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Maybe not the most romantic vow ever, but perhaps the most true when she says “Let’s agree to try harder not to speak shittily to each other”. And in a way this is the most romantic thing they’ve done in this house, holding hands in the dark, listening to pirated pop songs on a cell phone’s crappy speaker.

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She’s describing that they are building up a tolerance to the intolerance that is growing between them, like allergies. And this is related to how she describes people in dorms forcing themselves to be on their best behavior in order that it might become second nature to how once you are also unkind, that too can become second nature, Tolerances work both ways.

Now they are borrowing on time itself, from the future for relief today and this creates the image of time folding in on itself, the future folding back towards the present as the past is also catching up to their present. In this house they are in an eternal present with the curve of space-time quickly folding in like a black hole. Perhaps that is what these doors are, “black holes in the fabric of the nation” (129)

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While I’m not sure I agree that this suicidal man has found peace in the beauty of seaside Namibia, I do like the contrast of his unhappiness though he is surrounded by plenty while Saeed and Nadia are struggling to live even though they have nothing. Yet everyone is miserable in their own way, and the “nearby blackness” of the door is like that misery lurking inside everyone.

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Hamid is playing with how the locals (whites) fear migrants moving into the ‘nice’ neighborhoods and buying the ‘nice’ houses and thus removing the whiteness of a neighborhood. As if nice houses can only be occupied with the white people.

He’s also playing with the excesses of the west in how the wealthy often have multiple homes and they leave them empty with only foreign housekeepers coming by to clean them

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Sad to see their marriage (though they aren’t married) falling apart even though they are free from war. The more free they are the easier it is for the pressures of the world to drive them apart, as if two different winds were blowing at them in different directions and these winds were getting stronger. In London, with a moment of luxury, they seem further apart than ever. Is this a comment on the west, too?

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“she thought her body looked like the body of an animal, a savage” is a complex line because it deals with the issue of how people who belong to a place see refugees as animals, not as humans. And here Nadia also sees that animal in her and she wants to wash it away, as if a shower will remove how other people who belong will see her. Hamid might also be alluding to how the Nazis forced the Jews into “showers”.

No Rose, yet felt myself a’bloom

Reeds and Cranes, 19th century, Kiitsu Suzuki
Background Image: Reeds and Cranes, 19th century, Kiitsu Suzuki

This comes at the end of one of the Master letters in which she asks the mysterious Master to come visit her in Amherst (“[this summer – could]”). She very much wants to spend time with Master, so perhaps this poem is saying that even without her having a token of love, a “Rose”, she still feels herself “a’bloom” with pleasure at the thought of their meeting, and the thought of Master coming to her causes her to soar “in Ether” as if in an ecstasy even though she is not a bird (which could represent her not having hope Master will actually come).

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Even when they do meet someone kind, I feel as if all our defenses are up and so our first reaction is to not trust the young volunteer who cares for Nadia’s arm injury. But even with how bad things have gotten they found a moment of kindness, at least for Nadia and the girl – we don’t know who Saeed feels about this. And then they do get to another door, but it feels like it won’t be to anywhere better.

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“The Island of the Winds” lives up to its name by blowing his acquaintance and Saeed together, but of course it all turns out to be a scam. The lemon tree’s leaves wither a little more and Saeed and Nadia are more miserable now than they were back home and no amount of temporary happiness or laughter is going to change that they will soon perhaps turn their backs on each other the same way the now sleep back to back

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It’s frustrating how easy it is to manipulate a social situation these days – in this chapter the militants cause violence in a country where the refugees have gone in order to turn public opinion against the refugees. The public will only see the violence and blame the refugees for it and then everyone will take sides and very few people will be in the middle trying to erase the border.

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“They were each at the crest of the hill only briefly, and at different times”. They both see something different, and neither sees each other – at least not the same way they did. Perhaps Hamid is saying that when you remove a person from their home it changes who they are as a person. It’s like if you grew up speaking another language, your worldview would be different because language, like place, shapes you.

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Mykonos is also known as ‘The Island of the Winds’, so perhaps it’s fitting Saeed & Nadia emerged there, like a leaf blown on the wind, perhaps the last of their lemon three’s leaves blown all the way to a place that “was pretty safe … except when it was not”.

