Favorite books of 2009

‘Tis the season for publishing year-end lists, which means I need to provide a wrap-up of my favorite books of 2009.

In perusing my postings on Facebook and LinkedIn, I noticed that I read a lot more mystery and science fiction this past year than literature and nonfiction. I suspect this may be due to a desire to escape from the depressing economic times into a world where the detective always solves the crime or the hero always conquers the impossibly powerful or crafty villain.

Which is not to say that there isn’t amazing, thought-provoking work being done in mysteries and science fiction. In fact, scifi is often the best place to look for such topics – think Philip K. Dick or William Gibson. In 2009, I read my very first graphic novel, The Watchmen, which is laden with cold war anxiety. And yet, I know I’ve missed some good writing because of these choices. Therefore, my New Year’s resolution will be to read outside that genre box.

So, let’s get to my lists. These are not books published in 2009, just books that I finally got around to reading in 2009. I’ve organized them by category, but otherwise they are in no particular order:

POETRY
Geography III: Poems by Elizabeth Bishop
They Carry a Promise: Selected Poems by Janusz Szuber
The Circle Game by Margaret Atwood
Divine Comedy by John Kinsella
Time and Materials by Robert Hass
The Goose Bath Poems by Janet Frame
Things I Must Have Known by A.B. Spellman

FICTION
Aura (Cara y Cruz) by Carlos Fuentes
The Bone People by Keri Hulme
An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England by Brock Clarke
Winter in Madrid by C.J. Sansom
The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death by Charlie Huston

GENRE (MYSTERY/FANTASY/SCIFI)
The Colour of Magic by Terry Pratchett
The Water Room by Christopher Fowler
Bamboo and Blood by James Church
The Ice House by Minette Walters
The Prince of Fire by Daniel Silva

NONFICTION
Ghosts of Spain by Giles Tremlett
Proust was a Neuroscientist by Jonah Lehrer
Leaving a Trace: On Keeping a Journal by Alexandra Johnson

What’s on tap for 2010? I enjoyed Jess Walter’s Citizen Vince, so I’m looking forward to his latest, The Financial Lives of the Poets. A friend told me that I simply must read J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace – and disregard the movie, which he claims did not do it justice.

I’m always a bit behind, so although 2009 was the 20-year anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, I have yet to read Putin’s Russia by Anna Politkovskaya or 1989 The Berlin Wall by Peter Millar. I have also heard good things about Child 44 by Tom Rob Smith, which is not about perestroika at all, but is set in Stalin’s Russia in 1953.

I was peeking over a friend’s shoulder as he read “Hello,” Lied the Agent by Ian Guntz, which appears to be a hilarious account of working on TV shows in Hollywood, so he loaned me the hardcover.

And on my visit home for Thanksgiving, I stopped at a wonderful little bookstore in Dixon, IL – Books on First – and picked up A Grave in Gaza by Matt Rees. This is the second in a newish mystery series, so I’ll have to read The Collaborator of Bethlehem first. Oh, the hardship!

My poetry bookshelves are bursting with unread volumes: Campbell McGrath’s Shannon, Kay Ryan’s Uncle, Margaret Atwood’s Penelopiad and Saadi Youssef’s Without an Alphabet, Without a Face. On the classical front, I promised myself I would read Horace’s Odes.

Finally, I started reading Don Quixote over the summer, but stalled somewhere in the mountains with the madman beating upon poor Sancho and the Knight of the Sorrowful face turning naked cartwheels. I resolve to finish!

I wish you all happy reading.

Horse and Moose

Elizabeth Bishop

Once again, I find myself reading two books of poetry simultaneously, and the collections couldn’t be more different.

  • Horse Lattitudes by Paul Muldoon
  • Geography III by Elizabeth Bishop

Both poets are highly esteemed. Both have won the Pulitzer Prize. Bishop has also won a National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award. Muldoon was Professor of Poetry for five years at Oxford University. I’m halfway through each collection and have discovered that I adore Bishop and pretty much want to throw Muldoon across the room.

I’m in love with Bishop’s narrative lines – often short, but syntactically spilling across stanzas and pages. Muldoon’s lines, on the other hand, seem to exist only to torment me with silly rhymes and bewildering jargon.

