Priest Turns Therapist Treats Fear of God, by Tony Hoagland

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I have long been a fan of Tony Hoagland’s poetry and have written before about his books here and here. He brings together humor and tenderness, wit and emotion, gentle satire and surprising insight. Using the things of this world, he invites us to be present in our lives and appreciate each moment.

I used the present tense. It’s hard even now to admit that he is gone, even after following some of his journey through his poems and essays in The Sun Magazine, such as “The Cure for Racism is Cancer“. “Come into these waiting rooms and clinics, the cold radiology units and the ICU cubicles,” he says.

This strange country of cancer, it turns out, is the true democracy — one more real than the nation that lies outside these walls and more authentic than the lofty statements of politicians; a democracy more incontrovertible than platitudes or aspiration.

Tony Hoagland died on 23 October 2018. We are lucky to have his work to turn to.

Lately I’ve been reading his essays on the craft of poetry. Like his poems they are accessible, even to someone tired out after chasing a toddler all day. I’ve learned so much from these essays, not only for my own craft, but also for appreciating other poets’ work.

In this new volume of poems, there is plenty of Hoagland’s wry humor: “I will tell you this right now: Cincinnati / has not been a great success for me. / My allergic reaction to small talk has ensured / that I don’t get asked to parties anymore.” There is satire and wit, as you can tell from the volume’s title, taken from one of the poems inside.

But most of all there is an unsentimental poignancy in poems such as “Examples” where in giving examples of things like justice and remembering and fortune, he combines irreverent images of Joseph McCarthy and dental hygienists with seemingly unimportant moments, such as a woman removing her sunglasses. Yet in the end, through stunningly apt use of metaphor, he takes us deeply into the joy and privilege of life itself.

He’s been called the poet of the human condition. Even when recounting his own experience, as in “Trying to Keep You Happy”, he invites us to participate in his everyday yet unexpected plans, his “selfish master strategy / to shackle you to me with happiness.”

And the final poem in the volume “Into the Mystery” I cannot even talk about, so overwhelming are these seemingly simple lines. Get the book. Read it. Even if you think you don’t like poetry.

What’s your favorite poem by Tony Hoagland?

I Heard God Laughing, by Hafiz, translated by Daniel Ladinsky

God Laughing

I hadn’t read very much of Hafiz’s work when my poetry discussion group selected him for October. We meet once a month to read and discuss the work of a single poet. Taking turns reading the poems, we find that the discussion and the time that we take with each one helps us to appreciate them more deeply. Choosing a new poet each month introduces us to a range of authors, often ones we’ve never read before.

With Hafiz’s work, we found ourselves intrigued and moved by his humor and compassion. We talked less about craft than usual and more about our reactions. I often look at how authors invite the reader into their work, especially with poetry. Hafiz in particular throws open the doors with open arms and an open heart. Hafiz’s generous spirit is apparent in each poem.

Here is an example from I Heard God Laughing:

Awake Awhile

Awake awhile.

It does not have to be
Forever,

Right now.

One step upon the Sky’s soft skirt
Would be enough.

Hafiz,

Awake awhile.

Just one True moment of Love
Will last for days.

Rest all your elaborate plans and tactics
For Knowing Him,

For they are all just frozen spring buds
Far,
So far from Summer’s Divine Gold.

Awake, my dear.

Be kind to your sleeping heart.

Take it out into the vast fields of Light
And let it breathe.

Say,

“Love,

Give me back my wings.
Lift me,

Lift me nearer.”

Say to the sun and moon,
Say to our dear Friend,

“I will take You up now, Beloved,

On that wonderful Dance You promised!”

I found this collection of translations by Daniel Ladinsky especially welcoming. It lives up to its subtitle Poems of Hope and Joy.

Even the humorous lines contain a significant truth, such as this description of depression from “Cast All Your Votes for Dancing” as being dragged “Like a broken man / Behind a farting camel”. And every now and then a line would startle me with a new idea, such as this one from “All the Hemispheres”: “Change rooms in your mind for a day.”

