Reading Sylvia Plath

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Reading Plath was quite difficult in the beginning, but there was something about her soul that I found myself clinging on to. Her words feel like a voyage of discovery and insight. To call her poems just “confessional” would be to underestimate her work. Plath loves to push to the extreme–humour, irony, pain. Her fluidity of language, use of metaphors and intensity are three very notable elements in her work.

She often employs descriptive words and metaphors to create the world she wants to take her readers. The imageries are astounding. Her sarcasm, humour, wit, gut, can be seen all through the pages. Some lines of her poems now live in my head:

“Always in the middle of a kiss

Came the profane stimulus to cough

Always from the pulpit during service

Leaned the devil prompting you to laugh

I observed some transitions in her works:

  • There were some villanelles in earlier poems but I did not see any in her later work
  • Her allusion to natural elements like the universe, sun, moon, was more apparent in her earlier works compared to the poems she wrote between 1956 and 1963.
  • Her later works mirrored more candour and intensity
  • Use of rhymes in her later works compared to earlier ones was also evident

She has become one of my favourite poets. On some days, I run to her words. Her poems amplify our sameness and differences. This collection of 274 poems communicate her pain, loss, joys. The part I enjoyed reading most is the section: “Juvenilia.”

Also, she has an indirect and direct way of alluding to things, incidents, encounters and experiences. In Stillborn, she metaphorically describes her dissatisfaction with her poems:

These poems do not live: it’s a sad diagnosis.

They grew their toes and fingers well enough,

Their little foreheads bulged with concentration.

If they missed out on walking about like people

It wasn’t for any lack of mother-love.

I find it unsettling that many people view her poems through the lens of her mental illness and suicide. She writes with both cheerfulness and gloom about a range of topics: love, marriage, literature, depression, suicide, nature, feminism. Her words are raw. It’s as though she speaks from a place of isolation, like a voice crying in the wilderness. I also observed the use of two particular words in several poems: “great” and “clock.” Plath was one of a kind and this is a collection I know I will keep returning to.

A Measure of Silence #5: This Is Mine

After Elizabeth Strout (My Name is Lucy Barton)

  1. There is the question of how children become aware of what the world is and how to act in it. How do you even know what you look like if the only mirror in the house is a tiny one high above the kitchen sink, or if you have never heard a living soul say you’re pretty?
  1. While it is said that children accepted their circumstances as normal, both Vicky and I understood that we were different. We were equally friendless and equally scorned, and we eyed each other with the same suspicion with which we eyed the world.
  1. Her mother had not treated her well, she said, and so when she had her first baby she became very sad, and her psychiatrist told her that she was feeling grief because of everything she had not received from her own mother.
  1. A few years ago I went there not to look like my mother. The doctor said that almost everyone came in the first time and said they looked like their mother and didn’t want to… She put tiny needles into the wrinkles by my mouth. You are beautiful now, she said. You look like yourself.
  1. The rage of my girls during those years! There are moments I try to forget but I will never forget. I worry about what it is they will never forget.
  1. I think I know so well the pain we children clutch to our chests, how it lasts our lifetimes, with longings so large you can’t even weep. We hold it tight, we do, with each seizure of the beating heart: This is mine, this is mine, this is mine

A Measure of Silence #4: Run

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Noah Salloway from the TV series, The Affair, sits across this woman in her office, trying to understand how he got to this point. He was a good, faithful husband with four kids, but just within a year, he had cheated on his wife of twenty years, moved in with the woman he had an affair with, and was already at the verge of sleeping with another woman.

Maybe, he wonders, the traits – ego, intensity, drive – that make some great men achieve extraordinary feats are also what lead them to cheat. But should it matter? After all, in the grand scheme of things, they would have touched lives and made remarkable impacts in their generation.

I find their dialogue quite interesting and engaging. “My father,” he says to the woman, “told my father-in-law he was also an artist but he gave up in order to care of his sick wife. But no, it’s not true, the man did nothing for his sick wife. My sister and I did everything. He never cheated, and so genuinely thinks he’s a fucking hero. He was a delinquent father and a terrible husband though. Fuck him, because if that’s what being a good man is, I don’t want any part of it.”

