Poetry Friday: In memory of grandparents

It’s time to dust off the old blog, begin anew the consideration of literature, America, and how those two massive entities tug me in their gravitational fields as I encounter them.  I’m settled in enough at my new university to feel I can begin reading Upton Sinclair again, and start talking poetry here on Fridays again.  So consider this the blog’s sixth or seventh rebirth—hopefully with some staying power.  Today, though, I won’t be picking out some great poet of days gone by, and if you come here for something more polished today, you might want to look elsewhere on the Internet for a great poet.  This is one more personal Friday, one more chance for me to impose a little of my own verse on you, and perhaps you’ll enjoy it, or at least it will give you something to think about.  Saturday is my grandmother’s memorial service, and we’ll be commemorating both her and her husband, my grandfather, who died several years ago, before I moved to Chicago, and never had a formal service.  Today we drive across the mountains to be able to join the family for the occasion.  Grandma’s loss is still too recent for me to have set down any thoughts about it in verse form—I don’t know if I ever will, but if I do, surely they’ll make their way here someday.  But I do have the poem that saying goodbye to Grandpa Olander brought out of me, several months after his passing.  So I offer it today as my meditation on loss and love, on Grandpa and Grandma, on the world as it is and the world as it will be—as always, with my own work, I won’t comment in the post itself, but I’m happy to talk about it in comments if anyone cares to do so.  This is “Penn Cove Thanksgiving”, by James Rosenzweig:

The Thanksgiving after my grandfather dies,
my wife and I drive to his cabin.
A crisp blanket of snow surrounds us
on the drive up—
hems us in with its white glory,
but the roads are not icy.
We have an easy journey.

The last stretch of road is familiar to us—
we walked it arm in arm, once,
a decade ago,
the night we first saw that
two friends were going to fall in love,
at last.

That was a mild May evening.
It is full of frost air now.
The woods are ominous.
The world is going into the dark
and will not return again.
Not the same world.

We are slowly unpacking the car,
preparing to trudge our way to the front door,
when she stops.

“Look,” she says, and points out
at the deck illuminated by our headlights.
We walk forward together,
our eyes aimed downward
as she shows me the tracks left in the snow.
Unfamiliar small footprints—
they belong to a creature neither of us can name,
so we follow them, our breath swirling around
and behind us in visible clouds.

On the deck the tracks swirl and loop
in chaotic patterns, until a single trail
of prints leads away westward
and stops.
“A bird”, we both say,
but we remain motionless for a moment.

We are standing in a place
where something living broke free from the earth
into the open sky,
or else in a place where,
a life traded the unbounded expanse of the air
to walk where we do,
leaving strange prints on the frozen earth,
intersecting itself with us for reasons we cannot guess.

We return to our bags and boxes,
we pack ourselves into the cabin and sleep.
The next morning we watch the prints on the melting snow
as they darken, soften, and vanish.

It is Thanksgiving morning.
We will be full today.

Poetry Friday: Albany Park

I know it’s been awhile, folks, but I’ll try to make up for it today with something more personal.  I’ve been packing and organizing, since (as I alluded to in my last post) we are leaving Chicago, as I take on a position as a tenure-track Education Librarian at Eastern Washington University in Cheney.  This of course has a major impact in my life—leaving Chicago and the friends we’ve made here, learning the ways of a new institution and a new city, all the chaos that comes with a cross-country move (in December, no less)—and I’m approaching it with excitement, curiosity, anxiety, and at least a little melancholy as I start my farewells to all I’ve loved about my years in this city.  In a few weeks it’ll all settle down and I hope to be back to business here, but for now this post is me planting a little flag as both a jumping-off point for all that’s about to be new, and as a banner waving in the winds of the place I will always look back to with a smile.  The city that gave me my first professional experience as a librarian, and (for the rest of her life) the city my daughter will name when asked where she was born.

So for Poetry Friday today, I offer not one of the works of the great poets of the past, but rather this humble verse from yours truly—something I’ve tinkered with for a couple of years now (and truthfully have never really felt finished with).  An ode to my neighborhood and my library, and one of the songs of these days in my life.  I won’t comment after it in the post, but you’re more than welcome to comment to if you have anything to say (or ask) about it.  All my best to all of you this wintry afternoon: This is James Rosenzweig’s

“Walking Home from the Library on a Winter Evening;


Albany Park, I thought about writing you a love-letter, but I decided our friendship is too important for me to risk it”

One scarf for your neck;
a second protects your face.
Your eyes go naked.

