Poetry bookshelfSeveral years ago, I emailed a poem by Mary Oliver to a co-worker. She forwarded it to a friend, who then forwarded it to a friend, who then also forwarded it. In short, it went viral via corporate email. These were not poetry readers, but the timing was right, and the poem spoke to how they felt, much like Maggie Smith’s “Good Bones,” which recently went viral, but on a much larger scale, becoming famously known: an excerpt from “Good Bones” was read on the CBS drama Madam Secretary by Jay Whitman, played by Sebastian Arcelus, who took the poem out of his wallet.

I wonder if anyone who read “Good Bones” (or heard it on the TV show) got online and purchased one of Smith’s poetry books. I have a feeling that’s not the case, given poetry is “an art form determinedly ignored by most Americans,” as noted by David Orr in his book Beautiful & Pointless: A Guide to Modern Poetry. I happen to be an American with a healthy poetry bookshelf (including a copy of Smith’s book Lamp of the Body).  Some of the books on the shelf are fully read and reread, some partially read and several still unread. Pages of my favorite poems are dog-eared or flagged with slips of paper.

Here’s an excerpt from the poem “Candor” by Anne Carson that I recently fell in love with.

If you are not the free person you want to be you must find a place
to tell the truth about that. To tell how things go for you. Candor
is like a skein being produced inside the belly day after day, it has
to get itself woven out somewhere. You could whisper down a
well. You could write a letter and keep it in a drawer. You could
inscribe a curse on a ribbon of lead and bury it in the ground to lie
unread for thousands of years. The point is not to find a reader,
the point is the telling itself.

I came across this poem in Emily Berry, Anne Carson, Sophie Collins, the first book published in the revived Penguin Modern Poets series. The series originated in 1962 and ran until 1979, according to this article in The Guardian. It picked up again for a three-year period in the 1990s. These books are “succinct guides” that bring to the forefront selected work by contemporary poets.  As of today, four books have been published in this 21st century series. Each of the small paperbacks features three poets writing today, “allowing the curious reader and the seasoned lover of poetry to encounter the most exciting voices of our moment.”

Without reading much else of Carson, I dog-eared the page and moved on to Emily Berry. I don’t continuously read all the poems in a poetry book. It typically gets picked up and put down over a period of time, as I randomly read the individual poems.  And, for what it’s worth, it’s not easy for me to find poetry books that are a good match for my interests and sensibilities. The process feels like an on-going invitation to an open house with poets, where I bravely and hopefully walk into a roomful of acquaintances and strangers. I know there will be some who’ll leave me untouched and indifferent to what they have to say, or how they say it, but at least I will have spent a few minutes with them. It’s the ones who captivate me with their personal universe of insight, or the ones who write one poem, one verse or one line I’ll never forget, that make it all worthwhile. It’s because of them that I keep coming back to this open house. It’s the reason I invest in the books.

David Orr describes poets as more than “people who think of ways to write new poems,” emphasizing they are “people who imagine new ways of being and perceiving.” For me, it’s why I keep close those poets whose voices ring true for me. I suppose that’s also the reason Jay Whitman tucked “Good Bones” inside his wallet — to keep it close. Wouldn’t it be great if on another episode of Madam Secretary he pulls a poetry book from his briefcase and turns to a dog-eared page? In that small way, he could demonstrate this is an art form worth pursuing and that it’s possible to love it.

The other day, I met Debra Marquart in the The Best American Poetry 2016 anthology. Her poem “Lament” is about the suffering of North Dakota in the oil boom. Here’s an excerpt.

north dakota    I’m worried about you
the companies you keep     all these new friends     north dakota
beyond the boom, beyond the precious resources
do you really think they care what becomes of you

north dakota    you used to be the shy one
enchanted secret land loved by only a few     north dakota

The Penguin Modern Poets series is published in the U.K. and not (yet?) in the U.S. Nevertheless, the series is available via Amazon booksellers.

the-life-you-save-may-be-your-ownOver the years, I’ve given books to friends who come to my house for dinner on Christmas Eve. It’s a joy for me and them, this book carefully selected and then placed on the table to function as their place card. Below are the selections I made this year and the reasons behind my decisions.

The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage by Paul Elie
I’ll start with a misfire. It’s not the book you see here. This actually was my first choice, but I second guessed myself and instead gave Paul Kalanithi’s bestselling memoir When Breath Becomes Air. With Kalanithi’s book being front and center in the media and on bestseller lists, I knew I was risking that my friend would already have read the book, and indeed she had. That was the misfire, i.e., not listening to my gut instinct. With my first choice on hand, I was able to get it to her the next day — Paul Elie’s The Life You Save May Be Your Own, focused on the literary life and religious faith of mid-20th century writers Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, Thomas Merton and Dorothy Day. I thought my friend, an entrepreneur and ordained minister, who enjoys deep, thoughtful topics, would find many pause-worthy moments in Elie’s acclaimed work that The New York Times described as “a freeze frame from another era of the perennial search for truth.”

the-snow-childThe Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey
I always look for an absorbing novel for this friend. She’s one of those readers who will stay up all night to find out what happens next. She tells me she must plan her reading so as to miss not just sleep, but also appointments or anything else that would get in the way of The End. And so this novel, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and penned by the lyric Alaskan native author, came to mind for its intrigue of an unusual child’s presence in the lives of a struggling couple. Jack and Mable are trying to make a life together in 1920’s frontier Alaska when the snow child comes into their lives, but is the child fantasy or reality? Ivey released a new novel this past summer, To the Bright Edge of the World, but I selected her first novel because my friend is a specialist in early child education. I thought the combined mystery and child focus would deeply absorb her.