“It makes sense to me given the history you described that you might have developed skepticism about fidelity as a virtue,” said the woman, Noah Salloway’s psychotherapist

This also makes me wonder how often the past judges the present. Faster, faster, we run from something, only to meet it in front of us. Perhaps it takes more than sheer determination to run away from some things. Perhaps, it’s not everything we can run away from?

A Measure of Silence #3: Don’t leave home

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Image Credit: Silent Man

The past never lacks proof: old clothes, game boards, letters, and photographs. Materials that bear witness to who we once were, what we once held dear. On the bookshelf in the corner of the living room was a photograph of a boy who was now a man. He grew up to the realization that freedom, the thing he sought the most, would not be handed down to him – especially not by his father. He fought to get it, letting go of everything else. In the face of the five-year-old boy in the photograph, this old man saw someone who would become who he failed to be. Refusing to allow himself to live in the shadow of someone else, the boy, who was now a man, had said to his father “I will not live my life trying to make up for your failures” and left the house. As this old man stood in front of the photograph, remembering the words his son said to him, he swallowed the lump that had formed in his throat. “Such an innocent child, how could he have resisted so much,” he said to the photograph, tracing its frame, as his wrinkled fingers searched for solace in the image of the now grown man who has vowed never to come home.

Home.

A Measure of Silence #2: When the centre cannot hold

chainAll he did his entire life was play the flute and consume gourds of palm-wine bought with borrowed money. So Chinua Achebe wanted the life of his character, Unoka, in Things Fall Apart, to be. As this loafer, Okonkwo’s father, lay dying on his mud bed, he said to him “A proud heart can survive a general failure because such failure does not prick its pride. It is more difficult and more bitter when a man fails alone.” Okonkwo was ruled by one passion – to hate everything that his father Unoka had loved. Being young makes us seek explanation; premature attempts to trace our way back to wholeness, the wholeness we really never had. Some people carry the past with them, not only with their hands, but even their sighs bear witness. They do not wish to accept it, but they preserve it, they furnish it, they sharpen its rotting edges and use it to shield themselves again and again. I refuse to make the same mistakes, they say to themselves. I will not be caught unawares this time. I’m protected. But Okonkwo would never understand why his son turned out effeminate right under his nose. In the end, he could not protect himself from the failure that soiled his pride.

He did not save himself from dying alone.

A Measure of Silence #1: As if you have a choice

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“All fathers want to do is hold you down”

“Anyway,” he continues, “I finally work up the nerve and tell him: ‘I don’t want to spend the rest of my life on a goddamn tugboat.’ Well, I turned myself into an artist. A tattoo artist!” He says, unfastening the buttons of his shirt to reveal his chest. He stands up, removes his trousers, and turns around. After all, Benjamin Button must see all these beautiful drawings on his body. “You have to skin me alive to take my art away from me now. When I’m dead, I’m gonna send him my arm,” he says, raising his left arm. On it is a drawing of the upper part of a naked lady. He plants a gentle kiss on it. “Don’t let anyone tell you different. You gotta do what you’re meant to do. And I happen to be a goddamn artist!”

“But you’re a tugboat captain,” replied Benjamin Button.

One of the saddest things that can happen to someone is to become who they once swore never to be. And I’m not talking about telling yourself in your twenties that you’d never have anything to do with politics, and then finding yourself treading that path in your forties. I’m talking about living a life you detest. A life you hate so much that you wake up everyday, wishing you could run away from it.

There are parents that impose their desires on their children. As though their children’s achievements will somehow correct or erase their failures. They want them to accomplish what they couldn’t, irrespective of what the child wants. But it gets to a point in our lives where we can (or should) no longer blame our parents for what become of our lives.

Still, some said words and actions remain deep beneath the skin, leading them down a path they do not want. They know they should not take it, they know they should turn back, but they keep walking anyway. Farther and farther. Some words just never go away.

“They shot the hell out of my painting!” he cries out. In anguish, he raises his arm to remove his shirt, blood gushing out from his chest. He wants to behold his wonderful art one last time, but his skin has been shattered by bullet. Before he takes his last breath, Captain Mike holds Button’s hand as though he were his father, and says to him, “you can be as mad as a mad dog at the way things went. You could swear, curse the fates. But when it comes to the end, you have to let go.”

