Monday, June 27, 2011

My First Time: Shann Ray

My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands. Today's guest is Shann Ray.  His debut short story collection, American Masculine, has just been released by Graywolf Press.  Though I'm only a few stories in, I can already tell this is a viable candidate for one of my favorite books of the year--right up there with fellow Graywolfian Alan Heathcock's Volt.  Ray was awarded the Breadloaf Writers' Conference Bakeless Prize for American MasculineHe is also the winner of the Subterrain Poetry Prize, the Crab Creek Review Fiction Award, and the Ruminate Short Story Prize. His work has appeared in some of the nation’s leading literary venues including McSweeney‘s, Narrative, StoryQuarterly, Five Chapters and Poetry International. Shann grew up in Montana, spent part of his childhood on the Northern Cheyenne reservation, and now lives with his wife and three daughters in Washington where he teaches leadership and forgiveness studies at Gonzaga University.  CLICK HERE to visit his website.

My First Literary Slap in the Face

(Thoughts on Czeslaw Milosz and Toni Morrison—The Witness of Poetry and The Bluest Eye)

            I GREW UP playing a ton of basketball, and on the basketball court we all certainly get to eat our fair share of aggression.  In fact, after playing ball in college I was in a tournament in Anaconda, Montana when a maelstrom of moves ended up with my elbow realigning my defender’s jaw, and his fist in my eye. This resulted in a good old fashioned bench-clearing brawl. That chaos of life when things get unruly has always been a fascination for me, especially considering how prepared or unprepared we are when the fight sets in. But I didn’t expect things to get so physical in the literary arts.

Along came poet Czeslaw Milosz to smack me in the face.

Milosz leveled a scalding criticism of contemporary American literature when he proposed, in effect, that the literature of the West is self-insulated, self-embedded, often confessional, and in effect generally unresponsive to the nature of collective responsibility. Here the West is referred to in a political and cultural sense as the Western World, or primarily the nations of the Americas and western Europe, also known as the “colonial West.”

The West then, in Milosz’s view, is often dumbly bound to irony and cynicism, and stubbornly over-identified with nihilism. In extending Milosz’s argument cynicism might be aptly named the worship of negativity, nihilism the worship of nothingness, and the self-embedded culture of American literature a culture of narcissistic injury that generally produces dominant culture works of art (most often white and male; bell hooks would suggest even patriarchal and supremacist) that quietly negate human values to the point of oblivion, and that have limited or no sense of legitimate love and power.

So the battle begins. Milosz appears at the head of the alley, bares his chest and runs toward me like a man-beast. When he reaches me he tilts my head with an outstretched hand and delivers a forearm that lands on my face like a block of concrete.

I love American literature. Milosz makes me want to hate it. That makes me want to slap Milosz around. Anne Sexton, Robert Lowell, John Updike, Sylvia Plath, Phillip Roth… so many greats… supposedly all self-consumed?

Thinking that way I think I need to cut out Milosz’s legs and straddle his chest with my knees and go to work on his head. But when I look up from the ground, he’s got a slanted smile and appears on the verge of roaring with laughter. Then his face goes ugly and he yells at me. “Wake up, Fool!” he says. So I scramble up and rush the crooked old man and close my eyes and throw my fists in big windmill arcs. Unfortunately, I hit nothing but air.

When I open my eyes he’s gone. I hear his steps as they recede down the alley. Then his voice as he laughs, saying, “Hey, Fool. Listen. Listen.”

IN 1980 MILOSZ won the Nobel Prize for literature. In his collection of essays The Witness of Poetry (1983), he unyieldingly presented a dichotomy, framing cynicism, objectification, and nihilism in life and art not only as deadening to the artist and the artistic ethos, but dangerous on a world scale. As its counter, Milosz took poets to task, charging them to write with gravity and meaning, conscious of world suffering, and responsible to give voice to the voiceless.

For Milosz, meaningful poetry grounds the individual in a specific historical set of events. He speaks to the shattering results of categorical human rights transgressions across Eastern Europe, and refers to poetry as responsible for giving witness to the centrality of suffering and the resilience of the human spirit. Milosz ties the poetry of Eastern Europe directly to history, and affirms Eastern Europe’s poetry as broadly unified in its embodiment of human trauma in the wake of events such as the Nazi blitzkrieg, the Holocaust, and Soviet despotic influence. The literature of the “colonial” West, he characterizes as overly focused on the individual, turned inward, and again, often narcissistically confessional. Unconsciously and numbingly capitalistic, he might also add. We might see in this “Western” artist the disembodied shadow of the rugged individual who was the central image of Manifest Destiny. When I listen, I stop fighting, and pause for a moment to try to comprehend what Milosz is trying to tell me. Miłosz saw in the poetry of the West a poetry of personal alienation, while in Eastern European poetry he saw something much more fiercely robust, imbued with a poetic strength that he felt came as the result of entire nations being forced to endure grave human atrocity. Miłosz presented the inviolable truth that one of literature’s most important functions is to bear witness to the reality of tragic events. In an early poem, Milosz declared:

        What is poetry which does not save
        Nations or people?

