Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Variations on a book.

A few days ago on The Face, a friend commented that she was about to write by clearing a space on the table, reading a few pages from her "Bible" (which for her, that day, was The English Patient), turning off the internet, and writing. I loved this idea. I brought with me to Idaho a bunch of books that could serve the "Bible" role--for me, for a few days, it was Larry Levis's Selected--and I used this method to jumpstart my writing.

It was amazing to me, though, how deeply some of those poems have penetrated my...what, my tropes? images? paradigms? For instance, this:
I know this isn't much.
But I wanted to explain this life to you, even if
I had to become, over the years, someone else to do it.
You have to think of me what you think of me. I had
To live my life, even in its late, florid style.
That's from "My Story in a Late Style of Fire," from Winter Stars. I bought that book before the first meeting of the first workshop I attended, taught by Larry Levis. Evidently, I have been reading this poem for all the years since. It was, actually, shocking to me. I not only love this poem--it, in some sense, has become me. Or I have become it. I guess this happens with every book that, in some way, forms us.

I remember thinking quite clearly at one point in my life that I no longer wanted to keep having the same arguments. In a sense, I wanted to stop reading the same book. This is, of course, not possible, or at least I have not found it to be so. We keep reading the same books that have read us. These books--the ones that form us--are us. We are them. In this sense, we never really leave our old books behind--our old lives, our old ideas and commitments--we are always in them, they are always in us.

Right now, I am wondering if there's even a point to saying, of this phenomenon, this is terrible or this is true or any such judgement. I am wondering, what, in fact, the Bible is--the rotating cast of sacred books, or beautiful books, or searing, or visionary, or transformative books. Can you choose your Bible? or does it in some way always choose you?

My family used to love to play a little game, where we'd name the top five records, or books, or movies, or whatever--the ones you'd take with you to a place where you'd have those and no other. My kids would always joke with me that I acted like it was real--like I'd never be able to revise my list. I always put Leaves of Grass on my list of books, and I did always put the King James Bible. To me, whatever else it was, it was a book of beautiful language, and parts of it mean a great deal to me--words that feed me. Even when I'm choosing, my old book follows me.

If you are of the book--sacred or secular-- then books that choose you--or the ones that you choose--give you the frame for thinking and feeling. I feel I might never stop being able to read through the original books--the original books speaking, always, through every new text. At this point in my life, I'm not sure why I should even try, aside from understanding that mine--my reading, my writing--isn't the only way.

I am asking myself: what is it that my own poems are doing? what news do they have to deliver? what beauty of their own? what voice or beauty that isn't somehow ventriloquizing, quarreling with, revising, contradicting, singing the old books?

Larry Levis again, speaking in a borrowed voice--the voice of Whitman:
Now that I'm required reading in your high schools,
Teenagers call me a fool.
Now what I sang stops breathing.
And yet
It was only when everyone stopped believing in me
That I began to live again--


  1. Yes. I've been thinking this, too. Reading Gaviotas (history of a sustainable community that is renewing the clearcut wasteland of Colombia)and at the same time the history of Le Chambon (village of refuge for Jews during WWII) realizing I keep searching/finding/stumbling on the same stories and have been since The Lorax, since Give Said the Little Stream. It is like we each are set to resonate to certain words, certain stories. Now I want to read your poet -- love those opening lines.

  2. This is why you're the real deal, HT. You do stuff like this. You write posts like this. I am shamed--not into action, mind you, but shamed nonetheless.

  3. This got me thinking about my core texts, what my bibles are. Interesting!

  4. I love reading your blog. It gives me something to think about at the most boring job in the world. I think we should have lunch so I can thank you for that beautiful letter of reccomendation you gave me. What say you?



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