by Jodie Marion
Lately, I’ve been trying to order the messy library in my head, not just to curate and archive, but to put back into mental circulation the books I’ve loved. I stopped and started a dozen times, suspecting I lacked the focus and follow-through for such a job. But in the middle of giving up, a poet-friend turned me on to Madness, Rack, and Honey (Wave Books 2012), Mary Ruefle’s recently published collected lectures. In a chapter called “Someone Reading A Book Is Sign of Order in the World,” she posits:
Is there a right time to read [a] book? A point of developing consciousness that corresponds with perfect ripeness to a particular poet or novel? And if that is the case, how many times in our lives did we make the match?
Right then I knew I didn’t have to unearth my entire reading past, just the books that mattered – books that buoyed me during some kind of drowning. Here I share part of that search. What follows are peeks at eight books that mattered to me. Eight books of right-place/right-time. Eight that left a mark. Eight that were perfectly ripe.
For the Time Being by Annie Dillard
For roughly all of 2001, an upended cart in my personal life left me in a kind of shock, and the only book I read – over and over – was Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. It was a scratch in the record of my life. For the Time Being, however, was the hand that picked up the diamond-tipped needle. This pint-sized piece of nonfiction holds profound and bizarre observations about beauty, deformity, dirt, among other things. It gave me the courage to love the strange, broken world again and to re-enter it. Plus, its transitions are sublime.
The Winged Seed by Li Young Lee
I met this book in 2004, the year my father died, so thematically it was apropos. (The Winged Seed recounts a time when Lee’s father was imprisoned and the family in exile.) But more than content, it stuck with me for its stylistic prowess. It’s essentially a book-length prose poem whose time sequence tangles, knots, unknots, in its race toward nothing and everything. After I finished it, I’d sloughed some dead skin and came out of a period of self-exile.
Dream, I Tell You by Hélène Cixous
Someone dear to me recommended this book after it came out in 2006, and at first I balked because Cixous was the ranting French feminist I remember from grad school. But this is not inflammatory theory. It’s 50 dreams splayed onto the page, 50 dream fragments that sent me sailing into the unconscious without a chart. And I liked it. I found a home there and started navigating my subconscious again. A whole bunch of my own poems were born then.
Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson
This novel was the perfect companion during a snowstorm in 2007. It satisfies in a way that I imagine walking into the woods – possibly never to come out again – might satisfy. Reading this novel calibrated my breathing at time when I was hyperventilating. And, what luck! Petterson keeps writing novels with the main character Arvid, so there’s more where this came from.
Nothing to Be Frightened Of by Julian Barnes
After the birth of my daughter in 2008, I had a sudden onset of mortality awareness. The very thought of my death prompted panic attacks – elevators and car washes and long meetings became torture chambers. A book that promised to riff on death for 200+ pages was just what I needed, something to de-mystify it for me so I could return to life. But Barnes failed at that: I am no less mortified by the prospect of dying than when I began the book. Nor was he. Which is precisely, and lamentably, the point.
The Wind-up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami
In mid-winter 2010, after what must have been Day 55 of sloppy gray, I threw myself headlong into this Japanese tome and found the protagonist and I were cut from the same cloth. He willingly and repeatedly crawls into a well, an act of self-exile that makes perfect sense to me. The novel provided refuge at time when I physically couldn’t withdraw from the tedium of my physical life. Its glints of supernatural shone on the surface of otherwise dull days. The novel’s confabulated well is a place I still visit.
Principles of Uncertainty by Maira Kalman
The world is too much with us indeed. So much that some days it’s enough to wish for a flat world and edge to walk off of. On such a day I encountered the charming and courageous work of Maira Kalman. Through its handwritten musings and paintings, Kalman seems to be saying, It’s true: You are one of some seven billion, but what you see, think, and feel matters. Relax. Connect the dots. Draw a picture. Rummage through your inner treasures and the world’s. Then, leave something beautiful behind. It’s the least we can do.
Madness, Rack, and Honey by Mary Ruefle
Even though this is prose about poetry, it is fascinating: a one-woman salon, and all these people, most of whom are dead, are invited. This book captures the precise points at which Ruefle’s immense inner life intersects with the outer world and reassures me that the sharing – the poem – is the thing. It has taught me a little more about how to carry around a big sloshing heart without spilling it all.
The process of sorting through my inner library has been like stuffing the moon into a box: difficult at first, but in the end I have a lighted box. Maybe you should try it, too. What are your eight “right-time/right-place” books? Or paintings? Or poems by women? Eight sculptures? Eight plays? Tell us about the ones that mattered. I dare you.
Jodie Marion’s chapbook, Another Exile on the 45th Parallel, was published by Floating Bridge Press in October 2012. Recent poems have appeared in Best New Poets 2011, Narrative Magazine, The New Guard Literary Review and elsewhere. She lives in Vancouver, Washington with her husband and four children. Visit Jodie at her website.