Recently, I walked into a bookstore with my nine-year-old daughter and said, choose a book you want—anything under ten dollars. She surprised me by choosing Scott Westerfeld’s New York bestseller Leviathan, no doubt based on the steampunk cover and her recent interest in a movie based on books by Jules Verne. I tried vainly to shepherd her to something else—something I remembered from childhood, something classic. Then I remembered reading (though at the time I was slightly older than she is, twelve or thirteen) all the Mario Puzo novels I checked out of a beach library; I thought of all the Ian Fleming books I went through one summer. (I was also reading Jane Eyre—but still.)
Nobody ever stopped me from reading any book I picked out.
We bought it. She loves it. Ten years from now, if she’s writing anything at all, who knows what it will have taught her or how it will shape her thinking about her own work. As I now revisit the sheer number of books I read until I reached my thirties, I am intrigued.
Then I stopped and thought—well, what am I reading now? Sometimes the question for me isn’t what I’m reading, but when in this nonstop world I’ll read. So much of the time I’m reading for work (as a book reviewer) which isn’t really so bad—I think books deserve reviews and I’m glad I have a job that keeps me reading current work, but sometimes I wish I could jump into a classic book (not for a book group) or a contemporary book (not for potential review)—just for pleasure.
So what am I reading for pleasure?
1) The Sphere of Birds by Ciaran Berry, as I reconsider my thin lines, he offers examples of how lines can thicken:
Why do they bother, what is it both boys want except
the soul sprung from the locked box of the self,
one doing his best to scale the ladder of the air,
the other rapt up in the workings of his wrist,
and both of them reminding me of the Caladrius, that all-white bird
said to symbolize Christ, a more literal taking away
of sins, as it drew the symptoms of any non-fatal illness
with its stare and carried them into the sun to burn.
Later in life, my brother will collect bones: skull of a curlew…
2) Dancing in Odessa by Ilya Kaminsky, to hear a young voice, a contemporary’s particularly fresh voice that seems also able to channel from centuries past:
October: grapes hung like the fists of a girl
gassed in her prayer. Memory,
I whisper, stay awake.
In my veins
long syllables tighten their ropes, rains come
right out of the eighteenth century
Yiddish or a darker language in which imagination
is the only word.
4) Stone by Osip Mandelstam, because of Ilya Kaminsky’s brilliant reminder:
I grew as a rustling reed
Where the pond is foul and muddy
And with languid and tender greed
Breathe a life forbidden to me.
No one sees me as I sink down
To a cold lair in the mud
With a rustle to bid me welcome
In autumn’s brief interlude.
I rejoice in my cruel pain
And in life, which is like a dream,
I secretly envy all men
And in secret love all of them.
5) (gentlessness) by Dan Beachy-Quick, for music that shapes into experience:
Teeth are this poor man’s plow
cutting the music into rows,
dulled down by the dirt,
this face is this poor man’s tool,
tilling the earth by trilling the song,
melody mumming the blossom
back into itself, the initial seed
broken apart by what it cannot
help, this force that confesses
itself, that says I from the broken
mouth, that confesses this mouth
has always been mine, this shovel,
this mouth, singing the flower….
6) Legend of the Walled-Up Wife by Eilean Ni Chuilleanain, to hear a gifted Irish poet translate a Romanian poet who has her own mythology, but blends characteristics of Romanian folklore expertly with the Western canon:
When I was travelling as an obscure
Member of Ahab’s crew
Searching for the white whale
Suddenly I felt my right leg
Shedding its flesh and becoming
A plain artificial stump
Whittled from the sacred bone
Of the Leviathan.
What do you read? And how much of your not-because-I-have-to reading secretly feeds what you write? What voices do you trap inside for those moments when you need some structure or a gentle nudge while you’re doing your own work? If I had an equal amount of time to spare, I’d spend as much time cozied up in the Writers’ Room comfy chairs reading as I do at a desk trying to write.
-Valerie Duff, 2015 Poetry Fellow