A Venetian Affair, by Andrea di Robilant

venetian affair

I’ve been thinking about romance. I’m still on my virtual visit to Venice, which may be the most romantic city in the world.

What I remember of Denis de Rougemont’s classic Love in the Western World—it’s been over forty years since I read it—is that in our western civilisation, the definition of romantic love is one that is doomed (think Romeo and Juliet, Tristan and Isolde).

Until relatively recently, marriage was a business relationship, adhering to social and religious rules. The idea of romantic love, while glorified by medieval troubadours, has only lately become a requirement for marriage. It has been argued that adding the weight of passionate love to the already heavy requirements of marriage—a spouse must not only be one’s financial support and partner in raising children, but also one’s best friend and true love—is a reason so many marriages falter.

For me, romance novels end just when they get interesting. Yes, of course, there’s the fun of the chase, the misunderstandings and so forth, but what happens after the wedding? How do the couples fare over the decades to come with all their challenges? That’s why I’m drawn to authors such as Anne Tyler who take the long view of a marriage.

Back to Venice, though. Here we have the true story of a couple’s doomed love. In the mid-1700s, the last decades of the Venetian republic, twenty-four-old aristocrat Andrea Memmo, heir to one of the city’s oldest families, catches sight of beautiful sixteen-year-old Giustiniana Wynne. It is a coup de foudre for both. Sadly, her social position is too much lower than Andrea’s for them to marry.

Not only are both families opposed to the match, but at that time a marriage must be approved by the secular and religious authorities. Giustiniana’s father is dead, and her mother rightly fears that Andrea may ruin her daughter since he cannot marry her, and thus forbids them to see each other.

Of course that only adds fuel to their flame, and they plot one rendezvous after another, creating their own cipher to encrypt their notes. They come up with schemes to persuade their parents and the authorities to allow them to marry.

The story is told through the couple’s letters to each other over their secret seven-year-affair, with historical and cultural context added by the author who is in fact descended from Andrea Memmo. That, too, is something out of a romance: the discovery of a packet of frayed compacted letters found in the attic of Palazzo Mocenigo, the home of the author’s father (It was also Byron’s home when he lived in Venice).

What I loved best about this book was the rich detail of the history, politics and customs in Venice at that time. There are little things, such as the names and meanings given to patches depending on where they are placed on the face, and larger things, such as the need to deal with the Inquisitors. And there are always the palazzos on the Grand Canal, masks and Carnivals. There are also incidental characters, real people such as Casanova, who befriend the young couple and whose letters and memoirs have contributed to the book.

I was afraid the story might be too dry or dull, but I was fascinated by it. I did listen to the audio version narrated by Paul Hecht with the letters from the two lovers read by Lisette Lecat and Jeff Woodman. I don’t know if reading it would have been less engaging. I loved how it added romance and an understanding of eighteenth century Venice to my virtual vacation.

If you want a true account of two star-crossed lovers and their forbidden affair in the mid-eighteenth century, with a vivid rendering of the social and political context, give this book a try.

Help me keep my trip to Venice going. Can you suggest any other stories set there?

The Unfinished Palazzo, by Judith Mackrell

palazzo

To make up for not being able to travel, I’ve been taking virtual trips to various places around the world using books, movies, and online resources. Italy called out to me, so I picked up this nonfiction book, subtitled Life, Love and Art in Venice. It is the story of three women who, in succession, owned a palazzo on the Grand Canal.

The Palazzo Venier was built in the mid-18th century by a powerful Venetian family, but left unfinished because of financial problems and the lack of an heir. Thus it became “il palazzo non finite”.

For wealthy noblewoman Luisa Casati, the dilapidated palazzo held an air of mystery and romanticism that appealed to her. Separated from her husband, Luisa took on lovers, including poet Gabriele D’Annunzio, whose credo that “one must make one’s own life as one makes a work of art” matched her own efforts to make an ever more spectacular splash in society. In addition to designing her own outrageous costumes and keeping a menagerie of exotic animals, she gave elaborate belle époque parties that made her famous, including one where she rented the Piazza San Marco itself for her guests, with police to keep out locals and tourists.

