Book Review: Good Benito by Alan Lightman

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Title: Good Benito
Author: Alan Lightman
Genre: Fiction, Bildungsroman
First Published: 1994, Pantheon Books

In a world where the everyman struggles to perfect one craft, Alan Lightman is one of those rare individuals whose immense talents lie in multiple fields. Not only is Lightman an award-winning novelist, he is also a celebrated physicist and social entrepreneur. In his fictional works, he deftly injects a touch of physics into the novel’s equation. His first novel, Einstein’s Dreams offers a whimsical and fictionalized take on a slice of Einstein’s life—featuring dreams that lead up to the theoretical physicist’s formulation of the theories of relativity.

Einstein’s Dreams was an absolute delight to read. Its stunning prose and breathtaking ideas left a serious and indelible imprint in my mind’s landscape. So it was with tremendous excitement that I turned to Lightman’s second novel, Good Benito.

Simply put, Good Benito is a non-linear account of the life of Bennett Lang, a physicist trying to make a name in the world of science and academics while struggling to comprehend and navigate the chaotic plane of human emotions and relationships. Each chapter reads like a vignette, showing an episode of Bennett’s life. We see his journey from an emotionally stunted child, creating his first ‘rocket,’ to an assistant professor for a second-tier college—still trying to find his place in the academic world.

Along the way, we meet a myriad of interesting, well fleshed-out, and incredibly flawed characters that helped shape Bennett’s viewpoint of the world. We meet his emotionally distant father who had dreamt of being a WWII hero but now wishes he had died with his men, his lonely mother trying to find happiness anywhere she can, his African American nanny who has let him into her life but refuses to let him into her house, his uncle with a severe gambling problem, and his self-destructive wife who pushes Bennett into becoming a cruel version of himself. We see how a promising romance and marriage devolves into an emotionally abusive relationship that ends in divorce.

All this, we witness through Lightman’s naked, prosaic, but impossibly precise prose. Though not as beautifully, or rather as poetically, written as Einstein’s Dreams, what makes Good Benito so compelling is how grounded the whole work feels. The matter-of-fact and yet introspective and eloquent manner by which Lightman writes ensures that the reader is along for the ride in this strikingly profound novel.

Rating: A+

The Most Romantic Poems of All Time (Part 2)

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Here’s the continuation to my post on the most romantic poems of all time. Again, in no particular order, another ten love poems guaranteed to make you a little weak in the knees.

To My Dear and Loving Husband by Anne Bradstreet

I prize thy love more than the whole mines of gold,
Or all the riches that the East doth hold.
My love is such that rivers cannot quench,
Nor ought but love from thee give recompense.

This short poem from Anne Bradstreet reads like a beautiful and passionate love letter. The poet talks about the intense happiness one can derive from being with the person one loves. The persona also claims that her esteem for her husband is eternal—for it is the type of love that can never be surpassed. It is his love alone that can satisfy her. She also expresses tremendous gratitude to her husband for this life-changing and immortal love.

Meeting at Night by Robert Browning

A tap at the pane, the quick sharp scratch
And blue spurt of a lighted match,
And a voice less loud, through joys and fears,
Than the two hearts beating each to each.

In my previous post, I had included Sonnet 43 (How do I love thee) by Elizabeth Barrett Browning. This time around, we have an entry from her husband, Robert Browning. Meeting at Night speaks of a rendezvous between lovers. More accurately, it talks about the persona’s journey to his lover’s place and the excitement they feel upon seeing each other.

At the start of the poem, the persona describes what he sees and experiences without disclosing his intended destination. It is only in the last two sentences that we realize it is a joyful and somewhat secret reunion between him and his loved one (tap of the pane, quick sharp scratch).

To His Coy Mistress by Andrew Marvell

My vegetable love should grow
Vaster than empires, and more slow;
An hundred years should go to praise
Thine eyes and on thy forehead gaze;

Here’s a small confession from this reader—I can’t quite decide if this ‘love poem’ is sweet or not, but what I know is that its persona is persistent. To His Coy Mistress, a poem published posthumously in 1681, is one of the most well-known poems from Andrew Marvell. In it, the persona is in pursuit of his ‘coy mistress.’ He starts the poem declaring the breadth and depth of his love for her and then attempts to convince her to give in to his seduction by presenting the rather harsh imagery of death. He asks her to love him before it’s too late for both of them. Sweet or not, this poem earns high points for its morbid persistence.

Annabel Lee by Edgar Allan Poe

For the moon never beams, without bringing me dreams
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;
And the stars never rise, but I feel the bright eyes
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;

More sad than sweet, Annabel Lee by Edgar Allan Poe explores the theme of a love that continues even after death. The poem, which is about the death of a beautiful woman, is believed to have been inspired by Poe’s own loss. His wife, Virginia Eliza Clemm Poe, was just 24 years old when she succumbed to a bout of consumption.

In the poem, the persona remembers and relives the loss of his beloved. They had been in love as children, and had maintained a love so strong that even the angels were envious of their happiness. The angels then sent down a wind that chilled and killed the beautiful Annabel Lee. Despite her death, the persona insists that their love remains strong; for nothing could ever sever his soul from the soul of Annabel Lee.

