Monday, June 6, 2016

My First Time: Askold Melnyczuk

Photo by Alex Johnson
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 Askold Melnyczuk, author of several novels, including The House of Widows, Ambassador of the Dead, and What is Told. His latest novel is Smedley’s Secret Guide to World Literature. His stories, poems, essays, translations, and reviews have appeared in The New York Times, The Nation, APR, Poetry, Glimmer Train, and elsewhere. Askold has received numerous awards for his fiction, as well as for his editorial work as founding editor of Agni and Arrowsmith Press. In 2011 he received the Garret Prize from AWP.

My First Dissident:
Daniel Berrigan’s Unconquerable Flame

to have gathered from the air a live tradition
or from the fine old eye the unconquered flame...
Ezra Pound

“To understand the truth about a society, always look to those at the bottom,” Daniel Berrigan advised us. “Always stand with those at the bottom,” he repeated.

We were sitting over lunch in the Casablanca with writers Alex Johnson and Maureen McLane. Arrowsmith had just published a collection of Dan’s poems, along with a short book of essays in his honor. We were on our way to the Friend’s Meeting House in Cambridge, where Dan was to read.

I had met him a year before, when PEN New England gave him an award. Though Fred Marchant and I said nothing about it to Dan, there had been a backroom battle between members of the board who wanted to invite Dan and those who believed he wasn’t sufficiently “literary,” despite the thirty or so books he’d published.

By then Dan had occupied a central place in my personal pantheon for nearly three decades. I first read him in a high school Theatre Arts class in 1971. Mr. Henry, a particularly progressive teacher, gave us The Trial of the Catonsville Nine to study. Dan’s play about the trial of the nine, including the two Berrigan brothers, accused of pouring homemade napalm over draft records, gave me my first taste of authentic American dissident literature. Reading it in tandem with Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich helped me understand the different ways in which both governments flaunted their contempt for the values they professed to uphold. Burning draft records was criminal; immolating children was not. In what world did that look like a reasonable call? Craziness.

Berrigan’s understanding of the Gospels, his insistence on the importance of actively resisting the behaviors of a corrupt government by putting one’s body on the line, represented a Catholicism I could get behind. Had I met him earlier, I might not have been as quick to leave the Church, though my native resistance to authority was perhaps more deeply ingrained even than Dan’s.

I attribute this to my refugee parents’ experiences during World War II. Listening to their stories about friends arrested and executed, or made to disappear in Siberia or Auschwitz, I couldn’t imagine how much sorrow and anger they needed to put aside in order to make their way in this new world. They were grateful for the second chance this country provided. Gratitude, however, did little to mitigate the complex daily challenges posed by trying to master a language (the fourth for both my parents) they began learning only in the refugee camp in which they spent five years. But my parents were merely two among hundreds of other refugee families I knew through their church in Elizabeth, New Jersey. Everywhere I turned I saw the consequences of war playing out long after the bombs stopped falling. We didn’t have the term PTSD yet—it came into use only in the 70s, around the Vietnam war—but I’d bet that millions who lived through the myriad grotesqueries of WWII were afflicted by it. My parents fled a city bisected by a river, which became the boundary line separating the occupying German forces from the occupying Soviet ones. More than seventy years later, the damage inflicted then echoes in the psychological struggles of the survivors’ grandchildren.

Is there anything less Christian than war? And yet does any Catholic doctrine reek of bullshit more pungently than Augustine’s theory of just war? “They who have waged war in obedience to the divine command,” wrote Augustine, “…have represented in their persons the public justice or the wisdom of government….such persons have by no means violated the commandment, ‘Thou shalt not kill.’” If you believe George W. Bush and Richard Nixon, or Barack Obama for that matter, heard divine commands and embodied the wisdom of government, then make your peace with the idea that God’s okay with the bombing of hospitals and schools, pleased by landmines blowing the feet off children thirty years after a war ended, and indifferent to all that comes with state-sanctioned violence. My grandmother was raped by soldiers—doesn’t matter which ones. Men, granted authority over the bodies of others, told they have the right to kill, surely also have the right to a little free sex along the way.

