SMITTEN: Poems For Women Who Love Women

My first crush was a girl with my eyes and silky blonde hair. In seventh grade, I attempted to woo her by leading her up to the bell tower in our small town’s cathedral and casting our eyes to the view. It did not go well, as it turned out she was afraid of heights. It somehow got around that I liked her damned boy cousin, who shared her surname. I kept telling her it was a lie.  

My first girl love was my best friend. At sleepovers, we would kiss, and I would play a man, and wedged inside one sleeping bag I’d roll over her and she’d call me by some boy name that had meaning to her over the weekend. 

My second girl love I wooed in high school swim class. In the locker room, her and I on opposite ends, I’d take off my shirt slowly, delicately; steadily unzip my pants; slip out of my bottoms inch by inch; I’d stand there as she looked at my body, drinking me in. Shimmy into swimsuits. Then we’d swim. Then we’d return and in the showers repeat the process vice-versa all over again.

Women have touched my narrow feet. Women have held my hands. Women have kissed my lips and forehead and shoulders and below my belly button. 

But these stories still appear lost and isolated. Being a woman loving women (in the same vein, a man loving men) can feel perpetually unresolved. Whether lesbian, bi, queer, non-binary, or a ‘something-else’ kind of love entirely, women who love women still struggle to be seen and heard. We may hold hands in public more openly now, but our actions in the bedroom remain closed, still featured mostly through the lens of the heteronormative world. 

But what sweet nothings do women whisper to women? What swelling feelings ignite on quiet avenues in evenings, on porch steps under dim lamplights?

SMITTEN: This Is What Love Looks Like is an anthology of poetry written by women for women. Approaching 400 pages with over 100 contributors, the anthology takes the hidden intimacy of girl/girl love seriously, showcasing the marvelous ubiquity and variance of women’s love. Though I’ve read plenty of LGBTQ+ poets, this is admittedly the first time I’ve encountered and read a volume exclusively dedicated to the love shared between women with so many voices all speaking at once. SMITTEN is an invigorating experience, coursing along the entire spectrum of romance, heartbreak, suppression, flirtation, admiration, and of course, love. 

“This morning / you never stopped. / Of course / I wanted to hear / every detail about / yesterday’s barbeque / in your old neighborhood / and who married whom / and the history of their kids / and how your childhood tribe / crept across / the grouchy neighbor’s yard / on sulky summer nights. / I was also intrigued / by the Kennedy conspiracy, / how magnesium / is essential for the brain, / and why I should avoid / every wheat-filled thing. / […] / but [the] words got lost / in the orbit of your voice / along with gardenia blooms, / my latest poem, / and the stream of clouds / easing from the coast. / […] / Meet me for a chat / on the patio tonight. / Perhaps you’ll acquiesce / when I quote John Donne: / For God sake hold / your tongue and let me love.”

“Just Saying,” poem by Carolyn Martin, from Smitten: This Is What Love Looks Like

I read this collection around Christmas but decided to pick through it again around Valentine’s Day. It’s a sensual read, but also sticky. What is immediately apparent when reading SMITTEN is how often same-sex love of women is tangled into heterosexual norms, confusing and oppressing lesbian and other queer narratives. In Avital Abraham’s opening piece “Lesbian,” the willful desire to embrace a word that has been unfairly blanketed in such negative associations comes on strong: “Am I a monster? / Because oh, / oh god, / do I want that word to feel delicious. / I crave its comfort, / dream about snuggling into the word lesbian, / like lesbian I’m coming home, / and lesbian warm smiles, / lesbian lazy mornings and, / lesbian a fluffy duvet, / lesbian half coffee, half cream, two sugars. / Lesbian, lesbian, lesbian, / and it still feels dirty in my throat but – / lesbian – / I will keep saying this word until  – lesbian – / it burrows its way into my brain and / lesbian makes a home on my tongue. / I will not let this word be dirty.”

Romantic narratives surge forward nonetheless. In Kai Coggin’s “When I Photograph a Woman” she poignantly describes the sexual elogation of the anxiety of physical lust moving onward into a greater desire of wishing to ‘know’ and ‘see’ another person: “she begins to bend to me / a tulip – s t r e t c h i n g – for a spot in sunlight she lets / stiffness and fear / fall to the / floor / (a silk dress) / her muscles relax / under my glassy gaze it take time sure / it takes both of us being a little scared / but there is always the sudden turn where her cheek / becomes more of a song [.]” In Paula Jellis’ “When She Looks At Me” the verse is tender and quick: “In the quiet silence / between sentences / everything is clear / when she looks at me / In the afternoon / of her kiss / in the dark green shadows / she covers me / and fills me / with desire.” Such lines both manage to encompass the immediate and gradual stages of love.

But some of the poems I find the most moving are those of breakups and struggles, struggles both universal and struggles that feel unique to the gay community. In her poem “so she’s a wound” Cassandra Bumford writes: “i could tell you her name, / but all you need to know is / she was a pistol. / […] / now i’m left with bullets inside me. / she never said to remove them. / i’ve found it hard to breathe / while she’s hiding inside me.” In Kim D. Bailey’s “If Only I’d Been Brave Enough” the vice of same-sex oppression bares together, in nebulous lines: “Regret sits like a cat / on my chest, digging / […] / a swing, pushing until the new / heights hold me / hostage, / and I hold / my breath comes / in shallow graves of dead / children’s dreams, there is no / place for this love. / Bravery is broken ladders […]” Many of these more painful pieces employ a run-on nature, speaking to the neuroticism that emerges from love that ends (or never begins) without proper closure.

My third girl love was a stud. She had massive black gauges in her ears, stretching her lobes out. She could imitate the sound of a slide whistle perfectly. She called me her ‘chapstick’ babe, and when she left me, she left a Burt’s Bees tube behind. But half of it had been used. I debated for about a week whether to use it or throw it away.

Of course I used it. Of course I did. It tasted of mango. I wore it all the way down to the bottom, and tasted her, every last bit. Every little bit I could squeeze out. All the bitter, all the sweet, all the sour, all the cream.

That’s what love looks like. That’s being SMITTEN. A collection worth having on your shelf. No book could ever fully encapsulate the great vast diversity and divergence that is love, for anybody. But as the world (hopefully) progresses onward towards a more accepting (and loving) view of same-sex love, SMITTEN is an important book placed into the public sphere.   

Four out of five stars for SMITTEN: This Is What Love Looks Like. And I hope all you fine readers have a happy Valentine’s. 

Full Disclosure: I received this book as a gift from Candice L. Daquin, Senior Editor of Indie Blu(e) Publishing. It was given, however, under no pretense of review. I simply chose to write a review because I enjoyed the volume. If you are a writer with a book and are seeking to get reviewed, click the Get Reviewed link, and see if you make the cut!   

The featured image is of Isabel Emrich’s beautiful oil painting ‘Self Trust’ from her “Refracting Beauty” series displayed at Skidmore Comtempory Art.

Howard & Hannah: A Non-Review

I didn’t know how to start this review. I kept going in circles, orbiting around stark definitions, Rube-Goldberg machines, Jonathan Swift and his Laputians. Rubbing my temple, in a row boat with only one oar, my unidirectional turning felt synchronicitous, as I pondered and wrung my hands over how best to surmise Philip K. Howard’s The Rule of Nobody: Saving America From Dead Laws and Broken Government. 

But the answer was there, on the cover, in those tempered but stark words. That’s Hannah for you; a forthright lantern in the darkness. Hannah Arendt, beloved and poignant philosopher and perhaps Patron Saint of all things ‘why.’ I read her book On Violence in my twenties, around the time I discovered whom I’ve come to call “The Erics”, Hoffer and Fromm. So when Howard’s The Rule of Nobody came out in 2015, I was drawn to it, but it sat in my ‘to-read’ list until 2021 this year. 

“The greater the bureaucratization of public life, the greater will be the attraction of violence. In a fully developed bureaucracy there is nobody left with whom one could argue, to whom one could present grievances […]. Bureaucracy is the form of government in which everybody is deprived of political freedom, of the power to act; for the rule by Nobody is not no-rule, and where all are equally powerless we have a tyranny without a tyrant.” These are Hannah’s words. It feels prophetic, considering America’s current volatile state. As a survivor of the Holocaust, her interest in social dynamics and mass movements is self-evident, and her insights into the Human Condition remain stable to this day; however, it was not her philosophical contributions to the human race that first propelled me towards Hannah and in a way, also into her. It was her herself—in her most intimate life—as I first got to know Hannah Arendt through her handwritten correspondences with her dear friend Mary McCarthy. 

This is just the way of me, to do things backwards, to find the willowy fringe of a thing before I grasp its obvious well-known meat. “Mary, darling—” Hannah begins; “Dearest Mary—” she starts again; I would read, and close my eyes and think for a moment, might I be Mary? I knew Hannah initially through her hopes, her heartaches, her annoyances, her loves, her sorrows. So whenever I bump into Hannah Arendt, whether direct or inadvertent, it feels personal. So I struggled over and over to write a review for Philip K. Howard’s impersonal read. 

Getting to know Howard is the opposite of getting to know Hannah—as is fortified by the fact I instinctively use surname ‘Howard’ and first name ‘Hannah.’ (My default functions are showing…) Philip K. Howard writes with brevity, a sturdy head, and though not abrasive the structure of his words speaks to a mind that be-rids the fluff of life and wants to get down to business. Every paragraph has a topic sentence; every logic chain has a beginning and end; no feedback loops or musings; he prefers to talk of things rather than terms; he double-backs only to clarify; he seems not too interested in saving-face if one doesn’t agree. 

It’s refreshing, though sometimes I’d roll my eyes while turning a page. Well, I guess it’s just that easy, ain’t it Howard? So my internal narrator would sometimes harrumph and groan, but all and all, Howard is a man whose thoughts are occupied with solutions, and the executing of those solutions. The minutiae of what is wrong with things is a botheration he would rather not play with. In this light I think we might get along, though maybe only in small doses. 

So The Rule of Nobody is a book of getting on with it: American politics is broken, overrun with bureaucracy and pointless performative partisan politics, and the answer is to say to hell with the endless debates and paper pushing and put actual power back into the hands of citizens and elected officials. Howard is against what he calls “automatic-government.” When everything is dictated by bullet-list laws and impositions, the ability for people to exercise their judgement is lost. The attempted exactitude of law is strangling the flexibility and nuance needed for people to operate in life. Howard, following Arendt’s lead, realizes that when no one has the power to definitively say ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ but everyone has the power to ask someone else to say ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ we have stasis. Everything grinds to a halt. In our desperate zealotry of checks and balances, to make sure that dreaded thing called ‘corruption’ is kept at bay, we tie everyone’s hands. Philip K. Howard’s lesson is candid, and follows the simple idiom: “A man who trusts no one can’t be trusted.” In our paranoia, we have made a quagmire of dead-ends. America is a nation of mistrustful, frustrated souls.

