Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Where you are most dangerous and stubborn

I still have more animal poems, and I've been thinking about this one in light of my recent progress in becoming less underemployed. Thinking I had nothing to lose, I sent the head of my department a link to my whiny post about the last day of teaching a freshman-level class, and he not only made sure that I got two sophomore-level classes for next fall, he also found me a sophomore-level class for this spring, when he had thought there was nothing for me to teach. And the sophomore-level class, "Relationships and Dialogues" is my favorite one, especially in the spring "when a young man's fancy turns to love." So I can say that my writing actually made something happen! And it was because I felt cornered and desperate, like the bull in Querencia, by Stephen Dobyns:

In the children's story of Ferdinand the Bull,
the bull gets off. He sits down, won't fight.
He manages to walk out of the ring without that
sharp poke of steel being shoved through
his back and deep into his heart. He returns
to the ranch and the sniffing of flowers.
But in real life, once the bull enters the ring,
then it's a certainty he will leave ignominiously,
dragged out by two mules while the attention of
the crowd rivets on the matador, who, if he's good,
holds up an ear, taken from the bull, and struts
around the ring, since it is his business to strut
as it is the bull's business to be dragged away.

It is the original eagerness of the bull which
take's one's breath. Suddenly he is there, hurtling
at the barrier, searching for something soft and
human to flick over his shoulder, trying to hook
his horn smack into the glittering belly
of the matador foolish enough to be there.
But there is a moment after the initial teasing
when the bull realizes that ridding the ring
of these butterfly creatures is not what
the afternoon is about. Sometimes it comes with
the first wrench of his back when the matador
turns him too quickly. Sometimes it comes
when the picador is driving his lance into
the bull's crest--the thick muscle between
the shoulder blades. Sometimes it comes when
the banderillos place their darts into that same
muscle and the bull shakes himself, trying to
free himself of that bright light in his brain.
Or it may come even later, when the matador
is trying to turn the bull again and again,
trying to wrench that same muscle which he uses
to hold up his head, to charge, to toss a horse.
It is the moment the bull stops and almost thinks,
when the eagerness disappears and the bull
realizes these butterflies can cause him pain,
when he turns to hunt out his querencia.

It sounds like care: querencia--and it means
affection or fondness, coming from querer,
to want or desire or love, but also to accept
a challenge as in a game, but it also means
a place chosen by a man or animal--querencia--
the place one cares most about, where one is
most secure, protected, where one feels safest.
In the ring, it may be a spot near the gate
or the place he was first hurt or where
the sand is wet or where there's a little blood,
his querencia, even though it looks like any
other part of the ring, except this is the spot
the bull picks as his home, the place he will
defend and keep returning to, the place where
he again decides to fight and lifts his head
despite the injured muscle, the place the matador
tries to keep him away from, where the bull,
sensing defeat, is most dangerous and stubborn.

The passage through adulthood is the journey
through bravado, awareness, and resignation
which the bull duplicates in his fifteen minutes
in the ring. As for the querencia, we all have
a place where we feel safest, even if it is only
the idea of a place, maybe an idea by itself,
the place that all our being radiates out from,
like an ideal of friendship or justice or perhaps
something simpler like the memory of a back porch
where we laughed a lot and how the setting sun
through the pine trees shone on the green chairs,
flickered off the ice cubes in our glasses.
We all have some spot in our mind which we
go back to from hospital bed, or fight with
husband or wife, or the wreckage of a life.
So the bull's decision is only the degree
to which he decides to fight, since the outcome
is already clear, since the mules are already
harnessed to drag his body across the sand.
Will he behave bravely and with dignity or
will he be fearful with his thick tongue lolling
from his mouth and the blood making his black
coat shiny and smooth? And the audience, no matter
how much it admires the matador, watches the bull
and tries to catch a glimpse of its own future.

