I didn’t want to look. I started reading this book two times before I finished it. I tried to look away, but I knew that’s what I’ve been doing all along. Solmaz Sharif does the heavy lifting here, but this book requires fortitude, nonetheless. To see this world as the poet does, you must let part of your world fall apart.
This is like reading a dictionary in a mirror—the words are backwards, but you can also see yourself, blocking out the light at the edge of the page. Thus, Sharif reconfigures our perceptions of military euphemisms, a wedding updo, a letter to a loved one, a photo of a soldier.
In one sense, an unapologetic voice with unwavering purpose propels these poems. “Deception Story” begins: “Friends describe my DISPOSITION // as stoic. Like a dead fish, an ex said. DISTANCE // is a funny drug and used to make me a DISTRESSED PERSON.” Sharif blends military terms (in caps) with dialogue and creates a polyphonic experience of revelation. The poem ends, “My life in the American dream is a DOWNGRADE, // a mere DRAFT // of home. Correction: it satisfies as a DRAG. // It is, snarling, what I carve of it alone.” Amidst the thick description of violence and discrimination, I need poems like this one which offers a rare moment of first person exposition; I gain traction here with Sharif’s experience of America as an Iranian-American. The focus found in Look is unyielding, but sparingly and, at just the right times, Sharif exposes lyrical moments as both truth and balm. From “Vulnerability Study”:
8 strawberries in a wet blue bowl
baba holding his pants
up at the check point
a newlywed securing her updo
with grenade pins
Sharif never asks, or offers. Look, she directs. And at such images as these, how could you not? But this book is exceptional not only because of the way Sharif reimagines and re-deploys language, but also because she plays with form all through the book. Whether through prose, indentation, section breaks, or brackets, many poems beg to be read twice and three times, and they offer the reader double meanings, squared. “Reaching Guantánamo” simulates the letters inmates receive at Guantánamo; “Dear Salim,” each section begins. But after the greeting, seemingly innocuous language is erased from a lover’s letter to her spouse.
Love, I’m singing that you loved,
remember, the line that went
” “? I’m holding
the just for you.
This intrusion on private language eviscerates intimacy; occludes the sender from the letter itself. And so this epistolary poem represents the erasure and elimination of humans that is exercised in our time more than many of us could ever have imagined. Although the form is brutal, and the point heartbreaking, the tenderness of what does appear in this poem compels the heart to reimagine the prisoner of war.
The book is anchored by “Personal Effects,” a poem where Sharif elegizes her uncle who’s life was lost in the Iraq-Iran conflict. In this poem, she interrogates the way photographs skew remembrance. It begins, “I place a photograph of my uncle on my computer desktop, which means I learn to ignore it.” The poem pans, from that point, taking in the panoramic effects of decades of conflicts in Iraq and Iran—how military offensives reach into a family and blow it apart. About a photo of her uncle, Sharif writes,
it was his bare toes
that made me cry
because I realized then he had toes
and because dusted in the white
desert sand they looked
like a corpse’s toes
The book builds toward this moment of gutting simplicity. Solmaz Sharif shows her readers what a poem can do—break apart the world with a single image of bare feet.
What have you read lately that broke your world apart?
Jeffrey Ford is an author I’ve loved for some time. I read Crackpot Palace a few years ago and then immediately reread it. He was doing stuff in that collection I hadn’t seen before; his work was hard to categorize, hugely imaginative, and full of heart. And in A Natural History of Hell, Ford has continued to do all of that and more. Here we have Emily Dickinson enjoying Death’s company for a bit, a town at once protected and beset by a malicious, dangerous angel, an early 20th century Ohioan ghost story, and more. Ford’s new collection runs the gamut of genre and careens past the edges. (And it’s got a killer cover by Jeffrey Alan Love–look at that thing!)
