The cat is bemused by my gin & tonic.
NOW IN GLIMMER / NOW IN GLOOM
A mixture of high and low. From the electric light through the electric age.
Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird
by Wallace Stevens
Among twenty snowy mountains,
The only moving thing
Was the eye of the blackbird.
I was of three minds,
Like a tree
In which there are three blackbirds.
The blackbird whirled in the autumn winds.
It was a small part of the pantomime.
A man and a woman
A man and a woman and a blackbird
I do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendoes,
The blackbird whistling
Or just after.
Icicles filled the long window
With barbaric glass.
The shadow of the blackbird
Crossed it, to and fro.
Traced in the shadow
An indecipherable cause.
O thin men of Haddam,
Why do you imagine golden birds?
Do you not see how the blackbird
Walks around the feet
Of the women about you?
I know noble accents
And lucid, inescapable rhythms;
But I know, too,
That the blackbird is involved
In what I know.
When the blackbird flew out of sight,
It marked the edge
Of one of many circles.
At the sight of blackbirds
Flying in a green light,
Even the bawds of euphony
Would cry out sharply.
He rode over Connecticut
In a glass coach.
Once, a fear pierced him,
In that he mistook
The shadow of his equipage
The river is moving.
The blackbird must be flying.
It was evening all afternoon.
It was snowing
And it was going to snow.
The blackbird sat
In the cedar-limbs.
Why I became a feminist
I was probably born a feminist, though I did not know it. I was raised by a feminist, though she did not call herself one. I was taught by feminists, though they did not announce it. Declaring oneself a feminist was (and remains) a political act. Of course feminism is political; being a woman is political. It identifies you as a certain kind of person, though just what that means differs depending on who you ask. Even when I was young, I disliked labels (on clothing and for people), and I knew that I didn’t want to be dismissed for being ‘a certain kind of person’, as I knew, even then, feminists were. Feminists are a certain kind of people.
I once went on a date with a boy, which ended rather abruptly (in my mind, not practically, as we still had to wait for our parents to pick us up from the movie) when he told me that women not only could not do all the things men could do, but that they were not able. This division, he told me, was a part of God’s plan. I was fourteen and I could not think of a single thing that men could do but women could not. There were plenty of things women had not done yet, but I knew it was only a matter of time. Feminism is a waiting game.
In my first year at university, we read excerpts from Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex. I walked out of the lecture on the text with a classmate—a boy, on whom I had a wicked crush—who told me that feminists like de Beauvoir had gone too far (you see, men WERE physically stronger than women and women were better at emotions, but there is no secret patriarchy, so there could be no oppression) and that they had ruined all the fun. Whose fun, I wondered, but never asked aloud. If we were so weak, how could we be killjoys? I reminded myself that though de Beauvoir had been more successful than her peers at the Sorbonne and has never fully been recognised for her influence on Sartre’s philosophies (not in popular culture, at least), that the two had a complex relationship within the bounds of which she was and was acknowledged as his intellectual equal. She knew she was his equal, even if others didn’t. Feminism needs to cross boundaries, to smash expectations; exposing fear of female success and strength, revealing an ignorance of how gender equality actually effects gender roles isn’t fun—it’s necessary.
None of these things combined to make me consider myself a feminist. Despite a persistent and growing awareness of the history of feminism and its importance in my own life, I remained resistant to identifying myself as one. It was not, without some irony, that I joined the editorial board of a literary magazine with the word feminist in its title. It was a fairly prestigious magazine, run by undergraduates at the university where I had completed my first Masters’ degree in Classics and was about to begin the second of the two years I would spend completing a second undergraduate degree in English. I was encouraged by a friend, now a poet and a fellow scholar of English literature, to join the board: they needed the voices of people who understood literature, she insisted, to my surprise. Wouldn’t a literary journal editorial board be full of people who understood literature, I thought. I was wrong, though this was not apparent until we first began discussing the literary merit and feminist nature of the submissions we had received.
A few things about this literary journal: though it had a chair, decisions on what to publish were made by the board as a whole; all decisions must be unanimous. Our process was this: everyone read the submission and made three piles—one for definitely accept, one for maybe, and one for definitely reject. We would then discuss each piece in succession, with the goal of creating only two final piles: accept and reject. Most people agreed about the first and last piles, with a few exceptions that were vigorously debated. In principle and in practice , this is a fantastic way of ensuring a diversity of voices are heard and contribute to a publication, that no one has the authority to silence dissonant voices. In a worst case scenario (as this became), the literary merit and feminist values of a piece can be decided by people who have little or no concern for either; both can be diluted in the name of consensus; dissent leads to vagueness, to indecision. It was the middle pile, the maybes, that challenged our democratic process, consuming most of our time and energy. Feminism needs to be inclusive (and intersectional), though this can lead some people to think that it is not a coherent movement. Those people are wrong.
