Monthly Archives: August 2016

Poetry Review — In Praise of Defeat: Poems of Abdellatif Laâbi

In Praise of Defeat by Abdellatif Laâbi

In Praise of Defeat: Poems of Abdellatif Laâbi by Abdellatif Laâbi is an anthology of the poets work from 1965 through 2014. Laâbi is a Moroccan poet, born in 1942 in Fes, Morocco. He is one of the founders of the artistic journal Souffles. It was considered as a meeting point of some poets who felt the emergence. It was banned in 1972, but throughout its short life, it opened up to cultures from other countries of the Maghreb and those of the Third World. Laâbi was imprisoned, tortured and sentenced to ten years in prison for “crimes of opinion” and served a sentence from 1972-1980. He was, in 1985, forced into exile in France.

Here is a man who was a revolutionary with the pen instead of the gun. His work not only landed him in prison, but he continued to write while imprisoned. Of all the poems in the collection, the poetry from his imprisonment is the most powerful. He writes of the torture of the innocents and yet he writes of the prison torturer as a person who wonders if he can support his wife and five children and how much food prices will rise and what the late rains will so. He is a normal man until he starts his job.

Write, write, write is Laabi’s message from prison even though that is exactly what put him in there. Write in a cell 1.3 meters by 2.3 meters which part is blocked by a concrete bed. A small window, a squat toilet, and iron door with a sliding slat, and the luxury of a small wooden shelf make up the poet’s world. It is a dismal life even without a trip to see the torturer. Yet, from this existence, the writing gains strength:

Then we started to talk as the world around us became more real, as poetry made us more human, as our people by virtue of its struggles provide us with a livable nation, and as we ourselves awoke to the meaning of commitment.
“Chronicle of the Citadel of Exile”

They banned my poems
My name
They exiled me to an island
of concrete and rust
they placed a number
On my back…

“Four Years”

From the 1993 collection The World’s Embrace “The Poem Tree” tells of the extinction of poetry:

From time to time the memory of men gets saturated. At that point they jettison the most cumbersome and make room for the novelties that so infatuate them.

He compares poetry in the modern world to a tree unable to move, but resilient to efforts to manipulate it. The tree provides different fruits in different seasons — some sweet and others venom. It protects itself from predators with its own thorns. But unlike the novelties of the world, cell phones, gaming consoles, and video entertainment on demand, this is living breathing art that has set its roots and fights to survive in the world.

Laâbi work is in the original French on the left side of the book and English on the right. Donald Nicholson-Smith does a superb job of translating the work to English. I can not vouch for the structural portion of the translations, but in relaying the message, art, and the emotion of the original it would be difficult to find any better translation. Without this translation, Laâbi’s work would most likely not have an English speaking audience. A great collection of poetry and struggle lasting over fifty years. It remarkable that in the modern world that such repression can be fought and exposed with poetry and not violence.

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Poetry Review — The Universe of Us

The Universe of Us by Lang Leav

The Universe of Us by Lang Lev is the poet’s fourth collection of poetry. Lang is a recipient of The Qantas Spirit of Youth Award and was later granted a coveted Churchill Fellowship. Her fashion label Akina has achieved critical and commercial success, stocked in key boutiques around Australia and later in cutting edge Harajuku, Japan.

I would have passed this collection by, but her mention in her partner’s, Michael Faudet, book Pretty Dirty Thingsintrigued me. If Leav was the influence to Faudet’s writing, it must be worthwhile to read. Leav manages to treat love without becoming sappy about it. Her poems, for the most part, are very short almost like song lyric clippings. It is easy to see how her work can become best-selling poetry. Not to slight her work, but it does seem to hold that bubblegum pop quality of catching a moment and exploiting it.

Although as a middle aged male, I am probably not the target audience for Leav’s writing. I can appreciate the subject matter and did enjoy the cosmological references. It was the odd poem out that attracted my attention. “A Lesson” seemed to be more about the loss of a person, as in suicide rather than a loss of a love. I can see how this collection appeals to a large and not normally poetry reading audience. Although this collection is not my preferred poetry, anything that encourages people to read more poetry is a very good thing.


