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Tag: W.S. Merwin

let the page turn begin…

summer read

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 greatssoul books summer

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?

books for the soul: just in time

soulbooks

i often turn to poets and prophets when my heart feels like it’s leaking sadness, and so this latest roundup of books for the soul is an apt offering this fine november morning. i don’t always remember to post these here, though they’re always to be found at the chicago tribune, now tucked inside the arts & entertainment section on thursdays (soulful roundups, the ones i write, appear every five to six weeks). if you’d prefer to find this online, here’s your link. otherwise, read on below. God bless mary oliver, w.s. merwin, and brian mclaren for abundant wisdoms and poetry.

Spiritual Books by Brian D. McLaren, Mary Oliver and W.S. Merwin

By Barbara Mahany
Chicago Tribune

“The Great Spiritual Migration” by Brian D. McLaren, Convergent, 288 pages, $21

That Brian McLaren’s roots in conservative Christianity once ran deep, makes his a powerful voice calling for a prompt and wholesale realignment. It’s a religion gone astray, he argues, and it needs a serious fix.

His ultimate challenge, astutely laid out in “The Great Spiritual Migration: How the World’s Largest Religion Is Seeking a Better Way to Be Christian,” is this: Might Christianity find a way to become more Christian? (Read: More all-inclusive, and, most of all, more loving?)

McLaren, a former pastor, progressive activist and highly respected Christian thinker, minces no words in claiming that Christians by the droves are “fleeing the brand, as the brand is so compromised as to be unrecognizable.” He writes as only an insider can — with rock-solid authority. His thesis: “Our religions often stand for the very opposite of what their founders stood for.”

Whereas the founders of religions — and the denominations thereof — were defined by generosity, vision, creativity and boldness in action and thought, the religions that “ostensibly carry on their work,” McLaren writes, often become “constricted, change-averse, nostalgic, fearful, obsessed with boundary maintenance, turf battles, and money. Instead of greeting the world with open arms … their successors stand guard with clenched fists.”

McLaren’s argument demands attention; it comes in a time of religious tumult. American society, and the West in general, is rapidly becoming more secular, with the “nones” — the religiously nonaffiliated, including atheists and those who claim to be spiritual but don’t identify with a particular religion — accounting for almost 1 in 4 Americans today.

Pointedly, McLaren asks: “What would it mean for Christians to rediscover their faith not as a problematic system of beliefs but as a just and generous way of life, rooted in contemplation and expressed in compassion?”

“Upstream” by Mary Oliver, Penguin, 192 pages, $26

When reading Mary Oliver in any form — poetry or prose — you oughtn’t be surprised when suddenly you find yourself at a full stop. When you come across a sentence so arresting in its beauty — its construction, its word choice, its truths — you can’t help but pause, hit “reread,” and await the transformative soaking-in, the awakening of mind and soul that’s sure to settle deeply.

So it is with “Upstream: Selected Essays,” Oliver’s latest collection of writings (19 in all, 16 from previous collections), here twinning the threads of the natural world and her lifelong literary companions. Long considered the high priestess of astonishment, she lays before the reader epistle after epistle from her Book of Nature and the meditations therein.

For Oliver, the natural world — be it a consideration of the snapping turtle or the red-tailed hawk, the cattails swishing at the pond’s edge or “the black-bellied pond” itself — is the channel into the sacred.

Hers is not an explicit religiosity, but rather it’s writing weighted with suggestion, with a gentle nod toward the divine, and every once in a while an explicit salutation. Addressing a gargantuan gassy-breathed snapping turtle, for instance, she asks: “Did He who made the lily make you too?”

She never fails to stir us from whatever is the natural speck before our gaze to the immeasurable heaven’s dome above and beyond.

And as with all the best of Oliver, and her company of contemplatives, her message, her religion, is one that rests on this command: Open your eyes. Pay attention.

“Garden Time” by W.S. Merwin, Copper Canyon, 96 pages, $24

“Poets were my first priests, and poetry itself my first altar,” Mary Karr, the poet and memoirist, once wrote. And so, for those of us drawn to the liturgical practice of carving out quietude, and cracking open the pages of volumes of poetry, the latest collection from W.S. Merwin, two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize in poetry, is prayer of a high order.

The son of a Presbyterian minister who started out writing hymns for his father, Merwin, now a practicing Zen Buddhist, takes on a study of time in this latest collection, “Garden Time,” 61 new poems written late in his life (he’s now in his ninth decade). Merwin’s verse pulses with a longing, a knowing that this moment is blessed — and is slipping away. There’s a reverence here that can only be called sacred, a divine infusion.

While he trains his eye on the natural world, it’s the infinite wisdom tucked within that world that Merwin is mining. His subjects of inquiry (to name but a few): sunset, shadow, silence, the sound of rain when it stops. Considered “an oracular poet” by some literary critics, these poems brim with unanswerable questions; Merwin’s examination of time and memory — looping, spiraling, slipping to and fro — can’t help but spur you to pause, to pay closer attention. To consider your own life’s measure of time, looping and slipping away.

Attention, Mary Oliver says, is the beginning of devotion. And devotion is the high art of the soul. That high art is rarely practiced more ethereally than through the words of William Stanley Merwin.

Barbara Mahany is a freelance writer whose next book, “Motherprayer,” will be published in the spring.
Copyright © 2016, Chicago Tribune

while you’re busy reading this, i hope to be typing away on another post for this friday morning, one in which my holy balm was found pushing my wheelbarrow.