: for the reality of a performance situation is that the performer has some powers for observing her or his audience for a time, but then enters a state that is not altogether present to the room, being partly absent, to be inside the work offered. Yet I had this impression, and as a result made no comment about default white characters. The next day this incident arose to my tongue, and I said, to a friend newly made at the event, that there we were, four white writers reading to a white audience. I said that and fully participated in the meaning of the sentence without realizing the irony of the fact that I had just earlier said, in the same conversation, that I, myself, was default white.

"There we were." In that moment I called myself white. My self-image was weighted by the image of my father, Anglo-Swiss of background. In a mirror I see someone other than him. He whom I do see see is a familiar presence to me, as well as a familiar puzzle: yet in the context of a foursome of writers, the others of whom I assumed were white, who were speaking to listeners I assumed were white, I assumed of myself, too, whiteness. The assumption had nothing — absolutely nothing — of novelty in it. Forget about that Anglo-sounding name, Mark Rich: for in this weekend I had found my true name, initials D.W.

For I had said already in this improvisatory spiel that I was default white — as were my story's characters. I said this while still not quite seeing that the lead character in my story was white in the way that I was. In other words, she was, and she was not. I had been encountering such problems in thinking about this aspect of her character, while doing revisions there at Wiscon, because I have never resolved my thoughts about this aspect concerning myself.

I made these comments in one conversation, and, in another, I observed that this Wiscon had offered an accidental arrangement of events — mainly programming ones — that, for me, had an overarching narrative strand — so that I was for all purposes a character within that narrative.

I have long felt some awareness that this difficulty beset me, concerning what face I present to myself or to the world; and I think for that reason, probably microseconds after having the word "blackface" come to me upon looking at this photograph, days after Wiscon, I accepted without question the complementary term that then popped to mind — no doubt already coined and re-coined in times past:


(Continued in next post.)

Moon Tea and Whiteface (II)

Part One, June 2014, continued

When driving away from Madison, north and west through quieter territory than that the city offers, all this struck me — what I had said, and how I said it: "There we were, four white writers, reading to a white audience." In that audience I had anticipated more obvious racial diversity than what I saw; and that anticipation had been what made me think about introducing my example of non-diversity with a spoonful of self-denigration — an admission of my failure to possess the sort of creative imagination that has as its default setting a vision of diversity, not one set in place by dominant-culture pre-setting and imprinting. I say self-denigrating, for I have a tendency that may be self-defeating, as an "artist" in our culture. For our culture rewards self-proclamatory artists over others; and this tendency of mine is to admit to my self-perceived shortcomings. I resist the tendency at times, even while embracing it as a sign that I am not overly self-deceiving — with self-deception being the Scylla to match the Charybdis of flattery.

"There we were, four white writers." At the reading I believe my mind had no such thought. At convention's end, however, I said this aloud. Even though I had just talked about having a "default white" way of viewing myself, which is not the same as saying that I have a white way of viewing myself, I used those words — "there we were" — perhaps so that I would have an unalterable fact to mull over while heading northeast.

I passed through few population centers, on my preferred route from Madison — towns with simple names that may embody white history and language: Plain, Loganville, Hillsboro. As far as I know they are mainly white-complexioned these days, although Hillsboro and its surrounding area once had a significant Black American component. Within Hillsboro a historical marker stands to commemorate either their former presence or their current semi-absence, since that particular community, a century or more ago, left the area.

Whiteface? However white that area might appear today, its history, in the time since the Native American expulsion, contains more than simply white history. In the Afrofuturism panel the term "one-drop rule" arose several times, with the panelists assuming the audience knew its meaning. Does that rule apply to village or town? In an organism, a one-drop rule must pertain to its entire life. In a community, too?

In a way, in my inadvertent statement — "there we were" — I demonstrated what I already had said of myself, in my of-the-moment realization that whatever I may be, I have felt uncertain enough about its nature that the course of least resistance has made me, in self-image, white. Although some individuals in my life have seemed to see my Japanese-ness, they may have known my parents first. In meeting Japanese people I usually feel the need to announce my being half-Japanese — as if certain that this cannot be seen. At such moments I believe that, in some way, perhaps in a purely symbolic way, I am a white man who, when he speaks, becomes non-white.

