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On Reading Rilke: The Delight and Terror of Mortality

And how bewildered is any womb-born creature
that has to fly. As if terrified and fleeing
from itself, it zigzags through the air, the way
a crack runs through a teacup. So the bat
quivers across the porcelain of evening.

— Marie Rainer Rilke, Duino Elegies, No. 8

I’ve been reading Rilke, driven by a bungled attempt to taunt Ray Wylie Hubbard on Twitter. I noticed Ray dropped the poet’s name from his version of “The Messenger” on Co-Starring. The lyrics originally were:

And the message I give you is by this old poet, Rilke
He said, ‘Our fears are like dragons guarding our most precious treasures.’

Suddenly, poor Rilke was reduced to “this old poet.” No namecheck. I promptly switched my Twitter profile to Ghost of Rilke and jabbed at Ray, which, heavyweight badass Tex-ahoma singer/songwriter that he is, he didn’t even dignify with a reply. But through that process it dawned on me that I’d never read Rilke. Had no real idea what he was about. I thought, mistakenly, that he was French, for that matter, not a German whose mother dressed him as a girl for the first year or two of his life, named him Marie Rainer, and took some perverted solace in the echo she felt of an infant daughter she’d lost previously.

Being me and being diligent, I researched a bit and settled on reading a collection of Rilke’s work with a forward by poet Robert Hass and extensive footnotes, largely primary source explanations from Rilke’s journals, letters, etc., that explicate the poems. I tried running headlong at them but bounced off, for the most part. There are sections that seem crystal clear, bristling with sharp imagery and brisk pace. Others, not so much. Like many great poets, his work is infused with a lot of his personal, first-hand experience, and you have to peel that back to really see what he’s getting at. Trying to sum it up, no doubt too broadly and with a blunted spear tip, I’d say he grapples with the core ideas of existentialism, but there’s an embrace of the eternal nothingness as a force to be embraced, something worthy of worship, worthy of, well, elegies.

So after reading Hass I decided my best approach would be to start with the Duino Elegies. I’ve come away impressed, but I can’t say I fully have my head around them. I’m chipping away, each reading revealing some new nuance. There still are stretches where I’m bewildered, but it’s worth the time. The words are gorgeous (I’ve not read other translations, but based on Hass’ praise and my first-hand experience, this one is good. Each poem appears in both German and English, so anyone who’s interested in the subtleties of the translating process can dig in).

I love the way Rilke throws his arms around our mortality, embracing it lovingly and then smiling as it slowly slides away, back into the nothingness of eternity. The work spawns associations in my head with Alan Moore’s amazing tome Jersusalem with its Builders and the living and the dead all wondering around simultaneously on different plains of existence. And in December, as I do each Christmas, I revisited James Joyce’s “The Dead,” only this time I zagged a bit and listened to the audio version. Very rewarding, mulling these themes of mortality and death and remembrance. Gabriel watching the swirling snow fall across all of Ireland at the end of The Dead is an image that sits atop all of the other scribbling on my palimpsest brain. I also conjure Samuel Beckett, whose response to the existential abyss was a sort of Irish jig with the absurd.

Why all this? I’m looking ahead at 20 summers, and wondering what I’ll do with them. How will I spend this time I have left? I recently listened to Marc Maron’s WTF podcast, where he was interviewing Wendell Pierce, hands-down one of my favorite contemporary actors (The Wire, Treme). This is where I was introduced to the 20 summers idea. Pierce mentioned it, can’t recall whom he attributed it to. He and I are about the same age, and this is the point where you realize life is finite. I’ll turn 59 this summer. Genetics and fortune willing, I have 20 summers left. Tops. I catch myself realizing the list of things I’ll get to comes with an expiration date that’s fast approaching. It’s already 2 years since I spent a summer in Costa Rica. Six years since I moved to Athens. Forty years since I staggered out of Swissvale High School, stoned, clueless, and utterly unprepared for reality. I’m honestly not sure how I’ve gotten this far. I’ve learned a lot along the way. But I want to learn more.

* * *

As COVID-19 grabbed us by the gonads and twisted, I retreated inward, a familiar route for me. My main realization has been that I am, at heart, a hermit. I really, genuinely prefer to be alone. I hate small talk. Socializing. Putting myself out there. I’m fine in my own head and for all those years that I was an exec or leader, it was excruciating to get out there and put on a gregarious grin. Even then, I failed as often as not. But I gave it the old college try, and overall the career went much better than I’d ever dreamed, a mix of good luck, good timing, and opening the damned door when opportunity knocked.

