BOOK REVIEW: Anarcha Speaks by Dominique Christina

Anarcha Speaks: A History in PoemsAnarcha Speaks: A History in Poems by Dominique Christina
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This collection of poems, written by Dominique Christina and selected / arranged into a story by Tyehimba Jess, tells the story of a slave woman who was used for medical experimentation. Most of the poems are in the voice of this woman, Anarcha, and are conveyed in a slave dialect. However, a few are from the perspective of Dr. Marion Sims, the doctor who used Anarcha (and other slave women) for research and experimental procedures. Even without the cues in the poem titles, it’s easy to tell when these switches in voice occur because the doctor’s poems are in “proper” English, as opposed to Anarcha’s dialect. I should point out, while I can’t tell you how accurate the slave dialect is, I can say it presents no challenge to the reader’s understanding of the story or of the imagery or metaphor of the poetry.

The events described in these poems are based on a true story. Anarcha developed a fistula (a hole in bodily tissues that’s not supposed to be there) as a complication of carrying a child, and as a result suffered persistent bleeding. Anarcha’s owner handed her over to Dr. Sims to repair the fistula and stop the bleeding, which would require the development of a new procedure. Sims is often called the father of modern gynaecology, and was lauded with statues and honors. However, in recent years, his image has been tarnished by the fact that many of his advancements were only possible through the non-consensual examination of, and experimentation upon, slave women.

I should point out that, while reading this book has made me interested in learning more about the details of the story, I can’t really comment on the degree to which the poems accurately convey history. From the little I was able to garner from quick internet research, there are wide-ranging views on Dr. Sims and his research. Some think Sims belongs in Josef Mengele’s corner of hell. (Note for non-history buffs: Mengele is the Nazi doctor who experimented on Jews and other prisoners during the Second World War.) Others believe Sims was genuinely working to heal the slave women and wasn’t solely motivated to find a treatment for paying patients, and that — in the context of his times — he should be considered a fine, if fallible, doctor. I don’t know how much is know about what was in Sim’s mind or how it matched his behavior, but at a minimum he seems to have been much less delicate with his slave subjects than he would have been with his patients in terms of subjecting them to pain and humiliation.

I will say that the poems in Anarcha’s voice feel authentic, i.e. they feel like they convey truth about what would go through a person’s mind when put in her position. Her humanity is felt. In a few cases in the Dr. Sims poems, that authenticity feels like it breaks down, and one thinks, “no one sees themselves that way” – an instance of self-deification springs to mind. That said, perhaps it’s an accurate depiction. More than one doctor has been known to be colossally narcissistic on occasion.

That said, this is a poetical work and not a historical account, and so the beautiful language, clever metaphors, and emotional resonance of the work are what serve to make it a book that should be read. I would highly recommend this book for all readers. Even if you aren’t typically a poetry reader, you’ll find this free verse collection readable because of its story and the insightful view into the mind of Anarcha it presents.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

The Yellow WallpaperThe Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This short story, written in the last decade of the 19th century, tells the story of a sad woman’s descent into madness. The lead is an upper-class lady, wife of a doctor, and is staying in a rented mansion with her husband and her husband’s sister (who acts as their housekeeper) through the summer. The protagonist has been diagnosed with a depressive disorder with hysterical tendencies, and the story serves as an indictment of the way in which mental illness was treated.

It’s not clear what the true nature of the protagonist’s mental or emotional infirmity was at the beginning of her move to the summer-house, but it’s clear that the treatment makes her state of mind much worse. That treatment was a so-called “rest-cure,” and it prohibited her from working, writing (which is now known to be quite therapeutic), or doing much else, save for staring at the walls – hence the title. As happens when the mind is shut-off from external stimuli, it starts to form its own stories that become projected into the individual’s world in the form of hallucinations. In the protagonist’s case, these hallucinations play out in (and behind) the irregular wallpaper pattern.

The fact that the woman’s husband is a doctor, ironically, contributes to her worsening condition because she accepts his “treatment” as being formulated by a great authority. As much as it is an indictment of the specific treatment offered (i.e. “rest-cures”), it may be even more of an indictment of the belief that there exists an infallible authority on the mind. A humbler doctor might have listened to his patient, and adjusted course when it became clear the patient was getting worse under the existing treatment.