To make a gross generalization about the Japanese, they, or we, are realistic. While being realistic can lead to a certain hard-headedness, it may point toward adaptability, as well.

To make a gross generalization about Sansei, who are third-generation Japanese immigrants in America, we (I leave out the "they," since I have never had a question about being Sansei) tend to assimilate rather than stand back in order to assert our racial or cultural heritage. I have no idea, truthfully, if this tendency actually prevails among Sansei. Yet that it does exist in the group forms one certainty, in my mind full of uncertainties. Bill Hosokawa wrote a book entitled Nisei that chronicles contributions in America by second-generation immigrants, who were not only inventive and industrious but also clearly conscious that they occupied a distinct place among "Americans," generally speaking, in being Japanese. The U.S. government made sure that this awareness remained bedrock in their minds, through its actions during World War II; and the awareness helped give the Nisei a group-sense. No such similar experience strengthened the Sansei group-sense. That we had Japanese backgrounds no one was making quite so distinctly, vocally, or socially an issue.

I know I am more curious about my Japanese cultural roots than some in my generation: for some do seem content to erase their Japaneseness in becoming part of that "Americans, generally speaking" group. Yet I may feel more open to my Japaneseness because my mother, in marrying my Anglo-Swiss father, half-erased my Japaneseness on my behalf. My own Sansei tendency to erase my Japaneseness, to "assimilate" myself, has less to work with, while my curiosity and inclination to draw out my Japaneseness has more, since my already-assimilated "white" self can be whole-heartedly curious, when it wants to be.

The question rises, as I write these thoughts, as to what I saw when I looked in a mirror, as a child. Did I even look? As a child I was, of course, short. The bathroom mirror hung in its usual place, at adult eye-level above the sink. My parents had, as I recall, a full-length mirror on the inside of their bedroom door, into which I rarely peered. Even when I did, who knows what I saw. I remember when I was young and my younger sister was a year or two old, that she had the lightest brown hair — the hair, I am supposing, of my father's mother, Ada, whose lightness of hair and complexion seems to have been part of her Woodbridge inheritance, the inheritance that gave my father an appearance markedly different from the men of the Rich family of my grandfather's generation. They were large men with prominent brows, strong jaws, and hair dark enough to pass for Japanese. At a few years old, my sister looked more Woodbridge — as it seems to me now. She later acquired an appearance with more Kikuchi elements, to my eyes.

As we grow older the images we take to the mirror change — as do our inner resources for seeing, not-seeing, or reinventing the reversed object, the backwards fact, that we find looking at us.

As it happens, the short story I read aloud, Saturday at Wiscon, included a passage in which the woman character — the one whose racial identity I feel uncertain about but who is, all the same, as I am — looks into a mirror, not at herself, at first, but at a cloudy image that seems to be there, behind her.

(Continued in next post.)

Moon Tea and Whiteface (III)

Part One, June 2014, continued

I approached this Wiscon planning to pay attention to its guests of honor — not something I always do, or always can fit into my schedule, especially in years when I volunteer my time to moderating panels. I was curious to hear more from Hiromi Goto, since I had heard her speak relatively little, the year she won the Tiptree, and since I have been trying to find room in my reading schedule for some Japanese-background writers. I was curious about N.K. Jemisin, too, partly due to her having appeared on the scene in 2010, the only recent year when I gained significant insight as to happenings in the fantasy-writing scene, and partly due to her Convergence 2013 speech that had won her a reputation for controversy.

I had read that speech's text and had thought it neither incendiary nor overly provocative. Yet I had come across comments from some within the science fiction and fantasy field who expressed discomfort. This suggested that more was taking place, in the speech or outside it, than fell within my purview — enough so as to make me feel it important to attend a panel that Friday, the first night of regular programming at Wiscon 38, with the title "Reconciliation within Science Fiction and Fantasy." The description cited Jemisin's 2013 speech, quoting a passage that seemed quite positive in nature, to my perspective, in calling for making "an active, conscious effort to establish a literature of the imagination which truly belongs to everyone." The program description added the questions: "What would a Reconciliation look like? How can we start one? How can we grow one?"