upstreamUpstream: Selected Essays
by Mary Oliver
Oliver is a popular poet whose beautiful words, philosophies and insights transport readers into the natural world and its wisdom. Among forests, rivers, ponds and fields, she presents a kind of peace and acceptance that transcends the hysteria of modern life. An example is her poem “Am I Not Among the Early Risers” in which she writes: “What will ambition do for me that the fox, appearing suddenly / at the top of the field, / her eyes sharp and confident as she stared into mine / has not already done?/” Oliver’s new collection of essays seemed like a no-brainer for this friend who loves poetry and the outdoors. These essays have been gathered together as a sort of autobiography, with Oliver reflecting on the natural world, as well as topics from childhood and her adult writing life. As much as I knew my friend would enjoy the book, though, I afterwards wondered if I should’ve reached for something more unexpected. Oliver’s essays are a best-seller, like Kalanithi’s memoir, and while my friend hadn’t read it, upon opening it, she recognized it. Is there more magic in receiving a book that’s completely unknown?

between-the-world-and-meBetween the World and Me
by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Speaking of bestsellers, here’s another one. I tend to avoid the bestseller list because it is the go-to source for many when they want a book selection – and the list is so limiting, given the phenomenal choices beyond it. Alas, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ phenomenal book also came to mind. I selected it for a friend who read Hillbilly Elegy and loved it. I don’t believe she’s an avid, even frequent reader, and so I thought giving her this important, highly lauded book about ideas of race would capture her attention. Between the World and Me is a letter to Coates’ adolescent son about what it’s like to be black in America today. It’s universally described as “required reading.” Between the World and Me won the 2015 National Book Award in Nonfiction and came in as a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award.

rosemaryRosemary: The Hidden Kennedy Daughter by Kate Clifford Larson
Here is another friend whose reading habits I believe are spotty, at best, and by that I mean it’s possible she doesn’t think to read, except maybe when someone hands her a book. Given the Kennedy family story continues to fascinate this nation of readers, I thought this new biography of a lesser-known Kennedy daughter — sibling of the famous Jack, Robert and Ted, her brothers of political fame — would capture my friend’s interest. Rosemary Kennedy was intellectually disabled and kept as a family secret. It’s a tragic story that is the reason her Kennedy relatives established and supported government opportunities and resources for the disabled. In an interview with NPR’s Scott Simon, author Kate Clifford Larson said of Rosemary: “She was virtually hidden for decades, but the siblings apparently — or so it has been said — that they were not aware of what happened to Rosemary, or where she was, for nearly 20 years. I don’t think that’s entirely accurate … but they had learned not to ask, and so they didn’t ask.”

Speak, Memory by Vlaspeak-memorydimir Nabokov
Finally, a classic autobiography chosen for a friend who has become an avid reader, one who keeps a list of books to be read, frequents the library and reads every day. She posed a challenge in that I know she reads this blog, and so I didn’t feel I could select from anything I’d written about here. Likely, if it was a good match, she would already have it on her list. I’ve given her literary novels she has loved and not loved so much (yet she has read every page); and then, I remembered she loved Friday Night Lights, a book I recommended a while back. I took that non-fiction cue and immediately this beloved memoir by Nabokov came to mind for its nostalgia, beautiful writing and Nabokov’s insight into his Russian childhood. It struck as a perfect combination of literary style and a true story that my friend would enjoy. From the Humanities article Why Nabokov’s Speak Memory Still Speaks to Us: “After closing the pages of Speak, Memory, John Updike, no slouch himself as a prose stylist, was carried away.” I hope the same for my friend.

The time of your life

December 12, 2014

Time Present and Time PastThe first line in Deirdre Madden’s new novel is a simple question, but in the context of this spare, enlightening story, it carries heavy meaning. “Where does it all begin?” she writes, and then introduces us to Fintan Buckley, a middle-aged family man and legal advisor who’s “faithful as Lassie.” He stops at a café before returning to the office after lunch and there, over his coffee and cake, experiences a psychic detachment from the present moment. Words, language and objects are becoming strange to him. This is where it begins for Fintan, who starts to feel a dimension of past and present time existing simultaneously, that which is eternal time. This concept would be expected in a science fiction novel, but this is a story about an ordinary man living an ordinary life in the year 2006.

Fintan lives with his wife and three children in a small coastal town outside Dublin, Ireland. We learn about his courtship and marriage to his wife Colette and his struggle to be a loving parent to his two sons both now in college – frugal, socially conscious Niall and materialistic Rob. Then, Lucy came along, a surprise, late-in-life baby, now seven years old, the love of Fintan’s life. His widowed mother never tires of her own company, and his sister Martina owns and runs a women’s clothing boutique. She unexpectedly returned to Dublin from London just in time to help their recently widowed Aunt Beth. In one chapter, Fintan takes Lucy and her friend Emma to the zoo.

