Monday, February 23, 2009

The Poetry of Lost Lives and Suitcases


Harris County archivist Sarah Canby Jackson mentioned the "Willard Suitcase Exhibit" at a meeting I attended last week. She told us the exhibit was based on the contents of a bunch of old suitcases found in the attic of a state psychiatric hospital in upstate New York, and my curiosity was stirred.The Lives They Left Behind: Suitcases from a State Hospital Attic, the full title of the exhibit, is also a book by Darby Penney and Peter Stasny, with photographs by Lisa Rinzler.

The online gallery introduces us to people whose personal liberties ended once they entered Willard Psychiatric Center in the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York. As we read through their biographies, we see that by today's standards many would not be institutionalized. One, Mr. Lawrence (#14956), was said to be restless, boisterous, and he sang too much. He spent fifty years of his life at Willard, and became the institution's gravedigger, dying there at age 90. Mrs. Ethel (#20756) was a seamstress who lost two children and seemed also to have lost her will to live. Her suitcase was full of examples of her beautiful needlework. To me it sounds like Willard became a secure place for her, for she worked in the laundry and was said to be "very social, over-talkative, neat and well-dressed." The biographies presented in the exhibit will break your heart, rich stories of a lives forever detoured by varying degrees of mental illness, melancholy or eccentricity.

I like it that the Willard Suitcase Exhibit includes pages such as the one that asks "Is it better today?" Yes, there are more pharmaceutical options today, and there are some rehabilitation programs. Today, persons with mental illness are likely to live in group homes or end up in jail. But overall, the exhibit concludes, we have a long way to go "toward a future in which the larger society will recognize the full humanity of people with psychiatric disabilities." Surely this haunting and eloquent exhibit created by the staff and curators of the New York State Museum has opened many eyes.

I had a friend, poet Albert Huffstickler, who in his retirement volunteered at the State Mental Hospital in Austin, Texas. He ran small poetry groups there. His poem below, which I once had the privilege of publishing in a literary magazine, forever stays in my consciousness. I think it makes a nice addendum to the Willard Suitcase Exhibit.

Reading at the State Mental Hospital

Sometimes they listen.
Sometimes they act out.
Sometimes they listen and act out.
But when they listen,
you can read anything. Nothing's too heavy:
they've been there.
And the scarred, emotion-ravaged faces
lift to you like broken, discarded flowers
and there's a stillness sometimes
lasting only for a fraction of a second maybe
but we're all the richer for it.
Then they get up and read their own stuff:
mostly moonjune, how I love you,
how I cried when you left.
One woman sang hers in a little-girl voice
and afterwards on break
she was still singing in the background,
a sad little voice that went on and on,
following me home and to bed
and into my sleep still singing
and I don't remember what the words were
but I think she was telling Life
that she forgave it
for what they had done to each other.

- reprinted from Arrowsmith, Issue # 3, 1995

Blue Face - block print by KAO

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Love: the Nonfiction Kind

It has been many years since I read Max Apple's laugh-out-loud book, Roommates: My Grandfather's Story (Warner Books, 1994), but the memory of it lingers. Mr. Apple taught at Rice University here in Houston. It is an uncommon love story about a grandfather (Rocky Goodstein), who everyone and anyone would say is "a character" and his grandson (Max) who live together most of their lives, even when Max attends graduate school at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. Although Rocky does not approve of Max's choice of a wife, he continues to live under their roof. Max and Debby have two children, and Rocky becomes a great grandfather. Rocky gets no less difficult, crusty and grumbly, but you have to love him anyway. When Max's wife dies of multiple sclerosis while their children are still young, it was Rocky who at age 102, truly kept the family going. He lived to be 107. I have a vague memory of seeing the Hollywood version of this book with Peter Falk playing Rocky. Roommates is a book I'd like to read again.

Another nonfiction love tale I was tickled by is The Ballad of Gussie and Clyde: a True Story of True Love (Villard, 1997) by Aaron Latham, known to many as the journalist who wrote the article that inspired the movie "Urban Cowboy" (he also co-wrote the script). How 84 year-old widower Clyde Latham, Aaron's father, found love again with 81 year-old Gussie Lancaster is a feel-good biography set in the West Texas town of Spur. Gussie and Clyde were childhood sweethearts. Some sixty years pass before the widower and widow reunite. As you can tell from the title, the outcome is a happy one, proving one of my personal favorite maxims: it is never too late to fall in love!

photo: Thinking of You by KAO

Friday, February 6, 2009

Researching Lola Alvarez Bravo

Photographer and gallery owner Lola Alvarez Bravo gave Frida Kahlo a one-woman exhibition in Mexico City during 1953. Alvarez Bravo also photographed Kahlo often, as in the beautiful photo above. During the course of helping a student research Lola Alvarez Bravo, I learned these things and more about her. Students (always girls, curiously) often come to the library looking for all things Frida; quite often all the books her are checked out; there were none on the shelves this past week when I looked for them, even though we own plenty. We don't own a single book about Alvarez Bravo, so we turned to the Internet and electronic resources.

Such serendipity is one of the best things about being a librarian. Your work takes you browsing through subjects you never would have learned about otherwise. I've seen and admired so many of Alvarez Bravo's photos of Frida without really thinking about who took them. So I enjoyed learning a bit more about her. Lola Alvarez Bravo is known as Mexico's first female photographer. Born in 1903, by 1925 she was married to her neighbor in Mexico City, photographer Manuel Alvarez Bravo. He taught her photography, and she worked as his assistant. By 1934 when they separated, she struck out on her own and began winning commissions on her own. She became known for her intimate portraits (especially of Mexico's cultural elite), street scenes, and everyday subjects. She also taught photography during her lifetime. A year before she died in 1993, there was a major retrospective of her art in Mexico City.

The first comprehensive English language book about the artist, Lola Alvarez Bravo by Elizabeth Ferrer, was published in 2006 by Aperture/Center for Creative Photography. It is still available and I hope to add it to the library collection soon. I wonder if anyone is working on a biography of the artist? Now that she is "on my radar", I'd like to read more about her. Her art has been shown recently at the Smithsonian's International Gallery, among other places, and currently at the Snite Museum at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana.