by Chris Faatz, November 26, 2014 10:00 AM
Fall has brought us a true gift in the publication of the massive The Collected Poems of James Laughlin
, published by New Directions in an exceptionally beautiful hardcover edition. The book includes an inexhaustible number of poems, in a lovely 1,214(!) page tome.
Laughlin is best known as the founder of New Directions Publishing, the U.S. publisher that championed, and has continued to champion, the work of people as diverse as Ezra Pound and Denise Levertov, Hermann Hesse and Henry Miller, William Carlos Williams and Roberto Bolaño, and Muriel Rukeyser and Clarice Lispector. There's a story about the origins of this dedication to such a broad and defining list, one that would go on to help shape Modernism in our time. It goes like this: when Laughlin was a young man, he took a leave from his studies at Harvard and went to study with Pound in Italy. In the end, Pound told Laughlin he couldn't write, so he should go home and use his money (Laughlin's family was quite wealthy) and publish those who could. Namely, as it turned out, Pound and his friends.
Apocryphal or not, the rest is history.
However, history can be read in many ways, and one of the ways that Laughlin's history has to be read is in his breaking from Pound's judgment and becoming a celebrated poet in his own right.
Laughlin's poems are exceptionally lovely and often very easy to read. However, they include depths of emotion, insight, and tenderness that puts them in a realm of their own. Even though Laughlin often peppered his verse with French or Italian words and phrases, he was writing for you and me, and his poems — beautiful, spare, evocative — move our hearts.
This poem is called "The Darkened Room":
The room which was once
so bright has no illumi-
nation now the curtains
have been pulled shut and
the lamps have no bulbs
the man who lives here is
blind he has no need of
light sees what he
needs with his hands he
lives alone a neighbor
brings him his food his
book is memory her face
is clear on the page of
his blindness his music
is the recollected sound
of her voice he is lone-
ly but he is content.
Laughlin explored various line breaks and patterns of rhythm and structure throughout his life, and his subjects varied widely as well. Plagued by bipolar disorder, an avid athlete and correspondent, as well as a devoted womanizer, he never lacked for subjects.
He writes in the foreword to his 1998 book, Poems New and Selected:
Many of the writings in this book should be called verse rather than poetry. Poetry is an exalted, almost mystical writing in its nature. Poetry works with devices such as metaphor and verbal decoration. This writer seldom aspires to such high levels of expression. His writings are most often the statement of facts as he has discerned them. Many are reports on perceived feelings, his own and those of others; or a placing with imagination; or recollections from reading of matters with which classical writers were concerned. There is a minimum of decoration.
He goes on to write:
SOME PEOPLE THINK
that poetry should be a-
dorned or complicated. I'm
not so sure. I think I'll
take the simple statement
in plain speech compress-
ed to brevity. I think that
will do all I want to do.
I actually think that poetry goes a bit further than what Laughlin claims here. A poet touches on human matters, on the things that are near and dear to us, even when we are not initially clear on what they may be. He or she explores them and cajoles or batters them into a form that opens them up into the deepest part of us, fiercely claiming them as a part of an interior terrain on which we live our lives. We choose our poets by what speaks to us: a poet is a beloved voice that is turned to again and again, in all sorts of moods and states of mind to enrich and ascribe meaning and succor to our lives.
This massive book is one that is perfectly positioned to be just such a companion on the journey of life. It will sit on your bedside table, or on a coffee table, or on a shelf, until you need it. And, if my decades-long experience of James Laughlin, the man — the poet — who Pound claimed couldn't write, is true and even barely universal in any sense at all, you will indeed need it and turn to it and be just a little bit more secure in knowing that your heart and mind are not alone in a world gone
by Chris Faatz, April 24, 2014 2:00 PM
I have no hesitation in saying that Jerome Rothenberg is one of our greatest living poets and that his latest book, Eye of Witness: A Jerome Rothenberg Reader
, is among the top books published last year. Eye of Witness
, published by the relentlessly pioneering Black Widow Press, is a huge, 580-page tome that encompasses the entirety of Rothenberg's vast and many-hued career.