In other words, it is a typical life for Fintan and his family. Except Fintan has become worried that his life will be over before he’s had a chance to live it, or understand it. Madden writes, “Sometimes he feels he can almost hear time rushing past him; it is like a kind of unholy wind. He wakes, he works, he sleeps, and then another day is gone and then another week.” Fintan becomes intrigued with old black-and-white photographs and the way they stop time. Lucy asks questions, such as: When did the world change from black and white to color? Where does the past go? Meanwhile, the odd shifts in perception continue. For example, Fintan listens to his elderly Aunt Beth and hears her voice as it would’ve been when she was a young girl.

Three months go by, and the shifts become less frequent. Deirdre Madden writes, “Where does it all end?” as the first line of the last chapter. Fintan discovers the answer in the conclusion of this perceptive novel, and it lies in the full nature of time beyond the measurement of clocks and calendars — because they can only tell us time is passing.

The title Time Present and Time Past comes from “Burnt Norton” in T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets.

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.

You can hear T.S. Eliot reading the complete poem at Open Culture.

Run to Bethlehem

December 20, 2013

For the Time Being_WH AudenTwentieth Century British poet W. H. Auden intended his long poem For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio to be set to music by his friend, British composer Benjamin Britten.  The end product, however, proved to be too long and complex for a musical score, yet a profound poem remained that movingly captured the birth of Christ in its historical and spiritual contexts.

I know poetry is not what many would rush to read, and many probably don’t need one more version of the Christmas story during this season of Advent; however, For the Time Being is especially meaningful because Auden broadens his interpretation to embrace modern-day sins and logic. Indeed, there are references to bars, newspapers, clocks, mirrors and other modern places and objects. And when King Herod enters the picture, struggling with the news of a child being born who is “in some inexplicable manner both God and Man,” he parses the facts like any politically minded leader and self-involved human being in a long speech that ends:

“I’ve tried to be good. I brush my teeth every night. I haven’t had sex for a month. I object. I’m a liberal. I want everyone to be happy. I wish I had never been born.”

"At the Manger"

For the Time Being begins with dark times on earth and proceeds in sections titled The Annunciation, The Temptation of St. Joseph, The Summons (of the wise men), The Vision of the Shepherds, At the Manger and others, through The Flight Into Egypt – all of the expected, except Auden gives us the inner thoughts, conflicts and feelings of the familiar characters, as well as commentary of an opinionated narrator and watchful chorus. So, for example, we’re not just given the wise men following the star, rather their motivations:

The first wise man sees life filled with liars, and so follows the star to discover how to be truthful now;

The second wise man sees life as always anticipated or remembered, and so follows the star to discover how to be living now;

And the third wise man sees life as overly intellectualized, and so follows the star to discover how to be loving now.

There are some passages in the poem I didn’t understand on the first read, such as the section in which the Biblical, devout Simeon speaks, but there is so much wisdom the poem gave me otherwise, it didn’t matter.

There’s the part where the chorus of angels says to the lowly shepherds:

“Sing Glory to God
And good-will to men,
All, all, all of them.
Run to Bethlehem.”

And the shepherds say:

“Let us run to learn
How to love and run;
Let us run to Love.”

For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio is Auden’s only explicitly religious long poem. The introduction in this new edition published by Princeton University Press, edited by Alan Jacobs, explains the poem’s themes and provides the context of Auden’s life at the time of its creation — a story in itself that provided a powerful platform for a poet who wanted to write about Mary and Joseph, the wise men, angels, shepherds and the Romans when Christ was born.

Merry Christmas.

"Three Cornered Hat"

First printing, 1928

Every year on Easter weekend, I travel with friends to Akron, Ohio, for the Northern Ohio Bibliophilic Society’s Antiquarian Book Fair, otherwise known as the NOBS fair. Booksellers from the tristate area and beyond (Wisconsin, New York, Kentucky and, one year, Montreal, Quebec) bring their rare and used books to display in booths organized in one big room. This year, there were a little more than 35 exhibitors, which is almost half of what it used to be in better economic times. Nevertheless, it was a bonanza of new discoveries for book collectors and readers, and for me a budget-busting challenge. Accessibility to so many booksellers in one room for a limited time eliminates any chance for my preferred “peruse and think about it” style that allows me to buy carefully. In Akron, in that one-room mecca, I shop like I’ve got Warren Buffett as a Sugar Daddy. Fueling the frenzy is the reality that every time I walk away from a booth to think about a book, I have to be prepared someone else, right behind me, might buy it.

"Three Cornered Hat" interior illustration

“Three Cornered Hat” color tipped in plate

That happened one year with a 1929 edition of Robert Graves Good-bye to All That. No dust jacket and nothing really collectible about it. What I liked were the black-and-white photographs. It was $40, and I don’t collect Graves, so I walked away. But as my friends and I were getting ready to leave for dinner, I rushed back to buy it, giving in to my impulse.  The bookseller saw me looking for it on the shelf and said it was gone. He then casually mentioned the book was the first he’d seen in that edition in his 30 years as a bookseller. By those very words, I became afflicted with the haunting of “the one that got away.”

I began to search for the book online that same night, after I got home, at midnight. It had to have all the same parameters — no dust jacket, 1929, $40, first edition, sixth impression — and true to what the bookseller said, the book didn’t show up anywhere. But a few weeks later it did, in England, and I purchased it online, and then a day or two later the British bookseller sent me an email saying he couldn’t find it.

