Some Commentary + Ocean Vuong

Any review I generate here is not going to do this book justice. At all. Ever. If you can stand that idea, then keep reading.

23841432I know that Copper Canyon Press produces again and again significant and deeply meaningful poetry collections, but Ocean Vuong’s poetry in Night Sky With Exit Wounds is like nothing I’ve read before.  I went through some Goodreads reviews to see if everyone else thought this was fatal magic like I did, but there are some pretty critical men reviewers.  I found that kind of interesting because, like I’ve talked about in other blogs, I always wonder how much who we are when we come to a book impacts our feelings about said book.  Obviously, I have only ever read this book as a late-twenties-white-female-fan-of-beautiful-words.  No, seriously, when the guy at the desk next to me asked me what kind of books I read last week I said, “the ones with pretty words.”  I think I lost all credibility in that moment, but there’s really no other definition.  I could try to be more thoughtful with it, but what’s the use when I could be spending that time reading poetry like Ocean Vuong’s.

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This one, up here, was my favorite review.

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Notes on Ocean Vuong’s Night Sky with Exit Wounds

That’s the funny thing about reviews.  I loved this book, I wanted to eat it and share it with everyone I knew who would just “get it.”  I underlined hundreds of lines, wrote six pages of notes, was inspired to write poems about my grandfather on my mother’s side, and have post-its galore sticking neon from the pages.  I have a tender spot for poetry about heritage because in my long list of “writing territories” I write a lot, and I mean A LOT about womanhood, generations, passing down, and my grandmother.  Lately, I’ve been writing about my Dad, but my grandmother, the place that she’s buried, and what I can remember of her in the hospital after her stroke come up often on the page.

But reviews are sometimes more about the person who read the book than the actual book.  If you read them seriously, if you devolve into a book blog spiral the same way you can rabbit hole on X-factor videos, you can learn about a lot about people, specifically bookish people.  Sure, we have things in common like a lot of us prefer cats, or we drink enough coffee to not mind it black, or when we get overwhelmed we are in desperate need of pockets of quiet, but in reviewing books we are wholly ourselves.

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I also love this review…

I’ve never read a book review that didn’t have the voice of the person who wrote it.  Whether that be scene child, literature critic, NY shower curtain separated apartment dweller, or me, that girl who goes on tangents that I find a little funny, like quips.

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I thought this Google example was particularly funny.

Lately, on Twitter, I’ve been seeing people attacked for their reviews.  For all kinds of things about books, but most recently, for not liking the voice of a novel.  The reviewer used some choice language and called the book’s language “slang.”  Someone with a follower count above 500 read it and a bunch of people decided they would “educate” the blogger through harassment about their knowledge of AAVE.  (I’m really not sure AAVE is even the correct term for the colloquialism in this book because I have no idea what the book was). Whether the reviewer was correct or not, their opinion is now only solidified by the swarm of others who join in on the bullying.

When someone calls them out on it (which wasn’t me by the way, but should have been), they passive aggressively discuss how there’s a difference between being “critical” and “harassing.”  (I know, I realize by talking around it I’m being passive aggressive right now too).  The thing that bothers me the most about this is that when confronted, the Twitter mob will say things like, “I’m uncomfortable and I’m hurting by what was said so if she feels just an ounce of the my hurt as a POC, then I’m sorry, but I don’t regret it.”

previewI get that. But I also get that my Mom always told me “two wrongs don’t make a right.”  I get that literature needs diverse books (DUH).  I get that readers want books to be both mirrors and windows and that the amount of white authors, and white people on covers far out number that of any other race.  It’s actually pretty disgusting.  This makes me desperately sad. As a reader, I try to support publishers that support diversity.  I buy books about the experiences our world is facing so I can better understand how to help and when to stay quiet (shut up and listen).  I read, more than anything else, to be culturally responsible.

Thus, Ocean Vuong.  Thus, Night Sky with Exit Wounds. Thus, the other side of the face of the Vietnam War.  Because war always has a face and it’s always bleeding no matter what side you’re on.  And those that win, they pronounce that win in the books of history and own not just the “win,” but the content, the stories, the shape of the culture behind that win.  This has led us to where we are today.  I don’t believe that by capturing a snip-it of a review and calling someone a racist on Twitter, and encouraging others to do the same helps people heal or understand.  I also don’t believe most people go into the world hoping that they can expose their own ignorance, their own racism, their own blatant disrespect for other human beans.  I believe people, at their core, understand like a solid 3% of what other people, like them or not, go through on a daily basis.

douchecanoeWe were all brought up to believe something. Given a life, we are able to either uphold or upend those beliefs. It is our choice whether that comes from books, or experiences, or understanding a counter culture, or holding tight to a historical wrong, or writing our way out of all of it. I think we have to remember that people aren’t choosing to be assholes (most of the time).  Now, some people, yep, full throttle douche canoes, but most people just have no understanding of your uncomfortable, your misunderstanding, your belittlement, your poor treatment.  So, to educate, recommend them a book.  Recommend them a song or its lyrics.  Point them towards the most truthful perspective of the history they don’t understand.

Hate that authors who write bisexual characters always use “likes girls and guys?” Then email them, email the publisher, write a letter, talk more openly so that people hear the right thing more often.  Hate that a chick says there could be no characters with disabilities in Lord of the Flies because that wouldn’t work? Write a new chapter on Scribd, on Live Journal, on your blog.  Make the case that Piggy wasn’t able-bodied.  Write a book with characters who live in the real world and not a bubble of it.  Talk to someone at school, at lunch, at work, in the street that isn’t able-bodied and learn their perspective.

wenger-howapoetnamedoceanmeanstofixtheenglishlanguage-1200So, here. Here is Ocean Vuong’s poetry collection.  Here is a collection of poems dedicated to a heritage, a gene pool, and a man who loves other men, and his life shone back to him in a notebook. Here is a life on a page, like every life, that’s worth reading.  And it’s beautiful.  The repetition, the word play, the imagery, I couldn’t even breathe sometimes while I was reading.

I didn’t even realize that I was holding my breath.

I’m going to link to some of his poems down here. And then I’m going to expect you to buy this book from Copper Canyon.  Once you’ve read through every page like its a track slick with grease, I want you to read each one slowly.  Then, I want to talk to you about it in the comments because I just don’t have the “stuff” to even review this one.

Because the middle-aged white guys didn’t love this book, I went through the recommendations they made in their reviews.  And I will read them (Sarah Howe and Andrew McMillian).  Because maybe it’s me that’s missing something about Vuong and in order to justify that it’s not, I’m going to read their recommendations.  At the end of the day, my life is about how well I understood, cared for, and tended to other people.  So, I’m going to do that with as much respect as I can muster.

I also have A LOT of feelings about this article, but they’re probably for a whole other blog. If in our need to rectify histories, we discount other histories that impact the histories we’re trying to protect, then what the hell?

 

True Life: #bookstagram

There’s some odd wonderings that have come from the world of #bookstagram.  You know the world: lots of latte art, white comforters, plaid scarves, unfinished oak tables, quote pillows, and fat mugs.

At least that’s if you’re not one of those #bookstagrammers who sets up a whole scene with Christmas lights in the right season, or plastic fall leaves, all the things you wouldn’t grab if your house was on fire. Most of these people awe me daily with the way they present their books and their tiny details.  I wonder what percentage of them become decorators, architects, designers, or other creative pursuits.

#Bookstagram is extreme.  Your success doesn’t amount to how much you read, or even how much you blog, but really who notices and why.  It’s the same with most careers, the more important people you know, the better your network.

So, here’s a list for an episode of MTV’s True Life: I’m a #bookstagram(mer).  Or just a general list of what’s trending and what’s successful in the #bookish world to date.

BYOB (Be your own barista) OR you live within .2 miles of a fancy coffee shop that costs you approximately $34 a week:

*If you hover over the images, it will show you who to follow.

I love latte art like the next gal.  And I’m totally guilty of making my latte cocky with too many selfies, but when you have a great barista, and your latte looks like a rose’s cheek, then you can’t help yourself.  However, I also work everyday and although I just recently changed jobs to one where I could go sit in a cafe during my lunch break, (which I’m totally going to do because my jealousy of this latte art is at a high level), I understand if the average #bookstagrammer can’t manage this trend. Here’s a helpful coffeetube.

The mystery of the white comforter / white corner / white table (A Nancy Drew collectible):

White walls used to be for the insane, but who says #bookstagram isn’t crazy? I live in fear of accidentally (and totally) buying a white comforter for these shots only to spill immense amounts of coffee (and let’s be honest cheese) on it. I’m clearly the only one.

You need a window. Get a window. TO THE WINDOW, TO THE WALL:

Natural light goes a LONG way in the Bookstagram world, you know, window to the soul and all that.

Say it with a view:

Everyone has to vacay … not this crowd.  Stop on the beach and hold up a book.  In the snowy mountains skiing, no problem, a book fits perfectly in that inner, inner, deep layer of your third sweater in.

Hoard Trinkets:

I would just make a plain and total mess of this, but @foldedpagesdistillery knocks it out of the park every. single. time.

Color Coordinate: 

Guilty as charged.

Open Up a Little:

We have to prove we’re actually reading somehow, don’t we?

Bookstagram is a cheeky business.  Newcomers are coming on daily and they may have better light in their house, bigger windows, a cheaper coffee house than F.R.I.E.N.D.S (and that one was pretty much free while Jen was there). There are big names in the game like @igreads and people who have gotten jobs at publishing houses because they’re book-famous.  Gain 40k followers, get your dream job.  We live in a strange world folks, but #bookstagram is always there to make you question your lifestyle choices and how too few books you’re reading for that inevitable Goodreads Challenge.

I need to start a new hashtag like #bookoff for when I just want to post a picture of the Beej without any books (or cats).  But you can’t. Bookstagram doesn’t rest, and neither should you.

Categorizing My Book Reading: Not as boring as you’d think.

Happy New Year, everybody! Shots, Shots, Shots, Shots… just kidding. It’s more like bed, bed, bed, bed! In fact, Fro and I are writing this quick blog from the bed where breakfast was also had this morning, along with list making, and the finishing of my first book of the year, Calamity Leek.  

I’m here to talk about my bookish journey for this year. Why not start this on the very first day.  You know, goals and shit.  I’ve broken my books for the year into five categories because what better use of your time than to make unneeded lists? My plan, thanks to Claire, is to read 52 books.  And yes, I already submitted this number to the Goodreads deities and will be kicking myself in four months because I’m two books behind.

Anyway, my categories will have me reading with purpose and if I’m lucky, a little exhilaration.  I believe this is just the kick I need to never be books behind, but instead be books ahead.  Plus, I’m picking up a few audiobooks for my drives to work so those will add to my number. I feel like a middle school girl with a list of boys she’s kissed talking about “my number.”

The first category my books this year will fall under is my Word of the Year. I wrote about my journey to this word on Almost an Independent Clause. This is my “lifestyle” blog because that’s the term we’re using in the world at the moment. WAH.

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This category will consist of books that will make me want to be more TEND(ER) because that’s my word/s of the year. I already have some names and titles for this list, but would LOVE to know recommendations in the comments that I can add to it. I especially need fiction titles.

  1. Rebecca Solnit titles, I’m starting with A Field Guide to Getting Lost
  2. Please Don’t Eat the DaisesJean Kerr
  3. 20-Something, 20 EverythingChristine Hasser
  4. All things by Lynda Berry (I read Syllabus last year and it changed the way I taught).
  5. All things Anne Lamott because if anyone can make me shut up and write, it’s Anne Lamott.
  6. My Journey Through War and PeaceMelissa Bunch

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51zbbuqw2bjlI’ve been writing this blog for six years and I’ve only published one set of poems outside of it.  My big dreams of working my way through an MFA are kind of, and really terrifyingly coming to fruition this year, at least on my part.  I’ve started sitting down to write every single day, in a routine, in a notebook.  I write, then type whatever I wrote and highlight the parts that move me outside of the poem and then I go to the next day.  I haven’t quite figured out my revision process yet, but I’ve started pursuing writing daily, sometimes multiple times a day.  And I’m not talking about blog writing, but writing. Poetry and essays.  I had a good cry about all of this several times last month. It’s scary when you decide to go for your dreams, I get why so many people don’t. But this leads me to having a category on writing.

