Refuse/Refuge: Be Longing
Last spring, I was invited to participate in a round table in Tangier with a number of international writers with a question for us to write about and discuss: to what do I belong? Here is a modified version of how I responded.
As a child I belonged, absolutely, to everything. To color, to sound, to warmth, to my mother and the smell of her long purple dress with small crescent yellow moons, to the leaves swirling against the blue sky overhead, to the sharp, clean smell of eucalyptus pods crushed underfoot in the soft mattresses of understory leaves, to the tiny black ants crawling up my leg, to the sunlight filtering gauzily through the window, to the spiced apple-flavored yogurt I was allowed on my birthday, and to the dark cool recesses of rooms entered from blinding California light.
What I first belonged to was my senses, and the pleasure of each as it encountered the world new, new, new, and new. What the senses first teach us is relation.
And then, suddenly, I didn’t belong, to anything or anyone, not even to my own body. I remember looking down at my thighs encased in tights, with my calves tucked under them, while I sat with the rest of my second-grade class gathered around a teacher with a guitar, and suddenly knowing the thighs were too big. My body, my girl’s body, if it did not belong to me, must not fit in the world, either.
Looking down at the self, the self is suddenly looking at an object. Do I belong to the self or to the object? There were events that orchestrated that disassociation, too common, we know, to many children, especially girls. And then there were other ways of not belonging. And the further language took over the less I seemed to belong to myself.
When you awaken an observation, a certainty, a hope, they are already struggling somewhere, elsewhere, in another form. (Édouard Glissant)
How many suddenly discover that their bodies belong to others? How long does it take, and is it possible, to belong to oneself again?
(Aside: Do I belong, then, to #metoo? I do; but I’ll wrestle with that another time. What I want to say now is that since I could not speak or act from my body, I was pretty sure I’d grow up to be a man, a body from which I could take action. As a younger poet, I didn’t even need to think about who my poetic role models were—with a few exceptions, they were the kick-ass women who asserted a poetics that could turn Dr. Williams into a mother or H.D. into a father.)
In her fabulous book The Needle’s Eye: Passing Through Childhood, Fanny Howe wonders what kind of alienation led Dzhokar Tsarnaev and his brother Tamerlan to the extreme spiritual state that convinced them to fill pressure cookers with nails, ball bearings, and explosive powder to rip into other human bodies on an April day in Boston. To what did they not belong? How had the experience of relation been broken in them? Who names and gives legitimacy to belonging?
Last spring, the U.S. president did or did not authorize the largest non-nuclear bomb ever used, the “mother of all bombs,” weighing 21,600 pounds, to be dropped on Afghanistan. The blast could be seen 20 miles away, and the president called it “another successful job.” On any given day, listening to the radio, one might hear the words, “unclaimed attack.” What does it mean to “claim” an attack? Who was the last American president who did not drop a bomb? Is that part of the job description “U.S. President,” a duty that belongs to the office?
If I were asked to describe the present human moment, I might utter the words connection and disconnection. I might talk about the World Wide Web, which seems to be unraveling minds as it connects them. I might talk about my daughter staring at a back-lit screen in a stupor, or how her friends will “chat” for hours without ever seeing each other, how some of them terrorize each other on Snapchat. I might talk about the rise of hate crimes in my country, and the way they are egged on online. I might talk about the way deadly attacks on ordinary life are organized on the Internet, or how my memory seems to be failing since I can fact-check nearly everything on my phone, or about the role of Facebook and fake news (Facenews?) in the fake 2016 American election. I might talk about how reality itself seems to be privatized, each person holding onto an individual sense of it. As the world has become more global, humans have seemingly become not so much more local as more localized, i.e., more fractured; the mind is also being colonized. I recently suggested to the poet Jo Ann Wasserman that the machines had finally gotten out of our control. She suggested that they were the last benevolent intelligence. I don’t yet agree, but I do believe our minds are getting away from us, and that we have to attend to consciousness more than ever to make sure our minds are still our own to be made up.
For some ancient Greek poets, chaos (which is more of a gap than a jumble) is the grandmother or grandfather of love. For others, language began to put order to that gaping hole, putting the sky above the earth and the clouds between. What I read in the news sounds to me like chaos. I do not wish to claim it. Do I still belong to it? (Of course I do.) And, if I refuse this reality, how do I participate? How do I love the world? How do I love my country? How do I love?
From an early age, I was, along with everyone in my family and for various reasons, at odds with the dominant culture. My family structure looked nothing like most of those I saw around me in the small, wealthy California town I grew up in. Although most of us were (are) white, we were not that era’s right kind of white (Greek and Jewish), and, worse, there were single-mother families, interracial relationships, interracial marriages, and the extended family came in a range of hues, with many cultures in the mix. My mother and I lived in Section 8 housing, paid at the grocery store with food stamps, and usually hitchhiked to school.
Dissidents, drug addicts, homeless people, artists, activists. No one in my family seemed to agree with the government, no matter which party was in office, even though my mother and I benefitted, in various ways, from public assistance. My mother’s mother made her living, until the 1950s, as a burlesque dancer. (At night, she dressed up as a leopard and swayed her hips in smoky bars for money.) On my father’s side, my great grandmother was blacklisted, her passport confiscated. She had a vision of world peace and justice via the arts that apparently upset the U.S. government. My grandfather spent time in jail for protesting U.S. policies in Latin America, my father spent time in jail for fighting, my father spent time in jail for heroin, my uncle spent time in jail for drug dealing. My mother is proud to have spent only one night in jail, and says it wasn’t her fault. My father died homeless, of an overdose. Thus, I come from a long line of undomesticated women and men, and have thought a lot about ferality—its positive and its negative aspects. On the positive side, there is lots of room to create one’s own systems of being, outside of belonging, in chaos’s gap. On the negative, not everyone learns to move fluidly in and out of the hole.
