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What I’m Reading: Quite Happy & Sin

January 25, 2016

I read books every week — books I’ve assigned my students for class, books I’m reviewing before publication, books we’ll be discussing on my MSNBC show, and books for no other reason than the pleasure of reading. Every week (or so) I share the books I’ve been reading and my reflections. Sign up here.

Disparate starting points led to a surprising pairing this weekend.

Months ago, my Vice Provost handed me a slim volume written by fellow Wake Forest University alum, L.C. Williams. Williams’ debut poetry collection, Quite Happy, has been in my bag for months, but I finally sat down with it this weekend. Williams is revealed on each page in stark, spare, unflinching verse that is compassionate, but not sentimental.

I discovered the second volume of poetry, Sin, as part of my continuing quest to better understand Iran given its new centrality to American political life in the wake of the nuclear deal. Tiring of the academic political treatises, I stumbled on a translated collection of work by the Iranian poet Forugh Farrokhzad. Farrokhzad wrote briefly and quite scandalously in pre-revolutionary Iran during the 1960s, before suffering an untimely death in her early thirties. Every turn of her verse is delicious desire. I could not put these poems down and only regret that because of my own limitations I am forced to read them in translation.

I was not planning to read these poets next to one another as a pair, but once I did, the many themes drawing them together across disparate decades, cultures, lands, and languages became clear.

Here is just part of L.C. Williams’ “The If/Then Promise (Hypothetical Revolt)”

If institutionalized racism
murders my child, I can
guarantee that:
I will not be poised.
I will not be peaceful.
I will not be rational.
I will not be resilient.
I will not call for peaceful
protests.
I will not quote MLK.
I will not accept pity.
I will not praise the intentions of
the justice system.
I will not ask people to be
nonviolent.
I will not put on a brave face.
I will not seek calm.

And here is just a taste of Farrokhzad’s opening poem, “Sin”

I have sinned a rapturous sin
in a warm enflamed embrace,
sinned in a pair of vindictive arms,
arms violent and ablaze.

In that quiet vacant dark
I looked into his mystic eyes,
found such longing that my heart
fluttered impatient in my breast.

In that quiet vacant dark
I sat beside him punch-drunk,
his lips released desire on mine,
grief unclenched my crazy heart.

As I read their poetry, encountered their desire, engaged their anger, entered their worlds, I kept thinking, what if women spoke their whole minds – all the time – without fear? What would we learn about the world?

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