I was reading some Malazan to welcome the new year and so decided to write an handful of comments about the “poetry”, an aspect that is quite controversial. Readers don’t usually have a so positive reaction to these poetry pieces scattered through the books, and I also have mixed feelings about them, but in most cases they are at least interesting and offer some ideas to think about.

Here’s the one I just read:

Black glass stands between us
The thin face of otherness
Risen into difference
These sibling worlds
You cannot reach through
Or pierce this shade so distinct
As to make us unrecognizable
Even in reflection
The black glass stands
And that is more than all
And the between us
Gropes but never finds
Focus or even meaning
The between us is ever lost
In that barrier of darkness
When backs are turned
And we do little more than refuse
Facing ourselves.

Preface to The Nerek Absolution
Myrkas Preadict

What jumps to the eye and that some readers find quite irritating is that there are no familiar structures like rhymes or metrics (that often make poetry more palatable to a public, see The Name of the Wind) and that instead it reads like abstruse prose made worse by the removal of punctuation and lines broken in the middle (see for example “gropes but never finds / Focus or ever meaning” that obviously has meaning as one line). So it can tick off the reader as it seems just an attempt to be pretentious without earning it, or requiring an effort to the reader without paying it off (one wonders: “why should I bother?”).

I’m not an expert or a fan of poetry in general, but it seems that Erikson surely isn’t the only one appreciating that kind of structure. I noticed for example that Tomas Tranströmer, the 2011 Nobel Prize, writes in a way that, to my superficial attention, resembles Erikson quite a bit and that could fool me quite easily if I were to find one of his own in Erikson’s books. See the first one I was able to find:


Moon – its mast is rotten, its sail is shriveled.
Seagull – drunk and soaring away on currents.
Jetty – charred rectangular mass. The thickets
founder in darkness.

Out on doorstep. Morning is beating, beats on
ocean’s granite gateways and sun’s sparkling
near the world. Half smothered, the gods of summer
fumble in sea mist.

But you can look and pretty much every example would fit.

One difference that Malazan has from that, and a positive one, is that the piece of poetry you’re reading is at least “in context”, and so you have a frame of reference to append to your ideas. My approach to these poems is rather straightforward, I usually look for recurring themes and meaning-charged words. Then just see what sticks.

See the example above. “Black glass” is something that I think is related to the plot in some way. I’m not sure what kind of theme it is bound to, but there’s mention here and there of sand (often T’lan) that turns to glass, and I think in MoI Toc awakens amidst broken glass. In any case, it may be related to something about these ancient wars involving both T’lan and Cha’Malle. “This thin face of otherness”, otherness I interpret here as something marking a difference (other than me), so alienation. It’s a “thin face” because it continues the first line (it’s a glass), but it’s also suggested that it’s something like a veil, weak. Something that may be just perception. “Risen into difference” separates the line above and below. So the “black glass” is a dividing barrier, “otherness” and “difference” go together.

“These sibling worlds” is the line charged of meaning that I’m very likely to misinterpret due to all the external “cosmology” discussions these past weeks. I simply see it as two words, like mind and body, reality and dreams, real world and magic, science and spirituality. Or, the category that spawns all of these: what is perceived, and what is real. Or “Cartesian dualism”. The suggestion works well because even in the poem the two worlds are separated by a thin veil but that “you cannot pierce through”. It also reminds me the closed perspective, the fact that the veil is the limit of perception, so suggesting a world beyond that one can’t see or achieve. But this is cosmological as it is personal. Other “worlds” are also other people. You can try to understand them, but you can never be there, they’ll always be worlds closed to you, opaque. A barrier, between you and others, that you can’t cross and that makes possible that you have an identity and a thought. A barrier that let’s you recognize yourself.

As the poem continues the glass dividing the world acquires another function. It doesn’t just separate without letting one see through (it’s “dark”, so negating the “glass” properties). It’s not just a barrier of otherness and distinction, but it also becomes a reflection, a mirror. One cannot see what’s beyond, but can see his own image: knowing the world as an extension of one’s own image. This also is charged with cosmological and spiritual implications, but once again I jump over to the personal level. The barrier “risen into difference” marks an “otherness” that may as well be consequently indifferent, because detached and remote. Not us. Indifferent means not just different, but with an added sense of morality, of choice. And the idea of indifference is suggested toward the end (“In that barrier of darkness / When backs are turned”). Maybe I’m misinterpreting, but this gives me an idea of deliberation and betrayal.

Finally there’s the obvious theme of Light and Darkness that is specific and even literal (metaphor made real) in the series, but that I can’t pinpoint here. Darkness in the poem is described as what’s in the middle, the barrier itself, the threshold. When instead Light/Darkness stand in opposition, so representing the (literal) “sibling worlds”. Not divided by Darkness, but by Shadow (Edur). “The between us (that) is ever lost”.

The poem seems attributed to the Nerek, whom I can’t pinpoint correctly yet. They seem to have an association with the Azath, also linked to Mappo and the mysterious people that gave him his task. But the poem being titled “The Nerek Absolution” gives it yet another spin…

(all this simply to show how one can have fun extricating those pieces of poetry in the books)

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