A Red, Red Rose by Robert Burns

Till a’ the seas gang dry, my dear,
And the rocks melt wi’ the sun:
I will luv thee still, my dear,
While the sands o’ life shall run.

A Red, Red Rose was written by Robert Burns in 1794. Despite actually being a song and not a poem, its lyrics and consistent publication in literary sites has landed it a place in my top 20 love poems list. With its charming imagery of red roses in June and rocks melting in the sun, the poem depicts the sweetness of true and lasting love.

I Loved You First: but Afterwards Your Love by Christina Rossetti

For verily love knows not ‘mine’ or ‘thine’;
With separate ‘I’ and ‘thou’ free love has done,
For one is both and both are one in love:

In I loved you first: but afterwards your love, Christina Rossetti writes about the oneness that comes with being in a relationship with the right person. The persona addresses her lover directly, confessing that while she may have loved him first, it was his love that outsoared hers. But ultimately, there is no need for “weights and measures,” for as Rossetti puts it:

Rich love knows nought of ‘thine that is not mine’;
Both have the strength and both the length thereof,
Both of us, of the love which makes us one.

 A Glimpse by Walt Whitman

…And I unremark’d seated in a corner;
Of a youth who loves me, and whom I love, silently approaching, and
Seating himself near, that he may hold me by the hand;

True to its name, A Glimpse by Walt Whitman reads like a beautiful scene from your favorite romance novel. Just one moment of sheer happiness and contentment as the rest of the world continues its hustle and bustle, its flurry of movement. One scene of love immortalized in time.

Sonnet 18 by William Shakespeare

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date:

Sonnet 18, alternatively titled as Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?, is perhaps the most well-loved of Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets. In the poem, the persona addresses his lover and compares his beloved to a lovely summer’s day. But ultimately, he points out that his dearest is fairer and more everlasting than the short season, beautiful as summertime may be. His words also prove prophetic when he claims that his beloved will be immortalized through this text, as both Shakespeare and Sonnet 18 have become a permanent fixtures in the ever-evolving literary landscape.

That I Did Always Love by Emily Dickinson

That I did always love
I bring thee Proof
That till I loved
I never lived—Enough—

Fact: Emily Dickinson is one of the finest (and most eccentric) poets to have walked the earth. Also a fact: with her unique use of syntax and capitalizations, her poems are shrouded in an esoteric curtain that begs to be lifted. Well, perhaps more than a curtain, each work is an onion that begs to be peeled layer by layer. Now, the beauty of That I Did Always Love is its rawness and straightforwardness.

Through this poem, she proves to her beloved that she has always loved him. She tells him, almost directly between her em dashes, that what gives life meaning is love, and that should he doubt her love for him then she would feel nothing but immense suffering.

Love After Love by Derek Walcott

You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
To itself, to the stranger who has loved you

All your life, whom you ignored

 And finally, rounding up this list is Love after Love by Sir Derek Walcott. Dare I say it? This is probably my favorite love poem of all—for it is a love poem for one’s self. In this poem, the persona talks to the reader directly and reminds the reader that when everyone else is gone, there is one other person that deserves your love—yourself.

It is easy enough to forget oneself when in love. We give and we give and we empty ourselves in the hopes of reciprocity. But in the midst of a whirlwind or a soft and lingering love affair, it is important to once in a while, “Sit. [and] Feast on your life.”

(See Part I of The Most Romantic Poems of All Time)

Secrets to a Happy and Lasting Marriage

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February 17, 2017. Today, the world celebrates Random Acts of Kindness Day, and while I’m all for practicing this non-official holiday, the date takes on a more significant meaning within the walls of our family home. Forty-two years ago, my parents made a vow to stay committed to each other for the rest of their lives—and so far (and so, forevermore), they’ve made good on that promise.

Theirs is a marriage that has been tested by my father’s illness and the rigors of raising four children, and with every test they’ve come across, they have emerged stronger than ever. Now, that is the type of commitment that every couple should aspire for. To commemorate this very special day, I’ve decided to write about marriage—specifically, the secrets to a lasting and happy marriage.

So, with that in mind, what are the secrets to a happy union? I suppose that that’s the million dollar question. In a world where most romantic relationships crumble and a trip down the aisle is no longer much of a guarantee for ‘forever,’ how does one begin to build the foundation for a strong and healthy marriage? Before I go about trying to answer that question, let me back those statements with statistics.

Staying is the New Shame

A few months ago, while on a TED trip on YouTube, I came across a very interesting talk by the renowned Belgian psychotherapist Esther Perel. Although her talk was mostly about rethinking infidelity in the marriage context, she did touch on a myriad of factors why relationships tend to fail.

According to Perel, prior to marriage becoming the natural ‘next step’ after two people fall in love, marriage was more of an ‘economic enterprise.’ It was an agreement between two families for their betterment and a way for a man to ensure that his wife’s children were his. It was a way of making sure that his children were the ones who will inherit the cows, the land, etc.

