Monthly Archives: December 2021

The Book I Read: Charles Dickens Says What? A Christmas Carol

Listen to the podcast version of this blog entry here!

First, I have a supposition, a theory, a hypothesis:

Essentially, we’d have to be living under a rock not to know the story of the famous Dickens novel, A Christmas Carol. Right? We’ve seen the Albert Finney, the George C. Scott. We’ve seen the muppets and Michael Caine, the Patrick Stewart, the Bill Murray. We’ve seen the Jim Carrey. A google search revealed that as many as 61 different actors have been filmed as Ebenezer Scrooge. I know you can’t believe everything you read on the internet, but somehow this is not surprising to me, and I bet you it’s true. In addition to film after film of the Dickens classic, we’ve all seen or maybe even been in stage adaptations. I think my first experience as an actor was that, in the 6th or 7th grade, I played the ghost of Jacob Marley. But here’s the question: how many of us have actually read A Christmas Carol? My guess is, even though I can only speak for myself, not many of us. I could be mistaken–but I’m guessing it is perhaps the best known least read 19th century novel ever. I mean, Moby Dick is well-known, but outside of Ahab vs. the White Whale, most people don’t know shit about it. But this story people KNOW. It’s in their blood. And that’s amazing to me. I haven’t read it all the way through. So I have spent the first few days or so of my holiday break reading A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, and my essential question going into the project was, how will it be, that experience–how will the story be enriched (or not) for me, by dealing with the original text? What have we been missing, perhaps, by a dependence on or the bombardment by the celluloid window dressing?

Let’s find out, shall we?

If it’s at all of interest to my listeners or readers, I just finished reading the second printing of A Christmas Carol published by the Folio Society in 2007 with illustrations by Michael Foreman from the 1983 printing. Of course, I hope you know this, but just in case, Dickens’ story was first published in 1852 in a collection of short pieces called Christmas Books. What I love about this Folio Society edition, beside the lovely full color illustrations, is that the print is gigantic, spread out luxuriously over 173 pages. In my copy of Christmas Books, it’s a tightly spaced printing on half as many pages–requiring the reading spectacles. This thing I could read without my glasses–if I wanted–from three feet away.

After reading, my first and early gut response is one of surprise at how absolutely close so many of the film adaptations come. And the thing that they get mostly right is the dialogue. Many of these screen plays adopt almost verbatim the conversations in the novel–so all of the well known classic lines are mostly preserved, and reading them in silence or out loud (as I love to do) these voices ring again in our ears the way we remember them from our favorite productions. I can hear Patrick Stewart exclaiming “Good afternoon” no fewer than six times over about two pages of text, turning, at least what we hear in American English as a polite greeting, into a curse–meaning, you know, get the hell away from me. Good afternoon! I don’t know if this is particularly English–or whether it originates with Scrooge, but I remember that my son found this particular expression hilarious the first time he experienced A Christmas Carol when he was perhaps 7 years old–walking around the house good afternooning in his little grade-school bellow.

But there are speeches, that when I read them here on the page, seem unfamiliar and new to me, probably as a result of some serious editing for the screen plays. This one in particular, spoken by Scrooge’s nephew in that first opening chapter, stands out. Ebeneezer’s dismissal of “keeping Christmas”: “Let me leave it alone, then. Much good may it do you! Much good has it ever done you!” is followed by this lovely lecture from Scrooge’s nephew:

“There are many things from which I might have derived good, by which I have not profited, I dare say,” returned the nephew. “Christmas among the rest. But I am sure I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round–apart from the veneration due to its sacred name and origin, if anything belonging to it can be apart from that–as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time; the only time I know of, in the long calendar year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys. And therefore, uncle, though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe that it has done me good, and will do me good; and I say, God bless it!”

If this full speech is included in any of the film productions of this story, I have forgotten or remember it only partially, so I single it out here just because I think I have not heard or read a better description of the holiday, or the meaning of Christmas, anywhere else. And I suppose this is the main benefit of reading the piece as opposed to watching it performed and interpreted: the opportunity to allow the words to really sink in. Not to mention just listening and savoring the rhythms of Dickens’ prose–his super-human ability to give complex sentences and sophisticated thought to characters in speech that nevertheless feels natural and convincing. Shakespeare did that. Jane Austen did that. Dickens did that.

