Ten favorite books of 2014

I don’t post book reviews the way I used to, and I feel more than a little guilty about that. But here at any rate is an annotated list of my top reads of 2014. (Note that most of them weren’t actually published in 2014. I have no desire ever to become one of those people who tries to read all the fashionable books.) In no particular order:

  1. Madwomen: The Locas mujeres Poems of Gabriela Mistral, translated by Randall Couch (University of Chicago Press, 2008). Mistral doesn’t fit easily into anyone’s pigeonholes and neither do the women of these astonishing persona poems, translated into English for the first time in their entirety.

    Under a tree, I was only
    washing the journeys from my feet
    with my shadow for a road
    and dust for a skirt.
    —”The Fugitive Woman”

  2. Image on the Edge: The Margins of Medieval Art by Michael Camille (Reaktion Books, 2012). My favorite (OK, only) art history read of the year. It’s a definitive look at the marginal art of medieval manuscripts (and analogous carvings on cloisters and cathedrals) that manages to be readable and thought-provoking as well. If you liked Bakhtin’s Rabelais and His World, you’ll love this. Camille leads the reader step by step into a very different way of thinking, one in many ways more alien to the modern European or American worldview than (say) the 5th century BCE writings of Zhuangzi.

    Rather than being freaks in our sense, these images are conceived as products of the terrifyingly promiscuous medieval imagination. For imagination was not only understood to be a cognitive faculty lodged in the front of the brain, nearest the eyes and thus closest linked to vision, but a force that could actually create forms. As the thirteenth-century Polish scholar Witelo argued, imagination, being an intermediary between mind and matter, allowed demons to couple with human beings, since what was perceived in the phantasia was, in some cases, real. It was for this reason that pregnant women were urged not to look at monkeys or even to think of monstrous things, lest their imaginations impregnate their offspring with hideous forms.

  3. Zhuangzi: The Essential Writings with Selections from Traditional Commentaries, translated by Brook Ziporyn (Hackett, 2009). And speaking of Zhuangzi… I’ve long been an advocate of A.C. Graham’s translation, but Will Buckingham recommended this newer translation and he’s right: the scholarship and philosophical acuity raise the bar for all future translations of classic Daoist texts. Zhuangzi is a touchstone text for me, so getting acquainted with a new translation as authoritative and ground-breaking as this is an ongoing process. I’m never actually done reading Zhuangzi, just pausing to let it sink in for a while.

    Back home, Carpenter Shi saw the tree in a dream. It said to him, “What do you want to compare me to, one of those cultivated trees? The hawthorn, the pear, the orange, the rest of those fructiferous trees and shrubs—when their fruit is ripe they get plucked, and that is an insult. Their large branches are bent; their small branches are pruned. Thus do their abilities embitter their lives. That is why they die young, failing to live out their natural life spans. They batter themselves with the vulgar conventions of the world—and all other creatures do the same. As for me, I’ve been working on being useless for a long time. It almost killed me, but I’ve finally managed it—and it is of great use to me! If I were useful, do you think I could have grown to be so great?

    “Moreover, you and I are both [members of the same class, namely] beings—is either of us in a position to classify or evaluate the other? How could a worthless man with one foot in the grave know what is or isn’t a worthless tree?”

    Carpenter Shi awoke and told his dream to his apprentice. The apprentice said, “If it’s trying to be useless, what’s it doing with a shrine around it?”

  4. Ancilla: Poems by Erin Murphy (Lamar University Press, 2014). Erin Murphy is currently my favorite central Pennsylvania poet. Which may sound like damning with faint praise, except that the area boasts such gifted and accomplished poets as Julia Kasdorf, Lee Peterson, Ron Mohring, Marjorie Maddox, Todd Davis, Robin Becker, Patricia Jabbeh Wesley, Steven Sherill and Gabriel Welsch. Ancilla is a collection of portraits, both in the first and third person, of historical figures both famous and obscure, with a decidedly subversive and feminist slant. I was delighted to discover after I bought a copy at a reading that it contains a number of erasure poems, all very well done — and impossible to reproduce accurately here, as they are printed with all the white space from the erased portions intact. But let me share one of them in prose form, at least. Here’s “Jane Austen’s Letters to Sister Cassandra, Abridged”:

    January 1796
    I was nice. I behaved. But love was cut-up silk gloves and old paper hats. Regret is a vessel, not a spinning-wheel. The wind proved to be my future, delivered it to me with a sigh. I flirt with tears. I write.

