Issue 108 |
Spring 2009

About Eleanor Wilner

As we change the past, so are we changed. These words, from Eleanor Wilner's essay "Playing the Changes," are striking for how profoundly they speak not only to the poet and to the practice of poetry—indeed the practice of all art—but for how appropriately they also reveal the human situation—or at least, that impulse within us we might define as humane. It is a statement at once straightforward—obvious, almost, in its exacting common sense—yet multifaceted insofar as it suggests, along with the thought of acting or being acted upon, an emotional complex of feeling, that very same emotional space that poets in the execution of their craft seek to inhabit.

Contained within this phrase is the implication that we can and do change the past, an assertion that is empowering and, therefore, optimistic; one that suggests that we, as humans, recognize when the old dispensations are inadequate and alter them accordingly. More significantly, it also suggests that we are changed in the process, that as human beings we are deeply affected and affecting and are willing to risk the integrity of our egos as we enact change; that in some way our thick skins can become permeable enough that we might find our psyches and our selves fine-tuned or, in more extreme cases, transformed.

It is certainly a brilliant turn of phrase by which to discuss, as Wilner does in her essay, the legacy of Ovid 's Metamorphoses and contemporary poets' response to what those ancient stories convey. Yet what is even more striking is how that same phrase—as we change the past, so are we changed—so accurately embodies Wilner's own work—as teacher, as poet, as political activist—a phrase that is revealing of both her intellectual energy as an artist and her ethical passion as a human being.

We witness that sense of being changed even in her recounting of her childhood. She says that "the things from childhood that didn't sift down into memory's topsoil are the ones that didn't fit the pleasant, lucky life we had or the nice stories we were told about how things were." Yet how quickly the world's shortcomings, its brutality, became "personal" when, she remembers, she "witnessed on early TV the confiscated Nazi films of naked women being gassed in what they were told was a shower room " and saw on the cover of Life magazine the young "Hiroshima Maidens" whose faces had been destroyed in the bombing of their city. "A world that included such atrocities," she says, "was one that commanded, and still commands, all that I could find to confront it."

We see such hard ethical work being accomplished in so many of her poems—the confrontation with those actions and emotions that take us far afield from the care of one another and that lead in the worst instances to an inexplicable violence that can only be possible because, as she writes in her poem "Judgment," "Justice's eyes [have] long since / gone blind." Consequently, too few of us feel we are "being watched," feel sufficiently "caught out, ashamed" for our niggling consciences to scare us away from the solidarity of the misguided polis. This urgency to make the necessary connections to redress inhumanity pervades her poems as in " Ume: Plum" where the speaker remembers that she and Mrs. Nakano, both survivors of the war, walked together "because [they] were alive, and walked / to keep from going mad, and walked / for beauty and for company..." There is in her work both the facility and determination to reveal and to amend what ails the world, what she calls her own mad impulse "to change whatever can be altered in our collective vision to prevent [atrocity's] repetition."

It is no surprise, then, that she was very active in the civil rights movement and was present in Washington, D.C. to hear Martin Luther King 's famous "I Have a Dream" speech. Asked what it was like, Wilner reflects, "it wasn't like anything else, or anything that had come before for any of us there, and though I remember the good feeling that was magnified by the immense size and concord of that interracial crowd, and a kind of innocence that gave it sweetness, it was an innocence shattered and a memory forever shadowed—gunned down with Dr. King, Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, with President John Kennedy and his brother Bobby."

Looking back, she describes her retrospective effort as the equivalent of "trying to return on a path that gives you no footing because it is slick with blood." Yet even though memory might rise "like a geyser from the hissing / spring" as it does in "Mnemosyne (Memory)," it is not in Wilner's nature to "turn away," to despair as the Muses do in her poem. She would rather redress old errors, alleviate their effects, and through her poetry and activism frustrate our all too human tendency to condemn or behave indifferently—and even violently—towards others.

