Annabel Lee- Amor Vincit Omnia

 

 

 

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A beautiful and atmospheric representation of Annabel Lee! Image from paintingvalley.com

Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered over many a quaint and curious volume of Halloween lore, I thought about the beautiful Annabel Lee buried by the shore. I don’t know why but tragedies of young love pull at my heartstrings. They appeal to so many of my romantic sensibilities- the innocence and purity of first love, the forbidden element, the cruel and hostile world, the all consuming and obsessive passion and finding happiness only through death in another realm. Perhaps the tale of youngsters in the throes of love taps into something deep and primal within us and has a universal appeal as it delineates the conflict between an individual’s interior desires and the exterior familial and societal constraints. Or maybe the tales of the star-crossed Tristan and Iseult, Pyramus and Thisbe or Romeo and Juliet exalt a rare and lofty kind of love that many people wish they could only experience!

Another tale of ill-fated love that has stood the test of time is Poe’s haunting Annabel Lee, published in 1849. The speaker laments the death of his young beloved, Annabel Lee:

Annabel Lee

It was many and many a year ago,
In a kingdom by the sea,
That a maiden there lived whom you may know
By the name of Annabel Lee;
And this maiden she lived with no other thought
Than to love and be loved by me.

I was a child and she was a child,
In this kingdom by the sea;
But we loved with a love that was more than love-
I and my Annabel Lee;
With a love that the winged seraphs of heaven
Coveted her and me.

And this was the reason that, long ago,
In this kingdom by the sea,
A wind blew out of a cloud, chilling
My beautiful Annabel Lee;
So that her highborn kinsmen came
And bore her away from me,
To shut her up in a sepulchre
In this kingdom by the sea.

The angels, not half so happy in heaven,
Went envying her and me-
Yes!- that was the reason (as all men know,
In this kingdom by the sea)
That the wind came out of the cloud by night,
Chilling and killing my Annabel Lee.

But our love it was stronger by far than the love
Of those who were older than we-
Of many far wiser than we-
And neither the angels in heaven above,
Nor the demons down under the sea,
Can ever dissever my soul from the soul
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee.

For the moon never beams without bringing me dreams
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;
And the stars never rise but I feel the bright eyes
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;
And so, all the night-tide, I lie down by the side
Of my darling- my darling- my life and my bride,
In the sepulchre there by the sea,
In her tomb by the sounding sea. 

Poe’s wife Virginia is assumed to be the inspiration behind Annabel Lee but does it really matter whom it was intended for? This romantic elegy of an obsessive and all-encompassing love is timeless and universal. It gives me the goosebumps every time I read it and never fails to awaken in me a mood of yearning and melancholy.

Stanza 1- The poem starts out as a fairytale with the words ‘many and many a year ago’, ‘a kingdom by the sea’, ‘maiden’ and the name of the eponymous princess like character, Annabel Lee. The words ‘whom you may know by’ establish an intimacy between the speaker and the reader and convey the legendary status of the tale. The speaker speaks of Annabel’s love and devotion to him. Everything seems idyllic. He is in a perfect setting during a beautiful time of his life enjoying reciprocal love.

Stanza 2- They were childhood sweethearts. The repetition of the words ‘child’ and ‘love’ and the refrain ‘kingdom by the sea’ create a harmonious and pleasing effect. The word ‘love’ is too trite and lackluster to describe the deep feelings they have for each other. The poem that started out as a fairytale suddenly takes a dark and morbid turn when he says the ‘winged seraphs’ or angels were jealous of him and of his love. Is it because simple mortals could experience such profound love? He has a different perspective on angels who are normally thought of as gentle beings who guard over you.

Stanza 3- We realize that we have been lulled into a false sense of security and that this is turning out to be a terrifying and eerie story. What is the ‘wind’ that takes Annabel’s life? Did she catch a cold and contract pneumonia or a similar illness? Or is the wind a metaphor for something more sinister? Was she betrothed to another, kidnapped, raped or murdered? Lines 17 through 20 describe her funeral and the reference to her highborn kinsmen indicate that she was perhaps of aristocratic birth and enjoyed a better social status than the speaker and that could very well have been the reason that their relationship was doomed.

Stanza 4- The horror of her death is emphasized again. He repeats what the angels had done in a conversational and intimate tone with the readers. The phrase ‘as all men know’ reiterates that their love was legendary and possibly has a universal element to it. The internal rhymes ‘chilling and killing’ add to the hypnotic effect.

Stanza 5- Their love was more mature and true than those of older and wiser people. Lines 30 through 33 have been compared to St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans by the poet and literary translator, Richard Wilbur. St. Paul’s eighth chapter reads: “I am persuaded that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God.” The use of alliterations in this stanza (‘demons, down, dissever..’ ) and the repetitions of the words ‘love’ and ‘soul’ create a euphony or pleasing musicality.

Stanza 6-  The last stanza is my favorite of the poem and makes my hair stand on end every time I read it. Lines 34 through 37 immortalize Annabel Lee with her association with celestial bodies. He dreams of her every night and he feels her bright eyes when he sees the stars. Even if her body has perished, their souls are in love. Their love is eternal. Lines 38 through 41 describe how he lies beside her tomb every night. He calls her his bride making us wonder if their union was consummated. Whether she was actually his bride or not can be left for the readers to imagine. I am inclined to believe that it was wishful thinking on his part. The love they experienced was pure and virginal linking their stories to their predecessors in history and literature. Even death is powerless in the face of true love. Love is immortal and defies death. Or is the speaker in denial and going insane? The line between love and madness gets blurry. Isn’t being in love a form of insanity too?

The Source for the Ending- The grief-stricken man lying by the tomb of his beloved is not an uncommon motif in literature. It is believed that Poe could have been inspired by a local legend of a sailor who kept vigil at the cemetery of a certain Annabel Lee who died of yellow fever in Charleston, South Carolina. In Victor Hugo’s Notre Dame de Paris ( The Hunchback of Notre Dame), the skeleton of Quasimodo is found embracing the skeleton in Esmeralda’s tomb. But I would like to go back even farther in time. Poe found inspiration in literature from Middle Eastern texts as can be evidenced from his poems Al- Aaraaf, Israfel and his short story, The Thousand and Second Tale of Scheherazade among others. He drew heavily from translations of the Quran, the Arabian Nights and Sa’di’s Gulistan. I would like to put forth the idea that the poem’s ending can be traced to the legend of Layla and Majnu, a story that found its origins in Bedouin oral tradition and was put down in writing in the 12th century by the Persian poet, Nizami Ganjavi.

Layla and Qays are in love with each other since childhood but not allowed to unite due to tribal rivalries. Layla is married off to another man and the hapless and helpless Qais has become so crazy in love that he is known by the epithet ‘Majnu’ or the one ‘possessed by djinns’. He seeks Layla’s gravesite when he learns of her death, lying there for months and eventually dies there. Their love story can be interpreted as a Sufi allegorical narrative where the crazy Majnu is in love with the idealized image of the beloved. It is a spiritual love that transcends human experience.

I am also enthralled by the lyrical beauty of Annabel Lee. It has a beautiful cadence to it lulling us like the waves of the shore where it is set. Moreover the repetitions ( ‘my darling- my darling’), the refrains ( ‘in this kingdom by the sea’) and the rhymes ( ‘side’ and ‘bride’) and internal rhymes ( ‘beams’ and ‘dreams’) create a hallucinatory effect. I have read this poem so many times I can recite it by heart even without having tried to memorize it. It is timeless and immortal just like the story of the beautiful Annabel Lee.

ⓒ Literary Gitane- All words and ideas expressed are the author’s and cannot be reproduced without permission.

 

 

The Bluest Eye

 

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I recently read an article about a homeless woman sentenced to five years in prison for using her friend’s address to enroll her son in school. And last week I heard that a rich actress who cheated to get her child to college got away with just fourteen days and community service. Needless to say, the poor homeless woman is black and the rich celebrity is white. Racial discrimination is rooted in a long history of oppression that continues to this day in mostly covert but shockingly, on occasion, in overt ways too. Literature is a safe space for black people to express their grievances and angst. Ever since I read To Kill a Mockingbird, I’ve been drawn to narratives chronicling the experience of America’s ‘free’ but still bonded people. When I heard about the recent demise of Toni Morrison, I started reading the books penned by her that I hadn’t read yet. I wanted to read her in chronological order to follow her development as a writer and began with her debut novel, The Bluest Eye.

Set in Lorain Ohio, the author’s childhood home, the story begins with the perspective of a young girl Claudia who bemoans the fact that no marigolds bloomed in the fall of 1941. She adds that they thought it was because Pecola was having her father’s baby that the marigolds didn’t grow. Pecola’s father had dropped his seed in his own plot of black dirt and just like the seeds shriveled and died, so did her baby. What? In the beginning of the novel itself we are told that Pecola is going to be impregnated by her father and that her baby is going to die. What a punch to the gut!

At that point I wanted to put the book down. Actually I wanted to fling it away. I can handle pretty much any topic but incest and pedophilia are where I draw the line. Yet I persisted. The lyrical writing pulled me in. Besides I wanted to know what happened to the child. How did she cope and did she emerge a survivor? The defeated narrator declares: “There is really nothing more to say- except why. But since why is difficult to handle, one must take refuge in how.” We already have the facts. We just learn the details as we move along.

Through different perspectives in a series of flashbacks, we learn about the events that led to the tragedy. Two young black girls, Claudia and Frieda MacTeer, live with their parents in Ohio. For a brief period they take in an eleven year old girl called Pecola Breedlove ( notice the ominous name) who comes from a troubled household. Her father is often drunk and her parents are physically and verbally abusive to each other and to her and her brother Sammy. She considers herself ugly and is perceived as hideous by her own community. She believes that if she were to have blue eyes, she would be pretty. If there is anyone more vulnerable than a black girl in our society, it is an ugly black girl.

But how exactly do we define ugliness? Eurocentic standards of beauty have been touted as ideal as a result of widespread colonialism and people who don’t live up to those ideals are conditioned to believe that they are inferior:

“You looked at them and wondered why they were so ugly; you looked closely and could not find the source. Then you realized that it came from conviction, their conviction. It was as though some mysterious all-knowing master had given each one a cloak of ugliness to wear, and they had each accepted it without question. The master had said, ‘You are ugly people.’ They had looked about themselves and saw nothing to contradict the statement; saw, in fact, support for it leaning at them from every billboard, every movie, every glance. . ‘Yes,’ they had said, ‘You are right.’ And they took the ugliness in their hands, threw it as a mantle over them, and went about the world with it.”

Claudia feels anger towards the image of Shirley Temple, the quintessential pretty American child, staring at her from a blue and white cup and in a fit of rage, she dismembers her white doll. To be white is to be beautiful is the message screaming at her from billboards and magazines. There are very few white characters in this novel and they only appear in the periphery. The racism Morrison describes is internalized racism emanating from self-loathing. The book was inspired by a conversation she had with an African-American girl at elementary school who wished for blue eyes.

What prompts an Indian girl to stay out of the sun, a Nigerian girl to use skin whitening creams, a Chinese girl to consider eyelid surgery or an African-American girl to hide her naturally textured hair and go for hair straightening treatments? They have internalized all the messages of hatred they have heard throughout their lives. Even actress Lupita Nyong’o confessed that as a child she wished that she were not so ‘unbeautiful’!  It was not uncommon for me to see a dark-skinned girl in India treat someone who was darker with the same disdain she faced from someone who was lighter skinned. It is a vicious circle and this issue of ‘colorism’, ‘shadeism’ or ‘whitewashing’ or whatever else we may call it is far from black and white and is prevalent world wide across all races and cultures.

There is a character named Geraldine who calls herself colored as opposed to black as if color were on a spectrum. She thinks she is more cultured than other people of her race. Her son is not allowed to play with other black children. She unjustly accuses Pecola of killing a cat and calls her by a nasty racist epithet. A picture of Jesus on the wall looks down on this scene with sad and unsurprised eyes. Even God is helpless and unable to intervene. You would expect her to commiserate with people of her own race but her inferiority complex makes her treat with condescension people who are less powerful than she is.

One unforgettable scene that will stay with me forever is Pecola’s mother consoling and comforting the white child of her employer with affectionate words while she beats her own daughter for a minor accident. She is projecting everything she hates about herself on the little girl. In fact, just about everyone in town is guilty of doing it:

All of our waste which we dumped on her and which she absorbed. And all of our beauty, which was hers first and which she gave to us. All of us–all who knew her–felt so wholesome after we cleaned ourselves on her. We were so beautiful when we stood astride her ugliness. her simplicity decorated us, her guilt sanctified us, her pain made us glow with health, her awkwardness made us think we had a sense of humor. Her inarticulateness made us believe we were eloquent. Her poverty kept us generous. Even her waking dreams we used–to silence our own nightmares. And she let us, and thereby deserved our contempt. We honed our egos on her, padded our characters with her frailty, and yawned in the fantasy of our strength.” 

The inexorable passing of the seasons marks the progression of the plot but the narrative structure is disjointed as the point of view shifts continuously from character to character. There are different third person narrators and narrative insets by other characters in the first person. For me the most compelling part of the narration was observing the story through the eyes of another innocent child, Claudia. I wish Morrison had retained this structure for the entire story but the shifts in perspective may be to make us comprehend the behavior and motivations of the characters. She is not condoning their actions but wants us to understand what makes people who they are. In the afterword to the novel, she remarks in hindsight:

“My solution–break the narrative into parts that had to be reassembled by the reader–seemed to me a good idea, the execution of which does not satisfy me now. Besides, it didn’t work: many readers remained touched but not moved.”

Pecola’s parents led terrible lives too. Her mother escapes from her loneliness and her poverty by cleaning a white woman’s house. Vendors respect her when she shops for her white employers but she is invisible as a black woman. Pecola’s father was abandoned as a child and experienced sexual humiliation at the hands of white thugs. There is no excuse whatsoever for sexual assault and violence but could society have prevented this rape? If only the world had been kinder to these people dehumanized by society, maybe..just maybe Pecola wouldn’t have ended up being raped.

The Dick and Jane reading primer used in the forties and fifties in classrooms to teach students to read serves as a framing device to show the difference between what is considered the ideal family in America and the chaotic and uncertain world the girls live in. The Dick and Jane booklet of a happy and financially stable white family contrasts with Pecola’s dysfunctional family. Morrison uses the simple words of the text to show how a family disintegrates. As she shares passages from the texts through the course of the novel, the words are strung together in a smaller font, without punctuation and then without spaces between words. Eventually the grammar and sentence structure fall apart.

This is an excellent and hard-hitting first novel but it is definitely not for the faint of heart. I can see why it was banned in schools but I think it would fit well in the curriculum with To Kill A Mocking Bird and Why the Caged Bird Sings and can engender powerful conversations on race with older and more mature students. Through the intersectional prism of class, race and gender, we understand the complexities of power imbalances. Frieda is a black girl too and has an experience with someone touching her inappropriately but her parents who belong to a higher economic class protect her and throw the lecherous man out of the house.

I was curious about what happened to Pecola after the disaster. The girl who so yearned to be noticed is noticed alright but not in the way she wants and with devastating consequences. In her desperate longing for blue eyes, she seeks the assistance of the creepy Soaphead Church, a con artist and pedophile masking as a man of God, and eventually retreats into her own private world.

Children are the most powerless members of society. Pecola’s parents had failed her, her friends had failed her and the entire town had failed her. The novel ends on a note of despair. The soil is bad for certain kinds of flowers which will never bloom. But despite the despondent tone, one hopes that some progress has been made over the decades and that we can confidently state that maybe some marigolds will bloom after all in spite of the unyielding earth.

 

 

 

 

‘The Bustle in a House’-Visiting the Ghost of Emily Dickinson

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The Homestead- Home of Poet Emily Dickinson. The photo is taken from the driveway of the house.

The best way to pay homage to deceased authors is by reading their work. The second best way is to embark on a literary pilgrimage and situate yourself in the same space where creativity once flowed. I enjoy immersing myself in the world of authors- treading on the sacred ground where their footsteps once tread, establishing instant intimacy with them by stepping into the rooms where they lived, ate, worked and slept and developing inspiration for my own writing. The most humbling realization is that in spite of the fame and success they were ordinary mortals like us caught up in the drudgery of life.

Last month I had the opportunity of visiting Emily Dickinson’s stately home in Amherst, MA. She is a kindred spirit from another era as along with a passion for poetry, I share her interests in baking and gardening and her love of nature. Emily ( Yes, I am on first -name basis with her! ) wrote exquisitely beautiful pithy poems on nature, love, longing, life, death and immortality. Her life was shrouded in mystery as she deliberately sought to be a recluse and hardly left her home. Only a handful of her poems were published during her lifetime. I’m grateful to her sister Lavinia who published the rest of her work comprising of nearly 1800 poems after she left this world. Emily never knew that one day she would be regarded as one of the greatest American poets. Her eccentricities  along with the image of a reclusive poet add to her mystique. Although I’m a frequent visitor of her poetic abode, I couldn’t help feeling a little like an unwelcome guest in the home of the poet who lived in self-imposed solitude.