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Book Review — With the Flying Squadron: The Letters of Harold Rosher

With The Flying Squadron: The War Letters of Harold Rosher by Harold Rosher is a collection of war letters from Rosher to his family. Rosher was a pilot in the Royal Naval Air Service from 1914-1916 when he died in an aircraft accident over Dover.

This is a short collection of letters of less than one hundred pages. Rosher applied and for and received a commission and trained as a pilot at the outbreak of WWI. His letters are to his parents and sister and reflect the day to day of a naval pilot. Part of the uniqueness of this collection is that Rosher flew for the Royal Navy Air Service. Rather than the dogfights over the trenches, Rosher flew anti-zeppelin and anti-submarine missions. He details his bombing raids and following his letters are the official Royal Navy reports on the missions.

Although not rich in military details or aircraft specifications, this is a serviceman’s experience in war. A personal view of the war and a very unexpected ending. Rosher died three days after the last letter in an aircraft accident.



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Book Review — The Marriage of Heaven and Hell: Manic Depression and the Life of Virginia Woolf

The Marriage of Heaven and Hell: Manic Depression and the Life of Virginia Woolf by Peter Dally is a psychiatrist’s examination of Virginia Woolf, decades after she ended her life. Dally was the senior consultant psychiatrist at the Westminster Hospital, London, until his retirement in January 1988. His previous books include Elizabeth Barrett Browning: A Psychological Portrait, and Anorexia Nervosa. Although a general psychiatrist, his professional outlook was eclectic and he had particular interests in manic depression and anorexia nervosa. Virginia Woolf first aroused his interest when, as a student, he read Mrs. Dalloway. He subsequently became absorbed in her diaries, which give a wider and deeper picture of manic depression than any textbook.

I became a fan of Virginia Woolf just a few years ago. I have read her fiction, letters, and diaries along with Vita Sackville-West’s letters. The problem, for me, was I was just looking at the information she released or could have known would be public. There are gaps in her diary and letters. Those closest to her protected her. There has been a book or two exploiting Virginia Woolf’s illness, but they seemed to sensationalize the illness. Dally presents a big picture of Virginia Woolf’s illness to include those close to her.

Looking at Virginia Woolf’s family, varying degrees of depression and cyclothymic disorder are present. Virginia’s sister also suffered from depression. Dally looks at the family history as well as her closest friends. He seems initially to make atheism and homosexuality a bigger than necessary issue along with the sexual and lack of sexual relations with the married couples. For example, Leonard Woolf’s only experience with physical contact was with Sri Lankan prostitutes.

Virginia Woolf’s cyclothymic disorder is documented through the years as well as her writing. Much of what Virginia Woolf’s life reflects is in her writing. As a child, she said the birds were speaking in Greek to her. Later in Mrs. Dalloway, Septimus Warren Smith, a WWI veteran suffering from shell shock also claims to hear birds speaking in Greek. Smith, like Woolf, takes his own life. Dally credits Leonard Woolf for his support and near saint-like patience with Virginia success as a writer. Without him, she would not have had the encouragement and support to continue as a writer. She also seemed to suffer a postpartum effect with completing her books much like her sister experienced with childbirth.

One wonders how with modern treatment Virginia Woolf would have fared. Treatment could have lessened or controlled the effects of her depression and possibly saved her from committing suicide. Would she have been the writer she turned out to be with treatment? Her style and her material may have been, and very much seems to be, a result of her illness. Dally uses all the information he can find and completes a psychiatric profile on someone he has never met or interviewed. It is a difficult task and may not have been a practical one either. All the major people had been dead for nearly forty years by the time this book was written. The personal lives of those around Virginia Woolf, although fairly well documented, were kept away from public view. Supporting evidence is weak. Dally does try his best to make his case with the available evidence, but is it enough and is it accurate?


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Poetry Review — Best American Poetry 2016

Best American Poetry 2016 by David Lehman

Best American Poetry 2016 edited by David Lehman and Edward Hirsch is the 29th annual edition of American poetry. In 1994, Lehman succeeded Donald Hall as the general editor of the University of Michigan Press’s Poets on Poetry series, a position he held for twelve years. In 1997, he teamed with Star Black in creating and directing the famed KGB Bar Monday night poetry series in New York City’s East Village. He has taught in the graduate writing program of the New School in New York City since the program’s inception in 1996 and has served as poetry coordinator since 2003. He has edited The Best American Poetry Series since 1988. Hirsch is an American poet and critic who wrote a national bestseller about reading poetry. He has published nine books of poems, including The Living Fire: New and Selected Poems, which brings together thirty-five years of work, and Gabriel: A Poem, a book-length elegy for his son that The New Yorker calls “a masterpiece of sorrow.” He has also published five prose books about poetry.