“Between 1969 and 1979 the Federal Register nearly quadrupled in length, expanding not just the scope of regulation, but the granularity of its mandates. Forest rangers used to have guidelines in a pocket pamphlet. Now they had volumes of rules. The purpose of regulation was not to confine executive discretion but to eliminate it altogether. Legal detail replaced public choice. Law would tell you not only what to do, but how to do it. The rhetoric of both liberals and conservatives “converged on the term ‘discretion,’” Professor William Simon observed, “contrast[ing] legality with discretion.’

“Pretty much everyone signed on to the idea of using detailed rules to minimize discretion. Liberals and conservatives like rules, as discussed, because they distrust each other. Corporations like detailed rules because rules provide a safe harbor and, as a bonus, rules are a barrier to entry for potential competitors. Public employees like rules because rules absolve them of responsibility by following the rules, they avoid having to justify the fairness of their decisions. Precise rules were also the sure antidote against violating someone’s rights: The rule made me do it.’ […]

“Out of the cauldron of the 1960s emerged the most amazingly impractical public philosophy ever devised: No one could take responsibility for making public choices. Legal restrictions on official choice now reached its apogee. No president, no judge, no official, no teacher, no anyone, would have authority to draw on their judgement. Public choices would be automatic, like spell-check in a word processing program, or go into the purgatory of perpetual process.”  

Philip K. Howard, from The Rule of Nobody: Saving America From Dead Laws and Broken Government

So here we are, with Arendt’s “tyranny without a tyrant.” There is much that can be argued with in Howard’s book, many oppressions he has glibly overlooked, many depressions he has hastily filled with dirt so he can simply get his wagon down the road without breaking an axle. But deep in its heart, in a chamber that is foundational to Howard’s theory of ‘what is wrong,’ there is something profound. Something that I agree with deeply and have aches and pains over when I am alone in my room at my desk, writing my words, penning my thoughts. 

And it is Hannah.

Portrait of Hannah Arendt via Getty Images

In The Rule of Nobody Howard makes clear the differences between what he describes as ‘principles’ and ‘goals’ vs. ‘rules’ and ‘dictates.’ In the book he uses the Australian reform of nursing homes as an example to get his point across. In 1988 the Australian government made a dramatic shift in its ideas on how to regulate its nursing homes, eliminating hundreds of listed ultra-specific regulations nearly overnight and instead opting for a mere thirty-one broadly stated objectives. Rather than making sure each resident had “at least 80 feet” of private space and check-list edicts of the ilk, new reform insisted on more nonspecific terminology, such as making sure each resident had a “homelike environment” and be treated with “privacy and dignity.” 

The reform was scoffed at, initially, as supposed regulatory experts doubted that such “motherhood statements” could keep residents of nursing homes safe and secure. But in a welcome surprise, Australian nursing homes flourished. Quality of life improved dramatically for residents, less arguments among caretakers and officials ensued, and infighting and bickering broke way into civil debate and collaboration. The conversation of ‘Did you check everything off the list?’ gave way to ‘How best can we serve our residents? In what way can we improve?’ The Australian government had stumbled upon the difference between rules and principles, or what Hannah Arendt described as methods versus aims. 

The human world is chiefly encompassed by two things: the nomothetic, meaning that which is fit for a law-like generalization, and what is perhaps best described by the Hebrew word da’at, meaning something akin to knowledge gained from direct experience with the subject. Both of these do not hold to absolutes, or that without question. One is an open-structure, and one is just plain open. When a system is governed by rules, there is no room for judgement or choices, there is only the letter of the law, and one must follow it religiously, lest one be found astray or out of place. But when we follow principles, or aims, then there is room for voluntary human interaction, for judgment, for choices. Morality, by its nature, can not be automatic. This is Hannah’s greatest epiphany: morality, the goodness of people, can only flourish in an environment where human choices are allowed. This is Philip K. Howard’s kernel of deep wisdom, though it is not his—it is Hannah’s, but Howard is at least wise enough to recognize it.  

In August of 1954 Hannah writes an exhaustibly delicious letter to her dearest friend, Mary McCarthy. Hannah’s mind is a garden here, as she breezily traverses over Socrates and Kant and the French and English traditions of philosophy, in her left hand a cutting scalpel and in her right a delicate paintbrush—in her letters she is both a surgeon and an artist, and Mary’s mind frees her to be herself—it’s compelling. She falls upon the Cartesian doubt, the habitual fear likely born out of the Scientific Revolution where all of humankind’s senses were thrown into the boiling pot of unreliability. This “ritual of doubt,” obsessive and inherent in the west, created what she called a “chief fallacy,” and mused over the possibility that it was perhaps “the oldest fallacy of Western philosophy.” The fallacy is thus:

“The chief fallacy is to believe that Truth is a result which comes at the end of a thought-process. Truth, on the contrary, is always the beginning of a thought; thinking is always result-less. […] Truth, in other words, is not in thought, but […] is both, beginning and priori.”

Hannah here scrapes against something that jars, that moral truth is neither the end result of critical thinking, nor is it inherent in human existence. It is an involvement of what I will simply call the spontaneous life. If Americana is indeed suffering under bureaucratic stifling, beneath what Max Weber coined “the iron cage” and what Howard has opted to see as the “rule of Nobody,” we must shake free the shackles of fear, and cease to perform the ritual of doubt. Either we continue down the path laid out by old men long dead, to keep to the laws as scriptures and maintain the rules purported by faceless policy-writers who bear no responsibility if things go amiss, we can continue to play it safe, and fulfill the duty of stringent due process. 

Or, we can trust and take chances, and bear all consequences.

I negate a star rating for Philip K. Howard’s The Rule of Nobody: Saving America from Dead Laws and Broken Government, as this is not really a book review. I’ll just say I recommend reading it.            

Death On The Shelf: Megan Rosenbloom On Books Bound In Human Skin

When I was a child I had a hamster named Pepper, who lived for about three years I recall. When he died, I don’t remember crying. Pepper sat curled in the corner of his glass domain, his shut eye a soothing crescent, looking as if he simply fell into sleep. I asked my father if I could touch him, and my father said I could; so I reached in, and gave him one last pet. Rigor mortis had set in, and as I petted Pepper’s back I could feel his spine, stiff and knobbed although his fur coat still had shine, and curled tightly as he was he reminded me of a seashell, a conch or ponderous ark set on the shore or ocean bed. Pepper was buried in the backyard by the garage. I didn’t feel too bad—I had the distinct feeling he had just up and left somewhere.

This is my earliest memory of death. I probably had encountered it before this moment, but time loosens the bows. My hamster’s quiet, peaceful sleep, endless and never waking, is clearest when I hold shells, running my fingers over their bumps and edges. And not just seashells, but pasta shells and candy shells and gastropod shells and those little coat buttons shaped like clams… My little girl’s assumption that Pepper’s skeleton bore some connection to our underwater kin was surprisingly insightful. I think of it often, veering my brain into the wonder of whether symbolism is innate inside us. Very early in my life I linked death with the sea, and also with the stillness of sleep. Countless have drawn these parallels before me: Thanatos and his brother Hypnos in the ancient Greek; in Tom Stoppard’s Hamlet spinoff play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Rosencrantz asks Guildenstern, “Do you think Death could possibly be a boat?”

The question is refuted, but it stands. Humans oft associate death with the sea, and death with his ‘brother’ sleep. But death with books? Mm, perhaps with the binding, some poor PETA faithful mourning the loss of a beloved cow. More often then not though, we seem to associate books with immortality, the preserved written word transcending our mortal selves into the halls of meaningful permanence.   

Immortality is so far from death it could be considered its antithesis. Life everlasting—what’s dead about that? When we link death and books it feels more circumvential. One must maneuver around the obvious lifeblood to find the ghost.

In the state of Pennsylvania, in the city of Philadelphia, on South 22nd Street, there is an austere building, with an iron wrought gate flanked by two imposing lampposts. It is bulky, wide and congressional looking, and inside its walls is a macabre collection of medical oddities. It is the Mütter Museum of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, and here rests perhaps the largest collection of anthropodermic books, or for the layman, books bound in human skin. Upon this a link between books and death slips not through our fingers, but rather assaults as one strolls through the Mütter’s aisles of wet specimens, medical models, instruments, and osteological wonders, including a corset skeleton with the alluding title “The Price of Beauty” and a vast collection of human skulls.

These books are dead. Yet, somehow, also living. A creeping ambivalence overtakes; the books are rather plain looking, so it is both surprising and skepticalizing, but then an actualization hits. Who are these people?, one finds themselves asking. It’s a question asked throughout the entirety of the Mütter Museum but it feels more acute here. After all, a skeleton is by natural law something that is discovered, not created—but a book? Bound in human skin? It pries forth a very specific fascination. If you are a human who feels its tickle there is a knowing it possesses an intangible pull. One is propelled forward and toward these strange covers as though on a sleigh. Librarian Megan Rosenbloom felt that pull, as her grey-blue eyes swept over the volumes. She wanted to know, Who are these people?, or, more accurately, who were they? What would they have to say about the fate and display of their derma? Would they object? Did they object? Were they pleased about their immortality? What were their names?

Dark Archives: A Librarian’s Investigation Into The Science and History of Books Bound In Human Skin is that exploration, and so much more, as Megan Rosenbloom sets herself on a course to test, catalog, and build provenance for any and all anthropodermic books scattered and hidden about the globe. Like its subject matter, it is an oddity, and a gem of a read. 

“Anthropodermic bibliopegy has been a specter on the shelves of libraries, museums, and private collections for over a century. Human skin books—mostly made by nineteenth-century doctor bibliophiles—are the only books that are controversial not for the ideas they contain but for the physical makeup of the object itself. They repel and fascinate, and their very ordinary appearances mask the horror inherent in their creation. Anthropodermic books tell a complicated and uncomfortable tale about the development of clinical medicine and the doctoring class, and the worst of what can come from the collision of acquisitiveness and a distanced clinical gaze. The weight of these objects’ fraught legacy transfers to the institutions where they are housed, and the library and museum professionals who are responsible for them. Each owner handles this responsibility differently.’ 