To boot, I was an illegitimate child. Illegitimate, from late Latin, il–“not” + legitimus–“lawful.” As the great Martinican philosopher and writer Édouard Glissant points out, illegitimacy “threatens the community by leading toward its dissolution,” engendering tragedy. “If legitimacy is ruptured, the chain of filiation is no longer meaningful.” In structures reliant on filiation, we look to our ancestors, just as we might look to the origin of a word, to find out to whom or what we belong. This, he tells us, is an origin myth, a system created to fence out those who cannot pinpoint or claim an origin. Instead, Glissant finds structures, like the many-threaded creolized languages, “organically linked to the worldwide experience of Relation.” It is a state made through links between cultures and languages, not one that proceeds from an origin; it is instead “a language of the Related.”
(Aside: The feminist biologist Lynn Margulis, whom I hope to write a bit more about next week, advocated a symbiotic view of evolution, one in which several species of bacteria merged to combine possibilities like motility and oxygen consumption. This radical—and genome-vindicated—theory is the biological counterpart to Glissant’s Poetics of Relation.)
When I was young, I wanted desperately to have a clear filiation, to belong; but I realized (without exactly knowing the language for it) that to do so I would have to amend the structures around me. Thus, my deepest childhood desires were imaginative and recuperative. I wanted, for example, to save all the animals, endangered and ordinary. To erase racism and hatred. To reunite The Beatles! (Embarrassing, but on trend for a white kid in the 70s from a “broken” family.)
What I came to, instead, was poetry, a way of thinking and being in language that operates by linking disorientation, chaos, and experience into its own other-order, maybe mother-order (to matriline filiation). Poetry was a way to make a different kind of sense, a way to experience difference, in textures that allowed difference to feel like both a fraying and a weaving. Poetry always, in its very form and ruptures of syntax, troubles the dominant structures, lapping silently at, ever hoping to erode or unmask, their shores. It exists simultaneously at the edges of chaos and in the ordering forces of language. Through it, I could belong to resistance and refusal.
We experience refusal very bodily in the line break, when the poem manifests rupture in language, and we are dropped out into the ragged, empty space of the margin. In that break, I feel the relation between silence and language made manifest in the poem over and over again, in the open space initiated by the line’s rupture. When the line stitches itself up, picking up the thread in the next verse, we feel articulation and relation again. That simple shuttling motion, breaking, rethreading, means all the world to me, in the implicit way it allows me to refuse the given—let’s say the office of the bomb—and instead veer toward the chosen.
What is the chosen? Following Ann Lauterbach, it is the meaning we attempt to make out of what we are given, rather than accepting the meanings given to us. It means refusing to belong to the given offices of meaning. It means choosing to pick up the abandoned threads of a familial or animal line and trying to weave something together, as the ancients did, to create a cloth big enough, metaphorically, to cover the whole community (without blotting out difference).
Venturing out from poetry, I began, some decades ago, as I tried to write about my family, to push forms up against each other, and then to let the forms pull back one from the other, leaving a little gap or gutter. A piece of prose might be thrown against a photograph of my father’s belongings, a poem against a list. This was a way, I realize now, to recreate the rupturing feeling of my familial and cultural experience; not to stitch it all up, but to let thinking-feeling also occur in the gutter between forms, much like what the line break allows. It was a way to discover belonging to a history of not belonging or other-belonging that can’t be told in narrative terms.
Similarly, a word in a poem might take a little swerve, or hollow itself out so that it can find relational meanings rather than filial meanings, to repurpose Glissant’s terms. Words find their word-shadows and word-sisters, and, strangely, in the process, reconnect body to language. (This is part of what Olson tells us in his ever-useful “Projective Verse”: the body finds an other-place on the page. Re/member: in the beginning, we measured language’s rhythms by the body: dactyl and foot.) We might easily locate the trash in “refuse,” but we can also punch a little hollow in it and stack in “refuge,” as sound and other sensory remnants create meanings that go evolutionarily deeper than logic, gathering into new structures of belonging/meaning.
What I belong to, as a writer and a human, is the possibility of rupture, and the possibility of relation, the combination of which includes rapture—because rupture sometimes veers toward rapture. What structures can we make as writers, as a provocation and as refuge within the remains, the refuse?
I write to repurpose language, as a way to bring me back to myself and back to the world, to experience its tragedy, delight and humor in “the ardor of lyricism” (Glissant). I write to find that place where language wakes us up, with a smack or gently, rather than putting us to sleep. That means rummaging around in the gap between language and body/consciousness to make the real real. In that sense, it is a devotional act whose mission is to attend to the particulars of self and other (and others are also animals, rocks, trees, and dirt), to particularize the world (in contrast to the generalizing forces of power). The function of my work is to create alternate structures (alternative facts even, yes!), to make manifest the feeling that “Everywhere, worlds touch.” I belong to my family and my country’s history, and I don’t. I belong, genetically, to all the animals, sharing 70% of homologous DNA with sponges and 98.8% with chimps, in much the same way that “rupture” and “rapture” share DNA. Not in a hierarchal way (as Darwin and his inheritors might have it), but in genetic, symbiotic, biospheric relation, which is a relation poetry intuits in language. What poetry offers me, in its strange, ardent refusal and refuge, connecting word to word and word-shadow, is Radical (un)Belonging.
Eleni Sikelianos was born and raised in California and earned her MFA from the Naropa Institute. She is the great-granddaughter of Greek poet Angelos Sikelianos and the niece of Anne Waldman. She is the author of eight poetry collections, including Make Yourself Happy (2017), The Loving Detail of the Living & the Dead (2013), Body Clock (2008),...