(an installment in my occasional series of book recommendations; this post contains affiliate links)
These are violent days. What good are books? Of what use is poetry?
In his elegy for W. B. Yeats, the poet W. H. Auden famously wrote, “poetry makes nothing happen.” Yet the poem itself complicates this view.
Poetry may or may not change a thing, but if we feel compelled to sing, why not sing, as Mary once sang, of justice?
If we feel compelled to read, why not shed the burden of our own particular skin and view the world through another’s eyes? For a little while?
Here is a poem for that.
Here is one more.
A favorite book on our family shelves is Brown Girl Dreaming, a recent Newbery Honor Book by Jacqueline Woodson. My twelve-year-old daughter and I both loved it. The poetry is accessible but incredibly rich.
In a similar vein, I recommend Inside Out and Back Again, by Thanhha Lai. Written in verse, this story communicates difficult truths and complicated historical experiences with grace and lyricism. It is one of the sweetest, saddest, loveliest books I have read.
When I was a new graduate student living on the south side of Chicago, I first read the classic 1952 novel Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison. That was years ago, and I don’t remember the book very well. What I do remember is the shock I felt reading a novel told from the perspective of a nameless black man. For the first time in my life I recognized how the skin we walk around in can remake the world around us. I had never even imagined a world like the one inhabited by this invisible man, but there it was, and while I read the book, I lived in it.
Like most summers, this one is too loud, too crowded, too hot. But, as I write in Roots and Sky, this cuts two ways. There are also too many lilies in the garden and too many squash on the vine. My way of dealing with the too-muchness of it all is what I call “comfort-reading.” This means I am finding most of my reading material on the shelf at my local Goodwill thrift store: fifty cent Agatha Christie paperbacks, an old Martha Stewart gardening book without its carefully photographed jacket, an Englishman’s memoir of life in Provence that must have been on everyone’s beach-read list the summer of ’89.
I revisited the Goodwill bookshelves only yesterday and found two treasures. The first was a copy of The Taize Picture Bible: Stories From the Scriptures in almost perfect, vintage condition. I have heard such good things about this illustrated Bible for children over the years, but it has long been out of print. I paid $1.97 and couldn’t believe my luck.
The second was a pristine paperback copy of Elizabeth Enright’s Thimble Summer, the winner of the 1939 Newbery Medal. I didn’t buy it only because I recently found a vintage hardback of the same title at my local used bookstore. It has been our evening family read-aloud for a week now.
My ongoing quest to discover read-aloud books all four of my kids will submit to listening to (actually enjoying the book is a higher standard; I am satisfied if two of four children say they “like” the book) has recently met with failure upon failure. The last success I remember is Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Farmer Boy, a book that has a lot in common with Thimble Summer.
On the recommendation of a friend, I recently began reading The Manor: Three Centuries at a Slave Plantation on Long Island. After my friend explained it was a book about an old house written by a landscape historian, she said, “I think you’ll like it.” I said, “I think you’re right.”
More factual and straightforward than a historical novel, yet much more readable and compelling than a history textbook, The Manor tells the story of one of the first great European houses in North America, and the family who lived in it and preserved its history for centuries. One house might not seem so important, but the door of this house opens up a story of northern slavery that has since been either forgotten or willfully ignored.
The first Sylvesters were Quakers, and the story of their lives is revising a story I have always taken pride in. My own farmhouse was built by Quakers, and I have long given credit for the beauty of this part of Pennsylvania to the generations of residents who have sown peace and justice into the very soil of this place. That story is still true, but The Manor tells an older, darker tale. According to this story, the blood of enslaved Africans touches every aspect of our earliest history and every one of my seemingly peaceful, green hills.
Seeds of brutality and injustice were sown into our country’s soil from its earliest days. It is a small thing to know that the atrocities of slavery on sugar plantations in Barbados could not have been sustained without the animals and crops raised on New England farms, yet somehow that knowledge has brought the shame of slavery home to my own heart.
Those Barbadian plantation owners lived in homes built like fortresses. They exploited, in fact, they brutalized their workers and so they feared them.
Slavery is long gone, but we still reap that terrible harvest. We worship safety. We are afraid of black men, but it is the black men, and their communities, who pay the price for our fear.
