A Page on Br’er Rabbit, Permitting Shame, Error and Guilt, Myself the Single Source
Br’er was a trouble word in early 1980s North Carolina, for a working-class white boy who knew from picture books what rabbits and foxes and bears were, who knew too that “brother” was a nonfamilial term belonging to male junior members not yet “elder” in the church, but who had problems pronouncing his r’s, even the antagonizing ones in his own name and home, Brian Overby of Rural Hall. I troubled, too, over what the word indicated and how it functioned, since it was suggestive of a name and thereby in a different category, I had imputed, from words with meanings you could ask for, but had none of the singularity of a name—like Friar Tuck—specific to one person alone; it was given to Rabbit and Fox and Bear alike. If it was a rank, like deputy, then it begged more questions, as to why Br’er Bear or Br’er Fox had license to discipline Br’er Rabbit in the stories. Br’er was a word I grouped by appearance and sound with ne’er and where’er from the Old School Hymnal we sang from in church and it shared therefore a whiff of vinegary bygones and preternatural power I had learned (by transgressing the sacrosanct) to leave be. If pressed, I might have estimated that “br’er” was an alternate presentation of the briars Rabbit made his home, but I also suspected it indicated a special kind (that is, qualitatively different from the familiar species) of rabbit, bear, and fox, an inversion somehow of those creatures—like werewolves.
Otherness was, of course—ever since their white and self-appointed amanuensis Joel Chandler Harris had copied and popularized the African trickster narratives that had survived among enslaved populations in Georgia—as inextricable from the Uncle Remus stories as Br’er Rabbit’s fists were from the Tar Baby. But, by the time I was considering them, their otherness had been compounded by a century more of racism and contentious integration to the degree that, somewhat early on, I understood the lesson of that particular fable to be: Engagement of the latent problem—on the grounds that even its mute presence disturbs you—will only prove your sticky complicity in the trouble. It was reasonably a parable about the races in the South after slavery, divisive but unstable, as several things complicated the fashion in which, for generations, white children were supposed to be interpellated by Uncle Remus, listening at his feet. For one, it was easy to appreciate that “tar baby” had become a slur (even more insidious, because more comprehensible, than “pickaninny,” still prevalent in my childhood) before ever reading the story, and the key question was whether Br’er Rabbit was black—since his inextricability from the form of the tar-baby figure would logically have suggested he was white—whether Rabbit and Bear and Fox were each black, all black, that is, whether “br’er” meant black, a question I worked over and did not ask.
The “briar patch,” too, as cultural meme, history made unsteady, for while it conveys admiration of wiliness and reverse psychology, its other suggestion is perilous, that discipline founders either when it aims to, or else when it fails to, select the captive’s nightmare experience. I had been pitched into the briar patch, it was acknowledged, whenever my punishment was solitude, to which I was happily accustomed (“I live here!” was the episode’s conclusion), concluding too the conscious performance of the parent-captor as bad disciplinarian, or good master. “That’s mighty white of you,” my mother might say to my father when he offered to stack his plate and saucer but not to take them to the sink or wash them. Subtending familial relationships in Southern white households then with narrow perspectives, weakened heritage, and no initiative beyond economic betterment was the master-servant template, demanding allegiance and compliance, expecting parry and subterfuge, and rehearsing moreover Old South subject positions, casually racist in their ventriloquism and chilling anachronism.
Kenny Stewart, my neighbor, an older boy whom I adulated at age seven or eight, was the first person ever to ask me whether I was a Christian. I can remember having no response, even as he elaborated his query, ashamed not to know that a Primitive Baptist was a Christian. His mother, who agreed to look after me afternoons, instructed me to say “urinate” when I needed to pee, and brought me along for her children’s piano lessons, horseback-riding lessons, and even their famous family reunions, where I was the only white kid running around Freedom Park. It was this family, whose healthy civility afforded a place for me, who brought my identities out, who brought me up in the contrastive open, where I might draw the line for myself later, not long after, when my uncle introduced me to another kind like him as a “good ol’ boy” and I knew the voucher was as bogus as the impunity it was meant to purchase, even if I stood in the new difference mute as a tar doll.
A Page on Propositionizing, Permitting Shame, Error and Guilt, Myself the Single Source
When Helen Keller returns from the well house with Miss Sullivan, she resists her teacher’s escort and runs ahead to the house in my mind’s eye, on bare, mosquito-bitten eleven-year-old legs, her hair a mess, in the hot thick summer of 1870s Tuscumbia, Alabama. She is euphoric. The most crucial event in her life had just happened. Or was still happening, revealing itself, like a slow burst, a bloom. Eleanor Wilner has a poem about the morning, a poem that ought to be called “Openness Happens in the Midst of Being” though that is the title of a Norman Dubie poem that seeks to evoke something of Heidegger and depends like a lot of those wry male domestic poems of the Seventies on the unlikeliness of the allusion, since it is about a couple watching a storm coming on, a deer crossing a lawn. But Keller’s experience seems categorically one in which, in Heideggerian terms, she is “thrown” into being. Walker Percy goes so far, in an essay called “The Delta Factor,” as to suggest that what happened in the well house and for the rest of that day is that Helen Keller became a human being. The event began this way: In an instant, after months, she was able to comprehend that w-a-t-e-r, the word traced by Miss Sullivan in her one hand, was in some sense water the substance, pouring over her other. An imputed relation was hers to make. Had been an animal, became a human being. Had been an organism whose responses to stimuli could be observed; became an autocratic, creative, complex person capable of abstract thought, capable, in language, of propositionizing. The key component of language acquisition.
