William H. Beard, "Dancing Bears"

The Dancing Bear Will Dance No More:
Learning to Say "I"...
As We Step Into and Out of
Dialogue with One Another

Story Evolution
Dalke/Madsen

An exchange between a poet and her teacher,
triggered by Grobstein's Writing Descartes ...

In the spring 2004, Emily Madsen enrolled in an experimental new course, The Story of Evolution and the Evolution of Stories, co-taught by Anne Dalke and Paul Grobstein at Bryn Mawr College. In that class, we examined together (among other things) the generation of new stories. Considering the process of how one literary story grows out of another led us to ask repeatedly where stories come from, why new ones emerge, what causes them to change, and why--and if--some of them must disappear.

Before the class ended, Emily put Anne in touch with her high school English teacher, Gerry LaChance; Anne and Gerry began a correspondence about teaching literature to students like Emily. After the semester ended, Anne and Emily continued to correspond about related matters--and one day in June, Emily sent Anne a new poem she had written. We offer here the poem, and the exchange about female identity which it provoked, as a contribution to Writing Descartes, as a demonstration of how such dialogues grow and provoke further conversation, and as an extension, in particular, of four topics threaded among them:

With it, we invite further contributions in the on-line forum on "I am, and I think, therefore...".

Dancing Bears Will Dance No More

The yellow kitchen light makes what is outside our windows blacker when he stumbles in,
coat full of twigs, stink of berries on his breath.
Where have you been? I ask, plucking burrs from his flanks as he shambles by.
He flinches beneath my fingers, bristles and ripples.
All they want is that damn shuffle-step,
the jingle and grin--I won't do it anymore,

he growls, and slumps into one of our small chairs,
a step-ladder really, which I use to reach the top shelves when he s not home.
I rub his shoulders while he grumbles and dreams;
warm burls of fur, his musk rising as the heat and his skin leave my palms slick with glistening oil.
You and I, well get ourselves a place in the country.
The suburbs are killing me, honey, all the garbage, humans, loneliness.
People knew how to live when their closest neighbor was 7 miles away.
Now, no one will look you in the eye across a driveway.

The single bulb above the sink casts shadows under his eyes--he looks hunted, forlorn.
I worry about his heart, crammed tight into our ticky-tacky box, wedged in among the other boxes.
A goldfish, when turned loose in a pond, will grow to fit its environment,
become a thick and shimmering carp.
I think this is true of the heart, too.
Don't talk to me about those damn fish again.
He bats my hands away with an impatient paw
and surges past me towards the den,
yet pauses, turns to lick my tears away
with a tongue as blue as the fruit it was stained with.

Emily Madsen

June 17, 2004

Em:
I wrote a poem about bears. Here it is... I still have to digest all of your foray, but the way you assimilate and shuffle and delve is so amazing... people who say life can't be interdisciplinary should sit down and have a cup of tea with you....

I assume I'm going to grad school. I assume I'll be a professor and a writer and do well and make money when what I really want deep down is to find someone like me with whom I can build a family and live in peace. No stress, no huge paychecks, no need to do anything. Unfortunately, I have trouble assigning "worth" to a life of love at the moment. Even if it's what I want to do, there is the voice that says, "but you could do so much more."

This is something I suspect I'm going to have to wrestle with for a while. Maybe forever. Maybe even when I'm pregnant for the second time and staying at home, or when I'm still single at 37 and working at some college somewhere, or when I'm balancing life and career or when anything....

enough!

June 21, 2004

Anne:
I just love "Dancing Bears Will Dance No More"-- and (in response) have just put into snail mail
Adrienne Rich's essay, "When We Did Awaken: Writing as Revision."
[Belated notice taken of Freudian substitution, here, of "Did" for the original title, "Dead"....]
Will be eager to hear your response--
Read it, then we'll talk some more?
And yes, yes, am deeply into/reveling in Calvino--
Thanks to you and Gerry both!

July 1, 2004

Em:
Thanks for the Adrienne Rich, I have always liked her a lot. And now I have more reasons to. It's funny, but at work I have the quote "Poems are like dreams: in them you put what you don't know you know. --Adrienne Rich" up on the wall. It was on my wall at school, too. Gerry sent it to me and I never bothered to ask him where it came from in her work. So I guess he's better read in Adrienne Rich than I am (though I am planning on getting a book of her essays from the library, and then he'd better watch out!). It's interesting noting that the essay was written in 71. And yet what she says makes a lot of sense, though I have not had enough experience, I think, to say whether it is all true today or not. Maybe you're in a better position to judge.