Marrying for love, on the other hand, is a rather recent phenomenon. And yet, if nowadays, we get to choose the person we marry, why are so many couples still splitting up? In the context of infidelity, this is what Perel has to say:

But then we have another paradox that we’re dealing with these days. Because of this romantic ideal, we are relying on our partner’s fidelity with a unique fervor, but we also have never been more inclined to stray. And not because we have new desires today, but because we live in an era where we feel entitled to pursue our desires, because this is the culture where “I deserve to be happy.” And if we used to divorce because we were unhappy, today we divorce because we could be happier. And if divorce carried all the shame, today, choosing to stay when you can leave is the new shame.”

And indeed, divorce has become the go-to option for many couples when their marriages hit a series of snags. And, quite frankly, I’m not against divorce so long as it really is what’s best for the couple. But, here is the caveat. Divorce may be the best cure for a rotten marriage, true. However, isn’t prevention still better than any cure? The truth is, the average number of divorces worldwide may have dropped since the 1980s, but it’s still pretty high.

 

According to Divorce.com, a website that claims to be “Your best resource before, during, and after a divorce,” there are a number of countries where divorce rates per capita exceed 50% of the married population. The top five countries in their list include Belarus (68%), the Russian Federation (65%), Sweden (64%), Latvia (63%), and Ukraine (63%). The United Kingdom sits at 10th place (53%) and the United States is at 12th place (49%). The site also has a disclaimer about the difficulties of being absolutely accurate with their figures, so let’s try another round of statistics.

This time, it’s from an article from The Telegraph called “The Haven for Honeymooners Where Everyone Gets Divorced.” According to the September 2016 article, the Maldives has been recognized by the Guinness Book of Records for being the divorce capital of the world. We’re looking at 10.97 divorces per year for every 1,000 people in the country. According to the UN, the average Maldivian woman would have had three divorces by the time she’s 30—talk about a major quarter-life crisis.Also making it to the top five countries with the highest annual divorces per 1,000 inhabitants are Russia (4.5), Aruba (4.4), Belarus (4.1), Latvia (3.6), and the United States (3.6)

Supposing that the actual number of divorces per head in the aforementioned countries are slightly lower than reported, when placed in the context of how a lot of these marriages are ‘love matches,’ these figures remain rather unsettling.

Now, more than ever, it feels imperative that couples know the secrets that will inoculate their unions against the possibility of ruin. This brings us to the article’s original question: What makes for a happy and lasting marriage?

The eminent French philosopher Michel de Montaigne has a humorous answer to the question. According to Montaigne:

“A good marriage would be between a blind wife and a deaf husband.”        

Now, the statement may be funny, but if it were true, the vast majority of the world’s couples are screwed. Let’s try again.

Is it LOVE?

Love, it seems, would be the logical answer to the question, right?

The Oxford Living Dictionary defines love as “a strong feeling of affection and sexual attraction for someone,” and “a great interest and pleasure in something.” Now, that sounds about right; after all, the sexual attraction bit is what would differentiate husband/wife from friend or relative.

Another definition for the word love, particularly in the realm of sports, is “a score of zero; or nil.” That sounds about right too. Because as the great thinkers Sartre, Pierre Reverdy, and Jean Cocteau have pointed out:

“There is no love; there are only proofs of love.”

Cue Natalie Portman’s epic scene in the film Closer, where her character, Alice, tells Jude Law’s character, Dan: “Where is this love? I can’t see it, I can’t touch it. I can’t feel it. I can hear it, I can hear some words, but I can’t do anything with your easy words.”

The film came out right about the time I was taking my Theology 131 class called “Marriage, Family Life, and Human Sexuality.” Although the rest of the semester is pretty much a blur now, I do remember one particular lecture from my professor. He talked about the difference between loving someone and being in love with someone.

The feeling of being ‘in love’ is not something you can control. It’s the honeymoon phase of the relationship—the part where desire (or hormones) is present. And quite frankly, as anyone who’s ever been in a long-term relationship will tell you, this phase is temporary. It’s one you can rekindle multiple times in your relationship, but it’s not always present, nor is it always necessary.

Real, lasting love is a decision you make every day. See, you may not always be in love with your partner, but so long as you love him/her—and to love is still very much an action word as it is a noun—then there’s hope for ‘so long as you both shall live.’

I believe that the main secret to a lasting relationship lies in the constant practice of that action word called ‘love,’ and the following are the factors that make love in a marriage possible.

RESPECT

Respect is a fundamental part of loving someone. While it’s true that you can respect people you don’t necessarily love or even like, (your boss, your teacher, an actor/actress, a politician, etc.), it’s impossible to love someone without having a modicum of respect for that person.

Now, I’ve read a number of articles, that I won’t put here out of respect for their authors, detailing the importance of respecting one’s husband—his authority, choices, and decisions—and while I agree with these authors in some ways, I do believe that respect is a two-way street. It is just as important for a husband to respect his partner, and I’m not backing down on this.

