Recently, I reached for something hopeful to read. I wanted to get out of the funky funk current affairs has had me in. I wanted a bigger picture, something that might observe, teach, and inspire. Basically, a tonic for these blues I have been dwelling in. I reached for Diane Ackerman’s The Human Age: The World Shaped By Us.
Open your imagination to how we began – as semi-upright apes which spent some of their time in trees; next as ragtag bands of nomadic hunter-gatherers; then as purposeful custodians of favorite grains, chosen with mind-bending slowness, over thousands of years; and in time as intrepid farmers and clearers of forests with fixed roofs over our heads and a more reliable food supply; afterward as builders of villages and towns dwarfed by furrowed, well-tilled farmlands; then as makers, fed by such inventions as the steam engine (a lavish power source unlike horses, oxen, or water power, and not subject to health or weather, not limited by location); later as industry’s operators, drudges and tycoons who moved closer to the factories that arose in honey-combed cities beside endless fields of staple crops (like corn, wheat, and rice) and giant herds of key species (mainly cows, sheep, or pigs); and finally as builders of big buzzing metropolises, ringed by suburbs on whose fringes lay shrinking farms and forests; and then, as if magnetized by a fierce urge to coalesce, fleeing en mass into these mountainous hope-scented cities.
That’s about as big picture as you can get, the 150 thousand or so years of Homo sapiens developing like a Polaroid right in front of your eyes. It is the kind of scope that shares what a grand thing life is and what we on the now end of existence should consider as we take on the seemingly insurmountable troubles of our own day. The tribe can survive, adapt, invent.
The book doesn’t pose a pretty picture — our current environmental concerns weigh heavy within it. But it doesn’t look at just the real, rough edges of how we live on Earth and how we treat our home. It also looks at ways we are currently taking on our challenges through imagination, ingenuity, persistence, care, action, and number – the world’s problems are not to be taken on individually, though that is often where engagement starts, but with a growing collective effort and resource. Some lead by expertise and example, others take it from there. In that light, it is inspiring. One reads as an individual, but as the pages turn, one realizes that they describe the efforts of your kin and kind hard at work to do the right thing and mind this wonderful home for all of us, making better today so that our story will carry on into the future.
Ackerman’s sentences are beautiful, full of words that touch up to each other perfectly as they flow into informative paragraphs and chapter-length essays. She has a wonderful sense of observation and detail. The way she names species specifically like the pearls they are, or identifies the detail of cultures or individuals she is describing are testament to her expertise on what she is writing about. It deepens one’s understanding of the world. It is clear and full of insight, compassion, and, yes, hope. I don’t know if it was an odd choice or not to reach for on a whim, but I am loving it and it is mending me.
Board Co-chair, HoCoPoLitSo
So we are at the end of one year and the beginning of another. For many, it’s the time to make a few resolutions. For me, I like to take a look back at what I have read and ponder what to read next. I don’t know which is more of a treat: looking backward at the cache or looking forward, ambitiously. Here’s a bit of both.
Surprise of the year was Jen Grow’s book of stories My Life as a Mermaid. Not sure I have been as excited reading a collection of stories for the first time since Edith Pearlman. Get it; read it. Can’t wait for her next collection. The pressure is on, Jen, the pressure is on.
There were many things I expected to be great and they were. Pearlman’s Honeydew, Toibin’s Elizabeth Bishop, a number of works translated by Ted Hughes (magnificent), The Odyssey (Fitzgerald trans.). There were surprises, things that I wasn’t really expecting to have in my hands, but did and was thankful for them: Zachary Lazar’s first novel Aaron, Approximately, Dinaw Mengestu’s The Beautiful Things that Heaven Bears, Edmundo Paz Soldan’s The Matter of Desire, to name a few.
This was the year I finally finished Elizabeth Bishop and the New Yorker. It had been sitting bedside for dip-ins every now and then since it was published. It’s been replaced with Words In Air. Wonderful stuff. Thank goodness she was a prolific letter writer – years of joy ahead.
