As a writer and thinker of Western ideas, I am aware of how
we use and express our ideas through our language, and words are important.Language is slippery, our identities are
suspect, and the ways that we try to prove an idea can be skewed and
inaccurate, even though they may seem true and/or right.Authenticity in expressing what we think and
feel is always under scrutiny, especially in the constantly wired world of
instant news and ideas. When we venture
into ideas in which we are already suspect, our authenticity also becomes more
suspect. If you (the writer) are trying to write from your heart, how can you
persuade your readers that what you are saying is deeply felt and not simply
what you (the writer) think that the reader wants to hear? This is the premise
of Ann Tweedy’s chapbook, White Out, or
this is what I believe that she is expressing in her collection of poems. Her writing style is straightforward and
expresses what she feels with authenticity, which is why the poems in this
chapbook are powerful.I believe the last
three lines in the poem, “Study,” express the authenticity of how and why she
wrote these poems:
In my white skin, I cringe , but go on , questioning
myself, honoring uncertainty, day by day
accepting the challenge to prove myself worthy.
Tweedy is a white woman who is writing about the racism
and bigotry that she has seen through her experiences as an attorney working
for the Indian tribes---and as an observant person living in the United States.
She also continually questions herself in the poems—her position as privileged.
Because of where she is positioned in society, it is important to know who her
audiences are in these poems. Are the poems written for a reader who is
“privileged” and white, are they written for the people who have had to live
and deal with racial prejudice, or are they written for anyone who has thought
about the way racism has affected those who do not have that “white privilege”?In Tweedy’s first poem, “Whiteness,” she
tells the experience of being poor, being on welfare and enduring the mistrust
of the K-Mart employees because she looks poor. Many white people are poor, but can their
experiences be compared to those who are Black or Indian, or Latino? The concepts of race and class have been
frequently discussed in the United States, and there are differing opinions
when comparing them. In this poem, she reflects on how class and race are often
in one of my classes, a woman
constantly complains about us
“divide and conquer” she says of the white teacher’s
description of Indians as a political entity
and white people in her race class
are too focused on class
This has been an important part of discussion in this country—the
differences between race and class, and how it affects those who are
struggling. For many, it comes down to who has the most difficult time living
in American society. Others would argue
that it is more complex in terms of how we use various terms to describe race
and class. Without a doubt, most of what we understand is shaped through our
personal experiences, so all disadvantaged and “silenced” people do have
legitimate concerns about their personal and cultural difficulties. However
there are many who argue that we live in apost-racial society and that the poor can always succeed in this country
through hard work.
Tweedy’s poems are
also about her personal experiences as a white woman attorney working for the
Indian tribes. In her poems, she expresses the conflict that she feels working
for people who don’t trust her because of the history and previous experiences
of Indians.From the poem, “The Same Breath,” she writes
about the hostility that she feels in the room:
…As I begin to
each change and
its possible pitfalls,
a small elder
with a sweet, quiet voice
glasses demands to know
why I am there. Haven’t we done well enough
a white person telling us what to do?
In this poem, she also explains the subtlety of language and how the
speaker’s or writer’s ethos makes the situation believable and authentic to the
audience.She begins the poems by
telling the reader about a woman who calls a battered woman’s shelter, without
providing information about why she is calling. She ends her phone calls with
“God Bless You. And Fuck You.” Tweedy uses this anonymous woman’s words and
situation to also convey her invisible pain that she experiences working with
her clients, through both the harshness of some of the interactions and the
openness and vulnerability of other interactions that she has had with them. There
is intensity of emotion as she describes these experiences:
And so “God
Bless You” and “Fuck You” both strike me
as if at random,
bullets converging on their separately envisaged
real me locked somewhere inside, apparently invisible
body’s façade, but still they enter.
The poem, “House
Built On Sand,” is introduced with a quote by Sherman Alexie, in which he
simply says: “You have to understand that white people invented irony.” Irony
is used to explain the subtlety of thought; in other words, ideas are more
complex than in an “either/or” context. It can be argued that there are many angles,
shadows, and shapings in how “white people” express themselves. Perhaps this is
one of the reasons why our way of expressing ourselves is so suspect to others,
besides in our need to excuse our behavior. In the poem, “House Built On Sand,”
Tweedy explains to the reader that she loves trains because her husband loves
trains. She then tells the reader about how the trains were used also to starve
the Indians. She does not admit to disliking trains, only to disliking the history
of trains, and, despite how humans used trains for evil purposes, she still
does love trains. She also asserts that “white people” are ironic so that they (or
she) can continue to justify the lies that they need simply “to survive.”
When we attempt to look honestly at ourselves, we can
see the ways in which we have personally been damaged. It is difficult to even
write about these experiences except through poetic language, mostly because
these experiences have become so clichéd-- and because of that, the
authenticity of the emotions has become suspect. Language strives to make
things clearer, but often even when the language reduces the emotion to a
simple story it becomes overly complex with irony and subtlety. However, perhaps only through irony and
subtlety are we able to understand meaning. One of the most poignant poems in
this chapbook is titled, “Remaking A City.” The poem gives the reader examples
of people who have come to complain about the police and justice system. The
final story is about a woman who explains the possibility of being silenced
without the chance of telling her story:
at last the woman
that some people
were afraid of police,
happen and they’d never
speak.it would die with them…
In many ways, this chapbook is about the poet as witness for the
oppressed people on the reservation. Tweedy’s empathy and compassion clearly
show throughout her poems. She is a subtle poet who bears witness to those who
have had not been able to tell their stories. It is difficult to write about the topic of
white privilege in poetry, but she does succeed in doing that because of her
genuine honesty. It is easy to become preachy or too overly sentimental about
those who have borne the weight of oppression. Yet Tweedy provides ideas that cannot
easily be resolved because they are about the experiences based often on
complex perceptions. She was able to write from a perspective that is open, compassionate,
and honest, and that is important and difficult in the still racially charged
culture that we live in.
Maurice Merleau-Ponty once said that we come to inhabit a novel. The buried metaphor here is, of course, architecture. As we move from the upper left corner of the first page to the lower right corner of the last page, we come to live in the form. Novelist Lance Olsen takes this metaphor for reading and writes with it. Theories of Forgetting has two back covers, upside down from one another. (See photo at the end of this paragraph.) A separate story begins behind each back cover, and is written on pages consistent with the upward orientation of that cover. This means that most pages contain blocks of writing that are upside down from one another. There are two "tops of the page," and the bottoms are the text that runs up (or down depending on orientation) to meet it. (See the second photo at the end of this paragraph.)
Forgetting is our most usual state. From an empirical perspective, we are bombarded with sense detail every moment. We cannot possibly attend to all of it; hence, we forget much, much more than we remember. From a perspective that emphasizes human consciousness, we perceive those sense details that our values, predispositions, and world view tend to orient us toward. In other words, we notice what we are looking for. Even here, forgetting is our most usual state. Most of our perceptions are quickly discarded. We remember the unusual, the important, the patterned. But we also misremember them, which is a form of forgetting. Do we remember anything in a pure form, untouched by time?
Architecture is obviously spatial, but it is also temporal. We cannot take in the whole building—front, back, inside, outside—at once. We perceive a building as the unfolding of our moving and removing around and in it. Motion is temporal. Unlike reading a conventional novel, this unfolding takes place according to choices made by the perceiver. She decides which door to enter first. Which room to move to. Where to luxuriate and take in a portion of the building. When to attend to people or things within it. Olsen gives us five doors into the habitation of his novel: the two back covers and three small, nondescript side doors. The side doors are 1) photographs, 2) news clippings, and 3) a commentary generally, but not exclusively, on one of the primary stories. It is handwritten in blue ink. In a book that invites various beginnings/endings, there is no reason why we couldn't start with one of the side doors. Each reader comes to inhabit this novel in a different temporal manner; his or her motion through it is more like the way we experience a work of architecture than a conventional novel. Each reader also chooses which door to exit through.
We misremember how someone looked at a certain age until we see a photograph. It jars us into what seems a memory, but is another type of mismemory. We cannot experience this photo as we experienced this person back when he or she looked this way. What's gone is gone forever, and can only be represented—and representation implies a difference and distance from the first presentation. Seeing the photograph jars us from one mismemory to another, but neither is accurate. Perhaps the way we remember the person looking reflects how we felt about him or her at that time. And how is a person represented by a photograph more real than one represented by recollected feelings?