There are two events I look forward to every year — The Iowa Poetry Prize winners and Lehman’s Best American Poetry. As an anthology, it is wide-ranging in subject and style making it a book of discovery and also a book that gives the reader boundaries for his or her taste. This is not a collection where the reader will enjoy every poem, but it is a collection that has something for everyone. In Lehman’s introduction, he tells of how poetry is a reflection of the times and the times are not good. There is terrorism, environmental destruction, and a constant stream of doom being reported. There is also a diversity in this collection that reflects a change in America. There are poems from Asian and Indian perspectives adding to the traditional melting pot.

Two poems, in particular, jumped up and rattled my brain. “Humanity 101” by Lynn Emanuel deep in satire and real world reflections of Humanity and Remedial Humanity as college courses. Is that how far we have come as people, needing to learn what it is to be humans? Of course, even in the instruction it is filled with the same warped sense of perceived reality that people believed putting a magnet on their car was supporting the troops, but when physically and mentally broken troops returned home needing help they were quickly forgotten. That poem struck deep. In the same sense “The Lady Responds” by Linda Gergerson on the surface seems to show how lightly we treat animals, especially in emotional and physical cruelty. A little closer look at the dedication “after Sir Thomas Wyatt” and the opening line “Whoso list to hunt…” It is a response to Thomas Wyatt’s poem about Anne Boleyn where the deer (Boleyn) he wants cannot be had because it’s on Caesar’s land (king’s wife) so he can no longer hunt. Gergerson’s reply is concerning the dogs that hunt, cannot behave, and those that are live bait for bears. Extremely well done on two levels.

Also in this year’s edition is a high percentage of prose poetry and free verse, much more than I remember in previous editions. Most are very good but still many may question if it is really poetry or a vivid short story. There is no doubt that prose can be poetic but is it poetry? That is for the reader to decide. There are plenty of more conventional poems in the collection for the traditionalists. Best American Poetry 2016 is a good indicator of the direction of American poetry. It reflects the changes in society both good and bad and how America is seen from the inside. Although Lehman warns of the apocalyptic feelings of the times there is hope and lightness still to be found in American poetry.

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Book Review — The Inferno: The Definitive Illustrated Edition

The Inferno by Dante Alighieri

The Inferno or Dante Alighieri need little introduction. Most people are familiar with the Divine Comedy regardless of their religion or lack of one. The Divine Comedy is one man’s journey with his guide, through Hell and Purgatory, Virgil. Beatrice is his guide in heaven. The Inferno is the journey through the nine layers of hell and, to many, the most interesting of the three journies. Purgatory is a boring place by design and Heaven is well, heaven.

I always felt The Inferno contained the best place to spend eternity, but not in an AC/DC “Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be” way. The outermost layer is Limbo and it is the place for the unbaptized and the noble pagans — Socrates, Plato, Saladin and others. Here Dante answers his days equivalent of is Gandhi in Heaven or Hell? He was a great person, wise, peaceful, a good leader so he should be in heaven, but he is not Christian so how can he be any place but Hell? Dante takes care of this in Limbo. It’s a part of Hell, but the company there is great. There is also a chance to leave Limbo as Jesus and a few other Biblical characters did by the intervention of God.

As one descends the circles, each for a particular offence, lust, greed, wrath, heresy, violence and so on, the punishments increase in severity until the inner circle of hell where the three greatest enemies of man are gnawed on by Satan. The three are a bit dated but fitting for Dante’s time. Who else resides in Hell? Dante’s enemies. If you can’t get even in life; get even in eternity or your creation of it.

