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. 

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
whispers: 

                 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. 

Nizami_-_Khusraw_discovers_Shirin_bathing_in_a_pool
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.)  

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.

hamlin-nain_rouge-full_page23
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.  

All About Function Words(?): Pennebaker’s Secret Life Of Pronouns

A decent read for sleuths, James W. Pennebaker’s The Secret Life Of Pronouns: What Our Words Say About Us is a book to remind that little things can invoke big realizations.

For a paperback I snatched from the store on a whim, The Secret Life Of Pronouns turned out to be a very enjoyable Sherlockian jaunt around the basic principles of language and how they reflect the human psyche. Though not exactly a rich, or deeply educative read, nonetheless I learned things and had genuine fun participating in the several exercises and small tests Pennebaker peppers throughout the book. Though there are holes—to be sure—and some of the items presented feel lackluster and obvious, Pennebaker has knitted together a fine, comfortable read that will likely pique the interest of any inquisitive brain seeking to snoop a bit into the external lives and mentalities of others.

SecretLifeOfPronouns_coverAlthough the analysis of language is the focus of this book, it is really a work of psychology. Whereas linguists are primarily interested in language for its own sake, I’m interested in what people’s words say about their psychological states. Words, then, can be thought of as powerful tools to excavate people’s thoughts, feelings, motivations, and connections with others. With advancements in computer technologies, this approach is informing a wide range of scholars across many disciplines–linguists, sociolinguistics, English scholars, anthropological linguists, neuroscientists, psycholinguists, developmentalists, computer scientists, computational linguists, and others. Some of the most innovative work is now coming from collaborations between academics of all stripes and companies such as Google.

Aside from the points of being a tad repetitious and quite a lot naïve about machine-learning technologies and their impacts, Pennebaker is a fun, pep-filled narrator, enthusiastic about his work and eager to share. This animated, optimistic energy is ensnaring, and keeps the pages turning regardless of whether the subject matter has become tiresome and stretched (and therefore thinned) to its capacity. Certainly, the childlike twinkle in Pennebaker’s eye shows up in his writing, and though the book itself could have been shaved down to 150 pages or less, he makes it worthwhile. Pennebaker, after many years of service in his field, has discovered something; and he is excited—oh yes he is excited—and like a kid with a newfound love of dinosaurs, Pennebaker launches himself headlong into telling us all about it.

Broken down into ten chapters, the book opens with the basics: a short refresher on elementary school grammar, function and content words and what the differences are, and how our words and speaking styles represent our emotional states, and furthermore, our personalities. Specifically, Pennebaker is interested in function words, and the book (rightly so) revolves almost entirely around them.

What are function words? We’ll do a quick lesson. Check out this sentence of mine I hastily jotted down in one of my notebooks some unknown time ago:

…exaggerated understanding of the joy/emotion given to those in the ever rolling visual of social media; a grandiose view on the emotional response a picture gives viewers.

I picked this specifically because its rather nebulous; however, any reader can gauge with some accuracy what I’m talking about/commenting on even without the knowledge of the full context. That is because the above sentence is full of content words.

exaggerated understanding of the joy/emotion given to those in the ever rolling visual of social media; a grandiose view on the emotional response a picture gives viewers.

Because of content words, it is relatively easy to glean that I am critiquing an aspect of social media and its value for users. Perhaps an image of a person helplessly scrolling through Instagram or Facebook jumps into frame. If you are someone who’s native language is not English, and you only know a few choice words, you might pull “picture,” “joy,” “social media,” and “viewers” from the sentence, and still (probably) be able to cobble together what I may be talking about.

But if we highlight these words, a very big confusion emerges:

…exaggerated understanding of the joy/emotion given to those in the ever rolling visual of social media; a grandiose view on the emotional response a picture gives viewers.

Behold function words. Those little things that hardly seem to exist in the midst of an engaging conversation, a bombastic argument, or the sweet nothings uttered in blushed ears. Function words, via Pennebaker, “[…] are words that connect, shape, and organize content words.” If one reads just the function words (regardless of what their native language might be) what the heck I’m talking about is just that—Huh? The heck are you talking about?

So completely unmemorable are function words it’s amazing that a whole book has been written about them. And though The Secret Life Of Pronouns in itself is not such an amazing book, I was once again reminded of how knowledge, and wisdom, often hides in the cracks.

Yet even with this praise, there is a lot that is unclear in much of the statistical data Pennebaker dishes out.

Pennebaker_portrait
Very nice portrait of James W. Pennebaker, provided by Pinterest – Thank You.

In fairness, Pennebaker acknowledges that the research is still in its infancy—however, along that note, there seems to be a lot of formulating hypotheses and locating data needed to support them after studies and tests have been carried out, also known as p-hacking. Regardless, correlations by those algorithmic machines are fervently being made: women tend to use far more cognitive words and personal pronouns than men do, men tend to use bigger words and more prepositions; when tragedy strikes a nation’s use of the word we skyrockets, when a world leader is about to declare war his/her use of the word I plummets; liars use more verbs and social/emotional words such as she and him, if and any, while truth tellers tend to use more words in general and more self-reference words such as I and me. This all sounds neat-o, but (noted by Pennebaker himself) much of these subjects suffer from a lack of “ground truth” and others seem more to do with the circumstances and environments of individuals rather than the personalities of individuals unto themselves. Sometimes the information contradicts itself, such as in the case of world leaders dropping the word I from their vocabulary during tumultuous times, and research stating the more confident and in control a person feels, the more their use of the word I drops. Are we supposed to draw the conclusion that leaders lodged in conflict are, in fact, more confident and sure of themselves? Such impasses are not discussed, nor it seems even noticed. Much of the data feels cherry-picked, and therefore detached and limp. For a book loaded with tables and charts, it stings of discombobulation and half-finished projects.

