Posted in Glit Lit

On Poetry, the Political, and My Uncle Leo

Back in the twentieth century, I was born in the same month that the Hollywood Ten, nine of whom were screenwriters, were charged with Communist affiliations and pled the Fifth before the House Un-American Activities Committee, then went to prison for contempt. Most of the ten spent less than a year in jail, but the nine who were screenwriters remained on the movie industry’s blacklist for fifty years—until 1997, when the Writers Guild of America finally credited them, some posthumously, with their own films. A number of them wrote screenplays under pseudonyms. Others used the names of loyal friends. Surreptitious films by black-listed screenwriters included Spartacus; Broken Arrow; Bridge on the River Kwai; Born Free; Cry, the Beloved Country; and one of my favorites, Roman Holiday, with its oddly satisfying non-“Hollywood” ending. (Something a realist or a socialist might have dreamed up.)

House Un-American Activities Committee

I was not a red diaper baby myself, although my parents voted twice for Adlai Stevenson, who was both an Aquarian and a Unitarian. I was, however, born with a taste for evenhandedness that got me into trouble often enough as a champion of wayward siblings and underdog classmates. At the same time, I was that hyper-shy girl who turned into an almost-nun and then a too-young mom and then a tentative poet, but all I obviously wanted was the peace and solitude of a tiny room (or fire-warmed garret), where I would sit in the only ray of light with a mug of tea between my knees, writing with a fountain pen and a pot of ink.

As soon as I was born I began to live through other people’s wars: The Cold War, the Space War, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Persian Gulf War, the War on Terrorism, the War in Iraq. Secret wars, border wars, gang wars, civil wars, dirty wars, holy wars, guerilla wars, cyber wars, 6 day wars, 100 hour wars, wars on drugs, pollen, rodents, crabgrass. I lived on the sidelines of wars, where I sat as a lotus. I tried to make my own personal space for peace and pull all my loved ones into it. My loved ones and my poems.

Sometimes the word activist feels like a hairy guy with fangs waiting to make my poet self responsible for something larger than enjambment, louder than musicality, and stronger even than language that might blow the top of someone’s head off. I get confused. Should my goal be sexual politics or the kind that goes from door to door to sign up voters? The kind of political writing that keens or the kind that witnesses? Dissident poems or poems with covert propaganda? Johnny Got His Gun? Or Muriel Rukeyser, who traveled to Vietnam and Korea, who had an FBI file for most of her adult life, and whose son was born out of wedlock (scandalous) the same year I was born in it.

Muriel Rukeyser

According to eyewitnesses, I came peacefully into the port of Elizabeth, New Jersey, a girl child in a working class family of Irish Catholic democrats. I had a passion for justice, yes, I wanted to change everything, help everybody. I eventually marched, rallied, petitioned, wept—a disillusioned, hopeful American adult.

Unlike me, Rukeyser lived and died during only one century. She wrote:

I lived in the first century of world wars.
Most mornings I would be more or less insane…

—”Poem” (from The Speed of Darkness, 1968)

She gave me my first inkling of how to be an activist; that is, how I personally might affect change with my writing, given my own peculiar personality, past, and proclivities. She said: The work that a poem does is a transfer of human energy, and… human energy may be defined as consciousness, the capacity to make change in existing conditions.

Ever since I gave birth to my first daughter I’ve been a big fan of consciousness. That was the time of my infamous hospital experience in New Rochelle, New York, as Nixon was dropping bombs on neutral Cambodia, when I was given sodium pentothal and various other drugs as a way to fool my mind into thinking 1) that my body was not in pain; and 2) that the doctor was a lot smarter than I was about the way my body worked, so he might as well put me to sleep and take over. (Poet Alicia Ostriker tells a chillingly similar story in her prose poem, “Cambodia.” I recommend it highly.)

I’m not sure when I woke up, but by the time my feet were in stirrups for my next child, five years later, I was ready to fight anyone who tried to rob me of my right to my own pain.

I believe that consciousness spawns imagination, which ignites poetry, which allows us to surpass ourselves; that we bequeath knowledge through our poems, knowledge more important than monuments.

When first into this world I came my troubles did begin.
Because I had a brother John—to me he was a twin.

