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Marjorie R. Becker: California Poets Part 5, Five Poems

Marjorie R. Becker

December 22nd, 2022

California Poets: Part V

Marjorie R. Becker

Five Poems

Whatever Extra Food or Scheme, Whatever Sudden Circumstance in Colored Glass Redeem He seems crusty, conservative, smoked-out. He also loved the newfound that arrived. A lawyer in Depression meant his people— mine as well—he was my Grandpapa, we called him “Papa,” and he gave away whatever extra food his money and his servants could prepare when people came around and knocked. When a man who had no cash to pay my Papa’s legal fees? and gave instead a deeply colored wild ornate, an antique gleaming paperweight, my grandpa began to ramble toward the deep artistic wild. A quest perhaps for notions, the calm of outer porchlight space. He loved past love the outdoor circus, took me there. He bought me cotton candy and a skinny blue-dressed doll. He watched as though he’d not before, and somehow saw my purple eyes. He asked me what I wanted, what I thought he might right then, right there, just give to me. Though he was crusty, burnt out, old, as though he sensed my dancer’s dreams, he said perhaps a trampoline, a swimming pool might do.

Golden Feather Once Forlorn, Unborn, Adrift, Arrives, Decided How Fate Can There within the Purple Pawn Shop Ponder Night, Abide What is there, Shareina asked, to trade. The men arrive still disarranged and someone in the rear believes they stole my topaz from my dense and unrepentant grandmama plying notions, nether notes and then again I like the thought of chords’ reply, the ways the colors slither when relieved so where are we and why, I ask, so purple. Why a chandelier aloft, what kind of breeze becomes a lady and a topaz. Do we think enough within the lives of gems whose being brightens sense, repentance, that again. My pawn shop lives because the men reply by night they bring about a golden feathered dawn, the feathers wild, retired, aspiring wings, the wind itself a hint to just engage a way to splay the stay a while and frolic in this store where I adore the men arrive and then again begin to farm the food out back, the winged feast, the slipper peas and okra.

From the Boyfriend Trove a Kind of Color Ramon arrived and asked me when I’d sing the light, the sapphire on my wrist, he said, it claimed a kind of brightness as he tore my clothes, my wile away the morning in a plight and then the blues themselves as though a scene as though a purpose for a frontal feast reminding me my songs belonged to color, calm, the songs themselves a flight adrift until Ramon, Ramon Ramon remembered circumstance: the time, the chime I gave away the mornings’ moments when calm itself, the blues now ripe and tearing up, such wherewithal within my store began again to roar, deplore just any instants lacking tones of touch when random worry came around, unbound, reborn and worn until I sang the bluest aqua lights anew, the pain in startled flight, adrift.

Replete with Seers Singing Scheme, the Sapphire Light Itself Prepared a Theme, a Way to Wonder, Blunder, Ponder Flight As Generous as Porch Light When It Comes Around, Illuminates the Skies of Peace and Wild Prosperities Again, and Once Again, Again My cousin Trixie and I possessed the Purple Unknown, a store where we continued there to strip to inner notion of the dreams we read, the schemes we bred, the wilderness of cruelties we trained the broken men, the women full of fears to flee: we owned a song, a throng replenished all the sapphires we had claimed each time we simply sighed and beckoned, reckoned depth within the pawn we gave away the extra fried and okra we prepared to share, repair, maintain as we were chefs as well as Jewish merchants there in Macon in the morning.

Word of Dawn’s Provisions Came Around The fruit itself, the wayward plums believed their gifts adrift through dawn’s experience until my great aunt played her violin and summoned unsung notes askew, the naked notes themselves believed they still conceived, ensured the violin of dawn among the plums, the cantaloupe, the wild experience of color, calm adrift, proclaimed the fruit itself, those onetime plums believed, ensured their colors shaped the open dawn, the porch itself asunder when we women of the Downtown Purple Pawn arrived with hammers’ ripe experience. The light itself, its dawn belonged to us as we began the song of plums asunder, plundered, too, but we, we women held the hammer fast, reprieved, restored the wilderness of naked notes, of genuine and true belief in wild astray, the sudden pie, the open kinds of food, of treat the dawn’s experiences, that naked need for touch, for taste asunder that the plums themselves had hoped that early dawn, that evening too, to ponder.


November 14th, 2023

California Poets Interview Series:

Marjorie R. Becker, Poet, Writer, Latin American Historian

interviewed by David Garyan

DG: Let’s start from the very beginning. You learned Spanish in childhood, a language that would come to define your career as much, if not more so, than English. How did the language become a part of your life, or rather how did you discover the language?

