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Book Review: A Constellation of Half-Lives by Seema Reza

Seema Reza’s A Constellation of Half-Lives is a dazzling book of poetry that takes her and her reader to confront some of the hardest truths and situations in life. In her second full-length poetry book, Reza examines humanity and “the uneven distribution of grace” of the world, and asks the question "how can I do better?"

Reza opens the book by addressing the reader. She explains her journey of examining what it means to be a mother, a woman, and a partner, under the larger backdrop of what it means to be an American citizen and a second generation immigrant throughout the Global War on Terror.

This is the groundwork for a stunning collection that follows. Through it, she acknowledges the horrors of war and grieves for those involved through second-person poetry. She mourns the life of a mother losing her livelihood and son on the other side of the war, the pain of a returning vet and his family grappling with PTSD, and her younger self becoming aware of the racial divides between herself, her peers, and even her mother.

Not all of her revelations are written in these big stories, though, for that is not how life is. Much of Reza’s focus lies in the little daily moments of her own life; her balance between walking forward in life and knowing the horrors that rage around you throughout. She reflects on her own failures and shortcomings. She addresses times she’s forgiven others and times she hasn’t found the will to and admits when she fails to extend the same grace to herself.

Through her words bleeds a brutal honesty. She does not strain herself trying to come up with glittering imagery or devastating allegory, because she knows that the horrors and beauties of real life are enough. Through Reza’s heart that she pours out in A Constellation of Half-Lives, she tells the story of empathy that rips you apart and ultimately pushes you to be better than you were before.

Her love for humanity is evident in the way she begs and pleads with it. It addresses everyone from her own blood to strangers, from government officials to fictional beings. She has harsh criticism for all parties, but in the way you point out the flaws in the people you love in order to see them become better.

Reza does not lose technical points in exchange for emotional ones though. She experiments with a variety of forms and structures throughout the book, and is successful with each one she tries. The arrangement is well thought-out, and the visual layout is paced nicely.

Though this may be heresy in a review of a poetry collection, her afterward was one of the pieces that touched me the most in this book. It is a revised essay of her commencement speech at the Goddard Graduate Institute. As a conclusion to her book of doing painful work of considering her part in some of the greatest griefs of the word, she urgently begs her audience to do the same.

It is not a condemnation or a lecture, but instead delivered with even more grace and love than is found in the rest of her book. In it, she acknowledges the fears of coming to terms with a different reality than you thought you knew. She allows for apprehension, shock, denial, and anguish, and encourages nothing but grace and encouragement to be given to these individuals. She holds their hand and reassures them that their distress does not need to lead to retreat, that it can be good and right, and that they are not helpless in their grief.

It does not stop there though. For those who have come to see the world around them, she does not let them off the hook but instead pushes them to look deeper in themselves for reconciliation.

“It is likely that each of us has been guilty of this ourselves," she writes. “Once we’ve woken to it, outrage all over the world can be much easier to sit with than looking at our own brokenness, and how it is affecting the people around us.”

Instead of sending her readers away with a charge to be furious with the world, she instead prods them to remove their rose-colored glasses, take in the brokenness with grace, examine how they take place, and sends them away with a commission to touch a little corner of the earth through their growth and healing. If you are looking to push yourself in that direction, I think A Constellation of Half-Lives is the perfect read for you.

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