  5. Even Now: Poems by Hugo Claus, selected and translated from the Dutch by David Colmer (Archipelago Books, 2013). Whenever I visit a new place, I like to buy at least one book of poetry written there. This is what I bought on my trip to Belgium last summer. Our host Marc Neys mentioned that he liked Hugo Claus’ plays better than his poetry, but the plays must be terrific, because the poetry is pretty damn amazing. I can’t believe: a) that I never heard of Hugo Claus before, and b) that he never won a Nobel prize. Clearly one of the premier figures in post-war European literature. This is not a bilingual edition, and at 245 pages it’s closer to a “collected” than a “selected” poems (not that the publisher uses either term).

    Flat is my white,
    As white as a fish of stone.
    I have been razed to the skin.
    My population purged.

    She has become someone else. Strange to my eye,
    The one who lived in the scruff of my neck.
    —”A Woman”

  6. Seahenge: A Quest for Life and Death in Bronze Age Britain by Francis Pryor (Harper Perennial, 2008). Originally published in 2001, this is the first of a trilogy of popular archaeology books by Britain’s most prominent Bronze Age archaeologist, Francis Pryor, continuing with Britain B.C. and Britain A.D., which are both also marvelous (and spawned documentaries of the same titles that you can watch on YouTube—which is how I found out about Pryor in the first place). Pryor is not just a great interpreter of archaeological evidence, he’s also a gifted writer. It’s not surprising that he’s now turned his attention to the writing of detective fiction, for Seahenge too unfolds like a mystery (as so many archaeological discoveries tend to do).

    It is entirely possible that the Holme circle was never about human life and death at all. It could have been a shrine—possibly built by a family that identified with oak trees—to the trees themselves.

  7. The Hangman’s Lament: Poems by Henrik Nordbrandt, translated from the Danish by Thom Satterlee (Green Integer, 2003). Nordbrandt was perhaps my favorite discovery of the year; I liked these poems so much, I immediately ordered everything else in English I could find. But this book remained my favorite of the lot, in part because it fits so comfortably into the hand (love those Green Integer editions).

    And the beams fall into place in the floor
    where someone will go to take his first shaky steps
    or dance to the sounds of a flute carved from the same tree
    when the wood’s time is about to end
    and a cold wind blows over thistles, stones, and broken ground.
    —”The Forester’s Dream”

  8. Two Faint Lines in the Violet by Lissa Kiernan (Negative Capability Press, 2014). Powerful, searing poems that among other issues grapple with one that’s bound to become even more topical in the years ahead: the effects of radiation from nuclear power plants. Kiernan’s first full-length book displays a virtuosic range of tones and forms, from the ironic “Recipe for Yellowcake” to the elegiac “Icarus Blues.” There’s a father who comes out as gay, a grandfather who molests his granddaughter… this may not be the American nuclear family we think we know, but it’s certainly one that deserves to enter our cultural vocabulary.

    You stood calm as an untroubled tree,
    rigid as the spine of an unopened book—listening to me
    listening to your slurred, impenetrable breathing.
    —”At the Door”

  9. Feral by George Monbiot (Penguin, 2014). I don’t have it at hand to quote from because I passed it on to a friend—not because I wanted to get rid of it, but because people who care about wild nature need to read it! The book has two different subtitles. The British edition, which I read, is subtitled “Searching for Enchantment on the Frontiers of Rewilding,” while the American edition (University of Chicago Press, 2014) is subtitled “Rewilding the Land, the Sea, and Human Life.” Either way, it’s a terrific book: a first-person account of the author’s quest for wildness and wild experiences in his native Britain, interwoven with an impassioned yet scientific (and extensively documented) brief for rewilding. George Monbiot is best known as a political columnist for the Guardian, but he studied biology at university and started off as an environmental reporter, and it’s obvious he’s a nature nerd and outdoorsman from way back. But more than anyone else I’ve read on wildlands conservation, including Dave Foreman, Monbiot takes a nuanced approach to the problems of balancing human needs with the preservation of the natural world. He tackles head-on some of the elitist attitudes that have plagued preservationist arguments in the past, and presents rewilding as—among other things—something we need to do for our own mental health. The book is also a great introduction to nature in the British Isles, cutting through a lot of the crap peddled by more mainstream British conservationists who try to ignore the fact that the islands were once covered in temperate rainforest, and that vast landscapes have been “sheepwrecked,” as Monbiot memorably terms it. American readers will be shocked at just how backward farming interests in Britain can be, blocking even the most innocuous species reintroductions and ecological restoration attempts and fighting to preserve a tamed and diminished landscape at all costs. But the book ends on a positive note, reminding us of how quickly marine ecosystems, for example, can recover if we can only find the political will to protect some areas from total exploitation.
  10. Approaching Ice: Poems by Elizabeth Bradfield (Persea, 2010). As with Murphy’s Ancilla, a lot of research went into this book, which for Elizabeth Bradfield involved a certain amount of travel as a naturalist, as well, for the subject of her book is polar exploration, and how to write convincingly about that without multiple visits to the Arctic and Antarctic? Also as with Ancilla, I bought the book after a reading, which I wrote about at Moving Poems since Bradfield concluded with a multimedia segment.