“[…] the conservationists at Harvard Library had discovered that a simple scientific test could be employed to confirm definitively whether an alleged human skin book was genuine. Shortly thereafter, I joined forces with the chemist who carried out the Harvard test, another chemist, and the curator of the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia to create the Anthropodermic Book Project. Our aim is to identify and test as many alleged anthropodermic books as possible and dispel long-held myths about the most macabre books in history. Sometimes the most unlikely candidates turn out to be real human skin, and some books with plausible pedigrees turn out to be frauds. As of this writing, my team has identified only about fifty alleged anthropodermic books in public collections and a few more in private hands. With such a small field of study, any test result could completely reshape our understanding of the scope of this practice. We have to approach every item objectively and let science out the truth.” 

Megan Rosenbloom, from Dark Archives: A Librarian’s Investigation Into The Science And History Of Books Bound In Human Skin

In the mid to late-2000s a chemist named Daniel Kirby started utilizing proteomics to help museums better restore and protect their artifacts and artworks. With modern technology Kirby realized by looking at an object’s proteins he could help distinguish a painting’s egg tempera content, or the type of seal skin used in a nineteenth-century Yup’tik kayak, assisting in recreations. When Megan Rosenbloom found Daniel Kirby, the Anthropodermic Book Project was born. Taking only a sliver of the supposed skin binding (about the amount of a thin fingernail shaving) peptide mass fingerprinting (PMF) for the first time in history could prove whether an alleged human skin book was real or fraudulent. Soon, confirmed anthropodermic books started showing up all over the world, though there were still unanswered questions. For one, PMF testing cannot identify the race or cultural makeup of a person; homo sapiens “do not have enough genetic variability among its populations to justify either the identification of geographically based races or of evolutionarily distinct lineages.” For another, PMF testing cannot even really distinguish between homo sapiens and other members of the Homininae subfamily (i.e. chimps, bonobos, and gorillas); however, no book has ever (to modern knowledge) been bound (or allegedly bound) in gorilla skin. That said, Megan Rosenbloom wants you to know that if you do know of a book allegedly bound in gorilla skin to contact her immediately.  

The ghostliness of these books makes them uniquely opaque, despite their grim nudity. Stripped of their personage, decontextualized, their true pasts can only be cobbled together through dedicated detective work, old paper trails and the sort. Some anthropodermic books are terrible question marks: nameless, with limited provenance and nothing substantial to grab hold to. But others are blatant in their confessions. 

Patterns began to emerge as more and more anthropodermic books were wedged into the light. The majority of acquisitioners and tanners were doctors or part of the doctoring class; when alleged human skin books were outed to be frauds, a large portion of them were centered around ploys of racism; though PMF tests cannot determine sex, many of the skins were claimed to be female, alluding to a rather sinister result of what happens when the distanced clinical gaze collides with the objectifying male one, making women and their skins victims of physicians’ psychosexual pathologies. Yet some defied expectations. One such anthropodermic book, Narrative of the Life of James Allen, Alias George Walton, Alias Jonas Peirce, Alias James H. York, Alias Burley Grove the Highwayman, was the result of a deathbed wish. The inscription “Hic liber Waltonis cute compactus est” graces the cover, on a gold-tooled black leather strip: “This book by Walton bound in [his] skin.” George Walton, lifelong criminal bibliophile turned armchair philosopher in prison, took end-of-life matters into his own hands. When he died, he requested his memoir be bound in himself; skin was taken from his back, tanned to mirror grey deerskin, and sent to bookbinder Peter Low. He now rests at the Boston Athenaeum, his words preserved in his own suede. 

Though one might be inclined to believe Dark Archives is a book of grotesque goggling, it is chiefly a book of history—medical history to be precise. When we die, we inevitably leave something behind: our bodies. Much of Dark Archives circles around the dubious questions of what rights do these bodies have. Who owns them if not ourselves, ourselves which have flown away? Rosenbloom wends us through humanity’s troubling pasts of corpses and their defilements; the dead stolen from graves, criminals hacked up in front of storefront windows to the appeasement of oglers, the moral minefield of surgeons in need of practicing cadavers, the exchange of money for human flesh. In the long shadow of medical butchery, anthropodermic books are a niche, and at times almost seem quaint in the grand scheme of things. But so many factors must converge to make an anthropodermic book possible. It is this chain of compliance that is most fascinating, and it is this chain that presents the most challenging end result of why. What does an anthropodermic book represent? What does its existence mean? 

I am not so squeamish about death. From the fungi growth of human composting to how bodies explode when cremated, I am rather captivated by the human corpse’s embracing of ugliness and repellency of what is considered contemporarily aesthetically good. We spend so much of our lives overly concerned with our appearances… I am strangely refreshed with the reality that at the end death throws all that hard work and devotion away. Once dead, we stiffen then fall slack, we yellow and brown and grey; insects flume within us, our internal bacteria goes bonkers and we bloat, blister, and burst; we are all—essentially—eaten, whether by fire or dirt. What’s left of us? In time not even bones. Should your derma befall the fate of an anthropodermic book, your lifeless body will be flayed, your skin pickled in acidic juices then washed and beaten and pressed. It is all an odd, ugly sort of business, a wonderfully odd ugly business. But, why shouldn’t it be? Must we be preserved youthful and plump with intrinsic beauty? Encased in resin, pumped full of formaldehyde, or launched into the vacuum of space, so as to never rot and decay. I suppose what draws me most to anthropodermic bibliopegy is despite the frequent usurping of human rights, it feels like a second life, so unlike that of our first. 

These books exist, for now at least. Another ornament to be hung and considered on the tree of the Human Condition. What we can learn from them, and what we believe of their nature, is sure to vary with time. 

From 1497-1543 a German artist named Hans Holbein existed. While in his impressionable twenties, he endeavored on a series of intricate woodblock paintings. These paintings were small, small enough to cup in the palm of your hand. In them, Death in the form of a skeleton performs a dance, a dance that yanks the cowl off an astonished monk, steals food from a miser, skewers an adorned knight, pulls the covers off a resting duchess, and leads a crying child away from his parents into the coming night. It is The Dance of Death, and to all peoples of every class he is an intruder, enthusiastically performing his jig. Cut by Hans Lützelburger (who died before he could see the finished product over which he labored, in a crude stroke of irony) the sensational woodblocks were later sold to creditors and compiled for publishing in Lyons in 1538. They have never been out of print, the hypnotic movements of Death’s swinging arms and empty eyes enlivening and alarming viewers for over six centuries. 

And in 1816, a famous bookbinder by the name of Joseph Zaehnsdorf commissioned the skin of a woman to give what he saw as “an appropriate binding” for a copy of Hans Holbein’s Dance of Death. The quantity of the material he was given (meaning, human skin) was in his own words “scanty”, resulting in him having to split the human leather in two, creating a smooth finished cover but a lumpy binding. In the typed memorandum he signs conditionally, “Yours obediently, Zaehnsdorf”. It is macabre in its pragmatism, the capitalist system that incited and buoyed this tome’s creation.

This copy along with two other anthropodermic editions of Holbein’s Dance of Death were later displayed at an exhibition by Grolier’s Club in 1903. Supposedly, three more copies throughout the 19th century of The Dance were made, totaling the number of times Hans Holbein the Younger’s eerie woodblock series The Dance of Death being allegedly bound in human skin to six. Though perhaps the most well known anthropodermic books, Megan Rosenbloom’s Dark Archives barely covers these volumes, likely because of their notoriety. Of these six, only two have been tested, and confirmed by PMF testing; Zaehnsdorf’s 1816 binding is one of them, obedient to the end.  The book now rests at Brown University, at the Jay Hay Library in Providence, Rhode Island, ‘rests’ holding more weight here than is perhaps norm.

Hans Holbein created The Dance of Death to showcase what he saw as an encouraging—and brutal—truth: Death comes for all of us, regardless of wealth, faith, condition, or class. Sometimes Death’s dance is like an assault, as to a jewel-laden emperor being denied his crown; but other times, Death is more a liberator, as to an old woman limping down a dirt road being released from her pains. Holbein also made The Dance as a sort of warning, a reminder to the most elitist classes that they will not be spared. But what Holbein’s enigmatic dancing Death misses is that though being dead will likely be the same for all of us, our dying—and the bodies we leave behind—will not become equalized the moment Death’s dance is finished. Rather, death just follows the path life has laid out. And, as all of us know, life is not egalitarian. 

The skins that bind Holbein’s [Dances] of Death were surely taken without consent, and with disregard of their owners. The commissioners, the bookbinders, the sellers, they all get to have their names passed on through history. But who makes Zaehnsdorf’s 1816 Dance of Death? No name is granted. We don’t know. Without the name, what immortality is given? They are doomed to mere superficial covering, a pale smooth beautiful nothing on a paper throne. Megan Rosenbloom gives new life to these dark volumes, and asks us to think about death, and our dead, more often. Through Dark Archives she invites us with compassion into a “more empowering relationship with our mortality.” 

An edition of Hans Holbein’s The Dance of Death bound in human skin, 1898. The only image of an anthropodermic book featured in Megan Rosenbloom’s Dark Archives.

5 out of 5 stars for Megan Rosenbloom’s Dark Archives: A Librarian’s Investigation Into The Science And History Of Books Bound In Human Skin.

The featured image is of the Mütter Museum of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia. It is an American museum of medical history, and “helps the public understand the mysteries and beauty of the human body and to appreciate the history of diagnosis and treatment of disease.” Photograph via – Thank you.

The Shining Girls: Lauren Beukes’ Lackluster Thriller Still Has Some Bright Spots

It is July 17, 1974, and a strange man approaches a child playing alone in a yard. It is classic in its unsettledness; we all know this story, so we instinctively hold our breaths. Strangers and children. Predators and prey. The axioms slowly rise in our minds, like a flush over a face. The stranger is Harper Curtis, with jeans, a gimpy foot, and an austere countenance. The child is Kirby Mazrachi, with brown eyes, frizzy hair, and a bee buzzing under a cup. She’s trapped it; there is a subtle omen here. This is a first meeting, and yet it is not. Harper Curtis tells Kirby, “That’s great. Really great. Here we go. Round and round, like your Ferris wheel. I’ll see you when you’re all grown up. Look out for me, okay, sweetheart? I’ll come back for you.” and he departs. He leaves behind a token, a prize, that he is both receiving and giving up. This is a beginning with a hole in it, and a reader is left wondering when they’ll get the key.

It is a strong first chapter, a good opening; Lauren Beukes sets the ball on the tee perfectly. But writing about time travel proves to be a tricky thing. For loops in time really always boil down to one ideology: determinism. This is the beast we are led to think we are fighting against. Will Harper and Kirby get swept by the current? Or will they somehow break the cycle, and get swallowed into a quantum jumble?

