In jail recently, we read Bruce Weigl’s “A Romance.” I gave a brief introduction:
“A lot of Bruce Weigl’s poems are about trauma – we’ve read something about his childhood, and he wrote about serving in the Vietnam War. What is was like to return home, trying to deal with everything he’d seen. In this poem, he’s been drinking. Others are about trying to suppress the memories that keep coming back.”
Describing a hollow night out, Weigl writes:
I can’t sleep anyway so I go to bars …
A bearded dude near the back shook his head.
“I been there,” he said. “Can’t never fall asleep. Did two tours, in Iraq and Afghanistan. But they just kicked me out of veteran’s court. Said I was too violent. But all those other guys, the ones they’re letting stay, who’re getting helped because they served? None of them saw combat! I was the only one who’d fought! But they said veteran’s court’s not for me.”
“And it’s hard,” I said, “because people use drugs to try to deaden some of the horrible stuff that keeps whelming up, and the drug we say is okay to use, alcohol, is one of the worst. Researchers tried to rank drugs in terms of which are most dangerous, you know, for the people who use it and for everybody around them. I think alcohol was at the top of the list, then maybe heroin, and …”
“But what about pot?” Somebody always asks. In this case, it was somebody who says he’s in for marijuana, although he once let slip that it was domestic violence.
“I dunno … pretty far down. I mean, you can’t OD or anything, but you shouldn’t drive stoned.”
“I’d rather drive stoned than after eight days of meth!”
Well, sure. But that seems like a false dichotomy – shouldn’t the comparison be between driving stoned or sober?
“But what do you think,” the first guy said, “about them saying pot is, like, a gateway drug?”
“I believe that,” said an older guy. “I used pot for years before I ever had a drink.”
“Me too – my pops was an alcoholic, I didn’t want to touch that stuff.”
“I started smoking when I was thirteen … you had to know somebody to get a beer, but anybody could buy pot.”
“I mean, pot’s gotta be the first drug most people try.”
“No way. My kids, they’re one and four years old right now … and I can tell you for sure, the first drug anybody tries, it’s spinning. Around and around in circles till they’re staggering. Drunk, dizzy, falling down and giggling. Humans have always wanted to experiment with altered consciousness. Like, how would the world look if … every culture uses drugs. A lot of other animals will use them too. And we start young. Little duders love to spin.”
The guys thought this sounded reasonable enough, but I’ve reconsidered. Maybe marijuana is a gateway drug … but only because it’s illegal. I don’t think that smoking pot would compel someone to use other drugs, but our laws imply that heroin is no more dangerous than marijuana – both are Schedule I – and that Schedule II drugs like Vicodin are less dangerous.
Whereas most sensible people now know that alcohol is more dangerous than MDMA – it’s easier to overdose on alcohol, and easier to hurt other people while under the influence. But veterans with PTSD turn to drink because booze is legal. Not even licensed therapists are allowed to purchase the drug with a proven record for treating trauma.
(Note: pure MDMA is relatively safe, but a wide variety of chemicals are sold as “molly” or “ecstasy,” and some of those are dangerous.)
It doesn’t take kids long to realize how many well-respected, fully functional people have used drugs. Our previous two presidents both consumed many more illegal drugs than I did, and our current president probably did also – I assume cocaine seems less taboo to most people than paying young women for sex. Many cultures used psychedelic drugs as religious sacrament for centuries, if not millennia.
“When I was twelve years old,” one of the guys said, “my parents, first they burned all my records, then had our preacher take me to a mental hospital. But I didn’t know it was a hospital at the time. I just saw these people, you know, drooling, babbling, whatever. And they told me, ‘See these people? They’re like this because they used drugs.’ And it was years before I realized what they’d done.”
A deep undercurrent of misogyny courses through much of the world’s mythology. In the Mahabharata (the Indian epic that includes the Bhagavad Gita), the hero’s wife is gambled away by her husband as just another possession after he’d lost his jewels, money, and chariot. She is forced to strip in the middle of the casino; happily, divine intervention provides her with endless layers of garments.