In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech 35 years later he said: 

Those who are alive receive a mandate from those who are silent forever. They can fulfill their duties only by trying to reconstruct precisely things as they were and by wresting the past from fictions and legends.
Here, I begin to think his initial blows have awakened me.

For if I receive Milosz’s indictment, and don’t fight it, I see there exists in the West, not just the larger global West, but also the American West a literature of witness similar to that of Milosz’s poetry of witness. I am of Czech heritage, and familiar with the history of Eastern Europe. Among the many atrocities of WWII, the razing of Lidice, a small town outside Prague, invites closer consideration. There, in an act of genocidal brutality Nazi evil was fully revealed. In one of Hitler’s so-called acts of vengeance, the men and boys of the town, over 400 all told, were lined up ten by ten behind a barn and executed. The women were killed in the streets or shipped to concentration camps in which most of them died. The children were boarded into an oversized van, more than 80 children together, and gassed to death. The town was destroyed and landfill was placed over the rubble in order to make the town “disappear.”

Yes, in Eastern Europe at that time, we find unequivocal atrocity.

But not just there.  I am also a Montanan, I spent part of my childhood on the Northern Cheyenne reservation, and I am familiar with the history of Montana. In Montana in the Marias Massacre, the Big Hole Massacre, and further south into Colorado in the Sand Creek Massacre, Blackfeet, Nez Perce, and Cheyenne men, women and children were summarily executed by U.S. Calvary. At Sand Creek, U.S. soldiers dismembered the body parts and desecrated the bodies. Now, when I touch my face I feel a raw and open wound. Where is our literature of witness, in Montana, and on a larger scale, in America?

AN AMERICAN literature of witness exists, only I have been blind to it.

In a strange paradox, Milosz has blackened my eyes and yet opened me to a deeper vision. In seeking an American literature of witness, for me American novelist Toni Morrison’s powerful clarity resounds. The record of atrocity in America runs through what some researchers refer to as the Native American Holocaust, as well as through the deep-seeded racism of African American slavery, among many other heinous transgressions, large and small, throughout America’s relatively brief history. Now, I see Milosz return and touch my face again, this time tenderly. And Toni Morrison leads me to Martin Luther King Jr.’s conception of love and power—a place where I find a vital consciousness for an American literature of witness:

What is needed is a realization that power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love. It is precisely this collision of immoral power with powerless morality which constitutes the major crisis of our time.

Power properly understood is nothing but the ability to achieve purpose. And one of the great problems of history is that the concepts of love and power have usually been contrasted as opposites – polar opposites – so that love is identified with a resignation of power, and power with a denial of love.*
This sounds more like the Milosz of Milosz’s poems, not someone who wants to beat me to submission, but a man who succeeds in helping me become more whole. And I see now that the West, like the Eastern Europe of Milosz, is filled with complexity and ambiguity and there are those in the bosom of the West, the larger West as well as the American West, whose voices decry his indictment and herald their own powerful form of witness. In fact, on closer inspection, the literature of witness in the West might be called a sister or brother to Milosz’s poetry of witness. I return to Toni Morrison, Nobel Prize winner and American, a woman whose voice rises from the crucible of suffering and speaks the tempered and unwavering result. Her work is identified with equity and justice, and is unafraid to confront reality with the concrete veracity of love. Nothing saccharine. Nothing profane. Hers is an earned human landscape, breathed to life through narrative that looks resolutely into the dark abyss of human torment. Morrison’s work lives up to Milosz’s high standard, and carries with it an echo of Emily Dickenson’s fated mandate—that when we read great art we feel like the top of our head has been taken off.

Her voice a national treasure, Morrison turns a rapier-like wisdom toward understanding the human spirit. In her novel The Bluest Eye** she gives readers an intimate view of a young black girl who is plagued by the overwhelming opportunity that attends those who have blue eyes (white girls). In a final statement the black girl puts out her own eyes. The symbol of one person, plagued by another, one culture plagued by another—in which that other is at worst blatantly or violently authoritarian and at best oppressively indifferent—is the story of superiority and entitlement throughout history. Significantly, Morrison’s antihero, seeking the opportunity and privilege of her blue-eyed antagonists, loses her own vision in the process.

Under conditions that range from ignorance to dominance a common component of the alienated relational environment is distorted vision. This cloudedness, or lack of assurance regarding hope, growth, and community, takes on the quality of voluntary blindness in the oppressors who hold illegitimate power in any human system. Such a person grows defensive, resisting or even refusing to grow. With an immovable, diseased heart he or she infects the family, the workplace, the culture, and society as a whole.

I have been that blind. Milosz, and now Morrison, have opened my eyes.

In a literature of witness specific to the American West, I think of others who have lifted the veil and healed my blindness: writers like James Welch, Richard Hugo, Louise Erdrich, Leslie Marmon Silko, N. Scott Momaday, Sherman Alexie, and Richard Ford among others. For all of us—for Milosz and the poets of Eastern Europe, just as for Toni Morrison and many of the writers of the American West—our story, bound by time and memory, is elusive, complex, and somewhat foreclosed. When we suffer, I believe our story is not only infused with gravid import, but given life and brought to fruition through the grace of greater and more generous understandings. When faced with the long darkness of atrocity, our stories can disarm us, leaving us shattered. But in a literature of witness, below our collective losses, we find a ground of meaning with one another in which a river of life moves and roils and brings forth life.