So here’s my list so far for that:

  1. A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf
  2. Essays of E.B. White
  3.  Women Will Save the World – Carolina A Shearer
  4. The White Album – Joan Didion
  5. George Orwell’s all the things
  6. Uprooted: An Anthology
  7. Annie Dillard all the things
  8. Magic Hours: Essays on Creators and Creation by Tom Bissel
  9. Kurt Vonnegut all the things
  10. Aldous Huxley Essays
  11. The Captive Mind by Czeslaw Milosz
  12. First They Killed My Father by Loung Ung
  13. I Feel Bad About My Neck – Ephron
  14. Mary Karr all the things
  15. The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison

Funny thing is that people have already introduced me to a lot of these books, but I have just neglected them to some dust corner of a bookshelf, or book pile near a chair in the house.  Seth has sent me First They Killed My Father and my Mom has purchased a lot of these books for me over the years.   I could write a whole blog on how and when and why people come to the books that they do, but that would be another time.

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This is where you come in lovely people of the blogging community.  My best friend Nat gives no shortness of YA reads for me, but I think it’s only right that I take a bunch of recommendations from all the readers that I love and trust, and I start damn reading them.  And I’m not talking about the books that we see everywhere, all flashy, across Instagram stories, but the ones that moved your soul.  The ones that linger or stayed with you for months afterwards. I want those.

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The Anti-library: because I own probably over 1,000 books and because like Umberto Eco, I believe it’s more valuable to own more books you’ve never read.  So, I’m dedicating my time to reading some of those.  I need to be a little more Belle on the library ladder if you know what I mean.

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Quail Ridge is my favorite. 

So, this category is the last and stems from my desperate Google search for a children’s book that I saw in Quail Ridge Books months ago. BJ was in the middle of checking out and I stepped into the children’s section for a little feel good moment and came straight to this book. It’s called (and don’t laugh because it’s ironic) Child of Books. We were going to be late for trivia if I waited in line so I took pictures of the pages and thought about that book for months.  For Christmas I got an Amazon gift card and I purchased that book in the haul because it spoke to me.  My Mom always talks about art speaking to her and that’s why she can’t buy art for my house, but that’s the way some books come calling.  I don’t make a habit of reading children’s books, although I probably should because they’re pure magic and I found 298,734 more that I wanted to read on Amazon last night while trying to find the name and title of this children’s book, but I don’t. So, there’s a splurge and a reason for this category.

Let’s be honest, guys. I can make any book fit into any of these categories, but I want to have them categorized because I need that purpose for my reading.  How do you organize your reading? Is it just based on whatever you come to in the bookstore? Or maybe you have dedicated yourself to no longer shopping for books because you’ll read exactly what’s on the shelf at home. Whatever it is, share below! I’m always flexible and you may make me change my ways.

No Goodreads Goal? BIG PROBLEM.

I get jealous sometimes of the people who can just steam through YA fiction all year, blog every two days, and create this center of magic.

I am not that person.

And this year without a Goodreads goal, I was even more of a flailer. This is me December of last year:

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See how I’m SO not held down that my hair is blowing straight in the wind?

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Knock Knock even made a fancy pro/con list.

I’ll take Flounder-er’s throughout history for 200, Alex. Because that’s what I was this year.  Unlike Book Stacks Amber, I didn’t just lower my goal, I got rid of that sucker altogether for a year. I took the advice of countless blogging sages who have come before me like Jessica Pryde at Book Riot and Broke By Books.  Surlymuse got into my head a little bit too and like any good working gal, I made a pro / con list. Countless ex-boyfriends have been through this routine and someone could have just saved me if they said, “If you have to even write pro / con about a boy on a piece of notebook paper, he’s not worth your time.” However, I take the Ben Stiller approach (in Along Came Polly) and like to know exactly what I’m getting into, with both books and boys.

The list had more cons because I wanted it to and so I didn’t write in a goal this year. Surlymuse called the way Goodreads tracks books is, “some kind of perverse commodity” and I felt that too.  For too long, I had avoided books over five-hundred pages because I wouldn’t keep up with my Goodreads goal in the long run. And Goodreads is such a gem for telling you how far behind you are every year.  In 2015, I got seven books behind and felt like I was turning circles at sea. I turned to short children’s books to fill the gap, or poetry chapbooks, or even just those one-off story collections from Vintage American that Goodreads totally counts as a full book.  I’m also a Goodreads librarian so I can add those short, sad, totally not books to Goodreads as if they were.

Is this abusing my power or are there people like me out there?

Whatever short, probably not as fulfilling as long drawn-out works, I could find would be on the list. They just fit so well into my Goodreads goal catchup list. It’s worth it if you can just maintain the goal.

The goal would say, “How could you only read three books in September when you know you must read five to even be in the running?” WHERE IS YOUR MOTIVATION, SOLDIER.

And I gave that all up.

blog250113-michelleAnd what happened was sort of disastrous. Without a goal, I was flying solo. I was a Beyonce without Destiny’s Child, at least I felt that way in the beginning, until I was Michelle without Destiny’s Child.

But now I have the gift of looking back on my reading this year and it is a sad, sad state of affairs.  I’m not even sure I can do a Top 10 books list (or 5 if you’re stingy) because I read so few books, that were so random, that I can’t even equate them within the same lists. There are months under my “Read in 2016” where I had to write something like “I did not read a single book this month (because I’m a heathen).” That was a statement written in fear of leaving a whole month blank.

ywmqvkfsMostly, I can sum up my reading this year in one statement: I read what I had to teach to my AP Literature kids. Which, thank goodness for my own choosing, wasn’t just the Western Canon. Towards the end of the year, I hit up some #diversebooks hashtags on Twitter and found that I had actually read a lot of literature, and nonfiction about the African American experience. I think subconsciously as an educator, and consciously as a human, I wanted to be both less ignorant and more thoughtful. My best friend is a mixed white and black man and I wanted to really understand when he told me to “use my privilege.” I needed to understand my current world a little bit better, but … I think I would have still done that with a Goodreads Challenge. I think I would have done more of it and been better at it actually.

Instead, this year, I read a lot of half books. If you asked me how many books I didn’t finish, but I got to a juicy part, I could tell you it’s over one hundred.  There were too many book piles on the floor next to my bed, in the currently reading bookshelf, the to be read bookshelf, and the bookshelf in the home library.  Plus, I took frequent trips to the library and we live within two miles of a used bookstore.  It’s all unhealthy actually.  So, this all led me to finishing hardly anything.  I was a snacker of books. I grazed and got too full and moved on before even the finale of anything. If I read the whole thing it’s because I had to or I was drawn to.