This is a very quick read. It may be slow in places, as one might expect of a story that involves a substantial amount of staring at, and contemplation of, wallpaper, but as her condition becomes more serious the story becomes gripping and the nature of reality more in question. The edition that I read contained drawings.

I found this story both intriguing and thought-provoking, and would recommend it for all readers.

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BOOK REVIEW: Aimless Love by Billy Collins

Aimless Love: New and Selected PoemsAimless Love: New and Selected Poems by Billy Collins
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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I hope this isn’t taken the wrong way, but Collins is to poetry what J.K. Rowling is to the novel. By that, I only mean that his poems are as popular as poetry can be these days because they are readable, avoid needless complications, give challenge to pretentiousness, and are just plain entertaining. Collins combines dry humor, surreal elements, and profound observations to make poems that readers can either readily relate to or find hilarity in. While he does touch on traditional poetic topics like love and nature, he spends more time on language, quirkiness in everyday life, and poetry itself.

This book combines a collection of 51 new poems with “greatest hits” selections from Collins’s previous four collections: NINE HORSES (22 poems), THE TROUBLE WITH POETRY (16 poems), BALLISTICS (29 poems), and HOROSCOPES FOR THE DEAD (24 poems.)

The opening poem, from NINE HORSES and entitled “The Country,” displays typical Collins humor as it takes a parent’s warning to not leave strike-anywhere matches out and about because mice might start a fire, and brings it to its absurd conclusion by showing it. Odd little thoughts that flicker into and out of consciousness are a mainstay for Collins, and he wrings the full wit from them. “Litany” may be my favorite poem from the NINE HORSES selection. It takes the standard poetic tool of metaphor and shows the silliness that can result when it’s employed without context.

The selections from THE TROUBLE WITH POETRY include intriguing reflections on particular words. Examining the personal meanings of words as well as the meanings words migrate into is a common subject for Collins. This can be seen in poems like “Lanyard” and “Genius.” However, while those poems — as well as the titular poem — are enjoyable, the most hilarious is “The Revenant.” This poem turns the sanctity of the mutual bond of man and man’s best friend on its head as it imagines if a dog could tell its master its true feelings.

In BALLISTICS we see several examples of another recurring approach used by Collins and that is the use of a quote as the premise of a poem. “Tension” is among the funniest of these in which some advice to writers about the risks of using the word “suddenly” is put to the test. My favorite from this section may have been “Old Man Eating Alone in a Chinese Restaurant” in which Collins admits he’s glad that he avoided that old chestnut as a young poet because now he’s said old man.

In HOROSCOPES FOR THE DEAD we see a few poems (in addition to the titular one) that concern themselves with mortality, including a whimsical ride through a cemetery on a bike – “Cemetery Ride.” However, “Table Talk” is among my favorites for the joy it takes in mocking pretentiousness. In the poem, an individual brings up Zeno’s most famous paradox, suggesting no arrow should ever hit its target because it always has to halve the remaining distance – and, thus, should remain forever at bay.

Among the new poems, “To My Favorite 17-Year-Old High School Girl,” is among the funniest and is most certainly the one with the most general appeal to readers. In it, we see a father celebrate his daughter, but with no shortage of backhanded compliments as he compares her to other teenagers who were more productive, brilliant, or at least more helpful around the house.

I found this collection to be immensely enjoyable and I’d recommend it for anyone. Even if you aren’t a poetry reader, you may find this collection makes you one.

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BOOK REVIEW: Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

Exit WestExit West by Mohsin Hamid
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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A young couple falls in love in an undesignated Middle Eastern country, but when violence flares out of control they are forced to flee. The novel follows this couple as they cross through various “doorways,” moving from one country to the next, trying to find someplace where they can settle into a peaceful life.

What makes this love story so intriguing is its exploration of the varied ways in which individuals cope with the challenges of refugee life. The male lead, Saeed, is close to his parents, who are professionals, at the beginning of the story. He’s been raised in a middle-class devout but moderate Muslim household. Saeed seeks out his own people and takes solace not only in Islam, but in the culture of his countrymen more generally. His girlfriend, Nadia, is on the outs with her family because she moved out on her own and she was too modern and progressive for the tastes of her traditional family. She’s a non-believer, and the religion and culture with which she was raised are objects she is more than willing to put in her rearview mirror. (To make it interesting, Nadia wears the burka, not because she is devout, but because it’s somewhat successful at keeping the guys from pawing her. This makes her appear devout, when she is anything but.) Nadia tries to assimilate into whatever community she finds herself. What begins as a comfortable “opposites attract” set of differences becomes an ever-widening chasm as the two are exposed to the stresses of refugee life.

