Books for the trail

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It’s Summer Book Week at Via Negativa. Since I’ll be gone part of the week on vacation myself, I decided it would be an ideal time to consider what constitutes the perfect summer read. I’ve enlisted the help of my family to put up posts while I’m gone, and even do a little guest-blogging. So please stay tuned, and I’ll see you on the other side.

As I start thinking about assembling gear for a multi-day camping trip in the West Virginia wilderness, my first and most important consideration is what book to bring. I want something I can use to wake up my mind first thing in the morning, so that means lyric poetry. At camp, even more than at home, dawn is my favorite time of day; why fritter it away with my nose in a novel? Since we’ll probably be doing some backpacking, whatever book I bring can’t be too heavy, but if I should find myself spending a rainy afternoon in my tent, I wouldn’t want something I could finish in an hour or two. This argues for a paperback volume of an author’s selected or collected poems (I’m not too fond of multi-author anthologies).

Whatever book I pick will play a fairly large role in shaping my mood and honing my attention for a day of rambling through the woods. Thus, I think I’d prefer poetry that grows from the author’s attachment to the land, poetry that dives deep – as opposed to, say, poetry of alienation or of purely cerebral themes. Thus, I have narrowed the list of candidates to just a few titles. Here are the current contenders.

Nature: Poems Old and New, by May Swenson (240 pp., 13 & 3/4 oz.). Over half my choices are translations; Swenson’s deft and clever use of the English language reminds me how much we sacrifice by reading poetry in translation. May Swenson is a thinking person’s poet in the tradition of Stanley Kunitz and Elizabeth Bishop. This book, spanning the nearly five decades of her writing, is an appealing choice because of the breadth of her stylistic and geographic range. She writes great travel poems, with the kind of word music and understated precision I would like to achieve in my own work. Here are the closing stanzas of “Bison Crossing Near Mt. Rushmore”:

The bison, orderly, disciplined by the prophet-faced,
heavy-headed fathers, threading the pass
of our awestruck stationwagons, Airstreams and trailers,
if in dread of us give no sign,
go where their leaders twine them, over the prairie.
And we keep to our line,
staring, stirring, revving idle motors, moving
each behind the other, herdlike, where the highway leads.

Uncollected Poems, by Rainer Maria Rilke, translated by Edward Snow (266 pp., 15 & 3/4 oz.). What could be a better companion for an unstructured trip than an uncollection? This is the heaviest of my five candidates; one would expect that from a book with German on every left-hand page. Snow’s translations hold their own against the best original poetry in English – he’s that good. And with this book he performed an invaluable service by rescuing Rilke’s uncollected poems from critical obscurity. Though Rilke himself idealized the thematically unified collection and cemented his reputation as one of the 20th Century’s three or four greatest poets with such works as Sonnets to Orpheus and Duino Elegies (the latter also available in a Snow translation), the miscellaneous poems he tossed off while waiting for “real” inspiration to strike, if penned by any other poet, would be regarded as a life’s crowning achievement. While it may seem surprising to include Rilke in a short list of place-based poets, to me, the strength of his philosophical questioning stems from close contact with the physical world, at least since his watershed New Poems of 1907, written under the influence of his mentor, the sculptor Rodin. By way of illustration, here’s a brief, untitled poem written in “Paris, summer 1925 (before July 6),” according to the translator:

Ach, nicht getrennt sein,
nicht durch so wenig Wandung
ausgeschlossen vom Sternen-Mass.
Innres, was ists?
Wenn nicht gesteigerter Himmel,
durchworfen mit Vögeln und teif
von Winden der Heimkehr.
Ah, not to be cut off,
not by such slight partition
to be excluded from the stars’ measure.
What is inwardness?
What if not sky intensified,
flung through with birds and deep
with winds of homecoming?