The unfortunate reality about Lauren Beukes’ The Shining Girls is that this battle never really occurs. Instead, the thriller novel is gobbled into a long sluice of fatalistic linear storytelling of women getting murdered over and over again, and our heroine, Kirby, muddling around in the background performing the blasé actions of the ‘catch-a-killer’ game while simultaneously not getting anywhere. To put frankly, The Shining Girls is a draining experience.

“Every surface has been defaced. There are artifacts mounted on the walls, nailed in or strung up with wire. They seem to jitter in a way that he can feel in the back of his teeth. All connected by lines that have been drawn over again and again, with chalk or ink or a knife tip scraped through the wallpaper. Constellations, the voice in his head says.

There are names scrawled beside them. Jinsuk. Zora. Willy. Kirby. Margo. Julia. Catherine. Alice. Misha. Strange names of women he doesn’t know.

Except that the names are written in Harper’s own handwriting.

It’s enough. The realization. Like a door opening up inside. The fever peaks and something howls through him, full of contempt and wrath and fire. He sees the faces of the shining girls and knows how they must die. The screaming inside his head: Kill her. Stop her. […]

Harper takes away his hands and forces himself to open his eyes. He hauls himself to his feet, using the bedpost for balance, and hobbles over to the wall where the objects pulse and flicker, as if in anticipation. He lets them guide him, reaching out his hand. There is one that seems sharper somehow. It nags at him, the way an erection does, with incontrovertible purpose. He has to find it. And the girl who comes with it.”

Lauren Beukes, From The Shining Girls

Right out of the gate something must be stated about The Shining Girls: Lauren Beukes is an incredible writer. Her ability to paint tone and depth into a scene is truly impressive; her prose is osmosed with the mood of her subject so finely that it feels seamless. Without question, Beukes is a great penner of words, and I fully appreciated her analogous and metaphorical choices and what I will call the lexis of her work.

But much halts there. A time-traveling serial killer is an intriguing premise for a thriller, one that feels open to imaginative pathways otherwise exempt from most crime-rooted tales. The expectation of more horror, more mystery, more magical realism, more breadth, is high. Yet, perhaps it was too high for Beukes, as she just couldn’t seem to reach those upper levels. We are left with a shallow, dull slog of murder after murder, useless detective scene after useless detective scene, and a weird unrequited love story that feels vapid in its unidirectionalness. It hurts to say that despite Beukes’ attempt to make The Shining Girls “a book that is as much about the victims’ stories as the killer’s,” the most interesting character is undoubtedly Harper, and the book features his thoughts, his activities, and his triumphs and tragedies most prominently, deranged murderous antagonist overtaking spunky jaded protagonist easily. For a book that implies a 5th dimension, it’s irksomely flat.

The book takes the reader through several decades, bouncing along the chill 90s to the Great Depression and back again. Here Lauren Beukes is actually at her best, describing the mood and atmosphere of each cultural time period in wonderfully researched detail (which actually leaves the question of whether Beukes is simply in the wrong genre and that perhaps her skills would better be utilized in non-fiction, historical enterprises). This time hopping should be an experience that feels like a koan, the solution resisting us as the solving goes on. But it somehow doesn’t. Instead, the fatalism of it all rather blunts the thrill and mystery. Should we be biting our nails as Harper encroaches upon yet another bright victim? When in fact, we already know she is dead, or will be, and that all these events are just part of a daisy chain that feels more repetitious than anything. And what of Kirby, our sole survivor? Beukes just shoves her in, and throughout the work she doesn’t seem to have much agency, and in fact at the end (a light spoiler ahead) seems to be the perpetrator of her own demise.

So, is Lauren Beukes’ The Shining Girls simply a veiled fatalistic tragedy? The paradox is the story, right? Weirdly, it doesn’t feel like this either. Weirder still, I’m not sure Beukes even noticed her own contradiction. (Though I’m sure by now, some people have pointed it out to her.) The finale feels like a larger story Beukes couldn’t quite figure out and lopped off, almost as if Beukes reached the end of her own intellect and could go no further. Now, is it possible that Beukes in fact did fully understand the contradiction and simply failed in her relaying of it to her audience? Yes; however, this ends up not changing the glaring grimy smudge of this supposed reflective gotcha loop—Lauren Beukes’ The Shining Girls is boring, and the lot of what happens in the book has no bearing at all to the final problem. Beukes seems to forget that the infamous Möbius strip has only one side, and makes little use of any imagination and daring she might have to add any profundity to the mathematical simplicity of her deterministic model. In the end, Harper gets everything he wants because of Kirby, and Kirby gets everything she doesn’t want because of herself. One is left wondering, How does this play out in the self-agency of our dead girls? Beukes becomes the thing she hates: a writer of “All The Pretty Corpses,” a genre trope she actively rejects and attempts to remedy in her short essay by the same name at the end of the book’s reading guide. The irony is so strong it almost leaves a taste of pity in the mouth.

It’s two stars for Lauren Beukes’ The Shining Girls. But I will leave with this: if Lauren Beukes ever decides to leave behind the world of fiction and instead picks up non-fiction, I might very much swipe that off the shelf.

Excellent photograph of Lauren Beukes via – Thank you.

Two stars for The Shining Girls.  

Intimations: The Emergency Writings of Zadie Smith

When the COVID pandemic first started, something happened. All at once, as if by some great predestined design, billions of hands began rushing. 

In the first months of the outbreak, many of us had the most productive and fruitful weeks of our lives. Files got stamped, old projects got completed and new projects got going, essays got written, art got made. Though we didn’t know it at the time, all this vigor and verve was predictable and expected. We had fallen into the well documented formulaic wheel of crisis time, consisting of three steps: emergency, regression, and recovery.

I was no different. Like a human being I behaved as one. I wrote pages upon pages, I scheduled phone/face-time dates and was diligent in keeping in contact with loved ones and friends. I taught myself origami, took some free online courses, went for long meandering walks everyday. Then, like a music box wound and played too many times, I began to wind down, my melodious tune stringing out into off-key notes and whining whispers. I clicked and clicked and sprang springs. Right on the ball, along with many others, I hit dreaded stage two: regression. Some of us got out of the funk and made it to recovery, shaking the cobwebs free and moving on, maintaining course, sticking to the path. Others of us—for reasons both internal and external—didn’t, and found ourselves out of steam and slumped in beds, sometimes lost and wandering off road. Then, there are those certainly like me, who continue to oscillate between these last two steps, regressing and recovering multiple times in a sort of strange, dark dance, a turning and turning about in a labyrinthine waltz of route and wilderness.     

But those first two or so months were a ride, weren’t they? The sheer amount of writing I produced in those first several weeks alone can just about make up for the bumbling year I’ve had. It was a glorious time, the river expedient, the way made clear. Those of us who write wrote and wrote and wrote.

And one of those individuals, of course, was novelist and essayist Zadie Smith. And from her fingers was produced her 2020 collection Intimations. A slim volume, not even a hundred pages long, with all Smith’s royalties going to charity, the non-fiction novelette is a moment of history seldom captured: not a moment such as an event or bodily action occurred and recorded in corporeal time and space, but a moment of thought, more of mind than brain, a spontaneous mental state that rippled around the globe that had no actual physical form but nonetheless existed. Within Intimations, put straightforwardly, are Zadie Smith’s emergency writings. The temple of the world fell down, and everyone instinctively, collectively, stood up and started rebuilding. Where were our minds? What, exactly, were we building? 

Intimations is a glimpse of the stream of consciousness that with a vengeance spilled forth from all our hands and hearts.

“What strikes me at once is how conflicted we feel about this new liberty and/or captivity. On the one hand, like pugs who have been lifted out of a body of water, our little limbs keep pumping on, as they did when we were hurrying off to our workplaces. Do we know how to stop? Those of us from puritan cultures feel “work must be done,” and so we make the cake, or start the gardening project, or begin negotiation with the other writer in the house for those kid-free hours each day in which to work on “something.” We make banana bread, we sew dresses, we go for a run, we complete all levels of Minecraft, we do something, then photograph that something, and not infrequently put it online. Reactions are mixed, even in our own hearts. Even as we do something, we simultaneously accuse ourselves: you use this extremity as only another occasion for self-improvement, another pointless act of self-realization. But isn’t it the case that everybody finds their capabilities returning to them, even if it’s only the capacity to mourn what we have lost? We had delegated so much.”

Zadie Smith, from Intimations: Six Essays

One of Smith’s initial actions during quarantine lock-down was picking up Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations for the first time. This was not some deep attempt at psychoanalysis or a beginners journey of higher wisdom pursuit; in her own words, Smith was seeking “practical advice.” Upon reading this I quickly went to the shelf and fished out my own copy of Meditations—a lovely Franklin Library collection, coupled with Lucretius’ On The Nature Of Things and Epictetus’ Discourses. Realization of the inspiration of Aurelius’ Meditations on Smith’s Intimations was immediate, particularly for Smith’s exiting piece Intimations: Debts and Lessons, where she follows Aurelius’ numbered point system by the letter, listing through her thoughts in a tumbling of prose that follows a more poetic intimacy than philosophical trail. 

First page of the 1792 English translation by Richard Graves via Wikipedia – Thank You.

Zadie Smith, more than anything, as a pen is unsparing. Both tough and generous, her straight-to-the-point style is what makes her writing a tandem spin of bracing and alluring. Intimations—though short and musing—is no different. What is different, it seems, is the haste; Smith’s mind bolts out, with abandon, without destination, and right out the gate it is clear Smith is not pulling from her forehead a story or attempt at reasoning, but rather a slip of streaming responsiveness, and all the uncertainty and rambling it entails. Her words dart: tulips growing in a city garden, ponderings of both doubt and completeness, world leaders, her mother, idiosyncratic New Yorkers, friendships, contempt and knowledge. Smith’s mind travels to where most of our minds travel when left alone with nothing but our thoughts: to the connections we share or once had, and to the void that creeps in when those connections are severed. Who are we, without others?  