It’s hard to imagine what it would be like to be a refugee, to have no where to go, nowhere to go back to (except probably death). To be Foreign everywhere.

Saeed and Nadia being opposites is coming into sharper contrast now that they are in the refugee camp. He seems to be growing bitter and a consuming sense of guilt, whereas she seems to be taking things in a practical stride. He can’t connect over the phone to his father, she connects right away to her friends over social media. She tries to kiss him, he turns his head.

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Time collapses, it “felt equally like a beginning and an end”, “was both like dying and like being born,” a moment that is somehow enlarged, like a kinked hose where there is not going forward in time and no going back, just an ever expanding present. This is the time of the refugee – no past, no future, just trapped in a kink of time with only memories behind them and hope in front of them.

A letter is a joy of Earth

4 Cent Pony Express Centennial, 1960, United States Post Office
Background Image: 4 Cent Pony Express Centennial, 1960, United States Post Office

I love what she’s saying about us mortals being surprised with “joy” by a letter with news from somewhere and someone we’ve been awaiting news from. The “Gods” are omnipotent so they don’t need to send a “Letter,” but our mortal ignorance “is a joy” because a “Letter” says someone has thought of us and when we learn this it makes us happy.

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Saeed’s father also wishes to remain rather than become a refugee because “Your mother is here”, which she is in a way, but also in time as in she is there in the past, just as her bones are there in the present, and where he will be in the future regardless of his opportunity to leave. Even facing death many people will not leave their home, it takes something extraordinary to force them to leave.

He creates the image of graves built atop the graves of our parents, “the arc of a child’s life only appears for a while to match the arc of a parent’s, in reality one sits atop the other, a hill atop a hill, a curve atop a curve”. He’s not just speaking about the arcs of life, but of death because an arc has two points, a beginning and an end, but it’s only in arc in relation to another arc or straight line.

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No wonder the lemon tree died, not even plans are eager to be moved. And when Nadia frets about being a refugee and how she’d be at the mercy of strangers, both of these scenes speak to how most people do not want to leave home and become refugees, people just want to survive. Even in the bombed out apartment with trenches dug for toilets, they hang onto home even though home is in the past and maybe in the future

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Wonderful shift in POV to the cameras of the security force of Dubai as the one family pops out of a doorway into Dubai. Who knows what will happen, but I can see now how this is a story of refugees and how the “suddenly appear”. The TV screen image of the security footage is good too because we’re talking media images of what we see on the news, but from the state’s POV in wanting to get rid of these “invaders”

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Couldn’t Saeed and Nadia pretend to be brother and sister? Seems like that would be a lot safer? Also are the robots supposed to be drones?

I like hos they are unsure if they are “making a down payment or being robbed”. It’s probably both, but with an emphasis on being robbed.

“Let us hope,” because that is all that’s left, hope in stories, the way someone who is about to die will turn to the bible.

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The worse the situation gets, the more willing Saeed is to taking risks. As people are executed for being unmarried and having sex, Saeed and Nadia – who are unmarried – do have sex. And the timing is interesting because he chooses this right after the murder upstairs, while the blood is on their ceiling, like the blood stain after having sex the first time, but somehow this loss of virginity hangs above them.

The “bodies hanging from streetlamps and billboard like a form of festive seasonal decoration” is one of those images that, while it isn’t true because this is a work of fiction, is true because it feels true which makes me assume this has happened somewhere in reality. And has it? At what point does a fiction also become a truth? I think of The Painted Bird, that awful book and its truth / fictions of Eastern Europe

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The violence is handled so matter-of-fact, it comes at the end of a paragraph without (much) warning: “The neighbors upstairs were not so lucky; the husband was held down while his throat was cut, the wife and daughter were hauled out and away.” And that’s it, this is all we know other than the man’s blood staining the ceiling of Saeed’s home. Even the body disappears when they attempt to bury him.

Her sweet Weight on my Heart a Night

Dolce Far Niente, 19th century, Jozef Israëls
Background Image: Dolce Far Niente, 19th century, Jozef Israëls

I love the idea that even dreams have their own reality in that, as Emily believes, they are sent by God which makes them real, in a way. So perhaps that experience we all have when a dream feels so real that we expect it to still be there when we wake up is an experience worth putting more faith in?