22822858I was flailing. I still am flailing. I started This Little Life and talked to my friend Sage about reading it together and then after one Book List with the first book of calamity leek as an undiscovered gem, I immediately switched back to reading that. I haven’t touched it since the plane to Iceland. I’ll pick it up like no time has passed like I’ve done all stinking year.

So for the sake of sanity, and for an anchor, I’m going back to the Goodreads Challenge this year. I’m just giving in and admitting that as a Capricorn gone Sagittarius, sticking to Capricorn (Thanks, NASA), I need a goal to keep me driving, but to also keep me on the damn road.  No tangents, no veering, no “OU, Squirrel” moments for my reading schedule next year. I will be pushed once again by the man, that is Amazon Goodreads.

What are ya’ll’s plans for the Goodreads goals?

(I just wanted to use ya’ll’s in a sentence … twice).  Will you keep them and be held down or will you let go and float in space and see what happens to your reading happens.   I would love to hear from you (no, seriously, lack of comments gives me anxiety).

If you need some more goals, check out this year’s reading challenge: Book Better

There’s a Goodreads group: Book Better and a Twitter: #bookbetter2017. Details on the Book Better Challenge Page.

When Discussing Diverse Books: Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

twitter1Guys, Twitter is kind of a terrifying, brilliant, and secret place.  Sometimes, I sit there wondering if this is the only place most people have a voice, even journalists in today’s political and economical climate. In just the ten days where I transitioned from a full-on teacher Twitter account to one for bookish and Cassie things I’ve watched the following: people harassed for days over one ill-worded (or even just ill-timed) tweet.  Authors berated for being pro-Trump. I’ll be honest, in my personal life, I had no clue that Trump would be elected because I had literally not one single person in my circles that would ever vote for that man.  Like last female on the planet shiz. However, I’ve been a little horrified.

Here are the things I know:

*People lash out because of their collective memory on injustice that their background (whatever that may be) has faced due to abuse, bigotry and ignorance across time and space.

shame-gif-1465520937*While shame and guilt are very real feelings, sometimes that isn’t the way that sways people to  see another side. Particularly when you’re going all Game of Thrones walk of shame on them.  Getting a posse of others like you to gang up on this Twitter person and tweet abuse and harassment towards them probably only makes them believe further in their own bigotry.

*We do not have enough diversity in books to justify quieting any voice that speaks out for diversity in books.

*Some of the comments on writing diverse books really rub me the wrong way.  Things like, “I don’t think white people should write about other races at all, keep your mediocre hands off of that literature.”  With the same person tweeting things earlier in the day like, “if your world in your book is full of only white characters then your book is in a bubble that doesn’t exist.” (That last one I definitely agree with, but both of these tweets cannot exist in the same book).

All of this has made me do some serious soul searching.

homegoing_custom-09de3d52d3ab0cf5400e68fb358d53da9c78afe6-s400-c85I pride myself on reading diverse books. A lot of the times because I want to learn, but more importantly because I want to listen.  In fact, I listed my favorite authors out for a student the other day and every single one was a woman + Junot Diaz. I also try really hard to not just read bestsellers (or books graciously and eloquently thrown down our throats by the NY Times Best Seller’s List or Kirkus Reviews).  I’m not saying this because I have something to prove in my small corner of the internet. On the contrary, it’s because I’m about to review the book Homegoing by 27-year-old Yaa Gyasi from a white female perspective, probably really close to what the world has come to know as white feminist perspective.

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If I ever sound like this, CALL ME OUT. 

See the following for a clearer definition of white feminism: Tilda Swinton’s emails, Amy Schumer and Lena Dunham, Taylor Swift and her adult cheer squad, and all of the Huffington Post tags.

I’m owning it because I have to in order to write about diverse literature.  In every solid academic research paper, the author must spell out their limitations, and this one is mine. I come from a place of white feminist baggage. That’s what I’m carrying to your table, and what I’ll try to leave behind as I grow in perspective and curiosity.


I’m not going to lie, halfway through this book I tweeted the following:

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I feel bad for this tweet. It sucks. No one liked it, and they shouldn’t have. (And I actually think I got the wrong publisher too, to top it off. Sorry, Alfred A. Knopf).  At the 48% mark  (thanks, Kindle for always making me feel great about my reading speed) I just didn’t get it.  I didn’t get the magic of what Gyasi was doing here.  Twisting two family trees, coppicing.

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I’m obsessed with the UK cover. 

Now there were times in the novel when I got lost. When I left it for two days and came back to the middle telling of a new character’s story and I would have to read a few pages to know where we stood in time and place, but taking two families from African diaspora all the way through the millennium is a feat that I’ve never seen before in literature. And for that I will forever be in awe of Gyasi’s breakthrough in an art that doesn’t always adapt easy to change.  Maybe this is why so many avid readers had troubles with this book though.

The plot did move very slowly and although we knew the person intimately who came before the character we would read about next, I’m not sure the connection was enough to sustain a reader who needed action.  Akua brought the action, so did H and Ness, but characters with gritty stories came at strange moments.  A reader on Twitter said he believed the book should have been split into three parts and not two.  He never responded to me when I asked where he would have broken the third part, but it did have me curious.  If we read this book and immediately have questions about structure, does that mean that Gyasi didn’t perfect her rhythm here?

5e0190c717c99df3c8a4b610e72b19c1I’m not sure how I feel. This multigenerational history of the world through the eyes of African American families moved me almost to tears at times, but there were other times when the characters just weren’t real enough for me, and these moments alternated regularly.  The raw moments, in Ghana, Willie in Harlem, H imprisoned and sold into mining, and “the Crazy Woman” all made for characters that “lived inside me” as Marjorie learns from her teacher in one of the final chapters.  But other characters didn’t come alive until I knew what they bred or brought into the world in later chapters. I almost needed their children to open my heart towards them.  That came a little frustrating when I just wanted to continue with one of the family lines, but had to read the alternating. I also had to look at the family tree a lot, which made reading on a Kindle difficult.

(Still, thank you so much for the arc, Alfred A. Knopf).

I do understand that to span 300 years in 300 pages is not an easy task, and there’s very few moments to take a breath, but I still sit here not one hundred percent sold. One of the things I did love was all the beautiful, beautiful language moments.

