I can’t seem to make the monthly meetings, but always in need of a cattle prod to get me moving, I complete the assignments posted by my local photography club. “Leading Lines” was a recent suggestion, and I thought that in this chaotic world, a line that leads to clarity would be a welcome compass point. We stumble and stagger. Forward movement seems to be mostly on our knees. (Is there a process for recalling partisan members of the U.S. Supreme Court?)
A couple of days ago, I read David Brooks in the NEW YORK TIMES. Really Good Books, Part I ran in The Times on May 22 <http://nyti.ms/1vOBhP1> and Really Good Books, Part II ran on May 26 <http://nyti.ms/TOrjPh>. In part one, Brooks suggested that writers could do no wrong in imitating the “disarming rhythm” of George Orwell’s first sentences. “It takes a few shimmies [for the reader] to get it right. Orwell was famous for sticking close to reality, for facing unpleasant facts, for describing ideas not ideologically but as they actually played out in concrete circumstances.”
And immediately I thought of “The Hanging,” one of Orwell’s essays. He wrote the essay in 1931, and it was based on his years of service in Burma with the British Imperial Police (1922-1927). Orwell’s language is beautiful and sets you in the scene. You can read the essay at <http://www.george-orwell.org/a_hanging/O.html>. Re-reading the essay yesterday, I was just as moved by his story and skill as a writer as I was when I first read it over 30 years ago. The main character is a Hindu, in handcuffs, guarded by six warders with rifles and fixed bayonets.
Masterfully, Orwell makes us care about the prisoner who has no name. Nor we do know his crime. In short, “The Hanging” is a subtle essay on the abuses of Imperialism and capital punishment. This essay is no diatribe; rather, it calls on the reader to reflect on the prisoner’s humanity and the inhumanity of capital punishment.
On the way to the gallows, fresh from the double-barred shed like a small animal cage, the prisoner, “a puny wisp of a man with a shaven head and vague liquid eyes” steps aside to avoid a puddle. In contrast, the Indian warders are eager to finish the job and get on with their routine. Laughter and whiskey ease the transition between the hanging and the warders’ breakfast.
The phrase “to bear witness” comes to mind. Orwell gives a faithful record of what he saw, and through Orwell’s eyes, the reader sees the execution and is moved. Orwell did not need a thesis statement or supporting details to convince the reader of his point of view. He gives us images and like the sun’s rays, they burn an impression.
I just received an assignment from the Shavano Poets, based in Salida. (Would I ever write anything if I did not have a deadline?) The assignment from Kate Bell, is to “Write a Poem of witness: a poem of witness looks at realities and names them – it reveals human pain through the art of words, it allows understanding and transcends human tragedy – it tends to look, not inward at the self but outward to the connection between self and world – toward social and historical.”
Curiously, David Brooks, George Orwell, and the Shavano Poets all came together … converging lines of linear thinking. Last week I was taking my ease in The Tattered Cover, Denver’s foremost independent book store. Coffee and pastry at hand, I leafed through Evidence, a book of poems by Mary Oliver. And within the covers of that book, I found a poem titled First Days in San Miguel de Allende. I love San Miguel, so of course, I read the poem and was seduced because it follows in the footsteps of David Brooks, George Orwell, and has something to teach me in terms of preparing my Shavano Poets assignment. The poem reads as follows:
The tops of the northbound trains are dangerous. / Still they are heaped with hopefuls. / I understand their necessity. Understanding, however, in not sharing. / Oh, let there be a wedding of the / mind and the heart, if not today / then soon. / Meanwhile, let me change my own life / into something better. / Meanwhile, on the streets of San Miguel de Allende / it is easy to smile. / “Hola,” I say to the children / “Hi,” they say as I pass / with my passport, and money, in my pocket.”
It was Emily Dickinson who wrote “Tell all the Truth but tell it slant.”
I have my work cut out for me.