1. The Conscience of the Century
by Karl Young
Meridel Le Sueur wrote (and rewrote) that she "was born at the beginning of the swiftest and bloodiest century." And she was: in January of 1900. For me this at first seemed an interesting coincidence, and a convenience, too - I always knew how old she was simply by knowing the year. But it has come to mean more with the passing of time. As the millennium draws to its close, she seems more and more to be the conscience of the century for the U.S. Conscience is something most people try to ignore or cover up, particularly in this complacent and sinister decade, but it won't go away completely -- it finds ways to reemerge around the edges even in the darkest times.
Most of her published work is now out of print. But we should remember that she could often find at least one publisher willing to risk publishing her books, even during the great depression and the darkest days of House Un-American Activities Committee terrorism. This suggests to me how much she could tap the conscience of others, even a mainstream publisher, and insist that it act, despite the dangers involved.
Many of her books were for children, and wisely so: it seems crucial to work with children before their prejudices become deeply seated - when young people are still receptive to new ideas and not yet too discouraged or cynical to act, even if acting means no more than surviving and bearing witness.
In her novels and stories she worked out experimental forms as she went, not to fit a theory, but because what she had to say demanded an indigenous, organic form of its own. Living stretches of her life on the edge of persecution and the most grinding forms of poverty, she did not write about people in desperate circumstances as abstractions or propaganda vehicles. Her characters are not simply poor or abused because of their ecconomic circumstances or race or sex or sexual orientation, their problems are more complex than that, and she shaped her prose from their voices. Not only did this give her a collective base for some of the most experimental writing of her time, her sense of social responsibility also preceded that of many others. A number of her children's books deal with pioneers. She herself was a pioneer in insisting on the rights of women, gays, racial and ethnic minorities long before such advocacy became fashionable among people in the arts. Although she may have picked up some ideas from other people when writing her last novel, The Dread Road, it remains an exploration of new formal and social ideas, and comes across as part of the literature of the 1980s, not a reworked fossil of the 30s.
Unlike many radicals, she remained flexible in her old age. My favorite memory of this is of a reading/performance conducted by Linda Montano and Pauline Oliveros. Meridel sat in the middle of the room while everyone else lay down on the floor, forming the spokes of a wheel radiating out from her. Each of us placed our hands on the stomachs of those next to us, and held the hands of those next to the ones on whose stomachs our hands rested, so that each of us was in physical contact with four other people. Under Pauline's instruction, we all articulated our breathing in such a way as to produce a constant Om-like hum, while Meridel read. I can't think of a better way to hear a reading: we all became participants. I had taken part in performances under Pauline's direction that involved participation by all present, but this one had a greater depth of polyphony, and in some ways a larger scope. This performance didn't please everyone who came, however, and some walked out, muttering curses on "vanguardism, the essence of bourgeois decadence." Yet even from a strictly political point of view, I have no doubt that engaging in activities like this was integral to Meridel's ability to oppose strip mining in the Black Hills and unfair housing in Chicago, to finding a new audience of younger Feminists, and to charging around the country on buses, giving lectures and attending conferences, workshops and demonstrations into her early 80s, and kept her going at a somewhat reduced pace when her back problems became severe enough to limit her mobility.
I don't believe in literary Darwinism, the proposition that great literature will somehow come forth and be recognized no matter what the obstacles. In fact, I've seen a lot of the best work of my own time, including that of Meridel Le Sueur, continually subject to eradication. Study of the tiny amount of extant Old English poetry and the few surviving pre-colombian manuscripts of Mexico keeps the memory of past erasures firmly in front of me. The need for memory forms a major theme in Meridel's work. And despite the odds, my feeling is that she will be recognized after those who are now indifferent or want her suppressed have gone the way of goldfish swallowers and inquisitors.
She was born before the first bomb was dropped out of an airplane -- as a matter of fact, she was born before the first airplane lifted off the ground -- but in many ways the world hasn't caught up with her.