“That night, lying next to Edward in his room, Yaw listened as his best friend told him that he had explained to the girl that you could not inherit a scar. Now, nearing his fiftieth birthday, Yaw no longer knew if he believed this was true.”

And all of the commentary on society that was subtle but powerful:

“The need to call this thing “good” and this thing “bad,” this thing “white” and this thing “black,” was an impulse that Effie did not understand.  In her village, everything was everything.  Everything bore the weight of everything else.”

“That I should live to hear my own daughter speak like this.  You want to know what weakness is? Weakness is treating someone as though they belong to you.  Strength is knowing that everyone belongs to themselves.”

“This is the problem of history.  We cannot know that which we were not there to see and hear and experience for ourselves.  We must rely upon the words of others.”

“Forgiveness was an act done after the fact, a piece of the bad deed’s future.  And, if you point the people’s eye to the future, they might not see what is being done to hurt them in the present.”

And my personal favorite:

“She stopped walking.  For all they knew, they were standing on top of what used to be a coal mine, a grave for all the black convicts who had been conscripted to work there.  It was one thing to research something, another thing entirely to have lived it.  To have felt it.  How could he explain to Marjorie that what he wanted to capture with his project was the feeling of time, of having been a part of something that stretched so far back, was so impossibly large, that it was easy to forget that she, and he, and everyone else, existed in it, not apart of it, but inside of it.”

I feel like I’ve been a little hard on this book because it is truly a literary first for me.  I recommend it to everyone who needs diverse literature, who wants to support a debut author, and who is interested in structuring writing in new and profound ways for their readers.

The List: Bookish Edition

If you’ve been following for a while you know that every year I do a Bookish Christmas List.  This year, I’m a tad late, but for all of your procrastinating shoppers, I have the list for all the book lovers, cat ladies, school teachers, and hipsters in your life.

For the Gilmore Girl in all of us:

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  1. “Gilmore Girls Helvetica” T-Shirt (multiple colors) | $31.95 @ Red Bubble
  2. “Mama Kim” Sticker | $2.40 (buy 6, get 50% off) @ Red Bubble
  3. Rory Enamel Lapel Pin | $13.00 @sweetandlovely
  4. Luke’s Mug Vinyl Logo Decal | $18.00 @ The Party Palette
  5. The Rory Reading List | $19.47 @ Neighbourly Love

For those Witty (W)itches in Our Life:

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  1. Okay Ladies, Now Let’s Get Information T-Shirt (multiple colors) | $27.65 @ Red Bubble
  2. Be Pretty Driftwood | $34.00 @ Peacelovedriftwood  on Etsy
  3. Ceramic Coffee Mug with Quote | $13.95+ @ Vitazi Designs on Etsy
  4. Olde Book Messenger Bag | $34.99 @ Think Geek
  5. Olde Book Pillow Cases | $14.99 @ Think Geek
  6. Banned Book Match Set | $8 @ Tiger Tree (How very Fahrenheit 451 of them, har har).
  7. Nancy Drew Pillows (these are my fav) | $24 @ The Sleuth Shop
  8. Internet Grammar Is Ruining Everything | $16+ @ Kathy Weller Art on Etsy
  9. Bibliophile Girl Scout Patch | $7 @ Storied Threads on Etsy

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  1. Lit Cap | $2.40 @ Red Bubble
  2. 52 Lists for Happiness | $16.99 @ Modclot
  3. Narnia Coloring Book | $15.99 @ Think Geek
  4. Disney Princesses: a Magical Pop-Up World | $65 @ Amazon by Matthew Reinhart
  5. Diagonal Alley Coat | $139.99 @ Modcloth

For the Editor in All of Us (that we want to murder):

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  1. Talks with the Editor Letterpress | $15 @ RD1Vintage on Etsy
  2. Books & Eyeglasses Earrings | $20 @ Uncommon Goods
  3. Whom T-Shirt | $25 @ GrammaticalArt on Etsy
  4. Seven Year Pen | $8.95 @ Seltzer Goods (they even have one dedicated to cat ladies.  CALLING ALL OF YOUUUUUU).
  5. Vintage Oak Desk Set | $32 @ InglenookMarket on Etsy
  6. Hand Engraved Compass Necklaces | $140 @ Uncommon Goods

Feministing:

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  1. Feminist Enamel Pin | $10 @ Stationerybicycles on Etsy
  2. Working Women: The New Pinup Collection | $12.95 @ Chronicle Books
  3. Shattered Glass Ceiling Necklace | $68 @ Uncommon Goods
  4. Parks & Rec Pawnee Poste | $11.99+ @ Genuine Design Co on Etsy
  5. The Future is Female T-Shirt | $14.90+ @ DesignDepot123
  6. Frida Kahlo Paper Dolls | $9.95 @ Chronicle Books

Teachers of all Kinds:

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  1. Staple Free Staplers | $16 (set of two) @ Uncommon Goods
  2. Scratch Map | $26-$40 @ Uncommon Goods
  3. Blue Book Personalized Pillow | $36 @ Uncommon Goods
  4. Microbiology Wax Seal | $29.95 @ CognitiveSurplus on Etsy
  5. Sometimes I Go Off on a Tangent T-Shirt | $25+ @Boredwalk on Etsy
  6. Moon Phases Notebook | $5.14 @Newtonandtheapple on Etsy

And Dudes:

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  1. Tesla Circuit Building Kit | $100 @ Uncommon Goods
  2. 3d Printed Bowtie | $32.70 @ 3different on Etsy
  3. Iron Coin of the Faceless Man | $14 @ ShirePostMint on Etsy
  4. The Hydra Smart Bottle | $59.99 @ Think Geek
  5. Build on Brick Mug | $2.99-11.99 @ Think Geek
  6. Medieval Knight Hoodie | $49.99 @ Think Geek

I know it’s pretty close to Christmas and you’ll need expedited shipping.  I hope I made it a little easier on ya for finding your bibliopiles the best presents.

This is Uncomfortable.

516p2sfbk-l-_sy344_bo1204203200_Sometimes writing makes you really uncomfortable, and not in the Lolita sort of way because that’s more of a revulsion. And not uncomfortable like the boy on the subway who’s too busy manspreading to notice that you need room to lean your chin on your elbow to read.  No, uncomfortable in the way that perfection seems just a little more real, a little more visceral and in your face. And that’s terrifying because we really don’t want everything to be perfect, do we? That’s how I thought about Warsan Shire’s new poetry collection, Teaching My Mother How To Give Birth.