Isn’t “Heart a Night” a strange expression? She doesn’t write ‘heart at night’, rather she uses “a”. What I think she might be doing here is playing with how we would scan this phrase. For example, if it was ‘heart at night’ we would read it where the emphasis of each word descends so that ‘heart’ would be highest, ‘at’ would be in the middle, and ‘night’ would rest at the bottom. However, but using “a”, “Night” jumps back up, in fact it almost rises higher than “Heart”. She introduces a surprise, as if she’s been awoken suddenly, perhaps by the dream she’s experienced in this poem and so “Heart a Night” awakens us too with its oddness and makes us sit upright in bed but we are still a little confused in that sleepish state when we re-acclimate to reality.

In fact, this entire first stanza has a quality of an experience that occurred for a very brief moment but then “slipped away”. The speaker was aware of the presence of this “Bride” as if it was real and now sits, perhaps in their bed in the dark in the middle of the night trying to determine if they had experienced a dream, a vision, or something more “solid”.

Emily pushes this sleepish confusion we feel when we are suddenly awake after a dream when she questions if the “Dream” had been real (“made solid”) or, and this is the most fascinating part of the poem, that the dreamer had been dreaming of the speaker. It’s not an unusual experience to wonder if the reality of the universe we experience is just a dream and we are the only real “solid” person, but do we ever consider that we are someone else’s dream, that we are the unreal made real by someone else? That’s a far more disconcerting experience – it’s uncomfortable to even entertain the idea – yet in this sleepish state she is unsure what is real, if she is real, or if reality is real or not. She’s confused and she’s trying to make sense of it.

And her conclusion is fascinating because rather than assume she’d been dreaming and then either go back to sleep or get on with her day while remaining sad what she felt was just a dream, she turns to God and decides that since he “Gave” all things to each of us, that even dream come from God and so, in a way, even dreams are real, they are “A Fiction superseding Faith”. The logic here is quite wonderful because it remains consistent with how we feel when we are still groggy after suddenly waking up from a dream – she’s not following rational logic, she’s able to capture that weird dream logic we feel in the halfway state between sleeping and waking. It’s a remarkable feat she pulls off because how often have we tried to hang onto a dream when we’ve woken up only for it to slip into some recess of our mind that we can’t recover? Emily is able to capture that sensation here, and while her “Bride” may have slipped away, she’s made the “Bride” real as a poem.

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It’s like another world is inhabiting the city – they have no control over what happens to them because the BIG events of the war are all around them, but from this point of view it feels as if the war is also such a minor part of their lives, like the weather. Strange that we’re so close to the “action” and yet this action is not what we’d assume, it’s people holding hands in the dark and saving a potted lemon tree.

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Again, past, present and future are one, “and so in these several ways these three people sharing this one apartment splashed and intersected with each other across varied and multiple streams of time”. This has been the current all through the novel, a current of time, but the three aspects of time, all of which are interchangeable and relative.

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The homeless dead – there’s nowhere for anyone to go.

The ‘and’ used to describe how Saeed’s father thought of his wife as his best friend is perhaps the most beautiful and sad ‘and’ I’ve ever read. “and his wife had been his best friend” because it defines why he was devastated and what their relationship had been without having to add extra detail. This is profoundly beautifully written novel.

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Amazing (heartbreaking) writing to describe her death all in one sentence, as if all of life (and death) is coming at them too fast to even take a breath and also how memory works when we link two distinct events together because of a tragedy. It also speaks to how life goes on while other die, that life is both precious and cheap, that we will be remembered in the same way we remember an apartment we once lived in.

All the letters I can write

Narcissus Rose Auricula and Dragon Fly No 5, 18th century, Barbara Regina Dietzsch
Background Image: Narcissus Rose Auricula and Dragon Fly No 5, 18th century, Barbara Regina Dietzsch

Emily was an avid letter writer and this poem was part of a letter to her cousin Eudocia Flynt which included a rose, both an actual rose and this poem describing a rose. I think it’s a stretch to attach an overt sexual connotation to this poem (I mean you can, but that simplifies the poem too much). Rather, she is also describing how the parts of language can be used to multiple effects but also come up short of the real thing.

