Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Of things literate and literary

This morning, as I was waking, I felt the soft breath of the one sleeping next to me. Happily I stretched and thought kindly of . . .oh, it’s the dog! But already lines of poetry had come unbidden to my mind: “Lay your sleeping head, my love,/human on my faithless arm. . .” So, of course, my mind races off trying to resurrect the rest of the poem. Who wrote it, who wrote it? And what is the rest of the poem?

Well, that did it—I was awake. Where such a question might once have tortured me, sending me scurrying from this anthology to that, searching, searching, fortunately now we have the Internet. All I needed to do was type in the opening line, and voilà, back comes the answer:
Lay Your Sleeping Head, My Love by W. H. Auden. I should have known—Auden is one of my favorite poets who knows how to craft a line of poetry just so to hit me with the maximum ache of the beauty of words. Remember that wonderful scene in Four Weddings and A Funeral when Matthew eulogizes Gareth with another marvelous Auden poem: Stop All the Clocks? Once my literary wheels start turning, it can be difficult for me to turn them off.

Maybe all I needed was my quasi-resolution to read more, for last night I finished reading Ian McEwan’s Saturday. The book had started somewhat slowly, and I wasn’t sure I would like it. But, I had read other McEwan works and liked them, so I slogged on. I did like it, but it does not surpass my favorite read of the year: Kiran Desai’s The Inheritance of Loss. While I hesitate to recommend books to people unless I know their literary preferences, I heartily commend this book. I will say no more about it, for fear of over-selling it and thereby having the reader be disappointed. I did this with my daughter who read Inheritance after me, and didn’t like it as much as I did.

My daughter and I have an informal book club, reading and recommending and sharing books back and forth between us. One of the more unique ways we have of picking books is that as each of us prepares to visit a country, we select a book written about or by an author from that country that we read and then share with the other. Several years ago, she visited Russia, so together we read (or re-read) Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. This past summer, she (and her boyfriend) visited several south-east Asian countries including Vietnam, and we read Graham Greene’s The Quiet American. When my husband and I visited Portugal this summer, I picked José Saramago’s
Baltasar and Blimunda, one of the more challenging reads I have had in a long while.

My daughter’s longer stay in Ghana, and my visit there, has not resulted in our selecting and reading a book by a Ghanaian author. But we may yet. We had both read Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, but a work by a Nigerian author really can’t stand in for a Ghanaian work!

While I am listing things literary that I found enjoyable over the past year, let me throw in the names of several of the wonderful movies we saw this year. Recently, we went to see Dreamgirls, and Babel. Of course, they are two very different movies, but each is well worth seeing. We also saw The Queen which, on the performance of Helen Mirren alone, is a tour de force. But perhaps my favorite movie of the year (truth is, I can’t remember exactly which movies I saw this past year) is the wonderful little work Little Miss Sunshine. This independent film is a quirky loving portrait of a highly dysfunctional family taking a cross-country road trip in an equally dysfunctional mini-bus.

Two closing thoughts on things literate and literary. At the beginning of 2006, I read Joan Didion’s bittersweet little book The Year Of Magical Thinking. Part memoir, part grieving process, this work gave me a hint about writing. Before he died, Didion’s husband John Gregory Dunne, gave her a slip of paper on which he had written a few words. It was his contention that to be a writer one had to grab the snatches of words, the phrases that came to mind. So, he would write things down not knowing when or how he would use them. This slip that he gave to Joan was one, he said, he didn’t think he would use and so he was offering it to her. Later, she took his relinquishment of words to be a premonition on his part of his impending death. The lesson in that anecdote is for me, a sometime writer, to write things down. So, I have a blank booklet that I keep next to my bed, and sometimes even carry with me.

The final literary thought is to share a wonderful poem I found this year. When National Poetry month occurred in 2006, some of my colleagues at the community college where I teach took to distributing a daily poem. This practice led to the serendipitous discovery of Martín Espada’s wondrous poem
Alabanza: In Praise of Local 100. I leave it with you as a New Year’s gift.

Thank goodness for words!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Donna, I had to stop by to chide you for getting me all teary by commenting on Laura's blog. My eyelids are still batting away at the thought of your husband's conversation with the new dog. Lordy! Is that a for real recounting or just wonderful poetic liscense? Lordy!

Thank you for the Auden snippet. That line has always fascinated me and you remembered it in much better detail than I was able. Dang - what I'd give for a memory.