Rukeyser's The Life of Poetry

Title page, The Life of Poetry (1949; 1968 repr)

I meant to write more, to write up my experience of the women's march, to write about what I'm doing to connect, resist, and defend this outrageously nasty new Republican administration (more than nothing; not enough; maybe enough), but then those who are doing more shamed me into silence. For a moment.

In any case, let's get back into it with a little Muriel Rukeyser. Beautiful, astonishing, bracing words, as valuable now as they must have been in 1949. These, the opening paragraphs of her nonfiction collection of talks and essays, The Life of Poetry. Its incantatory and strange. Read it. Read it again. And again:

In time of crisis, we summon up our strength.

Then, if we are luck, we are able to call every resource, every forgotten image that can leap to our quickening, every memory that can make us know our power. And this luck is more than it seems to be: it depends on the long preparation of the self to be used.

In time of the crises of the spirit, we are aware of all our need, our need for each other and our need for our selves. We call up, with all the strength of summoning we have, our fullness. And then we turn; for it is a turning that we have prepared; and act. The time of the turning may be very long. It may hardly exist.--Muriel Rukeyser

A Woman in Berlin

You might think, given that I’m on research leave this term and the edition of Mrs. Dalloway is done, that I’d be free to read absolutely anything. And that’s true. I have given myself complete free rein to read whatever strikes my fancy.

I surprised myself by choosing the dark, disturbing, and beautifully written A Woman in Berlin: Eight Weeks in the Conquered City. This memoir, published anonymously, was written by a German woman, about 30, who lived through the Russian invasion of Berlin in 1945. One of my graduate students wrote about it, but I hadn’t had time to read it until now. She had been a journalist before the War. Her account of what she endured—rape, rape, and more rape—is harrowing, but also precise. She asks each woman she encounters “how many times were you raped?”, trying to survive in part, by continuing to do her work. She has beautiful things to say about the frustration and anxiety of living without work and continually returns to the notion that she cannot live like a plant, does not want to be a plant. As her food stores dwindle and she’s picking nettles to boil for food, she persists in her drive to be more than just a plant or, as she sometimes calls herself, a walking machine.

It is strange to read about the War from the perspective of a German woman. Strange but important: I could feel assumptions and stereotypes weakening a little as I read.

Of all the many passages that moved me in this beautiful and careful account of wartime life, the one that truly sticks in my memory is her account of the slow emergence of American flags flying from the balconies of Berlin. Every home had a Nazi flag and, she writes, unpicking the swastikas and appliquéing on a hammer and sickle to make a Russian flag was quick work. But, as the plan for Berlin to become a city of three districts emerged, citizens were encouraged to hang flags representing all the Allies. Sheets were easily available for the white bits. Scarce as blue was, it could be found. Of course, the French tricolor is not difficult. Even the Union Jack could be stitched together, with help from consulting an encyclopedia, but all those stars: “the woman with eczema asked me on the stairwell how many stars the American flag ought to have. I didn’t know for sure whether it was forty-eight or forty-nine.” Finally, she is rueful about the competence of the German housewife, even in defeat: “This could only happen in our country. An order came—I have no idea from where—to hang out the flags of the four victorious powers. And lo and behold, your average German housewife manages to conjure flags out of next to nothing.”

You can read more about the text’s complicated path to publication in this review from the Times. It was made into a film, too.

Max Brooks (illus. Canaan White): The Harlem Hellfighters

The great World War One historian Michael Neiberg acknowledges that American students (and Americans in general) know far, far less about World War One than their European peers. And no wonder: U.S. participation in that war was brief, casualties were not high, and the battles were all overseas. Still, in this centenary period, in this war-torn world of 2014, we might do well to educate ourselves a little.

After a billion years of studying British modernism and Mrs. Dalloway, I’ve learned more about the War than many and I’m looking forward to teaching my class on the Literature of World War One this fall. I’ve been reading up on the war all summer, as my infrequent recent blog posts suggest.

I wanted to find some material on race and the war. There is a lot of great historical material emerging now on Chinese workers and African soldiers, but for a literature class, choices are harder. And what about a straight up story about the African-Americans who fought. The main character in Claude McKay’s Home to Harlem is a deserter; a main character in Jessie Fauset’s There is Confusion fights heroically and recognizes a relative in a white man who shares his surname. Both of these novels capture the two important things I know and want my students to know about the War: that black soldiers served bravely and that they were very, very poorly treated indeed. However, in the context of these novels, the war is just a small part. How can I convey the texture of this story in the limited time I have.

One of the great discoveries of the summer was Max Brooks’ book on the 369th Infantry Regiment, an African American unit from New York, dubbed the Harlem Hellfighters by the Germans who fought them. This graphic historical fiction is so gripping and heartbreaking. It tells, in miniature, a story that you might be able to guess from what you know of our shameful treatment of heroic black soldiers in World War Two, but this is a forgotten bit of history that is worth a few hours of your time. If you or a young person in your life wants to read one short exciting thing about the War, I strongly recommend it.

Both Brooks (who is white) and White (who is black) took great care to be as accurate as possible in their renderings of the stories here. The illustrations are absolutely gripping and, paired with Brooks’ elegant text, which quotes liberally from W. E. B. DuBois and other historical documents, makes the whole thing a thrilling read. Although the main character is fictional, other characters are real, including jazz musician James Reese Europe who paved the way for Duke Ellington and for jazz in France; Eugene Jaques Bullard, who fought in both World Wars as a pilot in the French Army; and Henry Johnson, the first American (black or white) to receive the French Croix de Guerre. Their photographs and information on sources appear in the back of the book.

I’m sorry that the stories of racism are so familiar and predictable—the officer’s club suddenly closed to black men, the racism the New York soldiers (from across the state) experienced training in the South, the denial of a ticker tape parade. Most amazing to me—and most heartbreaking in light of Ferguson, MO and open carry—is the fact that the U.S. Army denied rifles to the 369th while providing free rifles to any gun club, just in case the gun clubs might be called up. So, actual soldiers were denied weapons. What I love—and what Brooks and White clearly delight in telling—is how the soldiers of the 369th made up fake gun clubs from all over the state and thus requested and received the guns they should have had in the first place.

It’s just terrific. I hear that Will Smith is talking to Brooks about a film. Let’s hope