Thursday, May 20, 2010

What I'm Reading Now

Found at the thrift store today, a small set of literary books, all of them hardcover first editions, and one history book on a topic that still interests me. I've been having some good luck with thrift store finds of books lately; maybe people are doing spring cleaning. I find I can't turn my back on any of these books, and have to bring them home. Fortunately, I'm a fast reader, so they don't tend to pile up for too long.

Found today, then:

Fred R. Gowans: Rocky Mountain Rendezvous: A history of the fur-trade rendezvous, 1825-1840 (Gibbs-Smith Publishers, 1985). For about ten years in the 1990s I was heavily involved with the Rendezvous scene, in which folks camp for three or four days on the weekend at a group, doing accurate historical reenactments of fur-trade era Rendezvous. This book is a history of the fur-trade era Rendezvous that happened annually on many sites in the Rocky Mountains during the years indicated. The fur-trade was opened by the French-Canadian voyageurs through the Great Lakes, and in the wake of Lewis & Clark's Corps of Discovery, was extended West into the Great Plains and the Rockies. The fur trade peaked in the 1830s and was essentially done by the 1840s, due to overtrapping, although the legendary mountain man type lived on for quite some time. This book is valuable because it quotes from many journals and letters written at the time, which have stories and accounts of the Rendezvous, what went on, how people gathered and why, and what they did. The fur-trade is an era of North American history that still intrigues me, even though I haven't been able to get to a modern Rendezvous reenactment for a few years now. A great deal of history was made during that period, setting some patterns for what came to follow, even to the present.

Seamus Heaney: Preoccupations: Selected Prose, 1968-1978 (FSG, 1980). Essays autobiographical and literary, a number of reviews, and a few important essays on poetry as a way of life. Heaney, the well-known poet originally from Ireland who has lived and written internationally, gives us a variety of writings in this his first prose collection. In his Introduction, the poet writes: "I hope it is clear that the essays selected here are held together by searches for answers to the central preoccupying question: how should a poet properly live and write?" At his best, Heaney is a solid thinker about poetry and language and what it all means. There is a long essay here on Gerard Manley Hopkins, which contains the comment: ". . . the function of language in much modern poetry, and in much poetry admired by moderns, is to talk about itself to itself. The poem is a complex word, a linguistic exploration whose tracks melt as it maps its own progress. Whether they are defining poetry or writing it, the sense of poetry as ineluctably itself and not some other thing persists for modern poets." That;s as good a summation as I've ever read of those attitudes and tendencies that, post-Wallace Stevens, have led poetry towards its current status of being arcane, obscure, and unpopular, a specialist's work rather than a public one. Hopkins is shown by Heaney to have endowed his words with a purpose; no matter how strange they might seem to us, Hopkins' poems were responsories: to life, to nature, to the Divine. Later on in this collection, Heaney provides us with a long essay on early Irish nature poetry, which I look forward to reading, as the ancients still have something valuable to teach us—a point Heaney has made throughout his long career.

Rainer Maria Rilke: Sonnets to Orpheus, trans. by David Young (Wesleyan Univ. Press, 1987). Isn't it odd to find such rich and deep reading at a thrift store? Just wait: there's more. This is a translation by an American poet of Rilke that I have not encountered before. As a Rilke compleatist, who never tires of reading and re-reading that great poet, and who collects whatever books I find of his work, obviously I must bring this volume home, to place it on the shelves with my many other RIlke editions. The Sonnets were part of the remarkable outpouring of poetry that flooded through Rilke in February 1922, after his well had been dry for some years. During a brief span of days, he completed the Duino Elegies and wrote two sets of Sonnets to Orpheus. Rilke later referred to this creative upwelling, in letters to friends, as his "great giving," in which the poems came to him as fast as he could write them down.

These are unusual sonnets. They constantly break out of the strict application of the poetic form. Young's translations, I think wisely, do not try to recreate the German rhymes into English rhymes—early translators of Rilke tried to do that and came up with some very bad translations that veer quite a ways away from the original poems, by trying to force them into the straightjacket of English poetic forms. Some other later translators have voted for sense over style, and not tried to rhyme their translations. Young works in a middle ground, aware of the sound of the sonnets, aware of the form, but not forcing a rhyme just to force the poem into a formal pattern; there are off-rhymes and slant-rhymes among his word-choices, which bring us some of the music without forcing it to become sing-song in its new language. For example, here is Young's translation of the third sonnet of Book I, which is one of my favorites of the Sonnets. I think this is very serviceable:

A god can do it. But tell me how
a man can follow him through the narrow
lyre. The human self is split; where two
heartways cross, there is no temple to Apollo.

