Nicole Mauro reviews
Nights Reading: Burton’s Thousand and One
By Marthe Reed, Lavender Ink, 2014
Marthe Reed, Lavender Ink, 2014 is at
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The opening lines of Marthe Reed’s recursiv \ re lyric narrative are ominous.
We know the story, told innumerable times, a woman
negotiating with her death(13).
The story Reed is referring to is perhaps one of the most translated, and, because of, mistranslated, with even its title, The Thousand and One Nights, or One Thousand and One Nights, The Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night, or, 1001 Nights, or, as it is more commonly known by English-readers, Arabian Nights, having already gone through a surprising variety of interpretation.
In the aptly named Nights Reading: Burton’s Thousand and One, Reed’s take on mis / interpretation, mis / translation, and language’s role in bridging and distancing reader and story is as deft as it is slippery, as would have to be when examining the ancient practice of oral story-telling in the form of modern lyric. This would seem a chronological paradox. But viewing the former through the lens of the latter allows Reed the flexibility to palimpsest infinite themes — choice and action effacing fate and passivity, blurring the lines between master and slave, submission and dominance, storyteller and audience. The result is the “scrolling and unscrolling” (48) of narrative, with Arabian Nights’ famous narrator Scheherazade, and her arguably as-famous Arabian Nights English-language translator Sir Richard Burton, emerging as the lyric protagonists in Nights.
Their experiences are, to some degree, complimentary in that they are both translators — Scheherazade of stories that have to entertain, and Burton of language that has to be accessible while maintaining original meaning. It could be said, then, that both share the burden of re-invention, making the familiar new again, “…how construct / a meaningful translation” (48).
In Scheherazade’s case, her life depends on it. Shahryar, the king she is about to wed, has a grim tendency to take a new virgin-wife, and behead her nightly. In addition to the implied wifely duties, Scheherazade also has to keep the story-telling lively, and the king enraptured with an exciting tale for 1001 nights.
Many critics have given Arabian Nights the feminist treatment, for good reason, with author Hanan al-Shaykh calling Scheherazade “the first feminist” (nprbooks) for her civilized and rhetorical approach to ending the king’s barbarism and bloodshed. Reed’s treatment is more complex, subtle, recognizing story-telling as both rhetorical and bodily endeavor, perfectly aligning with the gestures and gesticulations that punctuated pre-print story-telling. It’s not enough to just tell; to survive, Scheherazade has to animate and embody as well, so Reed envisions a heroine empowered with intelligence and eroticism, a woman “in possession of her head” (21) who describes, of Yasmin the Wise, “A soft bed. Her spread, white thighs” (92).
Narrators, as Reed imagines them, are exhibitionists — they must be to attract and keep attention — and so exposure is an important part of their repertoire of captivation. While the command of language required to captivate an audience suggests narrators’ possess power and control, the baring-all simultaneously renders them vulnerable to fickle audiences who demand newer, ever more intense forms of entertainment. Readers, it would seem, are then voyeurs who anonymously consume language, image, and story, passively demanding entertainment without contributing to how that entertainment should be created.
Reed challenges this one-sidedness, implicating both Shayryar and us, as readers of Nights who are in effect re-reading Arabian Nights, in the “exchange into which we have strayed,” (72) into which we “enter by force of imagination” (18.)
By “force of imagination” sounds wonderfully criminal, suggesting imagination is akin to breaking and entering into a static, dull framework, is both matter of will and creativity where readers are, or should be, active accomplices, and not helpless witnesses. It’s okay to impose our own fantasies and scenarios onto other, pre-existing fantasies and scenarios, Reed’s lyric boldly claims, to insert ourselves into other people’s stories because that is how metamorphosis is made, empathy for the enemy generated, “The heart of the rose opens” (18), and lives, fictional and non, saved. Salvation is not just in the art of telling, not of re, and re telling, it turns out, but of re, and re-reading, finding the same story brand new again “by force of imagination.” By breaking and entering into the old framework, “improving on the original” (26), an “alternative account” is created, and, with it, “any thousand truths” (24).
Referencing a diversity of poets and authors, including Poe, Calvino, Ashbery, Brossard, Waldrop, Borges, and Donne, as well as philosophers Wittgenstein and Kristeva, and bits from the Qu’ran, and the bible, Nights is a panopoly of truths, with many of those truths questioning truth itself. When fact and fiction conflate, as they would have to with so many different narrators and their interpretations, time suspends, and memory, that space between actual fact and its after-the-fact interpretation, becomes truthful, if not exactly a true representation of events. This is the definition of poetry. Take, for instance, this passage from Chimera:
folded, mirrored, composite
appearing at the margins
the devices of listening and recording
appearing at the margins
no longer circumspect
who was speaking? (107)
In this passage, Reed parallels illusions’ tactics — “folded,” so as to conceal; “mirrored,” so as to reflect — with memory’s — “listening,” and “recording” — to brilliantly insinuate such tactics, however subjective the observations that follow, are not incorrect. Even as the poet questions the identity of the speaker, what the speaker has said is unquestionable, if the narrator is to be believed. What comes out of a mouth trumps the mouth it comes out of, so anyone, even a completely made-up character like Scheherazade, can deliver it.
Do we believe language, or the person who speaks it? It depends on how good the story, a.k.a. how totally made-up and complete the fabrication is. “What we imagine we know” (113). Reed’s precision, in this line and throughout Nights, is concise, potent and terrifying. What if knowledge — carnal, linguistic, historical — is imaginary? — not illusion, exactly, but exists in our heads?
I haven’t conducted the research, I’ll admit, but I’m guessing there isn’t a person alive who has told the same story twice exactly the same way. Because memory gets in the way of everything, is always in the crosshairs during the battle between opacity and transparency. “Nostalgia steps in, neither boat or grave” (25). Reminiscence becomes the limbo to which we humans submit to revisit those states. Nights Reading is that ephemeral in-between, that placeless place.
Al Shaykh, Hanan. “Scheherazade: From Storytelling Slave to First Feminist.” NPR. NPR 9, June 2013. Web, 15 March 2015. http://www.npr.org/books.