Books as Refuge and The Rain in Portugal

IMG_4318In Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven (highly recommended), a theater troupe makes its way through a post-apocalyptic world, performing Shakespeare for tiny communities that have escaped the plague. The company’s motto, taken from Star Trek Voyager, is “Survival is insufficient.”

Which is, essentially, the raison d’etre for this site in the post-election landscape.

I believe in making calls, making donations, making the decision every day to stand up for our fellow human beings.

And I believe that when we are weary and heartsore from the work of the world, books are a refuge. They give our minds rest; they let us escape; they encourage us to love harder; they call us back to action.

We must have light in the darkness. We must have all kinds of books.

I’m going to do my best for the world beyond the page, but I’m going to keep reading omnivorously too (even if I’m not writing as much as usual).

I hope you’ll find some comfort, and some light, here.

And on that note, today I’ll recommend Billy Collins’s new collection, The Rain in Portugal.*

Like Mary Oliver, Mr. Collins is one of the most popular poets in the United States; read “The Lanyard” if you want to know why. As I wrote in my review of Aimless Love a few years ago,

His poems are cozy but not uncomfortably intimate, clever but not arrogant. Their subjects are work and rest, reading and writing, eating, looking out of windows; in short, the everyday business of being alive in America. As I’ve written elsewhere, his poetry is perfect for picking up on a whim, while you wait for a friend who’s late to dinner, say. You’ll be entertained, you’ll think, and you might even laugh, but you won’t be trying to unknot a metaphor half an hour later while you chew your escarole.

The Rain in Portugal is a collection that deploys Mr. Collins’s signature humor, which is often self-deprecating (“Some days, I look worse than yesterday’s oatmeal”). The book’s title comes from a poem called “On Rhyme,” which pokes fun at his lack of facility for rhyming. And in “Early Morning,” the speaker begins:

I don’t know which cat is responsible
for destroying my Voter Registration Card
so I decide to lecture the two of them on
the sanctity of private property,
the rules of nighttime comportment in general,
and while I’m at it, the importance
of voting to an enlightened citizenship.

After delivering this admonishment, he ruefully notes that he once told an interviewer that “early morning was my favorite time to write / I was not thinking of this particular morning.”

img_2357More fanciful are poems like “Cosmology,” in which the world is imagined to rest of Keith Richards’s head (literally) or  “The Bard in Flight” (you can read a slightly different version here), in which the speaker imagines sitting next to Shakespeare in an airline cabin; particularly clever is the way he imagines the Bard trying to catch the nuances in the flight attendants’ speech (for later use, of course).

Still, despite the humor and the flights of fancy (couldn’t resist), I found this collection more somber than I expected; maybe wistful is the right word. The poems about travel seem a lonely, for one thing. There’s a brief elegy for Seamus Heaney that sneaks up on the reader, like a silent rabbit in a yard. And I loved “December 1,” a tribute to the poet’s mother on what would have been her 114th birthday.

If you’re looking for respite, a quiet hour or two to spend in someone else’s everyday life, with thought experiments and gently put questions, you won’t go wrong with The Rain in Portugal.

*I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review consideration, which did not affect the content of my review.

Blogger friends, if you’ve read this far, thank you, and thank you for all your kind comments over the last few weeks. I’m sorry to have fallen behind with your posts, and I hope to get back up to speed in December, though I probably won’t be around as much as I used to be.

How the Light Gets In

I am sick at heart.  The American electorate has besmirched the dignity of so many people by casting its lot with those who spew hateful invective, with a candidate who cannot and will not acknowledge the full humanity of those he seeks to lead.

Only a few days ago I wrote about reading and empathy. I still believe that reading widely lays the groundwork for empathy and respect. But I do not know how to reach those who will not read the stories of others.

“There is a crack in everything / that’s how the light gets in,” wrote Leonard Cohen. In dark times light is all the more necessary. And so, while we take the measure of what we can do to move forward—how we can best use our time and talents as citizens in service to our fellow human beings—people will still make art and music and poems and novels. We need our artists, and I think we need every space we can get to share hope, build understanding, and renew bonds of love for each other.

It seemed that everywhere I looked on Wednesday I read the first stanza of Yeats’s “The Second Coming”:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

It is so very bleak, that poem. I believe Yeats wrote it with all the intensity of his passion and belief, and yet, nearly 100 years later, despite a century that laid waste to entire peoples, humanity endures, able to renew its conviction, its commitment to protecting the innocent.

Instead of succumbing to the tide of dread that has washed over so many of us, I suggest (as I have before), that we read the words of Emma Lazaraus:

The New Colossus

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”


Light and not darkness upon our paths, friends.