Saturday, August 30, 2014

Review: The Black Unicorn: Poems by Audre Lorde

First published:-1978

Star rating:-

These poems are like shards of glass refracting the blurred image of some sombre new insight into the human condition - the agony of love, the pangs of coming to grips with the idea of racial segregation in a world one previously thought had no demarcations, the pervasive pessimism of living as reaffirmed by the morning newspaper, an elegy to the memories of a childhood friend whose time on earth ran out too soon, the melancholic ruminations of a prostitute, the absurdity of children of today being raised like slaughterhouse pigs to be sent to the war-front tomorrow. 
Coming in and out of cities
untouched by their magic
I think without feeling
this is what men do
who try for some connection
and fail
and leave
five dollars on the table.

If the annals of literature are to be consulted, most of these are time-worn subjects which other more renowned poets have regurgitated throughout their distinguished careers, after molding them in accordance with their perceptions of the world and its many idiosyncrasies. And yet Audre Lorde's words, imbued with despondency, regret, hope and fortitude at the same time, tempt you to read them again and again. Her lines flow effortlessly despite their innate simplicity, maintaining an enviable rhythmic symmetry, rendering the reader's tendency to puzzle over esoteric references unnecessary since there are almost none. 
There are a handful of poems here, in praise of the female and androgynous forms of divinity worshipped by the inhabitants of the historical kingdom of Dahomey and the Yoruba people of western Nigeria, which bring to light the oft-overlooked aspects of the cultural ethos of African people. But there's a conveniently provided glossary of African terms at the end to better facilitate complete understanding of these. 

You were not my first death.
but your going was not solaced by the usual
rituals of separation
the dark lugubrious murmurs
and invitations by threat
to the grownups' view
of a child's inelegant pain
so even now
all these years of death later
I search through the index
of each new book
on magic
hoping to find some new spelling
of your name

The implications hidden between her verses do not reinforce a kind of self-obsessed confessionalism as often found in Sylvia Plath or Anne Sexton's works or the heavy-handed inclusion of so many allusions that the poet's urge to communicate is buried under towering ambitions of dismantling poetic conventions. 

Sometimes, her words give the impression of mildly cryptic messages casually scribbled at the back of a notebook, perhaps, while she may have been staring out of her window distractedly. Sometimes, they are her anguished lament, her impassioned protest, wrenched out of her by the brutality of the world or the injustice perpetually dished out to those clinging to the lowermost rungs of the societal ladder for dear life. Her 'Power', one of the most influential and well-known poems from her entire oeuvre, simmers with a righteous rage, intense enough to blow a hole through the edifice of 'white supremacist patriarchy' aside from being a tribute to the memory of young Clifford Glover, a 10-year-old African American boy shot dead by a white cop on duty in South Jamaica, Queens, New York in '73, who was later acquitted by a white-majority jury with a single black female judge.

Today that 37-year-old white man with
13 years of police forcing
has been set free
by 11 white men who said they were satisfied
justice had been done
and one black woman who said
"They convinced me" meaning
they had dragged her 4'10" black woman's frame
over the hot coals of four centuries of white male approval
until she let go of the first real power she ever had
and lined her own womb with cement
to make a graveyard for our children.

Lorde remains one of the few poets in American history who had to contend with the tyranny of conforming to the demands of too many labels conferred on persecuted minorities - black woman in a white man's world, radical feminist, lesbian, civil rights activist. And yet she managed to breach the boundaries of these individual identities by singing in a richly resonant voice whose musicality still holds the power of bridging gaps, relaying the stories of the voiceless and the marginalised, healing the scars left by turbulent times and smoothening out our countless differences across continents and timelines. 
In my eyes, that makes her a hero more than a poet.


   photo C136E66569D294E4D5DA2D8124D4FF69.png

Monday, August 25, 2014

Review: Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively

First published:-1987

Star rating:-

Read in:- December, 2013

Claudia Hampton speaks to me of wars fought in distant lands, of the ever-persistent forward march of humanity in the quest for collective betterment, of stories unknowingly buried forever in the catacombs of time and never unearthed, of the people we carry in our hearts wherever we go, of the history of the world intertwined with our own. Claudia tries to make sense of the cacophony of voices inside her head and outside, of conflicting opinions colliding violently creating sparks that burn down empires and turn to rubble the foundation of regimes. Claudia tells me a story of the past melded with the present. 