Following Dr. King's murder she took some time away from Johns Hopkins University where she was pursuing a Ph.D. and became press secretary to Parren Mitchell, the first African-American congressman to be elected from Maryland. Mitchell was also the first African-American to attend graduate school at the University of Maryland, but had to sue the program in order to gain his rightful admittance. Wilner speaks enthusiastically of that time and of the "jubilation and dancing in the streets the night [Mitchell] won" his congressional seat, a moment which she says came to life again the night of Barack Obama's victory—in the spirit of Obama's campaign and in his call to transcend partisanship. Such instances of grace when humanity learns how to behave well are reminiscent of the moments evoked in her poem, "Those Who Came After," moments that undo the vengeful message of Psalm 137, when future inhabitants of this earth will say that there were "those / who took down the harps / hung in the sorrowing trees, having lost / the taste for conquest and revenge, / and made a song / that rose in air."

The song that rises in her poem "as smoke rises— / at first a line, and then, / slow eddies, the spirals / endless, unwinding / the sky 's blue / spool" also resonates with those who have had no voice in the West's traditional histories and myths, and reveals an impulse in her poetry to at once unravel and reinvent what Wallace Stevens has called the sky 's "dividing and indifferent blue." Her passionate reconsideration of those neglected or silenced by history reveals itself again in her Foreword to The Extraordinary Tide: New Poetry by American Women where she acknowledges women as one such "historically excluded or secluded group" with an "immense silence at our backs." She goes on to explain that this absence of women's voices is "a public silence so profound, of so long duration and carrying so great a mass of human talent and experience, that its effect is crucial in the production " of what she calls the anthology's "great spring tide." In fact, Wilner reminds us that women's exclusion from the literary arts—their "Great Silence"—is "as canonical a source and as shaping a force as the great literary voices of men." If this volume affirms that women's situation in the arts has improved, she reminds us that it "remains necessary to be vigilant, to continue to consolidate a position only partially won, and of too short a duration to be very secure."

Yet the political impulse always present in Wilner's life and work is beautifully balanced by her attention to the art of poetry, and her effort to inhabit and reveal what is universally human. In the same foreword she explains that "the unsaid and the unseen have always been poetry's driving necessity," to reveal "not only what hasn't yet been seen" but also "what can't be seen or said or known in any other way." Wilner's assertion suggests in this instance a "we" that would encompass any practitioner of the art, a "we" no longer limited by gender (or race or culture) and an art that is by necessity always undergoing change.

In this spirit Wilner relishes her collaborations with other artists. She's worked with choreographer Melanie Stewart, and with artist Enid Mark on Precessional, a book of poems and lithographs hand-bound in limited edition. Most recently, her collaboration with composer Luna Pearl Woolf resulted in two compositions for voices and instruments. The first, Orpheus on Sappho's Shore, presents an encounter between the mythic singer "as an all-washed-up, mythic prototype in a too-long line of necrotic poets of nostalgia " and the "life-loving Sappho" who as Wilner notes, is "our one Classical poetic female progenitor." The second, Après Moi, le Déluge, for solo cello and a capella choir was written in response to "the devastating and shameful images from Hurricane Katrina."

When asked why these collaborations were so satisfying, Wilner spoke of "the working or laboring together," which "for a poet, who usually writes in isolation, [is] a great thing." "When I work alone," she continues, "I am only writing a poem, but when I work with another artist, I am facilitating their medium. " As such, she encourages her collaborative partner to "take the words (or leave them), and manipulate fit their own making." In the process she finds herself "accompanied, and enlightened by others' eyes." That sense of community is also achieved through friendships with other writers, particularly those women she 's been "in poem chains, or poem exchanges" with or whose work has inspired and energized her own. "Poetry," Wilner says, "is as great a leveler as death, and also its opposite, an enlivener; when you meet someone in the presence of poetry, it 's a human space—there's no class, no small talk, you cut to the chase."

Yet this cooperative human space, so generative for art and for change, must also acknowledge and sustain the work of the individual artist. When asked what brought her to poetry, Wilner speaks of "one day in spring in my late twenties when thousands of raucous, migrating robins stopped on the hill where I lived. Who could resist such an occasion? It was an awful poem, but I took it, like the robins, as a harbinger, and kept on. " She also claims her immersion in Proust's Remembrance of Things Past was a catalyst for her poetry, which began after reading all seven volumes straight through. In retrospect, she believes her creative impulse was prompted by Proust's "imaginative re-creation of the world —no stone left unturned, no underview undiscerned"—and what she calls the novels' "innate shapeliness over time," an "imaginative ordering" of experience that "emerges rather than being forged."