She spent several years during her teens as a protégé of Emma Goldman, living with her and Jacob Berkman. My partisan opinion is that much of her resilience and adaptability reflect not only her own strength of will and mind, but also the life-affirming, populist Anarchism of the first two decades of the century. Perhaps this is attested by her later feuds with various different centralist factions of the American left, and with each new move her ability to stay outside the limitations of ideology. I think she could have said, like Goldman, and despite the harrowing and desolate stretches of her century, that she drank the cup of life without leaving a drop.
Some of us had the good fortune to read her and to know her. A memorial like this should not be left to a single voice, and I'd like mine to introduce some of the others who shared in this good fortune.
2. Here is a memory from Linda Montano:
i remember sitting on paulines bed in leucadia in 1976 or maybe later. you were sitting there or maybe lying down. a feeling of love, of respect, of depth, of quality, of mentor and earth was there and never left, over time, even when i saw you smoke cigars, or when you wrote me notes and called me pheonix fire, or when i thought of you or when you are no longer here
3. Here is a memory from Pauline Oliveros:
Linda Montano urged me to call Meridel as I was going to St. Paul for a residency with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra in 1977 or 78. Linda thought that we should meet. I called. Meridel came to the concert and heard my piece - To Valerie Solanas and Marilyn Monroe In Recognition of Their Desperation. After the concert we met. I loved Meridel immediately. She recognized the nature of my work and honored me.
Meridel came to California for a visit and stayed with Linda and I in Leucadia. Meridel had a reading at the Women's Building in Los Angeles. For some reason Meridel was very excited about this reading. We drove her there and listened. She stood tall and proud with a very large looking manuscript book in front of her. Afterwards we were discussing the "reading" - our pleasure etc. Meridel let us in on her secret - She had done something new for her. She hadn't been reading at all - inspired by musicians she had been improvising! She was very pleased with that.
Her warm presence is with me now as it was through many years of friendship and love.
4. Where Strength is Cached
by Joe Napora
Now, in a moment of crisis and cold,She repeats herself. And this is also a promise, like the example of Demeter: not death but re-birth. In conversation as in life, for conversation is life, she repeats, not the straight line, not that lie leading directly to the bomb from the linear mind, the mind formed by print. Charles Olson turned this awareness into theory: Projective Verse, "COMPOSITION BY FIELD, as opposed to inherited line...". Long before Olson left the post office to be a poet, she was composing "by field." She said and lived it all of her long life, from the year 1900 to near to the century's end. She repeats herself in those of us who remember, as she repeated in every conversation I had with her Albert Parson's last words before he was hung as a conspirator for the Haymarket bombing: "Let the Voice of the People be Heard." And through her it is.
they point out where the warm ash of the old fires
can give you warmth, where strength is cached.
- Meridel Le Sueur,
from The Crusaders, The Radical Legacy
of Marian and Arthur Le Sueur
Contemporary Authors tells us that Meridel's father, Arthur Le Sueur, founded the Industrial Workers of the World, a line and a lie repeated in several entries in that reference work that now stands as truth in all the libraries in the country. Her father and mother, along with Eugene Debs, Helen Keller, and a few other progressives were founding members of the People's College in 1914. Perhaps this is what the scholars are referring to. Arthur Le Sueur had nothing to do with the founding of the IWW (1905), though he continually fought with Big Bill Haywood and other IWW leaders over tactics and policy. Do scholars know anything? Can they be trusted? One of the many lessons Meridel has taught us: it's not just "Don't let the bastards beat you down"; it is also "Don't let the bastards re-tell our history."
In Meridel's novel, The Girl, Clara, prostitute, friend, dreamer, receives electric shock treatments instead of food, shelter, nourishment. As Clara dies:
- ...a print version of Funk & Wagnall called Microsoft chief Bill Gates a "tough competitor." But an electronic Microsoft version describes him as "known for his...contributions to charity." - Wall Street Journal, Nov. 14, 1997
And it is. It is not just the electric media, its control, ubiquity, power. The burden upon us, writers, is now even greater. Memory is the first thing they take. It's not just Clara, the women of the Depression, it's the world, the electric media shock treatment that destroys memory, replaces it, over-writes it, with trash, information only. In every library sits the Library of Congress Subject Headings, and they are different than they were: the Ludlow Massacre, Colo. 1913-1914 has been changed to Coal Strike, Colo. 1913-1914. A massacre perpetrated by the private army of the Rockefeller family cooperating with the National Guard of Colorado has been changed to "a strike." The only thing that hasn't changed is the universal constant of government: blame the victim.
