Writing the Other with Empathy

From the outset of my novel-in-progress about a gay man’s spiritual journey, I have wrestled with the question of my right to represent this character in his own voice. (It doesn’t help that some gay male writers, not exempt from the deformations of patriarchy, occasionally snipe about “middle-aged housewives” who intrude on their literary turf.) How to explain, without reenforcing straight privilege to interpret queer experience, that on some level I feel that my protagonist is me, and that I write not so much as an ally but as an autobiographer of an alternate life? Writers of persona poems and historical fiction face the same challenge of entering another’s perspective with empathy rather than self-centered appropriation.

Karla Kelsey’s latest review at The Constant Critic expresses well the philosophical nuances of literary empathy, which she says is made possible by the multiplicity of the self. Our conscious experience already exceeds the first-person “I”. Discussing Mei-mei Berssenbrugge’s new collection, Hello, the Roses, Kelsey writes:

Inhabiting another’s first-person perspective in the same way that he, she, or it, does, not only seems psychologically impossible, but also would efface the very thing that ensures the existence of all that is not-me in the world. As Husserl among others points out, had I the same access to the consciousness of another as I have to my own, that other would cease being another and instead become part of myself.

Thus the bind: one cannot inhabit anyone else’s first-person experience, and it is precisely this limit that makes another other to me. At the same time, we don’t want to say that we have completely no access to another’s first-person perspective. We want to say that what we feel in affective, empathetic moments is not merely a solipsistic self-projection.

While studies on the problem of mind hash these problems out via the discipline of philosophy, worries over the lyric I reflect the way these problems circulate in the language of poetry. As we know, the lyric I is the poster-child for the expression of first-person experience. And while we might grow tired of the limits of this perspective—of the hemming and hawing of these I’s, aching through their embodiments, bemoaning the fleeting nature of relational connection—we balk at lyric expression that “feels into” the first person experience of another. The ethical risks of such attempts at empathy include the effacement of fundamental difference with fantasy—and passing fantasy off as some sort of emotional truth.

But this need not lock us into a Cartesian box, for “Je est un autre” (Rimbaud). Or, if you prefer philosophy, “The other can be evident to me because I am not transparent for myself, and because my subjectivity draws its body in its wake” (Merleau-Ponty). We can open the box from a trap door built into its bottom: there are many ways that we experience ourselves as other to our first-person experience of the world, for we exceed our pronouns. And this first-person experience of excess, of self-as-other is kin to an experience of the otherness of that which is not the self. The otherness of other humans, animals, nature, and objects.

Perhaps we first recognize otherness because it is a fundamental relationship that we have to ourselves. Simply touch your right hand with your left and you are both touching and touched. Catch your image in a mirror unexpectedly and who is that, for a moment, you wonder. Leafing back through old poems—through a poem you wrote yesterday—you have the distinct feeling that you did not write what is on the page. As such, one way to think about empathy is along the self’s subject/object edge, considering the fact of the self as simultaneously occupying a subject and object position and exploring the object-self’s relationship with other objects.

Read the whole essay here.

New Writing by Conway: “City Elegy IV”

Back in August I posted the previous installment of my prison pen pal “Conway’s” series of prose-poems celebrating urban car culture, whose freedom contrasts with the living death of incarceration. He returns with this political lyric that I’m fortunate to share with you. Read it aloud and you’ll hear the cell doors clang.

City Elegy IV

   Do the streetlights still bleed, through the leaves of me? Where my memory remains, in my family tree’s falling shadow.

   A tree grows not here, on the middle of this tier, stone cold center of my universe. In the Heart of America this sanctified cell only records the heartbeat of the meat wrapped in its possession.

   A continuous tape-loop snakes its way through the years — of going nowhere. Except when the transport bus appears, wrapped in freedom’s faffling flag of Hypocrisy.

   Pilgrims transfer daily to more oversourced humidors, stone-n-steel honeycombs of human bondage, buzzing away. As sodium-lamps illuminate this treasure, like a billboard display. Like a halo glowing bright off any highway, wrapped up tight in a crown of barbed wire thorns, or thistled horns.

   Some say that the Lord’s blessing is amongst us. I only see shackles and chains wrapping our pains in the shroud of injustice. Redemption contrived, commercialized for profit.

