Mar. 13, 2005

At the Arraignment

by Debra Spencer

SUNDAY, 13 MARCH, 2005
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Poem: "At the Arraignment" by Debra Spencer, from Pomegranate. © Hummingbird Press. Reprinted with permission.

At the Arraignment

The courtroom walls are bare and the prisoner wears
a plastic bracelet, like in a hospital. Jesus stands beside him.
The bailiff hands the prisoner a clipboard and he puts his
thumbprint on the sheet of white paper. The judge asks,

What is your monthly income? A hundred dollars.
How do you support yourself? As a carpenter, odd jobs.
Where are you living? My friend's garage.
What sort of vehicle do you drive? I take the bus.
How do you plead? Not guilty. The judge sets bail
and a date for the prisoner's trial, calls for the interpreter
so he may speak to the next prisoners.
In a good month I eat, the third one tells him.
In a bad month I break the law.

The judge sighs. The prisoners
are led back to jail with a clink of chains.
Jesus goes with them. More prisoners
are brought before the judge.

Jesus returns and leans against the wall near us,
gazing around the courtroom. The interpreter reads a book.
The bailiff, weighed down by his gun, stands
with arms folded, alert and watchful.
We are only spectators, careful to speak
in low voices. We are so many. If we—make a sound,
the bailiff turns toward us, looking stern.

The judge sets bail and dates for other trials,
bringing his gavel down like a little axe.
Jesus turns to us. If you won't help them, he says
then do this for me. Dress in silks and jewels,
and then go naked. Be stoic, and then be prodigal.
Lead exemplary lives, then go down into prison
and be bound in chains. Which of us has never broken a law?
I died for you-a desperate extravagance, even for me.
If you can't be merciful, at least be bold.

The judge gets up to leave.

The stern bailiff cries, All rise.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It is the birthday of journalist Janet Flanner, born in Indianapolis, Indiana (1892). She's best known for her "Letters from Paris" contribution to the New Yorker. Flanner moved to Paris in 1922 and started writing long letters to her friends in the U.S. about her life in France. One of the friends she wrote to was Jane Grant, the wife of Harold Ross. Grant asked Flanner to write a regular Paris letter for her husband's new magazine, and the first letter appeared in the New Yorker in September of 1925.

When Janet Flanner received her copy of the New Yorker, she saw that her letter was signed "Genet." She asked Harold Ross if the pseudonym referred to a yellow weed called "genestra" or to the female of the donkey family. Ross never answered her question.

It's the birthday of science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard, born Lafayette Ronald Hubbard, in Tilden, Nebraska, (1911). He's best known as the founder of the Church of Scientology (1954).

Hubbard made as much as $100 million a year in book sales and donations to Scientology. By 1966 he was living on a yacht and became harder and harder to find, and in 1980 the IRS challenged the tax-exempt status of his church. His followers continue to see him as a prophet and therapist.

The ideas behind the religion came from two of L. Ron Hubbard's books, Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health (1950) and Science of Survival (1951). He wrote many of his science fiction novels under one of his pseudonyms, such as Winchester Remington Colt, Eldron, Frederick Englehardt, Michael Keith, and Tom Esterbrook.

It was on this day in 1891 that Henrik Ibsen's play Ghosts opened on the London stage. Ghosts was considered a controversial play because it contained stuff about incest and sexually transmitted diseases, and Ibsen refused to give his audiences the happy endings they were used to. The play had already been banned in St. Petersburg on religious grounds when it premiered in London.

Henrik Ibsen predicted the public's negative reaction to Ghosts. He wrote in 1882, "It may well be that the play is in several respects rather daring. But it seemed to me that the time had come for moving some boundary-posts. And this was an undertaking for which a man of the older generation, like myself, was better fitted for than the many younger authors who might desire to do something of the kind. I was prepared for a storm; but such storms one must not shrink from encountering."

The first performance alone of Ghosts caused over 500 printed articles to be written in response to it, and Ibsen became a household name even to people who had never seen the play or read a book. The play was defended by William Archer, George Bernard Shaw, and Justin McCarthy. William Archer translated Ibsen's work into English.

Henrik Ibsen died in 1906 when he was 79. He was given a state funeral, and King Haakon of Norway attended. The British Prime Minister was also there as a representative of King Edward VII.

Henrik Ibsen wrote in Act 2, "I almost think we're all of us Ghosts... It's not only what we have invited from our father and mother that walks in us. It's all sorts of dead ideas, and lifeless old beliefs, and so forth. They have no vitality, but they cling to us all the same, and we can't get rid of them. Whenever I take up a newspaper, I seem to see Ghosts gliding between the lines. There must be Ghosts all the country over, as thick as the sand of the sea. And then we are, one and all, so pitifully afraid of the light."

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




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