Monday, February 21, 2011

Spectres Old and New

On this day, in 1848, The Communist Manifesto was published. I've written about my personal relationship with that book here. But it's interesting to me to think about the history of this little book as we enter the 7th day of protests in Wisconsin, and as we see revolution spreading throughout the Middle East, with such a variety of results.

I've spent years thinking about the issues of race and gender, and where they intersect with class. I've come to believe that class issues are at the bottom of many of our struggles. We can buy our way out of many of the areas of discrimination that come with being a minority or a woman.

Yesterday afternoon, after a long and successful morning of walking a half marathon, I watched Winter's Bone. What a riveting movie, a movie that shows us issues of class and poverty, especially rural poverty, in stark terms. We see the young protagonist try to join the Army because she so desperately needed the $40,000 sign up fee to keep her younger siblings fed. We see the desperation in these characters' lives.

Watching these kind of movies often feels like seeing an alternate future, the kind of grim reality that I'd be facing if some of my ancestors several generations ago had made worse choices or had been beset by more desperate circumstances. Watching these kind of movies gives me a kind of survivor's guilt and a wish that I lived in a country that gave people more choices and more ways to climb out of poverty.

Yes, the writings of Marx seem more relevant than ever. Yet when he died, he had no sense of how influential his writing would become (for example, by 1950, roughly half of the population of the world would be living under Marxist governments, although Marx himself might have disavowed a number of those governments). It makes me think about my own writing, about which ideas I consider most important, and about how those ideas might live on beyond me.

It might not even be only my published works. On Friday, I went with a class of students to a local museum to see the Treasures from the Vatican show. One of my teacher friends asked me about Paul and Paul's misogyny. I tried to explain that if Paul reappeared he'd be rather shocked at how we've been using his letters. He was writing those letters to real churches facing local problems. Paul likely had no sense that he was forming church/Christian practice for centuries to follow.

So, as you write your e-mails and Facebook messages this week, take a few moments to think about how they might outlive you. As you suffer through the disappointments that a creative life will sling at you periodically, take heart from our wide variety of literary ancestors who would shake their heads in disbelief that they've become part of the canon.

And then, spend a moment thinking about the workers of the world, how many chains we still have, how we might lose those chains, how our writing might transform the world.

I posted this poem in early January, but I can't resist the opportunity to post it again. It first appeared in The Julia Mango and will also be included in my forthcoming chapbook, I Stand Here Shredding Documents:

Morning in America: 1984

I read The Communist Manifesto on the DC Metro,
surrounded by commuters going to their downtown jobs
and tourists in town to see their government in action.

I wear sensible shoes and my hair in a braid.
I work in a tough part of town, that summer
that DC has the nation’s highest murder rate.

That season is also the one when the social
service agency runs out of resources. My summer job:
to answer the phone, to tell the downtrodden there is no money.

Between calls, I return to Marx. I picture
him, prowling the streets of Europe, winding up in the British
Museum, where he could write and stay warm.

I write my own poems. I imagine they will change
the world, that all I must do to rid the planet of injustice
is to point out the inequities, nothing to lose but our chains.

1 comment:

Sandy Longhorn said...

"We can buy our way out of many of the areas of discrimination that come with being a minority or a woman."

Such an interesting comment. I'm going to be pondering this one for a while. I do agree that class is HUGE, especially as I watch my niece and nephew begin their families, living at below poverty levels...the working poor is not an abstract idea.