In that 2013 call for action, which struck my eye and helped send me to attend the panel, lies the beginning of the journey I would take during the next few days — not a journey anyone else might have noticed me undertaking, and not even one I much noticed myself undertaking until it had taken place. In the words "active, conscious effort" I found my stimulus: for they planted the pearl-seed that lodged not solely within my thoughts pertaining directly to the stated topic but also within the part of my mind concerned with creative effort. In the former thought-arena I wondered what more needed to be done, truly, that was not already in process, within the genres. In the latter arena, I wondered how an active, conscious effort might affect creative endeavor: for in the development of one's artistry, whatever that might be, one must seek an understanding of one's unconscious contributions to the creative act — insofar as "to understand" offers the best word for that statement; and to achieve, then maintain, a balance between unconscious and conscious contributions to the creative process. Excess reliance on the unconscious creative urge leads to incomprehensible, disjointed works that come across as flighty and undisciplined — whereas giving excess emphasis to conscious decisions can make it impossible for that indefinable quality to emerge that makes our word "art" so elusive. We have seen writers of talent becoming dry, becoming old, when riding a hobbyhorse mechanically designed to go from point A to point B, a course determined by a pedantic, moralistic, or political message — thus a predetermined message, or in philosophical terms a formal cause — a teleological expression, hence not one that we take as true expression, or at least as full expression, of the creative process, even if for no other reason than that the creative process cannot be pre-determined.

In the arena of the attitudes and practices within the field, I did think the process had gotten well on its way. One development occurred around 2010, following the formation of the Carl Brandon Society, which does seem to be performing a function akin to that of the Tiptree Awards organization. In 2011, the trio of new novelists N.K. Jemisin, Karen Lord, and Nnedi Okorafor made a striking debut in the U.S. fantasy scene, with all three appearing on the World Fantasy Award ballot. Okorafor won that award. Their appearance on the ballot reflected strengths: for the three made their novelistic debuts when other quite accomplished novels appeared without ballot acknowledgement. For me, Patricia McKillip's The Bards of Bone Plain comes to mind. While Okorafor gained perhaps the most public stature, in the immediately following years, both Jemisin and Lord earned readerships and critical attention.

2010 had arrived not as anomalous but as a year that arose from the continuum that began in the 1950s, when the self-awareness of the science fiction and fantasy genre reified itself — made itself physical, palpable, and almost measurable — in the form of awards. For better or worse, award-winners became prominent features on the genre's constantly changing, mirror-viewed face. Their lists created at least the impression of racial diversity after Samuel R. Delany won many nominations and awards, spanning decades; and his 1989 Hugo for The Motion of Light in Water made it more than clear that a work's expressing thoughts relating to minority identities in our culture, both racial and sexual, offered no obstacle to its achieving the highest recognition, nor to its becoming, as a memoir, an accepted subject or term within the field's conversation with itself. To draw on Charles Peirce's notions regarding the continuum of thought, Delany's book changed the continuum of the conversation within the genre, just as any other book would and could; and the book's title represented not only the book itself but also became a sign that yet another change had affected the continuum.

Similarly the 2010 World Fantasy ballot presented individual novels, drawn forth from a communal reading experience; and at the same time it became a sign in the continuum that three new novelists, who to readers seemed to share the quality of expressing the Black American woman's experience, had become significant parts in the field's development. From that point onward, any new signs of change within the genres would appear within a continuum in which the signs of 2010 were indelibly a part. These novelists had achieved permanence within the ongoing conversation; and the conversation that has taken place since then cannot be said to be the same as the one that took place beforehand. In other words, the genres cannot be said to be the same after 2010 as they were before. Or, to put it in yet other terms, Jemisin, Lord, and Okorafor seem to have taken the step, by means of cooperating genre editors and publishers, "to establish a literature of the imagination which truly belongs to everyone." Whatever their creative intentions, in their novels they had created works that would become standards, against which future works might be measured. Their works "established" them; and just as those works became part of the established genre, their authors acquired established voices. Neither the works nor the voices stood outside. Whether or not they stood elsewhere as well, they stood within the genre.