"The Yearling"

Pulitzer Prize Edition, 1939

The one rare-books merchant I look for every year at the Akron fair is Booklegger’s Books from Chicago. His modern first editions are in beautiful condition, and his selections never fail to hook me because they are the novelists and poets whose first editions I want on my shelves. Over the years, they have included a first edition of Jean Genet’s 1954 The Thief’s Journal; a signed first edition limited to 250 copies of Diane Wakoski’s poem Thanking My Mother for Piano Lessons; and a signed first of Tim O’Brien’s 1978 Vietnam classic Going After Cacciato. One year, there was The Three Cornered Hat, published in 1928. I’d never heard of it, let alone seen it before, and yet I was drawn to it for the construct of the dust jacket, with the edges cut out like a paper hat.

This year, leaving NOBS, I felt the hint of anxiety that comes with the realization I’ve once again so easily, without question, ignored my budget. It keeps happening, despite my proven ability to control myself and honor limits at other book venues. Had I time to think about all the books I wanted to buy — lay them out in front of me and determine which ones I could put back for another time (or forever) — I’d have faired better. But that’s not how this works. At Booklegger’s, as I wrote my check for the beautiful Pulitzer Prize Edition of The Yearling by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, gorgeously illustrated by N. C. Wyeth, a man approached and asked Larry, the bookseller, if he had anything illustrated by Wyeth.

Interior illustration from The Yearling

The Burial of Fodder-Wing in “The Yearling”

There are two books from other booksellers I did indeed walk away from to think about. I guess I felt I wouldn’t miss them, if I went back and they were gone. In fact, I didn’t go back for them. One, The Fixer by Bernard Malamud, is a common find, although this first edition was in perfect condition — “very fine,” as described by the trade. The other, a novel by R. F. Delderfield, who wrote God Is an Englishman, holds nostalgic strings over me from my youth, and that one, A Horseman Riding By, I admit, I was looking for online at midnight, after I got home.

Imagine everything you’ve done in your life — all the activities you’ve pursued that didn’t seem to have any significance beyond daily life — evolving into your finest work at the end of your life: beautifully, miraculously, unbidden and without purpose.

That is the story of Britain’s Mary Granville Pendarves Delany (1700 – 1788). Although she moved in aristocratic circles, she lived as many ordinary people live today, making choices that determine a life, such as her marriages to Alexander Pendarves (a slobbering, rich old man) and later to Dean Delany (a Protestant Irish clergyman). Her choices also included designing dresses, crewelwork, painting, gardening and a full social life. She didn’t have children but had a long, devoted relationship with her sister and a deep connection with her second husband. “She wasn’t an expert at anything except observing,” Molly Peacock writes in The Paper Garden“And then she did something no one had ever done before.”

After the death of Mr. Delany, Mary took refuge at Bulstrode, the Buckinghamshire estate of her long-time friend, Margaret Bentinck, the Duchess of Portland. Laid up with a foot injury, the 72-year-old widow sat beside her table of art supplies and noticed the color of a piece of paper matched that of a nearby geranium petal. She cut out the petal shape from the paper, “commencing the most remarkable work of her life.”

Over the next ten years, Mary Delany created 985 intricate, botanically accurate “flower mosaicks,” as she called them, precursors to today’s mixed media art form. They are composed of “the tiniest dots, squiggles, scoops, moons, slivers, islands and loops of brightly colored paper” placed on deep black backgrounds. For Mary Delany, the floral concoctions were just another one of the many projects she’d pursued over the decades, this time assembling a personal, visual memoir she named Flora Delanica.  The results, though, now reside in the British Museum.

Last year, when The Paper Garden was first published, I hesitated to read it, thinking it would be filled more with botanical discussions than storytelling. It is such a gorgeous book, though — a stunning design with 35 full-color illustrations — I couldn’t forget it. So for months I engaged in a ridiculous biblio-nerd’s courtship with the book, borrowing it from the library, asking for it in bookstores (sold-out at New York’s Three Lives & Co.) and searching for it online. I wanted to own it more than I wanted to read it.

The book repeatedly drew me toward it, and I repeatedly pushed it away. It insistently held on, so I surrendered to the paperback released this year. When I read it, I found myself delightfully absorbed in Molly Peacock’s unforgettable search for answers among Delany’s cut-out flowers about aging and life work. Molly Peacock is an award-winning author of six volumes of poetry. Her insights, beautiful writing and poetic leaps make The Paper Garden an unforgettable, winning combination of biography and life philosophy. And let me be clear, The Paper Garden is not at all the intimidating botanical complexity I thought it would be, rather an extraordinary narrative and visual treasure for everyone. 

Hound’s Tongue, Damask Rose, Nodding Thistle, Opium Poppy, Magnolia and Everlasting Pea (above), are some of the flowers illustrated in this fascinating book that explores how a life blooms. Molly Peacock engages with the flowers as metaphors that open the door into Mrs. Delany’s relationships with her sister and husbands, social activities and independent life between marriages. Also, in brief interludes, Peacock draws parallels between her life and Delany’s, bringing warmth and 21st century relevance to the 18th century story. Indeed, often this gifted author writes powerful sentences loaded with fodder for the examined life, such as when she casually remarks, “But in life our routines are the signposts of destiny.”

“Seventy-two years old. It gives a person hope,” Molly Peacock writes. “Who doesn’t hold out the hope of starting a memorable project at a grand old age?”

