“‘Tis nothing but a Magic Shadow-show . . .”

As a child, I used to spend hours perusing my parents’ bookshelves. Among the countless National Geographics that my mother had lined up in a solid yellow block, and post-war novels like The Amboy Dukes and Mr. Bremble’s Buttons, I came across a slim volume of poems, The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam: quatrains attributed to the Persian poet and astronomer.

I read the poems over and over, and my adolescent mind became aware of its hunger for their existential consciousness and their apprehension of the illusory nature of reality. The poems unlocked a place far from wearisome purpose and invited me to wander through unfamiliar gardens of pleasure and skepticism. Reading the quatrains, I didn’t feel as though I had graduated to some branch of adult literature, which I found sometimes had a musty smell about their pages. I felt a fresh, kindred spirit in this medieval poet.

I memorized my favourite quatrains, which I relished reciting as I wandered along the path through the blackberry brambles of the overgrown cow pasture next to my home. That pasture dipped down at a certain place, which my father had explained was an ancient branch of the Mississippi River, which had changed its course over the eons, always seeking the path of least resistance. It was a place where I could be alone, away from family dysfunction, losing myself on an ancient riverbed, dizzy in the company of Khayyam’s four-line universes.

–translation by Edward FitzGerald

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