My rice tastes like the lake

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A Year in Reading: Marie-Helene Bertino


I’ve been thinking about how a book is (with exceptions) an object that someone has composed alone. When they were, hopefully, at their most unguarded. When they were, hopefully, at their most honest (I did not say truthful), and least performative. Composed alone, a book is met by a reader who consumes it (with exceptions) also alone, at their most unguarded and, hopefully, most permeable. The space in which we meet at our most unguarded is sacramental.

A book locates its reader where and
wherever they are. Many times, this means
the home. Where we work and have sex and cry and cook and dream. This year we
were forced to remain in our most intimate spaces for longer than most would
have preferred. Our homes, our minds. I’m grateful that, among its hardships,
the pandemic did not also cancel out the conditions conducive to reading. For
some, it enhanced them. Writing and reading have always been my drugs of choice
exactly because I don’t need a stage or costumes or other people or a certain
degree to do them. I don’t need to be able-bodied or rich or even likable.

Never has there been a better time
to enter into the sacramental space of reading and never has my concentration
been more wrecked. Even in non-pandemic years I’m an awful reader. I have the
attention span of a drunk gnat and possess what some call “a way too critical
eye.” Also, I’m a flight risk. An enjoyable book makes me want to immediately write,
a non-enjoyable book makes me want to immediately write.

The bright side is that when I love
a book, I’ll do anything for it. I notice that those listed below tend to
resist their forms and change the space between writer and reader into
something unexpected; a breathless hidden chamber, light itself, the pressure
of higher altitude. Their lines tend toward economy. It takes a long time to
learn how to be succinct. Let the evidence show, I’m still learning.

My favorite short story collection that is actually an autobiography is Raise Up Off Me: A Portrait of Hampton Hawes. Hawes was a famous, troubled pianist “second only to Oscar Peterson.” He is insightful and generous. I’m a fan of Denis Johnson’s Jesus’s Son, another collection tied by the thread of addiction, yet even I have to admit that from its unprintable first chapter title to its stunning turns of phrase, Raise Up Off Me makes Jesus’s Son read like an uninhabited grocery list. From a later chapter:

I want to make music so beautiful it’s like hugging in the forest at night, rise to the occasion and maybe go right over it because my memory’s burning—and I can make it with nothing but my brains and my hands and my heart.

Yōko Ogawa’s The Memory Police provided a cherished few evenings of immersive reading. The simple, stolen joy of an intimate birthday party in the novel’s center arrives after meticulous suspense building. Then, the doorbell rings. My throat tight, I could not turn the page. I may have said aloud, “Please just let them have this party.” I wish Ogawa’s story collection Revenge was on every literature syllabus—I’ve yet to have an under-or-over grad class that hasn’t been lit up by it.

There’s a saying in editing: A maybe is a no. Sometimes you read (and write) so many mezza mezza stories, you forget how a yes feels. When I need a reminder, I read Kono Taeko’s Toddler Hunting. The eponymous story, one of the finest I’ve ever read, is about our most unspoken desires. It reorients taboo, presents its S&M scenes and its narrator’s pleasure with no ceremony, and contains the most disturbing scene, a fantasy, I’ve read in fiction. It is not for everyone.

What is for everyone is Mark Vanhoenacker’s Skyfaring. A 747 pilot, Vanhoenacker articulates the unseen, complex infrastructures and societies conducted every day 30,000 feet above our sad little melons. Originally drawn to it because of my twin ailments of wanderlust and fear of flying, it has become my most dog-eared and underlined book. From it I learned a factoid/life metaphor that there is a moment before takeoff when a plane is simultaneously driving on the ground and flying. From the essay “Night”:

This morning Kansas rolled out of its sleep into a sunlight grandly announced, proclaimed throughout heaven—one more of the very finite number of days that this old prairie has been called Kansas, or Iowa. But it has all been one day, that first day. Light is constant, we just turn over in it.

One of my favorite ways to interact with a text is hearing its author read it, so many of my most visceral reading experiences are actually listening experiences.

I was lucky to hear the poet Alex Cuff read from her chapbook, I Try Out A Sentence To See Whether I Believe before it was published this year by Ghost Proposal. It addresses The Internet, sent me on a reading spiral on the topic of public sex, and has the ratio of abstract to concrete that conducts a crackling energy:

My lover puts the entirety of my foot into his mouth and fries leeks

I want to eat the buttery carrots, the shag carpet, and the long road to the graveyard.

I was also introduced to the work of poet Ross Gay by hearing him read. His new poem Be Holding suspends time in the moment Dr. J made his famous move in the 1980 NBA finals. Within that 95-page sacred arc is the culpability of looking, the photography of Carrie Mae Weems, Gay’s garden, state violence—in fact, I can’t think of anything it doesn’t somehow carry. I held my breath while reading one particular section about falling forever until the text, sensing its reader, reminded me to exhale.

Every so often I reread the poet Tsering Wangmo Dhompa’s work and am assailed by the question, Why isn’t she famous? I worry it’s because our world favors the biggest and loudest. I recommend beginning with her collection My Rice Tastes Like The Lake, and hearing her read at the very next opportunity. Hers is poetry’s secret voice.

Even in non-pandemic years,
launching a book is a perilous experience. In March I began keeping a list of authors
who, like me, had their tours and events cancelled by the pandemic. The spaces
these writers spent years creating were launched to mostly silence. I’d bet
they’d love to hear from you.

Finally, I read the final versions of the fiction writer (and my friend) Ramona Ausubel’s forthcoming novel, and of the poet (and my partner) Ted Dodson’s forthcoming collection, An Orange (Pioneer Works/Wonder, 2021). Both books imagine then endanger tender, delicate bodies and listen only to their own strange pulses against the universe.

A lovely word, forthcoming. When we are together again.

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