This book is written in a sparse style. It does a lot of telling versus showing. However, that seems to work because some of what it does show the reader is so visceral that some straight-forward exposition of the character’s feelings forms a palate cleanser. The story is specifically vague about how the characters move from place to place. This is clearly on purpose to capture the nature of refugee travel, which is so different from the looking out windows and snapping photos that ordinary travelers do. It also allows the author to portray the refugee routes as portals that open and close on different locales as authorities on either end shut them down. They aren’t the firmly established transportation corridors ordinary travelers move through, but rather ephemeral windows of opportunity.

There are little vignettes about individuals apparently unrelated to the story in each chapter. Through them, I think the author just wishes to convey the global nature of this phenomenon. I didn’t find these bits added much, but the also didn’t take up much space or time, and so didn’t detract from the story.

I enjoyed this story. It reads clearly and quickly, and has a nice tight theme and story arc. I’d recommend it for fiction reads, particularly those interested in a story about being a refugee in the modern world.

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BOOK REVIEW: Circe by Madeline Miller

CirceCirce by Madeline Miller
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Circe is a minor goddess / sea-nymph in Greek mythology. While her father is the powerful Titan sun-god, Helios, she is the runt of the litter. She has a weak voice by godly standards, has few and limited powers, and is sympathetic to the fates of humans in a way that is considered ungodly. (The latter was strengthened by her affinity for Prometheus, the god who introduced fire to humanity and was subsequently punished by having his liver eaten each day by an eagle.) Circe’s underdog status would only go so far in producing an interesting story, but things become more intriguing when she begins to develop her skill as a witch. This makes her more powerful, and the increasing power of a minor deity threatens greater gods. Some of her abilities as a witch may result from her divinity, but it’s made clear that even mortals can practice witchcraft. Her gift for witchcraft is especially prominent in her abilities of transformation.

Circe’s adverse reaction to the Cinderella treatment she gets at home in addition to the increasing and unexpected threat she presents as a witch – seen when she turns a mortal into a god and another nymph into a monster — gets her exiled to an island. While it would seem that her story would get uninteresting while she’s exiled to a remote island, she’s visited by a number of mythic figures – mortal and god alike – who keep her tale fascinating, these include: the master craftsman Daedalus, the messenger deity / trickster god Hermes, and – most crucially to her story – the heroic king of Ithaca, Odysseus. She also makes a couple of trips off the island, such as when her sister, Pasiphaë, gets a special dispensation to temporarily break the exile in order for Circe to attend to the birth of Pasiphaë’s child. (This might make it seem that the siblings were close, or at least liked each other, but that’s not the case at all. The only family member she has a decent relationship with is her younger brother, Aeëtes, but he is not so much warm to her as he is tolerating of her affections, and even that alliance of convenience is doomed.)

Miller presents readers with a Circe who is both sympathetic and intriguing because she’s no match for the forces arrayed against her and can only survive by her wits and self-knowledge. Circe’s diligence in practicing her craft and her knowledge of her strengths and limitations allows her to persevere in the face of great dangers. She faces hordes of horny sailors, familial dysfunction, and, most crucially, a dire threat to the child who results from her dalliances with one of her most prominent visitors. The story features the many twists, common in Greek Mythology, resulting from gods and men trying to outwit the Fates, but it’s also the straightforward story of a mother who’ll do anything to keep her child safe against a hostile world.

I’d highly recommend this book for all readers of fiction, regardless of whether they have a specific interest in Greek Mythology. It’s a great story, well written, readable, and featuring characters who one can love and others who one can loathe.

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BOOK REVIEW: Beowulf Translated by Seamus Heaney

BeowulfBeowulf by Unknown
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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“Beowulf” is a narrative poem, originally composed in Old English (Anglo-Saxon), telling the story of the hero, Beowulf, and his battles against monsters. In a sense, it’s an early superhero story. Mere mortal men are no match for the warrior Beowulf; he battles the monster Grendel who’s been terrorizing the banquet hall of a Danish king, that monster’s mother, and – later in life, back in his homeland – a dragon. While the poem isn’t formally broken up into subparts, these three battles and the events leading up to each can be thought of as the three sections of the poem. It reads as the highlights of a warrior-hero’s life.

