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I recently started reading “Birds Without Wings” by Louis de Bernières after a stint of fantasy novels which I’m embarrassed to even mention, but do so anyway just for the contrast, so that you understand how good it feels to come back to such exquisite writing. After this fantasy stint I was feeling desperate to read poetic prose to pull me back into my little sentimental world that books like “Written on the Body” and “Unbearable Lightness of Being” have created. I found “Birds Without Wings” because I loved “Corelli’s Mandolin,” which was written by the same author and was the perfect combination of history and fiction, poetry and prose. I picked up this book and immediately fell in love, so I include some of my favorite passages so far, and recommend this book to you if you agree with my taste in the writings that I’ve posted in this blog.
“But it was more than a question of hair and skin and eyes, because what one saw was more than just her beauty. You see, my father, drunkard though he was, was right when he said that she reminded you of death. When you looked at Philothei, you were reminded of a terrible truth, which is that everything decays away and is lost. Beauty is precious, you see, and the more beautiful something is, the more precious it is; and the more precious something is, the more it hurts us that it will fade away; and the more we are hurt by beauty, the more we love the world; and the more we love it, the more we are saddened that it is like finely powdered salt that runs away through the fingers, or is puffed away by the wind, or is washed away by the rain. You see, I am ugly. I have always been ugly. If I had died in my youth no one would have said, “Look how much poorer is the world,” but to be entranced by Philothei was to receive a lesson in fate.”
also there’s this:
“I am an old woman now. I am old and useless. I’ve pondered these things all my life. My flesh is not what it was, and neither are my bones. When I was young my soul seemed to be the same thing as my body. There didn’t seem to be any difference, I remember that. When I needed to climb some steps, my legs just climbed, and that was all there was to it. My mind and my muscles were all one. Now when I want to climb some steps I look down at my feet and I say, “Move, in the names of St. Gerasimos, move!” and slowly they move, and then I stop to draw breath, and my lungs feel hard and dry, and I feel my heart fluttering in vain like the last poor starving butterfly, and this is how I have come to know in my own way that there is a soul who is not the body, but lives inside it. “
Sexiest recording of this tune, in my opinion. Killer swank.
St. James Infirmary by Louis Armstrong
Here’s a short clip of Henry Miller discussing the art in his bathroom and then some in his classic author’s voice.
Jeanette Winterson’s novel “Written on the Body” is the first book I recommend when someone asks me for book ideas. I have my dear friend, KC, to thank for this one. This book is my go-to for poetic prose, the book I read over and over again, reference over and over again, because its language is so sweet and so desperately unforgiving.
The book is a genderless love story told from the point of view of the nameless author. The object of affection is Louise, a married woman.
“Written on the Body” is really more about savoring the words as opposed to a path to a dramatic ending. An exerpt:
Articulacy of fingers, the language of the deaf and dumb, signing on the body body longing. Who taught you to write in blood on my back? Who taught you to use your hands as branding irons? You have scored your name into my shoulders, referenced me with your mark. The pads of your fingers have become printing blocks, you tap a message on to my skin, tap meaning into my body. Your Morse code interferes with my heart beat. I had a steady heart before I met you, I relied upon it, it had seen active service and grown strong. Now you alter its pace with your own rhythm, you play upon me, drumming me taut.
Written on the body is a secret code only visible in certain lights; the accumulations of a lifetime gather there. In places the palimpsest is so heavily worked that the letters feel like Braille. I like to keep my body rolled up away from prying eyes. Never unfold too much, tell the whole story. I didn’t know that Louise would have reading hands. She has translated me into her own book.
One of the most memorable bed time stories I’ve heard that has stuck with me throughout the years is Dwarf Nose (Karlik Nos in Russian) by Wilhelm Hauff.
A young boy works at a market helping his mother sell herbs. One day an old and ugly woman with a giant nose comes sniffing around their booth. The boy is rude to her, poking fun at her disfigured nose, so she requests his help carrying her herbs home across town. There she makes him a soup that knocks him out for seven years. He dreams about turning into a master chef servant squirrel, and wakes up seven years later as a midget with a long nose. Imagine that.
He runs back to the market and finds his mother who of course doesn’t recognize him and shooes him off when he claims to be her lost son. He then goes to his leatherworker father who tells him the story of the long-lost son while offering to make a leather case for the midget’s horrid nose.
The boy then shuffles off to the nearby castle and goes to work for the duke as a master chef, earning respect for his talent regardless of his disfigurement.
One day he goes to the market to buy geese for the kitchen, and one of the flock starts to speak to him, informing him that she is actually the daughter of a powerful wizard and can help him reverse the spell. They run away from the castle, find some rare herbs that turn them back to their normal selves, and all ends well.
Cute, huh? I would love to see this turned into an opera.
Arthur Rackham was a turn of the 20th century book illustrator. Some of his more popular works include the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm, Wagner’s “The Ring”, “Gulliver’s Travels”, and “Alice in Wonderland”.
Book illustration is a lost art. I’m always blown away when each illustration looks like a painting that could be hanging on a museum wall. These are so expressive and the colors somehow remind me of my childhood in Odessa (Ukraine) where memories, like photographs, take on a vintage hue.