The robing begins as you listen in on Andy
and the man with the hat full of questions,
who’s been a student
of most of his life
for most of his life,
and whose goatee grin is the metronome
of the afternoon reference desk.
His gratitude twinkles in his eyes.
He mixes his questions with stories about jam sessions
from the 1970s: the jazz that fills his imagination.

As the gloves come on, you talk with Andy about the weather
in Mordor
as he’s diving into Tolkien for the first time
and hearing his progress report lets you take the journey
vicariously, as though remembering were reading.
You discuss whether your 12 year old nephew
is too young for The Hobbit,
and wonder why it’s so hard to decide.

Now your mountain coat,
veteran of a dozen snows,
doing lowland duty.

The door swings behind you: you walk into white.
The rattle of the university plow echoes off brick walls
and half-buried public art.
The remnants of last Wednesday’s storm
lie beneath this fresh fall
like cats asleep under the blankets.
The flakes sting your eyes when you look east;
your second scarf comes undone.
You accept your helplessness.

The cars on St. Louis have churned the snow,
now slightly yellow, powdered in texture
like corn masa flour.
An elderly Hasid passes you on his way to shul,
his black hat wrapped in Saran to keep dry:
Shabbat is descending.

Kimball Avenue:
two boys shovel the sidewalk
with their grandfather.

You can see the pride behind Abuelito’s stern eyes,
his pleasure at their love of labor,
his commitment to have his 30 feet of pavement
the cleanest in Albany Park.
On Foster, you see a child with a shovel,
utterly alone,
slowly clearing the whole block in front of his apartment,
and wonder if somewhere above, behind a parted curtain,
another grandfather looks down.

North Park‘s campus security drive around
in golf carts that handle the snow
exactly as well as they are designed to:
elephants in a wetland,
children spun from a merry-go-round.
The tower of Old Main is postcard-perfect
as it foregrounds the storm.

Kedzie Avenue:
immigrants of every race
wait for the same bus.

You look down as you cross the bridge:
the Chicago River is crowded with drifts,
swirling in big, slow eddies
like albino starfish at sea.
The snow fills with water, mottling like clouds,
clinging at both banks against
a current that will take it south.

With every step you become less a poet
and more a poem,
your feet beating out a meter no one else can scan,
the images you see are less around you
than they are in you, filling you up
before you can trap them in words.

Where Albany meets Ainslie
you see the crisp edges of a snow-blown sidewalk —
the fingerprints of José, whose war on ice is absolute.
As the crunch of footfalls is replaced
by the slap of pavement, you slip off one glove
to unlock the gate and check your mail:
then the dash across the empty courtyard.

As key turns, a sound —
her voice welcomes you to the
rooms she makes a home.

Poetry Friday: Memories of Home

It is a cool, rainy day in Chicago—the kind of cool, rainy day that a Northwesterner like me responds to immediately, and gets the feeling of home and homeliness deep in his bones.  I’ve walked around today in the light misting rain too gentle for an umbrella (for the most part), the temperatures just chilly enough for a coat but not so cold that you zip it, and immersed myself in many old memories from similar days back in Seattle and the surrounding area, where I lived for my first three decades.  It’s been a while since I shared one of my own poems on Poetry Friday, and so perhaps on a day when I mull over thoughts of home, you can indulge me as I share another.  This is the poem I’ve read in public most often, in part because it’s maybe the oldest poem I have (or among the oldest, anyhow) that I would be willing to inflict on an unsuspecting audience.  For that reason, though, it’s a poem I have an increasingly strained relationship with—I still admire its strengths but am more and more attentive to its flaws, and furthermore it’s a poem that’s personal enough to feel like it’s saying “this is where James is at” but now that over a decade has passed it’s really not where I’m at, at all.  Or maybe it is, and that’s what rankles.  You will be able to speak to that better than I can, I suspect.