   Does God Bless the Commerce of Incarcerated America? This Holy shrine of abundance, a multitude of souls of candidates standing on street corners seeking futures, but finding no path. Beware! Don’t get snagged in this trap of the one way bus trip right to here. Here, far away from contact, in the Hall of a million steel doors slammed shut. Locked away tight from another cool September night, no relief in sight.

   Here, where even the strongest arms and minds tire, struggling against this brazen green money machine.

   Here, amidst the husks of what Justice has abandoned.

   Here, where the clamor withers to silence without contact.

   Dulled by neglect, the aftertaste deepens the hunger.

   Harsh sentencing schemes darken the overtones of truth.

   In this tidal wave of injustice that seems to have no end, even at oblivion.

   Again-n-again this massive chain drags another generation down and in. To get slammed down, for being so bold as to remove the unnecessary gold, that decorates the watch dangling from the Liberty master’s pockets…

Poetry for Veterans’ Day

This morning I was reading the daily poem to Shane from our Alhambra Poetry Calendar for Young Readers, a superlative anthology of classic and modern poems that are written on an adult level but safe to share with younger folks. I often follow the reading with a little interpretation, pointing out interesting things about how the poem works, or reflecting critically on its message. Maybe it’s silly to get into this with a 19-month-old, but I feel it’s never too early to introduce the idea that he can think for himself about what Mommy and Daddy read to him. He can appreciate a book without agreeing with everything in it, or with us.

Because it’s Veterans’ Day, today we read the well-known poem “In Flanders Fields” by John McCrae, who was a Lt. Colonel in the Canadian Army in World War I. The text and history of the poem can be found on the Arlington National Cemetery’s website.

I remarked on McCrae’s conclusion that continuing the battle was the proper way to make the fallen soldiers’ sacrifice worthwhile: “To you from failing hands we throw/The torch; be yours to hold it high./If ye break faith with us who die/We shall not sleep…” Other war poets, I observed, have drawn the opposite conclusion, that these tragic deaths ought to motivate us to seek peace.

My favorite war poem of all time has to be Wilfred Owen’s “Greater Love“, also from World War I. Owen was a passionate critic of the war’s carnage, yet this poem (unlike, for instance, his “Dulce et Decorum Est“) resists reduction to a pro- or anti-war interpretation. He is simply moved by the holy suffering of the dying soldiers, which is undiminished by questions about whether it was necessary or effective.

For more great poetry on this theme, visit the War Poetry Contest archives (2002-2011) at WinningWriters.com.

Greater Love

by Wilfred Owen

Red lips are not so red
As the stained stones kissed by the English dead.
Kindness of wooed and wooer
Seems shame to their love pure.
O Love, your eyes lose lure
   When I behold eyes blinded in my stead!

Your slender attitude
Trembles not exquisite like limbs knife-skewed,

Rolling and rolling there

Where God seems not to care:

Till the fierce love they bear

Cramps them in death’s extreme decrepitude.

Your voice sings not so soft,—

Though even as wind murmuring through raftered loft,—

Your dear voice is not dear,

Gentle, and evening clear,

As theirs whom none now hear,

Now earth has stopped their piteous mouths that coughed.

Heart, you were never hot

   Nor large, nor full like hearts made great with shot;

And though your hand be pale,

Paler are all which trail

Your cross through flame and hail:

Weep, you may weep, for you may touch them not.

Signs of the Apocalypse: Brews ‘n’ Pews

National Public Radio ran a story last week headlined, “To Stave Off Decline, Churches Attract New Members With Beer“. A variation of the coffeehouse Christian groups that youth pastors have been trying for some time now, these mainline Protestant churches in Fort Worth, TX and Portland, OR are staging meet-ups in brew pubs and serving beer at hymn sing-a-longs, in hope of attracting seekers who are turned off by the formality of Sunday morning services.

…Pastor Philip Heinze and his Calvary Lutheran Church sponsor Church-in-a-Pub, whose formal name is the Greek word, Kyrie.

Some patrons are understandably confused. They come in for a brew and there’s a religious service going on in their bar. They expected Trivia Night and they get the Holy Eucharist.

“I tell ’em, it’s a church service,” says bartender Les Bennett, “And they’re, like, ‘In a pub?’ And I’m, like, yeah. Some of ’em stick around for trivia, some of ’em take off, some of ’em will hang out and have another pint or two.”