Here’s a quick little description of how A Christmas Carol is laid out, structurally speaking. Its composition follows exactly the pattern of the story as we know it, in five chapters, or, as Dickens has named them, “staves,” the first being the Jacob Marley visit, the next three being the visitations of the Christmas spirits, past, present, and future, and the last being Scrooge’s ultimate redemption and rehabilitation, titled, oddly enough, and irreverently, “The End of It.” Again, the structure Dickens has set up has been religiously adhered to by every retelling of this tale–as far as I know. It is a simple, exquisitely clean structure.

You know, I think what I want to do here, for the rest of my little holiday special blog/podcast, is to simply share some of the joy I experienced in reading this complete text (I think, for the first time in my life) by looking at a single favorite passage or two from each of the five “staves” of A Christmas Carol.

This first one, the announcement of Marley’s doornail deadness and the initial introductory description of Ebenezer’s character is so fun, is so cleverly drawn, is so rhythmically alive, so immediately engaging. If nothing else, Dickens’ genius is revealed here as an absolute master prose stylist. And his gift at immediately invoking an atmosphere; here it is at once playful and deadly.

I can’t help thinking of the Robyn Hitchcock song when I read Stave II, featuring the Ghost of Christmas Past: “I’m the man with the lightbulb head.” This spirit has a lightbulb head–or, at least, underneath his cap. The description of this Ghost is a weird one, and I’d love to share it with you, but trust me. Check it out. I want to get to the next passage–before which the Spirit has shown Ebeneezer Scrooge a series of Christmases from his past–which begin happily enough, but become bleaker and bleaker until this culminating scene–the excruciating break-up scene.

This is essentially, almost the concluding passage of Stave II, but it’s the most significant moment, a heartbreaking moment, when young Ebenezer’s avarice finally cuts off from him this one opportunity for happiness with the young woman he loves. And already, Scrooge’s cold heart is beginning to transform: “‘No more,’ cried Scrooge. ‘No more. I don’t wish to see it. Show me no more!'”

In Stave III, the ghost of Christmas present, the jovial one, the giant one, leads Scrooge on a kind of whirlwind tour of the neighborhood and, miraculously, the world–but zeroes in on two particular present day scenes, maybe the most significant of which is the Cratchit residence, where Scrooge meets, or becomes aware of for the first time, the sickly and handicapped Tiny Tim. After thier glorious but modest dinner, and the presentation of the pudding, they make a cozy half circle around the fire. Bob proposes a toast to Scrooge, which, temporarily harshes the room, but all is well shortly thereafter as the children goof around, the family shares a holiday libation, and Tiny Tim sings a little song “about a lost child traveling in the snow.” The narrator gives us this final description of the family, a description for which might be captured on film visually, but perhaps not without losing this exact sentiment:

There was nothing of high mark in this. They were not a handsome family; they were not well dressed; their shoes were far from being waterproof; their clothes were scanty; and Peter might have known, and very likely did, the inside of a pawnbroker’s. But they were happy, grateful, pleased with one another, and contented with the time; and when they faded, and looked happier yet in the bright sprinklings of the Spirit’s torch at parting, Scrooge had his eye on them, and especially on Tiny Tim, until the last.

How unremarkable this family is, and yet, Scrooge sees in this scene the profundity of people who simply enjoy each other’s company, who are not grasping and striving, who are content–perhaps the truest form of human happiness, to be who they are in the circumstances in which they find themselves.

One more scene from Stave III must be referenced–one that, for me, all along in my experience of this story, has been the most haunting and disturbing of all. The Spirit begins to age and deteriorate before Scrooge’s eyes, reveals that his life is compassed by this single day and then he will be no more–and in this moment, Scrooge notices something moving underneath the Sprit’s voluminous robes. Again, we’re all familiar with the scene, but the language in this passage, for me, surpasses what can be achieved visually with this particular image. Check this out.