The 1929 crash combined with Luisa’s expenditures eventually forced her to sell the palazzo. In 1938 it was bought for British socialite Doris Castlerosse, who had gone from working in a shop to being the mistress of powerful men. Her parties too were legendary, as she hosted film stars and royalty such as Cole Porter, Noel Coward, and Prince Philip while recklessly running up debts.

Ten years later it was bought by Peggy Guggenheim, who had fallen in love with Venice some years earlier and was looking for a place to reinvent herself. She remade the palazzo into a living museum for her modern art collection, opening her home to the public on certain days of the week. Dying, she turned it over to the Guggenheim Foundation which has made it into one of the most famous museums in the world.

The three women come to life in this smoothly written book. There’s lots of drama, but it doesn’t slip over into melodrama or tabloid revelations. You’ll run across lots of famous names, but Mackrell’s respect for her characters keeps the story from seeming too gossipy.

I always like to read about independent, creative women. These three were all a bit over the top: I wouldn’t have liked them in real life but found their stories fascinating. Luisa in particular appealed to me, in part because I too in my less spectacular way believe in treating my life as a work of art. Also, I admired her resilience as she found ways to continue doing so even when she had almost no money.

While the story is really about the three women’s lives and very little about Venice or the palazzo itself, it is an enjoyable read, one I recommend, especially to art lovers or those curious about society during the early twentieth century.

What books have you turned to for distraction during a difficult week?

Best Books I read in 2020

Best Books I read in 2020

As a writer, I learn something from every book I read. In no particular order, these are the ten best books I read in 2020. In general, this year I gravitated toward books that either comforted me or gave me courage. Please check the links to the blog archive for a fuller discussion of each book.

1. Horizon, by Barry Lopez
In this profound and generous book, Lopez looks back over some of the travels that have shaped his understanding and philosophy. We go from Oregon to Antarctica, from Nunavut to Tasmania, from Eastern Equatorial Africa to Xi’an in China. The horizon he explores is physically and metaphorically the line where our known world gives way to air, to the space we still know almost nothing about. That liminal space is where exciting things can happen. The quest for knowledge and understanding—along with compassion—are what I value most in human beings.

2. Visitation, by Jenny Erpenbeck
The main character of Erpenbeck’s novel is a plot of land by a lake in Brandenburg, and the homes built there, especially a fabulously detailed home built by an architect in the 1930s. The succession of people who live in this house and next door mirror the changes in East Germany during the ensuing decades. Though short, this novel is surprisingly intense. It made me think about what inheritances are passed on and what are lost, about the so-brief time that we inhabit this world that is our home, and how the earth itself, though changed, persists. Our cares and worries, even in this terrible time, will pass.

3. Drive Your Plow over the Bones of the Dead, by Olga Tokarczuk
This unusual and fascinating novel explores the border between poetry and prose, story and fairy tale. The quirky voice of the narrator is firmly established with the first sentence and sustained throughout the book. Living alone in an isolated community in western Poland, Janina is an older woman who manages her vocation of astrology, the translations of William Blake’s poetry that she and a friend are doing, and the griefs that accumulate over the years. The story sometimes feels like a fable, sometimes a prose poem, sometimes a wrenching view of age and isolation, sometimes a paean to friendship.

4. A Woman of No Importance, by Sonia Purnell
Subtitled The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II, this is a fascinating read. If you thought, as I initially did, that the subtitle is a bit hyperbolic, rest assured that it is not. Born in 1906 to a wealthy and prestigious family, Virginia Hall grew up in Baltimore but preferred adventure to marriage. During WWII, she became one of the first British spies—and the first female—in France where she organised Resistance units and provided critical intelligence to the Allies.

