Sunday, April 10, 2005


The Awakening

The fourth weekend of September 2001, San Francisco was shrouded in fog; not an unusual climatic condition for Fog City that time of year, but a particularly poignant one in the baffling aftermath of the events of the preceding eleven days. Early Sunday morning, as I glided south, cutting through the fog on the Golden Gate Bridge, staring at towers and cables that disappeared into the mist; from my seat on the starboard side of the bus I stretched to look down at the current tugging at the channel buoy.

I was still savoring the richness, the profundity, and the texture, of the most heartfelt emotions revealed by my new classmates the previous morning. The humanity, the dignity, the love of these scholars: immigrants from Africa, Asia, and Europe, refugees who had felt the terror of war, America’s privileged, as well as the descendants of slaves; would congeal later that morning into a new poem, recited line by line in turn, around the circle of this new tribe that was just beginning to open itself to the notion of new ideas of obligation, responsibility, and the very important work that implies.

For America, these past 11 days had been an awakening to the grievous injuries our country has inflicted on the world. For those of us converging on New College this Sunday morning, it would become an awakening to our roles in healing these wounds.

Seeking to explain the disturbing degree of hysteria and war fever, it was noted by our instructor “War has a different connotation for those who haven’t experienced it.” Those in the room who had, confirmed the lasting scars war leaves on the psyche, the haunting dreams of children crying for their mothers, the terrible powerlessness one feels as bombs rain indiscriminately from the heavens.

About a week after the spectacular events in New York and Washington, I found particular poignancy and inspiration in the writings of Muriel Rukeyser. In fact, I e-mailed the introduction to her book The Life of Poetry to my colleagues around the world. I found myself haunted by phrases like “They had seen how, as foreigners, we were deprived; how we were kept from, and wanted, above all things one: our responsibility”, and especially, “…we spoke as if we were shadows on that deck, shadows cast backward by some future fire of
explosion” It almost seemed as though she had written the following last week, rather than in 1949: “The acute scenes were still on our eyes, immediate and clear in their passion…Everything we had heard, some of all we loved and feared, had begun to be acted out. Our realization was fresh and young, we had seen the parts of our lives in a new arrangement”.

Her comment about the meanings of poetry helping to make whole the spirit, recognized in primitive peoples’ “ability to dance their shared foreboding” brought to mind visions of my Lummi Indian friends, holding hands, stepping sideways to the drumbeat, in a vast circle of Indian women, children, elders, and veterans, encompassing an entire city street intersection, four drummers and singers huddled over the large drum in the middle.

This tribe of Northwest Washington Indians, whose territory takes in the San Juan Islands and the Mount Baker volcano, had been threatened by then US Senator Slade Gorton with loss of their funding for senior health care and Head Start pre-school education, if they continued to seek enforcement of treaty obligations in preventing the extirpation of native salmon runs on the Nooksack River. In spite of their complete vulnerability to the whims of Congress, they nevertheless danced and sang their claim to human dignity before the towering courthouse of the dominant society, sending shivers up the spine of elected officials and faceless bureaucrats, the hair on the back of their necks standing on edge. “The vanquished in war”, as Rukeyser warns, “may still, years later, invade the fears of a victor nation…The knowledge of this gift [of connection] is very powerful…its ignorance is fatal”.

Rukeyser speaks of the sense, in 1949, of an age disclosing, “undefined possibilities” and “new meanings for unity.” Yet, she tells us, “Poetry will not answer these needs …rather, it prepares us for thought. [Without action], you will be left with nothing but illusion”.

The breakdown of communication, she cautions, is the death of culture. As our values lose obligating power, she notes, “we make a criterion of adjustment, which… denies time, possibility, and the human spirit”. I say let the culture of silence and adjustment die. Let us dance to its death. Let us bury the forms of weakness, these forms of the corruption of consciousness. Out of our shared sense of peril, let us find a greater possibility of communication.

Let us rejoice in the awakening!

--Jay Taber

[This essay about the Sunday September 22, 2001 BA Completion seminar with Professor Ani Mander is included in the book War of Ideas.]


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