You can hear her joy and astonishment in these sentences, as well as when she writes about her discovery trips to England and Ireland, visiting the mosaicks in the British Museum and Mrs. Delany’s 86-year-old relative, Ruth Hayden, outside Bath. I could feel it — the uplifting hope that life can still surprise us in our last decades with an unknown gift that’s been percolating throughout the years. “Some things take living long enough to do,” Molly Peacock tells us several times at the end of the book, with more of that joy and astonishment.

Mary Delany died April 15, 1788, several days after an excursion with the royal family to Kew gardens. You can visit her mosaicks online at the British Museum.

I recently re-read John Gardner’s Grendel, the 1971 novel that re-tells the first part of the epic medieval poem Beowulf from the monster’s viewpoint. The willingness to give reading time to a book I’ve already read, when there’s not enough time to read all the books I haven’t read, got triggered by an advanced reading copy of Grendel inscribed by the publisher to the intended receiver, “Please read. You will love this.” The ARC is a rare acquisition for my library that took me back to the time one of my college English literature professors gave me his copy of Grendel, thinking, I suppose, I’d appreciate Gardner’s extraordinary imagination and lyric monster writing. It was not an assignment, rather something Mr. Parks enjoyed and wanted to share with the student (me) who was interning with him that quarter. I read the book, but the story and all its meaning sailed right over my head.

So here, decades later, I’m reading Grendel out loud and walking around the room at the same time because one cannot sit still under that sheer magic created by Gardner, a narrative of such magnificent lyric words and insights you can’t help but to dramatically read the story out loud to hear them. I relished the rhythms of the lonely, philosophical monster’s fretting and roaring as he struggles to understand the purpose of his existence. Grendel doesn’t see himself as people see him, a violent fiend from hell, and Gardner skillfully brings to life the monster’s sweet, emotional confusion.

Grendel lurks outside King Hrothgar’s magnificent mead hall, spying on the drunken feasts and listening to the poetry of the harpist, known as the Shaper, who sings of goodness and hope. One day, the Shaper tells the story of Cain and Abel, “an ancient feud between two brothers which split all the world between darkness and light.” Grendel learns he’s from the darkness, “the terrible race God cursed.” Filled with scorn and doubt, he seeks the counsel of a gold-hording dragon, who dismisses the idea there’s any meaning in life, light or dark, and claims the Shaper creates illusions. The dragon casts a spell on Grendel, making him invulnerable to any weapon. “I could walk up to the meadhall [sic] whenever I pleased, and they were powerless. My heart became darker because of that.”

Grendel rampages through the mead hall, savagely killing Hrothgar’s men night after night, seeing no worth in any life, especially because he can so easily take it. When he decides not to kill Hrothgar’s wife, he says:

“It would be meaningless, killing her. As meaningless as letting her live. It would be, for me, mere pointless pleasure, an illusion of order for this one frail, foolish flicker-flash in the long dull fall of eternity.”

He’s a horrible creature, but Gardner gives him humanity, and you can’t help but love Grendel — he’s intelligent, funny, self-loathing and monstrously witty. He knows what he’s doing isn’t right, and yet he can’t stop because he can’t reconcile the senselessness he sees in the world. He’s a beastly creature capable of love and sympathy — desiring it, actually — who transforms into evil because no one gave him a chance to be anything but evil. There’s a great life message here, and many more like it in this classic, right up to the end when Grendel finally is overcome by the hero Beowulf.

One doesn’t need to have read the original medieval poem to enjoy Gardner’s spin-off, but there’s so much more to Grendel’s story after his death, when Gardner’s novel ends, that it’s worth reading Beowulf either again or for the first time. I did (again). I picked up the wonderful translation by poet and Nobel Prize-winner Seamus Heaney. Published in 2000, Heaney’s version became a national best-seller, which says it all – how often do you see translated medieval poetry described as a best-seller?

As for Gardner’s Grendel, it’s poignant, spiritually and psychologically rich, and delightful to read. I understand now why Mr. Parks wanted to share it.

Update: The title to this post was slightly modified after publication.

The Conference of the Birds is being referred to as the perfect gift book this season. It definitely fits that pocket, being the book is beautifully illustrated and tells a meaningful story about the human journey to make sense of our lives. It sheds light on the arduousness of the journey, the obstacles encountered and the reason why, as Winston Churchill proclaimed during World War II, one should “never, never, never, never give up.”

I don’t like the gift-book designation for The Conference of the Birds because it makes me think of relegating it to the coffee table for public display, and the story is one that should be kept more intimately near, at the bedside or in a personal drawer at the office. Its philosophies are worth revisiting to help us keep sight of life’s higher purpose, beyond the minutiae on our iPhones and Blackberries.

Peter Sís’ is a seven-time winner of The New York Times Book Review Best Illustrated Book of the Year award. He’s also a MacArthur Fellow (2003). The Conference of the Birds is an adaptation of Sufi poet Farid Ud-Din Attar’s masterpiece with the same title about one’s search for divine truth. Attar lived in northeastern Persia between the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries, according to the book’s end pages.

Sís’ version opens with the poet Attar waking one Kafkaesque morning and realizing he’s a hoopoe bird. He gathers together all the birds of the world and rallies them to search for King Simorgh, hidden behind a veil of clouds, who has the answers to the world’s troubles. Some of the birds are reluctant to embark on the journey because they don’t want to leave their comfortable lives, and they’re not sure the king exists.

