Recommended Reading: Joe Wilkins

(Editor’s Note: This is a follow-up to Joe Wilkins’s feature article “On Edges” in the Summer 2019 issue.)

I hold so many books close. My tattered copy of James Wright’s collected poems, Above the River—Wright the poet who, along with his friend and contemporary Richard Hugo, first gave me permission to make poems of the small towns and losses and hard landscapes I knew—leans just so on my shelf. Nearby, an old paperback edition of James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, which I discovered in a cardboard box of books my mother brought home from a library sale when I was twelve has traveled with me all these years. And stacked below are the books I love and often teach Kent Haruf’s Plainsong and Mary Szybist’s Incarnadine, Michael McGriff’s Home Burial, and Jesmyn Ward’s Men We Reaped.

Lately, though, I’ve had to do a little bookshelf accounting. On sabbatical from my permanent teaching post in western Oregon, I’ve temporarily moved with my family across the country to upstate New York, where I’ll be serving as the Viebranz Visiting Professor at St. Lawrence University for the academic year. From the Columbia River Gorge to Montana’s Crazy Mountains, we traveled from the fecund Pacific Northwest of my adulthood to the high, dry Montana prairie of my youth. We spent a few happy days with friends in northern Iowa, where both kids were born, then drove farther north, taking every opportunity to pull off the road and swim—Lake Michigan, Lake Ontario, and finally, the Grasse River. 

Of course, even before the first mile of the trip, I spent many afternoons trying to decide which books to leave and which books to carry with me. Which brings me to the list below. Along with those close-to-the-heart books, and the books I love and often teach, I found myself reaching—and reaching once again, now that I am ensconced in my little office in our old house in the North Country—for books that have taught me how to be a better writer and how to be a better human being:

Bonnie Jo Campbell, American Salvage

I might be stretching definitions here—I teach Campbell’s stories in my class on the literature of contemporary rural America—but every time I go back to American Salvage I’m startled by how intricate and powerful these stories are. With great compassion and pure honesty, Campbell inhabits the lives of deer hunters, farmers, machinists, and meth addicts in small-town Michigan and finds a way to tell stories that are not just hard but also cleansing, redemptive. Rereading American Salvage, I think: this is it—these are the kinds of stories I want to tell—and I look up from the page wounded and wiser, hoping to move with greater care through the world. 

Rebecca Solnit, A Field Guide to Getting Lost

I first read A Field Guide to Getting Lost four summers ago when I was living in an off-the-grid cabin above Oregon’s Rogue River in the Klamath Mountains. I haven’t really put it down since. Always sharp and meticulous, Solnit is more meditative and personal, even confessional, here, as she explores the dangers and joys of falling into place—falling out of the self and back in again. Of a camping trip in the eastern Sierras, Solnit writes, “the place […] seemed when we were in it as though it was all there was in the world.” I keep happily losing myself in this book the same way.

Annie Dillard, Teaching a Stone to Talk

Oh, Annie Dillard. How I love her sentences—paying attention to her commas alone is a master class in prose—and her god-haunted attentions. Say, for instance, as I let Teaching a Stone to Talk fall open on my desk, these:

It is difficult to undo our own damage, and to recall to our presence that which we have asked to leave. It is hard to desecrate a grove and change your mind. The very holy mountains are keeping mum. We doused the burning bush and cannot rekindle it; we are lighting matches in vain under every green tree.

Ross Gay, Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude

On our road trip, we stayed with good friends in Montana. They’re sheep ranchers and environmental activists, and over beers late that night we read Ross Gay’s poems to one another. My heart hurts with gladness just thinking about it.

Marilynne Robinson, Lila

I don’t understand how this book works. I can’t say exactly why it feels so charged and necessary. Yet it seems to me like life itself: circular, half-secret, full of bright suffering and shadowed grace. “Maybe heaven would be like that,” Lila muses, as she tries to reconcile her own lives of deprivation and of love…

…with fields and fields of nettles and chicory, things anybody could take because nobody else would want them. Then if the thief on the cross went to heaven he could just thieve forever to his heart’s content, nobody the worse for it.

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Joe Wilkins grew up in eastern Montana, where he spent his summers working on a wheat and cattle ranch in the Bull Mountains. He is the author of a memoir, The Mountain and the Fathers, winner of a GLCA New Writers Award and a finalist for the Orion Book Award, and three collections of poetry, including, When We Were Birds, winner of the Oregon Book Award in Poetry. His debut novel, Fall Back Down When I Die, praised as “remarkable and unforgettable” in a starred review at Booklist, is now available from Little, Brown. This academic year, he and his family are living deep in the North Country, where he is serving as the Viebranz Visiting Professor of Creative Writing at St. Lawrence University.