let the page turn begin…
the summer porch is back in business, the sacred art of staring through screens into the first light of dawn and the lingering hours of twilight into starlight and moonlight. there’s a big old wicker chair in there, once dragged in from the hand-me-down bin, one pointed straight into the white pine and the little bird house on a pole where all day long the sparrows or chickadees flit and dart and chatter. i’ve taken up my position therein, and as many hours as the day will allow, that’s where you’re most likely to find me.
even this weekend. by day’s end, long after nightfall, both boys i birthed will be asleep in this old house (thunderstorms, don’t dare fudge our flight paths). the older one is flying home late tonight to be here when the not-so-little-anymore one walks across the graduation stage on sunday. it’s a weekend that’ll be packed with as much high-altitude soaring as we — and a host of jubilant high-schoolers — can possibly pack in, but just as emphatically i plan on planting myself for a few long hours of soulful conversation out there in the room on the verge of the garden. there’s a whole lot of catch-up to catch up on, the sort best done when knees rub against knees, when the folds of skin on someone’s face are squinched or softened in real time, right before your eyes.
i admittedly won’t be doing much turning of pages this weekend — not the literal kind, anyway. in the midst of a real-life page turn, bound pages are usually put aside. so while i dash off to fill the fridge, pin up the welcome home and happy graduation signs, and pick up the rented white dinner jacket (it’s new trier, and that’s the way they’ve done graduation since at least 1936), i am leaving you with the summer reading roundup i wrote for the chicago tribune.
it apparently ran in the paper a couple weeks ago (saturday, may 18), but for the life of me i can’t find it, so here tis, in its original form. my lovely editor asked me to pick three books i’d want to slow read this summer, three that might especially stir the soul, so i went with three whose glorious magnificent writers are no longer among us. mary oliver and w.s. merwin both died within the past few months — mary O. in january, merwin in march. brian doyle died just two years ago; he was only 60.
i promise you a sumptuous summer — at least in the reading corner — should you crack open any one of these…
Pause to reflect on three greats
By Barbara Mahany
There are those for whom summer reading is synonymous with plot-thick page-turners, guzzled beachside or poolside, covers splattered with sunscreen. For others, the indolent season takes an opposite tack: it’s all about catch-up, savoring deep dives into the life lists of authors who’ve long been our polestars. Especially when death brings the coda, in the wake of a beloved author’s last penned utterance. It’s in the spirit of relishing these now-extinguished luminaries’ earlier works, titles forgotten or celebrated, that these three collections constitute a summer’s holy trinity…
The Essential W.S. Merwin
By W.S. Merwin, edited by Michael Wiegers, Copper Canyon, 200 pages, $18
The fittingest way to fill the silence that followed the death in March of W.S. Merwin, the late great Poet Laureate of the United States, who had received every major literary accolade, including two Pulitzer Prizes and the National Book Award, is to crack open the collection of his poems and prose deemed “Essential.”
Apt title, indeed, as this definitive distillation traces a poetic legacy that’s been said to have “changed the landscape of American letters,” a compilation spanning seven decades of Merwin’s often spare unpunctuated poetry, translations, and lesser-known prose narratives.
Merwin was, is, and always will be essential.
“Through daily practice and attention, [Merwin] has created an incredible model for a way of existing on earth,” writes Michael Wiegers, editor-in-chief of Copper Canyon Press, who was tasked with culling nearly 50 books of Merwin poetry and another eight books of his prose. “His poems have defined for future generations what is possible in poetry and in life.”
That truth resonates through these breathtaking pages, be it Merwin’s urgent pleas to attend to this imperiled planet, or his heart-piercing excavations of the unconscious, as in his miracle of a three-line poem, “Separation,” exposing the raw edge of grief. It’s poetry turned saving grace: “Your absence has gone through me / Like thread through a needle. / Everything I do is stitched with its color.”
Poring slowly over these pages—essential as they are—just might be the wisest prescriptive, balm for the soul, in the wake of the poet’s final absence.