A Natural History of Hell is a chimera: his stories combine surrealist (il)logic with both terrifying and familiar characters and situations. The stories braid together fantasy and history, the near-biography with the almost-mystery, and the result is surprising and enchanting and wonderful. Ford shows in this collection that perhaps his greatest gift is his fitness; he moves between different kinds of stories (the mythic and creepy “A Natural History of Autumn,” the down-home, small-town “Word Doll”) with such ease and mastery. It’s more than a little freaky.
The hope of a collection of mostly-already-published work is to create a conversation between the pieces that didn’t exist before, to offer new contexts for familiar texts. I’m not sure that’s totally achieved with Ford’s new collection, though the experience of reading each of these stories is certainly not diminished. And while the collection may be light on intertextuality, but it does showcase Ford as a writer capable of anything.
The lead-off story in the collection, “The Blameless,” is the only one not previously published, and it sets the tone of the collection, smashing together crazy imagination with wry character moments. The story supposes exorcisms have become as popular and commonplace as birthday parties, with certain exorcisms affording community members a chance to join together and celebrate, like a high school graduation party. Just, you know, demonier. The story swings between great reverence and great comedy as we follow around two people observing this exorcism, commenting on it and the other people present. Take this passage, which begins with the subject of the exorcism’s father reading out her sins and then jumps back to Tom, one of our attendees.
“Our daughter, Grace, has lost her way, fallen into temptation under the influence of evil. Here are the sins we are conscious of. 1) Pleasuring herself 2) Partaking of the pernicious weed 3) Drinking alcohol 4) Consorting with atheists 5) She is ten pounds overweight 6) Painting her face and wearing suggestive clothing.” When he finished he assumed a solemn air, folded the paper twice and returned it to his pocket.
“With the exception of the last one,” Tom whispered, “that like a normal day for me.”
This is Ford at his best: imaginative, funny, light and yet somehow also dead on. The whole collection is filled with moments like this, and it leads to great, memorable stories.
One of the real gems of this collection (and there are many—A Natural History of Hell has no bad stories) is “Blood Drive,” which imagines a world in which high schoolers are encouraged (nearly required) to bring guns to school. This is a setting in which lauded senators are fighting to abolish child labor laws and teachers carry shotguns in class. Everyone has their go-to saying whenever they draw a gun (“When you meet the Devil, give him my regards,”), and there’s a strange boy everyone calls The King of Vermont, who carries around a big glass jar filled with mist (or, depending on who you believe, souls). It’s a wild, weird, inventive landscape filled with fascinating characters, and Ford tells what is perhaps a too-real story within those bounds. Looking around today, we see violence insisted upon in so many terrible ways. Ford’s story asks us to consider a place where deadly violence (always near at hand) is celebrated, but the leap to imagine such a place is sadly small, and this is what makes “Blood Drive” so powerful. Ford grabs the low-hanging fruit of the story (of course there ends up being a shootout at the school; of course lots of people—kids—die) but pushes past it, instead deftly managing to discover a love story nestled into the heart of this too-real violence. It’s powerful even if the narrative is at times chaotic.
What stories of relevance and power have you been reading recently?
WARNING: HERE THERE BE SPOILERS.
Generation X? Generation Y? Nah, son, I’m part of Generation P—Generation HP to be exact. Like many twenty-somethings around the world, I grew up with the original Harry Potter books and movies, waiting up eagerly until midnight for each release, dressing up as my favorite characters, and writing bad fanfiction and publishing it on the internet. When they announced the released of a new Potter story, I had mixed feelings. On one hand, I was ecstatic to be returning to the world I know and love. On the other, it was a new medium (a play script instead of a book), and I wasn’t sure how much of it was written out of love and how much of it was written out of a desire to milk the Potter cash cow to the very last drop. But, of course, I pre-ordered it from Amazon, read it in three straight hours, and here we are.
The script opens exactly where the Potter books end, with Harry, Ron, and Hermione ushering their children onto Platform 9 3/4 for their first year at Hogwarts. It’s a nice gesture to the fans, showing us that even though almost a decade has passed since the last book, nothing has changed. It also functions to orient us firmly on the timeline, something that will become extremely important later on. As it turns out, the main plot device of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is time travel.