I never thought I would have to add manspreading to my personal dictionary, but here we are. Uncomfortable.

712b2cjwcqslI think it made me uncomfortable because for the last five years I’ve come to understand my privilege as a white woman in America. While sometimes I still find the heat rising when I read tweets blaming the white population as a collective whole, and I want to respond immediately with “don’t lump me in with those people.” Or I find myself huffing over side comments my best friend Seth makes about “using my privilege.” Like wearing “I’m with Her” t-shirts, stickering my computer with Red Bubble social justice and having my students discuss race, gender, and class with every text or task makes up for a smooth series of injustices caused by this country. Injustices that I can’t even see because I’m blinded by the grocery list of privilege that I carry.

This is what Warsan Shire brings us to in Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth, this idea of perfection. That perfection that I’m second closest to as a white woman in America, I stared it down a little harder with Shire.  Not only does she make us look at our own womanhood and the experiences we live because of it, but also at the blemishes of the world that we ask to be both hidden and forgiven from.

“Her body is a flooding home. / We are afraid. We want to know / what the water will take away from us, / what the earth will claim as its own.”

tumblr_nvd32lvceo1qzghgbo1_500Just the other day I was listening to the local radio show and the host Erica was asking to be shielded from the actual news because “all it is is murder.”  And why do we want to be shielded from this? I would argue that it’s not because we can’t deal with the fact that humanity is a cruel beast, but that we don’t want that news to interfere with our beautiful lives, our perfect lives.  We want ignorance is bliss. We don’t want the effect.   And this is what Seth is always arguing on Facebook.  When people argued that she wished people wouldn’t block highways for #blacklivesmatter Seth told everyone who agreed that they just don’t get it. It isn’t about safety anymore, it’s about the impact on someone’s everyday. The “This is Water” that David Foster Wallace was talking about. An interruption so huge that it makes us look.

“We stare at the small television in the corner of the room / I think of all the images she must carry in her body, / now the memory hardens into a tumor” (30).

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Warsan Shire for The New Yorker

This is the same with Warsan Shire.  The refugee crisis does not impact me directly… ever? And that’s why I haven’t given to one charity in support of refugees. When it doesn’t impact my day, I’m in my own water, my selfish needs trump anything happening thousands of miles away. Instead I ask myself will it really ever get into the hands of the people that need it? Or I say I’m doing my part by working in high poverty schools like that’s some sort of penance for the lives that crossed seas and land and didn’t make it. Just one stop short. Like that’s a penance for anything really.  (It’s not. People should stop saying that like it makes them a Saint).  I might, one life ago, have used this book as a reason to say that I’m informing myself of the problem. I’m facing our world in all it’s hot breath, commotion, scars, but I can’t even say that with a straight face anymore.

“Your daughter is ugly / She knows loss intimately, carries whole cities in her body” (31).

729be0294f86d3d9fd9946238d5a39feIt’s pretty uncomfortable right, facing those leftovers within us? There are people carrying anthems instead of extra shoes.  People who know no other language but the one of disaster.  Children who have never had a home because their home is a back on a road. I found this collection so moving because it stared back. It asked me “and what have you done lately?” It spoke, “and your perfection for this?”

“I’ve been carrying the old anthem in my mouth for so long that there’s no space for another song, another tongue, or another language” (24).

Colin Kaepernick, Eric ReidAnd we’re upset over a man in a jersey kneeling.  Just think about it. If you can stare it down without putting your face to your knees, then congratulations, you’ve compartmentalized it all.  Satisfaction over human life. Tragedy of war. Look the other way. Turn your cheek. All those little white lies we tell ourselves.

And then there’s womanhood. When the social studies teacher next door to me discusses how great all his girls are in class and it’s really the boys that we’re all failing, shouldn’t we blame society a little?  Could it be that we taught girls to sit pretty, be quiet, work hard to get ahead, keep your sexuality as secret as your faith. Do not let the left hand know what the right hand is doing. (Matthew 6.3).  Do not trade words for parts of your bodies. This is all told to us from an early age and Warsan Shire turns that on its head too.  I’m not going to lie I was really uncomfortable with all the sexual references in this collection.  As much as I preach “Girls Rule the World,” I still can’t shake the belief that being a good girl means a certain level of modesty.  And I’m the first to say we shouldn’t add drama as women, we should support each other, but when Kylie comes up in her underwear everyday on Snapchat, I sit in the fog of judgment, like the good little girl that I am… (… sucks).

“Her body is one long sigh.”

cfa966b056ebe73961faf13b3ce3f7c1There were a lot of tongues in this collection. And not the Biblical kind. The erotic kind. Sometimes it felt like an invasion of privacy. The way we always say, “I just like to keep some things private” when we start a new relationship and our Mom is asking all kinds of questions about his family, and his upbringing and what he wore. I found the poems about refugees, home, culture, and heritage more moving than the erotic poems, but that’s not to say that these didn’t also impact my level of restlessness.

“Why did you not warn her, / hold he like a rotting boat and tell her that men will not love her / if she is covered in continents, / if her teeth are small colonies, / if her stomach is an island / if he thighs are borders. What man wants to lie down / and watch the world born / in his bedroom?” (31).

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Image from Tumblr. If you know who made it, please let me know so I can give them credit. 

I think this is an important collection for any woman in our current times, from any cultural background. We need to check ourselves. And not just sometimes, but all the time. I remember when I got “Poverty Training” for my old county’s teaching professional development and I came to the idea that even the ways that department stores are laid out are made for the middle class.  The way our current world is structured and maintained is for the middle class. I think it’s high time for us to think about this too in terms of culture, in terms of race, in terms of gender.

If in my whole life, I spend more time uncomfortable than comfortable, then I must be making more rights than wrongs. How uncomfortable are you willing to be?


 

I’m ready to make the argument: Beyonce loves Beloved.

I want to construct the theory that Beyonce was directly referencing Beloved, the book by Toni Morrison and the haunting character reincarnated in the novel with her video “Formation.”

Reasons for these beliefs are as follows:

  • Cover art of Beloved hand-in-hand with stills from Beyonce’s video for “Formation.”