Discovering a member of the priesthood blessed with the clarity to see this, with the nerve to stand up to a man like his boss Cardinal Spellman, who supported American exceptionalism abroad, enthusiastically backed the Vietnam War, and opposed the work of unions in the United States as smacking of communism, was cause for rejoicing.

In the stand-off between individual conscience and the State, it’s the State which usually appears to triumph. But, as with many appearances, this is an illusion. Each time he was told to rise in a courtroom to hear yet another functionary pronounce him guilty as charged, Berrigan would stand with his back to the judge, unwilling even to pretend to render unto Caesar something over which no government had jurisdiction: his conscience. “The State,” which presents itself as an objective, monolithic entity, is comprised of individuals, each of whom makes choices they must live with. Hiding behind the rhetoric of the state to shield themselves from feeling responsible for their decisions, they never realize they’re hiding from themselves. It’s no accident that our little volume about Berrigan is titled Conscience, Consequence.

Dan’s example, and his decades of witness, have been a fortifying force throughout my life. During a weekend retreat in upstate New York, Dan spoke to us about his meditations on The Book of Kings, the Biblical narrative that begins with the death of David and the ascendancy of Solomon, and concludes with the razing of the First Temple. He’d just published a close reading of it, his textual analysis enlivened with prison letters from his brother Philip (I remember receiving a few of these after publishing a piece by him in Agni), as well as poems by Howard Nemerov and newspaper clips about G.W. Bush’s war on Iraq. The collage of materials was designed to suggest the parallels and lessons to be drawn between our day and the reign of the Kings of Judah, a period extending roughly from 960 to 560 BC. In his conversation, as in the book, Berrigan underscores “the pathology of power,” discovering in the chronicle myriad lessons on what not to do. As always, Berrigan underscores the meaning of Christ: “He speaks for the victims, the forgotten ones, those who live and die in the margin of the text, in the footnotes, the silence, the space between letters.”

*     *     *

As I write this, fire ravages the tar sands region of Alberta, leaving a landscape not even Hollywood CGI can recreate. In the face of this environmental devastation, I think of Dan’s commitment to all that longs to flower and grow. That’s what he hoped for for those “at the bottom.”

Berrigan’s death has elicited an outpouring of media attention. Having largely ignored the living man’s efforts to quicken our consciences, the media, believing the messenger neutralized at last, cozy up in hopes of sharing the warmth that flows naturally from a living soul even after the body ceases to function. But while the breath has gone out, the fire it breathed is far from extinguished.

I’ve heard stories about Berrigan’s self-righteousness, but what I remember is his humility that afternoon in Cambridge. After the lightest of lunches, we arrived at the Friend’s Meeting House, which stands across from Longfellow’s mansion on Brattle Street, to find the place overflowing with Dan’s countless friends, including Howard Zinn, James Carroll, and many others. When it came his time to read, Dan took the mike for no more than ten minutes so that the poets reading with him could have more time.

Berrigan at the book signing following the reading, with writer (and former priest) James Carroll

Berrigan’s work always seems to point in two directions at once. On one side stands Jeremiah, quivering with rage. On the other, the poet faces the unparsable miracle of being, on behalf of which he’s willing to suffer the tedium and insult of arrest and imprisonment as “something owed life/…small price, all said/handcuffed.” The prophet condemns; the poet inspires. He makes his reason for walking down this particular road clear enough:
Some stood up once, and sat down.
Some walked a mile, and walked away.

...Some walked and walked and walked.
They walked the earth, they walked the waters,
they walked the air.

“Why do you stand,” they were asked,
“and why do you walk?”

“Because of the children,” they said,
“and because of the heart,
and because of the bread.”

“Because the cause
is the heart’s beat,
and the children born,
and the risen bread.”

1 comment:

  1. This was great. I had not thought about Berrigan in a long while. We need more prophetic voices in the church today.