Words. Books. I was looking at my bookshelves the other day, astonished at how much I've read in my life. You'd think I'd be wiser, more intelligent, as peaceful as Buddha reading and rocking in a hammock on a summer's day. When did I fall in love with books? I don't exactly remember, but I have a few vivid memories of certain reading experiences.
When I was a kid, ten or eleven, I read The Yearling. I finished the book and lay in the middle of my bed in the afternoon light and wept. That world, those people, were so close to me. My heart split open. It was great.
I read Camus' The Stranger in one sitting. I was sitting in a lawn chair by a creek, twenty-three years old, my mouth hanging open as I put the book down on the grass. Huh. Wow. It was the truth no one ever talked about. It was the truth, and I recognized it in every sentence of that book.
William Wordsworth's poems, but especially, "Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood." I was eighteen, my first year in college. Reading the Romantic Poets in my dorm room. Much marginalia. Here's one: things are still lovely, but not as grand as when he was a child. Many underlinings and exclamation points. I underlined this entire passage:
Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The Soul that rises with us, our life's Star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting,
And cometh from afar:
Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God, who is our home:
Heaven lies about us in our infancy!
Shades of the prison-house begin to close
Upon the growing Boy,
But He beholds the light, and whence it flows,
He sees it in his joy;
The Youth, who daily farther from the east
Must travel, still is Nature's Priest,
And by the vision splendid
Is on his way attended;
At length the Man perceives it die away,
And fade into the light of common day.
I used a pencil to write the marginalia. I haven't used a pencil in decades. My handwriting looks so young, kind of curly and pudgy.
Emily Dickinson. Many question marks in the marginalia. And stars. Thomas Wentworth Higginson visited Emily. She said this to him:
Truth is such a rare thing, it is delightful to tell it...I find ecstasy in living; the mere sense of living is joy enough...There are many people in the world, you must have noticed them in the street. How do they live? How do they get strength to put on their clothes in the morning?
Books have helped me live. Where were you when you read a book that changed your life? The Magus by John Fowles. I was twenty-six. That was not a good year; I was thinking, should I stay here? Can I stay here? Reading The Magus expanded my perception of being. I recognized my dilemma in the consciousness of the main character. It was a mirror, and I wanted to break it. Reading was a way of shattering many illusions, about self and the world. I suppose I have enjoyed reading as an escape, but for the most part, I read in order to live.
Evening by Susan Minot. I have read this book five times. Read passages from it countless times, loving the form and style, studying it, the dialogue, the shifting but seamless movement from past to present to past to present...the beauty and sorrow and truth of the plot: that one weekend, one experience, can be at the center of an existence. Thousands of things transpire, but that one weekend was it. The last time I read this book, a few years ago, I was camping. I was inside the tent, (it was foggy by the beach), and I read by flashlight. I stayed up most of the night reading a book I had read many times before. By flashlight in a tent on the cold coast.
Books. Words. I'm so in love with them. A friend asked lately if I like to write so much because it's like having a conversation. She is feeling a lot of loneliness right now, wondering if writing is a kind of cure. I thought, sure, writing is like having a conversation. It doesn't, however, supplant the need for flesh and blood human contact. Still, my friend is right. Writing is a talking, an exchange, an intimacy, a connection. It is a family. Right now, I'm reading Andre Dubus III's novel, The Garden of Last Days. I'm getting to know all the characters and to care about them. The novel is written in five voices, completely different, believable. The book is wonderful. I'm living with these folks, drawn intimately into their lives. I can't wait to find out what happens next. I care for them, even the villains.
Now I'm wondering why I haven't written a poem about writing. I must have one somewhere! If not, I must write one immediately! Well, then, here I go, back to the blank page. Who knows what will happen; this is writing, too: pure discovery. As the poem unfurls onto the page, what will it say? E.M. Forster wrote: "How can I know what I think until I see what I say?"
Thou has made me endless, such is thy
pleasure. This frail vessel though emptiest again
and again, and fillest it ever with fresh life...
Thy infinite gifts come to me only on these
very small hands of mine. Ages pass, and still
thou pourest, and still there is room to fill.
Causes Susan Browne Supports
Run Together, A Race to Raise Money for Leukemia and Lymphoma Society