Editor’s Note: Cadence and Disclosure
by Albert Kapikian
Like other literary journals, a literary journal that issues out of a community college issues out of a collaboration between the arts and the humanities, between, that is, writers and editors, those engaged in aesthetic production and those engaged in critical thinking about that aesthetic production. On one side, writers struggle to bring their visions to life, and on the other, editors struggle to articulate what counts as evidence for the rightness of difficult decisions to accept or reject the realizations of those visions. Plato, by banning the poets from his ideal republic, began the face-off between the arts and the humanities, and while in our republic it is the humanities that are discredited, de facto banned, in a literary journal the disciplines are yoked together, and because a community college is a region that reproduces itself in every region of our republic, its aesthetic philosophy must reckon with a special responsibility to speak from its region of open admission. In Henry Adams’ Democracy, Madeleine Lee says, “Half of our wise men declare that the world is going straight to perdition; the other half that it is fast becoming perfect. Both cannot be right.” At a community college there is no principle of sorting, so a literary journal coming out of a community college must find ways that its aesthetic sees beauty and imagination in their reconciliatory role.
The world rendered by literature is both its disclosure and the means, or terms, of its disclosure. Form not only carries content, it is content, and the arrangement of the particulars of each line or each sentence not only creates the whole but is the whole. Just as literature does not speak except out of the constituency of which it is made, a community college’s cadence, its lived experience, is also its disclosure, and therefore resists abstraction. In Henry Adams’ America, Maryland was a border state between Massachusetts and Mississippi, but today community colleges sit in between and among these three states, cheek by jowl and adjacent to opposing elites, as well as all parts of the political spectrum, a commons where the conditions necessary for the fostering of human connection are in place. Montgomery College, among the most diverse in the country, brings not only Mississippi and Massachusetts to Maryland, but Mali and Mauritania and Malaysia as well. The cadence of its lived experience is the ground for disclosures in which the present catches up with the past, catches up with times and places when people were included solely by principles of exclusion. Here marginal groups are not spoken for but afforded to speak for themselves.
The writer is once removed from the world the writer is trying to find, and writes, just as the student does, to find what is missing about him or herself, an investigation that begins with a line of resonance, a cadence that establishes the tone of an investigation that to be successful, must be sustained throughout. There is a world within the world of that opening line, a cadence that carries the call of the question, as well as the terms and the means of the disclosure. In Isaac Bashevis Singer’s “Gimpel the Fool,” Gimpel says, “No doubt the world is an entirely imaginary world, but it is only once removed from the true world.” The cadence required of Gimpel is trust and gullibility for the disclosure that it is better to forgive than to engage in retributive justice, but when contrivance, not cadence, governs, the disclosure comes at the beginning, often in a declaration of some kind, a declaration merely personal, and declamatory: “I like this, I don’t like that;” “I am this, I am not that.” It is a declaration about which we are, of course, expert, so that what follows it are manifold disclosures of the ways we have been misunderstood and maligned, all of us complaining the same way about different things, our cadences the same, shared with the very people we are condemning, unperceivably disclosing how all of us share in the same disorder, the same disease.
We cannot foresee the circumstances our next generations will encounter, but we can equip them with the tools with which they will encounter them. The most important kind of learning is learning how to learn, and our opinions, though immensely valuable to ourselves, nonetheless, in our students’ lives, have a limited shelf life, while the skill of critical thinking, not to mention engaging with the other side—learning, that is, in some sense, as well, the capacity for empathy—lasts a lifetime. Here student interns play an important role in the selection of pieces, and if this selection process devolves into merely being asked whether we “like” a piece, whether a particular piece “sparks” something in us, then we are merely reproducing our role as consumers governed by what we find “interesting,” or “amazing,” those always ready-at-hand, interchangeable descriptors of our hypercommodified culture, of little or no value to understanding the pieces before us. Instead, we ask of ourselves to try to articulate both a piece’s disclosure and the means, or terms, of its disclosure, trying not to conflate aesthetic value with personal preference, but asking ourselves to articulate what counts as evidence for that preference so that an aesthetic commons might form.
To have a legislator “reach across the aisle” requires a muscle developed over time—a time when, writ small, a young man or woman performed a spiritual dance that allowed him or her to see the value in an opposing or mysterious way of life or opinion. This kind of reconciliatory approach can be acquired in the study of the humanities. From American literature, for example, we know that failure with honor, not the pursuit of success at any cost, creates the hero. From American literature we know that we need to be more afraid of our own anger than others’ hate. From American literature we know that when care is selective, when care is given to one group, but not another, there is no real care—the call for community implicit in our experiment of self-governance, the care and feeding of the public square implicit in it, is lost. It is in the very nature of disclosures governed by cadence that assertions of reality are grounded in and governed by concern for community. Poems, for example, build on themselves, and that is how they are progressive, by making themselves relevant not only to what’s happening now, and what’s to come, but also to what came before.
In American literature, we discover that what we are hiding from ourselves is also what the country has been hiding from itself, stories and poems not meant to validate or confirm one’s own identity, but others’ identity. In Brigit Pegeen Kelly’s “Song,” this disclosure comes on the terms of its cadence:
Listen: there was a goat’s head hanging by ropes in a tree.
All night it hung there and sang. And those who heard it
Felt a hurt in their hearts and thought they were hearing
The song of a night bird. They sat up in their beds, and then
They lay back down again. In the night wind, the goat’s head
Swayed back and forth, and from far off it shone faintly
The way the moonlight shone on the train track miles away
Beside which the goat’s headless body lay. Some boys
Had hacked its head off. It was harder work than they had imagined.
The goat cried like a man and struggled hard. But they
Finished the job.
The head calls to the body and the body to the head because they long for each other. The goat had belonged to a child. She took care of him, but one morning she could not find him. She went looking but he was gone. What the boys who killed him did not foresee was that the song would not stop, and that it would become their song too:
The low song a lost boy sings remembering his mother’s call.
Not a cruel song, no, no, not cruel at all. This song
Is sweet. It is sweet. The heart dies of this sweetness.
In “Song,” one might hear the echo of William Faulkner’s Light in August. After Joe Christmas is killed, his blood, and the memories of the blood he shed, follow his killers:
They are not to lose it, on whatever peaceful valleys, beside whatever placid and reassuring streams of old age, in the mirroring faces of whatever children they will contemplate old disasters and newer hopes. It will be there, musing, quiet, steadfast, not fading and not particularly threatful, but of itself alone serene, of itself alone triumphant. Again from the town, deadened a little by the walls, the scream of the siren mounted toward its unbelievable crescendo, passing out of the realm of hearing.
It may or may not be that community colleges are one way to help heal our rift, but in a region of welcome and open admission one can hear both sides calling out to each other, if only in each side’s insistent cadence of godly purpose linking itself to the very forces to which it is so vociferously and breathlessly opposed—on one side, everyone disclosing their truths, on the other, few stopping to listen because they too are too busy disclosing theirs. In a literary journal, the arts call for the humanities, the humanities for the arts, since they, too, miss each other. Because the community college is reproduced in almost every county in the country, it is a universal that is reproduced in every particular, a commons where the particular lives in the context of a universal where cadence and disclosure are meant to be the same, an aesthetic commons, access to which is governed by the categories of empathy, responsiveness, and receptivity, forms of discernment not based on personal preference but with the potential to include us all.