One of the two primary stories is a journal of a woman working on a filmed documentary of Robert Smithson's Spiral Jetty, a visual art work that curls into Great Salt Lake in Utah. As the diary moves toward the second back cover, she becomes infected with The Frost, an epidemic disease that, for her, initially makes the fingers feel cold but eventually comes to cool down, and "freeze," the entire body. For her, it is fatal. She never finishes editing her documentary.
Even those closest to us we misremember—the source of both painful nostalgia and the possibility for growth. We could not move on if we could not forget. To remember in a pure form is to freeze.
The second primary story is a manuscript about a character always in motion. Possibly written by the widow of the woman who dies of the freeze, the character in this chapter is always on the move and quite alone. He travels through Berlin, but ends in the black sand of a desert in the Middle East. Unlike the woman, he dies of heat and exposure, of motion—not the inertness of freezing. Both heat and cold end in the same way: death. But this shouldn't surprise us. All ends in death. Perhaps Olsen is interested in the process of dying—or of living, since they are in some ways the same—rather than in death itself. He likes the journey.
The spiral jetty seems to be a stability amid ever-changing nature. But it must change: it must erode in the rain and the salt, in the whistle of the wind, in the hard heat of Utah. But it changes more slowly than that around it. Even though, as the lake depth has changed, it has sometimes been submerged, it projects relative stability and geometric perfection into the fluidity of nature. The Dia Foundation is responsible for the preservation of the jetty, and it keeps a photographic record of its changes over time.
One of the side doors into the book contains a series of fading photographs of the jetty, of the author—Lance Olsen himself—and his wife Andi, and of other people and things. The photos fade into time, both recording and misremembering the effacement of the jetty, the restorations.
We forget to remember. This means several ways. Time causes us to misremember rather than remember in any exact sense—we forget our very memories. We also forget in order to remember, since memory is a special case of forgetting, perhaps the most important way we forget. We also forget in order to remember in the sense of prioritizing what we most want to keep with us in the flux of any day. We must choose what is worth remembering.
The font of the story about the man, the tourist, is quite light and is even a little difficult to read. What's more, the man is obsessed with fonts, celebrating them in his narrative. He historicizes fonts, which are the material through which we record in words, in words that hover between memory and mismemory, that can bring back only in partial ways, just as this book can be inhabited in only partial ways, depending on the five choices for both entrance and exit.
If the jetty is thought of as background and nature as foreground, the jetty becomes the relative stability that highlights nature's dynamism. The changes around the jetty become the story. The jetty is simply the complement to and, in a strange way, the mirror reverse of nature even as it slowly erodes through nature's actions.
In the West, art aspires to the eternal, to remaining forever the same through time. This very aspiration simultaneously produces the need for art restorers and shows that their vocation relies on a lie, one that claims time and death can be overcome.
The Frost is an epidemic. We desire to freeze art into a specific time and place. This is what we call eternity. Freezing art into eternity is an epidemic sickness.
The tourist—usually referred to as "he" but also referred to as "I" or "you"—becomes delusional in the black sand of the desert. Too much heat means you can no longer perceive, can no longer have any memories, leads to death.
We exist neither in the freeze nor the heat, but in the middle, in processes both hot and cold, and lukewarm, and medium. We are always haunted by both the freeze and the heat.
The pictures of the news clippings show yellowing. Nothing stays news. Even the spiral jetty will yellow, just as the water around it has sometimes appeared reddish and other times yellowish. But the jetty stays news longer than newsprint. We nurture its yellowing into a form of what we consider eternity. We record its very changes "for all time." The news makes no such effort and no such claim— unless it is placed in a novel, and everything in a novel cannot help but tend toward the freeze, toward a dialogue with the "eternal." This is part of what it is to be a novel in the West.
Olsen's dedication: "for A, and all the days left." I assume "A" stands in for his wife, Andi.