July 8, 2004

Anne:
Do you know why I sent you that particular essay ? I was thinking of Rich's story of the evolution of her poetry (writing about being bound, first in the third person, eventually in the first person ....). When I read "Dancing Bears Will Dance No More": "I worry about his heart, crammed tight into our ticky-tacky box...." I saw you as wife of the bear. Then I saw you as the bear.
??

Em:
I thought you sent me the essay for its discussion of women's role in academia, and how that is changing and evolving. I did not read myself into Rich, however, now that you have mentioned it, I cannot help it. I also cannot help seeing myself in the bear, which was not in my mind at all when I sat down to write the poem. I had definitely seen myself as the wife. But as soon as you said it, it made really good sense to me. Thanks for your insight into my psyche...

Thanks for your contact and support through this summer--it's helped a lot to know you're listening and to be able to email you every once and a while with news from this corner of the world.

July 16, 2004

Anne:
Well, how about we up the ante a little here, and you try stepping into the light?
The idea that came to me while swimming this morning was that we could make a page about "Dancing Bears...."
with some idea about when the bear....
gets out of bed.
Travels on....???

Game? If so, I can do something of a mock-up this weekend (what a nice pleasure to look forward to--)
If you're interested---

Em:
Hm, so now I'm interested in this bear out of bed idea... and also the dialogue on Descartes that is part of your project: can I just say that Sharon's painting of being looks to me like a big scary fish ready to eat whatever is below it? I love it. It makes me wonder what is so scary about being for me. Risks, I think-- no, I feel. I wrote a poem yesterday in a workshop sponsored by the festival I work for, and it was scary to write about this time in my life (second grade) when being seemed like it was too big for me. In order to be, I would have to find words I didn't have yet for what I was feeling. But it was true, so I wrote it, and I even shared it during the discussion time when others read their work. It was a good, positive, thing. Living in the mouth of the fish, I guess. I did some other fishwork yesterday too: my summer quartet had its first concert and we played Brahms at the end, a huge extravaganza of a quartet (C minor) that sucks you in and I could only think about the notes and how my finger felt against the string and the tenous thread of the violist's eyes catching mine during the second movement for just that bit that bit where we play together. It was a quiver moment, and afterwards I thought of you, and then moved to thinking of the fish that Sharon's picture brought me. It's been a good day or so of thinking and feeling for me!

So I guess the bottom line is that I'm game if you have time this weekend....
I guess I am ready for stepping into the light...

July 18, 2004

Anne:
Woke this morning with the delighted thought that the image for our page (thank you, Sharon, for teaching me think in images as well as words...) could be a painting (favorite of my whole family) which hangs in my daughter Marian's bedroom. And that I could frame the whole thing more clearly as part of this larger dialogue.

July 19, 2004

Em:
I love the picture of the bears: it reminds me of a conversation I had with Anna this weekend (when we were indulging in some Mawrtyr-alone-time) about the work which you do, Anne. She talked about feeling the ability to be pulled into whatever you are processing and working on at the moment, and perform this easy dance with you which is always open and open-ended as well. So when she became tired of the dance (because you are always dancing, always working) it was easy for her to gracefully sit out as well. This is why I love Anna, and why I love the image that you have framed the poem with. It is really so clever and pleasant and appropriate. And so I extend my hand/claw to meet yours, and so we keep up this dance, and so I thank you for this image and for the beautiful way you have set up this page.

Anne:
I'm laughing out loud, Emily, because you've just ratcheted this conversation up a notch. I originally thought that our topic on this page was what Adrienne Rich said, above, about poems being "like dreams: in them you put what you don't know you know." You've turned it (also) into something else: a demonstration not just that your brain "dances effortlessly" with itself--writing poems that say what you don't know you've said, your unconscious "leading," your conscious reflections "following"--but also that thinking in dialogue with others is similarly dance-like: sometimes effortlessly (as described elsewhere), sometimes laborously, with one of another of us leading. Sometimes we tire of the dance (as you describe Anna tiring, above, and needing to sit out for a while), and sometimes we want to take up the challenge of stepping into the light, as you have done here.