It’s just sad, sad, sad. Miserable. For someone’s life to end without them pursuing what they truly desire. Throughout his life, Captain Mike struggled so much against living for his father’s expectation that he ended up doing just that.

In the end, he did not, could not, send his tattooed arm to his father.

P.S: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is a film adaptation of a short story by F. Scott. Fitzgerald.

A Measure of Silence

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Image Credit: www.pinterest.com

There is a distance that exists between strangers, a mutual silence. Conversations easily dismissed by a smile, a nod, a phone call, or just the turning away of the head. No words owed. No entitlement. No offence. We are thankful for the thin layer of shield that guards us from the gawking eyes on the road, the warm feel of the hand of the person sitting beside us in a bus. But this unspoken familial distance that offers us no protection, this silence that erects itself as a barrier between a woman and her daughter, a man and his son, brother and sister, what shall we say of it?

In the past few months, I have been drawn to learn more on familial relationships. Not only because they are primal, but also because they shapen how we see the world. I believe a lot will be better in the world if we can pay close attention to the family unit.

I will be writing on this topic for the next few weeks, using instances from movie scenes, books, visual arts (perhaps), conversations, experiences, on how familial relationships affect people positively and/or adversely. The forms of art will be my interpretation and understanding of this topic in relation to real life situations. First post will be up next week Sunday.

P.S: If you’d like to suggest books, movies, stories, just about anything that deals with this topic, I’d very much appreciate it. Kindly send an email to kemifaloxy@gmail.com

Learning Resilience: You Don’t Stop When You’re Tired, You Stop When You’re Done

And so after the hiatus that lasted two months, I went for a run. I had been awake for over an hour so I didn’t need extra motivation to drag myself out of bed. At exactly 6:26AM, I stepped out of my house. Usually, I would go knock on Fola’s door to wake him, and we’d go together. But he had traveled, and I wasn’t going to let that stop me. So, off I went.

After about five minutes, I started breathing so hard and all my body wanted to do was stop. Usually, Fola jogged behind me, so no matter how tired I was in the beginning, hearing his foot falls gave me some encouragement, so I wouldn’t, couldn’t stop.

It was hard for me keeping up the first few days we started running, and though he was stronger and faster, he would remain behind me just so I would keep moving. There was a time we were returning, and I was so tired he had to piggyback me on the road and passersby couldn’t help but stare.

He would keep saying “move it, move it.” And I moved my ass. After a while, I began to improve and then he would say, “Ha, Kemi, you’re the strong one now. See the distance us.” Even though I knew he was kidding, that it was his way of telling me I was getting better, I would smile and savour the moment. I no longer tired easily. There were times he’d point to an electric pole in the near distant and ask us to stop there. And I’d say, “No, let’s not stop there, let’s keep jogging,” and I could almost feel him rolling his eyes and smiling behind me.

But this morning, alone, I started breathing hard after about three minutes. If there’s one thing I have learnt from past experiences is that you cannot afford to stop to catch your breath. If only you can just endure that moment that insists you stop and breathe, if only you can continue, then you’d be fine. After that phase, it would almost feel like being on autopilot, at least that is how it is for me. For a while, I would barely be able to feel my legs. My mind would be everywhere thinking and imagining; my eyes busy looking at trees, rocks, people and everything around; while my legs would just keep carrying me.

But after some time, I would start feeling so tired again I had to will my body to continue. You don’t stop when you’re tired. You stop when you’re done. You don’t stop when you’re tired. You stop when you’re done. You don’t stop when you’re tired. You stop when you’re done. I’d repeat to myself. And so the cycle continued. It was easier for me going on all those times because Fola was behind me, he wouldn’t let me stop. But this morning, with no one telling me to move it, all I wanted to do at that point was stop. But I didn’t. Even when my heart was threatening to come out through my mouth, I didn’t stop. And to my surprise, I ran the distance we normally did, and I wasn’t as tired as I used to feel in the past.

I have been genuinely tired at some points in my life. Although life has been fairly good to me. I find myself fortunate not to have experienced/encountered some tragedies that alter people’s outlook on life. But this world sometimes insist we bear more and more pain even after we can no longer bear it. Life gives you your share of troubles at some point. No one is completely free.

