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.

Wrestling with Rhys: Reflections on reading Voyage in the Dark

I debated leaving this book undiscussed, unfinished even. It is not in my nature to write negative reviews but I am not certain my reaction to Voyage in the Dark, my selection for the Jean Rhys Reading Week, counts as negative as much as it stands as disappointed. I felt it was worthwhile looking into why this book and its author did not work for me as I had hoped it would, especially when, at one time, I did read and enjoy several of her books. If anything has changed, of course, it is me. I am not the same reader I was thirty years ago and, if there could have been a worse time for me to entertain the company of Voyage’s protagonist Anna Morgan, this past week would be hard to beat.

voyageWhen we meet Anna, the young narrator of Jean Rhys’ 1934 novel, she is eighteen, going on nineteen, and working as a chorus girl. Transplanted to England from her childhood home in the Caribbean, she paints a picture of a country that is bleak, cold, rainy and unwelcoming. She meets Walter Jeffries while she is on tour and once she is back in London they connect and initiate an affair. Anna takes this development in stride, as if it is both her due and her fate. She tolerates the sex and relies on the money he provides her to pay her board in a series of rooming houses and buy herself clothing. If her feelings are conflicted, it is difficult to tell. If anything she comes across as inordinately indifferent:

Of course, you get used to things, you get used to anything. It was as if I had always lived like that. Only sometimes, when I had got back home and was undressing to go to bed, I would think, ‘My God, this is a funny way to live. My God, how did this happen?’

Happiness is at best a vague notion, elusive when she vaguely tries to grasp at it. Only when Walter leaves for an extended business trip, severing their relationship upon his return, does Anna feel “smashed.” She makes attempts to reach out to him, to win him back, but what does she really miss? His arms or his money? It is hard to be certain.

Anna is always cold. She blames it on her origins in a hot climate, but the chill runs much deeper. In contrast to her persistent obsession with the monotony of her English surroundings, memories of her life in Dominica are presented in richer, more vivid terms. They are shot through with a melancholia that does not speak to childhood nostalgia alone–there is a sense that her emotions are complicated–but these passages allow for some of my favourite moments in the book:

All the way back in the taxi I was still thinking about home and when I got into bed I lay awake, thinking about it. About how sad the sun can be, especially in the afternoon, but in a different way from the sadness of cold places, quite different. And the way the bats fly out at sunset, two by two, very stately. And the smell of the store down on the Bay. (‘I’ll take four yards of the pink, please, Miss Jessie.’) And the smell of Francine – acrid sweet. And the hibiscus once – it was so red, so proud, and its long gold tongue hung out. It was so red that even the sky was just a background for it. And I can’t believe it’s dead….And the sound of rain on the galvanized-iron roof. How it would go on and on, thundering on the roof…

Rhys’ prose is strikingly spare and unaffected. It works well when she is looking back, or when the narrative occasionally falls into brief periods of stream of consciousness. The personality of secondary characters, if not necessarily sympathetic, are rendered with stronger brush strokes than that of the young woman at the centre of the narrative. And this is where the Voyage in the Dark becomes an effort for me as a reader.

Anna’s extraordinary passivity is a hallmark of the novel, as are the abrupt flashes of impatience and pride that periodically flare around others. She can be fickle, petulant and self indulgent. None of these factors are a problem, together or apart; what seems lacking is a context in which to understand her attitude and behaviour. For many readers I suspect this elusive quality of Anna’s character is where the interest and appeal lies. I found that despite moments when I was ready to re-evaluate my response to the text, Anna’s hollowness, apathy and vanity would test my patience again.

When she muses “I was thinking, ‘I’m nineteen and I’ve got to go on living and living and living,” her reflections echo a person struggling with depression, and that may be a fair interpretation, but it doesn’t hold weight for me in spite of passages like:

It’s funny when you feel as if you don’t want to do anything more in your life except to sleep, or else to lie without moving. That’s when you hear time sliding past you like water running.

Anna holds no responsibility for anything that has happened to her in her short life. She is miserable and expects everything to be handed to her. That’s fine, there are people like that and I do not expect characters to behave in manner that I approve of or to be likeable. But in modernist fiction I anticipate a measure of believability that, for some reason, is lacking for me here.

This is, I caution, my own idiosyncratic response to a book that I realize is beloved by many. I can understand how, in my early twenties, living with an as yet undiagnosed mood disorder, as an ostensibly female person keen to find female characters and writers that resonated with my own alien understanding of my gender identity; Jean Rhys’ novels and female characters could have held a strong appeal. From this vantage point in my 50s, I suspect it is more my experience with mental illness, personally and professionally, than my cross gendered path that account for my difficulty pulling myself through this short novel. And then, I am also mourning the suicide of a dear friend who battled a soul crushing depression for more than a year before finally taking matters into her own hands earlier this month. Against that backdrop, Anna’s persistent gloominess was, shall we say, cold comfort.