“We shall not cease from exploration And the end of all our exploring Will be to arrive where we started And know the place for the first time” (Little Gidding)
Stephanie Conn’s debut collection “The Woman on the Other Side” is a book of exploration. The poetry invites the readers into a world of fragments, between physical and internal landscapes. The collection is set in various locations and timelines, beginning from the opening passages inspired by the Dutch countryside and drawing a subsequent inspiration from its’ historic painters. However, Conn manages to superimpose her own vision and interpretation onto the paintings and leaves her written version lingering distinctly, like a melodious mid note hanging unobtrusive, in some corner of the readers mind…”He painted the lands lies below -/led us through small windows, into narrow interiors,/half-lit rooms draped with silk and shadow”( Vermeer’s Nether Land). The use of half-rhymes is used masterfully throughout the book to accentuate the significant pause for the readers to appreciate the same vivid details which was emanating from her spurts of inspiration. This reinterpretation is also given to other prominent painters in other locations, such as Chagal who resided primarily in the village of St Paul De Vence in the south of France; “Tell me of the green fields mapped in your mind/and the winding paths that always lead you back,/how your father held a scythe in his dark hands,/” (The Village)
In a 2016 interview with the Irish Times, Stephanie stated:
“Consumed by grief after my mother died, I felt terribly isolated and poetry offered comfort. The fact others had experienced this pain and survived also gave me hope” and the residue of this haunting grief and the resolve of hope can be seen and felt in the simplicity of lines like “it is June/but the curtains are pulled/and the candles lit/ … in an empty room/a fourteen year old girl/pores over her mothers diary” (Her Diaries).
Desolation and Resolution, a constant tug of war between the senses, ephemeral and empirical, act as a constant motif throughout the book. Attempts to balance between allowing the audience to gaze into her psyche and creating barriers play off each other in a manner that is truly remarkable. In Eclipse for example; “They said it would happen,/warned not to observe the sun/directly. I had been indoors” and “June.Again/ There have been too many/ birthdays and deathdays” (Abacus). The lines mimic the motion of a heaving breath but upon its release, we are left to somehow simmer in its bittersweet resolution.
Stephanie Conn was the inaugural winner of the Seamus Heaney Award for New Writing, a prize awarded to her for the poem “Lavender Fields” .The line from the poem that could truly encapsulate the mesmerising quality of this book is summed up here; “All this grew from a small bag of aromatic seeds”
Chukwudi Okoye’s anthology of poems is steeply didactic. A greater portion of it is also retrospective, Eurocentric, and, in some lines, pantheistic; although, the breath of metaphor conjures up a panoply of imagery plumbing deep the African core. In his book, one finds the “Niger” and the “frogs”; the “broken bamboo” and “black columns of ants”; “flutes” that are “urged to speak”, and “palm fruits ripe with fear”; “divine secrets from stones”, “sorrowful psalms of birds”, and “the rustling anguish of falling leaves”.
The technique of the poet is to make these landmarks the vestige of a lost story, “the ancient rhythm of the land”, which suffers repression from the acts of “scavengers”. In The Music of the Flute, a long poem which preludes the collection of twenty-three poems, there is the lyrical and gruelling canvassing for a people’s awareness against a season of anomie. The apprehensions of the speaker, densely woven into a revue of parables and allusions, are based on the socio-cultural progression of his society; of its coming-of-age from a pilfered identity, a “plundered soil”; and of the need to, as the Music of the Flute urges, “remember” and “speak”.
. . . Shadows wait at the corner of evening.
Shadows pay homage at the feet of decay (82).
This first poem is a story of Shadows, and the poet is generous with the defining details of their essence: they came from a “distant” and “foreign land”; are devious, “come from the corners of the evening”; are “organised”; they “infiltrate the watchmen’s bones” and, “giving life to them” as stooges, “become the watchmen we know”. These Shadows are also portrayed as the “scavengers” who are everywhere, entrenched among the people, perpetrating common anguish.
The western wind has blown us away
The eastern waves have torn us apart (152).
The poet’s knowledge of colonial history is evident in his lines and filters into his stream of consciousness. His retrospection is most likely inspired by—as the title of the book points—the words of his mother, one who certainly must have lived in the time he has chosen to philosophise about.
Ezeamalukwuo; the name you gave
Me, Dearest Mother, so that I may speak (4).
His account of the Shadows speaks volumes about the imperial divide-and-rule system the English devised to colonise the poet’s native Ibo land in Southeast Nigeria in the early part of the twentieth century. This system placed absolute power in the hands of warrant chiefs who spoke for the black man and conquered for the white man. The fruit thereof was a pseudo-aristocracy, a subversion of the democratic political structure of the Ibo, one which turned the land against itself. Connotative words and phrases such as putrefaction, infiltrate, watchmen, outline of the land, strange voices, and plundered soil illustrate colonialism. Okoye’s choice of the evening as the fateful period of the day when the Shadows invade is symbolic; as that period is associated with rejuvenation, a time when a community is reformed to vacate its toil. His description of the western wind is reminiscent of Okonkwo’s discerning frustration in Chinua Achebe’s classic novel, Things Fall Apart: “The white man… came quietly … and we have fallen apart.”
It goes without saying that the effects of colonialism were extremely evident in the Ibo region of Nigeria, as after the entry of the White ensued a dramatic evisceration of the people’s cultural values and political institutions which were a sharp antithesis to the culture of the colonists.
. . . Green hopes of our generation
They fall on the cemetery of dreams,
To die and decay,
To reincarnate in time (270).
In the latter parts of The Music, there is an inquiry into the roots of redemption (of “land” and of “self”). It is asked, “Who knows the significance of the frog/Running about in day-time?” “It is not for nothing,” the flute replies (214). The poet strikes a stoic re-affirmation at the core of a reparative spirit.
The palm fruits have come of age
Not in the perennial passage of time
But in the sprouting of the spirit (319).
At the heart of his proposal for redemption, Okoye stages “a second coming”. It is not the literal apocalypse of the Bible that he refers to, but a political allusion to a revolutionary Day of Reckoning against the corrupted watchmen of the void, “butchers of dreams” and “betrayers of day”; a day which, according to him, would emerge if ignorance of the past be banished from the land, and actions for originality enthroned above intentions.
Biblical allusions, parallelisms, conceits, and repetitions are major devices of the poet. His repetitions engender an incantatory rhythm which enriches the epic voice. He uses parallelisms, conceits and allusions to strike emphases and embellish his storytelling; though artfully, yet to a point of near-weariness. Somewhere, there is a reference to the biblical Rachel in Ramah, “weeping for her children”; and the poet compares her mourning to that of his, for his native land. Elsewhere, “it is not by power, it is not by might/But by the sprouting of the spirit” (311); and “on enlightenment pathways of meandering roots/The flesh is weak; the flesh is weak” (325). However, it is those who heed the Music of the Flute that “shall possess the riches of the land”. His verses are also rife with indigenous aphorisms; the reader could pass them for a compilation of proverbs than a spontaneous flow of poetic thoughts.
But, as the pages turn, “Mother” is not always Mother, in the literal sense of the word. In Ezeamalukwuo, a poem on patriotism, Mother is Country; a nation the poet belongs to, but is, in a way, regrettably estranged from.