In addition to these and other poems translated by Daniel Ladinsky, we read some that had been translated by others. One seemed to preserve the form of the original, but used archaic and high-flown language so that they were almost impossible to read. Another lacked the music and joy that we had begun to expect, but appeared to be a more literal translation. A third seemed nothing like any of the other work, but rather an anecdotal venture exploring a contradictory theme.

We did discuss translation, and how it translated poem is really the work of two people, a new work entirely. When I took a translation class once, I believed going into it that translators should try and stick as closely as possible to the original our of respect for the author. However, I quickly found that my desire to convey the sense of the original and to make a good poem overwhelmed my concern about fidelity to the original. Given the differences in sounds used by various languages, it’s extraordinarily difficult to retain both form and content while making a good poem.

So, while the translator we most appreciated was Daniel Ladinsky, I had noticed a comment on Goodreads criticizing the liberties he seems to take in his translations of Hafiz. However, these were the most interesting and moving poems that we read. I wished I could have heard them in the original Farsi, to hear the music of the words.

Though it’s hard to be sure, I think that most of the poems in this collection were originally ghazals. The ghazal form uses five or more couplets, each of which stands alone yet is related to the others in some way, perhaps an over-arching theme.

The two lines of the first couplet and the second line of each remaining couplet end with a refrain, a single word that is repeated. In all but the first couplet, Before the refrain there is usually a word that rhymes with it. I’m told that when ghazals are recited aloud the audience, hearing the rhyme, knows that the next word is going to be the refrain and joins in on it: a lovely thought.

The poems in this collection truly are about hope and joy. They are meant to comfort us and to invite us into the dance.

Have you read Hafiz’s poetry? Which poem is your favorite?

Tales from the House of Vasquez, by Raquel Vasquez Gilliland

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The poems in this remarkable chapbook draw us into a woman’s inner life. They lure us into the realm of magical realism were spines dissolve and babies fall from trees, where bears can speak and impart magic, where your mother can reach out from the grave and comfort you.

Summoning mythology and remembered stories from childhood Gilliland tells us of her mama, her tía who left when the author was a baby, and her grandmother’s mother who married at 13 and had a dozen babies. She tells us of a river woman who is “greener than you’d think. Her skin, moss, her hair, waterweed, her eyes, stone.” We learn about the four eyes that women have been given.

It’s been a difficult week to be a woman. A post on writerunboxed.com helped me think about events of this week from the point of view of a writer. Heather Webb posted advice for “Writing the Authentic Modern Woman (especially if you’re a man)”.

She writes about the way we are conscious of our bodies, and not just the body issues that we all are aware of on some level and comparing ourselves to others. I don’t know a single woman who is not dissatisfied in some way with some aspect of her body. This area also includes the way we are simply aware of our bodies, of “hormonal surges and changes in both mood and physique due to these hormones.”

What it does not include is musing about how large and sexy our breasts are. I’ve set novels aside, thrown them across the room even, when male writers have had women do this or notice a man’s genital endowment before his general attractiveness, clothing, hair, etc.

Webb also writes about our spatial awareness: the wariness we carry no matter what environment we are in. “Women are always at risk. We are extremely aware of who and what is around us and the minute we stop paying attention could not only be dangerous, it could be LIFE-THREATENING. “

It’s different for men. So for a man trying to write about a female character, these are important insights into how to make their characters realistic. I’d love to see a similar post from a man to help us female authors make our men more realistic. Having raised two amazing sons, I think I’m on pretty solid ground, but always welcome more information.

Absorbing these poems would certainly help a male writer better understand the joys and fears and griefs that women carry, the things that their four eyes see. Women will feel at home in these poems, yet be startled and astounded by their unusual images and leaps of imagination.

While vivid details speak of a Latinx culture, the tales are universal. The power and strength of the women in the midst of their fear and grief is a comfort and a hope for us all. These are poems to read again and again.

What poetry have you read recently that has astounded you?

[Asian Figures], by W.S. Merwin

Asian

Some of the earliest writing in English that we have are Anglo-Saxon proverbs. These pithy statements are a good way to pass on wisdom because they are easy to remember.