    Always back to Eden—to the time when we knew
    with certainty that something watched and loved us.
    That the very air was miraculous and ours.
    That all we had to do was show up.

    The sun rolled along the horizon. The light never left them.
    The air from their warm mouths became diamonds.
    And they longed for everything they did not have.
    And they came home and longed again.
    —”Why They Went”

I can’t let the subject of books read in 2014 slip away without reminding everyone that Via Negativa’s own Luisa A. Igloria published not one, but two collections of poetry this year: Night Willow from Phoenicia Publishing and Ode to the Heart Smaller than a Pencil Eraser from Utah State University Press (May Swenson Poetry Award Series, selected by Mark Doty).

Woodrat Podcast 46: A philosophical lunch with Will Buckingham (Part 2)

Will Buckingham with Sea Legs, Moomins, and the sea

The second half of my epic bull session wide-ranging conversation with British novelist, philosopher and blogger Will Buckingham (listen to Part 1). Will talks about how he got into Buddhism and why he eventually drifted away from it; how he turned his doctoral thesis about the literary qualities of Emmanuel Levinas’ writings into a work of philosophy for a popular audience (Finding Our Sea Legs: Ethics, Experience and the Ocean of Stories); and why he’s so fascinated with the I Ching.

“What I love more than anything in life,” Will says at one point, “is to have interesting conversations.” I couldn’t agree more. This conversation was definitely a high point of my two weeks in the U.K.

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Theme music: “Le grand sequoia,” by Innvivo (Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike licence).

Woodrat Podcast 45: A philosophical lunch with Will Buckingham (Part 1 of 2)

Will Buckingham

On my visit to the U.K. last spring, I arranged to meet with the novelist and philosopher Will Buckingham in a restaurant near the Birmingham train station on my way from Aberystwyth to London. I’m a long-time reader of his blog ThinkBuddha (and more recently of his personal blog) and a fan of his first novel, Cargo Fever. So knowing that he was a guy with wide-ranging interests and a gift for translating abstruse ideas into ordinary language, I figured he had to be pretty interesting to chat with. I wasn’t disappointed.

In this first half of our conversation, I got Will talking about the philosophy in the Moomin books of Tove Jannson; the ancient Chinese Daoist text Zhuangzi (actually, I’ve spared you most of that — Will and I share a great fondness for the work, but I realize most listeners won’t have read it); the pervasive sense of loss in the Western philosophical tradition; teaching and writing; Martin Heidegger; why existentialism is no longer popular; Emmanuel Levinas; and parallels between Indian and Greek philosophy.

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Theme music: “Le grand sequoia,” by Innvivo (Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike licence).

Woodrat Podcast 26: The Music of the Mountain

spectral frequency display of this podcast
spectral frequency display of this podcast (click to see larger)

On a long-ago family trip to Europe, we were amused and impressed by a national park sign in the French Pyrenees that urged visitors to turn off their radios and “listen to the music of the mountain.” But do these have to be mutually exclusive? Today’s podcast episode is what a radio station devoted to the music of the mountain might sound like. Following my five-minute spoken intro, it’s nothing but natural and anthropogenic sound recorded from my front porch between dawn and full daylight, 7:00 to 7:35 a.m., on Wednesday, October 27.

Readers of my Morning Porch microblog sometimes seem to think I live far removed from the human world, but as this recording shows, that’s hardly the case — and yesterday morning was a quiet one, especially for this time of year when strong inversion layers often mean that the highway noise from over the ridge to the west drowns out everything else. I was also fortunate in that the wind was hardly blowing, and because it had rained during the night, there was a steady if irregular beat as water dripped off the top roof onto the porch roof.

I used my new toy, a Zoom H2 portable digital recorder, which packs front and rear mikes and records in a non-lossy, .wav format. Just listening through it with ear buds while it records really focuses my attention on the soundscape. As I say in the intro, I’ve long been interested in natural sound. John Cage is a hero of mine, and I was pleased to read a new appreciation of him in the October 4 issue of the New Yorker — it isn’t online for non-subscribers, but Lorianne DiSabato was kind enough to send it to me. The author, Alex Ross, quotes John Cage about his infamous “4’33””: “There’s no such thing as silence.” And he quotes composer and scholar Kyle Gann, who recently published a book with that phrase as its title, and describes the composition as “an act of framing, of enclosing environmental and unintended sounds in a moment of attention in order to open the mind to the fact that all sounds are music.”