. . . Oh Mother! My eyes were little and blind. . .
No I did not understand you at all.
All I saw was your nakedness, Mother!
All I knew was wars, famine, death and dust
Your harsh sun, your Harmattan and your rain
That beat constantly on our leaking roof. . .
Thus I abandoned you, Dearest Mother (25).
In The Discovery, with a sombre tone as in Kofi Awoonor’s Songs of Sorrow, Mother is Life itself: “Oh Mermaid, oh Mother/In your presence alone have I come to see/That all my quests and questions/Are but a chase after the wind” (47).
Okoye explores a humanistic array of themes with the poems that emerge in the second section of his collection. They are, one time, a tribute to pensive joy; and, at another, a song of questions from a stricken heart. His language is unhappy, but his vision is bold.
Little Child, I Wish, and Remember, Soul Brother are poems on youth and innocence. In them are “the brownish recollections of a child” to a distant season of equality and freedom; and a hundred noble wishes to, with simplicity, “cross-pollinate the flowers of every mind”. I Love to Take a Walk, I Shall Go, Little Cherry Gold, The Bicycle Repairman, and A Plea for Paradise are powerful statements on the subject of death and origin. The poet’s position on death is a stoic and open-minded one, as he illustrates it to be an important mystery which is the punch-line of life. In two poems, he uses stories of bereaved characters to also mirror the stunning transience of human life. One is “a little ebony child”, “a sweet girl” whom the poet says was “stolen in Harmattan’s whim”. The other is “the bicycle repairman”.
The bicycle repairman was my friend
We bonded over a bicycle wheel. . .
Tomorrow we shall break more words and tears. . .
Someone was dead. . .
The next day I met a man pedalling his bicycle.
He looked familiar;
So I stopped him, and I asked:
“Who died yesterday?”
“The Repairman,” he replied,
And cycled away in time (20).
Yet, the poet would “prefer the wild uncertainties of life/To the deafening silence of certain death” (53). While his disposition towards death is enduring, his attitude towards life is adventurous. I Prefer the Wild Uncertainties of Life, All I Know of Life, and In the Midnight Hour are poems that undermine the “seriousness” of life, and, at the same time, celebrate its possibilities. The poet does not wish to make absolute sense of life; he is only interested in living it, open-mindedly and courageously.
. . . I walk the land of the living
In search of the secret of the dead
Before me is the fountain of hope,
But my path is covered in red (36).
Among other sarcastic poems on religion, science and the very fragile politics of identity; Okoye extols love as the bottom line of life. The Pilgrim Song, There is Something in a Song, and Woman of the Niger are love psalms. Through them, authorial assertion is vivid on the nature of love as a grand neutraliser; a plain where all philosophical waves of confusion are, for a moment, silenced.
You said: “Death is in the air. Death is on the earth. . .
I replied: “Life raised us up, then cut us down.
Death bound us to the underworld, but
Love raises us again, this time a zombie.” (59).
A glimpse of the grief that embodies the sensitive African soul is an achievement and cause for rejoicing at a postmodern evening of senile sensibilities. Chukwudi Okoye’s The Words of My Mother is, for this reality, and for the post-colonial African, a clamour for the restitution of lost Ideals on countless grounds.
Oyin Oludipe, Nigerian writer, edits nonfiction at EXPOUND: A Magazine of Arts and Aesthetics. His poems and essays have been published in various national and international journals like Ijagun Poetry Journal and Sentinel Literary Quarterly (SLQ).
Cultural critic and media theorist Neil Postman once wrote, “When a population becomes distracted by trivia, when cultural life is redefined as a perpetual round of entertainments… when, in short, a people become an audience… culture-death is a clear possibility.” He discussed the “Catastrophe of Trivialisation” as the constant stimulation of mind in a digitalised western world would end up a utopian apocalypse. Nicole Rollender has similar observations but her outlet is an austere dystopia, but the sentiment of culture-death remains the same…
Bone of my Bone is a deep plunge into the physical and existential predicaments of our collective “Flesh Existence”. It is a frightening, courageous and daunting journey which has the power to force its reader to scurry around the gritty recesses of their own subconscious. However, despite the bleak nature of the work, a fundamental truth about the morose side of human consciousness is discovered. This chapbook strips flesh down to bone and contrasts the classic quandary between mind and body as they form a collective “Primal Fear”, “… God, if it’s you who destroys / if it’s you who spits out ghosts / … then I swaddle you, Lord … / Even if my mouth fills with one hundred severed tongues” (Vespers).
The chapbook begins with the poem “Lauds” which drags the reader into a “Vortex of Uncertainty” as the ineffable juxtaposition between the cosmos and the immediate experience of consciousness are explored consistently, “Outside the birds are dying of cold on their branches, / and you’re looking for a way into heaven” (Lauds, p.1). Rollender burrows into the egotistical nature of humankind, the ignorant destruction of our “Neglected Earth” and all which inhabits it for the gain of personal salvation. She achieves this with trademark intensity and graphic imagery which uncovers the precarious modern fears of lost individualism in the swathes of a dying planet. Bone of my Bone not only exposes our deepest fears, but confronts them directly. Rollender writes with clarity despite her use of challenging metaphorical imagery. Her poetry flows from an anxious mind, “if I can’t speak more sweetly, will they cut my tongue from my mouth?” (Tongue, p.7)
Rollender has the skill and confidence to utilise grim, vivid and disturbing imagery to highlight her nihilistic philosophical persuasions. In fact, the macabre hopelessness forms the anchor of this collection. The “Morbid Fascination” prevalent in the human psyche is revealed through a darkened and catastrophic world – where one is a vicarious voyeur to the experience of lucid madness, as if visiting an asylum in Victorian Britain where inmates mutter scattered verses from T.S. Elliot’s Wasteland.
Rollender likes the reader to play “God” in Bone of my Bone. From the dismemberment of an animal by “God the Butcher” – “He can’t cut these split carcasses on the block – / a butcher must crack backbone and find the deepest vein / to drink” (Lauds, p.1) – or an insect with “God as Nature”, “Dropping the torsos / in the stream, the water performed the final kill” (Disassembling, p.6), Rollender manages to create a distinctive poetic experience. At the heart of the work is a pendulum which dangles on the threshold of humanity’s fragility, “even if my arms are cut from my torso, sing you / into being, // even if my mouth fills with one hundred / severed tongues” (Vespers, p.9).
The Universe in Bone of my Bone is a shadowy place – Rollender employs bleak symbolism reminiscent of Ted Hughes’ pinnacle collection, Crow: From the Life and Songs of the Crow. She employs mythological imagery – most noticeably Christian – to reference consistently body image and the way it reacts to an existential world devoid of a benevolent Power. She blends effortlessly theological and pantheistic concepts into her work, “What is the divine, but God- / light, thorn and scourge, blood let, that bone / shine? What is also the divine: There is no saint / without a past.” (Sext, p.3), “the one / who cracks my pelvis, / he-who-hollows between / mountains […] Hold me, Lord” (Driving to the Hospital, After My Water Breaks Nine Weeks Early, p.8).
