Thursday, June 11, 2009

Books, Birds and the Heart

I want to thank Lepa, Stephanie, Lee for your answering words. I can see that my blog is not a free flowing conversation so it is wonderful when I can read your responses. Yesterday I received my own version of a care package, a large gray plastic bag containing the books I had been waiting for. The delivery man throws them over our front gate to Cello's accompanying din, and I run out as if I am meeting the clipper ship, long over due, only it is not a husband I am welcoming home but words, faces, lives, histories. This joy at the arrival of books started many years ago when I was in the lower grades of PS 94 in the Bronx--mid 1940s--and amidst the 2 penny pretzel and the free carton of milk my greatest joy was being the class secretary to check in the box of Scholastic books we each had been able to order--I can still feel the pure joy of pulling back the cardboard flaps and there, nestled against each other, were slim cheap paperback versions of the classics and some recent favorites like the Nancy Drew
series. Here I found my Albert Payson Terhune and his Scottish collies cavorting on the moors, the black stallions of Walter Farley, the hanging head of Black Beauty--I can still hear the clip clop of the tired wagon horses as if they were coming up Gun Hill Road that I thought I could hear back then.
Forgive me if my dates are wrong--perhaps these wondrous boxes appeared later in my life, when I was living in Bayside, Queens in the early 50s--time flashes in strange ways now but the river that it is still washes up the bits of gold that form a shining center of remembered life.
No longer do I scoop up from the long traveled box the adventure stories of families lost on deserted islands or young girls on mountain tops with goats and old wise uncles. Now I await the writers, the thinkers , the brave, who have made a claim on my interest, on my passions. Rosa Luxemburg came to me because I was asked to review an article about the new release of her Letters from Prison in Tel Aviv and Ramallah for the Australian Jewish Democratic Society's Newsletter. My friend Daniel andI read her letters out loud around a small cafe table outside the Melbourne hospital where his mother was fighting for her life. I thought these pages, downloaded from the free Rosa Luxembourg Archives on the web, would be a good distraction--but letters from prison are never just distractions and this woman who looked into the soul of an exhausted beast of burden through her prison window and saw the bent backs of the working classes, this woman difficult and dedicated now sits on my desk, sits my bed, and always behind her polemics or letters of demanding desire, I see the rifle butt that will smash into her oh so Jewish face, the bullet that will crush her heart, fired by her own party comrades because she would not, could not, under her doctrine, support the first World War, I see her marble bust rising from the German canal so many years later, the narrow body of urban water where the lackey soldier dumped her small Polish body with its richness of up swept hair and its pockmarked hip. Over the seas have come her words, small things but oh how they travel--not in their "truth" but in the song they seen of a life straining with every step to rethink the world. I better stop now, but now my other comrades, the word givers whose gift I await, hanging onto the swinging gate: May Out West, poems and Dear Elisabeth: Five Poems and Three Letters to Elizabeth Bishop, both by May Swenson (thank you, Lee); China Mielville's The City and The City, my dear Meilville who rethinks and subverts and interchanges shadows and facts on the ground, species and cities and wounds; Pen America: A Journal for Writers and Readers--10 Fear Itself, with Edwidge Danticat's profound meditation on the danger of not fearing--Dear Edwidge, who came so many years ago now it feels like, to speak with our special seminar students in SEEK at Queens College, The Literature of Caribbean Women Writers, Dr Bobb and myself welcoming this young beautiful Haitian author, now a mother of two daughters, and how at that long table we all poured over the underlined passages of her first novel, Breath, Eyes, Memory, our students forgetting their awe at meeting a real author and diving into her text so to pull up their own discovered treasures--that was teaching and learning and reading at its best and all because a writer did not think herself above the journeys of those around her, but understood with all her generosity, the gift they had brought from their struggling lives to her words.
And finally, the books that do take me back to the those old Scholastic specials--the 7 volumes of Kevin J. Anderson's The Saga of Seven Suns; how I love rolling around the star clusters in the warm embrace of his green priests and the outlaw Roamers, gazing with amazement at the planet sized tree ships and peering into the depths of gas giants to see what will come zooming up into darker space. Transport gates all, I swing upon. And still I stand with Women in Black, the suffering of those imprisoned by national meannesses, always in my mind.
It is now August 11, 2009: I am adding here the article I wrote for the Australian Jewish Democratic Society Newsletter, May 2009.
Rosa Luxemburg Speaks to Us
Back in February, two things happened in Palestine/Israel, one huge, the other almost overlooked: a national election culminating in a right wing government, stiff with reactionary posturing, and the opening of the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation's offices in Tel Aviv and Ramallah, the occasion marked by the re-issuing of a small book that influenced many of Israel's pioneering Left thinkers like Shulamit Aloni--Luxemburg's oddly idyllic and thus chillingly heartbreaking, Letters from Prison.