When things unravel, it is a common problem of human beings to try to grab every thread. Zadie Smith’s writing presents this phenomenon; the instinctive knee jerk reaction to catch the whole breaking ball of yarn before it hits the ground. What is lost in this moment is the understanding that you only need one end; all is connected, and as long as you maintain grip on a single piece you can follow and roll back up the string. The oddity is that when a crisis hits this bit of common wisdom is walloped out of us, as if the compasses of our minds were suddenly pummeled with sledgehammers, all sense of direction lost. This is what makes Smith’s Intimations so intriguing; something ruptures, and the hands whirl into action, picking up every fragment in a berry-picking-like ritual, adeptly moving both hands and collecting multiple pieces into the palms before depositing handfuls into the bucket, nothing sorted but nonetheless gathered. Smith’s Intimations captures this so well, and though the slim collection of essays in and of itself beholds nothing particularly sensational or enlightening, there is a feeling of affirmation that sweeps through.

Time waits for no one, and the world continues in her turns, so our fingers turn, loop, press, and grip, trying to keep up.

After all, though people may walk on their feet, humanity marches upon our hands.  

Great portrait of bestselling author Zadie Smith via Getty Images – Thank You.

3 ½ stars for Zadie Smith’s Intimations. 

On Tides

Growing up in the Twin Ports of Minnesota and Wisconsin, I was often exposed to the chilling brutality, and lashing beauty, of the waves of Lake Superior. 

The Ojibwe called Lake Superior kitchi-gami, meaning “great sea”. With the largest surface area of any freshwater body in the world, if one looks outwards from the shores of either Wisconsin Point or Canal Park, the lake can truly appear as an ocean—vast and unbroken as the sky. On a vicious, windy day, bundled well in a thick coat and set on just the right rock, observing the lake can be a meditative, absolving experience, and it’s one I indulged in quite often. There’s no brine or scent of life in the lake; just her coldness, and clattering foams, like a land of liquid angry snow. Sitting alone on those shores are some of my most peaceful, quiet memories. Sometimes, I go there in my mind, and I can smell the crisp mist. 

Stunning image of Lake Superior waves at North House. Photograph taken by Layne Kennedy.

Waves that chop and peak when unruly. A color more resembling iron in winter. A heavy, thudding roar. The visage of the lake—if it could be described with a single word—is flinty. Hard and unyielding, like the gaze of a tiger or Cellini’s defiant Perseus. With temperatures in the region that can hit -40℉ with windchill, this stoic, saltless sea, can display a unique form of frigid savagery. An old saying rises up: “Lake Superior seldom gives up her dead”. This axiom, sounding like the stuff of grim tall tales, has a surprising basis in truth. Due to the unusually low temperature of the water, the cold functions as a sterilizer, inhibiting bacterial growth. Decaying bodies, lost in the waves, need feeding bacteria to generate gases to float. Therefore, without the bacteria feeding and thriving, the heavy lake holds down any and all souls. In Lake Superior is a graveyard of men, women, children, and ships. Kitchi-gami plays for keeps, giving little up. 

I swam in those waters, I walked along those coarse and rock laden shores and picked up pieces of smoky glass and smooth small stones. One of my uncles, who ran a booth at Minnesota’s Renaissance Faire for some decades called Wizard’s Wax Works, used the driftwood tossed up along Wisconsin Point to mold his fantasy wax figures on. In the spring and summer as a family we’d all go to the point and collect these extravagant burled and gnarled wood pieces, and stack them in the back of the van and take them home. Beneath a small heating lamp in my grandparents basement my uncle would push and pull dragons and wizards, unicorns and fish and bears out the wax, and merge and coil them about the driftwood. Kitchi-gami, seemingly against her character, also grants gifts.

And sometimes the mad lake tries to kill you. It almost took me, one summer when I was a child. I was wearing little green shoes, full of tiny pink, blue, and white flowers. Playing down by the water at Canal Park, near the lighthouse, a massive wave enveloped me and nearly swept me out. In my memory, I remember the smack and crush, and the sudden roll of the world being turned upside down as I was flung inside the watery drum. My uncle saved me (a different uncle, not my uncle who forged creatures from wax to driftwood) and after it was made clear that I wasn’t dead and drowned, I was carried back up the rocks to the van in the parking lot, and I was set down in the back, drenched and dazed. My older cousin, excited by the event, gave me a once over and exclaimed, “Look! She’s lost a shoe!” The great lake that day had almost swallowed me up. I was toweled off, and sent back out to play to supposedly laugh in the face of death. Kitchi-gami, swung her fist, but missed.

Image of the Canal Park Lighthouse, very close to where I almost drowned as a child. Image Credit:

The water woos me; it’s always been this way. Living in Seattle now some of my favorite things to do are to take the ferries or go to the docks and watch the Pacific waters rising in, flowing out. Always in motion (perhaps that’s why I love the water, for it resembles my mind) scientific studies say I love the water because it lowers my cortisol levels when I see it, smell it taste it touch it; that we humans always seek it, are soothed by it; that it is a reflection of our bodies and our lives. The same percentage of salt that exists in our blood exists in the ocean—but I prefer a poet’s view. I look out at the unending blue and think, Winter never rots in this sky.

So we all tend to be drawn to the waters. For me, the pull of the great blue bodies is that they change. The oceans, lakes, rivers, and seas have their own unique patterns and their own processes of time. For me, it’s all about the tides and waves—not the heart or head or belly or feet—but the lungs, that breathing, that comb and swell and yaw. Taking the hours to be witness to that slow, unwavering rhythm of up and down, ascent and descent, high and low, is a day well spent, a very good day indeed. This is what Johnathan White’s book Tides: The Science and Spirit of the Ocean is about. You set out your front door on a wave and it circles the globe, and with prowess and gentleness and speed, it carries you back home. 

“My interest in tides springs from a fascination with the ocean. I grew up on the southern California coast, surfing, diving, sailing, fishing. I built a twenty-six-foot sloop after college and sailed it for a couple of years in the Atlantic and Caribbean, making several offshore passages. In the early 1980s, at twenty-five, I bought a leaky old sixty-five-foot wooden schooner, Crusader, and founded a non-profit educational organization, Resource Institute. For eleven years we sailed Crusader off the Northwest Coast, from Seattle to Alaska, around Vancouver Island and Haida Gwaii. We conducted weeklong seminars afloat on topics ranging from natural history, photography, and whale research to psychology, music, poetry, and November Coast Native art, culture, and mythology. […] Six or eight participants from across the country – sometimes from around the world – would join us at a coastal town, and we’d sail off, often not seeing another human settlement until seminar’s end.

It was a wonderfully adventurous eleven years, but one of the not-so-wonderful adventures was going aground on a large tide in Alaska’s Kalinin Bay.”

Johnathan White, from Tides: The Science and Spirit of the Ocean

Following White’s example, I opened this review with my own experiences of life by the waves, one of which involved me nearly getting swept out. White, in a similarly uncomfortable vein, opens his book with an excellent tale of running aground in mud. An unexpected turn of tides left him and his crew completely stranded in the Kalinin Bay. At a loss, White went to the pilothouse and grabbed for the tide chart, hoping the news would be good—but it wasn’t. The schooner Crusader had gone aground at peak high tide; that left White and his hapless crew of passengers stuck for at least nine to ten hours, and during those hours, White knew Crusader would continue to sink deeper and deeper into the mud. “Over the hours, I watched Crusader drop like a fatally wounded animal, first to her knees, then all fours, and finally onto her side. She filled chest-high with water. When the tide reversed, all seventy tons of her were stuck in the mud and didn’t want to come back up.”

The crew was shuttled ashore via small boats, leaving only White and one other crew member aboard the floundering ship. Fruits bobbed in the watery blue, books flapped about like birds. They pumped and pumped the water to what felt like no avail, White called the Coast Guard, it seemed all was lost and that he would have to say goodbye. But then, something changed. The tide, a silent avenger, rose, and the Crusader was jogged loose and floating again in little over a minute. 24 hours stuck in the salty sludge and in under two minutes Crusader was free. White never forgot. That event changed him, and he vowed to learn more about the tides, the oceans and the seas and their rhythms and harmonies. A masterful work of ensnaring prose, illuminating discoveries, and good old journalism, Tides: The Science and Spirit of the Ocean is Johnathan White’s journey around the world, and wherever he goes, the waves give chase. 

Image of a semipalmated sandpiper. Image Credit: Encyclopedia Britannica

With introduction, broken into nine chapters (there is a lovely foreword by Peter Matthiessen that I would recommend not skipping) White has undertaken a deep exploration of the tides and their many intricate dances. Perusing topics such as the first tide theories by renown figures like Leonardo da Vinci and Zakariya Qazvini, to the Ptolemy-Aristotelian astronomies of the Mediterranean world, White delves into a rich history of human fascination—and bafflement—with the tides. There is a bouquet here of information, shaped by White’s elegant pen; a reader can feel at ease sailing along the wending of history, as though in the hands of a veteran captain. White searches for the tidal secrets both scholastically and by foot, traveling to famous sites like Mont Saint-Michel in France; China’s Qiantang River; Venice, Italy; and the Eling Tide Mill in Southampton, just north of the Isle of Wight in the English Channel. In these fervent voyages of the mind and heart, White performs a series of dances of his own: with the moon and sun, with semipalmated sandpipers and mudshrimp, with tidal bores, with technologies designed to harvest tidal energies, with massive gates rising from out the sea hoping to hold them off. It is a stellar work of writing, peppered with visual treats. Helpful photographs and diagrams make Tides: The Science and Spirit of the Ocean an immersive, decadent read.  

And then there’s Johnathan White, with a childlike sense of awe that really brings animation to the journaling of his journey. White is a fine writer, expertly rendering scenes, a reader gets to really chew the senses: tactile, taste, smell, sound, sight, stream of consciousness, musings. A reader can clearly feel the tiny sandpiper in their cupped hands, can hear the roar of the upcoming bore, can know the slosh of high tide in Venice. The book is wonderfully thought through, with clean transitions and engaging topics.

Great diagram explaining how the Sun and Moon influence Earth’s tides. Image credit: Encyclopedia Britannica.

When one stands with the ocean, there is often an overwhelming feeling that sweeps over, a feeling of great encapsulation and interconnectedness. John Steinbeck states it well in his story The Log from the Sea of Cortez, “It’s a strange thing that most of the feeling we call religious… is really the understanding and the attempt to say that man is related to the whole thing, related inextricably to all reality, known and unknowable…. It is advisable to look from the tide pool to the stars and then back to the tide pool again.” This quote, stationed at the beginning of the first chapter of White’s Tides, encompasses what the oceans and their cycles are really about: the understanding that all things are bound together, and that all things are dependent upon this binding. From this, it is easy to see what White is really exploring throughout his voyages with the tides, is influence. How one thing shapes another thing and how that thing shapes another, and another and another, so on and so on, possibly ad infinitum. The discovery of this totality of union, of this naturalist perspective, can be an aid in understanding and coping with the events of the modern day. Johnathan White’s Tides is a welcome balm against stringent individualism—stringent individualism being the belief of existence of one inside a vacuum—and a much needed lesson of balance, connection, and patience, in time.