So here is a poem I wrote when I was a student teacher at Mount Vernon High School in Skagit County, Washington.  It comes late enough in the semester to be affected by the chaos imposed on that experience by my dreadful supervisor, but early enough that I have yet to experience that moment of triumph I wrote about last Halloween.  Since it’s me and not another poet, I won’t rush in afterwards to explain it or offer my thoughts—you’re getting enough of me in one dose already.  But if comments are left, I’ll happily respond to them and continue any conversation you want to have (positive, negative, or indifferent).  This is “Insomnia”, by James Rosenzweig:

Four in the morning, alone, on the
boardwalk above the flooding Skagit River, I
am pacing along the east bank
in the gusts that follow the storm,
watching the wind whiten the water in shivers,
as pieces of the national forest float
downstream faster than I can walk.
Sleepless, between careers, ears freezing, I
hear in the distance the whistle of the train.
Then louder, closer in, the whistle leans into
the air—three, four blasts. I think
there is a man wailing that sound, partly
out of habit, and partly out of the human desire
to wake the children of Mount Vernon
with the news that the steel rails and boxcars
are still America’s backbone,
or maybe he just wishes they were.
At the end of the boardwalk I turn back upstream,
the snags racing past me now, making
their driftwood way to the Pacific, where their
white forms will be children’s playgrounds
and lovers’ benches beneath the stars.
Halfway back I see a salmon fighting upstream,
shaking his body like a whip. He takes his swimming
sideways across the current, as though hoping
to overcome the torrents with geometry
and sheer force of heart. I do not tell him
he is gliding backwards three feet
with every swipe of his weary fins.
He will admit it to himself soon enough,
and rest,
and win the river later when he can.

Poetry Friday: All Hallows’ Eve

Halloween approaches, and the birth of a child.  It gives the fall air a special wonder this year, I think.  It’s good story-telling weather, and good poetry weather.  So let’s have a little story about poetry.

This holiday has always been a poetic one for me since I was a student teacher at Mount Vernon High School.  I was teaching a bunch of students in Poetry classes—electives, most of these students had no interest in poetry but were looking for an easy A—and as yet I still hadn’t worked out how to win them over, to me as their fearless leader and to poetry as the art that bewitches and beguiles.  All October they’d been moaning about their assignments, laughing at the wrong parts of poems, showing off for their friends.  The worst seemed to be memorization—every student had to memorize a poem at least 10 lines in length (there was a minimum word count too, but I’ve forgotten it…it was my supervisor’s assignment, though I did think it was worthwhile) and recite it in front of the class.  They hated it.  They refused to take it seriously.  They did a sloppy job of memorizing and then pleaded for “Line?” after “Line?” from their prompter.  I was losing them, and I was having trouble remembering why I wanted to be a language arts teacher in the first place.  So, I took a chance, setting myself up for what would be a career of risky ventures in which I made myself at least a bit vulnerable to ridicule in front of a classroom of high school students.  It’s nowhere near as high-stakes as a hundred more dangerous professions, but in the moment, standing in front of the class and knowing they’ll either go with you (and then they are yours, though you lead them through the darkest valley) or else stare and laugh (and then heaven help you), it feels like a pretty reckless thing.

What’s this tight-rope I was walking?  I decided I needed to recite a poem from memory for them.  Not just any poem—it had to be something captivating, something they’d latch on to right away and then puzzle over, years later.  Something that gets past the walls they were building to protect them from poetry and what it can make you feel.  And it had to be audaciously daring—no 11 line poems for me.  If I was going to convince them that I had what it took, I had to toss my cap over the wall (as the old Irish parable goes)—take on a poem so tough that I simply had to get it right, and something tough enough they wouldn’t believe I could do it.  I have literally no idea what came over me.  Two parts desperation, two parts loneliness (my fiancée was in another city, so I had nothing to do in the evenings but sit quietly and stew about these classes), and at least one part sheer cussedness.  I spent a couple of days gearing up for what I knew was basically a roll of the dice, although I felt good about the odds.  Maybe too good, looking back on it now, but I think being young and unaware of how badly I could crash gave me the shot of confidence I couldn’t have otherwise achieved.

