It's that time of year again — the leaves have fallen, the dark comes early, the air brings with it a certain chill — and I've been piling up books on my reading table, books I've culled from the offerings of the past few months, which because of their essential lyric beauty and power stand as special gifts for you and yours.
They sometimes seem at odds, the lyrical impulse and the narrative impulse. My own taste runs to the books that somehow combine the two modes, and when I'm considering what to give as gifts to people who live to read — and read to live — it's always those books that stand out in my mind as the best variety of gift.
We all have our stories that extend over time, but if the stories don't pulse at least now and then with the power of the lyric impulse, it's not really life in all its fullness.
To set this holiday table I first want to recommend poet Kevin Young's anthology The Hungry Ear: Poems of Food and Drink. Here is gustatory poetry for all seasons, from summer berry-picking to autumn harvests, winter holiday meals to maple syrup springs; poems about breakfasts, lunches, dinners and snacks; about meat and drink, soups and salads, desserts and snacks, coffee and Coca-Cola. The joy in these poems knows no bounds. Who knew that so many wonderful poets, from Li Po to Yeats to Mary Oliver and Gerald Stern, wrote so many wonderful words about satisfying this particular appetite? The taste of milk, the taste of apples, the taste of wine, bread, cheese, the company of loved ones, the presence of friends, all here, tripping off the tongues of some of the country's, and world's, most gifted poets.
To introduce it all, Young gives us poet Joy Harjo's poem "Perhaps the World Ends Here."
The world begins at a kitchen table. No matter what, we must eat to live.
The gifts of earth are brought and prepared, set on the table. So it has been since creation, and it will go on ...
At this table we sing with joy, with sorrow. We pray of suffering and remorse. We give thanks.
Perhaps the world will end at the kitchen table, while we are laughing and crying, eating of the last sweet bite.
At the top of the stack on my book table rests a slender volume, a 70-page novella, Christmas at Eagle Pond, by former Poet Laureate Donald Hall. In this straightforward piece of narrative nostalgia, Hall conjures up a story of what it would have been like if he had visited his grandparents' New Hampshire farmhouse for Christmas in 1940. In doing so, he has made one of the most engaging Christmas narratives in a long line of these by U.S. writers, a story filled with the brisk December cold, horse-drawn carts and trains, recitations at the local meeting house, and as Hall gives us, a bountiful description of the holiday meal:
"Called to the table, we found it covered with food from end to end: chicken and stuffing, vegetables, mashed potatoes, gravy, butter, vinegar in a cruet. Uncle Luther presided at the far end of the table, Gramp sat at the near end by the plate stacked with chicken ... First thing, Luther closed his eyes and said grace, 'Dear Lord, we thank Thee.' "
On my own table sit three more volumes, books that carry us from the antique past, through 20th century history, and into the future. Out of a British poet's love and respect for ancient poetry comes Memorial, Alice Oswald's audacious, powerful and beautiful version of The Iliad. But, as she notes in her introduction, seven-eighths of the poem has been removed, not missing but sheared away, so that Oswald can focus on what she calls the lament tradition in the metaphors evoking the deaths of hundreds of warriors on the battlefield of Troy:
And HIPPODAMAS died Like a traveler trudging across a plain Who comes to a river and stands helpless Looking down at that foamy swiftness sweeping to the sea And takes a step back ...
And HYPEIROCHOS died Like a farm boy looking after the pigs Who tries to cross a river in a rainstorm And gets swept away ...
And HECTOR died like everyone else He was in charge of the Trojans But a spear found out the little patch of white Between his collarbone and his throat Just exactly where a man's soul sits Waiting for the mouth to open ...
From ancient Greece we travel forward, to novelist Susanna Moore's clear-eyed vision of wartime Germany in The Life of Objects. Moore tells the story of a dreamy young Irish country girl, a lace maker named Beatrice, who gets hired by an aristocratic German family just before the outbreak of the Second World War. The book is the story of Beatrice's initiation into the thick of modern life — and ours, no matter how many times we may have read about the Nazis' rise to power — into the war itself, and the Russian occupation that followed.
The view the narrator gives us of the war is unusual in its frankness, and the spareness and beauty of the delivery — as the family's glorious estate declines along with the German nation, and Beatrice's education grows to include the worst kind of savagery, personal and political, in a story that somehow redeems all of the destruction coming down around the Irish heroine.
The final book I want to recommend to you makes up part of a series of short novels by the talented and versatile fiction writer Walter Mosley, with the overarching title of Crosstown to Oblivion. Mosley published the first volume last year. And now, here's a new addition, comprised of two short novels, Merge and Disciple. In these odd and original books, ordinary men, black Americans, find themselves contacted by aliens of one sort or another. Their stories offer a neat mix of ideas and entertainment, and the role of sex in contemporary life — especially for a man essentially living alone — is something Mosley writes about with a freshness and frankness that adds a truly interesting dimension to his already multidimensional tales. Crosstown to Oblivion offers a long and visionary reach.
But if oblivion sounds a bit too dark for this already dark time of year, well, pick up from the table that Kevin Young poetry anthology and turn to "Green Chile," Jimmy Santiago Baca's ode to his New Mexico grandmother and her favorite pepper — here's the last stanza — and the world will light up again:
All over New Mexico, sunburned men and women drive rickety trucks stuffed with gunny sacks of green chile, from Belen, Beguita, Wllard, Estancia, San Antonio y Socorro, from fields to roadside stands, you see them roasting green chile in screen-sided homemade barrels, and for a dollar a bag, we relive this old, beautiful ritual again and again.