Em:
The sites you are honey-combing together are indeed overwhelming for me. I follow threads and end up somewhere in the labyrinth, not where I'd intended, but then, I don't seem to have a plan when I set out to follow what links interest me. It's like I do all this reading, and I'm in the labyrinth, holding this thread that is the "back" button on my browser, and I can hear the minotaur roaring and I know I'm close but I can't get to that center. This metaphor is extended a bit far and I'm fighting being hackneyed here, but I am not sure about this minotaur--I read and read the links you send because I think I can reach him, that I can really get the "crux" of what is going on, but, tangent by tangent, I am drawn into and out of myself, and into and out of what is going on until I am lost and excited about a totally different thing than I started thinking about. I like the words words words aspect of it, everything out there for nosey me to see, but I can't find what I'm looking for....

But back to the to the intimate vs. the general. The sites fascinate me because they are so personal. I am looking into people's brains and hearing conversations that happened without me being there. I am eavesdropping, and because most of it is personal, I sometimes have the same reaction of: how is this RELEVANT? I get frustrated sometimes in class when people bring in other things they've read...

Anne:
This was precisely
my son Sam's complaint.

Emily:
..because I feel that they are showing off: bragging about all they've seen and done. But do I feel this way because I do not feel like I've seen and done enough or am myself perhaps a "shallow academic" as you've described before? I don't know. I consider myself a modest person, but perhaps hearing other people make brilliant connections hurts my ego? Is that really it when I get down to it? I don't like feeling stupid? In short, I don't think people will find what they're looking for in the bears conversation....

Anne:
Well, that's for them to decide, not us! You know, Lucy Kerman just sent me a lecture by the President of USC, called The Great Straddlers. It says, in part,

we must be careful not to dismiss those who attempt to be genuinely broad and versatile thinkers--the decathlon athletes of contemporary thought. Is it possible to conceive of such people as our intellectual heroes, and not simply as freaks and dilettantes?

I'm not particularly interested in "greatness," but I was quite struck by the polarity of the terms being employed here. We played with something quite similar @ another supper with the Burgmayers the other night. We were discussing how we decide who are we going to listen to: Do we only want to hear the "experts" (those with demonstrated authority)? Will we give some time to hear out the "bums on the street" (those who may know/have something to say precisely because, living "outside the box," they are not bound by conventional authority)? Of course I think there are lots of positions between these false binaries, and I know that these web forums are so useful to me because they showcase those inbetween places where each of us can feel comfortable to speak, bringing just what we know. Claiming our experience (but not "expertise"), allowing ourselves to say things we're not certain about (without being dismissed as "bums")--such invitations are what enable these web forums to work for and on me.

How much do we need to know, in order to claim the space to speak? How much do we need to know of a speaker's creditionals, in order to give her our time? Such questions seem to me now to belong in a closed system, one where space is limited. As we discovered in a brown bag discussion last winter on "What's So Informative About Information," the web differs fundamentally from previous forms of information storage: we have gatekeepers for books because of their costs; we pay for someone to decide what books should be reproduced. But on the web there is no cost for more copies.

The web, in other words, is not a closed system; the amount of space and air time is not limited. This frees individuals to chose, for themselves, when and where to speak; it frees other individuals to decide, for themselves, when and where to listen.

Emily:
If the point is the dancing and the breathing and listening, then I suppose it should all remain. Sometimes I get so goal-oriented, so "what does it MEAN?" that I forget that the search for meaning is often fruitless and is what gives meaning, when glimpsed, so much of its weight.

Anne:
Let's follow your thread into breathing and listening labryinth
that is the
on-line forum about what happens when we think with one another....

Know what, Em? One of the very interesting strands arising elsewhere in what you've called this "honeycomb" of sites is a discussion of the "obsessive" nature of web-work, the way it draws us out and away from our center, from that creative place of individual meaning-making where we are not always looking for a response/validation/verification from another. When I was telling my husband about our discussion of "dancing bears," he started humming "My Uncle Walter Goes Dancing with Bears" (do you know that song?). For him, that image (of Uncle Walter drifting away, engaging in wierd behavior outside the family circle) conjures up anything that compels, draws one away from what is stable, centered....

Am musing now about the ways in which the web in general, Serendip more particularly, these discussions about Re-Writing Descartes most particularly have functioned this summer as "dancing bears" (not, in my universe, a bad thing, but an insistently delight- and use-filled (=intoxicating because so useful) trip into the woods, a place of imagination, laughter, and discovery....


See the on-line forum for continuing conversation and to leave your own thoughts.


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