The consistent onslaught of desolation through the eyes of womanhood is a moving experience for reader and writer alike. She highlights a world where bodies are seen as decrepit when mothers are unable to produce milk for their starving offspring, and similarly when their wombs are unable to provide a safe passage between pregnancy and birth. Rollender deals with gateways and passages, blurring the lines between birth, life and death, “A woman’s skin / is one world. The birth canal is another”, “The women who don’t bear children / are held down and singed with black lines before // they return to work in fields, skin a book / of illumination” (Marked, pp.11-12).
The murky philosophy of death and hopelessness are the predominant themes in Bone of my Bone but within it are the occasional glimmers of light which gives the chapbook its substance. The continuity makes it satisfying to read all in one go, as one world a short story – the familiar images sew the collection together into a memorable poetic tapestry. Rollender manages to echo Nietzsche’s persuasions that “All credibility, all good conscience, all evidence of truth come only from the senses”. Bone of my Bone achieves this “Truth”.
Bone of my Bone challenges the reader to uncover the darkness beneath their veils. It reminds us to search for meaning in a world despite its harrowing destitution. This is an important poetic work which demands the reader to claw away their masks, to shock parts of their mind awake as they are too often placated by a digital world. Bone of my Bone is a dismal, chaotic yet worthwhile voyage into the “Concealed Blackness” of human experience, “You, the living / mother, shake salt from the table cloth, teach your / child to nest where it’s warm, tell your dead to head / toward whatever window is full of light” (How to Talk to your Dead Mother).
A Review of English translations of Paul Valéry’s “Les Pas” and “Le Cimetière Marin” by David Leo Sirois
French Post-Symbolist Paul Valéry’s masterful—even obsessional—crafting of consistent patterns of meter and rhythm presents translators with the daunting task of preserving the integrity of his poetic architecture while upholding the precision and polyvalence of his diction. Translator-poet David Leo Sirois performs this balancing act artfully, if not entirely with ease. Sirois’s translations of “Les Pas” and “Le Cimetière marin,” both published in Valéry’s talismanic interwar Charmes (1922), veer towards literal fidelity to the French originals mingled with gleams of more creative approximation.
Published in 1920 by Émile-Paul Frères before its inclusion in Charmes, “Le Cimetière marin” is likely Valéry’s best-known poetic work. Sirois’s translation of the poem, a quasi-histrionic progression of twenty-four sextets planted on the page like as many tombstones, fails to transmit the richness of Valéry’s decasyllabic rhythm, rhyme, and alliteration. However, Sirois’s English version holds strikingly true to the original’s shrill and clamorous tone, drawing readers into the metaphysical drama at the heart of the poem. Sirois’s encapsulation of the poem’s imperative to live in spite of the inevitability of death—and its revendication of the poetic process as a creative act that defiantly embraces life and its struggles—is particularly strong in the final three stanzas.
Certain lexical decisions in both translations strip key lines of the ambiguity they carry in French, closing off open ends. For example, Sirois’s translation of the title “Le Cimetière marin” as “Cemetery by the Sea” significantly narrows the breadth of an adjective akin to the word “marine” to a description of location only. In the case of “Les Pas,” Sirois translates the leitmotif of “les pas” as “the footsteps” where it appears in the poem’s title and first and last lines, although he opts for the more literal and less concise “steps,” which might more loosely refer to footsteps as the steps of a doorway, flight of stairs, or choreographed dance, in line six. His translation of the poem’s second quatrain substitutes the superlative “purest” for “pure” in line five.
Other choices result in awkwardly stilted language not present in the French poems’ turns of phrase. Most markedly, Sirois translates line 31 in “Le Cimetière marin,” “Beau ciel, vrai ciel, regarde-moi qui change!”, as “True sky, handsome heaven, see me! I change.” Without apparent justification, Sirois radically fragments Valéry’s syntax and inserts a disruptive first-person singular declarative statement where there ought not to be one. In the same line, Sirois sacrifices Valéry’s poetic repetition of “ciel,” inverts the order of the poem’s adjectives, and leaves readers to grapple with the odd selection of “handsome heaven.” Likewise, in his translation of “Les Pas,” Sirois maladroitly retains the literal “nude feet” for “pieds nus.” Here English idiom would favor the more familiar expression “bare feet.” Likewise, the choice of “hurry” for “hâte” in line thirteen has a jarring effect that mars the smoothness of the poem’s syntax. In English we do not commonly use “hurry” in clauses that contain direct objects; we tend to lean towards “rush,” or, in more formal contexts, “hasten.”
Such uneasy moments aside, at many points Sirois takes creative liberties with his translation to more effectively reconstruct Valéry’s tone and rhythm for readers in English. For instance, Sirois’s rendering of the final line of “Les Pas” as “My heart nothing but your footsteps,” while omitting the imperfect verb found in the French, astutely conveys the tormented anticipation and yearning of the poetic subject—and of the poem as a rumination on Lacanian lack avant la lettre. Sirois’s mindful translation of this line has the additional merit of mirroring the octosyllabic form maintained throughout Valéry’s poem, anchoring this allegory of poetic inspiration with an eerily calm and measured declaration of desire and expectancy.
To neglect poetry is to neglect a fundamental aspect of the Human Condition. Poetry is a tool used to reflect this, a means of meshing together abstractions to create an experience of continuity. Kiriti Sengupta’s The Earthen Flute is a carefully constructed collection of poetry which fearlessly exposes the Human Condition – brought to life visually with illustrations by the talented Tamojit Bhattacharya.
Sengupta has published eight books of poetry to date, as well as two translations. His proficiency has catapulted him into recognition in India and various international writing circles. The Earthen Flute is Sengupta’s most recent collection of poetry and prose, which focuses sharply on the emotional aspect of the inner consciousness, using a mix of mythology and personal meditations.
On the one hand, The Earthen Flute plays out like a precarious melody sitting on the threshold of our perceived “World” and the “Other”. This articulate collection employs intriguing whimsical poetic techniques which swing the reader into a “Higher State of Awareness”. For example, in the first poem, “Keep an Eye”, Sengupta references the Hindu goddess Durga, whose left eye connotes desire, right eye action and the central eye knowledge. The central eye is fundamental to this particular poem. Sengupta describes the eye as, “… kept open / full or half” (Keep an Eye, p15), which leaves the reader contemplating a world beyond the limitations of their sensory experience. This poem is accompanied with the image of Durga by Bhattacharya, whose interpretation of the third eye is a white void; an open, inviting space which can only be filled by “Knowledge”. This can be seen as the answer to humanity’s spiritual vacuum, where one can awaken to “True Awareness”. In this poem, Sengupta encapsulates delicately a statement from Plato, who believed that “Human behaviour flows from three main sources: desire, emotion and knowledge.” The eye is a key component of The Earthen Flute. It is referenced consistently in a myriad of metaphorical surroundings, as it takes on an omniscient quality, “trust me, the eye can see” (Cryptic Idioms, p37). “My soul seeks, but the eyes fail to see” (Seventh Heaven, p40).
Occasionally, the work in The Earthen Flute feels overly calculated and does not suit the lucidity prominent in the rest of the collection. However, halfway through the collection, Sengupta’s “Dreaming Eye” plunges the reader into an exciting chimera of surreality. In the poem, “Clues to Name”, Sengupta captivates the reader with ethereal yet powerful prose. Each piece is merely titled “#” and manages to remain serene in the context of a chaotic dream. This poem is the most cryptic of the whole collection, a genuine exploration of the Self and its liberation, “Water has no call, no décor either; it floats the bone and the mortal flames free!” (Clues to Name, p33).