When you don’t know much about literature (maybe you haven’t studied it, or studied how to talk about it, or maybe you simply don’t ‘get’ poetry), it can be difficult to come up with constructive criticisms of works of literature beyond 'I liked this’ or 'it didn’t speak to me’. When you don’t know much about literature and are making decisions about what should or should not be published, simply liking or disliking something is not enough. When you don’t know much about literature and are responding to submissions about which you have mixed feelings, some responses are more effective (and appropriate) than others. Let me pluck a few examples from my experience to illustrate why. Appropriate responses could include: the idea is good but the writing is facile; the writing is good, but the idea is unoriginal); it is good but I think this is plagiarised; it is interesting but the author appropriated another person’s experience in a way that is unacceptable; etc. Inappropriate responses include: I like it, but I don’t really understand it; I think it’s edgy and don’t think our readers will take it in a bad way (re: a poem explicitly glorifying violence against women); its a good poem but it’s not feminist enough.
Oddly enough (and perhaps fittingly so), it was this last comment, that made me realise that I was not only a feminist but that I needed to be vocal about it. We were discussing a beautiful, technically accomplished, and moving poem. I thought I recognised in the poem the voice of a poet I had read before and knew personally, though I didn’t acknowledge this as this could have been an unwarranted appeal to authority. Surely, I argued, we should publish the poem on it’s literary merit alone. It shouldn’t matter that it is a poem about doing laundry and dreaming of P. K. Page (at the time, one of Canada’s most celebrated living poets—she died in 2010). But this is where my colleague started to dig herself deeper: the feminist politics of the poem were not obvious enough. Our readers would not understand what was feminist about the poem. Then why publish anything, I wanted to scream. Instead, I tried to negotiate, to strengthen my position: if we can publish a short story about a man’s experience of realising that women are afraid of him in a dark, public space, it follows we can publish this poem. Surely writing about women’s experiences is enough to qualify as feminist. With all my 'surely’s and 'it follows’, I thought I was being reasonable, but I was being radical. Too radical. Feminism needs to begin with women’s everyday experiences, but it needed end there.
So I was a feminist. What next? Realising, at least on some level, that the movement’s diversity of voices was both its weakness and its strength, I began to ask other members of the board what they liked about the poem. Did it speak to them? How so? Did it move them? How so? Did it change the way they thought about doing laundry? How so? Did it change the way they thought about laundry and its relationship to literature or vice versa? How so? &c. I asked questions until everyone had spoken their minds. No one held back. The result: I didn’t need to change my resistant colleague’s mind about the poem, only about how others would read it. Where at first the board had been lukewarm about accepting them poem, there was now a critical momentum in favour of publishing it. Feminism can change the way people think about their worlds.
Now I’m a feminist and I’m not afraid of being dismissed for being 'a certain kind of person’. Rather, I proudly belong to a large and diverse community of feminists (many of whom are scholars, poets, and artists) amplifying each other’s voices, supporting each other through setbacks and failures, and revelling in one another’s successes. In fact, thanks to the works and efforts of Sara Ahmed, I know I can even identify as a feminist killjoy. Feminism is a dirty word, but its my word. And your word, if you’re willing.
Sour grapes and whiteness.
Okay, so I’m delighted for Moonlight’s win, but I’m dreading both the inevitable clueless think pieces and hot takes that will misread everything, but I’m also particularly bracing myself for the most fucked up forms of white bitterness. I’m preparing myself, ultimately, for the moment where white people assuage themselves for not seeing themselves reflected in every goddamn surface, and like Narcissus momentarily distracted from his reflection by ripples in the stream, choose to mollify their unexpected loss with the sourest of grapes.
This feels particularly personal for me, not just because I am queer and black and Moonlight represents an unexpected moment of seeing something remotely like me in the main image of the mainstream Oscars. This reminds me of one of those shitty, demoralizing moments from high school that I’ve remembered for over 15 years. In the spring of 2001, as we high school seniors prepared for graduation and college acceptances began to rain down from the sky like some sort of strange, prophetic judgment, I found myself anxiously awaiting the results like everyone. At Bishop Montgomery, we published our student rankings, so every student knew where they stood. I was valedictorian, and ranked #1 out of our 300-odd student class. A friend of mine, Brandi, was ranked seventh. We both found out that we got accepted to Stanford on the same day. We were the only ones in our class, I believe, who did. We were also both black (and still are, for the record).