The Emily Dickinson museum comprises 2 historic houses on a 3 acre property in college town Amherst, MA – The Homestead and The Evergreens. The Homestead house where Emily’s grandparents lived was built in 1813. It is the house where she was born and raised in a upper class Calvinist upbringing and it is the same house where she died. She lived there with her parents and her two siblings. The family temporarily moved to Pleasant Street in Amherst where a pedestrian Mobil station now stands and then moved back to the Homestead in 1855 and converted it to the Italianate style in vogue then with a yellow exterior and green shutters and a cupola on the roof. I was shocked to hear that the house was almost razed to the ground after the last inhabitants passed away but thankfully it was eventually bought by Amherst College and restored to its present state.

The house was a very important space as she spent most of her time there. While touring the property, you notice prints of poems scattered throughout the house and the docent herself recited some of them to us. At every step, I was reminded of my own favorite poems that seemed relevant to the moment and experience.

I dwell in possibility- ( 466)

I dwell in Possibility–
A fairer House than Prose–
More numerous of Windows–
Superior–for Doors–

Of Chambers as the Cedars–
Impregnable of Eye–
And for an Everlasting Roof
The Gambrels of the Sky–

Of Visitors–the fairest–
For Occupation–This–
The spreading wide my narrow Hands
To gather Paradise—

Even though she lived sequestered in a house with doors and windows that physically confined her, they were not impenetrable for poetry was her true dwelling which enabled her to give free rein to her limitless imagination and access the expanse of the infinite universe.

The house has been restored to look the way it looked till Dickinson’s death in 1886. Most of the furniture pieces are reproductions with the original pieces owned by Harvard University. The main floor has an exhibit area with a gift shop, a parlor and a study. In the parlor is a replica of the original piano that Emily played and a portrait of

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The iconic and possibly the only existing daguerreotype of the poet taken when she was 16.

the three Dickinson children. You also see a copy of the only daguerreotype that exists of the poet when she was sixteen years old. On this floor you also see the conservatory attached to the house and built especially for Emily to grow native and exotic plants.

The most exciting rooms are on the second floor. Across from the hall is a little poetry room where we had a discussion about Dickinson’s poems with the tour guide. She was a prolific poet who wrote, on average, a poem a day. She wrote them on scraps of papers, on envelopes, newspaper clippings and in letters to friends. She would make copies on sheets of paper and sew them together into booklets or ‘fascicles’ as they are now called. We saw the reproduction of one of the ‘fascicles’ where she wrote alternate words in the margin if she needed to substitute words or phrases in a poem. Often her poems revealed unusual vocabulary and syntax and unconventional use of punctuation in keeping with her rebellious nature. She is especially known for her daring use of dashes.

Finally we entered the hallowed territory- the poet’s small bedroom which has replicas of her bureau and her writing desk and floral wallpaper similar in design to the room of the nineteenth century. Portraits of George Sand and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, both, authors she undoubtedly admired, grace the walls. Apparently many visitors get emotional in this small and serene room. It was a contemplative and moving experience for me too as I stood within the confines of that tiny space which produced a staggering number of poems. This was a room of her own where along with spending many productive hours, she gazed out to the hills and meadows from her window and on occasion lowered baskets of cookies and sweets to children who waited below.

Outside the bedroom in a glass case is the replica of one of the long white dresses she wore which reveals a very slender frame. The fact that she only wore white dresses once she retreated into her solitude adds to the aura of mystery surrounding her. It’s easy to imagine a white phantom moving stealthily through the house.

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The Evergreens- Home of Austin Dickinson.

Next I proceeded to visit ‘The Evergreens’, the second house on the property built in 1856 for Emily’s brother Austin who married Susan Gilbert, Emily’s best friend. Emily took part in parties and musical soirées at this house ‘a hedge away’ when younger but avoided them later when she cut herself off from society. The comings and goings between the two houses made for some fascinating encounters and anecdotes.

This house is interesting both from an architectural standpoint and a historic perspective. Unlike the house next door, the subsequent owners of the property retained the original features and the furniture. Virtually every piece is intact- oil paintings, curios, books, lithographs, carpets, wallpaper and an adorable cradle. The kitchen has retained pots and pans and other equipment from the nineteenth century including call bells for servants. You feel like you’ve stepped back in time. To me the most charming room is the nursery – there are toys on the floor and clothes on the bed made more poignant by the fact that Austin and Susan Dickinson had lost their eight year old son to typhoid.

Emily was plagued with health issues. She was losing vision and was prone to epileptic fits. She could have suffered from a mood disorder which seems to fit with her outbursts of joyous creativity and her poems that suggest both euphoria and despondency. She never married but her personal life has aroused a lot of curiosity. She wrote letters addressed to an unknown ‘Master’ who people speculate could have been any of the following: George Gould, a close friend, Otis Lord, a prominent judge and a family friend, Samuel Bowles, a local newspaper editor, Rev.Charles Wadsworth or even her sister- in law Sue- her friend, the reader and recipient of her poems and a trusted critic to whom she had written intensely passionate letters. There is no way of knowing for sure if she was a lesbian or bisexual although many of her poems have homoerotic overtones.

I stepped into the garden and was quite disappointed. It was early spring and a few crocuses were blooming  here and there. But for a woman who was a botany expert, an avid gardener and a high priestess of nature, the museum could have done a better job preserving it. What a travesty considering the poet burned incense on the altar of nature! She decried organized religion but was immensely spiritual. Nature was her religion as we can see from the parody of the trinitarian formula in this poem:

The Gentian weaves her fringes- ( 47)

The Gentian weaves her fringes-
The maple’s loom is red.
My departing blossoms
Obviate parade.

A brief, but patient illness,
An hour to prepare;
And one, below this morning,
Is where the angels are.

It was a short procession, —
The bobolink was there,
An aged bee addressed us,
And then we knelt in prayer.

We trust that she was willing, —
We ask that we may be.
Summer, sister, seraph,
Let us go with thee!

In the name of the bee,
And of the butterfly,
And of the breeze, amen!

As I was about to leave the property, I was struck by the realization that it is ironical that a woman who shunned fame and eschewed company is now swarmed with visitors.

I’m nobody! Who are you? ( 260)

I’m nobody! Who are you?Are you nobody, too?
Then there’s a pair of us — don’t tell!
They’d banish — you know!

How dreary to be somebody!
How public like a frog
To tell one’s name the livelong day
To an admiring bog!

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View of The Homestead from the garden framed by a giant oak tree!

I felt like an intruder invading into this very private woman’s space and thoughts. But then on my way out, I noticed the giant oak tree in her garden which was barely leafing out at the time. I hugged the tree absorbing its vital life force energy with the thought that perhaps Emily had once spread her arms around it too for it is the same oak from her time that still stands tall. I hope by connecting with the natural world so dear to her, I atoned a little for the transgression of trespassing.

 

 

An Amethyst Remembrance- Three Dickinson Poems on Love and Loss

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Cover of the first edition of Emily Dickinson’s  “Poems”, published in 1890

In recognition of National Poetry Month which wraps up today, I am celebrating Emily Dickinson, one of America’s most innovative and unique poets. She is known for the economy of her verse, her unconventional use of grammar and punctuation and blatant disregard of poetic conventions.

She is first and foremost a nature poet who through robins, bees and flowers expounds profound truths about love, life, death and immortality. Her concise poems manage to pack the hardest punch. Typically one or two metaphors are enough to convey the message or the emotion. I have chosen to highlight three poems on love and loss explicitly for their novel use of figurative language.

To lose thee — sweeter than to gain
All other hearts I knew.
‘Tis true the drought is destitute,
But then, I had the dew!

The Caspian has its realms of sand,
Its other realm of sea.
Without the sterile perquisite,
No Caspian could be.

This bittersweet poem on pain going hand in hand with pleasure illustrates Tennyson’s famous lines that ” ‘Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.” Where there is love, there is loss but there is something sweet about the loss too. The speaker is bereft but she was lucky enough to have had something to lose. Being in drought makes her appreciate the dew or the contrasting emotion of elation she once enjoyed.

