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Posts Tagged ‘books’

Summer flowers:

Summer bouquet

And Mary Oliver’s Winter Hours:

Just a day or two after I finished reading this unseasonal book, my favorite person in the world brought home the citrus-colored bouquet “just because,” and I felt so very lucky to have two opposite seasons collide so beautifully in my world.

Oliver’s collection of prose, prose poems, and poems is worth reading, if only for the final and title essay, which is wide-ranging in subject and profound. In it the poet says:

Now I think there is only one subject worth my attention and that is the recognition of the spiritual side of the world and, within this recognition, the condition of my own spiritual state. I am not talking about having faith necessarily, although one hopes to. What I mean by spirituality is not theology but attitude….

I would say that there exist a thousand unbreakable links between each of us and everything else, and that our dignity and our chances are one. The farthest star and the mud at our feet are a family; and there is no decency or sense in honoring one thing, or a few things, and then closing the list. The pine tree, the leopard, the Platte River, and ourselves–we are at risk together, or we are on our way to a sustainable world together. We are each other’s destiny.

Breathtaking, as is most of the rest of the collection. I will admit, however, that I skipped one entire essay. “Swoon” was ostensibly all about spiders, and when I got to the part that detailed a spider slowly devouring a cricket, I started flipping pages. I was trying to eat my lunch after all. This reveals, I suppose, the difference between the poet who has the patience and honesty to witness the reality of nature… and me. There are some things I’d rather not know.

But Mary Oliver is braver than most. And wise. Unblinking. Willing to see. Really see. Embracing. This is why we need her. And why her winter writing can stun and illuminate even in the summer hours.

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Nine Gates

After several months of intermittent reading and contemplation, I finally finished Jane Hirshfield‘s exquisite collection of essays about poetry-writing. I found the closing essay, “Writing and the Threshold Life” particularly profound, or at least, particularly meaningful to me at this point in time. In it, Hirshfield proposes that the writer must enter into liminality–a threshold between individuality and community, a constant state of inbetweenness, and a space outside of conventional relationship to language and society.

In Hirshfield’s threshold life, the writer becomes transparent, transient, empty of self, in such a way that she is opened to a deeper awareness of others. In this threshold connectedness, the writer identifies with all people, all things, and cannot help but speak on their behalf.

For the writer to write at all, he or she must cultivate a heart that opens in tenderness to all things.
– Jane Hirshfield, from “Writing and the Threshold Life,” Nine Gates, p. 211

This concept is further explored in Hirshfield’s poem, “Late Prayer.” Hirshfield says, “The poem is called a prayer because in writing it I was asking, during a time of difficulty, for such a mind and heart…. A writer cannot identify only with the rabbit, or with the hawk—standing squarely in the threshold, one must include both. A ruby is no more valuable than a nail; the sound of one in a shaken metal bucket is no different from the other. Both will be needed, if we want to include the world in our words. It is up to the writer to recognize everything that happens to her as gift, to love each thing that comes under the eye’s contemplation, inner or outer.”

According to Hirshfield, this idea of liminality is woven into the work and/or lives of writers such as Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, Galway Kinnell, Pablo Neruda, ancient Japanese poet Ono no Komachi, and Henry David Thoreau. Of Thoreau’s journey to and from the threshold and Walden, she says this :

Entering the threshold is not a matter of going into literal woods, though that may help. It is a matter of mind, of leaving the trail of convention and norm, whether in the city or the wild.
– Jane Hirshfield, from “Writing and the Threshold Life,” Nine Gates, p. 221

Hirshfield is careful to differentiate between the writer’s life of liminality and a romanticized view of those forced to the fringes of society by unchosen paths such as poverty or mental illness. The life of liminality, she concludes, is one of reverence.

To speak, and to write, is to assert who we are, what we think. The necessary other side is to surrender these things—to stand humbled and stunned and silent before the wild and inexplicable beauties and mysteries of being.
– Jane Hirshfield, from “Writing and the Threshold Life,” Nine Gates, p. 221

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Growing up, I wasn’t allowed to read fiction, but the summer I was thirteen, my brother came home from boarding school and left his paperback copy of My Name is Asher Lev. Naturally, I read it secretly.

It was the first novel I’d ever read, and Chaim Potok’s powerful use of language shocked and nourished me. I had known since I was eleven that I wanted to be a writer, but that summer I decided I wanted to be a writer like Chaim Potok.

That paperback copy of My Name Is Asher Lev followed me through high school and college. I read it at least a dozen times, marking in the margins and underlining my favorite sentences. When I was working at my first job out of college, as a designer and assistant editor for a magazine, I met a young artist who did a cover for us. We had a lot in common, and I told her she absolutely had to read this novel about a gifted artist trying to reconcile his gift and his religious tradition. And you already know what I did: I loaned my book to her.

Since then, I’ve acquired a first edition hardcover edition of My Name Is Asher Lev, but I still miss my original tattered copy. I wonder what I penned in the margins, if my favorite sentences now are the same ones that initially pulled me in and held me in a state of suspended magic.

I’ve been trying to locate that young artist ever since, but a lot of time has passed. I know I may never see my book again, but a couple of years ago, I saw a newspaper article about an old man who went into a used bookstore in his childhood town and found his long-lost favorite picture book with his name scribbled on the inside cover. It could happen. It happens, sometimes.

This painting is in honor of the book that changed my life, the book for which “I am still looking.” If by some miracle, you find it, please let me know.

See the next painting in the series.

“I am still looking” is part of a series titled “Lost Along the Way.”

4″ x 4″ acrylic and ink on canvas

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If I were a poet, I would go to Block Island this spring just to hear Mary Oliver. I really would.