When I tell him what this one is about, my boyfriend John raises his eyebrows to ask if I mean propositioning. I know; it seems like there should be a better noun form. I think even in Roman Jakobson it’s a term revived from farther back. It may be the whole concept is in disfavor, like ontogeny recapitulating phylogeny, like Heideggerian ontology. It’s structural: the opposite of apposition in speech, I think; a proposition says something about something.
Percy’s essay about language and its relationship to consciousness pays close attention to the way Keller explains her day in The Story of My Life, which she wrote when she was in her thirties. When she burst into the house, she was, she says, alive with the realization that all things and people had names, equivalences in language: sister, teacher, spoon, cat, doll. The doll she had earlier thrown in a tantrum she now held like a treasure, and was sorry for what she had done. She says that the knowledge she attained that day was discovery, but felt more like remembering, recapturing something that had been in oblivion before. Sorry for what she had done, bespeaking the new valuation of doll now that it had a tag by which she could retrieve it, is interesting, but sounds fishily pious, mixed in with shame at one’s own behavior, and is likely the effect of Christian moralism, which in both her home and the Perkins School was doctrine. But, discovering as though remembering: That sounds spiritual rather than religious. It sounds Heideggerian. What Helen Keller gained was not the mere equivalence of names to objects and persons (and later concepts and states and actions); it was the power the other languaged humans have—to propose relationships among things, to formulate about things, to recast them; and the things themselves need not even be present. A spoon emerges from water with water in it. The doll that teacher loved Helen shall hide and apologize. Quiet and clean are sisters. This is propositionizing, in linguistics. This is the productivity of language, as Noam Chomsky called it, singularly human. This is what explains the relatively rapid 200% increase in brain size and neural demand in early hominids two million years ago. This is in language what Donald Winnicott insisted remain free in childhood play, our remake of our surroundings, our exercise of independence. This is what Aristotle mistrusted in poets, makers; we cannot leave things alone. We say what we like. There is a given world and then most of us graduate into a second given, an abstract realm where all of the entities of the given world are players that we can bring into transactive arrangements in sentences, by their names. Standing to reason is only one position. That was a proposition.
The upshot of Helen Keller’s account and the reason I have taught the long Percy essay four or five times at the beginning of poetry courses even though it makes no mention of poetry is that Helen—who writes that in her crib that night she was wakeful, alive with possibility for the first time—had been altered constitutively by the ability to put words into play. So have we all been. Keller’s developmental passage into the propositionizing phase is uniquely accelerated (a prolepsis in arrears) and isolable. What do we mean when we say she “comes into her own?” How is it we each understand exactly what that means? To arrive anew into one’s birthright, one’s selfhood? Roland Barthes uses nearly the same quivering expression as Keller, writing about the pleasure of choosing a word, not for its fitness or this or that sonorous or rich quality but for its “vibrating” potential, a future praxis, its readiness to be “put into play” with others. I quote him directly on the syllabi, and Muriel Rukeyser, who says about one’s first formative poem-reading experience, connecting with its “multiple time sense,” that it is discovery that feels like recognition, that such backward-reaching experiences of time can even make one’s mortality recede. To those I sometimes add Thomas Traherne’s “The thought of the world whereby it is experienced is better than the world.” And, maybe, six pillows rendered by Albrecht Dürer five hundred years ago and a map of seven days walking on Dartmoor by Richard Long. Together, they’re like a personal sorcery. I suppose I am setting the stage for poetry to happen. Laying the propitious conditions for others to come into their own as though it were a return.
It can happen more than once, the return anew. Often you are permitted to return to a meadow. For instance, my boyfriend John is a poet, and I mark the exact moment I fell in love with him; it was a plunge I felt while reading a poem of his, a bracing little poem he had changed overnight, one of several in a manuscript. I had seen it the day before. We had had an exchange, and I made some remarks fielding and interpreting the associations and logic in the poem, in a shorthand we had developed in our exchange: “I like the strangeness of the question, Why are you always so vulnerable to be watched? … Wanting no one to find him is such an odd, sweet, macabre sort of overture. How does glitter help? … Love that higgledy mouth … Pick me up can also be as frequency and antennae do.” It changed me to read what came back; I saw what he had done and how fast, how brilliant. For one thing, the material of my notes had been reconstituted in the poems, and he was showing me there. There was this “you” in the poems who was being readied to admit himself something, being admitted to readiness. He and the speaker were lit alike. “Like a / missing its shade / lamp is why you / … are so always / vulnerable / to watching.” I recognized myself, in both senses. I was to myself re-known. “Show how you / are the first thermometer of the truck / flat sun, the jealous trees, the lemoning. Then / fuck on the side of the road.” Was that propositionizing? It was like remembering what I needed to live, admitting what I wanted: to share the joy of remaking the world. Had been a reader; became an addressee. Coming into myself, what could I do? It was already happening. I was learning everything mine already to know. John was my student. We were graduating.