by Randolyn Zinn
This past spring I arranged to meet Karen Swenson at The Century Club in Manhattan. As I climbed McKim, Mead and White’s splendid marble Beaux Arts staircase to the second floor, I saw her sitting at the far side of the library, catching up with The New York Times. Her long braid was wound in a tight chignon and she was dressed in red from head to toe—a chic wrap dress, tights and shoes to match, even her self-designed down coat was tinted a rich cerise. I thought, is this the same woman who leads Southeast Asian treks in sneakers and corduroys two months out of each year for the last 27?
A native New Yorker, Karen told me she was in town only briefly before winging off to Europe, having recently sold her Manhattan apartment. Her fondest wish was to relocate to a city boasting an opera house and a major airport. Two contenders remained: Venice and Barcelona (the eventual winner).
Her poems have been published by The New Yorker and many literary journals, as well as Saturday Review. Her latest book, her fifth, is entitled A PILGRIM INTO SILENCE. Because she is a world traveler, articles on the subject of sojourning have been enjoyed by those who read The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. Recently she has taught at both her alma maters, Barnard and NYU.
In A PILGRIM INTO SILENCE Swenson devotes one chapter to her experiences at Mother Teresa's Hospital for the Dying Destitute in Calcutta. Click the box below to hear her reading the poem “Two Recovered.”
Randolyn Zinn: What led you to India to volunteer at Mother Teresa’s?
Karen Swenson: I had had a number of friends die here in the States and saw that awful thing of dying in hospitals, everything connected to tubes…and I thought there’s got to be a different way of doing this and I need to see and experience it. I figured that if I went over to India, I’d be helping people as well, not a bad thing…so I went over and worked for a month at Mother Teresa's. It was interesting to see how different nationalities react to cleaning up sick people…because that’s essentially what you’re doing: bathing patients and cleaning their excrement. Or sometimes you serve lunch. None of it bothered me.
RZ: This was more than adventure-seeking.
KS: By the time I left there I was pretty disgusted because it seemed to me that patients were being treated as objects. There wasn’t much humanity.
RZ: You wrote a poem about how the Hospital For the Dying Destitute works as a fiduciary arrangement.
KS: Right, a spiritual fiduciary arrangement.
RZ: If there aren’t any poor, we’re out of a job kind of thing?
KS: Mother Teresa’s successor, Sister Nirmala, actually said that.
RZ: Is there no pain management?
KS: Not at that time. And practically no medicines available. Doctors would turn up occasionally.
RZ: Is this approach part of the hospital’s philosophy?
KS: Yes, Mother Teresa’s philosophy was that nothing should enter into patients’ treatment that was not typical of their standard of life. Well, these people are from the bottom and let me tell you, they suffered. I went back for a visit 3 or 4 years later when I was making a trek and had an extra day in Calcutta with nothing in particular to do. It happened to be a day when foreigners are not supposed to visit, so everyone was a little surprised to see me. Anyway, I went in and saw immediately that the place had changed. It had changed because there was a new Mother heading it and I was really interested in the way she danced around Mother Teresa’s rules. I came into the women’s section — where there were arches quite high up the wall, probably shoulder height, and on the other side was the kitchen and the laundry so it allowed air to pass back and forth — and I saw aquariums with fish swimming around and cages with birds, so these people finally had something to look at while lying on their pallets. And I said, how wonderful that you’ve done that. Mother Georgiana immediately countered with “But the foreigners take care of them. We don’t do that.” That was her way around the regulations.
RZ: Was there medicine on your second visit?
KS: More medicine. There was a severely burned woman there, and you see this a lot because the cheapest sari is a nylon sari, and when you lean over the stove, it catches fire and you are hideously burned. So one of those cases was there and Mother Georgiana approached me and said, “We have to change her bandages. We’ve given her pain medication…” Well, their pain medication only helps so much…and since Mother Georgiana thinks of foreigners as television she asked, “Would you come and sit and hold her hands and talk to her? She won’t understand you, but it doesn’t make any difference.”