At the end, each has a knowledge which is just
of inevitability, so the only true decision
is how to behave, like anyone supposedly--
the matador who tries to earn the admiration
of the crowd by displaying grace and bravery
in the face of peril, the bull who can't
be said to decide but who obeys his nature.
Probably, he has no real knowledge and,
like any of us, it's pain that teaches him
to be wary, so his only desire in defeat
is to return to that spot of sand, and even
when dying he will stagger toward his querencia
as if he might feel better there, could
recover there, take back his strength, win
the fight, stick that glittering creature to the wall,
while the matador tries to weaken that one muscle--
the animal all earnestness, the man all deceit--
until they come to that instant when the matador
decides the bull is ready and the bull appears
to submit by lowering his head, where the one
offers his neck and the other offers his belly,
and the matador's one hope is for a clean kill,
that the awful blade of the horn won't suddenly
rear up into the white softness of his groin.

One October in Barcelona I remember watching
a boy, an apprentice, lunge forward for the kill
and miss and miss again, how the bull would fling
the sword out of his back and across the ring,
and again stagger to his feet and shake himself,
and how the boy would try again and miss again,
until his assistant took a dagger and stabbed
repeatedly at the spinal cord as the bull tried
to drag himself forward to that place in the sand,
that querencia, as the crowd jeered and threw
their cushions and the matador stood back ashamed.
It was cold and the sun had gone down. The brightly
harnessed mules were already in the ring, and everyone
wanted to forget it and go home. How humiliating
it seemed and how hard the bull fought at the end
to drag himself to that one spot of safety, as if
that word could have any meaning in such a world.

This morning the newspaper's top headline is "44,400 jobs gone" and one of my best friends tells me she is being "outsourced." We're all going out to do the things we must, even though here the roads are snow-covered over ice and with every step, I'm afraid of the split second that could land me in the hospital. Sometimes what you've got to do does seem humiliating, until you consider the alternatives: Not going out. Not even trying. Giving in to what other people think. Accepting predictions as inevitable. Lying in bed like Gene Wilder's character in Young Frankenstein, screaming "Destiny! Destiny! No Escaping That For Me!"


Harriet M. Welsch said...

It's so funny that you posted this poem today, because I was just trying to track down an essay on Querencia that I read my senior year in college, a couple of years before this poem was published. My senior year English teacher gave us an assignment to write about a place that was, for us, querencia. We talked in class about it being home. I went up to him after class and said I wasn't sure I could do the assignment. I was in my fourth school in as many years. My family moved so often that when people ask me where I'm from, I still don't know what to say. How could I have a sense of querencia? But he wouldn't let me off the hook. I ended up writing an essay about my grandmother's attic -- actually a cupboard crawlspace between dormer windows off the bedroom where I stayed when we visited her -- that won some prizes. The essay was much more warm and fuzzy than the poem, at least as far as I can recall, but they would make wonderful counterparts. It was a good assignment. It must have been. I am still thinking about it more than 20 years later.

Jeanne said...

I hope someday to have an assignment that a student will remember 20 years later. What a goal!

The sense of querencia in the poem is more than "home," I think. I interpret it as what you are when you're cornered--the essence of you, maybe not the polite part, but the essential part.

In that sense not being from anywhere when you were a kid might help you define where you're "from" kind of like how not being fully employed helps me draw the line between what I must do and what I merely want to "do" ("what do you 'do' for a living?").

Dreamybee said...

Hi Jeanne

I'm sorry you were feeling cornered and desperate, but glad it paid off!I guess that's sort of the way of things, isn't it. When you're content, you're much less likely to go stirring things up.

Your comment above about where you are "from" reminded me of this post by Serena on The Daily Rant. I loved it when I read it, and I think it's such a great answer to, "So, where are you from?"


Jeanne said...

Dreamybee, I did like the piece on where Serena is from, especially because she's evidently living the traveling life right now...

lemming said...

Seventeen years ago I did a paper on Paradise Lost while listening to the Depeche Mode marathon on the college radio station. I called in and dedicated "Personal Jesus" to John Milton. Does that count?

Jeanne said...

Oh, you poor dear. You must have had a terribly mean Milton teacher.

lemming said...

Wait, I lied - it was "Policy of Truth."

Yes, I did have a terribly cruel Milton teacher - I wonder whatever happened to her...

Jeanne said...

She got her just deserts for giving you so much work then by being underemployed now...