Forbidden Words: Selected Poetry of Eugénio de Andrade, translated by Alexis Levitin (294 pp., 11 oz.). This is simultaneously the longest and the lightest of my five choices. Andrade couldn’t be more different from Portugal’s other great 20th Century poet, the proto-postmodernist Fernando Pessoa. His are poems of “succinct lyricism,” as one of the back-cover blurbs says, with a pre-Christian sensibility strongly reminiscent of Horace. Levitin has made a career out of translating Andrade, bringing out volume after volume with various small presses. Before acquiring Forbidden Words – a New Directions product – this past April, my only previous encounter with Andrade was through his Matéria Solar/Solar Matter, translated by Levitin and published by Q.E.D. Press. That might seem like the perfect summer vacation companion, but I passed it on to a sun-worshipping friend several years ago.

Travel is often fraught with sleeplessness, especially when it involves sleeping on the ground. But this in itself can sometimes be a source of wonderment, not merely frustration, as Andrade observes:

Ouí§o Correr A Noite Pelos SulcosOuí§o correr a noite pelos sulcos
do rostro – dir-se-ia que me chama,
que subitamente me acaricia,
a mim, que nem sequer sei ainda
como juntar as sí­labas do silíªncio
e sobre elas adormecer.

I Hear Night Flow Through the Furrows

I hear night flow through the furrows
of my face – as if to call me,
as if, in just a moment, it will gently touch me,
I, who still don’t know
how to splice together syllables of silence
and drift upon them into sleep.

The Selected Poetry of Yehuda Amichai: Newly Revised and Expanded Edition, edited and translated by Chana Bloch and Stephen Mitchell (195 pp., 12 oz.). Between Amichai and the equally great, Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish (see the translation of selected poems entitled Unfortunately, It Was Paradise), one can get a strong sense of the passions aroused by one, very small corner of the earth. This might seem like a strange choice for a book to take on vacation, which is supposed to take our minds off the tensions and violence of the modern world. But whenever I go into what we call wilderness, I try to practice a memento mori of sorts. This land was not always ours; other people whose descendents are still with us have memories and dreams for it that may be completely incompatible with our own. What does it mean to be a tourist in one’s own imagined homeland? Is it possible to become indigenous? If so, what would it take?

So condolence visits is what they’re here for,
sitting around at the Holocaust Memorial, putting on a serious face
at the Wailing Wall,
laughing behind heavy curtains in hotel rooms.

They get themselves photographed with the important dead
at Rachel’s Tomb and Herzl’s Tomb, and up on Ammunition Hill.
They weep at the beautiful prowess of our boys,
lust after our tough girls
and hang up their underwear
to dry quickly
in cool blue bathrooms.

Once I was sitting on the steps near the gate at David’s Citadel and I put down my two heavy baskets beside me. A group of tourists stood their around their guide, and I became their point of reference. “You see that man over there with the baskets? A little to the right of his head there’s an arch from the Roman period. A little to the right of his head.” “But he’s moving, he’s moving!” I said to myself: Redemption will come only when they are told, “do you see that arch over there from the Roman period? It doesn’t matter, but near it, a little to the left and then down a bit, there’s a man who has just bought fruit and vegetables for his family.”

The Owl in the Mask of the Dreamer: Collected Poems by John Haines (275 pp., 15 oz.). As the unofficial poet laureate of Alaska, Haines offers plenty of fuel for wilderness dreams. But does that necessarily make his Collected Poems the best thing to take into the wilderness itself, or would that be too much like carrying coals to Newcastle? Another problem with Haines is his almost unvarying gravity. I asked a literature professor friend who hosted Haines for a several-day visit at his college one time if the guy ever lightened up – he didn’t. But as I admitted last December in my “Loose canon: 20th century poetry in English,” I am completely addicted to Haines’ shamanic/prophetic tone. One doesn’t read the book of Jeremiah for laughs, either.

The Way We LiveHaving been whipped through Paradise
and seen humanity
strolling like an overfed beast
set loose from its cage,
a man may long for nothing so much
as a house of snow,
a blue stone for a lamp,
and a skin to cover his head.

If the heat returns this week as predicted, I’m sure my hiking budding L. and I will be longing to trade our tents for igloos, too.

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