The week’s recommended reading and culture from Orion authors and artists.
I’ve been reading Chris Merrill’s latest book, The Tree of the Doves, which is comprised of three long extended essays on a banned ritual in Malaysia; the poet Saint-John Perse’s 1921 journey from Beijing to Ulaanbaatar; and Merrill’s 2007 journey to Syria, Jordan, Israel and the West Bank, Greece, Turkey, and Lebanon. The book is many things: a probing meditation of Islam and the West and the clash between modernity and tradition; a crucial look at the way a poet can become our guilty conscience, helping us to turn away from our dim, reductive hearts; and the terror that lies deep within the building of empires.
I admire the artful way Merrill braids his inward and outward journeys, and especially the ethics at the heart of his work: he is always looking for a way of guarding the heart against fantasy; he knows all too well how once we are caught in our own desires, we lose the ability to be present to the presentness of the world that lies before us. Gary Snyder once counseled that our task is make the real world as real as possible, and I’m attracted to the way Merrill never loses sight of that task.
Along the same lines, I’ve been catching up on some of my favorite poets, writers who are committed to seeing the incomprehensible contradictions of both the world we live in and human nature. First up: Stephen Dobyns’s Winter’s Journey, which contains some of the finest poems I’ve read lately—they are meditative, wide-ranging (almost anything can show up inside them), funny, and incredibly wise. I love the way he can re-create the maddening nihilistic world of business and politics while remaining open, however often he’s been let down, to miracle.
And there are Syd Lea’s new books, Young of the Year and Six Sundays Toward a Seventh; Lea’s unflinching gaze at suffering and loss always takes place within a “splendid universe” to which he gives his “grateful praise.” And finally there is Robert Wrigley’s Beautiful Country, which catches the exasperating beauty that is America as it aims high and too often misses.
Robert Cording teaches English and creative writing at College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts. He is the author of six collections of poems, including, most recently, Walking with Ruskin. His poem “Massachusetts Audubon Chart No. 1, 1898” appeared in the July/August 2012 issue of Orion.