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Each Sunday, I post a brief introduction to a collection of poetry I've been loving. I include one poem that I think really sings. No review. No need. If it's here, you'll know I recommend it. If you have one to recommend (yours or someone else's), send it along. I'll do my best to be here every Sunday.

Last Sunday at 9 pm, I was unexpectedly stuck in the parking lot of a 24-hour Walgreens, awaiting antibiotics for my son who had unreasonably contracted strep (how in god's name we are so careful). Without question, the day had not gone as planned, and there would be no Sunday Poetry post. But with the relentless pulse of small town traffic outside my car, and the pages dappled with light from the drugstore sign behind me, I read (finally!) Ilya Kaminsky's Deaf Republic. It is an amazing piece of work - poetry, yes, but also drama and allegory and elegy.

This book is a partner/cousin/step-sibling to David Grossman's Falling Out of Time, another tale of love and loss that blends poetry and drama. But where Grossman's story provides a tight examination of individual, parental grief, Kaminsky's collection explores a collective loss and uncertainty, the pain exploding outward to encompass all. Here, as a sample, is the opening poem, an indictment and urging all in one:


We Lived Happily during the War


And when they bombed other people's houses, we


protested

but not enough, we opposed them but not


enough. I was

in my bed, around my bed America


was falling: invisible house by invisible house by invisible house--


I took a chair outside and watched the sun.


In the sixth month

of a disastrous reign in the house of money


in the street of money in the city of money in the country of money,

our great country of money, we (forgive us)


lived happily during the war.


---

The only problem with relying on the public library is sometimes you experience a title that feels so essential, such a required part of the narrative that you feel compelled to buy the book you just finished reading. Such is the case with Kaminsky's Deaf Republic. Anyone want to buy me a copy?

The best books spark the best conversations! If you have thoughts to share, please feel free to email me at sarabethwest52@gmail.com. I promise a reply.

Every Wednesday, I send out something of a hodgepodge of ideas, a gathering of thoughts on books, culture, and unexpected moments of joy. Sign up here to stay in the loop!


Near the center of Margaret Renkl's Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss, you will find "Bare Ruin'd Choirs." Like all of the snapshot essays collected here, this one is brief, barely edging onto the second page. Also similar to many of Renkl's pieces is the literary allusion in the title. So frequent is this practice that Renkl includes a Works Cited section at the back of the book. Scholars might not need the annotation, recognizing those words - Bare Ruin'd Choirs - from William Shakespeare's Sonnet 73: That time of year thou mayest in me behold, which reads:


That time of year thou mayst in me behold

When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang

Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,

Bare ruin'd choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.

In me thou see'st the twilight of such day

As after sunset fadeth in the west,

Which by and by black night doth take away,

Death's second self, that seals up all in rest.

In me thou see'st the glowing of such fire

That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,

As the death-bed whereon it must expire,

Consum'd with that which it was nourish'd by.

This thou perceiv'st, which makes thy love more strong,

To love that well which thou must leave ere long.


In these words, planted in the heart of her book, is found the root and seed and trunk and flowering of Renkl's collection. Late Migrations is a unique and uniquely beautiful book, a reflection on that which has occupied each of us, even Shakespeare, for all time: mortality.


Besides being the core of the book, "Bare Ruin'd Choirs" is also my favorite. In it, Renkl enfolds the natural and the human, wrapping a sadness within a contentment, the poetic inside her prose:

My favorite season is spring --- until fall arrives, and then my favorite season is fall: the seasons of change, the seasons that tell me to wake up, to remember that every passing moment of every careening day is always the last moment, always the very last time, always the only instant I will ever take that precise breath or watch that exact cloud scud across that particular blue of the sky.
How foolish it is for a mortal being to need such reminders, but oh how much easier it is to pay attention when the world beckons, when the world holds out its cupped hands and says, "Lean close. Look at this!"

Foolish it may be, but we do need such reminders, to pay attention, to search the trees and light poles for hawks or to follow the gaze and cry of the squirrels and jays into the grass where a snake might be hunting. We do need to be reminded that the stories of our grandmothers and great-grandmothers deserve to be preserved because they are also our stories. We need to be reminded of this great truth:


"In the stir of too much motion:

Hold still.

Be quiet.

Listen."


Interspersed with quietly stunning artwork from the author's brother, Billy Renkl, this book insists on connections, those between members of a family, and those between humans and the natural world. It is, as the subtitle indicates, a reminder that

the shadow side of love is always loss, and grief is only love's own twin.

Or as the great bard put it:


This thou perceiv'st, which makes thy love more strong,

To love that well which thou must leave ere long.


Renkl's book is the perfect accompaniment to these season-changing days, the days of captured attention in the sunlight and the grieving days both. For what is a life, after all, if not these things?

The best books spark the best conversations! If you have thoughts to share, please feel free to email me at sarabethwest52@gmail.com. I promise a reply.

Every Wednesday, I send out something of a hodgepodge of ideas, a gathering of thoughts on books, culture, and unexpected moments of joy. Sign up here to stay in the loop!


Sara Beth West

(@fiftytwowest)

is a reader and a writer, offering book reviews and interviews with leading writers and thinkers.

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