I should note that I was a judge in the World Fantasy Awards process that resulted in a ballot slate of which half were written by new Black women writers. Please note: half. The slate is normally not made up of an even number of novels. I am quite unsure as to whether any among us judges were quite aware that we were so disturbing tradition by sending in a six-novel slate. Had the administrators thrown out the slate, I have, naturally, no idea which of the six they would have cut, although Jemisin's might have seemed the logical sacrifice. I felt Jemisin's novel portended something of importance, while feeling it could not actually win the award, as part of a trilogy. What other judges felt I have no way to say. I do have reason to suspect some might have jettisoned the Lauren Beukes novel Zoo City, which impressed me tremendously, but which other judges regarded as too science-fictional — which came as a startling perspective, to me, since its flight-of-fancy elements were out front and essential, and were in-the-face anti-empiricist.

Imagine, though, if you will, what would have happened had Zoo City been expunged from the list. New novels by Black American women novelists would have occupied thee-fifths of the slots, on the nominee list. If, at that moment, the literature of the imagination did not belong to everyone — supposing that "everyone" means all who are black or white — then I find it hard to imagine a similar, equally powerful moment at which just such a gate-passage might have taken place.

In emerging from that gate-passage, Jemisin undoubtedly had experiences that helped inspire her comments at Convergence 2013. Yet from her comments at Wiscon 38, it seems to me that the situation within the genre that led to her comments about reconciliation derived — in however small a degree, though probably not small — from her experiences in the field of genre literature that prevailed before 2011. Anytime after that date she, herself, takes her place in the actual conditions surrounding and involving science-fiction and fantasy assessment and consideration.

For this does seem to me to be factual. The field as a whole, to some unknown degree, is to be judged on the basis of the works of the three Black American women novelists who achieved beyond the norm in their publications of 2010.

Oddly enough, Jemisin acknowledged this situation, in particular terms, not general terms, later during Wiscon 38: for she spoke about her Inheritance Trilogy being not her first novel series. Her first, in making the rounds of publishers, encountered among other rejections one from a publisher, Orbit, whose editors said they might consider it publishable had she an established name. Jemisin then wrote The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, which ended up being published, in that things-coming-together way, in the year in which Lord and Okorafor also made their novelistic debuts. By doing so — by partaking in a group-alteration to the continuum — she created the genre-publishing environment within which her first novel-series could then be sold.

Jemisin said that she wrote this new novel in a rage. This makes me suspect that even if calculation went into devising a book that would make an acceptable first novel, it played a role subsidiary to heartfelt execution, in developing and executing a reply, through the means available to her as a writer and artist, to fit the situation.

Her first series reached publication likely helped by the fact, too, that the debut novels by Okorafor and Lord sported covers making it clear — insofar as any novel cover makes anything clear — that their perspective centered upon figures who were female and, too, were African, African American, or perhaps African-Global of identity.

Orbit, a presumably forward-thinking publisher of science fiction, published Jemisin's debut with a cover that might have spoken in almost any visual tongue to contemporary readers. I mean this observation not as a criticism against Orbit, especially given that Jemisin herself describes her Hundred Thousand central figures as being racially split, but rather to highlight the fact that DAW Books and Small Beer Press accepted the images of Black women for the fantasy-novel covers they published, with neither apology nor coyness. Jemisin became a "name" at the same time that two other prominent novels appeared under jackets placing, foremost, images that embraced the Black experience and the female experience, and that accurately presented the novels in that regard.

In any case, this trio, coincident in their rise, nudged the genre field in a new direction, without any "active, conscious effort" behind the re-directing. However much the coincidental might figure into the situation, it did arise naturally from an ongoing progress. Some observers in 2014 might have reflected on events in 2010-11, and made comments about the field "growing up" or becoming adult in a deeper way than before. We must remember, however, that mature, intelligent observers have made that same assessment since the beginning of the genre's self-conscious existence. The genre will never achieve any one, particular state until it has expired. Until that time, the process behind this appearance of maturation will continue.