I found Rainer Maria Rilke’s “Letters to a Young Poet” wedged between a couple of Anne Rice vampire books on my bookshelf while desperately searching for a new book to read. I usually tend to go for the thicker ones, but for some reason this tiny pocket sized book grabbed my attention.
An hour and a half later I was having epiphanies and my entire outlook on EVERYTHING had changed for the better. This tiny book inspired me to be honest with my self and to accept my self for what I am. It’s emo self-help. It’s simple, blunt, poetic and digs deep into a tortured artist’s mind while still inspiring the reader in a beautiful way. Here is a little excerpt from the first letter that sets the tone for the next nine:
There is only one thing you should do. Go into yourself. Find out the reason that commands you to write; see whether it has spread its roots into the very depths of your heart; confess to yourself whether you would have to die if you were forbidden to write. This most of all: ask yourself in the most silent hour of your night: must I write? Dig into yourself for a deep answer. And if this answer rings out in assent, if you meet this solemn question with a strong, simple “I must,” then build your life in accordance with this necessity; your while life, even into its humblest and most indifferent hour, must become a sign and witness to this impulse.
To read the rest of the letters, click here. I would honestly just recommend buying the little book though. I’ve given away I don’t even know how many copies of this book as a gift to my friends, the friends looking for inspiration and the ones going through some sort of artistic crisis.
Before moving out, my ex-roommate left us a book written by his friend, Cooley Windsor. “Visit Me In California” sat around on kitchen table for a little while before I finally picked it up and read the first story, “The Last Israelite in the Red Sea.” The story was completely fantastic so I read a few more stories before stopping to call my mother to tell her about this new find.
“Israelite” is written from the perspective of one of the Jews that followed Moses across the Red Sea into Israel. It is funny, charming, simple and human. It reminds you that at some point, any part of history was somebody’s moment and that even Moses peed.
Another story is written from the perspective of Paris, Helen’s “lover” that started the Trojan war, and yet another from Homer himself, only aging and blind.
I really really really love this book and would recommend it to anyone who likes to be reminded of their own humanity and vulnerability.
Mirror of the night.
Your green sword eyes inside my flesh. Waves between our hands. All you in the space full of sounds- in shade and in light. You will be called AUXOCROMO- the one that attracts color. You are all the combinations of number. Life. My desire is to understand line form movement. You fill and I receive. Your word crosses all the space and reaches my cells that are my stars of many years retained in our body. Enchained words that we could not say, except in the lips of sleep. Everything was surrounded by the vegetal miracle of the landscape of your body. Upon your form, at my touch the cilia of flowers, the sounds of rivers respond. All the fruits were in the juice of your lips, the blood of the pomegranate… of the mammee and pure pineapple. I pressed you against my breast and the prodigy of your form penetrated through all my blood through the tips of my fingers. Odor of essence of oak, of the memory of walnut, of the green breath of ash- Horizons and landscapes that I crossed with a kiss. A forgetfulness of words will form the exact idiom to understand the glances of our closed eyes.
You are present, intangible and you are all the universe that I form to the space of my room. Your absence shoots forth trembling in the sound of the clock, in the pulse of light; your breath through the mirror. From you to my hands I go all over your body, and I am with you a minute, and I am with you a moment, and my blood is the miracle that travels the veins of the air from my heart to yours.
The vegetal miracle of my body’s landscape is in you the whole of nature. I traverse it in a flight that with my fingers caresses the round hills, the… valleys, longing for possession and the embrace of the soft green fresh branches covers me. I penetrate the sex of the whole earth, its heat embraces me and in my body everything feels like the freshness of tender leaves. Its dew is the sweat of an always new lover. It is not love, nor tenderness, nor affection, it is the whole of life, mine that I found when I saw it in your hands, in your mouth and in your breasts. In my mouth I have the almond taste of your lips. Our words have never gone outside. Only a mountain knows the insides of another mountain. At times your presence floats continuously as if wrapping all my being in an anxious wait for morning. And I notice that I am with you. In this moment still full of sensations, my hands are plunged in oranges, and my body feels surrounded by you.
Czech authors are magic. Each one I’ve ever come across has charmed me senseless. Here is the first page or so of Bohumil Hrabal’s “Too Loud a Solitude“:
For thirty-five years now I’ve been in wastepaper, and it’s my love story. For thirty-five years I’ve been compacting wastepaper and books, smearing myself with letters until I’ve come to look like my encyclopedias — and a good three tons of them I’ve compacted over the years. I am a jug filled with water both magic and plain; I have only to lean over and a stream of beautiful thoughts flows out of me. My education has been so unwitting I can’t quite tell which of my thoughts come from me and which from my books, but that’s how I’ve stayed attuned to myself and the world around me for the past thirty-five years. Because when I read, I don’t really read; I pop a beautiful sentence into my mouth and suck it like a fruit drop, or I sip it like a liquor until the thought dissolves in me like alcohol, infusing brain and heart and coursing on through the veins to the root of each blood vessel.
This book is an exploration of the mind of a… nutcase… or… a genius. It’s poetry and brilliance and soulful sentiment. Read it.