Wednesday, May 17, 2017


After years of reading Elizabeth Barrett Browning's poetry, what I find most astonishing about her is her intellectual brilliance.  In a time when women were neither allowed to attend university, nor encouraged to read classical literature, she was extraordinarily well-read, even by modern standards. She wrote her first poem at age four or six.  By the time she was aged ten, she'd read widely in world history, Shakespeare, Homer, and Milton.

In addition, she convinced her father to allow her to 'audit' her brother's sessions with his tutor, under whose tutelage she read classical works in Latin, French, Greek, and Italian.

In 1820, at age fourteen, she published a book-length poem, The Battle of Marathon (which she had completed two years earlier) and established herself as a literary prodigy to the London literatti.  She went on to publish several volumes of poems: An Essay on Mind (1826), a translation of Aeschylus' Prometheus Bound (1833), The Seraphim and Other Poems (1838), Casa Guidi Windows: A Poem (1851) and Aurora Leigh (1857), her magnum opus, to name a few.  Most were well-received by the critics of her day.  She was famous, celebrated in England, and had achieved fame on her own merit.

For much of her childhood (and later, as an adult), Elizabeth was delicate and sickly, spending most of her days seated in the Barrett parlor or in her room.  She received guests—family and friends—in this manner.  Occasionally, she took walks in the family estate's white rose garden or travelled to London (which had air pollution that exacerbated her condition).  A wealthy owner of Caribbean plantations, her father, Edward Moulton Barrett, was a loving tyrant with antiquated ideas regarding his mixed-race ancestry.*  The family secret was that not only did he own African slaves but was descended from one.  As a result, he forbad all his 11 children from marrying.

What saved Elizabeth, in my opinion, was her love of literature and books, her determination to broaden her intellect.  A neighbor and scholar, Hugh Stuart Boyd, tutored and guided her studies. Secondly, through an inheritance from her mother and aunt, she was financially independent (wealthy by the time's standards).  Thirdly, as assessed by Dr. Peter Dally in his book, Elizabeth Barrett Browning: A
Psychological Portrait, she was mentally tough, with an admirable strength of character.

In 1845, a less well-known poet named Robert Browning wrote her what is, essentially, a fan letter: "I love your verses with all my heart, dear Miss Barrett. . . .  and I love you too."  She had read and liked his poetry.  A meeting was arranged at her home.  During the next twenty months, they continued to meet, while Elizabeth secretly composed the forty-four sonnets that chronicle their love story.  Writing them must have been emotionally cathartic for her.  She declared her love for Robert to herself, not even dreaming of a life together.

But, at 32, Robert was handsome, bold, impetuous.  He persuaded her of his love.  A plan was devised with help from her siblings.  Robert and Elizabeth wed, then fled on September 12, 1846 to Italy.  We know this because it is also the date of their last letter (forming a total of 570 letters) before their elopement.

In Italy, under a warm Tuscan sun, Elizabeth blossomed.  Her health and physical strength improved, and she was happy.  She wrote a tremendous number of letters to friends and family. The couple travelled throughout Europe.  In 1849, she gave birth to their only child, a son named Robert Wiedemann Barrett Browning.

When Robert, now a father, discovered the sonnets, he marveled at their beauty and craftsmanship.  He urged Elizabeth to publish the poems.  She, however, was reticent of sharing what she perceived as poetic musings to herself—a sort of diary in verse—at a time when, as she says in one sonnet, she had been glad to just breathe his air.

So in order to obscure her authorship and give themselves a measure of privacy, they concocted the story that Elizabeth had translated the love sonnets of an obscure Portuguese poet.  Hence, the book’s title, Sonnets from the Portuguese.  (According to some sources, the title came from his nickname for her—“my little Portuguese”—due to her olive-toned/light tan complexion, of which Elizabeth was self-conscious.)

In 1850, Sonnets from the Portuguese was published and overlooked by most critics. Then, after eleven additional years living out a happy existence in Italy, Elizabeth died on June 29, 1861, as Robert held her.

