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One More Summer (Make that Fall) Reading List

I’m heading off on a road trip in a couple of days with my wife and a couple of undergraduates. We talked about what trashy novels we should read to keep us entertained as we cross the prairies, and came up with volumes two and three of The Hunger Games. I shudder to think of the scorn my colleagues at MQR will heap on me for this, but, yes, we’ll be moving west with Suzanne Collins’ Catching Fire and coming back east with her Mockingjay. I’m looking forward to them!

But once off the road I’ll settle in to the more serious reading of the summer. I’ve been slowly working through Simon Schama’s Landscape and Memory. I’ll admit that the environmental advocate part of my brain has always had a visceral reaction against his premise —  “landscape is the work of the mind” — even as I realize that culturally he is almost certainly right. And he wins me with his Schama-esque statements — “the craving to find in nature a consolation for our mortality.” And both of those quotes are from the introduction.

I will also continue my belated discovery of all of the books by Edward O. Wilson. I have finally recovered from my uncritically knee-jerk lefty reaction to his first introduction of Sociobiology in the 1970s, and have been won over by his passion and his compassion. We were wrong about him, and genetic theory has mostly proven him right. If we think for a moment about his invention of the term “biodiversity” and all of his work to explain and protect it, it’s hard not to come to the conclusion that they have to invent a Nobel Prize for this man. I’ll try to finish The Diversity of Life this summer, but will also be teaching Biophilia in my environmental writing class up at the University of Michigan Biological Station.

I will soon finish Christian Wiman’s translation of the selected Osip Mandelstam, Stolen Air. I admit that I was first a bit skeptical of his process, when he wrote in his end-note, “On Translating Osip Mandelstam,” that “I’ve been careful to call them versions and not translations, hoping to skip over the abyss of argument that opens underneath that distinction.” Since I feel I have been so often misled by “versions” over the years, I have come to be very suspicious of them. But the poems Wiman has made of the Mandelstam originals are just so lovely, often both so frightening and very funny, that I have become completely convinced. Here are the first four lines of “Memoris of Andrey Bely”:

Brainfire in the brow, acetylene eyes–

As if the world stretched out one fingerlength of fury

And touched you younger, stronger, free

From any unmagical judgment, immune to the sad time’s lies.

And then I have two second collections of poems by younger poets — Michael McGriff’s  Home Burial, and Matt Thorburn’s Every Possible Blue. I’ve been following the work of both of these poets as I have found their poems and the time to read them closely. There is little similarity between them, but both are wonderfully precise. I haven’t even cracked the covers yet, but will soon, and can hardly wait.

As for poetry criticism, I am reading a critical book on Jean Follain, but in English the book I’m looking forward to the most is The Embattled Lyric: Essays and Conversations in Poetics and Anthropology by Nathaniel Tarn. Tarn came through Ann Arbor earlier this year and gave a couple of great presentations through the One Pause Poetry Series (you can see what they do and access videos of the readings they sponsor and the conversations they have with poets at Tarn has thought deeply about the intersections of the art with the culture that creates the art, more deeply than some other poets, and more originally than some academics. Plus he is the poet who came up with the idea of the “bird-scape,” the notion that a bird in a landscape changes our perception of the landscape. How can I not love him?

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