In “Bazentine,” for example, he says:

As I was bringing up her rear
a young dragoon would cock a snook
at the gunners raking the knob
of High Wood. Tongue like a scaldy
in a nest…

I parse this as follows: A soldier of some sort is at the end of a column or squad and another young soldier raises his gun and aims at the enemy gunners who are strafing a hill named High Wood. And the gunner has a sharp tongue? And… so what? Imagine paragraph after paragraph of this kind of language. Maybe I’m not smart enough to get it. Maybe I just don’t have the patience to look up every other word and then re-read the whole thing to admire its cleverness.

Perhaps my real problem with Horse Latitudes is that Muldoon doesn’t really say anything. He skirts around issues of war and politics, but only as the most distant observer. His word choices seem to serve cleverness and rhyme at the expense of meaning and emotion. Over and over, I arrived at the end of a poem and didn’t feel any sense of conclusion. I wasn’t even certain what Muldoon thought about the particular issue he raised.

Which brings me to a larger question raised by this collection… Can the contemporary reader of poetry even appreciate rhymed verse? We accept it from Shakespeare and Yeats and such, because it feels appropriate for their time. But what about poets such as Muldoon who use rhyme today?

Again, perhaps this is a purely personal failure, but I find rhyme distracting. As I read, I wonder, what words would the poet have written if he didn’t need to complete the rhyme? With all the amazing language available to him, why place such limits on his lines? But then, I’ve noticed that many poets as they grow older seek out the structure of the classic forms: sonnets and roundeau, sestinas and villanelles. And I’m certainly not advocating that poets not use forms. But I am not their audience.

I do, however, seem to be the audience for Elizabeth Bishop:

“Crusoe in England”
…I had fifty-two
miserable, small volcanoes I could climb
with a few slithery strides –
volcanoes dead as ash heaps.
I used to sit on the edge of the highest one
and count the others standing up,
naked and leaden, with their heads blown off.
I’d think that if they were the size
I thought volcanoes should be, then I had
become a giant;
and if I had become a giant,
I couldn’t bear to think what size
the goats and turtles were…
Her 15-stanza poem imagines Robinson Crusoe after his rescue and return to England. He sits in his little apartment, bored by life, dreaming of his adventures on the island.
The knife there on the shelf –
it reeked of meaning, like a crucifix.
It lived. How many years did I
beg it, implore it, not to break?
I knew each nick and scratch by heart,
the bluish blade, the broken tip,
the lines of wood-grain on the handle…
Now it won’t look at me at all.
I love stories, and Bishop tells stories in her poems. A child has an epiphany while her aunt visits the dentist in “In the Waiting Room.” Crusoe ruminates on his life. And in one her most famous poems, a bus wends its way through forests and hills on its way to Boston, stopping to let a moose cross the road in “The Moose.”
What else do I like about Bishop? Her concreteness. Every word leaps off the page – entirely real to me – and her branching syntax propels me forward through the poem. This is not to say that she doesn’t use complex language:
Diaphanous lymph,
bright turgid blood,
spatter outward
in clots of gold.
(Night City)
Glass chimneys, flexible, attenuated,
sacerdotal beings of glass
(Crusoe in England)
But… it may be premature to draw conclusions from two small collections of poetry. I need to read deeper into each poet’s body of work, before I give up on Muldoon or set Bishop high up on that poetry pedestal.

Apples v oranges? Both are darn good.