In Stave IV, the penultimate chapter of A Christmas Carol, Scrooge is visited by the terrifying ghost of Christmas Yet To Come, who appears very much like the Grim Reaper, who doesn’t speak, but only points. Early in the chapter, before Scrooge visits the Cratchit family, mourning the loss of Tiny Tim, and before ultimately visiting his own tombstone, he is shown a body covered in a shroud. Here’s a passage that you will not find translated into film, as Scrooge is tempted to remove but resists removing the cover to reveal the identify of the corpse:

Oh cold, cold, rigid, dreadful Death, set up thine altar here, and dress it with such terrors as thou hast at thy command: for this is thy dominion! But of the loved, revered, and honored head, thou canst not turn one hair to thy dread purposes, or make one feature odious. It is not that the hand is heavy and will fall down when released; it is not that the heart and the pulse are still; but the hand WAS open, generous, and true; the heart brave, warm, and tender; and the pulse a man’s. Strike, Shadow, strike! And see his good deeds springing from the wound, to sow the world with life immortal!

No voice pronounced these words in Scrooge’s ears, and yet he heard them when he looked upon the bed. He thought, if this man could be raised up now, what would be his foremost thoughts? Avarice, hard-dealing, gripping cares? They have brought him to a rich end, truly!

Something often missing from any film or stage play, and something that can be provided almost exclusively by literature, in fiction and in poetry, is character in THOUGHT. And perhaps this is the most significant thing almost always wanting when great fiction is translated to the screen–that whole interior landscape is gone. I think this is one passage above that points to the richness that might be found in reading A Christmas Carol as opposed to watching. But the imagery in this story lends itself so well to film, and it has been captured so wonderfully so many times. It’s almost like Dickens was writing for film. How many of Dickens novels, at this point, have NOT been filmed? The man was prolific–and yet there may be only a few titles of his that were never translated in this way.

Finally, we come to Stave V of A Christmas Carol. It’s the shortest chapter and it moves quickly through the iconic moves. Scrooge wakes up in love with his own bedposts. He doesn’t know what day it is. He is amazed to find out its Christmas Day, that the spirits, who were supposed to come in three consecutive nights, managed to get the whole job done in one–and thus begins a regular festival of good cheer all the way up to the closing sentence, where Tiny Tim’s words are echoed at last: “God bless Us, Every One.” What I found most astounding about this last chapter was how moved I was by it, AGAIN. Reading it out loud last night in my kitchen nook all by myself it was a concerted effort to avoid weeping–and what struck me most was the way in which Dickens has brought to life the sheer and utterly astounding joy that has returned to the heart of Ebenezer Scrooge. Listen to this:

There is a film, which I have not yet seen, a biopic about Charles Dickens called The Man Who Invented Christmas—a story, according to the trailer, of Dickens’ process of creating and then publishing A Christmas Carol. The film looks intriguing and fun—but this title seems, to me, totally apropos. With a minimum of, hardly any I’d say, religious proselytizing, it might be fair to say that the story of A Christmas Carol is primarily a secular one. The holiday, for good or bad, has become highly secularized. Santa and all that hooey notwithstanding, it feels to me that, the majority of us who continue to celebrate the holiday but hold very loosely to its religious aspects, hold on tightly nevertheless to the ethics, the morality, the values represented in Dicken’s short novel. It has indeed become for us the true meaning of Christmas.

Thank you so much for reading and/or tuning in. So long. Happy holidays and Happy New Year. Enjoy your winter. Be kind. Cheers. 

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The Book I Read: I Got the Music in Me–Talking Heads 77 and Annie Kim’s Award Winning Eros, Unbroken

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I’m writing ’bout the book I read

I have to sing about the book I read

I’m embarassed to admit it hit the soft spot in my heart

When I found out you wrote the book I read

David Byrne, from “The Book I Read,” Talking Heads 77

I want to begin this week by delivering a quick little study of the lyric that inspired the title of my humble podcast and this blog series; for those of you still outside of that particular loop, I’m referring to the song from the Talking Heads debut album, 77, a song called, you guessed it, “The Book I Read.”

