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The Sad Part Was- Prabda Yoon

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The book is available to purchase here – The Sad Part Was


The Sad Part Was – Prabda Yoon

 

“They catalysed my consciousness as though it had been struck by lightning, and I briefly became abnormally perceptive, able to absorb information about my environment instantaneously and effortlessly. Thank god I stopped just short of Nirvana.” – Prabda Yoon, “Miss Space”

 

Prabda Yoon’s collection of short stories The Sad Part Was (Tilted Axis Press, 2017) invites the reader into a world of idiosyncratic characters often confronted with the impermanence of experience and the choice of how to view and remember each moment. A short definition of the term “ploang” – to be at peace with letting go of past events, without assigning any negative or positive emotions to them – announces the collection’s most important theme. Many of Yoon’s characters are confronted with situations beyond their control (just as the text itself is beyond the reader’s control), but their emotions and reactions determine how they will cope.

The stories in The Sad Part Was pull us into their various worlds, distilling information about characters that seem both familiar and utterly baffling at times, before pushing us out again to reflect on the act of reading itself. What right have we to assign meaning to a writer’s words? What purpose does it serve?

Yoon’s unusual approach is clear from the beginning. “Pen in Parentheses”, the very first story, immediately subverts expectations by placing the bulk of the text within parentheses, thus creating different levels of reading. “Miss Space” stands out through its narrator’s almost hysterical need to understand a young woman’s penchant for leaving large spaces between words when she writes. Every time he sees her, he launches into an in-depth analysis of all the possible causes for her behaviour, but rather ironically, he never gives her the opportunity (or space) to speak. He is more invested in his own line of questioning than whatever she has to say.

The same occurs in “Shallow/Deep, Thick/Thin”, where a traveller discovers a secret from outer space. The whole world begs him to reveal it, because there are no other secrets left, but the traveller soon realizes his audience is more interested in exploiting the sense of mystery than the knowledge itself. No one cares about the insights he has to offer. People look to others to teach them, when they should be looking inside. They should seek experience, rather than the passing on of second-hand information. Yoon puts forwards the idea that knowing everything does not bring happiness, because then only the absence of knowledge seems interesting… and once it is broken, it cannot be reversed.

Yet the author himself is not exempt from this rule. Cleverly placed near the end of the collection, “Marut by the Sea” acts as a tongue-in-cheek reminder not to take Yoon and his ideas too seriously:

“Don’t waste your precious time with his nonsense. Granted, he might say or do things to amaze you. He might write words that tug on your heart strings. You might find his unusual perspective charming. He might lead you to believe that he has something important to say. But believe me, every single thing that you think you learn from him in fact comes from you yourself.”

Yoon plays with our natural tendency to experience excitement upon discovering new and intriguing ways of understanding and experiencing life. He warns us of the fleetingness of such a sense of revelation and tells us not to trust even our own impressions. This of course calls into question everything we have read so far, but if we do indeed adhere to the notion of “ploang”, we come to realize that judgement of a thing does not change the thing itself. Yoon’s words are there for us to do with as we please. We can draw our own conclusions, without feeling right or wrong.

“The Disappearance of a She-Vampire in Pattaya” is the perfect example of this. The reasons given for Rattika the She-Vampire’s sudden absence vary widely and contradict each other more than once, yet it is still tempting to come away believing one version or the other. At the very least, we understand that something dramatic has happened and that the people interviewed are explaining it in their own way. Truth has nothing to do with it.

As for the language Yoon uses in his stories, it is deliberate and precise. It serves to build an atmosphere in which we must find our own balance, our own understanding. The texts are peppered with Thai words, deliberately left in by Mui Poopoksakul, who translated the book into English. The sense of setting (all the stories appear to take place in Thailand) is thus reinforced in a subtle but effective way. The stories carry a sense of national identity (foreigners, Westerners in particular, are described with a distinct sense of “otherness” and are never given names) while at the same time veering away from more traditional Thai literature, as Poopoksakul explains in the Translator’s Afterword.

The result is an intriguing collection where words and form matter more than coherence. Yoon doesn’t seek to persuade the reader; rather, he invites us to examine his stories without passing judgement. We may find some funny, others sad, but we are free to draw our own conclusions and move on.

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Zoe Perrenoud was born in Switzerland in 1987. Her work has appeared in Aesthetica’s Annual Creative Works, Crossing the Lines, Delano Magazine (online) and Stardust, Always. One of her short stories was shortlisted for the 2016 Bridport Prize. She has an M.A. in Creative Writing from Bangor University and currently lives in Luxembourg.