It has been a tough year. With the coronavirus pandemic biting at our heels, and the terrible losses for human rights, 2020 seems a year of high highs, and low lows. Here we all are, caught in the tides; some of us are run aground, lodged in mud, others of us are being swept out. This year, I’ve been thinking a lot about cycles, about the rolling circle that is life. Some might describe it as a hamster wheel—but, I struggle to have a view so nihilistic. I sense it more as a phasing, that life has us crest, grow, peak, shrink, shrivel, go dark, and retry. That my time here exists beyond my basic body, and that we will all roll onward into the future, repeating these seven fundamental forms in some manner, matter, or way. That we are always part of a shifting mold. If we view humanity as a collection of all that are human, and perhaps, even some that are little less, or little more, we can view ourselves as an ocean, and all oceans have their tides, tides both consistent and changing.

In times like these, it is helpful to remember that there have always been times like these. One day as a child, a wave pounded and almost swallowed me up. 

It could have swallowed me, but it didn’t. Kitchi-gami surely didn’t let me go that day, she simply missed her mark. I toweled off, and kept on playing. Because the wave goes out, as surely as it comes back in. The wheeling ring never stops, though the complications and complexities are many and wild.

Beautiful image of the tides of river and sea meeting. Image credit: Shutterstock

Five out of five stars for Johnathan White’s Tides: The Science and Spirit of the Ocean. 

Thank you for the voyage.  

The featured image is of Le Mont Saint-Michel in Normandy, France. It is a tidal island and mainland commune, the fantastic abbey being of Romanesque architectural design, and is only accessible at low tide, for at high tide the waters sweep in and flood the sand strip. It is visited by more than 3 million people each year.

The Wail of a Wounded Deer: Adeeba Shahid Talukder’s City of the Beloved

I first read Faiz Ahmed Faiz when I was in high school. Here was a poet that sang grief and love as if they were one.

Starting this review with Faiz seemed appropriate to me, as my first encounter with the Urdu poet came from Naomi Lazard’s translation of The True Subject. A collection of selected poems opening with “Any Lover to Any Beloved” delivered in two parts, I was immediately transported back to those verses, when I took Adeeba Shahid Talukder’s Shahr-e-jaanaan: The City of the Beloved into my hands. 

Arabic poetry is one of the oldest metric forms, sprung from the brow of oral traditions. What falls under the umbrella of Arabic poetry is vast, being carried into Turkish, Hindi, Persian, Urdu, Bengali, Azerbaijani, and other Asian poetic traditions. So much variance and original style is here that western academia has struggled to do much else than scratch the surface. From the Foreign Service Institute of Language Difficulty Rankings, all the above languages (with the exception of Arabic) are considered incredibly difficult for native English speakers to understand, requiring a minimum of 44 weeks of constant immersement to learn. Arabic, considered a category 5, is one of the most difficult, requiring up to a minimum of 88 weeks. As such, the English speaking world does not often get to encounter this rich tradition of poetry, leaving much unearthed.  

Adeeba Shahid Talukder’s Shahr-e-jaanaan is that unearthing, a wending display of the classical ghazal form and equally a rebellion from strict characterization. Talukder’s work speaks to the push and pull of the amorous life, her words achieving a certain satyadvaya; a middle course, between delirious naivete and volatile sadness. 

City of the Beloved_coverThere, he let slip his robe / and they all knew: / his flesh was God. / The sky split, mountains fell / as he hung in the sky, / gleaming like wine. / That night, Revolution walked / to the gallows— / lips red, hands silver, / curls like black rain. / His heart, she found, / was ash. / She circled it seven times, / then fell, flaming, / at his feet.

Longing is the gravity that exists within all of Talukder’s writing, a cacoethes present in many of the poems where a reader can feel the opposing forces of ‘do’ and ‘do not do’. Shahr-e-jaanaan is a title most suited, as the work is full of bodies, stacked and tightly spaced and forced into abiding by each other as any citizen of a major metropolis will understand. Adeeba Shahid Talukder’s world is as large as it is squeezed; stuffed full of legend and tradition, modernity and materiality, the known and the unknown. Talukder’s words bend well with their antonyms, showcasing a flexibility of reality more present in shorter works such as in the Japanese haiku tradition, leaving a sensing in each poem that there is much more present than what is shown. 

Adeeba_talukder portrait
Portrait of Adeeba Shahid Talukder via Glass Poetry Press – Thank you.

Containing 48 poems broken up into eight parts, a reader is quickly taken in by verse both reflective and foreboding. “I realized I could no longer / wait to be beautiful. Thus, I pushed / bangles upon bangles / onto my wrist, rubbing / my hands raw with metal / and glass. […] That night, my mother / looked into my eyes with terror. / That night, she wouldn’t let me leave.” Throughout Talukder’s collection there is a constant cyclical theme of succumbing to the pains of bondage and then, radically, breaking free. Love and pain, grief and joy are plainly regarded as one entity, such as a coin holds two faces, and in respect to the amatory of ghazal tradition, Talukder’s chapbook is a journey to and from desire, expressing the inevitable accompaniment of joining with separation, love with loss. Shahr-e-jaanaan is both destruction and rapture.

In Sufism there is an old story of a woman named Rabia, an 8th century slave whose love for God was so strong it inspired her owners to set her free. The story goes that she is said to have told God that if she loves him because she fears hell, then she should burn in hell, and if she loves God because she desires heaven, then she should be denied heaven. This tale is one frequently relayed in Sufi mysticism, as a sort of allegory to a Sufi’s deepest purpose, which is total unadulterated union with the divine.

At the end of Adeeba Shahid Talukder’s Shahr-e-jaanaan: The City of the Beloved there is a turning moment, where the river of Talukder’s words curves and heads out to sea. In these last ten or so poems, the coat of unrequited love that steps through all of Talukder’s work evolves into a broader examination of yearning, yearning beyond the mere communion with human form and into something greater. God frequents here, as does Talukder’s own womanhood and the oppressing factors that often accompany the two. In this she reflects on the mechanical advantage that often occurs with women and their faith, where a trade off of forces is foisted upon them by patriarchal mechanisms. But Talukder’s poems express a resolute desire to commune with the divine unimpeded, such as Rabia expresses in her confession of love. Talukder wants to love, because she chooses to, and in this bold action she attains access to the nemesis of doubt: hope.

The etymology of ghazal is an interesting one. One original translation posits the direct meaning of ghazal to ‘the wail of a wounded deer.’ Through this we can see why ghazals so often reflect the pain of unreturned love and heartache. But, Talukder’s philosophy for the dichotomies of love seems to be we love because we do, even if it hurts us, even if we will receive nothing tangible in return.     

“the breeze wakes us from the dark

                 If the wounds are blooming,
                                                   the roses will too.” 

Adeeba Shahid Talukder, from “mirror of the world” 

“And rebels
my friends:

fill your vases with water
for spring is here:

in this blossoming 
of wounds,

some roses may also.”

Faiz Ahmed Faiz, from “The Rebel’s Silhouette”

In the poems of these wonderful poets, poets like Talukder, Faiz, Darwish, Hafez, Ghalib, & Rumi, there are more roses than wounds. 

Khosrow Parviz’s first sight of Shirin, bathing in a pool, in a manuscript of Nezami’s poem. This is a famous moment in Persian literature. Unknown artist, Mid 16th century, Safavid dynasty via Wikipedia – thank you. 

Four out of five stars for Adeeba Shahid Talukder’s Shahr-e-jaanaan: The City of the Beloved.

The featured image is a mosaic in the Baku Metro in Azerbaijan. It depicts Khosrow and Shirin , two lovers from the famous tragic romance by the Persian poet Nizami Ganjavi (1141–1209). It tells a highly elaborated fictional version of the story of the love of the Sasanian king Khosrow II for the Armenian princess Shirin, who becomes queen of Persia. The Baku Metro (also called Nizami Ganjavi after the poet) is full of beautiful mosaics such as this one and contains over 22 miles of bi-directional tracks, transporting millions of people yearly. Via Wikipedia – Thank you.)  

Dreamland: Science and Musings on Sleep

I have been reading online over the past few weeks about how during the COVID-19 pandemic people are reporting having strange, vivid dreams. As to why this is happening, theories abound, but one of the more interesting theories is that withdrawal from our usual environments (caused by the quarantine) has left many subconscious brains searching back into the lost stacks of the mind for inspiration. The past, for many, is being dug up, and played out in new formulations while they sleep. How fascinating, I thought as I read, The dreaming mind is such a deep, welling place. 

That got me thinking about sleeping in general, and all the mystery that entails it. My own sleep has always been plagued by oddities, from having Night Terrors in my youth to run-of-the-mill somnambulism to a terrible case of Exploding Head Syndrome I got in my mid-twenties. My immediate thought was I should get a book on it from the library, ride the wave of my sudden interest, before I was triggered by the remembering that I, in fact, already own a book about sleep and its many variations, and had never gotten around to reading it.

So to my small-ish Tsundoku collection I went, and pulled from the back of my shelf Dreamland: Adventures in the Strange Science of Sleep by David K. Randall. A rather journalistic endeavor and easy reading, Randall’s book was a fun, intriguing exploration into what happens (and what can happen) when we lay our heads down at night. A little lacking in imagination but clear cut on facts and a good dose of wit to it, Dreamland is a good beginner’s guide to the strangeness of slumber and the nebulous workings of the unconscious mind. 


“Whether any of us has a sleep problem or not, it is clear that we are living in an age when sleep is more comfortable than ever and yet more elusive. Even the worst dorm-room mattress in America is luxurious compared to sleeping arrangements that were common not that long ago. During the Victorian era, for instance, laborers living in workhouses slept sitting on benches, with their arms dangling over a taut rope in front of them. They paid for this privilege, implying that it was better than the alternatives. Families up to the time of the Industrial Revolution engaged in the nightly ritual of checking for rats and mites burrowing in the one shared bedroom. Modernity brought about a drastic improvement in living standards, but with it came electrical lights, television, and other kinds of entertainment that have thrown our sleep patterns into chaos.’ […]

“Because of the number of new findings in such a short time span, today’s researchers believe that they are in a golden age of their field. Sleep is now understood as a complex process that affects everything from the legal system to how babies are raised to how a soldier returning from war recovers from trauma. And it is also seen as a vital part of happiness. Whether you realize it or not, how you slept last night probably has a bigger impact on your life than what you decide to eat, how much money you make, or where you live. All of those thing that add up to what you consider you–your creativity, emotions, health, and ability to quickly learn a new skill or devise a solution to a problem–can be seen as little more than by-products of what happens inside your brain while your head is on a pillow each night. It is part of a world that all of us enter and yet barely understand.”  