We looked so very much alike, you couldn’t tell one from the other.
And many’s the time I got the blame for things done by my brother.

My great uncle Leo recited the anonymous couplets of “Brother John” at almost every Bradley/Seaton Sunday dinner and family holiday. It was a maudlin poem, fueled by Murphy’s Law, and it was part of my political heritage—family, Church, whiskey, death, and inevitable ironic bad luck.

Uncle Leo was the neighborhood drunk. He got up at 5:30 every weekday morning, opened the church at 5:45, and served Mass at 6, a sincere and hungover layperson. Then he fell immediately into his cups at the local gin mill, staggered home for dinner, and passed out on his twin bed. I never saw him sober and I both loved and hated the way he smelled: sweet and soused. He was a kind solitary man, dead in his early fifties. He taught me my first poem.

As a child, I intuited consciousness everywhere: brooks, stones, stars, frogs; later, in the blues of Debussy, the reds of Stravinsky; and, eventually, in poems that rose out of me from seeming nowhere.

Another of my heroes, poet Audre Lorde, wrote: I have come to believe over and over again that what is most important to me must be spoken… even at the risk of having it bruised or misunderstood. That the speaking profits me, beyond any other effect.

Audre Lorde was, among her many remarkable aspects, an activist for the body and for breaking silences. Her essay, “Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power” travels around with me in my hip pocket, and I read it whenever I worry that I am going too slow—circling the same spot—to make a difference. Lorde saw the bridge between the spiritual and the political as the sensual, those physical, emotional, and psychic expressions of what is deepest and strongest and richest within each of us…

She said: To refuse to be conscious of what we are feeling at any time, however comfortable that might seem, is to deny a large part of the experience…

I like to think that if I am present for my own life and for the lives of those around me, and for the life of the planet, and if I write from that place of presence, as uncomfortable as I am filled with awe, my poetry will affect change.

The tenth man convicted for contempt of Congress as one of the blacklisted Hollywood Ten was film director Edward Dmytryk. Like Muriel Rukeyser and Audre Lorde, Dmytryk lived during a single century—a long life of ninety years and thirty-five films. It turns out he had reconsidered his refusal to testify before the HUAC and was given a second chance as a so-called friendly witness, implicating at least twenty-six people as members of left-wing groups. He also claimed that several of the Hollywood Ten had pressured him into using communist propaganda in his films. After his testimony, he was removed from the blacklist and went on to direct The Caine Mutiny, The Young Lions, The Carpetbaggers, and other films, using his own name without peril. I mention him because he was the one out of ten who caved, because his life was long and productive, because I wonder what I would have done, especially as the head of a family (which I am and have been for many years), under that kind of pressure.

In the year 2000, when my two allotted centuries were about to collide and the millennia change hands, I was dancing my ass off to “Roadhouse Blues” in Greenwich Village—the best thing to be doing, I’d decided, if the world was about to end. The next morning, I walked up to Times Square and picked zeroes off the deserted streets. Then I went home and started writing about that zero, the theology of it, the infinity of it, that wormhole, that round ineffable, and I felt good about life that day. It was a fine way to start my second century—aware of something bigger, a connection with mystery, a politics of connection—which feels very much to me like a politics of peace.

if we are lucky, said Rukeyser, 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.

I like to think that, when my poems don’t come out of me with “a message” or with something, anything, that feels to me even a little helpful to our wounded world, they might still contain a coal of covert propaganda, a fleck of peace. I like to think that my efforts to be a conscious being spill into my poems, moving energy, and, perhaps, kindling change—and that, hopefully, this possibility justifies the shameless joy I feel when I write poetry.


Anonymous. “Brother John.”
Audre Lorde. Sister Outside: Essays and Speeches.
Muriel Rukeyser. The Life of Poetry.
______________. The Collected Poems.

ABOUT GLIT LIT: Glit Lit is about (mostly) poets and the stuff they make, brought to you by Maureen Seaton on a rapid if irregular basis (coherent if inchoate, blasé if décolleté, Floridian if Querque, queer if bonsai). Cheers to little A. Dorothy and her entourage of marbles: clearies, puries, and crystals. Enjoy the glit.

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