The first line has some subtle wordplay in that letters refers not only to writing a letter for the post, but also the act of writing an individual letter of a word, such as l-e-t-t-e-r-s. She then explains that all these “letters” that she “can write” are also, somehow, not right, that no matter how many she writes, they’ll never be the right letters to replace what she’s feeling or describing. I think of her use of the word “write” in the nautical sense of righting a ship and that no matter how many “letters” she rights, they always remain capsized, perhaps in the “Depths”.

There is also another definition to the word letter, and this was surprising when I looked it up, and that it is the obsolete noun definition meaning “A person who or (occasionally) a thing which hinders or impedes; a hinderer” (OED). Thus, buried in the history of the word “letters” is the act of these same “letters” getting in the way of the real thing. And since Emily included a real rose to go along with her description of a rose, then she understands how what she writes can never replace the real thing.

However, she doesn’t give up on language. In fact she’s quite in love with it, such as how the word “Syllables” does have a velvety sound to it with all those soft S sounds and luxurious L sounds being drawn out slowly over three dexterous syllables. No wonder some people have compared this poem to the act of cunnilingus, especially when we consider the “Depths of Ruby” and the “Lip” – it’s easy to attach a sexual connotation to this poem. However, she is also describing how beautiful and mysterious a rose is, and it’s interesting that she never once uses the word ‘rose’ because though she is aroused by this rose, it remains “Hid”. Rather she talks around the word ‘rose’ perhaps because, like a letter which impedes or hinders true meaning, to say the word rose would mean whomever is reading this letter would imagine their own rose and not the one Emily has in mind and which she is trying to describe in beautiful detail. In other words, to say the word ‘rose’ is to define it, but to talk around it, to describe its quality and its effect is to somehow get closer to the truth of this particular rose.

One final note about the implied sexuality of this poem. If we read, say, Keats and his Ode on a Grecian Urn, we don’t immediately assume he’s being sexual in describing that evocative shape, so why do we ascribe sexuality to Emily when she describes a rose? It seems unfair to only connect a woman’s writing to the body and only the man’s writing to the mind because that is playing into gender stereotypes. Granted, Emily may have been aware of the loaded sexual imagery of this poem (though it was given to her cousin, so there’s that), but to make that the main emphasis of the reading of this poem feels very unfair to all the other work Emily is doing in this poem and it reduces Emily to a single dimension when in fact the majority of her work reveals that she has more dimensions than a rose has petals. I’m not saying we can’t read the sexuality in this, but there is a lot more going on here than a single dimension.

Why make it doubt – it hurts it so

Tapisserie de l'Apocalypse - 2nd Trumpet, 14th century, Nicolas Bataille
Background Image: Tapisserie de l’Apocalypse – 2nd Trumpet, 14th century, Nicolas Bataille

This is a heartbreaking poem, made harder in not knowing who “Master” is and what she has done to “Offend the Vision”. But perhaps it is the work “Vision” which is a clue since she often writes about the world revealed to her through imagination, so perhaps she upset with herself for not paying attention to her imagination and thus she lost a “Vision” which she can’t now recover?

The first thing that came to mind when I read this poem was writer’s block and the fear of not ever being inspired again. It’s a dread I live with constantly and I always feel as if I have to be worthy to be gifted a new idea with which to work from. And when I don’t have a new idea I fret endlessly about thinking that ‘this is it, I have no more ideas, I’m finished’ and so I work myself up into a near panic that I’ll have a sort of creative death. And I wonder if perhaps this is something she had in mind when she wrote this poem? That’s she;s worried that she will no longer be worthy of the inspiration granted to her my this mysterious “Master”?

But she also seems to be suggesting that she believes she may have offended someone and that she will now be forgotten because they no longer want anything to do with her. Emily, for as unusual as she was, I’m sure was aware that she was a bit odd and that people reacted to her differently than how people might react to the rest of her family. And she probably never felt like she could act any different than her typical unusual self and so she probably worried that others would not think well of her. She probably very much wanted people to like her (she seems to like everyone) but she also seems like someone who cannot interact with the world in the regular way regular people do – she’s far too much i her own mind, and she sees the world under such a different light that she’s just unable to act like everyone else. And this can be a terribly lonely experience – sort of like how someone who is disabled might grow frustrated with the world treating them different – and so she’s hyper-aware that her unusual-ness might “Offend” someone but she’s powerless to stop it.

