Holding a creative distance: The origin of my recent engagement with Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations

This month I made my second appearance at Burning House Press. The first, a poem, was a distinctly personal effort, the most openly vulnerable piece of writing I have created this year. I’ve been debating the idea of what it means to write memoir—the only genre that really makes sense—and why I have a strange discomfort with much of what falls into that category. I’ve tossed about all sorts of approaches, from the straightforward essay to the fragmentary to the semi-poetic narrative and, in the end, I will probably just have to stop procrastinating and start putting down one word after another and see where it leads me.

In the meantime, I’ve long wanted to balance more experimental and detached projects against the personal. In particular, I wanted to find a way to engage with some of the books I brought home from my father’s library after his death. I started with randomly generated extractions from some of his collection of Russian literature, but quite honestly the material was not holding my attention. Of much greater appeal are his specialty volumes—slip-cased, illustrated collectible editions of classics like The Adventures of Marco Polo, The Rubiyat, and HG Well’s Time Machine.

One of my treasures is a small pocket-sized hardcover edition of The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius. And that’s where the current project began.

The theme at Burning House this month, craftily curated by my friend John Trefry, is “Non-nonfiction.” Inspired by a black and white postcard from New York City that I found tucked into my father’s copy of The Meditations, I decided to create a series of hyper-processed pseudo-wet plate images from some of my photographs. At first I imagined writing a mock report cataloguing these acquired images in some undefined post-apocalyptic future. But it felt too much like writing speculative fiction, forced and odd because fiction is not my territory. So I went back to Marcus, to exactly the location where the postcard still rests and extracted material from two verses on those pages. That material, manipulated with minimal intention, was then employed with the images to create an “excerpt” from an imagined series. Working like this allows me a creative expression from which I am distanced, at least to a degree, while at the same time honouring my father.

My piece, The Soul of a Man: A Meditation can be found here.  I hope you enjoy it.

A little poetic musing: Three recent or current reads and a poem of my own

I haven’t posted much lately, in part because I have been focused on some writing and reviewing for other publications, and also, because I’ve decided to list my house, concentrated reading has been somewhat disrupted. In the midst of all this, however, there is always time for poetry. I find lately that poetry has become an increasingly important part of my reading routine. So, I thought I would take a little time to look at a recent read and a couple of the collections currently vying for my attention.

Unbearable Splendor by Sun Yung Shin (Coffee House Press, 2016)

The intersection of essay and poetry is of particular interest to me. This collection takes a wide-ranging approach to the confluence of the two forms and stands as an impressive example of what can be achieved by filtering essayistic meditations through a poetic lens.

Sun Yung Shin was born in Korea and adopted by an American family at the age of two. The weight of her dual identity pulls the explorations that comprise Unbearable Splendor together into a loosely spinning orbit. Along the way, she weaves in elements from cosmology, linguistics, Korean culture, Greek mythology, literature and futuristic visions of being. The result is dazzling and devastatingly beautiful. For my money, the most interesting pieces offer strange and unusual angles on the cellular, spiritual, and genetic implications of being an orphan, often referring to herself in the first person plural:

As we task our memory-organ to remember our life in Korea, we breed dream after dream. False dreams? Truthful dreams? Hanging? Phantom shaped? They drop like ripe fruit, then disappear before hitting the ground, preventing bruising, rotting. Dreams are ephemera and have no body to violate, no flesh, to decay. They can remain fresh as the wind, recycled like hot rising vapor from the ocean, into the frozen clouds, and eventually back into the crashing black water, the source of all dreams, the living body of our planet.

Kafka and Borges offer inspiration, a series of essay/poems feature Antigone, and toward the end, she draws on cyborg and cloning technology. The language is devastating. However, if I have any reservations, it would be that some of the pieces fall awkwardly in between the two forms—too much an essay to be a satisfying poem, but not developed enough as a nonfiction piece to really flesh out an idea.

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Currently reading:

The Promised Land: Poems from an Itinerant Life by André Naffis-Sahely (Penguin Books, 2017)

This slender volume represents poet and translator André Naffis-Sahely’s first collection. Born in Venice to an Iranian father and Italian mother, he was raised in Abu Dhabi. The earlier poems in this collection deal with his childhood in the harshly surreal environment of a manufactured city, and his return visits in early adulthood. His shifting relationship with his parents, how he sees and understands them as their marriage crumbles and life in Abu Dhabi loses any lustre it may have had, provides the material for an strong series of poems. The second section, which is where I am currently biding my time, includes a number of poems that cross the globe and speak to a certain restlessness. Here, is a sample from the prose poem, “This Most Serene Republic” which opens with a description of Venice as his father experienced it when he first arrived in the 1960s and spent a cold damp winter huddling atop the wardrobes as water rose through holes in the floor of his flat. The son in his footsteps describes:

… Those old, porous palaces, whose upper floors housed the few penniless nobles whose hallowed ancestors once terrorized the Mare Nostrum. Those palaces, much like the one I’m sleeping in, smelt like Latin jungles: mahogany everywhere. I love this tiny room and its Franciscan sparseness. All my life, I’ve felt like a Jew, or a Gipsy, or some hapless scion of a lost wandering tribe, but they, at least, have Bar Mitzvahs, music… all I’ve left is this room. This was an empire ruled from rooms: chambers decorated for a single, specific purpose: to impress its numerous enemies. I can’t sleep. There’s a ghostly halo above my bed where a clock used to hang. One way, I suppose, to stake a claim on timelessness, if not serenity.

This is the type of collection I like to linger in, not to hurry through. A clear, authenticity shines through in Naffis-Sahely’s poetics, with a quiet reflective wisdom I am really enjoying.

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Jonahwhale by Ranjit Hoskote (Hamish Hamilton/Penguin India, 2018)

This book seemed destined to prove more elusive than Ahab’s famous whale. I looked for it in Calcutta, a copy was sent to me in late February, and finally assuming that that one drowned somewhere along the way, I placed an order with an Indian distributor that ships by courier and the book made its way across the globe in four days. Sometimes you do get what you pay for.

Ranjit Hoskote is a poet, translator, curator and cultural critic based in Bombay. I’ve just started into this volume and I’m very excited to see where its currents will carry me. I’m expecting a lyrical adventure along fabled waterways, through literary and historical channels. Hoskote’s broad cultural perspective promises a timely exploration of the political and ecological realities that shape and threaten our world. This, again, is a text, that invites careful reading. No need to rush on this journey. Here is a taste  from a piece called “Ahab”:

Captain of castaways, the pilot calls out and his curse carries
                                         across docks, derricks, opium factories:
                                          a typhoon in the horse latitudes.
He’s hurled his ship after the whale
that swallowed him and spat him out.
.                                     The monster is the only system he’s known.
At the bridge, he’s drenched in the dark:
locked on target, silent, furrowed,
Saturned to stone.

I have, as ever, several other books close at hand. I’m finding that short, single author collections from contemporary poets  hold the most interest for me at the moment.

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And, finally, this past week saw the publication at Burning House Press, of my own modest piece of poetry, a short prose poem called “Are We There Yet?” This is my first successful poem as far as I’m concerned, that is, something that came out as I intended. It was written in response to the theme “Liminal Spaces”, a perfect fit for a way of thinking about my own dual-gendered life experience. I did, coincidentally, advise the editor that he could consider it a poem or an essay, since I look at everything I write, no matter the form, to be nonfiction.

You can find my poem here.