Reading / Life

Three things for now.

Erika Swyler, Light from Other Stars; Bloomsbury, hardcover 2019

First, I just finished reading Erika Swyler’s Light from Other Stars and I’m picking myself up off the floor, as we speak. There are books that seem to have so much of the author’s heart in them that it feels an extraordinary privilege to read.

I admired The Book of Speculation so much when it came out, and it’s smart and mysterious. It reveals its hand and yet still leaves you wondering how the trick was done (appropriate for a book largely about a deck of Tarot cards). But this one felt raw and unnerving, while still fitting the tropes of coming-of-age that feel familiar (Scout, Jo, Anne, looking at you).

Nedda is an eleven year-old space enthusiast who, after watching Challenger explode on TV, learns that her own father, a bit of a mad scientist figure, has been building a machine to stop / reverse time. The machine is successful, which leads to a number of significant events and difficult choices.

The main narration flashes back and forward between the machine’s–Crucible’s–inaugural run, and a future time in which Nedda is in space, aboard Amadeus, a space travel craft derived in part from her father’s prototype.

If the idea for this book had come from a seminar, or a writers group or a prompt, I think the prompt would have been something like “Write about a small town that is stuck in time” and the Swyler’s response to that would have been, Ok, but what about, like, literally…and what would the conditions of possibility be for that to happen, in fiction. The book is set in Florida. And I found that to be a kind of interesting choice. We think of so many sectors of the South (or the South as a whole) as somehow stuck in time. This is lazy, actually, because of course no one gets literally stuck in time (except in fiction) and we all do exist in a co-temporality, whether we like it or not. But I felt that this book took that rather lazy assumption of “stuck-in-time-ness” and then did this beautiful and elegant thought exercise with it, which realizes the cliché in a way that is impactful.

I also found it very powerful that so many of the characters were floating around in wombs so much of the time. And that wombs are related to an uncanny passage of time. And that wombs are not these life-giving pools of light (as they are most often presented in their symbolic form) but also a space of destruction. A space of love and death. I found this to be a deeper use of the archetype, more true, more timeless, more interesting.

Poetry Unbound | The On Being Project - The On Being Project

Second thing I wanted to share is that I have only recently started listening to the podcast Poetry Unbound, from the folks over at NPR’s On Being, and I think Pádraig Ó Tuama is such an excellent and generous reader of poems that you cannot but love every piece that is featured on the show.

But I was walking along yesterday listening to his thoughts on Katie Manning’s incredible poem “What to Expect” and I had this reflection that I wanted to share. Which is: if you ever find yourself in a position to speak about a theme or topic that is somewhat removed from your own personal experience (and we all do this quite a lot in literature because HOPEFULLY we’re all reading outside of our own experience–that’s the entire point of reading) this is a nice little case study for how to do that effectively and with sensitivity.

Whenever I read or listen to or come across analyses of literature about maternity and motherhood, my ears perk up. It’s the only thing I claim to “own” identity-wise, (maybe that and my southernness) and I get like … moderately testy about most media that portray motherhood, or talk its portrayal. So obviously, when I hear that a dude is going to tell me about a poem written by a person who has been pregnant and a mother, about pregnancy and motherhood, I don’t necessarily set myself against whatever he’s about to say, mais, disons que je fais très très attention.

Of qualms, I had zero. Nary a bone I would pick.

Listen to the podcast, and just pay attention to the way that Ó Tuama sort of bumps up against the limits of experience and says “Well, here I am, at the limits of my experience. Now, certain people have told me this and this. So I will repeat their observations. But I am not a person who has had this experience, therefore I don’t get every single reference within this poem. Here’s what I DO get. And here are the immensely interesting observations I will make about how deeply intelligent and impactful this poem is. Furthermore, as a person who has not had this experience, reading about this experience, here’s how this felt. Here are the ways in which my outsider status was implicated within the poem itself.”

What I don’t appreciate are approaches that say “I know nothing, therefore I am not qualified to speak on this work.” What’s far more interesting to me are approaches that say “Here is what I do know, and here is the way I will use my knowing to lift up this work.” So in this case, Ó Tuama talks a lot about the technical aspects of the poem. How certain words coming together produce certain meanings and resonances. It’s an AMAZING gloss. It’s exactly what a good gloss should be.

Also, the poem itself is an astounding read and a clear-sighted poetic takedown of a book that almost no one should be reading anymore. I’m really excited to dive into more of Katie Manning’s work.

Third thing is this beautiful video produced by the folks at Aeon (which, btw, is my one-stop-shot for great thought and endless inspiration).

It’s Ralph Steiner’s 1929 film “Ode to Water” with music by William Pearson.

Give yourself these 12 minutes as a precious gift.

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