I read this book twice in quick succession. It’s only a short collection, 70 pages of generously-spaced poems and a few pages of notes, so it didn’t take long. Interestingly, the two readings were very different.
The first time, I didn’t really understand the poems, but loved the way they made me feel. The words washed over me and I enjoyed them for their rhythm and arrangement. It was a bit like listening to a pop song in a foreign language.
The second time I read it with the benefit of the notes at the back, explaining that one poem was about the Pyrenean ibex, which went extinct in 2000 and was briefly brought back to life through cloning in 2009, while another was based on refugees from the Soviet Union defacing Chinese caves in 1920, and so on.
On the second reading, I had more understanding of what the poems were about, but I enjoyed them less. Perhaps poetry, after all, is not about understanding but about feeling. The obscure references and allusions are probably satisfying for those who get them instinctively, but don’t work as well when you have to look them up in footnotes.
In the past, I’ve often shied away from poetry because I thought I just “didn’t get it”. Now, inspired partly by poetry enthusiasts like Stefanie and Kinna, I am starting to read more of it. I believe that my mistake was in reading poetry like prose: quickly, and in search of meaning. Now, I am reading it slowly, line by line, savouring the freshness of the words and images, and not worrying so much about getting it. I’m viewing it less as an intellectual exercise, and more like eavesdropping on someone else’s dream. It’s working out well.
I’d recommend this collection to people like me, who are relative poetry novices, but I also think there are a lot of deeper layers in there for people who are prepared to tease them out.
Here’s a sample, an extract from the series ‘Cats on Fire’.
The author of the book, a Polish reporter, one evening
on a balcony
in Dar es Salaam,
drained by hungry mosquitoes,
copied into his notebook
a passage from The Histories by Herodotus,
who had heard
that when a house is on fire
the Egyptians don’t run for water
but position themselves around it
to get in the way of the cats
that slip between them,
jump over them even,
to dash into the fire.
The reporter was shocked.
There had been no cats in The Histories before,
One must open great books again,
if one is to catch
falling from between their pages
their hidden cats
dashing into their hidden fires.