I've re-read these poems after many years and, for the most part, they still have their lyrical beauty.  In one sonnet, Elizabeth ponders what her life will be like if she gives up everything to be with him.  In another sonnet, she chronicles their first passionate kiss.  In yet another, he brings her flowers.  My two favorites are sonnets 22 and 43.  The classic lines, "How do I love thee?  Let me count the ways. . . ."—most people in the US will recognize from high-school English class.

The remaining sonnets are technically well-crafted, though some are without the lyricism of the two sonnets mentioned.

I admit that today I find several of the sonnets heavy-handed, very Victorian.  But we must acknowledge that Elizabeth Barrett Browning was of the Victorian era.  Even so, I admire her forward thinking.  By modern standards, she was 'politically correct' on most social justice issues of her day: she championed women's equal rights, the 1833 Emancipation Act, which abolished slavery in England, and held strong opinions on French and Italian politics.  And these issues are reflected in her poetry.

Overall, I was thrilled to re-read these poems.  I love reading and re-reading sonnets 22 and 43 with their lyrical turn of phrase, as much as I did as a teen:

Sonnet 22

When our two souls stand up erect and strong,
Face to face, silent, drawing nigh and nigher,
Until the lengthening wings break into fire
At either curved point,--what bitter wrong
Can the earth do to us, that we should not long
Be here contented?  Think!  In mounting higher,
The angels would press on us and aspire
To drop some golden orb of perfect song
Into our deep, dear silence.  Let us stay
Rather on earth, Belovѐd,--where the unfit
Contrarious moods of men recoil away
And isolate pure spirits, and permit
A place to stand and love in for a day,
With darkness and the death-hour rounding it.


Yolanda A.  Reid is the author of two novels and a debut poetry collection,
Sonnets to the Japim Bird.


To read Sonnets from the Portuguese, visit


Friday, April 28, 2017


Incredibly, the first sonnet in English was written by a woman in 1560.  Her name was Anne Locke (c. 1530-1590).  I'd never heard of her until two or three weeks ago, while researching sonnets. All this time, I had believed that William Shakespeare, the Bard, had invented the English sonnet. 

According to Interesting Literature, the Bard wrote his sonnets thirty years after Anne Locke's version.  Thirty years!  Basically, she is known to English scholars and unknown to the rest of us.  Perhaps the reason for her obscurity is that, in her time, she risked imprisonment or death by writing poetry.  After that, she may have been bypassed because she was a woman.  In any case, today let us give her the due recognition.  Read about her life at

As for her sonnets, they make for terse reading--of interest to very few people today besides literary scholars because the language is in Elizabethan English (complete with spelling):

     And then not daring with presuming eye
Once to beholde the angry heauens face,
From troubled sprite I send confused crye,
To craue the crummes of all sufficing grace.
With foltring knee I fallyng to the ground,
Bendyng my yelding handes to heauens throne,
Poure forth my piteous plaint w[ith] woefull sound,
With smoking sighes, & oft repeted grone,
Before the Lord, the Lord, whom synner I,
I cursed wretch, I haue offended so,
That dredyng, in his wrekefull wrath to dye,
And damned downe to depth of hell to go,
Thus tost with panges and passions of despeir,
Thus craue I mercy with repentant chere.

That said, you can read all of Anne Locke's 26 sonnets at .

Lastly, for a really interesting list of women poets who wrote sonnets in English over several centuries, visit

Number one on the list is, of course, Anne Locke.

--Yolanda A.  Reid


Yolanda A. Reid is the author of two novels and a debut poetry collection, entitled Sonnets to the Japim Bird.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017


Described as a "sonnet novella" by its publisher, More Sonnets from the Portuguese is the love story of a middle-aged woman and her married ex-lover from college. In the very first sonnet, entitled "I am a Sensible Woman," the protagonist sums herself up perfectly:

I--Zelia Nunes--sensibly married
only once. Forty-five, no longer young.
Husband dead, four children, mortgaged, harried,
Holy obligations met, even sung.

The title is from 19th century poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning's classic, Sonnets from the Portuguese (which I've read and loved, for many years). This, too, is a beautiful sonnet sequence, adeptly written. In More Sonnets from the Portuguese, author Janet Eldred  adroitly uses a centuries-old poetic form

and brings it into the 21st century. She addresses modern-day issues such as infidelity, religious guilt, reproductive rights, the environment, aging, technology.