There is also the problem of Pennebaker not really delivering on his goal—a window into personality. Can function words tell us if someone is kind or cruel, selfish or generous, neurotic or relaxed? The Secret Life Of Pronouns doesn’t say, but it does say how to utilize function words in finding out whether someone grew up rich or poor, is female or male, or if a person’s relationship is happy or on the rocks. Pennebaker doesn’t seem to think much about how such discoveries and sleuthing technologies could be manipulated by advertising companies and the ilk, or be misused to decide whether someone gets extension on their credit, is let into a prestigious college, lands a dream job, or wins publication in an esteemed journal. Straight into it, the vision of The Secret Life Of Pronouns is severely limited. Though entertaining and interesting, it ceases to have substance or anything really worth chewing on.

But it’s good enough. So give it a read if you’re bored and like sleuthing. Really, who doesn’t like playing detective every once in a while? Ultimately, I enjoyed Pennebaker’s bubbly spirit and gained a little more insight into myself. (Which, I’ve consistently found, is always worth doing.) So, what the heck, I give it a solid C.

Three out of five stars for The Secret Life Of Pronouns: What Our Words Say About Us.

Francine Sterle and the Age Old Question of Art, Worth, and Meaning

Any creative worth some heft of salt knows that when a work is completed the journey is only half done. The work must cease its building phase—the artist must stop dabbing, the writer must stop fiddling, the dancer must end practice and get on with the stage—and the work must then be passed into the arms of the waiting crowd. The creative must relinquish control; it is a sacrificial act as much as it is a power grab, and the creative must contain this dichotomy if the creating is to continue and not stagnate. Any creative that falls into either of these two holes will lose the friction needed to make and originate new work.

Dancer with_red stockings
19th century Parisian artist Edgar Degas’s ‘Dancer with Red Stockings’. Degas is famous for his paintings of ballerinas. Via edgar-degas.org – Thank You.

The conversation will start immediately. If the work has impact (for good or for ill) it will be shared and elaborated upon again and again and again, sometimes for weeks, sometimes for years, sometimes for centuries. The creative arc will only end when the masses lower it back into silence. If the work has managed to maintain itself in the physical world, there can be a rebirth. Certain unfortunate works may become perverted, and misused, proceeding forward into the future zombie-like; the creative takes risk every time a work is released and set flown.

Art is the echo of humans in time. The world is full of footprints of us. A book is no lifeless lump of paper, a portrait no mere lonely, empty vessel, but the echoing voice of some individual, who took their two hands and starting clapping fervently into the darkness.

Francine Sterle’s stellar chapbook, Nude in Winter, is a fluent culmination of such echoes, Sterle specifically choosing to reconstruct the voice of paint and painter (sometimes photo and photographer) into the voice of pen and poet. Containing 58 ekphrastic poems, Nude in Winter is both reflection and progression, as image is spun into idea and color into sensation. In each work mulled over, Sterle finds the doorknob, and swings open the closed frames to lay bare the vast landscapes behind them. Interacting with the artworks of known names such as Frida Kahlo, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, and William Blake, to the lesser known names of Kiki Smith, Helen Frankenthaler, and Clyfford Still, Sterle’s poems are alive and breathing, speaking in clear voices, while still maintaining the thin string tied to the artist’s liminal, braced world.

Nude In Winter_SterleI do not know why I come to the window— / white curtains framed by a white wall. / The first breath of morning moves them. / They do not hesitate. / If rain dampens the leaden sill, / they shiver in the washed air, / waver when an animal heat crawls / hour by hour across the yard, / tremble when another summer / crumbles to dust. Some days / they refuse to move as if they hear / crows scolding them from the trees. / Soft as an owl’s downy breast, they allow / the light of dawn into the house / to nest on the floor by the bed. / Behind them, everything fades. / I do not know why I come to the window.

It’s not very often a poetry book sends me whirling through WikiArt.org like a madwoman. Every page turned left my mind pivoting in the wonder: What is she seeing? Where are her eyes? Some art I knew, of course; Giovanni’s Madonna in Prayer and Blake’s Albion Rose are hard not to know. Some artists are so renown, even if the painting itself alludes, the unique style of the elite artist pushes in like a tide, and Monet’s delicate brush, Kahlo’s dreamlike, surrealist spectacles leak in.

And the work can grip you—suddenly. Sterle’s words profess a deep yawning into the body of another. I took it upon myself to read aloud to one of my friends “Rag in Window”, and as the last lines came out I fell into a total sob, bending myself over in the chair, forehead to my thighs and book clutched to my chest, weeping.

Sterle’s work instigated the age old question in me: What is art for? It has often seemed a stupidly worded question for it has seemingly unlimited answers which begs (what I’ve always felt, the more apt question) why ask it at all? Open ended, and circular, I avoid it like the plague, yet always someone’s words, someone’s art, someone’s performance drags me back, drags me back and away and back again, an ebb and flow of life that can’t be discarded, leaving it to become one of the most undying questions of life. Why art? What is art for? What is the artist’s goal? Desired achievement and does it matter? Is the artist a mere secondary element to the grander life of a work, or is it more like the relationship between parent and child? (The endearing mark of its nurture almost inseparable from its identity.)

Balthus_the-guitar-lesson-1934
A cropped image of 20th century Polish-French modern artist Balthus’s disturbing ‘The Guitar Lesson’. Via Wikiart.org – Thank You.

