Tuesday, June 18, 2019

"The Power of Passionate and Determined Individuals Working Together": Judith Frieze Wright's Acts of Resistance

So already, Judith Frieze Wright might not have written Acts of Resistance: A Freedom Rider Looks Back on the Civil Rights Movement had her own adult children not encouraged her to tell her story. I'm so glad that they did--and not just for the sake of her grandchildren who, as a result, will always have a record of her participation in the Civil Rights Movement.

Judy Wright's book does a number of things: it reflects on life decisions, their motivations and impacts, in and beyond the decision-making moment; it continues a personal tradition of political activism that aims tirelessly at justice for all; it chronicles a deepening understanding of white privilege and its consequences; and it makes concrete the day-to-day realities of chipping away at the unjust status quo. Twice during the 1960s, a desire to do something personally meaningful and "right" for others led Judy to Mississippi, where she bravely, quietly, and consistently collaborated with others to eradicate racial inequality and injustice. It mattered then, it mattered to Judy personally and to the country going forward from then, and it still matters--which is why it's so important that Judy wrote this book.

I've known Judy and her husband Sib for a long time, have heard parts of her story from her and others over the years, have even come to a deeper understanding and appreciation of some parts of her story in the past few years. But I hadn't known the whole story--all of its chapters, its chronology, and its intertwined underpinnings and crucial motivations.

Meridian, Mississippi*
Judy's book consists primarily of one long "Civil Rights" story and a series of shorter ones separated by an account of the reflective "back home" interlude between them. The long story chronicles Judy's experiences as a Freedom Rider; the shorter ones relate her voter registration efforts in and around Meridian, Mississippi and her experiences as part of assembled crowds, especially in churches and court rooms.

In many instances, Judy quotes others at length, providing us with the opportunity to be as moved, inspired, and/or deflated by their words as she was. As long as I've known Judy, she's always made space for other people to be and speak their truest selves.** In quoting extensively--for example, from mothers grieving for lost sons and individuals thwarted in their attempts to register to vote--Judy signals that words and the powerful messages they yield truly belong to those who speak them. Such messages need only to be shared, not embellished or explained.

Therein lies Judy's humility, which permeates this book--and which is so deeply part of who she is. Judy's writing of this book is not an exercise in "virtue signaling"; there is nothing here that says, "Look at me and what I did" or "Check out my enlightened perception of this moment or event"; if anything, Judy directs our attention away from herself and toward individuals she recalls vividly. Generally, she presents herself as a member of groups: freedom riders, voter registration activists, courtroom audiences, funeral attendees. She further emphasizes her lack of individual importance when she refers to Acts of Resistance on its back cover as a "little book" and categorizes her own story as "just one of the hundreds that could be told . . .."  
Judith Frieze Wright as seen on amazon.com

But the truth is that the big stories of the Civil Rights era couldn't have been written without the many smaller stories such as Judy's. The writers of those smaller stories reinforced one another's courage and commitment; trained together to persevere through fear and violent confrontation; and then acted, knowing always that they were putting their bodies, and thus their lives, on the line. In an era in which celebrity and greatness are often equated, in which people regularly strive to stand out from the pack, and in which people regularly abandon principle for the sake of "safety" and "success," Judy's and others' small stories and "little books" are much needed.

For that reason, I'm especially excited that Acts of Resistance is such an accessible book, emotionally and intellectually. Judy's writing is both clear and heartfelt. We understand exactly what Judy is feeling at critical junctures, be it fear, grief, frustration, confusion, and/or hope; we marvel at how she manages to persist even in highly discouraging and sometimes dangerous situations. 

We also always understand what's happening and why. Judy provides just enough background information and context so that the events she describes make sense to readers of various ages and levels of "Civil Rights Movement" knowledge. We're told what "COFO" stands for; we're provided with some African American voter registration statistics so that we can grasp the seriousness of the situation that Judy and others are working to change. Regardless of who we are, we're not left out. My ninety-four-year-old father-in-law just read and loved this book--so much so that he chose to write to Judy after he read it. I can easily imagine high school students being engaged by it, too--a very important thing, given that they are coming of age in an era in which inclusive notions of "We the people" are sorely under siege. In fact, Judy speaks about this directly in her epilogue: the need for activism--especially collective, organized activism--continues, she asserts gently but firmly. As she says on the book's back cover, "We must never forget, especially in these times, the power of passionate and determined individuals working together to make change."

On the afternoon of the day my husband and I were driving from Gettysburg to Pittsburgh to visit my father-in-law, we came upon signs indicating that the Flight 93 National Memorial was just a few miles up ahead. And so we stopped to visit "Voices," the tower of wind chimes that memorializes those who died on that Shanksville, Pennsylvania field on September 11, 2001 as result of a deliberate, collective act. We can know their names, as we can know the names of the individual Freedom Riders, but both groups will always be known first and foremost collectively rather than individually--and that's as it should be. 

It takes a lot of important, courageous little stories to create a heroic big story. In light of this, Judith Frieze Wright's Acts of Resistance: A Freedom Rider Looks Back on the Civil Rights Movement isn't really such a little book at all. I strongly recommend it.

* Photograph accompanying this blog post: Malvaney E. (2015, May 15). Mississippi Streets: 1960s Meridian [Web log post]. Retrieved June 17, 2019, from https://misspreservation.com/2015/05/15/mississippi-streets-1960s-meridian/ 
** Just because Judy listens generously does not mean she doesn't listen astutely: she can differ very lovingly with people. I always admire this in her.