Halloween morning, I walked into my classroom, a long narrow room with a view of the Skagit River (which had just recently flooded its banks—that’s another story) and a radiator that barely put out any heat.  The classroom filled for my first of two sections of “Poetry”, juniors and seniors jostling each other, joking about their plans for the evening, ready to cruise through another day at MVHS.  I stood at the front of the room after the bell rang, and told them we were going to discuss a poem today.  I said that I’d been working on memorizing it, though, since I thought it was only fair that they not be the only ones with that assignment, so I’d be reciting it for them from memory, before we discussed it.  One of the kids in the back (Anton, maybe? Ross? the years cloud my memory) pops out a little quip: “Hey, is it TEN LINES LONG?”  The whole classroom giggles.  “No, it’s a bit over a hundred lines long,” I said.  The silence dropped on them like someone had pressed a mute button.  Their facial expressions were priceless (so was mine, honestly—it sounded a LOT worse when I said it aloud, and I was getting nervous).  After a beat, someone said “Hey Rosy,” yes, the jocks all called me Rosy since ‘Rosenzweig’ was intimidating, I guess, “Rosy, how will we know if you get it right?”  “You’ll have to watch me the whole way,” I said, handing over a copy of the poem to the kid who asked.  I looked at him again, more closely: “I may have some trouble in the middle.  If I ask for a word, be ready to give it to me.”  He nodded.

Maybe I was the only one tense that morning—maybe it was just my nerves twanging like a cello string, and not the air in the room.  I don’t think so.  I think they knew I’d really done it now—my cap sailing over a wall they had never seen climbed before, and I was going to have to go over and get it or else stand there looking like a fool.  They were either going to be mine, now, or else I was going to be that student teacher who flamed out like dry tinder one October and left town after dark, just lit out for the territories and was never heard from again.  Based on the thumping in my temples, it felt like heart failure in front of the class was the only 3rd option available.

The Raven,” I said, my voice catching just once.  “The Raven, by Edgar Allan Poe.”  And then I was off and there couldn’t be any starting over.  And it worked.  I’d fumbled with “The Raven” for years, ever since I was a child sitting up late with the leatherbound Poe from my mother’s bookshelf, struggling to memorize this creepy, tense, dramatic, mesmerizing poem for no other reason than that I thought it would be really cool to know the whole thing.  I’d never quite gotten it all down as an 11 year old, but after a few dedicated October evenings in Mount Vernon, I really did have it together, and as the energy got going I was an 11 year old kid again, inside the poem and delighted by it.  I started to act out everything, pointing madly at an imaginary raven perching on an imaginary bust of Pallas above the American flag hanging by the chalkboard, the hall door serving for a chamber door, my heart beating wilder and wilder but no longer in panic, instead because I leapt into the crazed voice of the nameless speaker of the poem and just played the part.  I pushed the energy as high as I could go and then, of course, for that last haunted stanza suddenly threw the gears back and finished in almost a whisper as the poet’s soul falls into the shadows.  I swear, 99% of teaching, or more, is nothing at all like Dead Poets Society or Mr. Holland’s Opus or any of those other “inspirational” teacher movies, but that one day, that one class, I got to the end and they cheered and laughed and I think a couple of them high-fived me.  They paused just long enough to ask the kid with the poem in front of him if I’d missed anything, and he just smiled and shook his head, and they went back to buzzing about how weird and cool and creepy that poem was.  We hauled out our literature textbooks and turned to “The Raven” and spent the rest of the day with it.  I won’t say we never had another moment’s trouble again—they were kids, and I was a student teacher, and we had our moments.  But they were mine after that, and it made all the difference.

Illustration for Edgar Allan Poe's "The R...

The shadow, out from which the poet’s soul could never wander, and into which my career nearly fell. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I don’t tell this story because it’s an example of “what an awesome teacher I was”—if I had to list the things I did best as a teacher, this kind of thing wouldn’t be very high up it.  And frankly I don’t know if it was the best choice under the circumstances—it’s just a thing I believed I could do, and I figured if I really could, it would turn the corner with a tough bunch.  As I note several times above, it really could have gone horribly wrong, and if it had, I would have had a very hard time rebounding—me flailing through the thing might have convinced a lot of them to just tune me out.  I bring it up for a few reasons.  First of all, because it’s a story about Halloween and poetry, and I remember it every year at this time, so sooner or later it was bound to come up here.  Rather than just allude to it today, I figured I might as well tell the whole thing.  Secondly, it’s a pretty good story—a protagonist who thinks he’s on his last piece of luck, a tense setting, a performance that makes or breaks it.  I mean, I’m biased about it, sure, but if it was a story about you I think I’d still like it almost as much as I do.  Part of the point of loving books and poems is getting to fall in love with stories of any kind—not just the made-up ones but the crazy, impossible, mad-cap stories that happen to you and me every year, which we’ll latch on to and remake with “improved” memories and retell over and over because we like the fact that stories go on forever.  If they do, maybe we will.  Lastly, and most importantly, it’s a reminder of how powerful literature, and particularly poetry, can be when read aloud with passion.  I don’t think I gave the best performance of the Raven ever, but I didn’t have to: it’s such a great piece that even a decent job by a kid in his mid-20s, half-frazzled by nerves, can captivate a room full of teenagers who have already basically decided that poetry is for wimps and dweebs and that one “creative” girl in the corner who can’t seem to write a bad poem (and, in fairness, Sarah seemingly couldn’t, not that semester).  We don’t perform enough for young people, and because of this, they never realize the joy accessible to them with just a little energy and ambition and a nice piece of writing.  I think too many teachers are skittish about this—I certainly was, from time to time—and the times when I was most willing to fling myself out there and try to make things come alive for students, I was always glad about it later.  They weren’t all spotless triumphs like that day at MVHS, of course, but they ended well enough.

