Each of us waking to the window’s light
Has found the curtains changed, our pictures gone;
Our furniture has vanished in the night
And left us to an unfamiliar dawn,
Even the contours of our room are strange
And everything is change.
Waking, our minds construct of memory
What figure stretched beside us, or what voice
Shouted to call us from our luxury—
And all the mornings leaning to our choice.
To put away – both child and murderer –
The toys we played with just a month ago,
That wisdom come, and make our moving sure,
Began our exile with our lust to grow.
(Remembering a train I tore apart,
Because it knew my heart.)
We move and move, but only love the lost,
Perversity our master to the bone;
We search our minds for childhood, and are tossed
By fevers to rebuild a child unknown.
Not only from the intellectual child
Time has removed us, but unyieldingly
Cuts down the groves in which our Indians filed
And where the sleep of pines was mystery.
(I walked the streets of where I lived and grew,
And all the streets were new.)
The room of love is always rearranged;
Someone has torn the corner of a chair
So that the past we cultivate is changed,
Perfection mocked and answered by a tear.
Exiled by death from men that we have known,
We are betrayed again by years, and try
To call them back and clothe the barren bone,
Not to admit a man can ever die.
(A boy who talked and read and grew with me,
Fell from a maple tree.)
But we are still alone, who love the dead,
And always miss their action’s character,
Trapped in our cells of living, visited
By no sweet ghosts, by no sad men that were.
In years, and in the numbering of space
Thousands of miles from what we grew to know,
We stray like paper blown from place to place,
Impelled by every element to go.
(I think of haying on an August day,
Forking the stacks of hay.)
We can remember trees and attitudes
That foreign landscapes do not imitate,
Which flower in the fertile interludes
Of memory beneath a stranger state.
The favorite toy was banished, and our act
Was banishment of the self; then growing, we
Murdered the girls we loved, for our love lacked
Self-knowledge of our real perversity.
(I loved and then I put a sudden end,
Which age will never mend.)
It was mechanical, and in our age,
That cruelty should be our way of speech;
Our movement is a single pilgrimage,
Never returning; action does not teach.
In isolation from our present love
We spell her out in daily memory,
Thinking these images we practice move
On human avenues across a sea.
(All day I see her simple figure stand,
Out of the reach of hand.)
Each door and window is a spectral frame
In which her ghost is for the moment found;
Each scrap of paper has her magic name,
And when we sleep our magic has no bound.
Imagining, by exile kept from fact,
We build of distance mental rock and tree,
And make of memory creative act,
Persons and worlds no waking eye can see.
(From lacking her, I built her new again.
And loved the image then.)
The manufactured country is so green
The eyes of sleep are blinded by its shine;
We spend our lust in that imagined scene
But will not ever cross its borderline.
No man can knock his human fist upon
The door built by his mind, or hear the voice
He meditated come again if gone:
We live outside the country of our choice.
Leaning toward harvest, fullness as our end,
Our habits will not mend.
Our humanness betrays us to the cage
Within whose limits each is free to walk,
But where no man can hear our prayers or rage,
And none of us can break the walls to talk.
Exiled by years, by death the present end,
By worlds that must remain unvisited,
And by the wounds that growing does not mend,
We are as solitary as the dead,
Wanting to king it in that perfect land
We make and understand.
And in this world whose pattern is unmade,
Cocoons of splintered light and shapeless sand,
We shatter through our motions and evade
Whatever hand might reach and touch our hand.
Pale gold of the walls, gold
of the centers of daisies, yellow roses
pressing from a clear bowl. All day
we lay on the bed, my hand
stroking the deep
gold of your thighs and your back.
We slept and woke
entering the golden room together,
lay down in it breathing
caressing and dozing, your hand sleepily
touching my hair now.
We made in those days
tiny identical rooms inside our bodies
which the men who uncover our graves
will find in a thousand years
shining and whole.
Adultery at Forty
At shower’s head, high over the porcelain moonscape,
a waterdrop gathers itself darkly, with hesitation-
hangs, swells, shakes, looms,
as if uncertain in which direction to hurl itself-
_________to come apart at its only destination.
I can’t explain why, but June, despite having had some vacation time, wasn’t filled with as much reading as I’d have liked. This disappointing sentence seems to be a variation on my opening sentence for every single one of these monthly posts. I may finish about 20 (or a few more) books by the end of the month, which of course is shy of the book-a-day pace I’d (however unintentionally) set through most of the early part of this year. I realize it’s not about quantity, but somehow having neglected reading for so many years, I feel as though I am playing catch-up. And I know I will never ‘catch up’. Catch up to what exactly?!
