The Book Life

Let’s Dispense With Genre Altogether

June 29, 2009
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I’ve already rhapsodized about Maggie Nelson here, haven’t I?

In the interest of not wanting to navigate away from the new post page, I’ll just refresh us all by saying this: I saw her read at the Ohio University Spring Literary Festival (aka LitFest) and immediately bought nearly all of her books. Her poetry is incredible, and her presence onstage is simple, unapologetic, and quietly powerful.

I just finished reading Jane, Nelson’s memoir-of-sorts about the murder of her aunt, Jane, at age 23, 4 years before Nelson herself was born.

I’ll admit my reluctance from the start: In some circles Jane is considered a kind of true crime book, and Nelson herself admitted to reading true crime while working on this book. I do not like true crime books – the reasons why, I’ll save for another day. So I dove in skeptically and would have stayed away entirely, except that Nelson’s other work is so good.

And what a good idea. This book is a memoir. It is true crime. It is poetry. It’s a journal. This is an annoying thing to say, but it transcends genre in an of itself, not as a gimmick, but because there’s no other way to tell the story. It’s entirely fascinating, and not because it’s about the death of a beautiful women (Nelson quotes Poe’s Theory of Composition in the opening, though she later lets us know that Jane was not beautiful).

Nelson uses everything available to her: excerpts from Jane’s own journals, quotations about the murder from newspapers, Nelson’s own poetic inquiries. Here are some excellent lines:

“Skin is soft; it takes what you do to it.”

“Can anyone like blood the way one likes the mountains or the sea?”

And Jane’s own words: “Am I to live this life / with a blameless ferocity?

I really think this book is the perfect example of the wonderful things that can happen when you focus on what you need to say before you worry about how to say it. The HOW comes later, will come on its own. There are a lot of poems in this book, and a lot of white space, a lot of stanza breaks. And I found myself considering the bravery of white space, and wrote this in the margins.

the control




the danger

in leaving

so much space

for breathing





Sometimes books just have the perfect last lines.

June 20, 2009

“Each time we did it I was afraid of missing the swell, hanging back, timing it wrong. John never was. ou had to feel the swell change. You had to go with the change. He told me that. No eye is on the sparrow but he did tell me that.” -Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking

“This is where the story starts, in this threadbare room. The walls are exploding. The windows have turned into telescopes. Moon and stars are magnified in this room. The sun hangs over the mantelpiece. I stretch out my hand and reach the corners of the world. The world is bundled up in this room. Beyond the door, where the river is, where the roads are, we shall be. We can take the world with us when we go and sling the sun under your arm. Hurry now, it’s getting late. I don’t know if this is a happy ending but here we are let loose in open fields.” -Jeannette Winterson, Written on the Body

Making Friends with Dead Poets

June 1, 2009
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I did it!

…finished the collected letters of Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell, Words in Air, that is.

It took me four months (800 is a lot of pages, and I am easily and often distracted), so now that I’ve finished, I feel sort of adrift, and abandoned. This large, hardback book from the Worthington Public Library has been a constant feature on my desk since before Christmas.

I read these letters with only the barest exposure to the poetry of either writer, and in total ignorance of their biographies – which turned out to be a fascinating way to dive into people’s lives. There’s so much that you miss, but it’s such an interesting way in. Plus, these two in particular were so in love with each other! And reading each of their letters, I couldn’t help but fall in love with them both, as well.

So encountering, at the end, “North Haven,” by Elizabeth Bishop, in memory of Robert Lowell, after a perfectly cheerful letter from Elizabeth to Cal (as she called him), was somewhat shocking. And then to jump to the footnote and see that Lowell died, in a cab, on the way back to Elizabeth Hardwick, his estranged wife…

well, I read the poem, and tears welled.

You left North Haven, anchored in its rock,

afloat in mystic blue . . . And now–you’ve left

for good. You can’t derange, or re-arrange,

your poems again. (But the Sparrows can their song.)

The words won’t change again. Sad friend, you cannot change.

The words won’t change again. All of the sadness is right there, in the word won’t, and in the finality of the simple sentence, the ceasura in the middle of the line.

So sad to see them go.