- Memory is all we got. I cried, we got to remember. We got to remember everything. It is the glory, Amelia said, the glory. We got to remember to be able to fight. Got to write down the names. Make a list. Nobody can be forgotten. They know if we don't remember we can't point them out. They got their guilt wiped out. The last thing they take is memory.
The Ludlow Massacre was, as she said of it, her defining moment. As a young teenager, she went to the Colorado mine fields and recorded the stories. And from those voices evolved her last published novel, The Dread Road. And from all of her stories, the hundreds and thousands of recordings and from her memories came the works of hers that may never be published but which constitute her greatest writings: her notebooks, her partially finished novels, her music-made writings, her unfinished symphonies.
Meridel said that "Someone has been shaking commas all over my notebooks." Changing them. Changing her legacy. Changing her to fit an acceptable mold. She criticized Robert Coles for changing the Appalachian speech of his "subjects." We need to know how people talk, and we need to know how Meridel writes. Hers was an organic form, based on, rooted in, faith in the land and the people who love it. And she has taught us the most important lesson we can learn about community. It's a lesson that her feminist, Marxist, Communist, realist, midwest folklorist admirers have never learned: there is a solidarity based on something other than victimization. And she is a writer, greater, more of a stylist, than any of the most honored of the novelists who were her contemporaries when she developed her writing style (Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Dos Passos, Lawrence). She is a writer who has left us more to learn from than any other. And she repeats herself in us, where strength is cached.
5. Meridel Le Sueur in Cochise County
by Barbara Mor
Bisbee AZ is a charming arty town west of the old PhelpsDodge copper digs: the Copper Queen Mine, the Lavender Pit are now offered as tourist sites. Copper, i.e. PhelpsDodge, drove the state's political economy in the early 20th century. Warren, AZ (where Meridel, my 2 daughters and I rentshared a hillside house in 1985) was NOT arty, and its charm was more surreal. Located east of the Pit and the huge tailings pile that formed its western horizon, Warren was a PD Company Town full of Ghosts. A few mansions of dead mine owners, retired PD workers dying in terminal loyalty to the copper industry, the restive spirits of dead miners: it was a preternaturally quiet place, occupied more by the living past than its dead present.
During WWI this region was the scene of vicious Union-busting activity. The IWW was there, and Mother Jones visited regularly. Circa 1917 the Cochise County Sheriff's Dept., local police, plus Pinkerton and FBI called in to protect the "war-related interests" of the mine owners, rounded up over 500 mine-workers in a predawn raid on their homes. They were marched at gunpoint to the baseball field in Warren and from there loaded onto boxcars: hundreds of men packed like sardines into closed cars with at best one big jar of water, some with no water at all. This "deportation train" was sent on a one-way trip eastward into the New Mexico deserts, with orders to leave them abandoned there, unopened, regardless of the death toll. Luckily, the Mayor of Columbus, NM ordered the boxcars unlocked and the men freed. No one died, no one was compensated, and the perpetrators were never brought to court. Warren was a town composed predominantly of people who had been denying, for 68 years, that this infamous "Deportation of Miners" ever happened. Or, if it had, the hundreds of men in the boxcars deserved it. or, if they were too young to have been there, they knew it had never happened because official Warren history told them so (by omitting the notorious event entirely from the local universe of discourse).
Meridel knew all this history, of course. Then 85, with a lot of pain in her lower spine, she'd come to the high dry mountains and Apache heat of Southeast Arizona to stretch her bones in the sun, a respite from the Minnesota winters of her home. She had a big bedroom on a yucca-sprayed hillside, dotted with ocotillo, small cactus and rocks emerging from the nagual. She loved it; she loved to sit out on the frontporch, in late autumn, with her legs exposed to the sun. And she loved the presence of that history, the struggle of the extraction of copper which stained the earth blood red. The week of her arrival she began to dream. In sleep, she entered the red hills and found Mescalero Apaches and a group of miners alive inside them. They welcomed her, all sitting around in a kind of kiva-space deep in the earth, and they talked and told stories every night. Meridel was struck by the intensely beautiful mineral colors of inner earth, colors normally hidden unless exposed by the brutality of open pit mining. The resultant wound was terrible, but beautiful, in what it revealed of the earth: a living pulsing presence. This was Meridel's recurrent dream in Warren: it was a vision of healing.