In this particular poem I was intrigued by the image of the Caspian Sea as a metaphor of life, love and vitality and the dry sand the pain of loneliness and desolation. Marine images feature in many of Dickinson’s poems. In fact there are other poems that allude specifically to the Caspian Sea like this succinct two line poem on submitting to her beloved :

Least Rivers — docile to some sea.
My Caspian — thee. 

The Caspian sea interestingly is not a boundless sea but a landlocked body of water. It  could not exist without its boundaries. Everything has its limits and must end somewhere. The sand marks the end of the sea. Similarly love must end too. Loss is a necessary part of life. Without the sterile desert, there would be no appreciation of the sea. It is fascinating how Dickinson employs a topographical feature to illuminate the workings of the mind.

I held a Jewel in my fingers—
And went to sleep—
The day was warm, and winds were prosy—
I said ”Twill keep’—

I woke—and chid my honest fingers,
The Gem was gone—
And now, an Amethyst remembrance
Is all I own—

The speaker/poet thought her love as rare and exquisite as a jewel would last forever but it was evanescent and only memories remain. She went to sleep lulled by the comfort that she was secure in her relationship but maybe she took it for for granted. She blames herself for when she wakes up her precious treasure has slipped away and what remains with her are her cherished memories. Love is fleeting and is synonymous with loss but there is a vague triumph in the loss. I interpreted “Jewel” to denote love but the jewel could mean life, possessions, dreams or anything we held on to dearly. The nostalgic tone of the poem is accentuated by the use of innumerable dashes which could denote a pause in her thoughts as she strives to recollect her past.

This is one of my favorite Dickinson poems as I love the image of ” an Amethyst remembrance”. An amethyst is a semi-precious stone compared to the precious jewel. So one could argue that what remains is definitely less precious than what one has experienced. But it could be the opposite too. Isn’t it interesting that we don’t have a precise picture of the jewel but the description of the memory is more concrete? Our memories are often idealized versions of a past that was far from perfect. The colorful, lustrous and sparkling picture of the amethyst evoked at the end of the day and perhaps at the sunset of her life suffuses the poem in a violet glow. What a gem of a poem!

We outgrow love like other things
  And put it in the drawer,
Till it an antique fashion shows
  Like costumes grandsires wore.

We outgrow love like other things. What a cynical start to the poem! Love and everything else in life is temporary. Sometimes we hold on to letters and photographs of an ex even if we no longer have any feelings for that person. We don’t want to completely destroy the evidence of the past even if it were painful or even if we are totally indifferent to the person now. We put our feelings in the drawer as we don’t want to deal with them but do we really outgrow love if we are putting it away? There is some lingering affection or sentiment attached if not to the person then at least to the experience or why wouldn’t we just throw it all away?

The object we once desired loses its appeal and charm and becomes an antique that is out of fashion. Again, the use of figurative language is striking. These objects are not necessarily heirlooms that we cherish or that even have a sentimental value but things that get tucked away in a drawer forgotten and possibly never removed ever again “like costumes grandsires wore.”Grandsires” is an archaic word to describe male ancestors. Was love just a short-lived performance? Did we wear love like a costume to be discarded after the act? We want different things in different stages of our lives and what we once prized is now devoid of any value.

Emily Dickinson is my bedside companion. Along with some other cherished books by favorite authors that have found a place on my bedside table, I have an edition of her poems that I turn to for a quick read when I am too tired to read something long or when I am in between books. Dickinson’s poems are just the perfect size for me to savor and to indulge in some introspection. Today is the last day of National Poetry Month. Every day is poetry day and every month is poetry month for me but just like we honor our mothers on Mother’s Day or our significant others on Valentine’s Day though we love them throughout the year, it is wonderful to have a whole month dedicated to poetry appreciation.

 

A Poem For Arbor Day

Arbor
April is National Poetry Month in the US. Today is also Arbor Day, a day on which the poem “Trees” by Joyce Kilmer is recited all over the country during arboreal celebrations. Incidentally, Joyce Kilmer was a man. The first name led me to believe otherwise but on researching the poet I discovered, along with his gender, a lot of details about his life; he died during the fighting in the Second Battle of the Marne in 1918 in World War 1 at the young age of 31. He was an atheist who found faith when his little daughter was afflicted with polio and lost the use of her limbs. He was derided for writing simple and sentimental rhyming poems at a time when ‘avant-garde’ poetry was all the rage. He is best known for ‘Trees”, inspired perhaps by a view of fall foliage from the window of his home in Mahwah, NJ. Surprisingly, even this poem which succinctly captures Nature’s beauty and God’s hand in creation was dismissed as trite by many critics.
trees.jpg

I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.

A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
Against the earth’s sweet flowing breast;

A tree that looks at God all day,
And lifts her leafy arms to pray;

A tree that may in Summer wear
A nest of robins in her hair;

Upon whose bosom snow has lain;
Who intimately lives with rain.

Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree.

~ Trees, Joyce Kilmer

“Trees” is a short poem in iambic tetrameter with six rhyming couplets that make it flow in a sing-song fashion and make it easy to memorize. The rhyme scheme is aa/bb/cc/dd/ee/aa. The final words of the two lines in each couplet have the same sounds and the words of the last couplet have the same sounds as the first couplet.

Lines 1 and 2- The speaker starts by saying that a poem doesn’t compare to a tree. Humans can’t create anything as beautiful as God. It is interesting that being a poet himself, Kilmer is modest about his art.

Lines 3 and 4-  The tree depends on Mother Earth for sustenance. Nature is portrayed as a feminine entity who is generous, giving and nurturing. The roots of the tree suck water and nutrients from the earth as a child would milk from its mother’s bosom.

Lines 5 and 6-  The tree extends its limbs in supplication as if it were praying to God. The tree is personified in these lines and throughout the poem with human attributes like hair, arms, a hungry mouth and a bosom.

Lines 7 and 8 –  The tree is a place of refuge for creatures. The tree is the protector whose foliage offers shade and shelter to birds. The relationship of the trees and birds echoes the relationship of the tree and the earth. These lines beautifully highlight the interdependence of living things and the regenerative cycle of nature.

Lines 9 and 10- These lines describing the relationship between snow/ rain and the tree are vivid in sensual imagery. The tree with its bosom and knotted hair has feminine traits just like the earth. In describing nature, the poet resorts to anthropomorphic images which transport us to an emotional and spiritual plane. The tree is first portrayed as a child suckling from its mother and eventually as a young woman who lives intimately with the elements. The tree then could represent a person and God’s ingenuity in creating humans along with nature.

Lines 11 and 12-  The last two lines take us us back to the first stanza perhaps reinforcing the idea of the cyclical pattern of nature. Divine creation surpasses literary creation. The speaker/ poet is humble and there is a tinge of self-deprecation in his humility.

This poem is a hymn to nature’s beauty and bounty. The use of poetic devices like simile, personification, repetition and alliteration imbue it with a musical quality. In fact it has been set to music many times. It is also a poem with a spiritual bent, rich in religious symbolism. In a span of twelve brief lines, the visual and tactile imagery took me into the woods and up to the heavens and back. The poem is charming and striking in its simplicity. Let me not kill it by overanalyzing it. I’ll just end with this thought: I think that I shall never see a poem as pithy and profound as this poem.

Don’t you think the best way to pay tribute to this poet would be by going outdoors and planting a sapling?

 

When Death Comes: In Memory Of Mary Oliver

Dragonfly

The 18th of April is Poem in Your Pocket Day, part of the month-long celebration of National Poetry Month in the United States. The poem I chose to carry in my pocket yesterday was written by Pulitzer Prize -winning poet, Mary Oliver who left our earthly abode two months ago. Her soulful rapport with nature and meditations on the human condition have touched and transformed many lives. To mourn her demise or celebrate her life as the case may be, I fittingly selected a poem on death that teaches us to live. For, after all, aren’t life and death two sides of the same coin?

When Death Comes

When death comes
like the hungry bear in autumn;
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse

to buy me, and snaps the purse shut;
when death comes
like the measle-pox

when death comes
like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,

I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?

And therefore I look upon everything
as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility,

and I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular,

and each name a comfortable music in the mouth,
tending, as all music does, toward silence,

and each body a lion of courage, and something
precious to the earth.

When it’s over, I want to say all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.

I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.