I return to this poem every year, now.  For years I was still a teacher, and so each year I’d stand up in front of one class of juniors and trot out “The Raven”—a little rustier each year, I think.  I still loved it, and so did my students, but by then I was good enough at enough other, more important parts of being a teacher that it was just a fun Halloween morning, rather than a daring caper designed to win over a tough bunch.  Then came the years when I wasn’t a teacher anymore, and I would stand in my house on Halloween and recite “The Raven” for my wife and my cat, Houdini, who was usually a little unimpressed.  This is our first Halloween without Houdini, so maybe it’ll just be my wife this year, or maybe I’ll finally put Poe back on the shelf and let this become only a memory, a fading phantom that I hold in my mind on a drowsy winter’s evening.  Someday my daughter will be old enough for Poe, and when she is maybe her old father will work up the poem again and make it a part of her holiday—a little less cool, of course, as anything associated with your parents has a tendency to be, but still a great story and a beautifully creepy way of welcoming in a night of candles and shadows, of silken sad uncertain rustlings and unseen spirit-wafted censers.  I won’t say anything about this gorgeous poem this year other than the already lengthy piece I’ve typed above, but I include it in full because to excerpt it would be criminal.  Thanks for your patience through a much-longer-than-usual Poetry Friday: this is “The Raven”, by Edgar Allan Poe—

“Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore,
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
‘Tis some visitor,’ I muttered, ‘tapping at my chamber door –
Only this, and nothing more.’

Ah, distinctly I remember it was in the bleak December,
And each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor.
Eagerly I wished the morrow;—vainly I had sought to borrow
From my books surcease of sorrow—sorrow for the lost Lenore—
For the rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore—
Nameless here for evermore.

And the silken sad uncertain rustling of each purple curtain
Thrilled me—filled me with fantastic terrors never felt before;
So that now, to still the beating of my heart, I stood repeating
‘Tis some visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door—
Some late visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door;—
This it is, and nothing more,’

Presently my soul grew stronger; hesitating then no longer,
‘Sir,’ said I, ‘or Madam, truly your forgiveness I implore;
But the fact is I was napping, and so gently you came rapping,
And so faintly you came tapping, tapping at my chamber door,
That I scarce was sure I heard you’—here I opened wide the door;—
Darkness there, and nothing more.

Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there wondering, fearing,
Doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before;
But the silence was unbroken, and the darkness gave no token,
And the only word there spoken was the whispered word, ‘Lenore!’
This I whispered, and an echo murmured back the word, ‘Lenore!’
Merely this and nothing more.

Back into the chamber turning, all my soul within me burning,
Soon again I heard a tapping somewhat louder than before.
‘Surely,’ said I, ‘surely that is something at my window lattice;
Let me see then, what thereat is, and this mystery explore—
Let my heart be still a moment and this mystery explore;—
‘Tis the wind and nothing more!’

Open here I flung the shutter, when, with many a flirt and flutter,
In there stepped a stately raven of the saintly days of yore.
Not the least obeisance made he; not a minute stopped or stayed he;
But, with mien of lord or lady, perched above my chamber door—
Perched upon a bust of Pallas just above my chamber door—
Perched, and sat, and nothing more.

Then this ebony bird beguiling my sad fancy into smiling,
By the grave and stern decorum of the countenance it wore,
‘Though thy crest be shorn and shaven, thou,’ I said, ‘art sure no craven.
Ghastly grim and ancient raven wandering from the nightly shore—
Tell me what thy lordly name is on the Night’s Plutonian shore!’
Quoth the raven, ‘Nevermore.’

