Sunday, February 23, 2014

Vietnam story: Judy Hartline Elbring

As we all know, books can change lives. This is a case in point. When I found Women in Vietnam: The Oral History, edited by Ron Steinman, that's exactly what happened. I'd read quite a few books about Vietnam—the war of my generation—but I hadn't read a thing about the women who served there, most particularly the nurses. I stayed up half the night reading the testimonies of the nurses Steinman interviewed who served in Vietnam.  All the nurses' stories are stories of courage, but one nurse's story struck me especially deeply: Judy Hartline Elbring's.

Elbring volunteered to go toVietnam in 1967. (All nurses in Vietnam were volunteers.) She might have been shocked by what she encountered, but, as she told Steinman, "There wasn't time to be scared. There wasn't time to worry about anything except the immediate job at hand."  

Then she saw what it was really like.:

"To see a kid who's not that much younger than I am. He's my brother's age, and some of them are younger. They're eighteen and nineteen years old, and they're kids and they're skinny and they've been in the jungle too long and they haven't eaten well and the bones in their face show, and their uniforms are dirty and they smell bad, and now they're going to die. 

"I remember after we were through work and had done all we needed to do, there would always be a few of them that were behind a curtain in the area where we used to keep them. I would go back there with them, and I would pet them until they died because, I was like their mother, their sister, their girlfriend. I would stay with them until they died, because too many of them died alone, and that's not right. That's just not right."
Judy Hartline Elbring

So some of you mothers who lost sons in Vietnam, know that it might be that Judy Hartline Elbring was there with your boy, easing him into his dying, helping him in his hour of being taken away, so that he didn't make that journey alone.

She came home. She wore her uniform, and she was vilified. So she stopped wearing it. "There was no one to talk to about this." Nevertheless, she went back for a second tour. Her brother, a marine, was going to Vietnam, and she wanted to be there in case he was wounded. He was, and she was able, because of her rank as a captain and simply because of her will, to be airlifted to his base and to take care of him. 

She came home again. Then, the ensuing years. "I was just a nurse. I did my duty as I needed to do my duty. But what I didn't get was that I hadn't been welcomed home, and if that's important to me, it's got to be important for other women too. I had no idea this was still affecting me. I had no idea that not saying anything could carry this long a toll on me, on anyone. The part that scares me is, how many women are sitting on their anger, are sitting on their sadness?"
She ends her account with the picture in her mind of boy who died, a boy for whom she could do nothing. "He stays with me. I don't know why he stays with me, but he does. He comes back in my dreams. They're helpless dreams in a way. They're all the things I can't do anything about. I would love to be somebody's good dream. Oh God, wouldn't that be wonderful? I'd be very proud to be somebody's good dream."

I was so haunted by her qualities, I went and found her on the web. She lives in California, and she and her husband run an organization called Life Partners that helps couples with their relationships. I sent her a fan letter. She replied with a handwritten letter thanking me. So I had more than I ever could wish for: a letter from my new hero. I’m sure, through the years, she’s been more than one young wounded soldier's good dream.     
Vietnam Women's Memorial

Thursday, February 13, 2014

The Terrible Infant

It's a surprising thing to find yourself, or something you've written, as a source for part of a famous dead poet’s biography. Especially a famous dead poet with an exotic, volcanic life. I’m speaking of Arthur Rimbaud (1854-1891). I wrote an essay for a magazine about Rimbaud's time late in his life as a coffee trader in Ethiopia, about how he got there, unlikely as that was. I was thinking about writing something else about Rimbaud, so I promptly went to everyone’s convenient source of choice, Wikipedia. Lo and behold, there it is, citation number 64, a reference to the article I'd written thirteen years ago and nearly forgotten.

It made me think of how strange it is the places we end up in our lives. Here was this enfant terrible, possessed of extraordinary poetic powers, who ended up in a small house in Harar, in what is now eastern Ethiopia, having abandoned poetry forever some fifteen years earlier, counting his money, forever concerned that local merchants were cheating him out of a few pennies, or whatever currency they used.

But that’s not the way it began. 
Arthur Rimbaud

He sprang full blown as a poet from a small city in northern France. He was writing lasting poems by the age of sixteen. Arthur Rimbaud was a poet whose life was like one of those Roman candles that goes astray and sweeps erratically across the sky with the possibility of crashing into a house or a person or you. Everything about his life was dramatic, self-destructive and extreme.
He wrote incendiary, sometimes gorgeous, sometimes fearlessly sexual and often frustratingly complex poetry in the remarkably brief period he wrote poetry. Which is to say, from the age of sixteen to the age of nineteen or twenty. His most famous poems are "The Drunken Boat" and "A Season in Hell." Nothing had ever been seen like this in French poetry before, even from Baudelaire. After the age of twenty or so, Rimbaud stopped writing altogether. No one knows why. The rest of his life, he was a wanderer. He went in search of something he could never find, because it wasn't there. He looked for it in Paris, in Indonesia, in London, in Cyprus, in Yemen. And, finally, in Ethiopia.
Rimbaud by Picasso

