Night's Reading: Burton's Thousand and One by Marthe Reed (Lavender Ink Press, 2014)
Marthe Reed’s 2014 collection, her fourth, teems with lush lyric abundance: juniper, tea, perfume, saffron, oils, honey, wine, and jasmine swirl through and around the world of the 1,001 Nights, joined by the language of critical and narrative theory. In this way, Night’s Reading elaborates a slippery, intertextual movement through various registers of the original tales, Richard Francis Burton’s nineteenth century translation of them, and the commentaries of Calvino and Borges.
Reed serves as a deft guide. The collection’s lyric fragments are playful, exploratory, and recursive, often sounding like bits of thought cut off at the stem, as in this section of “Representations”:
a stage upon which she acts and he appears
destabilizes narrative, lifts
held in the grasp of attention and inquiry--
wonder tears loose from terror
no oil of obedience, a swift current erodes the shore
labyrinth of variation
a woman, a king, a vizier
body transmuted as word
Reed’s devotion to the inarticulate--the almost said, or not quite said--is provisional, based on what ifs; these bits of halted speech possess a sort of mystical reticence. They are the cobbled and ruined talk of disintegrated bodies, written only as fragments. Reed notes that the poems intend to explore the power “of the seemingly powerless (women, slaves, blacks) to erode and challenge the status quo,” and as they juxtapose their fragments in ways that suggest powerful but previously hidden relationships, they do exactly that. The internal structure of Night’s Reading arises as characters secondary to the original text coalesce and cohere.
tarot cards: Calvino unable to begin
she unable to stop
her jeweled bodice
her flowing trousers
or thematic rubrics
her laughter adduces a lyric analog
four notes of a descending scale
coherence a matter of repetition
waves growing and retreating
In its intensive listening to the textual world of the 1,001 Nights, Reed’s work is a genealogy of sorts; behind the structural order of the original tales she finds another, pregnant with human agency and revolutionary energy. To read Reed's collection is to find relationships between hundreds of details and fragments where one would not previously find them--or find them only in potential, inexpressed. As such, her work demands an erudition to inhabit the world it evokes, in all its specificity, as it’s transmitted by multiple, mutable voices. Her dream-like milieu becomes a source of raw knowledge, both subverting and illuminating the waking life of the 1,001 Nights.
Reviewed by James Capozzi
James Capozzi is an Assistant Professor at Virginia State University and the newest member of NOLA DIASPORA's editorial team. He is starting student journal, VIRGINIA NORMAL.