In his Civil War-era poem, “Vigil Strange I Kept on the Field,” Walt Whitman describes watching over a soldier dying on the battlefield as a “vigil of silence, love and death.” That phrase may still ring true for soldiers fighting around the world; it may also feel familiar to medical professionals, whether imbedded in combat or in the ordinary rooms of a medical center. Yet this common experience is one that doctors and nurses reluctantly discuss and one that many soldiers and veterans feel lies beyond their powers of expression. A recent event held at Stanford – Honoring the Ghosts – provided an exploration of such strange vigils through poetry and dance.
Alexander Nemerov, PhD, a Stanford art and art history professor, began the evening with a lecture, “Walt Whitman’s Moment.” During his talk he linked Whitman’s imagery of lamplight, starlight and shadow to contemporaneous art and popular depictions of the body, discussing the ways art freezes the human body and history freezes memory. Nemerov recalled the April 14 anniversary of the day Abraham Lincoln was shot in Ford’s Theatre. He quoted another Whitman poem, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” which commemorates Lincoln, and explained how poetry can simultaneously express private grief and offer public opportunities to honor and remember.
The longer portion of the evening consisted of dance performances by U.S. Marine Veteran Roman Baca’s Exit 12 Dance Company. The program notes explained that after serving as a Marine in the Iraq war, Baca felt “angry, depressed and aggressive.” With his wife and fellow ballet dancer Lisa Fitzgerald, Baca formed Exit 12 as a way to help him, and other veterans, tell their stories. Sunday’s performance at Stanford (the company’s West Coast debut) included seven dances that communicated a wide range of war experiences: a mother’s love and anxiety as her sons enlist; a soldier’s confusion as the demands of battle conflicted with fears for his family in Egypt. Two pieces, performed by solo dancers, were set to music and texts created by a veteran who teaches other vets to write poetry about their experiences; the impression of mental disintegration was terrifying.
My favorite piece was a solo in which the dancer stepped out of a camouflage uniform and performed an extended parting from the pile of clothes on the floor – the dance intimated for me both a soldier’s ambivalence about leaving the military and a human soul vacating a dead body on the battlefield.
The evening ended with the company dancing in front of a large video screen which depicted Iraqi teenagers from different sects performing a dance they created under Baca’s guidance. The teens met in Arbil, Iraq, where Baca returned to share the gift of healing he had found in dance. The live dancers on the Dinkelspiel Auditorium stage repeated the movements of the Iraqi kids dancing on the screen, creating an effect of simultaneous action and memory, both in time and place, a performance both intensely personal and socially connected. The aspects of witness and healing shared between the performers and audience both honored the ghosts of the dead and acknowledged hopeful possibilities.
The event was sponsored by the Stanford Arts Institute, Stanford’s Medicine & the Muse Program in Medical Humanities and the Arts, and Stanford’s Department of Art & Art History.
Jennifer Swanton Brown, RN, MLA (’12) is manager of regulatory services and education, in Spectrum, the Stanford Center for Clinical & Translational Research & Education. She published her first poem in the Palo Alto Times when she was a fifth grader at Escondido Elementary School. Having served as a poet-teacher with California Poets in the Schools since 2001, she is currently serving as the second poet laureate for the City of Cupertino.
Previously: Prescribing a story? Medicine meets literature in “narrative medicine” and “Deconstructed Pain:” Medicine meets fine arts
Photos by by Norbert von der Groeben