The Internet hadn’t yet arrived, so the conversation was solely in letters at first, scrawled on notebook paper, sent three or four times a year at the most. It was not a witty crypto-romance, like the set of letters that make up Helene Hanff’s 84, Charing Cross Road.
It had never occurred to me that close reading could be applied to the heaps of verbiage produced by dictators—not, at least, until I picked up Daniel Kalder’s recently published The Infernal Library: On Dictators, the Books They Wrote, and Other Catastrophes of Literacy.
Here’s a game: in the lines below, can you tell which are from the Bible and which from an English poem?
Ho, every one that thirsteth,
to the waters,
and he that hath no money;
buy, and eat;
I have a few rules that I try to follow as a literary citizen: 1) If I want to read a book by a living author, I buy it new. 2) If at all possible, I buy it local. 3) If I can’t buy local, I aim to secure it from a distributor who takes at least minimal care not to defraud authors by selling counterfeits of their work.
Sometimes I think that the late Romantics are the most Romantic of all, since to be a Romantic is to commit to a lost cause. And it was already a lost cause to be an early Romantic of the 18th/early 19th century. But to be a Romantic in the late 19th/early 20th century was to be doubly doomed. It was to begin in anachronism and end in total dissolution.
Reading the new poems by Hankins and Paino reminds me of Stanley Hauerwas’s claim that North American Christianity’s chief enemy isn’t atheism, but sentimentality. Christians, Hauerwas adds, can see just how sentimental they’ve become by their inability to produce interesting atheists.
Meet John William “Blind” Boone (1864-1927): “Sprung from a Yankee bugler and a newly freed mother, his sight was sacrificed to encephalitis at the age of six months. Possessed by a prodigious memory, perfect pitch, and a particular partiality to piano, from which he sees and he sees and he sees…”
One of the abiding narcissistic wounds of my time as a parent is that neither of my children particularly likes to read. Sixteen years into being a mother, I can still get teary thinking about it—as if, in some way incredibly important to me, I have failed.
We arrive at the beach house in the dark, the ocean’s roar schooning over the dunes to meet us on the gravel path and ask: who are you? We get out of the car numb from the road and the nerves of a long drive just before the lockdown’s official lift, and we don’t answer.
Whether I’m reading or writing, the page is a good place for me—the place where I feel most at home. Like my nightly prayer, it’s a solitary courtyard, but one with a potentially social dimension.
First, before even coming
together—how ever many of them there were—before
saying one word, there was a wanting. Yet before
even putting that into words—see how far back
this goes?—there was a need. And that’s what’s driven me
to return to these desolate cliffs rising above
an ever-shifting bay.
“Some guys came over while you were gone and threw rocks at your dog.” That’s what the new kid said one afternoon. He had golden hair and a perpetual, toothy grin, and he’d announced the day we met that his dad built rockets. He’d told us he had eight unreleased Star Wars sequels at home, that his dad got hold of them because of his rocket work.
I’ve been reading Cleanth Brooks’ 1947 classic The Well Wrought Urn: Studies in the Structure of Poetry,one of the key works that in the post-World War II decades established “close reading” as the main pedagogical tool for understanding poetry as a unified whole (rather than an artfully coded record of attitudes requiring historical and biographical translation).
Pale Horse, Pale Rider’s narrative center focuses on a woman as fully realized as we might imagine ourselves to be today—a bone-weary professional woman moving in a smoky newsroom, navigating challenges (co-workers, actors angry at bad reviews) that seem amazingly contemporary.
The reference is, of course, to Auden’s famous poem September 1, 1939. That poem contains the well-known line “we must love one another or die.” I say a well-known line, but that doesn’t really capture it now, does it? The line is more than well-known—it verges into the realm of sacred writings of our time, a scrap of prophecy left to us from the 20th century.
Adam and Eve didn’t need to be told not to eat from the Tree of Life. Until they ate the “forbidden fruit” of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, they didn’t know. Didn’t know what? That they were mortal. Lacking that knowledge, what need would they have had for a shot at immortality, that is, a taste of the Tree of Life?
His mam’s face grew almost cruel with hidden feeling. She held the slate straight out in her hand and gazed unwinkingly at the letters.
“That writing stands for me!” she said. “I can’t get over it.” There was a power of pride and wonder in her voice.
Looking back, I realize that I was hungry too. But like Pilate, I wasn’t yet willing to face the hunger on its own terms. To be fed by a silence and a truth that won’t fit into my billfold, nor make a clever aphorism.
I’m after accomplished poets who can’t stay away from those classic Catholic themes – suffering, death, sex, the pattern of sin and redemption – and habits – self-examination, ritual, memory, the honoring of community over self. Above all, there’s the centrality of the body as contested locus of power and punishment, pleasure and pain.
I haven’t seen these notions of truth—both the old ideal of the “objective” one and the more current, perspectival one—mixed in a more arresting manner than in Susan Choi’s 2019, National Book Award-winning novel, Trust Exercise.