Category Archives: poetry

you are what you read

What book am I? Apparently the most annoying one out there.  Pale Fire  by Vladamir Nabakov of Lolita fame. Our book club selection this month was actually a quiz that tell you what book you are and what that says about you. Great fun for a book club- everyone gets to read something different (or possibly the same) and determine whether the literary horoscope-style description fits. Here’s what my book says about me.

You’re really into poetry and the interpretation thereof. Along the road of life, you have had several identity crises which make it very unclear who you are, let alone how to interpret poetry. You probably came from a foreign country, but then again you seem foreign to everyone in ways unrelated to immigration. Most people think you’re quite funny, but maybe you’re just sick. Talking to you ends up being much like playing a round of the popular board game Clue.

The description was amusing and slightly applicable. But I hated the book after just a flip-through. The first section of it is a rambling epic poem. The bulk of the book is then a footnoted (even more rambling) commentary on the poem and the supposed contribution from its fictional author. Nabakov even goes so far as to include a substantial glossary on the fictional author’s native land.

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punctuation is next to godliness

I’jaam  by Sinan Antoon 2004 Iraq, 2007 US (97 pgs)

The most stunning piece of literature I’ve read in years.  Antoon uses the prison narrative as a parable for how totalitarian government affects the individual psyche as well as the populace as a whole.  The poetry background of the author is evident in his loving use of language as well as the lyrical imagery of the periodic hallucinatory dreams.  Layered with meaning and stunning in its incisiveness,  I’jaam ranks up there with Kafka and Orwell in my opinion.

The word i’jaam refers to the practice of adding dots to Arabic script to clarify meaning.  In a masterful use of nested narrative, the underlying structure is that of an undotted journal kept by a prisoner.  But overlaying that is the premise that this journal is later found by his keepers who assign a low-level bureaucrat to literally add the dots, which means they’re assigning their bias to “clarify” the piece.  The dichotomy of the prisoner’s struggle to escape through his unjointed writing and the imposed stifling of the added i’jaam makes for a poignant picture of imprisonment.

take 5

I’ve been thinking recently about my what my “desert island” books would be.  You know, the books I would take with me if I was stranded on a desert island.  Assuming it was the leisurely type of stranding that would give me time to pick up the books.  And assuming I didn’t go in for the practical  (Boat Building 101 or Wilderness Survival) or the ironic (Robinson Crusoe and Swiss Family Robinson).  Here they are, in order of awesomeness.

1. Parable of the Talents by Octavia E. Butler

I love stories told in journals.  There’s something about the immediacy and personalness that really resonates with me.  And this one has the added benefit of being a post-apocalyptic distopia- my favorite genre.  Olamina, an young “sharer” feels any pain she witnesses, regardless of who it’s inflicted on.  In response to the chaos around her, and influenced by her upbringing as a preacher’s daughter and her status as a sharer, Olamina forms a new religion and begins gathering followers.  The religion is intriguing and the story of the persecution the followers face is heartwrenching, and the sections with Olamina’s estranged daughter coming to terms with her mother are compelling.  Talents is the sequel to Parable of the Sower (also excellent, would be #6) which tells the story of Olamina’s formative years and how she came to her beliefs. 

2. I Who Have Never Known Men by Jacqueline Harpman

I only discovered this book a couple months ago, but it instantly earned a spot on my top ten books of all time.  A young girl, nameless even to herself, grows to womanhood imprisoned with a group of women.  None of them know why they are there or what has happened in the outside world.  For a time they are silently guarded by a small group of uniformed men, but they are forbidden from asking questions.  When sirens break the monotony, the men disappear, and the women are forced to escape to avoid starvation.  What they find is no better than their previous imprisonment.  They wander a desolate land marked only by bunkers of women who weren’t fortunate enough to escape.  The young narrator, being a child at the time of the mysterious catastophe, long outlives her companions.  The book serves as a contemplation of what it means to be human.  Are you still human if you never touch another person, if the only voice you hear is your own?  If you have no goals, no purpose in life?

3. The Collected Poems of Octavio Paz, 1957-1987: Bilingual Edition by Octavio Paz

My favorite poet, Paz reads like watercolor paintings of Mexico.  The sensuality and imagery are amazing.  He’s a master of connotation and flow.  It’s the kind of poetry you savor.

4. Solitaire by Kelley Eskridge

A priveledged young woman, groomed from birth to be her nation’s ambassador, is charged with multiple murders when an accident claiming several hundred people seems to be her fault.  She is sentenced to solitary confinement in a virtual cell locked inside her mind.   How she deconstructs and reinvents her sense of self, both during and after her confinement, is an engaging exploration of identity.

5. The Stones Cry Out by Hikaru Okuizumi

 At the end of WWII, hundreds of Japanese soldiers were hiding out in the jungle, unaware that the war was over.  In this novel one such soldier, Tsuyoshi, tells of his platoon languishing in a cave.  Tsuyoshi is the sole survivor to return to civilization, but in his mind he never really leaves that cave.  As his companions lay dying, he saved his sanity by focusing on a small stone, and after the war he becomes obsessed with geology.

All my favs share a theme of loneliness and isolation.  Well, except for the poetry, but even there Paz’s writing carries a flavor of desert solitude.  (Slightly ironic for stranding time.)  And the fiction ones are all about life after the end of a world- through social collapse, apocalypic event, or personal tragedy.  There’s something supremely compelling and primal about discovering your personal strength through crisis.