A Poet's Reading List — Amanda Chong
Photo: Sindhura Kalidas
Hi Amanda, tell us more about yourself!
I'm a lawyer who writes poetry on her lunch breaks. The lawyer side of me is preoccupied with the syntax of things but the poet in me is learning to stand in quiet wonder of the world.
What are you currently reading?
Bad Feminist by Roxanne Gay
In no order of preference,
On Chesil Beach – Ian McEwan
Lolita – Vladimir Nabokov
The Empathy Exams – Leslie Jamison
Diving into the Wreck – Adrienne Rich
The Light of the World – Elizabeth Alexander
On Chesil Beach is a tightly written novella with the most heartbreaking end— I read it on the tube in London and had to get off to find a toilet to weep in. It also holds one of life's crucial lessons — never walk away from a lover without looking back at least once.
I love Nabokov for his linguistic inventiveness and mastery of the unreliable narrator. His sentences, quite simply, dance. Past the paedophilia, I see Lolita as a statement about aesthetics and idealism. In the words of Humbert Humbert, I am thinking of aurochs and angels, the secret of durable pigments, prophetic sonnets, the refuge of art. And this is the only immortality you and I may share, my Lolita.
A good essayist is similar to a good poet — both must possess the ability to draw surprising connections between disparate objects. Leslie Jamison’s essays are rich with newly-minted metaphors and ideas perfectly attuned to our time. Most of all, I was blown away by her searing emotional honesty about her own struggles — But I believe in intention and I believe in work. I believe in waking up in the middle of the night and packing our bags and leaving our worst selves for better ones.
I discovered Adrienne Rich’s Diving into the Wreck as a 15 year old girl. The poems Trying to talk with a man and When we dead awaken opened my eyes up to a world in which just asserting your voice as a woman writer was an act of great daring and subversion. Rich is my model for what writing should be – testifying with equal parts strength and compassion.
There is a special kind of cadence when a poet writes in prose and The Light of the World possesses all the beauty of it. It is a memoir of Elizabeth Alexander losing her beloved husband to a sudden heart attack, and carries the tenacity with which I hope I will love and be loved. She writes, In all marriages there is struggle and ours was no different in that regard. But we always came to the other shore, dusted off, and said, There you are, my love.
These two in tandem:
"Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.” – 1 Corinthians 13:12
"Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer." — Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet
Writing takes me to a place of utmost vulnerability, where I am forced to examine my brokenness and grapple with all my unanswered questions. It is a lonely endeavour, but when my words reach another and resound with them, that in itself, is a profound answer.