–Mary Oliver

Mary Oliver imparts her wisdom in a gentle way in her poems. This poem is a meditation on mortality or immortality depending on your perspective; it is a mantra on how to live our lives. The speaker resorts to similes and personification to imagine the arrival of death which can take several forms. It can appear as a ravenous bear, as a merciless man with a coin purse, as a dreadful disease or as a huge and chilling mass of ice. Even if death charges at her ruthlessly, she wants to welcome it with curiosity. The “cottage of darkness” is an arresting metaphor as a cottage conjures up an image of a cozy, comfortable and warm place as opposed to death which is cold and frightening. It is interesting that she doesn’t capitalize death. It is just another ordinary and inevitable event in our lives.

The poem is written in free verse without a set rhyme or meter. The twelve stanzas of varying length convey a continuous flow of thoughts. You almost feel like she is having a conversation with you. The liberal use of the comma instead of a period enables us to read the poem without pausing. The use of poetic devices like the ‘enjambment’ or technique of continuing one thought beyond the end of a line to the subsequent line ( lines 11-12 ) and the ‘anaphora’ when a line is repeated at the beginning of a number of lines (“when death comes”) gives the poem an incantatory tone like a prayer chant.

The speaker goes on to question conventional notions of time as linear and finite and considers “eternity as another possibility.” Each life is individual and unique like a flower. Yet all existence is interlinked and the speaker wishes to live with awareness and curiosity and to also live in close communion with nature and the universe. The individual human is a “lion of courage” fearlessly confronting the mysteries of life and the individual human experience is music which moves collectively towards silence or death. The juxtaposition of music and silence is akin to that of life and death.

The speaker wishes to make use of the gift of life she has been offered by embracing the experience fully. She doesn’t choose one or the other but wishes to be married to life both as a bride and a groom- to avail of all the experiences life has to offer. She doesn’t want to just visit the world but inhabit it and immerse in it fully with amazement and wonder. Bridal symbolism to convey the relation between earthly and spiritual love is a recurrent motif in many mystical traditions of the world including Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism and Sufism where the soul is the bride yearning for union with her divine beloved, the Universe. Mary Oliver was perhaps influenced by these spiritual traditions as in a radio interview she had revealed that she read Rumi, the 13th century Persian poet every single day.

Mary Oliver enjoyed going on long walks to seek solace in nature and to be one with the birds, flowers, forests and rivers- to contemplate tiny miracles whether it was a grasshopper moving her jaws back and forth, poppies swaying in the wind or mushrooms sprouting through the ground. In fact, many of her poems are used in workshops on mindfulness. I channel her sometimes when I go on nature walks, when I slow down to gaze at a dewdrop on a flower, or delight in the antics of a determined squirrel or observe a jewel of a dragonfly flapping its gossamer wings on a branch. I, too, hope that at the end of my life I can say that I was a bride married to amazement and that I didn’t end up simply having visited this world. I leave you, friends, to ponder this question that Mary Oliver asked us in one of her most famous poems:

“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My Life in Middlemarch: A Bibliomemoir or Biography?

Middlemarch

There are books that remain with us throughout our lives-books we return to time and again for solace and guidance. But wouldn’t it be hard if you were asked to pick a single favorite? I could name 10 or 12 titles that I love and that have touched me deeply. But it would be impossible for me to narrow down my list to one choice. That’s why they say that asking a bookworm to pick a favorite book is like asking a mother to pick a favorite child. Not for Rebecca Mead, a staff member of the New Yorker who has no trouble in professing a preference. For her it was just one book that had such a lasting impact on her- the nineteenth century novel, Middlemarch, A Study of Provincial Life, written by the English author George Eliot. She has been fascinated with the book her whole life, has re-read it many times and has written a bibliomemoir entitled My Life in Middlemarch detailing her journey with the novel, her affinity with the author and how she can relate to the characters and experiences delineated. In the beginning of her book, Mead makes this profound observation about reading:

Reading is sometimes thought of as a form of escapism, and it’s a common turn of phrase to speak of getting lost in a book. But a book can also be where one finds oneself; and when a reader is grasped and held by a book, reading does not feel like an escape from life so much as it feels like an urgent, crucial dimension of life itself. There are books that seem to comprehend us just as much as we understand them, or even more. There are books that grow with the reader as the reader grows, like a graft to a tree.

Mead’s perception of Middlemarch changed with age and maturity as the book helped shape her life through its various stages. But the book is not a primer on Middlemarch. Read it only after you’ve read the novel otherwise you’d be lost. I read it as a companion piece to Middlemarch right after I finished reading the mammoth novel.

I have to admit that I trudged through the first few chapters of Eliot’s sprawling novel numbering almost 900 pages and divided into eight books. I was familiar with George Eliot’s Silas Marner and The Mill on the Floss from school days. I’m not one to be daunted by the size of a book. I’ve read the likes of Proust and Tolstoy. It wasn’t the size but the tedium of the first few chapters. There were too many characters and plots and an omniscient narrator with a didactic authorial voice with moral asides and digressions. But I was determined to persist as Middlemarch is widely believed to be among the 100 best novels of all time and I’m glad I did. The first three books were ponderous but once I started Book 4, I couldn’t put it down.

Eliot understands life in all its complexity- what we have on display is the full panorama of provincial life in Victorian England with piercing insights into human nature. Eliot highlights the preoccupations of the middle class- marriage, money and morals and skillfully captures the frailties and foibles of her characters. It is a vast canvas and a study of manners in the 19th century in the manner of Balzac’s La Comédie Humaine which also served as an inspiration to Eliot.

Virginia Woolf made the astute observation that Middlemarch is “…The magnificent book, which with all its imperfections, is one of the few English books written for grown-up people.” While a Jane Austen plot commences with a romance and courtship and ends with a marriage and a happily ever after, Middlemarch starts off with the idealistic Dorothea Brooke’s disastrous marriage to the scholarly and much older Edward Casaubon and continues with the equally idealistic Dr. Tertius Lydgate’s troubled romance and subsequent disappointment in marriage. Eliot dauntlessly subverts the commonplace tropes of Victorian novels. There are no characters that are inherently good or evil ; they are all flawed and human and therein lies the beauty of the novel. Each and every character evokes the empathy of the reader. I can understand how the book influenced the way Mead viewed life and how each reading left her with a new perspective. I am determined to revisit the book this year itself as it is the bicentennial of its publication and to re-read it slowly to savor the exquisite writing and reflect on the psychological insights.

Mead’s book is part memoir, part biography and part literary criticism. She dwells on George Eliot’s unconventional life and loves, her break with orthodox Christianity, how her writing developed and how she was perceived by her contemporaries. She was shunned by family and friends for her scandalous relationship with George Henry Lewes who was married to another woman and had a family. The book also details her emotional attachment to Herbert Spencer, the philosopher who believed in ‘meliorism’ and her marriage to John Cross, a man twenty years her junior who on their honeymoon in Venice jumped from the hotel window falling into the Grand Canal.

The book is replete with interesting details about Eliot’s personal life.  Eliot was renowned for her uncomely appearance lacking in feminine charm. In a letter to his father, Henry James described her thus : “She is magnificently ugly — deliciously hideous. She has a low forehead, a dull grey eye, a vast pendulous nose, a huge mouth full of uneven teeth, and a chin and jaw bone qui n’en finissent pas (never-ending)… But there was

George_Eliot_by_Samuel_Laurence
Portrait of George Eliot by Samuel Lawrence, circa 1860

something disarming about her intellectual radiance for he continues to say,  “Now in this vast ugliness resides a most powerful beauty which, in a few very minutes steals forth and charms the mind, so that you end, as I ended, in falling in love with her. Yes behold me literally in love with this great horse-faced blue-stocking.” The most fascinating tidbit for me was learning about Eliot’s epistolary relationship with a Scottish fan, Alexander Main, who had a stalkerish obsession with her and even wrote a book entitled Wise, Witty and Tender Sayings of George Eliot reducing her literary lines into pithy aphorisms. Eliot seemed to have been flattered by his idolization and even encouraged the relationship.

Mead first read the book when she was seventeen. She grew up in a provincial setting not too different from the fictional Middlemarch and like Dorothea yearned to pursue her ambitions and make sense of her life.  And like the heroine of Middlemarch, she has a relationship with an older scholarly man. She compares her parents’ stable marriage to that of Fred Vincy and Mary Garth’s loyal relationship. Not only does she find parallels with the characters but also with Eliot and her life. Eliot thinks of Lewes’ three sons as her own and Mead herself marries a man who has three sons whom she adores. I felt this was the weak part of the memoir. Some of the links she establishes with her own life seem tenuous and although she provides us with juicy details about Eliot’s life, she doesn’t disclose much about her own which seems so lackluster compared to that of the author she reveres. I would say that a memoir is somewhat of a misnomer for this book and it would fit better under the genre of biography.