As you would expect for a HoCoPoLitSo-er, I do try to fill they year with a good selection of poetry. I’ll only name drop here as I tend to binge read, going through what I have on the shelf for a particular writer (if you see your name here, time to start publishing a few next books [hint hint Patricia Smith]). Patricia Smith, Bruce Ross, Saigyo, Marie Howe (she’s coming to Columbia in April), Eamon Grennan (he’s here in February), lots and lots of Maxine Kumin, Rachel Eliza Griffiths, Breyton Breytonbach, Grace Paley, a Rilke revisit… I’ll stop there or you’ll stop reading as it’s just a list of names.
On to that year ahead: Susan Sontag suggests one should read a book a day. That is a mighty goal, completely unrealistic for a mortal. In fact, I’d find two books a week and a day job to put a roof over those books unattainable. A book and a half a week: more realistic, though probably just as dreamy. (I bet I might bring books into the house some years at one a day on average — I’ll not stop to figure that out, it might get me in trouble – does that count for anything?)
There are a few things already in the pile to read next-ish. I have already started Rebecca Goldstein’s Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won’t Go Away. A couple of years ago I started reading the works of Agatha Christie. In order. All of them. There’s always one to read next-ish. (Why? The story is for a future post.) I know I’ll be reading more Grennon and Howe in advance of their visits. James Hillman’s A Terrible Love of War awaits with its insights into our bellicose behavior. Julian Barnes Keeping An Eye Open was a Christmas gift that won’t be waiting long, as is Rahael Jerusalamy’s The Brotherhood of the Book Hunters. And I do aim to have Jane Kenyon’s A Hundred White Daffodils in the mind soon, long overdue to do. Sontag is also on the list.
The treat I have been saving to start the year is Belinda McKeon’s Tender, though. So looking forward to it. I had wanted to read the copy that crossed the Atlantic for me as summer ended, but I started teaching a semester of Philosophy 101 and that had me reading other things. Lots and lots of other things (Helen Buss Mitchel’s textbook Roots of Wisdom is excellent). I’ll start reading the McKeon after I put down Patti Smith’s delightful M Train. I think it is time to go back to that now. Happy reading, everyone, and Happy New Year!
Co-chair, HoCoPoLitSo Board
The other day a poem caught my eye because it wanted to catch my ear. I had spied or sort of spied Eamon Grennan’s “Oystercatchers in Flight” in my inbox, Poets.org’s Poem-A-Day offering.
Sea’s stony greenblue shatters to white…
To be honest, most of the time, the Poem-A-Day missives fall by the wayside, especially if, at a glance, they look long – I save them for ‘later’ and off they disappear, most likely not to be looked at again. This time, the word ‘oystercatchers’ caught my eye and then the brevity of the poem. I could take a look.
With the next glance and I saw the words looked pure sound and begged to be read aloud. I did. One. Two. And three times. The sound was a pleasure. It took something to work the line rhythms into the air. It was a roil of words. Something was going on here. I liked the way the words abutted each other, almost fighting for space and identity amidst the rockiness of the lines. [Listen to a reading of this poem in the clip at the bottom of this post — you can tell I am still working out the rhythm, sound and breath in the recording. Click on the image at the right to read the text of the poem.]
Up till then, I had just been saying the sounds of the poem. I was almost at the point of saying, “What is going on here? What is the meaning?” and some distraction reclaimed me to the busy tasks of the workday; the poem went by the wayside.
Much later in the day, someone else mentioned the poem and we brought it up on the computer to read together, trying to get out something we both had glimpsed, but didn’t really pay attention to at the time. What was going on in that poem? It looked neat. It sounded neat. But what?
Early, in my inattentive glancing, I had assumed humans for oystercatchers. Seemed romantic, appropriate for a poem and I was working at meaning through that misconception, trying to figure out the bit about orange and black and what. Then, eureka, oystercatchers are birds! a fact which google not only confirmed but also displayed and we all started appreciating what the poem was obviously saying. The poem and its colors started to make beautiful sense. Sometimes we readers of poetry just try too hard.