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  • Beloved (the character) comes from the water, a symbol of “New Life” and purity. Beyonce sinks into the water as a comment on the government’s reaction (and the people of America, we’re all complicit) to New Orleans after Katrina.  But also, she makes a call to justice and a call to new perspective on race relations in America, particularly with white police officers and black men.
  • School Teacher, who comes for Sethe in the book, could be seen as the police in Beyonce’s video.
  • Both texts reference “baby hair.”  “Formation”: I like my baby heir, with baby hair and afros. Beloved: “Instead she gazed at Sethe with sleepy eyes. Poorly fed, thought Sethe, and younger than her clothes suggested–good lace at the throat, and a rich woman’s hat. Her skin was flawless except for three vertical scratches on her forehead so fine and thin they seemed at first like hair, baby hair before it bloomed and roped into the masses of black yarn under her hat…her feet were like her hands, soft and new” (62).
  • Beyonce seems “haunted” in the scene at the plantation house where she wears all black and is surrounded by men in black suits.  She keeps bobbing her head up and down to the beat in a ghostly fashion.  Beloved is a ghost that haunts the house and is known as “crawling-already.” Then, returns from the grave.  A reincarnation much like the rising up of New Orleans after Katrina — on its own mind you — because our government sucks sometimes.
  • Sethe doesn’t really understand her own history, but her husband Halle comes from Baby Suggs who is well-known as a priestess in the community.  Beyonce references her heritage several times in the story.  While Sethe doesn’t know her heritage, Beloved comes back from the dead to honor her mother, her heritage.
  • Beyonce claims to “twirl on the haters.”  It can be argued that Sethe, by slitting the throat of her daughter, “twirled on” School Teacher who thought that he could take Sethe and all her children in as runaway slaves.
  • In the scene below, Beyonce acts as a “Mrs. Garner” of high class woman of the South who gave Sethe the only thing she ever truly owned, diamond earrings.

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  • Beyonce repeats “I Slay,” while Sethe literally slays her child by slitting her throat in a hurried effort to save her from slavery and School Teacher.
  • Both women also take great pride in their children, Sethe to the point of saving them by murdering them and Beyonce by having her daughter dance in her highly-acclaimed music video.
  • Beyonce says at the end of the song, “You know you that bitch when you cause all this conversation,” while Sethe is the talk of the town after her behavior with School Teacher and Baby Suggs in front of her sons and family.
  • Red Lobster is where Beyonce takes her man, letting him also take her chopper to the mall for some j’s while Sethe is completely supportive of Paul D in the novel.  To the point that she supports him before he can get back to work and sleeps with him regularly.
  • The men in the background of the actual song also sound an awful lot like Paul D and his “baby, baby, baby,” neediness. He even calls Beloved’s sexuality her “shine,” while today we have “glo up” (not mentioned in Beyonce’s video, but just a correlation).
  • At the end of Beyonce’s video there is a congregation worshipping at church.  This could be a direct reference to Baby Sugg’s forest homily’s in Beloved.  Baby Suggs manages to conjure the spirit for the people of her community the same way the spirit finds its way into Beyonce’s video.

There you have it. As much argument as I can puzzle together for Beyonce making a direct connection to Beloved by Toni Morrison.  If so, those are some powerful allusions, if not, it’s fun to try to prove it.

Update:

*Here’s an article on what to read after watching “Lemonade.”

*Also, the speaking intro of “Hold Up” is basically Beloved, yet again where Beyonce says things like, “Tried to be soft, prettier, less … awake.  Fasted for 60 days. Wore white. Abstained from mirrors. Abstained from sex. Slowly did not speak another word. In that time, my hair I grow past my ankles. I slept on a mat on a floor. I swallowed a sword. I levitated. I went to the basement. Confessed my sins and was baptized in a river. Got on my knees and said amen and said I mean. I whipped my own back…” This is eerily similar to Beloved by Toni Morrison. Check out the stills from the video:

Milk also commented on how much Toni Morrison influenced Beyonce even commenting that “Lemonade is like seeing her words come to life.”

Vox too.  Man, I had no idea people thought this.

Because That Mom Wants to Ban TKAM

Books are challenged all the time.  The political state of America is just (and always) getting hotter.  In a time where we need books more than ever, particularly books that foster discussion of racial barriers, gender barriers, and sexuality barriers, a school system has decided to ban two books that illuminated (and still do) the American experience.  And I would put “in the South” after that last sentence but I feel like that doesn’t take into account all the reverberations from Southern attitudes and culture on the rest of our nation, and really, the world.

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

I can think of several reasons to not teach To Kill a Mockingbird.  The one I most often use is that while this book is a true “coming of age” tale, that doesn’t mean it was written that way.  The narrator of this novel is an old woman looking back on her childhood. It’s not written from the child, or high school perspective, it’s written from the perspective of a woman who has lived a whole life and is flipping to which scrap book page story she will tell.  Although I don’t love teaching this book to students (not true, I loved it one year), would I ever ban this book from a classroom or institution of literacy, hell no.

To Kill a Mockingbird is arguably one of the most important books written about the South.  There’s an idyllic father, a neighborhood of interesting people, and a family built on the moral code of a saint.  (See: Go Set a Watchman for what I believe is more of the truth).  This part of the book is set against the part of the book that contains the trial of Tom Robinson and a look into not only the class system of the novel but the racial prejudice of the community. Tom Robinson, likewise, is a family man, idyllic in his own way, but due to lack of means (thanks to the community he lives in and the history of the US) lives in a community of people who hate him. One could argue, and I will, that this festering belief has sparked where we are today with #blacklivesmatter because black people are damn tired of being hated (in action AND words).

Love this poster for Banned Book Week from ALA

Love this poster for Banned Book Week from ALA

The problem I have with banning this book is the reasoning behind the parent’s wishes. She says her son “struggled to read the racist language,” furthermore, “There’s so much racial slurs and defensive wording in there that you can’t get past that.” And finally, “Right now, we are a nation divided as it is.”

I could seriously give her some slurs right now, but we all know that solves nothing.

The problem with the mentality of this mother, and her son because he’s learning this wacked-out belief system, is that if we don’t give students the space to learn the context and scope of these words then they will always see them as “those that shall not be said.” I don’t want kids going around calling other kids n-words, but I also don’t want students to understand the implications behind language like this.

