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.

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This afternoon, I pulled a title by a poet I've liked in the past, and though it seemed to have all the right components, this one left me indifferent. I'm sure I'm not alone in experiencing a daily flux of emotion and anxiety, everyday joy mingled with uncertainty. Perhaps my lack of appreciation for my first choice is attributable to this special breed of distraction and not the work of the poet. Whatever the cause, I promised my Sunday poetry to be guaranteed goodness, so I turned my worry and occasional heartsickness to perhaps my favorite work of poetry: T. S. Eliot's Four Quartets. It is an off comfort but a reliable one. Perhaps the opening section of the first setting ("Burnt Norton") will be a comfort to you as well:


Time present and time past

Are both perhaps present in time future,

And time future contained in time past.

If all time is eternally present

All time is unredeemable.

What might have been is an abstraction

Remaining a perpetual possibility

Only in a world of speculation.

What might have been and what has been

Point to one end, which is always present.

Footfalls echo in the memory

Down the passage which we did not take

Towards the door we never opened

Into the rose-garden. My words echo

Thus, in your mind.

But to what purpose

Disturbing the dust on a bowl of rose-leaves

I do not know.

Other echoes

Inhabit the garden. Shall we follow?

Quick, said the bird, find them, find them,

Round the corner. Through the first gate,

Into our first world, shall we follow

The deception of the thrush? Into our first world.

There they were, dignified, invisible,

Moving without pressure, over the dead leaves,

In the autumn heat, through the vibrant air, And the bird called, in response to

The unheard music hidden in the shrubbery,

And the unseen eyebeam crossed, for the roses

Had the look of flowers that are looked at.

There they were as our guests, accepted and accepting.

So we moved, and they, in a formal pattern,

Along the empty alley, into the box circle,

To look down into the drained pool.

Dry the pool, dry concrete, brown edged,

And the pool was filled with water out of sunlight,

And the lotos rose, quietly, quietly,

The surface glittered out of heart of light,

And they were behind us, reflected in the pool.

Then a cloud passed, and the pool was empty.

Go, said the bird, for the leaves were full of children.

Hidden excitedly, containing laughter.

Go, go, go, said the bird: human kind

Cannot bear very much reality.

Time past and time future

What might have been and what has been

Point to one end, which is always present.


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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!

In the last moments of Téa Obreht's Inland, Nora opens a canteen that might have water in it, and we are told:

She had merely intended to satisfy her disbelief.

From her introduction in this novel, Nora (one of two main characters) operates in a state of disbelief. She does not believe her young son when he claims to see a beast. She does not believe Josie, the girl-cousin who lives with them, not ever: not when she's conducting a seance or claiming to encounter the dead at every turn or telling Nora how sorry she is that she left this or that undone. Nora does not believe that her husband is dead though he is already days late returning with the water, or that her friend isn't exactly who she claimed to be. She does not believe. But she'd sure like to satisfy her disbelief. In fact, her first words to Toby, running up to her claiming to have found the tracks of the beast, are, "All right. Show me."

But this book does not open with Nora. Instead, we are first taken a few years back, eased into this story of drought and survival, marriage and friendship, love and family and commitment. If ever there was a back way into a novel, Obreht has taken it. And like the early settlers in the heat and sun-bright of 1890s Arizona, there will be some who turn back. Some will get partway into this novel of two near-neighbor times and places and decide it is not worth it. I will admit I considered it. I am so glad I stayed.


The man you meet at the novel's opening will come to be known by several names. We walk in on him telling someone a story: there is an I (and that's our storyteller) and there is a you (and that's his audience), and that's about all we know for some time. Soon we learn that he is Lurie and that he has lived most his life surrounded by ghosts, dogged by their want and his own. Lurie doesn't stay in one place for long, losing friends who become family to the violence and depredation of the west. Early on, he takes up with a camel corps (this, a fascinating and little-known part of U.S. History), and from there his story takes shape.


For all the interest and intrigue Lurie's expeditions bring, this narrative is really driven by Nora: Nora and her husband Emmett making a life together the best they can; Nora and her boys, growing and challenging her in every direction; Nora and Evelyn, the daughter who died in infancy but who has stayed and grown up there with Nora, keeping ghostly company, sharing an invisible communion with her mother; Nora and her thirst; Nora and her anger; Nora and her fear; Nora and her disbelief.


The alternating narratives are a bit hard to track at times, in part because of the deep and immediate connection the reader makes to Nora. When you are in that part of the novel, it is everything; to be drawn out of it and back into Lurie's tale is a bit disorienting. But acclimated to the shifts, the reader who is willing to suspend her disbelief, the one who decides to stay the course and see where this story is going will be rewarded. The story itself is compelling and unfolds like an infinity cube, revealing unseen edges, full of wonder and truth. There are also glowing, heat-filled sentences around every corner, sentences that made me stop and take a stutter-breath at how fine they are. Here's Nora, at a moment of realization:

and here she was -- at the hearth of her rage. It was still here. She had grown up in it, let it contain her all her life, and she knew it, its margins and oddities. She was still herself, after all.

By novel's end, Nora and Lurie's stories overlap, as you suspected they would, as you knew they must. But how? That's the magic of this novel, and the final pages fairly sing as Nora is confronted by her disbelief. It shimmers out of every cut-glass facet of this narrative, and in the end, she is more than answer to it.


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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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