Open Books: The Goods - Archive
If you see something you'd like, click place an order.
A Few Books - 12/09
Now well into her 80s, Shirley Kaufman is writing poetry of remarkable power. Ezekiel's Wheels ($14 Copper Canyon), her ninth collection, brims with forthright, thoughtful, and moving poems. Rarely has a book so focused on frailty been so vigorous, one so revealing about increasing confusion been so gracefully articulate, work so honest in its acknowledgment of death exhibited such vitality. Born in Seattle, she has been a resident of Jerusalem for over 30 years, and while that region and its complications surface in her work, it is the territory of long life from which she frequently, and candidly, reports -- "When you’ve been given / a second chance / you need / to care more (less) / about what you live for // not so much staying alive // as the old skin you wear / the everyday sloughing." Her work is sparse on personal detail yet bracingly intimate -- to read these poems is nearly to feel her breath as she speaks. Though emotion underpins the poetry, it is decidedly unsentimental, touched with a loving starkness -- "Old maps have been folded // so long they split at the crease. / If everyone’s lost on the roads, / you might as well fly. You might even / enjoy what’s left of your life // in a state of amazement. I meant / to say 'acceptance.' But it came out / like this. My slips are the best / part. The part that’s true."
"This is the book I put off writing for more than fifty years because I wanted it to be perfect, which it is not and could never be," writes former U.S. Poet Laureate Ted Kooser about Lights on a Ground of Darkness ($10.95 Bison Books), his sweet, brief memoir of his childhood years with his mother's family in Guttenberg, Iowa. The quiet clarity of his poetry is equally evident in his prose. He subtitled the little volume "An Evocation of a Place and Time," and it most certainly is, as well as a detailed and touching portrait of the people who made that place and time so special to him -- and now, through his writing, to us. Here are his grandfather, a retired farmer running a filling station; his Uncle Elvy, born with cerebral palsy, who loved to fish and whose job it was to bring the drinking water from the well; the card-players who wiled away their hours at the station; here are the aunts, the salesmen, the family friends, his mother and father, both in those early years and at the end of their lives. Indeed, though Kooser sets out to tell the story of a particular time, it is the story of time itself being told, how people pass through it, how places are changed by it. There's no small amount of loss here, but there is even more so an honoring of what endures, like the ever divided and shared irises that bloom and bloom.
As many of you know, Open Books stocks a small number of poetry books for children. A recent favorite, a couple of years old but new to us, is How to Paint the Portrait of a Bird ($16.95 Roaring Brook). This book features the charming poem of that title by the masterful French poet Jacques Prévert (1900-1977) lovingly translated and illustrated by the Caldecott Medalist Mordicai Gerstein. The book’s format (hardcover, square, an illustration on each page) indicates it's for a child, and it especially would be adored by a precocious child with an interest in art. The poem's message, though, transcends generations, being about the creative life, about making one's self available to uncertainty. Prévert's poem begins, "First paint a cage / with an open door," and the notion of being open flows from there. Gerstein’s colorful, joyous art moves buoyantly alongside the text, as lively an illustration as one could wish for the poem. This truly is one of those delightful entities, an any-age book.
Bill Holm was a larger-than-life presence, a big man with a big heart who wrote poems and essays that were embracing, tender, prickly, exuberant, comic, irritated, wry, and filled with gratitude for life in all its beauty and absurdity. Though 2009 brought the difficult news of his death, it also now brings a rich and pleasing volume of his work -- The Chain Letter of the Soul: New and Selected Poems ($18 Milkweed). Nearly one hundred new poems appear for the first time here, along with ample selections from his earlier collections. His writing is vivid with descriptions of the people and settings of his native Minnesota and his parents' home country of Iceland, where he returned many times. It is the work of one who was appreciative of the iconoclast, suspicious of organized religion, and troubled by the politics of recent years. His reverence for music, particularly for the classical piano repertoire he so delighted in playing, echoes throughout. Bill Holm knew sadness and pleasure with depth. He savored, mourned, questioned, and rejoiced -- and lucky for us wrote so much down.
On solstice night atop the Long Glacier,
about a mile in the air, the Cathedral Choir,
dressed in puffy orange overalls, toasts
the mountains underfoot with cold schnapps,
then sings a sad lullaby for an outlaw’s
drowned daughter and an even sadder
patriotic tune in praise of Mother Iceland,
spread out fifty miles on all sides below.
The children hurl summer snowballs
at their singing parents' orange asses,
but nobody loses either pitch or tune.
They look so silly that I weep.
For these songs the gods
made up the universe.
|-- * --