Merwin, a prolific and popular poet, a former poet laureate, chose to translate these proverbs from various Asian cultures. He side-steps the thorny question of whether they are poetry, and instead concentrates instead on what they share.

There are qualities that they obviously have in common: an urge to finality of utterance, For example, and to be irreducible and unchangeable. The urge to brevity is not perhaps as typical of poetry as we would sometimes wish, but the urge to be self-contained, to be whole, is perhaps another form of the same thing, or can be, and it is related to the irreversibility in the words that is a mark of poetry.

I love poetry’s brevity, though I think of it more as the language being condensed, reduced to its essence.

Two other things I love in poetry are its imagery or music, which he doesn’t mention. Yet his translations do have music of a sort. And in some, the proverb itself is an image. Take this one from Japan:

foot itches
he scratches the shoe

It’s not so much telling us about a literal action, but rather giving us a metaphor for the man’s common sense. Here’s another from Japan that contains a more explicit metaphor:

while they talk together
a thousand hills
rise between them

Or this one from China that struck me as one of the best descriptions of utter poverty I’ve ever read:

too poor
to keep rats

Some of these pithy statements seemed to describe our current political situation:

one dog barks at nothing
ten thousand others
pass it on

When they want to learn
what he’s like
they make him rich

And then offer a perspective on it:

nations die
rivers go on
mountains
go on

And of course there are those that advice on how to live a good life. Many Anglo-Saxon poems and proverbs describe the characteristics a wise person should strive to possess, offering counsel on how to treat others and how to obtain and use wisdom in life.

can’t have two points
on one needle

Let your children
taste a little cold
and a little hunger

And some that provide a startling insight:

ice comes from water
but can teach it
about cold

I like that Merwin includes proverbs not just from Japan or China, but also from other Asian countries, such as Korea and the Philippines. I’ll leave you with this one that captures the dilemma many poets face:

Eat first
poetry later

Share a proverb, perhaps one that your parents told you or one you like to tell your children.

Punishment, by Nancy Miller Gomez

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Gomez’s book, part of the Rattle Chapbook Series, grew out of her experiences teaching poetry in Salina Valley State Prison. These are strong poems, often with a twist at the end that pierces your preconceptions.

I was blown away by the title poem, which describes an incident she must have heard about. She enters into it, using strong verbs to detail the happenings and poignant images to rend the heart.

Some poems seem based on observation, such as “Growing Apples” where inmates are excited about a volunteer: a seedling that sprouted “in a crack of damp concrete”. They transplant it to a paper cup and visit it throughout the day, stunned by this small miracle. There is no need to articulate what this struggling new life means to them, what promise of grace it holds; we can tell. What a beautiful moment to capture!

Other poems draw power from her imaginative entry into the inmates’ lives. In one poem, she describes Lorenzo weaving dream catchers for his fellow inmates out of pillow feathers, paper napkins, dental floss, memories and sounds. The specifics, such as his memory of waking to the sound of his grandmother’s canary, draw us in and help us feel the satisfaction of being absorbed in creative work.

The first of two prose pieces, “How Poetry Saved My Life: Part One”, describes arriving at the prison and the humiliating scrutiny by the guards at the checkpoints. This is perhaps my strongest memory of teaching in a prison myself, and she captures it both vividly and accurately. She goes on to recount poignant moments when men in the safe space afforded by her class are able to drop their prison machismo and show tenderness and concern for each other.

In Part Two, Gomez tells further stories of the changes wrought by poetry in the lives of these men and their appreciation. One man, Manuel, says, “‘I want to share this with my children.’”

Unfortunately, these prose pieces are also the least successful part of the book. It seems to me presumptuous to talk of poetry saving your life because it helped you heal from the shame of participating in reality television, when at the same time you are working with men who know firsthand and experience every day many very real threats to their emotional and physical lives.

Still, given its slender size, this collection is powerful, its images ones I will not soon forget. It is important, too, for the way it helps those who have not been inside a prison recognise the humanity and potential of those behind bars. And Gomez makes a strong case for the uses of poetry, not just for prisoners but for all of us.

What book have you read that smashes stereotypes?