Rothenberg's terrain is the intersection of language and culture. He explores how the two mesh, in different times and places, to produce works redolent of both beauty and horror, pieces that can be prophetic or starkly pedestrian and coolly informative. It is in this meshing, this coming together, that his poetry is rooted.
A large part of the book is dedicated to his translations or versions (he calls them "variations") of the work both of great historical figures, such as Pablo Neruda and Tristan Tzara, and the mythic utterances of native and ethnic traditions arising, for example, out of Judaic or shamanistic experience. These pieces are in turn disturbing and challenging. They rise up before you, like a mighty golem of the imagination, and show you things that you'd never dreamt could be. In the end, what one receives in reading anything that Rothenberg has touched is a gift: wild, stormy, insidious, and completely new.
One of my favorite poems is Holocaust survivor Paul Celan's "Death Fugue." Rothenberg's version reads, in part:
Black milk of morning we drink you at dusktime
we drink you at noontime and dawntime we drink you at night
we drink and drink
There's a man in this house who cultivates snakes and who writes
who writes when it's nightfall nach Deutschland your golden hair
he writes it and walks from the house and the stars all start flashing he
whistles his Jews to appear starts us scooping a grave out of sand
he commands us play up for the dance
And so on.
Rothenberg's own work, whether prose or poetry, is equally compelling. I'm intellectually and spiritually stimulated and excited by material such as these lines from the poem "The Sleep of Reason":
...All things that fly at night
fly past him.
Wings that brush an ear,
an ear concealed,
a memory beginning
in the house of sleep.
His is a world where owls
live in palm trees,
where a shadow in the sky
is like a magpie,
white & black are colors
only in the mind,
the cat you didn't murder
springs to life,
a whistle whirling in a cup,
gone & foregone,
a chasm bright with eyes.
There is a cave in Spain,
a fecal underworld,
where bats are swarming
the blackness ending in a wall
his hands rub up against,
a blind man in a painted world,
amok & monstrous
banging on a rock.
This stuff gets me at a level and in a place that very few other poets have ever reached — Celan, Trakl, some of the great surrealists, Vasko Popa, Simic's early and prose poems — but it's different, deeper. It shakes me, like a word-induced earthquake of the mind. A coworker showed me a book the other day and said, "This is my desert island book." I don't know if I could choose only one book, but if I could choose two or three, Rothenberg would definitely be included.
Many of Rothenberg's individual volumes were published by New Directions and bore titles such as Khurbn (the Yiddish and Hebrew term for the Holocaust), Poland/1931, A Seneca Journal, and That Dada Strain. He's also edited a number of anthologies, including A Big Jewish Book and Poems for the Millennium. Eye of Witness includes manifestos, artistic statements, interviews, and pieces on ethnopoetics, an approach to poetics that he pioneered, beginning in his 1968 anthology, Technicians of the Sacred. All of this material is rich, informative, and transformative, yet it's the poetry that I'll return to again and again. There's little like it in our impoverished world, and I'm proud and eager to celebrate and explore it while I
by Chris Faatz, April 10, 2014 2:00 PM
Happy National Poetry Month!
I was going to try and do a roundup of several newish poetry books, but I got so stuck on this book, that I couldn't follow through. So...
Lawrence Ferlinghetti is one of my all-time favorite poets. I cut my teeth, 30 years ago, on A Coney Island of the Mind, which was first published by New Directions in 1958. With its jazzy meter and hip parlance, it helped set the mind-set for the whole Beat phenomenon. In fact, he founded both City Lights Books and City Lights Publishers, and went on to publish much of the most interesting material of ensuing years.
Ferlinghetti is now 95 years old, and his subsequent work has been equally important to my development as a reader and devotee of poetry. Time of Useful Consciousness was his last book, a collection I went nuts over, and his newest book, Blasts Cries Laughter, is equally good.
One of the things that sets this book apart is that it's among the latest installments in New Directions' wonderful new series of poetry pamphlets, of which I've written recently. That makes it indeed a slim book. Don't be dismayed by its page count, though, for the thing that really sets Ferlinghetti apart from almost anyone in the universe of poesy is the sheer energy of his writing; his words burn on the page and carry the reader along in a veritable carnival of imaginative and visionary prowess that's nothing short of amazing.