I’m probably projecting too much here, but a poem like this is so personal that it’s hard not to put myself in the poem and look at the world through this poetic lens. Perhaps it’s also her use of the word “me” twice at the end of the poem (rather than the more formal “I”) which makes the poem feel as if it were written for each individual reader.

He showed me Heights I never saw

After being shown the highest point revealing the secrets of the world, she still hesitates to agree to put her faith in “He”. Perhaps having to be shown something rather than discovering it herself is what she is taking issue with, or perhaps her imagination is so rich she doesn’t trust it to reveal the real truth? Either way, her “face withdrew” and could she “further “No”‘ (know).

The most interesting word in this poem, for me, is the word “No” because she seems to be equating “No” with ‘know’, as if she is saying “No” to a sort of knowledge and knowing. Everything that has been revealed to her in the poem has come from it being shown to her by someone else and she seems to be saying that this sort of knowing is something she must withdraw from and say “No” to. In a way she is flipping the roles of Adam and Even by suggesting (slightly) that if she had been Eve she would not have eaten the fruit, she would have said “No” to the fruit of the three of the knowledge (knowing) of good and evil.

I’ve read that perhaps she is referring to Christ in this poem, and perhaps she did have Christ in mind, but she has written so many poems about the world being revealed to her – often the Platonic world of the Forms – that I feel she is questioning where this light which shines on the worlds revealed to her comes from. In this poem she describes a “light for me” which glows “solemn” and which she withdraws from, as if she is now skeptical of what she has discovered in her imagination. Perhaps she is speaking about doubt which, as any artist can attest to, is a powerful force always at work in the artist’s mind as to their own ability. Or perhaps she is skeptical of the church revealing how the universe works because she has seen with her own imagination the true beauty of the world and thus she is skeptical of the “solemn” light of the church (think a dimly lit chapel and its votive).

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It’s kinda funny how as the (their) world is ending, Saeed is likely the only boy who doesn’t want to have sex with his girlfriend, whereas she does want to. Kind of a nice reversal but for both of them it’s a way of hanging onto some sort of normality: he keeping his morality intact, she living life to her fullest – neither of which seem likely as the bombs are falling all around them.

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These dark doorways have become the hopeful myth storytelling people tell each other as hope manifesting itself in unexpected ways – a hope that they can escape, that there is relief somewhere, that there is a somewhere to go because here is not anywhere anyone wants to be. There is always a somewhere, even if it exists only in stories.

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“One’s relationship to windows now changed in the city” is a glorious line!

I love the image of the bookshelf propped up against the window, as if all that education and learning could keep the bombs out, as if the light seeping in around the bookcase was enough light to see by, and not just literally see, but to be illuminated by (the light of education). If our borders were all books, how would the world b better

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Beautiful and simply stated that “All agreed he was a fine and delicate man, worryingly so, for these were not times for such men.” A lesser writer might have tried to overstate and overplay the emotion here, but by underplaying it the scene is all the more powerful and sad. Fantastic writing. And Hamid is right – these are not times for such men (people) and yet, paradoxically, they are exactly what is needed.

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“She remembered the boy as shy, with a stutter and a quick mind for mathematics, a good boy, but she could not remember his name” and he’s like so many other who were a “good boy” and now are firing a truck mounted machine gun, and probably will be dead soon. How many people like this have come and died through history?

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Considering the circumstances of a run on the banks and her being sexually assaulted, “a camping stove, some extra fuel, a large box of matches, fifty candles, and a packet of chlorine tablets” are far better than flowers. Though a gun would probably be even better to have since you can get / keep all those supplies and flower with it, as well as defend yourself.

The Mountains – grow unnoticed

The Mill, 1648, Rembrandt
Background Image: The Rocky Mountains, 1866, Albert Bierstadt

Emily could be writing about herself as a poet who every day will “grow unnoticed” and she writes only because she must, not for fame or “applause”. Yet she also describes “fellowship” in contrast to the lonely work of building a mountain but who is it she desires “fellowship” with? Is she suggesting that the light of the sun (inspiration) spends each night with her in dreams?

