I have some beautiful photos of the St. Francis of Assisi cathedral in Cuetzalan Mexico, but they are on a jumpdrive somewhere which I have to locate.Once one of the monks with Saint Francis asked if he might own just one book. Francis replied, "No, if you have a book, pretty soon you will need a bookshelf for your book. Then you will need a house for your bookshelf. After that you will need a lock on your door to protect your book from thieves breaking in and stealing it.
If you want to get at the pun of the title of this post, jump to the bottom of the page and read Natasha Trethewey's poem.
I have a terrible problem: I love books and I buy books. Yes, books become part of the stuff we collect and to which we become attached, creating problems that tie us down and make us complicit in accumulation. As well as being a fire hazard when you have books piled up in every room because there is no more space on your book shelves. I have not counted all my books, but most likely I have more than 1000. I have slowly begun to give away some but every time I go to my shelves to find a few, I end up reading parts of them with wonder and saying to myself, "This is so interesting. I need this book." Then I put it back on the shelf.
I need books around me for comfort, to remind me about ideas, and to make visible the messages and knowledge inside of them. I could never store all my reading online or on an e-reader. Yes, I also read online texts; these too are irreplaceable. Yesterday, for example, I found a very interesting website that has a 3 volume e-book on decolonizing, reconcialition and the way forward in Canada called Speaking My Truth, which has a lot of interesting chapters by writers such as Waziyatawin, Ashok Mathur, Melissa Phung, Sylvia Hamilton, George Elliot Clarke, and Heather Igliolorte (who was just in TBay and gave a curator talk for the Decolonize Me exhibit which was recently at the TB Art Gallery; if I find a minute I will tell you about that, too), among many others. However, online books and articles or websites cannot replace actual books that have a look, a texture, a presence, a feel, and a language that jumps out at you, i.e. its title.
I just received Natasha Trethewey's latest poetry book Thrall (find a review here) in the mail. In this book, Trethewey, who is currently the Poet Laureate of the US, not only writes poems about her personal and family history but also takes a critical poetic eye to visual representation of mixed peoples. Specifically, she writes poetic musings on the Casta paintings from colonial Mexico.
I have become fascinated with ekphrastic poetry, that is, poetry that responds to visual arts such as paintings or photographs (or other creative arts) since doing a close reading of Trethewey's earlier poetry book, Bellocq's Ophelia. In this book, using poetry she writes a book-length narrative that makes a history for some of the women posed in Bellocqs' early 1900s glass plate photos of mixed race sex workers in Storyville, New Orleans.
Aptly, Trethewey ends Thrall with a musing on the enthrallment of books, a poem called "Illumination" (see below for the text).
Enthralling and illuminating, who can resist books?
Now I am waiting with anticipation for the other books that I have ordered to arrive at my doorstep:
- Rainy River Lives: Stories Told by Maggie Wilson ed. by Sally Cole
- Native Speakers: Ella Deloria, Zora Neale Hurston, Jovita Gonzales & the Poetics of Culture by Maria Eugenia Cotera
- Our Knowledge Is Not Primitive: Decolonizing Botanical Anishinaabe Teachings by Wendy Geniusz;
- Fear of a Black Nation: Race, Sex, and Security in Sixties Montreal by David Austin
- Debating Dissent: Canada and the 1960s by L. Campbell, D. Clement and G.Kealey
- Grammar Matters: The Social Significance of How We Use Language by Jila Ghomeshi
- Blood and Faith: The Purging of Muslim Spain 1492 - 1614 by Matthew Carr
Trethewey's closing poem, a reflection on the magic of books:
Always there is something more to know
what lingers at the edge of thought
awaiting illumination as in
this second-hand book full
of annotations daring the margins in pencil
a light stroke as if
the writer of these small replies
meant not to leave them forever
meant to erase
evidence of this private interaction
Here a passage underlined there
a single star on the page
as in a night sky cloud-swept and hazy
where only the brightest appears
a tiny spark I follow
its coded message try to read in it
the direction of the solitary mind
that thought to pencil in
a jagged arrow It
is a bolt of lightning
where it strikes
I read the line over and over
as if I might discern
the little fires set
the flames of an idea licking the page
how knowledge burns Beyond
the exclamation point
its thin agreement angle of surprise
there are questions the word why
So much is left
the printed words and the self-conscious scrawl
between what is said and not
white space framing the story
the way the past unwritten
eludes us So much
is implication the afterimage
of measured syntax always there
ghosting the margins that words
their black-lined authority
do not cross Even
as they rise up to meet us
the white page hovers beneath
silent incendiary waiting