Zelia also references Facebook and Twitter, which makes sense because the bulk of the affair is conducted via e-mail. In "After Years," Zelia says, "Your e-mail before me, my body sings/the reply, One doesn't forget such things."

In another sonnet, she says, "I am officially a Kindle/girl...You pull me to you. You tempt me to stray--/Yes, good Lord help me, I like you that way." In yet another sonnet, she states, "You are the love of my life."                            

The poems feature beautiful imagery that is rich, sensual, complex. Once Zelia describes the California landscape as covered with "almond trees that blossomed like moonlight,/perfumed crops picked by bodies until broken." Her family ancestry is Azorean (from islands off the coast of Portugal). As depicted, the details feel intimate, fully developed.

I preferred the first half of this sequence, perhaps because in those sonnets the love was new and unexpected. In the second half, Zelia's mood changes from moment to moment, veering from excited and hopeful to despondent, all dependent on the vicissitudes of the relationship (after all, he has a wife!). Also, she becomes more philosophical as she grapples with her guilt and religion.

That said, I liked and enjoyed reading all the poems.

In her acknowledgments, Professor Eldred states that More Sonnets from the Portuguese began as a work of fiction, but that in poetry she found she could better tell Zelia's story. By doing so, she breaks new literary ground. Hence, the term "sonnet novella."

At this point, I must mention the stunningly beautiful cover art: a painting of a cobalt-blue peahen on a window sill. This watercolor, it turns out, is by the author herself.

Beautiful poems and beautiful art. Read these poems in honor of National Poetry Month or just because it's spring!  

--Yolanda A.  Reid


Yolanda A.  Reid is the author of two novels and a debut poetry collection, entitled Sonnets to the Japim Bird.  


Tuesday, January 24, 2017


As Chinese New Year approached, I began to reflect on the books I read this past year.  I had immersed myself in Chinese culture and language, which I've been interested in for most of my life.  So I thought I'd share three of the many books I read.  Each book is top-notch, beautifully written, evocative, and picturesque.  Each is a memoir that depicts a woman triumphant, at times despite circumstances of misogyny so blatant and palpable as to be shocking.  I encourage readers of this blog to sample one or two of these books, like salty, sweet, or savory dumplings in this, the Year of the Rooster.  Nian nian you yü!

1.  Good Chinese Wife by Susan Blumberg-Kason

A true love story set in China, Good Chinese Wife depicts the author as an American graduate student at Hong Kong University who meets and falls in love with her Chinese classmate.  Curious about Chinese dating rituals, I found the book compelling, well-written, and completely absorbing as it details the rites of love, courtship and marriage in China as experienced by the author.  At one point, Cai, Ms. Blumberg-Kason's future husband, explains that Chinese couples only date if they intend to marry.  Once Cai and young Susan are married, however, their cultural differences prove insurmountable.  Although I knew the outcome, I wished for a happier ending. 

2. Leaving Mother Lake by Namu Erche Yang and Christine Matthieu

This is a beautiful and poignant memoir (co-authored with Christine Matthieu, an anthropologist).  I'd never heard of the Moso people and their matrilineal culture--with unusual customs and disbelief 
in marriage.  So I thought this was a book I could not miss out on.  It depicts the author's childhood and adolescence in a primitive environment that favors women.  Ms.  Yang reveals the fascinating
details of her youth, steeped in the beauty of the Himalayan mountains and Lugo Lake, her original homeland at the China-Tibet border.  The book culminates in her running away from love (though I wonder what happened to Geko, the young man she rejected) and her village, ultimately to Beijing.  It is beautiful, eloquent, and rare.

3. Journey Across The Four Seas: A Chinese Woman's Search for Home by  Veronica Li

As a young girl, Flora Li asked her mother when she was going to school.  Her mother said, "You're a girl.  Girls don't go to school."  That might have sealed her fate, except that she was determined to better herself and her circumstances.  A memoir of Flora Li's life as told to her youngest daughter, Veronica Li, Journey Across The Four Seas depicts Flora as she struggles to get an education and attend college in China.  Eventually, she gets accepted into a college program, graduates and works at various companies  with tenacity and diligence.  What I liked most was that she triumphed over many personal obstacles--from fending off her husband's girlfriend to raising her five children.  Flora Li is a woman of valor.   In addition, the book captures the tone and events of the turbulent times: the Japanese invasion of Nanking, British colonialism, World War II, with important historical persons such as Chiang Kai-shek.  I loved this memoir!

