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July 20th, 2016

In today's blog post, Scott Slovic, co-editor of Numbers and Nerves, writes about his encounter with an Allen Ginsberg poem at a museum in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Among the most ecologocially vulnerable places on the planet, Bangladesh also bears the devastating scars of its 1971 civil war, the scale and brutality of which is hard for the human mind to fathom. How can poetry make emotional sense of vast statistics? Read on. 


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I spent the first part of August 2015 lecturing in Dhaka, Bangladesh, and helping to establish the Bangladesh branch of the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment (ASLE). Bangladesh is one of the most ecologically vulnerable regions in the world, highly susceptible to flooding and rising sea levels and with a large, impoverished population unable to avoid environmentally damaging sources of income that are also hazardous to human health (such as “ship breaking”).

I remembered from my childhood that Bangladesh had been the location of terrible human suffering, but I did not recall the specifics. More than anything, I knew about the famous Concert for Bangladesh that former Beatles guitarist George Harrison and Ravi Shankar had organized in New York City in 1971. I did not realize that most Bangladeshis have the year 1971 scarred into their memories. That was the year of the brutal civil war between West Pakistan and East Pakistan that led to the separation of Pakistan and Bangladesh. It was a war fought over “language autonomy” (the right of Bangladeshis to use Bangla, the major language of East Pakistan). The language autonomy movement was spurred in great part by the efforts of intellectuals at Dhaka University, where my conference on ecocriticism was taking place. Everywhere on the campus there are murals and statues and small museums, remembering the efforts and sacrifices of freedom fighters some forty-five years ago.

On August 10th, before heading to the airport to begin my thirty-six-hour trip home to Idaho, I went with a student to visit the Liberation War Museum in Dhaka. Along with many tattered, yellowing documents, laminated photographs of shirtless men carrying machine guns, and a room full of neatly stacked skulls and femurs in glass cases, there is an open-air, covered walkway on the top level of the simple museum, as one nears the end of the series of exhibits, where international responses to the liberation war are displayed in a scrap-book like array of photographs and documents on the wall of the building. Many world leaders are shown expressing their support for the Bangladeshi people in their fight for freedom and in their time of humanitarian struggle. I learned from this wall of images that President Richard Nixon supported Pakistan during this war, while liberal American leaders, such as Senator Edward Kennedy, were outspoken in their efforts to aid Bangladesh.

On the museum wall, near photos of Indira Gandhi and other political leaders, there are two long posters presenting both English and Bangla versions of American poet Allen Ginsberg’s “September on Jessore Road,” which details his first-hand experience of the human suffering during the 1971 liberation war. Immediately it struck me that Ginsberg’s poem was profoundly relevant to the Numbers and Nerves project in his effort to convey a situation of vast suffering vividly to people who might be able to help in some way. In fact, one stanza in the middle of the poem exhorts, “Ring O ye tongues of the world for their woe … Ring in the conscious of America[n] brain,” suggesting that the goal of this work is to somehow resonate in the “brain” of Americans and other citizens of the developed world in order to elicit intervention and aid.

Readers of Numbers and Nerves are likely to think of many other examples of powerful literature, music, film, and visual art that seek to convey numerical information and inspire individual and collective action. The story of my encounter with Allen Ginsberg’s poem shows that even though I have been thinking about the Numbers and Nerves project for so many years, I continue to stumble across relevant texts that I hadn’t previously thought about.

Although Ginsberg’s poem does not do what so many of our examples in the book Numbers and Nerves end up doing, which is to switch back and forth between individual stories and portrayals of “the big picture,” the writer relies in interesting ways on rhetorical questions (which draw the reader into contemplation as he or she tries to answer the questions) and repetition of dizzyingly large numbers (Millions…, millions…, millions). If you go online and listen to the poet recite—or, rather, sing—this work on Youtube, there is a lulling, incantatory repetitiveness to the performance until Ginsberg gets to the final stanza, which he sings slowly and with a kind of agonized emotion, suddenly shifting from numbness to pain. “September on Jessore Road” is powerful demonstration of the effort to communicate the emotional meaning of large-scale social upheaval and human suffering. I recommend that readers of Numbers and Nerves also go online to find the written text of Ginsberg’s poem and recordings of his performance of this work.

The poem can be found at this website:

Ginsberg, Allen. (1971 / 2011, November 7). “September on Jessore Road.” The Allen Ginsberg

Project. Retrieved from http://ginsbergblog.blogspot.com/2011/11/mondriaan-string-quartet-september-on.html

 

 

 

June 27th, 2016

 The Oregon Historical Quarterly features the scholarship of OSU Press author Michael Helquist with two contributions in its Special Summer Issue on Birth. Helquist analyzes the 1916 visit to Portland by birth control advocate Margaret Sanger and he collaborates with Portland graphic artist Khris Soden to present a graphic comic account of the occasion. Titled “Family Limitation,” the collaboration is the first time the journal has published a history comic. Helquist and Soden wrote the comic narrative, and Soden drew the four pages of comic panels.

In his current OHQ article, Helquist documents Sanger’s visit, one of her final lecture stops on her first national tour. During Sanger’s lecture at the Heilig Theater in downtown Portland, local authorities arrested three men who distributed her basic how-to guide “Family Limitation.” The men were charged with providing obscene materials to the public. Sanger then asked local Portland physician Marie Equi to revise the pamphlet. The 1916 “Portland edition” reflects a stronger focus on working class concerns, less explicit support for abortion, and a pointed criticism of Portland’s leaders for the arrests of Sanger supporters. When Sanger delivered a second lecture, she, Equi, and two other women were also arrested and jailed. The trial judge found all the defendants guilty for making available “lewd, indecent, and obscene” materials. The incidents created a furor among hundreds of Portlanders who objected to the conviction.

In the same issue, OHQ recognizes Helquist as the winner of the 2016 Joel Palmer Award for the best article written in the quarterly the previous year. In “Criminal Operations,” The First Fifty Years of Abortion Trials in Portland, Oregon,” Helquist examined the factors that complicated and discouraged successful abortion prosecutions during the period 1875 to 1925.

To complement the journal’s observance of Sanger’s centennial visit, the Oregon Historical Society Library is presenting an exhibit of the rare vintage “Portland edition” of “Family Limitation.” Helquist loaned the pamphlet, and he disclosed that several years earlier he purchased it for a modest sum from Ebay. The exhibit also features poster-size versions of Soden’s comic. During the last weekend of June, Helquist will present three talks in Portland related to his biography -- Marie Equi: Radical Politics and Outlaw Passions published by OSU Press in September 2015.

 

·      The McMenamins History Pub presents “Portland to the Rescue: The Rose City’s Rush to 1906 Stricken San Francisco,” Kennedy School, 5736 NE 33rd Av, 7pm, free and open to the public.

·      The diversity programs of the US Fish & Wildlife Service and the Bonneville Power Administration present, “Whatever Happened to Marie Equi?” and the Eastside Federal Complex, 911 NE 11th Av, 1:30 pm. Note this talk is limited to federal employees.

·      The Equi Institute and the Q Center present, “Whatever Happened to Marie Equi?” at the Q Center, 4115 N. Mississippi, 7pm, free and open to the public.

 

Helquist and activist Charley Downing will also be interviewed on Monday, June 27 at 9am on the KBOO radio program “Old Mole Variety Hour.” On Wednesday, June 29, Helquist and other historians and reproductive rights activists will re-enact the 1916 Sanger arrest and discuss current restrictions that block full access to reproductive services. 

 

June 7th, 2016