The Witchery of Sleep (Willard Moyer, Miller Press, 1902). To create an “exhaustive” study of sleep, Moyer said, one would have to be part poet, part philosopher, part scientist, and part occultist. Though he claimed none of these professions, Moyer had a ranging curatorial spirit. Sections include The Phenomena of Sleep, Sleeplessness, The Habit of Sleep, The Importance of the Bed, and The Poetry of Sleep, with selections from Blake, Shakespeare, Tennyson, Wordsworth, and others. And Moyer’s own prose vision of The Palace of Sleep is hard to resist: “The space is vast, peopled by many. Poppies are everywhere. Innumerable forms lie postured in all the abandonment of unconscious sleep. Arch upon arch rises on after the other. Ever the shadows are deepening…”
Friday (Michel Tournier, translated from the French by Norman Denny, Johns Hopkins UP, 1967). I am re-reading this retelling of Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe for a seminar I will be teaching this spring. We will be considering how writers construct home, and how they construct opposite, or in between categories such as exile, immigration, internment, shipwreck, marginality, etc. Tournier alternates close third person narration with first person journal entries from Crusoe (who learns how to produce ink from a sea porcupine). The first half of the novel is dedicated to shipwreck and solitude; the second, to transformative encounter. Winner of the 1967 Grand Prix du Roman of the Académie Française, Friday is a lyrical meditation on language and dwelling. Though Tournier clearly delighted in undermining—even caricaturing—Enlightenment Man and his order-establishing projects, he doesn’t ultimately sneer at his protagonist, but takes him through a careful and credible alteration.
Upstate: a North American Journal (Jeremy Hooker, Shearsman Books, 2007). British poet Jeremy Hooker spent the academic year 1994-1995 as a visiting professor at Le Moyne College near Syracuse, NY. Hooker credits English nature writer Richard Jefferies (1848-1877) as a shaping influence on his own forms of natural observation. For Hooker, as for other exemplary journal-keepers, the task is not to dwell on the self, but to find the self in relation to the other, to bring to light the relationship between the seer and the seen. Natural observation is not merely note-taking or picture-making, he says, but involves “an acute sensitivity to the life in things, to the quick of sentient existence.” Like those of Ruskin, Thoreau, Hopkins, Cather, Woolf, and Berger, Hooker’s descriptions dilate by way of precision. The son of a landscape painter, and a poet deeply tuned to place, Hooker reminds me that attention is harder than invention. With his steady, stripped down perception, he reminds me that relation is a form of maintenance, a practice to be practiced daily, not just when the spirit moves me.
(on visit to Cape Cod) “On Nauset Beach on a brilliant, cloudless morning, sun shining on the sea. As far out as we could see the ocean was blue-black. Big waves rolling in broke with manes of white spray, & in the spray, fleetingly, rainbows appeared & disappeared. Seagulls—wing curve, gliding, ocean riding—you can see how they are made for it.”
(at Round Lake in NY) “Rain dimpling the water, which was grey except in a few places at the edges, where the beautiful turquoise could be seen. A day of round waterdrops hanging in rows from twigs & from buds & thorns…Cloud light as mist among the cedars & drifting across the water—grey on greeny grey, diaphanous & at the same time utterly real, water of water, earth of earth.”
(NY in February, following a white-out snowstorm) “Fir trees laden with snow, as if sculpted on the branches. Smooth drifts against banks & walls…Birch bark looks white until seen against snow that partially encrusts it, and then it appears a very pale yellow-gold.”
Speculative Grace: Bruno Latour and Object-Oriented Theology (Adam S. Miller, Fordham University Press, 2013). Miller seeks to model an object-oriented approach to grace, to “port” it from a theistic operating system reliant on a hidden, supernatural “macro” force to a post-Darwinian operating system of small-scale, heterogeneous forces. With a nod to Stephen Jay Gould, Miller explains how the Darwinian shift “operationalizes” the world: “What was inert, opaque, and secondary now comes to life as the potentially intelligible sum of its own life and being.” Ours is a pluriverse, not a universe: the world is capable of producing and explaining itself. In addition to evolutionary theory, Miller draws on Bruno Latour’s experimental metaphysics (“replace the singular with the plural everywhere”) in order to think through the implications of an operationalized grace. The task is not just theoretical. Miller states a very practical aim: “I mean to bring more clearly into focus the nature of suffering, its root causes, and—most importantly—the relationship of such suffering to grace.” This is a marvelously compact, eloquent book that parses and extends Latour’s thinking. What happens if we take a “longhand” approach to metaphysics, Miller asks, as opposed to a reductive, hierarchical one? Offered in FUP’s Perspectives in Continental Philosophy series, this book is at once heady and plainspoken, visionary and conversational. I like that it fits into my coat pocket.
Tantivy (Donald Revell, Alice James Books, 2012). I love reading the poems of Donald Revell, who seems idiosyncratically equipped to see where communication forms in words. Years ago I read about Snowflake Bentley (1865-1931), a Vermonter credited for proving the idea there are no two snowflakes alike in this world. A pioneer in photomicrography, he photographed the first snow crystal in 1885, and went on to capture and study over 5000 more. Crystals could be a good way of thinking about Revell’s style of lyric, which pair intricacy with simplicity, and indelibility with dissolve. I think of Wallace Stevens’ prescript: “The poem must resist the intelligence almost successfully.” Some poets bring us to that borderland, that precarious equipoise, asking us to feel the very perimeters of our intelligence, its powerful extensions and necessary failures.
Let us be friends and not die
Let us mow the bright ground bare
These are the poets I love to read and return to. A friend of mine joked that Donald Revell and I must have crossed paths in a shared dream of Tennyson. In my own readings in and around Tennyson, I mused a long time over the backward compliment Eliot gave “In Memoriam”: “Its faith is a very poor thing, but its doubt is a very intense experience.” Revell’s Tantivy edges doubt into faith habitually, which is to say, reverently. “These mysteries must suffice/In the absence of Mystery” he writes in one of his softened sonnets. We are asked to see the world doubly, in both possible lights.
There is snow and there is snow.
Lake Michigan is Lake Michigan.
Revell, like Tennyson, places us at “the quiet limit of the world.” His poems are torn between seeing and listening. That is a weird thing to say, but that is what I feel about this beautiful book.
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