The pathway from a living death back to a vivid and enduring sense of well-being is winding and circuitous, and often involves very painful passages that must be navigated with great courage. The more short-sighted our vision, the less likely a compelling and sustainable narrative will emerge to draw us to a better communal sense of one another. The more far-sighted we are, the less we are able to address the healing needed on a person to person level. An artistic way of life helps us reconcile the polarities and gain a sense of concrete reality with regard to some of the most transcendent and unifying aspects of human existence: truth, love, beauty, goodness, and all that is essential to being. In art as in life, the sacred can fall toward the sentimental. Through a non-robust presentation of the world then the sacred becomes saccharine and loses the subtlety and force that accompanies all great artistic expression.

Not unlike this, the polar form in art and life is what might be called the secular. Yet in contemporary times when the secular lacks restraint it ramps toward a profanity that not only goes unchecked but is often exalted.  In this, we see the echo of Milosz’s indictment of the West: the over-extension of irony, which entails a fundamental cynicism, and results in nihilistic decadence. Decay. Art without a sense of soul. This lack of soulfulness shows up in art that dwells firmly in the shadow of what Martin Luther King, Jr. might call capitalistic “interposition and nullification.” The travesty of the pendulum asserts itself: in hating values or seeking to make them meaningless, we lose the innate power of the sacred and unconsciously glorify the profane. The artist who serves the world is capable of holding in tension and with compassion the great paradox of humanity: the knowledge that we have within us not only the capacity for profane hatred but also for transcendent or Divine love—the capacity not only for wanton greed and cruelty, but for deep care. Wholehearted living, and the individual and collective action which rises from such living, is something the artist holds in trust for others and for the world.

Artists can draw us back to reality from the abstract planes associated with nihilism, and the despair of life that often accompanies a darkened lens of artistic engagement. Milosz and Morrison, and Silko and Erdrich and Alexie and Welch, and others like them, have loved the world enough to help us face reality and emerge with a sense of hard-won courage. Brave enough to speak truth to power such artists help undue systematic oppression inherent when dominant culture dominates.  Milosz's thoughts in The Witness of Poetry unabashedly question contemporary art filled with emptiness or life-negating expressions of meaninglessness—an art that emerges from the artist who flees reality, rather than the artist who remains purposefully connected to this world, to people, to concrete detail, and to being present. The artist who remains present to reality, succeeds finally in giving witness to meaning.  Milosz prophesied a turn, humanity having been given enough distance, and therefore grace, to move from meaninglessness up through the heart of human atrocity into something new that can meet the people of the world in an intimate and ultimate way: a movement Milosz called "humanity as an elemental force conscious of transcending Nature."***  He was referring to one’s own nature, our deadly and often grotesque human fallibility, and he encouraged artists not to fear and not to flee, but to live in and through memory toward a sense of renewed responsibility for one another.

When I first encountered Milosz, he hit me in the face, hard and with great force.

Not surprisingly, I was angry, and vengeful. He deserved the same, I thought.

But now I simply want to listen to him, and to others who call us to a more mature sense of artistic expression and human dignity. In fact, now I marvel at Milosz’s raw-boned audacity. With legitimate power, embodied by love, I believe the literature of the West and the literature of the American West must answer Milosz’s call. In answering well we follow those who have gone before. Their life and work, like his, draws us deeper into listening. With a listening heart we seek, and in the literature of witness from the American West we find honesty, tough-minded, deeply felt, wholehearted and vibrantly alive. Here, in the quietness that emerges when our violence turns to peace, we hear a voice that speaks for those who have been silenced by the great tide of human violation, suffering, and loss.

In this voice, there is desire and clarity and generosity.

In this voice there is hope.

*From Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech “Where do we go from here?”, his last presidential address to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, 1967. Also, see A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr. (1986).  New York, NY: HarperCollins, pgs 577-578. 
**Morrison, T. (1970).  The Bluest Eye.  New York, NY: Penguin.  
***Milosz, C. (1983, p 116).  The Witness of Poetry.  Boston, MA: Harvard University Press.


  1. "With a listening heart we seek, and in the literature of witness from the American West we find honesty, tough-minded, deeply felt, wholehearted and vibrantly alive." Amen, my G-wolf brother. Great post, Shann. I'll pack the tents, you fuel the trucks--let's go town to town with this stuff!!

  2. Al, I'd go town to town with you any day! I appreciate, wholeheartedly, the profound undercurrents of Volt! Your collection of stories has a bone-hard clarity and is infused by the heart of the angels we know, women and men who struggle and live and give and make us all more alive.

  3. Shann, great thoughts and a much needed call to writers of the west (and everywhere). Here's to a dedication to the "literature of witness"! David, thanks for making this available.