Sunday, August 31, 2008


[Thoughts on an old essay in Today's Pictures, here.]

I love pictures of buses. I think there are subtle differences in modern photography between buses, trains, and cars. Cars are about a kind of freedom of the road -- individuality, usually, but sometimes selfishness or self-imposed isolation. Trains convey a feeling of industry and motion over long distances. Bus pictures are different. The bus signifies local concerns. Interactions on buses tend to be more mundane -- more personal (not in the sense of individual, but more in the sense of intimate, close to quotidian life, ordinary). Photos of bedraggled buses are interesting in much the way bedraggled people are interesting -- there's more texture.

I suppose the burning bus is the exception. But even then, a burning bus is shocking in part because it's such a rupture of everyday life.

At any rate, I'd rather ride a train than a bus, but I'd rather look at pictures of buses.

rain in august

When I lived in Seattle, I biked like a demon through its jagged topography. I couldn't afford a car, and the stereotype is true that most of the year Seattle is moist, its roads unamenable to braking. I purchased instead a Gore-Tex (TM) jacket, and received free with my purchase a long-sleeved T-shirt that bore the opening stanza from Robert Creeley's "Rain":

All night the sound
had come back again,
and again falls
this quiet, persistent rain.

Over the next two years, I wore that shirt to some of the most beautiful places I could imagine. I wore it while playing frisbee in Volunteer Park, a hill in the center of the city with a 360 degree view of mountains on a clear day. On most days it was a bath of mud, and I would throw myself horizontal in air to catch frisbees that some gust had suspended at the last moment, so that they and I were weightless, and snatching one was like picking a blackberry. I wore it hiking on Mt. Rainier, to the meadows at 9000 feet that only reveal themselves a month of every year. I wore it to alpine lakes, and I wore it while playing "Risk" in the city's coffeeshops, because there's nothing like cotton comfort when rolling a few armies into Irkutsk.

Naturally, Creeley's stanza worked its way into each of these moments. I would look out the window, or sit on the sidelines, or break for a drink, and the lines would come back to me, for in the same way the words invoke the soft repetition of rain (You don't believe? Listen for the n's...), the actual rain for me came to conjure the words, so that long before I read the whole of the poem, I was hearing Creeley everywhere.

Great poetry for me is more than an experience of reading. It is a process of remembering. It's a little like Goethe's Faust, who longed for a moment that would be so beautiful that he would wish to suspend time. If I find language striking, it works in me, and I feel joy at its unexpected resurfacing. I want it to linger. It's not just that there's this poem out there, "Rain," by Robert Creeley, that will yield itself to close reading -- and let me emphasize that I also enjoy the line-by-line parsing of poetry -- it's that there is a "Rain" that I carry around, a rain in august, that shapes the way I encounter the world.

If reading is that idiosyncratic, it's hard to have a debate. It's hard to say that I've really understood the poem, or that I get what is happening. It's entirely possible that I have missed the point entirely. And yet I think such connections and miscues are essential to what happens when I read. Part of the power of poetry is its capacity to be endlessly misunderstood. I could meet another person, April, who lived in a desert and whose life with Creeley was on of intense longing and a sense of never being totally fulfilled. We would agree about what the words say, but rain in april would seem to be a different work.

Or even the august I describe here seems a bit foreign to the person who is now writing this post, a decade after the Seattle sojourn, with the T-shirt in question long since donated in some clothing drive. In this way, my wholly individual, partisan, twisted view of the first stanza of rain raises an important question, one that I will probably mull for decades:

What am I to myself
that must be remembered,
insisted upon,
so often? ...

It is in this way that I know that Creeley has written a perfect poem.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Women in War II: American Soldiers in Iraq

(Second in a series attempting to shame XX Factor bloggers into writing more about the effects of war on women).

From the Washington Post:

"We live and work with the infantry," said Maj. Mary Prophit, 42, who heads a four-person civil affairs team with a Stryker battalion in Mosul. An Army reservist and librarian from Glenoma, Wash., Prophit handles security duties from the hatch of a Stryker armored vehicle, watching houses during searches and returning fire when shot at. "Civil affairs teams have to be prepared to perform infantry functions, because at any time we could be diverted," she said.

In January, Prophit was delivering kerosene heaters to a Mosul school when insurgents detonated a roadside bomb as her convoy passed, fatally wounding three Iraqi soldiers. Prophit moved to shield the medic treating the wounded, firing at insurgents who were shooting at them from a mosque across the street. "Women in combat is no longer an argument," she said matter-of-factly at her camp near the Mosul air field. "There is no rear area."

Martial virtues – bravery, strength, power, glory, camaraderie – although never the exclusive province of men, definitely have been gendered male. That is changing in part because of the efforts of women soldiers fighting and dying for their country. Even those of us who believe the war to be misguided still claim to support the troops. I would argue that a key element of supporting the troops is not forgetting who they are. More than in any previous war, they are women.

The deaths of women soldiers -- more than a hundred since the beginning of the war -- can be particularly poignant. Sgt Princess Samuels died in 2007 in a mortar attack. Her mother said, “I want to know why I’m planning a funeral while George Bush is planning a wedding.” Samuels and others are honored at The Mother's Day Project, an attempt to construct a memorial for fallen women soldiers. Note that “fallen” in 2008 means something very different than it would have in 1958.

Numerous reports suggest that American women at war face the problem of rape. I do not know how to evaluate the accuracy of these reports, but they seem worth discussing (to be fair, Dahlia Lithwick did mention one incident here). Even the possibility of rape suggests that the way women experience war can differ from men.

All of this raises a hosts of questions. What justifies the policy of keeping women out of combat positions when women are clearly experiencing combat anyway? Does the presence of women change the way war is conducted? Do women soldiers change the way we talk about differences between men and women? When we throw out platitudes about "supporting the troops," is there anything we can do to support these troops?

Perhaps the XX factor bloggers will have something to say.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Women at War I: South Ossetia

(First of a series attempting to shame XX factor bloggers into paying attention to war.)

Prior to the Russian intervention there were the refugees: people fleeing South Ossetia. It is a cliche of war: women and children flee, men fight. Here's one story from The Guardian:

Alisa Mamiyeva, 26, a teacher at the arts lyceum in the South Ossetian capital, Tskhinvali, said: "I came in the boot of a car. Georgian snipers were firing at us from the forest. I heard the bullets hitting the chassis.

"My brother stayed to fight. Our grandparents' home was turned to rubble. We don't know where they are. Nothing is left of their village. It was totally destroyed by rockets and tank fire."

One thing struck me in the Guardian story that seemed perhaps a little different from the cliches -- many of the women quoted in the stories are professionals. They have jobs: teacher, lawyer, hairdresser. To be sure, there are also images of elderly women peering into space , but much of the early reporting of the conflict involved women and children getting onto buses, leaving their careers as well as their husbands and homes, and fleeing into Russia.