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11.28.2010

Remembering Laura Hershey


Activist and writer Laura Hershey died Friday, November 26 after a short illness. Hershey was a multi-talented artist who was easily the envy of writers and activists alike, using her writing as commentary on discourse and hegemony.

A strong voice in the disability movement, she is perhaps known for her protest against the Jerry Lewis Telethon, which she saw as a hypocritical. From a 1996 Spectacle article:

The unvarying tone and content of the [telethon] made it difficult to distinguish one "patient" from another. The profiles put forward a stereotyped view of what it means to have a disability, rather than any genuine stories of real people. We are all individuals, and families are all different. Not on the telethon, though. There we are made to fit the mold. Even the language used on the telethon distorts our reality and thereby dehumanizes us: We are "victims," we "suffer" from our conditions, we are "desperate."

Hershey had the smarts of an academic and the heart of activist. Above all, Hershey was fearless. Like the Jerry Lewis Telethon, she was not affraid to let her voice be heard in politics.

Her poetic works also stepped into the realm of the political and current events. As in her poem, "Remembering Spring":


      "REMEMBERING SPRING"
      (first published in State of Emergency: Chicago Poets Respond to Gulf Crisis)

Ten days each spring, we woke
to the smell of salt water, seaweed,

eggs my Dad fried in butter,
and fresh orange pulped by Nana.

Before ten a.m. we wore the scent
of sun tan lotion, and tumbled out the door

where the Gulf welcomed us with waves
tendering gifts: conch shells, sand dollars,

tiny clams which opened into pink hearts
or angels' wings spread for flight.

On folding chairs and big beach towels
we ate peanuts, cheese sandwiches, more oranges.

We did homework -- price of missing
three days' school -- halfheartedly,

equations and penciled solutions blurring
amid glare on white pages.

All day, from low to high tide, and back, we slid between
land and sea, let the surf pound and pull at us,

let the sun dizzy us, built castles
of shovel-packed sand walls and drizzled spires

with moats Dad dug deep enough
for my dangling legs.

Can I now, forty years later, grieve
that same seawater? How many times since then

has it evaporated, and fallen? How many hundreds
of generations of mollusks and minnows

have lived and died between that beach
and the sandbar we rafted to at low tide?

In no sense are they mine to mourn --
but neither can I claim innocence.

The flights I board, my craving for cool air,
all my habits of comfort and consumption

learned on family vacations, loved
for a lifetime, joined to billions of others' hungers,

led to drilling in that Gulf, a hole in its heart,
to take what lay within.

Now, I watch remote live feeds
of unstoppable hemorrhage, technology

helpless to reverse its own mistakes,
dark plumes choking Gulf currents,

and I grieve for fishing families, for endangered pelicans
and bluefin, for eleven dead workingmen.

But my soul aches for what I have not seen
for many years, and what might be lost:

long days on the beach, solving simple problems,
dreading only the end of spring break, until next year.


Hershey's work was about interdependence and independence: how we are individuals, yet at the same time how we are part of larger system, which is sometimes a system of oppression and struggle. In her poem "Telling":

      "TELLING"
      (first published in Tapestry of Faith curriculum, Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations)

What you risk telling your story:
You will bore them.
Your voice will break, your ink will
spill and stain your coat.
No one will understand, their eyes
become fences.
You will park yourself forever
on the outside, your differentness once
and for all revealed, dangerous,
the names you give to yourself
will become epithets.
Your happiness will be called
bravery, denial.
Your sadness will justify their pity.
Your fear will magnify their fears.
Everything you say will prove something about
their god, or their economic system.
Your feelings, that change day
to day, kaleidoscopic,
will freeze in place,
brand you forever,
justify anything they decide to do
with you.
Those with power can afford
to tell their story
or not.
Those without power
risk everything to tell their story
and must.
Someone, somewhere
will hear your story and decide to fight,
to live and refuse compromise.
Someone else will tell
her own story,
risking everything.

Indeed, Laura was not afraid to put herself on display ("Monster Body"), by telling us her stories through poetry, she sought to change our views, to change the world--through words.

Yet her fierce heart was equally matched with the quiet and sensual beauty of her poetry. I had the pleasure of hearing Laura read "Insomnia" among other poems during the Lambda Literary Emerging Writer Retreat (I introduced her at the reading that night). It was a poem of contrasts, of bodies, of how our bodies can become poems, easily: what Laura taught us was that our bodies and our words were inseperable from one another. Through her writing, she showed us that this was a beautiful truth, that it was nothing to be ashamed of, that it is worth fighting for. She wrote what she lived. She will be be missed and the world will miss out on a skillful poet and a wise soul.



      "INSOMNIA"
      (first published in Word Gathering)

While you sleep, I stir
the stew of our late night spat, 
polish a pea of gravel stuck
in our sock-like fit. 
I wail, rail at you
to rewrite the fight, dislodge the grudge
with tender apology. 
On your side, sleep has already
softened the stone to nothingness
but I hold tight to hurt
slicking it to pearl.

While you sleep, I stir
the rain-lush scent of lust satisfied
that's left me wide
open and astonished; 
your soft breath-gusts
brush my upper arm,
replay our rhythm. 
It's lullaby to you; 
to me it's hullabaloo.

This is how we lie sleeping, 
or waiting for sleep: 
on your right side, my left; 
arm over back, cheek under hand, 
elbow against wrist, pulses joined, 
a soft throb of connection that will last
until you turn over, or I do.

This is how we live: sleeping
seals the deals we make by light; 
we neighbor our enfleshed bones
like poems bound by pages.

While you sleep, I stir
those pages, and imagine poems uncollected. 
I keep awake, keep us alive.

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