I would imagine Emily never actually saw the mountains, at least not the kind she’s describing in this poem. However, not having first-hand experience is no impediment to the creative mind, and I think that’s partially what she getting at here, especially with the final image of the poem in which the mountains turn “golden” and then “night” comes. This image is important because the light of the sun which had been illuminating the “Faces” of the “Mountains” ends its day tucked in with the mountains, as if the light of the “Sun” which reveals all that which is visible to the naked eye, shines differently at night and illuminates the unseen world. If you think about how dreams work, especially the fact that you can see even though your eyes are closed, where is this light source coming from if not the “Sun” who has nestled itself in the mountain range of your dreams?

Thus Emily, who does not often leave her home, is still able to travel across the universe every night and then reports back her findings the next day in her poetry. She is, like the geologist who studies how “Mountains – grow”, she records the growth of her imagination and what is revealed there in her own notes, and she does so without asking for any recognition or help. Her only companion is her imagination and that seems to be plenty of “fellowship” for her.

The Sunrise runs for Both

River Scene, 1840, Sebastian Pether
Background Image: River Scene, 1840, Sebastian Pether

Stunningly beautiful poem, especially because she is able to capture the expanse between horizons as if she holds her arms up and outstretched to the glory of the heavens in celebration of all this beauty. And there is an intimacy here in that we share this moment of a day alone, there is nobody to bother us, only us and the rotation of the earth through the sky.

To say this poem is breathless would technically be inaccurate since she involves the breath of the sky in the opening stanza, though she hides it in the word “unwinds” (wind) and “Breadth” (breath). In fact the opening stanza mimics breathing in that the poem opens with the verb “runs” and closes with “still”, as if the sky is breathing and each day is one cycle of inhaling and exhaling. Yet to say the poem is breathless would also be accurate in that what she is describing has left her breathless at the beauty of the “Noon” who “unwinds Her Blue” across the sky like a ribbon being untied on a gift.

But what does she mean by using the word “Both”? In fact the poem is filled with images of a set of 2: “Both” (three times, once each stanza), “Two”, “set”, and “One – / And One” (as in 1 + 1). Who are these two? I’ve read that it could be a poem about two lovers, which seems plausible, especially since there is a strong current of an almost aching love in this poem as we observe the beauty of the sky. But if we take the poem for what it is: a description of the sky throughout the day and night, it feels as if she is somehow connected to the majesty of the heavens, that she is in love with the whole universe and that the “Both” is her and the heavens. We could image her standing on a hill watching the sunrise, then as the day “unwinds” until evening when the “Lamp” of the moon comes out until she too sets and the “Dusky Arms” of the Milky Way appear and we end with an embrace (as lovers would at night) and the lie together (either to sleep or to make love).

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Again he describes a place as having different times, and Nadia comments that she’s not sure if the photography (is it Thiery Legalt being referenced?) looks like the past, the present, or the future. And when the cell phone signals are cut, it’s like the past again, but a present past, a present past extending into the uncertain future. Same place, different time.

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“Saeed prayed for peace and Saeed’s father prayed for Saeed and the preacher” prayed for the righteous to be victorious without indicating who that might be – typical. Or is it? How do we know who the righteous are? I mean it’s easy to tell when you’ve got nazi’s or something, but what about when it’s more subtle? Is everyone righteous or is nobody? Is there even such a thing?

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Shame that the only time people often feel “a desire for peace, that peace should come for them all, for everyone, for everything, for we are so fragile, and so beautiful, and surely conflicts could be healed if others had experiences like this” is when we’re tripping on mushrooms. Imagine if we could do this sober? Or outside of art?

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Wasn’t it a scene in An Unrestored Woman where one of the characters got in an accident with someone far wealthier than they and so they lay down in the street in absolute protestation for fear of what the retribution might be and meanwhile their daughter feels nothing but the shame in all of it. Similar scene here with Saeed nicking his car’s mirror on the “shiny black SUV”.

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“tongues of a planet that would one day too be no more” – great line juxtaposed next to the section on how everyone uses a cell phone (though Saeed is far more conservative than Nadia). One day the planet will be silent – again, though maybe that day is coming sooner than what the producers intended.

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Hamid is being quite clear about the coming tragedy, that people are going to die and that knowing this makes us feel all the more powerless than if it had been a surprise. But wouldn’t death, like that of her cousin being blown to literal bits have been a surprise, or is the author suggesting the people who live here should think a lot more carefully about the fact they could die at any time?