First, I’d like to tell you a little funny story about the way I arrived as a Talking Heads fan. I was in middle school when the band made its first mark in the world. I was primarily in a hard rock phase. I listened to Kiss, to Cheap Trick, AC/DC, and Rush. My musical tastes were pretty typical for the era, in suburbia, and among my age group. But for some reason, I’ll never really understand why, I felt compelled over the next couple of years to experiment. Probably my first foray into New Wave music was the purchase of Talking Heads’ Fear of Music, an album that I absolutely cherish now, but that, when I bought it, I hated. Hated it so much, in fact, that after a couple of listens I took it back to the record store, claimed it was defective, and got a refund. But the Talking Heads and that first experience haunted me a little, and months or maybe a year later, I came back to them (I don’t know why–probably because, as startled as I was by my first experience, there was a certain something that hooked me, that piqued my interest, that made me feel like, yeah, I should give this band a second chance). When I did go back, I decided to start at the very beginning with their debut album. Outside of Fear of Music, it was likely the strangest rock music I had ever heard, but unlike my first response to their third record, this time I was giddy with excitement. This album was so nerdy, so decidedly un-heavy, so jaunty, so unabashedly weird and joyful, that I was hooked. And this song, “The Book I Read,” has embedded itself into my brain. As Talking Heads songs go, it’s a deep cut, was not a hit, but it spoke to me, and keeps speaking to me over the decades. Do you want to take a little break for a listen? If so, here you go. It’s just a clip, so, if you want to listen to the whole thing, click the Spotify icon.

Byrne’s vocal performance here is absolutely unhinged. I love the imprecision of it and his ability to capture this sort of unbridled sense of exuberance and enthusiasm–“I’m tipping over backwards,” indeed. He’s so excited, he can’t be bothered to hit all the notes–and yet, this melody is absolutely infectious–and the na na na bridge, or chorus, or whatever it is–inescapably hooky. But these lyrics–maybe the first rock song I ever heard for book nerds–the club for which, I must confess, when I first heard the song, I was not a member. Maybe the appeal to my younger non-reader self was that I understood it to be a metaphor–“the book I read was in your eyes.” But later, as I did over time become a bonafide book nerd, I understood it to be both literal and metaphorical at the same time. “I’m writing ’bout the book I read. I have to sing about the book I read.” That’s what I am doing in this podcast and blog series. And the lines, “I’m embarrassed to admit it hit the soft spot in my heart when I found out you wrote the book I read.” Herein lies my inspiration and rationale, I suppose, for talking about books written by friends of mine as often as I can. There is something remarkable and exciting about reading books written by people you know and love. And I feel exceedingly blessed to be able to do so, and to have such an abundance of choices. Abundance is the theme of the season, after all.

Happy Thanksgiving, by the way, super belatedly. As is this episode of The Book I Read–somewhat super belated. I’ve been on a little bit of a hiatus, the demands of the school year finally eclipsing my capacity to read more often for pleasure and to write and speak about such pleasures. So, the book subject today was chosen–in part–for its brevity–a 86 page single volume of poetry–but in larger part–for it’s connection to the Talking Heads song, being, as it is, a book of poetry about music. It’s a book about a lot of other things as well, which I will get into shortly–but at it’s center are a couple of characters from music history, the 18th century composer Domenico Scarlatti and the famous opera singer Farinelli. I’m happy to be talking about Annie Kim’s Eros, Unbroken, the 2019 Washington Prize Winner for poetry, recently awarded the 2021 Library of Virginia Literary Award.

Where to begin describing this treasure of a poetry volume. Let’s begin at the beginning, perhaps, with the opening poem that is not a poem, but rather, a kind of introduction written in a series of aphoristic little pieces of prose, a thing titled, intriguingly, “Confession.” It works almost as an explanatory, a thesis, or, a statement of purpose. It gives us a bit of back story: Annie Kim, a classical violinist, randomly finds in the stacks a biography of Domenico Scarlatti and starts to read. Interested not in the biography itself as a genre, but in this particular case the eros or the passion contained therein. Somehow her interest is piqued by the friendship between this somewhat obscure 18th century composer and the castrato singer Farinelli, and their story somehow resonates with hers: “The hunt is rarely about the thing,” she writes. Her confession ends with these two striking aphorisms:

To be a thief you must love what you steal. I saw that I could write myself into their shadows. That I would need to pierce myself.

*

Counterpoint: the art of pursuing more than one melodic line, each independent but connected to the other.

