I am writing this in the Manchester, New Hampshire, airport, on my way back to the West Coast after a month’s writing at the New Hampshire artist colony, MacDowell — a restoration to the palace of childhood summers, having so much undisturbed time for writing, also for reading.
This does mean that the books I’ve read in the last few weeks are a rather unusual cioppino.
I also did spend rather a large amount of time reading the place itself — immersed in a woodchuck and small flock of wild turkeys that liked to forage the mown field just outside my writing cabin’s window; making rather good friends with the emerald green frog and two (much shyer) black-shelled and yellow-plastrumed turtles who lived in the little “Fire Pond” I swam in every afternoon; reveling in the warm summer lightning and thunder storms (in my part of California, there’s sustained drought from March or so until the rains start again in the fall, and thunderstorms happen only once or twice a year at most and are always too cold to want to stand out in). Turtles live at the mythological beginning of reading in both Greek and Chinese mythology, and reading begins with descrying the natural, seeing the green frog suddenly take shape amid the green leaves and grasses he perfectly matches. Reading is, I think, quite simply seeing — an activity sometimes done in the world, sometimes through the eyes of words. So I didn’t want to leave that world-reading out, since it in truth took so many of my hours.
But for the books — first, some poetry books I took out of the library. Mostly these are what was available in MacDowell’s own collection, but also a few from the Peterborough Public LIbrary, which kindly offers colony fellows a card for their stay’s duration. These are books I wanted with me so that my shelves would not be empty, so that my instrument felt surrounded by an orchestra, so that my mind, heart, and ear could be inspired, awakened, reminded, and tuned. Of these, a couple were newly read, the rest old companions I saw were there and simply wanted at hand.
Czeslaw Milosz, The Collected Poems
Wislawa Szymborska, Monologue of a Dog
Jane Cooper, The Flashboat: Collected Poems
Charles Simic, Return to a Place Lit by a Glass of Milk
Rae Dalven, translator, Modern Greek Poetry
Galway Kinnell, A New Selected Poems
Robert Frost, Collected Poems
Emily Dickinson, Collected Poems
Frank X. Gaspar, Night of a Thousand Blossoms
Christina Davis, Forth a Raven (an astonishingly beautiful and strong first book)
Wallace Stevens, Opus Posthumous
William Butler Yeats, Collected Poems
Robert Hass, Human Wishes
Arthur Waley, translator, Translations from the Chinese
I also carry a large number of poems in my computer, in a folder titled “Other People’s Poems.” Of these, I drew strong sustenance from a small, rhymed poem by Robert Creeley, “End,” which I memorized; two poems by the Brazilian poet Carlos Drummond de Andrade; a sheaf of Jack Gilbert’s work; and some works of the Portuguese poet Pessoa.
These are the prose books I read while there:
Tolstoy, War and Peace (I was three-fourths through re-reading this when I left for this trip, and the new translation was too heavy to carry; I finished it with an old translation from the Chicago Great Books series Mortimer Adler edited, taken from the Peterborough library’s basement storage — their newer copy was out. Except for the pure oddity of reading about “Prince Andrew” rather than “Andrei,” I found the change of translations an interestingly untroubling experience — the ideas, the human explorations and portraits, remained electrifying. On this reading, as opposed to the one undertaken at nineteen, even the didactic sections were magnetic, and his theory of history startlingly postmodern in the way he proposes it transcends theory itself. For Tolstoy, this leads to a proof of God’s existence — a conclusion from which I diverge — but the analysis is thrilling nonetheless, in its fidelity to the multiplicity of being. And Tolstoy’s compassion, his enormous capacity to name and encompass and include with warmth every facet of human behavior and feeling, is also something that I found breathes through yet independent of actual sentences. I doubt you could touch it if you took a sledgehammer to the words, that compassion is so strong.)
Arthur Koestler, Darkness at Noon (A book I have always meant to read but never had; after reading Coetzee’s magnificent and archetypal Waiting for the Barbarians a year or so ago, I wanted to read this book so clearly its forbear, but also because, as our country is so perilously considering at this time (it’s mid-September as I write this, and the polls show a Presidential race inexplicably close) what kind of future we — and the planet — will enter, I felt the necessity of reading a book so chastening, blistering, about what such choices truly mean.)
Doris Grumbach’s Chamber Music (A novel, but one that draws from the two foundation artist colonies in this country, MacDowell and Yaddo; I always like to read one book with an immediate connection to an artist colony while I’m in residence there.)
Donald Antrim’s The Afterlife: A Memoir (Donald was at MacDowell when I was, and read on his departure a rather brilliant story he’d just completed, his first new piece in three years; this is the book I’ve been saving for the plane ride home.)
Philip Roth, The Dying Animal (Someone had left this out on a table in the MacDowell library, and I’d recently read reviews of the new film based on it. Roth has lost none of his acuity as the chronicler of the contemporary American male, as viewed through the lens of eros.)
I brought with me a large pile of unread back issues of The American Poetry Review and The Threepenny Review, and found innumerable treasures in each.
Jane Hirshfield’s After was named a “best book of 2006” by the Washington Post, the San Francisco Chronicle, and England’s Financial Times. Her most recent Orion contribution is the poem “Bamboo” in the September/October 2008 issue. Her newest poems appear in The Atlantic, Poetry, The Believer, and The Georgia Review.