BOOK REVIEW: Prussian Nights by Alexander Solzhenitsyn

Prussian Nights: A PoemPrussian Nights: A Poem by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This long-form narrative poem tells a tale of inhumanity in the Soviet advance toward Germany during the Second World War. The narrator is a run-of-the-mill soldier who witnesses rape and murder by his comrades. Solzhenitsyn was a young officer in the military during the war, and it’s probable that the story of the poem draws from his real-world experience during the war. It’s said that he composed and memorized the poem while he was in the Gulag.

While the poem’s story focuses on violence and inhumanity perpetrated by some soldiers, it isn’t particularly graphic in its description. Rather, the author sets up scenes and leaves it to the reader’s imagination to fill in the blanks. It’s also true that in some cases the narrator is witnessing the aftermath of violence and not the act itself. It’s not a pretty story, but readers needn’t be concerned it will be gratuitously graphic.

While the translator chose to stick to rhyming verse, the poem is quite readable. The story is told in a straightforward fashion. Many will find this appealing because the readability is high. However, others may find the lack of metaphor and poetic approaches to language to make for unappealing poetry. There’s not a lot of symbolism and the meanings seem quite literal. That said, the imagery is often vivid and evocative, and the metered verse reads smoothly and lyrically.

The book has a feature that I like, which is the original [Russian] is on the left-hand page with the English translation, produced by Robert Conquest, on the right. The translation didn’t come in greatly useful for me. I had two years of Russian back in college, but that was a long time ago and I read Cyrillic with the unconfident stammer of a first grader. Still, it’s interesting to get a taste of the original.

I’d recommend this book, regardless of whether one is a poetry reader. The story can be read as just that, a story, and it offers insight into the ugly inhumanity too often set free in the act of warring.

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BOOK REVIEW: When I Walk Through that Door, I Am by Jimmy Santiago Baca

When I Walk Through That Door, I Am: An Immigrant Mother's QuestWhen I Walk Through That Door, I Am: An Immigrant Mother’s Quest by Jimmy Santiago Baca
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This is a narrative poem telling the story of an El Salvadoran woman who is separated from her child after illegally immigrating to the United States. It’s quite a timely topic, but as a work of literature and a “call to arms” it could have done much better.

This poetic novella is gripping to read, but is over-the-top in spots, and that does it a disservice in two ways. First of all, it takes the reader out of the story as they may become lost in the disbelief. Secondly, it takes a work that could have been a persuasive call for change, and turns it into an angry rant. To give a prime example, at one point early in the piece, the lead character has been (gang-)raped four or five times over the course of two pages, by varied factions including US law enforcement officers. Even if one were to accept the author’s presumed premise that American federal law enforcement agents are morally equivalent to the gangs of the drug cartels (a premise not likely to be accepted by the meaty-middle of society), one is left to ignore the fact that female prisoners, once in custody, aren’t left unsupervised with male guards. I know the reader may say, but this is a technical detail in a fictitious narrative poem. However, given the way the piece is presented (discussed more below), it reads like it’s telling us a story that is meant to move us through the proposition that this is the world in which we live. But once one reads one falsity, one is left wondering whether any part of the story is reflective of reality.

The idea that this woman is exploited by every male she comes into contact with, whether they are gang members or Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents, has poetic merit. It’s pointing out that without legal status, she is in a perpetually vulnerable state. Yet, it seems lazy and sensationalist to make all such exploitation rape. When one morally equates gangs with agents of a democratic government, one isn’t just saying that the individuals are equivalent, you are casting aspersions against the entire system of rule of law. (Because, of course, protections should be in place, and — failing them — the means to lodge complaints. And I think most would argue that both are the case.) The bigger problem, one found throughout the political spectrum in the US, is that individuals vilify each other, pretending they are being persuasive, when in reality they are just more deeply etching an “us-them” divide. By this I mean to say, one can’t tell people how vile, despicable, and evil they are, and then expect them to see your perspective.

The narrative poem is delivered in a combination of free verse and poetic prose all of which verges largely on just plain prose. That is to say, the emphasis is on telling a story and not so much on the usual core components of poetry, i.e. sound, imagery, and metaphor. (Unless some of these fictitious elements, e.g. the astounding number of rapes, are meant to be metaphorical. Then my concern would be that one risks diminishing a horrible thing, if one throws around that word as metaphor.)

This is a quick read, and, as I mentioned, it’s presented in a gripping fashion – if hyperbolically so. I suspect that it will be mostly read by a demographic determined along political lines, which is a shame. It could have been so much more.

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