Herein lies the crux of Eros, Unbroken. Through the story of the interconnected lives of Scarlatti and Farinelli, she will explore her own story–or, at least, the story of the collection’s primary speaker–and this “counterpoint” will take her deeply into the murky waters of love and passion, the difficulties of a family rift, the heart-rending disconnection between father and daughter, and the separations that must occur in order to put back together a divided life, finding what Parker J. Palmer calls the “hidden wholeness.”

Let’s spend a bit of time unpacking the “Eros” in the title of this volume before we proceed. I think most of us know Eros as Aphrodite’s minion, a companion and child-god of love and sexual desire, most often portrayed as the baby with a bow and arrow, or, as the Roman’s penned him, Cupid. Our word “erotic” springs from the Greek eros–and mostly when we hear this word we think about sexy-sexy time. That’s not the meaning we’re looking for with this book of poems. Modern philosophers and psychologists use the term “eros” to describe something more widely known as a kind of “life energy,” or, in Jungian psychology, relating to the process of individuation–rising above and beyond our tendencies toward projection, becoming conscious of anima or animus, and ultimately arriving at something like true self. In fact, immediately after the introductory “Confession,” and before the first poem in the collection, we have an epigraph from Jung: “Eros is not form-giving but form-fulfilling; it is the wine that will be poured into the vessel; it is not the bed and the direction of the stream but the impetuous water flowing in it.” Well, that should clear things up. One of the central figures in the collection, the castrato Farinelli, has given up his sex for the perpetually perfect voice for singing–he has been “unsexed,” castrated, and yet, his passion for music, his clarity of purpose throughout, is not stymied, is unbroken. He becomes the model, then, of an undivided life, about which Scarlatti, and the 21st century speaker in these poems, maybe the poet herself, are envious–or are trying to emulate in their way.

This book of poetry is divided into five parts, containing, respectively, 3, 3, 2, 10, and 5 poems. The first part mentions Scarlatti and Farinelli not a single time, but explores the modern concerns of the central speaker of the collection. I tell my students on a pretty regular basis that we cannot assume the speaker in a poem is the poet herself, but there are times when, our knowledge of the poet and our lack of evidence that anything has been fabricated, a lyric poem can be safely interpreted as coming from the perspective of the poet. Of course, even in this case, it doesn’t mean that everything the poem says is literally true or autobiographical–I remember William Stafford saying (loosely) that sometimes the poem “wanted” his father to be mean–even if that wasn’t really the case in actual fact. Just so as not to muddy the waters, I’ll refer to the primary character in these poems as the speaker, rather than as the poet.

So in part one of Eros, Unbroken, the speaker steps forward in the first three poems, immediately digging deep in experience for appropriate metaphors: the reflecting pool in “Eros the Binder and Loosener,” bringing to mind the wells of Seamus Heaney’s “Personal Helicon,” man-made water bodies through which our selves are reflected and where inspiration is found; in the second poem, “Friend,” a snake, shown to the young and somewhat squeamish child by a friend, is a reptile that becomes another kind of muse: “Friend, I want to ask it,/how did you come into the open?” And then the poem “Violins: Violence,” the first of a few long poems in the collection that share a particular contrapuntal structure, a structure in which lyric poetry is interspersed with quotes from Marcus Aurelius; straight up expository passages about the origins, meanings, and relationships of words, violins, violence, vitulare, vitula, violare–to violate, the resonating holes in a violin: f-hole, to forte, fine, fuck; and some prose pieces which appear to be autobiographical sketches of our speaker, like this one: “In my old life I argued to a judge that the definition of wrongful act includes violations of a pre-existing duty, that loss includes liquidated damages. I lost. Not all bad acts are wrongful acts, he said. Not all loss is bargained for.” It turns out that Annie Kim is also a lawyer–and knowing this makes it harder to separate the speaker from the poet, and this first long poem deals with the excruciating painful exploration of an abusive father–the counterpoint to the melodies around coming into herself as a professional and a musician and a poet. Some distance is achieved here, though, in the lyric passages about the father–the point of view moves into second person: “shit-like offspring–/that was his favorite/curse for you in Korean.” The discursive nature of this poem, and later poems like it, appears both in content and form–as while the subjects shift and the tone shifts and the point of view shifts, there’s also a shifting on the page. Some stanzas are aligned left, others to the right, there are chunks of prose, some stanzas are double spaced between lines with shifting indentations. It is in every way, contrapuntal. Beautiful. Devastating. And, dense, exhilaratingly so.