Harry’s middle child, Albus, is plagued by the fear that he can never live up to his father’s massive legacy. Hoping to step out of the shadows and prove himself, he and his best friend (the one, the only Scorpius Malfoy) hatch a scheme to steal a Time-Turner and save Cedric Diggory’s life. With the help of Delphini Diggory (Cedric’s cousin), the pair go back in time three successive times to the Triwizard Tournament, attempting to stop Cedric from winning the third task and subsequently being murdered by Voldemort. But, as they find out, time-travel is a messy thing, and each interference creates an alternate reality.
It’s a lot to pack into one book. The staged version, broken up into Part I and Part II, runs a full five and a half hours. Even then, many of the scenes are extremely short (some lasting only one or two pages), and it often felt rushed and unfulfilled. Frequently, we the reader didn’t have time to settle in before we were whisked away to another time or place. Add in all of the constantly-changing timelines (hopping from past to present and back again often with little cue), and it was sometimes difficult to keep track of what exactly was going on. This could be a flaw of reading the play instead of watching it; as the staged version has been receiving some rave reviews, I imagine those of us who only read it are missing out on something magical (pun intended).
The majority of the story walked the line between magical camp and just plain ridiculousness. In one scene, for example, Albus and Scorpius decide they aren’t going to Hogwarts that year. They decide the best way to avoid school is to jump off the roof of the Hogwarts Express…. while it’s moving. This isn’t the most bizarre part of the scene, however. When on the roof, they are stopped by the Trolley Witch (known for giving out sweets to the students), and it turns out there’s more to the old woman than meets the eye.
TROLLEY WITCH: These hands have made over six million Pumpkin Pasties. I’ve gotten quite good at them. But what people haven’t noticed about my Pumpkin Pasties is how easily they transform into something else. . .
She picks up a Pumpkin Pasty. She throws it like a grenade. It explodes.
And you won’t believe what I can do with my Chocolate Frogs. Never—never—have I let anyone off this train before they reached their destination. Some have tried—Sirius Black and his cronies, Fred and George Weasley. ALL HAVE FAILED. BECAUSE THIS TRAIN—IT DOESN’T LIKE PEOPLE GETTING OFF IT. . .
The TROLLEY WITCH’s hands transfigure into very sharp spikes. She smiles.
So please retake your seats for the remainder of the journey.
During this scene, and many others throughout the book, I found myself wondering, “am I secretly reading fanfiction?” Don’t get me wrong—I love fanfiction, but there was something about The Cursed Child that was so fantastical, so absurd, that it was hard to accept that this latest installment was actually canon.
At the end of the book (I did warn for spoilers), we discover that Delphi, who had been helping Albus and Scorpius, is not in fact Cedric Diggory’s cousin, but the long-lost child of Lord Voldemort and Bellatrix Lestrange. It’s a twist that fans have been speculating about for years, but in The Cursed Child, it seemed too easy. It felt like a cop-out that, instead of creating a new villain for a new generation, we were handed a repackaged version of the original Big Bad.
If this had been any other book, in any other series, I doubt I would have made it past the first one hundred pages. But nostalgia, dear reader, is a funny thing. Despite all of its flaws, The Cursed Child kept me spellbound (no pun intended), racing through page after page. No matter how much it may have seemed like a caricature, I have to say that I loved it. Like many other Potterheads I know, I would read about Harry, Ron, and Hermione sitting on a couch and watching Netflix if it meant I could return to the world that I loved. Reading The Cursed Child felt like curling up into your favorite sweater, or taking a bite of your mom’s apple pie. It felt like going home.
What are your “cozy sweater books”? What books can you always count on to make your day?
This week let’s dream up some strange folk, and put them to paper. What surreal twist will you give to your character?
Mária Švarbová, Untitled from Human Space series. Photograph. www.mariasvarbova.com
Duane Michals, Ludmilla Tchernina, 1964. Photograph.
Noell Oszvald, Untitled test picture, 2016. Paper. Via Flickr.