Archive for the ‘Musings’ Category

Adrienne Rich (1929-2012): Wedding Vows

Sunday, April 1st, 2012

I was introduced to Adrienne Rich’s poetry (“Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law”) when I was in my early twenties, but I first read Adrienne Rich’s poetry—it would have been Diving into the Wreck—when I was in my early thirties, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Massachusetts, where I found my life’s partner, and through her, the courage to come out. But it is Rich’s “Twenty-One Love Poems” that became a part of my life.

My partner, Valerie, and I were married on May 24, 1986, in a chapel on the campus of Brandeis University. The officiating minister was careful to state during the service that she was not marrying us by the power vested in her by the state of Massachusetts, but rather, by the power granted by a Creator of love and equality. Valerie and I had met with the minister several times, and had shared with her the vows that we had written, each incorporating one of Rich’s love poems (II and XII). The minister chose to use these lines from XIX in the service:

two women together is a work
nothing in civilization has made simple,
two people together is a work heroic in its ordinariness,
the slow-picked, halting traverse of a pitch
where the fiercest attention becomes routine
–look at the faces of those who have chosen it.

When, 20 years later, a nephew asked me to give the toast following his wedding, I returned to that poem and to the line, “two people together is a work heroic in its ordinariness,” because I had come to understand not only the heroic labor of that ordinariness, but the joy as well.

Today, I am remembering the gifts of Adrienne Rich, the honesty and the fierceness and the intelligence, and I am remembering, as well, those two nervous, but proud, young women who turned to her for a language of dreams.

II. (from Adrienne Rich, Twenty-One Love Poems)

I wake up in your bed. I know I have been dreaming.
Much earlier, the alarm broke us from each other,
you’ve been at your desk for hours. I know what I dreamed:
our friend the poet comes into my room
where I’ve been writing for days,
drafts, carbons, poems are scattered everywhere,
and I want to show her one poem
which is the poem of my life. But I hesitate,
and wake. You’ve kissed my hair
to wake me. I dreamed you were a poem,
I say, a poem I wanted to show someone…
and I laugh and fall dreaming again of the desire to show you to everyone I love,
to move openly together
in the pull of gravity, which is not simple,
which carries the feathered grass a long way down the upbreathing air.

XII. (from Adrienne Rich, Twenty-One Love Poems)
Sleeping, turning in turn like planets
rotating in their midnight meadow:
a touch is enough to let us know
we’re not alone in the universe, even in sleep:
the dream-ghosts of two worlds
walking their ghost-towns, almost address each other.
I’ve wakened to your muttered words
spoken light- or dark-years away
as if my own voice had spoken.
But we have different voices, even in sleep, and our bodies, so
alike, are yet so different
and the past echoing through our bloodstreams
is freighted with different language, different meanings—
though in any chronicle of the world we share
it could be written with new meaning
we were two lovers of one gender,
we were two women of one generation.

Hiatus After ND Events

Friday, September 30th, 2011

After a busy first week of events in North Dakota, with a short TV interview, a radio interview on KFYR in Bismarck, and a convocation at Jamestown College all in the same (umbrella-inverting rainy and windy) day, and then a terrific time at the ND Library Association annual conference, I had four full days at my sister’s lake home in Minnesota.

The winds calmed, the sun came out, the temperature rose. Gorgeous. In between here:

And here:

I finished Moby Dick.

We actually did get out of our chairs now and then, to plant perennials and shrubs, and best of all, to take a long walk in gorgeous Maplewood Park nearby.

Now it’s on to the Twin Cities for a discussion tomorrow morning (October 1) with readers from the Minnesota Valley Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, 10715 Zenith Avenue South Bloomington, MN 55431, at 10:30 a.m. Visitors are welcome!

Minot, North Dakota: post-flood

Friday, September 23rd, 2011

Three months ago you may have been watching news stories and videos about the flooding of the Souris River (locally known as the Mouse River) in Minot, North Dakota, that put 12,000 residents, or one-fourth of the city’s population, out of their homes. The flood waters didn’t recede for about three weeks, leaving thousands of homes and businesses uninhabitable. This afternoon, after spending the morning talking with members of the North Dakota Library Association (who had chosen Dakota, Or What’s a Heaven For as their 2011 conference “book club” book) and then speaking at the noon luncheon, I went for a walk through block after block of flood-gutted neighborhoods.

After a half-day of using the pronouns “I” and “me” way too often, it was a sobering walk, all the more disconcerting under a perfect, cloudless, azure sky . (An aside: I have a college buddy who has lived and worked in Manhattan for the past 20 years, and who is now working in Minot as a consultant for a year. Visiting last night over our ritual martinis I asked how often she got back to New York. Her contract allowed her to return every two weeks, she said, but at one point she realized that she hadn’t been back East for a couple of months. “I just couldn’t leave the sky,” she explained.)

I took pictures of gutted houses, of For Sale signs and doors littered with official notices, of debris and mud, of backhoes leveling the dikes that just couldn’t do enough, of FEMA trailers, of children’s toys in gutters, and of evergreen trees that stand, along with the silt-filthed siding on houses, as records of the final flood level: dead branches that were too long under water separated by a straight line from the green foliage above. And when I returned to my hotel room, I deleted most of the pictures, for, one by one, they diminished, rather than proved the destruction. Here, however, are a few:

Note the sandbags, no match for the rising river.

I was reminded of the time I spent in Louisiana in 2005 after Katrina, and of the day that another volunteer and I drove through New Orleans in our Red Cross truck, creeping along deserted streets and overpasses strewn with items that had been transformed from personal belongings to debris by a disaster. The destruction in Minot is exponentially smaller in comparison, but comparisons don’t matter much if it’s your house, your home that has been lost.