There is a complexity to what could just be obvious in this poem, though, which makes it delight, but it wants a bit of trying to get at. The first line gets things going so quickly and particularly with sound that meaning might not deeply render on a quick read; its not conveying in the way of obvious and ordinary everyday language where words rest on the ear starting with meaning, rather by a pay-attention-example of solid words that jump right away into the next sound, almost leaving things behind. (All the punctuation in this poem but the last mark is of a push-forward kind: colons, hyphens, even that first apostrophe which launches a reader from the first word breathlessly into the second, even the parens, which add a hastened phrase on top of the forward push.)
Just where the poem ‘turns’ there is ‘veronica’ as a verb, kind of delicious, kind of awkward, a little odd to my ear and eye. The flower is not an everyday appearance in the geography of my mind, so I am not quite guided to instant image or meaning. Or is it a reference to a Christ-imaged cloth? Or the bullfighter’s move? Not sure. Can’t tell. But then I think it could be just the sound in the word that is describing what the birds are up to, how they hang and move in the windy air: slow-slow-fastoff: verrrr-onnnnn-ica. I am still a little uncertain about what it specifically conjures, but it slows down the rhythm for a moment before the ‘then away’. Nice. It is a great sound to say, a comfort after the hard Ss, Ts and Ks of the earlier lines.
The way sound and rhythm works through all the lines is thrilling, physically manipulating when you read it out loud (do!). It’s not just because of the punctuation lack. You can hear clapping here: “tribe of black till you clap and their risen black” in the repeated slap-like ‘ack… ap… ack’ sound. And you can sense the rhythm/wind hold-shift-hold for a moment in the poem, too:
…and their risen black
as they veronica on wind and
then away with them (shrill-pitched as frighted
plovers only harsher more excited)
and riding the stiff wind like eager lovers straining
into its every last whim: its pulsing steady
The parenthetical phrase full of energy that stifles and speeds into the steady pulsing surrounding it, “harsher more excited” sending the tongue off and into the ploddingly slower single syllable words of “and riding the stiff wind like…” Grennan makes the wind of the breath match the wind of the wind. ‘Lovers’ brings back the stalling hold-in-place of ‘veronica’ with its V sound and something of a parallel image of wind fight. Then the final, almost exhaustive:
its pulsing steady
heart-push in every flesh-startling open-eyed
long-extended deepening sea-breath.
which you don’t get to without having said the whole of the poem in one long exhale. Bravo. You are breathing like the sea.
On the first few glances at this Poem-A-Day email I missed some obvious things, a now super obvious one being Grennan’s comments on the piece I would have seen if I had scrolled down a single screen from the poem:
“This poem is a fairly straightforward visual report on its title, the birds being a common sight on the coastline I live beside in Connemara, Ireland. I sought a contrast between their ‘abiding’ and the speed and dash of their taking off, their going. The lovers’ metaphor intends, I guess, a broadening or deepening of the natural facts. The absence of punctuation is a strategy to suggest the long-breath continuity and interconnectedness of things.“
I had gone straight to the sound and was quite happy for it, even blew past the title and its clue. I wasn’t worried about meaning at that point, letting words be sound for the sake of hearing what the poet was up to. I was fortunate that the poem came back to me later, grateful the time spent listening through the sound to get to the meaning: it’s quite an enjoyable observation, quite a re-livable observation shared via Grennan’s skill with the rhythm and sound in words and groups of words. I love the way this poem uses breath and sound to portray what its words observe. You’ll be missing things if you don’t read it out loud yourself.
You can see that I am not the best at making the most out of the Poem-A-Day features as they visit my already overwhelmed emailbox. I pay attention only sometimes and then often just slightly. Still, I highly recommend signing up for the service and letting poems interject as they may. When they do, let them spend time with you. They have a way of making delightful your day.
- Click here to sign up to receive Poets.org’s Poem-A-Day in your own email.
- More on Eamon Grennan at The Poetry Foundation.