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THE WORDS OF MY MOTHER – A REVIEW

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To purchase  the book, click on the picture

 

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.

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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).

Bone of my bone- A Review

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To purchase the book, click on the image.

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).


Review by Nathan Hassall

Paul Valéry in Translation

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Picture from AbrasMedia

The poems reviewed are found here: Translations

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.

 
Review by Adele Okoli

Dhaka Literature Festival 2015- An Overview

November 2015 brought with it tentative autumnal showers that kept winter firmly at bay in London, and news of the latest tragedy from home. On the last day of October, as children in London were donning generic and specific costumes to prompt a sugar high, publishers were being butchered by religious fundamentalists in Dhaka. A year of similar fatal attacks on freethinking, rationalist writers claimed another life. The incident was weighing heavy on my mind when I met Ahsan Akbar, a fellow Bangladeshi writer, with a third of the penultimate month of the year over.

Ahsan is a witty poet currently at work on a debut novel that is eagerly anticipated by his reputable writer friends – and he has many of them. He is also one of the directors of the Dhaka Literary Festival. He has befriended the distinguished men and women of letters in the course of fulfilling his responsibility of bringing them to the capital of Bangladesh for the annual celebration of literature for the past half a decade. We were attending a reading by one of them. Meike Ziervogel, like me, was due to travel to Dhaka in the following fortnight. She, like me, trusted the team behind the festival to have our best interests at heart, and remained committed to attending it. After a rendition of her precise, haunting prose, she reiterated this as she signed copies for waiting fans. She echoed the defiance of another guest, the esteemed Jon Snow: Now was the time to stand with Bangladesh, to show solidarity with those who were fighting for the soul of the country.

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Courtesy of Dhaka Tribune

These were the two memories – one deplorable, the other inspirational – with which I boarded the plane on the eve of the festival. I had opted for the functionality of the Abu Dhabi airport over the ostentation of the one in Dubai as my stopover. I sent a few messages to friends and family over WhatsApp and Facebook before departing for Dhaka. Upon arrival, I checked for replies repeatedly, but none came. The government had blocked most social media and messaging applications as a security measure following the murders and as a prelude to the imminent hangings of convicted war criminals. The religious right had called a hartal – political strikes that had steered so far from Gandhi’s principles of peaceful protest that success was measured in casualties and the number of vehicles burned – in response to the sentences, on the first day of the festival. This was especially problematic for me since I had to travel the length of the city to get from my parents’ residence, where I was staying, to the Bangla Academy, the historic location of the festival.

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Courtesy of Dhaka Tribune

I relied on my knowledge of safe modes of transport during hartals, and arranged an ambulance. This proved to be an unnecessary precaution, taken by an expatriate whose knowledge was showing some signs of rust. The famous resilience of Bangladeshis was in full display on the streets, flouting the inconsiderate, senseless moves of supposed politicians to go to work. The violence of hartals, the full force of which was felt in 2013 when they claimed more than a thousand lives, had also abated. I was greeted by a police roadblock when I reached the festival premises. The road on which sat Bangla Academy had been closed at the behest of the organisers. I walked past patrols of bored policemen sprinkled throughout the closed road, up to the entrance and, after being given a VIP pass, made my way to the Main Stage for the inaugural. The ambulance had collected me only after ferrying the hospital staff, which meant that, according to the schedule I was handed as I entered, I was late. The minister who was declaring the festival open, however, was running on Standard Bangladeshi Time. Therefore, despite my best efforts, I was early.

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Courtesy of Dhaka Tribune

Once it started, the first three hours, encompassing a musical recitation that I had missed, the inaugural and an opening plenary, set the tone for the rest of it. K. Anis Ahmed, a well-known Bangladeshi writer and publisher, and another festival director, delivered a succinct and comprehensive address in English and Bengali, establishing firmly the multilingual nature of the event. He touched on the absentees, as did Ahsan in his address. There are two types of writers in Bangladesh. The first is diligent and dedicated, constantly developing and contributing significant pieces, often with no reward. A handful of them had paid with their lives during the year, as their predecessors had during the independence movement. Their numbers had already been dwindling, arguably even skipping a generation since the new nation emerged. The second wants the fame without the work, the superficiality over the substance, the label that has not been earned. The growing English-language scene has seen more of the latter, the frauds, crawl out of their holes and multiply, believing their English medium education and overseas university degrees have equipped them to string two sentences together and pass themselves off as writers. They succeed at conning their way to the limelight because Bangladesh has simultaneously revered writers as intellectuals – dating back to the language and independence movements, and those who were slaughtered by Pakistani agents, to silence them – and had low rates of literacy and education.