Though not often, there are times when airy overtones make it difficult to follow the flow of the poetry. I found the poem, “Womb” – a journey both personal and uncomfortable referencing the concept of birth – difficult to digest, “World, you may comment on material loss / Only the mother understands rupture pain” (Womb, p17). Other times, the poetry can lack the core essence of expression, with occasional cliché phrases like,“We continue to live being frightened”, (Gateway to God, p25) or “I don’t call it a feeling, / I would rather name it / My experience (Experienced Personified, p23). These appear seldom, but are still disruptive to the reading experience. Nevertheless, these are pickings against a backdrop of otherwise authentic work.
This collection pulls the reader through Sengupta’s daily life as he tunes a fine juxtaposition between the outside world and the emotional side of the inner self. The strongest work which juggles the outside world and inner experience is in his short poem, “Envy”, where Sengupta transcends his experiences into a metaphysical observation, “Jealous– / A Dentist can say if you are one // Your teeth deviate from / The occlusal table / And thus, lips suffer from bites” (Envy, p.26). This poem appears lighthearted but honest, connoting a fear of falling short of perfection – an imagery-laden treat.
Although Sengupta is not too concerned with strict rhyme schemes, the clearest use of rhyme appears in the poem, “Cryptic Idioms”, “A flute sounds along the serpentine track / Breath tunes it from mute to high . . . to crack! // For eons religion or its absence / appears back-to-back . . .” (Cryptic Idioms, p.35). Sengupta continues the modern tradition of free verse, not limiting himself to stricter forms of poetry. There is delicate wordplay which bring to life images in a spiritually dormant world, as memory is used as a vessel, “Memories unveil themselves / Through snapshots, even / The moon has its glory / Pinned in poetry” (Moon – The Other Side, p18).
The Earthen Flute is a book of poetry for the spiritualist, or for someone looking to connect with their “Essential Nature”. Its digestible style makes it an inviting collection for both the poetry neophyte and veteran to read. The mix of experience in the context of mythological fantasies form the basis of this intriguing collection. Sengupta begs us to use vision beyond our eyes, awareness beyond our senses, before the abruptness of our part of the Human Condition ends:
“Like an inevitable death / An enormous God steps in” (Gateway to God, p25).
Attempted Speech and other Fatherhood Poems is a chapbook of fifteen poems written by Nigerian linguist cum teacher, Kola Tubosun. It was published by Saraba Magazine in September 2015 as the fourth title in its individual poetry chapbook series.
At first glance, a compilation around the theme of fatherhood promises marvels; although Kola’s claim to thematic divergence is essentially one of approach. In weaving a string of poems that “are not as much a dedication to this (fathering) process however as they are personal reflections on that”, one encounters a cryptic yet compelling passage of nostalgia, excitement and anxieties. With an embrace of fine language, Kola’s collection promises all of these.
While the bard’s caveat of impending tangents (in the course of reading) announces itself by the turn of each page, most of his poems embody the experience of the budding father—emotional and cognitive—around private orbits of hope and transitions. The motion is aesthetic and subtle; one is tempted to contemplate chronology, though directly no claim is made by the poet for such implement.
What gives, for instance, the foremost poems – “Macedonia”, “Greener Grass” and “Couvade” – their fervent, near-surreal melancholy is the fact that they may be poems of early bereavement. Moods of deprivation are imbued by hopeful desperation. To quote the bard: In “Macedonia,” his invocations are for a soul to rebound to life: “Speak you must… / As with a lost wing, flap on white winds.” In “Greener Grass,” a trance of loss later accosts his afternoon as “Hair strands / On my hands break / From my lover’s head.” In “Couvade,” “As a churning stomach, rumbles the dour sky / Of the morning, the news reaches me, cold” and then, “Bile pushed saltiness to the home of tears.”
One prominent quality of Kola’s poetry, as it is with Lola Shoneyin’s, Jumoke Verissimo’s and others, is that it is structured within a fluid framework which very effectively navigates the core of the sentiments of human consciousness. What ensues is a powerful interfusion of muse, thought and story.
“Five Days of Warmth” is a testimony to the above-said form, considering its titled stanzas and references to actual figures:“Jojolo”, a quiet child who is thought to be male in the womb of his mother; a hospital “diviner”; and then, a child who is again thought to be female, whose presence would be the “presence of light”, and of a feast, “ofada / On the palates of a famished guest.” It is commendable how Kola chronicles a five-day experience of looming fatherhood (in the preceding moments of childbirth, perhaps): he names the stages across the progression of “knowledge”, “warmth” (of womb), “dread”, “love” and “acceptance.”
Yet, waiting is also a part of fatherhood – a transient phase of fantasy that almost crushes the bard in the battle between hope and worry. This is what a wait feels like:
“Is like a knife, slowly cutting
A dead limb of recurring expectations…
(A Wait, p9)”
As the pages flip, an earnest message is brought to bear upon the reader; and it is the fact that there are lots of apprehensions for “A Father of a new son / In a new age with new knowledge (A Cutting, p11).” In a poem, Kola introduces rather interesting reflections on the subject of human choice, and that as it concerns the new-born. On issues of pleasures, beauty, tradition and difference, a big question mark is placed on the notion of a young human’s power to make free choices unconstrained by society, by the external “Wide constituents of entitled opinions.”
However, Kola believes that the child soon and always finds his own path; even though such path is a summation of a thousand existent ones; even though “each new step is a beginning into the cold wild, / With the certainty of the unsure steps of a walking child (Life, Like a Bus Terminal, p16).” For the bard, the discussion on the dynamics of his theme is inexhaustible: “I believe it quite unlikely that anyone is able to fully express fatherhood in words (Preface, p4).” Even more, the rumination of it as a mantle of guardianship is an extremely dicey trajectory for conclusions. In another poem, one finds a confession of honest wonder:
“What does one write on a
Brown slate of bouncing flesh
What poem of such complex
Rhyme will explain the colours
Of his new-found views?
(Blank Slate, p20)”
But all of this does not deprive a father of the joys of his child’s “Attempted Speech.” “The syllables arrange / Themselves into tones, like staccato beats / On a metal drum” and the exciting scene “charms the tears off his mother’s eyes.”
A deductive examination of the bard’s musings reveals that he is more likely to be a liberal father than a conservative one. The omens are overlapping and recurrent. It could also be that his sinuous lines of conscientious restraint are equally cries for broad-mindedness in parenting – a redefinition, too, of what it means to be a father. Kola’s “Fatherhood” is not afraid of temperance, neither is it troubled by discretion. Clearly, it is tolerant of change, not bound by authoritarianism, orthodoxy, or tradition. Or, at least, it most likely will be. A reviewer—like me—is far from being a prophet.
Oyin Oludipe, Nigerian writer, edits nonfiction at EXPOUND: a Magazine of Arts and Aesthetics. His poems and essays have been published in various national and international journals like Ijagun Poetry Journal and Sentinel Literary Quarterly.