Collected Poems, by Jane Kenyon

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In any communication there is a sender, a transference medium, and a recipient. When you whisper a secret to a friend, you are the speaker; the medium is the vibration in the air; and your friend is the recipient. For writers, our medium is our written work and our readers the recipients.

Each of these three components affects the content and quality of the communication. In the various discussion groups and critique sessions in which I’ve participated, I’ve been continually impressed by the different interpretations that readers may bring to the same poem or story based on their personal experiences and associations.

For me, reading Jane Kenyon’s poems for the first time has been like falling in love, that moment when you meet someone who seems to be your soulmate, who speaks your language, who knows what you have been through. I recently moved to a different part of the country after spending most of my life in one place. This early poem, about her move to New Hampshire, made me lose my heart to Kenyon’s work.

Here

You always belonged here.
You were theirs, certain as a rock.
I’m the one who worries
if I fit in with the furniture
and the landscape.

But I “follow too much
the devices and desires of my own heart.”

Already the curves in the road
are familiar to me, and the mountain
in all kinds of light,
treating all people the same.
And when I come over the hill,
I see the house, with its generous
and firm proportions, smoke
rising gaily from the chimney.

I feel my life start up again
like a cutting when it grows
the first pale and tentative
root hair in a glass of water.

The initial uncertainty, the gradual familiarisation, the stunning final image: all of these are true to my experience. And as Adrienne Rich so beautifully said in her poem “Planetarium”, the poet “translate(s) pulsations / into images for the relief of the body / and the reconstruction of the mind.”

This book is like a time capsule, holding Kenyon’s intense communiqués. Some read like prayers, some like a succession of images, inviting us to bring our own interpretations. She writes of love and light and herons and wasps, of depression and death and the things that survive or don’t.

Although the language seems simple, it is carefully crafted. An allusion here, a descriptive detail there, internal rhymes and repetition all work to create the music of these works.

One poem that intrigued me is “Briefly It Enters, And Briefly Speaks”. It is a list poem, almost a series of haiku, each starting with “I am”. It begins:

I am the blossom pressed in a book,
found again after two hundred years. . . .

I am the maker, the lover, and the keeper. . .

In trying to understand how this succession of images works as a coherent whole, I discovered subtle transitions: a starving girl to food on a plate to water filling a pitcher to a dry garden to a stone doorstep and inside a “heart contracted by joy. . . .”

I’m grateful to have found this treasure chest of poems that speak to me so clearly and illuminate my heart and give voice to my cares and celebrations. The speaker, the writer, may be gone but she has left us these gems to carry her voice to our ears.

Is there a poet or songwriter you’ve discovered recently whose work seems to speak to you?

Delights & Shadows: Poems, by Ted Kooser

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I hadn’t read any of Ted Kooser’s work before, though I’d certainly heard of him. I opened this early collection at a random spot and started to read rather quickly.

I wasn’t particularly impressed: the rather ordinary language didn’t exactly sing to me and the insights—while making me smile—didn’t make me gasp. However, after a few poems, a sense of well-being stole over me, almost a sense of familiarity. Perhaps I had read them before after all? Or had somehow heard this voice?

I found myself thinking of the title of Alice Munro’s 2012 story collection Dear Life. And of Sonia Sotomayor’s memoir My Beloved World. There was something in this short, seemingly simple poems that I needed. I went back and reread them more carefully.

“Tattoo” recounts a moment at a yard sale: seeing an old man whose tattoo of “a dripping dagger held in the fist / of a shuddering heart—is now just a bruise”, a lingering ache “where vanity once punched him hard”—a brilliant line. Note how the images do double duty: a bruise that is the blurred blue of an old tattoo and also a lingering ache, a punch that vanity requested being also like the needles that poked ink into his skin.

There is no mockery here, only fellow-feeling as the author notes the traces of youthful arrogance. The man is still strong and has “the sleeves of his tight black T-shirt / rolled up to show us who he was,” yet we see him as an old man, “picking up / broken tools and putting them back,” the broken tools again doing double duty. And the final line takes us back to the image at the beginning, now shimmering with all that we have learned about this man and all men in just these few lines.