Long Life: Essays and Other Writings
By Mary Oliver, DaCapo, 120 pages, $16
The January death of Mary Oliver, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, high priestess of seeing the sacred in the natural landscape—be it weeds poking through asphalt, or a goosefish stranded at low tide—prompted a great reprise of her most memorized lines, among them, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
But her 2004 “Long Life: Essays and Other Writings,” a slim and lesser-referenced volume, holds a cache more than worthy of slow reading, pen in hand for all the underlining and asterisk-ing that begs to be inked. Poems, Oliver calls her “little alleluias,” a “way of offering praise to the world.” Prose, she explains, is more cautious, flowing forward “bravely and, often, serenely, only slowly exposing emotion.”
You’ll find those alleluias sprinkled throughout “Long Life”—and they will take your breath away, even if only a single line, such as this untitled dab: “All the eighth notes Mozart didn’t have time to use before he entered the cloudburst, he gave to the wren.”
But it’s the essays, slowly unspooling, that might hold you in rapt attention, even on a lazy summer’s afternoon. Take, for instance, her introduction to Ralph Waldo Emerson, the great New England Transcendentalist, whom Oliver refers to as “a failed churchman,” as she extols his genius, and reminds us “the heart’s spiritual awakening is the true work of our lives.”
Traversing the few-square-mile landscape of her Cape Cod environs, Oliver finds beauty—and wisdom and prayer—in the quotidian: the town dump, the rain, her mud-caked dog. She never fails to see the sacred. And she declares, almost as anthem: “I walk in the world to love it.”
A Book of Uncommon Prayer: 100 Celebrations of the Miracle & Muddle of the Ordinary
By Brian Doyle, Sorin Books, 192 pages, $14.95
This might be the book to reach for on the rainiest, gloomiest of summer days. For it will soon have you humming. It’s joy, it’s whimsy, it’s bursting-at-the-seams blessing upon blessing.
Tucked in this gem of a pocket-sized book, you’ll find a centenary of prayers for cashiers and checkout-counter folk, in celebration of the wicked hot shower, for little brown birds in lavender bushes, for folks who all day long “hold up STOP signs at construction sites & never appear to shriek in despair or exhaustion,” for opossums, “you poor ugly disdained perfect creatures.” And—take a breath!—in thanks for “hoes & scythes & spatulas & toothbrushes & binoculars & the myriad other tools & instruments that fit our hands so gracefully & allow us to work with a semblance of deftitude.”
And that’s just the start of it.
No wonder Mary Oliver (see high priestess of poetry, above) praised his “passion for the human, touchable, daily life.” And Cynthia Ozick declared that “to read Brian Doyle is to apprehend, all at once, the force that drives Mark Twain and Walt Whitman and James Joyce and Emily Dickinson and Francis of Assisi and Jonah under his gourd.”
Doyle, a poet, writer, and longtime editor of the esteemed Portland Magazine at the University of Portland, died in May, 2017, of complications from brain cancer. He’d won three Pushcart Prizes, and the American Academy of Arts and Letters Award in Literature.
If you wake up and the day happens to be sunny, not rainy, turn to page 66, where you’ll find that Doyle—the prayerful poet for all occasions—has penned a very fine prayer of thanks for suntan lotion. “Which smells good; which smells like relaxed; which smells like giggling children in peculiar and hilarious bathing suits; which smells like not-working; which evokes summer…”
You might be tempted to pen Prayer No. 101: Prayer of lamentation for the inimitable, irreplaceable Brian Doyle. And so, amen.
Barbara Mahany’s latest book,“The Blessings of Motherprayer: Sacred Whispers of Mothering,” was published last April. Twitter: @BarbaraMahany
what’s on your summer reading list?
During my “ morning matins”… (which is what I have been calling that oh so constant awakening to worry, wonder and reflection between 2 and 3 AM so might as well make it prayerful…there is probably a reason the religious orders formalized hauling themselves out of bed to pray at that hour!)…anyway it did wander across my mind that this might be the big weekend! May the moments become crystal clear fingering beads of love and memory pictures. Congratulations to all as no one gets to this point alone…it is a love team effort as it should be. Will be holding you all in prayer as the next adventure begins!