“The sadness must have been contagious / I could see it with my eyes / it was covering her skin / like climbing-grey ivy, creeping from her hand’s tips” (The Full Weight of my Head, p.5)
Pigeons and Peace Doves is an award-winning chapbook written by Bristol-based writer and artist Matthew J. Hall. It was published by Blood Pudding Press in June 2015.
Pigeons and Peace Doves conveys emotion through a minimalistic style, which is refreshing in the somewhat confusing world of postmodern poetry. With each poem less than a page long (one being only four words long), this collection is a light read upon first glance. However, its relative shortness may not prepare the reader for the vicissitude of dark awakenings for Hall. Hall is brutally honest, not shy of addressing the heavier topics from the recesses of thought through poetry.
Although many of Hall’s poems follow this minimalistic form, the imagery is usually quite engaging. A handful of Hall’s poems pull you into the darkness of his room, where he is at his most introspective. This is best reflected in this passage, “I found a dead moth / and placed it in a matchbox / I put the box in my bedside drawer //… the box had become a coffin” (Many Shades of Brown, p.10) However, there are instances where Hall uses clichés, which unfortunately disrupts his poetic projections. These are relatively infrequent but can taint some otherwise decent poetry.
In Pigeons and Peace Doves, Hall uses the imagery of the pigeon and the peace dove to bring about a sense of continuity in his work, giving his collection a sense of togetherness. They are used to some success, “I woke up warm / and the rhino was still asleep / his tusks aren’t as sharp these days / the petals and the peace dove have him subdued” (She Sedates the Rhino, p.1) One problem with Hall’s chapbook is that the continuity can become repetitive, with the majority of poems either taking place in his room or on the street. Place is important in poetry, a mix up of images and narratives can throw the reader in unpredictable directions. One of the standout works which breaks this repetition is the poem ‘Dear Confidence‘, where Hall addresses a personified Confidence, with an interesting hook and mysterious ending, “take stock, Confidence / pull from the ground up / reacquaint yourself with Quiet / spend some time with Reflection / let Introspection kiss your forehead and for all our sakes, learn how to cry.” (Dear Confidence, p.7)
Hall’s chapbook is filled with potent lamentations and the woes of loss. Single lines provide an insight into Hall’s mind and there are occasions where shorter passages reflect his most insightful work. Other times, though, the poetry can come across as needlessly in-your-face and not necessarily polished. On the other hand, this works sometimes, as Hall is a poet who is not afraid of telling a story for how it is,“and I wept and confessed / I didn’t want to live // but I couldn’t bring myself to tell her / that I had swallowed every damn tablet in the house.” (The Full Weight of My Head, p.5) “Death is always uncomfortably close / like tight skin wrapped around aching muscle and bone” (The City is Sad and Angry, p.4)
Pigeons and Peace Doves is an exploration of the self and its relation to others. It encompasses the claustrophobic feelings of depression, heartbreak and yearning for love. It is an interesting read but the collection is unlikely to linger long in the memory. Though Hall has put forth a few solid individual poems, future work would benefit from further rumination of concepts so that the writer can have greater authority over his poetic voice. Hall’s work is quite readable but I feel he would benefit from imposing himself more in future works.
Editor’s Note:This is our first review of an essay collection alongside poetry.
To read “Of Gardens and of Graves” is to witness the coming to life of Yeats’ famous line: “A terrible beauty is born”. It is to be reminded, if ever a reminder was needed, of the lingering pain that seeps slowly and eternally through the flooded scars of Kashmir, the scowl of the last half a century that darkens the fate of every subject, born under the auspices of its melancholic sky. It is hard to classify the book into a genre as it repudiates traditional hierarchies by refusing to be neatly categorized into one – it is simultaneously a memoir, a critical commentary, an anthology, collaboration, and a history all rolled into one, held together by a single source- Kashmir. An arbitrary classification of the book structure could be that the book comprises of three basic divisions: Essays, translations and photographs. On a reading, though, the narratives under each rubric just blend with each other, without any manifest hierarchy.
However, the essays appear to be tied loosely in a structural evolution, and so it appears fit to discuss them first. The first essay ‘Visiting Kashmir, Re-learning Kashmir’, explores the identity politics of the valley through a biographical tilt. As the comma in the title suggests, the essay is explores the neat schism between the two eras of Kashmir: pre and post 90’s, an idyllic prelapsarian world of nostalgic summer vacations, harmony and beauty, and a postlapsarian world of bullets, blood and trauma. Unlike most such narratives of Kashmir, the essay doesn’t delve into a comparison of the two states to lament the loss of the idyll and place them on isolated axes of disconnect. The fallacy of nostalgia that Fanon warned against is absent here, the signs of privilege and dissonance are strewn across the narrative. The cloying romanticism of most narratives that deal with Kashmir before 90’s is not found here, and so the reader is allowed to proceed without getting inundated in a surfeit of manufactured memories and claims of an artificial Kashmir without any undercurrents of difference. The prelapsarian world is the world where the grandparents are revered academics, summer holidays are a means of connecting with heritage – a means to temporarily suspend the duality of based in India and identifying oneself as a Kashmiri. The signs are already there – the study of the history of the evolution of the state as a constituent of Indian republic yields uncomfortable contradictions. While, article 370 stands as a reminder of the special circumstances in which Kashmir was ‘acceded’ to India, and a promise of plebiscite placated the international community, the history on the ground followed a different trajectory. Manipulated elections became the norm, and any attempt to reinforce the autonomous character of Kashmir is met with derision, as Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah learnt to his chagrin in 1952. The 1990’s arrive with the KP exodus, and so Kashmir disappears off the radar, as the pushes and pulls of a life in US take primacy.
Fast forward to 2003, the comparative subsiding of armed militancy allows the family to shift back to their ancestral home in Srinagar. The essay traces the descent of the pastoral idyll into an anarchic state where unaccountability rules the roost. The hierarchies of power have clearly been established, as the elite have’s zoom past the perplexed commoners in elaborate cavalcades that have the right of way – a lesson that is even forcibly reinforced as a university professor learnt the hard way after being dragged out by hair for failing to give way to an official vehicle. The former infamous torture centers – the twin Papas (Papa 1 and Papa 2 – translated ironically as Father – a way of accepting suzerainty as in the popular slang: Who your father?) have been transformed into official buildings but they serve as a monument of Kashmiri trauma – the conceived space scarcely having undergone any change to merit any change in the lived space, to borrow Lefebvre’s analogy.
Another, metamorphosis that plays out is the appropriation of KP identity as jingoistic national identity – an aspect that plays out repeatedly on social networking sites. All the KP sites have been militarized with large hoardings erected by armed forces appear en route shrines like Amarnath welcoming the pilgrims, thereby indicating the exclusion of the Kashmiri Muslim from the networks of empathy. Identity has been irretrievably tied with religion and religion is synonymous with nationality. All identity markers: accent, dress and appearance are measured on these axes and determine whether the subject will be the recipient of an angry bullet or a friendly smile. So, it comes as no surprise when the author’s mother who wears a sari, is on familiar talking terms with the soldiers, allowed to walk about when the same privilege would be denied to an ordinary Kashmiri Muslim. The narrative is secessionist Kashmiri Muslim fit to be crushed and disenfranchised versus Indian Hindu nation. This binary was never more apparent during the recent floods, when the common perception was that the ‘Hindu’ non-local labour force was the only beneficiary of the official rescue efforts, along with the elite of the land. The diaries of 2010 catalogue the travails of both sides of the conflict – the hapless angry victimized Kashmiri pitted against an underpaid, overworked and sometimes underfed force, and the ensuing result is tragic.