There is a depth of compassion in these poems and a recognition of the small moments that illuminate what it means to be human. In “At the Cancer Clinic” we see a woman being helped across a waiting room by two others, perhaps her sisters, to where a nurse waits patiently. There’s the slight chuckle at calling the nurse patient, the sympathy at the woman’s slow progress, and then the surprising ending that elevates the scene into an evocation of what is best in all of us.

Another poem I loved is “Skater”. Having myself not started skating until middle age and being quite proud that I finally managed a waltz jump—a baby jump, the easiest of all—I thrilled to this joyous description of landing it, of how that experience changes you. Adding to the joy are the bright colors and the image of her skates braiding a path on the ice, echoing her ponytail in the first line.

My friend Dave has much to say against poetry that seems like prose. When I read the last poem in the book, I thought of him and how this could be prose if written without the line breaks. However, reading it again I saw how the images of time and fading light suggest the idea of aging, even death, with calm acceptance, even perhaps with gratitude for a life well lived.

A Happy Birthday

This evening, I sat by an open window
and read till the light was gone and the book
was no more than a part of the darkness.
I could easily have switched on a lamp,
but I wanted to ride this day down into night,
to sit alone and smooth the unreadable page
with the pale gray ghost of my hand.

Have you read any of Ted Kooser’s poetry? Do you have a favorite poem of his?

A Muriel Rukeyser Reader, ed. by Jan Heller Levi, Part 2

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Last week I examined some of the techniques Rukeyser used to write so powerfully about social concerns by looking at a single poem. This week I want to look at some additional aspects of her craft. In doing so, I’m indebted to the participants in my Poetry Discussion Group for their insights.

Born a few months before the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie in Sarajevo, Rukeyser’s life was clouded by the wars of the twentieth century. She was in Barcelona at the start of the Spanish Civil War, and traveled to Hanoi in opposition to the Vietnam war near the end of her life. In “Poem”, she writes:

I lived in the first century of world wars.

Most mornings I would be more or less insane,
The newspapers would arrive with their careless stories,
The news would pour out of various devices
Interrupted by attempts to sell products to the unseen.
I would call my friends on other devices;
They would be more or less mad for similar reasons.

This opening is remarkable for a couple of reasons. One is the ambivalent tone of the first line. Is she being melodramatic, self-pitying, or merely stating a fact? Our curiosity is aroused—or mine was, at least. The next few lines, with their wryly humorous, matter-of-fact description of her morning, confirm the latter.

The other rather remarkable aspect is how contemporary these details seem. “More or less insane” is a good description of how I feel ingesting the news these days. And “devices”? Of course, she couldn’t know what that term would come to mean fifty years after the poem was published, but it is an inspired choice.

At this point in the poem, having made us chuckle and pay attention, Rukeyser changes the focus. Using two lines as a transition, she creates a hinge in the poem. We leave the news, the friends, the morning behind and plunge into why she is writing poetry and what poetry can do to heal our horribly damaged world.

Slowly I would get to pen and paper,
Make my poems for others unseen and unborn.
In the day I would be reminded of those men and women,
Brave, setting up signals across vast distances,
Considering a nameless way of living, of almost unimagined values.
As the lights darkened, as the lights of night brightened,
We would try to imagine them, try to find each other,
To construct peace, to make love, to reconcile
Waking with sleeping, ourselves with each other,
Ourselves with ourselves. We would try by any means
To reach the limits of ourselves, to reach beyond ourselves,
To let go the means, to wake.

Then she ends by repeating—with a slight variation—the first line. No longer ambivalent, it now is filled with emotion which overflows in our own hearts.

I lived in the first century of these wars.

We see these techniques—repetition, hinges, humor—in many of her poems. We also see her use of imagery. In some poems she throws out images with seemingly reckless abandon, with a cascade of images that in a literal sense seem unrelated, yet placed with precision yield a thrilling experience. In an interview, she said she needed “a language that was not static, that did not see life as a series of points, but more as a language of water.”