MB: There are three components to this question: Because my Yale doctorate is in Latin American history, I know Spanish, French, Portuguese, and because of my work as a nutritionist for the Paraguayan Ministry of Agriculture and the Peace Corps, I learned the Paraguayan mestiza/o and indigenous tongue, Guarani. Because of my faith and my life with my ex., I know Yiddish and some Hebrew.

Spanish, though, has been my “ticket to ride,” as I wrote in my multi-genre book about the Mexican dancers I discovered in dialogue with Octavio Paz. Spanish came into my life in Macon, Georgia, my hometown, when a remarkable Puerto Rican woman moved there and told the board of education she would develop Spanish classes in three of the public schools. I was fortunate enough to attend one of those schools, and thus experienced immersion classes in Spanish from third grade throughout high school. In college, I studied in Spain when it was still under Franco’s dictatorial rule. It was truly in Paraguay, however, where I emerged as bi-lingual in Spanish and English.

DG: Your connection to the Spanish language didn’t stop there. You later traveled to Spain to study at the Universidad de Madrid, and then subsequently returned to the New World—specifically to Paraguay—to serve in the Peace Corps. How did these experiences shape your artistic development?

MB: As an undergraduate, I studied creative writing (poetry and fiction) from the late Reynolds Price and the late Helen Bevington. After graduating, one of my mentors-to-be noticed my impassioned interest in helping others, so I developed what he referred to as a “ten year plan.” Part of this plan was to serve in the Peace Corps. Upon receiving that job, I took 100 books and a typewriter with me. There, in the three rented huts in which I lived (there was limited rental property in Paraugya, and women—like me—were brutally punished for living alone) I continued writing a novel. That novel, focusing on a beloved woman I knew who killed herself, later re-emerged in my daily poetry compositions and is part of my Glass Piano/Piano Glass collection.

More generally, working with the Peace Corps (and much of my subsequently teaching,) meant serving others, in the “Nuestra America” (Mariategui) sense—more specifically the hungry and poor. During those years, I received, as we all did, much time to travel. I took trips to Argentina, Brazil, Peru, and Bolivia as well as many trips through Paraguay. I should add that these journeys, and certainly the amazing people I met, re-created the world I had known, repopulated it as well as revealing much about lush Latin American landscapes.

DG: You culminated your education with a PhD in Latin American history with studies at Duke and Yale, focusing on Mexico’s 1910 revolution. Can you talk more about this experience, along with the impact that this revolution went on to have on a country like Mexico.

MB: After the Peace Corps, I returned to journalism, as I had been a paid intern journalist throughout college summers. I adored working for the Macon (Georgia) News because I found my fellow journalists quite amazing and because my job as a reporter enabled me to devise a series of interviews and stories about race relations in the Deep South, a long concern of mine. By night, though, I wrote poetry and stories.

I was invited to study US history (of the South) by my college mentor. My plan was to write a book about radical southern women. However, once I took the first of my classes in Latin American history with a professor who also had served in the Peace Corps, things changed. That professor noticed my fascination with and concern for Latin America. He thus invited me to become a Latin American historian. Upon agreeing, I learned that I needed to have a specific country of focus.

The reason I chose Mexico and its revolution of 1910 was because my family had participated in an international program, and during this period we received Mexican visitors. I found the individuals remarkable. On their last night with us, they asked my family if we owned a record player. We did. Playing records and dancing, I felt that nothing could be better. (I adore music and dance as much of my research and writings suggest.) Further, as an undergraduate, I had discovered Octavio Paz’s gorgeous and complicated poem “Sun Stone,” which I found intriguing. Finally, though I knew little about it, the fact that Mexico had one of the world’s initial twentieth century revolutions intrigued the progressive I was.

I spent much time living in Mexico, where I conducted original oral historical research and also extensive research into an array of documents at multiple archives, some of which I discovered myself. I was always seeking historical worlds populated by females and males. I also was seeking grass roots democratic movements. While I (especially with my research on my dancers and Paz) discovered the former—the latter was more problematic.

My day-to-day experiences living in Mexico and conducting archival research were challenging, as all this involved seeking out and encountering arrays of documents that told me little about what I sought. But I adore oral history, and that aspect of the research—based on getting to know strangers, seeking their trust—was enthralling. Had I not been repeatedly sexually assaulted in Mexico, my life would have been very different.

DG: A powerful inspiration for you throughout the years has been Frida Kahlo. When did you first discover her work and has, if at all, your opinion changed of it?