This is not, of course, where the story ends. North Dakotans are a contradictory people, expecting to be regularly humbled by the cavalier power of floods, blizzards, drought, and wind, and equally determined to restamp the land with their own particular brand of tidy order. The community is busy reclaiming and rebuilding, and although the flood-ravaged neighborhoods are eerily lacking the sounds of doors slamming, phones ringing, children playing, and music blaring from passing cars, they are not silent. One by one houses are being stripped down to the studs, so the remodeling and rebuilding can begin. Backhoes are clearing debris. Dump trucks and contractors’ pickups are everywhere.

I don’t mean to be glib. This is not a happily-ever-after story. Too many of the people put out of their homes by the flood of 2011 will never return to the home they once knew. And yet, there is a spirit in this place that is hard to define. Rounding the corner of a seemingly empty block, I came upon a woman mowing…well, not her lawn, exactly, but the weeds that had worked their way through the muck where a lawn once had been. Was that her house, I asked? “For now,” she replied, adding that she didn’t know the exact wording for the financial/legal process underway concerning her mortgage, but she supposed that the house was going back to the original owners. In the meantime, she was living in the tiny FEMA trailer next to the gutted house. I wished her luck and was about to walk away, when she added, “I’ll get lights up on the trailer, though. For Christmas. My girls will like that.”

One last picture. In the midst of block after block of empty houses I came upon this house, tidily restored to a determined cheerfulness. Given the house’s recent history, a doorstep knickknack carrying the words, “God Bless This House,” seems less like kitsch than defiant optimism.

Working on new novel in Prague, Czech Republic

Thursday, July 21st, 2011

An unexpected combination of events has me working on my new novel in a lovely room in the American ambassador’s residence in Prague. (The wife of the ambassador is a good friend of my partner, Valerie. Both are Renaissance scholars. The International Shakespeare Conference is in Prague this year, so here we are!) The residence, which is in gorgeous condition, with original hand-carved scrolled woodwork on the walls, and chandeliers and priceless tapestry chairs intact, was built in the 1920s-30s by a fabulously wealthy Jewish industrialist. He and his family walked out of the house with a few suitcases, pretending to be going away for the weekend, in 1938. The house was then occupied by the Nazi General Council in Prague, and after that, by the Red Army for a couple of weeks. It is a small miracle to have the house in the fine condition that it is, and there are several stories behind that miracle.

The presence of the current U.S. ambassador, Norman Eisen, in this house is itself a compelling story. It would have been from here that the transport order was signed by the Nazis that put Eisen’s mother, then a citizen of Slovakia, on a train to Auschwitz. She was there for nine months before the camp was liberated. People like to say that what goes around, comes around, but that isn’t always true. Still, it is quite moving to witness Ambassador Eisen’s wonder as he shares this history with guests.

I am lucky to be here, although it does seem very odd to be reading a history of William (“Wild Bill”) Langer, a colorful former governor of North Dakota, in these surroundings!

Pet Interlude

Friday, May 13th, 2011

Nothing about North Dakota here. Just some photos of pets (but more importantly, on this windy 45-degree day in Fargo, of a verdant spring background in Michigan).

Two dogs and a cat (ignoring the photographer)

Gentle Sammy, the good dog

LuLu. I know I've been gone a long time when I start to miss this one.

Great to be back in Nashville

Tuesday, March 22nd, 2011

I was back in Nashville this past week for a reading from Dakota at Vanderbilt University (and more importantly, to catch up with some of my old Tennessee buddies). It was terrific to hang out with these friends and to enjoy some warm spring days surrounded by magnolias and cherry trees and pear trees and so much more in blossom. One afternoon I took my tourist self downtown and was treated to a personal concert at the new Schermerhorn Symphony Center by jazz guitar great Al Di Meola. (Okay, he didn’t know I was there, but the door was open and he was rehearsing for a concert that evening, and I did have the best seat in the house.)

Note published in an alumni magazine: The Angelos, Spring 2010

Thursday, August 5th, 2010

Brave New Publishing World Impacts Authors of Fiction
By Brenda K Marshall
When I finished my first novel, Mavis, my literary agent sold it to a New York publisher, and the machinery of the publication process kicked in. A well-known author wrote a blurb for the back cover, an artist designed the front cover, marketing specialists distributed promotional material, the editor ensured that the book was reviewed in major publications, and a publicist set up book readings and radio and newspaper interviews. I was given 1,000 postcards to send to potential readers, to hand out at readings and to friends.

It was all a lot of fun.

That was almost 15 years ago, and the publishing world has changed dramatically in response to a perfect storm of events. A decade ago a series of mergers reduced the number of independent publishing houses, reducing competition within the industry. More importantly, today’s information technology means there is no longer one industry that controls what is published: we blog, we tweet, words are everywhere. And then, an economic recession slammed the troubled industry. In response, mainstream publishers grew cautious, putting their financial resources into known money makers: formulaic fiction from best-selling authors, celebrity biographies, and “how-to” books. Writers of “midlist” fiction (literary novels by non-celebrity authors) suddenly found it all but impossible to get published by a major publishing house.

But are these changes all bad? Not necessarily. Although some writers argue that self-publication results in a profusion of mediocre work, others say that the brave new publishing world reflects the democratization of information. Everyone with a computer and an internet connection is a potential writer.

So what are we to do? Publish where we can, when we can, however we can. And then we set up our Web sites, we blog, we tweet, we connect any way possible with readers. Because one thing doesn’t change: we write because we have a story to share.