Her poem “Reading Time: 1 Minute 26 Seconds” is an example of this cascade of images, as well as the use of repetition and vowel sounds to drive the emotional content of the poem. If you actually read it aloud—rapidly, in order to match the designated reading time—the power will come through even more intensely.

The fear of poetry is the
fear : mystery and fury of a midnight street
of windows whose low voluptuous voice
issues, and after that there is not peace.

The round waiting moment in the
theatre : curtain rises, dies into the ceiling
and here is played the scene with the mother
bandaging a revealed son’s head. The bandage is torn off.
Curtain goes down. And here is the moment of proof.

That climax when the brain acknowledges the world,
all values extended into the blood awake.
Moment of proof. And as they say Brancusi did,
building his bird to extend through soaring air,
as Kafka planned stories that draw to eternity
through time extended. And the climax strikes.

Love touches so, that months after the look of
blue stare of love, the footbeat on the heart
is translated into the pure cry of birds
following air-cries, or poems, the new scene.
Moment of proof. That strikes long after act.

They fear it. They turn away, hand up, palm out
fending off moment of proof, the straight look, poem.
The prolonged wound-consciousness after the bullet’s shot.
The prolonged love after the look is dead,
the yellow joy after the song of the sun.

Rukeyser’s work is so rich I could devote many more weeks to talking about aspects of her craft, such as her use of colons and tabs. I mentioned last week her interest in science and the intersection of science with poetry. I especially like the use she makes of James Clerk Matthews’s discussion of the mathematical concept of “singular points” as a “moment of great height, of infinite depth.”

In The Life of Poetry, Rukeyser talks of the influence of Melville and Whitman, one “the poet of outrage”, the other “the poet of possibility”, and we can see both of these influences in the poems we’ve looked at this week and last. She also speaks of different sorts of unity: unity of imagination, of images, and so on. She embraces the possibility of our coming together, of our finally bringing an end to war.

Do you have a favorite poem by Muriel Rukeyser?

A Muriel Rukeyser Reader, ed. by Jan Heller Levi, Part 1

Rukeyse

Rukeyser has been one of my favorite poets since I first stumbled across her work while in my early 20s. I was drawn to her initially by her commitment to social justice. She spoke out against poverty and racism in poems that didn’t need to preach. Instead, they make you yourself feel what it is like to suffer such injustice.

While still a young woman, she traveled to Gauley Bridge, West Virginia, where scores of people were dying of a new disease: silicosis. It caused by breathing the silicate dust that coated the town, while the mine’s owners refused to admit the connection or provide any protection. They simply fired anyone who was too ill to work.

When the blast went off the boss would call out, Come, let’s go back,
when that heavy loaded blast went white, Come, let’s go back,
telling us hurry, hurry, into the falling rocks and muck.

That poem, “George Robinson: Blues”, is a good example of how Rukeyser worked her magic. It is a persona poem, in the voice of George Robinson (his real name was Robison). It starts off gently:

Gauley Bridge is a good town for Negroes, they let us stand around, they let us stand
around on the sidewalks if we’re black or brown.
Vanetta’s over the trestle, and that’s our town.

Then it begins to turn:

The hill makes breathing slow, slow breathing after you row the river,
and the graveyard’s on the hill, cold in the springtime blow,
the graveyard’s up on high, and the town is down below.

Did you ever bury thirty-five men in a place in back of your house,
thirty-five tunnel workers the doctors didn’t attend,
died in the tunnel camps, under rocks, everywhere, world without end.

We are taken deeper into the anguish, anger buried under the simple facts. Finally Robinson’s voice comes back to a hopeless stoicism and wry humor.

Looked like somebody sprinkled flour all over the parks and groves,
it stayed and the rain couldn’t wash it away and it twinkled
that white dust really looked pretty down around our ankles.

As dark as I am, when I came out at morning after the tunnel at night,
with a white man, nobody could have told which man was white.
The dust had covered us both, and the dust was white.

Deeply interested in science, Rukeyser believed that poetry is “an exchange of energy, a system of relationships.” Energy is exchanged between poet and reader. Connections are made between images, images and words, but most of all between the poet and the reader. The poem asks the reader to feel something. In her extraordinary book The Life of Poetry, Rukeyser says, “One of the invitations of poetry is to come to the emotional meanings at every moment.”