Ferlinghetti's always been a poet with a highly developed social conscience. In Blasts Cries Laugher, he sounds the tocsin against global warming and the climate crisis, against poets who take their social stature for granted and don't dare anything, and against the suppression of such forward-looking movements as Occupy.
An Armageddon of autos
In the City of Angels
In downtown Denver
In Chicago and Manhattan
Mexico City and Milan
Calcutta and Tokyo
Drowned in the bad breath of machines
The sun's wearing shades
The Ozone layer coughing smog
The ecosystem as finely balanced as a mobile
A computer about to crash
Wait — there's more:
A casino culture out of control
A hole in its ozone soul
A sweepstakes Winner Take All
A shooting gallery for masters of war
A bull market with toreadors
A runaway juggernaut heading for naught
A runaway robot bombing through cities
The hydraulic brakes blown
Not even the UN not even the EU
Not even the Pope or you name it
If you're looking for something that will leave you humbled, dizzy, challenged, and grateful, look no further. Hands down, this is one of the best, most interesting, and most downright prophetic books of the
by Chris Faatz, February 20, 2014 2:00 PM
Let's face it: New Directions is, hands down, one of the most consistently interesting and provocative publishers in operation today. From poetry to essays, from big, lovely arty books with a literary slant to experimental fiction from Central Europe or the Middle East, they cover an incredible range, and do so time and again.
Now they've introduced a new series, the New Directions Poetry Pamphlets, which continues their historical emphasis on elegance and simplicity. These books — there are 12 thus far — are lovely, and the series brings together both established and new poets in an attractive format.
The list is both breathtaking and groundbreaking, a true affirmation of what New Directions does best: exploring new and established writers in fresh and exciting ways. Here you can explore Lawrence Ferlinghetti (Blasts Cries Laughter), Susan Howe (Sorting Facts, or Nineteen Ways of Looking at Marker), and H. D. (Vale Ave) alongside other, less well-known poets. Check out Fifteen Iraqi Poets, edited by Dunya Mikhail, or Poems to Read on a Streetcar by Oliverio Girondo.
My personal favorite thus far is Argentine poet Alejandra Pizarnik's A Musical Hell. Pizarnik, of whom I'd never heard before seeing this book, lived both in her native Argentina and in Paris at various times during her short life (she committed suicide in 1972). She was the author of several books of poems and the recipient of more than a few generous grants. Consistent with New Directions' pioneering vision of the role of publishing, they're using this series to take up the gauntlet of introducing Pizarnik to U.S. readers today.
I was in the hospital for 10 days last year, and this little pamphlet was one of the books that I brought with me, more by happenstance than by choice. Imagine my amazement when I found myself totally and utterly floored by it. Pizarnik is a surrealistic shamaness, her language richly inviting, her images offering readers an exit into a mythic world of the imagination that's been enticingly explored by very few — Paul Eluard, Andre Breton, Robert Desnos, Pierre Reverdy...
A few lines:
I cannot speak with my voice, so I speak with my voices.
Those eyes were the entrance to the temple, for me, a wanderer
who loves and dies — I would've sung until merging with the night,
until dissolving naked at the beginning of time.
A Musical Hell is bilingual Spanish and English, and includes an introduction by Julio Cortazar.
This is such an exciting series. Seize the moment and give one of these pamphlets a chance today!
by Chris Faatz, December 31, 2013 4:58 PM
Published in pamphlet form, this incredibly stunning and visionary collection of poems is enough to set anyone's surrealist imaginings on fire. With a truly adulatory — and much deserved! — preface by Julio
by Chris Faatz, September 9, 2013 4:58 PM
Rudolf Rocker was an amazing man, and his story is an amazing story. A German anarchist exiled to London, he learned Yiddish and organized the radical Jewish community from the time he arrived to the time he was arrested during WWI. From teaching the classics to forming labor unions, from editing papers to organizing mass demonstrations, Rocker was a man whose sole goals were human dignity and total
by Chris Faatz, April 26, 2013 2:00 PM
There are so many books, and there are so many good books.
And there are so many good books in particular during National Poetry Month, which we are energetically celebrating here at Powell's.