* * *

December 23 dawns in a bruise of purples and red teetering toward sun or gloom, still undecided. The nights are long, each now getting incrementally shorter. The wood stove is humming. After having lost my wood-stove mojo between seasons, I’m back, better than ever, cutting kindling and building coal beds that keep the house warm 24×7 without resorting to the grid. I no longer get up in the middle of the night to feed wood to the fire-belching beast. I let it go out and hop around in a hoodie in the 50-degree cabin while I reignite it each morning before dawn. Sydney the Cockatoo still slumbering in the Forest Room, his home and locus for destructive fun. Since Sunny’s death I’m letting him stay up later (He used to harass her mercilessly as sunset neared so I’d cover his cage and put him to bed for both canine and human peace of mind. Now he’s often up till 9 p.m.. And one thing we learned: He definitely needs his 12 hours of beauty rest or things can get pretty ugly.) This morning, 8 a.m. clicking into view, he is quiet. Not a peep. He’ll generally start clucking and making sweet, soft noises when he wants to wake up. This morning, all’s quiet on the cockatoo front. At least for now.

And I’m thinking. Taking stock. Wondering what the fuck the next 20 summers hold. Been thinking about Wordsworth’s Intimations of Immortality. But I guess my mental meanderings in this warming forest cabin that I call Innisfree are more accurately framed Intimations of Mortality. Intimations? Nah. More like that punch in the mouth Mike Tyson warned us about, the one that leaves all plans in a heap of blood and rags on the floor of a sweat-soaked boxing ring.

But the intimations, the punches in the mouth, they’re here. They’re constant, infused in everything I see. Everything I read. Life is ephemeral. But does it matter? Who really gives a fuck? Maybe Rilke has the answer, buried somewhere in elegies percolating with acrobats and Egyptian ruins and bats and all the baggage he built up in gathering the material for them.

I’ll keep looking. And keeping those 20 summers top of mind in everything I do …

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Reading List of a Plague Year

If there was an upside to spending the better part of 2020 sheltering in place, it was that I had plenty of time to read. I generally had two books going at any given time, one audio and one text, with the text usually on my Kindle but occasionally buried in glyphs on wafer-thin chunks of dead tree.

I’ve grown so used to the Kindle that when I read an actual book I often reach out to click on words I don’t know the meaning of to look them up in the dictionary. I love that about the Kindle. Words I used to glide over and take in context I now look up and study a bit. And I love having enough books on it that I could probably spend the next year or three reading without adding anything else, especially given all the public domain titles I’ve downloaded from Project Gutenberg and Internet Archive. But it’s definitely been a love-hate relationship. I was using a 7-year-old Paperwhite that was slow and littered with ads. Just solved that by upgrading to a new, ad-free Oasis. It’s awesome. I love having page turn buttons, and the only downside I’m seeing is the battery life is more like 20 hours instead of a couple weeks.

The Oasis upgrade also made note taking easier. Between the crappy notes software on the Kindle and the slow speed of my Paperwhite, I’d pretty much given up. The Oasis is still saddled with Kindle’s crappy notes software, but it’s so much faster that it’s at least usable. Bring on 2021.

But first, a look back. What did I read? More than I’d realized, to be honest. I read a lot when I was in Costa Rica a few years ago, but that was concentrated in 3 months. This was pretty much year-long.

The List

Mycelium Running: How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World,” Paul Stamets
My impressions.

The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins
My impressions.

Men and Steel, Mary Heaton Vorse
My impressions.

The Overstory: A Novel, Richard Powers

One of my tree obsession books. Very much enjoyed this. Great story well told.

“Pawpaw! The only tropical fruit ever to escape the tropics. Biggest, best, weirdest, wildest native fruit this continent ever made. Growing native, right here in Ohio. And nobody knows!”

The Practice of the Wild: With a New Preface by the Author, Gary Snyder

Snyder is one of my favorite poets. This is a series of meditations on wildness, wilderness, freedom, all that good stuff. This is where I heard about Cabeza de Vaca’s work (see below), which I promptly downloaded free from public domain sources.

The word wild is like a gray fox trotting off through the forest, ducking behind bushes, going in and out of sight.