I said sure and took this woman’s hands and looked into her eyes while they changed her bandages; and typical of people in the East, she wasn’t flinching. At all. And I said to her, “If I were you, I’d be screaming my head off. They’d have to tie me down to do this.” But the woman only smiled and watched my mouth and looked into my eyes. And then, in total contradistinction to what had happened when I had been there previously, when the nuns were through re-doing her bandages – and it was clear that she was going to live; sometimes they don’t; you could see the healing was happening with her – they asked, “Do you want to lie on your back or on this side or that side or on your stomach…? This question stunned me. Never would the earlier crowd have asked something like that. In the end they disapproved of the position the woman chose, but that was what she wanted and she got it. Somebody had brought in a box of sweets — Calcutta sweets make your bridgework sing – and they said, feed her some of this, she isn’t eating. So I fed her one of these sweets.
RZ: This story is interesting because we’ve gotten another idea about the famous Mother Teresa empathy and compassion.
KS: In my first trip to her Hospital, I saw practically no compassion. They did what was necessary and that was it. There’s a line in one of the new poems…I think it’s the one about how there is no good without its attendant evil…
Deposits toward salvation may be made:
Circle death with beads of prayer;
Sleep on concrete;
hold a patient’s foot as
another cuts away the rotted skin
repeating sternly “Be still. Be still,
to the asset who’s flinching from the pain.
I saw something like this happen on my first visit and said to the nun, “How would you be?” I was so pissed at her. She looked at me like, what are you talking about? But Mother Georgiana brought in this whole different feeling toward people. We had a couple of talks and I asked, “Is any provision made for these people?” Because some of them stabilize. She said, “we now have a place in the country so if they do stabilize, we send them there, but you can’t teach them anything. Not even to peel garlic.” Because their brains didn’t get the chance to develop properly from malnutrition suffered since childhood, they can’t learn to do very much.
RZ: I suppose that might explain the hard-heartedness of the nuns.
KS: Being a nun is not the romantic thing we imagine. It’s more like being in the army, it’s very tough. There’s jealousy and envy and meanness as they are essentially imprisoned with each other.
RZ: Right, because why would people be different just because they wear a veil?
KS: It’s the same enterprise as a sorority. Maybe the nuns try a little bit harder.
RZ: You should write an essay about this.
KS: There’s an Englishman who has written a book called The Missionary Position that is a debunker of Mother Teresa. Then an English woman wrote a very thoughtful book going back into Mother Teresa’s history, where she had come from…what it was like to be a young girl in Yugoslavia with no choices and a lot of ambition. You could either get married or go into a nunnery. If you got married, you needed to find an ambitious man and back him. If you went into a nunnery, you were on your own.
RZ: Mother Teresa had a crisis of faith at one point, did she not?
KS: Oh yes. My feeling is that she started out very well with the very best of intentions and she did very well at the beginning. But fame is a corrosive acid, highly destructive to everything inside of you. I think that’s what happened to her.
RZ: How did you become a traveler?
KS: My Aunt Liz. I called her one Sunday and said, “How are you?” and she answered with enormous asperity, “The way you are at 99.” I immediately backed off. “Okay, okay, I understand. But if you die on me and you don’t let me know, I am going to be so mad at you.” She laughed and called me later saying, “Come on out here. I’m dying.” I asked her how she knew she was dying and she said, “My mind is changing from day to day and I’m losing things. I’m losing pieces of my mind.” That was probably the result of pin-prick strokes. I went out to visit and spent several days with her and while we were talking she reminded me that after my father died, I had taken some of the money and gone on a trip to Mongolia and had had a good time. “I’m going to die,” she said, “and there’s going to be money, so what do you want to do? I immediately thought: Tibet. I knew nothing about it. Didn’t know how to get there or how to get a visa…
Karen Swenson on a trek in Tibet
RZ: But what had led you to Mongolia in the first place?