"Parrot: I like it here. I feel safe. They bring me food and water every day. Peacock: I'm special! I'm not like anybody else - look at all my colors!"

Nevertheless, off they go, filling the skies, soaring high and far. On their journey to find King Simorgh, who lives on the Mountain of Kaf, the birds must pass through seven valleys: quest, love, understanding, detachment, unity, amazement and death.

"The endless deserts are crystals of sand. The mountain ranges are a string of beads."

Some perish in these valleys; some lose hope; some get confused. In the Valley of Unity, “All who enter here are bound at the neck by one rope.” In the Valley of Detachment, “It is here that all curiosity and desire expire.” Most perplexing is the Valley of Amazement, “place of constant pain and gnawing bewilderment.”

"You don't dare to look here...you don't dare to breathe...piercing swords of pain."

Valleys are typical representations of challenges in a journey. Sís, however, keeps his storytelling unique and vibrant not alone with the colorful, abstract illustrations but also with the experiences of the feathered characters. Throughout, he reminds us the birds’ long flight is a pathway to wisdom by frequently incorporating into the artwork the symbol of a labyrinth, that circular path one walks to find the way to the center.

The most powerful and direct messages come toward the end with the explanation of why many birds don’t make the full journey. That is, why they give up. It’s a piercing reality check about human weakness, and one of those reasons I suggest the book be kept near. The power of fear and discouragement can be overwhelming, and that’s not only on spiritual journeys, but also the personal journeys one takes when following the heart or pursuing a dream.

"A band of thirty battered, beaten, beleaguered companions trying hard not to try and hardly able to fly..."

Layers of new meaning reveal themselves with each new reading of the text. As I work on this post, I recognize for the first time, after two readings, the foreshadowing behind a statement the hoopoe makes in the beginning, pointing the birds toward a truth that will be revealed regarding the king on the Mountain of Kaf: “He is as close to us as we are far from him.” When you read the book, you’ll understand why.

I received a copy of Gaylord Brewer’s new poetry collection in March via a friend who’s a poet and university professor. He recommended the title and also procured a signed copy for me (love that!). I read several of the poems at that time and experienced subjects, philosophy and use of words that seduced my senses.  By ‘use of words’ I mean how they’re conjoined and phrased, in a way I want to read out loud or repeat to enjoy a textured rhythm or cleverness.

But it wasn’t until these summer days arrived that I read Give Over, Graymalkin from beginning to end, during early dawn hours, and in so doing, “reclined in a therapy of summer morning.” That phrase is a beginning line in a poem about the dead metaphor of clouds. It appears in a section devoted to the banality of such overused metaphors, including the post-divorce Harley and the “old guy on that hog.” As Brewer confirms in this interview, the 15 poems with their “ribald humor and literary cynicism” are a thematic detour from the other, more reflective poems in the book.

The majority of the poems were written in India, Spain and France, and it’s the section from the time in India that’s my favorite. In one of those poems, Brewer makes a phone call to his mother in Kentucky in which he tries to express his experiences through “the echoes, stalls, hollows” of the long distance connection that “make joking difficult./ I hear my voice, stiff and loud.” In another he speaks of the spiritual guidance of a Swami who instructs him to laugh first thing in the morning — a laughing meditation — and so “I part curtains, lock doors and windows,/and start laughing my ass off.” It’s a brilliant poem carefully balanced between the humor of what seems ridiculous and the hope of a seeker.

Brewer’s writing invites pensive engagement without getting too heavy.  Indeed, his reasoning, meditative voice in this terrific collection gets under your skin. Consider in “Jungle Appetites” how he reaches the point of recognizing “All the easy,/mournful luck of my life, announcing to the wild.”

These three soon-to-be-published books caught my attention this week, and it happens two of them are by Canadian authors: one a short story collection set in cities along the U.S. Canadian border, the other a novel set in Newfoundland. The third is a new collection by Billy Collins, the ever enjoyable and loved-by-the-public former U.S. Poet Laureate. His accessible and typically upside lyrics take on the dark topic of death in his new book of poems. What’s that going to be like?

Light Lifting by Alexander MacLeod. It’s not often I stand in the kitchen reading a book that just arrived in the mail.  I may read the first sentence or skim the jacket copy but not stand like I did one day this past week, leaning against the counter for a long read. This book snatched my exclusive attention that quickly.  MacLeod’s narrative voice speaks with a seductive mix of conviction and vulnerability as it takes us inside the lives of its everyday people, such as two runners who’ve been competing together for a long time and a group of bricklayers mentoring a high school kid on a summer job. MacLeod is a delightful discovery for me, published by indie press Biblioasis in Emeryville, Ontario. His debut will be available in the U.S. this April.

Galore by Michael Crummey. Crummey takes a mythic viewpoint of his native Newfoundland in this story that spans two centuries. Publisher’s Weekly gives the novel a starred review and calls it Crummey’s “gorgeous latest” – his previous novel River Thieves also is set in Newfoundland. From the publisher’s website:  “When a whale beaches itself on the shore of the remote coastal town of Paradise Deep, the last thing any of the townspeople expect to find inside it is a man, silent and reeking of fish, but remarkably alive. The discovery of this mysterious person, soon christened Judah, sets the town scrambling for answers as its most prominent citizens weigh in on whether he is man or beast, blessing or curse, miracle or demon.” On sale by U.S. publisher Other Press in April.

