Reading (in) Walden

607px-walden_thoreauWhat are the classics but the noblest recorded thoughts of man? They are the only oracles which are not decayed, and there are such answers to the most modern inquiry in them as Delphi and Dodona never gave.… To read well, that is, to read true books in a true spirit, is a noble exercise…. It requires a training such as the athletes underwent, the steady intention almost of the whole life to this object.

Yes, it’s Thoreau. I’m re-reading Walden. Why? Because it’s on my bookshelf, and I’m in the process of interrogating each book there. The choice: either read it or get rid of it. I hadn’t read Walden in decades, so I pulled it from the shelf.

Though I admire Thoreau’s radical simplicity—if something isn’t a necessity, get rid of it! and my shelf-purging seems to be in Thoreau’s spirit—the book’s opening hundred pages lay it on too thickly for my taste; too much finger-wagging at people who are attached to even minimal property.

But this short chapter called “Reading”: this one is a treasure. [Read more…]

Poetry Friday: “Nothing More” by Todd Davis

by-mdaines-on-flickrWhenever I first meet a long skinny poem, I ask myself: Why has the poet chosen these very brief lines for the poem’s shape? In Todd Davis’s “Nothing More,” the effect of these short lines is a sort of staccato: short phrases punched out in succession and often snapped by startling line breaks. Yet what fascinates me is that the content of this poem is contemplative—so a tension is set up between the poem’s shape and its substance. How perfect for a poem where the substance itself is a play of opposites: death and life, sleep and waking, “lucid dreaming.” And how intriguing that all this goes on within the genre of ars poetica: a poem about the art of poetry. Poetry, Davis writes, is “nothing more / than lucid dreaming.” Yet that “nothing more” becomes much indeed when Christ himself enters the poem as the “composer” (the poet) of a parable which the child he wakes from near-death has been dreaming.

—Peggy Rosenthal [Read more…]

Looking for a Good Laugh

audienceIn his collection of delightfully reflective and paradoxical mini-stories, Espejos (Mirrors), Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano includes a sequence on jokes and laughter in various ancient cultures. In one of these reflections he refers to Jesus, “of whom the evangelists record not a single laugh.” Then soon Galeano takes the entire Bible to task, as “a book in which no one ever laughs at all.”

This isn’t quite true. Sarah laughed when the angel told Abraham that in her old age Sarah would bear a son (Gen. 18:12). But this laugh of Sarah’s doesn’t express joy; rather, it’s a laugh of almost scornful disbelief. Sarah’s second laugh a year later is joyful though. Having indeed borne a son, she says “God has brought laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me” (Gen. 21:6).

There’s other laughter in the Bible, too. Jesus isn’t explicitly shown to laugh, but he enjoys many communal meals at which there must have been good fellowship. The explicit laughs in the rest of the Bible are a mixed bag. In many, the laughter is looked down upon. [Read more…]

Poetry Friday: “Visitation Rights” by Jeffrey Harrison

funeral flowers by Elvert Barnes on flickr_with writing edited outI sometimes talk to friends who have died. Especially to friends who acted as spiritual guides for me during their lives here. I continue to ask their advice when I’m in distress or need guidance.  I believe there’s a very thin and permeable line between mortal life and eternal life. This is why Jeffery Harrison’s “Visitation Rights” resonates with me. The poem melds the living and the dead, past and present, in ways deeply true to psychological and spiritual reality. I also like the poem’s play with the word “visitation.” Its primary meaning here is the appearance on earth of someone who has died. But hovering within the word are always its supernatural reverberations—its meaning of an appearance to us of the divine—as well as its etymological kinship to “vision.” So it feels right that the poem closes by appealing to “visions,” expressing a desire for them that (the poem has argued) is fully justified.

—Peggy Rosenthal [Read more…]

Poetry Friday: “The News”

11793323376_2b9390cd6e_zWhat do I do with the daily news of disasters? Do I mumble a quick prayer for the victims, then turn to my day’s to-do list? Do I ever pause and ponder: this disaster might have struck those I love, or even me? These are the questions that Shara McCallum turns over in “The News.” Her imagination doesn’t flinch from detailing the horrors. Yet she is also self-protective, and she knows this. I admire how she keeps her eyes both shut and open to the dreadful events that life can deal us. And I admire especially the painful closing two stanzas: the piercing image of that mother somewhere whose “hem of life” will be “snagged, /from here forward”: from the instant she learns of her child forever lost.

—Peggy Rosenthal [Read more…]