5. Abigail, by Magda Szabó
Originally published in 1970, it is the story of 15-year-old Gina who in 1943 is exiled from Budapest by her beloved father, sent to boarding school near Hungary’s eastern border. Headstrong, a little spoiled, Gina rebels, finding creative ways to break the rules at the strict academy. While having many characteristics of a traditional coming-of-age story, and echoes of books like Jane Eyre, Gina’s story is unusually perceptive and complex.

6. Blackberries, Blackberries, by Crystal Wilkinson
These stories feature Black women in rural Kentucky, young and old, each with her individual take on the world, her own idea of herself. In every story, Wilkinson demonstrates the writer’s mantra that the personal is universal. These may be Black women in Appalachia, but I saw myself in each of them. Reading their stories has been a gift, and I look forward to reading more of her work.

7. Gellhorn, by Caroline Moorehead
Moorehead’s biography brings the brilliant war correspondent to life, enhanced by the hundreds of letters Gellhorn wrote during her life, openly detailing personal and professional undertakings as well as her own thoughts and feelings. The biography is subtitled A Twentieth-Century Life. Indeed, although she was always out ahead of others, few things could be more emblematic of that turbulent century than the life of this remarkable woman who challenged customary women’s roles, stuck to her own moral code, and worked relentlessly at her chosen métier.

8. The Water Dancer, by Ta-Nehisi Coates
This first novel from Coates is the story of Hiram Walker, a young slave in Virginia whose been assigned to be the personal servant for his half-brother: the white, legitimate son of the plantation owner. The writing, as you would expect from Coates, is gorgeous. I loved the first part of the book, but after that, the story seemed to bog down. Still, this coming-of-age story of a man’s journey to freedom is one of the best books I’ve read recently. I loved the unusual and nuanced way the story embodies the themes of family and memory.

9. Grace Notes, by Brian Doyle
These days I’m turning to books not so much for escape as for courage and comfort, and welcome anything that might help replenish my stores of both. For me, that often means returning to one of my favorite authors. In addition to writing unforgettable stories and essays, Brian Doyle, who died much too young in 2017, was a teacher, magazine editor, husband, father. In this collection of short essays, while not shying away from the darkness, Doyle reminds us of what is good in the world.

10. Anything Is Possible, by Elizabeth Strout
A book by Strout is a balm just now, when we are so traumatised by grief and fear and anger. Yes, she takes us into the terrible crimes human beings, even those in quiet Midwestern towns, visit upon one another, yet she also shows us the complicated people that we are. Without dwelling on the ugliness, Strout evokes in us the emotions of these characters, their trials, their loneliness, and sometimes their quiet redemption.

What were the best books you read last year?

Waiting for Time, by Bernice Morgan

waiting

This novel set mostly in Newfoundland seemed appropriate blizzard reading. It’s a sequel to Random Passage, which I haven’t read, continuing the saga of several families on a remote cape on the Atlantic shore. We learn enough about the characters that not having read the earlier book wasn’t a problem.

Lav Andrews, a civil servant in Ottawa, anchors the frame story. She’s sent to St. John’s to oversee a report on the viability of the Atlantic fishery and discovers a journal kept by her several-generations-back Aunt Lavinia. The main story is about the life of that aunt’s best friend, Mary Bundle, whose marginalia in the journal intrigue Lav.

Life on the cape is hard. There’s never enough to eat and no industry beyond fishing and salting cod to be sold in St. John’s. Mary is different from the others. Of course, she’s known poverty and starvation her whole life, as a child in rural England and as a servant in St. John’s. Where she’s different is that she’s always looking two steps ahead: not just at the next task to be done, but how to do things better so there will be a bit more food in years to come.

While the others aren’t thrilled with her nagging, they do go along with most of her ideas. She speaks her mind and is famous for her rages, a powerful character. Shaped by hardship, she couldn’t care less what others think of her and doesn’t hide her opinion of them: that they are like sheep. Now 97 and nearing death, she is dictating to her great-granddaughter Rachel what to write in the margins of Lavinia’s journal, determined to correct what she believes are inaccuracies in her friend’s account.

