Wednesday, April 06, 2005

A Word in an Index or a Greater Blessing?

To a Minor Poet of the Greek Anthology

"Where now is the memory
of the days that were yours on earth, and wove
joy with sorrow, and made a universe that was your own?

The river of years has lost them
from its numbered current; you are a word in an index."

Thus writes Jorge Luis Borges, bringing us all to that fearful recognition of our smallness in the universe. We can do little to remain other than to leave our names on something.

"To others the gods gave glory that has no end:
inscriptions, names on coins, monuments, conscientious historians;
all that we know of you, eclipsed friend,
is that you heard the nightingale one evening."

(shift to another eavesdropping session on a student consultation) --- you'll see how this relates in a minute)

The consultant: "What I was trying to get you to see was ... the other reasons that you gave me either fit into a moral or logical category of your argument. First of all, you have the "murder/Bible/human being/duty to protect the unborn" argument; then you have medical reasons --- health risks, depression, etc. You will want separate paragraphs that show this organizational principle. So, there it is. That's your outline. Now, what you have to go home and do is to read these sources and while you read, highlight. Okay, this is information about the health risks, and this is a moral concern. You pull these things out to put into your paper. Also I think it's a good idea to mention your own personal opinion and experiences (a personal case study). You could say, "My friend X. ... (and describe her experience to back your opinion, to provide proof for your argument). Use only the first initial, however."

The student is writing about abortion. This is her view, written and signed to stand for posterity. But I doubt that she thinks about it that way. It's just an English paper, after all. What will it mean, in ten years, that she wrote a paper claiming abortion is wrong and why? Let's go back to Borges.

"Among the asphodels of the Shadow, your shade, in its vanity,
must consider the gods ungenerous.

But the days are a web of small troubles,
and is there a greater blessing
than to be the ash of which oblivion is made?"

Here's the good part. In my literature class this semester, there has been a sustained visual image of fire: smoke, burning, suffering, ceremony, and rising from the ashes. Examples of texts we've studied that contain these elements: Hamlet; "A Worn Path" (Welty); "This is What it Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona" (Alexie); "Smoke Signals" (Alexie); and "Buddha" (Melville). My students and I have explored some of the principles of faith across different religions (Christian, Native American, and Buddhism) and in particular the concept of nirvana (Borges' "oblivion") --- not heaven but the cessation of suffering (burning). All these words, these writings, celebrate the ash of which oblivion is made.

Back to the student who is thinking and writing about abortion, a painful (burning) topic. Isn't the act of writing about it ceremonial? We lay the subject on the fire and turn up the heat (add fuel, breath, an audience).


"Above other heads the gods kindled
the inexorable light of glory, which peers into the secret parts and discovers
each separate fault"

Yesterday I wrote about the writing campfire circle and invited you to see yourselves (as I do) as explorers in the wild west of writing. Above our heads the gods are kindling the fires. Let's keep stirring up the ashes, weaving joy with sorrow, and making the universe by writing it down.

Tomorrow: Trash: Stories by Dorothy Allison


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