The most compelling historical females from my experience as a scholar of Mexico are, in fact, the group of dancers I came across in my research. They entered a Catholic church in 1937 demanding female purity and abnegation, but instead, went on to devise a transformative dance. Such intriguing accounts are the reason why most of my work focuses on the unsung and the poor, particularly females who are unknown.

Nonetheless, Kahlo and Rivera’s defense of Judaism in an often anti-Semitic world struck me as courageous, and, of course, I always felt such sorrow regarding her near lifelong pain.

DG: Let’s continue our discussion about influential Mexican women. In December 2022, you released Dancing on the Sun Stone: Mexican Women and the Gendered Politics of Octavio Paz. It’s a transdisciplinary work of history and literature that looks at Mexican history through the lens of Michoacán females. Can you talk a bit about the writing process, along with the rewards and challenges you came across crafting this particular project?

DB: Thank you for asking about my dancer/Paz project. I was invited to develop a book based on my original approaches to historical writing, many of which have emerged in the journal Rethinking History. One of my remarkable Yale mentors, Florencia Mallon, was a big proponent of writing from one’s subconscious and she suggested that such a method might best fit my own creative approach. In addition, I was enthralled by the dancers I had discovered. Furthermore, I had been teaching and researching Octavio Paz work for many years. All of these factors together coalesced to make me realize that the historical/poetic conversations between Paz, the dancers, and gender might be an intriguing project—conceived through the framework of what I went on to call “gendered time.”

As was also true regarding Setting the Virgin on Fire, I had been trained (through ad-hominem macho attacks) to realize that being creative, female, Jewish and international, were in fact drawbacks in the academy, rather than assets. However, I am also heavily invested in serving others; I felt and still feel the importance of seeking out individuals—more specifically acquainting myself with the ways females (and also males) have experienced the world. It was thus important for me to account for female cultural perspectives because Mexican historiography (notwithstanding recent work focusing on girls and women) has largely been written by men, and/or from a male perspective—the language itself reflects. I thus recognized that the project possessed some challenges.

The work, suffice it to say, was highly intense; I conducted new research into Paz’ poetics, along with the poetics of those he knew. I also returned to my extensive research on the dancers, their pre and post revolutionary worlds. I asked how these worlds and their respective people (who had never met one another in life) experienced gendered time. The research was also intense for other reasons: Mistreatment of others affects me as a person and writer. The hope, however, of revealing worlds that had not previously been revealed, along with the support of my remarkable mentors, including Josh Goldstein, Gil Joseph, Florencia Mallon, David. St. John, Steve Stern, as well as my fellow poets Brenda Yates and Jan Wesley, meant the world to me.

DG: Let’s return to western Mexico and talk about another fascinating work, Setting the Virgin on Fire, which analyzes contemporary Mexican politics from the perspective of Michoacán peasants, who in your view, were an instrumental part in driving the policy of Lázaro Cárdenas, one of the most popular Mexican presidents. Have the conditions of the indigenous population been improving in recent times, or is there some backsliding in this respect?

MB: I was attempting to speak to the relationships between peasants (Mexico’s majority until into the twentieth century) and state, how each affected the other, and I was seeking to write a book sensitive to the multiple groups in Michoacan—females and males, wealthy, landowners, impoverished landowners, those without land, the religious and secular. I am a historical empath and I attempted to reveal the complexity of all the individuals about whom I researched and wrote.

The Michoacan majority was mestiza/o, rather than indigenous. In a number of ways, what Cardenas and his followers did was at once progressive, at least with respect to the impoverished people worthy of attention—at the same time all this was highly problematic in terms of the the land reform that actually emerged. I believe Cardenas did not want to harm Mexico’s poor, despite his own deep anti-clerical instincts in a place as Catholic as Michoacan, yet the land reform did nevertheless go on to do exactly that.

Most crucial, however, was my surprising discovery of the Michoacan dancers, the same courageous people about whom I had written in Virgin, along with many articles, and again in Dancing on the Sun Stone. Though feminism remained “a dream some of us had” at that time in Mexico, the dancing women and their courage illuminated ways toward a more benevolent future.

DG: Your most recent collection The Macon Sex School (2020) harkens back to your birthplace of Macon, Georgia. It’s a collection full of visceral detail—yet, it’s much more than that, because the core of the book is really about feminine liberation. Can you talk a bit about the book, along with the title? When did you start writing it and was the title a nod to the long way you’ve traveled to get to this point in your career?

