When my parents left Egypt, they left behind everything they’d grown up with, all the objects that carried their deepest associations and memories. They taught me to scorn such “things”—what others value as mementos or souvenirs—rightly reasoning they can be lost in a moment. But while we have them, it is lovely, I’m learning, to let the spirits embedded within them, the memories and feelings they evoke, surround and comfort us. As I move through this house, I feel bound to my own and others’ histories, embedded in a rich and complex life that nurtures and sustains me. And as I sit still and knit, I sense that I am knitting (knotting) up the by now long, loose threads of my own life, shaping them into a coherent and satisfying whole.
When I was growing up, home was the last place I wanted to be. It’s not that ours was an abusive or angry household: both parents loved me and my mother labored to create a calm, clean space to contain us all. It’s just that I felt suffocated.
Part of the problem was that we were immigrants. My parents were struggling to find their way in an alien culture, and, with little else to hold onto, they clung to their customs and traditions. I wanted to be “American,” to mingle with classmates, to venture into the vastness (New York City!) just beyond our door. The Middle Eastern culture from which we hailed had strict rules for women and girls, and my mother expected me to follow them. She herself was an excellent cook, a creative seamstress and scrupulous housekeeper, a devoted and dutiful wife. I rejected all of it, refusing to cook, ripping out seams, balking at my weekly chores of dusting and vacuuming and ironing. Instead I dreamt of life as a writer, a renegade, an outlaw. My role models were hobos and witches and gypsies; more than anything, I yearned to be free, longing to “walk at all risks,” like Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh.
Continue reading “Homebound by Joyce Zonana”
Aurora’s autobiographical narrative is a passionate paean to poets as the “only truth-tellers, now left to God”; she celebrates them as agents for personal and social transformation. As we come to the end of this National Poetry Month in the U.S., where truth is under siege, it’s worth recalling Aurora Leigh and its daring exploration of poetry, gender, divinity, and social justice.
I was in graduate school when I first read Aurora Leigh, Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s fiery 1856 epic about a young woman claiming her vocation as a poet despite Victorian society’s patriarchal strictures. The poem was not on any assigned reading-list; I’d simply stumbled across it while doing research for my dissertation. The opening lines brazenly assert the speaker’s authority and ambition:
OF writing many books there is no end;
And I who have written much in prose and verse
For others’ uses, will write now for mine,–
Will write my story for my better self . . .
Encountering those words, I was immediately possessed by Aurora’s voice and vision, a welcome change from all the male poets and critics I’d been reading. I devoured the verse novel’s nine books in one night. The poem became the centerpiece of my dissertation, and I studied and enthusiastically taught it for years.
Continue reading ““The Burning Lava of a Song” by Joyce Zonana”