Why I sobbed like a b*** reading Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman

My relationship with Leaves of Grass was turbulent from the beginning. I’m not really well-read in poetry, nor have I ever been particularly enamored with it as a genre, and Leaves of Grass  is a commitment both in language and length.

I did feel some comradery with Whitman based solely on our mutual love of the parenthetical, but I wasn’t sure it would be enough to make it through the book.

It doesn’t help that Leaves of Grass is front-loaded with some of Walt Whitman’s incredibly long, rambling poems about boats and dock workers. He also apparently was on a quest to name drop every State and landmark of those states, not to mention important rivers. It is not an easy volume of poetry to get emotionally involved with, and the volume is long.

But after spending three months with Walt Whitman, my feelings towards him and his poetry changed. It was gradual, I still wanted to rip the pages out whenever I saw the word “ship” or “boat,” but Whitman caught me somehow. At some point I was entangled in his feverish dream of humanity.

Walt Whitman has an equal love for humanity in all its forms, across races, across countries, even for those who we see as the worst of us. He professed a love of the weak, not just the bold, that the crippling self-doubt and self-hatred we fall victim to makes us no less loveable as human beings. The man was so capable of boundless love that he saw beauty and sanctity in death, just as much and if not more than life.

After the Union was restored, Whitman saw a chance for previously unachieved equality in America. Racism, borders, all of the barriers of prejudice and racism would dwindle in a new age of brotherhood and travel. For, in travel, Whitman saw only the possibly that by knowing each other, we could only love each other more for we would understand how we are all the same.

Whitman as a writer is a voice of the spirit of this country. His poetry is distinctively American in both its ideology and the romanticism of the American life. He captures the fiery devotion to liberty and freedom and the rugged individualism that is iconic of our culture.

Comparing the America Whitman envisioned, and perhaps experienced, compared to the one I have experienced was painful. In the past few years I have felt abject despair at America’s path, in its continuing inability to respect the dignity of persons within its borders and outside.

Following the news, I feel utter defeat as a woman, faced with an institution that seems determined to deny me my personhood, an level playing field in my chosen career, equal pay if I do achieve my dream job despite the incredible harshness of the sexism in my chosen field, and inevitable criticism if I choose to be unmarried, childless, and devoted to my work.

And that is just what is relevant to my life, and nothing of the institutional racism that is deadly in my country, or the institutional mishandling of justice in law.

Currents events, endlessly horrific, are enough to make me despair not just about my country but about this whole world. What would Whitman think of us? For a man who imagined such a dream of unity and indiscriminate love, how could he understand where we went?

Recently politicians have been throwing around this phrase “making America great again.” It’s tempting, for any society, when in a bad position of strife to look backwards and try to identify a better time. The problem with looking backwards is that America was never great. What country can claim to have been truly great?

When you look backwards, it’s easy to focus on the bright spotlights of the good and relegate the bad to the dark periphery. Point to me a time in American history where things were great for all peoples. It can’t be before slavery was illegal. It can’t be before women had the right to vote. It can’t be when that same America created Internment camps for Japanese-Americans after Pearl Harbor. It can’t even be before marriage rights were given the chance to be equal, and that only happened so very recently.

We can’t make America “great again.” Walt Whitman wasn’t in delirious happiness about the Union being restored after the Civil War because it meant the country would go back to being the way it was. Rather, he believed that now it could move on to be better.

That is what I want, for my country—for it to be better.

The contrast between Walt Whitman’s surety in the beautiful path America must take with the reality here in 2016 left me emotionally exhausted. Every time I picked up Leaves of Grass, Whitman was waiting to erratically espouse his love for men, for women, for anything remotely alive and even in nature what isn’t alive.

“I swear they are all beautiful,

Every one that sleeps is beautiful, everything in the dim light is beautiful,

The wildest and the bloodiest is over, and all is peace.

Peace is always beautiful.”

 

But then I would close the book and the reality of current events would re-assert itself, pressuring me back into pessimism.

When I was nearing the end of Leaves of Grass and I read the poem “So Long!” I didn’t know how much I needed Whitman’s words.

Whitman occasionally “breaks the 4th wall” if it can be called that in a book of poems and addresses the reader. After three months of trying political times—racist hate speech, photos of bombed cities, denial of women the right to their bodies in the case of access to health care through the defunding of planned Parenthood, the list goes on— I was at a breaking point.

And then Whitman steps off the page.

“Comerado, this is no book,

Who touches this touches a man,

(Is it night? Are we here together alone?)

It is I you hold and who holds you,

I spring from the pages into your arms—decease calls me forth.

Oh how your fingers drowse me,

You breath falls around me like dew, your pulse lulls the tympans of my ears,

I feel immerged from head to foot,

Delicious, enough…

Dear friend whoever you are take this kiss,

I give it especially to you, do not forget me”

I had been looking into Whitman this whole time, learning his most intimate feelings and dreams. But, as with all books, the author can’t look back. Somehow though, this poem transcended that limitation. Like my sudden bursting into tears would indicate, damned if I didn’t feel looked back at. It felt personal. It felt intimate. It felt like he had heard the apology I so desperately wanted to make regarding the failure of his vision.

I’m sure that presenting this quote out of the context of struggling through three months with a 600 page volume of antiquated poetry does not capture my feelings. I had wished, up until that moment, that Whitman had hired a damn editor to cut some of the poems out of the book. I can never wish that now because without the length, the rambling, the obsession with, yes, boats, I wouldn’t have felt so connected to Whitman.

I had spent three months suffering through this man’s wildly spinning thoughts and now we were, in his words, touching.

It is hard to recommend a book to someone with the promise that it will “change their life.”  Literature affects us differently depending where we are in life. I would never have thought that I would be someone to say that Leaves of Grass is undeniably a part of who I am, based on my brief exposure to selected poems of his I read in school.

But here we are, Leaves of Grass affected me deeply and I cried like a b*** reading Walt Whitman’s poetry.

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Central Station by Lavie Tidhar

tumblr_inline_o56gpn3sfs1s0669x_1280I’m not ashamed to admit that I’m a primarily plot-driven reader.I like when there are interstellar wars, mysteries that span across galaxies, and conspiracies that condemn entire planets. I like when things go fast, go far, and/or explode. I like action. So with Central Station by Lavie Tidhar, I was hesitant, which is much more a literary think-piece than a swashbuckling escapade through the solar system. While it certainly doesn’t have the strong plot that I prefer in my novels, it was surprisingly enjoyable – it explored a world that could very well be ours, touching on technologies that don’t lie far from where we are today and gently teasing out the implications of these advances with brilliant characters and imagery.

In Station, a rush to leave earth has left a quarter of a million people clustered around the base of the world’s space station. In this milieu of both human and extraterrestrial diversity, the lines between reality and digitality blur – virtual entities exist outside the realm of physicality, half-human, half-virtual children are raised among Central Station’s families, humans and robotic beings fall in love, and the elderly are incapacitated by mind-plagues.

These characters and their experiences are what bring life to Station. Nobody here is trying to save the world. Nobody here is the chosen one or the messiah or a hero. These are ordinary people trying to live from day to day within a community that is utterly alien even as it lies on Earth’s surface. The experiences they deal with on a daily basis from attending religious services with robotnick rabbis to working within a virtual world are so foreign while also being so knowable – many of what Tidhar explores such as robotic soldiers, enhanced integration into a new digital reality, and the merger of flesh and machine are simply extensions of technologies we already possess. It shows the adaptability and strength of humans as they adjust to these new advances, but also the difficulties this progress creates – physically, emotionally, morally, and above all personally. Central Station is uncanny in its ability to feel both like home and like a country as yet unexplored by humanity.

Tidhar also does a fantastic job of bringing Central Station and the surrounding city to life. The individuals who narrate help to give shape to the setting in their own right, but Tidhar goes beyond that to make the station its own character. The station itself is cool and almost sterile in its modernity, contrasting with the sense of grit and noise felt as Tidhar describes the living situation of many of the city’s inhabitants. It’s a richly woven world that it stimulates the sense. Readers can almost smell the sweat and oil of a robotnick and hear the forever arriving and departing crowds – even the heat of Central Station makes it feel like your skin is flushed. It’s rare to be immersed so deeply in another world and I reveled in my brief stay there.

