POEM: My Theory on the Long Shadow of Hitler’s Mustache

People once saw in it great panache,
but Hitler killed the toothbrush mustache.

Now no one would dare to wear it.

Except that groundskeeper from Magnum P.I.

who turned out to be the mysterious millionaire.

Maybe, his wealth was Nazi gold?

But that isn’t my theory of the long shadow of Hitler’s mustache.

My theory is that when the short mustache comes back in fashion,
great evil will sit upon our doorstep.

For it is more than a choice of facial hair,
it’s a barometer of remembrance
that lacks an indicator of the half-life
of evil’s stain upon our collective consciousness.

Or, maybe, it just looks stupid on your face.
As if you made a dreadful razor error
and tried to play it off as a plan
through use of symmetry.

In which case, someone should be charting
the rate of application for name change by
Hitlers, Himmlers, Goebbels, and Görings.

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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An Introvert’s Poem

Please don’t take this the wrong way,
but I wish you existed fewer hours per day.
It’s not that I don’t like your company.
It’s just that I wish your dosage were smaller.
It’s not like I wish you thinner, prettier, or taller,
I just wish there were less of you — temporally speaking.