This premise is explored further in the second essay “My heaven is Burnin’…” that delves into the origins of the Kashmir conflict. The essay traces the emergence of the state of Jammu and Kashmir set against a general shift in the world towards a post-colonial global order as the sun faded on the imperial regimes of yore after the world wars. The essay makes a compelling argument about the substitution of post-colonial utopias by neo-colonial dystopias which replicate the modus operandi of their colonial masters. The imperialist intervention, the essay points out, forged a loose alliance of disparate communities yoked together by the agency of and consequently opposed to the imperial force, in this particular case – the British, to fight for nationhood based upon the premise that local aspirations would receive more recognition in new post colonial structures of governance as compared to the colonial centripetal systems. In the case of Kashmir, a vassal state, the anti-colonial movement rose against the Dogra regime, who obtained the absolute power over Kashmir, as a British vassal, through the infamous Treaty of Amritsar. The “historically abysmal levels of formal learning among Muslims” thwarted their emancipation. The Kashmiri Pandits, however, prioritized literacy and acquired an advanced level of literacy such that they were impossible to ignore in the administrative setup – being adequately literate and possessing local knowledge. The Hindu connection and literacy didn’t catapult them to higher levels of administration, though as the Dogras were determined to preserve their exclusive Rajput-Hindu identity as their claim to superiority. Discrimination against the local populace was existent at both covert and overt level, covert in case of Pandits and overt in case of Muslims who were additionally subject to an aggressive system of taxation and forced labour (beggar). The Muslim majority state thus suffered the double ignominy of being ruled by a regime, intent of preserving and promoting its Hindu credentials in scant regard of majority, and being further isolated from its ‘empowered’ Hindu minority who comprised no more than 5% of the population. The anti-colonial movement, the essay argues was therefore a confluence of several shifting strands – a demand for Muslim empowerment, class empowerment (the local peasant and artisan being the most impoverished and affected populace) and an identification with the larger anti-British struggle enacted outside the state by the Indian National congress.
The essay traces the various political and ideological contours that evolved in Kashmir after its interaction with the catastrophic accident of partition. The unusual events and startling claims of the treaty of accession, startling in the sense that they would drive hyper-nationalists to severe hysterics today, like a refusal to be assent to any future constitution of India, are sufficient to suspect any claim of willful integration of the state with the Indian republic. Over the next three decades, “politics in Kashmir continued to be a powder keg of repression”, which finally culminated in the explosive 90’s. By this time, the political issues had been simply relegated to a law and order issue and thus could be conveniently brushed aside by mobilizing a vast array of armed forces backed by the discourse of aggressive nationalism. The shift is painstakingly covered with a rich texture of detail and lucid language that leaves the reader with a profound sense of unceasing regret and loss signified best by the dotted line – a marker of continuity that completes the title.
The third essay “the Witness of Poetry” seeks to examine Kashmiri poetry as a chronicle of grief, decline and pain that serves to mould the discourses of future to some degree by serving as a means to transform consciousness – a refusal to write back into hegemonic discourses of guardianship, mentoring or regency that have variously been used as pretexts by neo-imperial regimes of Post-Colonial India. Taking its cue from the contemporary trauma theory, the essay seeks to examine what political positions can be mapped from the Kashmiri poetry, written as a response to 90’s. Elsewhere, I have pointed out that “traumatic memories are interpretative accounts and so liable to endless interpretation – “trauma is a crux, speaking to the undecidability of representation and the limits of knowledge” (Lockhrust, 2006). The narratives that emerge either in prose or poetry are therefore a belated response – an attempt to make sense out of the omissions and representations of a particular historical narrative; the disparities in the narratives only highlight the desire for creating a suitable defense mechanism that is in consonance with the prevailing socio-political mores. The literature of the 90’s reflects a sense to give form to orature – the narrative that precedes the written form, and so clear the ground for a new world order that assimilates the past.”
The essay then seeks to examine two poems that cover two narratives – the Kashmiri Muslim voice of trauma due to displacement from an idyllic past, and a Kashmiri Pandit voice lamenting the exile from homeland. Both voices are united in trying to seek solutions to the jigsaw – “the compendium of the sights and sounds, relationships, and every day practices” that lies shattered in the wake of armed insurgency. The Kashmiri Muslim voice represented by a ghazal by Mohiuddin Masarat is examined as cataloguing the dissonance, the rupture from normatively and hence evolving a “poetics of victimage”. The argument is scholarly and indeed well thought out except for a small issue that clouds the whole argument. The word ‘mot’ is translated as the lunatic (seer) in the ghazal, and the argument revolves a juxtaposition of the poet-lunatic in evolving a poetics of resistance. The term is often used in Kashmiri poetry as a reference to a beloved, a vernacular substitution. Will the argument of juxtaposition still hold if the meaning of mot is altered?
The argument will suffer to a minor degree, but the larger premise of a narrator engaged in ‘solipsistic disavowal’ will still hold. The Kashmiri-Pandit voice represented by a ghazal by Brij Nath Betaab is typical of Diaspora discourse, and the approach adopted by it can be traced to the famous poem by Akhter Shirani – O des say aanay walay bata (O traveler from my land, speak). The poem presents a series of images that constituted the idyllic pre-exile past, each stanza interspersed with the realization of the impossibility of fulfilling the erasure enacted by exile – does the practice still continue in the present. For the Diaspora, the homeland frozen in time and space, the incongruity of the alien Indian culture repeatedly evokes a memory to lacerate the wound of impossible history as it unfolds.The fourth essay “Indian Empire (and the case of Kashmir” completes the remarkable quartet of essays. It makes a well wrought answer to the question that every inhabitant from Kashmir faces in a lifetime: Why have progressive Indian intellectuals and politicians found the Kashmir problem puzzling? An analysis of the practices of Post-Colonial nations especially India reveals that the colonial imprint is too indelible to have allowed a complete break from colonial pasts as independence is imagined to have enacted. In the case of India, and other Post Colonial nations it has only served to induce a nationalist amnesia that refutes any interrogation of practices that allow suspension of fundamental principles of democratic functioning. The aggressive nationalism left as a residue of the post colonial mobilization has only served to negate any compromise on the definition of the external boundaries of the state as outlined by the departing British. This paradox of legitimizing the writ of the colonial master deemed illegitimate otherwise for administering the state informs the practice of converting the state into a massive security apparatus to contain the restive populations that refuse to abide by these boundaries. The negation of the aspirations of the local populace, a key characteristic of the transition from colonial to post-colonial highlights the absurdity of imagining a break from past – only a transfer of power took place, in reality.
