June 13, 2010
An innocent question, or so it appears: “Mom, which of these poems will be easier to analyze?” My daughter, 17, pushes them across the table for me to read. The first, by Maya Angelou, is about men. Men who use, abuse, take what they want and return you damaged. The second, by Margaret Atwood, is about a dancer. A stripper. Why she does the job, what she sees and feels.
Flashback, 1983. New York, West 47th Street. A red sequined g-string, flapping with dollar bills and 5’s (rarely the 10s and 20s, those were given to the slim beauties) – like plumage adorning pale round hips like the feathers of some strange attempting-to-be exotic bird.
I read the two selections, feeling the words like tiny pinpricks, and look back at my daughter, 17, and think: what does she know of such things? She has lived her life guarded from men and their trappings, perhaps because I did not. Seventeen, lovely, and far smarter than her mother was at that age, and probably smarter right now, but not more wise. Wisdom comes only with time. I meet her eyes. What exactly is she asking me? Should I read depths into this question that are not there? I tread carefully. The poem about the dancer is longer, I say, and holds less pain. Perhaps that one.
She retreats to her room; I am left with – what exactly? The feeling of being blindsided, with a deep – albeit temporary – connection to both poems. I want to drink wine with the authors and swap sad stories, whispering, “oh, yes, me too!”
Men cause pain. Yes, I do know this. Maya, are you happy with one man now, or still living with pain? I don’t think the men equals pain equation is written by women who hate men; rather by women who love them, despite the potential damage they cause. Love is pain, princess, and anyone who tells you different is trying to sell you something. (paraphrased from “The Princess Bride”.)
Maybe the stripper has the better idea; she sees the men for who they are, at their worst. Men in a strip bar let their guard down, for who is the dancer but a desirable piece of trash? Like crows drawn to something shiny, they want to pick you up with sharp talons and take you away to their nests, only to drop you in the thorn bushes halfway there. And the dancer knows that they don’t see her: how could they? They walked in the door for fantasy. They save the pretense for their girlfriends and wives; at home, they have to behave. Here, it is animal. The jungle. They are hunters, you are prey. But they have it backwards, as they give you their money, hoping for a smile in return, and you walk out the door, to your car, to the subway, bruised but intact. They are your prey, and the illusion is your bait.
Snapshots of a life. Joy, pain, beauty, ugliness. This is the power of life, or love. The more experiences we have, the more colors in our rainbow, the wider the scope of joy and pain. As devastating as it is, I prefer to live this way. The poets take these feelings, these experiences, and funnel them into scorching words, the way a small boy uses a magnifying glass to focus a pinpoint of sunshine on an anthill. We are the sun; we are also the ants.
A thought, a quote, keeps resurfacing in my life. It won’t be silenced until I acknowledge it: “On choosing the path with heart: To be human is to love and then be vulnerable to loss and suffering. Might the suffering we experience and the suffering we cause be a means for us to learn? Might healing and forgiving be part of this path? Might trust and courage develop only when we risk loss? Might compassion grow through shared human experience? Might how we react to what we cannot prevent be part of this curriculum? Might two other questions then be, What did we come to learn? Who or what did we come to love?”
If the answer to these questions is still an anguished “I don’t know!”, then I guess I am still searching for the true and definitive answer. In the meantime, I will allow the poets of the world to guide me. Check out below the links to the two poems.