To be continued next week when we’ll look more closely at some elements of Rukeyser’s craft.

What poems of social commentary stand out for you?

Best books I read in 2017

As a writer, I learn something from every book I read. These are the ten best books I read in 2017. Please check the links to the blog archive for a fuller discussion of each book.

1. The Collected Poems of Lucille Clifton, 1965-2010, by Lucille Clifton

What makes Clifton’s work so astonishing to me is the way she uses plain language in what are often quite short poems and yet addresses complex themes. Moreover, she packs her poems with music and emotion. What a privilege to be able to delve into a lifetime of work from this remarkable woman!

2. Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell

We start with the story of a notary sailing from the Chatham Islands home to California in 1850. This story is followed by others that moved forward in time to the present and beyond. Part of the fun is detecting how the stories fit together. Each of Mitchell’s eras is written in a different style: a journal, an epistolary novel, a genre mystery, etc. It’s masterful writing!

3. Thérèse, by Dorothy Day

Social activist Dorothy Day was deeply influenced by St. Thérèse of Lisieux, also known as the Little Flower. Thérèse came from a humble background and lived what would seem to be an unremarkable life until her death from tuberculosis at 24. What sets her apart from other saints is her simple approach to spirituality, one that is open to all of us.

4. Dante’s Tears: The Poetics of Weeping from Vita Nuova to the Commedia, by Rossana Fenu Barbera

Sometimes you find a book that answers questions you didn’t know you had. This book roused my curiosity about many things, not just Dante and tears, but also silences, numerology, medicine, and religious beliefs during the Late Middle Ages. By tracing the way Dante presents his own tears and those of others, the author demonstrates how Dante’s philosophy and world view developed over the time he spent writing these works.

5. Bread and Wine, by Ignazio Silone

In this 1936 novel by an Italian who worked underground against the fascists and was exiled, the main character, Pietro Spina, much like the author, works against the fascists. Depending on who is talking, he is either a dangerous revolutionary or an admired freedom fighter. The meat of the story, for me at least, is not his political work but his own inner transformation.

6. H is for Hawk, by Helen Macdonald

In this memoir of training a hawk as she copes with her grief over her father’s death, Macdonald lays bare her emotional journey in language that is achingly precise, with moments of grace that left me breathless.

7. The Man Who Knew Infinity, by Robert Kanigel

Subtitled “A Life of the Genius Ramanujan”, this dual biography tells the story of one of the world’s greatest mathematicians and the man whose support made him known to the world. Their stories raise questions pertinent to today’s societies about prejudice, privilege and education.

8. The Noise of Time, by Julian Barnes

In this new book from Julian Barnes, we enter the world of composer Dmitri Shostakovich. We begin in the year is 1936 when Shostakovich is about to undergo the first of three “conversations with power” that will alter the course of his career, his life, and his self-respect.

8. Collected Poems, by James Wright

Before reading this book I had only read one poem by James Wright, his most famous one: “The Blessing”. I was drawn in and held by the gentle images, too specific to be sentimental, until the final image hit me like a fierce wind, lifting me out of this life. How lovely, then, to find this collection by the beloved and influential poet.

9. The Penderwicks, by Jeanne Birdsall

There is nothing like a good children’s book when you want to take a little break from the world. Jeanne Birdsall’s modern series about the Penderwick family is a delightful romp, reminding me of some of the best books of my own childhood. In this first book, the four Penderwick girls and their father take a cottage unseen for their summer vacation. It turns out to be on an estate called Arundel owned by a snooty woman named Mrs. Tifton, whose formal and conventional life is turned upside down by the influx of rambunctious girls.

10. Hélène, by Deborah Poe

In this chapbook of poems, a young woman, Hélène, works in a factory-convent in 19c France weaving silk. Gently, always leaving space for us to make Hélène’s story our own, Poe juxtaposes the beauty of the silk tapestries with the working conditions of the time. We cannot help asking ourselves what confines us and how we escape.

What were the best books you read last year?