Making a podcast strikes me as another way to frame “environmental and unintended sounds,” though in the natural soundscape birds and other animals do occupy distinct aural niches, so I think it’s no accident that natural sounds seem more “right” than, for example, mechanical noise. The fact that we evolved in concert (pun intended) with the former obviously colors our perceptions as well. But I do think there’s value in learning to listen to all sound, even noise — which is increasingly inescapable — as if it were composed. It’s a practice perhaps similar to religious faith, increasing one’s sense of gratitude for the givenness of the umwelt. Perhaps I’ll repeat this experiment next May or June, at the height of migratory bird breeding season, so y’all can hear a real dawn chorus, but the more minimal sound of an autumn morning has its pleasures, too, as I hope you’ll agree.

Many cultures recognize natural sound as the ultimate inspiration for human music. The 4th-century B.C. Daoist classic Zhuangzi includes a paean to “the music of heaven” — the sum of environmental sounds — calling it superior to all other forms of music. And the Irish Fenian Cycle includes this exchange, translated by James Stephens:

Once, as they rested on a chase, a debate arose among the Fianna-Finn as to what was the finest music in the world.

‘Tell us that,’ said Fionn, turning to Oisin.

‘The cuckoo calling from the tree that is highest in the hedge,’ cried his merry son.

‘A good sound,’ said Fionn. ‘And you, Oscar,’ he asked, ‘what is to your mind the finest of music?’

‘The top of music is the ring of a spear on a shield,’ cried the stout lad.

‘It is a good sound,’ said Fionn.

And the other champions told their delight: the belling of a stag across water, the baying of a tuneful pack heard in the distance, the song of a lark, the laughter of a gleeful girl, or the whisper of a moved one.

‘They are good sounds all,’ said Fionn.

‘Tell us chief,’ one ventured, ‘what do you think?’

‘The music of what happens,’ said great Fionn, ‘that is the finest music in the world.’

Here’s some of that music.

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A few highlights. Those who bore easily might skip ahead and start listening about half-way through, when bird calls are more or less continuous.
4:49 end of blather, start of recording
4:50 first of numerous loud taps that punctuate the recording: water dripping onto the roof
5:30 distant horn/whistle, not train
6:35 first bird call (white-throated sparrow, I think)
6:55 unidentified mechanical noise
8:54 more sparrowish chirping
9:36 the flock moves closer
11:00 first cardinal
11:15 brief cut to erase noise of wind filter being inserted over mikes
11:36 first Carolina wren
11:49 beginning of jet overflight (cruising altitude)
13:03 blue jay calls intermingle with wren song
15:19 song sparrow singing
17:00 Carolina wren getting closer
17:47 first crow
18:44 crows getting closer
20:00 two wrens greet each other
25:40 distant plane
27:10 nuthatch’s “yank yank” call intermingled with red-bellied woodpecker’s “cha cha cha” and crow caws
28:36 plane still going over
29:26 begin loud/close crows
31:36 call of pileated woodpecker on fly-by
37:00 another, more distant jet is going over
38:21 crow flies over house
38:30 second snip in recording to remove very loud sound of me leaving porch to answer call of nature

spectral phase display of this podcast
spectral phase display of this podcast (click to see larger—it's beautiful)

Lao Tzu’s Funeral

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When Lao Dan died, Jin-I went to his funeral. He gave three shouts and walked out.

A disciple accosted him. “I thought you were the Master’s friend!”

“I was.”

“Then do you really think it’s proper to mourn him this way?”

“I do. I used to think of him as a great man, but no more. Just now when I went in to pay my respects, I saw old people crying as if they had just lost a son, and young people crying as if they’d lost their mother.

“In bringing them all together like this, surely he has led some people to say things they don’t really mean, and others to cry when they don’t really feel like crying. People who act like that are hiding from Heaven, turning away from their true nature. Ungrateful bastards! In the old days, they would have seen this kind of betrayal as its own punishment.

“In coming when he did, the Master was right on time. In leaving when he did, he was simply following the current. If you can wait calmly for the right moment and hold fast to the current, neither joy nor sorrow will ever unsettle your mind. The old-timers called this ‘being cut loose by God.’

“Do you cling to the firewood? When the fire passes from one piece to the next, do we not accept that ‘firewood’ has turned to ‘cinders’?”

Zhuangzi (Chuang-Tzu), Chapter 3

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This is my own version. Translations consulted include: Lin Yutang, Thomas Merton, Martin Palmer, Derek Lin and the Tao Study Group, Burton Watson, and A. C. Graham.