The phrase "Theories of Forgetting" appears once in the novel, in blue handwriting, written by Aila, the daughter of the man who left the manuscript. In this marginalia she reflects on the movie the female narrator was making about Smithson's jetty: "So she theorizes decay, not merely as a process of emptying and exhaustion, but also one of relay & salvage" (99). Every time we come back to an artwork, to inhabit it anew, we remake it, and it remakes us. This remaking is both a salvaging and a letting go.
The primatologist Frans de Waal in Primates and Philosophers: How Morality Evolved (Princeton Science Library) argues that the seeds of human morality can be found in other primates. He believes that there is a distinct continuity between primate moral behavior and human morality. He does not believe we are as special as we sometimes think.
Here is not the place to go into the specifics of de Waal's argument, other than to say that the past several decades of biological research has shown, repeatedly, that other animals are more like us than we may have previously thought. For instance, I recently learned from a 60 Minutes story that even dogs pick up on human language and can learn to order their behavior on the basis of actual human words.
Here, I am interested in the impact of urbanization on notions of morality. If we follow de Waal, then morality is derived from the affects, from the way we feel about those around us. I find this convincing. For most of our evolution, we probably lived in small, fairly contained groups. Morality stemmed from the ways this group remained cohesive and therefore adaptive to the environment. People in the group often chose to treat each other well because it helped the group as a whole survive. When group members cooperated, generally the group as a whole became more environmentally fit.
I think it is reasonable to assume that we evolved to live in small, cohesive groups that defended against threats in the form of other human groups, other animals, or even nonconformist members. These threats were to be eliminated or at least controlled. When a group senses a threat from within, the results can be gruesome. The Salem Witch Trials are an extreme example.
Morality begins in the feelings human beings have for other group members. We nurture each other, groom each other, help each other through difficult times, insist on and enforce some degree of fairness and reciprocity. We also feel jealousy, anger, frustration, and unfairness. Morality is the playing out of these feelings, the negotiation and tussle as a group negotiates members' dynamic affects.
What happens, we must ask, when the anonymity of mass urbanization robs us of these feelings because most of the people around us are strangers? Here is where transcendental morality becomes necessary. In such a situation, we need to base our morality on a cognitive and rational notion of humanity and human rights rather than on our feelings for one another. Indeed, Kant argues that helping a relative is a morally neutral act becomes it stems, in part, from affection. True moral acts proceed from a notion of universal humanity: helping a complete stranger is a morally good act because no feelings taint it.
For Kant to even come up with this idea, the whole notion of in-group strangers must exist. This sort of cognitive-based, rationalist morality can only occur in a society where all the members do not know each other. It is a result of urbanization.
The consequences that follow from this claim are profound. It means that we developed transcendental morality as a response to something very late in evolution. We needed to figure out a way to create a morality to complement the more primal one that is based on emotions and affection, a morality to create cohesion among strangers.
de Waal spends a lot of time critiquing the notion that we are, at base, selfish and brutish and that civilization places a veneer of goodness on us. I believe this critique. But I speculate that the brutishness being described results not from "natural" humans—for I believe that "natural" humans are radically group creatures—but from the cruelty that can arise when we live amid strangers. Our most natural morality, that based on affection for those we know, makes us suspicious of others, of strangers, of those who are different.
In other words, urbanization creates the selfish individual, not nature. Once created, this selfishness must be controlled. Hence, the need for depersonalized transcendental morality. How else can we control the behavior of people who don't know each other?
The cognitive and the rational is, however, much smaller than the affective and emotional. Indeed, opposing them may even be a mistake: the rational may emerge from the affective. However, I believe the distinction is useful, in this instance, because it shows how weak the urban morality is, as it is based on only a very small part of our humanity. The more primal, group-based morality takes in the complexity of primal emotions. I believe these emotions determine more of our behavior than rational principles grounded in a notion of transcendence.
This means that we urbanized human beings are always at war with ourselves, pulled between, on the one hand, primal emotions for those closest to us and, on the other, the demands of depersonalized, transcendent morality. To make our society work we need, in formal and legal ways, to emphasize the latter. But it is not what we most basically are. Civilized rationality is not a veneer that covers the cruelty at the base of human nature. Rather, it protects civilization from its own creation—namely, the selfish, lone individual.