What I did enjoy was discovering a kindred spirit- an avid reader whose love of the written word shines through every page. She frequents libraries and book stores poring through manuscripts- she delights in reading lines changed later by Eliot and analyzes how they would have altered the import of the plot. She spends hours looking through Eliot’s notebook in the rare book collection of the New York Public Library and embarks on literary pilgrimages to Nuneaton and Coventry to inhabit the world of her idol. I also found Mead’s excessive admiration of Eliot endearing when she jumps to her defence for all the criticism she faced from her contemporaries for both her personal and professional life.

Mead’s book illuminates her own life along with Eliot’s and shows us how the fictional world collides with the real world. Life imitates art just as art imitates life. It added a new dimension to my understanding of George Eliot and Middlemarch.  I thought about my own favorite books and what they mean to me. What a beautiful feeling it is to connect with a writer from another time and space and equally beautiful it is to connect with a fellow bibliophile from another time and space!

 

 

 

Becoming: A Memoir by Michelle Obama

Obama_Becoming

Becoming, a memoir by Michelle Obama has become one of the bestselling books not just of the past year but possibly of the decade. Before reading the book, I looked up the reviews online and I mostly saw extreme reactions- either the book got five stars or just one star. It didn’t take long for me to figure out that the reviews were partisan reflecting the deep divide within our country right now. It’s unfortunate that we can’t read a book objectively without thinking about political allegiance. It’s hard to keep politics completely out of the equation when analyzing a book by a First lady but it’s still disheartening to see the unhinged hatred in the reviews.

I enjoyed reading this riveting memoir about the respective trajectories of the careers of the former President and the First Lady, how they came together as a couple and lived a remarkable life in the White House in spite of the haters and the naysayers. The book is divided into three sections reflecting the three important phases in Michelle Obama’s life.

Becoming Me–  This section describes how Michelle Obama worked her way up from the humble beginnings of her childhood to a stellar education that paved her way to a successful career as a lawyer. She was from a working class neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago but from a stable and loving family. The public school she attended deteriorated over time and eventually white people started fleeing the neighborhood. Luckily for her she was put in a class for overachievers and went to a magnet high school where she excelled.

I was struck by her drive and ambition to succeed even before starting elementary school. When she was in kindergarten, she got one word wrong on a quiz and the next day she insisted on a do-over in order to get a gold star along with the two other top students in the class. From childhood days itself she comes across as an assertive and confident person determined to succeed. And succeed she did! She got into Princeton despite the school guidance counselor discouraging her from applying as according to her she wasn’t Princeton material.

At Princeton racism reared its ugly head in both covert and overt ways. She met with the scorn of those who thought she was there only through affirmative action. She was put in a room with two other white girls one of whom left their suite midway through the semester. It was only years later that she found out that the mother of the roommate didn’t want her daughter rooming with a black girl and had requested the university authorities for a room change. From Princeton she went to Harvard and eventually became a lawyer working in a prestigious law firm in a skyscraper- the same building she used to pass on her ride to school in a school bus, a world so removed from her own at the time but which she eventually made hers through sheer grit, hard work and perseverance.

She is very frank and reveals that she got accepted from the waitlist at Harvard and that she even failed the bar exam on her first attempt. In spite of her academic accomplishments, there was always this question niggling in the back of her mind: “ Am I good enough? ” There is something charming about her candor which we see more of in the next two parts of the memoir. It was while she was living her dream in this law office that she met Barack Obama who worked there as an intern for the summer.

Becoming Us-  Barack Obama made a dazzling entrance into her office and her life. He was a charismatic, cerebal and calm individual with an exotic background who charmed everyone around him. They were friends for a while before they became romantically involved.  She did marry the love of her life but marriage was far from a bed of roses. Two people fiercely devoted to their respective careers would inevitably meet with challenges. A few weeks into the marriage, Barack Obama left for Indonesia to write a book in solitude. On his return, they grapple with miscarriage and infertility and eventually start IVF treatments before giving birth to their beautiful daughters, Malia and Sasha.

Barack Obama had a lot of commitments which kept him away from the family Monday through Thursday prompting them to seek marriage counseling. She had a full time demanding job herself but the onus fell on her to take care of the kids. She doesn’t gloss over any of the unpleasant moments in their relationship. They are like any other regular couple who juggle bills, debts, careers and parenting responsibilities. As his political ambitions become grander- from a community organizer to being involved with politics along with practicing law, teaching and writing books, she even speaks of a dent in her soul and a dent in her marriage. I was struck by a passage where she describes her frustration with her husband’s unpunctuality and how she and the girls would wait past their bedtime for him to join them for dinner until one day she decides that enough is enough and that they wouldn’t mess with their ironclad routine:

For me, this made so much more sense than holding off dinner or having the girls wait up sleepily for a hug. It went back to my wishes for them to grow up strong and centered and also unaccommodating to any form of old-school patriarchy: I didn’t want them to ever believe that life began when the man of the house arrived home. We didn’t wait for dad. It was his job now to catch up with us.”

But the Obamas survive the stresses as they love and respect each other a lot. She realizes that her own career would be swallowed up whole by his and she is an extremely intelligent, accomplished and ambitious woman in her own right. By then she has realized that she is not cut out for law and pursues a career in public service instead. Eventually as Barack Obama’s political ambitions grow and as he meets with success and popularity and announces his presidential bid, she has no choice but to scale back on her work and ambitions and starts campaigning for him and puts her heart and soul into it. She understands that it is his calling and that he has a vision to fight inequities and bring about change and she doesn’t want to hold him back although she was initially reluctant about his entry into politics.

Like countless other people, I looked up to the Obamas as a model couple I wished to emulate. Yes, they have a wonderful and strong marriage but they have to work on it. Michelle Obama’s candor in this regard is refreshing especially since every word she utters is dissected to the core. To make herself so vulnerable to the public reveals a lot of courage on her part. It also gives permission to other couples to acknowledge that there is no shame in experiencing infertility or marital problems and to seek help when needed. This section of the memoir also captures the excitement of the days leading to the election, the victory and the inauguration day. It was a pivotal moment in American history representing hope, optimism and change when a country with a brutal history of slavery elected its first black President. And there definitely was a supportive wife who was instrumental in making this happen.

Becoming More: Politics is a dirty business and your life is like an xray where every action is transparent and scrutinized endlessly. Not only do you have to adjust to the fame and the admiration but also the criticism that comes along in its wake. It didn’t take long for the image of Michelle Obama as an angry woman to take root when a speech she made was taken out of context. And of course this vitriol made her angry but she would have to curb her anger for if she didn’t, wouldn’t she be fulfilling the prophecy of her haters?

When she declared that her main role was to be mom-in -chief in the White House, she was castigated for not being a strident feminist. You can’t please everyone and you are constantly in the spotlight being analyzed to pieces even for superficial details like the size of your arms or the length of your dress. The White house is a gilded cage as privacy becomes a thing of the past.  The Obamas venture out for a dinner date one evening and that outing becomes a big production as they have to be accompanied by motorcades and secret service agents disrupting traffic and inconveniencing the public. It’s the same for attending school events of the girls. There is a protocol to be followed for every move and the Secret Service has to be even alerted for them to step out on the Truman Balcony.

Among Michelle Obama’s accomplishments as a First lady was the cultivation of a patch of vegetables which grew in size and symbolically to become a cause dear to her- combating childhood obesity and encouraging good nutrition. She worked for the empowerment of girls and implemented programs around the world to help them have access to education and she championed to persuade businesses to hire or train military veterans and their spouses.

Perhaps the most distressing aspect of the Presidency was the sheer bigotry and repugnant vitriol targeted against them which had nothing to do with policies. Obama’s opponents blocked bills only because they wanted him to fail. It all started with Trump’s hateful birther campaign and revealed a side of the country that most people thought was outmoded as they had visions of a post racial America. Yet the President got elected for a second term and was able to implement a few of the policies important to him some of which are being revoked by the current administration. It’s a testament to the fine character of the Obamas that they comported themselves with utmost grace and dignity for two terms in office without a major scandal and in spite of the vicious mud-slinging, lies and hatred waged against them. As Michelle Obama wisely said : “ When they go low, we go high.”

Michelle Obama believes that she is “ …an ordinary person who found herself on an extraordinary journey.” The word ‘becoming’ means developing or blossoming into the best version of something and that’s what she intended the title of the memoir to mean. But ‘becoming’ can also mean suitable, appropriate or something that gives a pleasing effect. And all those meanings too apply to this compelling memoir of brave revelations.  It is a book inspiring women and especially women of color to pursue their dreams in spite of weaknesses, doubts and struggles and especially in spite of the question, “Am I good enough?”

