Forty Stitches

I think I write decent haiku. I take pictures of everything that makes me gawk, and then I twist them, interpreting them in my weird way. Sometimes I even manage to impress myself.

But I never thought of how my haiku sounds to others.

Now I know. Because I’ve read CT Salazar’s book.

The title made me “ooh” and smile as if I understood what it was about. ‘Forty Stitches Sewing a Body against a Ramshackle Night’—hell yeah—this is my jam. I write haiku—I know exactly where this is going. Or did I?

Cover of CT Salazar's book, Forty Stitches Sewing a Body Against a Ramshakle Night
Cover of CT Salazar’s book, Forty Stitches Sewing a Body Against a Ramshakle Night

It’s a compilation of forty short poems, a hybrid-haiku form which the poet calls ‘stitches’. See, I didn’t realise that when reading the book. And so when I did, much later, it was as if someone had turned the lights on, laying bare the contents that had been so artfully cocooned within the title.

Ah, the pleasures of decoding poetry!

That title paints a powerful image to hook readers. Just enough, but not at all. That’s the biggest advantage—and the problem—with writing haiku. Everyone knows (or thinks they know) what to expect, but they know nothing of what they’re about to read. 

As a writer, you have to satisfy their wants—throw them a bone, if you will—and then when they think they’ve got the hang of what you’re saying, pull the carpet from right under their feet.

That’s what haiku is about. It embodies minimalism. It’s the ultimate form of contraction. Salazar does all of that. And then some more.

Opening the metaphorical pages, I thought I knew what style, tone, and tenor he’ll use. 

I assumed.

One should never assume anything about haiku.

trimming your hair
in the bathroom hundreds
of commas curl

No punctuation, no explanation, no direction for the reader. 

Go figure.

But that’s what’s so beautiful about haiku—and Salazar’s haiku, in particular—it makes you see—really see—the small, everyday things in life. The next time I see a strand of hair on my bathroom floor, I’ll think of commas. (And then I’ll moan about losing said hair.) That’s what good poetry does to you—it leaves you with lingering moments. 

As I read through the pages, more word treasures jumped out, shaking me completely off balance.

watched a cardinal
fly through me—sorry
through a window

Like most poetry enthusiasts, when I came across e e cummings for the first time, I was fascinated. As an English student, I cringed—no capitalisations and no language order. But I adored his rebel blood. He broke the rules and still made all the sense in the world.

Salazar does too. I mean, look:

river river
we’ve both been
running

See? It’s subtle, it’s delicate, but it punches you in the throat, and as you temporarily recover from gasping for air, it hits you again. 

I’ve read and reread this book plenty of times, and I still can’t quite put my finger on what exactly it’s about. Sure, I have five or six story lines running in my head, and every time I read the book, one of them seems to take precedence over the other.

However, as someone who writes a whole lot of haiku (or as I call it), I don’t mind if my readers don’t see what I see. That’s the beauty of any creative endeavour—it should always be open to interpretation. And so with Salazar’s book, even though I still haven’t cracked the code, I’m quite happy to revel in the pristine beauty of his words. After all, it’s not a test I need to clear—poetry is an artistic form of expression and food for the soul. And I will consume it in all greediness, inhaling it in gusts and letting it bloat me with pleasure.

Of Love and Other Demons

Of Love and Other Demons by Gabriel García Márquez - cover

I won’t lie. This book took me an embarrassingly long time to finish. Not because I’m a slow reader, but because, as is the case with so many books, I found it easier to put it down and not pick it up again. Another prominent book I did that to is One Hundred Years of Solitude, also by the same author. I might be sensing a pattern here…

Regardless, it didn’t help that the story picked up well into the story. It was designed to be a slow start, much like One Hundred Years of Solitude. It’s almost as if Marquez was testing his readers to see if they’ll hang around long enough, if they were loyal enough, to endure the creeping pace of the initial chapters before bestowing upon them some of the greatest and heart-wrenching prose of all time.

In other words, Of Love and Other Demons features beautiful writing—writing that will stay with you well after you finish reading the book.

“Disbelief is more resistant than faith because it is sustained by the senses.”

I’m not pious. And I don’t enjoy the company of people who shove their religious beliefs on others. This story is scattered with Christian beliefs and the ancient traditions of bishops and exorcism. Even though this book personifies everything I’m against, I cherished the way it’s done.

I mean, just read this:

“The bishop could not continue, because the thunder resounded over the house and then rolled out to sea, and a biblical downpour cut them off from the rest of the world. The bishop lay back in a rocking chair and was shipwrecked in nostalgia.”

Isn’t that beautiful?

I started reading this book before COVID-19 was born. And now, as I got to the last page of the book and rethink the narrative, I’m amazed at the uncanny and coincidental reference to today’s reality.