My only complaint is that the lack of an easily discernible plot did make the reading experience slower and some portions tended to crawl. While I completely understand Tidhar’s pacing decision based on what the novel was aiming to accomplish, it was still a bit difficult for someone like me who is an impatient reader and used to tearing through novels to get through. If someone pick ups Station, my recommendation is to go in knowing to take it slow – that’s the only way to appreciate it and I think my initial rush made me miss some important elements.

While I don’t plan on swearing off my swashbuckling any time soon, Central Station was a brilliant exposure not only to something new personally, but to something that’s rare in the genre generally. Highly recommended to anyone who enjoys literary science fiction, especially authors like Hannu Rajaniemi. I give it four out of five space slug parasites.

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April 2016 Round-Up

VonG: I’m sorry, isn’t February supposed to be the short month? Where did April go? All I have is vague memories of eating gelato, baking in the sun (despite my strict avoidance standards, I was wrangled into “being social” and “getting Vitamin D” and “leaving your room for once in your life”), and watching it blizzard. Yes. That’s right. Blizzard. With lightning and thunder. If that isn’t some end of the world type weather, I don’t know what is. Shout out to Swan Song for coincidentally fitting this weather exactly, even though in the book it’s caused by a nuclear apocalypse.

With T-minus one month to returning to my home country, I’m spending my valuable time here doing what I do best. Reading.

I don’t think I can cleverly summarize my reading patterns in April, except that there’s still kilts involved…save me. I’ve been slacking on my mission to subject myself to poorly written free e-books which is why there’s been a lack of comics on this blog. Soon. I’ll get back to it soon. A good friend of mine told me to read Swan Song approximately 8 years ago so at least I get to check THAT off my list and tell people that I’m good about reading recommendations that are made to me (they don’t need to know about the time delay hahaha…ah).

 

Best of April: Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie

You know what this book has that I love? Pretty much everything I could ask for. AI. Calling out of the ridiculousness of gender norms. Space. Aliens. A grand story of political intrigue framed by focusing on the relationships of an individual character. AI learning about ~friendship~ and ~love~. Yes, this book has both ALIENS* and AI forming meaningful attachments to people. Ann Leckie, you shouldn’t have. On a deeper note, the subversive use of a society that doesn’t recognize gender to the extreme that there are no male/female pronouns is wonderfully disorientating. Gender is a crutch to our understanding of a character and Leckie denies it to us. This book probably has the fewest male pronouns I’ve ever encountered (as the main character defaults to feminine pronouns) and I LIKE IT. It made me uncomfortable with how much I rely on knowing a character’s gender and it forced me to take on the point of view of the main character in an immersive way. Leckie also manages to write about an AI’s experience through a couple thousand bodies in a way that captures the massive flow of constant information without it being too choppy or confusing. This book ranks easily into the list of my favorite books. I can’t stop thinking about it and I am eagerly awaiting the final book in the trilogy.

Worst of April: Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town by Jon Krakauer

I’m using the “worst” category loosely again, because Missoula isn’t a bad book. It’s well written and informative (though Krakauer is far from being unbiased, but with such an emotional topic on personal violation it’s hard to be impartial). I’m placing it in this category because the book was hard for me to read. The reality of the commonality sexual assault, especially on college campuses, is an issue that was brought to my attention in my studies but still has the power to shock me. Krakauer does an excellent job of presenting the mistreatment of victims by the court system (from police officers to lawyers) and focusing on the darkest myth of sexual assault: that it takes place most often between strangers. Growing up, women are taught to be afraid of strangers but the majority of sexual assaults are committed by acquaintances. It’s hard, after finishing this book, to not fall back onto the insecure stance of “trust nobody.” Unfortunately, that also seems to include the justice system.

The other unfortunately is that this book will probably be read most by people who are already aware of the problem, when the people who need to read it the most ignore it.

 

*Leckie’s aliens, thankfully, are not space vampires