Protective of the privacy necessary to her creative process, Oliver rarely gives readings, but she will be participating in the April 3 – May 4, 2008, Block Island Poetry Project. Also in the spring, Beacon Press will publish a collection of new Oliver poems. I may not be going to Block Island, but you know I’ll be reading Red Bird.

Red Bird by Mary Oliver

I first fell in love with Oliver’s poetry when I read “Wild Geese” with its stunning opening lines:

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.

Read the full poem here.

The clarity, fragility, and internal music of Oliver’s lines took my breath away. I own most of her collections now, and hers are the poems to which I return for soul-nourishment and centering. Her earlier poems worked around a fiery wound toward the reconciliation offered in poems like “Wild Geese.” I think that early fire has burned down now into a rare and quiet peace raised in her more recent work. I’m interested to see what Oliver does in Red Bird.

To learn more about my favorite poet, visit the following pages:

Poetry Foundation Bio

Academy of American Poets Bio

L.A. Times review of Oliver’s most recent work, Our World (photographs by Oliver’s late partner, Molly Malone Cook; text by Mary Oliver)

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Oh. My. I have just discovered Squishables. Have you seen these? “They’re giant, round, fuzzy, stuffed animals,” says the web site. “Hug them.” Oh, yes, I want to. Especially the Squishable sheep:

 

Squishables

And while I’m at it, here are some other cute or unusual gift ideas:

For the poet or the inventor whose best ideas are always scribbled on the back of a napkin: The Napkin Notebook


Napkin Notebook

 

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To relish beauty and Mother Earth, all year-long:

2008 “Birds and Blooms” Calendar from PaPaYa!

Calendar

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For the budding artist and book lover:

Linnea in Monet’s Garden

Linnea in Monet's Garden

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To create inspiring spaces for the home:

Custom Decorative Lettering

Decorative Lettering

 

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For the dreamer:

Limited edition print of Mati Rose Mcdonough’s “Believe” painting

 

Believe

 

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To proclaim your love for your tech-support guy:

“I Love My Geek” T-shirt

I Love My Geek T-shirt

 

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To warm the tummy and soul:

Snowman mugs with frother from Williams-Sonoma

Snowman Mugs

 

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For the gardener-cook:

A quartet of fresh herbs

Herbs

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There isn’t much time for anything right now, but here are a couple of gems from Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space, which I finished reading recently:

 

All important words, all the words marked for grandeur by a poet, are keys to the universe, to the dual universe of the Cosmos and the depths of the human spirit.

The great function of poetry is to give us back the situations of our dreams. The house we were born in is more than an embodiment of home, it is also an embodiment of dreams. Each of its nooks and corners was a resting-place for daydreaming…. The house, the bedroom, the garret in which we were alone, furnished the framework for an interminable dream, one that poetry alone, through the creation of a poetic work, could succeed in achieving completely…. It is on the plane of the daydream and not on that of facts that childhood remains alive and poetically useful within us. Through this permanent childhood, we maintain the poetry of the past. To inhabit oneirically the house we were born in means more than to inhabit it in memory; it means living in this house that is gone, the way we used to dream in it.

In the forward, John R. Silgoe writes, “Ostensibly modest in compass, an inquiry focused on the house, its interior places, and its outdoor context, The Poetics of Space resonates deeply, vibrating at the edges of imagination, exploring the recesses of the psyche, the hallways of the mind. In the house Bachelard discovers a metaphor of humanness.”

I’ll admit that I found Bachelard somewhat challenging. He’s unapologetically abstract and long-winded, but at the same time, The Poetics of Space is undeniably dreamy and even a bit magical. In the days since I finished reading it, I’ve found myself pondering the spaces I know and remember and discovering entire rooms of imaginative meaning and possibility. If you’re looking for a book to tickle your imagination and are willing to read slowly and thoughtfully, as Bachelard requires, I recommend it.

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Meanwhile, in the space we call home (where the rest of us are quite busy, I might add), this is the scene:

Sprawled about

Christmas tree & a sleepy fuzzy

On a chilly night

It’s as though the cats have decided to semi-hibernate through the winter, and I do not blame them. I want to grab a book, curl up in a blanket, and join them.

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What are you reading this fall?

This morning, I went into a used bookstore, and as we all know, it’s quite nearly impossible to leave a bookstore empty-handed. I still haven’t finished my summer reading. Nevertheless, here it is: my stack of books to read this fall:

Books for Autumn 2007

Reading for me is half feast, half futility. Feast, because I relish the written word, and because, like food, it’s necessary. Futility, because I will never manage to read all the books that seem necessary.

There are two kinds of people in the world: those who love books and those who don’t. I was once asked, by one of those who don’t, why I kept books I had already read. Why? Because books are windows into other worlds. Because books are light illuminating corners of our lives. Because books drill down into our memories and beliefs and challenge us. Because books sometimes save us from our alternate weaker selves.

These days, information is fed to us in a steady deluge of images and voices. We’re forced to process information at a speed and saturation level over which we have little or no control. In this atmosphere of information by tube-feeding, books allow us the pacing of a leisurely European dinner and the sanctuary to actually taste, reflect, and relish the purity of words.

When Jane Hirshfield writes, “To be undivided must mean not knowing you are,” I read it twice, maybe even three times, and perhaps I’ll think of Asher Lev and a crucifix painting or Wendell Berry pacing the length of his fields on his Sabbath or an Angle of Repose, and the poet’s words stay with me and cultivate something in me because I am quiet and patient with them.

What are you reading this fall? I’d love to know.

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