MB: I have written poetry daily for decades and as is the case with my historical writing, I write poems from my subconscious. However, the “rationale” behind the images, stories, songs, hymns that emerge tend to be poetic and mysterious rather than rational and science-driven (with apologies to poetic scientists out there). The Macon I grew up in was highly racist, sexist, anti-Semitic. The public schools were segregated by race and by gender. It was the Jim Crow south.

As has been true in many parts of the world, females were trained to be silent, submissive, to kowtow to males, to hide their artistry, their intellects, their beings. These are some of the reasons I left Macon and some of the reasons that I became a feminist.

Having said all this, I think I may have learned something about observation regarding female grandeur in Macon. In what sense? Mysteriously, after my beloved father died, my poems—previously narrative, almost journalistic—emerged as songs, as hymns. Thus, The Macon Sex School does emerge, I feel, as a series of praise songs, of work songs, of harmonies extolling worlds in which females, their intimacies, their intricacies, their vast tenderness, alters a world populated by multiple genders, ethnicities, races, and inclinations.

DG: Another interesting area of your studies is the invention of the so-called “Indian,” specifically by the white population. As David Francis, the Canadian historian wrote: “The Indian began as a White man’s mistake, and became a White man’s fantasy. Through the prism of White hopes, fears and prejudices, indigenous Americans would be seen to have lost contact with reality and to have become ‘Indians’: that is, anything non-Natives wanted them to be.” Quite fascinating. Can you talk about your own thoughts on the matter and what your research has uncovered about this?

MB: I think most Latin Americanists—all of whom were compelled to choose between focusing on either the colonial or the modern Latin American worlds, while learning much about their second choice—know that the notion of the “Indian” is a European invention imposed on the Americas. Still, my central focus is modern Latin America, and the remarkable training I received enabled me to devise an array of courses focusing on Colonial Latin American history—precisely at a time when USC had virtually no other Latin Americanists. In my view, the notion that there ever existed some unique, untouched, different-from-all-other-humanity peoples is racist. What I learned from extensive reading and research involves the ways in which historical relationships between Indigenous peoples and Europeans have transformed the world. Due to the combination of European arrogance, ignorance, and indigenous people’s internal disagreements, however, the former emerged “victorious.” As we know, the subsequent consequences on indigenous people ranged from astronomical death tolls (particularly in MesoAmerica though not confined there) widespread illness, and immiseration, but not the complete undoing of indigenous worlds, cultures, and their respective people. The remarkable research developed by the Lockhart school has shown this.

DG: Apart from Spanish, you’re also well-versed in Guarani, a language mostly spoken in Paraguay, but also in places like Bolivia, Argentina, and Brazil, among others. What are some intriguing pieces of literature you’ve come across in the language?

MB: I learned Guarani in order to create female nutrition clubs that I traveled to from my village. In those places, I taught nutrition, first aid, gardening, and, at the request of the women, also embroidery. Though my Spanish was quite strong, all Paraguayans spoke Guarani while only few knew Spanish. I learned Guarani to communicate with the people I was trying to teach.

DG: What are you reading or working on these days?

MB: I am writing a memoir about my vast travels, about those populated and intense geographies, and most particularly, about the music I encountered throughout the Americas. I am one of those people who reads as easily as she breathes; I am in two poetry groups: One that I’ve frequented for many decades—the other more recent. I read my fellow poets’ work, and continue my obsessions with Lorca, with Adrienne Rich, with the work of my mentors David St. John and my teacher Dorothy Barresi, along with the remarkable work of Philip Levine and Carolyn Forche (and many others.)

Author Bio:

Marjorie R. Becker is a native of Macon, Georgia who learned Spanish as a child. She studied in Spain, served in the Peace Corps in rural Paraguay, and holds a Yale doctorate in Latin American cultural history. An associate professor of History and English at USC, she is the author of the poetry collections Body Bach (2005), Glass Piano/Piano Glass (2010) and The Macon Sex School: Poems of Tenderness and Resistance, all from Tebot Bach. She is also the author of the historical monograph, Setting the Virgin on Fire: Lázaro Cárdenas, Michoacán Peasants and the Redemption of the Mexican Revolution (UC Press, 1996,) and the multi-genre Dancing on the Sun Stone: Mexican Women and the Gendered Politics of Octavio Paz, (University of New Mexico, 2022.) She has received an array of honors and awards, including a Faculty Fulbright Research Fellowship for Mexico, a nomination for a Pushcart Award, a Mellon Mentoring Award, and awards from the AAUW, the NEH, and the ACLS.


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