In the Ramayana, the hero’s wife is banished by her husband because her misery in exile is preferable to the townsfolk’s malicious rumors. She’d been kidnapped, so the townsfolk assumed she’d been raped and was therefore tarnished.
In Emily Wilson’s translation of The Odyssey, a woman asks a visiting bard to sing something else when he launches into a description of the calamitous escapade that whisked away her husband. But the woman’s son intervenes:
There is something faintly ridiculous about this wet-behind-the-ears lad shutting up the savvy, middle-aged Penelope. But it is a nice demonstration that right where written evidence for Western culture starts, women’s voices are not being heard in the public sphere. More than that, as Homer has it, an integral part of growing up, as a man, is learning to take control of public utterance and to silence the female of the species.
Belief in women’s inferiority is a long and disheartening part of each [Abrahamic] tradition’s story. For almost all of Jewish history, no woman could become a rabbi. For almost all of Christian history, no woman could become a priest. For almost all of Muslim history, no woman could become a prophet (though scores of men did) or an imam (thousands of men did).
Call in two men as witnesses. If two men are not there, then call one man and two women out of those you approve as witnesses, so that if one of the two women should forget the other can remind her. Let the witnesses not refuse when they are summoned.
Clearly, this is derogatory toward women. But the phrase “if one of the women should forget, the other can remind her” made me think about why disrespectful attitudes toward women were rampant in so many cultures.
I think that, in the society where the Qur’an was composed, women would be more likely to forget the details of a contract. But the problem isn’t biological – I would argue that attentive parents of young children are more forgetful than other people. The parent’s gender is irrelevant here. My own memory was always excellent – during college I was often enrolled in time and a half the standard number of courses, never took notes, and received almost all A’s – but when I’m taking care of my kids, it’s a miracle if I can hold a complex thought in mind for more than a few seconds.
People talk to me, I half-listen while also answering my kids’ questions, doling out snacks, saying no, no book now, wait till we get home, and then my conversation with the grown-up will end and I’ll realize that I have no idea what we just talked about.
Hopefully it wasn’t important.
Parenting obliterates my short-term memory, even though I have it easy. I rarely worry about other parents intentionally poisoning my children, for instance. In The Anthropology of Childhood, David Lancy discusses
… the prevalence of discord within families – especially those that practice polygyny. [Polygyny is one man marrying several women, as was practiced by the people who composed the Qur’an.] This atmosphere can be poisonous for children – literally.
It was widely assumed that co-wives often fatally poisoned each other’s children. I witnessed special dance rituals intended by husbands to deter this behavior. Co-wife aggression is documented in … court cases with confessions and convictions for poisoning … sorcery might have a measurable demographic impact – [given] the extraordinarily high mortality of males compared with females. Males are said to be the preferred targets because daughters marry out of patrilineage whereas sons remain to compete for land. Even if women do not poison each other’s children, widespread hostility of the mother’s co-wife must be a source of stress.
Even when we don’t have to ward off sorcery or murder, parents of young children have shorter attention spans than other people. A kid is often grabbing my leg, or tugging on my hand, or yelling fthhhaaaddda until I turn to look and watch him bellyflop onto a cardboard box.
Once my two children grow up, I should regain my memory. But during most of human evolution, mortality rates were so high that families always had small children. And, unfortunately, our species often established misogynistic patriarchies that believed women alone should do all the work of parenting.
There are a few species, like penguins, in which males and females contribute almost equally to the task of caring for young. But it’s more common for a single parent to get stuck doing most of the work. According to game theory, this makes sense – as soon as one party has put in a little bit more effort than the other, that party has more to lose, and so the other has an increased incentive to shirk. Drawn out over many generations, this can produce creatures like us primates, in which males are often shabby parents.