One afternoon, while finishing up editing an issue of the school newspaper, our copy editor, Adrian, came up to me. Adrian was a senior as well, and ranked tenth. He mentioned smugly that he’d gotten into Berkeley. I acknowledged I had as well. He then asked if I’d gotten into Stanford and I said yes. And he looked me dead in the eye and said, “well you know the only reason you and Brandi got in over me, right? Because you’re black.”
I hadn’t felt the rawness of the sour grapes of whiteness in the face of black achievement so intensely before this moment. I was sixteen years old, and I foolishly believed that my skill and my ability might somehow triumph over the reality of my blackness. I looked Adrian in the eye, shook my head and said, “Or it could be because we both did better than you. And that I’m the damn valedictorian. You could’ve just been better.” Adrian shook his head at me, his pale watery blue eyes flashing with anger, resentment, with an entitlement he’d already learned at seventeen. I’ve never forgotten this. Nor have I forgiven him.
Inevitably, in print, and in private conversations, white people are going to salve their bruised egos, their sudden lack of winning absolutely everything representational in a world where they see themselves and are reflected as beautiful and noble and neutral and all encompassing. They’re going to do it in a subtle and nasty and basic way; they’re going to say that “we” black folk won because Hollywood went “PC.” That it was being charitable to us negroes and our inferiority. It allows them to feel triumphant, burdens of superiority intact, as they decry the prize not worth winning any way, or having been negligible because it was in essence, a gift, an obligation that inevitably reinforces their grand white patrimony in their heads. And this realization tires me, utterly.
We have to be a thousand times better, as black people, just to be even remotely acknowledged as competent in a world, in a system, that systematically denies us of a shared humanity. I am expected to coddle and support and acknowledge white humanity every fucking day, but I am daily reminded that I am less than. And it’s going to happen today, and it’s going to be another moment of the sour grapes where an overly-entitled whiteness gratifies its bruised soul by calling us beggars and charity cases. And I want you to know that this bullshit is as hurtful as it’s unsurprising. I should not have to justify my very qualifications to someone who did less than me. We should not have to let people know that we matter, every goddamn day.
But we do.
I think we’ve got to do better when it comes to evaluating and reflecting on performance (no, not acting but success in our activities) and achievement, especially when it comes to comparing ourselves to others of a different race, gender, and/or class. Success in a society where there is systemic oppression should be weighted higher, not denigrated.
A Sharply Worded Silence
by Louise Glück
Let me tell you something, said the old woman.
We were sitting, facing each other,
in the park at ___, a city famous for its wooden toys.
At the time, I had run away from a sad love affair,
and as a kind of penance or self punishment, I was working
at a factory, carving by hand the tiny hands and feet.
The park was my consolation, particularly in the quiet hours
after sunset, when it was often abandoned,
But on this evening, when I entered what was called the Contessa’s Garden,
I saw that someone had preceded me. It strikes me now
I could have gone ahead, but I had been
set on this destination; all day I had been thinking of the cherry trees
with which the glade was planted, whose time of blossoming had nearly ended.
We sat in silence. Dusk was falling,
and with it came a feeling of enclosure
as in a train cabin.
When I was young, she said, I liked walking the garden path at twilight
and if the path was long enough I would see the moon rise.
That was for me the great pleasure: not sex, not food, not worldly amusement.
I preferred the moon’s rising, and sometimes I would hear,
at the same moment, the sublime notes of the final ensemble
of The Marriage of Figaro. Where did the music come from?
I never knew.
Because it is the nature of garden paths
to be circular, each night, after my wanderings,
I would find myself at my front door, staring at it,
barely able to make out, in darkness, the glittering knob.
It was, she said, a great discovery, albeit my real life.
But certain nights, she said, the moon was barely visible through the clouds
and the music never started. A night of pure discouragement.
And still the next night I would begin again, and often all would be well.
I could think of nothing to say. This story, so pointless as I write it out,
was in fact interrupted at every stage with trance-like pauses
and prolonged intermissions, so that by this time night had started.
Ah the capacious night, the night
so eager to accommodate strange perceptions. I felt that some important secret
was about to be entrusted to me, as a torch is passed
from one hand to another in a relay.
My sincere apologies, she said.
I had mistaken you for one of my friends.
