Ghosts of Guilt, NaPoWriMo, Day 30

Monday Morning Musings:

“Not only are selves conditional but they die. Each day, we wake slightly altered, and the person we were yesterday is dead.”

–John Updike, quoted here.

“Monsters are real. Ghosts are too. They live inside of us, and sometimes, they win.”

–Stephen King, The Shining

 

There are ghosts we see—or don’t

invoke, as though if left uncalled for

we’ll not provoke

those of the past,

who vanish–or won’t

go gentle into that good night,

the ghosts of guilt,

may waft or wilt

drift silently,

(seen just from the corner of your eye,

fly by)

but whether unexplainable

or declaimed

they are us

and soon, we’ll be them.

 

We see two movies,

walk in between,

to see the vibrant glow of spring.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The first film set in Hungary in 1945,

a small town that seems not war-torn,

some have even thrived.

The town clerk owns a well-stocked drugstore,

more–he lives with his family in a large town house.

Others have also gained homes and wealth

obtained by stealth,

though it’s all legal, they explain

(show the papers,

for goods and property

no one left to claim).

But they are haunted by their complicity

no joy at an upcoming wedding,

where there should be felicity

secrets begin to seep—

they’re all around–

Look! Two Jews in town.

What do they want, these nearly silent men?

As they walk behind the cart,

like mourners to a grave site.

Dark, somber,

(the film shot in black and white)

Here, it’s always “God Bless,”

and the brandy seems ever handy.

There’s a Hungarian saying about this brandy–

“Palinka in small amounts is a medicine,

in large amounts a remedy.”

But there’s no remedy for what they’ve done.

What have they lost, and what have they won?

The Germans are out, the Russians are in–

A new dawn

when the Jews are gone?

But these two, why are they here,

and what is it the town folk fear?

Dark smoke billows from the train,

sun-filled day fills with thunder and rain.

The monsters are real. The ghosts are too.

They are us, and we are them.

 

We walk and chat

about the movie, this and that–

the susurration of sparrows,

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

the murmurings of spring

though the ghost of winter, touches

with icy fingers clings

as we turn from sun to shadow

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

whispers–

you can’t flee me forever,

I’ll return in November or December,

when seeds then huddle underground,

sharing the cold comfort of the dead.

But now is for the living instead,

in blooms of green and pink and yellow and white

glowing, vibrant in the light.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We walk, seeing weddings and brides in white

smiling groups, life in color and in light.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We see a second film,

this one with ghosts up front

that an investigator will confront.

He’s a skeptic, he doesn’t believe,

but perhaps there are events he also grieves

There are scenes that makes us jump–

doors that rattle, and things that bump,

demons that are locked away,

but are released,

perhaps, to stay.

Three cases become woven together–

Will there be a happily ever after?

(Cue the nervous laughter).

 

We walk some more,

The Signer stands tall

The Signer,
Philadelphia

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

through many seasons–

he’s seen them all—

and thus,

though he represents freedom

he’s surrounded by ghosts

who flit over cobblestones,

manning their posts,

due diligence, remember the past—

remember us.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My cat wakes me from a dream—

a ghost tells a character in a play

(stories within stories within my dream, it seems)

“we mourn the dead, but we move on.”

They are us,

and we are them.

Life moves on–

we begin again.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The final NaPoWriMo prompt asks us to “write a poem that engages with a strange and fascinating fact.” Well, I included some facts. They may or may not be strange or fascinating. For more on “odd facts” about Hungary, see here. And here is more on the Holocaust in Hungary  The Signer statue is in Philadelphia’s Old City.

We saw the movies 1945 and Ghost Stories.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

O Brave New World: The Phoenix and Survival

Monday Morning Musings:

“There was a silly damn bird called a phoenix back before Christ, every few hundred years he built a pyre and burnt himself up. He must have been the first cousin to Man. But every time he burnt himself up he sprang out of the ashes, he got himself born all over again. And it looks like we’re doing the same thing, over and over, but . . .we know all the damn silly things we’ve done. . .someday we’ll stop making the goddamn funeral pyres and jumping in the middle of them.

–Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451

In mythology, the phoenix is a bird that is constantly reborn. It is associated with the sun—sometimes pictured with a nimbus around its head—and it is said to rise from the ashes of its predecessor. Time and again, civilizations also fall, and others rise from their ashes. Humans seem to have an infinite capacity for destruction. We also seem to have an infinite capacity for expressing our feelings, emotions, and desires through various forms of artistic expression, whether it is painting on a cave wall, secretly writing in a journal, or performing theatrical works in varied and sometimes bizarre locales. We find friendship and love in times of destruction and strife, the need to connect with others often overpowering thoughts of surviving without them.

You know those “what if” games? What books would you want if you were stuck on a deserted island? What belongings would you rush to gather in a disaster? How would you survive a zombie apocalypse? I don’t know. How can anyone know?

The book, Station Eleven, explores survival in the aftermath of a worldwide plague, and along the way it discusses theater, comic books, love, and loss. The story moves back and forth through time and the characters’ lives. One horse-drawn wagon of the Traveling Symphony caravan carries the slogan, “survival is insufficient.” The author of the novel, Emily St. John Mandel, has said she “stole it [the line] shamelessly from Star Trek: Voyager.”

The novel is about how people survive after present day civilization and conveniences no longer exist. What would we value in this brave new world? The Traveling Symphony performs Shakespeare and classical music; one of the actresses collects editions of an obscure comic book and treasures a snow globe. The book makes the argument that art and music of all types are necessary—simply surviving is not enough. Human connection—friendship, love, family bonds—all of these are necessary, too. And sometimes strangers connect us in ways we can never imagine–and perhaps will never know. In the immediate aftermath of a disaster, obtaining food and shelter are crucial, but Mandel argues they are not enough. Humans want more. We want stories and art, too.

After finishing the book, I watched the Star Trek Voyager episode that inspired Mandel. (“C’mon,” I said to my husband, “don’t you want to watch Voyager again after all these years?” He did not seem overjoyed, but he watched it with me, demonstrating that indeed in marriage, too, “Survival is insufficient.”) In the episode, Seven of Nine, formerly of the Borg collective, realizes that living in freedom, even for a brief time, is more valuable that living in bondage or in a life you did not choose.

The German movie, Phoenix, explores the idea of survival in a different way. In this 2014 film by director Christian Petzold (that just opened in Philadelphia), Nelly, a concentration camp survivor (the wonderful actress Nina Hoss) returns to Berlin after undergoing reconstructive facial surgery because of injuries inflicted upon her during the war. She has endured unimaginable horrors, and now she wants to find her pianist husband, Johnny. She finds him working as a bus boy in a jazz club, the Phoenix, in the American zone. How did he survive? Did he betray her to the Nazis? How can he not know his own wife? The movie makes viewers reflect upon what we might do in order to survive, and what lies might we then tell ourselves to ease our guilt? We are shown photographs—that person is now dead; that person was a Nazi. “Who him?” asks Nelly. Secrets and lies. What is the truth? There are echoes of Hitchcock here. But in postwar Berlin, many people assumed new identities. Her friend Lene, who knows Nelly’s story, believes she and Nelly should immigrate to Palestine and build a new life. Nelly, however, wants to rebuild her old life—and herself—from the ruins that literally surround her. The song “Speak Low” by Kurt Weill and Ogden Nash is repeated throughout the movie, the lyrics speaking words that the characters themselves cannot voice to one another.

“The curtain descends,

Everything ends

Too soon, too soon.”

Kurt Weill and Ogden Nash, “Speak Low”

Station Eleven seems to offer more hope in its belief that love and art will triumph. It is set mainly in a post-apocalyptic world, but almost two decades removed from the plague that nearly wiped out humanity. Phoenix is set immediately after the end of WWII. Perhaps a re-born Nelly will, in time, rise in the post-war world. Perhaps she will find joy in song again. Phoenix may not be a great movie, but I can’t seem to stop thinking about it.

In Station Eleven, there is Shakespeare, comic books, art, music, and story telling. Those who remember the past, tell stories of air conditioning and the Internet to those who were born later. In Fahrenheit 451, a passage from which is quoted above, there is a future world where books and reading are banned. Rebel survivors memorize and tell stories so they will not be forgotten. In Phoenix, perhaps it is too soon. Yet Lene plays a record, saying that listening to it helped her survive the war in London. Nelly says she no longer can enjoy German songs. The survivors have survived, but at what cost? Can we be reborn in the aftermath of tragedy?

These are fictional works that share a common theme—they emphasize the importance of literature and art. Sometimes we need fiction to find the truth about our world and ourselves.

         “Some stories are true that never happened.”

-Elie Wiesel

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