…I’d prefer to begin with some riveting tale about how I feel that too much can be read within a person’s eyes – it’s out of their control and completely unguarded, and each time I try to tell myself to be more open, don’t judge anyone by what their eyes immediately tell me, my initial reaction to a person’s eyes seems accurate. I wish this were not the case. These stories, too, about people’s eyes betraying their true nature, might be more interesting than how I start these chronicles of my random reading.
It might also be more interesting to go on wild tirades about the tyranny and insanity of several world governments at the moment, but what can I really add to that collective outcry? Many books have been and are being written about related subjects – last month I unabashedly recommended Sarah Kendzior‘s The View from Flyover Country: Dispatches from the Forgotten America, for example; Peter Temin‘s The Vanishing Middle Class is another good one that illustrates that the US is not the ‘best country in the world’, as it boasts in the loudest, most bellicose, violent way possible but is rather a developing country. There are really too many to count.
I can also calmly reaffirm my great love for Scots and how it sounds. A friend shared The Allusionist podcast about my beloved Scots language with me, and I think it’s worth sharing onward.
Thoughts on reading for June:
I did not know what to expect from Stoner – first mentioned to me by a friend not long ago, which caused me to add it to my to-read list. I was never sure when I’d get around to reading it. Some books, after all, linger aimlessly and endlessly on this expansive list (in many cases because the books are not available as e-books or because they are entirely out of print and not easy to get my hands on).
But the simplicity of the narrative – the heartbreaking simplicity and humanity – make Stoner an enduring, if under-the-radar, classic. William Stoner, a farm boy in Missouri who has modest aims and wants, goes to college to study agriculture, and ends up pursuing literature and philosophy and becoming a professor. His life is beset by the troubles and pains of … the average. He never sought much, and his modest needs and wants ensured that he had a life of contentment, marked by his principled nature, even if there were professional struggles, domestic unpleasantness and a brief but intense love affair that ends. It’s almost sad for its/his lack of striving, or at least never striving beyond what he could reach (apart from early on breaking away from a future in farming). Hard to describe what is so compelling, which is largely why it’s a must-read.
“And it might be amusing to pass through the world once more before I return to the cloistered and slow extinction that awaits us all.”
“In his forty-third year William Stoner learned what others, much younger, had learned before him: that the person one loves at first is not the person one loves at last, and that love is not an end but a process through which one person attempts to know another.”
“Then he smiled fondly, as if at a memory; it occurred to him that he was nearly sixty years old and that he ought to be beyond the force of such passion, of such love. But he was not beyond it, he knew, and would never be. Beneath the numbness, the indifference, the removal, it was there, intense and steady; it had always been there.”
The last book I read in June, and also the one that put me at 200 books for the year so far. Like many books I find myself immersed in, this was a random choice, a recommendation sourced through some other article. It’s hard to say exactly why I enjoyed this book. I think on the surface of it, it is interesting because it chronicles the unintended consequences of some of the most ingenious inventions and innovations (some good, some bad… some positively catastrophic), but at a deeper level, it coaxes the reader to think more holistically about how anything and everything can have unintended consequences and almost prompts one to think in a different or more careful way about planning and implementation of virtually anything, while at the same time, pointing out the folly of believing that even the most careful of risk assessments and examinations of ‘domino effects’ can foresee all the consequences.
“Doing Better and Feeling Worse.” This phrase from a 1970s symposium on health care is more apt than ever, and not only in medicine. We seem to worry more than our ancestors, surrounded though they were by exploding steamboat boilers, raging epidemics, crashing trains, panicked crowds, and flaming theaters. Perhaps this is because the safer life imposes an ever-increasing burden of attention.”
Poetry. Need I say more?
*Anything by Donald Hall
US Poet Laureate Donald Hall died near the end of June, and it was the perfect opportunity to revisit his poetry. I re-read a few volumes and don’t have one single book to recommend but think you’d do well to start with any.
