The Companionable Presence of a Book

Now that I’m recovering from cataract surgery, I find that I can’t read for more than short stretches of time, and I’m reminded of how essential to my day are the acts of reading and writing. I’m the sort of person who carries a book along wherever I go, on the chance that I’ll find a moment or two to plunge back into the unfolding world of a novel or short story. I carry a notebook as well, to capture whatever small patch of inspiration I might stumble across. These days my iPad often doubles as book and notebook.

So, sitting here at home on the couch, impatiently letting my eyes rest before I try a little more reading, I’ve been thinking back to the unusual settings I’ve carried the companionable presence of a book. When I was nineteen I canoed for about 400 miles on the Yukon River one stretch of a summer, and I can remember reading Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse while sitting by the edge of the water after a long day of paddling. I don’t understand now why in the world I thought this novel would be a proper fit with a place so wild that we could travel for days without seeing another soul, where we could turn a corner and surprise a moose into disappearing up the riverbank and into the forest. But I do recall the exhilaration of reading the passage where Mr. Ramsey’s “splendid mind” has reached the Q of knowledge but cannot move further to R, while before me the midnight sun slipped briefly behind the peaks of the Canadian Rockies. I still have my copy of the book, a bit waterlogged from a tumble into white water.

I’ve lived in small villages in the West African country of Ivory Coast, where my wife, the anthropologist Alma Gottlieb, has conducted her research on the culture of the Beng people, and of course I brought along a pile of books for those long journeys. In the photo below, I’m sitting before our two-room mud-brick house in the village of Kosangbé, writing in a notebook, perhaps inspired after reading from one of the two books beside me. The book on the top is The Voice that Is Great within Us: American Poetry of the Twentieth Century, edited by Hayden Carruth. I still have that copy too, rich with the scent of African dust.

Two stories of reading in Africa most stand out in my memory. The first goes back to 1980, when I read Njal’s Saga, perhaps the greatest of the medieval Icelandic sagas, filled with blood feuds that last generations, punctuated by complex legal maneuverings between the aggrieved parties at a formal gathering called The Thing. Again, I wonder, what possessed me to bring such a book to a tropical country? (I also read a great deal of African literature while living in Ivory Coast, including Okot p’Bitek’s magnificent Song of Lawino). But this particular story of my reading comes right after I finished the book, sitting in that same palm rib chair pictured above, and realizing as a chill swept through me that once again malaria had come my way.

It was the most serious attack I ever endured, and deep in the night, with my temperature stuck at an alarming 106 degrees, my wife made a re-hydration drink for me in another room while I lay beneath mosquito netting, listening to the clank of her metal spoon stirring against a metal cup. That clanking transformed, in my fevered mind, into the sound and sight of two ghostly Viking warriors—right out of Njal’s Saga—standing beside the bed and striking at each other’s sword and shield. A memorable moment in my history of reading, but I do not recommend anyone seeking out malaria for a similar experience.

The second memory also involves illness, unfortunately. In 1993, near the end of a summer’s stay in the Beng village of Asagbé, I came down with pneumonia, and spent the good part of two weeks knocked out in bed. By that time I’d gone through nearly all the books I brought along to the village. Only one was left, Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, and what an unsettling fit that was, as I hacked away painfully beneath mosquito netting while reading about the doomed coughing patients of an isolated tuberculosis sanatorium in the Swiss Alps.

On the other hand, reading Miguel Torga’s Tales & More Tales from the Mountain while exploring the wild northern ranges of Portugal with my family a few years ago helped me to better understand the cunning behind this medieval stone-walled wolf trap we came upon.

I’m sure that I’m not the only one who has found a sometimes incongruous fit between the outer world of travel and the inner travel of reading. If anyone out there also has a strange or oddly fitting mix of book and place, feel free to leave a comment!

 Go to post page

July 15th, 2010 by admin

Birds Are the Liveliest Fruit of Trees

Recently my Portuguese pal Paulo Dias Figueiredo introduced me to the work of Ruy Belo, a poet who Paulo claims is second only in 20th century Portuguese stature to the poet Fernando Pessoa (and I realize that I haven’t yet posted anything about Pessoa–I will soon). After reading a clutch of poems by Belo, translated by Richard Zenith at Poetry International Web, I have to agree.

The following poem reminds me of when I lived in the small village of Kosangbé in the Ivory Coast and mentioned once to a friend, San Kofi, as we were passing a batch of birds making a racket in a nearby tree, that those birds could really sing. Kofi shot me quite the startled look, and said “Birds don’t sing, they weep.” I had nothing to say in reply, still swept up in the thought that what I heard as joy, Kofi’s culture heard as sorrow.

That exchange stayed with me, and led me to the understanding that birds don’t sing or weep unless we say they do. And, apparently, birds are the liveliest fruit of a tree, because Ruy Belo says they are.



Birds are born on the tips of trees
The trees I see yield birds instead of fruit
Birds are the liveliest fruit of trees
Birds begin where trees end
Birds make the trees sing
On reaching the height of birds the trees swell and stir
passing from the vegetable to the animal kingdom
Like birds their leaves alight on the ground
when autumn quietly falls over the fields
I feel like saying that birds emanate from the trees
but I’ll leave that manner of speaking to the novelist
it’s complicated and doesn’t work in poetry
it still hasn’t been isolated from philosophy
I love trees especially those that yield birds
Who hangs them there on the branches?
Whose hand is it whose myriad hand?
I pass by and my heart’s not the same

Artist image: Birds and Trees, by Fred Tomaselli.

 Go to post page

April 12th, 2010 by admin