It was neato to learn that Randall’s interest in the hidden elements of sleep were prompted by his own experience of sleepwalking. Always more of a talker in his sleep than a walker, David K. Randall woke up one night on the floor of his hallway, having no recollection of how he’d gotten there. Obviously, he’d been sleepwalking, but he’d never done it before and was baffled by what had happened, and slightly concerned it would happen again. When he sought out a specialist, a neurologist, all he received was an answer that led to more questions. The neurologist told him plainly, “I’m going to be honest with you. There’s a lot that we know about sleep, but there’s a lot that we don’t know. If the sleepwalking continues, let’s try some sedatives. But I don’t want you to start taking drugs that you don’t need. Try to cut down on your stress and see what happens.” And that was that.

Flipped image of Hebert Antoine Auguste Ernest’s lovely “The Little Violinist Sleeping” via

But being a reporter, Randall couldn’t just leave it at that. So began his adventures into the weirdness of sleep. Though the science was still in its infancy when Dreamland first appeared on the shelves in 2012, and hasn’t come that far since, Randall touches upon all sorts of topics, from Freudian and Jungian theories of our dreams, to criminal acts committed by sleeping individuals, to baseball stats, Randall’s book is a wonderland of fascinating discoveries and entertaining trivia. 

The book is 13 chapters, the first opening with Randall’s own bizarre encounter with his unconscious self that left him confused and dazed on the floor, to closing up shop with a fruitful experiment to see whether he could, as it were, brain-hack himself to a better night’s rest. Very readable and easy to follow, Dreamland is articulate and streamline. Choosing to touch upon as many subjects as he can instead of going into expansive depth of any one or two, the book has a jack of all trades feel to it that keeps it light, and keeps the pages turning. The information gained tastes a great deal more like data than knowledge, and that’s just fine, and Randall has a charming sense of humor that adds a component of warmth to the book, even in the drier bits. A reader is sure to find something that interests them, and sure to learn some new amount about sleep. My favorite chapters where “Between The Sheets”, “Game Time”, and “Breathe Easy”, mostly due to the surprising socio-economic turns they took that had never much graced my mind. 

Speaking of my mind, Dreamland was certainly a book that got me thinking about my own inner mechanics. Recently, I learned about an area of the brainstem called the PONS which regulates respiratory and sensory functions, and is in fact the little switch that turns off our motor functions while we sleep. But for those of us who are somnambulists (sleepwalkers), our PONS areas frequently decide not to turn off when the lights go out, and we are left running around and acting out our dreams, so many of us waking up cooking sunny-side eggs, stumbling on stairs, or completely prone on our living room floors. It got me thinking, What disrupts this? Why some and not so many others? The clockwork of the mind is a fine, intricate machine that loves to suddenly sproing springs. Much like many other mysteries, sleep is an entity who when answers a question is poised to ask twenty more.     

And that’s the review. A good enough read that taught me new things, got me thinking, and helped satiate my curiosity on the recent coronavirus pandemic dreams going around. David K. Randall’s Dreamland: Adventures in the Strange Science of Sleep gets three out of five stars. 

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Gustave Courbet’s “Portrait  of Juliette Courbet as a Sleeping Child”, mere graphite and paper, via

Sweet dreams, everyone.  

The featured image is Frederic Leighton’s “Flaming June” produced in 1895. Painted with oil paints on a 47-by-47-inch (1,200 mm × 1,200 mm) square canvas, it is widely considered to be Leighton’s magnum opus. “Flaming June” disappeared from view in the early 1900’s and was rediscovered only in the 1960’s. It now resides at the Museo de Arte de Ponce in Ponce, Puerto Rico, via Wikipedia – Thank you.      

Dear Ma: Memories From Ocean Vuong

For, dear me, why abandon a belief
Merely because it ceases to be true?
Cling to it long enough, and not a doubt
It will turn true again, for so it goes.
Most of the change we think we see in life
Is due to truths being in and out of favour.

Robert Frost, “The Black Cottage” 

Being a diarist most of my life, I began dabbling in journaling at ages before I could properly write between lines. Not so much an unerring habit—such as the spectacular fortitude of esteem diarist Anaïs Nin—the life of my diary is nothing like that of the sun, unyielding and burning, but more like that of the moon; constant, only in that it has its phases, waxing and waning throughout the seasons. 

Years moving in and out of written existence, slivers of letters and notes that roll into decades of overflowing journals; tickets and newspaper clippings and bottle caps and torn poems glued and shoved inside. Then—for little reason other than the cycle—a big nothing, for weeks or months, sometimes years at a time. Immediate then, with a crack, the light comes back, and it all starts again. As of current, I have been journaling near daily since 2015. 

Some nights I have little to say; others seem to have me skating downhill where I will write seven pages or more. When I was younger, I never considered my diary for what it was: my past. Those pages were seen as the refuge for thoughts unflushed, dreams dreamt, actions unlived; for accomplishments still going, for failures seeming without end; for matters that happened like bombs and burned everything into dirt, page and pen taking on the utility of dustpan and broom. It wasn’t until my later years, and the journals and letters started to stack up, that I began to understand; understand the profound amount of idle work that goes into a life, and the world-shifting events that grow from that mundanity, like a forest on a mountainside. 

Sudden, it happens: you have a past. More than that, it is surprisingly large. It spills over the desk, it takes up the whole bottom bookshelf; it collects dust in the musty chest by the door, it falls all over you when you’re trying to pull free a reference volume out the back of the closet; it begins to seize space, both outside and in; your mind get sticky in lethologica, you keep having to move boxes around to make it all fit; you might consider, in fact, getting rid of it all, until you realize that there is nothing that can be rid. It all happened, all of it, and it’s all comprised in you. Who knew a 33 year old, 5’7”, 120 pound woman could fit so much. You start to be in awe of it, in perpetual astonishment of living and time. Being a diarist is a wonderful kind of sorcery—the past made manifest, all those failed and successful templates of you given lungs to breathe, teeth to eat, eyes to see. Those past selves intermingle, they overlap, they talk behind your back—it’s a kind wilderness. Darwinism and mysticism and cartography and art. There is, amazingly, so so much, even in the little life.

So, one day, you throw the philosophy of identity out the window, because it ceases to make sense, and you make a place for a new philosophy, and you lucidly call it “self”. Somedays, it is simply “me”. Other days you don’t call it anything at all, but merely feel it, like a tender kiss on a wound.

For birthday number 33, my friend (of 33 years, a sister really) sent me On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong. Since then, I have not been able to stop remembering things, some things I had never even written down. But others I’d find, lodged in a middle-page, rolled like a scroll in a drawer. Vuong’s novel, built on confession and poetry, brought me to the vast shores of my own memory. And, as experienced, it was gorgeous. 

OnEarth_OceanVuongcoverWhen I first started writing, I hated myself for being so uncertain, about images, clauses, ideas, even the pen or journal I used. Everything I wrote began with maybe and perhaps and ended with I think or I believe. But my doubt is everywhere, Ma. Even when I know something to be true as bone I fear the knowledge will dissolve, will not, despite my writing it, stay real. I’m breaking us apart again so that I might carry us somewhere else–where, exactly, I’m not sure. Just as I don’t know what to call you–White, Asian, orphan, American, mother?

Sometimes we are given only two choices. While doing research, I read an article from an 1884 El Paso Daily Times, which reported that a white railroad worker was on trial for the murder of an unnamed Chinese man. The case was ultimately dismissed. The judge, Roy Bean, cited that Texas law, while prohibiting the murder of human beings, defined a human only as White, African American, or Mexican. The nameless yellow body was not considered human because it did not fit in a slot on a piece of paper. Sometimes you are erased before you are given the choice of stating who you are.  

I first read Ocean Vuong back in 2018 when I read his collection Night Sky with Exit Wounds by Copper Canyon. An exciting new poet, Vuong’s verses played with a gentle sorrow and a steady, delicate vulnerability, and I was looking forward to his next collection of poetry. It was a pleasant surprise, when I learned upon the arrival of my friend’s package in the mail, that he had written a novel instead. Happy surprise, but also, sober trepidation. To be frank, when poets decide to become novelists, as a reader, I’ve come to find it usually doesn’t go very well. The ability to hold onto the thread of progressional narrative that a novel requires (or, at its best requires) usually isn’t what the poet excels at. The poet excels in the swing, launching from one extreme to another, making far reaching connections and maintaining an emotive voice that rises above events and makes way into a greater truth. The novelist, on the other hand, must maintain a sense of balance, and preserve a formula of logic that can shoot straight like an arrow from a bow and hit its intended mark. (Or, if multiple threads are being juggled, marks.) The poet doesn’t prioritize landing upon any goal or intent; the poet merely bleeds out all over the floor. Once bled, the pool fully formed, a reader can come to gaze at the reflective images cast. Poets and novels, for some reason, rarely make good bedfellows. (Strange, that it’s not so consistent vice-versa.)  

So here I was holding Ocean Vuong’s first novel in my hands and going, “Aaaaaaaah,” and, tepidly, I began the first chapter, and read those first words, Let me begin again. Dear Ma, 

And full-stop. Right there, I made an executive decision, and that decision was that On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous was not a novel, and I shouldn’t read it as such. Throw genre out the window; Ocean Vuong was a poet, and you can take the words out of a poet but you can’t take the poet out of the words. So I read Ocean Vuong’s book under that umbrella, and now, finished with Vuong’s pages, I can say, wholeheartedly, I think it was the right choice. For in suspending the criteria of what makes a good novel allowed me to encounter the work beyond the eye of critique, and what Vuong’s work truly seems to express is the dilemma of the philosopher’s qualia; the singular experience of being inside a specific moment in time, and the inevitable corruption of that experience by way of time proceeding from it and its transmutation into memory. 

Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous leads a reader through a series of immersive contact. Through incredibly sensory-specific prose, a reader knows the musk of the hay, the coarseness of a boy’s arm hair, the aroma of an empty beer bottle, the willowy strand of wind on a nape. What is not so clearly rendered, is the emotions ever present yet fragile throughout Vuong’s penning. Is it remorse or bittersweetness? Is it love or understanding? Is it anger or sadness? Told in first person narrative, by way of a young man, Little Dog, writing a letter to his mother, Vuong’s story is less a story and more a journey of reminiscence. “Outside, the leaves fell, fat and wet as dirty money, across the windows,” “I remember the walls curling like a canvas as the fire blazed,” and “Ma. You once told me that memory is a choice. But if you were god, you’d know it’s a flood.” While reading, I was constantly caught and flung into my own memories; the scent of cedar in the wooden playground, the jitters of my first job, riding on handlebars down roads in the dark, snow inside my mitten, sirens whirring, my shivers. 