Nude in Winter pokes at these questions, and so blows them open, where Sterle herself then walks into them like rain. With the falling drops, she finds the shapes, the contours, the materials, and she takes these elements and builds her own art: A departed father, an unspoken love, a prodigal son, a girl sexually abused, the metacognition of a sculpture, the doubts of a old man, the morality of observation, the poet debating words at a desk.

Perhaps this is what art is for: Validation of ourselves. Our inner existence revealed, in the careless cascade of peaches from a basket, the green skin of a bearded violinist grown from the pulled sound, color as emotion and memory, our personal pain expressed vividly in some stranger’s rendering… Is this what art’s for? Sterle asks, rising the question up, and the page turns and it falls back in. Her scapes are visceral, her sight imaginative. The laws of interpretation are bent back around and fed to the reader, revealing the age old question yet again, but in new words: Are there laws? What is art for?

Francine Sterle’s chapbook is worth reading. No blunt halfhearted wisdoms are shoved in your face, no chintzy metaphors and tired facsimiles that often weigh down modern day pop-poetry are present. Sterle’s work invites one into a gallery of gasping, singing, whispering beings, each poem displaying another arc, each line carved alive from out the canvas. It is a beautiful book, an intimate book. A book worth reading and a book worth having on your shelf.

henry-ford-hospital_Frida-Kahlo
Mexican painter Frida Kahlo’s famous ‘Henry Ford Hospital (The Flying Bed)’. Image via Wikiart.org – Thank You.

Five out of five stars for Francine Sterle’s Nude in Winter.


The featured image is Peaches by the founder of French impressionism, Claude Monet. (1883) Available via the public domain. All the artworks (with the exception of Kahlo’s Henry Ford Hospital) are featured in Francine Sterle’s ekphrastic chapbook, Nude in Winter.

The Body Keeps The Score: A Hefty Review For A Hefty Read

At the turn of the 16th century, a monumental shift was about to occur in scientific medicine.

Not so quietly, a call to intellectual arms was on the move. In 1527, Paracelsus, a Swiss physician and alchemist, would help ignite a medical revolution by publicly burning the works of Galen and Avicenna, throwing the much accepted medical theories and practices of the classical masters, such as Hippocrates and Aristotle, into doubt. The world was changing. By the end of the 1500’s much of the occultist influence of the previous principles would be dumped. With the old skin shed, the 17th century would come in with a roar. Throughout the 1600’s two of the most significant advances in all of medical science, inoculation and blood transfusion, would take their first teetering steps. Marcello Malpighi, a lecturer in theoretical medicine at the university of Bologna, using the light of the setting sun, would be the first human being to observe the capillaries through the lens of a microscope. The circulatory system, in all its glory, was being revealed. Yet such monumental revelations, riveting and inconceivable at the time, would be small potatoes compared to what was coming on the wing of the 18th century. The Age of Enlightenment rocked the world, and struck a chord in the western medical sciences. Students flocked to lecture halls, experimentation abounded. What was not known was now known; what was invisible could now be seen. Huge developments were breaking out, huge discoveries being made. And, during this cataclysmic time, small and unnoticingly at the end of the 17th century from an Ancient Greek word meaning “wound”, the term trauma slipperingly entered the medical Latin. The pin drop of this moment, a mere pebble deposited in already rolling waters, would not be truly realized until centuries later.

Though the Greeks used the term only for physical injuries, it would evolve, and around the late 19th century trauma would come to encompass the description of both physical and psychic harm. It is this latter, evolved meaning, psychic, that so often predominates the modern day relationship with trauma. In Bessel Van der Kolk’s illuminating work, The Body Keeps The Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, Van der Kolk plunges headlong into this most tumultuous, eluding of maladies, and gives a studious, heartfelt attempt at bringing integration and clarity into this often misunderstood condition and field.

How to even begin to tackle such a hulking shadow? For those of us who have experienced it, lived with it, trauma is a hydra that pursues its vessel without tire. Van der Kolk, M. D. has spent the greater majority of his life aiding, studying, and observing the individuals hounded by this miraculously persistent of beasts. From car accident victims to rape survivors, from children who have been molested to war veterans, Van der Kolk’s breadth of interaction with the wounded is revealed potently in his book’s pages. Much like the Swiss physician nearly 500 years before him, the Dutch born Van der Kolk is seeking a revisioning of ingrained practice and theory; however, unlike Paracelsus, he has chosen to write books instead of burn them. (A less flashy, though better way I would think.)

In the prologue, Van der Kolk is quick to the point: Trauma affects all of us, our brothers, sisters, parents, cousins, friends, daughters, sons, neighbors, ourselves. Trauma can occur at any moment, happen at any time. In what is often designated into the realm of “other people”, Van der Kolk moves the needle, and advises an awareness that human beings have tendency to let slide. “Trauma […],” he places tenderly, “is unbearable and intolerable. Most […] victims […] become so upset when they think about what they experienced that they try to push it out of their minds, trying to act as if nothing happened, and move on.” In these words, it is very easy to forget how fast one can lose control of one’s own life. Yet it happens; in terrible frequency it happens. To the young and old, weak and strong alike. Trauma, like cancer, can rise from the dead. Dormant in the body, it can sudden, fling, and burst sundering through as a tsunami. The brain, for all its faults, is very good at what it does: Storing and maintaining information. But what of horrors? What of profound grief? The brain keeps them, the body suffers them, and the mind, in the grip, writhes.

cover_van der kolk“[…]traumatized people become stuck, stopped in their growth because they can’t integrate new experiences into their lives.[…] Being traumatized means continuing to organize your life as if the trauma were still going on—unchanged and immutable—as every new encounter or event is contaminated by the past.’

“After trauma the world is experienced with a different nervous system. The survivor’s energy now becomes focused on suppressing inner chaos, at the expense of spontaneous involvement in their life. These attempts to maintain control over unbearable physiological reactions can result in a whole range of symptoms […] . This explains why it is critical for trauma treatment to engage the entire organism, body, mind, and brain.”