When he died the other day, I reread and shared this piece about solitude and loneliness, moved anew by the love for solitude but the possibility of finding solitude while still coming together with another person, as Hall did with his partner, fellow poet, Jane Kenyon, with whom, as he wrote, he shared “the separation of our double solitude”, and from which each day they would emerge to be together as it suited them.
I had long ago seen the HBO film adaptation of Olive Kitteredge, so it was hard to form new ideas about the characters (e.g. Richard Jenkins as Henry and the formidable Frances McDormand as Olive… impossible to erase while reading). Still, I had forgotten so much of what happened in the film that the book was almost like a new experience, and I was carried away by the beautiful, fluid writing, the vivid characters and their lives (and stages of those lives) and by how moving the entire thing was overall.
“Sometimes, like now, Olive had a sense of just how desperately hard every person in the world was working to get what they needed. For most, it was a sense of safety, in the sea of terror that life increasingly became. People thought love would do it, and maybe it did.”
Good – really good – but not necessarily great
Dave Eggers isn’t really the story – he’s just the writer of the story. And the story is a heartbreaking and challenging story based on the life of Valentino Achak Deng, a Sudanese child refugee who migrated to the United States under the Lost Boys of Sudan program.
“Humans are divided between those who can still look through the eyes of youth and those who cannot.”
I came late to reading Roth (the last two years), and I don’t love everything he wrote. That said, there’s still quite a lot for me to read. I don’t want to recount the plot of Indignation, but there were some thoughts that I took away that have stuck with me for several days, which is, I suppose, one of Roth’s hallmarks: planting thought-provoking seeds, however little or much they have to do with the story.
“I persisted with my duties, determined to abide by the butcher-shop lesson learned from my father: slit the ass open and stick your hand up and grab the viscera and pull them out; nauseating and disgusting, but it had to be done.”
“If you ask how this can be—memory upon memory, nothing but memory—of course I can’t answer, and not because neither a “you” nor an “I” exists, any more than do a “here” and a “now,” but because all that exists is the recollected past, not recovered, mind you, not relived in the immediacy of the realm of sensation, but merely replayed. And how much more of my past can I take?”
“Because other people’s weakness can destroy you just as much as their strength can. Weak people are not harmless. Their weakness can be their strength. A person so unstable is a menace to you, Markie, and a trap.”
Entertaining/informative/thoughtful or some combination thereof
I don’t know what I can write about Rovelli and the way he presents physics and complex concepts in … elegant and beautiful ways that make them transcend the page and provoke thought, imagination and curiosity indefinitely.
“How does one describe a world in which everything occurs but there is no time variable? In which there is no common time and no privileged direction in which change occurs?”
“The difference between past and future, between cause and effect, between memory and hope, between regret and intention . . . in the elementary laws that describe the mechanisms of the world, there is no such difference.”
In keeping with what I wrote above about all the books that chronicle our difficult times, in the most timely fashion, coinciding with the Trump administration’s child-migration concentration camps (I cannot even believe I am writing those words), I read the brief but important Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in 40 Questions, in which Valeria Luiselli writes about the legal crisis and cruelty facing children who come to the US from Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador, etc. She wrote her reflections before the latest nightmare (detention camps filled with children put in cages, separated from their parents), but it was nonetheless stark and painful in the narrative it painted. Who would have imagined it could get worse?
“From the beginning, the crisis was viewed as an institutional hindrance, a problem that Homeland Security was “suffering” and that Congress and immigration judges had to solve. Few narratives have made the effort to turn things around and understand the crisis from the point of view of the children involved. The political response to the crisis, therefore, has always centered on one question, which is more or less: What do we do with all these children now? Or, in blunter terms: How do we get rid of them or dissuade them from coming?”
We have also seen the resurgence of old books that foretold the kind of rise in tyranny and dictatorial rule that we’re seeing in chilling abundance now, such as Sinclair Lewis‘s hastily written 1930s/Depression Era *It Can’t Happen Here. As he himself writes, “The hell it can’t.”
And when I just can’t take more of the timeless and timely old warnings (yes, somehow the US avoided becoming a fascist/Nazi state in the 1930s, but just as well might not have, as Lewis imagines, or as the recently passed Philip Roth envisioned in his alt-future imagining, The Plot Against America. Having resisted these tendencies once certainly doesn’t inoculate one from future tyranny. The same concerns and fears seen, for example, in the 1930s, have echoed in the present day and led to a dictatorial moron to the WH. Despite some brilliant passages and predictions in Lewis’s book, the book itself was not smooth reading and felt both like it was rushed and dragged out at the same time.