Traveling through difficult subjects, such as race, class, sexuality, war and trauma, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is a gallery of memories. Not just memories of our protagonist, Little Dog, but also of his mother’s, his grandmother’s, and his father’s, memories relayed and digested and re-relayed in splinters of sequences. The writing quietly questions, What changes during all this passing? It is a retrospective painting of pure blue, cut up and then put back together. Does every piece need to be placed exactly as it was for it to be that same blue? Can such a blue ever be again after the cutting? This is the philosopher’s qualia, and Vuong’s mosaic suggests that perhaps painting and cutting up blue is just the inevitability of feeling and rearranging in time. Specifics fall to the wayside. Certainty is an emotion felt, and not a fact of matter. While reading, a surrender can happen, and one accepts the stream of consciousness of the work. 

Another element of Ocean Vuong’s novel is that of arrival and departure. Life has us move in and out of lives, in and out of places, in and out of emotions, in and out of knowledge, in and out of truth. Much like my diary, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous reminded me of the phasing within living, and how what is real as stone one day becomes dust the next. It is not repetition, but wheeling forward in persistent fashion; of being on top or bottom, in front or behind patterns with time, but the road races up forever new.  A mixture of sameness and utter originality; what could remain completely untouched through all this barreling? Not much, it would seem. I would say not a thing at all. 

I once read that memory is an old woman who hoards colored rags and throws away food. The nature of being can sometimes seem a delusional act. We shift inside ourselves, and sometimes, seem to fly out of our bodies like ghosts. Many would say memory is what holds us—I, the person—together, and that without we would crumble; others seem to think entirely in the future, to leave the past in the past and harbor no doubts nor regrets about what has been, and that each event gone only means you have a bright white page unwritten on to look forward to. But these are merely postures, are they not? Very few open their eyes underwater without goggles. How can we see clearly, without the light shining there? I want to say Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is a letter to the past, but in its heart, Vuong’s novel knows that no such address exists; Vuong sends the letter out to be delivered into memory, and it is received, only to be altered by the state.

For about two weeks, I have flipped through my journals, that all put together make my diary. It has been enlightening, falling upon a date, and saying “Oh, I remember that day,” only to be corrected that I barely remember it at all. Other times, my memory is frightening in its accuracy, giving the impression that I could nail a game show or succeed as some sort of wizard of recall. But all these events, poured onto the page, are not merely files to be pulled and so inserted back in; they are all with me, every moment of every second of my life since their occurrence. We do not grow out of old skins, like snakes, and slip them off. It is an evolution, and each rotation brings another wave of substance that dissolves into us. On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous speaks to this.    

Read Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, not as a novel, but as a color that was once a different shade of blue. But, if we hang on long enough, might it become pure blue again? 

In our hearts we’ll say, That’s it. That’s my blue.  

Blue_Mondule_Jenny Lynn
Blue portrait by Jenny Lynn Hall

Five out of five stars for Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous.    

In the House in the Dark of the Woods

When one thinks of folklore it is unlikely the considered would include the United States. More likely candidates would be the isles of Great Britain and Ireland with their abundant fairy faith traditions, or perhaps Malaysia, with its spectacular wealth of ghosts and spirits. The folklore of North America, in most minds, tends to lean toward Mesoamerica and that of Native American or Mayan culture, before the Europeans came and (supposedly) sucked all the good stories out.

Page of the Nain Rouge from Legends of Le Détroit. Illustration by Isabella Stewart

It’s hard to argue against this perspective; it would appear Americana was less into creating its own lore and fables and more into borrowing from other traditions. This is no doubt due to the melting-pot—but, a few interesting ones stand out. The Jersey Devil of the Pine Barrens; the mischievous spirit of northern Wisconsin, the Hodag; the red Demon of the Straight, Nain Rouge, of Detroit; the Bell Witch Haunting of Tennessee; of course, there is Bigfoot. A lot of USA folklore exists inside urban legends, those scary stories told at sleepovers with a bag of potato chips and a flashlight tucked near the chin. Strangely, clowns dominate in this arena of tale telling, as every kid who grew up in the Midwest knows the spooky meaning behind the rather confusing idiom, “Clowns can lick too.” The myth and legends of the USA can no doubt present a bit of a challenge to the classical folklorist.

But there is a period of USA history that is indeed loaded with folklore and tall tales. Colonial America, surprisingly, has an enormous body of writings that have survived and remain an engaging treat to any folklorist or investigative individual interested in the study or dabbling of folkloristics.

And here enters fiction; colonial America is a particularly uncharted land. After all my years of reading, I can say that the amount of authors I’ve read that chose to plant their flag in colonial America is quite small. Usually when it happens, it is an indulgent romp of semi-historical account involving romance of some kind, or, it is the Salem Witch Trials. Either way, the pickings are slim. Passing through the bookstore, I spotted a red paperback with an eerie design of pale clutching hands circling a wolf’s head. Gravitating towards it, once it was in my fingers I flipped it over to find the words “this magical and frightening tale of colonial America” and I spanked it to my friend immediately, saying, “Wow, colonial America, something for you!” He bought it promptly, and about a month later, I got to sink my teeth into In The House In The Dark Of The Woods by Laird Hunt. 

Narrated in the first person, the small novel opens on a young married woman searching for berries out in the forest by her humble home. Already, In The House In The Dark Of The Woods has the distinctive feel of a fairy tale. Quickly over the next few pages our protagonist becomes lost; darkness swiftly skates into the tall trees; our confused and increasingly frightened heroine desperately tries to find her path back, to no avail. Her mind wanders, her thoughts and memories move in and out. Through a progression of events, she finds herself laid up in a mysterious house, somewhere in the dark and wending wood. A woman named Eliza who lives there tends to our lady’s bruised and battered feet. But there is more to Eliza than meets the eye, and soon the darkness itself begins to speak. 

Dark of the Woods_jacket

[..] It came in a chorus this time, from the front room and outside the window, yes, but now also from other places: from down in the root cellar under the wood plank of the floor where Eliza did her scratching, from the ceiling boards, from the chimney shaft, from the walls, even from my own room. Who is moaning in my room? I thought. Is it me or is it Eliza? Only here I was and here was she. The moaning stopped. “Eliza,” I said. But she did not move at the sound of my voice any more than the Eliza in the front room had. “Eliza,” I said again, more loudly, and though the shape in the bed before me stayed silent, the moan sounded alone once more. 

It came from farther down the hall, from a room I had not yet entered. I took Eliza’s candle with me for there was no light or very little by this door. I stood before it for what felt like a long time. At last I pulled at the latch and held up the candle and there lay Eliza curled on the floor. A smell of wet and burning both came toward me. Her eyes were open. She was looking at me.

“You should go and rest now, Goody,” she said.

I did not move. “Where are you?” I asked.

“In the house in the dark of the woods.”   

It took me some time to like this book. There is a heavy lag in the former-middle of the text that leaches hard at the attention span; however, luckily this drag does not last for long. Laird Hunt’s writing is extremely paced, though occasionally, a blade of beautiful prose slices through, and the style and function is very much like those of colonial writings, giving the novel a genuine feel that fits the period. The story itself tumbles more like poetry, as if Hunt were feeling out the bottom of a murky pool with his toes. With a smart slash of Magic Realism in the signature, the main element of the book is nebulous, evading stringent categories and strict lessons. Laird Hunt seems to be exploring what most fairy tales—modern and old—seek to accomplish: a way of navigating and understanding the dangers and cruelties of the world, safely. Affection and abuse, confinement and freedom, respect and shame are just some of the binaries Hunt traverses on his journey. Our three main characters, Eliza, Captain Jane, and Goody, are all women of tragedy, and rather grimly, Laird Hunt tells their conflicting tales through a combination of metaphor, fabulism, historical fact, and perhaps most of all, memory.

Disquieting at parts but mostly just brow raising, In The House In The Dark Of The Woods is plump with fantastical imagery. Intersecting timelines, astounding insect swarms, flying boats, frightening transformations, a bird with massive human arms, Hunt’s imagination comes in force. That said, often times the force feels just that–forced. It seems that the storytelling itself—the fleshing of characters, the intents of events, the never-ending road of internal dialogue—was left to the wayside as Hunt plowed his pen into his inkpot, determined to make the strange stranger and the magical more magical. It leaves a book that is full of pain, mystery, and resurrection oddly hollow. Reading In The House In The Dark Of The Woods was like going through Samsara, a repetition of circumstances and a square dance of trading places that at best leads to little further understanding and at worst to head-scratching confusion. The scenes are phantasmagoric, the enchantment at times wonderful if not also jarring. But Laird Hunt, so very determined it would seem to be as elusive as he can, gives little to hold on to. The reader is left with a handful of soot, and the novel is quickly lost to the back of the shelf before being hauled out to be exchanged for some credit at a secondhand bookstore.

Nevertheless, there are some bright parts. Chapters 18 through 25 are particularly engaging. For a book of 28 chapters and an epilogue, its a promising show of writing. Hunt is at his best when he gets out of his own head and into the moment. When given a character and a sole perspective, Hunt’s writing flounders, as though he were attempting to build a house on stilts without proper anchoring. But put that character into motion, have them interact with the characters and world around them—damn, then Hunt delivers. Often times the dialogue In The House In The Dark Of The Woods (and there is quite a lot) is like reading an author playing ball with himself. But given some patience, Laird Hunt proves himself to be a capable writer. For a moment, a reader can almost forget all the slosh they slugged through to get there. For a moment, Hunt breaks into something great.         

All and all, Laird Hunt’s seesawing fairy tale of colonial America is a fine read. A good writer, and a good enough storyteller, Hunt has woven a vibrant, detailed tapestry, and though the expression of light and color would seem to outweigh the precision of the needlework, it is still a beautiful piece of art. Give yourself three afternoons, drink it in; a reader can no doubt be swept away by Hunt’s occasional stunning verse or a rolling dynamic scene. Muscle through the mucky parts, and make it to the final page. I thought it was worth it, so hopefully, you will too. 

Dark of the Woods_Hunt_cover

3 stars for Laird Hunt’s colonial folktale In The House In The Dark Of The Woods.