And she gestured toward the statues we sat among,
heroic men, self-sacrificing saintly women
holding granite babies to their breasts.
Not changeable, she said, like human beings.
I gave up on them, she said.
But I never lost my taste for circular voyages.
Correct me if I’m wrong.
Above our heads, the cherry blossoms had begun
to loosen in the night sky, or maybe the stars were drifting,
drifting and falling apart, and where they landed
new worlds would form.
Soon afterward I returned to my native city
and was reunited with my former lover.
And yet increasingly my mind returned to this incident,
studying it from all perspectives, each year more intensely convinced,
despite the absence of evidence, that it contained some secret.
I concluded finally that whatever message there might have been
was not contained in speech—so, I realized, my mother used to speak to me,
her sharply worded silences cautioning me and chastizing me—
and it seemed to me I had not only returned to my lover
but was now returning to the Contessa’s Garden
in which the cherry trees were still blooming
like a pilgrim seeking expiation and forgiveness,
so I assumed there would be, at some point,
a door with a glittering knob,
but when this would happen and where I had no idea.
Something still pulls me to you.
It is hard to describe this day’s light,
The way it illuminates the golden leaves
Leaving glowing crowns on all the crowd.
The silence, save the whispering and fidgeting of children too young to know,
Resounds until our voices rose in song
And leaves began at last to fall.
But were we really remembering?
Woolf and the 1897 Diamond Jubilee (I'm going to London)
It’s a grey day as I head into London. As I’m coming from Oxford, I should say I’m coming down, but I prefer not to cloud my simple journey with traditional vernacular. Today is the last day of the four day-long weekend that marks Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee, but I’m not going to partake on the festivities. I’m going to London to do research.
This is the penultimate week of my third term at Oxford. I’m waiting to receive the outcome of my transfer of status interview – that definitive moment on a doctoral student’s life when things “get real,” so to speak. Things already feel quite real to me, of course, but my faculty wants to make it official.
In the meanwhile, I’m working on two things: a talk I’m giving at UCL’s One Day in the City festival next week on Virginia Woolf and London’s Lightscape in 1919 and part of the second chapter of my dissertation. Technically it’s the first chapter after the introduction, but it is the second one I’ve undertaken. while the majority of the research and writing for these two projects can be done from the safety of my favourite seat in the Radcliffe Camera, there are a few things I how to find in the bowels of the London Meterpolitan archives that I hope will shed some light on the historical details I will be weaving into my readings of the novels I’m using.
I’m going to London and staying with a friend in Islington, not just because she is cat-sitting but because the apartment is near enough to the archives and the British Library that what I hope to find will only be a stone’s throw away. Of course, anyone one who has worked in an archive before will know that this “stone’s throw” is more like a complex series of operations that are mostly based on chance and attention to detail. Do the records and documents I need exist? Have they survived? Will I find them? Will they even be useful. These are my questions, my archival hopes and dreams.
One of the things I hope to illuminate in my first chapter is what the London’s Lightscape was like between 1895 and 1897, as this is when Robert Marsh’s The Beetle and H.G. Wells’ The Sleeper Wakes were written and are set. You might also note that 1897 is the year of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee. Propitious, no? In 1897, London was the pinnacle of what we might expect a Victorian (or fin-de-siècle) city to be. It was full of people as well as emerging technologies and ideas. It was connected to and shaped by its past and it was beginning to indicate what shape it may take in the future (our past/present).
One of the wonderful things about my project is the way threads run between time periods and between authors. Writing in 1897 (though I am more concerned about what she is thinking about in 1917-9 and 1930-2), a fifteen year old Virginia Woolf (then Stephen) describes traveling across London on the eve of Victoria’s Jubilee celebrations. Much like this weekend, the city was kitted out in bunting and replete with spectacle and festivities.
What Virginia notices and draws attention to in that early diary entry is the presence of electric lights and Chinese lanterns among the event’s festoonery (not a real word, I know, but it conveys my point) and pageantry. The electric lights are not a part of her daily city; they stand out because they are exceptional. They are an extraordinary presence in London’s Lightscape in 1897, even though the city had flirted and experimented with installing electric lighting systems for the last twenty years, to little effect.
This is the sort of insight I hope to unearth in the archives over the next few days. The archives are always a fruitful place, even for scholars of English literature who tend towards close reading (as I do) and were trained in philology (as I was). It is up to me to ensure these fruits are well-harvested and well-prepared to preserve their succulency. I may have carried that fruit metaphor too far, but I stand by the sentiment.