When I hear that one more police officer has killed one more black man, I cannot throw a stone at that officer. I remember how, years ago, fear would rise up in me if I followed the sidewalk beneath a graffiti-splattered viaduct and saw a young black man in baggy pants approaching from the other direction. It took years of living in that south-side Chicago neighborhood to learn that I was always so much safer than any of those young black men. In ten years, I was never the victim of a crime, but neighbor after neighbor, innocent after innocent, male and female but always black-skinned, died of gun violence while I lived, untouched, in their midst.
Separation breeds fear, and fear breeds violence.
But if violence is a failure of the imagination, as the poet William Stafford said, then perhaps poetry can make something happen?
Comfort-reading has its place, but I must also read to bring dark things into the light. Especially, those dark things in my own self.
What if we tuned our imaginations to the songs of others not like ourselves?
If poetry makes beauty and creates hope, can it also help us to act justly and love mercy?
Can it help us walk humbly with our God?
With these questions in mind, do you have any book recommendations for me?
If you are looking for a quick Saturday read, here is my latest post for Grace Table: “What Hospitality Looks Like In A Castle.”
Let’s be honest. My springtime reading looks less like reading and more like one hour spent weeding the perfect reading spot under the sour cherry tree and then fifteen minutes given to sitting under that tree watching the peonies dance and catching my book as it just slips from my lap.
So, not a great deal of actual reading.
But books are food for me and even in springtime I manage to take a few bites here and there. Lately, these quick bites have been all about the letter P: pruning, poetry, and prayer.
(You can find more information about my occasional Saturday series of book recommendations here. These posts do include affiliate links. Thank you for clicking and buying. Thank you for reading along. And thank you for sharing your own recommendations in the comments!)
I learned about Lee Reich’s Pruning Book, The: Completely Revised and Updated by listening to a radio call-in gardening show. Since then I’ve seen his name everywhere (well, everywhere you might expect to find mention of a pruning expert). This is an award-winning, highly-praised reference book. It is also beautifully made, comprehensive, and a joy to browse. Best of all? It makes pruning seem easy.
If you’ve ever wondered what to do with that old apple tree (or the apple whip you recently planted), or how to keep your tomatoes from sprawling into a disease-ridden mess, or how to keep your clematis vine blooming then you really should own this book. I first checked out a copy from the library, but it only took me about five minutes of flipping pages to realize I needed this one on my shelf.
If anyone could turn pruning into poetry that someone would be Verlyn Klinkenborg. His eloquent observations of life on his New York farm are deservedly famous. The Rural Life is nature writing as poetry.
You might think you don’t have much interest in nature or country living (and I should mention that just the words nature documentary put me straight to sleep), but if you appreciate language and metaphor, if you want to learn how to see to the depths of what is always right in front of our eyes, then you should be reading Klinkenborg.
I haven’t yet read his follow-up collection More Scenes from the Rural Life but simply holding the book makes me happy. Published by Princeton Architectural Press, the jacket design and interior illustrations are perfect. Beautifully old-fashioned but also minimalist and modern. Choose this gorgeous hardcover for yourself and as a gift. It’s that kind of book.
Everyone reaches for fullness in summer, but the fullness that most of us know best belongs to the memory of childhood. What was it that made summer days so long back then and made the future seem so distant? What was the thing we knew or didn’t know? – Verlyn Klinkenborg
Phyllis Tickle’s prayer books are year-round favorites of mine, but I love them especially during the busyness of spring and summer. I don’t pray the hours (morning, noon, and night) regularly, but when I only have a few minutes and don’t even know where to begin with prayer or Bible-reading I almost always find myself reading the morning office in Prayers for Springtime.
The Divine Hours (Volume Three): Prayers for Springtime: A Manual for Prayer (Tickle, Phyllis) and The Divine Hours (Volume One): Prayers for Summertime: A Manual for Prayer are part of a three-volume set. Whether or not you are familiar with the Benedictine practice of fixed-hour prayer, I think you will find Tickle’s contemporary selections of prayers, psalms, and Scriptures easy to use either regularly or (like me) irregularly as the need or mood strikes.
I sometimes think that fifteen minutes spent sitting under the sour cherry tree observing the birds and noticing the breeze is a form of prayer. Reading a bit from this book as I sit only makes it more official.
And you? Which books are you reading on the patio as the sun begins to set?
From my kitchen window I can see a blue plastic sled stranded at the top of a small hill.
Last year, our first spring at Maplehurst, we edged the hill on one side with blueberry bushes. We shored up the other side with an asparagus patch. We planted a peach tree and a cold-hardy fig like two flags at the top, but the kids have carved a downward path that manages, usually, to carry their sleds around their mother’s precious plants.