There are days I wake up feeling unprepared for life, like I am not well equipped. I mean, I have been around for over two decades and I still feel I’m not used to living. Some days I’m so worried I’m not making as much progress, that my potentials are just there for nothing, and my life is just wasting away. Sometimes it feels like I’m not even present in my life, like someone else is living it and I’m just there to observe. I think about the things I haven’t got right, the stuff I told myself I was going to do but haven’t got around to starting. And even though I know I’m not exactly folding my arms and watching my life go by, on those days, in that mental zone, nothing really feels enough.

There are times I get so tired and it almost seems like I’m jogging on the same spot. But I don’t stop because I know if I do that, starting over will be more difficult. So even if I have to wait for a car to drive past, I keep jogging in that position. You don’t stop when you’re tired, you stop when you’re done.

I know if I were to jog alongside someone else, the distance that usually takes me about an hour to cover might take them forty-five minutes or less. But it doesn’t matter. The most important thing is that I recognize my lane, stop looking at other runners and just focus on my own race. In the past few months, my mantra has been your race, your pace. It’s my race, and I can only run it at my pace. Running fast and finishing early is good, but that isn’t the goal.

The goal is to finish.

I recently happened on this quote and it’s fast becoming one of my favourites:

Those who are blessed with the soaring swiftness

of an eagle and have flown before, let them go.

I’ll travel slowly and I too will arrive – Ayi Kwi Armah

Of course we need people, no one makes it out here alone but no one will run your race for you. Your friends have theirs too. And as much as you need people to cheer you on, it’s still your race. Your loved ones can only be on the sidelines, prodding you on.

Hiding From God in the Skyline

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One of my favourite words in the English dictionary is ‘horizon.’ Apart from it striking as an intrinsically beautiful and graceful word, it sounds like a warm, safe place to run into. A fortress.

At the thought of ‘horizon,’ I like to imagine sitting at the shore of an ocean, supporting myself with my hands at the back, eyes wide open gazing at this awesomeness that is water, and looking into the far distant where the sky appears to be kissing the ocean. The ocean has a curious relationship with the sky, I think, how else can two things be so far apart and still together? I cannot see what is happening between them, but they seem to be at peace.

I also like to imagine two lovers walking, each step showing security and confidence in their love for each other. They are holding hands and laughing as they walk on, then they stand for some minutes to watch the burnt orange ball as it slowly declines behind the horizon. Then they walk on, still holding hands.

Like the lovers, there is something about the oceans that stir memories. Memories of taking long walks, communicating, and sharing jokes with God; memories of having the feeling of being in a safe, warm place; memories of holding hands with someone to agree in prayer for something; memories of scurrying to church because you don’t want to be late. They are all distant memories now.

It is quiet in the distant, but on this side, all the ocean does is swirl and ebb this way and that way, growing, threatening, changing direction as it pleases, and finally slowly coming to meet the shore. It’s beautiful, the view, watching how the sands never tire to receive the water each time it grows big and stubborn and leaves. When it comes back, the shore embraces it. The shore always embraces it.

It’s like forgetting the words to your favourite song
You can’t believe it, you were always singing along
It was so easy and the words so sweet
You can’t remember you tried to move your feet

I woke up this morning with this lyrics from Regina Spektor’s Eet in my head, and in those words, I saw myself. How can something you desperately wish to remember be so inaccessible? How can something you love slowly slip away from you? What can you do to some memories?

I think of forever in the manner with which the water keeps coming to the shore. I think of forever as far as my eyes can see when I look at the way the sky and the sea appear to be in a lifelong romance. I think of forever even though it’s infinite and my mind cannot even comprehend it. I try.

There are many things in the universe that outlive us: the sky, the sea, the stars, for example. The creator too, the one who put eternity in every man.