This is bad for children (in an aside, Lancy writes “I’m tempted to argue that any society with conspicuous gender parity is likely to be a paradise for children.”), bad for women, and bad for men. Inequality hurts everyone – men in patriarchies get to skimp on parental contribution, but they have to live in a less happy, less productive world.
It’s reasonable for the Qur’an to imply that women are less attentive and less able to understand the intricacies of contracts, given that their husbands weren’t helping with the kids. Caring for young children can be like a straitjacket on the brain.
… if what we mean by “human nature” is the Homo sapiens physique, and the “fundamental pattern … [of] social organization” which apparently prevailed when that physique first took shape, then human nature involves the females in a strange bind:
Like the male, she is equipped with a large brain, competent hands, and upright posture. She belongs to an intelligent, playful, exploratory species, inhabiting an expanding environment which it makes for itself and then adapts to. She is the only female, so far as we know, capable of thinking up and bringing about a world wider than the one she sees around her (and her subversive tendency to keep trying to use this capacity is recorded, resentfully, in Eve and Pandora myths).
She thus seems, of all females, the one least fitted to live in a world narrower than the one she sees around her. And yet, for reasons inherent in her evolutionary history, she has been, of all females, the one most fated to do so. Her young are born less mature than those of related mammals; they require more physical care for a relatively longer time; they have much more to learn before they can function without adult supervision.
It hurts to have talents that the world won’t let you use. What good is a massive brain when your kid is just yelling for more Cheerios?
Maybe I’m not doing a good job of selling the idea that “you should pitch in and help with the children” to any potential new fathers out there. It really does make a wreckage of your brain – but I’ve heard that this is temporary, and I’ve met plenty of parents of older children who seem perfectly un-addled.
And it doesn’t have to be fun to be worth doing.
Experiences during early development have ramifications for somebody’s wellbeing. As children grow, they’ll forget narrative details from almost everything that happened during their first few years – but this time establishes the emotional pallet that colors the rest of their life.
It’s strange. After all, most of the work of parenting is just doling out cereal, or answering questions about what life would be like if we stayed at the playground forever, or trying to guess how many different types of birds are chirping during the walk to school. And yet a parent’s attitudes while doing those small things help shape a person.
When most older people look back on their lives, they’ll tell you that their happiest and most rewarding moments were spent interacting with their families. By caring for your children when they’re young, you help determine the sort of person who’ll be in your family. If you’re lucky enough to be so wealthy that you’ll still have food and shelter, parenting decisions matter more for future happiness than a few years’ salary.
The costs are high. But equality, happiness, and establishing a culture of respect should matter to men as well as women.
The best way to show that you value something is to pitch in and do it.
Some people approach poems as though they are puzzles. My high school English teachers implied that poems are full of symbols that we must decode. Which simply isn’t true.
In Billy Collins’s “Introduction to Poetry,” he exhorts his students to enjoy the experience of reading a poem, of feeling each sound leave the mouth and spill outward into the world. His students balk. That’s not how they were taught to read poetry! Instead, Collins writes,
… all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.
They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.
Matthew Zapruder began writing Why Poetry to explain the difference between the idea of symbolism taught in high school – a one-to-one mapping between words on the page and the author’s veiled intent, a parlor trick like the parallels between James Joyce’s Ulysses and Homer’s Odyssey – and actual symbolism employed by regular ol’ human poets. In Zapruder’s words:
If what we mean by “symbol” is a word or phrase that has some specific, hidden, secret meaning, then we don’t really find those very often in poetry. The idea that we do is inimical to a true experience of reading it.
When language in poetry becomes resonant, and charged with meaning, it achieves a symbolic status.
Zapruder is saddened that readers think writers would intentionally hide the meaning of their words. Let alone that writers might actually do it.
Clarity for me in poetry is a kind of generosity, a willingness to be together with the reader in the same place of uncertainty, striving for understanding. To give the impression that something important is happening but that the mere reader cannot, without some kind of special, esoteric knowledge, have access to it strikes me as deeply ungenerous, even cruel.
