Visiting Psychologist & Physicist: Ramzi Suleiman Offers up a Poem

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A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of hosting Ramzi Suleiman during his brief stay in New York. Ramzi is Chair of the Psychology Department at Haifa University. He’s also a physicist, engineer, and poet—in short, a Renaissance man. His presence in my home was as enlivening as a writer’s colony. By the end of our visit, Ramzi and I were exchanging poems and commenting on each other’s work.

After I read three of his poems I said, “It makes me realize how poetic your speaking voice is. Reading your poems is like hearing you tell stories around the table–as you have done many times this week. The imagery and metaphors are so rich, and the insights are so deep.”

I was especially taken with one poem translated from Arabic: Things Have Their Reasons. It carried me along like the ocean. Like ocean waves I found myself returning to it again and again, and emerging from it breathless.

Things have their reasons 

(translated from Arabic) 

Because things cannot be complete 

without their shadows, 

God created the candles 

And the glittering lamps 

on the water’s surface 

————

Because the sea surface rises up 

and collapses Down, 

like a lover’s chest 

Because lover’s sighs 

stumble one after another 

like the sea waves, 

God created the moon 

————

Because the Earth 

does not stop spinning, 

in search of its rendezvous 

God created the hours 

and asked them 

to look after the minutes and the seconds, 

and because, usually, appointments 

choose their appointees, 

God spared chance 

————

Because the pomegranate tree 

keeps its vows, 

and the full chestnut 

yearns for its self, 

God created the earth 

————

Because the night holds its grip 

On the day’s sleeves 

Like a blind man 

clinching his hand on his cane, 

Because the day 

Throws the remnants of its light 

And slips underneath the evening’s gown 

God created the opposites 

————

Because nothing is complete 

without what compliments it 

God created love 

Because things have no being 

without what is not in them 

God spared the pain. 

— Ramzi Suleiman 

Things Have Their Reasons will appear in “Trees Die Standing,” a book of Arabic poetry by Ramzi Suleiman, Raya Publishing House, Haifa, Israel,  Autumn 2015.

Growing Pains: Combining humor and pathos in children’s book writing

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Illustration by Hans Fischer (1959): Pitschi

It was British fantasy writer, Dianna Wynne Jones who said she would much rather write for children. Because she didn’t have to explain things to them as she did with adults (editors, etc.). Jones was not trying to imply that children were credulous, but rather that they were sophisticated readers. Children could make imaginative leaps that many adults had forgotten how to do.

In late March 2015, the long-awaited fourth book in the Penderwicks series was finally released. I devoured it almost in one sitting. Like Jones, Jane Birdsall is an author who assumes the sophistication of her child readers. Penderwicks in Spring doesn’t land feet first in the middle of the action, as is the fashion today. But along with strains of gentle humor, there is a haunting pathos that runs through the book like a forgotten song. It compels the reader’s attention.

Birdsall opens her fourth book some years later, as 11-year old Batty wrestles with self-recriminations over the natural loss of her dog, Hound–Hound whom readers have come to love almost as deeply as Batty does. As the book unfolds, Batty’s guilt over Hound’s death gives way to an incomprehensible pain, when she learns from one sister of the role she played in their mother’s death. Throughout the book we find young Batty wrestling with huge conflicts—conflicts of a Job-like magnitude.

As with any good work of art, Penderwicks in Spring stayed with me—It resonated so deeply that I felt almost as depressed as poor Batty did, hiding wretchedly in her closet, unable to face the world or her family. I worried that this likeable character might not pull through in the end.

In addition to creating believable characters and endearingly funny scenes, Birdsall is a true master of human pathos. The brilliance of the Penderwicks series, is that in all four books at least one or more characters must navigate soul-wrenching growing pains. Given the sophistication and depth of young readers, it’s a skill well-worth developing for any children’s book author.

Picture Books Enrich the Vocabularies of Children

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For all of us who write, illustrate, and/or read picture books to children, here is proof of its power:

On Jan. 12, 2015, the New Yorker, published “The Talking Cure” by Margaret Talbot. She reported on a new initiative in RI to teach parents how to talk more with their toddlers.

Here’s an amazing letter response by Dom Massaro of Santa Cruz, Calif. (New Yorker, Feb. 2, 2015):

“Encouraging parents and caregivers to talk more to their babies more often is certainly important, but we must also consider how to expand upon the limited vocabularies of many caregivers. One solution is to read picture books. In the psychology department at the University of California, Santa Cruz, we recently carried out a large replication of a classic study showing that print has a richer vocabulary than speech. We found that the variety of words in picture books was more extensive than that of parents talking to their children. Picture books were three times as likely as child-directed speech to use a word that isn’t among the most common English words; this result was found regardless of parents’ social class. Even the language quality of two adults talking to each other fell below that of picture books. Given the fact that word mastery in adulthood is correlated with early acquisition of words, a potentially powerful leveller of family wealth and class may be as simple as engaging in picture-book reading with babies.”

As a writer I find this Santa Cruz study inspiring.

What about you?