Readings and Re-Readings, 2018
by Mark Rich
I wish sometimes that I could meditate upon all the sublime, ocean-deep, profoundly rolling and breaking words that have seen print but that I never have read, and that——given how that sea erodes us, much as time erodes us——likely I never will read ... or, if I do, will never meditate upon ... seeing how we seem to face a choice: to be a hollow walnut shell, afloat and thus never letting the sea inside us, adrift on it happily while saying that, yes, we know these seas; or to be a sieve, which can hold an ocean entire, but sinks.
Maybe for this reason, in one of the few resolutions for this year that I managed to keep, I found a way to be both walnut shell and sieve, and finished memorizing Robert Frost's first book of poems, A Boy's Will, of 1913. And for perhaps half the year, while in the garden, walking to the post office, or at the sink with my hands in suds, my head was floating and sinking, both. For months I recited to myself that small book, skimming over it and yet delving into it a hundred, two hundred times. Who knows. Daily, for months on end. I later changed my routine so that, here at year's rump-end, I revisit those poems perhaps a couple times a week. In the way of the walnut shell, I hardly know Frost at all. In the way of the sieve, his poems flow into and out from me more than I can know.
I did begin the year with the thought to myself: "Read. Just read!" I think the thought arose because of my daily time with Bach. For I was dabbling with the idea that I should be learning him as I was learning Frost. I decided, however, to continue on my original task, of improving how I read the page. So I kept at that, in a program that takes me through two preludes and fugues per day. I believe it will prove to be with the tonal music in Bach as with the verbal music in Frost, that only through a memory process may I truly hear it. In the meantime, however, I have kept reading, just reading——remaking more into a whole the half-musician I first trained myself to be.
I think it safe to say that as teenagers we are half the readers we might be, if perhaps in some ways better readers than we will be ever again. This past winter, having finished those books I wish I had read as a teenager, the Earthsea trilogy, I went on the Le Guin that I did read, then: The Left Hand of Darkness, which had impressed me in my youthful Kansas years, and impresses me again in my long-toothed Wisconsin ones. It reads to me as a story that is so much of its time——as a story must be, if it is to have any chance at becoming a story to have a life in later times.
I had hoped to go on in my Le Guin reading, this year, though not through any presentiment of her passing. I was in the pages of Left Hand, and Martha was reading the Earthsea books, when news reached us, late by two days, that she had died. It came as a blow.
In looking back into my journal, I see that a few days later Martha happened to see that it was the day on which Frost had died, in 1963; and I felt secure enough to note that I now "had A Boy's Will to mind." And then I noted further something I have quite forgotten——that I "had a dream in the night in which I was something like stage-manager to a production in a small church, halfway between a wedding and a performance and an event of honor; and Le Guin was in the alley to the side, although on that last time [in the sequence of dream-events, was] directly behind the large house or barn or church, meaning she had a walk ahead of her; and I told her I regretted not having given her a ride [...] since I had been in a position to do so." Why I should dream that I should have offered Le Guin a ride somewhere, I have no idea.
I ended up elsewhere than with Le Guin for the remainder of the year, as it turned out. In one direction I took, I picked up another novel from my teenaged years: C.S. Lewis's Out of the Silent Planet——from which title I took the name of my first small-press zine, in the 1970s. Lewis, as befit his calling, could write beautifully: and he did. As a youth I found the lurking Christianity in his fantasies disquieting, however. I read only the first in his space trilogy, then as now; and of his Narnia books I recall liking only The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. A copy of The Magician's Nephew appeared near to hand, however, when I was still feeling some glow from Silent Planet's linguistic strengths. I found Nephew distasteful for the way it draws out the good-and-evil struggle, though; and for relief I pulled a novel from one of my to-read piles: The Magician's Wife by Brian Moore. Back in the eighties or nineties I read Moore's beautiful first novel and was struck by the realism in his characters and narrative; and my desire to read more went unmet for decades. I do like this novel, which revolves around the French mechanician Henri Lambert. Fortunately having no "steampunk" leanings, Moore leaves automata for local color and adroitly develops a tale in which Emmeline Lambert partly undermines a magician and partly reveals a human being. Knowing nothing about Moore's life, the novel made me wonder if he himself had regrets about the discipline and isolation required of the novelist, who by verbal legerdemain must accomplish the impossible. I wonder, too, if having read Robert Mondovi's autobiography Harvests of Joy——which proved highly readable, by the way, for us, who are less wine esthetes than enthusiasts——sparked this thought: for among Mondovi's themes are regrets relating to the discipline, the isolation from home and family, required by one's chosen artistic calling.
I threw a few shovel-fulls into the canyonesque gaps in my readings, this year. Although I had read shorter works by her, Misha's Red Spider, White Web had sat awaiting me since we visited her and her publisher, David Memmott of Wordcraft, a few years back. I found it an amazing and (to draw an elevated term from deeply-dusted lit-crit tomes) trippy novel. In the early chapters one grasps for substance and a coherent understanding of what is transpiring; and then in Chapter Five, as I recall it, the language leaps upward into a fractured and painful brilliance that then carries one on to the end. I might call it jagged and uneven, perhaps even never fully developed, if I might also call it remarkable and enchanting for those same reasons.