Some artists love Rimbaud because his chaotic, fiery life gives them reassurance for their own. Or what they would like their own to be. (I am a passenger on that ship.) And Rimbaud's life was as chaotic as any self-destructive American artist's has even been, if not more so. Typical is the affair he had with the (married) poet Paul Verlaine that ended with Verlaine, in a rage, shooting Rimbaud in the wrist. As Allen Ginsberg said, "Rimbaud seems to be a complete turn-on catalyst to every poet in small town isolated, or big megapolis, staring at the city lights over the roof."  What that means to me is: don't let those small town minds stop you from becoming the comet that you are. So you destroy a few things, or lives, along the way. You're an artist. Yes, an artist! A pass for crashing through life!
Rimbaud in Ethiopia

The last years of his life Rimbaud spent exporting coffee from Ethiopia—an astonishingly able linguist, he learned the language quickly—and smuggling guns. All he cared about was money. In those later years, someone realized who he was (Rimbaud had become famous in Paris without knowing it) and asked him about his poetry. "Disgusting!" Rimbaud replied.
One of his last letters, written to his sister from a hospital in Marseilles, where he was soon to die at the age of thirty-seven, says, "Our life is a misery, an endless misery. Why do we exist?"  I can’t imagine myself saying that. But, then I couldn’t imagine my life unfolding the way it has, either.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Ezra Pound and the kind of writer I want to be

Ezra, Ezra, what was going on in your skull when you made those anti-American broadcasts in fascist Italy during World War II?  Heaven only knows. So many despicable things you said.

But before all that, back in England, early part of the twentieth century, you got T.S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" published, when no one else could. You got James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man serialized. You even served as W.B. Yeats' secretary for a while when Yeats' eyesight was failing. In 1921, you moved to Paris and continued helping people. Hemingway, for one. And, once again, T.S. Eliot. Eliot sent you the manuscript of "The Waste Land," and you, Ezra Pound, cut and moved, decried and suggested. Eliot has always acknowledged your contribution. He said,"I should like to think that the manuscript, with its suppressed passages, had disappeared irrecoverably; yet, on the other hand, I should wish the blue pencilling on it to be preserved as irrefutable evidence of Pound's critical genius." Eliot dedicated the poem to you.
Example of Ezra Pound's editing of "The Waste Land." They found the manuscript.

You helped a lot of artists significantly at critical junctures in their careers. I think it's safe to say that you helped shape the literary landscape of the twentieth century.
Then you went bonkers. But the fact that you went bonkers and made those lamentable broadcasts is not what you will be remembered forI hope. I know you would want to be remembered for your poetry. What I also hope you are remembered for is your generosity. Your support of artists you believed in, and for getting them noticed.
Ezra Pound

This is the kind of writer I want to be. Yes, certainly, remembered (if at all) for my books. But also for trying to help younger writers. Even older writers. Anyone who deserves to have his or her work recognized. I can't begin to have your influence, Ezra. Who could? I probably don't have any influence at all. (I know writers who do have influence who won't raise a hand. God not preserve them.) It's not that I'm aiming for. It's the spirit of what you did. Of knowing how hard it is to make any sort of dent in the arts, much less make a living. Of being someone who believes in the younger, or older, artist.

We should all have someone who believes in us. Sometimes, it's the only thing that keeps us going.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

The thing with feathers

The term "bird watcher" seems to imply someone overdressed in khaki fatigues, wearing a floppy hat, with an enormous pair of binoculars drooping around his or her neck, a notepad in hand, in which she or he, in ecstasy, scribbles down the latest sighting of the yellow-bellied sapsucker. Profession: librarian or accountant. I mean, really, who would spend a day looking up into trees for a possible furtive glimpse of a bird when they might be off mountain climbing, running rapids or fishing for marlin?
Scarlet Tanager

I would. When I lived in New York City, I loved the ten or so days when birds were migrating north (spring) and south (fall). You could go to Central Park and see up to thirty or even forty species of birds in a single daytwenty or so species of warblers alone. Birds, and most especially the songs of birds, make me feel optimistic. (Emily Dickinson used birds as a metaphor for hope.) When I was a boy growing in in southeastern Virginia, I would wake up to the sweet cadences of the song sparrow. Take a second to give yourself a jolt of beauty by listening to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's recording of that bird's song. (Click on the second recording for the prettiest melody.)                             

You can ask the question, why do birds sing? I'm sure there's an answer. But how do you answer the question, why do birds sing so beautifully?
Prothonotary Warbler

I'm like any person who has ever watched a bird defy gravity. Not only that, but make a mockery of it, with sharp dips, pivots, banks and swoops and high soaring. For me, though, it's the hues of these birds that makes me crane my neck, searching high in the branches, for hours. To see, even for a few seconds, the deep oceanic blue of an Indigo Bunting or the fierce black and yellow of a Magnolia Warblergo ahead, make my day. These photographs go some way to explaining the thrill, but you have to catch the glimpse in the wild, catch the appearance of the bird perched high in the treeso much color in so small a form!to get the full charge.
Indigo Bunting
Magnolia Warbler

I live in New Orleans now.  When I talk to people about Hurricane Katrina, time and time again I hear the same thing, "It was so quiet after the storm. There were no birds anywhere. You didn't hear a single bird singing." How, then, could you feel even the slightest bit of optimism? I can't even imagine it.