Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Day 13: We're Soaring with Poetry...and Birds

Welcome to Day 13 in our 24 Days of Books. Today we're soaring with poetry -- specifically with the new gorgeous book The Conference of the Birds, illustrated by Peter Sis and published by The Penguin Press. This lavishly illustrated new book brings to life the classic twelfth-century Persian epic poem written by Farid Ud-Din Attar that tells the story of a flight of birds in search of the true king, Simorgh:  "Birds! Look at the troubles happening in our world! Anarchy -- discontent -- upheaval! Desperate fights over territory, water, and food! Posioned air! Unhappiness! I fear we are lost. We must do something! I've seen the world. I know many secrets. Listen to me: I know of a king who has all the answers. We must go and find him."

The perilous journey to the mountain of Kaf, where Simorgh lives, takes the birds past seven planets, across seven seas, and through seven valleys: quest, love, understanding, detachment, unity, amazement, and death. Many birds decline to tackle the perilous journey. The birds that persist and survive the journey learn that Simorgh the king is, in fact, each of them and all of them.The Conference of the Birds is an inspirational parable about the painful but beautiful human journey toward understanding.

Peter Sis was born in Brno, in the former Czechoslovakia. He is an internationally acclaimed illustrator, author, and filmmaker who sought asylum in America after being sent to Los Angeles to produce a film on the 1984 Winter Olympics. He is the author of more than twenty books and is a seven-time winner of The New York Times Book Review Best Illustrated Book of the Year. In 2003, Sis was named a MacArthur Fellow.

Heller McAlpin, in his review of the book on NPR, described it thusly: "Often evocative of Asian scrolls, the book is filled with mazes, circular patterns, geometric peaks, and enigmatic, dreamlike landscapes, all tinted in the rich browns, greens, blues, and reds of earth, air, water and fire." He says the exquisitely illustrated book on its thick textured paper readily makes the case of what print books can do that e-books can't do. True that! This book is a visual and tactile feast, filled with hidden meanings -- and it works on many levels, so it will appeal to people of all ages.

While we're on the subject of poetry, I can't resist telling you about the wonderful new poetry anthology edited by Rita Dove (and also published by Penguin): The Penguin Anthology of 20th Century American Poetry. The book makes a conscious and noble attempt to be inclusive -- across race, gender, ethnicity, old favorites and lesser-known poets. But compiling anthologies is a thankless job, even for a former US poet laureate. I loved the comment on the Poetry Foundation's website:

"Does anyone have a phone number for the producers of the World's Toughest Job? Because we’d like to petition that they add “poetry anthologist” to their roster of underwater welders, rodeo clowns, ultimate fighters, and pyrotechnicians. Okay, it’s true that you won’t lose any limbs compiling the “best” verse of the last 100 years, but the occupational hazards are nevertheless intense." In other words, people are already tossing darts at Dove for her inclusions/exclusions. Nevertheless, as one review commented, "these satiny pages hold bushels of treats to savor."

As Dove notes in her introduction, even though it "doesn't seem right to weigh poems like cabbage or fish," some poems and poets were eliminated because of budgetary issues, as permissions fees range from "modest to outrageous and don't necessarily correlate to literary significance and artistic influence." In the end, however, Dove believes she has remained true to the quest she set out on, presenting "my panorama of twentieth-century American poetry -- viewed not with a scholar's dissecting eye but from the perspective of a contemporary poet who, although not exactly born into her country's mainstream, nevertheless took possession of mainstream society's intellectual shapes and artistic aesthetics to make them her own."

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