I am reading two poets at the moment who could not be more different. And I am enjoying them both thoroughly.
A.B. Spellman, “Things I Must Have Known”
Janusz Szuber, “they carry a promise: selected poems”
I’m only halfway though each book, but here some observations and examples, thus far.
I’m astounded that, although Spellman has been the poet-in-residence at Morehouse College in Atlanta, a visiting lecturer at Harvard, Emory and Rutgers Universities, a regular jazz commentator on NPR, and the author of numerous books on the arts, this is his first full-length collection of poetry.
According to his bio, Spellman is “a founding member of the Black Arts Movement” and “one of the fathers of modern jazz criticism.” Perhaps he has been too busy to publish more poetry, which is a shame, because this collection is delightful.
My swing is more mellow
these days: not the hardbop drive
i used to roll but more of a cool
foxtrot.
so don’t look for me in the treble
don’t look for me in the fly
staccato splatter of the hot young horn
no, you’ll find me in the nuance
hanging out in inflection & slur
-Groovin’ Low
Read a few of Spellman’s poems back-to-back, and you’ll hear the jazz in them. His cadences, his line breaks will make you sway in time to some inner music. He writes about aging and music and mature love. Maybe it’s because I’m sliding slowly into middle age, but right now the love poems that touch me are those that speak of gentle, steadfast emotion, and Spellman has some particularly successful poems in this vein.
when
i’m in the bard’s disgrace
with fortune & men’s eyes
i call on the fool in you
who calls on the fool
in me & makes me whole
-The Truth About Karen
While Spellman’s name had sounded familiar to me when I picked up his book in a Washington, DC-bookshop, Janusz Szuber was completely unknown to me. I discovered him on the seventh floor (languages and literature) of the Harold Washington Library in Chicago. Their lit department is very good about featuring new books in translation as part of the “countertop” displays near the elevators. I was, quite literally, on my way out when I stopped to peruse them. I opened Szuber’s book and read:
When my clock neared noon
I found myself among familiar forests.
On the left the great Alighieri paced,
A tame panther bounded along his trail.
On the right a passerby from the forest of Arden
Was choking with laughter
At the sight of foolish verses on the tree bark.
I picked up a stone. It was exactly a thing in itself.
-Readings
Sold! Proceed immediately to the checkout counter on the third floor; do not pass Go, do not collect any more books.
they carry a promise is Szuber’s first book to be translated into English (translator Ewa Hryniewicz-Yarbrough), but he has published 18 collections of poetry in Poland and received numerous awards. As much as I like to rail against the big publishers for some of their business practices, I am thankful that a few – in this case Alfred A. Knopf – are willing to publish what must surely be a money loser: poetry in translation.
Szuber covers a wide range of topics in his poetry, but he always seems to be asking those same eternal questions about life and existence.
What, back then, did I know about that?
The real, hard as a diamond,
Was to happen in the indefinable
Future, and everything seemed
Only a sign of what was to come. How naive.
Now I know inattention is an unforgiven sin
And each particle of time has an ultimate dimension.
-About a Boy Stirring Jam
Both of these poets have included some incredibly difficult poetry in their collections – pieces that I don’t fully understand – but are worth the challenge of re-reading. I look forward to spending more time with each of them.

I am reading two poets at the moment who could not be more different. And I am enjoying them both thoroughly.

A.B. Spellman, Things I Must Have Known
Janusz Szuber, they carry a promise: selected poems

I’m only halfway though each book, but here some observations and examples, thus far.

I’m astounded that, although Spellman has been the poet-in-residence at Morehouse College in Atlanta, a visiting lecturer at Harvard, Emory and Rutgers Universities, a regular jazz commentator on NPR, and the author of numerous books on the arts, this is his first full-length collection of poetry.

According to his bio, Spellman is “a founding member of the Black Arts Movement” and “one of the fathers of modern jazz criticism.” Perhaps he has been too busy to publish more poetry, which is a shame, because this collection is delightful.

Things I Must Have KnownMy swing is more mellow
these days: not the hardbop drive
i used to roll but more of a cool
foxtrot.

so don’t look for me in the treble
don’t look for me in the fly
staccato splatter of the hot young horn
no, you’ll find me in the nuance
hanging out in inflection & slur

– “Groovin’ Low,” A.B. Spellman

Read a few of Spellman’s poems back-to-back, and you’ll hear the jazz in them. His cadences, his line breaks will make you sway in time to some inner music. He writes about aging and music and mature love. Maybe it’s because I’m sliding slowly into middle age, but right now the love poems that touch me are those that speak of gentle, steadfast emotion, and Spellman has some particularly successful poems in this vein.

…when
i’m in the bard’s disgrace
with fortune & men’s eyes
i call on the fool in you
who calls on the fool
in me & makes me whole

– “The Truth About Karen,” A.B. Spellman

While Spellman’s name had sounded familiar to me when I picked up his book in a Washington, DC-bookshop, Janusz Szuber was completely unknown to me. I discovered him on the seventh floor (languages and literature) of the Harold Washington Library in Chicago. Their lit department is very good about featuring new books in translation as part of the “countertop” displays near the elevators. I was, quite literally, on my way out when I stopped to peruse them. I opened Szuber’s book and read:

When my clock neared noon
I found myself among familiar forests.
On the left the great Alighieri paced,
A tame panther bounded along his trail.
On the right a passerby from the forest of Arden
Was choking with laughter
At the sight of foolish verses on the tree bark.

I picked up a stone. It was exactly a thing in itself.

– “Readings,” Janusz Szuber

Sold! Proceed immediately to the checkout counter on the third floor; do not pass Go, do not collect any more books.

they carry a promise is Szuber’s first book to be translated into English (translator Ewa Hryniewicz-Yarbrough), but he has published 18 collections of poetry in Poland and received numerous awards. As much as I like to rail against the big publishers for some of their business practices, I am thankful that a few – in this case Alfred A. Knopf – are willing to publish what must surely be a money loser: poetry in translation.