There was a time I would just partake in those activities like everyone else, but even then, there had always been a sort of disturbance in me. I always felt there was something more. And gradually, my curious mind began to take me beyond the busyness and happenings. I thought I had a personal relationship with God, I thought I heard him speak to me several times, so how did I arrive here with all these doubts and questions? I need to understand, to see, to know. I need to know for myself. Over the years, I have had periods of oscillating faith. I have struggled with the certainty of God’s existence. A part of me wants to search, to know the truth, to know I’m in all the way and not just continue doing those things that have now become distant memories; and there’s a part of me that doesn’t care much any longer. Or that doesn’t want to care.

But despite the doubts, there is one thing I still hold on to: God loves me relentlessly. I just can’t let that go. It doesn’t matter how far I get carried away by waves, going this way and that way, he will be there, like the shore, waiting to receive me. Waiting to embrace me.

But how can one believe in, and persistently hold on to the love of someone whose existence one doubts?

Another word for ‘horizon’ is ‘skyline,’ also an enchanting word, not just as beautiful. Horizon. Horizon. Close your eyes for five seconds and keep pronouncing that word slowly. Horizon. There’s a gentle bliss the z brings to me. The Skyline is the apparent line that separates earth from sky, the line that divides all visible directions into two categories. Two categories. You are either the ocean/earth or the sky. I sometimes wonder the possibility of standing on/in the skyline, neither on earth nor in the sky. Is there no space there? None at all? Surely, there should be, albeit small. I don’t mind at all. My body can fit in, it’s small. Is there no room for my body there?

Because on the line is where I am right now, until I allow myself to fully belong somewhere. Once again.

Outline: A book that lives up to its name

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Outline is an unusual novel that communicates the process of thinking, the complexity of intimacy, and our longings as humans.

Rachel Cusk captures things our eyes are sometimes not quick enough to grasp. Her protagonist, a writer who travels to Athens to teach a writing workshop, has the ability to make people give details of their lives – failed marriages, career, affairs etc., while succeeding to give little information about her own life.

With the writing style, Outline bears little resemblance to the books I have read. The characters are vain, lonely or simply yearning for something they themselves don’t understand. The series of conversations the protagonist has with people are paraphrased, as though other characters do not have a voice, and it is only hers – whose name isn’t even revealed until later in the book – Cusk wants us to hear. The narrative is not conventional: No arc, climax, or a character to cheer on, just a bunch of people with different stories and struggles.

The story of one of her students, Penelope and her cake-eating dog, for example, is one that I find intriguing. Penelope has always been compelled, since their childhood, to see things from her sister’s point of view whenever she is around her. So she is all over the place, showing her sister the birthday cake she had baked even though she will still see it anyway, following her outside and listening to her talk about her car, forgetting why she had hidden the cake from the dog in the first place. Something did not feel right at that point as she watched her sister, she felt she was an observer in her own life. She had wondered about this need to perform, to present her life to her sister instead of letting her find out for herself, naturally.

Cusk writes with unapologetic cleverness. She writes to find truth, to tell stories of those injured by life. Her ability to use haunting words that will not leave you alone and her carefully crafted sentences put you, sometimes in a state where you begin to desire to see more, other times in a state of abandonment, leaving you to figure out a way.

The manner with which she describes the gulf of distance that exists between people, especially once-upon-a-time lovers is another skill to note. Writing about Paniotis’ plight, an old friend of the protagonist who, with his kids, were forced to spend the night in a mountain inn because of the storm. He called his ex-wife, expecting her to “take up her part in our lifelong duet…” but was soon disappointed by her lack of sympathy. Her response was “I’m sure you’ll manage somehow.” That was when he realised they were leading towards “a silence that would in the end remain unbroken.”

A friend asked Faye, the narrator, if she liked the neighbour she had been spending afternoons with on a boat. In an attempt to summon her feelings for her neighbour, she closed her eyes, and then opened them and her response was that she had become so unused to thinking about things in terms of whether she liked them or whether she didn’t. Her neighbour was merely a perfectly good example of something about which she could only feel absolute ambivalence.

One’s judgement of the Outline can be summed in that response. This is a book you may like for its intelligence, insight and unconventional writing, but there is also the part you may find unsettling and unsatisfying, as though there is a debt Cusk needs to pay for the elusiveness and vagueness of her characters. But one major thing is, the book serves as a sketch, revealing much about our individual consciousness while giving little away. It lives up to its name – Outline.