Sunday, January 20, 2019


book people

So many things I could write about today.  January 2019, here we are.  Snow and sleet lashing the windowpanes this afternoon.  Temperature well below zero with the wind chill.  Ryan just made muffins with wild blueberries and chopped cherries and they are as good as that sounds.  Hodge is asleep under a quilt.  And I am so restless.  I have been working on three (!) book projects, apparently the struggle-struggle-struggle of just one each January in years past hasn't been enough of a challenge for me.  Why not three.  One is a painterly memoir about my past and how I got to this place in life of being a painter, one is a nature memoir about one of the islands I visit each summer, and one is a tiny manifesto about nature, wild creatures, and the seasons, with small gouache illustrations throughout.  They sit here next to me like tree stumps, these three manuscripts.  I will try my best to complete them, if not this year, then next.  Time still feels as if it is bearing down on me.

The death of poet Mary Oliver a few days ago is not helping the situation.  I heard the news as we hear most of the news these days - I was scrolling along online, minding my own business, and boooom like a terrible echo of a peal of dark thunder there it was, the first post about her, then another, and more, then an avalanche of feeling for this exceptional writer and her life of sustained attention.  Her work has meant so much to me, over the years.  I've got a few of her books next to me right now.  I keep them close, as do so many others.  Cold comfort though it is, I am glad to discover, in the wake of her death, that there will soon be not just a biography of her, but an authorized biography.  Lindsay Whalen is writing it, and Penguin will publish it.  I also have to wonder if Mary Oliver left us some final work, and if that will be published too.  One can hope.  So many of her poems are about death in some form or other, I can't help but want to read whatever she has to say about the imminence of her own, as she saw and felt it approach.  These words of hers have stayed with me, since I first read them long ago - she was so clear, so particular and specific - from her book House of Light (Beacon 1990), the poem The Oak Tree at the Entrance to Blackwater Pond:


Every day
on my way to the pond
I pass the lightning-felled,
hundred-fingered, black oak
which, summers ago,
swam forward when the storm

laid one lean yellow wand against it, smoking it open
to its rosy heart.
It dropped down
in a veil of rain,
in a cloud of sap and fire,
and became what it has been ever since -
a black boat
in the tossing leaves of summer,

like the coffin of Osiris
upon the cloudy Nile.
But, listen, I'm tired of that brazen promise:
death and resurrection.
I'm tired of hearing how the nitrogens will return
to the earth again,
through the hinterland of patience -
how the mushrooms and the yeasts
will arrive in the wind -
how they'll anchor the pearls of their bodies and begin
to gnaw through the darkness,
like wolves at bones -

what I loved, I mean, was that tree -
tree of the moment - tree of my own sad, mortal heart -
and I don't want to sing anymore of the way

Osiris came home at last, on a clean
and powerful ship, over
the dangerous sea, as a tall
and beautiful stranger.


What to say, after that.  Well, not going to lie, I shed tears soon after hearing about her death and this poem brings them perilously close to the surface once more.  Let's speak of something else for a few minutes.  I intended to write today about what I've been reading recently, as I usually do.  And yes, I've been revisiting many of my favorite Mary Oliver books over the last three days, interspersed and leavened with these:

I know I've mentioned Slightly Foxed here before, after coming across a random issue at a local thrift shop.  Well, I'm sorry to say I never did subscribe to it, I just couldn't make the commitment (financial and otherwise; TLS same, to my prolonged and ongoing dissatisfaction), but I have been following their trajectory nonetheless.  Looking at their website again recently prompted me to turn to the secondhand market, as I so often do, and I found two lots of back issues for sale on eBay and bought them.  Thus, recent evenings have found me with one of these in hand, smiling to myself, and taking an occasional note.  From the kind of prose that keeps me enthralled, that of book people.  For this little quarterly magazine is comprised of brief essays and reviews by real book people - authors, editors, booksellers used and rare, other denizens of the book trade - all about books that are usually out of print.  The editors, Gail Pirkis and Hazel Wood, are so very good at what they do.  They have an uncanny knack for choosing the perfect selection for each issue - each essay rings a bell for me, with very few exceptions - a bell of instant interest and recognition.  Because they almost all are written with a high level of talented bookish fanaticism, for a particular title or author the writer of the essay feels should see the light of day once more, often after years of neglect, benign or otherwise.  That particular favorite, that one beloved book we turn to again and again, the author we search for in used book shops and rejoice when we find something we didn't already have.  The book we turn to every two years, to re-read and meet the author and our own selves on the pages once more.  I kid you not, every issue is like this.  I've read about a third of the issues shown above and have yet to regret a moment of it.  

As I mentioned the last time I spoke of Slightly Foxed, the first sentences to the reviews and essays draw you in immediately.  If your tastes run to books as mine do, it is impossible to read these first sentences and not continue on, joyfully.  To wit, P.D. James in issue No. 26, Summer 2010 (p.12): 

"There are some books, not necessarily the longest, in which the author's intention is so perfectly realized, a seminal experience of life so beautifully recorded that the book becomes a small icon to be treasured not only on the shelf of a personal library, but in the mind."

And Josie Barnard in issue No.27, Autumn 2010 (p.28):

"Some books I set out to read, others I get involved with by accident."

One more - Charles Elliott in issue No.22, Summer 2009 (p.87):

"As obsessions go, book collecting ought to be one of the more innocent."

From his essay entitled Book Crooks.  Oh, that word ought!  The whole sentence turns on it.         

Each issue contains gems such as these.  Captivating.  A treasure trove of the known and unknown both.  Although I must say that so many of the books mentioned therein - after all this time of reading and selling books and generally trying to become aware of literature of all kinds - so many I have never heard of before now.  From authors long-dead.  Slightly Foxed shows me again how inexhaustible the book world is, how renewable and regenerative, and oh how much love we book people have for our books.  And reminds me, though I hadn't forgotten, how fascinating and strange it is that someone else's words, put down and made into books, can come to mean so much to us.  Mary Oliver.  How I will miss you.  How glad I am you wrote your books!  I don't think I will ever tire of the reading experience.  Such mysterious riches, readily available to us all. 

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