Not long ago, my husband sent me a quotation from an interview where director Wes Anderson talks about Bill Murray’s ephemeral appearance in the recent film The Darjeeling Limited. Hesitantly describing the part to Murray, Anderson said “it’s not even really a cameo. It’s more like a symbol.” Murray replied, “Oh, I can do a symbol.”
Whether the symbol he does in the film is an actor left out of a movie, a father figure or something else entirely, is a question left up to the audience. What’s more important is that the symbol was “done.” Something may get left behind, but enacting a symbol ensures that what is lost still remains with us. Something stays to be read and used over and over to create new meaning. Those things that are no longer with us become symbols for our creativity. For this reason, I believe in the way symbols get done.
I do not use a camera to capture symbols; I use the written word. Writing poems allows me to creatively make sense of the world, my life and my relationship with others, my family in particular. I’ve recently written several poems about my father. My father was an abusive man. But since we have parted ways, he no longer has the ability to reach into my life to do damage. And yet, he is not gone. He has become a symbol to me for the inability to control what is out of any human’s grasp.
For example, my father’s dog had a problem with killing chickens—my own dog has the same foul taste—but short of using fences, force or gunfire, he could not stop the dog. When I wrote a poem about chicken-killing dogs, I did not highlight my father’s inability to be a father, but instead allowed him to resonate in the poem as a symbol signifying man’s inability to reach into an unreachable situation in order to take hold of things and lay controlling claim to them. Such a poem becomes not a place to dwell on human limitations or downfalls, but rather on the sanctity of that which is beyond all our attempts to control nature.
Clearly, symbols not only come from or signify negative things. My dog, for example, which now runs unchained in the hills of Ohio, signifies for me both the epitome of freedom and the foremost call to responsibly care for freedom. Symbols twist and turn when handled, seen and read, and when we use them imaginatively. For me, this owes to their coming from our personal and collective histories. They are rooted in the past, and yet they constantly influence our present and our conceptions of the future. Symbols are “done,” and yet they are central to all we do. They shape us. And it is this transformative power inherent in symbols that gives us hope.
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