The belief, and I’m not sorry at all for this Donald Trump, but that words FUCKING matter.  And they are much larger than “curse words.” Words that appear in this book have connotations that could have potentially changed throughout times, that certain groups of people own and certain groups of people can never respect, words that have not only historical meaning, but meaning to our current world as well because the full mouth of their history has carried through to today.

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And the problem with our society is that instead of talking about, instead of asking @shishirose her definition, we push it under the rug, for the seven hundredth time and hope our little Chris or Patrick or Jean keeps that word to the confines of his own house, or his own friend group, or just keeps it locked away silent in his brain somewhere never to be used. We say it’s okay “as long as you don’t say it to those people, or we say “it’s never okay, it’s a dirty word, don’t say it.”  But if a child never gets educated on the context, the scope, and let’s not forget the HUMANS that this word has shaped, refined, developed, and trampled, then what is the point in any conversation ever? What are you protecting them from … life?

This isn’t life, people. This isn’t how we educate students on how to have a conversation. How to speak not to, but with people who are different from them so that they don’t end up with one token “different” friend because they’re too scared to love anyone who doesn’t agree with them, have the same upbringing as them, or understand the connotation of the words the same way they do.

You Don't Have to Like Me by Alida Nugent

You Don’t Have to Like Me by Alida Nugent

I’ve been reading the book You Don’t Have to Like Me by Alida Nugent.  In the very beginning after the introduction, she discusses her growing up and having to choose a side because biracial wasn’t accepted (I’m not sure if I should have said that sentence in the past. You know how America loves its binaries).  She came to call herself a “mutt” in between figuring out who wanted what side of her.  Nugent goes through the realization that if she just discusses her white side she can get a job, a better paying job. But at what cost? She says, “My identity comes from how I feel.” and “We have to speak, in all our different voices, to tell our unique stories.  I will always tell mine” (30).  This is what I mean about words.  When we start banning books.  Wait, when we start banning words. Then, what else are we banning?

Words come with culture too. And the way we use them waves our beliefs in the air (like we just don’t care).  To ban a book is like banning a historical moment, blipping out that time period for your child.  To ban a book is like a blacking over, smudging out a whole culture of people who have come to either own that word, be known by that word, or despise that word because of the historical or societal weight it carries. To ban a book for a word is leaving out a narrative that could have educated your child on how to live in a world, a world in our “current political climate” and navigate it so that instead of hurting other people, they love them. With their words, because what else do they have?

 

Piecing the Scraps Together

I don’t know why the world falls for the recluse writer, but it’s so often I find myself turning to those that stuck their heads in ovens at the face of immense grief, or wrote in the library basements lacking even windows due to distractions.  For someone who can’t seem to write a book, or even a poem, honestly, I think the fact that I become obsessed with the journals of those that do is a quiet jealousy. They do it in the dusty silence of a tiny corner of their world and the chords I need to drag my own pinky knuckle across a page, hum.

From Virginia Woolf walking into a cold river (which I always imagined was a sea until I Googled it), to Dickinson with her corner windows and desk just tight enough to fit a pen nib, I love the underdog.  These women who, for reasons we may never know, had gaps in their relationship with society.  Gaps that kept them behind walls or within overcoats.

I think I’ve defined the term madness and almost wanted it at times in my life because of these women.

Emily Dickinson's poem scraps @ Amherst College Digital Archives

Emily Dickinson’s poem scraps @ Amherst College Digital Archives

So when I read the story in this issue of  The New Yorker about Dickinson’s line scraps of poetry, I couldn’t help but want to piece them together to build the string pieces of the woman behind the curve of each letter.  It may be a memory that I actually own, or a memory that was put in my head by repeated family stories, passed down memories, that my family member’s mother had scraps of the Bible taped to the walls all over her house.  They weren’t cited, and they were on everything from tissues, to post-its, to patterned holiday napkins.  Her mother passed away from a brain tumor and so I can’t be sure if her need to have the Bible so close that it looked at her daily was due to this or other reasons.  I used to tell people this story when I wanted to define “crazy,” (as a teenager) but as I came of age I realized the authenticity of holding words in your hand, surrounding yourself with their tight verses, and carrying them literally.

Image from The Oxonian Review (Emily Dickinson's poetry scraps)

Image from The Oxonian Review (Emily Dickinson’s poetry scraps)

How often is it really that a girl in a bar, smacks a kiss on a napkin with her phone number and hands it to a boy across the room?

What have we lost by sending emails instead of envelopes?

Where is the receipt where my mother wrote me directions to the house on 5 Marlow.

How can I read my dad’s handwriting except from his yellow pad of finance keepings.

Vintage McDonald's Booth @ Ebay

Vintage McDonald’s Booth @ Ebay

And the note folded in my wallet, every wallet from the cusp of adulthood forward, my Mom’s list of what she needed to discuss with me before going to college in a McDonald’s glittery booth. And my Dad’s note on the counter the morning that I left with my Australian visa.

Beej flowers note from a month(ish) ago.

Beej flowers note from a month(ish) ago.

These scraps, pieced together, are a life. The calling card at the top of sent flowers. I have the last one from Beej taped into my planner. I can’t let go of even one single word.  The more my mother’s eighteenth birthday list gets folded, it gets creased, and becomes like an over-washed jean.  I hope that the pen never fades and I can always read my mother’s beautiful cursive and imagine her hand in the air working shorthand words in her head.  One day I will literally need this note and I keep it for two reasons: the memory and the real product of my mother’s love.

Wikipedia Image of Emily Dickinson

Wikipedia Image of Emily Dickinson

This blog kind of got away from me, but I wanted to share this tiny reading obsession.  My favorite moment of the linked article above is this quote about Dickinson from a family member, “A younger cousin recalled her reciting the “most emphatic things in the pantry” while skimming the milk.”  Also the fact that Dickinson, like most female writers, didn’t really become known until after death and only published a scant number of poems anonymously in her lifetime.  She did, however, write letters with lines of poems.

I wonder if she planned to test them out on her friends, see their response.

I wonder if she just had to get them out like a visceral response, an allergy.

I wonder if she just wrote like this, across all spaces and genres. I wouldn’t be surprised.

Lines like “the thief, compassion for integrity” reside in Amherst College Digital Archives. They’re beautiful standing alone or folded into an apron. I’m sure in some sense Emily Dickinson knew this, unless she was just humbled by the need to put nib to paper.  Just another scribble like forced labor. Folded half into a paper airplane and left for a letter later.