Friday, January 22, 2016

Something Terrible Happened Here

“We don’t know how to make it stop.” 
Ghost electronic voice phenomenon (EVP) of an “overwhelmed” and “out-of-breath” soldier allegedly recorded at the site of the Battle of Little Bighorn, Montana.

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There is a theory, one not supported by science, that in places where extreme trauma and tragedy have occurred there remains an imprint, an echo burned into the rocks and trees and landmarks.  This echo might be voices or spheres of light or gauzy figures that can be captured with digital cameras and sound recordings.  Those in the field of parapsychology call this electronic voice phenomenon or EVP.  This idea seems to support the assertion in the Kevin Costner film, Field of Dreams (Universal Pictures, 1989) that “if you build it, they will come.”  If you journey to the site of horrific death and destruction and turn on your digital recorder, you will capture these echoes.  If only that were true.  What a boon that would be for historians; they could walk through a place like Auschwitz, ask questions of the ether, and get answers from the ghosts.

I believe in the exact opposite of this theory of rocks and trees as recording devices.  I think the imprint of tragedy does not reside in the physical space but in the human heart, the human soul.  It is upon us that the sorrow and tragedy are tattooed.  If we are all part of a greater soul of all life, those who have died in these places in bloody and horrific conditions, when their individual pieces of that life-soul rejoin the whole, we all feel the ripples out into the universe like tossing the proverbial pebble into the pond.  We sense the fear and terror in the place.  As we say, “the hair on the back of my neck went up,” or “I felt a presence, a chill.”

In the end, science does not support this theory either, but I have experienced it both on occasions where I knew a tragedy had taken place and in locations where I had no idea what happened.  In short, this is anecdotal evidence, but it makes more sense to me than rocks as a recording device.  It is spiritual, not physical.

When touring Civil War battlefields in Virginia, I felt terror and disquiet.  The cool wind blew the grasses around me, and whispers seemed to come out of the sky.  But I knew I was on a battlefield, and that could have influenced me subconsciously.  I was acutely aware I walked on holy ground.  The same thing occurred at Ground Zero in New York.  In all of the hundreds of people moving through that place like liquid humanity, I felt the sanctity, the solitude of death.  St. Paul’s Cathedral in London haunts me still, how I walked through the expansive vaulted heavens on earth and came to stand, without realizing it, in front of John Donne’s statue depicting him in his funeral shroud.

I once took a self-guided tour of Mission San Fernando Rey de Espana north of Los Angeles.  When paying the admission, one is given a pamphlet to follow through each significant location on the mission grounds.  I had cameras to carry, and I had also been to the mission many times, so I figured I did not need the pamphlet.  As I made my way around the complex, I stepped into a room where I instantly felt afraid as well as chilled.  Terror and sadness were palpable.  I was so disturbed that I pulled out the crumpled pamphlet from my camera bag to see exactly what this room was used for and I discovered it was the mission infirmary.  A little more research at home that night made my skin crawl.  The infirmary was also, allegedly, where Native American mission workers, some say slaves, were imprisoned and punished for disobedience and resistance.  What I got from the room was cold, pure, evil before I even knew where I stood.

Another time, while hunting quail with my father and uncle, we had another of these inexplicable episodes.  We were driving into a canyon in late afternoon.  As we passed an entry gate into the national forest, an owl sat on a fence post in the still-warm autumn sunlight next to the dirt road.  We all got out of the truck to look at it, and the owl stared back at us like the guardian-gargoyle of the underworld.  He did not fly away.  We got back in the truck and continued on into the canyon.  From a low rise we hiked down into a ravine.  My father decided to take a higher road along the ridgeline while my uncle and I scoured the bottom of the ravine on the lookout for the distinctive birds.  As we hiked, I was drawn up to my father’s position as he made his way along the visible road above us.  I saw some kind of animal loping along behind him.  When I brought my binoculars up to look, the animal was gone.  My father seemed oblivious that he was being followed.  Walking on, we found ourselves stepping through brush into a clearing where the ground was littered with bones.  We crunched through them.  They were thick in the grass—vertebrae, femurs, joints, some with bits of tissue still clinging to the bleached whiteness.  “Sheep,” my uncle muttered.  “Someone must have butchered an entire flock here.”  There were large, circular burn areas that could only be one thing:  bon fires.  What kind of dark ritual played itself out here?