That the Wiscon panel on reconciliation existed, as did Jemison's 2013 speech, reflects the perception and belief that "barriers that currently exist within the genre and fandom" do stand in the way of meeting Jemisin's call for recognizing "the real history of this genre" and acknowledging "the breadth and diversity of its contributors." These words from 2013, and Jemison's participation in Wiscon 38, take part in the process of facing these barriers — while these barriers, too, contribute to the process.

The panel description asked, "What would Reconciliation look like?" I would think that one possible appearance would be an awards category in the year 2011 that was dominated by woman writers, four in number, three of whom are "diverse" in an additional way — with one of the last winning the award, as chosen by a panel of judges, none of whom, to my knowledge, fell into that particular category of the "diverse." The four woman writers who did appear on the ballot, I might add, did edge out other women and Black-identity writers.

The year 2011 offers only one possible appearance, of course. As the process continues, just how Reconciliation "looks" will continue changing, with its ideal constantly receding into the future.

I will not say that I had all these thoughts while listening during the panel. Various aspects in the discussion interested me; and the fact that some related to matters other than the situation that existed expressly within the writing genres made it difficult for me, and perhaps for others, to remain focused on the core issue, or at least on the issue announced as the core one. Some aspects clearly had purely social ramifications. Yet even in these the topic became large enough to become unfocused. Did the notion of Reconciliation apply foremost to the situation of the Native American expulsion and segregation, and the theft of their land — in an echo of the Reconciliation process Jemisin had witnessed in Australia? Or did it apply primarily to relations between White and Black people in post-slavery America? Did it apply only to the current moment, or to all past time?

Despite the disparate comment-strands taking place, a crux moment arrived in the form of a question from the audience — a question that already had its equivalent forming in my mind, and that must have been forming in the minds of other listeners. For the panelists had returned repeatedly to the topic of the science fiction and fantasy genres, even while Reconciliation never yielded its central place in the conversation.

At some point this statement had arisen:

"Reconciliation takes place after great harm has been done."

I believe but cannot say without question that Jemisin first voiced this perspective, during the panel. I feel certain, though, that she restated it when the crux question came in, from the audience — which asked:

Was enough harm done, in science fiction and fantasy, to make reconciliation necessary?

Panelists offered replies that I recall being various approaches to an affirmative answer — all having validity, in that their replies contained perspectives that shed some light on the current situation in the genres, whether from the perspective of the reader, the observer, or the writer. Jemisin, I recall, made general and generally perceptive points about the field, and suggested that it operated upon a base language within which continued the harm.

(Continued in next post.)

Monday, May 14, 2018

Moon Tea and Whiteface (IV)

Part Two: April 2018

I wrote all the above, in rough, soon after Wiscon 38. Before leaving the convention I had mentioned to Timmi Duchamp my perception that the event had been for me a journey. She replied that it sounded like something she might like for The Wiscon Chronicles. Afterwards, then, I began delving into my thoughts, only to abandon them — there, at that paragraph above this one, when I reached that crux question. At that point in the essay, knowing it had moved far beyond the word-limits for the Chronicles, I wondered what worth there might be for me to go on writing any farther. I felt I might have thousands of words yet to go.

Too, by June seventh — that last day when I was writing — I was feeling already the weakening grasp of the soul awakening from a thinning dream, with conscious perceptions hardening to the factual day. What had I seen and where had I gone? Was I, any more, the one to say?

In a week may seem too short a time to lose one's grip upon what an event had been, or upon who it was, who rode a cobbled-together raft on currents stirred by happenings. Yet such losses occur instantly. Just before or just after talking with Timmi about the journey — not the one undertaken but the one that had happened without being undertaken — I talked with Sherry Thomas about an insight that had arrived during the convention. The verbal music that I conjured at that moment, accidentally, led me to a further place that I had not realized I had reached. The thought rose in me that I should rush aside to write this down, that I might find my way back to that further place. Something in me knows when a new thought is fleeting. Whether I have access still to that further place will remain forever unknown to me, however: for I remained rooted to the social moment, not the personal one. I left behind that journey of many steps and many possible ends, with the brightest end having revealed itself obliquely only to take itself away.

