In January, 2019, we read Dante’s Inferno, in Robert Pinsky’s lucid translation. We followed that with John Keats, his Odes. There is something very satisfying about reading aloud with another person (or several). About handing the book back and forth, and listening, really listening. In late fall we began Emily Wilson’s translation of the Odyssey and that was wonderful. That poem was composed to be recited and the language of it helps you to say it as it needs to be said, the vivid similes unwinding, the asides, the richly observed weather (because of course it had to be, the protagonist a man sailing home, with others, and alone).
We followed the Odyssey with The Darling & Other Stories, the first of the 13 volumes of The Tales of Chekhov. Years ago I read all 13 volumes over the course of a summer and it was perfect reading for the light-filled evenings. We finished the Chekhov night before last, talking about the last story, “Three Years”, and the dissatisfaction of its central character.
So what would we read next? After dinner last night we talked about it for a few minutes and decided it should be poetry. What about Seeing Things? It was John who suggested that.
I remember my excitement at the cover when I first bought the book shortly after it was published in 1991. You couldn’t have invented the symmetry of title and poet’s name marking themselves on the black background like carved stone. And that little boat? It’s part of the Broighter hoard, a group of small gold objects found by two men ploughing a field on the shore of Lough Foyle in Northern Ireland in 1896. The objects were made in the 1st century B.C. There was also a little bowl and a torc. In 2001 I was lucky enough to see these beautiful objects in the National Museum of Ireland and I remember peering at the boat in particular for a long time, marveling at the rows of oars in their oarlocks, the rudder paddle, and the elegant yardarm. I remember there were also (from about the same period?) crucibles for melting gold and silver and other tools for making such objects.
The book opens with a translated passage from Book V1 of the Aeneid, lines about the Golden bough. It’s an invocation.
No one is ever permitted
To go down to earth’s hidden places unless he has first
Plucked this golden-fledged growth out of its tree
And handed it over to fair Prosperina, to whom it belongs
By decree, her own special gift. And when it is plucked,
A second one always grows in its place, golden again…
So we pluck, we enter the book, with a leaf held in the hand, ready to hand our token to the goddess of spring.
I read the invocation and then the first poem. John followed with “Markings” and “Three Drawings”. These are poems crafted with such care, such purpose. We chose the book almost at random, yet before we were finished our first reading from it, I was pierced with recognition of its absolute rightness for this moment of my life. I am writing about an early part of my family’s history in Canada in a long essay I’ve called “The River Door”, a title that came out of nowhere, or everywhere. I heard the words clearly, as though spoken out of thin air, early one morning just after waking. The river door, the river door. I wrote them down. And in this writing I am doing, I am discovering what they mean. I’ve read Seeing Things many times. When we come to the poems about the death of Seamus Heaney’s father, I suspect I’ll quote from memory. But what I hadn’t expected were these lines, read by John:
All these things entered you
As if they were both the door and what came through it.
They marked the spot, marked time and held it open.
And now I go through, fearful but ready, my golden leaf in my hand.