Heaney’s verse follows a form reminiscent of the Anglo-Saxon approach to verse without sticking to the form it so rigidly that it becomes difficult to read. The Anglo-Saxon lines consist of two halves balanced with two stressed syllables each and alliteration across the caesura (the line’s midpoint break.) Heaney often alliterates across a line’s mid-point, but sometimes the alliteration is packed into one half, and sometimes it’s non-existent. That’s not a criticism. It’s actually beneficial because it’s incredibly easy for the reader to follow Heaney’s translation. The more dogmatic one is about form, the more hoops one makes a reader jump through to understand. Heaney also doesn’t restrict himself to a single approach to meter, and his lines tend to be longer than the original. This translation doesn’t require complex decryption of cryptic or archaic language. Besides, for those who want to read to hear the meter and precise proper alliteration, the Anglo-Saxon version is included. (As is typically of bilingual editions, the original is on the left-hand page and the translation is on the right. This also makes it a short work as half of the 200-ish pages are the Anglo-Saxon version.)

It’s a straightforward book. There’s an introduction in which Heaney explains how he got involved with this project as well as providing some translation notes, there’s brief exposition on how names work in the story, and there are family trees to help keep the characters straight (the latter is important because of the nature of naming addressed in front matter.) Otherwise, it’s just the poem and its translation.

I enjoyed reading this translation. It is easy to follow while offering some beautiful use of language. I’d recommend this book for just about anyone, whether a reader of poetry, heroic tales, or historical fiction.

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BOOK REVIEW: Erotic Poems ed. Peter Washington

Erotic PoemsErotic Poems by Peter Washington
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This collection stands as one volume in a series entitled “Everyman’s Library Pocket Poets.” Other volumes in the series feature the work of a particular author, a regional or national poetic tradition, a type of poem (e.g. sonnets,) or – like this one – a central theme (e.g. friendship, love, animals, war, etc.)

It’s a broad ranging collection. It covers a period from before Christ (e.g. the Roman poet Catullus) to twentieth century poets such as Sylvia Plath and Joseph Brodsky. The poetry also spans the globe including not only English language poets of Britain and America, but also translated poetry from India, the Middle East, China, Japan, and elsewhere. The poem’s lengths range from the brevity of a Bashō haiku to long poems such as Keats’s “The Eve of St. Agnes.” Epically long poems aren’t included, though there are excerpts such as that of Shakespeare’s “The Rape of Lucrece.” There is a favoring of classical English forms (e.g. iambic pentameter) even among many translated poems, but that doesn’t mean that the collection lacks diversity of form.

One nice thing about the diversity of poems is that one gets to see how various cultures and time periods dealt with erotic content. It should be noted that readers who are expecting poems that are erotic in the sense of being pornographic or bawdy by today’s standards are likely to be disappointed. That said, while many of the erotic elements are veiled in symbolism, that isn’t the case throughout. There is some explicitly erotic content among the collected poems. (Though, not as explicit as one sees in the works of Allen Ginsberg, for example.) It was interesting to see that it isn’t necessarily that the further back one goes in time the more repressed or veiled the writing is. On the contrary, some of the Latin and old Indian poems were among the most explicit. Of course, decoding the meaning of poets, and the savoring of reading that requires, is part of the joy of reading poetry.

I enjoyed this collection. I thought it was nice gathering of poems that explored sensuality, romance, and eroticism.

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POEM: Literary Allusions

Captain Ahab, go chase your whale!
Better obsession end in death than jail.
Though Thoreau’s case for the latter
takes task with escapees like Hatter.
But then again everyone needs a head.
Perhaps, just let them think one dead?
Ask Tom and Huck what could go wrong
when found out by an aggrieved throng.



Should one tilt at windmills and take beatings,
or pass upon the heroic moment fleeting?
La Mancha versus Fleming, which one is penned
to know what’s true in the end?

BOOK REVIEW: Chicago Poems by Carl Sandburg

Chicago PoemsChicago Poems by Carl Sandburg
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This collection put Sandburg on the map as a literary figure. It opens with one of his most famous poems “Chicago” (i.e. “HOG Butcher for the World, Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat…”) and – as the title suggests – the windy city is a recurring theme throughout the collection, and not just within the first of seven parts of the volume, which is eponymously named. Sandburg takes on the gritty and the glorious of Chicago. The collection includes about 140 poems of various lengths and styles.

