We know the story, told innumerable times, of a woman negotiating with her death.
And so begins Marthe Reed’s staggering new book, Nights Reading:: Burton’s Thousand and One::, a dark dive into Scheherazade’s untold – or, rather, partially told – story. We know the story; we don’t know the story. And it will go on like this for another 1001 nights.
As readers, we enter Reed’s text much in the same way Scheherazade might have entered the palace—veiled, disoriented, and with a heightened sense of the strangeness that surrounds us. Here is a jeweled perfume bottle concealing a venomous snake; there, a jar of spices that could either kill or cure us. Nothing is safe, nothing is expected, and nothing will look the same in the morning. Reed writes:
an edge against which
we are held/
It is here, on this “edge,” that we engage with this multifaceted, risky work. Make no mistake; there is a great deal of risk inherent in this text. Reed ravels and unravels her lineation, managing somehow to make even couplets feel experimental. She also displays a surgically precise understanding of the power of unanswered questions, fragmenting her poems in such a way that we become desperate to turn the page, convinced that the answer lies just on the other side.
She also takes risks with allusion and attribution, playing fast and loose with everyone from Derrida to Poe, Calvino to Kristeva. No one and nothing is off limits here, particularly not Burton himself, and his “propensities:”
a taste for alcohol and flagellation
elaborating the hems of her tales
he was naughty
Reed knows Burton’s Scheherazade is a product of his time and “naughty” sensibility as much as this new embodiment is a product of hers. (And his. And many, many others.) She writes:
she has been reading Machiavelli
a series of interfolded narratives
waiting death at dawn
lies like a catalogue of wonders
on the tongue
It is within these “interfolded narratives” that Reed’s work shines brightest, leaping from gender to race to power to sex. If forced to point to the beating heart of this book, I would offer up this discussion of narrative as infinity:
Narratives bend upon themselves, refusing source and closure
By interweaving her various source texts with her own interpretation of Scheherazade’s story, Reed opens the reader to a poetic world of endless interpretations, experiences, and inroads:
such gestures haunt the text
an arc the wind
forms and elucidations
The result of this narrative layering is indeed haunting, and creates cohesion within an otherwise fragmented narrative. We are only as lost as Reed wishes us to be at any given time; pull on a single thread, and the text unravels to an entirely new story.
But back to the real reason you’re reading a review about Scheherazade’s 1001 nights to begin with: sex. Not to worry; there’s plenty of sex here, oozing out like black honey through every crevice of the text. But unlike its primary source material (Burton), the sex here is not meant to titillate as much as it’s meant to provoke.
By what do we mean “desire exists”?
Herein lies another of the book’s most fascinating and impossible questions. There is desire on every page – the king’s desire for Scheherazade, the slaves’ desire for freedom, the reader’s desire to navigate the labyrinth Reed has constructed – but no explanation of its genesis. Desire is as unknowable as the story itself, continually constructed and deconstructed throughout Scheherazade’s journey:
Our tale encapsulates a codex of hunger. “Smitten,
“captivated.” “Seized.” Each of the five, throbbing with desire.
“Later,” she promises. Does she comport herself with honor?
An invention of the moment, in the curve of her throat or
the movement of his gaze along its lines. A cabinet of five
She assures her own existence
Adrift in 1001 nights of risk and danger, Reed’s Scheherazade assures her own existence through any means necessary. Nothing is left untouched—neither language nor power, desire nor sex. As she negotiates for her life, we struggle beside her, half drugged by narratives we may never fully know.
What we know for certain: story is a powerful weapon. And if I ever find myself in the precarious position of bargaining for my life with poetry, I’ll be reaching for Marthe Reed.