“(but)… that couldn’t happen in America! Why, where in all history has there ever been a people so ripe for a dictatorship as ours!”
“Why are you so afraid of the word ‘Fascism,’ Doremus? Just a word—just a word! And might not be so bad, with all the lazy bums we got panhandling relief nowadays, and living on my income tax and yours—not so worse to have a real Strong Man, like Hitler or Mussolini—like Napoleon or Bismarck in the good old days—and have ‘em really run the country and make it efficient and prosperous again.”
It does not exactly qualify as a coincidence so much as it was a random fluke that I decided to read this autobiographical account of Ehud Barak’s life. I never would have considered it except that one morning while heading out for a coffee in Oslo with AD, we ran into one of her acquaintances (because it’s impossible to go anywhere in Oslo without running into at least one person she knows). This particular acquaintance, squinting into the sun on one of Oslo’s blazing, and unusually, hot early June days, immediately started telling us how he was reading this particular book, and if I may say, sort of mansplained Israel, (cultural) Judaism, kibbutz culture and military strategy and Ehud Barak’s role in all of the key moments of Israel’s brief history. Yes, I suppose I have often complained about Norwegians knowing nothing about Judaism, so someone having a clue is surprising – but having a man (however ‘enlightened’ and committed to equality Scandinavian men are purported to be, middle-aged men of all nationalities seem particularly keen on demonstrating their knowledge… maybe in some bid to seem important, intelligent, relevant?) try to explain Judaism and Israel to me is not a surprise but is completely laughable.
Nevertheless, having heard him recount much of the book himself, I decided to read the book. Mostly I could have done without it, although there were a few key passages that capture, I think, fairly succinctly many of the strategies and ways of thinking behind Israeli military actions (not recent actions, as the country has moved further and further right). That’s not to say I would concede that any of the actions made sense – just to say that it was interesting to get the insight.
Overall the book itself could be skipped. Heavy on detail of Barak’s life running in parallel with the birth and development of the state of Israel and his role in it. Maybe a bit more detail than I needed at times, but, as I said, a valuable POV of someone who was inside the fateful moments and decisions in Israel and the Middle East as a whole – including some circumspection. Not perfect but … worth the read if only for the epilogue alone, which was oddly moving.
“The cause to which I’ve devoted my life—redeeming the dream of Zionism in a strong, free, self-confident, democratic Jewish state—is under threat. This is not mainly because of Hizbollah or Hamas, ISIS, or even Iran, all of which I feel confident in saying, as a former head of military intelligence, chief of staff, and defense minister, are real yet surmountable challenges. The main threat comes from inside: from the most right-wing, deliberately divisive, narrow-minded, and messianic government we have seen in our seven-decade history.”
Biggest disappointment (or hated/disliked)
I didn’t despise anything I read, but for some reason had had high hopes for War & War, but it ended up being disappointing. I suppose this is because expectations always betray us. It was not a bad book – it just didn’t hold my interest.
“16. Should we die, the mechanics of life would go on without us, and that is what people feel most terribly disturbed by, Korin interrupted himself, bowed his head, thought for a while, then pulled an agonized expression and started slowly swiveling his head, though it is only the very fact that it goes on that enables us properly to understand that there is no mechanism.”
Perhaps not so many were familiar with Donald Hall – no more so than most are familiar with poets in general, poets laureate of the United States or not.
But somehow, the passing of poet Donald Hall this week has stirred me… in a very different way from how I am stirred by the horror show of current events or by my daily life and its little ups and downs. No, the poetic life and its slower, more contemplative timbre force me to calm down as well, to look back over the life, the writing, the voice of Donald Hall. To reinfuse my daily life with poetry (which is something I give thought to daily but don’t slow down enough to fully appreciate). It is perhaps my own form of meditation.
“Then I had the night
to myself. No moon, no starts, no trucks, no heifers,
no friends, no stories, and no sound. Only dark fields
and darker road, black on black, and I was alive, older
than my dark-haired father ever got to be, sleepy,
not wanting to sleep, happy, startled by happiness”
-Donald Hall, from “The Night of the Day”