A book so stuffed with information one has to wonder how Van der Kolk fit it all in, I was very moved and learned a lot from The Body Keeps The Score. A work of relentless devotion, Van der Kolk maintains and promotes the highest of medical ethics clearly: “First, do no harm.” Though many of his patients have histories of horrible aggression and violence towards other human beings, Van der Kolk has only one objective on his mind: Healing. This might make him seem naive, or at worst, enabling to certain readers. But Van der Kolk has not chosen a profession in justice, or law, or philosophy; he has chosen a profession in medicine. And medicine is about treatment and recovery. He doesn’t much seem to care if he comes across gullible and sentimental. What he does care about, to his bones, is results. Open and driven, the writing speaks to these qualities. Crisp, empathic, and full of study, The Body Keeps The Score is a book foremost about medical science. Trauma, and all its terrors, is secondary.

Sectioned down into five parts, Van der Kolk uses the first four chapters to thoroughly discuss the origins and varied symptoms of trauma. In the fifth, and final chapter, Van der Kolk refocuses the energy into what he believes matters most: Recovery.

In the briefest of briefs and oversimplified, trauma stems from “immobility”. When the instinctual fight or flight responses to terror are denied, the human body continues to create hormones and continues to fire off nerves that instruct the individual to either fend off the attack, or flee. When the panicked pumping of these faculties produces no result, the brain and body, in a way, begins to implode. This implosion, internal and frightening and powerful, can hijack the mind, and from this commandeering, thrown completely out of whack, an individual can become ostracized from their body. They are, essentially, tossed off their own ship. What follows is an endless treading of water and desperation not to drown. Adrift, and wounded, without any navigation tools, the person begins to develop symptoms both physical and psychological from what is nothing short of total exhaustion.

To say that Van der Kolk presents a well researched documentation of trauma and its many expressions is an understatement. So much has gone into The Body Keeps The Score that it can make a reader dizzy. Eager to fit all his arguments and observations in, I will say that if the book has any fault at all, it is that Van der Kolk jumps from point to point to point so frequently, that the ability for the reader (and writer for that matter) to mull and chew upon what’s been laid out is squished.

anatomical drawing
Anatomical illustration by Arnauld-Eloi Gautier-Dagoty (1741-1771); Provided by rawpixel

But this is a small matter, and one that did not dissuade this reader from being impressed by the astonishing workload Van der Kolk has taken upon himself and convinced by the enlightening though troubling facts dispensed in rapid fire formation. Chiefly in the beginning chapters, Van der Kolk makes it clear that mental illness—in its ever growing bouquet of variation—is not birthed out of chemical imbalances spur-of-the-moment. Mental illness, overwhelmingly, is the result of trauma, either formed from a singular catastrophic event (such as a car crash, or a rape) or from repeated punishment and exposure to violence (such as an abusive childhood, or a long war). Van der Kolk, as clearly and kindly as he can, provides a thorough mapping of what happens to the human brain when such circumstances occur, and how these changes then create rippling effects throughout the body. Presenting studies, PEW supported statistics, using images, telling his own stories and the stories of his patients, Van der Kolk dissects the arguments for the belief and trust in purely pill-form medicine. The root cause of such painful and often confusing conditions are not addressed, he argues, and therefore modern medicine continues to fall short for the elephant in the room continues to be ignored: Trauma. How can we prevent mental illness in the brain and body if we do not acknowledge the inception of these diseases? Van der Kolk is not just asking for better, more talk-based healing. What Van der Kolk is pushing for is a cultural awakening.

In a illuminating surprise, there is a hidden, tertiary plot inside Van der Kolk’s information laden volume. One that he has slipped in effectively and, perhaps, quite unconsciously. It is a story of denialism and silence.

Trauma is everywhere, in our siblings, our cousins, our parents, our friends, our neighbors. Then so, The Body Keeps The Score strategically tells us by simple deduction that abuse is everywhere, rape is everywhere, violence is everywhere, domination and hate is everywhere. The hardest lesson of the world, the most uncomfortable of truths, Van der Kolk tells in strict and factual form. Strangers, foreign invaders, monsters of the dark do not arrive in the form immaculate conception. Therefore mental illness—be it PTSD, depression, a behavioral disorder, insomnia—does not arrive by way of spontaneous combustion or generation. No, mental illness is foisted. Those who do our loved ones harm are us. An uncle, a father, a mother, a friend, a fellow employee, a sibling; trauma arrives more often than not on the wings of an intimate than on the heels of a catastrophe. It is this hidden lesson, poignantly slid between the lines of Van der Kolk’s compelling volume, that I found held the most weight. The silencing of abuse and trauma victims, Van der Kolk reminds us, comes at a high price: Skyrocketing medical expenses, homelessness, drug addiction, mental disorders, autoimmune sickness, and more. The question Van der Kolk most wants asked is this: Not what is wrong with a patient (this is often evident), but what has happened to them.