"Sonyusha, you are feeling embittered because of my long imprisonment. You ask: "How can human beings dare to decide the fate of their fellows? What is the meaning of it dear little bird, the whole history of grounded upon 'human beings deciding the fate of their fellows,' the practice is deeply rooted in the material conditions of existence. Nothing but a further evolution, and a painful one, can change such things. At this hour we are living in the very chapter of transition..." (Letter to Sophie Liebknecht from Wronke Prison, May 23, 1917)
That the strong visage of this controversial political thinker, brutally murdered in Berlin in 1919 along with her comrade, Karl Liebknecht, should be seen once again, peering into the national debates about inequalities and the futility of war and nationalism to create either stability or social justice at a time when the Israeli Left seems an almost futile gesture, is a testament to the hopeful ironies of history. And to the courage and insight of the Israeli Sifriat Hapoalim publishing house which is responsible for the book's reemergence. To commemorate the opening of its Israeli office, the Foundation sponsored a free conference to discuss Luxemburg's heritage and her relevance to the Israeli and German Left, the home base of the Foundation. In Haaretz, Avner Shapira wrote that Dr Angelika Timm, Director of the Israeli Office, explained that the Foundation's activity in the region "reflects German left-wing recognition that it, like all of Germany, bears a historical responsibility for Israel. The Foundation supports civic projects such as educational initiatives or peace and humanism, the empowerment of women and assistance to weakened populations, and tires to promote mutual understanding between Israeli and German society."
Polish-born Luxemburg (1871-1919), founder of the Spartacus League and the German Communist Party, lived much of her life under the threat of political assassination. Undaunted by enemies, on the Right and the Left, she and many others endured periodic imprisonments, long separations from what most of us would just call the daily joys of life. A firm believer in her own ideological visions, she also cherished the social value of dissent. "Freedom," she wrote, "only for the supporters of the government, only for the members of the party--however numerous they may be--is no freedom at all. Freedom is always the freedom of the dissenter." These words are now engraved over the entrance to the Foundation's headquarters in Tel Aviv, translated into Hebrew, Arabic and German. I cannot help but think of these words when faced with the closing down of discussion in the American Jewish community (from which I hail) and here (where I now live) when it comes to critiquing Israel's version of nationalism--or the connections between a vital democracy and social inequities. Luxemburg, while passionately dedicated to her world view, rejected violence as a useful tool of social change, favoring general strikes and cultural interventions.
Rosa Luxemburg, seen as a traitor to a nation state intent on war, spent her last two years watching for the smallest signs of life in the restricted world of her jail cell and its little yard. Used to the larger stage of international Left politics, she now focuses on the vitality of birds and butterflies, trees blooming on a horizon never to be reached by her again. "On the paper as I write, the faint shadows of the leaves are at play with the interspersed patches of sunlight; the foliage is still damp from a recent shower, and now and again drops fall on my face and hands...At six o'clock, as usual, I was locked up." (Wronke, end of May, 1917).
I know Sol had asked me to only give an overview of Shapira's article , but thanks to the Rosa Luxemburg Internet Archive, I was able to hear her voice again, in her last days writing to Sophie Liebknecht, the wife of her imprisoned comrade, Karl. "How strange it is that I am always in a sort of joyous intoxication, though without sufficient cause. Here I am lying in a dark cell upon a mattress as hard as stone; the building has its usual churchyard quiet, so that one might as well be already entombed; through the window there falls across the bed a glint of light from the lamp which burns all night in front of the prison...I lie here alone and in silence, enveloped in the manifold black wrappings of darkness, tedium, unfreedom and yet my heart beats with immeasurable and in comprehensible inn er joy...but when I search my mind for the cause of this joy, I find there is no cause and can only laugh at myself--I believe that the key to the riddle is simply life itself, this deep darkness of night is soft and beautiful as velvet, if one only looks at it in the right way...."
Hannah Arendt, who includes a chapter on Luxemburg in her haunting Men in Dark Times (1955) warns against over-sentimentalising this often hard-nosed theoretician; like many strong women who take unpopular public stances at the risk of their lives, she was called seemingly oppositional things--the bloodthirsty Rosa, the hopeless romantic. Her Letters from Prison reveal in a matter of 50 pages her toughness, her thirst for learning, for checking her texts--books are as important as birds in these letters--food, give it to the other prisoners, she writes, but for me, send the books!--and her desire to protect fragile lives while she glories in the complexity of the natural world and the challenges of the material one. I think of the Jewish women thinkers, Rosa, Emma Goldman, Hannah Arnedt herself, who dared to be pariahs in their own homelands and I think of the darkness we will forever know as the Siege of Gaza.
(Inspired by the article, "A Red Red Rosa (Not to Mention Green and Pink) by Avner Shapira in Haaretz.)

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