Almost simultaneously, I felt extreme cold and intense fear.  I wanted to get the hell out of there, and I said as much to my uncle who agreed.  We met up with my father at the end of the ravine and told him what we saw, including the strange animal who appeared to be tracking him.  “Was it a mountain lion?” he asked.  I did not know. It could have been.  “Was it a coyote?”  I told him I didn’t know; the way the animal loped along in the brief moment I saw him with a naked eye would indicate some kind of cat, but I truly did not know what I saw.

We left without bagging a quail.  Several weeks later, my uncle went back alone with his dog to investigate the place more thoroughly.  No owls guarded the gate this time, but when they hiked down into the canyon, he encountered several rattlesnakes, and he had to restrain his dog who kept trying to run back to the truck.  Evidently, he sensed something malevolent.  For the entire brief hike, the dog, secured on a leash, stayed close to my uncle’s legs, nearly tripping him.  This hunt, like ours before, was terminated early.

Today, an entire tract home community of several hundred families lives on the site.  That might be an interesting story in and of itself.

Once I read The Revenant and Three Day Road for the review I wrote, I was drawn into other Native American stories.  A while back, I purchased several books on George Armstrong Custer’s brutal and bloody battle at Little Bighorn with Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse.  I knew the basic outline of history, but I have never been to Montana to see the site, nor did I know the full particulars, such as the fact that the Seventh Calvary was not completely wiped out; many of the soldiers under the command of Marcus Reno and Fredrick Benteen survived.  Indeed, it was the group under Custer only that the Indians completely obliterated.

The first book I read was Nathanial Philbrick’s The Last Stand:  Custer, Sitting Bull and the Battle of Little Bighorn (Penguin Books, 2011).  Philbrick has done previous work in historical narrative—books about the Mayflower, Bunker Hill, and the tragedy of the whale ship Essex—and he tells a competent version of that bloody day in the summer of 1876.  He includes color photographs of the battlefield as well as old tintypes and black-and-whites of the major characters involved.  He includes Appendices and Notes sections that demonstrate his broad research.  However, I found Philbrick’s telling a little light.

In research and scope, Philbrick is outdone by James Donovan in A Terrible Glory:  Custer and the Little Bighorn, the Last Great Battle of the American West (Back Bay Books, 2009).  Like the book’s title, this tome is extremely detailed and expansive, as well as intensely researched.  Donovan has written a book on the Alamo as well as a picture book about Custer and his final battle.  In comparison to Philbrick, a noted popular historian, Donovan does not have equal credentials.  However, he does a thorough and complete job of giving the reader the full scope and sequence of that day as well as what led to the battle, and how the outcome influenced history and American military science.  At times, Donovan includes almost too much research. Although maps were provided at several points throughout the text, the minute directions and movements of both the individuals and troops borders on the pedantic.  I enjoyed the details, but the book could have benefitted from a little more stringent editing, a bit more of a narrative focus over factual recounting.

One area that had me spooked in Donovan’s account concerned the metaphysical.  “Over the years, visitors and employees have reported supernatural occurrences at the battlefield,” he writes, “from ghostly visits by Indian warriors and cavalry troopers to unexplained voices, cold spots, and other spectral phenomena.  Some have postulated that the dead rise up occasionally to fight the battle over and over.  The area’s Crow Indians, watching park rangers lock the gates at night, gave them the name ‘ghost herders.’”  It is the kind of detail that although not scientific, still resonates with a sharp stab of frigid fear.

The final book, and most successful of the three is Son of the Morning Star:  Custer and The Little Bighorn (North Point Press, 1997) by Evan S. Connell.  Since Connell is a novelist, his is a narrative account focusing on characters and sensory details, and therefore, resonates with those echoes down through the years.  He covers the same material from many of the same sources as Philbrick and Donovan, but he also includes personal, more subjective stories that the historians ignore.  He gives us texture and insight, not just a retelling of the facts and locations.  Often, his writing is so sharp as to physically propel the reader through the text like novels structured with a cliffhanger at the end of every chapter.  I did feel that reading the books in this order made Connell’s work the most powerful.  When I opened the cover of Son of the Morning Star, I was ready for more of the experience of the battle and times and had enough of the facts to be able to validate Connell’s assertions and characterizations.