Though great advances have been made in all the medical fields, and the composition of our bodies has never been diagrammed more pristinely, puzzlingly, perhaps predictably, we still remain largely in the dark about the interactions and operations of our inner components. This statement will no doubt cause dispute; however, the likelihood of agreement on the conflicting reports of the scientific media and misinterpretation of discovery, is high. It is evident that, even if a small pocket of heavily uptodate individuals exists, and are inching ever closer to a totality of medical anatomy, biology, neurology, et al., it remains so that the vast majority of individuals are constantly bombarded with opposing results about what is good for them and what is bad, what will harm them and what will not, what is so and what is not so. An avalanche of unreplicatable results continues to plague psychology and much of modern medicine. So, unavoidably, The Body Keeps The Score is a book of subject information to be argued over and disagreed. For his part, Van der Kolk understands and sympathizes with his fellow physicians in the “finding a needle in a mountain of needles” problem. But this does not stop him. Van der Kolk has done his homework, put in his hours, and has chosen to listen to his patients, and, what is perhaps most revealing, Van der Kolk has chosen to believe their stories. And their stories are violence, their stories are sexual abuse, their stories are guilt and shame and above all, suffering. In the epilogue, Van der Kolk writes, “We are on the verge of becoming a trauma-conscious society.” This is, by all means, Van der Kolk’s ultimate goal. To take the ugly thing from the shadow, and bring it into the light.

If you remember, I opened this preposterously long review with a short history lesson. History, by all means, is a great way to reveal the world. To understand where a thing comes from, we must first understand the events that led up to it, the foundation and components that birthed it, the environment and circumstances that hindered, or nurtured it. From a time of great revolution of thought the word trauma emerged. From there, it has traveled hills and valleys, and will continue to move and change and perhaps rebirth and die despite what future awaits. But, its genesis, its life, is planted firm. Though trauma is from the Greeks, *trau, an extended form of root *tere (or *terə) is a Proto-Indo-European word meaning to “cross over, pass through, overcome.”

I do not know if we will ever become a trauma-conscious society in the way Bessel Van der Kolk hopes us to be. I do not know if suffering has purpose, or greater meaning, or if there is a magic bullet out there, waiting for medical science to uncover and wield. But I do know that human beings are strong, stronger then we will ever know, and of the stuff of stars. The cover of The Body Keeps The Score is what initially drew me; a wonderful portrait of human body surrounded by what could be perceived as hands or birds or sound blasts or stars… I saw them as stars. And my first thought upon viewing the picture was how it felt like a transformation.

On the blotted shape, with no characteristics other than legs, torso, arms, and head, there is the heart. Just a heart. A small red dot in a rising shadow.

The heart keeps the score.

body keeps score cover art
Photo of The Body Keeps The Score cover art by French artist Henri Matisse.

Four out of Five Stars for The Body Keeps The Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma


The featured image is an antique lithograph of an anatomy chart of a human body showcasing its internal system by Korpers Des Menschen (1898). Provided by rawpixel – Thank You.

Milquetoasts: Jesse Eisinger Explains Why the Justice Department Fails to Prosecute Executives

If you’re like me, you wonder what happened to the supposed coming convictions of the top bankers from the top firms after the 2008 financial crisis. Not a single person went to prison. The recession was a meteor that slammed into the United States at 13 km per second, creating an upheaval of the financial system and rolling us into a dark hole that at the time felt 6 feet deep. Coming to the aid of the quivering industries, the government tossed out bailouts like a float chucking out candy at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. With the malfeasance of the financial firms well documented, and the reek of guilt emanating from every pore, you probably waited just as I did for the prosecutorial gavel to slam down. And oh, we waited—oh did we wait. We waited so long some of us sprouted grey hair and were closing in on grandkids. What was the Justice Department doing? Why the feet dragging? The papers wanted to know, the people wanted to know. When the trickle of deferred prosecution agreements came in, the rage came in too; the Charging Bull was descended upon by millions of confused, angry Americans. One of the largest movements of the current era, Occupy Wall Street, flooded big cities. To put it in everyman terms: People were hopping mad.

Then, par for the course of the modern day, the rage died. The social media feeds moved on, the executives walked scot-free; however, the landscape of America was forever changed.

So what the hell happened? “I waited for the government to charge bankers with criminal wrongdoing. And waited. The indictments never came.” writes Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Jesse Eisinger.

The Chickenshit Club: Why the Justice Department Fails to Prosecute Executives is Jesse Eisinger’s exhaustively researched gamut of just that: Why the indictments never came. Like many of us, the lack of action from the Justice Department nagged at him. Being a journalist, Eisinger began turning over stones. He came to find ( as most things are) the truth to be complex and winding. Even so, one word clearly did stand out in his mind as to why the Justice Department had failed. A fragment in a speech by James Comey, given in 2002 to the criminal division of the Southern District of Manhattan after being appointed the fifty-eighth US attorney by then-President George W. Bush, summed up Eisinger’s feelings perfectly.

The Chickenshits_Cover“Before we read off the box score, I have something to say,” Comey said. “We have a saying around here: We do the right things for the right reasons in the right ways.”

All the assembled prosecutors had heard that exhortation in some variation, from Comey in the hallways or in smaller meetings, and from other chiefs.

Then Comey asked the seated prosecutors a question: “Who here has never had an acquittal or a hung jury? Please raise your hand.”

The go-getters and résumé builders in the office were ready. This group thought themselves the best trial lawyers in the country. Hands shot up.

“Me and my friends have a name for you guys,” Comey said, looking around the room. Backs straightened in preparation for praise. Comey looked at his flock with approbation. “You are members of what we like to call the Chickenshit Club.”

Hands went down faster than they had gone up. Some emitted sheepish laughter.

The aforementioned complex and winding truth, though unable to be boiled down to one concentrated point of fault, could in fact be summarized: ‘Cowardice’, Jesse Eisinger found, plagued the Justice Department. After Comey’s compelling speech, ironically, a trend began. The well-dressed, well-educated, and well-groomed lawyers of the DOJ over and over again failed to bring any charges against executives involved in white-collar crime. As a snail confronted with salt, the department shriveled up. Deference became the norm. No one was willing to bring executives to court for fear that they might lose.

