Ghost Girl (Penguin Poets)

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A Year in Reading: Kate Petersen

Letters. The year began with letters. Well, emails. Jokey work emails that turned, somewhere along the line, to letters—getting-to-know-you letters, then, to love letters. I began to consider paragraph breaks. Thrilled to his name in my inbox. In a smoky restaurant in Mexico City I read one letter again and again, then handed my phone to friends and asked them to read it, asked if they heard what I heard.

I had not received such
letters in many years, and was out of practice.

I had recently moved from a single room in San Francisco where the only books I could keep close were those I taught. It was a year of rediscovering books I had known and not seen in a long time. Collections of poetry I had found in the stacks of now-gone Aardvark Books, the still-there Green Apple.

In winter, I sent him poems by Joanna Klink, poems of light and frost and estuary. He checked out books of poems from the library, sent phone pictures of pages to me: Kyle Dargan. Mary Oliver.

Friends sent me other poems, ones by Maria Hummel. Jon Davis. I saved everything. My phone ran out of room.

More emails. I planned a Summit, an endeavor as big and overshadowing as the word suggests. This required many many emails. Books languished, half-read, on my coffee table. (I am reading them now: among them, Nafissa Thompson-Spires’s Heads of the Colored People, Nathaniel Rich’s Losing Earth, Peter Kline’s Mirrorforms). Too many browser tabs stayed open. Birthday cards and bills lay unsent on my desk. As if there were a different well of hours to draw from, I also worked to finish my own book. Read my own words over and over until sentences arrived to me on training runs and in dreams, and I understood they were complete.

In spring, he sat in my kitchen and read me Frank O’Hara’s “For Grace, After a Party.” Layli Long Soldier visited campus and read to us from Whereas, then a love poem from her phone.

At the beginning of summer, he found his old copy of The Wind in the Willows. (“This day was only the first of many similar ones for the emancipated Mole, each of them longer and fuller of interest as the ripening summer moved onward.”)

Driving over a pass in the Rockies at the end of an August hailstorm, I read him the bewildering music of Anne Carson’s “Just for the Thrill: An Essay on the Difference Between Women and Men.” (“From the shadows run mysterious ground lines down into my apparent heart.”) A story of image and estrangement, hers, but perhaps my campaign was one of foils. There we were in the same country. Were we not there to disprove her essay’s theorem?

On a stolen afternoon in fall, we packed sandwiches and library books and headed up Bear Jaw trail. Stolen from emails, I mean. High up in the aspens, I read Jane Hirshfield to him. (“If the leaves. If the rise of the fish”).

On the way back from the Chicago Marathon, I bought Susan Steinberg’s Machine in the airport bookshop, Barbara’s, all while holding the largest McDonald’s ice cream cone ever dispensed at O’Hare. Please patronize Barbara’s; they were very forgiving about the ice cream cone.

After he was asleep, I read Sharon Olds to myself.

On nights he wasn’t there, I thumbed through my old books for articulation, clues to this season. I found myself turning to persona poems (like Amy Gerstler’s Ghost Girl), stories of manners, inward-turned, jar-tight stories of being a woman, or an other woman, of the mind casting around in its now ill-fitting loneliness. Renata Adler’s Pitch Dark and Laurie Colwin’s “Animal Behavior.” I let myself be devastated by tenses (here, Adler’s narrator, Kate): “You are, you know, you were the nearest thing to a real story to happen in my life.”

On nights he was there, he read to me from The Once and Future King, a book I taught long ago.

Well, so what? In certain houses, certain years of life, reading to someone and being read to is routine. The default even. But I had not lived in such a year, or house, for many. (“Until you brought me, casually, an hour,” Klink writes.)

Then he read to me. Some nights by headlamp, or perched on a rock over Oak Creek, but most in the plain confines of my beige-walled apartment by the light of an oil lamp he’d cleaned up and given me. Year of long return. Year of song, a voice that is not yours telling you a story. Year I was let back in to the original enchantment of reading a book: a shoulder, feeling the words begin in his chest, breath held as the page turns. A light nearby, not much more than a candle, waiting to be blown out.

Surprise Me!

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