The first part of this collection is by far the largest, consisting of about fifty poems, most of which are free verse or prose poems of short to intermediate length (a few lines to few pages per poem.) In addition to one of the most famous of Sandburg’s poems, “Chicago,” which opens the collection, there are a number of lesser known personal favorites in this part including: “Fish Crier,” “Happiness,” “Mag,” and “Mamie.”

The second part is called “Handfuls,” and – as the name suggests – it features short poems. This section begins with another of Sandburg’s most famous poems, “Fog” (i.e. The fog comes on little cat feet.”) The third part is entitled “War Poems” and it gathers together a few poems written during the First World War. My favorite is probably “Statistics” which takes an expectedly grim view of the nature of modern warfare with a bit of gallows humor. The other sections of the book are: “The Road and the End,” “Fogs and Fires,” “Shadows,” and “Other Poems (1900 – 1910.)”

Those who are familiar with Chicago will recognize the frequent references to streets and neighborhoods, but one needn’t be a Chicagoan to benefit from reading this collection. At times, the collection presents an edge of angry protest as Sandburg rails against Chicago as a place that grew opulently wealthy in the making of the modern world, but in which so many struggle to survive. However, it’s not all grim. Sandburg also dotes admiringly on the magnificence of the city. In fact, the theme presented in “Chicago” – a defense of the mixed nature of the city – can be seen exploded across the collection.

I enjoyed reading these poems. Sandburg uses both sound and imagery to evoke emotion. While he writes without rhyme and often without meter, he doesn’t abandon the sound quality (one need read no further than “Chicago” to hear this.) I’d recommend this book for all poetry readers.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Man Who Spoke Snakish by Andrus Kivirähk

The Man Who Spoke SnakishThe Man Who Spoke Snakish by Andrus Kivirähk
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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I read this book as part of my continuing effort to read at least one book from every country to which I’ve traveled. Kivirähk’s book came highly recommended for Estonia on a list by diplomats who were asked to provide a book that offers insight into the country where they served. At first blush, this book seems like an odd selection for such a purpose because it’s a fantasy novel (rather than the character-centric literary fiction that typically offers deep insight about the culture from which the book’s characters reside.) However, I came away from this book feeling that I had learned something about the Estonian national character, if while immersed in a question which has much broader applicability.

The book revolves around the tension between the forest people and the those who’ve moved to the villages. The main character is among the last of the people who live in the forest. Among the traditional skills he learns is how to speak a language called “Snakish,” which is not only the language of snakes, but which also serves as a kind of lingua franca (common language) among many of the species of the forest. A central question of the book is whether this man will be the last to speak Snakish – representing mankind’s expulsion from the natural realm. He is a boy at the beginning of the book, and as he’s learning Snakish, the only other speakers are advanced in age. In essence, the book explores whether the old ways will survive, and – in particular – the ways of humans living in nature instead of thinking themselves above it.

The villagers are enamored with all things foreign. They are passionate converts to Christianity. They gaze admiringly upon knights and monks. They take up any new technology that is introduced. (Needless to say, the time of the story is ambiguously pre-Industrial revolution, when agriculture and feudalism prevailed.) While the villagers look upon the forest people as backwards, just as people today might assume the forest-dwellers to be more superstitious and simpler, what we read is a twist in which the forest people find the villagers to be superstitious and woefully out-of-touch with the ways of nature. The villagers live in fear of nature because they have separated themselves from it, and – following the newly introduced Christian beliefs – they believe they are above nature and that all other creatures are under their dominion to do as they see fit. Of course, nature doesn’t yield easily to the desires of man, and the villagers are forced into the contradiction of thinking themselves superior to nature while at the same time being terrified of the creatures who live in the forest and – for that matter – the forest itself. The simple dichotomy of good and evil that foreigners have introduced is also in contrast with the more nuanced and, arguably, more sophisticated views of the forest-dwellers.

What the reader sees in this story mirrors what we have seen in our world, which is that mankind’s culture continues to leave a progressively bigger mark on the natural world – but not without a cost. On the other side of the coin, aboriginal ways are dying out. In a way, it’s the story of human development shrunk down to the scale of a few characters.

This is an excellent book, and I would highly recommend it for all readers. The story is intense and keeps one reading, but it’s thought-provoking at the same time as it entertains.

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