The Indian state is placed in the context of global politics, to assess the conditions that negate any adaption of the post colonial ethos. The essay sets its argument upon a scathing analysis of a comment by C Raja Mohan – an eminent strategic affairs editor of Indian Express and a former holder of Henry A Kissinger Chair in Foreign Policy and International relations at the John W Kluge Center, Library of Congress. C Mohan argues for the evolution of an India center to facilitate the return of a Raj, enlisting the colonial period as a catalyst of bringing stability and peace to the warring and chaotic 19th and 20th centuries, overlooking conveniently the wrenching of the social fabric it caused apart from all hues of exploitation. Espousing an alliance with the primary global superpower –United States, he imagines India acting as a vassal in establishing an India center in the subcontinent giving India unparalleled access to the resources and routes of the subcontinent. India, therefore, is only following the global lead where the state is expected to modulate its policies to facilitate corporate trading and promote industrial interest. Rather than enacting transfer of democratic functions to the local constituents, the modern state acts only to extend capitalist principles set up by colonial trans-national companies like East India Company. The state’s capacity for violence directly determines its ability to exploit its resources both local and abroad to the hilt and any resistance, e.g. by Maoists only serves to invite state retribution. The political imagination is restricted to only two options: either accept economic development, surrender any attempt to wrest autonomy, or face military action.
The essay makes an extremely valid argument, about Kashmir, by placing it as a site of challenge to the Indian state’s “twinned powers of the state and multinational capital.” An analysis of the electoral trends shows the degree to which the Indian state imitates its colonial master to protect the interests of its mainland that include access to cheap hydropower, water and potential mining reserves. In a direct replication of the colonial strategy to maintain a vice like grip on its colonies, the Indian state has not permitted the state of Jammu and Kashmir to build or operate dams like Kishenganga and Baghlihar- both are built and operated by NHPC – an unit administered by the center, which charges the state for its operations, besides transferring the major chunk of power generated to mainland India. Another important and valid reason, pointed out by the essay is the mapping of Kashmir as symbolic of India’s purported secular syncretism that occupies a cherished place in the national imagination – tampering with the state’s current combination of Muslim (Kashmir) – Hindu (Jammu) and Buddhist (Ladakh) populace is irreconcilable with the nationalist-ideological imagination, and so begets no solution in the near future.
A word on the translations – though my Kashmiri especially perception of Kashmiri poetry is limited, yet I couldn’t help feeling that many translations appear to be poor cousins of the originals. There appear to be some glaring omissions and mistranslations. In Bashir Dada’s famous ghazal Bless him now, matio is translated as lost one and explained in a footnote as superseding rationality. That the word refers to beloved e.g. in matio dil ne rozan danjay (Beloved, the heart is all aflutter), as I explained earlier, has simply escaped his attention. The lost one last line in Ghulam Hassan Taskeen’s nazm: chon akh akh tsuih tse kiut bari giraan: is translated as Each one of your young, is for you, a great burden. Tsuih translates literally into breath or moment of lived existence, and so the line ought to read as as Each one of your young, is for you, a great burden. Zahirialmasa (zeher-e-almas) is inexplicably translated as Poison of diamond. Zahir-e-almas is a commonly used trope in Kashmiri poetry literally translatable into caustic poison whose effects are unbearable and painful to extreme. Some lines like so greedy I am for money I have my vision pawned, sound alien to the cadences of English poetry, to my ears. However, it is a subjective judgment and the readers will judge for themselves whether or not the translations appeal to them. Credit must be given where due, and that lies in anthologizing the works of Kashmiri poets for a larger readership. Though the selection is by no means exhaustive, as the preface confesses, yet it is a laudable attempt at examining the evolution of Kashmiri Resistance Poetry. The omission of Rehman Rahi and Naseem Shifai is certainly intriguing. Both are recognized widely as powerful voices engaged in recovering the voice of censored Kashmir. The omission of Naseem Shifai is even more surprising since her poetry is heavily influenced by feminist concerns and seeks to dramatize the severe trauma of the double subaltern – the woman, one of the worst off sections of the conflict ridden state. The book would have been the better for their inclusion. A final word on the powerful photographs of Javed Dar: they complement the narrative well, the black and white texture suits the narrative even better as the absence of color blends well with a lack of detail and life in Kashmir – a monotonous tale of death and destruction unfolds here on day to day basis, and the photographs present just that.
Overall, the book is a compelling but extremely painful read; it snuffs out any hope that we, the subjects of the beleaguered land hold that things might soon turn for the better. It appears that Marquez’s might have the final laugh: Races condemned to one hundred years of solitude did not have a second opportunity on earth. I fear the book validates this view point, and not entirely without justification. The book is a refreshing change from the myopic narratives of Kashmir, which one comes across at every juncture. Scholarly, balanced and extremely readable, the book is a welcome addition to the corpus of reading on Kashmir that includes Hindu Rulers, Muslim Subjects by Mridu Rai and Langauges of Belonging by Chitralekha Zutchi. Kashmiri scholarship is in safe hands, one wishes the same could be said about the administration.
Lockhrust, Roger. “Mixing Memory and desire: Psychonalysis, psychology and Trauma theory.” Literary Theory and Criticism. Ed. Patricia Waugh. Oxford University Press, 2006. 501.
Huzaifa Pandit is a research scholar working on resistance poetry at University of Kashmir. His poems and essays have been published in various national and international journals like Indian Literature and Papercuts.
Jennifer K. Dick, American poet who currently teaches American Literature, Creative Writing and Civilisation at the Université de Haute Alscace, France, unleashes a surreal, tantalising look into the poetics of psychology. Her current academic research focus is the merging of the field of poetry and of visual poetics. She has written three books and four chapbooks to date. Circuits, her most recent publication, was published in 2013 by corruptpress.
Circuits is a poetry collection based on George Johnson’s 1992 book on the science of memory, In the Palaces of Memory: How We Build the Worlds Inside Our Head. Throughout, Circuits echoes the scientific side of this work, sometimes falling short when translating it into poetry. Poems within Circuits are rarely less than one A4 side in length with few line breaks and thus, it is definitively a challenge even to the sophisticated reader of both poetry and psychology.
Despite this, when the technical language and concepts begin to strengthen in the brain as the collection goes on, what the reader is left with is a difficult, confusing, at times frustrating and other times, liberating exploration into the poetics of psychological memory. This exploration is best narrated through this segment of Dick’s work,
“the idea that memory is a bright light in the brain, one neural network responds to its intense competing hypothesis – different features for what is already open to scepticism. It was much of what Anderson was leading to: Certain brains pick the horizon as just another star, but deep inside are the various ways to guess it is Venus.” (‘Resonance and Reality, p.8). Enigmatic and esoteric, Dick has created a poetry collection unlike any other I have encountered.
Circuits is a poetic exploration of psychology and neuroscience and it is not a collection catered for the layman. Prior knowledge of these scientific fields are almost essential, unless the reader wishes to spend dedicated time looking up words such as ‘erythrocytes,’ ‘dendrites,’ ‘calmodulin’ and ‘neurotransmitter’. For the unprepared reader, this could be an enduring process. However, in spite of this, many of the poems come together by the end, as after reading them, revelations about memory, human behaviour, love, lust and confusion is bound in a purgatorial state between science and the arts. Dick’s poetic ability is not really in question, with stunning visuals such as, “She woke, tongue of her tulips, Marlboro or Lucky – the packet shaved. Cool tile in the blue-eyed auburn night crossing the doublings.” (A Hostile Reception, p.22) and “It was possible you were building an architecture we could be models for, human skulls stacked book-like on the shelves peering over your shoulder.” (Intuition & Ambiguity, p.30) Nevertheless, these pieces are rare gems to be plucked out from larger poems, leaving stanzas more exciting and together than the whole, due to the intellectual nature of the work.