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

Reconsidering Mary Oliver's Poetry: Part I

So already, I don't adore Mary Oliver's poetry--except when I love it.

But right now, I'm questioning my skepticism--and printing up the article from The New Yorker* that you see pictured here--for two reasons:
  • The first is that when Mary Oliver died recently, a number of my poetry-reading and -writing friends whose taste in poems often guides me well were genuinely heartbroken: for them, the world had truly become a poorer place for lack of Oliver's continued poetic presence.
  • The second is that I loved--didn't just like, but loved--the Oliver poems** we read at the June meeting of the poetry discussion group held monthly at the Scituate Town Library.
So why have I persisted in hanging on to my ambivalence about Mary Oliver's poetry, despite my very positive reactions to a number of her poems? Have too few of them touched me really deeply, struck me as profoundly true, even though I've wanted to embrace them and hold them fast? Take "Wild Geese," for example: it has a releasing, absolving first line; offers multiple apt, sweeping images to the mind's eye and ear; and concludes with final lines that I often quote because they so beautifully communicate the comfort of being and feeling part of Creation. But at one point a few years back, I actually felt the need to revise it to better suit a very complex moment.***

In the past, I've often explained my ambivalence about Oliver's work by pointing to certain poems that simply don't seem as good to me as the others. But couldn't I say exactly the same thing about any other poet's work? Not every William Butler Yeats poem rocks my world the way "The Second Coming" does every time I read it. But somehow I have both more forgiveness and more expectation when it comes to Yeats--and I'm much more apt to wonder how I'm failing the poem rather than how the poem is failing me. Hmmm . . .

Having said that, I don't think it's accidental that I've chosen Yeats to exemplify my struggle. Some of Yeats' poetry is prophetic, and one of my favorite graduate school courses was about the relationship between poetry and prophecy.**** The prophetic books of the Bible, required reading in one of my undergraduate English courses, fascinated me not only because they were beautiful and puzzling, but because they placed great faith in people's imaginative and interpretive abilities. 

The truth of the matter is that I like to wrestle with poems. I like to feel that I'm up to the task of wrestling, if not on my own, then in the company of other interested wrestlers. In addition, I like to feel that the poem and I are both bringing something to the struggle--and the joy--of making meaning. I love it when I find my entry point, my toehold in the glistening and resistant rock face that some poems first present to me. It's almost like I'm both paralyzed and captivated, and then slowly I begin to make my way.

So I was relieved when I read the review of Oliver's Blue Horses***** in which Barbara Berman quoted the poem "What We Want" in its entirety:

In a poem
people want
something fancy,

but even more
they want something
made plain,

easy to swallow-
not unlike a suddenly
harmonic passage

in an otherwise
difficult and sometimes dissonant

even if it is only
for the moment
of hearing it.

Right away I realized what, at least in part, my resistance to Oliver's work reflected: I really don't agree with Oliver's ideas about what people want from poetry. Not only that, I feel a bit patronized by her attitude. I might be being condescending when I criticize her for not being more "prophetic," "literary," and "indirect"--maybe she'd call that "fancy"--but I think she's being equally condescending when she assumes my interest is in having the "inexplicable/ made plain" and "easy to swallow." And on the other hand, the "We" in her title includes her among those seeking the relief of illumination, even if it's only temporary.

"Franz Marc's Blue Horses,"****** from the same collection, does not deliver on her poetic promise and principle of the "inexplicable made plain."******* I suspect that's part of why I liked it so much when we read it the other day. Rather than providing certainties, Oliver floats two possibilities in lines beginning with "Maybe," and ends with a question, not an answer. 

I wanted to hold tight to one of those possibilities: "Maybe the desire to make something beautiful/ is the piece of God that is inside each of us." Questions of wanting to make, what to make, and God's relationship to all of this have been much on my mind of late. A few weeks ago in my synagogue, we spent some time talking about the elaborate specifications for, and the artisanship required for the construction of, the Ark of the Covenant. We were also reminded that the people in earlier Torah chapters had made/built some other things that had displeased God: the golden calf and the Tower of Babel. Since then, I've been wondering what these human-made buildings and objects tell us about what it means to be people. What do we as humans need to see and touch, and why? Must our hands keep busy, building--or even writing poems?

There's definitely more than one way and more than one reason to write poetry--or even a single poem. I'll blog again in a couple of weeks after I've read and reread some more Oliver poems. Please send along to me the names of Oliver poems you really think I should be reading in the weeks ahead. Thank you!

* Illustration accompanying the following article: Franklin, R. (2017, November 20). What Mary Oliver's Critics Don't Understand. [Review of the book Devotions, by M. Oliver]. Retrieved from https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/11/27/what-mary-olivers-critics-dont-understand
** Poetry discussion group leader Joyce Wilson always does such a great job of bringing this group great poems to read.
*** The revision is in a blog post entitled "Wild Geese in This Season of Return."
**** This course was taught by Joseph Anthony Wittreich, Jr., editor of Milton and the Line of Vision.
***** Berman, B. (2014, December 3). Blue Horses by Mary Oliver. [Review of Blue Horses, by M. Oliver]. Retrieved from https://therumpus.net/2014/12/blue-horses-by-mary-oliver/ 
*******. . . And not just because I have thing for horses captured in poetry.  
******* This caused me to question the tone of "What We Want."