This is the story of a young girl who’s bitten by a dog with rabies. Unfortunately, she didn’t contract the disease, and that abnormality made those around her, subject her to eternal damnation.

Gabriel García Márquez has given us a wonderful tale in Of Love and Other Demons.

St. John’s Wort, a review

St. John's Wort, a poetry collection written by Alexus Erin. Published by Animal Heart Press.

It’s hard to say what Alexus imagined when she titled this book, St. John’s Wort. It’s the name of a European medicinal shrub known for treating depression. Like most of the world, if you consider the book at face value, you’ll think it’s therapeutic, that it calms and elevates your experiences. 

It does. 

However, as you read through the poems, over and over again, to make sure you don’t miss a beat or the depth of meaning folded neatly in between lines and stanzas, you’ll realise that Mayo Clinic was perhaps right. As one of the top possible side effects of St. John’s wort (the shrub), it lists agitation. Which is what you feel when you’ve read these poems.

Alexus doesn’t look at the world around her and burst into flowery language. Instead, her poems are deliberate. Each line, each syllable rings with meaning, and whether or not you directly relate to it, you feel what she sees, and you see what she feels.

Imagery is for the ear as much as it is for the eye, you learn as she describes in Laughter,

“I know God laughed
when night bathed tabletop-
tabletop cradled the New York Times, a pound cake. I sang carols over the brushed, high-hat hiss of a Vanilla Coke can.”

Alexus’s poetry isn’t simple. Layers upon layers of complexity lie in each poem, and she makes you work to reap the sweet benefits of the sadness lingering in those hard words. 

“When I learned my father had an aneurysm, I thought about the day his brother had the aneurysm.
I thought about Plath, then Hughes
then about how suddenly I needed to buy pudding
from the grocery store.”

When referencing a father dying of aneurysm, not everyone draws a parallel with Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy“, where she confesses struggling to forgive her father’s involvement in the Holocaust and his lack of self-care that resulted in a gradual demise. Alexus cleverly matches the Plath reference with the seemingly related Hughes, while instead, with a subtle streak, alluding to pulmonary artery aneurysms, a rare autoimmune disease first described by British physicians Hughes and Stovin.

Good poetry resounds though your being, leaving blotches of reality, like ink on paper, marking you for life. This collection of poems takes it further—you have to marvel at Alexus’s wordliness, the way she’s melded poetry with dark reality, and the way she’s dejargoned medicine, revealing it in bits, like droplets on whiskey, just enough to hit you with a boldness that momentarily disarms you.

It’s not, however, a book you need to pair with a high-edition dictionary—although a nice Riesling surely complements. Scattered throughout the book, in snippets that speak the truth as it is, are poems so simple and so pristine that you can’t help but pause to inhale the beauty of words.

“What among us won’t, one day,
Be turned inside out?”

She asks in such tepidity that it strikes you, slices through your pretence, as intense as hot knife through cold butter.

Alexus ends that poem, Year of the Rabbit Hole, hinting at self-help, while artfully voiding her voice of the unworthiness that comes with such books.

This collection is a chain, flaunting a range of topics, all bound by the string of tragedy. Every poem is an ode to an incident in life—sometimes personal, often not—leaving you with a shudder, questioning you, and enticing you to question the world you see.


Musings from reading St. John’s Wort, a poetry collection written by Alexus Erin and published by Animal Heart Press.

Set me Free

Salvatore Striano quote from Set me Free

I haven’t met a Shakespeare fan I didn’t like. 

Dreamy fierceness oozes from his words like a tube of toothpaste, and make readers stick like mosquitoes on an oil plate.

And when two mosquitoes meet on oil plate, what else would they share than their love for wit that landed them there in the first place? 

It was with that curiosity that I picked up Set me Free by Salvatore Striano. The title itself wasn’t any different from the thousands that line the library aisle. It was the sub headline of the book that forced my feet to retreat and my hand to reach out: The story of how Shakespeare saved a life.

At that moment, I knew I had to read it.

Life got in the way, many times, slowing down my progress. And yet, I persisted—the deadline loomed and I didn’t want to be that person who extends a library book because they were too busy not reading.

I read in the bus, I read walking around the lake, I read in bed at night sipping black coffee.

This tale come from behind bars. It’s the story of a high-security, long-sentence serving prisoner in Italy. The narrator, Sasà—the prisoner himself—tells how he’s been a frequent visitor to jails since he was seven, walking us through various parts of his life leading up to the present. And all the while, he explains the realities of prison life, the solitude and hopelessness that hugs the air, and the spite that separates groups.

What’s Shakespeare doing in a place like this?

Saving souls, of course.