Szuber covers a wide range of topics in his poetry, but he always seems to be asking those same eternal questions about life and existence.

they carry a promise
What, back then, did I know about that?
The real, hard as a diamond,
Was to happen in the indefinable
Future, and everything seemed
Only a sign of what was to come. How naive.
Now I know inattention is an unforgivable sin
And each particle of time has an ultimate dimension.

– “About a Boy Stirring Jam,” Janusz Szuber

Both of these poets have included some incredibly difficult poetry in their collections – pieces that I don’t fully understand – but are worth the challenge of re-reading. I look forward to spending more time with each of them.

From the Dvorak Festival

Adagio – Allegro molto
Do you remember the first piece of music that made your heart expand? Or the first poem that touched your soul?
For me, that seminal piece of music was Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9 (from the New World). It’s a beloved symphony, especially here in the United States where Dvorak composed it. Dvorak, himself is especially popular here in Chicago, where several of his compositions were given their premiere.
My only personal claim upon the piece seems entirely random. I was required to take two semesters of Music History for my minor course of study in college. I had always played music – piano, then saxophone – but I had not spent any appreciable amount of time sitting and listening to music. Dutifully, I relinquished my ID card to the attendant in the audiovisual room at the library. (Remember when libraries had AV rooms? Do they still? Or has it all gone digital?)
My assignment that afternoon was to listen to some of the composers we had been studying in class. “Studying” is probably too kind a word – it was a survey class, so entire movements and periods and lists of composers flew past in every half hour of class time. In any event, I settled in with the New World Symphony on my large, rubber library headphones and listened.
And I listened. Twice. I may have played several sections over for a third time. I was in love.
A number of years have passed since that day. I graduated with my Literature/Communications major and my Music minor. I did a short stint in grad school before dropping out and getting a job instead. I got married. Ten years and another job later I got divorced. And a few more years passed.
I make no claim to be “older and wiser,” but a great deal has happened to me since that day in the library. I do not listen with the same ears… or the same heart.
Largo
My first poem? That’s much more difficult to place. I did not study poetry in college. In fact, I took many more courses on the “Comm” side of my program than on the “Lit” side – something I regret strongly. I was exposed to bits of poetry here and there – Blake, Keats, Frost, Shakespeare – however, it was not until well after my prescribed programs of study were complete that I began reading poetry for pleasure.
But if we travel back a little farther – to the day I graduated from my small, rural high school – there was a first poem. I had done well enough in my academic career to earn a speaking part in the graduation ceremony. I was terrified! I had never given a speech to such a large crowd. And although a “large crowd” in Lanark, Illinois, would cause a Chicago Public School student to double over with laughter, these were my school mates and their parents. I felt the pressure.
It was not a long speech – and not incredibly eloquent – but I did quote that favorite of graduation speakers everywhere: “The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost. It moved me then, as a young girl make choices about her future, and it still moves me now, albeit in different ways, of course.
Molto vivace
But where is all this talk of “firsts” leading? To a Friday night in Chicago at Symphony Center. To the penultimate concert of the Chicago Symphony’s Dvorak Festival. To a marvelous program of Dvorak favorites: the Carnival Overture, the Cello Concerto, and the New World Symphony.
I attended a total of four concerts in the festival – the Symphony No. 8 program;  the Cello Concerto and Symphony No. 3; the Emerson String Quartet program; and last night’s Cello Concerto and Symphony No. 9. When I purchased the tickets, I somehow overlooked the fact that the Cello Concerto was on two of the programs – a happy accident, as I would not have done that deliberately.
I thoroughly enjoyed the first two concerts and was blown away by Alisa Weilerstein’s performance on the Cello Concerto during Week #2. The Emerson String Quartet was disappointing. I’m sure they were technically flawless, but I remained unmoved by the music. I will have to seek out some additional recordings of Dvorak’s chamber music to discover the source of the problem – me or the artists or the music itself. Although… I do not often attend Sunday afternoon concerts, so perhaps the time of day was working against me.
By the time last night’s concert arrived, I was looking forward to the New World Symphony, but I had no particular expectations. It was not a subscription concert, so I was not sitting in my usual roomy little nook in the first balcony. Scrunched between a group of 20-somethings discussing their music appreciation class and an attractive 40-something couple who seemed very much in love, I thought to myself, “Well, the music will be good and perhaps I’ll buy something chocolate at the intermission.”
Allegro con fuoco
I did not need the chocolate. Listening to the Carnival Overture was like consuming some sort of melt-in-your-mouth candy. Delightful! And Alisa Weilerstein’s performance of the Cello Concerto was even more enjoyable the second time round. I wanted the musical conversation between cello and flute – i.e., Alisa and Mathieu Dufour – to continue for the rest of the evening. But then, Mathieu has always been my favorite CSO woodwind.
Finally, Symphony No. 9… A special addition for the evening’s performance was Chicago actor Francis Guinan reading selections from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s The Song of Hiawatha before the first three movements. Dvorak had been commissioned to compose an opera based upon the poem, but never did so.
I cannot say that The Song of Hiawatha has any special meaning for me. I haven’t even read more than the first few stanzas of it. Guinan’s reading, however, was powerful. And more powerful was the passage of time. As Dvorak’s familiar horn theme gently sounded, I found myself overcome with emotion and catapulted backward in time to that day in the college library. Before my marriage. Before my divorce. Before I had felt and heard and seen the last decade-and-a-half.
“After many years of warfare,
Many years of strife and bloodshed,
There is peace between the Ojibways
And the tribe of the Dacotahs.”
Thus continued Hiawatha,
And then added, speaking slowly,
“That this peace may last forever,
And our hands be clasped more closely,
And our hearts be more united,
Give me as my wife this maiden,
Minnehaha, Laughing Water,
Loveliest of Dacotah women!”
And the ancient Arrow-maker
Paused a moment ere he answered,
Smoked a little while in silence,
Looked at Hiawatha proudly,
Fondly looked at Laughing Water,
And made answer very gravely:
“Yes, if Minnehaha wishes;
Let your heart speak, Minnehaha!”
And the lovely Laughing Water
Seemed more lovely as she stood there,
Neither willing nor reluctant,
As she went to Hiawatha,
Softly took the seat beside him,
While she said, and blushed to say it,
“I will follow you, my husband!”
X. Hiawatha’s Wooing
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
It was as if someone had jabbed me in the belly with a sharp stick. As Guinan read the word “husband” to introduce the symphony’s second movement, I began to cry. After an initial blush of embarrassment, I gave up and let the tears roll silently down my cheeks. My life is much, much better now, thank you – and I am not the type who wishes to go back and change things – but sometimes the emotions and the memories sneak up on you.
I cried for all that I know now that I didn’t know then. I cried for the beauty of the music. I cried for the love of Hiawatha and his bride. I cried for the couple next to me, who clasped hands whenever the music swelled to a soul-touching intensity.
Poetry and music are incredibly powerful art forms. We listen to the radio or read some lines of verse while waiting in line at the doctor’s office. That’s pretty, we think. Or that’s interesting. But when we really stop and pay attention, when we let ourselves become intellectually and emotionally involved in the words or the notes, then we remember. Oh, right. That’s why I schlepp to the office five days a week or skip yoga class to work late. If you’ll allow me to quote Robin Williams in the movie “Dead Poets Society”:
“We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for.”