Without a doubt, America is a haunted country, as much as old London and sepia-toned Paris.  In fact, the entire 19th century seems filled with ghosts to me.  I study the early photographs.  The eyes pull me in.  They are often shifted away from the camera lens at some point over the photographer’s head as if lost in the distance of time.  In the works of Emerson, Thoreau, Melville, and Hawthorne, we can feel the development of the American mind.  The Civil War, the Industrial Revolution, the end of slavery, the exploration of the American west, all combined together to set up the 20th century in America.  It was a strange, bloody, and exciting time, as the ghosts will tell us if we just listen.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

A House of My Own

“I like to tell stories,” Sandra Cisneros writes at the end of her first novel, The House On Mango Street (Vintage, 1991).  “I tell them inside my head…I make a story for my life, for each step my brown shoe takes.  I say, ‘And so she trudged up the wooden stairs, her sad brown shoes taking her to the house she never liked.’”  Over the years, Cisneros has found a few houses she has liked, in Greece, in Chicago, in San Antonio, and now in Mexico, as she reveals in her recent essay collection, A House of My Own (Knopf, 2015).

First, the book is gorgeously printed on rich, heavy paper.  Yes, it makes the book weightier than a normal hardback, but it definitely elevates the art of the book as a thing of beauty.  This is a book well-made, both in physical construction and in the literature it contains.  The essays come from diverse publications across the years, from 1984 to 2014, as Cisneros documents her life as human being and artist.  She has never been the shy, retiring type, and her voice is very strong in this collection.  And that is what drew me to her work in the first place.

That being said, second, the essays here are a mixed bag:  some are very strong in the tradition of her first novel, with clear voice tinged with a bit of sadness, maybe, but also with a lust for life and for being her own person.  Others fall into reportage or recollection of an event in her time that resonates down through the years.

I first encountered Cisneros’ work as a teacher.  I have used The House On Mango Street in many, many classes over the years.  It is a book that transcends ethnicity and economic status; rich kids, poor kids, white, black or brown kids, all of them respond to the novel of vignettes and revel in Cisneros’ voice.  That voice—filtered through diverse characters—is one to be savored, remembered and treasured.

I saw Cisneros speak at UCLA one year during an English teachers’ workshop.  I normally am not moved by author readings.  I like to hear the voice in my head as I read, and I find that even an author reading the work, and even more the movie version of a novel, to be distracting and not what I imagined the characters to be.  Sandra Cisneros was different on that long ago Saturday.  She read from her novel and did all the voices, and they were exactly as I heard them in my head when reading.  She taught us how to introduce the cross-sensory teaching of writing that can be applied to poetry or prose.  Take something that stereotypically is perceived through one sense and describe it using another sense.  So one might say, “I could smell the rain in the trees.”  The purpose is to jolt the reader out of the clich├ęs we use to describe things:  the sky was blue, the summer day was hot.  Changing up the sensory description forces the reader to “revise” how they perceive the world.  This works very well for all types of writing, even essays.  It is living the advice Charles Dickens gave to writers:  “Make me see.”  It was a truly memorable workshop.

In this latest collection, Cisneros’ voice is older and wiser.  She demonstrates her passion and character, tracing her growth as a human being and an artist.  Some of the pieces began their lives as lectures or speeches.  Others might be best described as travelogues or journal entries.  Still others are introductions to other writers’ work.  Long ago loves and important opportunities, both missed and taken, fall from the pages.  She tells us of the important writers in her life—Marguerite Duras, Gwendolyn Brooks and Eduardo Galeano, to name a few—and the way art and culture influence her living and writing.

My favorite essay in the collection is the one she wrote for the 25th anniversary edition of The House On Mango Street.  The piece centers on her mother and Cisneros’ own search for a home in the world.  Her parents worry about her—not married, seemingly adrift, different than her own culture’s expectations to be somebody’s wife, somebody’s mother.  The final image from the essay is of Cisneros and her mother on the roof of her writing studio in San Antonio watching the sun set.  It is an intimate and gorgeous moment made all the more sad when we come to the end.  The days run away in this life leaving us with a collection of moments like a string of pearls.  Cisneros captures this so eloquently, so beautifully.

The book ends with a reflection on where she is now.  Cisneros vows to “listen to her night dreams.  And so, in her dream she saw all around her were stories…”  She realizes “They had been whirling and flying all about her all along…Stories without beginning or end, connecting everything little and large, blazing from the center of the universe into el infinito called the great out there.”

Sandra Cisneros is a truly great American writer.  In this era of cynicism and bitterness and anti-immigrant posturing, she brings us back to what is elemental:  the need for home; the warmth of memory; the magic of culture.  She is a poet in prose, be it fiction or nonfiction, always marching to her own band, celebrating her own, yet universal lyric.