by Mara Jebsen
” I deface the classroom walls and abuse french verse”
There's a shadowy black-and-white room crammed with schoolboys in Francois Truffaut's film 400 Blows. You've got to keep your eye on the boy who is not the principle character; the boy who is squinch-faced and clench-knuckled; the irrepressibly clumsy one whose inkpen just exploded. He rips out page after page of inky, sloppy copy and hides them beneath his desk. But all around, hypnotized, elbows crooked at identical angles, the other boys’ pens move in steady waves, drawn forward by the pull of the schoolmaster's voice.
At some point I'm about thirty and standing in a tweed skirt in front of a classroom in New York with a poem in my hands. “Stop all the clocks/Cut off the telephone” I say. W.H. Auden first penned these lines in England at least 40 years ago. Now, fifteen hands move in unison, following my voice and Auden's beautiful, long-dead mind.
I used to hate dictation. The first time someone tried to educate me that way it was in Lome, Togo, on the coast of West Africa, and in French, an impossible language I barely spoke. I was fourteen and I was introduced to the process not long after my American mother married a Togolese professor and we abandoned our apartment in Philadelphia to start life anew in Lome. The way I felt about French and dictation got mixed up in my mind with a conviction that something was horribly askew with all the grownups I met. Jokey, warm and tough, my new Togolese family seemed nevertheless to all have a headache. It was like they had had a headache since before I was born.
My teachers were similarly afflicted. I wish I could describe the expression of my French professor when she came upon my first page of dictation. She seemed offended right down in her gut by my panicky, phonetically interpretive loops! By the haphazard perversions of good french verse she’d so carefully delivered!
But now I like dictation. In a classroom, dictation can have a lovely, hypnotic effect. There's a respectful intimacy as all parties can find themselves possessed by the voice of a dead poet. A body begins painlessly to remember as it transcribes. In other contexts, dictation can be sexy. Think Madmen, all those secretaries. Dostoevsky, after all, married his stenographer. . .
Already, here is the elephant in the room. I didn't set out, at all, to write this this way. It’s all a mistake. I haven’t meant to talk about dictations at all, but about dictators. You see it is very difficult to interest others in a failed movement in West Africa in 1992!
But that is when mysterious forces set fires to buildings in Lome, and then suddenly my school, Ecole Montesquieu, shut down. The incident involved a certain Elephant, a dictator named Eyadema, whose puffy smug face I began to spot with increasing disfavor in the post offices, banks, shops, then everywhere. Really everywhere. He looked more like a bullfrog, but he got his name because it seemed he would live forever, and he was known not to forget.
Togo, by the way, is a little sliver of a country between Ghana and Benin which ought to be more infamous than it is, for it holds this title—it is the site of the first African coup and the site of the longest 'rule' by any African leader, a rule that began in 1967, not long after a beloved leader was shot by Eyadema.
By the time I arrived in 1992, pubescent, grumpy and homesick for central Philly, the Togolese people had really had enough. So the whole country went on strike.
I'll tell you very quickly what happened next. This is almost like a poem full of white spaces because there's not much I can write:
The Cancelled Year/ The White Year
1) Then the unpaved streets, and the paved ones, all went ghosty and hushed as every establishment, even the markets and orange-sellers, closed shop.
2) Civil disobedience was the model. Martin Luther King was invoked and it made sense.Families left the house fresh and tense for marches, candle-light vigils, only to be beaten with clubs and sprayed with tear gas.
3) Eight months passed like that.
4) European faces appeared on television, announcing the results of an election: “The Elephant” had been chosen by his subjects, who, it was to be supposed, must love him.
5) Ballot boxes on the side of the road, burning.
The thing I figured out even as a kid was that there weren't cameras like at the civil rights movement. No one could be brought to care, and so within a year, the dead were buried, hopes for real democracy in Togo suffered one of what was a series of thudding, horrible checks, and everything went back to the way it had been before. Except things felt creakier and heavier, and one could barely go an hour without thinking of that man.
I had the option to leave Togo when I was eighteen and I did. In was in New York when The Elephant died of natural causes and was replaced by his son. That was around the time I learned a trick to play with the dictating of poems from a friend. There was a twist. We played it like a game. You left out a word in the poem, and guessed, with your ear, what word went there. “Auden taught like this” he said. We could write the poem alongside Auden; compose with him. I was delighted. It was like dictation, but you could kind of talk back.
In “The Prolific and the Devourer” Auden says that a fascist's best trick is to convince the man-on-the-street that he's part of a family. This helps me understand why a dictator, through his attempts to forge an illusory personal relation, comes to remind you of that lover; the one who demands relentless assertions of loyalty, fear, and desire. He wants to imagine his people need his words, adore his very omniscience. He must be reassured he controls the imaginations, voices, pens, even the movements of the bodies of his subjects–and he insists, with a mania, to be indulged in the fantasy that they even like it.
People often ask me what it was like to live in Togo as a kid—particularly, I guess its interesting because I am white, and almost nobody else in that country is white. But I rarely get asked what it is like to grow up under the shadow of an Elephant. I keep trying to answer, anyway. I keep trying to write it down and this is all I’ve got so far:
Its like dictation gone wrong. Like being forced every day, every hour, to learn a script that your mind, your arm, your whole body resists. To take give or to take dictation is intimate–it is to speak for, to speak through and to be ‘spoken for’. The perversion of that intimacy, the way a ruler gets in the minds of his people and makes himself unforgettable, makes that great achey shadow that lies over Togo.
I've heard it said that memory is a minefield, but that seems dramatic. I'd say that a daily life can be booby-trapped. A panicky boy in a French film on Netflix, a lesson in dictation, and sometimes, news about other countries struggling for democracy, perhaps hoping for cameras and attention, all have the power to fling me back into the White Year, hard. I get the eerie sensation that though I think I've forgotten The Elephant, he has not forgotten me!
And when you dip into a prolonged memory of your childhood, looking up into your new life gives the world around a surreal edge. When I finish teaching, and rattle across the bridge into Brooklyn at night, Manhattan's identical rows of dazzling rectangles look like a picture pasted against the windows of the train; like a film being run alongside the subway car–and I have the spooky feeling that if I put my hand out the window, I'd puncture the screen. There'd be nothing there to touch.