Eisinger has written a good book. The bureaucratic game boards are well laid out, the accounting jargon followable. Eisinger starts at the beginning, building a history, telling the story of when, where, how, and why through a compelling timeline starting around the Enron trials and ending near the dusk of the lackluster Yates memo. The United States government has become more and more pro-business—this is no revelation. What is impressive, however, is Eisinger’s incredibly provocative and detailed report. The pile of evidence he pushes forward is eyebrow raising. What Eisinger presents isn’t just capitalist culture bleeding into government; what Eisinger presents is a full occupation. The Fat Cats have sunk their claws in deep, and our government doesn’t appear eager to shake them off.

The events leading up to the present day milquetoast-ridden DOJ and SEC Eisinger documents in detail. Death in the body politic doesn’t happen with a single thrust; it happens through dozens and dozens of tiny stabs from legalese and lobbying, spins and promotions, bloated incentives and revolving doors. From the 1971 Powell memo, to the debacle of the Arthur Andersen trial, to the “namby-pamby” settlements of AIG and KPMG, to the reversal of the Thompson memo, to the loss of investigative ability within the DOJ and SEC, to the arrival of “the Obamanauts”, to the misguided ruling of Judge Lewis Kaplan and to the ostracism of the corporate boogiemen Stanley Sporkin, Paul Pelletier and Judge Jed Rackoff, the demise of the prosecution was made. A pipeline from big business progeny to esteemed colleges was built; the prosecutorial means in which to pursue investigations were gutted; 9/11 hit, and the resources dried up, sent to the DOD to battle terrorists, both real and imaginary. All these things, compounding through the vastly shifting world landscape, dealt a thousand small blows, and the DOJ went down like a sack of hammers. For the white-collar criminals, it is a Gilded Age. For them, never has there been a more freewheelin’ time to be alive.

To read the newspaper today is to be in a constant state of disappointment. So it is in reading The Chickenshit Club. It is evident the governmental systems that have stood strong for centuries are now becoming relics on a planet that is rapidly evolving. The people and the technologies are outpacing the laws. A surprising statistic: About 91% of all currency exists only in digital form. In Jesse Eisinger’s words, understanding tax fraud is like translating “Aramaic into Mandarin back into English.” The world of white-collar crime can feel so daunting, even to the most well-versed of veterans, but we must keep up. The boom/bust cycle roars on, and so must justice.

Jesse Eisinger has put an important book into the public sphere. Though the plops of dropped balls can still be heard on any given day, there is one good thing to take away: Somewhere there’s a journalist, picking up bread crumbs, turning over stones. Though the Rolls-Royce driving criminals and Windsor knot wearing lawyers might skirt the courts, it’s nice to think that maybe, when they’re at their dining-room tables having morning coffee, they’ll pick up the paper, and see their name printed in black ink, beneath a headline that says something like this:

“CHICKENSHITS”

DOJ_Badge
Official Seal of the Department of Justice. Image Credit: The Department of Justice 

Four out of five stars for Jesse Eisinger’s The Chickenshit Club: Why the Justice Department Fails to Prosecute Executives.

Letter To An Old Man: Michelle McNamara’s I’ll Be Gone in the Dark

From 1968 to 1989 the western world was overrun with ghouls.

Crime was rampant, and not just the petty kind. Between 1980 to 1989 alone, some 600 active serial killers roamed. It was madness. The movie theaters filled their seats with slashers and methodical, cannibalistic swoll men, wearing masks, wielding axes, stitched into black gloves. People were scared. Single women made plans so they wouldn’t have to walk home alone in the dark. Each Halloween, Jasons showed up, in gaggles on the front steps of houses holding pillowcases aloft, caroling “Trick or Treat!”

By the 90’s, a cool down occurred; the shadows began to slither back into the cracks. The masks got peeled back. The gloves put away. We caught some, and the ones we didn’t got sleepy. By the 2000’s, the Era of the Serial Killer was deemed over. Now we have the Rampage Killers, with their trench coats and guns. Columbine changed everything. The forensic scientists came, garbed in their angel white robes.

Some of us are obsessed with those times. Some of us would rather bury it in the deep dark earth. Some could care less, but we all know the stories, and some of us know the checklist: 1.) Always park your car under a streetlight. 2.) Don’t wear a ponytail if you jog in the early morning. 3.) Always keep your blinds closed at night. 4.) Don’t be sympathetic to men in the dark.

Men in the dark; that’s how they get away. Sink into the oil pits and vanish like ghosts. In such foul, pathetically twisted minds we can’t breathe, but some of us dive in anyway. Some of us wade into the slosh, and try to feel out the skeletons laid at the bottom with our toes.

I’ve been reading True Crime since I was young. My mother always had mystery books and crime novels scattered about the house like autumn leaves. Patterson, Grisham, Garwood, Sandford, Johansen, Higgins Clark. Sometime in the 90’s the general nonfiction Pulitzer Prize nominee Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt showed up. I gobbled it like chocolate. I was hooked. I read True Crime on my back porch rooftop by flashlight, in my bed with the crank of the snake light; in my closet, when the sun set I’d climb into my haven and turn the switch and illuminate the bulb with a click. I developed a studious, unabashed love. The names of vile men and women stacked high in my brain; the tools they used, the odd ticks that inhabited them, the men and women they killed, the men and women who survived—those who had outsmarted them.

Contrary to the pop culture, the lump of serial killers aren’t meticulous geniuses. In the US, their average IQ runs below the national average, at about 94.5. They get away not because of their mountainous intellects, but rather because what they do is so chaotic and beyond reason, they simply fall out of sight.