And because it’s Snyder, one of my heroes, another quote:

Although the Chinese and Japanese have long given lip service to nature, only the early Daoists might have thought that wisdom could come of wildness.

The Narrative of Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca

Astounding. The arrogance of the Spaniards. The trials and tribulations of their journey along the Gulf Coast of what is now Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas. Cabeza de Vaca is enslaved at one point. Just insane reading. Worth a gander at the Wikipedia entry if you want an abridged version.

Days in a Mad-House; / or, Nellie Bly’s Experience on Blackwell’s Island

My impressions.

Don Quixote, Miguel de Cervantes (translated by Edith Grossman)

Is it by chance frivolous, or is the time wasted that is spent wandering the world, not seeking its rewards but the asperities by which the virtuous rise to the seat of immortality?

This was my Big Book for the year. I’ve always wanted to read it. Bounced off once previously and hoped the Grossman translation would be worth the effort. It was. But I did struggle with it and almost abandoned it near the end of book one. I’m glad I persevered though. I’ve heard a lot of people say they think the second part, which was written about a decade after the first, is inferior, but I liked it more. It often drifted into metafiction and featured strange narrative framing that I found fascinating, but the “adventures” do plod on at times and become repetitive. I love the Blackadder/Baldric dynamic of Don Quixote/Sancho Panza … their verbal jousting is as amusing as their runs at windmills.

After Bread, Henryk Sienkiewicz

Part of my background reading for The Novel, which has been pretty much moribund since I returned from Costa Rica. Plotting a return to it, though …

This is an account of Polish immigrants in New York City. Very dark, naturalistic approach. Downloaded it from Archive.net, I think …

Fifty-Two Stories, Anton Chekhov

When George Saunders said he was working on a series of meditations on Chekhov’s sort stories, I figured I better get off my ass and read Chekhov’s short stories. They’re incredible. Minimalist at times, even imagist, but it’s not the spare writing of someone with nothing to say. Perhaps wading through Saunders’ book will be my Big Book for 2021. Still deciding …

Mindf*ck: Cambridge Analytica and the Plot to Break America, Christopher Wylie

Horrifying look at what happens when fascists figure out how to use social media — and the data they learn about people one social media — to enrage sections of the public to do their dark bidding. Facebook’s culpability in all this convinced me to use that platform as little as possible for the rest of my days …

Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds & Shape Our Futures, Merlin Sheldrake

Another great book on mushrooms. Nice complement to Stamets’ Mycelium Running.

The Devil All the Time, Donald Ray Pollock

Local guy from my neck of Appalachia who didn’t start writing till he was in his 50s. Pollock is a literary descendant of Flannery O’Connor minus the Catholic transcendence her work turns on. I’d already read Knockemstiff by him, which was incredible. Loved this book, but I couldn’t even finish the Netflix version of it.

The General and the Jaguar: Pershing’s Hunt for Pancho Villa: A True Story of Revolution and Revenge, Eileen Welcome

This was fantastic and written by a friend who won a Pulitzer for her work uncovering horrific plutonium experiments conducted on unsuspecting U.S. citizens. I was an editor on that story when it ran in the 1990s. I read Katz’s brick of a bio on Pancho Villa last year. Eileen does a brilliant job of breathing life into each character in the Mexican rebel’s strange attack on a remote U.S. town. A tale well told and definitely worth reading.

The Heavenly Table: A Novel, Donald Ray Pollock

Probably the weakest of the three books I’ve read by Pollock, but certainly not a waste of time.

Jesus’ Son, Denis Johnson

I’d read rave reviews of this, but I honestly remember little of it and recall it mostly as another junky’s ode. Just don’t care that much anymore.

Absalom, Absalom!, William Faulkner

Perfect read for these times of rising white supremacy. A meditation on race, identity, and the South from the perspective of a brilliant, drunken White boy. It’s easy to get lost in the roiling flow of Faulkner’s writing and miss the incredible storyline’s he’s weaving.

The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade, Herman Melville

I think I picked this up based on a recommendation on one of the literature podcasts I listen to, but I don’t recall which one. (perhaps Marlon and Jake Read Dead People, which I highly recommend and wish they would resurrect; Marlon James is one of my favorite contemporary writers — and he’s fucking hilarious.) They were discussing Moby Dick when this was recommended. It’s a reminder of what an incredible talent Melville was and a chance to see how deeply rooted Trumpism is in American culture.

