My long-ago library memories are wistful ones, especially of junior high when one of my older cousins lived with us while he was in college. Once a week or so we’d pile into his sleek black sports car and drive to one of the big branches of the Hennepin County Library. I’d spend hours encapsulated in a white egg-shaped chair with a blinding orange interior (it was the ’70s, yes?) previewing the stack of books I’d be taking home.
The last several years, I’ve been without a library one could call substantial. It’s not my library’s fault. It was a matter of location. And demand. And funding. But I missed the days when I lived in proximity to a library where the odds were better that a title search would return multiple copies of a book I was looking for than the experience I’d become accustomed to, typically ending with something like “Hmm. Nobody’s ever asked for that one before.”
When I moved into my new neighborhood this past fall, one of the first things I did was walk to the local library branch (mere blocks away) and get myself a library card. With immense delight, I put the shiny black and white card in my wallet and slid the quick-scan tag onto my key chain, envisioning the day when I would be pumping through books so fast I’d only have time to hold out the tag as I whizzed by with more books to read.
Not wanting to be too ambitious (these were busy days, immediately in Hurricane Harvey’s aftermath, and I knew I’d not have an abundance of leisure time), I used the card to check out one book. Just one. My card was probationary, anyway. I had 90 days to prove myself a good library patron before I could secure full privileges. Best not to take chances with more than one book.
Last week, I returned the book. I had renewed it three times online, skimmed a couple of chapters before finally returning it on the last possible day, unread.
I did not check out another. I’m working back up to it.
When Megan Willome publishes her Reading in the Wild pages each month, I shield my eyes. All these people, reading all these books. Were I to add my pages, I might have to just say “See Above,” referring to the previous month’s list of books in progress, yet again completing none.
It’s true that I do have several books in progress. My Goodreads account, which I just logged onto today for the first time in many months, suggests a reading challenge for me of 12 books in 2018, what its algorithm projects as a substantial stretch goal given my past performance. There was a day when a realistic goal might be three or four times that—without much stretching and no concern for a pulled reading hamstring. But these days I cannot finish one book. I cannot even make progress. I am recalibrating after a job transition that has taken me from a solitary desk in my home office for nearly a decade to a classroom full of adults where I talk all day long to the point of having a perpetual sore throat and a supply of Yogi Throat Comfort tea always at the ready. Call it an introversion upended, where by the end of the day, even conversing with a book feels like too great of a commitment.
What does a person read when they can’t read? When a whole book is out of reach and a chapter (even a few pages) feels like too much to ask?
This is what poems are good for. (Well, they are good for many things. This is one.) Most fit on one page. They keep the conversation short. Sometimes they even do all the talking. They don’t insist a person come back the next day.
In this season, while Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal and Blair Braverman’s Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube and others sit in the stack on my sofa, patiently waiting for me come back to them, I am more likely to pull Sharon Olds from the stack (even though her poems are often two pages long) and hold a line from The Prepositions, like “fourteen, the breaking of childhood, beginning of memory.” Just that line can be enough for me for one day.
When I am saddened by my inability to bear the weight of a book, a poem, even if not a soothing sort of poem, offers a kind of comfort. I might read Izumi Shikibu:
It seemed the plum trees
were already in bloom
but when I picked a branch
what fell—so much like flowers—
this writer used to end his stories with a shot /
I don’t know why he would go to the trouble to make up a character that soon
he’d end up assassinating in precise and lovely paragraphs
perhaps in conflict with logic / but who
can speak of logic these days / not me /
This week I started reading a collection of French poems. Short, all of them: the volume is small enough to fit into the back pocket of my Levis.
I’ve seen at dusk
points of light
—from Eau de lune (Moonwater) by Jean Joubert, tr. by Denise Levertov
This might be the one, with its beckoning points of light, that leads me back to longer reading. In the meantime, maybe you’ll see me in Megan’s Wild Reading post, adding poems instead of pages. It’s a thing that poems are good for.
Photo by Nathalie, Creative Commons via Flickr. Post by Will Willingham.
How to Read a Poem uses images like the mouse, the hive, the switch (from the Billy Collins poem)—to guide readers into new ways of understanding poems. Anthology included.
“I require all our incoming poetry students—in the MFA I direct—to buy and read this book.”
—Jeanetta Calhoun Mish