That’s one of the objectives: A guy sits at the bar nursing a beer, he overhears the Gospel of Luke, he sees people line up to take bread and wine, he gets curious. Phil Heinze says pub church has now become an official — if edgy — Lutheran mission…

There you have it: The King of Kings meets the King of Beers. This Blood’s For You.

I suppose I shouldn’t rush to judgment just because beer gives me hot flashes. After all, my main spiritual fellowship these days takes place at my church’s Wednesday night potluck. The way to my soul is through my stomach. Maybe beer will be the plus factor that motivates someone to attend a Christian activity, just as our friend Lee’s steak au poivre lures us out to the parish hall on dark November nights.

Joking aside, though, we’re not really there for the food. We’ve created a supportive, intimate circle of Christians who share basic values and help one another stay in touch with God’s presence. If that wasn’t happening, I’d just go to a restaurant.

So I’m skeptical that churches need to become more “approachable” by slipping religion in as background music to a good party. To the contrary, we should be articulating what we offer that can’t be found elsewhere. With the waning of social and familial pressure to maintain religious affiliation, churches have been thrown into competition with many other sources of fellowship and life guidance, both secular and religious. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing, if we’re willing to take up the challenge of clarifying our mission.

I also see special problems with organizing such events around alcohol, as compared to casseroles. I go to church activities for safe community and insight into urgent questions of existence. Alcohol is not exactly designed to clarify the mind. It interferes with emotional self-regulation, which its fans might consider a feature, but which surely lowers the probability that Beer & Hymns Night will be more safe from unskillful speech than the average secular get-together.

The alcohol industry makes tremendous profits from selling the fantasy that drinking leads to popularity, companionship, and contentment. (Our local brewery’s slogan even spells this out: Peace, Love, Beer. And the greatest of these is beer…?) I’m not saying that churches should all be temperance warriors, but we shouldn’t be corporate tools, either. Rather than marketing gimmicks aimed at hipsters, let’s find out what people really need for the well-being of their souls, and give it to them.

Although “Holy Eucharist Trivia Night” also sounds pretty awesome. Who knows the difference between transubstantiation and consubstantiation? Winner gets a free glass of water. What Jesus does with that is up to him.

Poetry by Ruth Hill: “Cast in Bronze” and “Wild Celery”

A loyal subscriber to our Winning Writers website, Canadian poet Ruth Hill has been among our most-awarded poets since she began her career only a few years ago. This year she counts 24 wins and placements in journals (so far), following 36 last year. She kindly shares two recent poems below. “Cast in Bronze” appeared in Rose & Thorn Journal (May 2012) and Silver Bow Publishing (November 2013). “Wild Celery” appears in the debut issue of Perfume River Poetry Review.

Cast in Bronze

Afternoon storms
having opened their black velvet pouches
and thrown down their burden of diamonds
often give way to evenings of magnificent
Come out and see the hibiscus brazing
pigeon necklaces burnished with maize
brass bells tinkling off glittering leaves
yellow sequined arches in the village square
Evenings whose warm respites of joy
are made brief by the longitudinal shadow
We are spinning away from the sun
as it appears to be spinning away from us
Newborn bees share our view through
   topaz honey
hive’s hum a kazoo, dripping raindrops
   a xylophone
amber windows everywhere
Rocks and roads and trees all trimmed
   in tortoiseshell
are strewn with chestnuts and chrysoberyl
Citrine evening with soap bubbles in the air
mist of bronze others see as not there
freckles on thrush, blush on the pear

Like well-oiled athletes, golden hills flex
   their muscles
A single robin’s silver flute calls the universe
   to order


Wild Celery

…and didn’t God layer it nice, twice,
first in its Spring Fling,
then for this Fall Ball,
with doilies of lace
and dollops of diamonds and pearls,
embroidered popcorn silk,
and braided cord
dripping with tassels of icicle dough,
spiraled peaks of whip cream snow,
with sun to warm and melt,
and sprinkle sparkles to twinkle so,
white under blue for a bride like you.

Someday lay me down to die
under wild celery, heaving its
exploding fireworks into the sky,
toes in the mud, musing,
sweet compost effusing,
second bloom from the tomb,
this glory the story of
what’s already gone by.