Claudia's history of the world isn't one-sided. She accedes, to all the players involved, their right to speak for themselves, to say that which has been coldly snubbed by the opinionated historian of the past. Claudia does not look at past events through the lenses of established notions, of opinions passed off as indisputable facts. Larger than life heroes are reduced to the status of mere mortals in her eyes, violent uprisings become a trigger for devastating tragedies instead of turning points in the history of a nation's struggle for liberty. Images of a world war become indiscernible from the images of her lover who dies fighting in it and the entailing heartbreak she could never purge from her memories no matter how hard she tried. The unyielding bond she shares with her brother Gordon, her rival, her biggest critic, her most devoted admirer, and in the end her lover, remains intact even after he is no longer there to provoke her, to argue with her relentlessly, to urge her on towards becoming a more refined version of herself. 

"For there are moments, out here in this place and at this time, when she feels that she is untethered, no longer hitched to past or future or to a known universe but adrift in the cosmos."

Claudia never became what others wanted her to be, stubbornly trudging along a path forged by none but herself. She loved the daughter born out of wedlock dearly, but from afar, without the grand show of affection expected of any mother. And as she lies in that hospital bed, her life force slowly ebbing away, a frail old woman of 76, misunderstood by the ones dearest to her, my heart weeps for the grief that she kept carefully hidden from everyone, a secret she carried to her grave. But I bid her farewell with a smile, soothed by the knowledge that her life was, after all, a life well-lived.

  photo C136E66569D294E4D5DA2D8124D4FF69.png

Monday, August 11, 2014

Review: White Teeth by Zadie Smith

First published:-1999

Star rating:-

There are parts of this book fully deserving of unadulterated love and veneration, worthy of 4 stars in the least. The fact that the real India, Jamaica and Bangladesh are recreated here and not the imagined India, Jamaica and Bangladesh of white writers too reluctant to put in the requisite amount of research for getting the most inconsequential tidbits right has much to do with it. In addition, Zadie Smith succeeds in keenly evoking their history, language, cultural ethos, the stench of their festering old wounds inflicted by an undo-able past, and their bizarre hypocrisies making the leap across land and oceanic borders into alien territory, exempted from being dissected by the scalpel of 'western reason' in the name of minority rights. 

There's the undeniable truth of centuries of conditioned servility, hatred of the power which established the ground rules of the abusive relationship called colonialism, and the unfathomable responsibility of bearing the burden of yesterday.

"[] they can't help but reenaact the dash they once made from one land to another, from one faith to another, from one brown mother country in to the pale, freckled arms of an imperial sovereign."

There's the Bengaliness of the family to be religiously guarded against the sallies of Western liberalism; imminent dilution of the much treasured Bengali DNA in the gene pool staved off at all costs. And there's war to be waged on foreign territory - for another inch of land, another notch up on the dignity scale, for yet another step of the socioeconomic ladder. Whenever stung by the prick of casual racism, whenever thwarted, they will go back to their institutionalized tendencies of seeing things in black and white and studiously avoiding mentions of a gray area; they won't think twice before disregarding their favorite Gandhiji's famed 'An eye for an eye will make the whole world blind.' They will seek out the greener pastures of first world optimism but resist synthesis, tugging at the roots of old grudges again and again so that the present and the now can be drawn and quartered on the altar of history.

"And then you begin to give up the very idea of belonging. Suddenly this thing, this belonging, it seems like some long, dirty lie...and I begin to believe that birthplaces are accidents, that everything is an accident."

But then there are the 'just-roll-with-it' parts which deserve no more than 2 stars - the cocksure and smug tone in which the narrator recounts this multi-generational saga of families caught in the chaos of modern day materialism vs heritage, the unrealistic, often two-dimensional characterization and the zany Britcom feel to the episodes which warrants a suspension of disbelief and gives rise to the nagging suspicion that this was written with the idea of a film or tv series adaptation in mind. 

As much as Smith's light-hearted, tongue-in-cheek, clever mockery of roots and righteous reliance on said roots for existential validation is absolutely legitimate and spot-on, it is awfully disingenuous to think roots can and should be so easily discarded. Assimilation requires time and the immigration conundrum will never be felt as acutely by second generation immigrants (like Smith herself) as by their progenitors. This is where I prefer Jhumpa Lahiri's narrative voice (her later works) over Smith's - no inflection of moral and intellectual superiority, no pronouncing of judgement on flawed choices but a restrained attempt at humanizing all characters. 

Since the 4-star and 2-star ratings are equally bona fide in my eyes, a 3-star it is. More so because I can't remember the last time a woman writer of contemporary literary fiction made me laugh so hard.

   photo C136E66569D294E4D5DA2D8124D4FF69.png

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Review: Death by Black Hole and Other Cosmic Quandaries by Neil deGrasse Tyson

First published:- 2006

Star rating:-

Neil deGrasse Tyson is a force to reckon with. 


