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.

A proud moment

The proudest moment for anyone who writes is having a third person read and appreciate their work.

I got my moment today.

A friend in my writing group kindly reviewed my first collection of travel haiku.

It’s my first review, and I’m quite pleased—if I may say so myself.

Read the whole review here:

Steps and Stones is available on Amazon.

A note on bad reviews

I recently attended a panel discussion about going and receiving criticism. The panel consisted of writers, reviewers, and art critics. It was an hour-long showering of insightful opinions and ideas that I had to note down and mull over. As I mulled over, an incredible urge to write them down gnawed my brain.

One of the points that a writer of over 30 books, brought up is that in this age of social media, writing as an art has taken a massive turn. People can now share their opinions with the greater world even as they watch a movie, read a book, or wander through an art exhibition.

And that got me thinking.

From being a slow, iterative process like a stewing stump of steak, creating art has now become quicker, like pre-packaged chicken caesar salad, to offer instant gratification for souls so eager to tweet out their amusing reactions to a book as early as five pages in.

Since writers and other artists are aware of the instantaneous effects that the audience’s opinions will have on their work, they tend to take safer strides in their writing. Afraid of being criticised by people who don’t see what they see, artists adjust their art to satisfy the audience that happens to see their work. As a result, art becomes tailored for a specific audience, instead of reflecting the artist’s being.

Bad reviews and harsh criticism isn’t always about the artwork. In most cases, especially in today’s social media-powered world, adverse reactions come from people who didn’t necessarily enjoy the work. This also means that the art hasn’t reached those who would enjoy and appreciate it. When put that way, any review becomes mildly questionable. Sure, this reader hated the book. But there may well be other readers who’d love the book but haven’t read or reviewed it yet.

That’s a good reason not to rely too much on reviews.

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.