Circuits captures in poetic sentiment the inescapable reality of a materialist’s focus: that we are merely our brains – soulless and without a mind – running on sophisticated algorithms (or Circuits, as the title aptly articulates). On the other hand, Dick’s has finesse within her writing that fleets about topics like a dragonfly’s non-linear movement over a lake. She exposes memories and emotional states at their most dreamlike in a precarious state of collective uncertainty, for example, “He was quick as the sound of room. Dirt. I mean space. I mean I need some.” (An Exotic Phenomenon, p.35). These shorter passages are what separate this book from being a condensed academic summation and into the realms of poetry where the imagery is vivid and interesting, tossing the reader between the taxing natures of mysterious wordplay and academic psychology.
There are moments when society is beautifully reflected in Dick’s poems, for quote, “try soup with multivitamins under surveillance” (The Porcupine Effect, p.4) crosses the barrier between lab experiments and modern life, a concoction of consumerism, prescription drugs and surveillance. One of the tasks of poetry is to make the work relevant to the day, as poems become as much of a historical artifact as they do a cultural magnifying glass on contemporary society. There are abundant times where Dick achieves this fundamental aspect of poetry.
The standout poem from Circuits, personally, was ‘Celestial Navigation,’ which evoked a poetic, psychological perspective between science, belief and faith as it merged the various topics seamlessly together. The human instinct to rely on their memories as a playback machine rather than a fragmented recollection, merging memory and imagination as highlighted, “Memories. Even in truth,” you began, / “is rooted on gut in faith.” (Celestial Navigation, p.47)
Overall, Circuits is a collection for anyone who is intrigued by science and art formulated together into poetry. Dick’s intellectual platform is fascinating and her work echoes human behaviour dressed up in metaphors using neurons, thought patterns and lab experiments. It is a collection which demands attention and reading around the subject area, but if the reader is dedicated to accessing an enigmatic collection of work and puts in the right amount of focus, not only is there solid writing laced with more than just a twist of psychology, there is a lot to be learnt from Dick’s poetic interpretation of science. It is not the sort of collection you are likely to curl up with on your sofa and read in one sitting but the power of this work exists through the readers’ willingness to learn.
Circuits is an interesting collection which captures intrigue, contemplation and inspiration, but that – occasionally – falls short of its potential due to its ambitious and demanding nature.
Review by Nathan Hassall
Nathan Hassall was born in the United Kingdom to an American mother and a half-English, half-Greek father. He received a BA Hons in History at the University of Kent, with a Year Abroad studying at the University of Massachusetts. He is the author of three self-published poetry collections, Nascent Illusion (2009), A Conscious Void (2011), and Of Gods and Gallows (2015) and endeavors to study an MA in English and Creative Writing at a British University in 2016.
Bullets & Orchids is a cryptic, yet highly relevant collection of contemporary poetry written by Rewa Zeinati, a Lebanese-American poet currently based in Dubai. It was published by corrupt press in 2013.
At first glance, Bullets & Orchids presents itself in a manner which is as surreal as it is intriguing, evident by Zeinati’s skilful manipulation of juxtaposing imagery in the title. This sets the tone for each of the 58 poems within, all titled with merely a number and rarely following a numerical chronology. Even this represents something stranger, something more hypnotic. Zeinati manages to create successfully a unique, gloomy atmosphere, piecing together fragments of glistening imagery from the depths of empathy and her own experience. Bullets & Orchids deploys themes which illuminate the darker perplexities of our times – prevalent themes such as war, famine, love, loss, corruption, greed, religion, death and trauma – are weaved from dissonance into an elegant poetic tapestry, alive with an essence of uncertainty.
Zeinati is not afraid to pull you into her psyche from the beginning, the collection jumping at and around the reader like a restless dream; an incessant thought which can neither be pinpointed nor grasped:
her body still//
Upon the bed…
Sometimes it hurts.”
Disparity is echoed throughout the work and as the pages are turned, Zeinati puts a spotlight on the perils of sleepless nights:
“The ceiling: so tired of leadership. It must come down in the morning.
No one to look down upon until dusk.”
Though many of the poetic ruminations in Bullets & Orchids show a level of philosophical pragmatism, Zeinati is not concerned with making her work palatable; defying the casual reader an easy route to the heart of what the collection is ultimately about: the Self and its relation to the human condition. Bullets & Orchids is filled with imagery sure to resonate in the psyche of the attentive reader, with segments likely to grip, such as, “And if memory fails / Then memory, / wins.”, “Nothing left but the glint of steel and bloodstained sand”, and, “Like weeds pulled from the earth. That’s how you get rid of the past”. However, there are times when this type of enigmatic writing becomes almost nonsensical, with parts of the poem becoming more memorable than the whole. Meaning is lost sometimes in the stuttering nature of the work, which can lose the message the poem seeks to convey.
Throughout Bullets & Orchids, repetitions and references to poems in various parts of the collection are found. This ties together the different themes. For example, one poem ends in, “I saw bullets though. Many were shaped like tongues”, and later on in the collection, the words, “did you ask me? The artery asked the bullet”, jumps out at the reader with an emotional realism, unique to Zeinati’s poetic voice.
Every now and then, complete poems (or, perhaps more aptly, fragments), come in the form of a single word, seeking relevance from the poems around it. This may come across as contrived, as the words; “nothing” and “today” form whole pieces, which can be frustrating. The disjointed nature of the shape of some poems disrupt the flow, distracting the reader from the full enjoyment of the work, as incomplete sentences read more like hiccups than a flowing voice.
Bullets & Orchids illuminates the absurdity of the world we live in, highlighted by the bluntness of the poem referencing the death of Colonel Gaddafi in 2011, “A 42 year dictatorship ends. Another one continues,” (42.) and this is the clearest indication of Zeinati’s frustrations with the world; that one regime terminating does not solve the complex, political and historical problem of oppression.
Bullets & Orchids presents itself as a collection for the enquiring mind, for it takes significant thought and effort to find roots of meaning within the poetry. This should not put off the avid reader, for one of the challenges of poetry is to break from tradition, regardless of whether or not it reads easily.
My favourite poem from the collection; the one which bore the most resonance with me, welds parts of Zeinati’s poetic expression to my own consciousness:
“London burns and Libya burns and Egypt is thrown behind bars. And the same old man wakes up in the morning like nothing ever happens and wears a suit and tie. The same suit and tie. The same morning. His beaten wife asleep in the next room.
Review by Nathan Hassall
Nathan Hassall was born in the United Kingdom to an American mother and a half-English, half-Greek father. He received a BA Hons in History at the University of Kent, with a Year Abroad studying at the University of Massachusetts. He is the author of three self-published poetry collections, Nascent Illusion (2009), A Conscious Void (2011), and Of Gods and Gallows (2015) and endeavors to study an MA in English and Creative Writing at a British University in 2016.