Adagio – Allegro molto
188px-Dvorak_estatuaDo you remember the first piece of music that made your heart expand? Or the first poem that touched your soul?

For me, that seminal piece of music was Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9 (from the New World). It’s a beloved symphony, especially here in the United States where Dvorak composed it. Dvorak, himself, is especially popular here in Chicago, where several of his compositions were given their premiere.

My only personal claim upon the piece seems entirely random. I was required to take two semesters of music history for my minor course of study in college. I had always played music – piano, then saxophone – but I had not spent any appreciable amount of time sitting and listening to music. Dutifully, I relinquished my ID card to the attendant in the audiovisual room at the library. (Remember when libraries had AV rooms? Do they still? Or has it all gone digital?)

My assignment that afternoon was to listen to some of the composers we had been studying in class. “Studying” is probably too kind a word – it was a survey class, so entire movements and periods and lists of composers flew past in every half hour of class time. In any event, I settled in with the New World Symphony on my large, rubber library headphones and listened.

And I listened. Twice. I may have played several sections over for a third time. I was in love.

A number of years have passed since that day. I graduated with my literature/communications major and my music minor. I did a short stint in grad school before dropping out and getting a job. I got married. Ten years and another job later I got divorced. And a few more years passed.

I make no claim to be “older and wiser,” but a great deal has happened to me since that day in the library. I do not listen with the same ears … or the same heart.