 

 

 

 

Other Times, Other Customs

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Today is the anniversary of Edith Wharton’s birth. She is one of the writers I admire the most and could even be the top contender for my favorite writer ever. I have been captivated by her work ever since I read The Age of Innocence. I can say that to date I haven’t read anything written by her that hasn’t blown me away. I recently read Roman Fever and other Stories, an exquisite collection of short stories depicting the private tragedies of people at the turn of the century in upper class New York society. As soon as I finished the last sentence, I went back to the first page and re-read the whole book again. Is there a better compliment one can pay to a writer?

The stories deal with marital relationships, gender identity and class dynamics and expose the hypocrisy of the stuffy upper crust which swallows up an individual’s sense of identity within its regimented and stifling lifestyle. Wharton reveals the complexities of human nature with astute psychological observation and trenchant satire. Usually in a collection you will find a few wonderful stories and a few mediocre ones. But all eight stories of this collection are unequivocally brilliant.

Roman Fever– Two  middle-aged and widowed American ladies, Grace Ansley and Alida Stale, who have been lifelong friends are visiting Rome with their daughters. The two young ladies have stepped out with Italian aviators on a romantic outing and have left their mothers to their knitting. The mothers who are sitting on a terrace in Rome overlooking The Colosseum, reminisce and reflect on their experiences when they had undertaken a similar excursion with their mothers when they were the same age as their daughters. The women put on a façade of politeness but they are analyzing each other in their minds. Needless to say, their perspective of one another is flawed and viewed through a narrow prism. “So these two ladies visualized each other, each through the wrong end of her little telescope..” The story gradually builds up the tension between the two friends and before long secrets slip out revealing past infidelities, betrayal and jealousies. The knitting is symbolic as their lives are analogous to the tight patterns.  Gradually like the knitting, unravel ruminations, recriminations and remonstrances. The last line packs a punch with an unexpected twist! The ingenious title “Roman Fever’ could refer to a fatal strain of malaria in the Roman night air or to the excitement of young love and sexual excess or perhaps even to the seething rivalry of the friends. The setting and the scenery along with the setting sun foreshadow the ruined friendship similar to this great city in ruins.

Xingu is a satire of the intellectually pretentious and snobbish women of the upper class whose literary club is hosting a luncheon for Osric Dane, a famous author. These “indomitable huntresses of erudition” are bemoaning the fact that they have to invite Mrs. Robbs, their least fashionable member to the event. Mrs. Robbs hasn’t read the contemporary book they are reading in preparation for its author’s visit but admits that she reads Anthony Trollope for amusement which is an outrage in the eyes of these pompous ladies. On the day of the much anticipated event, Mrs. Robbs introduces ‘Xingu’ as a topic of conversation. Nobody knows what it is including the guest of honor but will not admit to their ignorance. Even after Mrs. Robbs and Osric Dane leave the gathering, the ladies still continue discussing Xingu wondering if it is a language, a philosophy or a religion. This hilarious story is a classic illustration of the motif of the fox outfoxed or should one rather say the vixen outwitted.

The Other Two– Newly-wed Waythorn is happy with his wife Alice who is a double divorcée. He is not bothered by her past until he comes in repeated contact with the two ex- husbands. The story is told in the third person through Waythorn’s perspective and reveals his insecurities. The husbands don’t seem to be the brutes he had imagined them to be. Could Alice who seems outwardly like a compliant woman, be a calculating social climber? Does he fear deep down that he’ll end up with the same fate as the previous two when he makes the disturbingly misogynistic statement that she was “as easy as an old shoe…a shoe that too many feet had worn.” Will he ever come to terms with her past? Divorce was a relatively new phenomenon at the time and the story could reveal Wharton’s own ambivalent feelings towards the dissolution of marriage. She herself was considering a divorce at that point in her life, and interestingly, the name Waythorn itself is an anagram of Wharton.

Souls Belated– Lydia Tillotson is a recently divorced woman who wants to continue living with her lover, Gannett, a bohemian artist, rather than marry a second time as he wishes. She is jaded as her previous marriage was unfulfilling:

“Do you know, I begin to see what marriage is for. It’s to keep people away from each other. Sometimes I think that two people who love each other can be saved from madness only by the things that come between them.. children, duties, visits, bores, relations, the things that protect married people from each other. We’ve been too close together-that has been our sin. We’ve seen the nakedness of each other’s souls.”

She knows that conventional marriage is suffocating but if she wishes to live freely with her lover, she has to live outside society. Gannett and she are traveling in Europe and they stop for a few days at a hotel in Italy full of other Americans. People assume they are married and they carry on with the charade. In fact the hotel seems to be a microcosm of the society they have escaped from and Lydia even begins to fit in. She  joins the other ladies in treating a certain Mrs. Cope, who, ironically, is also on the brink of divorce and at the hotel with another man, with disdain. She thinks she has rejected the rules of society but she seems to have internalized them and ends up caring more about society and respectability than she believed she did. Meanwhile there is a growing chasm in her relationship with Gannett. Will they conform to society for security and acceptance or will they boldly flout its conventions? The title like many other titles in this collection is fascinating and could refer to soulmates, old souls or lost souls that meet at a too late or inopportune time.

The Angel at the Grave–  Self-effacing Paulina Hanson rejects a romantic proposal from Hewlett Winsoe and chooses to devote her life to the memory and work of her grandfather, a once renowned Transcendentalist philosopher. She is working on his biography but when she takes the manuscript to the publisher, they tell her that his work is no longer of interest. The story has a Gothic feel to it as the spirit of the deceased grandfather haunts the mansion and exercises its influence over Paulina who is the angel at the grave of this man:

She sat in the library, among the carefully-tended books and portraits; and it seemed to her that she had been walled alive into a tomb hung with the effigies of dead ideas” 

She feels she has wasted her life, when, one day out of the blue, a young and enthusiastic scholar who wants to write an article on one of her grandfather’s discoveries, enters her life like a ray of sunshine.

The Last Asset is told through the perspective of Paul Garnett, a journalist and an outsider who has made the acquaintance of a fellow American in a Parisian restaurant and who is also friends with the wife, Mrs. Newell. The latter wants him to locate her estranged husband and convince him to attend the marriage of her daughter to a French aristocrat. Mrs. Newell is a social parasite who lives off others and has a daughter who lives in her shadows. She will use anyone including her own daughter and husband to serve her social needs and climb up the ladder. Her husband’s presence at the wedding is indispensable and an asset that will enable this marriage to take place and cement her position. Are Paul and Mr. Newell bitter that her machinations met with success or is there a silver lining in the clouds?

After Holbein- Anson Warley is an aging bachelor, who, on a morning when he has a stroke, is determined to go out for dinner. He doesn’t know where he is going and stumbles into the house of Evelina Jasper thinking that he is headed there although he used to avoid her parties when he was younger. Evelina Jasper was once a famous socialite who used to host elegant dinner parties but now suffers from “a softening of the brain”. Mrs. Jasper is slipping into dementia and has lost touch with reality and hosts imaginary dinner parties. The servants humor the two people who are dining together blissfully unaware that death is at the doorstep and imminent. There is no mention of Holbein in the story although the story is entitled After Holbein.The characters could be portraits in the manner of Hans Holbein the Younge, portraitist of the 16thcentury known for his realism or this eerie and otherworldly story with images of ghosts, coffins and mummies could have derived its inspiration from Younge’s series of woodcuts called “The Dance of Death”.

Initially entitled Autres temps, autres moeurs, (Other times, other customs), Autres Temps is yet another story that tackles the topic of divorce and social rehabilitation. Mrs. Lidcote is on a long and voluntary exile in Italy as she had become an outcast after a former indiscretion and divorce. She is returning to New York from Italy on a steamer ship on hearing the news of her daughter Leila’s divorce and upcoming remarriage. She is worried that her daughter will be shunned by society as well and she shares her fears with an old friend, Franklin Ide, who assures her that times have changed and she needn’t fear social censure anymore. But then why is she being excluded from Leila’s dinner party? Leila seems to be keeping her mother from mingling with her guests masking her reasons as concern for her mother. Is Franklin Ide who has also shown a romantic interest in Mrs. Lidcote, genuine or does he harbor the same prejudices? This is a painful and heartbreaking story as her own daughter is able to survive a divorce and remarriage but she can’t escape her past as “society is much too busy to revise its own judgements.’