Dante’s “The Divine Comedy” was unique in its style the rhyme scheme reflective of the Trinity and the number 100 — the perfect number. His work is divided up into three sections of thirty-three cantos with a single cantos introduction making 100 cantos. Three is used through the book three times three layers of hell and so on. The Inferno is filled with symbolism and hidden meanings. One can spend a great deal of time studying this story not only for its literary value but also for its political and religious history. Also, unique Dante wrote in Italian instead of the accepted Greek or Latin. This did help make Italian a literary language with Petrarch soon to follow in that tradition. The reason why they wrote in Italian is not well explained, but perhaps had more to do with regional identity. The idea they wrote in Italian so more people could read it is not practical. The educated were literate and to be educated one would learn Latin and Greek. The literates were the rich or the scribes who copied books. Books were very expensive meaning again only the rich and educated could read. The literacy rate at the time was under 10%.

What makes the Dover edition special is the inclusion of Gustave Doré engravings. I first saw Doré’s engravings in a copy of “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”. They were haunting and his work fits into The Inferno well. The engravings add an extra touch of dread and reinforce the entrance sign of Hell “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here!” This edition is also translated by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow who first introduced The Divine Comedy to America in 1867. Well done and very worthwhile addition to anyone’s library.

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Poetry Review — A Bird is Not a Stone: An Anthology of Contemporary Palestinian Poetry

“Perhaps it’s good for one to suffer. Can an artist do anything if he’s happy? Would he ever want to do anything? What is art, after all, but a protest against the horrible inclemency of life?”
― Aldous Huxley
A Bird is Not a Stone: An Anthology of Contemporary Palestinian Poetry

A Bird is Not a Stone: An Anthology of Contemporary Palestinian Poetry edited by Liz Lochhead is a diverse collection of Palestinian poetry. Lochhead is a Scottish poet and dramatist, originally from Newarthill in North Lanarkshire. This collection has been translated by twenty-five Scottish writers which add to the flavor of the writing.

Palestine has been a news story for the last sixty years. It is a simple region that remained quiet unless interfered with by outside powers — Romans, Crusaders, Turks, and British. One thing the poetry reflects on is that people want to be left alone to live in peace on their lands. The topics covered include the camps, travel restrictions, Gaza, and most importantly avoiding death. Gratitude is reflected in a poem of a man who looks over his children every time he sees a news picture of dead children buried in rubble. The theme of blood and ink runs deep through many of the writings.

Bisan Abdul Khaled adds a Russian flair invoking Pushkin and Lenin. Lenin or more generally communism in the removal of national borders and the faked maps that leave out Palestine. Palestine is seen as a woman or more importantly a mother in poems. The poems reflect honor on both women and their homeland. Women suffer through life — childbirth, societal restrictions, loss of children. Palestine suffers much the same. Suffering is said to feed great art and in Palestine, there is no shortage of suffering.

Some of the poems carry what is expected from Arab poems. The land, the violence, and the loss of dignity. The longest poem in the collection is written by Omar Shabanah is simply titled “The Poet.” It opens with how the poem will be dissected by critics as lyrical or elegiac or common and the message of the poem will be lost in its structure and criticism. The poet watches the world from the tenth floor of a building. He is able to see all of his homeland and he watches, as he ages from youth to middle age to old age. He sees a man hiding beautiful illusions in his bags soon to be lost.

And he was misled and mislaid
Mislaid and misled
Until he lost himself in the world
And his universe became a pit.

He relates to “The Waste Land” and a different Walt Whitman crying over dried leaves of grass. His poem is lyrical but closer to “The Waste Land” as Eliot surveyed the Europe ravished by war. He takes a flowing beauty of Whitman and turns it to death. Looking from above one sees the world almost in hindsight.

My favorite poem in the collection for its simplicity and truth:

Not only Rivers

Not only rivers have a source.
Paths trickle from single dwellings till,
fed by tracks from villages, they go
through towns and cities. Swelled
by tributary streets till they end
in mighty ports and seaside resorts.
Roads die when peoples’ hopes, fears,
wishes, traffic, no longer flow through them,
unlike rivers which are not made by fishes.

Tareq al-Karmy

All the poems are accompanied in their original Arabic on the left page and English on the right. A few of the poems are also translated into Gaelic and Scottish. A Bird is Not a Stone will introduce the reader to a culture of great poetry and will show the reader familiar with Arabic poetry that there is more to Palestinian poems than Darwish

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