But he is not Carl Sagan. 

While Sagan must have smiled down kindly on your meek acknowledgement of ignorance regarding, say, black holes, Tyson will have most probably given you the stink eye or aimed a sarcastic jibe at your apathy, before proceeding to explain why black holes still remain a topic of much speculation in the community of astrophysicists worldwide.

Tyson does not pull any punches in this collection of essays while slamming the news media, who more often than not, come off as ill-informed hacks doing a shoddy job of reporting facts in the field of space science, forever (stupidly) claiming how scientists are baffled by so-and-so new developments. 
"Scientists cannot claim to be on the research frontier unless one thing or another baffles them. Bafflement drives discovery."

Or snidely commenting on the Hollywood exercise of producing multi-million dollar sci-fi films which badly butcher the scientific aspects of such ventures by inserting factually incorrect observations in scenes and dialogues. (there's a brilliant anecdote concerning James Cameron's 'Titanic' in this regard and the Contact film gets an honorable mention for its adherence to proper science if one overlooks a minor gaffe)
"I am glad that, in the end, the humans win. We conquer the 'Independence Day' aliens by having a Macintosh laptop computer upload a software virus to the mothership. [] The entire defense system for the alien mothership must have been powered by the same release of Apple Computer's system software as the laptop computer that delivered the virus."

Or criticizing the mad dash for extending the frontiers of space science during the Cold war years, when the spirit of scientific inquiry was sidelined in favor of a dangerous game of political one-upmanship, a kind of puerile assertion of 'our scientists are better than yours'. Or openly chastising revered names from ancient Greece like Aristotle whose inaccurate assumptions about the unchanging nature of stars and the geocentric universe helped the Catholic Church in propagating falsities for centuries with impunity. (He doesn't even spare Newton forGod's Higgs Boson's sake who, unable to satisfactorily explain the ordered behavior of the solar system despite the many often conflicting gravitational forces at work, had cited God's need to step in to correct things in his famed 'Principia')

While Sagan may have adopted a more benign, less aggressive tone in course of addressing issues of religious dogma being at loggerheads with scientific reasoning and aversion to science and mathematics among the general populace, NDT takes the approach of pure, unadulterated logic and demolishes one popular misconception after another (for e.g.:-the North Star is not the most brilliant star in the night sky or how everything that goes up doesn't come down) with a brute force which I am certain will not sit well with some sensitive readers who are easily offended. 

Being born in a country whose space research organization head performs pujas and makes ritualistic offerings prior to launching a 'Mission to Mars', I can't say I fault NDT's acerbic tone or his distaste for those who are hell-bent on unifying science and religion without even realizing that finding common ground between both is akin to attempting to exceed the velocity of light.

But if NDT lacks Sagan's sage-like demeanour and his rich, authorial voice (Sagan's prose is much more refined no doubt), his excellent sense of humor almost compensates for their absence - 
"The good thing about the laws of physics is that they require no law enforcement agencies to maintain them, although I once owned a nerdy T-shirt that loudly proclaimed, "OBEY GRAVITY."
"The only people who still call hurricanes 'acts of God' are the people who write insurance forms."
(and Michele Bachmann, just saying)

And occasionally there's a sop thrown in for the literary-minded (particularly the postmodernist fiction lover) - 
"The physicist Murray Gell-Mann, who in 1964 proposed the existence of quarks, and who at the time thought the quark family had only three members, drew the name from a characteristically elusive line in James Joyce's Finnegans Wake:'Three quarks for Muster Mark!'"

The more frivolous aspects of the essays aside, among the astrophysics-related topics NDT centers his discussions around, the ones which were relatively new to me are the concepts of hypernovae, gamma ray bursts, dark matter and dark energy, the uncertainty surrounding the string theory and the probability of the annihilation of Earth through ill-fated, cosmic encounters with errant asteroids, the unavoidable, impending collision of our galaxy with the Andromeda galaxy which is the nearest one heading towards us at a speed of more than 100 kilometers per second.

The Andromeda Galaxy

Since this is a collection of 42 essays which were published in the 'Natural History' magazine, some repetition of concepts and names creeps in occasionally but that merely helps you refresh memories of what you just read a few pages back, not exactly a shortcoming I am keen to quibble over. 

4 stars, because Tyson seems a little too bitter about artists who exercise 'artistic license' to distort certain astronomical facts in their paintings. Besides I am certain there is a lot of 5-star-worthy goodness in the rest of NDT's works left for me to discover in the future.

   photo C136E66569D294E4D5DA2D8124D4FF69.png
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...