Yet many things, in the second week in June, combined to take me away from seeking through memories and notes to redraw a map I had failed to draw when the moment was right. Summer developments in garden and daily life called; and that difficult shrugging-off of the ghost that overhung the long gestation and execution and aftermath of the C.M. Kornbluth effort remained for me to finish — unless it remained for me to I simply accept that particular haunting as mine.

It may be, too, that I held too much to that Wiscon for its factual aspects, and so remained too near it, for all that it already felt far away.

Whether or not distance needed to fall between me and what I had experienced, the distance fell.


In 2014 at Wiscon I did set out with a programme in mind: to find new writers to whom to listen. Not having read Hiromi Goto I planned to attend her events. Her guest-of-honor reading unfortunately fell against the panel on reconciliation, which, as I noted, called to me with a nearly imperative tone. Jemisin's calm and thoughtful approach to her subject, and to her audience, as it happened, altered my programme: for afterwards I found that the programming offered little of Goto, and ample of Jemisin, whose voice I did wish to hear more. Given that I was also spending time way from events — editing my story, reading passages aloud to myself, retyping pages on an old typewriter — the experience turned out oddly skewed, and perhaps spare.

I attended a panel featuring Goto on a "cultural grammar of experience," the panel description having led me think it would focus to some degree on her, her works, and the Japanese experience; and I listened with some regret to a discussion moving elsewhere than that. Goto, after a time in which other panelists spoke sometimes vehemently, said a few quiet words. An irony played into my later attending a panel called "Not All Aliens are Japanese" — a Jemisin panel, not a Goto one. I enjoyed it — Eleanor Arnason being in particularly fine form — although I felt unclear about why the panel had the title it did.

In looking back, however, I saw that in the program description appeared this: "#EndJapaneseElves." I supposed then that the panel's title had something to do with Anime, about which I know nothing. With that thought, in that week after Wiscon, when I was pondering the lack of Japanese-related content at a convention that in part was honoring a Japanese-Canadian writer, I noticed finally that the program guide did list Anime-related topics — which I suppose means Japanese-ness to many. It means anything but, to me.

I find now in my typewritten journal entry just after the convention these words: "I have been thinking while typing these thoughts of the tendency of Japanese to be self-effacing and how it reflects something exterior to the Japanese themselves: for this programming essentially holds up Japanese experience and effaces it."

How much does this matter? Little, perhaps. Goto herself may have felt comfortable in not being drawn into discussions about Japanese-related experience. The appearance of effacement merges back into self-effacement. And my taking interest in outwardly Japanese-related matters was the Sun tea I sought, not the Moon I found.

The panel on reconciliation had so diverted me from my programme, in any case, that the Afrofuturism panel then called me to attend it — in unconscious whiteface. There I heard that reference to the "one-drop rule," which, it seemed apparent, related to one's participating in or claiming a heritage.

For me, at least, the "rule" would seem to offer a red-light, green-light game. At one moment I might be a "white" man, having that drop of white blood; the next, a "colored" man, having that other drop. Given blood transfusions and retrovirus gene-splicings one might think it inevitable that all people would end up both the default and the option, at once, or in alternation. Anyone might take a bow on a stage and be unsure whether one did so in whiteface or blackface; we might set out to wear the one and end up in the other; or you might wear the one while the audience saw the other. And I could always call myself one thing, whenever I looked the other.

And as with Sun tea and Moon, we might feel hard-pressed to the tell the difference.

Yet with Moon tea, although I never know what it will be, I do know what it is — whereas with whiteface or Japaneseface it seems I never can know. By nature I can only assume them, or wear them, but never be what they represent.

In never-so-being lies the not-knowing.


How does reconciliation fit the one-drop perspective? The latter seems too much a trick and a game, except when it provides a grounding fact to help explain one's own feelings about one's identity. If it does have any grounding effect, then it seems unfortunate that it so easily leads to thoughts so facile and flip as those I wrote a few paragraphs ago. Does not the thought that one might alternate between states of self-identity seem contrary to the nature of identity? If we undertake a journey do we not seek to find who we are, even if the journey's outward purpose may be to see and experience that which lies outside us — and to seek that which was beyond the reach of who we were? For is not our own identity at the heart of this matter? Can we reconcile ourselves to others, or others reconcile themselves to us, if neither we nor they know who we are — if our identity may be switched on and off at will?