A pratfall of these charlatans did not leave their Gulshan and Baridhara palaces in support of the written word and the freedoms of thought, speech and expression. At a time when these fundamental freedoms that make us human are under threat in Bangladesh and the region, when luminaries from foreign shores did not hesitate to show solidarity with us, the reprehensible actions of those who dare call themselves writers and Bangladeshis were conspicuous, were criminal. A few of the foreign guests had similarly absented themselves, citing security concerns. They should be reminded of what it means to be a writer. “We need to celebrate literature, and it is especially important to celebrate it in these troubled times when it is under attack in so many parts of the world…[W]e all belong to the country of imagination, and when an iron curtain comes down on our imagination, then it is time to act, and to act as writers,” said Nayantara Sahgal in her effortlessly eloquent keynote speech at the inaugural. The festival had begun, its special significance and greater duty to the world and literature underlined.

The opening plenary, vague and imaginative in equal measure in its title, “The World is Round”, set its sails to the wind unleashed by the inaugural. No sooner had the first question been asked by the moderator than the discussion took on a revelatory political flavour that audience participation at the end encouraged rather than dampening. Jon Snow, Jude Kelly and Ramachandra Guha represented the fair, rational and brilliant truth-seeker, the reactionary whose single-minded worldview is expressed in every sentence uttered, and the artful centrist that lend sensible political discourse the perfect blend of information and entertainment. Appetite whet, I raced to the Lawn, another of the six locations used for concurrent sessions – there were at least three running at the same time for the rest of the festival – for a quick look at the launch of Himal Southasian’s special issue on Bangladesh, before interrupting it to take in a tete-a-tete about culture and performance art through the ages between two of Bangladesh’s most celebrated actors, Aly Zaker and the effervescent Asaduzzaman Noor. The former, especially significant as one of two international magazines that had dedicated entire issues to Bangladesh for the very first time, kept the political flame that had been lit alive, while the latter delivered on its promise of mirth. The organisers had performed a minor miracle by getting the schedule back on track by then. I took a break to avail myself of the Authors’ Lounge’s hearty lunch service.

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Courtesy of Dhaka Tribune

 

A steady trickle of people was beginning to grow the sparse audience of the morning – a result of a working day and the trepidation of a hartal – by the time I made my way back to the sessions on offer. The first day saw the festival stretch its poetry muscles, showcase Bangladeshi writing, and delve into science, courtesy of Harold Varmus, an American Nobel Laureate who had defied his State Department’s overly cautious travel advisory. I met Naushad Ali Hussein in between sessions, a primary school classmate I had last seen almost two decades previous. Naushad, it seemed, had veered away from his mathematical inclinations at school towards the arts. He, along with the ever-exuberant Rajib Rahman Johney and Karina Zannat, was leading an energetic, enthusiastic and incredibly helpful team for Jatrik, the production company behind the festival. Headquartered inside what appeared to be a box office encased by glass converted into an office, the three were called on to solve problems of varying magnitudes – a jetlagged guest needed to go to the hotel, another needed a mobile phone charged, yet another needed to know where best to get jamdanai saris and how to get there, while another was nowhere to be found – during my poor attempt at catching up with Naushad. I was approached by a smiling volunteer, identifiable by the distinct purple “DLF 2015” t-shirt she had on and a similar badge to mine which gave her a different designation, who asked if someone had been assigned to me. When I answered in the negative, she promptly rectified the oversight. Progga Noshin is a bright, cheerful student from the University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh, one of the private universities that have grown in the country since the turn of the century, to try to make up for the egregious shortcomings of the state institutions. She made the remainder of the festival both enjoyable and considerably easier to navigate.