--Yolanda A.  Reid

Monday, June 20, 2016


While in college, I was an avid fan of the poet Sylvia Plath.  Years later, I made a summer jaunt to a book reading by her biographer, Edward Butscher.  I had a dog-eared paperback copy of his book on my desk that I often referred to.  That day, Mr.  Butscher--a tall slender man with a mostly dark-brown beard--was gracious and cordial.  I was, perhaps, the most eager Sylvia Plath fan he’d  met in a long time, for I’d read most--if not all--of her poetry, her novel The Bell Jar, and Letters Home--a compilation of Plath’s letters. 
I vaguely remember first reading about her in a women’s magazine.  Her life story struck a chord with me.   At the time, I was reading and exploring an assortment of poets and authors with a small group of friends and classmates.  We all wrote poetry.  Once I discovered Sylvia Plath’s poetry, however, I eschewed sharing her poems with the group.  I waded in on my own. 

And I was fascinated by her history.  She was a young woman haunted by her German ancestry.  The famous poem, “Daddy,” however, held no sway with me.  She was too angry (like Thor in one of her poems).   But the poem explained Sylvia’s need to overachieve: she won prizes and excelled academically, as her father and taskmaster, a biologist, demanded.  “I learned, I learned, I learned elsewhere/From muses unhired by you, dear mother,”  she wrote in ”The Disquieting Muses”--a lesser-known poem about her mother, a Boston University professor.  After graduating from Smith College in 1955, Sylvia pursued graduate studies in England at Cambridge University.  One night at a party, she met a young man named Ted Hughes.  Several weeks later, she wrote to her mother: 

“The most shattering thing is that in the last two months I have fallen terribly in love, which can only lead to great hurt.  I met the strongest man in the world, ex-Cambridge, brilliant poet whose work I loved before I met him, a large, hulking, healthy Adam, half-French, half-Irish, with a voice like the thunder of God. . . .”

On June 16, 1956, Sylvia  and Ted wed in secret—both convinced that he was a poet-genius fated for greatness.  She completed her studies and settled into married life.  Soon she had little time to devote to her own writing.  She promoted Ted’s writings and she worked odd jobs (with a brief teaching stint at her alma mater, Smith).  Nearly four years later, the couple’s baby daughter was born. 
Ted, now her handsome and brilliant husband, was quite popular on the Cambridge campus.  As they sought to sub-let their town apartment, Sylvia  and Ted met a young married couple, the Wevills,  and invited them to dinner.  The young wife, Assia, was a dark-haired beauty Ted no doubt found mesmerizing.  Soon afterward,  he  received a whispering phone call from her.  Sylvia yanked the telephone cable from the wall.  She made a scene.  She demanded fidelity, after all she had sacrificed herself and her talent for the great future together.   So she asked him to leave.  Almost immediately, Ted went to Assia--who was, as he describes her in a poem, sheathed in “flame-orange silks”—with champagne in hand.     

It’s a woeful yet classic story of love gone awry.  As in Sade’s song, This was no ordinary love. 

Eventually, it all became too much—Sylvia had lost (or thrown out) her soulmate who was now partnered with a woman who, by most accounts, was just like herself—beautiful, bi-polar, a budding young poetess madly in love with a genius and now pregnant with his child.  Except that Assia Wevill did not long for fame: she seemed to only want Ted.

In late 1962, during her last winter in Devon, England, Sylvia’s days were dark and grim.   She was ill, had lost weight, and was in between nannies.  (In previous months, she’d had a miscarriage after an appendectomy, followed by the birth of her son.)  In a letter to her mother dated October 18, 1962, she wrote, “I guess my predicament is an astounding one, a deserted wife knocked out by flu with two babies and a full-time job!”  Yet, by waking up before dawn to write, she had regained the confidence in her writing--which she had virtually lost during the marriage:  “I am a genius of a writer. . . .  I am writing the best poems of my life; they will make my name.”  She was thirty years old.
But for all the emotion in Sylvia Plath‘s real life, and even in her poems, none of it is reflected in her only novel, The Bell Jar.   At least once, she referred disparagingly to the novel as a “pot boiler”; for this reason, she’d published it under a pseudonym.  Of course, the timespan for The Bell Jar occurs before Ted.  And perhaps he had awakened emotion in Sylvia that only emerged in her later work.  (In the months leading up to her death in 1963, Sylvia Plath had been writing a second novel that was destroyed.)

