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Location: California

I love paper. Books printed on acid-free paper and bound in cloth turn me on. I'm crazy about bookmarks, and I buy too many stickers. I could spend hours in the build-your-own-greeting card section of my neighborhood craft store. My favorite thing to eat is bread, and my second favorite is fruit. (Mm, pineapple.) I read too much and too fast, and I watch too many food shows (two ways of looking at gluttony). Gloomy, rainy weather calms me and so I can't wait to move out of California, which will happen, sadly, too many years from now to count. I'm vegan, though I haven't managed to eliminate honey from my diet yet. I practice yoga; it's the only way I can keep fit. I have a better life than I ever imagined I would (or deserve to) have, but I do my best to enjoy it rather than feel guilty about it. That's my daily struggle -- and also to be thoughtful and observant and honest with myself.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Jury Duty Poetry

The most delicious moment for me when I crack open a new volume of Billy Collins's poetry is when I read the first lines of the first poem, which is usually addressed to the reader. In The Trouble with Poetry, the first poem, "You, Reader," starts: "I wonder how you are going to feel/when you find out/that I wrote this instead of you/that it was I who got up early/to sit in the kitchen/and mention with a pen/the rain-soaked windows..." A poet who understands that poetry is a communication, who writes poetry as if it were the only common language that strangers have, is my kind of poet. A friend said that Billy Collins's poetry makes everyone happy. That's true, and slightly dismissive. I'm one of those people who distrusts writing that makes me happy, writing that seems easy and light, a daydream on an autumn afternoon. But I don't distrust Billy Collins. His manner is light, and he has a sense of humor that tickles me pink, but his heart is in all the right, difficult places: death, isolation and loneliness, sorrow, political and personal foolishness -- as well as joy and the ephemeral but powerful moments of connection people have with each other, and with themselves.

I read Collins for the first time last year, in about November I think, while I was on jury duty. Two of his poetry collections, The Art of Drowning and Picnic, Lightning, were the reading I took with me to pass the long hours of waiting at the Santa Ana courthouse. I sat in a huge room with many windows at a long table crowded with strangers who wanted even more than I did not to be there, and I read one poem after another, paying attention only half the time to the meaning of the words, lulling myself into patience and calm with simply their rhythm. Poetry has a way of distancing you from the ordinary, but not to hide from it, to ignore it, but to examine it and see it in the context of an entire life -- your own and that of the world around you. It forces you to think of people as individuals, not masses you get lost in or oppressed by. It's a very uncomfortable and very necessary feeling this, of really seeing other people. It's uncomfortable for me in particular because at core I'm a misanthrope -- to me, indeed, l'enfer, c'est les autres -- and one cannot sustain being a misanthrope without lumping people together into a more or less homogenous crowd that resembles violent mobs or the audience for which really, really bad reality shows are created. More than once I've fantasized about waking up one morning to a world empty of people, a world of perfect silence. But that, I suspect, is more of a hell that I am able to imagine.

I'm going to offer up another bit from "You, Reader" because it's only right to give poets the last word: "...and I was only thinking/about the shakers of salt and pepper/that were standing side by side on a place mat./I wondered if they had become friends/after all these years/or if they were still strangers to one another/like you and I/who manage to be known and unknown/to each other at the same time..."


Blogger Jonathan K. Cohen said...

A universal disappearance would give you no blog readers; you would be the only audience.

And yet, years ago, when I did research at the UCI library over the summer, I thought how pleasant the campus was without undergraduates.

November 06, 2006  

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