Much I marvelled this ungainly fowl to hear discourse so plainly,
Though its answer little meaning—little relevancy bore;
For we cannot help agreeing that no living human being
Ever yet was blessed with seeing bird above his chamber door –
Bird or beast above the sculptured bust above his chamber door,
With such name as ‘Nevermore.’

But the raven, sitting lonely on the placid bust, spoke only,
That one word, as if his soul in that one word he did outpour.
Nothing further then he uttered—not a feather then he fluttered—
Till I scarcely more than muttered ‘Other friends have flown before—
On the morrow he will leave me, as my hopes have flown before.’
Then the bird said, ‘Nevermore.’

Startled at the stillness broken by reply so aptly spoken,
‘Doubtless,’ said I, ‘what it utters is its only stock and store,
Caught from some unhappy master whom unmerciful disaster
Followed fast and followed faster till his songs one burden bore—
Till the dirges of his hope that melancholy burden bore
Of “Never—nevermore.”‘

But the raven still beguiling all my sad soul into smiling,
Straight I wheeled a cushioned seat in front of bird and bust and door;
Then, upon the velvet sinking, I betook myself to linking
Fancy unto fancy, thinking what this ominous bird of yore—
What this grim, ungainly, ghastly, gaunt, and ominous bird of yore
Meant in croaking ‘Nevermore.’

This I sat engaged in guessing, but no syllable expressing
To the fowl whose fiery eyes now burned into my bosom’s core;
This and more I sat divining, with my head at ease reclining
On the cushion’s velvet lining that the lamp-light gloated o’er,
But whose velvet violet lining with the lamp-light gloating o’er,
She shall press, ah, nevermore!

Then, methought, the air grew denser, perfumed from an unseen censer
Swung by seraphim whose foot-falls tinkled on the tufted floor.
‘Wretch,’ I cried, ‘thy God hath lent thee—by these angels he has sent thee
Respite—respite and nepenthe from thy memories of Lenore!
Quaff, oh quaff this kind nepenthe, and forget this lost Lenore!’
Quoth the raven, ‘Nevermore.’

‘Prophet!’ said I, ‘thing of evil!—prophet still, if bird or devil!—
Whether tempter sent, or whether tempest tossed thee here ashore,
Desolate yet all undaunted, on this desert land enchanted—
On this home by horror haunted—tell me truly, I implore—
Is there—is there balm in Gilead?—tell me—tell me, I implore!’
Quoth the raven, ‘Nevermore.’

‘Prophet!’ said I, ‘thing of evil!—prophet still, if bird or devil!
By that Heaven that bends above us—by that God we both adore—
Tell this soul with sorrow laden if, within the distant Aidenn,
It shall clasp a sainted maiden whom the angels name Lenore—
Clasp a rare and radiant maiden, whom the angels name Lenore?’
Quoth the raven, ‘Nevermore.’

‘Be that word our sign of parting, bird or fiend!’ I shrieked upstarting—
‘Get thee back into the tempest and the Night’s Plutonian shore!
Leave no black plume as a token of that lie thy soul hath spoken!
Leave my loneliness unbroken!—quit the bust above my door!
Take thy beak from out my heart, and take thy form from off my door!’
Quoth the raven, ‘Nevermore.’

And the raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting
On the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door;
And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon’s that is dreaming,
And the lamp-light o’er him streaming throws his shadow on the floor;
And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor
Shall be lifted—nevermore!”

The Way I Read: Haphazardly

Following Pulitzer celebrates its 4th anniversary this week—that’s right, 4 years (give or take a multi-month outage or two when I disappeared like a magician’s assistant) of non-stop rambles through a very idiosyncratic take on largely forgotten prize-winning American fiction from the period between the world wars, interlaced with a lot of pretty excellent poetry and some navel-gazing about the idea of America (some would call the whole blog navel-gazing, but presumably not you, faithful reader).  Anyway, this would be a great moment to bounce back triumphantly from hiatus with a post on Upton Sinclair‘s Dragon’s Teeth, but truth be told that dazzling volume was only rediscovered yesterday under a pile of papers on what passes for a coffee table here at FP’s palatial digs in an early 20th century Chicago apartment building, and so it’ll be a day or two, at the very least, before I have anything to say about it.  But I could hardly let the moment pass without posting anything, and so I thought it might be a good time to return to my very occasional series “The Way I Read” in which I offer some thoughts about who I think I am as a reader, and invite you to comment a bit on what you make of my thoughts, and how you yourself read.  It seems like a pretty reasonable, maybe even important, sideline to Pulitzer blogging—a way to help provide a little insight into why I see books (and American literature, broadly speaking) the way I do.  Newer arrivals to the blog (and long-time readers who may easily have forgotten the prior posts) can find them all gathered in one place by clicking on this link or by selecting “The Way I Read” from the category dropdown in the right sidebar.

