Friday, January 3, 2014
on threads and writers and readers and poets.
I'm reading Anna Karenina and noticing how Tolstoy uses children's relationship with adults to highlight aspects of the adults' characters. I wonder of that's true, if children have intuitive sense of adults the way Tolstoy thought they did.
I walked out of the library yesterday with a book of collected Rilke poetry, translated from the German by Robert Bly. I sat down to read and skipped the introduction, going straight to the first set of poems. I fell in love with the first poem so much that I wanted to write it down then in my commonplace book, memorize it, run the words over my tongue and discover the mystery of their meaning.
Sometimes I think I care too much. I run to show my sister Rilke and she laughs at me but she reads: first in German out loud and we laugh, and then her face quiets and she reads the English translation and her eyes get thoughtful. "That's interesting," she says, and I wonder how she doesn't read it again and sigh with the beauty of it, and try to puzzle out its intricacies and meanings. I know she has her own deep cares; she tells me of the Edna St. Vincent Millay poem she read the other day that was beautiful, and that too, the first poem in the book.
I read Aristotle, not often enough and he tells me the obvious in many words and many times and I frown while I try to work out his meaning and then I laugh because I know what he's saying and he has said it already. And sometimes I hum under my breath "hm" because I know he's right and he's managed to say something about human nature which I know is true but could not have articulated. He's forgotten in my backpack while I read Tolstoy, and they both teach me about virtue and vice, if I am paying attention.
I have an urgency to read and read: to devour books as if they would disappear if I stopped reading them. As if I had no long life stretched out in front of me with years to read books and to taste their words for meaning. I can let their images settle into the structures of my life like beach sand gets into every grain of a wooden house built on the beach and wear it into beauty and thoughtful quietness. I know this but still I read hungrily: Mary Oliver, Dickens, T.H.White, Aristotle, Augustine, Rilke, Plato, Thomas Merton, C.S. Lewis, Dante, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Christina Rossetti. They're not burning books, but I read as if they are sometimes: three at once, five at once, eight at once. I track the plots and lines of thought like strings in my mind and mostly keep them untangled. When a string is finished then I can weave it into the tapestry of my thoughts and let it sink into the fabric of my life so that its words return to me. Maybe one day I'll step back and the mass of threads will be an image.
I want to own books so that they can change me. I read fifteen poems of Rilke and one of his letters and I want my own copy so I can taste his words again and again. I read Annie Dillard and I want to underline, copy out, make her words part of me because they say truth new ways. I give out books always, and notebooks: birthdays, Christmas, because it made me think of you. I want the books to spin words into your life too because they have nested in my soul and I love them, and I love your soul also. Because this book can speak different words to you than I, and I can hear your reading as well as my own.
I lay down to sleep and instead pick up Hopkins from beside my bed. I read two poems: one I read last night and a new one. I whisper them under my breath, feel the cadence and slide of the words on my tongue and I wonder how he could write like that. What was in his soul that it could come out in tongue-twisting ponderings. My alarm goes off and I wake from dreams and reach out my hand for Annie Dillard and read two chapters before I clamber out from warm covers to shock my poor bare feet on the cold wood. I hide indoors with a cup of tea and a blanket and sit in front of the ottoman which I have stacked with a notebook, a journal, my Bible, two books of poetry, one of letters, one fat novel, one thin. I shovel snow or walk while it comes down thick and I sing memorized poetry underneath my breath: Milton, Rossetti, L'Engle, Shakespeare, Wallace Stevens, C.S. Lewis.
Sometimes I think I care too much: it's rare I meet someone else to talk books with, laugh, connect threads, end up on philosophy or theology or epistemology in earnest, with words from this book andthat poem. I wonder what it's like to not read books and I think of small, poor worlds, easily encompassed and traversed and I come back to my stack of books and dive in again.
Oh, not to be separated,
shut off from the starry dimensions
by so thin a wall.
What is within us
if not intensified sky
traversed with birds
with winds of homecoming?
~Rilke, Uncollected Poems