And then, even among those good books, there are the really good books. In that vein, and in case you haven't already been introduced, please allow me to raise the shining vision of the Portland-based small press Tavern Books. I have to be blunt: I'm utterly smitten. It's been a long time since I've run across a list of books that is as diverse as the voices that Tavern celebrates and in which each and every book is, on its very face, a work of art and a labor of love.
Thus far, most of Tavern's books are chapbooks, what many people think of as pamphlets. One may hesitate at the price, but I'm here to vouch for the quality of each gorgeous and collectible book and the work it contains.
Take, for example, Archeology by Native American poet Adrian C. Louis. Louis has long been one of my favorite poets, his rage and eloquence going a long way toward illustrating for me the reality of living a life of extreme poverty and oppression, a life in which hope just doesn't seem to be on the horizon.
There's a phenomenon in literature in which the greatest and truest writing serves to "flesh out" the concrete facts and statistics that otherwise give only the black and white framework of an individual's life or the life of a people. In Louis's work, this is very true. His poetry, like Leslie Marmon Silko's fiction, gives us the meat and gristle of the day-to-day on the reservation. Nothing is spared; nothing is sacred.
Within all of the righteous pain and anger, though, there is still beauty, and even prophetic vision, as this poem amply demonstrates:
Summer stops slipping it
to fall & pale winter is born.
New snow slows all chaos
so I dump last night's chili
(not the best batch ever)
in the driveway for crows.
Soon they'll explode darkly
upon this white, little town.
I'm simply a faceless idiot
in a nation of faceless idiots.
I drink powdered espresso &
watch an old neighbor lady
mutter past my house, her
porky English bulldog sports
orange knit booties & when I
smile, the spirit scab thickens
atop this zombie chest where
my heart once loyally lingered.
Fire Water World and Among the Dog Eaters are two of Louis's books that have been out of print for far too long; Tavern's commitment to return them soon to the shelves of booksellers and poetry lovers is to be applauded.
Oregon's own George Hitchcock, the driving force behind the legendary Kayak literary magazine and press, is another voice — and one more different from Adrian Louis than you could imagine — that Tavern is bringing back into print. Their first Hitchcock, the chapbook Six-Minute Poems, brings together the last poems that Hitchcock wrote before his death in 2010. Hitchcock is, by turns, funny, surreal, and prophetic. Sometimes his poems are strange and elliptical; he also wrote some startlingly beautiful nature poems, and his devotion to the "found" poem, where one uses clippings from newspapers, magazines, and advertising to "craft" something totally new, is always both entertaining and provocative.
I've always found Hitchcock's work compelling. There is magic in his vision, and the lyricism of his surrealist-inspired work opens hatchways in my mind and heart from which things of strangeness and beauty are unleashed. But to each their own. His work won't appeal to everyone, but if you like the following small poem (which I love), you'll find that, in some eerie way, you may have come home...
Fever sits on my skull
Living in dread
Thirsting of caustic
And bursting veins
The Gods appear in
Tatters and ribbons
Of glorious song.
Hitchcock wrote a lot, and most of it is now unavailable. But once again, Tavern is stepping into the breach and will be publishing The Wounded Alphabet: Collected Poems 1963-1983. This should be a luscious and engaging book. I eagerly await its arrival.
Not to be outdone by larger houses, Tavern has now unleashed itself in the world of the bound book with a spine and a much larger page count. There is a lovely and dark and mesmerizing collection of poems by Nobel laureate and Holocaust survivor Nelly Sachs called Glowing Enigmas which weighs in at 103 pages. And then there's a collection of poems by another Nobel laureate, Tomas Tranströmer, titled Baltics, at 152 pages.
Okay, now I'm going to commit myself:
Baltics is simply the best book of poems I've read this year.
I really don't know how to do justice to the depth of my response and feelings about this lovely book. The sheer, breathtaking, and audacious beauty of the poems is, undoubtedly, one reason. While quiet, they sing and resonate and hum with life. The relationship Tranströmer and his family have developed over the years with a vacation house they maintained on a small island in an archipelago near Stockholm is an incredible invocation of the connection that is possible between human beings and the landscape they inhabit. There is the mystery of genius, wonder, and the sublime. Take this from Part II:
The wind walks in the pine forest. It sighs heavily, lightly.