FRIENDSHIP OR COMPANIONSHIP

“The first time you marry for love, the second for money, and the third for companionship.” – Jackie Kennedy

I’m not going to knock Jackie Kennedy’s statement—there is some truth to it after all. But I, for one, believe in marrying for love and companionship the first time. It will save you the heartbreak and the wallet drain of two divorces. This is a sentiment that Franz Schubert and Friedrich Nietzsche appear to be in agreement with. To quote them both:

“Happy is the man who finds a true friend, and far happier is he who finds that true friend in his wife.” – Franz Schubert

“It is not a lack of love, but a lack of friendship that makes unhappy marriages.” – Friedrich Nietzsche

CONTENTMENT

This is advice better said in the Huffington Post article called “America’s ‘Longest Married Couple’ Wants to Give You Love Advice.” The article features a 2016 interview with John and Ann Betar, a couple who have been married for 83 wonderful years.

The couple had eloped in 1932, when Ann was just 17 years old, and John was just 21. Ann’s family had wanted her to marry an older man, so the couple decided to run off and build a beautiful life together. According to John, the secret to their long marriage is contentment.

“We struggled in the beginning, but, luckily, we were content with what we had. It’s just important to be content with what you have.”

Now, that’s pretty sound advice, wouldn’t you agree?

KINDNESS AND GENEROSITY (PARTICULARLY, GENEROSITY OF INTENT)

In 2014, The Atlantic released an interview with esteemed psychologists John and Julie Gottman. The couple has been studying other marrieds for four decades in a bid to determine what makes relationships last and what factors contribute to their decay.

According to the Gottmans’ research, kindness is the glue that keeps couples together. It is in practicing kindness that we are able to make our partners feel our love. Now, it is easy to be kind to your partner when everything is going well; but kindness is most needed not during these periods of happiness but during the down times, during periods of fighting and brewing contempt.

As Julie Gottman puts it, “Kindness doesn’t mean that we don’t express our anger, but the kindness informs how we choose to express the anger. You can throw spears at your partner. Or you can explain why you’re hurt and that’s the kinder path.”

This is also where generosity (of intent) comes in. When your partner does or says something that is hurtful to you, it is important to give your partner some ‘benefit of the doubt.’ Instead of immediately assuming the malevolence of an act, try to find its root. Beyond seeking to be understood, also seek to understand.

GRATITUDE

Last, but not least, there is the importance of expressing love through gratitude. In 2012, an article from Psychology Today discussed the role of appreciation and gratitude in maintaining relationships. It talked about a study conducted by U.C. Berkeley psychologist Amie Gordon. The study, which was featured in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, involved asking 50 couples to write in appreciation journals.

The results of the study showed that couples who practiced reciprocal appreciation were more likely to stay together in the following months. They also exhibited stronger ties with each other. So, it’s true. Showing love through appreciation really does help create a loving and nourishing environment for couples.

Now, I’m sure that this list of ‘secrets’ is far from complete, but I do believe that practicing these tips can help secure a lasting, healthy, and happy marriage. At the very least, true love is always worth the shot, right?

The Most Romantic Poems of All Time (Part I)

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For this particular reader, there are few things more romantic than a heartfelt and well-written love poem. Oh, a diamond ring is an absolute darling. But terrific poetry? Now, that is forever.

In the spirit of Valentine’s Day, I’ve compiled a list of the most romantic poems of all time. Admittedly, personal preference did come into play (a lot) during this selection process. So, if your favorite love poems failed to make the initial cut, just chime in. This is just the first of a two-part series—I’ll be happy to include your suggestions in the next list.

So, without further ado (and in no particular order), here are the most romantic poems of all time. Read and enjoy.

On Marriage by Kahlil Gibran

You were born together, and together you shall be forevermore.
You shall be together when the white wings of death scatter your days.
Ay, you shall be together even in the silent memory of God.
But let there be spaces in your togetherness,
And let the winds of the heavens dance between you.

This excerpt from Kahlil Gibran’s immensely popular book, The Prophet, is one of the most popular wedding readings today. It’s a piece that encourages husband and wife to stand together in love but also to retain a semblance of individuality. Or, as Gibran puts it:

Give your hearts, but not in each other’s keeping.
For only the hand of Life can contain your hearts.
And stand together yet not too near together:
For the pillars of the temple stand apart,
And the oak tree and the Cyprus grow not in each other’s shadows.

[i carry your heart with me(i carry it in] by E. E. Cummings

here is the deepest secret nobody knows
(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud
and the sky of the sky of a tree called life;which grows
higher than the soul can hope or mind can hide)
and this is the wonder that’s keeping the stars apart

i carry your heart(i carry it in my heart)

Fact: many of E.E. Cummings’s most well-known poems are very avant-garde in terms of style. Also a fact: These works carry universal appeal, hence their enduring popularity. In [i carry your heart with me(i carry it in], Cummings gives the traditional love poem a fresh twist with his experimental use of punctuation and syntax.

(see my review of E. E. Cummings’s poem, l(a here.)

Love’s Philosophy by Percy Bysshe Shelley

And the sunlight clasps the earth
And the moonbeams kiss the sea:
What is all this sweet work worth
If thou kiss not me?