But a slim few of us have eagle eyes. Some of us are dogs that get something in their mouths and refuse to let go. Bloodhounds with noses that continue hunting over the hills long after the trail has gone cold. One of those individuals lived in Los Angeles, with a famous husband and a little girl. Her name? Michelle McNamara. And her True Crime tour de force I’ll Be Gone In The Dark is destined to be a classic, and has shaken up the investigation world.

I'll Be Gone in the Dark_jacket“Precision and self-preservation were his identifying features. When he zeroed in on a victim, he often entered the home beforehand when no one was there, studying family pictures, learning the layout. He disabled porch lights and unlocked sliding glass doors. He emptied bullets from guns. Unworried homeowners’ closed gates were left open; pictures he moved were put back, chalked up to the disorder of daily life. The victims slept untroubled until the flashlight blaze forced open their eyes. Blindness disoriented them. Sleepy minds lumbered, then raced. A figure they couldn’t see wielded the light, but who, and why? […]’

“Drapery hooks scraping against a curtain rod awakened a twenty-nine-year-old woman in her bedroom in northwest Stockton. She rose from her pillow. Outside patio lights framed a silhouette in the doorway. The image vaporized as a flashlight found her face and blinded her; a force of energy rushed toward the bed. His last attack had been Memorial Day weekend. It was 1:30 a.m. on the Tuesday after Labor Day. Summer was over. He was back.”

In the decades of the ghouls, the Golden State Killer, also known as EAR-ONS (East Area Rapist – Original Night Stalker) was one of the most infamous. In the state of California, in a span of about ten years, the diabolical GSK committed fifty sexual assaults, terrorizing Sacramento and the neighboring counties before moving down south, where he murdered ten people, targeting male/female couples in their beds. He was an absolute plague. Whole towns filled their streets with floodlights. Worried and tortured men patrolled in their cars when night fell. Women couldn’t sleep, their minds buzzing like bees. GSK played with his prey, like a cat with a spider; hog tying victims, muttering incoherent nothing’s as he ransacked their homes, placing teacups on husbands backs as he raped their wives, leaving out milk and cookies, phone calls to the police. Behind him was a littered trail of puzzle pieces that didn’t fit together. He ducked, dived, slithered, and got lucky. The Golden State Killer was never caught. His sadistic legacy oozed through the 1990’s and 2000’s like molasses. But through that time, under the radar, armed with a laptop and a fierce, determined mind was Michelle McNamara. She believed that the case was crackable. That EAR-ONS was catchable. McNamara knew he had a face, and she worked tirelessly to drag that face into the light.

michelle&patton
Great picture of Michelle McNamara and her husband Patton Oswalt. Image Credit/Taken from: Bustle

A book of conflicting feelings, I’ll Be Gone in the Dark is both a victory and a tragedy: A victory because Michelle McNamara’s stalwart resolve and keen brain has lit a fire; a tragedy, because the brilliant McNamara died before the work was finished. Lovingly and painstakingly put together by her husband, well known comedian Patton Oswalt, McNamara’s unfinished novel hangs in nebulousness, much like the Golden State Killer himself, who she hunted obsessively. Yet the book stands strong nonetheless, which is perhaps the greatest testament to McNamara’s deft, enthralling pen. Even released too soon, the arrow still hits its mark. The writing is clean, crisp; the visuals and sensations leap off the pages, and I was turning and turning them late into the night, my heart hammering.

Many times reading True Crime one can not help but be engrossed by the wicked killers and their sadistic actions; however, what is wonderful about I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, is that the most engrossing, captivating character on this dark wending road is McNamara herself. McNamara is fascinating, brave, intelligent—she feels like a secret weapon. Through all the blood, fear, and darkness, McNamara holds out a lantern, and by her little flame we all find our way out of the rumpus night. Bringing organization to chaos, hope to despair, McNamara doesn’t give up, and through her diligent collecting of the pieces, and her preening of the muck, a picture, a truth, starts to take shape. In the epilogue – Letter To An Old Man – she writes:

“And then, after May 4, 1986, you disappear. Some think you died. Or went to prison. Not me.’

“I think you bailed when the world began to change. It’s true, age must have slowed you. The testosterone, once a gush, was now a trickle. But the truth is memories fade. Paper decays. But technology improves.’

You cut out when you looked over your shoulder and saw your opponents gaining on you.”

Michelle McNamara, from I’ll Be Gone in the Dark

Although now gone, McNamara’s hunt continues. GSK  may still lurk, but now, thanks to McNamara, the world is awake, and watching.

Michelle_McNamara Portrait
Portrait of Michelle McNamara. Image Credit: Robin Von Swank

Five out of five stars.

“I Will Remember You”: Lessons on Suffering and Joy

I was thirteen when the words of Archbishop Desmond Tutu first reached my ears.

“Nothing, no one, no situation is beyond redemption, is totally devoid of hope.”

This is not the exact quote I heard on a PBS program back in 2000, but a rendition of these words reached me, and it is a lesson Desmond Tutu has reiterated time and time again over his long life as a religious leader and advocate for peace. My adolescence was turbulent, and unhappy, and those words resonated inside me, like a bell being rung. I bought Desmond Tutu’s book, No Future Without Forgiveness that very weekend, and have been reading Desmond Tutu’s words ever since.

And so in 2017 The Book of Joy made it to my hands. A collaboration between His Holiness The Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, told through the genuine pen of Douglas Abrams, The Book of Joy is much more than your typical self-help manual. It is a testament to Friendship, Perseverance, and perhaps most of all, to Hope.

