An entry in my Journal seemed like ingredient for a poem: So... Finally waking up from a couple of days of bizarre depression. Fear actually.. Fearful depression. I suspect I’ll never know who I am, no how to behave. Worrying about it is futile, it is and always will be... Today in Literature I witness the fading of certain illusions. The realities in my fantasies sometimes come into focus and it came rather closer in the case of one of my little dreams. In any case, that little dream has faded and I’m feeling much better and the two are completely unrelated.
Alice Walker’s “Everyday Use” paints a very ingenious picture of the independence of human nature which resides in us all. The impact of her image is amplified by its setting; a black, single mother and her two daughters. Characters of three very independent personalities in spite of the apparent similarities in terms of culture and background. It is not an extraordinary tale. In fact it is somewhat common. The grace and wonder in “Everyday Use” is not the ordinary story of conflicting values and differing senses of identity. This is the very sort of story one sees over and over again. The magic in “Everyday Use” is Alice Walker’s artful telling of the tale. Walker injects a solid dose of realism which is effective even in a casual perusal, but shines quite brightly upon further study.
Her canvas is painted with brilliant colors from a broad brush. It can actually be difficult for one to become fully engaged in a creation such as this; seeing the big picture, focusing the lens, adjusting the tone. These can be such a bother, and the diamonds won’t retract their claws. Mama describes herself along with a daydream image, “I can kill and clean a hog as mercilessly as a man.” along with a daydream self-image, “I am the way my daughter would want me to be: a hundred pounds lighter, my skin like an uncooked barley pancake… Johnny Carson has much to do to keep up with my quick and witty tongue.” (Walker 424/5) Indeed, Mama, the reader has much to do in seeing your story through the blazing image of your you. Her words portray her rural, self-supporting life graphically and with a comedic irony which makes them a rare pleasure to read.
Mama’s description also primes the reader’s imagination of Dee, who she describes as a “cute shaped” young lady who wears “a dress so loud it hurts my eyes… I feel my whole face warming form the heat waves it throws out.” (425/20) A daughter who possesses, “scalding humor that erupted like bubbles in lye.” (425/15) Thanks to a boy-friend of Dee’s, Mama tells us, “she didn’t have much time to pay to us, but turned all her faultfinding power on him.” (425/16) Need the reader wonder about the innate character of Dee?
What of Dee’s younger sister Maggie, the damaged and much more reserved daughter who lives at home with Mama? “Have you ever seen a lame animal, perhaps a dog run over by some careless person rich enough to own a car, sidle up to someone who is ignorant enough to be kind to him? That is the way my Maggie walks” (424/9)
Rich and robust! The contrast between the two sisters is painted with vivid luminosity, as is Mama’s perception of it. The magnificent independence of Mama, the good looks, intelligent, radiant, yet greedy and arrogant nature of Dee, the injured, unlucky, possibly even abused young Maggie, all sing from the pages in dulcet tones.
There is also stunning symbolism woven into the tale. The quilt, a symbol of family heritage which also reflects the sewn together aspects of this particular family, the differing desires in terms of what is to become of it, and the disparate values in which it is held. Reviewer Judith Hatchett noted this and commented, “the two views of quilts represents mutually exclusive lifestyles” (Hatchett 550) The quilt, the symbolic center of the tale, was woven from patches of clothing worn by ancestors of both girls, treasured by Maggie for sentimental and useful reasons, seen as a cultural treasure to own by Dee.
The image presented here is palpable. “Everyday Use” is a good story made great by the artistic wordbrush of Alice Walker, “as mercilessly as a man.”
Hatchett, Judith et al. American Icons: An Encyclopedia of the People, Places, and Things that Have Shaped Our Culture. Westport: Greenwood Publishing Group, 2006. Print
Walker, Alice et al. Compact Literature, Reading, Reacting, Writing. Boston: Wadsworth Cengage Learning, 2010. Print
The underlying biographical honesty inherent in art is unveiled by May Swenson in her poem “The Truth Is Forced”. The reader is introduced to a poet who tells the reader that this poet’s desire is to “be honest in poetry” (Swenson 2), but the reader will learn rather more than this particular poet’s desire for honesty. The poet didn’t force honesty into the words, as the title of the poem seems to imply, the poet ends up telling the reader that this production of words has actually forced honesty into the poet. The poet is revealed to, “…you (all or any, eye to eye)” (45). Swenson made the point that consciously or not, poems like all art, are acts of self discovery.
The poet describes the abstract dilemma faced by any artist desiring absolute honesty yet a sense of seclusion, “…eye to eye, I lie / because I cannot bear to be conspicuous with the truth” (Swenson 3-5). A dilemma compounded by this particular poet’s reticent nature “I would be exposed. And I would be / possessed” (10-11). Beyond a simple self introduction, the poet has set up the prerequisite for a foundational idea. The poet is not a self-centered seeker of attention, not a proud circus act, nor an intentional performer at all. This poet is private and reserved. This poet is not writing with the conscious intention of being spread naked upon the frontal lobe of the reader. “Really I feel as if / one pair of eyes were a whole hive” (19-20). Bees collecting the nectar for their own devices as well as being quite capable of delivering a sting. The poet tells the reader, my business is mine and so it shall remain, thank you very much.
Yet the poet does have something to say and can avoid the stings: “…say in symbol, in riddle, / …under masks / of any feature, in the skins of any creature” (32-36). Obviously the poet is not planning to walk naked down the page and here describes the clothes the poet can wear. Poetic line provides a veil behind which the truth can and does lurk unabashedly and without shame. The wish to “become naked in poetry” (40), will be fulfilled, and much more comfortably behind the veil this poet recognizes and describes to the reader as being provided by the poetic art of words. The individuality of the poet remains absolutely present yet mysteriously obscured.
Alicia Ostriker makes note of this in her section of the book Body My House : May Swenson’s Work and Life, in which she makes comparisons of the works of May Swenson and Walt Whitman, into which she brings Emily Dickinson, ““Tell all the truth but tell it slant,” with fear battling the yearning for disclosure” (Ostriker 46). Which we were set up for by “Both the reticence and the desire for candor that wrestle with each other in Swenson’s eroticism are hinted at “(45). She elaborates, “…the poet twists and turns all through the poem; the poem does not state something known, but discovers its truth in its process” (46). She enhances this perception based on Swenson’s lines, “Whether you are one or two or many / it is the same” (Swenson 18-19) “Truth, forced through symbols and riddles and finally the naked self, into the poem, revealed to the poet herself, is a burden borne and born” (Ostriker 46). The poet in this performance was not only exposed to “one or two or many” (Swenson 18), the poet was exposed to the poet, “tells me / and then you (all or any, eye to eye) my whole self, / the truth” (45-47) So the poet is “eye to eye” even on the page after all, and what the poet tells turns out not to be a lie.
On paper, canvas, marble, or the sonic vibrations spawned from the keys of a piano, in art the naked truth resides. It may well not be perceived, and misperception may be the artist’s intent, yet the truth is there. May Swenson recognized this and exposed what many an artist fails to recognize and may resist telling. Whether by design or inherent nature, however covert, the artist is always revealed in the art.
Ostriker, Alicia. “May Swenson: Whitman’s Daughter.” Body My House: May Swenson’s Work and Life. 2006. 40-54. All USU Press Publications. Book 16. http:/digitalcommons.usu.edu/usupress_pubs/16
Swenson, May. “The Truth Is Forced”. Nature: Poems Old and New. Boston: Mariner Books, 2000. 11-12. print