KS: I had spent my pregnancy with my son in Europe and came back poor. I was married to a man who didn’t like to travel. That trip was nice, but it wasn’t quite what I wanted: like going to grandmother’s house. Everthing was very nice, a little better and more elegant than here, but predictable. I didn’t travel for years and years. Then I sold a piece of furniture that I had inherited and suddenly had four thousand dollars in my pocket and I knew I was going to lose my job at City College. It was 1974 and in 1976 NYC almost died and I did lose my job. My friend got a Fulbright in Iran, and his wife called me up and said you really should come and see us. So we went over, my son and me. I wore a scarf, it was during the Shah’s time, and that was more what I had had in mind.
A couple years later I had a good job at the University of Idaho and wanted to go to Afghanistan, but that was the year the Russians went in and I complained bitterly about it around campus until somebody told me about a trip to Nepal led by an Anthropology professor and I signed right up. When the plane landed, I looked around and thought, yes, this is right, I don’t understand anything. I was looking for adventure, obviously, and Europe had been insufficiently adventurous. Iran had been adventurous, but with just enough barbed wire in it so I didn’t want to go back there. I wanted a place sufficiently alien so I would have to work very hard. I go back to Nepal now and there are certain things I understand but a lot of stuff I will never understand.
Tibet is the same way. The people are warm and friendly. Buddhist cultures are “no touch” cultures, so they are very easy for women to travel in. They’re friendly, they give you your space, although they think you’re peculiar. I usually hire men in Katmandu as guides and they always say, Why aren’t you married? You’re still good looking.”
RZ: “What woman has a country?” is a line from one of your poems in the new book. A charged question.
KS: It is, but I don’t know that I have a solution for it. Although it seems to me – and there are huge exceptions — that women are frequently more adventurous than men. Much more interested and willing to cross boundaries in the world and get themselves into places where the customs are enormously different. I have a friend who has epilepsy, but she is also the first woman who did a solo balloon flight across the Rockies – that’s just astonishing and wonderful. I think one of the reasons we have that adventure is that we don’t belong.
RZ: We’re tethered to family.
KS: If you chose to take that up, yes, to duty, as my mother certainly was. The pull is between what you want and what society says you ought to be doing.
RZ: Taking care of everybody else.
KS: Yes. Or just behaving. Being in that social spot. There are all kinds of ways to break out. Marie Ponsot had a flock of children and then broke out with her poetry. It certainly doesn’t have to be travel. But I think women feel, whether they are aware of it or not, that they don’t belong. Society is, in our time and for many thousands of years before of course, solidly male. It’s the men that belong. We’re this other thing and we don’t quite belong.
RZ: Handmaidens to the power elite.
KS: That’s right. We never have the power and you don’t belong if you don’t have the power. That’s the sign of belonging – to have power. Yes, there are women who are getting up there and being as impossible as men, but their exchange is to give up their femaleness and become like men. It’s always the trade off. I’m not saying it’s wrong, just another way of dealing with the situation of not belonging. If you do that, then you usually get a certain amount of power.
RZ: Let’s talk about the poems. A PILGRIM INTO SILENCE is divided into 4 sections: Thanksgiving/At Mother Teresa’s/ Tibet/Home. The Thanksgiving section seems to be concerned mostly with the past.
KS: You never stop writing about your mother. Those poems almost always, for me, come up out of pain and writing them is an attempt to settle the pain or come to terms with it or get it to calm down or explain it to herself. The poems based in the present are concerned with curiosity or confusion about the trajectories in the present. What have I just seen…why was it like that?
Click the box below to listen to Swenson read “Driving”
RZ: Do you belive in inspiriation?
KS: Yes, I do. But, as you know, it’s 90% perspiration.
RZ: Edison was right about that. So let’s take “Silent Lives,” which seems to be a poem where place and interiority come together in a moving way. How did that poem come to be? How long did it take you to write it?
KS: I frequently hide from myself because I’m easily intimidated by what I’m writing about. I don’t say when I begin that this is a poem about such and such.
