Notes from Away: Mother of exiles
Thursday, July 02, 2015 6:37 AM
MANHATTAN. I have spent much of my adult life abroad, away from America.
I have been "fato profugus," as Virgil said of Aeneas. "Blown onward by fate." Or in my case, drawn forward by the opportunity to work in Central Europe emerging from the Soviet shadows and in China emerging from totalitarian poverty.
But always, while abroad, reading and thinking about America.
One can be separated from something one loves, and even love it more - and be more passionately attentive - for being at a distance.
The Fourth of July is approaching, and I am in transit between China and Maine, and this early morning I am standing - in jogging clothes - in windy Battery Park, looking in one direction toward the Brooklyn Bridge and in another toward Ellis Island, while a few blocks behind me is an open space of commemoration where once tall buildings stood.
Emma Lazarus, a young Jewish woman of young, late-19th-century New York, wrote a poem about the statue that greeted so many immigrants to this country in the decades after the Civil War, and is visited today by so many Chinese tourists - who know, though they hardly speak of it, that the students at Tiananmen 25 years ago also constructed a "goddess of liberty" before it was torn down by soldiers.
She compared the radiant statue of this goddess to the uninspiring and arrogant ancient Colossus of Rhodes, one of the wonders of the ancient world. Our "liberty" was
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land.
Instead, in America, was a different spirit:
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles.
Today, the free thinkers of China (and of Russia, and of Iran, and of many other places) are still, to greater or lesser extent, "imprisoned lightning."
Walt Whitman, living through the same era of young American growth, paid his passionate masculine attention to the bustle of the wharves and the tenement alleys, to the carpenters and masons building the city around him.
The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench . . .
The delicious singing of the mother, or of the young wife at work, or of the girl sewing or washing.
Langston Hughes, living in a later era of Harlem renaissance and the growing revolt against a segregated society (more "imprisoned lightning," alas, and still flashing in a troubled sky above some of America's cities), also had his ears open.
I, too, sing America.
I am the darker brother.
Tomorrow . . .
They'll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed -
I, too, am America
One can love someone deeply, one could be willing to die for someone if one had the courage, and still see faults and weakness with open eyes.
Looking west from the statue, one can ruefully reflect on the cruelty and folly woven into the web of our history. (After all, in the very name Manhattan is the echo of a ghost of a people who were here before the European settlers, who named this island, and who are no more.) In the words of our fellow New Englander Robert Frost, recited from memory in the bright cold sunshine of President Kennedy's inaugural morning:
The deed of gift [of this land, to this people] was many deeds of war.
But surely - surely! - the balance of our history is weighted toward the good. And that is to be celebrated.
A new colossus is rising up across the Pacific. There is much danger in the world, and much to heal at home. But no American who has lived long abroad can fail to know that for so many around the world this country is still the beacon of hope.
"Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.
The poem Emma Lazarus wrote is a sonnet, the form of stanza and rhyme that Shakespeare or Keats would have used for a poem about love.
She knew her country's failings, and she loved her country.
It's good to be home for the summer.
Stephen Harder is a resident of Rockport, living and working in China.