once upon the natural world

I've mentioned it before, but it's worth saying again:  this blog is not about promoting books or authors or attempting to break into the blogosphere in some public way.  It's not particularly about my academic life, although what I read certainly fuels my academic life.  It's also not about my life or sharing news, except those friends who are devoted readers themselves and understand that what we read often is the news of our lives.*

This blog is about what I read.  That's all.  I'm not fishing for merchandise or debates.  It's a record that I keep for mostly personal reasons, but I'm always glad when my reviews of particular books lead someone to a reading discovery, for themselves or for their libraries.  Who I am is so tied up with libraries and the ideals of librarianship, from intellectual freedom to public service, that it is inevitably relevant to almost any aspect of my way of reading that I'm thinking about to whom a book might appeal and for whom a book might be collected.  For today's post, however, I'm thinking about what has appealed to me lately.

Once Upon a River by Bonnie Jo Campbell

This is a terrific adult book, albeit raw and difficult beyond what most young adults (but not all) will be ready to handle.  Be forewarned, it will sound totally bleak, but its saving graces are the natural setting of the river and the fact that this is a story of survival.

Our heroine is no heroine, just a very confused teenaged whose mother is gone.  She is coming of age when her uncle takes advantage of her teenage curiosity to lure her into a shed and rape her.  Whether her acceptance of this situation is strategic compliance or just being completely emotionally shut down, the reader can't know, and yet there's a glimmer in Campbell's writing that she is not simply a victim.  What we do know is that she shoots him in an especially private place, which sparks her cousin shooting her own father.  And, once her father is dead, she has no way to survive but to run away and live off of the bounty of the river.

She attaches herself to men who will have her, partly out of survival and partly out of this same sense of utter disconnection that accompanied her uncle's attack.  Written out in stark description, the book sounds like a horrific story, and yet there's something about the unflappable stamina of the main character that makes it hard to stop reading this book.  The river itself is both setting and character, as the protagonist repeatedly draws her strength to survive from the water and the bounty that the river brings.

Winter Hours by Mary Oliver
American Primitive by Mary Oliver

I'm blogging these two together because I read them together, as my companions on a month of six (!) plane rides.  They are slender volumes and full of heart.  Reading them all at once made my brain feel over sated, like my stomach feels after the richest chocolate cake.  Winter Hours is more of a semi-public, semi-private epistolary book for her readers.  Oliver is still and always Oliver, but there are slivers of opening up as she mentions her domestic partner and her thoughts on various writers (Poe, Hopkins).  Mostly, this book is prose, essays about life.  I've turned down the corners in my copy so that I can always get back to my favorites of her reflections, and I won't try to recapitulate them all here, so these favorite quotes are just excerpts of excerpts:

"I was playing.  I was whimsical, absorbed, happy.  Let me always be who I am, and then some." (p. 10)

"All things are meltable, and replaceable.  Not at this moment, but soon enough, we are lambs and we are leaves, and we are stars, and the shining, mysterious pond water itself." (p. 23)

"In my mind now, in any comparison of demonstrated truths and unproven but vivid intuitions, the truths lose." (p. 102)

American Primitive is the book for which Oliver won a Pulitzer Prize, and it is such a perfectly balanced book of poetry about the sublime fecundity of the natural world.  These are poems that detail flight, chance encounters, death as part of life and how it can be honored... it starts with a poem called August, and so brings to mind Natalie Babbitt's opening of Tuck Everlasting, "The first week of August hangs at the very top of summer, the top of the live-long year, like the highest seat of a Ferris wheel when it pauses in its turning."  She moves through seasons and nature, seemingly erratically, but will all the pleasures of the best possible mixed tape, with peaks of delight and troughs of despair throughout.  It's hard to pick favorites, they flow so well together, but "The Bobcat" stands out as especially appealing, to me, being palpably philosophical.  At the end, there is a crescendo of joy, starting with "The Honey Tree," and the final poems of the book are almost too real and too glad to absorb.  If I were ever to get tattoos, these are the kinds of words I would be thinking about:

"What should we say
    is the truth of the world?
         The miles alone
in the pinched dark?
     or the push of the promise?
          or the wound of delight?"

from "The Bobcat" 

When I read this next set of lines, I found myself wondering why oh why these words aren't distributed to every young person, as a poet's guide to life?  They are sacred, that's why, and we shy from sharing or promulgating truly sacred things.  But still.  If there's one thing a grown up could have told me when I was a teenager that might have made some sense of this crazy existence, it might have been something like this:

To live in this world

you must be able 
to do three things:
to love what is mortal; 
to hold it

against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go."

from "In Blackwater Woods"

And it almost seems like a crime to even quote these lines out of context, because the entire poem is so wonderful.  You can read the whole thing here:  http://writersalmanac.publicradio.org/index.php?date=2009/05/03
Oliver's work has gained wide acclaim, of course, and perhaps the Oprah-based quoting of her work would turn some readers off.  But I'd urge those readers to reconsider, because the power of Oliver's work lies in its simplicity, accessibility, and rootedness is minute observations of the natural world.  As she says in Winter Hours, "All narrative is metaphor." (p. 33)  And most of her poems are miniature narratives, all of them metaphors for the various sweetnesses and bitternesses of life.

*But, really, I use facebook and goodreads to keep up with those I have chosen as friends or friendly acquaintances.  There's no preventing it, occasionally someone will read this whom I would rather not invite into my reflections, but that's the price you pay for sharing in the age of the internets.  

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