Dhaka may be unfashionable compared to some of the exotic hosts of literary festivals, but the emphasis on programming in 2015 made it a standout event. The main motivation behind the attending public was the quality of the programming and the topics of discussion, to learn from and be inspired by substance, not superficiality. An example was the session on science fiction on the second day. None of the panellists were household names in Bangladesh, but the interest in that particular kind of writing had resulted in all the seats being taken, people cramming inside and standing where they could, and two small queues outside the KK Tea Stage’s ajar doors. They caught the Cuban rock-star and writer, Yoss, explain how his mother cries when she reads his stories, and when she asks him how he can keep a dry eye, he replies, “My tears are on the page.” The hunger for science fiction had been met with a constructive dialogue between him, Marcel Theroux, Ranbir Singh Sidhu and the Bangladeshi writer Saad Z. Hossain, and the audience that plumbed the depths of the genre’s standing as more than pulp-fiction, as being relevant to understanding life through the ages, the human condition, even politics.

The second morning had already brought a pleasant surprise. Scholastica, one of leading Bangladeshi English-medium schools, had arranged a school trip to the festival on the Thursday. The hartal had forced them to cancel. The students were not to be deterred, however. They had forsaken their weekend sleep and convinced their teachers to reschedule the trip for Friday. Some had had to wake up at five in the morning to join the group that arrived at Bangla Academy before its doors had opened. Their hunger and determination gave the lie to the age of media sensationalism that constantly reminds us of the erosion of values and digitalisation killing literary and intellectual pursuits. Identifiable by their uniforms – white shirts and navy blue trousers for the boys, white shalwar-kameez with navy blue dopattas for the girls, the white in each case carrying the multi-coloured school logo – I spotted them listening intently to Sandip Roy, Mahesh Rao and myself discuss short stories with the Nepalese journalist Bikash Sangruala. Mahesh’s likening of short stories to flings and novels to long-term relationships was exemplified the former pair’s irrepressible wit and verve that entertained a largely young audience shaking off sleep. I later learnt that students of some of the other established schools had joined those from Scholastica, their civilian clothing allowing them to blend into the crowds thronging sessions on Palestine, Cuba, translation, feminism and the minor languages of Bangladesh.

Jon Snow, Kunal Basu and Zafar Sobhan were especially generous with their time when approached by the young minds in between sessions. The latter is the editor of Dhaka Tribune, a formidable English-language daily that was the festival’s title sponsor. En route to a session, I stopped by their stall to see what they were doing. Rumana Habib oversaw a warm, spirited and accessible team. Their planned activities included a poetry booth – a highbrow version of the carnival kissing-booth – and several workshops. This hands-on involvement with the festival was a refreshing change from the elitist approach adopted by Dhaka Tribune’s predecessor, The Daily Star. In an effort to live up to the high journalistic standards set by its British tabloid namesake, its coverage of this significant event in a country where freedoms and the space to exercise them were ever-shrinking was reminiscent of the government’s approach to said freedoms: denial, rejection and refusal. I was amused to see the supposedly most widely circulated English-language newspaper displaying the pettiness of a Hindi soap opera villain while its successor showed why it had been left at the altar for the other.

There had been an air of elitism and nepotism about the festival in its previous, imperialist form, which was absent in the reborn version. While the director past walked with a permanent spotlight hanging above, the directors present opted for bringing Bangladesh to the world over self-promotion. The Wasafiri special issue on Bangladesh, brought into focus in the warm early-winter afternoon of the second day, epitomised this. The only independent nation to emerge from Bengal, the crown jewel of British India and the region most coveted by the kings that preceded it, has failed to live up to the heady heights of its cultural heritage. Those within the country, spurred on by false senses of patriotism or nationalism and delusional pride, cling to that heritage with the zeal of a convert. They have not provided those without with a reason to have faith. Bangladesh remains absent in global conversations because the wealth of its Bengali literature has not been translated and its sparse English literature has not been communicated to the world. The Wasafiri issue is a step towards rectifying decades of negligence on part of the self-appointed gatekeepers and doyens of Bangladeshi culture. In that regard, it was a personification of the festival.

I carried this optimism into the final day. Conscious of its impending end, the festival paraded its greatest hits. Jon Snow charting his life and its intersection with key moments of contemporary history was a delectable breakfast, Nayantara Sahgal’s liberalism and activism a luscious lunch that came with a dessert course comprised of lively discussions about London and Kolkata. Tea came in the shape of cricket, the passionate nation’s favourite sport, and science with Harold Varmus. I satiated my palate, having already enjoyed my personal highlight the day before. I had spent an hour and some change in the company of Jon Snow. What was supposed to have been an interview became one of the most inspirational, enlightening and awe-inspiring experiences of my life. The wisdom he had imparted with deft articulation was admirable, but being in his presence had reminded me of what it really meant to be human, and that was invaluable. As twilight approached on the last day, a travelling troupe of performers whose bus had broken down, delaying their arrival at the festival by a quarter of a day, gave a mesmeric folk-drama rendition in the Lawn that was painfully beautiful. They had not eaten since breakfasting at dawn, and the rural-dwellers were in the cultural heartland of the classist urban capital, but their discomfort was absent as they entered a trance and exploded onto the stage.

