by Frances Payne Adler

Page 6

I knew, from Dickinson's example, that I needed my version of a locked room. I chose a simple steel locked box. And began the search for self-definition.

At that time, living a traditional marriage, I knew little about the process of my "voice gone underground." I didn't even know that I had. What I knew was that I was holding back. I was writing lines, at this time, like "I often hold back a part of me / hold back the great dark beast / sleek and shuddering beneath my skin." I sensed Dickinson to be my guide. The simple steel locked box provided mind space, where anything was safe to write about, even something that felt dangerous. "If your nerve deny you - / Go above your Nerve - "

This at a time when those in Washington were saying there was no hunger in America. I was in graduate school at the time. And some of those who were my writing professors were questioning my writing about the homeless. It was not, they said, my experience. It was not, they said, about me. Stick, they said, to your own experience. In 1984, it felt dangerous to talk to people living on the street. It felt dangerous to write about it. The country was flying high economically. The Presidential Task Force had concluded that, "There is no evidence of rampant hunger in this country." The papers weren't making much of it. And certainly no one I knew in the "poetry community" was writing about it. My then-husband thought I was crazy and "putting the family in peril" by talking to the homeless. Dickinson made me bold. I wrote poem after poem about it. As in "Los Desaparecidos"

Like the mothers of Plaza de Mayo, I cannot put out like fire
the memory of those who are disappearing. Like the mothers
of the desaparecidos who circle the Presidential Palace
every Thursday in Argentina, parading photographs
of the disappeared, I parade photographs in my city:
On Fifth Avenue next door to the Guild Theatre, a young man
who sleeps in the crawl space under an apartment building,
turns his face from the blade of light thrown by patrons
opening the theater door. They don't see him. On Washington
Avenue, a woman whose feet ulcer from walking the night,
disappears behind a wall of three-in-the-morning
Food Basket silence. In a La Mesa Boulevard house, a young girl
who will not eat, sharpens her bones the color of fine blue china,
and crawls under the tombstone pages of a fashion magazine.
On Ocean Beach Boulevard, 7-11 shoppers see an old man with three coats
stalling death, sleeping on the heat exhaust of an ice-making machine.
In Argentina and El Salvador, men in jungles and in office buildings
might laugh at the fine way we mask mutilation. No death squads, no
white handprint warnings on doorways here. No lye is poured over bodies
to make bones vanish. In my city the desaparecidos obligingly make themselves disappear.

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