Hope is the coalescence of our strengths and fears; it unifies all inner and outer complexities and molds them into a force for good. If we can hope, we can survive; if we can hope, we can still act; if we have hope, nothing’s lost, merely delayed. And though the book is titled The Book of Joy, I tend to think of it as ‘A Book of Hope’. It is a beacon of sure light in a dim, confusing time. The Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu, with knowledge and intuition, mind and heart, gracefully navigate through the labyrinthine landscape of the modern world, producing simple, practical truths. In the deft hands of these two practitioners, Buddhism and Catholicism merge happily, and we are taken on multiple journeys, exploring existence along many angles, all in the pursuit of experiencing our highest emotion: JOY.

The Book of Joy“I feel there is a big contradiction,” the Dalai Lama continued. “There are seven billion human beings and nobody wants to have problems or suffering, but there are many problems and much suffering, most of our own creation. Why?” He was speaking now directly to the Archbishop, who was nodding in agreement. “Something is lacking. As one of the seven billion human beings, I believe everyone has the responsibility to develop a happier world. We need, ultimately, to have a greater concern for others’ well-being. In other words, kindness or compassion, which is lacking now. We must pay more attention to our inner values. We must look inside.”

How do we look inside? The inception of The Book of Joy I believe comes from that question. Back in 2015, the Archbishop traveled to Dharamsala, India, to be with his dear friend the Dalai Lama on his eightieth birthday. Desmond Tutu, now 86 years of age, has been in turbulent health since a diagnosis of Prostate Cancer nearly two decades ago. Despite the warnings from his doctors, Desmond Tutu took the 20+ hour flight. His Holiness, and the Archbishop, both knew that it was possible their week together in Dharamsala might be their last, so it had to count. The Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu have spent their lives in adamant purpose. Both from early life set out to carve a path for others, to create methods in which we may use to reflect on ourselves and others in ways that are emboldening to our better selves, pushing us towards a higher meaning. This book does not deviate from those paths, and in a way it is a joining of their journeys. Both religious leaders know their lives are closing, slowly, they feel it. The Book of Joy is a culmination of their large and daring existences on this planet, and the lessons they most want to impart to us before they go are inside the pages of this book.

JOY is nourished through eight roots, what in the book are called “The Eight Pillars of Joy”. These steps are punched out succinctly and quickly. They are:

Perspective

Humility

Humor

Acceptance

Forgiveness

Gratitude

Compassion

Generosity

Here, with this framework, one can begin to cultivate JOY. But it does feel a bit ‘cookbook’; it all makes it seem so easy. Is this really all it takes to be happy? To be joyful?

hisholinessandtutu
Fabulous picture of His Holiness the Dalai Lama (right) and Archbishop Desmond Tutu (left). Image Credit: Science and Religion Today

Understanding the onslaught of skepticism coming, the two teachers are quick to admonish this ‘mix and bake’ mentality. From the words of Desmond Tutu: like any muscle, you’ve got to work it to make it stronger. From the Dalai Lama: like any skill, you’ve got to practice. Nothing will happen over night, and depending on external/internal circumstances, it might take longer then you’d like. And though very few of us are ever likely to reach the enlightened state of the Compassionate Powerhouses Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama, we will, through time, begin to see results. Joy can come into our lives, it can be achieved, no matter who we are, no matter what we have done; Joy can be had, and the chief way to attain it, is by giving joy to others.

The premise of Ubuntu comes up multiple times in this reading. Ubuntu, a South African word meaning, “a person is a person through other persons”, sums up one of the overarching lessons of The Book of Joy, submitting a reality of life often neglected by the modern world: that we are interdependent. No one is an island, we all depend on each other, for food, for protection, for happiness. We need each other. The other lesson, which is of Buddhist teaching, is impermanence. Nothing lasts, everything moves on, all ends and all dies. This is how the world is.

And the world is not always pleasant. In fact it is often hard. Throughout The Book of Joy we are told stories of heartache, exhaustive struggle, awful pain. I found myself openly crying on many occasion, my chest clenched as I would have to place the book down, heat rushing to my face with tears. This would seem to be in contrast to the book. A book about joy should be full of the good times, no? As revealed, tragedy is often a necessary component to JOY. We cannot know joy without knowing sorrow, a lesson that feels as old as time. The Dalai Lama and Archbishop Tutu are no strangers to danger and heartache. They speak of their struggles openly, and their sincerity and acknowledgement of their pain nourishes their inner serenity rather than dispels it. There is a quietly spoken, resounding message in these pages: that living joyfully takes courage.

The end of this book was difficult for me. One of the greatest gifts this book brings us is the friendship between Desmond Tutu and His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Their love for each other really, really shines. The affection reaches you, their connection is soulful, deep, lovely, full of fun and comfort. As someone who is lucky enough to have exceptionally close friendships, friendships I have held since the cradle and the first days of kindergarten, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama’s friendship was perhaps the most important part of this book for me, and it touched me in ways few books have. The ending is as most endings go: with a parting, uncertainty, and bittersweetness. Bittersweetness, which is by far my favorite emotion to experience, hits hard in the last pages. These two friends know that they must say goodbye, for perhaps the very last time, and their final words address the specter that everyone is thinking but none can bring themselves to say.

All things end, even great human beings. Even spiritual leaders have a number. In their final hours together, the Dalai Lama so elegantly phrases his deep and profound friendship with the Archbishop, that it is worth sharing.

“Then the Dalai Lama’s playful tone changed as he pointed at the Archbishop’s face warmly. ‘This picture, special picture.’ Then he paused for a long moment. ‘I think, at time of my death…’ The word death hung in the air like a prophecy. ‘… I will remember you.'”

DalaiLamaArchbishopTutuLVE

Five out of five stars for The Book of Joy.


The featured image of His Holiness and Desmond Tutu was taken at Dharamsala, India, during the Dalai Lama’s eightieth birthday celebration. Witness the irrepressible boogie of Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Photographer/Image Credit: Tenzin Choejor – Thank you.