In the middle of the forest the Baltic also sighs, deep in the forest
you're out on the open sea.
The old woman hated the sighing in the trees, her face hardened
in melancholy when the wind rose:
"You have to think of those out there in the boats."
But she also heard something else in the sighing, as I do, we're
(We're walking together. She's been dead for thirty years.)
One of the other things that won me over with this book is that it includes a lengthy and rather incredible photo-essay about the island and the Tranströmers by Ann Charters, the woman who did so much to chronicle Jack Kerouac and the whole Beat phenomenon, and translator Samuel Charters's wife. The black and white photos are stunning, and each of them is accompanied by an appropriate bit from one of Tranströmer's poems (not necessarily from this book). All together, it makes for a thing of true beauty.
Tavern has so many other books as well. More Tranströmer. Haiku. A sweet little book by Charles Simic. Forthcoming
by Chris Faatz, March 11, 2013 5:20 PM
True confession: I love anthologies. Travel writing, mysteries, literary essays, and fiction — virtually anything, if it's well done, will command my undivided attention. Well, at least for a while, until the next Excellent Endeavor comes along.
But, in my heart, one style really takes precedence — poetry.
In my experience, poetry anthologies are gateways to the new and unexplored. They are an opening to the wondrous for those new to the form, forays in a carefully crafted deepening for seasoned poetic travelers, and, quite simply, literary opiates for those readers who, like me, continue to search for Blake's "palace of wisdom," or Coleridge's "Xanadu."
Admittedly, it's sometimes difficult to find something fresh, something in the anthological universe to make the hair stand up on the back of your neck. Several titles do come to mind — Simic's The Horse Has Six Legs, his anthology of Serbian poets, or Conductors of the Pit, Clayton Eshleman's unnerving collection of darkly intoxicating translations — but there are so many more, and most of them just don't come near Pound's dictum to "make it new."
Imagine my pleasure, then, at having received an anthology that has kept me totally enchanted for several weeks, an anthology that I can see myself revisiting time and time again, both for edification and for sustenance. That book is Time of Grief: Mourning Poems, edited by Jeffrey Yang.
Yang, an editor at both New Directions publishers (who brought out this volume) and the New York Review of Books, is the author of several stand-alone collections of his own work, and the editor of one previous New Directions anthology, Birds, Beasts, and Seas: Nature Poems from New Directions.
Obviously, Time of Grief includes poems from the New Directions pantheon, in itself a treasure house of much of the best work of the last 100 years. William Carlos Williams, Nicanor Parra, Anne Carson, Kenneth Rexroth, Susan Howe, Kamau Brathwaite, Luljeta Lleshanaku, the known and the unknown alike, are all represented here. So are many New Directions translations from such far-flung fields as ancient Greece and China and modern Albania and Chile. In truth, imagination seems to be the only limit.
As stated on the cover, the book's theme is mourning, and indeed most of the poems touch on that subject, at least tangentially. They may address the loss of a love or the end of a relationship, but to take Time of Grief as merely a theme anthology, to automatically shelve it next to a collection of war poetry or socialist poems, is to do it a serious disservice. This book rises immediately to a point that is head-and-shoulders above most other examples of the genre. Based solely on the translations of Rexroth and Pound and the single, exquisite piece by Denise Levertov, Time of Grief is worth its price. But, this handful of poems only tickles the palate. The rest of the book consists of a chorus of poems that sing and wail and offer sheer, unalloyed beauty to the lucky reader to accompany her through her days. Dig deep. Whether you're someone new to poetry, tentatively exploring the unknown and unimaginable, or a seasoned, grizzled veteran, this book will continue to give rich sustenance.
To close, let me share one poem — one of dozens I had to choose from — from Time of Grief. It's called "My Heart's as Empty as This Pail," and it's by Aharon Shabtai. Now, imagine a whole book composed of material like this. Enjoy.
My heart's as empty as this pail
over the bathtub
and fill it with water
the dishrag in it
then mop the floor
by Chris Faatz, December 21, 2012 10:00 AM
If you have a poetry lover in your family or circle of friends — or if you're a fan yourself — many, many excellent poetry books have been published over the past 18 months or so. Here are a few standouts.