Having also finally read Willa Cather, I now have the pleasant prospect of her more famous novels ahead of me. The Lost Lady may be the most haunting novel I read this year——to judge from how certain scenes have kept returning to my mind, over the months. May they keep returning, over the years. I can only dream how Cather might have handled Moore's novel, which I think should have been haunting in this way.
Some similar effect resulted from reading Hamlin Garland's stories in Main-Travelled Roads. The fact that he wrote, in part, about the region in which Martha and I live must help our finding his writing so inviting and satisfying, although I think the stories have little need of such help.
Garland is less tidy, less pat, less symmetrical in his plots than is Charlotte Perkins Gilman, whose Herland, and Selected Stories I have belatedly read, after having had Gilman books float within reach, off and on, since the late seventies. I enjoy her stories for their enthusiasms, their energies. The facile element may be no more than an artifact of the markets for which she wrote. Even if not, she plainly felt impulses that could and did lift her above the norm.
For sheer wonder, aside from Misha's word-fests, I encountered nothing this year more powerful——this may surprise you——than Laura Ingalls Wilder's Farmer Boy. Chalk it up, if you must, to this reader's making a living, in part, by spending daily workshop time in cleaning and restoring small antiques, including barn pulleys, milk stools, and hay hooks. Within each chapter I seemed to reach an "oh, wow" moment. I have found, just now, a journal comment. "I continue being amazed at Farmer Boy: first the cooking and eating that made it so dreamy a vision, even with the antagonisms and hard work; and then the work itself, the processes and methods, the drawings of items that I gravitate toward buying at auctions."
I have been ending my year with a few readings less venerable, less yellow-wallpapered. It rarely happens these days that I am at a newsstand, but did recently buy there the new Analog, to read G. David Nordley's "An Empress of Starlight," and other stories by other old friends. (Is it really two years since, at this same stand, I chanced upon the issue with a wonderful Nisi Shawl story?) Just afterwards I was reading a quite differently textured science-fantasy that also shows a woman becoming a sort of queen of the known universe. Both Nordley's story and Timmi Duchamp's "The Tears of Niobe," in her collection Never at Home, brought back to me the over-the-top reachings, the rushing leaps for grandeur that science-fantasy can deliver. And the yearnings for immortality. Have I been missing those flavors, those intoxicants? Maybe I have.
And lately I have been working through the appendices in David Hockney's 2006 extravaganza Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters——an art book as fun and interesting in its words as in its pictures. (I do read the old Little Golden Books I happen upon. It is not true that I only look at the pictures! I do value that words-and-pictures pleasure. Come to think of it, I found a used copy of Maus this year, and read it. Good as Spiegelman is, though, I will go back more often to Gustav Tenggren, Tibor Gergely, Richard Scarry, J.P. Miller, and the Provensens.)
That parenthetical aside, just above, penciled itself into my closing thoughts, and led me to pick up The Poky Little Puppy, handily nearby in a loved-to-death copy too beat to sell at the shop. On one page, the five little puppies see the sign, "Don't ever dig holes under this fence!" Turn the page, and see the puppies out in "the wide, wide world"——and a beautiful toad by Tenggren. ("Brown hop-toad" in the text by Janette Lowrey. A green one, in the illustration.) What a treasure! A toad! A visual feast! No wonder I learned so well to turn the page!
Little Golden Books were partly Disney-fied in even their early days. In the Seventies they became Sesame Streeted——with a few of those books still being good page turners. ("Do not turn that page! Noooo!" I recall Grover saying that, in one.) Later, though, Little Golden Books became Barbied, Pixared, and Barbie-Disneyed, or some such thing —— which makes me wonder if a generation may have been lost to page-turning. In our new century some old Little Golden Book titles have been re-issued as classics, offering that small hope that the future may hold new page-turning readers. Long live Tenggren! Long live Gergely!
At happy hour, by the way, we use a little aerating device for newly-opened wine, which someone gave us. (If you squint at it you might see an elongated nut shell, with a sieve at the top.) It gurgles air into the wine.
So we call it Tibor.
Mark Rich had a syllabic sonnet in the spring 2017 issue of Poem and has a traditional one in the fall issue, after not having had a poem in Poem for twenty years. His story "And Fountains Flow" appears in Shadows & Reflections, the Roger Zelazny tribute anthology. He has had two collections of short fiction published — Edge of Our Lives (RedJack) and Across the Sky (Fairwood) — as well as chapbooks from presses including Gothic and Small Beer. He is also the author of a major biographical and critical study, C.M. Kornbluth: The Life and Works of a Science Fiction Visionary, published by McFarland. With partner-in-life Martha Borchardt and two Scotties-in-life he lives in Cashton, Wisconsin, and gardens, shovels snow, still reads Bach daily, and remains faithfully behind in his book revisions.