Now, here’s a poem about unrequited love. Love’s Philosophy was written by Percy Bysshe Shelley in 1820. In this poem, the speaker tries to convince his beloved to return his feelings by pointing out how everything in nature is interconnected and intermingles. As Shelley puts it:

All things by a law divine
In one another’s being mingle; —
Why not I with thine?

Pretty compelling argument right there, if you ask me.

Sonnet 43 (How Do I Love Thee) by Elizabeth Barrett Browning

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of being and ideal grace.

Sonnet 43, also known as How Do I Love Thee, by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, is the second to the last poem in the poet’s love sonnets collection, Sonnets from the Portuguese. In this poem, the persona proclaims the extent of her love for her partner—which according to the poem is pretty much limitless. It’s a declaration of an unbounded, inexhaustible, and infinite love. The poem is also said to have been written for Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s husband, Robert Browning.

Sonnet XVII by Pablo Neruda

I love you without knowing how, or when, or from where,
I love you straightforwardly without complexities or pride;

This is one of my favorite poems from the Chilean poet, Pablo Neruda. It’s a poem that conveys the truth about love—that it is not always perfect but it is all-encompassing.

See my analysis of Sonnet XVII here.

Sonnet 116: Let me not to the marriage of true minds by William Shakespeare

…Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove.
O no! it is an ever-fixed mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;

No list of love poems is complete without this gem from the Bard of Avon. In Sonnet 116, Shakespeare gives us a beautiful definition of what Love truly means. According to Shakespeare, real love is unchanging—it is an ‘ever-fixed mark’ in the face of ‘tempests.’

Another Valentine by Wendy Cope

Our love is old and sure, not new and frantic.
You know I’m yours and I know you are mine.
And saying that has made me feel romantic,
My dearest love, my darling valentine.

Another Valentine by Wendy Cope is just the poem for those of us in long-term relationships. The poem starts out with the persona seemingly complaining about Valentine’s Day. “Today we are obliged to be romantic.” But as you can see, her tune changes soon enough. It’s a short, humorous, and sweet piece that’s a delight to read.

She Walks in Beauty by Lord Byron

She walks in beauty, like the night
Of cloudless climes and starry skies;
And all that’s best of dark and bright
Meet in her aspect and her eyes;

She Walks in Beauty might just be the sweetest poem ever written. The way Lord Byron describes the poem’s subject—her beauty, her charm, and her grace—is nothing short of swoon-worthy. Now, according to several sources, the poem was inspired by the mesmerizing good looks of Mrs. Anne Beatrix Wilmot—the wife of Byron’s first cousin.

Valentine by Carol Ann Duffy

Not a cute card or a kissogram.

I give you an onion.
Its fierce kiss will stay on your lips,
Possessive and faithful
As we are,
For as long as we are.

In Valentine, Carol Ann Duffy does away with the usual representations of love like the red rose and the satin heart. She goes for a more faithful symbol instead—the onion.  Like the onion, true love has its many layers. Its sting can blind you with tears, its fierce kiss is possessive and faithful, and its scent is one that clings.

High points for accuracy.

To My Valentine by Ogden Nash

I love you more than a wasp can sting,
And more than the subway jerks,
I love you as much as a beggar needs a crutch,
And more than a hangnail irks.

Humor is key to this lovely and lively little poem from Ogden Nash. With its unflattering imagery and easy rhymes, To My Valentine exudes the same innocent and childlike vibe as that old nursery rhyme that goes—“dogs and snails and puppy dog tails.” But the beauty of this poem is that underneath the uncomplimentary visuals it presents is a persona just reassuring his valentine of his immense love.

(See Part 2 of this list here)

Featured Poem: Morning Song by Sylvia Plath

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(Due to copyright issues, I won’t be posting the poem. But click here to view “Morning Song” in its entirety.)

Sylvia Plath is one of the finest poets the world has ever seen. There is this incredible, almost unnerving frankness and viciousness to her works. She had a way of squeezing every drop out of life at every instance and skillfully capturing passing notions and emotions. She’d weave them into beautiful and oftentimes jarring tapestries of poetry and stark reality. For many readers, myself included, her finely penned confessions/poems possess a magnetic pull. We are drawn into her world just as effectively as we are asked to examine ours.

In Morning Song, Plath captures the burgeoning love of a mother for her newborn. The poem, written shortly after her own child’s birth, speaks of how mother and child start off almost as if they were strangers before inevitably developing a connection that binds them for life.

Note how in the poem, she addresses her child as if she were speaking to another adult. There is no cooing, no profuse proclamations of a life-changing love—nothing to intimate the cosmic connection between them, at least at first.

In the first line, she even likens the child to a “fat gold watch.” Although the watch was set into motion by love, the ticking watch can also be seen as a reminder of a person’s mortality.  To be specific, if not the death of the person, the demise of the self. The third stanza reads:

“I am no more your mother

Than the cloud that distills a mirror to reflect its own slow

Effacement at the wind’s hand.”