I don't drive. I did Meridel's shopping on my bike, taking her list to the Bisbee healthfood store and carrying home her miso and tabouli and cheeses and veggies 3 miles back around the Pit. Healthfood, in Warren, was still a Wobbly Plot. Warren had only one food store, the PhelpsDodge Market, definitely NOT a NewAge OrganicFood outlet. The people, shoppers and employees were decently subdued and sad; PhelpsDodge had moved on and left the town as wispy and forlorn as an outgrown cicada shell. In her second week, Meridel wanted us all to go shopping there together, so she could "see the town." This venture became much more like "the town seeing Meridel."
She wore her long Iroquois braid with many beads and gewgaws given her by people all over the world. on this day she was very flamboyant, her blouse and scarves in fuschia, magenta, purple, rose, all flowing in the late afternoon breeze. She smoked a few long MORE cigarettes each day, held in a stylish ivory holder. So her "image" on this particular outing was somewhere between The Corn Mother of Iowa and Gloria Swanson of Sunset Blvd. Warren had one main street, with most of the small stores empty (emptied by a new shoppingmall built 15 miles away in Sierra Vista) There were several churches, a few CourtHouse buildings, a small postoffice, no bars, no movie theater. A very parochial, indeed, otherplanetary eerie SILENCE on the main drag even during weekends: everyone was either dead or terminally bedridden inside their houses, or gone shopping 15 miles away. A very weird place!
So here comes Meridel, in her electric wheelchair, bright yellow and black, a blazing bumblebee accompanied by my young daughters and me venturing down the long crumbly street between our hillside house, and the main intersection where PhelpsDodge Market ruled the corner. The sidewalks were discontinuous, running broken and slanty for half a block and then abruptly ending in a jagged clump of cement buried in dirt, with luck some weedy grass growing through it. So we just paraded down the middle of the street, with Meridel in the lead. Her scarves flew in the arid, hallucinated air like Radical Flags. None of us were "the Warren type" but Meridel was outrageous: fuschias flying, cigarette holder, SquashBlossom silver and turquoise around her neck . . . AND, of course, a "renowned Communist," and IWW heroine. AND a Feminist. AND a Poet.
Walking with Meridel down the middle of the street to the PD Market that day in Warren, AZ was the best parade I've ever been in. We went inside to shop while Meridel stayed in her wheelchair outside, to "see what she could see." Meridel loved candy, and had asked me to buy her some caramels. So when we emerged from the market with grocery bags there she was: surrounded by children on a street of historic ghosts, a sidewalk typically disused, in a town where I rarely saw kids except on the school playground. Meridel, like a spaceship had landed in their main street, had drawn a crowd of kids; none of them, I know, had ever seen such a Babe in their young lives. She took the big bag of Kraft caramels, opened it and began handing out her candy, half the bag at least, to the kids. In about 15 minutes, they all seemed to know her and love her. She was Trés Exotic but she was also the Universal Grandma handing out goodies.
In that bag of caramels there was a page of stick-on alphabet letters and a miniature plastic License Plate, for kids to put on their bikes. Meridel spelled out "RIPENING" and we attached it to her wheelchair.
(Meridel's relation to her beloved chocolate was not 100% altruistic or selfsacrificing. on Hallowe'en 1985, my daughters and I went around Warren in costume, with 2 bags collecting a lot of small candy, gum, chocolate bars and TootsiePops. Afterward I made them leave their bags of loot in the kitchen, with instructions: "don't pig out all at once, make them last" - and normally their Hallowe'en candy did last a few weeks. We were a disciplined crew. But for Meridel. Within a few days after Hallowe'en both daughters went to their bags and sent up howls. All the chocolate bars were gone! Meridel had snuck down the long hallway late at night, in her stealth wheelchair without telling anyone, and pirated all their candybars, Yes! I found all the crumpled wrappers in her bedroom wastebasket. What we got from her was a gleeful unrepentant smile. Hey! She was 85 years old, with 12 more years to go. She needed her Quick Energy.)
