August 27, 2012

Meridel LeSueur: Bonfire of Roses

I'm at work on a new manuscript.  I reach for my grandmother and other literary grandmothers.  The cadences of Meridel LeSeuer resound in me.  I want to celebrate her, sing her poems from Rites of Ancient Ripening and roll in the sound of her voice.  This is from her essay, "The Ancient People and the Newly Come":

Born out of the caul of winter in the north, in the swing and circle of the horizon, I am rocked in the ancient land. As a child I first read the scriptures written on the scroll of moisture by wolf and rabbit, by the ancient people and the newly come. In the beginning the century the Indian smoke still mingled with ours. The frontier of the whites was violent, already injured by vast seizures and massacres. The winter nightmares of fear poisoned the plains nights with psychic airs of theft and utopia. The stolen wheat in the cathedral-like granaries cried out for vengeance.

I know these roots: populist, the struggle of the worker against the corporation, the striving of people for fairness and dignity against greed.  She writes about the depression, about mortgages and foreclosure, about her grandmother losing her home.   The beginning of the unions, the fight for an 8 hour workday, for safe working conditions, for a system of social security.  She writes about her mother's effort to earn money only to have her own bank account seized by the bank to pay her husband's debts.   She writes about being reared by three strong women who worked hard to maintain a life despite the "drunkenness, chicanery, and violence" of men in their life.   Violence, she says, is linear.  Love is round, curved like the earth and horizon, like the cheek and breast of the women.

How lucky we are that she sat down to write.  In her Journal in 1930 she wrote:

Whittle myself down to the edge of suffering. We do not know ourselves except when we suffer... In joy I know only myself, in sorrow I know others.  In happiness we are seperete (sic)... In suffering we are fused.

Her strength is in the language, the ability to speak against injustice, to use the power of her voice to tell about the lives of those the world might forget, the poor and disenfranchised.  She inhabits a mythic space of a "green girl,"  a daughter or Persephone going into darkness and also she inhabits the strong mother and earth, the Demeter who can punish with drought and cold or bless us with harvest.   Meridel strikes the iron bough and from her words spring roses -- a "bonfire of roses."

In her essay, "The Ancient People and Newly Come," I found these words, a story about a country dance and the night, outdoors, where men and women would disappear for awhile in "a bonfire of roses." The image brings together her physicality as a writer, always in the sensual body, the use of landscape as a metaphor for emergence, the growth of seed and bud and blossom. Roses also are associated with Bread and Roses, the slogan of the 1912 workers strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts. "A police attack on mothers and children at the trained station prompted a Congressional hearing that publicized the strikers' low wages and barebones living conditions."   She was writing about her birth and early family life on the prairie.  One of her images are the small houses that dot the landscape:
Let yourself down, as if under water, into these lost walls, to hunt for treasure, to illuminate violence with meaning. Under sea-strange light these little houses glimmer in memory, powerful as radium. (Ripenings, p 53)
When I heard Meridel LeSueur speak, her voice drove into me like a train. Here was a woman with a writer's voice akin to God: deep, resonant, and calling. I borrowed a phrase of Meridel LeSueur for a poem that pays homage to her: "Bonfire of Roses" in Night Train Red Dust.

Work Cited

LeSueur, Meridel. Ripening: Selected Work, 1927-1980. Edited and with an Introduction by Elaine Hedges. The Feminist Press. Old Westbury, New York. c1982.   Print.

1 comment:

  1. Lovely and true, thank you for writing, and sharing Meridel