I read the book in a morning, barely stirring from my chair on the porch, while the sky’s milk turned sour in the sun. On page 7, the town drunkard was “Monday’s Saint, guilty of everything.” On page 9, children in an old photograph looked as if they were wearing “lives borrowed from elsewhere,” and a cardinal switched to a higher-pitched song as he climbed the dead elm on the far side of my yard. I skipped ahead to the author’s Afterword and was struck by her suggestion that “freeing objects of their function is the first step toward understanding them.”
In the Lleshanaku family — political outcastes in Hoxha’s Albania — prayer was something done in secret, and they considered it a weakness, “like making love … followed by the long/ cold night of the body.” Winter was ending on page 17, and its sky flattened things with elephants’ feet. On page 18, people maintained that “if you eat books you will eat yourself/ little by little,” and a rustle made me look up in time to see a small groundhog slinking across the yard, head low among the blue myrtle flowers. I found myself wishing I was already finished eating the apple in my hand so I could startle him with a tossed core.
“Spring kills solitude with solitude,” I read on page 20, “imagination/ the sap that shields you from your body.” A book “will be skimmed over impatiently, starting at the last page,” and I knew from the Afterword that here Lleshanaku was talking about her own habits. A wild turkey hollered his lust from above the barn. Trucks in the quarry two miles away labored out of the pit in low gears or shrieked in reverse. “Don’t blame me for losing the ability to see what’s new.”
A pair of chickadees landed in the flowering cherry beside the porch, their legs thin as piano wires, and when the male sang he blended phrases from two different songs. On page 24, a poem was “a bullet without a target” fired into the air, and on page 27, a witness wasn’t “allowed to think/ after swearing herself in on the battered book of truth/ with an illiterate hand.” I tried to imagine growing up in a place where books were rare, truth even rarer, and both of them dangerous.
Now I heard a hen turkey, too, her hoarse want want want want want, and the white-throated sparrow’s Poor Sam Peabody from the far side of the springhouse, that odd, jail-like building now flanked by daffodils. “A prisoner’s dreams/ are parchment/ made sacred by its missing passages,” I read on page 29, and two pages later, shoveling soil on the dead had “become as common/ as sprinkling salt on food.”
When I came to the end of Part I, I was taken aback by the additional blank sheet between the sections. Up in the woods, a two-squirrel chase came to an abrupt end when a third squirrel tried to join in. The guard stationed in a booth at the cemetery gates played chess with himself on page 37, and I looked down at my chair and noticed for the first time how the plastic was worn rough at the ends of the arms, right before the bend where they turned into legs.
Love entered on page 39, and I heard a solitary or blue-headed vireo calling from above the end of the old corral — the only time he sang all morning. A river on page 40 was irreversible, and a train blew its whistle for our crossing, following another river. “In love two bodies become one cactus,” I wrote, copying the poet’s words in my atrocious handwriting. A page later, the slam of a door interrupted my reading of “Particularly in the Morning,” and a moment’s inattention allowed my father to enter the poem with his laundry basket. I glanced up at the other house where a a row of blue socks were already hanging from the line.
On page 44, hunger began to rumble in my gut. “What tree?” the poem kept asking. “What tree?” I glanced up at the cherry in time to see the first two petals fall, just two days old. The sheets of a hotel bed on page 49 were “made by anonymous hands,” and the protagonist stretched herself out “like a silk bookmark/ between newly read pages of a book.”
There was “A Question of Numbers” on page 52: “Two people form a habit./ Three people make a story.” The first of many carpenter bees motored slowly past my ear. Five pages later, the peak of a mountain that marked the edge of the familiar world held its snow all year, mirroring the sky, but “like a dogma” never touching it. I decided I liked poems that made me stop to think in the first few lines, even though it made finishing the book in one sitting a more daunting task.
The sun went in, and then it went farther in. Elsewhere the sky was blue, but this was as irrelevant as the memory of happiness during depression — or so I scribbled in my notes. Something odd was happening in Part III: the protagonist was switching genders unpredictably. In the title poem, “Child of Nature,” he or she disappeared at the moment of conception, when the wrong chromosomes begin to mix. On page 65, men were only able to touch the world through their sons, “the way latex gloves/ lovingly touch the evidence/ of a crime scene,” and in the next poem, men without sons were unable to pass on their secret inheritance, “not the secret itself/ but the art of solitude.” She’s onto me, I thought. A fly with a shiny black abdomen landed on the page.
In a “Meditation While Shaving” on page 70, a son remembered his father’s advice: “A power of a man … is measured by the things he doesn’t do./ Passion should be kept hidden, like a turnip!” Rich words, however misguided, I thought. Four pages later, an equally potent image: the mother on an airplane flight reaching one hand under her seat to feel for the life jacket, “Like a child touching a book of fairy tales under her bed.”
I was almost out of room on the sheet of paper I was using for notes, and my writing grew smaller and smaller even as the carpenter bees multiplied: the village madwoman as “history, unable to lay blame on anyone” but cursing all equally on page 79, and on page 85, the moving finger of a man reading from his own diary, like “the finger of fate, getting ahead of itself.” In the last poem, lightning struck a furrowed field, and winter smothered “all fear beneath it,/ a time of awakening.” I slipped my notes between the last page and the back cover, which were two very different shades of white.
(I’m reading a book a day for National Poetry Month. Click on the book cover to go to its page in Open Library.)