Largo
My first poem? That’s much more difficult to place. I did not study poetry in college. In fact, I took many more courses on the “Comm” side of my program than on the “Lit” side – something I regret strongly. I was exposed to bits of poetry here and there – Blake, Keats, Frost, Shakespeare – however, it was not until well after my prescribed programs of study were complete that I began reading poetry for pleasure.

But if we travel back a little farther – to the day I graduated from my small, rural high school – there was a first poem. I had done well enough in my academic career to earn a speaking part in the graduation ceremony. I was terrified! I had never given a speech to such a large crowd. And although a “large crowd” in Lanark, Illinois, would cause a Chicago Public School student to double over with laughter, these were my school mates and their parents. I was feeling the pressure.

It was not a long speech – and not incredibly eloquent – but I did quote that favorite of graduation speakers everywhere: “The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost. It moved me then, as a young girl making choices about her future, and it still moves me now, albeit in different ways, of course.

Molto vivace
424px-Dvorak_1868But where is all this talk of “firsts” leading? To a Friday night in Chicago at Symphony Center. To the penultimate concert of the Chicago Symphony’s Dvorak Festival. To a marvelous program of Dvorak favorites: the Carnival Overture, the Cello Concerto, and the New World Symphony.

I attended a total of four concerts in the festival – the Violin Concerto and Symphony No. 7 program;  the Cello Concerto and Symphony No. 8; the Emerson String Quartet program; and last night’s Cello Concerto and Symphony No. 9. When I purchased the tickets, I somehow overlooked the fact that the Cello Concerto was on two of the programs – a happy accident.

I thoroughly enjoyed the first two concerts and was blown away by Alisa Weilerstein’s performance of the Cello Concerto during Week #2. The Emerson String Quartet was disappointing. I’m sure they were technically flawless, but I remained unmoved by the music. I will have to seek out some additional recordings of Dvorak’s chamber music to discover the source of the problem – me or the artists or the music itself. Although … I do not often attend Sunday afternoon concerts, so perhaps the time of day was working against me.

By the time last night’s concert arrived, I was looking forward to the New World Symphony, but I had no particular expectations. It was not a subscription concert, so I was not sitting in my usual roomy little nook in the first balcony. Scrunched between a group of 20-somethings discussing their music appreciation class and an attractive 40-something couple who seemed very much in love, I thought to myself, “Well, the music will be good and perhaps I’ll buy something chocolate at the intermission.”

Allegro con fuoco
I did not need the chocolate. Listening to the Carnival Overture was like consuming some sort of melt-in-your-mouth candy. Delightful! And Alisa Weilerstein’s performance of the Cello Concerto was even more enjoyable the second time round. I wanted the musical conversation between cello and flute – i.e., Alisa and Mathieu Dufour – to continue for the rest of the evening.

A special addition for the evening’s performance was Chicago actor Francis Guinan reading selections from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s The Song of Hiawatha before the first three movements of Symphony No. 9. Apparently, Dvorak had been commissioned to compose an opera based upon the poem. Although he never did so, it is thought that some of those musical ideas made their way into the New World Symphony.

I cannot say that The Song of Hiawatha has any special meaning for me. I haven’t read more than the first few stanzas of it. Guinan’s reading, however, was powerful. And more powerful was the passage of time. As Dvorak’s familiar horn theme gently sounded, I found myself overcome with emotion and catapulted backward to that day in the college library. Before my marriage. Before my divorce. Before I had felt and heard and seen the last decade-and-a-half.

HiawathaDeparture

“After many years of warfare,
Many years of strife and bloodshed,
There is peace between the Ojibways
And the tribe of the Dacotahs.”

Thus continued Hiawatha,
And then added, speaking slowly,
“That this peace may last forever,
And our hands be clasped more closely,
And our hearts be more united,
Give me as my wife this maiden,
Minnehaha, Laughing Water,
Loveliest of Dacotah women!”

And the ancient Arrow-maker
Paused a moment ere he answered,
Smoked a little while in silence,
Looked at Hiawatha proudly,
Fondly looked at Laughing Water,
And made answer very gravely:
“Yes, if Minnehaha wishes;
Let your heart speak, Minnehaha!”

And the lovely Laughing Water
Seemed more lovely as she stood there,
Neither willing nor reluctant,
As she went to Hiawatha,
Softly took the seat beside him,
While she said, and blushed to say it,
“I will follow you, my husband!”