Horoscopes for the Dead: Poems by Billy Collins. Library Journal’s starred review delivers the verdict that Collins’ ninth collection of poems is “witty bleakness.” Collins’ poetry is frequently described as not only witty but also playful, which is why his take on death likely will be unique. Here are the opening lines from the title poem of his new collection, out in March

Every morning since you disappeared for good,
I read about you in the newspaper
along with the box scores, the weather, and all the bad news.
Some days I am reminded that today
will not be a wildly romantic time for you . . .

Jaimy Gordon’s Lord of Misrule won the 2010 National Book Award (NBA) for fiction.  The book’s publisher, McPherson & Company, released the book just days ago (November 15), so few have read and/or reviewed this astonishing winner. That’s not the big news, though, rather that once again a surprise unknown from a small press took a huge fiction award.

At the beginning of 2010, the year’s Pulitzer Prize in fiction was awarded to Tinkers by Paul Harding, published by the small Bellevue Literary Press. During the years Harding tried to get his book published, New York agents and editors sent rejections and this laughable advice: “Nobody wants to read a slow, contemplative, meditative, quiet book.” (via The New York Times)

These two awards may well be the harbinger of small independent presses assuming the helm of literary fiction. They’re giving hope to readers and authors of this genre that small plus literary no longer equals obscure. Bruce McPherson, owner and publisher of McPherson & Co., said he usually prints 2,000 copies of a new book. When the Lord of Misrule was nominated as an NBA finalist, he took a chance and printed 8,000 (via WSJ Speakeasy).

I’d wager he’s going back for a second printing.

Here’s the list of winners for the 2010 National Book Award:

  • Fiction: Jaimy Gordon, Lord of Misrule (McPherson & Co.)
  • Non-fiction: Patti Smith, Just Kids (Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers)
  • Poetry: Terrance Hayes, Lighthead (Penguin Books)
  • Young People’s Literature: Kathryn Erskine, Mockingbird (Philomel Books, a division of Penguin Young Readers Group)

Now here’s a book title that screams bad-boy poet Charles BukowskiBeerspit Night and Cursing collects the correspondence between him and Sheri Martinelli from 1960 to 1967.

I don’t remember where I came across a mention of it this week, and the librarian who helped me find it couldn’t say how the book got lost in the stacks. No matter. It sits in front of me now, and I like the look and feel of this apparently much used library edition. Beat up and repaired, as the drinking, gambling, whoring, “laureate of lowlife” Bukowski would like it. (via Wikipedia)

Their correspondence began with a letter Martinelli sent Bukowski rejecting his poetry submission to her San Francisco literary magazine Anagogic & Paideumic Review.  She said “i don’t find a ‘thump’ in yr work” and suggested he:

“go to the old boys–the greeks/latins/a good translation in library & discover that life has never been any different… then awakens in the soul… a desire to leave a message of help for those who come after us/ & not to list what life does & is doing to us/ maestro ezra pound kept telling me ‘now don’t dump yr garbage can on my head…’ so I learned this lesson the hard way…”

Bukowski was in fact well-read, having spent much of his youth in libraries.   And so he informs Martinelli:

“I have read your classics, I have wasted a life in libraries, turning pages, looking for blood. It seems to me that there has not been ENOUGH garbage dumped, the pages do not scream; always the effected dignity and know-all and dry page sunburned and listless as wheat.”

You just gotta love the blunt-speaking Bukowski. The reason his poetry claims devoted fans, including this one.

Martinelli is not well-known today, but she was high-profile during her time, especially among the Beats. According to the book’s introduction, she was a protégée of Anaïs Nin and the muse and mistress of Ezra Pound. E. E. Cummings and Rod Steiger collected her art, which is now in collections around the world.

In the shadow of the podium

November 8, 2010

This photo of W. S. Merwin signing a book was taken after his reading at The Kenyon Review Literary Festival last Saturday night. The audience packed into Rosse Hall, putting me — delayed by traffic congestion on I-71 — in likely the worst seat in the house: the first row, smack up against the stage, in front of the podium that stood at the edge of the stage.

Imagine sitting in the first row of a movie theater, and you’ll get the idea of my crooked neck. All I could see was this U.S. Poet Laureate’s brilliant blue eyes and thick white hair. But what did it matter? One attends these events to listen.

W. S. Merwin read first from his collection The Vixen: Poems, published by Knopf in 1996, and later from The Shadow of Sirius, winner of the 2009 Pulitzer Prize in poetry. In between and among his readings of poems, he talked about his role as poet laureate, his love of dogs and our human connection to the natural world, which he said we should neither ignore nor exploit.

There was no Q&A after the reading. W. S. Merwin was escorted to a desk on stage where he signed one book per person. That’s his signature below on my first edition of The Shadow of Sirius. I also got another take-away from this event —  curiosity to investigate, perhaps re-read, Jonathan Swift of Gulliver’s Travels fame. Merwin invoked the satirist when he quoted from the Miscellanies: “I never wonder to see men wicked, but I often wonder to see them not ashamed.” 

Merwin’s first collection of poetry, A Mask for Janus, was published in 1952. From The New York Times: “Mr. Merwin came to wider attention for his hard-edged political allegories that condemned the Vietnam War and environmental destruction, starting with his 1967 collection, The Lice.” He’s written more than 30 books of poetry and prose as well as many translations. The Poetry Foundation provides a comprehensive list of his work. 