Our poetry classes in the jail have had high turnover recently. New Leaf New Life previously ran a “recovery dorm” inside the jail. The dorm was a miserable little space – an underground concrete room with a shower, a toilet, twelve bunks, and two tables for eating, no exterior windows, just a view of central booking and the elevator – but people chose to live in there, sometimes for years, to have a modicum of autonomy and access to volunteer programming. Things like our poetry class, AA meetings, a weekly game night.
We were able to work with the same group of people for long stretches of time. We could provide a full curriculum and work on revising our own writing. Everyone who wrote for the recent Monster House Press publication was incarcerated in this dorm.
Since this program was canceled (replaced with court-mandated rehab), we’ve been teaching poetry classes only for general population, for people in one of the rowdier cell blocks. One week, our class was totally derailed by a group of roughnecks extolling the gang control they’d imposed on the block. Other weeks people come just to grab a pencil and a few sheets of paper, then promptly ask if the guards can come and take them back. Or, when their block was on lockdown every day for weeks, pushy dudes who didn’t want to read or write would fill the sign-up sheet just for the chance to stretch their legs on the walk down the hallway to our classroom.
Some weeks class falls flat.
I don’t blame them for signing up. I’ve never lived inside a jail, but it sounds like the pits. I’d sign up for programs I didn’t care about, too, just to break up the monotony of days.
Still, some weeks we get lucky and have a room full of (unlucky) dudes who really want to read and write.
Since we’ve been seeing so many new people, we’ve been reading poetry by Bruce Weigl several times each year. Weigl writes powerful narrative poems that deal with trauma and violence. We begin with “The Impossible,” which opens:
Winter’s last rain and a light I don’t recognize
through the trees and I come back in my mind
to the man who made me suck his cock
when I was seven, in sunlight, between boxcars.
I thought I could leave him standing there
in the years, half smile on his lips …
This is a hard poem for guys in jail to read. It’s a hard poem for anybody to read, but in our classes, particularly, whomever is reading it out loud first might stop at the third line.
The opening is perfect, though. As with Proust’s mind flooding when he stumbles over a pair of uneven paving stones, or hears a long-forgotten tone, or smells tea and cake exactly like his aunt used to eat, Weigl’s memories swell unbidden when he glimpses light shining through tree leaves in a particular way. Once, when I was seven, there was just this light … and … and …
He thought he could forget his trauma. Thought he could “leave him standing there / in the years.” He was wrong.
Many people who have survived abuse try to forget and move on. But the memories can fester. After class one week, a man lingered, asking a guard “Can I … can I talk for him a minute …” and, when the guard nodded, said to me, “Like, something happened to me … kinda like that poem we were talking about … do you … do you think there’s a way I could get some help with that?”
In Tom McCarthy’s film Spotlight, a character finally agrees to be interviewed about the priest who raped him. He is asked how he coped. He turns out an arm riddled with needle tracks.
Most men in jail suffered disproportionately before they were locked up. Many began taking drugs in lieu of the psychiatric care they needed but couldn’t afford; now they are addicted. And behind bars. Beneath fluorescent lights for nineteen hours a day. Somehow they are expected to heal there, inside the jail, with even fewer resources before.
“The world needs to know,” we tell them. “Write about that.”
They balk. “I can’t write about this shit.” It cuts too deep, the pain’s too raw … and they feel ashamed. Our society has a tendency to blame victims. In an interview with Blast Furnace, Weigl says that his father “was shocked that it had happened because I didn’t tell him at that time. He said, ‘Why didn’t you tell me?’ I said, ‘Because you would’ve beaten my ass for letting it happen,’ and he knows he would have, too. That would’ve been his response, Why did you let someone do this to you?”
But Weigl wrote openly of his trauma, and his words help others come to terms with abuse. It must feel nauseating to re-live certain experiences in order to write them down – but that act of generosity could save someone else. And in “The Impossible,” Weigl teaches us how to write about the things that seem impossible to write about. The poem ends,
Say it clearly and you make it beautiful, no matter what.