Tonight’s topic?  It’s about time I dealt with one of the most important facts about me as a reader that is totally obscured by this blog project—the remarkably aimless way I approach 95% of the reading in my life.  Here at FP, of course, my “brand” is all about rigidity: I’m not just a “literary blogger”, or a “literary award blogger”, or even a “Pulitzer blogger”.  I’m committed to reading the Puliter Prize winning novels in exact chronological order without exception—no skipping chapters, no skipping books, no peeking ahead.  But that’s not at all how I handle reading normally, and I wonder how similar I am to the rest of you.

It’s one thing, of course, to read whatever I feel like—I do, generally speaking (more on that in a bit), but I figure that’s true of all of us once we’re free of teachers or professors assigning us reading material.  What I think is odd about me, or else what is wonderfully odd about the human race (if you’re all like me in this respect), is how many books I keep spinning at one time.  When I walked through the door this evening, home from work and thinking of picking up a book, I had six books with bookmarks (or folded Post-It notes, or receipts, or whatever’s handy) waiting for me to pick them up.  I’m not talking about books I picked up long ago but have long since forgotten that I was reading.  I’m not counting the book I’m reading aloud to my wife (see a previous Why I Read on that front), or books that are naturally read a bit at a time (like What to Expect When You’re Expecting), or books that get consulted now and then (like an encyclopedia or a travel book).  And I’m not counting the long-neglected Upton Sinclair, even though obviously I intend to pick up that Pulitzer winner and start up from exactly where I left off, nor am I counting the scholarly books I’m reading at work as part of trying to put together a journal article to submit somewhere.  What I am counting is the Dickens novel I’m finally rereading for the first time in 20 years, the book about global warming I realized I needed to re-read now that I’m bringing a human being into the world, the Agatha Christie mystery that P. D. James‘s book on detective fiction reminded me I’d wanted to read, and several other titles scattered from my bedside table to the computer desk.  And depending on what whim seizes me tonight, I may add a seventh to the mix since I brought home this book about the journalists who covered the Nixon/McGovern campaign in 1972 and a blog post today made it sound intriguing enough that I might just have to dive in at once.

Now, these six (or seven) books aren’t all going to be finished—that much I grant you.  Certainly at least one or two, and maybe four or five, of them will fall back into the sea of books that I’d call “our library” if that didn’t make it sound like books and bookshelves were some smaller subset of an apartment largely composed of other things, and of course in fact the book to apartment ratio is much closer to the ocean to land ratio current on the planet Earth.  But the weird thing is that I feel I can fall into and out of these books really easily—that global warming title, for instance, I’m pretty sure I haven’t touched since I moved it from one pile to another last week, and I don’t think I’ve read it since sometime in July.  But if I wanted to read it tonight, I’d pick up exactly where I left off, and feel I was merely continuing an ongoing “read” of the book.  I have no idea how this sounds to you.  It might be you’re saying “Ah yes!  This is what readers do, James: did you really think you were unusual?”  And it might be you’re saying “Ahem: James, if you’re reading more than two books at a time, you don’t get credit for any of them.  Those are the rules, you know.”  To me it feels simultaneously very natural and very silly.  Natural, of course, since no one’s forcing me to behave in this bizarre fashion and so this must be what my brain thinks of as “normal” on some level.  But silly in that I cannot possibly imagine where in my head all these different things are alive—fictive and non-fictive characters and situations bumping into each other like guests at an awkward wedding reception, looking past each other in the hopes that someone they know is already at their assigned table.  All of them are as present to me as if I’d just set them down a little while ago—in old-fashioned computer speak (Millenials, I don’t know if this will make sense to you), they’re in RAM, not ROM—and I can distinguish pretty clearly between a book I read a bit ago and “am still reading”, and a book I read a bit ago and “have stopped reading”, though I’m not always sure how I know this.  This is a modern luxury, of course—I figure that Aristotle and Aquinas couldn’t really have lived like this, since even owning that many books at any time pre-Gutenberg would have been pretty luxurious.  I wonder why it feels so natural to me, then, and where on earth I got the habit (to my knowledge, neither of my parents are like this, and I can’t think of any other “reading role models” off-hand who might have influenced me this direction).

One last (maybe related?) note ties back into what I noted a couple of paragraphs back, when I said that “generally speaking” I read whatever I like.  For some reason, every summer I decide I need to learn something.  I pick a topic (often seemingly at random) and assert that I really need to pick up several books on the topic and get somewhere with them.  Sometimes this is an utter disaster (the Summer of Learning Old English was not a roaring success), and at other times it works marvelously (the Summer of Learning about Climate Change has turned into a lifelong interest).  But regardless, I’ll admit, it’s a bit of an odd thing to do—suddenly select an area of interest and decide that, over the next couple of months, I am committed to reading about it.  Is this my brain trying to steer me onto a better, more focused path?  Or just one more of the many ways I make eccentricity a way of life?  It’s not clear to me.  I certainly read a weird mix of fiction and non-fiction normally, and usually none of the titles relate to each other, outside the parameters of my “summer project”.

Am I overanalyzing?  Almost certainly!  But this is the point of my occasional “The Way I Read” posts: bringing out into the light one of the sides of me as a reader that I figure might be idiosyncratic, and seeing whether it resonates with other folks or not.  I fully intend to keep reading this way in the future: I hardly know how to stop, even if I wanted to.  But I wonder—do you read this way?  If so, I’d love to hear your musings about it, and if not, it would be great to get a glimpse of what reading is like for you.

An interview about Now in November, by Josephine W. Johnson

Blog veterans will remember my fulsome praise of Pulitzer winner Now in November, an account of a failing farm in the early 1930s, written as a first novel by Josephine W. Johnson.  The folks at website Rural Lit R.A.L.L.Y., who interviewed me back in the fall to talk about my Pulitzer project in general (and as it specifically relates to rural literature, their area of interest), were kind enough to make Now in November their featured book for January, which I think (and hope) is in part due to my advocating for its inclusion on their site.

In any case, as a part of their coverage of the novel, they’ve interviewed me again, only this time it’s actually a joint interview with me and a friend of this blog, Nancy Gluck, who writes a blog called Silver Threads that I’ve recommended to you all before (and which is always linked to in the right sidebar).  Nancy and I are a good pairing—both admirers of Josephine Johnson’s novel, but for different reasons, and we certainly express ourselves in different ways and draw on different life experiences.  I gained a lot from hearing what Nancy had to say, about the book and about books in general, and I hope you’ll benefit from having a look at what both of us have to say.  (Side note: If you’re not particularly interested in Now in November, you may want to check out the interview anyway for the question where Nancy and I are each asked to give some book/author recommendations, since neither of us talked about Pulitzers.  And I call an audible at one point and talk about The Grapes of Wrath, for you Steinbeck fans out there.)  Here’s a link to the interview.

Poetry Friday: Black Friday Edition

I know that on a busy holiday weekend like this one, we all don’t have as much time for poetic pursuits as we might like, so I’ll keep this one brief and on topic.  In the recent poetry collection I co-wrote with Shane Guthrie, Ouroboros 2, one of the poems I wrote was, in fact, about “Black Friday” itself, the day after Thanksgiving.  I thought it was as apt a moment to share the poem as I am likely to have, and it’s provided for you in full below.  As is the case with all the poems in the Ouroboros (don’t know what an “Ouroboros” is? see this page for an explanation), it appeared without any title, and as is always the case when I share my own work for a Poetry Friday, I provide it without any further comment in the post itself.  If folks have reactions—good, bad, or indifferent—I hope you’ll share them in the comments, where I will happily interact and maybe even explain what I think I was going for.  To the extent that I know, myself.  Without further ado, my Black Friday poem from Ouroboros 2:

I pushed it open. Any way the crowds wanted to,
they surged,
shouting Black Friday instructions to their conscripts,
heaving like a tide into the electronics section
for this hollow holiday,
the day after gratitude when all we want is to carry over
that full feeling
into some other place inside us that remains empty.
And as much as I want to look down on you
as you pass like war-torn refugees
between the theft-prevention gates,
I am complicit in this profane event:
I am trading my time
for something of yours.
Not just money, but something larger than that:
the dignity of longing that is lost by possession;
the kindness we earn
by learning how to live without.