Interesting use of the word effacement, which in medical terms refer to the thinning of the cervix in preparation for the child’s delivery. But attach the word ‘self’ to effacement, and what you have is the deliberate act of taking the background, almost as if allowing the self to fade away, much like how condensation dissipates into thin air. Again, a ticking clock and effacement at the wind’s hand.

Take into consideration that from a purely evolutionary perspective—strictly gene’s eye level—the purpose of gene carriers is to ensure the continuation of their respective genetic lines, i.e. man must “go forth and multiply.”

And while, historically speaking, “securing heirs” was a weight carried by both men and women, there’s no arguing that women were left to shoulder the brunt of that weight. Go back less than a century to Plath’s own time and a large section of society still thought that a woman’s primary purpose was to bear children and rear them. Women were already working then, but the concept of ‘family first’ for women wasn’t so much a suggestion as it was an accepted rule.

Now, Sylvia Plath was a woman with grand literary ambitions and while motherhood was something she welcomed completely, when faced with the newness of the situation, it must have given her a bit of a pause. Motherhood was a jump into the uncertain, which carried with it great joy and tremendous challenges.

On the second stanza, she describes the parents’ reaction to the baby’s arrival—

“Our voices echo, magnifying your arrival. New statue.

In a drafty museum your nakedness

Shadows our safety. We stand round blankly as walls.”

There it is, the pause. A sense of detachment. Strangers meeting for the first time. And yet, towards the end, the poem changes its tune quite drastically to show a mother’s devotion to her child. Plath speaks of waking to listen to her child’s breathing. She talks of how:

“One cry, and I stumble from bed, cow-heavy and floral

In my Victorian nightgown.”

Those words transform the persona from a watchful observer to a dedicated and loving mother.

Now, in my humble opinion, what makes Morning Song timeless is how it challenges the traditional idea that all women react the same way to motherhood. While ideally, it would be love at first sight between mother and newborn—that their bond is present and sealed after the final push—it’s not an always case. Sometimes it takes a while for that bond to be established. And that’s okay. Sometimes going through that journey of getting to know and arriving to love their children is just a journey some of the best mothers have had to undertake.

Featured Poem: Sonnet XVII by Pablo Neruda

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Sonnet XVII by Pablo Neruda

I do not love you as if you were salt-rose, or topaz,

Or the arrow of carnations the fire shoots off.

I love you as certain dark things are to be loved,

In secret, between the shadow and the soul.

I love you as the plant that never blooms,

But carries in itself the light of hidden flowers;

Thanks to your love a certain solid fragrance,

Risen from the earth, lives darkly in my body.

I love you without knowing how, or when, or from where.

I love you straightforwardly, without complexities or pride;

Therefore, I love you because I know no other way

Than this: where I does not exist, nor you,

So close that your hand on my chest is my hand,

So close that your eyes close as I fall asleep.

 

Junior year, high school. My creative writing teacher furnishes the entire class with a copy of Pablo Neruda’s Sonnet XVII. As soon as each student has the paper in hand, our teacher launches into a sonorous reading of the poem. I read along with him, silently mouthing the words, thrilled and confused by the staggering and yet, straightforward imagery.

Somewhere in the stash of angst-ridden journals I keep in a drawer at home, the photocopied poem is pasted on an empty page. Crumpled and yellowing, I no longer need the copy. It is one of those few poems I know by heart. But I keep it handy to remind myself of the day I felt the promise of poetry strike, hot and impressive and terrifying. If Sylvia Plath’s Mirror had been the catalyst, the fever behind my writing aspirations, Pablo Neruda’s Sonnet XVII was what ignited my passion for poetry.

This is a poem with a heartening twist. A poem naked in its honesty and teeming with relatability. I remember reading its first lines that first time and thinking, “How terrible to be at the receiving end of this poem!”

I do not love you as if you were salt-rose or topaz| or the arrow of carnations the fire shoots off.| I love you as certain dark things are to be loved| in secret between the shadow and the soul.

A salt-rose, a topaz, and even the arrow of carnations the fire shoots off—those were stunning images of something to value, of something easy to love because of their beauty. But instead, the persona described his/her lover as a dark thing to be loved in secret. The next lines had seemed equally unflattering, I thought.

I love you as the plant that never blooms| but carries in itself the light of hidden flowers.| Thanks to your love a certain solid fragrance risen from the earth| lives darkly in my body.

A plant that never blooms. Never mind that it was the type of plant that held the promise of hidden flowers… And the way love was described almost felt as if it were something contagious, unexplainable, and almost unwanted.

But the rest of the lines made me realize, this was not the traditional love poem that exalted the lover’s virtues, it was one that explained the unfathomable depth—and maybe, the irrationality—of true and lasting love.

I love you without knowing how, or when, or from where| I love you straightforwardly without complexities or pride.| Therefore I love you because I know no other way

Than this: where I does not exist nor you| so close that your hand on my chest is my hand| so close that your eyes close as I fall asleep.