The snowcover on the hill is shrinking, and the sled is marooned. I can imagine it still sitting there in July, nearly forgotten in the weeds.
The sled I see clearly, but it is much harder for me to imagine July’s green abundance. Here, in early March, there are no signs of new life. Instead, the snow seems to be coughing up rusted buckets and wilted kickballs.
These hinge weeks between winter and spring are always ugly, but, thanks to February’s ice storm, this one is particularly awful. Brown grass and mud are mixed with splintered wood; our world looks as if it has only just survived some disaster.
From my kitchen window, I see a waste land.
The trees, still bare, no longer remind me of elegant bones against the sky. Instead, they look naked, and I am ashamed for them.
At church, it is the first Sunday of Lent. The cross carried in procession is veiled in purple, as if we cannot yet bear the sight of our redemption. Easter, like spring, is still too good to be true.
The reading from the Old Testament this day is from Genesis. Adam and Eve discover their nakedness, and they are ashamed.
This season I am following my friend Sue’s example and praying daily one simple prayer: Search me, God, and know my heart.
This prayer is simple and brief, but it isn’t easy to pray. It feels like a deliberate stepping out into the open with no clothes. Not even a fig leaf.
I thought this prayer would open my eyes to some sin. Instead, my eyes have been opened to something much more complicated.
T. S. Eliot describes it in his own meditation on a wasted, blasted land:
April is the cruelest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
Winter kept us warm, covering
Earth in forgetful snow …
Winter’s rest is melting away, and I am waking up to a great desire. And I find this terrifying. Exhilarating, too.
Spring won’t truly arrive until I have dreamed and ached to pick asparagus, blueberries, peaches and figs. First, the longing. Then, the feast.
And the new plans God has for my life can’t be realized unless I first recognize the desire planted in my heart. Certain dreams will never come true unless I first wake up and remember them. But to remember them enough to pray for them is to stand naked before God. There is no more hiding the depth of my desire. There is no shrinking from the fear that he will say no or not yet. Sometimes spring is interrupted by a killing freeze.
God is tugging me – and you – towards resurrection.
But the road is a cruel one.
I may have saved the best for last.
I never speak in absolutes about favorite books or poems or writers, but I think Luci Shaw’s “Made Flesh” is my favorite poem for Advent.
Of course, I’ve mentioned Luci Shaw a few times before. Advent may be pouring itself out into the glory of the Christmas season, but Shaw’s poetry is an excellent literary companion through the whole year. Might I suggest beginning the new year with her poems close at hand?
This one is worth reading slowly.
the white-hot beam of annunciation
fused heaven with dark earth,
his searing, sharply focused light
went out for a while,
eclipsed in amniotic gloom:
his cool immensity of splendor,
his universal grace,
small-folded in a warm, dim
female space –
the Word stern-sentenced to be
nine months’ dumb –
infinity walled in a womb,
until the next enormity –
the Mighty One, after submission
to a woman’s pains,
helpless on a barn’s bare floor,
first-tasting bitter earth.
I in him surrender
to the crush and cry of birth.
was closeted in time,
he is my open door to forever.
From his imprisonment
my freedoms grow,
find wings. Part of his body,
I transcend this flesh.
From his sweet silence my mouth sings.
Out of his dark I glow.
My life, as his,
slips through death’s mesh,
joins hands with heaven,
speaks with stars.
– Luci Shaw, from Accompanied by Angels
Time is undone, and the light will swiftly come.
Can you feel it? Can you begin to see it?
We are still waiting, still it is dark night, and yet … joy. We know the light is near because there is joy.
“Let us View With Joy and Mirth”
Let us view with joy and mirth
All the clocks upon the earth
Holding time with busy tocking
Ticking booming clanging clocking
Through the stars and winds and tides.
Who can tell where time abides?
Foolish clocks, all time was broken
When that first great Word was spoken.
Cease we now this silly fleeing
From earth’s time, for time’s a being
Bows before him
Who upon the throne is seated.
Time, defeated, wins, is greeted.
Clocks know not time’s loving wonder
Day above as night swings under,
Turning always to the son,
Time’s begun, is done, does run
Of the morning
Time, mass, space, a mystery
Of eternal trinity.
Time needs make no poor apology
For bursting forth from man’s chronology
Laughs in glee as human hours
Dance before the heavenly powers.
Because the Son
Swiftly calls the coming light
That will end the far-spent night.
– Madeleine L’Engle, from The Irrational Season