Of so many delightful "Meridel stories" there was a serious point: she was in great pain. Some of her medicine contained morphine, and I believe that endorphin-producing chocolate also helped take the edge off her suffering. Her spine was deteriorating, compressed and crumbling, and she strove to work out a schedule of medications and sleep that would give her a few hours - usually at night - when she was pain-free enough, but not too groggy to write. She was working, there in Warren on her manuscript for DREAD ROAD. I would wake up many times at night, in my room, hearing her moans (a pain she never expressed in our daytime company). Then the moans were punctuated and then erased by the passionate clicking of her typewriter keys.
Meridel had wonderful dimples in a wonderful face, and although I knew she was in constant pain, never once did I see it. She looked, in fact, like Desmond Tutu - when I told her this, she loved the comparison. We agreed that having such a Face was a great POLITICAL ADVANTAGE, because it is impossible to argue indefinitely with anyone flashing such extraordinary DIMPLES. But there was (perhaps) a personal disadvantage in that Meridel s real experience of pain wasn't manifest. She was writing that terrible story of the Ludlow Massacre, she was steeling herself to work despite her body's staggering back and forth between raw and medicated stupor: moment by moment day and night, she was exerting on herself a terrific DISCIPLINE and HEROISM to accomplish her task. But when you looked at her, you didn't see this starker aspect of her character, this stern warrior. What you saw was Meridel s merry and witty face, her beaming countenance. Ice, True Grit.
Everyone knows Meridel's favorite parable, in which the butterflies outlast the dinosaurs. War machines, bulldozers, tanks and stomping armies of brute stubborn things become extinct, while the poetry of Life, its generous instinct to be not only useful but BEAUTIFUL, survives. Such parables are easy to believe, but hard to live. Meridel was not sentimental, but Heroic. Pain is real, it cannot be escaped, only transformed. Meridel had arrived in Warren directly from Nairobi, Kenya. It was 1985, the year of the 3rd International UN Conference on Women, held in Nairobi, and Meridel had "sent herself" there as part of an NGO delegation (the "official delegation" included women like Maureen Reagan, the then-president's daughter, and other predictable "boozhywoozhy" as she called them). The gift of an electric wheelchair allowed her to travel to Kenya and be mobile throughout a grueling 2 week Conference. Arriving in Warren, Meridel carried many gifts from Africa: carved animals and women's heads and dress beads. Most of all she brought the Poetry of what she'd seen and experienced there: Nairobi itself towering multinational corporate structures the monoliths of global brandnames: ITT, MOBIL. COKE, $$$. Familiar icons. At street level, simple squalor: tin shacks, beggars, kids, shoestring barter. Meridel didn't record these images as a tourists of course but as a politically-acute radical feminist and poet. It was 1985: she was seeing Our Global Future. Amidst the stark juxtapositions of the Nairobi streets the African women moved so vibrantly she said, that she had a vision of their swirling, colorsplashed robes and headscarves as "beautiful bandages" covering the wounds of Africa, comforting and healing without denying: a TRANSFORMATIONAL PRESENCE. Our wounds are not "personal" but Planetary. Meridel knew her personal pain was the anguish of the whole earth. She did not speak from this in victim language but in BEING the Earth's wounds, of and within the continuous living story of struggle and pain. Like the Kenyan women, she wove her textures, colors and memory heroically into a Poem, a fist, a flower, a Brazen Banner : WE ARE ALIVE HERE AND NOW WE ARE TRANSFORMING OUR WORLD.
If everyone could learn to move through the past and future rubble of our present world like those women's, Meridel thought even the deepest wounds of our human anguish could be healed. And then flowered into a brave beauty.
"The Conscience of the Century" © 1998 by Karl Young; Memories by Linda Montano and Pauline Oliveros © 1998 by Linda Montano and Pauline Oliveros; "Where Strength is Cached" © 1998 by Joe Napora; "Meridel Le Sueur in Cochise County" © 1998 by Barbara Mor.
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