Mary made me think of my mother, who became increasingly outspoken as she aged. I tried for years to get her to write a memoir but it took her brother writing one to finally get her going. Like Mary, she needed to correct his “mistakes”.

Morgan captures the details of life at the end of the 19th century in a tiny isolated fishing community. It is a hard life, for sure, but Mary’s invincible spirit and strong voice make for fascinating reading. She has a lot to say about the couple of dozen inhabitants of the cape, their squabbles and celebrations. And there is always the sea, relentlessly eating away at the land, and always winter just around the corner.

In the end we come back to Lav, setting off for the Cape to meet Rachel, now nearly 100 years old. It’s a challenge to fit so many lifetimes into one not particularly long novel. One of the ways Morgan handles it is to keep the number of named characters small and giving them distinct characters and voices, so that it isn’t hard to keep track of them. Both Lav’s and Mary’s stories are organised chronologically, which makes them easier to follow. Morgan dips in and out of their lives with scenes illuminating her major storylines.

As with other books about the first Canadian settlers, such as Charlotte Gray’s Sisters in the Wilderness : The Lives of Susanna Moodie and Catharine Parr Traill, I am shocked that people could survive such conditions. It makes our current pandemic lockdown that has spawned so many complaints seem like a picnic, and the blizzard outside something minor indeed.

What do you like to read when the weather outside is frightful?

Playlist 2020

Alchemy

Songs are stories too. And sometimes poetry. For this strange and difficult year, my theme was comfort. Many thanks to my friends for their music.

Aria From The Goldberg Variations -BWV 988, J.S. Bach, Julie Steinberg
Eclogue, English Suite Gerald Finzi, English String Orchestra
Shafe konnen sicher weiden (Sheep may safely graze)-BWV 208, J.S. Bach, Yo-Yo Ma
In Your Grace (Maa), Ajeet Kaur
As It Seems, Lily Kershaw
Promised Land, Lily Kershaw
American Tune, Paul Simon
Over The Hill And Over The Dale, Nowell Sing We Clear
A Fair Maid Walking, John Roberts & Tony Barrand
Beach Spring, Alchemy
Si Bheag, Si Mor, 3rd String Trio
We Meet Again/Barham Down, Alchemy
Grey Funnel Line, Windborne
Tom Kruskal’s (Sapphire Sea), The Dancehall Players
Braes Of Dornoch, Bare Necessities
St. Margaret’s Hill, Bare Necessities
Easter Morn, Bare Necessities
Fair And Softly, Bare Necessities
Tickle Cove Pond, Nightingale
Beeswing, Keith Murphy
The Lark Ascending, Vaughan Williams, Academy of St. Martin in the Field
Suite No. 1 in B Flat Major, HWV 434, George Frideric Handel, András Schiff
Requiem, Gabriel Fauré, Choir Of Trinity College Cambridge
Aria from the Goldberg Variations -BWV 988, J.S. Bach, Yo-Yo Ma

Nuclear Option, by Dorothy Van Soest

nuclear

At 77, Sylvia Jensen believes her activist days are over. She is still involved with community groups and delivers Meals on Wheels, doing what she chooses to do rather than what she feels she ought to do. Then, at a funeral for a woman who had been an inspiring leader during Sylvia’s years protesting domestic and military nuclear proliferation, she is astounded to meet a ghost from the past.

In her 40s, at a meeting planning protests against Nectaral, the biggest military contractor in the state, Sylvia had met Norton, a kindred spirit with green eyes and a crooked smile. Since he was married and had a young son, they tried desperately to keep to friendship. What Sylvia didn’t know was that Norton had a time bomb inside, that he was an atomic veteran.

Now, all these years later, Norton’s son Corey, full of rage and anguished loss, crosses her path, ready to take his protests to another level. How can Sylvia not try to save him from himself?

The mystery unfolds on two levels: the past, where Sylvia and Norton and their friends are on trial for their part in the protest, and the present, where Sylvia has to draw on all her skills as a former foster care supervisor, her courage, and her friendship with investigative reporter J. B. Harrell to untangle the webs being woven around her beloved Norton’s son.

