Thursday, October 10, 2013

Old Friends and Dear Life

When I arrived home today, this stack, photographed a couple of days ago, had toppled to the floor, as I knew it would.   That's Charles Baxter's Saul and Patsty on the bottom of the pile and the Penguin Selected Essays of Montaigne on the top.  Over there on the right are the Journals of Thoreau, purchased last August at the Strand; James Wood's The Fun Stuff was the anchor of this pile until he failed me and leaned in, as the madmen are saying. Sometimes my book piles fall over in the middle of the night, which isn't optimal.  But I've treated my books this way for half a century--as sturdy blocks of prose and poetry to be acquired and read and kept close at hand, as disorganized as one's own mind, tottering and bending until the forces of gravity spew them underfoot.  I'm a poor carpenter, and the "built in" bookshelves I put up around the house always end up looking like gerryrigged Republican redoubts in Kansas or the scalene  national boundaries of Azerbaijan.

However, thanks to today's crash I was able at long last to lay my hands on some old friends I haven't seen in months. Amidst the chaos I chanced upon Donald Hall's The Museum of Clear Ideas, published in 1993, and containing his wonderful poem "Baseball"--remember it?  Nine innings of verse explaining our national pastime to Kurt Schwitters, "Merz-poet and artist, / whose work was clothing, office, bedroom, /and carapace..." Don Hall of New Hampshire is, perforce, a fan of the Red Sox, which I am not, but he wrote delicate and nostalgic poems about the greatest sport ever invented, tender in their evocation of warm July evenings spent at the ball yard, poems that sing in the way Roger Angell's great essays on baseball sing--of youth and hope and the melancholy of loss.  Don Hall--a wonderful straight up no chaser American name--who I heard read "Kicking the Leaves" in person years ago, wrote the poems in this fine book while the love of his life and fellow poet (perhaps even a better poet) Jane Kenyon was still alive, and since I'm a sentimental sort, I'd stacked Jane's book Otherwise next to Don's so that they could lie together on the floor amidst the scattered debris of history and philosophy.  Here's the eponymous "Otherwise" in case you've forgotten it:

I got out of bed
on two strong legs.
It might have been
otherwise. I ate
cereal, sweet
milk, ripe, flawless
peach. It might 
have been otherwise.
I took the dog uphill                                      
to the birch wood.
All morning I did 
the work I love.

At noon I lay down
with my mate. It might
have been otherwise.
We ate dinner together
at a table with silver
candlesticks. It might
have been otherwise.
I slept in a bed
in a room with paintings
on the walls, and 
planned another day
just like this day. 
But one day, I know, 
it will be otherwise.

And there, toppled under my reading chair, is a gorgeous red Harvard paperback, purchased at the Tattered Cover in Denver in the 1990's--Sor Juana, or the Traps of Faith by Octavio Paz.  I haven't looked into this book in years. The cover shows Sister Juana wearing a Sacred Heart of Jesus the size of a pizza plate; inside, Paz has provided biography, historical context, literary criticism and a subtle psychological reading of the seventeenth century nun's view of "the world as hieroglyph."  In Sor Juana's own words: "I have sought to veil the light of my reason, along with my name, and to offer it up only to Him who bestowed it on me, and He knows that none other was the cause of my entering into religion not withstanding that the spiritual exercises and company of a community were repugnant to the freedom and quiet I desire for my studious endeavors."  It could have been otherwise.  Sor Juana plays a little fast and loose with the facts for if Paz is to be believed what she wanted wasn't the convent at all, nor the sacred Groom whom all nuns marry, but simply to be left alone to write.

Poor John Berryman has finally lost his high perch--this copy of The Dream Songs, in hardcover, a first edition, cost me ten bucks in 1969: "Your face broods from my table, Suicide."  There's The Russian Revolution (R. Pipes/886 pages) crushing the diminutive Selected Garcia Lorca--what was I thinking?  And Churchill, whom I despise but have to have handy, still looks after three decades like a chunk of blue brick.  My taxonomy is based on gravitational forces rather than subject matter: big books (usually) on the bottom so that my stacks tend to be perched on thousand-page biographies of politicians (Caro's Johnson holds up five, and quite steadily), then come many paperback novels and, as is only proper, above my window frames, the heliotropic poets of the contemporary era.  My best stack, unmoved for five years, stands proudly on Stephan J. Gould's unread (by me) The Structure of Evolutionary Thought--the redwood of my library.

Left alone to write: here, next to my foot, stuck together (I'm sorry to say) with years-

old spilled coffee, are E.M. Cioran's

On the Heights of Despair, Richard Yates's Liars in Love (a Delta paperback purchased at the Penn Book Center in 1982--so dried out, apart from the coffee, that it's now bound with an elastic band), and, the odd-ball of this melancholy trilogy, Clancy Martin's How to Sell, a cut-throat novel about (of all things) the Ft. Worth Diamond Exchange.  Three fine titles, now wiped clean, that trace the absurdity of human existence and/or of selling ostentatious jewelry to rich Texans.  Ciroan wins the sad sack contest hands down: sample Cioran chapters include, "The Return to Chaos," "The Blessings of Insomnia," and, my personal favorite, "Nothing is Important" as only a Romanian "philosopher of despair" could.  I bought this book in grad school, probably because Sartre and Camus seemed to me poseurs--what, after all, is French despair compared to Romanian?  Yates, of course, was the most under-appreciated chronicler of futility ever to write in English--"A Natural Girl," in Liars, is one of my favorite stories. I think I'll stay up tonight to reread it.

Actually, no I won't.  First I have to pick up this untidy pile of books and then, in honor of a another great writer, I'll read Alice Munro's story "The Eye," from her latest, and, I'm sorry to say, her final collection (like Philip Roth, Munro is retiring from writing, if she can) Dear Life. And tomorrow, or sometime, we'll get to those bookshelves. 

George Ovitt (10/10/13)

No comments:

Post a Comment