Hiawatha’s Wooing, The Song of Hiawatha
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

It was as if someone had jabbed me in the belly with a sharp stick. As Guinan read the word ‘husband,’ I began to cry. After an initial blush of embarrassment, I gave up and let the tears roll silently down my cheeks. My life is much, much better now, thank you – and I am not the type who wishes to go back and change things – but sometimes the emotions and the memories sneak up on you.

I cried for all that I know now that I didn’t know then. I cried for the beauty of the music. I cried for the love of Hiawatha and his bride. I cried for the couple next to me, who clasped hands whenever the music swelled to soul-touching intensity.

I think we forget that poetry and music are such incredibly powerful art forms. We listen to the radio or read some lines of verse while waiting in line at the doctor’s office. That’s pretty, we think. Or that’s interesting. But when we really stop and pay attention, when we let ourselves become intellectually and emotionally involved in the words or the notes, then we remember.

Oh, yeah. That’s why I schlepp to the office five days a week or skip yoga class to work late or spend three days trapped in a windowless room to learn some new piece of software. I think Robin Williams said it best in the movie Dead Poets Society:

“We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for.”

Now go listen to something beautiful.

White whales and clouds

I’ve been reading Janet Frame’s posthumous collection “The Goose Bath Poems” slowly – more slowly than usual. Partly this is due to a busy month of other reading, but also it is the density of her work. Her sentences are complex and her ideas are often obscure to me. And yet, I keep reading. Something about them touches me.
Martha’s Vineyard
The boy in the basement steers a spacecraft into heaven.
What is heaven? The flowering of the summer squash
in his small garden; a rack of carpenter’s tools; two gerbils;
a walk on the sand
hand in hand with his father
who conjures the great white whale out of print
into the ocean within a few yards of the house.
It is his mother gently disentangling his unhurt fingers from Charlotte’s web;
the morning ride on the punt to Chappaquiddick;
nurses and children; the private beach;
the best; white;
white whale and cloud.
Two or three feet taller where
adults turn their heads to say No,
it never happened, look who’s winning the game,
which ghost passed like a storm down the highway,
heaven though nearer is further away.
In this poem, we see a small boy playing with model spaceships and walking on the beach with his father. He has been born into a life of privilege: His parents live on Martha’s Vineyard (or summer there, at least), they walk upon a private beach, the boy has a private nurse. And his father has been reading Moby Dick – the story of the white whale, obsession, tragedy. 
And I cannot help but wonder… Is that what the boy’s life will become? A tragedy? He will go to the best schools and be given every opportunity, but he will squander his life on a foolish obsession? As Frame says, “heaven though nearer is further away.” Is the bar set too high already for this small boy? Will he ever live up to the expectations of his family, his social class?
The boy has been given “the best; white;” and yet, I feel sorry for him. We are all on the hamster wheel. Some of us possess a few more pieces of gold than others, but we each make our own happiness or our own hell.
Obviously, when we read poetry, we filter the meaning through our own prejudices, histories and beliefs. We read a poem in our 30s or 40s and it has different meaning for us than it did in our 20s. (This is a good argument, by the way, for attending a performance of “Hamlet” in each decade of our lives. Watch how the meaning evolves.)
I’ve been struggling with my own quest for happiness lately. Perhaps that is why this poem resonates for me. Janet Frame struggled most of her life to make peace with her illness. I hope she found some sense of satisfaction, at least, from the art that was its byproduct.
Have a good holiday weekend.

 

I’ve been reading Janet Frame’s posthumous collection The Goose Bath Poems slowly – more slowly than usual. Partly this is due to a busy month of other reading, but also it is the density of her work. Her sentences are complex and her ideas are often obscure to me. And yet, I keep reading. Something about them touches me.

Martha’s Vineyard
by Janet Frame 


The boy in the basement steers a spacecraft into heaven.
What is heaven? The flowering of the summer squash
in his small garden; a rack of carpenter’s tools; two gerbils;
a walk on the sand
hand in hand with his father
who conjures the great white whale out of print
into the ocean within a few yards of the house.

It is his mother gently disentangling his unhurt fingers
          from Charlotte’s web;
the morning ride on the punt to Chappaquiddick;
nurses and children; the private beach;
the best; white;
white whale and cloud.
Two or three feet taller where
adults turn their heads to say No,
it never happened, look who’s winning the game,
which ghost passed like a storm down the highway,
heaven though nearer is further away.
… 

In this poem, we see a small boy playing with model spaceships and walking on the beach with his father. He has been born into a life of privilege: His parents live on Martha’s Vineyard (or summer there, at least), they walk upon a private beach, the boy has a private nurse. And his father has been reading Moby Dick – the story of the white whale, obsession, tragedy. 