I did not know about the atomic veterans—no surprise since their existence was hidden behind the Nuclear Radiation and Secrecy Agreement Act until it was repealed in 1996. They were ordinary soldiers used as guinea pigs during nuclear tests, ordered to stand without equipment near the blast in order to study the effects of radiation, or sent in to clean up afterward, again without protective gear or being informed about the danger.

I did know about and was involved in the 1960s in protests against nuclear proliferation. The bomb and the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were very much in the forefront of things to worry about. Yet until Van Soest’s book (Full disclosure: Dorothy is a friend of mine), I hadn’t realised that anti-nuclear protests were still going on; that fear had receded into the rear of my personal chamber of horrors.

Like Sylvia and, I’m sure, others who were active in the 1960s and 70s, I have been reluctant to get involved in protests and marches again. Busy raising children and keeping a roof over their heads, I focused on what seemed immediately most important, I suppose making me no better in a way than the corporate heads prioritising short-term profits.

But the last four years have dragged me out of my comfort zone. Protestors fill our streets once again. And now this story, with its interweaving of past and present, invites me to consider what more I might be doing. It chimes with what I’ve been reading and discussing and thinking about all summer: how can I leverage my privilege—for I am surely privileged in many ways, despite my years of poverty—to help make the changes our stricken society so badly needs?

What Van Soest has accomplished in this, her fourth novel, is quite remarkable. She has given us a gripping mystery, with characters who will haunt us long after the last page is turned, placing them within a real-world context that alerts us to dangers we may not have considered. The story never falters, as we are swept into Sylvia’s quest for justice and safety for us all.

Have you read a stirring mystery lately?

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a copy of this book free from the author. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

The Salt Path, by Raynor Winn

salt path

I was talking with some writers the other day about evoking emotion in our readers, and one asked if there could be too much emotion in a book. The incredible teacher/agent/writer Donald Maass, author of The Emotional Craft of Fiction, would say no; the problem is almost always that there isn’t enough.

Yet it’s true that sometimes I don’t have the emotional stamina for a particular book on that day. Sometimes what I need is something from what Dave King calls the gentle genre.

When I first heard of this memoir, I knew I had to read it. When Raynor Winn and her husband Moth lose their beloved Welsh farm, the one they’ve devoted decades to restoring and working, where they brought up their now-grown children, they are devastated. The long court battle to prevent their former friend from seizing their farm, lost finally on a technicality, has emptied their savings. No home, no job, no savings. In their 50s, being self-employed they have no work references, and after the court case no credit. Then they learn that Moth has a terminal illness. He might eke out a couple of years of increasing disability.

Winn writes so movingly of leaving the farm, choosing what few keepsakes to hang onto, unable to lean on their children who are in school or starter jobs that I was overwhelmed. I’ve been there myself: empty-handed, with no choice but to turn to a frayed social safety net. Yet right now, with so many griefs and losses and fears in real life, I wasn’t sure I had the stamina to go through this with her.

Yet I had to read it. Homeless, their temporary solution is to walk the 630-mile South West Coast Path, which winds around Somerset, Devon, Cornwall and Dorset. They will have to sleep wild since they don’t have money for B&Bs or campgrounds, and they will have to subsist on minimal food bought with the £48 a week tax benefit that is their only income.

I walked part of this path with friends a couple of years ago and found it challenging enough, even with B&Bs and luggage transfer. So I had to know how they managed, what they encountered, how they were changed.

And they are changed. Winn doesn’t sugarcoat the difficulties, yet finds space to describe the glories of the rocky headlands, the cliffs, the surging sea, the gulls and oystercatchers, the badgers and deer. The writing, like the path, is spare and occasionally glorious. She and Moth encounter quirky and often generous people on the path. And they find, as I did on a much smaller scale, that they are stronger—physically and emotionally—than they thought.

Their story moved me to tears. I cried at the beginning and at the end, for different reasons, filled with different emotions. Too much emotion? Not at all.

