Some things I've read (from "blossom to impossible blossom")
Some things I’ve read:
The Last Girl: My Story of Captivity, and My Fight Against the Islamic State by Nadia Murad
Nadia Murad is a survivor, a writer and public speaker, a human rights activist, and a Nobel Peace Prize winner. I read her memoir for a meeting of my local mothers’ group book club, and it is without doubt the toughest book I have ever read. There were many times that I just had to stop, overwhelmed. I cannot overstate the horrors of this book, a personal narrative of the Islamic State’s campaign of genocide, torture, and sexual enslavement of the Yazidi religious minority in Iraq. I cannot overstate the absolute sadism of Nadia Murad’s captors. The evil of this regime. And I cannot overstate Nadia Murad’s heroism, the heroism of the Sunni Muslim family who helped her to escape, the heroism of her family members who survived, and the heroism of every single Yazidi who survived.
Human rights lawyer Amal Clooney, in the foreword to this book, writes, “Those who thought they could silence her were wrong. Nadia Murad’s spirit is not broken, and her voice will not be muted. Instead, through this book, her voice is louder than ever.”
Rose by Li-Young Lee
From horror to tenderness and lyric beauty. I came across Lee’s poem, “From Blossoms,” on Twitter. From this account of stopping at a roadside stand to buy peaches:
O, to take what we love inside,
to carry within us an orchard, to eat
not only the skin, but the shade,
not only the sugar, but the days, to hold
the fruit in our hands, adore it, then bite into
the round jubilance of peach.
There are days we live
as if death were nowhere
in the background; from joy
to joy to joy, from wing to wing,
from blossom to blossom to
impossible blossom, to sweet impossible blossom.
The whole poem can be read here. It also appears in Lee’s first collection of poetry, Rose, which I bought after reading this single poem. It’s a slim collection of loveliness, brimming with tenderness and love. Love for wife, for siblings and parents, for family. And most of all, it’s a tribute to a father, now dead, who appears again and again as a figure of awe and mystery and love. A father dying, weak, “—Water has invaded my father’s/heart, swollen, heavy”. A father strong and comforting, pulling a splinter from his son’s hand. A father who seems to return from the grave, glimpsed in the rain. These poems are intensely personal, and yet some of them also take on mythic tones—roses and rain are elevated to recurring, mythic symbols. In his introduction to this collection, Gerald Stern writes that Lee’s poems are reminiscent of Rainer Maria Rilke, and I can see that. I’m reminded of translator Stephen Mitchell’s own comment on Rilke—that Rilke is “difficult to read thoughtfully. He induces a kind of trance, as soon as the whispering begins.”** Li-Young Lee does the same for me. The poems in this collection go straight to feeling, without any kind of self-consciousness or detachment. They’re pure shots of beauty, even as many also brim with melancholy. There is a history of political oppression and violence in Lee’s family--his father was a political prisoner in Indonesia under President Sukarno, and sentiment against ethnic Chinese living in Indonesia was rampant at the time. Lee’s Chinese-Indonesian family fled and lived as refugees in numerous countries before settling in the United States—yet this history of darkness is muted here. Above all, it is tenderness and family love which comes through in these poems. The poet-narrator watching his loved ones sleep. Kissing his father’s face. Writing of how his father watched his wife (the narrator’s mother) doing her hair in the morning; of how he liked to see her hair pulled into a tight bun “. . . because of the way/my mother’s hair falls/when he pulls the pins out.”
Horror and beauty. Evil and love and courage. How do we live, in a world where all of this coexists? In a world where Nadia Murad had six brothers and a mother murdered by religious fanatics in one day and endured a captivity which no one should ever have endured. . . and she is only one of thousands of Yazidi women who suffered thus. A world where the news headlines seem to daily blare the evidence of humanity’s darkness.
Words and stories and poems. What does it mean, to fight back with words and with your story, as Nadia Murad does? What does it mean, to try to find and remember the tenderness, “to carry within us an orchard.” In the only poem in Rose that references the political violence his own family suffered, Lee writes of his father: “1949, he’s 30 years old/his toenails pulled out/his toes beaten a beautiful/violet that reminds him/of Hunan”. Lee’s father, a mythic figure in his poems, was a personal physician to Mao Zedong before he relocated to Indonesia; he stood in more than one of the dark, great tides of human history. He and his family survived; his son grew up in America and became a poet. What does it mean for that son, for any of us at all, to survive and hope for a day of impossible joy, moving from “blossom to impossible blossom.”