10 August 2009

Of Poetry and Roads

A phenomenology of roads, so far as I’m aware, has never been written. Although philosophers seldom reference them, poets often do. Lyricists too. Roads haunt the songs of Robert Johnson, Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan and Steve Earle, to name just a few.

Roads are so interwoven with human life, particularly modern life, we hardly give them a second thought. Hence, philosophers - people who traffic in second thoughts – seldom reference them. Nonetheless, through their real and imagined effects on our lives, roads can evoke wide-ranging, often ambivalent, feelings from deep within, potent emotive associations of which poets and lyricists are particularly cognizant.

Where the Red Road Meets the Sky is the first published book of poems by Kentucky poet E. Gail Chandler. The twenty-six poems chosen for this book are akin to a priceless collection of twenty-six diamonds, each expertly cut, of high clarity, and brilliant.

Altogether, Chandler’s poems relate her experiences at various points in her life journey. They tell us who she is by way of where she is (coming) from. As she says in “Appalachian Emigrant Blues,”

I'm from between McKee and Gray Hawk
just north of Tuff-it-Out
I’m from hills blessed with no coal
the poorest, Republicanist county in Kentucky
and Thank God for Mississippi

But where we happen to hail from is not always our only “from”. As with many of us, Chandler’s subsequent “froms” have compounded somewhat incongruously and entirely unpredictably with her first. Thus, referring to her stint in the Marine Corps in the Vietnam era and her college student days in New York City, she writes further:

I’m from Here and There
McCannan Creek and the Hudson River
The New York Times and The Jackson County Sun
the Marine Corps and We Shall Overcome
Semper Fi and peace signs

Perhaps unsurprisingly, since they are the primary terrestrial means whereby we transport ourselves and whatever we may bring with us over any significant distance from Here to There, roads occupy an important place in several of Chandler’s poems. The roads of her experiences in eastern Kentucky and western Kenya play particularly important roles.

Poor roads are commonly associated with isolation, poverty, and, in a word, lack of progress. While a poor road, like the lack of a road, may – not always for worse - discourage outside interference, it may also – not always for worse – encourage it. For those who feel called to alleviate the deprivations of the less fortunate, whether those at road’s end feel less fortunate or not, a poor road beckons. Thus, “the curvy Appalachian roads” beckoned well-meaning folks from Michigan, presumably of the Dutch Calvinist persuasion, to found the mission school attended by Chandler in her youth. In “The Good People,” she describes the visits of the school’s sponsors:

Tour buses brought church sponsors
round the curvy Appalachian roads
to view their good work –
and us, the poor but happy youth
In the school, Chandler and the other children were taught the dual lesson

that our souls needed saving
our mountain ways required adjusting.

They were also reminded, probably most especially in the presence of the school’s sponsors,

... to be grateful
to those kind folks in Holland, Michigan
for providing us our mission school.

The second half of “The Good People” juxtaposes the adult Chandler’s visit forty years later to a Kenyan orphanage where Mama Agesa (“born into the Luhya tribe[,] educated by missionaries”),

… takes me to see her orphans
has them give their recitations
prays long that they’ll be thankful
for this nice American woman.

Chandler describes her visit to the Kenyan orphanage, of which she is a sponsor, with no trace of self-congratulation for her own good work. Undoubtedly, attempting to address the pressing needs of the rising numbers of children orphaned by the calamity of AIDS (often themselves HIV-infected) in Kenya, as elsewhere in Africa, leaves little room for such self-regard.

AIDS and its effects on Kenya’s children form the backdrop for Chandler’s poem “Where the Red Road Meets the Sky.” There she touchingly portrays Afwanda, a young girl, “not yet six”, left alone in charge of her younger twin siblings after Bibi, her grandmother, “strolled down the red dirt road toward Kisumu,” apparently in search of food. After three days of her and her siblings’ growing desperation,

Afwanda pictures sticky
ugali in her fingers
and shakes the empty
maize meal bag, again.

Outside, she stares up the banana tree,
knows she needs a machete,
knows the fruit is gone,
knows it would be green, anyway.
A rooster brags and prances
just out of reach.

As the evening sky turns black and the wind picks up – it is the rainy season -, the same red road down which Afwanda’s grandmother disappeared delivers relief:

On the horizon, two figures appear,
grow larger – not Bibi but a mzungu
and the big woman with the big voice
from the AIDS orphanage.
Never mind the roiling clouds, the lightning.
They will eat tonight.

Gazing into their distance, roads can appear to tail off or disappear into very unroad-like realities such as mountains or sky. Appearing so, it is easy to imagine a point at which a road adjoins, say, the sky to form a portal through which travelers may pass between the two realms. Likely, from Afwanda’s perspective, her benefactors might just as well have descended from the sky onto the red road leading to her hut as having journeyed from some unknown place along a distant unknown stretch of the road. In any case, they appeared heaven-sent.

The construction of new roads and the improvement of old are associated with progress. But progress exacts a price. Something prior, time-tested, already established, in a word, old must give way to the new. All too often, progress is pursued to the destruction of things irreplaceable and cherished.

For complex economic and other reasons that cannot be discussed here, many societies are lacking in a rational, sensible ambivalence about progress and a corresponding caution. It is not only a Western phenomenon.

Having experienced a disproportionate share in progress’s negatives – and in its benefits too -, indigenous peoples have maintained a justifiable ambivalence about progress. Thus, they have sometimes opposed the construction of new roads and the improvement of old. (In two well known cases that reached the Supreme Court of Canada, the Taku River Tlingit First Nation and the Mikisew Cree First Nation challenged respectively the construction of a mine access road and the improvement of a winter road within their ancestral territories.)

In “The Guardian,” Chandler describes her father taking in his hands, carrying to her and her sister, a lone terrapin, and telling them:

First one I’ve seen all year, he says.
Before we built a road around this place
I counted thirty-seven one spring day.

Invoking popular, pre-packaged, large-scale explanations for their dearth, which tend to place blame elsewhere, Chandler writes:

We nod wisely,
talk of weed killer,
acid rain, global warming.

Their father, however, declines to look elsewhere:

He shakes his head. It was the road,
the soft clay, made their eggs
easier for skunks to find.

To convey a sense of the preciousness of what the road had endangered, Chandler then depicts her father acting so:

He turns the terrapin
as if it were a Ming vase,
shows us it’s a female.

Chandler has traveled many roads, many more than the roads of her childhood in Kentucky and her later-in-life visits to the orphans in Kenya only lightly touched upon here. Where the Red Road Meets the Sky is her invitation to retrace in our own mind’s eye her travels down those roads. Her hope, I expect, is that we will leave her book with our outlooks similarly broadened, our understandings similarly deepened, and our hearts similarly enlarged. I am grateful for her invitation. I trust that I’ve left her book more closely approximating what she’d hoped.

The name of the Kenyan orphanage mentioned above is the Vihiga Children’s Home. Chandler donates all proceeds from sales of her book to the orphanage.

No comments: