The Poetry Corner – 2 March 2021

My vision for this column is for it to showcase poetry from around the world to let people see the beautiful and important work poets are doing in our time. This means I will mostly show contemporary poetry, but there may also be poems from the past if I find them particularly relevant or beneficial to show at a certain time. Being an arts column in English, all the poems I show will be in English, but some may have been translated from other languages. I will try to show originals alongside the translations if possible. As English speakers I find that we so often forget about or ignore literature in other languages. To counter this, I hope to show that beautiful work is being done in other languages and that by reading that work we can gain deeper insight into our common humanity.


For my first post, I want to show you one of my absolute favorite poems from one of my absolute favorite poets, Ocean Vuong. This poem is titled “Seventh Circle of Earth.” Read it below:

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The Catty Critic: Reflecting on Rupi Kaur & Artistic Merit

I wrote an article titled “Here’s Why Rupi Kaur’s Poetry Sucks” over a year ago which gained an overwhelming readership (you can find the old post here). There were verbal battles breaking out in the comments, people purposefully downvoting others’ votes a couple hundred times, and someone even posted the link in the reddit thread in which someone commented, “First thing I read of Fareah Fysudeen” (I really wish it weren’t the first thing). Frankly, I’m quite embarrassed by this attention, because I hardly agree with my past self. I can’t be proud of an article whose contents I no longer uphold. I can still see myself writing it: slouched in a study cubby typing away between classes, buried in the Hatcher stacks of the University of Michigan, in my sophomore year of undergrad, believing that I finally had access to the great, profound knowledge of the world. I’m here to reflect on that past article and what it means to me now, over a year later, a soon-to-be graduate, and hopefully a more introspective and worldly individual. 

In most ways, my opinion about Rupi Kaur’s poetry itself hasn’t changed. I still think she is the crowned champion of “fake deep” poetry that finds its home in niches on Tumblr and Instagram. I still think her clever use of enjambment and thematic seriousness adds to the illusion of depth to her poems. But in the article, I draw a much more dangerous parallel argument in order to prove (with apparent exacting mania) that the reason Rupi Kaur’s poetry is bad is because it doesn’t fit the criteria of “good poetry.” I say it doesn’t fit into a “larger poetic narrative.” I say that there is a definite dichotomy between good and bad poetry, and that this dichotomy exists as an objective reality. My exact words, if you will: “If all literature was subjective, then, there would be no point to literary criticism and an entire discipline dedicated to the study of good literature. Poetry is not subjective. There is good literature and there is bad literature. Your experience of either can be subjective— as in, you can like bad literature and hate good literature, but your preferences don’t change the fact that it’s bad or good.”

In many ways, re-reading this series of sentences was especially painful to me, because not only do I no longer hold that opinion of art and literature, but because it consigns to a standard of artistic excellence determined by the English literary canon. The literary canon doesn’t exist to be the sole arbiter of artistic value (whether it should exist at all is also worth considering). This isn’t so much a question of whether or not Rupi Kaur’s poetry is good, per se. This is a question about how we interpret poetry, what baggage and preconceptions of art we are bringing to the table. It’s a question about what system of rationality we adopt. And the more we adopt systems of rationality that have historically and continue to marginalize the voices of women and non-white people, the more we perpetuate whiteness— or any other arbitrary marker of artistic merit— as the standard of good art. 

I’m reflecting on why it was so important to me that I uphold the canon in that article. Why was it so crucial to me that I maintain proximity to this historically stuffy and pretentious group of authors and titles that aided in constructing the Western empire? The thing is, I think I wanted the stability of being able to determine whether something was good or not, because without that system of rationality, I feared that there would be a lack of real power or worth to my opinions, as a non-white person. Can you see the problem? The dominant culture is so hegemonizing that I feared its absence means I am stupid. Instead of repudiating a system that made me feel stupid in the first place, I tried to wholeheartedly accept it in order to be part of that dominant cultural frame of reference. In some way, I was playing that historical role of siding with the bully in order to gain agency for myself… What I didn’t know is that there is so much more power in letting go of what does not serve you. 

I don’t like Rupi Kaur’s poetry. But the reason I don’t like it has changed. Whoever finds power, love, creativity, inspiration, vitality in her poetry— who am I to tell them that it’s not there? Find the art that moves you, and let it move you. There is no greater power than constructing the world for yourself.

The Salt Wall — Prologue

“Inferiors revolt in order that they may be equal, and equals that they may be superior. Such is the state of mind which creates revolutions.”


“A superior man never fears death”

— KIM MAN-JUNG, The Nine Cloud Dream




The gentle thrumming of acid rain could be heard between the sounds of screeching tires and shattered windows, and Porter could only watch quietly as blood soaked through Piper’s white dress shirt from a small wound, mixing with the rain and staining it a light pink. He studied her as she tied the small, opaque bag around the base of a large bamboo plant. The uprooted soil was already wet by the time she began to fix the potted bamboo back into place. The warm rain reflected a certain loneliness in her flax-colored eyes; the water droplets refracting like sparkling tears were an enchanting addition to her cool demeanor. Her jet-black hair that stuck itself to her face while she worked presented to him the image of a mother wolf peering through tall grass at unsuspecting prey.

Porter removed his dirty glasses to examine her more closely. She was beautiful in the rain.

The apartment room was sparsely decorated, neglect visible in various forms of debris. The roof was splintered open with blackened wood and frozen at a wicked angle, supported by charred stucco walls. With a sigh, Porter flopped onto the rusty bed frame beside the apartment’s broken window. He leaned backwards, letting himself fall through the space where a wall had once been, embracing the rain and letting it wet his face and body. He realized in this moment just how much his bones ached from the last few weeks. The pain went much deeper than bone. Above him, the ceiling was as high as the sky. He stretched his lanky arms toward the open gap in the building’s roof just as he had done in this exact spot many times before. Although the rain was coming down hard, he made no effort to shield his face or protect his vision. He relished the sting of acid in his eyes. Due to the clouds, the ceiling was lower than usual today, and he could nearly touch it.

What bothered Porter was not the stinging rain, the smell of sulfur melting the street, or the muted shouting on the horizon, but rather the pungent odor of charcoal flames and burning flesh which manifested itself only to him. With his eyes open, he smelled it in his mind. With his eyes closed, the scene recreated itself: the wall behind him was whole again, and behind that wall came a playful whistle, a golden laugh that could have tickled the heavens. He’d imagine himself standing before a pillar of smoke, a ball of fire. He’d imagine looking down at his wrists, zip tied to a stretcher. He could picture the California sun beating on the pavement, the stilled palm trees, and the gentle blue of a summer afternoon. When he opened his eyes again, the only sounds were rain and distant drums; the only sight a black, callous sky.

What Porter couldn’t have imagined is what Joel had said to him in that casual, offhand way he tended to do with his lazy eye trailing off in the distance. How quickly everything had changed. Fat chance, turning back now. Strangely, where once he felt anger and remorse now only felt like a calm surrender.

Piper kicked his foot, snapping him out of his reverie. “It’s time to get going.”

After one last glimpse at the flat horizon, purple as a bruise, Porter straightened himself and followed Piper out of the abandoned apartment complex, their footsteps squishing on the wet carpet. The dog was outside the door licking its nuts when Porter clicked his tongue, and it popped up immediately. Duke nuzzled into Porter’s good leg, his tail wagging nervously.

*    *    *

The flooding streets only added to the existing chaos; the city’s lousy sewage systems weren’t equipped to handle large amounts of water, especially not for the worst storm in its history. Summer break for the students of Bursa County High would not be the usual blunt and uneventful sunshine, but rather a swamp of rainy days in a budding warzone.  As the van edged closer and closer to the sound of distant violence, a growing number of dumpster fires began to speckle the early morning horizon like Christmas lights. Despite it all, the crew was chatting idly in the backseats, not seeming to comprehend the impossible pressure building within the city limits.

Porter leaned against the passenger window and propped his feet on the dash, watching the world drown as it whizzed past him. He noticed how everything seemed to shine more brightly in the rain. The reflections of red streetlights, fluorescent signs, and flashing police sirens on waterlogged roads painted the city with more color than he had ever seen. Electric neon lights stretched across the buildings and asphalt like bright oil pastels on a sheet of water. Arrays of backlit signs and the glow of West Bush Cinema’s vertical display streaked the dark empty street like a fever dream, fueling the city with a warm energy Porter thought had been lost long ago.

The first one went graceful and fast. The second not so much. Piper was laying in the trunk with Duke curled up beside her, pressing a rag to her gash when they arrived at Valenta Street. She propped herself up and winked in Porter’s direction, giving Duke a pat on the head. Duke whined and shifted uneasily on his front paws. Porter watched as she slipped wordlessly through the trunk and vanished into the darkness.

Cooper was already complaining before we pulled up to Asherton, but that was to be expected. “You know what we have to do,” said Porter dryly, tapping his wrist where a watch might have been. “It seems you are running out of moonlight, Mr. Hayes.”

Not without a mumble and a curse or two, Cooper hopped out of the car with a splash, loping around the corner with his backpack full of trinkets jingling and a string dangling loose behind him.

*   *   *

They finally arrived at Porter’s stop, a damp underpass. He wiped his glasses with the inside of his shirt out of habit. When he got out, Duke started whining anxiously.

“Don’t worry boy,” he said, rubbing the dog under its ears, to which it gave a loud bark. Porter smiled and pressed his nose to Duke’s. “I’ll be back before you know it.”

As the van drove off with a noisy dog in tow, Porter found himself alone with the rain as it fell over the archway like a watery curtain. He sat himself down on the cold sidewalk and hugged his knees, rocking back and forth, simply observing. It was a position he found himself in very frequently these days. To his mild surprise, he had been dropped off at Sunset Tunnel, a spot which provided convenient shelter from the rain, but more notably was home to years and years of colorful graffiti scribbled on its leisurely sloped walls. Illuminated by a nearby streetlamp, the torrential rain blended with the myriad of rainbow designs to give off a vaguely preternatural effect—words of hope, words of love, words of goodbye—some scuffed and some brand new, mostly tagged by people he had known at one point. A long time ago, Porter had tagged something of his own here, but he was sure it was covered by now and didn’t bother to look.

As a rule, Porter tried not to contemplate things too much anymore, but these moments lent themselves to the occasion rather nicely. In the span of a few days, the world he knew had fallen victim to the disease which had infected his own life on and off for many years. Though it seemed to have resurfaced only recently, it had been festering for much longer than that. By the time Porter caught the disease of this city, or at least when he had diagnosed himself, the time frame for an antidote had long since passed. He remembered a time when he hadn’t succumbed to the chaotic sickness and still lived untouched in ignorant bliss. He sometimes wanted to close his eyes forever and live only in those moments, asleep within his thoughts. But he steeled his nerves and inhaled the acidic rain-washed air. He must be forever watchful for the day when he’d get his chance to wake up from this beautiful, twisted dream.

Porter had only to look directly ahead to see the dream coming once again to pluck him from reality. This time it came in the shape of headlights, a familiar car rolling slowly to a halt beside him.

“Oh hello,” said Porter, smiling. “I wasn’t expecting to see you here.”

The Double: An overlooked film and novella

The Double is a short novella originally written by Fyodor Dostoevsky, first published in 1846. If the name sounds familiar, you’ve probably read Crime and Punishment, arguably one of his most popular works. If it doesn’t sound familiar, you aren’t alone: his writing style is notorious for being dense and tiresome to read, meaning you won’t find his works on any coffee tables. The novella was adapted into a movie of the same name, which was released in 2011 and stars Jesse Eisenberg. I actually saw the movie first, which inspired me to read the book, so I’ll be discussing them in that order.

The first time I watched The Double, I thought it was complete nonsense. It was weird, the ending didn’t make any sense, and it was so boring that I almost fell asleep. I was disappointed, considering the concept looked interesting and it starred Jesse Eisenberg, who I’ve always loved in other movies. I wondered what I was missing; who would be pretentious enough to pretend that they liked it? Evidently it festered in my mind, because I ended up re-watching it over a year later when I saw it on Netflix. This time it was a completely different experience; I don’t know if maybe my tastes had changed, or if I was just paying more attention, but I absolutely loved it. It was entirely unique in every way; incredible acting, visually interesting scenes and filming, an absolutely gorgeous soundtrack which I highly recommend listening to, and an atmosphere that kept you on the edge of your seat. Out of these, I want to focus on the strange atmosphere that the film has, since I find that to be its most unique and defining element. Now if you’ve been reading my last few posts, you might have a feeling of where this is going: Surrealism. This movie is a prime example of Surrealism in film, and is a testament to the power of film as an art form.

I recognize this film as surreal because it has the same atmosphere as any other surreal work of art: a dense fog, a feeling of semi-nostalgia and anxiety, and an unexplainable otherworldliness. This is developed in the movie mostly through the use of its color palette, which includes yellows, browns, beiges, and other grimy colors. It’s odd to say the least, and it makes this universe seem like some parallel universe where everything is drab and lifeless. Also contributing to this surreal atmosphere is the vagueness of the whole movie. I can’t really say what time period it takes place in, what the setting is, or what the main character does all day. Every place seems so disconnected, which is so contradictory to normal life. The closest thing to experiencing this is going to North Campus after 9pm on a weeknight and walking to a bus stop. The towering brick walls, strange architecture, and the complete emptiness of life is similar to some abandoned dystopian parallel world, much like the universe of The Double. Another key element of the surreal atmosphere is obviously the story; the idea of the doppelganger, somebody who is identical to you in almost every way, induces anxiety in itself. Watching the main character Simon as he falls into madness at the hands of his doppelganger is terrifying, and it defines the universe of the movie as much stranger than ours. Finally, I think even the soundtrack contributes to this atmosphere, much more than your typical movie score. It’s mostly composed of string music and piano, with dark and heavy chords that create a tension throughout the film. Listening to the soundtrack by itself induces anxiety, and in the context of the film, it is the soundtrack of madness. Overall, this movie is a work of art in almost every way, and is fascinating to me as a lover of surrealist art. It’s just an unforgettable, personal experience that challenges what you think about traditional media.

This brings us to the novella, which I read promptly after finding out that it inspired the movie. It was the first thing I ever read by Fyodor Dostoevsky, and I can definitely understand why people say his books are a challenge. After forcing my way through it however, I was glad I did: not only is it an incredibly well written story, it is a great companion to the movie. While they aren’t exactly identical, as they aren’t meant to be, reading the book further revealed the true genius of the movie. The movie perfectly matched the atmosphere of the book, so much that it’s eerie. Maybe I was influenced by watching the movie first, but the book is a work of surrealism itself: it has the same bizarre atmosphere, which is developed through the writing and the events of the story. The way Fyodor Dostoevsky writes is so dark and heavy that it creates the same feeling of anxiety and fear, which is absolutely fascinating. I highly recommend watching the movie and reading the book, although I don’t suggest any particular order. I’d love to hear other people’s thoughts on it to see if people see what I see, or if I just sound completely crazy.

(Image Credits: Google Images)

Kurt Vonnegut: A Different Kind of Fiction

If you haven’t read anything by Kurt Vonnegut, what have you been reading? That might sound bold, but if you’ve read Kurt Vonnegut, you know where I’m coming from. For me, its a combination of his dry and satirical humor and his unique way of presenting a moral that set him apart. In this context I’ll be focusing on three books: Slaughterhouse-five, Cat’s Cradle, and Mother Night, which I all wholeheartedly recommend. This is also the order in which I first read them, and approaching them linearly will hopefully help you follow my train of thought.

I first read Slaughterhouse-five my senior year of high school, outside of my English class, and I ended up finishing it in two days. For a fictional book that combined seemingly mutually exclusive topics such as war, time-travel, and aliens, I wasn’t expecting to like it. To be honest, I only picked it up because I knew it was a classic and that it was frequently referenced in literary culture. However, I was surprised by the unique writing style of Kurt Vonnegut; there is something so genuine and authentic about how he tells a story. He doesn’t seem to care so much about plot holes and accuracy, but more about the overall message of the story, and that was so different than what I was used to (considering intricate books such as The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien). Slaughterhouse-five was especially good at displaying how Kurt Vonnegut uses dry humor to understand humanity in the face of tragedy. A common phrase in the book is “so it goes”, in reference to everything from the end of the universe to the absurd and irrational murder of the protagonist’s companion. At first this sentiment just appears cynical, but after you finish reading you understand what Kurt Vonnegut is really trying to say: in the face of senseless human tragedy, humor is a way to cope with the truth, and to ultimately shift focus to the beautiful parts of existence.

Next I read Cat’s Cradle, and if I thought the plot of Slaughterhouse-five was bizarre, this book took it to another level. The main plot point is the existence of a dangerous material called ice-nine that turns any liquid into ice. However, the story follows a simple protagonist named John and his strange journey that eventually converges with the story of ice-nine. It also features a strange island with an outlawed religion called Bokononism, which is central to the themes of the book. Essentially it is a nihilistic and cynical religion, and Kurt Vonnegut uses it as a punching back to criticize the concept of religion as a whole. In doing so, Vonnegut expands beyond the traditions and beliefs of religion and reveals a human element in understanding life. Through his character development and use of humor, he shows how absurd humanity is, while simultaneously showing how the journey is more important than the destination. Even if everything ends in tragedy, as things often do when people are involved, the story is what teaches us how special it is to be human. This alternative perspective on life is so genuine in Kurt Vonnegut’s writing that you almost forget you were reading fiction.

Last but not least (in fact to many it is Kurt Vonnegut’s best work) I read Mother Night, a story about a spy named Howard W. Campbell, Jr. who works for the U.S. during World War II as a German propaganda radio host. After the war he is put on trial for war crimes, and the book is written as he is living in an Israeli jail. This is the least bizarre of the three books, featuring a pretty straightforward plot and only a few outrageous people and events. This book is also unique in another way, as shown by the first lines of the book:

“This is the only story of mine whose moral I know. I don’t think it’s a marvelous moral; I simply happen to know what it is: We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.”

Having already read Slaughterhouse-five and Cat’s Cradle, this was a surprise to say the least. I loved Kurt Vonnegut because he didn’t hold your hand and spoon-feed you the moral of the story like other fiction writers, he made you work for it. I can only speculate why he did this, but after I finished reading the book I realized that this was only one of the morals. Perhaps he was just being ironic, because he knew that this wasn’t the full truth. Although this is definitely a lesson from the book, the true moral is revealed in the same way as the other two books: through his authentic characters and ability to draw profound truths from fiction. I don’t want to spoil the ending, so I won’t, but after I finished reading, I had no idea what I felt. The ending was tragic to say the least, but it went deeper than that; it wrestled with concepts of guilt and justice in the most profound way. Similar to Slaughterhouse-five and Cat’s Cradle, he managed to show the complexity of humanity and also challenge our pre-held conceptions of what it means to be alive. It’s a moral that you can’t put into words because it’s so universal that it doesn’t exactly mean one thing. Kurt Vonnegut’s writing almost transcends traditional literature because he offers an entirely new perspective on life. Overall, after reading all three books, I feel as if Kurt Vonnegut is an entirely new kind of fiction: one that leaves the conventions of the genre and instead recognizes what makes it so powerful to begin with. I definitely recommend all three books, and I hope you can see the importance of his writing as I do. As for myself, he’ll always be on my list of favorite authors, and I hope to read more works by him in the future.