This wasn’t a poem that spoke of love at its first blush, with its rose-colored glasses and the consequent blindness to the lover’s flaws. This was a poem that spoke of what happens after the honeymoon hour. It’s a poem about commitment and a love so deeply forged that the lovers cease to be ‘each other,’ for they are as much the other as they could ever be. Oneness in the face of reality. As my theology professor would say, this is a difference between “falling in love” and actually “loving.” Love—with its becauses, and more importantly, with its despite ofs.

Also, that line break. That glorious, glorious line break from “Therefore I love you because I know no other way” to “than this.” I am always in awe with how clever this poem turned out. How unexpected and beautiful its message happens to be. Definitely one of the best and most honest love poems in history.

 

About the Poet

Pablo Neruda is one of the most well-known and best-loved poets of the 20th century. In 1971, the Chilean poet-diplomat was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. He remains one of the most inspirational poets today—and rightfully so. While translated poetry often experiences a slight and unfortunate, though unintentional diminishment, an accidental dwarfing caused by the barriers of language, Neruda’s works retain their vivid imagery and vast, hard-hitting meanings. No doubt, we have his highly skilled translators to thank for this, but it is also very possible—if not, downright true—that the potency of the poet’s words cannot be contained by something as insignificant as a difference in language.

Book Review: Spinster by Kate Bolick

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Title: Spinster (Making a Life of One’s Own)

Author: Kate Bolick

Genre: Non-Fiction, Cultural Criticism, Feminist Literature, Social Commentary

First Published: 2015 (Crown Publishers)

Page Count: 297 pages

“Whom to marry and when will it happen? These two questions define every woman’s existence, regardless of where she was raised or what religion she does or doesn’t practice… These dual contingencies govern her until they’re answered, even if the answers are nobody and never.”

And with that begins Kate Bolick’s highly informative, compelling, and entertaining defense against the dominating cultural viewpoint against single women (a.k.a. the spinsters). Her book Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own is one part autobiography and one part history lesson. Throughout the book, she details her own journey towards her brand of spinsterhood—a life lived mostly and happily in solitude or with like-minded individuals. Though not without romantic entanglements, it is a life that separates itself from the traditional notion of couplehood, which include cohabitation and marriage.

Aside from using initials in lieu of first names, Bolick recounts past relationships with unflinching honesty and sometimes, surprising alacrity. While in a long distance relationship with her college boyfriend W., she repeatedly writes about her ‘spinster wish’ in her journal. The spinster wish being Bolick’s secret code for living alone and the freedom it brings. Unsurprisingly, this wish had become the nail in the coffin for many of her long-term relationships.

Apart from disclosing the demise of her romantic commitments, she talks at length about the lives of her awakeners—a term borrowed from Edith Wharton. Bolick uses the term to denote the five women that had shaped her life. After her mother’s early death, the author had found herself needing conversation and guidance, and these she found in and through the works and lives of the poet, Edna St. Vincent Millay, the columnist, Neith Boyce, the essayist, Maeve Brennan, the novelist, Edith Wharton, and the ‘social visionary,’ Charlotte Perkins Gilman.

Now, before we go any further, let this humble and happily humbled reader disclose this: I had not known what to expect of the book. It had sat happily on the same row as The Feminine Mystique—seemingly out of place among more palpably “serious” works. Spinster had snippets of glowing reviews from the Times, The Pool, The Lady, and authors like Rebecca Mead, Joanna Rakoff, and Susan Cain. But the image of a gorgeous model sat on an ostentatious gold couch, ornate teacup in hand, seemed a stark conflict with the subject matter promised by the book. After all, the beautiful woman on the cover can’t possibly be a spinster, could she?

Imagine my surprise and mild embarrassment upon finding out that the model was none other than Kate Bolick herself. And that’s exactly what the book does. It challenges the negative cultural attitude society has about spinsters. When Bolick writes about being a young girl, crushing snails against rocks, the image is partially disturbing because it is a girl doing it. Of course, it’s greatly disturbing either way, because no snail or any other animal should be subjected to such treatment, but there’s no denying how if it were a boy doing this, there is still the age-old argument that ‘boys will be boys.’

This memory also serves to illustrate Bolick’s early, though unconscious yearning for spinsterhood. There’s no denying the surge of happiness she had felt standing alone in an isthmus—her own kingdom, her own life to do as she pleased.

“I built then, my kingdom according to my own laws, and when the sun beat down, it beat down only on me, and when my feet acclimated to freezing water, it was my resilience that made this so. My experience of being alone was total.”

Throughout the book, Bolick also uses historical events and statistics to back the idea that despite the growing number of single women around the world, they—particularly single women in their 30s onwards—still continue to be regarded as anomalies, as social aberrations. As Bolick puts it, “Culture tells us that a spinster is without future—no heirs to bear, nobody to remember her when she’s gone.” One only has to look at history to understand this sentiment, this historical resentment.

According to Bolick’s research, 75% of the women accused of being witches during the infamous Salem Witch Trials were single women over 50 with above average means. Whether they had amassed their fortunes post-widowhood or were never-marrieds with a semi-affluent upbringing didn’t matter. Women of independent wealth were regarded with suspicion and disdain.

 Even the word “spinster” itself has gone through a radical redefining. In the 15th century, the word simply referred to European girls who spun thread as part of the trade. By the 1600s, the word had shifted to simply mean a single woman. But when the word crossed ponds to land in Colonial America, spinster developed an older, more cringe-worthy sister—the thornback. Any unmarried woman at 26 became a thornback—a word describing a scaly type of ray. Cue Bridget Jones’s famous line when asked why there were “so many unmarried women in their thirties these days.” To which, she replied, “Suppose it doesn’t help that underneath our clothes our entire bodies are covered in scales.” Brilliant.

Historically, women have also struggled—and to a certain degree continue to struggle—to be treated equally in the workforce. Bolick discusses that in the mid- to late-19th century, when women became an integral part of both the factory and the office settings, as factory workers, budding journalists and later, stenographers, they were subject to lower wages compared to their male counterparts. This is despite the fact that women were churning out the same amount of work as men. Their employers came up with a completely shady reason to underpay female workers—Functional Periodicity. This being the wholly invalid belief that women suffered from physical and mental debilitation during their menses.

Today, we still find working girls struggling to find their identity and dignity in the work space. Many are still under the impression that to succeed in whatever field they set out to work in, they’ll need to either bank on their erotic capital or blatantly imitate the mannerisms and the ways of men. As if skill alone were not enough for the woman to haul herself rung by rung up the corporate/organizational ladder.

She also argues that despite the changing image of the spinster (from the 50s old lady with cats to Ally McBeal, Murphy Brown, the ladies of Sex and the City), the underlying cultural attitude toward spinsterhood remains greatly unchanged. A woman, particularly, a single woman of a ‘specific age’ is still bound by expectations of motherhood and marriage. And until this “attitude” changes, until this status becomes not just accepted (culturally) and recognized and respected, women are not free.

The truth is, despite the fact that this is the 21st century and ideally, we have gone leaps and bounds past such antiquated notions, single women continue to be stigmatized. With spinsterhood comes expectations, fears, and visions of a life of madness. Think about it. The bag lady, the old hag, the neighborhood loon that dies alone in a house full of cats (or dogs)—to be found much later in a horrid state of decomposition. The spinster has become a cautionary tale to young women across the globe.

Instead of being thought of as a valid choice or decision, spinsterhood is believed to be the outcome of poorly made choices, unfortunate circumstances, tragedy, and heartbreak. Where is the respect for this type of lifestyle? Where is the dignity of which it’s due?

These are the queries that one arrives at after reading Spinster. Beyond giving her readers a well-written autobiography and a succinct but effective history lesson, Bolick opens her readers’ eyes to the continued struggles of the modern-day spinsters. And she does so beautifully in both prose and action.

But just like the spinster’s tremulous footing in today’s society, the book, Spinster, also shows Bolick’s own struggles in toeing what she perceives to be Pink Ghetto journalism. She is hesitant to divulge so much about herself. In an entry about her mother’s death, she offers a clunky and somewhat awkward explanation for her decision:

“The literary critic in me resents her role (her mother) in this book the way I would a sentimental plot twist in a movie. We all have had mothers, few among us want to lose them; I wish my experience had transcended such an obvious bid for your sympathy, and I could have become a different writer. But I can’t erase the fact that the first day of my adult life was that morning in May my mother took her last breath.”

 Was the story of Bolick’s mother a pivotal part of the book? Yes. So why did the author feel the need to clarify, (and consequently complicate), an otherwise sound decision to include her mother’s life in her narrative? The answer lies in the author’s fear of falling into the trap of pink journalism. Apparently, most female journalists fear that by mining their personal experiences and writing about decidedly feminine topics—lifestyle, sex, and fashion—they’ll be caging themselves in. They fear that these topics will ultimately make it difficult for their work to be taken seriously.

Now, personally, I enjoy reading about these pink topics and don’t see the need to really segregate between ‘serious’ journalism and their pink ghetto cousin. Well-written and informative pieces, regardless of whether we’re talking war or the importance of breastfeeding, are well-worth the read. In this humble reader’s opinion anyways.

Another part of the book that gave me pause had to do with Bolick’s views on marriage and children. Although not straightforwardly stated, I felt that there were moments wherein Bolick saw marriage and family life to be impediments to a woman’s personal success. Particularly in Neith Boyce’s case. Bolick writes about Neith being stuck at home changing nappies while her husband, fellow writer, Hutchins Hapgood, was globetrotting and furthering his own career.

Spinster makes plenty of great points and the aim of the book is to defend the choice for spinsterhood—that I understand. But the danger lies in the perspective that women who choose marriage and children may be missing out on something—the joy of solitude and the productivity the lifestyle brings. This may not be what Bolick means, but I fear that some of her arguments unwittingly pit singles against the marrieds. And that’s one trope that’s been exhausted in films, books, and plays.

But I’ve always believed that a book is always a conversation between the author and the reader. And despite our minor disagreements, Spinster is a conversation with Kate Bolick that I greatly enjoy and will frequently revisit in the years to come.

Rating: A+

This is a must-read for women of all ages, whether they be single or married, or in the hazy or concrete footing of the in-between.