He can’t think.
London is damp,
in every room someone coughs.
He never did like winter.
He rewrites past manuscripts
time and again, without passion.
The yellow paper
is fragile as consumption.
Why does life race
stubbornly toward destruction?
But spring returns in dreams,
with snow that doesn’t speak
in any known tongue.
And where does love fit
within his system?
Where you find blue flowers.
He despises anarchists,
idealists bore him.
He receives reports from Russia,
far too detailed.
The French grow rich.
Poland is common and quiet.
America never stops growing.
Blood is everywhere,
perhaps the wallpaper needs changing.
He begins to suspect
that poor humankind
will always trudge
across the old earth
like the local lunatic
shaking her fists
at an unseen God.
1. WITHOUT BAGGAGE
To travel without baggage, sleep in the train
on a hard wooden bench,
forget your native land,
emerge from small stations
when a gray sky rises
and fishing boats head to sea.
2. IN BELGIUM
It was drizzling in Belgium
and the river wound between hills.
I thought, I’m so imperfect.
The trees sat in the meadows
like priests in green cassocks.
October was hiding in the weeds.
No, ma’am, I said,
this is the nontalking compartment.
3. A HAWK CIRCLES ABOVE THE HIGHWAY
It will be disappointed if it swoops down
on sheet iron, on gas,
on a tape of tawdry music,
on our narrow hearts.
4. MONT BLANC
It shines from afar, white and cautious,
like a lantern for shadows.
On the meadow a vast temple —
a wild animal
open to the sky.
Summer was gigantic, triumphant —
and our little car looked lost
on the road going to Verdun.
7. THE STATION IN BYTOM
In the underground tunnel
cigarette butts grow,
It stinks of loneliness.
8. RETIRED PEOPLE ON A FIELD TRIP
They’re learning to walk
Eternity doesn’t travel,
In a fishing port
only the gulls are chatty.
10. THE THEATER IN TAORMINA
From the theater in Taormina you spot
the snow on Etna’s peak
and the gleaming sea.
Which is the better actor?
11. A BLACK CAT
A black cat comes out to greet us
as if to say, look at me
and not some old Romanesque church.
12. A ROMANESQUE CHURCH
At the bottom of the valley
a Romanesque church at rest:
there’s wine in this cask.
Light on the walls of old houses,
Passerby, open your eyes.
14. AT DAWN
The world’s materiality at dawn —
and the soul’s frailty.
I watched the arctic landscape from above
and thought of nothing, lovely nothing.
I observed white canopies of clouds, vast
expanses where no wolf tracks could be found.
I thought about you and about the emptiness
that can promise one thing only: plenitude—
and that a certain sort of snowy wasteland
bursts from a surfeit of happiness.
As we drew closer to our landing,
the vulnerable earth emerged among the clouds,
comic gardens forgotten by their owners,
pale grass plagued by winter and the wind.
I put my book down and for an instant felt
a perfect balance between waking and dreams.
But when the plane touched concrete, then
assiduously circled the airport’s labyrinth,
I once again knew nothing. The darkness
of daily wanderings resumed, the day’s sweet darkness,
the darkness of the voice that counts and measures,
remembers and forgets.
I returned to you years later,
gray and lovely city,
buried in the waters of the past.
I’m no longer the student
of philosophy, poetry, and curiosity,
I’m not the young poet who wrote
too many lines
and wandered in the maze
of narrow streets and illusions.
The sovereign of clocks and shadows
has touched my brow with his hand,
but still I’m guided by
a star by brightness
and only brightness
can undo or save me.
We were listening to music —
a little Bach, a little mournful Schubert.
For a moment we listened to the silence.
A blizzard roared outside,
the wind pressed its blue face
to the wall.
The dead raced past on sleds,
at our windows.
When 2017 began I set out to read 26 books. I thought this was ambitious because I had essentially abandoned reading for most of the previous ten years. It must have been sometime in the spring, after topping well over 100 books, that I realized I would certainly read a record number of books (record for me, that is). I didn’t consciously set out until later in the year to finish 365 books but crossed that threshold in early-mid December, meaning that I did in the end get to read somewhere between 393 and 400 books (Goodreads, which I used to keep track of the reading, was a bit fidgety and unreliable in recording dates).
I’m a bit stunned by having read so much – feeling some of the material branded on my brain permanently, fresh in my mind since early in the year, while some things were almost forgettable. But it was, as I told a former colleague, enriching. It might not be the greatest accomplishment of the year, and it is certainly the quietest, but it gave each day a new meaning, a fresh story, a new palette on which language was painted in wholly different ways, and of course made, as Firewall likes to say, every day into a school day. In a good way, of course.