Nevertheless, I found The Bell Jar’s lack of emotion disturbing.  For most of the novel, Esther, the main character, is depressed.  To quote Plath, it was “A time of darkness, despair, disillusion. . . .”  and “[Esther’s] warped view of the world around . . . seems the right way of looking at things.”    

In contrast, the letters express Sylvia’s true personality and spirit in a more well-rounded way.   I've pondered on her fate and what might have prevented it.  It's true she had a brash happy side; but a dark mood also pervaded her life.  Moreover, although today Sylvia might have been categorized as bi-polar, Ted Hughes bears some responsibility.  Stated bluntly, he behaved like a cad.  His crass actions sent Sylvia (and later, Assia) into a depression from which she never recovered. 
Years ago, I read a long article by Sylvia Plath’s daughter, Frieda Hughes, about her mother.  Ms.  Hughes bears no rancor toward her father: to her, he was a good dad.  (In fact,  he became the Poet Laureate of England.)  Not surprisingly, the writing gene manifested itself in her, for she is a poet. 

Whether Sylvia Plath influenced a generation of young women--for good or ill--is difficult to assess.  That said, her best poems are masterfully crafted, beautiful, imagistic.  As a wordsmith, she is triumphant.  For instance, her superb poem, “Pursuit,” is a personal favorite:  “Flayed by thorns I trek the rocks,/Haggard through the hot white noon. . . .”  And "Tulips," too, is a beautifully crafted poem.  Of the poetry books, my favorite is the incandescent Ariel.* 

For me, however, Sylvia Plath’s poetic legacy is inseparable from the biography.  As a twenty-year-old, I began reading her poems only after I had learned a bit about her life.  And since I wrote poetry back then, I must admit to Plath’s influence (among other poets) on my own poems.  I learned the merits of the unusual word and the exact word.  For instance, in “Channel Crossings,” she uses the word caterwaul—which I like.  That taught me how to build a poem as if I were laying bricks.  
Today, though, I no longer write poems.  My reason is that poems demand a laser-like intensity that is unsustainable long-term.  Sylvia Plath hinted at this in an interview: “Poetry, I feel, is a tyrannical discipline. . . .  You’ve got to go so far, so fast, in such a small space. . . .  I find that in a novel I can get more of life.  Perhaps not such intense life, but certainly more of life.”

So, many years ago, I switched to writing prose exclusively.  I strive to infuse poetry into my prose, and I find it is enough.

--Yolanda A.  Reid


Since I wrote this essay, I've re-read Ariel and decided that I prefer The Colossus and Other Poems--Plath's first poetry volume.

For more info on Sylvia Plath:

To read a brief sample of my poetry, visit

Saturday, October 18, 2014


 In the summer or autumn of 1989, I began  to read Doris Lessing, intermittently. 
As she is a prolific writer,  I got her books from the local library.  I read her novels in sequence, as they had been written.    I started with her first novel,  The Grass Is Singing, then proceeded to the big fat tome,  African Stories, then onto the Martha Quest novels, five in all.  Amid reading the novels,  I purchased a slender,  burgundy paperback copy of her essays—entitled A Small Personal Voice—and read all of that.
Tucked in the book of essays was the introduction to The Golden Notebook.   A creative manifesto,  the introduction explained  the thoughts,  feelings and ideas that went into the writing of  this ground-breaking 1962 novel about Anna, a writer who captures the essence of her life in her notebooks.  In addition, Ms.  Lessing  discussed  the novel’s themes, motifs, her inspiration and writing process. 

By the following summer, Nelson Mandela was touring the US.  "Mandela is in Atlanta," I wrote in my journal, in awe.  Everyone was giddy with excitement.   "We are at a juncture of history," Mandela said. So  I began reading up on South Africa and Mandela, to educate myself.

