Old Books and New in Frightening Times

As a new academic year gets underway I dust some books though not all. As every professor knows, dust ye will always have with ye. Our bookshelves are topiary gardens of fine powder.

Preparing for the classroom a few books must be made presentable. My hardcover edition of Flannery O’Connor’s collected stories with a coffee stain on the cover; Pablo Neruda’s “Twenty Love Poems and A Song of Despair” with it’s yellowing pages—both get a once over. Sometimes pressed flowers fall from pages.

I’ve been teaching a long time. Each year I bring new books to campus of course, and I’m excited about them. They’ll join O’Connor and friends. But you see, it’s the old retainers that suggest something noble is occurring. I fell in love with literature in college. I’m still in love. Very much so. We can be in love our whole lives. Out comes the whisk. I want my students to be under the spell of books all their days. Yes I want them to pause on a street corner in New York ages hence and think of Maya Angelou’s lines:

Curtains forcing their will

against the wind,

children sleep,

exchanging dreams with

seraphim. The city

drags itself awake on

subway straps; and

I, an alarm, awake as a

rumor of war,

lie stretching into dawn,

unasked and unheeded.

(Awaking in New York)

Teaching isn’t about reception but something more demanding—dreams with seraphim—these books freed from shelves are doors to the inner life each of us holds. Perhaps this inner state is “unasked and unheeded” but it’s where we’re most alive and individual. Never has the need to exchange dreams been so great as it is today when “rumor of war” is all around us and so many students are being told to scrap introspection for glib self promotion and “the job” as if our hearts have no bearing on how we may live.

I stuff my satchel. Feel old warmth and new. What can poetry tell us in precarious moments? To know is precious. The Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish put it this way:

Wait for me Death beyond the earth

Wait for me on your land

until I finish my talk with what’s left of my life

not far from your tent

Wait for me til I finish reading Tarafa bin al Abed

The existentialists who drew up from the well of each moment

freedom

justice

the wine of the gods …

They seduce me

(Excerpt From: “Mural.”)

Lately a number of books have appeared seeking to ask and answer the question “what is poetry good for”—a fine pursuit but to my mind not as good as simply pausing to rest in the humane rhythms and hopes of language. Here’s a poem, an old friend, I’ll be bringing to class.

It’s by the late American poet James Wright whose craft, wisdom, and empathy we surely need.

“St. Judas”

When I went out to kill myself, I caught

A pack of hoodlums beating up a man.

Running to spare his suffering, I forgot

My name, my number, how my day began,

How soldiers milled around the garden stone

And sang amusing songs; how all that day

Their javelins measured crowds; how I alone

Bargained the proper coins, and slipped away.

Banished from heaven, I found this victim beaten,

Stripped, kneed, and left to cry. Dropping my rope

Aside, I ran, ignored the uniforms:

Then I remembered bread my flesh had eaten,

The kiss that ate my flesh. Flayed without hope,

I held the man for nothing in my arms.

(Collected Poems, James Wright)

As I dust off the books I hope students will come to understand in their own private ways that hope is what we bring to our most transparent dreams.

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