I was asked to select my favorite from among these books, but this is impossible. I read from such a wide breadth of topics and disciplines, from literary and scientific materials from around the world, that it could not even be done to say that one single book stood above the others. But among those that I loved, those that I didn’t want to end, those that I learned the most from, those that confounded or stayed with me the longest – making me turn my thoughts to them again and again – here is the rough list in no particular order:
*Advice for a Young Investigator – Santiago Ramón y Cajal
*The Bone Clocks – David Mitchell
Was not sure I would include this because I had mixed feelings, although by the end I was convinced/moved.
*The Master Butchers Singing Club – Louise Erdrich
Another one I was not sure I would include. I read most of Erdrich’s books this year and most were middle of the road, but this one stood out for some reason.
*The Yiddish Policeman’s Union – Michael Chabon
I read a bunch of Chabon and just like his style (even though it can be quite different in all his writing) and could recommend anything he has written, but this was somehow… the one I liked most.
*Time and Materials – Robert Hass
Poetry, which is not for everyone. This was superlative
*Edwin Morgan: Collected Poems – Edwin Morgan
More poetry; discovered Glaswegian Edwin Morgan this year and loved
*Reality is Not What It Seems: The Elusive Structure of the Universe and the Journey to Quantum Gravity – Carlo Rovelli
*Seven Brief Lessons on Physics – Carlo Rovelli
*Go, Went, Gone – Jenny Erpenbeck
Possibly overlooked by many; reminds me slightly of the film The Visitor. Deals with refugee crisis/asylum seekers in Germany with some interesting looks back at how things changed when Germany reunified
*Catch-22 – Joseph Heller
An old one I should have read ages ago but only got around to now. Enjoyed the hilarious absurdity
*The Noonday Demon – Andrew Solomon
A long book on depression – not sure why I started reading it but it was engrossing
*Evolution’s Bite: A Story of Teeth, Diet, and Human Origins – Peter S Ungar
Part of my obsession with teeth this year
*Angle of Repose – Wallace Stegner
A surprising and moving book
*If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler – Italo Calvino
A strange one – but the complexity of Calvino’s style makes me want to read everything he writes (he is listed again later/below)
*Broken April – Ismail Kadare
Albanian book that deals with the Kanun/blood feuds, etc.
*Secondhand Time: An Oral history of the Fall of the Soviet Union – Svetlana Alexievich
*The Solitude of Prime Numbers – Paolo Giordano
Surprising – not sure why this book (fiction, Italian) stuck with me – perhaps the descriptions of how people fool others and themselves living a version of themselves that cannot possibly be true
*Pretty much anything by Naomi Klein, of which I read all – very timely and important
*A General Theory of Oblivion – Jose Eduardo Agualusa
An unusual one from Angola
*Tram 83 – Fiston Mwanza Mujila
An interesting one from Congo
*The Sellout – Paul Beatty
Probably one of my very favorite ones this year
*A Little Life – Hanya Yanagihara
Engrossing – just when you think things cannot get worse or more heartbreaking, they do. As my colleague put it “emotional porn” – a form of blackmail
*The Revolution of Everyday Life – Raoul Vaneigem
Abstract-ish philosophy but somehow resonated when I read it
*All the Light We Cannot See – Anthony Doerr
*Before the Fall – Noah Hawley
Fiction from the guy who brought us the TV version of Fargo
*The Emperor of All Maladies – Siddhartha Mukherjee
A book on cancer – not uplifting but fascinating
*Karaoke Culture – Dubravka Ugresic
Because I pretty much love all of Ugresic’s observational essay work
*Teeth: The Story of Beauty, Inequality, and the Struggle for Oral Health in America – Mary Otto
*Invisible Cities – Italo Calvino
More Calvino, whom I have quoted to death this year
*Pretty much any poetry book of works by Polish poet Adam Zagajewski, Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai and Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer
*The Book of Disquiet – Fernando Pessoa
This is one that kept me thinking all year long and to which I will return repeatedly
*A Generation of Sociopaths: How the Baby Boomers Betrayed America – Bruce Cannon Gibney
Brewing the Baby Boomer hate…
*The Sympathizer – Viet Thanh Nguyen
Another of my favorite works of fiction this year
My goal, again, is to read 26 books. The trick this time, though, is that none of them can be in English. I can read books in English, but they won’t count toward the goal.