Hedy Habra is the author of two poetry collections, Under Brushstrokes, and Tea in Heliopolis, winner of the 2014 USA Best Book Awards and finalist for the International Poetry Book Award; a story collection, Flying Carpets, honorably mention in fiction for the 2013 Arab American National Book Award and finalist for the 2014 USA Best Book Awards and the Eric Hoffer Book Award; and a book of literary criticism, Mundos alternos y artísticos en Vargas Llosa. She is a recipient of the Nazim Hikmet Poetry Award. Her multilingual work has appeared in numerous journals and anthologies, including Cimarron Review, Gargoyle, Connotation Press, Cutthroat, Verse Daily, Blue Fifth Review, Nimrod, New York Quarterly, Drunken Boat, Diode, The Bitter Oleander, Cider Press Review and Poet Lore. She has a passion for painting and teaches Spanish at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo. Learn more on Hedy’s website, Facebook, and Twitter.
I usually keep piles of books on my nightstand, each for a different mood, and it’s pretty cluttered. Poetry collections come and go, except for the constant presence of two of my favorite authors, Octavio Paz and Jorge Luis Borges, whose prose and poetry I equally admire.
A month ago, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage interrupted my routine. I had never read any of Haruki Murakami’s novels, and for consecutive days, I couldn’t open any of the other books. I loved the apparent simplicity of the first person narrative, punctuated with flashbacks that kept taking us to the protagonist’s adolescence, a young man named Tsukuru, to make sense of an algic turning point in his suddenly broken relationship with four close friends, two girls and two boys. Tsukuru was the only one whose last name didn’t have a color in its meaning, and his last name meant “to make,” a metaphor for the act of creation. He has a passion for railways and train stations where he works as an engineer, but he is constantly tormented and haunted by the shadows of his past, and he is constantly dreaming or reminiscing, in a subtle play between reality and fantasy. The novel felt like an extended slice of life, with a touch of mystery, allowing the reader to delve into the character’s interior life and share his inability to find answers.
I am currently rereading with sustained interest The Passion of the Western Mind: Understanding the Ideas that Have Shaped Our World View by Richard Tarnas. I greatly enjoyed it when it first came out in 1991, and decided to see if it had resisted the passing of time. I have reached the middle of the book right now, exploring the Renaissance, the Reformation and Counter Reformation movements, after having gone through the Classical Era, and the Dark Ages, and I’m excited to get into the Scientific Revolution. Tarnas’ style is clear and he brilliantly presents in short chapters, succinct, yet at the same time detailed explanations and examples, making the book interesting to scholars and lay persons alike. This book appeals to me because I love philosophy and history, and need constant reminders and references to see how ideas have evolved and are linked together. I find it enlightening and indispensable upon trying to make sense of our fast-changing world. I usually read a couple of chapters at a time, especially when unable to go to sleep, although some paragraphs require a lot of concentration and rereading. The indexes and chronology are very useful as you go along.
Adonis: Selected Poems, translated by Khaled Mattawa, has been on my bedside ever since I heard Adonis recite his poetry at the 2013 AWP Annual Conference in Boston, and had the privilege of attending his mesmerizing reading. Adonis is the most acclaimed modern poet in the Arab-speaking world, and he has been short-listed for the Nobel for decades. I first discovered Adonis in the seventies, when I purchased in a Parisian bookstore la FNAC, a bilingual collection that I kept rereading over the years. He is very well-known in France and I welcome this English translation that spans Adonis’ long career and shows his wide range and experimentation with form. I find Adonis’ language rich and evocative, with recurrent metaphors that always seem renewed. His language is sometimes dense and abstract but always compelling, that’s why I only read a couple of pages at a time:
“Take my dream,
sew it, wear it,
You made yesterday
sleep in my hands,
leading me around,
spinning me like a moan
in the sun’s carts,
a seagull soaring,
launched from my eyes.”
I particularly enjoy the long poem, “Candlelight,” and these lines:
“And don’t you also see that what we call reality is nothing but skin that crumbles as soon as you touch it and begins to reveal what hides under it: that other buried reality where the human being is the poetry of the universe.”
Another book that has been on my nightstand for decades, is Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities. I have been rereading it constantly. I keep the original Italian and William Weaver’s English translation at hand and read the same page in both languages. This enables me to appreciate the rhythm and sounds of the original as it allows me to perfect my Italian. Invisible Cities has maintained its appeal, and I keep discovering something new with each reading. The book is framed by a dialogue between Marco Polo and Kublai Khan. Its fragmentary structure, since it consists in 55 prose poems describing cities that bear women’s names, makes it perfect reading before going to sleep. It is a book to be savored a bit at a time.
One of my favorite quotes comes at the end of the book:
And Polo said: “The inferno of the living is not something that will be; if there is one, it is what is already here, the inferno where we live every day, that we form by being together. There are two ways to escape suffering it. The first is easy for many: accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it. The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension: seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space.”