The stories in this collection address the age old conflict that is universal; do you put duty and honor above personal happiness and freedom or do you follow your heart in a society that is unflinchingly unforgiving about transgressions? These eight stories about other times, other customs are, in fact, still shockingly resonant. How much further have we come as a society is a question worth pondering!

When I finish a book by Edith Wharton, I can’t pick up anything else to read for a day or two as I need to process everything I’ve read. The only other author who has such an effect on me is Daphne du Maurier. One evening after I had finished Summer, the bewildered hubby asked me why I wasn’t reading anything and I told him nonchalantly that I had to think a little about life before moving on to the next book.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Femme Lisant: My Year In Reading!

Jean-Baptiste-Camille_Corot_031
Femme Lisant ( Woman Reading)-1869   Painting by Jean-Baptiste-Camille-Corot

As the year comes to a close, it’s time to take stock of my reading habits and achievements. My goal for 2018 was to read a book a week which would add up to 52 books a year. I’m pleased to say that I managed to stick to this resolution but unfortunately I have not kept track of the exact number. I would venture to guess that I read somewhere between 60 and 70 books. For next year, I vow to track my progress on Good Reads to help me better accomplish my goals. But even without keeping a log, it’s been a fruitful year of reading. I tend to gravitate towards fiction and I’m pleased to note that this year I included more non-fiction in my reading.

So here, in no particular order, are 12 books I read this year that had an impact on me :

Fiction:

The Handmaid’s Tale- Sometimes even the most voracious reader overlooks a popular book. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, published in 1985 was one of those books that would stare at me for years from bookstore displays and which for some inexplicable reason and much to my embarrassment, I hadn’t read. I finally got my hands on it and I just couldn’t put it down. It’s a dystopian tale which transports us to the fictitious Republic of Gilead, an oppressive regime characterized by religious extremism and misogyny. It’s a strictly hierarchical world where a woman’s main function is to bear children. The most chilling aspect of the story to me was is that it could be considered prescient given the political climate we are living in and may just not remain speculative fiction.

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee is a sprawling family saga of the Korean diaspora in Japan spanning four generations and almost a century in time. I had enjoyed reading The Calligrapher’s Daughter, a story based in early twentieth century Korea during the Japanese occupation. Pachinko, too, transports us to that time but it is mainly an eye-opening account of the discrimination of Koreans living in Japan and their struggles to survive in that hostile environment where they were essentially stateless. The game of pachinko is an apt metaphor for the lives and fates of the characters. The novel is not without its flaws. There are far too many characters and those we connect with in the beginning fade into the background as the plot thickens. Yet, it resonated with me on a personal level as this is an immigrant story about learning to adapt in an adopted country.

The Accusation-The book from the Korean peninsula that moved me the most was this collection of poignant short stories by a dissident writer who goes by the pseudonym Bandi and still lives in North Korea. The short story is my favorite genre and one of my resolutions this year was to read more translations. This book translated by Deborah Smith fit the bill perfectly. The stories are set between 1989 and 1995 during the repressive regimes of Kim- Il Sung and Kim-Jong- Il. Each story is about an unjust accusation and delineates the plight of the citizens who are under the constant watchful eye of the state and of their fellow citizens. I have already written a blog post about this book with my detailed thoughts: https://literarygitane.wordpress.com/2018/03/05/forbidden-stories-from-north-korea/

I enjoy reading classics and often reach out to the tried and tested. This year instead of re- reading Jane Eyre for the umpteenth time, I decided to read The Professor and Villette, two novels of Charlotte Brontë that I hadn’t read before. As both books are based upon Brontë’s own experiences as a teacher in Brussels, I read them as companion books. Villette is considered to be a more polished re-working of The Professor and enjoyed more critical acclaim. Despite the moralistic, judgmental and occasionally xenophobic narrators, I enjoyed reading both novels for depicting the challenges, disappointments and rewards in a teacher’s life. The Professor is written from the perspective of William Crimsworth, a male protagonist and is a very sweet and realistic love story which ends with a happily ever after. The fascinating aspect of this Victorian novel is the portrayal of a strong woman who is interested in being financially independent even after marriage. Villette, on the other hand, a love story written from the point of view of Lucy Snowe, a female teacher in the fictitious French town of Villette, ends on a depressing and ambiguous note. It is interesting for the passionate lyricism with which it lets us glimpse into the complex inner world of an unreliable narrator.

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead, winner of the Pulitzer Prize, is the story of Cora, a slave in a plantation in Georgia who attempts to escape with Caesar, a fellow slave who has a connection to the underground railroad.  The underground railroad was a network of safe houses and routes used by slaves to escape to free states with the help of abolitionists and other well-wishers but in this story the author makes it a literal train network with stations, tunnels and locomotives that transport slaves. The story depicts antebellum life on a plantation and the atrocities black people had to endure in a sad era in American history.

Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline was another historical fiction that enlightened  me about a dark and relatively obscure part of US history.  Between 1854 and 1929, orphaned and homeless children were picked up from the streets of New York in an ostensibly humanitarian gesture and boarded on railroad trains headed for the farmlands of the American West to be adopted by families. Often the children ended up in worse circumstances as unpaid household or farm help. Vivian Daly was one such child who now is a 91 year old woman who lives a secluded life in coastal Maine. Molly is a 17 year old girl in the modern foster care system. Their stories intersect at a point and what follows is an emotional recollection of the past along with the blossoming of a new and tender friendship.

Elinor Oliphant Is Completely Fine- As someone who likes both Brit lit and chick lit, I enjoyed reading this heartbreaking but yet heartwarming debut novel by Gail Honeyman about Elinor Oliphant, a socially awkward and brutally frank loner who strikes up a friendship with a co-worker and gradually comes to terms with her distressing past and starts healing. The book reminded me a little of A Man called Ove. It was refreshing to have a quirky and out of the box character as the main protagonist.

Non Fiction

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot- A black woman’s cancerous cells were multiplied and distributed around the world enabling a new era of cellular research and resulting in incredible advances in medicine and technology including cloning, gene mapping, in vitro fertilization and finding a polio vaccine but raising ethical questions about using someone’s cells without informed consent. It is the story of Henrietta and her descendants who had no idea that their relative was being used for scientific research. People and companies and corporations made millions out of the Hela cells but her own family couldn’t afford health insurance. I just couldn’t put this book down! It is an illuminating account of racial injustice and unethical practices all in the name of science.

Educated by Tara Westover is a memoir of a girl raised in isolation in rural Idaho by a survivalist Mormon family. She and her six siblings are kept out of school, denied medical treatments and subjected to all kinds of abuse. She studies for the ACT exam on her own, teaching herself math, grammar and science and gets admitted to BYU and eventually gets a PhD from Cambridge University. She rises above her birth and childhood but yet her past and her family still have a hold on her. It is a moving story of grit and resilience in the face of extenuating but excruciating circumstances.

The Library Book by Susan Orlean is the story of the 1986 fire in the Los Angeles Public Library suspected to be caused by an arsonist which resulted in almost a million books being either destroyed or damaged beyond repair. Ouch!. As someone who is an avid reader and who also loves frequenting libraries, I reveled in this paean to libraries. Libraries are not just repositories of knowledge but are living entities too as they also serve as important cultural institutions and community centers.

I’m currently reading Becoming by Michelle Obama and I have included it in the list. This is a compelling memoir in three parts entitled Becoming Me, Becoming Us and Becoming More which takes us from Michelle Obama’s childhood on the South side of Chicago in a working class family and her years at Princeton and Harvard to marriage and motherhood and life in the White House. It is written with candor and gives us a glimpse into the human side of the former First lady. Her struggles, whether it was balancing family and professional life, dealing with infertility, seeking marriage counseling or encountering racism and sexism are issues that strike a chord with most women.

Whether the books I read in 2017 have literary merit or not is subjective, but they did cater to my eclectic literary taste. As Francis Bacon famously said, “ Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested.” But I did savor them all in some way or the other as each and every one of them provided its own unique flavor to my varied palette.

I’m going to start the New Year with Middlemarch, the Victorian behemoth by George Eliot and the Pulitzer Prize winning book Evicted by Matthew Desmond. I’m also looking forward to new publications in 2019 including The Testaments by Margaret Atwood, a sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, Possessed by Memory: The Inward Light of Criticism by Harold Bloom, The Source of Self Regard by Toni Morrison and The City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert.

How was your year in reading and what are your most anticipated reads for 2019?

Happy New Year and Happy Reading!