Have you read a memoir that taught you something about yourself?

The Word Is Murder, by Anthony Horowitz

Horowitz

Coming up with a title for the book you’ve written is surprisingly hard. It needs to be catchy while giving a hint about what the book’s about and its genre. The title here, which is a bit of a running joke in the story, certainly meets all three criteria.

This is the first book I’ve read by the prolific Horowitz, author of the Alex Rider YA series and two Sherlock Holmes mysteries among others, so I wasn’t sure what to expect. The one thing I knew about him at first was that he is the creator and main writer for Foyle’s War, one of the best TV series I’ve ever seen. I wondered how that brilliance would translate to a genre mystery.

The answer is that it is unlike any mystery I’ve read, while still fitting within the conventions of the mystery genre.

What baffled me at the beginning is that our protagonist, our amateur sleuth, is Anthony Horowitz, author of Foyle’s War, the Alex Rider series, etc. Anthony is finishing up his Sherlock Holmes mystery House of Silk and ripe for a new writing project when he is approached by a curt and rather intimidating former policeman named Daniel Hawthorne.

Hawthorne has a deal for Anthony: write up the case Hawthorne is working on and the two of them split the proceeds 50/50. I had to laugh. So often that it’s become a running gag, writers get people coming up and saying they have a great idea for a story; the writer should just write it up and they’ll split the profits.

After initially refusing, Anthony agrees. It is a fascinating case: a seemingly healthy woman goes to a mortician to organise her eventual funeral arrangements and six hours later she is murdered.

The dynamic between the two is fascinating. Hawthorne immediately establishes dominance by calling the writer Tony, even after Anthony says that no one calls him that and he doesn’t like it. Hawthorne works as a consultant for the police on this case, and expects Anthony to follow him around and take notes but not participate. He also expects to critique the manuscript. Close-mouthed, he doesn’t want to share his thoughts on the case or any personal information. Reluctant to be relegated to the Watson role, Anthony tries to get ahead of Hawthorne in the investigation, with mixed results.

Disconcertingly, Anthony constantly refers to real people, many in his sphere: actors, producers, etc. I was surprised that he would name names: he takes a meeting with Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson; he recounts an incident with Michael Kitchen; and so on. My writer’s mind whirled. Did he get permission or just assumed they are public figures? Would using them poison the well for him as a writer? Did it add to or detract from the story? It’s one thing for a novel like Ragtime to refer to real historical figures and another to refer to those still with us.

With all that swarming around in my brain, I still found the story engaging, both the interplay between the two men and the mystery itself. I’m not sure I’d want to read a lot of novels in this style—mixing reality with fantasy—but here I found it refreshing.

Have you read a mystery that stretched the rules of the genre?

About Grace, by Anthony Doerr

about grace

By a strange coincidence, I stumbled on another story with a protagonist whose dreams interact with our waking world. Unlike in The Lathe of Heaven, David Winkler’s dreams do not change the world, but they sometimes predict with uncanny accuracy what will happen.

It’s a heavy burden: to see unfolding before you the events you alone know are leading to tragedy, unable to convince others. Only his mother believed him, after an incident when he was a young child. He dreams of meeting a woman—the woman, as Sherlock Holmes would say—in the grocery store and when he does, pursues Sandy despite her wedding ring.

He does win her, but when later he dreams that he accidently drowns their infant daughter Grace, he is unable to persuade her of the looming danger. The only way he can think of to prevent that tragedy is to run away from both of them. Landing in St. Vincent with no means to support himself, he is eventually adopted by a local family.

Winkler is more sensitive than most people. Isolated since his mother’s death, struggling with social norms, he makes strangely self-destructive decisions. These put him in challenging and life-threatening situations, whether it’s starving on a Caribbean beach, lost in a desert without his glasses, or suffering through a bitterly cold winter in the northern Yukon with only a wood stove for heat.

There he again takes up his study of snowflakes, abandoned when he ran off with Sandy. Water in all its forms is a recurring character in this book. “We live in the beds of ancient oceans.” Doerr brilliantly integrates the science into the story so that it doesn’t stand out.