Yet identity provides the base not only for action, for involvement in the world, but also for identification — for putting ourselves in another's shoes, another's geta or zori; and also for imagining our taking the journey that others have taken, through gates we cannot pass. Identification may be a reflex born of identity — a reflex that takes us outside ourselves — outside our self-identity — only then to swing us back to self-identity, enriched with the iota of changed perspective that alters the thought-continuum within which we exist.

From that perspective, the one-drop concept proves provocative. For can I partake of your journey — can I understand it — without the one drop of you within me? Can you follow me to this point without one drop of me, in you? I will never be that one drop of you. You will never be that one drop of me. Even so the thought-currents, the continua, begin to touch or merge or overlap; they alter, transform, and redirect themselves; and when they do, any such changes as do occur neither of us could have planned.

In other words it lies within our powers to do what is firmly outside our beings — to alter the world, simply through our having identity. If we need to put any face on this power then let it be the face of identity; if we must use the word default let us relegate it to some spiritless electronic program; if we are to think in terms of the genetic drop of enrichment or contamination then let us think of those streams, those currents, born in and borne upon, within and around, the souls that we believe to be ours — those streams and currents for which a single drop sometimes serves, in representing us — and sometimes serves, too, in the encounter, to divert an entire stream.

And as I write these words I do better realize the nature of that woman-character in that story of mine: for she is one apt to find herself drinking Moon tea.

Having turned to that now-years-ago Wiscon and its long-abandoned trail of memory and dream, maybe I should turn again to the story. "The Gate to Elfland," I called it, then. I have had another title in mind for it, for a year or so. "The birds have less to say for themselves, in the wood-world's torn despair," Robert Frost said a hundred years before the Wiscon of which I speak, "than now these numberless years the elves, although they are no less there." These lines nestle among the poems I keep in mind, these days. The unseen elf, the industrial evocations, the automobiles: these are whitenesses in that tale that I read aloud ... in whiteface. And into those places, those whitenesses, in my writing, I had thought sunlight fell. Should I see where moonlight fell, instead? Or where, unknowingly, I might have prevented its falling? I may need to look.

The End

Sunday, January 7, 2018

On those Frost lines ...

Thinking about "It Is Old Year's Day" a few days after writing and posting it (and this comes to mind at that verb's usage: "thousands at His bidding speed/ and post over land and ocean without rest"), the notion came to me that those lines from Frost must come across as nonsense, appearing there toward this poem's end.

Yet I have just re-read it, in my pencil draft here in this pad of paper, and am inclined to think it might still work for some readers. I took two lines from one, and one line from another, of Frost's two most widely known poems.

Then follows a line that sounds Frosty even if not; and then, the Frost reference that will be obscure to all who have not lived with the lines, "our faltering few steps on/ to white rest and a place of rest/ invisible at dawn."

So obscure to almost everyone.

The poem is "Stars," a snowy poem. And it has occurred to me — I cannot say if I had this in mind, when writing my noodle of "occasional verse" for the occasion — that the implacable, unmoved Wisdom in the universe, that the stars are in the poem, makes itself felt in our lives when the year ends.

For the year cannot but end.

A Frost-line found its echo, for me, two nights ago, in an effective way.

Near the end of Ursula K. Le Guin's The Farthest Shore, the aged Wizard Ged and young prince Arren enter the land of the dead: "The potter's wheel was still, the loom empty, the stove cold. No voice ever sang."

From among the earlier Frost poems that I had memorized came to mind the line, "with none among them that ever sings."

The voice in the poem "Ghost House" speaks from a place not far, in idea, from the one that Ged and Arren enter.

The irony only now has struck me that this voice belongs to one who in turn belongs to — to use Le Guin's term — the silent people. And in Frost's earlier poems, a poem is a song — perhaps literally but at least in metaphor.

This voice in Frost's poem sings, from among those who never sing.

You might say that the poet takes that which never sings, and has it sing — that being what a poet does.

Yet even so the irony remains.

Cheers ...