Song, as you teach it, is not desire, not
a wooing of something that's finally attained;
song is existence. Easy for the god. But
when do we exist? And when does he spend

the earth and the stars on our being>
When we love? That's what you think when you're young;
not so, though your voice forces open your mouth,—

Learn to forget how you sang. That fades.
Real singing is a different kind of breath.
A nothing-breath. A ripple in the god. A wind.

James Dickey: Puella (Doubleday, 1982). Dickey is not my favorite poet, or novelist. I look from his early sublime poems to his Vietnam-era poems, which are among the most brutally honest of that time; then I look to his later work, which often just seems sadistic and crude for no good reason. This volume is the poet's imagined biography of his beloved wife's girlhood; it was written out of an obsession with imagining her life before they met. Dickey is nothing if not a poet of obsession. The writing is mythic, intuitive, occasionally hallucinatory in its sensuality; the style is open and flowing, atypical for this poet. Perhaps it's because this is a male-imagined biography of a girl on the edge of sensual womanhood. Dickey is never an entirely trustworthy narrator; you always have to look a little askance, and read between the lines. But there are bright passages herein. For now, I expect to place this book on my shelves nest to Dickey's Selected Poems, and give it a fair reading when I am in the mood to explore more deeply. I believe that one needs to occasionally read poets who one doesn't necessarily embrace—I don't hate Dickey, I just don't embrace him—because there is always something to be savored, and possibly learned from, even from those poets one later ends up abandoning.

This next book is the find of the day, for me. It hasn't let go of my attention since I saw it on the shelf at the thrift store; I immediately sat and read a few pages, before continuing on and eventually checking out and driving home. It's interesting to me that today at the thrift store might have called a day for writing, a day for literature; because the other two items I found amidst the chaff and detritus was a calligraphy pen set, and a very nice Japanese ink stone.

Italo Calvino: Six Memos for the Next Millennium (Harvard Univ. Press, 1988). Calvino died suddenly on the way to give the Norton Lectures at Harvard in 1985-86; so this book is his last writing, and his legacy. In fact the book contains only five of the lectures; the sixth had been finished in mind, but not yet written down. Calvino was in my opinion one of the great storytellers, myth-makers, and fabulists of 20th C. literature. Every time I re-read one of his tightly-constructed small volumes (his thickest book is a magnum collection of Italian Folktales, while all his novels and story collections are quite slim) I learn something more about writing, about reading, and about metafiction. The first Calvino book I encountered was The Castle of Crossed Destinies, in which a group of travelers, all of whom have been traumatized by some dramatic event (offstage), meet during a storm at a country inn, and tell each other their stories by narrating them via a deck of Tarot cards. What a brilliant conceit: aphasic Chaucerian characters who have all lost their voices, telling each other their tales via the Tarot. That the book is compelling reading on every level is what hooked me into Calvino's universe of stories. Since then I've read everything of his that I can find; I'm particularly fond of Invisible Cities, in which Marco Polo and Kublai Khan sit in the Khan's palatial gardens, while Polo tells of the many strange and wonderful cities he has visited in his travels, which may or may not exist.

In his lectures to be given at Harvard, Calvino writes about those characteristics of literature that he views as essential: lightness; quickness; exactitude; visibility; multiplicity. The sixth lecture, as I mentioned, had not yet been written out, but Calvino's topic for that was proposed to be: consistency. For such a mercurial, even experimental, writer, it would have been fascinating to know where he would have gone with that topic.

I feel like this is going to be one of those books that is going to forever change how I view literature. I look forward to reading it slowly, savoring each thought, unhurried, letting it seep in. WIth Calvino, that is often best: there are so many ideas condensed and wound into his spare prose, in each of his fictions and metafictions, that the prose has always seemed to me to have the flavor of poetry. With Calvino, it's often good to re-read after a period of time, too, for no doubt you will get more of it the second and third time around. As I said, I very much look forward to giving this last volume of Calvino's my fullest attention, as soon as my schedule permits.

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