I had spent a long time dissecting Doerr’s incredible second novel All the Light We Cannot See, which won the Pulitzer Prize. Like Winkler incredulous at the intricacy of a single snowflake, I looked at a single page of that book, a single paragraph, a single sentence. I was in awe of the brilliance of the overall structure and of each atomic fragment.

While the language here is equally gorgeous and has moments of transcendence, especially when describing nature’s power and beauty, this first novel of Doerr’s does not quite hang together for me. The jolting movements between the phases of Winkler’s life left me gasping for air; the mentally and physically punishing stretches made me want to skip ahead; and most of the major characters did not fully come to life for me.

This could be because I was reading the book during a stressful time. The great teacher/writer/agent Donald Maass asks us writers to consider if our protagonist is someone readers will want to spend a substantial amount of time with. Ultimately, for me at least, Winkler was not interesting enough to engage me for the days it took to read this book.

Yet I loved the role of nature in all its majesty. I loved the poetry of the writing. I loved the liminal space between opposites: heat and cold, love and hate, conflict and reconciliation. I loved the ending.

Have you read a novel where you loved the ending?

Passing: Poems, by Eloise Klein Healy

passing

I’ve been meaning to read Healy’s poetry for some time and was happy to find this 2002 collection. Unlike Nella Larsen’s novel, passing here has no racial connotations. Instead, as indicated in the title poem, “These are the days that must happen / to you, Mr. Whitman says.”

The passing days embodied in these poems are ones that happen to many of us: the loss of a father, a friend’s breast cancer. And even if the experiences are unfamiliar—such as when she writes about the impact of her coming out: the end of her marriage, the changes in other relationships—the emotions are all too recognisable.

Her elegies for the friends who have died too soon of AIDS or other causes are particularly moving. She finds just the right balance of praise, grief, beauty, and occasionally humor. Sometimes it’s an image that surprises me into grief, such as in “Postcard” the sudden vision of “a room in which the chair of an artist / painted by another artist sits empty” reminding me of all the grief and loss around the relationship between Van Gogh and Gauguin. Sometimes it’s a particular memory, such as in “Louganis” the way people turned on the beautiful and celebrated diver when he contracted AIDS.

One of my friends gets wrought up about poems where, if you remove the line breaks, read like prose. Lovely prose, perhaps, but prose nonetheless. It’s a danger when you employ a conversational style. There are a few like that here, sometimes redeemed by a gorgeous or startling image at the end. Curiously, these are mostly ones about hackneyed or sentimental themes: a sunset on the beach, a spiritual experience. It makes sense to choose a more prosaic style for these to undercut any tendency toward grandiosity.

There are many more pieces that do work beautifully as poems, making me go back and forth trying to pinpoint why they work and not the others. What I found were the usual suspects: compression, fresh imagery, word choice, gaps we must leap over. Sometimes repetition. Sometimes the spacing lends a weight to the words that they would not have if run together like prose, making us stop and pay attention in a different way.

And I found one of the things I love best in a poem: a gradual unfolding, as though a flower opens petal by petal to reveal its heart. Such is the poem that is my favorite, partly because it speaks so intimately to me. The title is a line from Rilke’s “The Torso of Apollo”, one that has dominated much of my life. It sent me on a year-long journey during which I wrote the poems in my own first collection. And, well, trees. Here is the beginning of “You Must Change Your Life”:

The stories say your animal will tell you
what you must do.
The tale from Nicaragua adds this—
that life in the city is cleansed of the animal
and you must go to the trees
so your animal can tell you what to change.

When I write about trees
I know I’m talking about love.

My animal is a tree
and my trees are birds
and my birds are animals
who burst from there walking
into a sky waiting for this transformation
as if it had nothing else to do
but receive.

It goes on, opening more and more, as does this collection, rewarding closer study.

Is there a poem or perhaps an image from a book that has stayed with you? One that speaks to you and what your life is like right now?