Also, I wrote :  "I have a new idea for a novel.  Something stunning and beautiful.   I'd have to research the countrysides . . . .—I guess.  I read Lessing and she is so specific in her  descriptions—nature, leaves, etc.  .  .  ." 

It was a Faulknerian summer—long, languid, hot.  That July 4th, we sat in the backyard.   A turquoise umbrella gave us shade.  Fire sparklers lit up the air.

I had purchased my own paperback copy of The Golden Notebook, with its peach-and-black cover and a pencil sketch of Doris Lessing, in profile.  And, once I started reading, I knew it was good.  I'd known she  was a good writer, but this novel  confirmed it.  I was a bit annoyed, though,  that she was so rational, cerebral and analytical. 

But most of the time she was on target—not about me personally, but for many women.  

I did not like the Free Women section—not enough to read more than once.  It's hard to say why.  Maybe that it seemed so artificial, so perfect.  They did not seem like real women.   Or any of the women I knew.  But perhaps that was the point: the novel was artifice.  Life was raw, messy, shambolic, with a seemingly random pattern that is hard to discern when you’re living it, and more difficult to convey in a work of art. 

However, I liked the other sections.  In The Golden Notebook, Lessing  conjures so many different tones and characters.  It's hard not to think of it as a tour de force.  During this time, I remembered that she had once been asked why her novels mostly have no black Africans.   She answered that she did not wish to portray a character infused with her own white African  limitations.  For Ms.  Lessing, it would have been inauthentic  to give the character thoughts and feelings she had no scope of knowing.

Even so, I was fascinated by Africa as she described it.  As a young woman with a stubborn artistic sentiment and sensibility, she lived in cloying surroundings  she describes as a "backwater."  Rebelliously, she dropped out of school as a teenager,  then set about, at turns, rambling the African steppes—strewn with kopje trees—and  educating herself in The Novel.

Ms. Lessing  writes of this time in some of her autobiographical essays.  Later, she escaped to the city, got a job as a  secretary and began her first novel.

I did not realize it then, but I had claimed Doris Lessing  as my literary mentor.

So reading  The Golden Notebook  changed my life.  Thereafter, I regarded the novel and novel-writing in a different way.  I learned I could say anything and not make things all neat and pretty in my writings.  There was beauty in the truth, to paraphrase Keats and author Anchee Min.

When I began writing my second  novel, I felt I could say the unsayable.   I could show the verboten, the hidden.  I could know the unknowable and share dark nebulous areas of the spirit—the sublime and the subliminal.  The consciousness of beauty and the super-consciousness of one woman's life.  I sought to get all the tiny details correct—foods, historic details, vernacular.  I wanted to create a world for the reader, and re-create a world for myself—on the page and on the pc screen.

--Yolanda A.  Reid

For more info about Doris Lessing and her writings, visit and

Note:  At one time regarded as controversial, The Golden Notebook may contain topics offensive to some.

Friday, August 1, 2014


Chinese Cinderella  is the vivid memoir of Dr.  Adeline Yen's bitter and lonely childhood.   She had four brothers and two sisters, but her days were lonely as she was alienated from her family because they blamed her for her mother's death.   She was bullied and tormented and physically abused, and experienced  “a dreadful  loneliness.”

This book is mostly set in Shanghai, China, during the years of Japanese occupation.   At the time, young Adeline's father was a wealthy businessman.   Soon after his first wife's death, he  married Adeline's stepmother--a young, sophisticated, cruel  woman,  who was merciless,  even as she was kind to her own children.

Dr. Yen's tone and writing are, in my estimation, pitch-perfect.   With beautiful prose, she  creates the setting, dialogue, pacing, and descriptions that depict little Adeline's quandary--she was a brilliant, well-behaved little girl among people who had no appreciation for her gifts and talents. 

This book is sure to draw any reader in.  It's certainly the most poignant book I've read this year. Little Adeline was remarkably tough and showed great character and spirit.  Chinese Cinderella is a book about a triumphant little girl.  Though it's a book almost anyone with a heart will appreciate, I especially recommend it for schools and YA book clubs. (Countless scenes could start  great discussions with young adults.)

Chinese Cinderella is destined to be a classic.--Yolanda A.  Reid