MahmudOpu-20151119-0047
Courtesy of Dhaka Tribune

I slipped away to the Main Stage, to hear the closing remarks of Professor Emeritus Anisuzzaman. His name, like those of many others celebrated at the festival, was on the various hit lists released by the fundamentalists, and he had received death threats in the days leading up to it. His speech was one of defiance and endurance, one of the need for Bangladesh to converse with the world through its literature, one of what it can mean to be a Bangladeshi. I stepped out into the Dhaka dusk, the spell cast by his powerful words reverberating within me defining the festival. I saw a rush to the exit as rumours about the hangings of the war criminals and the response of the fundamentalists in their aftermath abound. Dhaka Literary Festival had ended, but it was not over. A microcosm of the nation that was birthed by indubitable hope and, despite being pushed towards becoming a failed state, remained full of promise and indomitably hopeful, it was necessary. A country that would not have been born had it not been for words now sees people killed because of them. Although the millions who were Charlie Hebdo value brown lives less, there is a home-grown platform of thoughts and ideas that demands the world take notice of Bangladesh, and demands Bangladesh fight for its soul.

BY IKHTISAD AHMED

Ikhtisad Ahmed is a human rights lawyer turned humanist and absurdist writer from Bangladesh. His writing credits include the socio-political poetry collections “Cryptic Verses” and “Requiem”, and short story collection dealing with similar themes, “Yours, Etcetera”. Twitter: @ikhtisad

The Earthen Flute- A Review

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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).

A Review by Nathan Hassall

Attempted Speech and other Fatherhood Poems- A Review

Click on the photo to download a free copy of the chapbook
Click on the photo to download a free copy of the chapbook

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.

Circuits by Jennifer K Dick- A Review

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Click on the image to buy a copy of the book

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 by Rewa Zeinati

bullets and orchids
bullets and orchids

(click on the image to check out the book)

 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:

“She travels,
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.

Mistake?” (52.)

_

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.

Previous Vertigos-Nina Karacosta

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(Click on the Image to check out the book)

Previous Vertigos | Nina Karacosta
  A review by Aditya Menon

There are three types of vertigo: objective (your environment seems to move), subjective (you sense yourself moving) and pseudo (something seems to be turning in your head).  Or so Wikipedia tells me.  Does this classification carry over into poetics? You could say that some poems foreground the linguistic object, others the lyric subject, and still others create their own little worlds of expression. But wait, Wikipedia on vertigo takes a skeptical turn: “While this classification appears in textbooks, it has little to do with the pathophysiology or treatment of vertigo.”

So the three vertigos turn out to be “previous”, no longer relevant to medical practice. Still, this very irrelevance makes the vertigos particularly relevant to contemporary poetics. [Pardon the belabored analogy; I do not mean to trivialize the real experience of vertigo. ] A rhetoric of opposition—speaking vs. writing, subject vs. object, conservative quietism vs. avant-garde experimentation—makes for good categories. The “confessional school”, it would seem, asserts the transparency of a message. The “L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E school”, by contrast, asserts the opacity of the medium. That said, the classification of poetry into antagonistic schools has recently been an object of critique in its own right. Such critique might play with avant-garde polemic; take Keston Sutherland’s Theses on Antisubjectivist Dogma. Or it might shift the focus of the debate. In Lyric Shame: The “Lyric” Subject of Contemporary American Poetry, Gillian White suggests that a “lyric I” is an object of “shame”.  Thus it has an uneasy pervasiveness, with “opponents” sometimes perpetuating and “defenders” complicating it. This “lyric I” is not a well-defined object, but a way of reading.

How does “Suds”, the second-last poem in Previous Vertigos, and the only one that does not mention a physical object, ask to be read?

 

The experiment is

not

in

the

experimental

it is in

the experience

the exposure

the expression of unsatisfaction

the expulsion.

Are you extending?

No,

you are

a

follower

of the

experimental

standing in

the

middle

of

your

crowd-

for you there is no extreme, no extravagant

no ecstatic.