The narrator goes on to illustrate how one accidental play they put on opened the vault to an under-appreciated realm of sonnets and theatre. He reads Shakespeare, and with every play he finishes, Sasà feels himself glow and grow as a person. And in the end, the book closes with a hint of how even inside prison, lessons from good literature change and free people of their darkest despairs.

It’s a well-told short book.

However, at many instances while reading this book, I felt a tinge of irritation scratch the surface of my patience. For there are pages in the book that function, not as part of the story, but as the author’s opinion and observation of The Tempest. I scoffed, remembering CliffNotes. The narrator does this a lot—there’re chunks of references, poetic verses, and lengthy explanations of how and why Prospero forgives his enemies in the end. Sasà even argues with a fellow prisoner, who plays Prospero, for doing the character injustice.

As I read on, though, my annoyance melted. I grew intrigued at the narrator. For he’d internalised Shakespearean characters so much that he began identifying their real-world counterparts.

As readers, we see the plays help him discover his feelings towards the people in his life. His wife was like Miranda—loyal and pure. An older cellmate, a mentor and guide was Prospero—a father-like figure in jail. And he, the narrator, himself was Ariel. It becomes more than a role in a play, and we see how Sasà lets Ariel and other Shakespearean characters influence his own behaviour. Like an earthworm tossing out the dirt to let a breath of fresh air down the ground, these fictional men wade in and out of Sasà’s consciousness, picking out hatred and sadness, and replacing them with gardening, writing, and composure.

This is a small book. With a big takeaway. 

The more I recall incidents in the book, the more I understand the impact of these plays on the narrator. From being a thief, drugger, and gangster, he emerges as a poet, and a rather philosophical actor.

This is a good book. Give it a read.

Good morning, midnight

Don’t ever write sentences in fragments.

That’s got to be the primary advice anyone gives a writer. Even though it sometimes makes sense to break up a thought into shorter and snappier phrases. In a story, in particular, it helps convey the narrater’s emotions and thought process. 

But—

It’s still a fragment. Therefore, it warrants ceaseless scorning from those who label themselves as writing gurus and advocates of good writing. 

Well, tell it to Jean Rhys. Because she shoves her finger at all the writing rules I grew up reading and fearing I’d accidentally break.

Not long ago, a friend of mine handed me her copy of “Good Morning, Midnight” and declared it was a brilliant book. Oh well, I mused. This was, after all, a person who loved and cherished Jean Rhys as an author. Of course, she’s biased in her opinion of the story’s likeability.

I still chose to give my friend and her favourite author a chance. What’s the worst that could happen?

Jean Rhys was a Dominican-born writer who grew up and lived in England for the most part. I’d already read her Wide Sargasso Sea (and written about it), the prequel to Jane Eyre, and loved how complementary Rhys’ version was to Bronté’s. I enjoyed the mellow writing style, the sheer distancing between characters and their points of view, and the easy-to-read prose. Despite the sadness that leaps through the words, it’s still the kind of book you can read at a noisy bar without getting distracted.

And that’s what I expected when I opened “Good Morning, Midnight.” Something about the blurb of the book indicated to me that it’s the story of a prostitute, and I stepped into the narrative expecting depression, sadness, and self-hatred. Instead, Rhys threw at me a cold stream of consciousness—an account of incidents narrated so blandly that they jumped out at me. Conversations in reported speech. Reporting of meetings and bar scenes as if seen from the outside. It was a woman recounting her mundane existence in such chilling prose that grips you by the throat, leaving you gasping for air—a taste of what the character herself experienced at the time.

To say it’s a good book is an understatement. To say Jean Rhys has done a great job is a disgrace to her writing. Every scene is in the present tense, enhancing the realness of the situation. As a reader, you’re not listening to the story from someone who witnessed it. Instead, you’re in that moment looking into the mysterious life of this Pernod-driven woman who lands herself in pitiful circumstances without the least foreshadowing. Even though, as a reader, you’re aware you’re at a vantage point and that none of the ongoings can affect you, you do end up hurt—connecting with the protagonist, feeling her and the molasses-like darkness that engulfs her everyday life.

“But they never last, the golden days. And it can be sad, the sun in the afternoon, can’t it? Yes, it can be sad, the afternoon sun, sad and frightening.” 

Good Morning, Midnight – Jean Rhys

Jean Rhys brandishes excellent writing in your face, making you rethink every rule in the books. People cringe at repetition and incomplete thoughts. And yet, Jean takes it all along for a ride, plays around with regulations as they were a toddler, twisting and twirling, doing as she pleases.

And when you finish the book, you’ll realise Jean was an incredible writer. She not only captivates but also tells the story in a way that involves readers without involving the narrator. It’s quite a masterpiece. It’s a wonder why this book isn’t as celebrated as Wide Sargasso Sea.

What the hell am I’m trying to say? Just read the damn book, if not already. You won’t be sorry.