And I cannot help but wonder… Is that what the boy’s life will become? A tragedy? He will go to the best schools and be given every opportunity, but he will squander his life on a foolish obsession? As Frame says, “heaven though nearer is further away.” Is the bar set too high already for this small boy? Will he ever live up to the expectations of his family, his social class?

The boy has been given “the best; white;” and yet, I feel sorry for him. We are all on the hamster wheel. Some of us possess a few more pieces of gold than others, but we each make our own happiness or our own hell.

Obviously, when we read poetry, we filter the meaning through our own prejudices, histories and beliefs. We read a poem in our 30s or 40s and it has different meaning for us than it did in our 20s. (This is a good argument, by the way, for attending a performance of Hamlet in each decade of our lives – to experience how the meaning evolves.)

I’ve been struggling with my own quest for happiness lately. Perhaps that is why this poem resonates for me. Janet Frame struggled most of her life to make peace with her illness. I hope she found some sense of satisfaction, at least, from the art that was its byproduct.

Have a good holiday weekend.

Dipping into The Goose Bath

Apologies for my long absence. I took some time off and traveled to New Zealand – as many of you know – and then returned to some truly awful jet lag. I’ve been reading; I’ve been writing. I’ve missed you and I hope you missed me.

One of my favorite travel activities involves locating a bookstore in every town I visit. Some people buy postcards; I buy books. And I bought several books of poetry during my trip.

The Goose BathFirst up: The Goose Bath poems by Janet Frame. I must admit that before March, I was woefully ignorant about the poets from New Zealand. Indeed, I had not even heard of Janet Frame, who is perhaps the most famous New Zealand poet. Jane Campion’s film Angel at My Table is based upon Frame’s autobiography.

I’ll give you the Cliff Notes version of her life. Frame was born in Dunedin on the South Island in 1924. She lost her two sisters to drowning when she was young, and she made a number of suicide attempts – mostly feigned. She was in and out of mental institutions and was about to be lobotomized when one of her doctors heard that she had just won the Hubert Church Award for her book of short stories. They canceled the operation. She went on to write novels, poetry, short stories and her three-volume autobiography.

In 1983, she was granted the CBE (Commander of the Order of the British Empire) and by the late 90s was considered a leading candidate for the Nobel Prize in Literature. Frame died in 2004 at age 74 of leukemia. In 2006, Random House/Vintage released The Goose Bath, a collection of previously unpublished work. 

It is from The Goose Bath poems (edited by Pamela Gordon, Denis Harold and Bill Manhire) that I am reading these days.

“I Do Not Want To Listen”
by Janet Frame

I do not want to listen
I refuse to listen
to the geometric noises
of black and white

My big colorful mouth
has enough to eat thank you
without tasting
a plain triangle or two.

Yes, I know rain-
drops are as heavy
and colourless as stones
and fall tropically

rain-bashing what
scurries
without obvious form
and certainly without hope

to the defining
shelter of a microscope.
And I’ve heard
of stick insects and figures

and striped beds
in the sky and rows
of disembodied black
and white flowers yet

poor as rainbows are
against the pressure
and purity
of no-colour

I must fight and fight
with my red and yellow head
even after I am dead, to stay
my own way, my own way.

The darkness is quite clear in her poetry, especially in early work like “I Do Not Want To Listen.” But I’ve only read a small portion of the collection, so I have not yet formed a solid opinion. I am delighted by her wordplay, though, as in “I Visited”:

“I Visited”
by Janet Frame

I visited
the angels and stars and stones;
also, adjectival poets, preferably original.
There was an air of restlessness
an inability to subside, a state of being at attention,
at worst, at war with the immediately beating heart and breathing lung.
I looked then in the word-chambers, the packed warehouses by the sea,
the decently kept but always decaying places where nouns and their
representative images lay together on high shelves
among abbreviations and longlost quotations. I listened.
Water lapped at the crumbling walls; it was a place 
for murder, piracy; salt hunger seeped between the shelves;
it was time to write. Now or never. The now unbearable,
the never a complete denial of memory:
I was not, I never have been.

Next up: poetry written while Frame was living in London, Europe and America. Stay tuned. Also, if you want to pick up your own copy of The Goose Bath, you may have to order online.