The poem strikes me as a reflexive piece, engaging the “lyric shame” that White identifies. Is it an ars poetica in defense of the lyric subject? In a context that fetishizes “the experimental”, the speaker turns the tables on those who would shame her. First, a statement : experiment is not in the experimental. Then, a question, which dramatizes the exchange: “Are you extending?” sounds like an “Are you listening?” as much as an “Are you experimenting?” Finally, a condemnation. The speaker shames the addressee.

But what are the “suds”? Expelled, ecstatic results of the experiment? [The Wikipedia disambiguation page informs me that SUDS is an acronym for “subjective units of distress scale”, but this would be a stretch.] And who is the you? An absent interlocutor, the poet herself (a possibility that Afric McGlinchey’s review raises), or a hypocrite reader? If this is a manifesto, it is a reticent one, in spite of its auditory insistence. After all, the repeated sound “ex” is a prefix that can signify the previous, the passé. Not that we should take this sense uncritically; the repetition is so emphatic that makes a close reading feel absurd. The constraint of the “ex” words draws the poem beyond whatever statement Karacosta initially intended, if any.

Previous Vertigos appeared in 2011, before Sutherland’s manifesto or White’s book. Still, I think it bears reading in light of these critical trends. This is not to reduce it to a symptom or magnify it into an intervention. It is one among many possible configurations of the elusive lyric “I”, and happens to be one that I like.

At first glance, the collection seems firmly on the side of the confessional lyric subject, whose existence we just problematized. Skimming the book, you encounter a figure worn down by drugs and war and consumerism even as it is expanded by global travel and cross-cultural exposure, and yet alert to the body it inhabits, the landscapes through which it moves. The persona that moves through Karacosta’s pages does not coalesce into such a caricature, but it does gesture to all these possibilities. Some of the landscapes are explicitly marked: Greek coast, English countryside, New Mexico desert. Relationships, whether with people or substances, feel plausible and even “compelling”. An abundance of multisensory imagery, framed in verbally exuberant phrases, brings various pasts to life in visceral, often vertiginous form. The word “I” appears over sixty times.

For all this, the chapbook is not the diary of Nina Karacosta, Greek-American poet and actor, regurgitated for your vicarious consumption.  More often than not, the people, things and places appear in a disorienting space or time—in the immaterial past of memory, the insistently material present of text, the conditional of genre. Here and there, you find imperatives. One poem, “War Games”, consists entirely of such imperatives. It ends with these: “Count your bones. / Breathe air.” Both injunctions involve bodily awareness; one seems oriented toward death, the other toward life.  The emphasis on bare life makes the poem feel “universal” even as it evokes an individual body.  The chapbook doesn’t give a  gloss here, but an online version presents it as a “response to events in Gaza in 2009, meant to highlight the absurdity of war”. The phrase “highlight absurdity” can hardly exhaust the poem’s effects. The second-person imperative invites empathy, and the specific imperatives—while they have no immediate effect on the actual victims—offer this second-person subject an ethics and/or aesthetics of bare life.

“Can’t Talk About It” takes place on the page and in the body. Here, the body is that of a first-person speaker. The right-aligned part of the poem describes a surgery. Then comes a left-aligned meta-narration that explains and stops this account: “Doodling at the edge of the white paper / I want to write about burning three fingers / and ending up in the emergency room / but instead keep doodling” . The last few lines, right-aligned again, seem to have moved back from the medium of writing to the spoken message, but the terms have moved from real to surreal.  It ends “I am / a corridor of rain,” (is “rain” a sublimation of “pain”?) without any closing punctuation. In this line, the lack of punctuation places the “I” in suspense, while the words themselves designate an impossible interior.

“Psychotropic Hurrah” is tentative in its ecstasy: “i can maybe write a pow wow poem”. I am drawn to its phrase “attic cylindrical frenzy”, which evokes an impossible interior like “corridor of rain”. Gloss “attic” as adjective, meaning “Greek”, and a different shape emerges.  It recalls, at least for me, the Grecian urn that Keats invoked as “attic shape”.  Whereas he read movement in a static object, Karacosta shapes a stasis out of her disorientations.

Perhaps the lyric subject of Previous Vertigos is new, after all—if only in its precise groundlessness. Consider the last lines of the first poem, “Solitaire”:

I am not

me because if I were I would know what

I’m not. All this adds up to nothing.

To suspend.