I realize I’ve kind of gone on and on about the first part of the book and its third poem. If I were to do this as well for the remaining parts, this would need to be a series of blog entries/podcasts about a single book of poems–I could go on all the way through the new year! I won’t do that. Certainly, I think, this incredible book is worthy of it, no question–but I do not think I am up to that task, joyful as it might be.

So let me try to describe the remainder succinctly–a fool’s errand, really, dealing with so much nuance and complexity, but I will make the attempt, and, by necessity I’ll leave way too much unspoken. That’s probably fine–especially if it makes you want to read this book of poems, which you should.

In part two we’re given two unattributed epigraphs, “Tell me, what would you do for a perfect voice?” And “Tell me what perfection means to you. Completion? Rapture? Pain?” –epigraphs that feel weighty, that almost perfectly encapsulate what’s to follow. Part two begins with “Castrato,” a poem structurally parallel to “Violins: Violence,” but here the counterpoint in poetry and prose centers around the singer Farinelli, his castration, his wish to be “without desire,” ironic, given that to have the perfect voice in perpetuity is a desire–or, maybe, rather, a purpose against which other kinds of desire, material desire, or sexual desire, might be a distraction. But the connection to our 21st century speaker, even though she is almost invisible here, is undeniable in the motif of violare–to be violated and yet, not to feel vulnerable or victimized.

Eros, Unbroken proceeds with Farinelli at its center, in persona poems in which he is given a voice–in letters to his brother, and most interestingly, in conversation with the composer Scarlatti. There are a number of poems that read like little plays; “Everything Swims,” “Fire Chasing Air,” “To Hold Something Close,” and “Bright Skin of a Snake” are all poems written in dialogue between these two characters over a period of about 20 years or more–an astounding feat of imagination on Annie Kim’s part, if you ask me, given that any record of conversations like these would have been impossible. These conversations are philosophical, sophisticated, wide-ranging–but to me, authentic feeling. I had tons of fun reading them out loud, trying on these characters. At first, Scarlatti is a mentor, maybe even a father figure, at one point advising Farinelli not to ignore the attentions of a woman interested in him–but sometimes, maybe more often, the roles seem reversed. Scarlatti, poor, deeply in debt, is rescued by his friend, both financially and emotionally, intellectually.

Interspersed between these letters and conversations, is, ultimately, Annie Kim, writing herself “into their shadows.” “Bildungsroman, 1999” is a poem that explores a moment in the speaker’s life on the verge of some kind of wholeness–in music, in poetry, in finding her voice for “singing.” “Everything is worth your look, I’d like to tell/that self, everything is still beautiful,/even if you have no words to say it.” And in the poem “Leap,” recognizing the profound significance of the father as “a bridge you crossed to burn/more than a living father: yours.” For better or worse, our parents become our bridges–we may have to burn them on the other side.

I have said before that I am a lover of poetry, not a scholar. Even when I am doubtful of my own ability to comprehend, I am still finding things to get excited about. Here is a book of poems that reveals a world most of us are unfamiliar with. I mean, I still haven’t listened to any Scarlatti. I could probably go for his hundreds of keyboard sonatas, but I am not a fan of opera music. None of that matters. Annie Kim has taught me what I needed to know, has intrigued me with a drama about musicians centuries gone, has created a veritable novelistic breadth in a book of poems, has dealt honestly and brutally with all kinds of family of origin stuff–to which we can all relate on some level, and, as David Byrne has rapturously intoned, it hit the soft spot in my heart when I found out Annie Kim wrote the book I read.

Let me share this one short poem that, in an amazingly condensed way, reminds us of the liberating powers of music:

Uses for Music

Because there is no soundtrack for the brain.

Because nothing has the beauty of a cage

you can enter when you want and leave behind.

So you can crawl across the floor and give it shape.
So one day you will release the snake–

you know, the one who lives inside you, has to move,
who can’t keep still.

Annie Kim, from Eros, Unbroken

Until next time, thanks for reading; I hope to post again by the end of the year. So, in the meantime, happy holidays, be well, be kind, and cheers!

Note: The format of the poem in Kim’s book is not accurately replicated here due to the limitations of the WordPress drafting tools–apologies Annie!

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