RZ: So you start with the outside?
KS: That’s my way of approaching the problem.
RZ: And you often start with place.
KS: In “Silent Lives,” it's description. The memory of being in Bhutan on a horse because I had pulled all the muscles in my right leg and couldn’t walk. Traveling through this grove of rowan trees in autumn was so beautiful with all those red berries and that became the visual beginning of the poem. I’m very visual, as are most Americans. We’re not an auditory people at this particular moment in time. If I can trick myself into the poem with the first three lines, I am on the path. Then something drops away and I begin to enter whatever stream I’m onto. I wrote this poem years after being in Bhutan.
RZ: Do you write every day?
KS: Yes, even Saturday and Sunday now that I’m working on a memoir about my life and the trips to Tibet. It comes as a sandwich, starting with Tibet, then a chapter with my mother, my first trip to Tibet, then a piece on my father and other men, another chapter on Tibet and on we go…
RZ: Do you see growth in your work?
KS: I wouldn’t know. I’m reaching for certain things. In PILGRIM, I was most interested in form, sonnets in particular. I got hooked. Sonnets are habit-forming.
RZ: Why write in a form?
KS: The form is such that you need a poem that is going to flip, it’s going to go through the first 6 or 7 lines talking about things this way and then all of a sudden, it says BUT, on the other hand, there’s this. And you’ve got that couplet at the end, which is a stinker. You really need an ending. You can’t end softly. I love the villanelle, although I haven’t written a lot of them. Your material has to be of a particular kind that can take that kind of repetition. If you don’t have the right kind of material that can be repeated like that, go do something else with it.
RZ: While you’re learning these poetic forms it feels like you’re limiting your imagination. Going for that end rhyme.
KS: You don’t have to rhyme sonnets. No one says you can’t use blank verse. Villanelles, too. Swinburne could rhyme anything. If you start without the rhyme, you’re less intimidated. It’s difficult enough to do the 10-beat line in a really elegant way.
RZ: Do you read a lot of Shakespeare?
KS: Yes, and Milton. Tomas Hardy. His “The Darkling Thrush” is one of the greatest poems.
RZ: Who are you teachers?
KS: Auden, definitely. Hardy. I like Wallace Stevens very much, but I think that business where you have to go read a book explaining the poetry is not a good idea. I cut my teeth on T. S. Eliot, growing up in a male world. Anne Carson. Marie Ponsot, those are two of the big ones. Maxine Kumin. Muriel Rukeyser—I like her best when she’s angry and upset politically, not her abstract pieces. Louise Glück. And there’s H. D., of course. Stevie Smith – she can seem so simple and then those webs she spins.
RZ: That new poem of Marie’s (Ponsot) is deceptively simple. Just a title and three lines:
BLISS AND GRIEF
KS: (laughing) Marvelous. I noticed when I was young, there were women writers to be studied in high school English classes, but as soon as I got to college, the women disappeared.
RZ: MFA programs now are full of women wanting to be writers.
KS: One of the women that disappeared was Dorothy Parker. Some of the women who were looked at askance are no longer on the edges. Like Zora Neale Hurston. Her male contemporaries in the Black Renaissance walked with their elbows out, if you know what I mean, kept her back in her own lifetime. I think women are culling themselves now, which is wonderful, bringing in people who used to be marginal. Edna St. Vincent Millay – how could you have her in the margins, someone who was very involved in her time and who, technically, is superb? They didn’t teach Edna St. Vincent Millay when I was in college and now they do. I think things have changed. We’re coming into our own. Another hundred years.
To purchase Karen Swenson's A PILGRIM INTO SILENCE go to: Amazon.com/books
With thanks to Mary Ellen Mark via Meredith Lue for granting permission to use the photograph of Mother Teresa's Hospital of the Dying Destitute. To see more images by photographer Mary Ellen Mark go to: www.maryellenmark.com
All other photographs courtesy of Karen Swenson.
To purchase Marie Ponsot's recent book of poems EASY go here: Amazon.com/book