I love the list, but Brian Doyle…oh my. I would suggest Mink River (one of his fiction) should be top on everyone’s list. About 6 years ago I picked it up by chance at a bookstore at the end of the world in Reye’s Point on the northwest coast of California. I have read it at least twice since. He was a man of deep spirituality and a most loving eye to our complexities. Happy reading to all. My annual summer mode is to wander the libraries of Chicago and Michigan and see what stops my eye and finger as I wander the stacks. Adventure time…and may all the chair sisters and brothers have a grand summer. Bless you Bam for kicking off the reading binge. xxoo
oh, honey, is there anything more luscious than strolling a library, and seeing where your fingering of shelves takes you? and to know it’s all free?!?!?!? (that never ceases to amaze me!)
i’ve not read mink river, but i know BD was hugely famous for it, and acclaimed for it.
he was editor of the AMAZING portland magazine, which went on hiatus after his death, but which i saw has appointed a new editor, and has recently published its latest edition! it’s a spirit-filled, high-bar literary magazine from the university of portland, a catholic university with a deeply ecumenical bent. here’s the tagline from the university’s garaventa center, to give you a hint of the spirit of the place: “to shed light and explore grace in this bruised, blessed world.”
here’s a link to the magazine: https://www.up.edu/marketing/portland-magazine/index.html
Graduation time. I can only imagine you reflecting while you soak it all in, as you are a person who could do them both at once – maybe even while you struggle not to – I know, I’m one of those too. Enjoy your summer and the reading.
Oh, dear Richard, what a total thrill to find you here!!!! not sure if you’re across the pond, or this side of it, but warmest salutations from here. i’ll admit that my brain and heart are in overdrive right now — i could burst into tears at the drop of a hat, and fully intend to inhale every last bit of this page turning. i hope all is gloriously well with you and yours. thank you for swinging by….
Enjoy your weekend! Nothing surpasses having all our grown children together in our homes. I am determined to read more than usual this summer, thinking of starting with Dickens and the French Revolution after a recent visit to France. BUT, now I know I need to read something by Brian Doyle!
whoa! super ambitious (your french revolution summer read!). i promise you will swoon over B Doyle.
i love that my morning whirl of errands for homecoming has included a swing by the garden store — as IF my firstborn who is arriving in the dark will notice that i’ve planted the last of all the pots, just for his arrival! i don’t think there is anything more fun that swooping through the grocery store grabbing all the treats you’ve had to pass by for so many months — because the one for whom they are favorites hasn’t been anywhere nearby. but, now, for 40 sweet short hours, he will be! about to change into my muddy-wear and head out with my trowel to do that planting. homecoming days are just the heavenliest. xoxoxox
wish all the chairs could swoop by for this festive weekend!
I’ll be there in spirit as your dear boy graduates! Wishing him a thousand blessings as he strides across that stage… What a proud moment for him, what a magnificent moment for your family. I just love thinking of you potting plants and stocking your larder and getting everything in order for your mini family reunion. May your 40 hours of togetherness be sweet… Thinking of you so much this weekend, sending bouquets of love and warmest congratulations to your young graduate. Also, penciling down these titles in my want-to-read list. Thank you for being a font of great book suggestions! Hugs and more hugs!
OHHHHH, sweetheart, what a treat to find you here as i come in with muddy muddy paws! hanging basket planted, summer porch pots planted, basil planted! let the pesto begin. you know you dwell right in my apron pocket, where i reach in for a squeeze on as-needed basis. (these days that’s more often than not!)
sending hugs, and praying for your swatch of this heartland, a heartbreak of flooding, indeed.
What Amy said. 👆 Love. Love. And more love. xoxoxoxo
Enjoy your time at “summer camp” with the fellow saints and poets! Thanks for sharing your journey with us! It was lovely swapping stories and spending time together on retreat in the midst of April’s snow. Great memories to hold in my heart! ♥️
hello, dear helene! what a treat to find you here “at the table”!! hope the rest of spring has been kind to you. we seem to be in seasonal delay around here. in spring, it was winter, and now in summer, it’s barely spring…..