William Stanley Merwin is the nation’s 17th poet laureate.

Two major literary awards –the Man Booker Prize and the National Book Award — announced some unexpected results this week.

On Tuesday, Man Booker judges gave the coveted British award to 68-year-old Howard Jacobson for The Finkler Question. It’s the first comic novel to win the Man Booker since the inception of the prize 42 years ago. While many believe the award for Jacobson has been long in coming, The Finkler Question didn’t get as much “predicted winner” buzz as did Emma Donoghue’s Room and Tom McCarthy’s C.  

On Wednesday, the National Book Foundation listed its 20 finalists for the 2010 National Book Awards (NBA), and guess who’s missing among the fiction finalists? “National Book Awards Snub Jonathan Franzen,” reports the Guardian

Author Pat Conroy announced the Freedom-less 20 finalists in Flannery O’Connor’s Savannah, Georgia, childhood home. They include so many books I haven’t read, which is my big sigh every year when the finalists are announced. But that’s the beauty of the National Book Award selections: They’re unpredictable, bringing to the forefront impressive books deserving a wider audience. Last year, Bonnie Jo Campbell’s story collection American Salvage published by Wayne State University Press rose into the literary limelight as an NBA fiction candidate. This year, Karen Tei Yamashita’s novel about Asian-Americans published by Coffee House Press, I Hotel, similarly rises.

Here is the full list of 2010 National Book Award finalists in the four categories. Two of the books aren’t available yet: James Richardson’s By the Numbers is set for publication November 1, and Jaimy Gordon’s Lord of Misrule is to be published November 15. Unless the publishing houses release them earlier, the reading public doesn’t have access to them until a few days before the winner is announced, which will be November 17.

Peter Carey, Parrot and Olivier in America
Jaimy Gordon, Lord of Misrule
Nicole Krauss, Great House
Lionel Shriver, So Much for That
Karen Tei Yamashita, I Hotel

Barbara Demick, Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea
John W. Dower, Cultures of War: Pearl Harbor, Hiroshima, 9-11, Iraq
Patti Smith, Just Kids
Justin Spring, Secret Historian: The Life and Times of Samuel Steward
Megan K. Stack, Every Man in This Village Is a Liar: An Education in War

Kathleen Graber, The Eternal City
Terrance Hayes, Lighthead
James Richardson, By the Numbers
CD Wright, One With Others
Monica Youn, Ignatz

Young people’s literature
Paolo Bacigalupi, Ship Breaker
Kathryn Erskine, Mockingbird
Laura McNeal, Dark Water
Walter Dean Myers, Lockdown
Rita Williams-Garcia, One Crazy Summer

Here’s a handful of books that caught my interest this week. These are neither recommendations — I haven’t read them — nor forecasts, rather encounters that took me down a path to learn more about the books.  All part of the ongoing discovery of what’s out there for us to read and enjoy.

How to Live or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer by Sarah Blackwell. This book sounds like a great way to be introduced to Montaigne, not only his life but the answers in his famous essays about how one best lives a life. Blackwell’s biography of the 16th century philosopher was first released in Britain. The Guardian’s review written by Ruth Scurr says this: “Central as the essays are to [Blackwell’s] own approach to his life, it is ultimately his life-loving ­vivacity that she succeeds in communicating to her readers: ‘What he left behind was all the better for being imperfect, ­ambiguous, inadequate and vulnerable to distortion. Oh Lord, one might imagine Montaigne exclaiming, by all means let me be misunderstood.'”

Piano Lessons: A Memoir by Anna Goldsworthy. I’m a fan of life stories about piano lessons, being one who studied the piano many years and still plays my Yamaha U3. Goldsworthy is an Australian pianist who performs internationally and records with the ABC Classics label. She is also a teacher and on the Liszt list. That means she studied with a teacher who’s in a lineage of teachers who studied with composer Franz Liszt.  From the book’s website: “With wit and affection, Goldsworthy captures the hopes and uncertainties of youth, the fear and exhilaration of performing and the complex bonds between teacher and student.”

Safe from the Sea by Peter Geye. A first novel in which a man returns home to Duluth, MN, to take care of his estranged, dying father. At the heart of their 35-year broken relationship is a shipwreck the father survived. From the publisher’s website: “When his father for the first time finally tells the story of the horrific disaster he has carried with him so long, it leads the two men to reconsider each other.”  Geye’s debut is listed in Publishers Weekly’s Rousing the Sleepers: Top 20 hand-sells from independent presses this fall.

The Isabella Breviary. According to the publisher’s website, this is an exact replica of the 15th century illuminated manuscript given to Isabella of Castille to commemorate the double marriage of her children. (The original is owned by the British Museum.) Isabella is the queen who sponsored Columbus’ discovery of the Americas. Publishing company Moleiro specializes in the reproduction of codices, maps and works of art between the 13th and 16th centuries. Fun to peruse online, not only this breviary but the several illuminated texts offered by Moleiro. 987 numbered copies being sold.

One with Others [a little book of her days] by C. D. Wright. Several years ago I discovered C. D. Wright via her poem “More Blues and the Abstract Truth.” It remains one of my favorite poems. Her poetry doesn’t consistently work for me, yet I always check it out because when it does, it’s terrific. In October, her new collection published by Copper Canyon Press finds its center in a civil rights incident that happened in her native Arkansas.  From the publisher’s website: “This history leaps howling off the page.”

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