Narrative of My Captivity Among the Sioux Indians, Fanny Kelly

Don’t remember how I stumbled across this but I’m glad I did. It’s a fascinating story.

The Sheltering Sky, Paul Bowles

Another recommendation I picked up on a literary podcast, in this case Should You Read Before You Die? by Josh Anish. It’s become one of my favorite podcasts. I’d circled Bowles’ book several times sensing it was something in my wheelhouse. I dove in based on Anish’s recommendation and wasn’t disappointed.

The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin

My companion at the press drank every day a pint before breakfast, a pint at breakfast with his bread and cheese, a pint between breakfast and dinner, a pint at dinner, a pint in the afternoon about six o’clock, and another when he had done his day’s work. I thought it a detestable custom; but it was necessary, he suppos’d, to drink strong beer, that he might be strong to labor.

The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke, Rainer Maria Rilke, Stephen Mitchell, and Robert Hass

Duino Elegies, Rilke

I started reading Rilke based on a Twitter prank I tried to pull on Ray Wylie Hubbard that he either didn’t see or he (justifiably) wasn’t willing to dignify with his attention. It’s why my Twitter handle is still Ghost of Rilke. In the process of scheming, I realized I’d never actually read Rilke. Time to fix that. I found it dense but not impenetrable, and the intro by Hass was invaluable. I’m working on a Rilke post, but for now, here’s my shot across Ray’s bow:

Oh, Darling, James A. Jones Jr.
Loved this. It was written by one of my first bosses. Jim was in charge at the Clewiston News when I arrived way back in 1984. This is the story of his Vietnam experience and, more specifically, how he met his wife while there. It’s the story of a normal guy’s experiences in turbulent times, and it’s also an inspiring love story.

Resurrection of the Wild: Meditations on Ohio’s Natural Landscape, Deborah Fleming

It’s not exactly in my neck of the woods, but I learned a lot reading this and particularly appreciate Fleming’s pragmatic approach to managing natural areas, accommodating a variety of uses and interests.

Audio Books

Colonel Roosevelt, Edmund Morris (Narrated by Mark Deakins) (started 12/19, completed 1/20)

Theodore Rex, Edmund Morris (Narrated by Jonathan Marosz)

Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant (Narrated b: Robin Field)

Mythos, Stephen Fry (Narrated by Stephen Fry)

The World That Made New Orleans: From Spanish Silver to Congo Square, Ned Sublette (Narrated by: Sean Crisden)

Tales from the Ant World, Edward O. Wilson (Narrated by: Jonathan Hogan )

Beowulf: A New Translation, Maria Dahvana Headley, (Narrated by: JD Jackson, Maria Dahvana Headley)

Perhaps the best version of Beowulf I’ve read. A daring, contemporary, thrilling, and yes, feminist take. I highly recommend this.

Beowulf, Translation by Seamus Heaney

One of my top two favorite translations.

The Mere Wife, Maria Dahvana Headley (Narrated by Susan Bennett)

As I commented on Reddit, I loved this until I didn’t. But it’s a still a great book and definitely worth reading. Maria Dahvana Headley is someone I’d love to talk literature with over a bottle of mead.

Owls of the Eastern Ice: A Quest to Find and Save the World’s Largest Owl, Jonathan C. Slaght (Narrated by author)

Wow. This is about owls. Strange owls. But it’s also about the strangeness of remote Russia. Great book.

The Dead, James Joyce (Narrated by Michael Orenstein)

I read this every year at Christmas. Decided to listen to it this year. Great move. The narrator was fantastic and it was nice to sit back, close my eyes and let Joyce’s language filter down on me like the Dublin snow. It’s been called the greatest short story in the English language. I’ve yet to encounter one better.

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Keeping my cockatoo warm …

With the temps dipping into the teens recently, I’ve been closing off the back porch at night and pulling Sydney inside since the woodstove doesn’t do a great job of heating that space. So we’ve been spending our mornings up close and personal, which means we’re watching parrot videos on YouTube and having breakfast together (the cabin is pretty tiny, so his cage is between the woodstove and the beautiful black walnut table I bought at Chesterhill Produce Auction.)

Chicken bones for dinner …
Reacting to a cheeky cockatiel who is whistling Oh, Susanna. Syd often tries to sing along, but alas, he’s all squawks and gibberish with no sense of melody.