Though Wilner never attended a writing workshop, she always read and studied poetry and literature—"an unwitting student" she says "of the Great Dead"—poets such as Homer, Shakespeare, Blake, Yeats, and Lorca. And if the Great Dead were her teachers, her liberator was Professor Richard Macksey—polymath, critic, and linguist—who she met at Johns Hopkins University when she "put aside poetry for a few years" to pursue a doctorate. According to Wilner, Macksey "took me under his wing at the Humanities Center, and then let me alone."

Left to her own devices, she pursued an interdepartmental degree in literature, anthropology and psychology with, as she says, "nobody trying to put me through his structuralist, post-structuralist, or deconstructive critical machine like whole grain through a grinder. " Her studies culminated in a book, Gathering the Winds: Visionary Imagination and Radical Transformation of Self and Society. This subject, she reflects, "came from the same impulse as my poetry and had everything to do, as it turned out, with my own poems. " "I have no personal memory when I'm writing," she says in an interview with Rachel Aviv. Instead, her visionary imagination originates in "cultural memory and myth," what she calls "the Dreamtime of the West," but seen through "changing eyes" that would of necessity re-envision the present.

In an interview with poet Rebecca Seiferle for the journal Drunken Boat, she speaks of how she came to see "the ways in which collective vision always began with a communal crisis and an individual who, in essence, dreamed for the community. " This reinforced her own experience of poetry's source, her belief that "American culture defines the self in too narrow and isolated a way, and that the individual is really the nexus of the singular and the collective. " And she believes it is the purview of the poet to pursue that collective dreaming, to engage in a public language, to practice a way of speaking she calls transpersonal, one that would "keep persons—individually and collectively—in the picture, yet [would get] us beyond the mere personal." As such, she says in her interview with Aviv that poets should "get out of the imagination's way." When asked about her own experience and career she insists that she "never became 'a poet'" and finds there is something both "presumptuous and pretentious" about claiming to be one: "the mantle of the poet," she says, "like Ophelia's dress, can sink you while you're singing."

Yet such singing is crucial in order for communal memory to be acknowledged and communicated. In her pursuit of the communal and her disavowal of the merely personal Wilner was initially "too diffident" to engage in public readings of her poetry—she "didn't want to impose on anyone." According to her it was poet and friend Etheridge Knight who set her straight. "If you don't say your poems," he said, "you ain't a poet." Knight arranged for her to read a poem to a group of friends, and after that she read at a local bar, initiating a career of reading poems that, she says, have "sprawled...'we' poems that implied a community, and it seemed as if reading them was the necessary connection with that community, and the poems just needed that air. " "So I got over myself," she recalls, "and let the poems find their voice in the company of others...[they] weren't about me, and I owed them."

Wilner was forty-two when her first book of poems was published, and since then she has published six additional collections and a translation of Medea. Throughout her career she has remained dedicated to her communal vision that, as she reflects in her essay "The Closeness of Distance, or Narcissus as Seen by the Lake," would "get us closer to ourselves than perhaps we can get in any other way." When asked about herself she would rather speak of her husband, Robert Weinberg, who "tries to protect [her] time to write." She is proud of his career—he is emeritus professor of physics at Temple University—and has been profoundly influenced by his study of science. The opening poem to her most recent book, The Girl With Bees in Her Hair, is only one of many instances when Wilner feels compelled to leave, if only for a moment, the world of the polis and jettison us out to the galaxy, "light years away, beyond the veils / of the Milky Way, out at the red edge / of creation. " Here is where " Everything is Starting," as the title asserts, where "all that is the matter, / or all that matter is, is drawn into / one place, as if into a single thought..." It is the most profound embodiment of the "we," this single thought, and one that Wilner with empathy, insight, and genius reveals as both cosmically vast and fully human.