Each man is a half-open door leading to a room for everyone. —Tomas Tranströmer
My friends say Tolstoy really got into the heads of his female characters. They give him credit. They talk dreamily of the books they love, books so long only two will make a whole course. This seems to me like making twelve gallons of chili and eating nothing else till it’s gone, but I smile and listen. My friends are smarter than me and more patient, surely. I’m the only guy in the house tonight so I get my own room with a good foam mattress, a bad desk, windows that open on other rooms. I make up the bed and lie down with Tranströmer’s poems, ten or twenty lines on a page, fewer words in fifty years than Tolstoy or George Eliot put down in a decent work week. Every man is a half-open door.
The door to my room is cracked open, lights blaze outside. My friends are all upstairs. If I don’t shut the light off, no one will. The wind will settle toward morning, the waves begin again to spell their single complicated word. Waiting for the ferry we watched a hawk try to lift a four-foot snake from the shallows, drop it, circle, swoop and grab again and lose its grip and veer away. Oh, how sweet would that meat have been, how grand a feast, how we would have cracked and sucked the bones, how long we could have made that story last.
Not so long ago, the standard view was that American poetry had been thoroughly secularized by the great modernist poets, especially Wallace Stevens (who at least worried about the absence of God) and William Carlos Williams (who seemed unaware that anyone thought about God at all). But that has changed.
What books compel a second—or third or fourth—reading? How is the second reading different from the first, and what does the difference reveal about the book or the reader? We asked ten writers, including Margaret Miles, Gordon Atkinson, Mary Doria Russell, Diana Butler Bass and David Cunningham, to name a book that they chose to reread, and to share their reactions "the second time around."
It came to me as I waited at the desk, thinking how to turn another scattered group toward the day’s work: I want a bell. Not the electric commands that drilled through our younger days,
not some jingly tinkle. No, something small but clear—a signal, a reminder, a request. After Christmas we went looking and my son found a pair of heavy, small brass disks joined
by a leather thong at the import place in town. They had eight raised symbols in a ring, some scratchy lettering inside. When he struck them the pure tone hung for seven seconds
in the air, shimmering and clean as the sun. Of course I bought them. Each day now I put them on the desk, try to keep them quiet. They want nothing but to ring. They desire not to join but to meet.
When it’s time I hold the thong close to each disk and strike them at right angles to each other, as I learned from a man who told me that their true name is tingsha, that in Tibet the monks strike them
when minds start to ramble. Inside, he told me, were the great and ancient words, Om mani padme hum. We might say: See the jewel in the heart of the lotus. He rubbed the symbols on the top: here
is the conch shell, he said, here the prayer wheel, the umbrella, the flower. The students smile each time I strike the chimes, hold them as the sound wavers, fades. It lasts such a long time.
Such a short time. And then we begin, teasing new sounds from the old tongue as we can, taking the next steps across the rocky plain, following the smoky thread on the horizon.
We fold out the map and it tells us where we might be. We study the compass and it offers some names. We open the timepiece and it says, Be quiet. Bring the chimes together.
Edgar Allan Poe once famously opined that the death of a beautiful woman is “unquestionably the most poetical topic in the world.” What if the woman is also a poet, death comes early, and her husband is a famous poet as well?
The dates in the title tell of Richard Wilbur’s remarkable longevity. Once a youthful prodigy, he became part of poetry anthologies 30 years ago. By now Wilbur is a grizzled eminence, known at least vaguely to most Americans who pay any attention to poetry.
When William Stafford died in 1993, he was not the most famous or most critically acclaimed poet around, but he was certainly among the most beloved. To the many who knew him personally or through his work, he was not only an innovative poet, but one who managed to bring his life and his writing together into a seamless, striking witness to nonviolence and poetic freedom.
From Baptist to Presbyterian to Orthodox—that’s hardly a conventional trajectory for an American Christian. Even less usual, perhaps, than claiming to be a Christian poet, or being summarily unhired from a Christian university because a single poem was deemed unsuitable by the administration. But Scott Cairns has never managed to be typical.
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