÷ ÷ ÷
Many years ago, the legendary Lawrence Ferlinghetti conquered my heart with his book A Coney Island of the Mind. For those few who may not know, Ferlinghetti is the founder of City Lights Books and City Lights Publishers, a staunch defender of the First Amendment, and an all-around gadfly and embodiment of humane values in our quickly degenerating society. It's funny: he's 93 now, and one might, in all good faith, lower one's expectations regarding the quality of his work. That would be a mistake, however, as his latest book, Time of Useful Consciousness, is hands down the best book I've read this year.
It's painful to be concise when someone receives so much from something they've read. I felt that way with Patti Smith's Just Kids and her subsequent book of poems, Woolgathering, and this new book by Ferlinghetti has done the same thing — only over and over and over again. Suffice it to say that Time of Useful Consciousness is an incredible, mind-bending journey across America, reminiscent of Whitman or William Carlos Williams, touching down in Chicago and San Francisco and all points in between, and channeling the voices and visions of poets and writers as diverse as Robinson Jeffers, Carl Sandburg, and Jack Kerouac. The country's seemingly inevitable slide into disaster is a prevalent theme, but so is Ferlinghetti's indefatigable sense of hope and optimism. This is a lovely, incredible, inspiring book. There's more energy on one page than in any 20 books from a mainstream, literary, or academic publisher. It will inform your conscience and help keep you truly sane in a way that's not been on the table in many a publishing cycle.
÷ ÷ ÷
One of the strangest books that has passed through my hands this year was Sotere Torregian's On the Planet without Visa. You can always be confident that the good people at Coffee House Press will bring you something that surprises and dazzles, and this book is no exception. At first, I wasn't sure what to think. As I read it, and some of it repeatedly, I came to really like what I'd... what?... discovered? There are no fewer than 15 bookmarks in my copy of On the Planet, and they mark material as diverse as a bizarre interview with the author, a poem titled "You Must Be 'Larger Than Life' Like Mayakovsky" (who doesn't want to be larger than life like Mayakovsky?), and musings and rants on various loves, obsessions, and opinions on the nature of "real" surrealism.
Torregian, as I've come to discover, is a bit of a cult figure in the literary world. He claims Ethiopian, Arabic, Greek, Armenian, and Moorish ancestry, identifies with classical French Surrealism, and is grouped with the New York School of poets. Funny thing is, he has never left the U.S. and apparently doesn't use a dictionary — of any flavor — when he writes. His work, elliptical and fantastic, and ultimately both entertaining and enlightening, is peppered with multilingual words and phrases, and rewards repeated reading.
Constantly entertaining — I guess that's how I'd sum up Sotere Torregian.
÷ ÷ ÷
One of my all-time favorite poets is Margo Berdeshevsky, a longtime figure on the literary, artistic, and dramatic scenes in the U.S. and abroad (she currently lives in Paris). Her latest book, Between Soul and Stone, is incredible. This may sound trite, but I can't help but identify Berdeshevsky's work as being like a gossamer web: intensely beautiful, painstakingly crafted into textually dense strands of poetic light. This is not an easy book to read. It demands, it rewards, every ounce of your reading attention. It is also deeply transformative. If nothing else, you'll emerge from your reading with a more exalted sense of what beauty means in our lives. That someone can think, and write, like this is a gift to us all.
We've forgotten, they confess, teach us, please,
again. And he does. And leaves them to their lonely
holiness. No sooner gone, than the old men forget
their prayer, bereft, one runs and chases after:
running on waves to cry oh Father,
Father we've forgotten, tell us again.
There are 92 pages of this stuff. What a feast.
÷ ÷ ÷
I once had the pleasure of meeting, and hearing read, the prominent African-American poet Lucille Clifton. It was a high point of my literary life, as I'd admired her work for years. She died in 2010 and left behind her a raft of awards and citations, no less than 11 books, and more than 60 previously unpublished poems.
Now her main publisher, BOA Editions, has brought out one of the most beautifully designed books of the season with a table of contents that will floor even the casual reader.
The book, The Collected Poems of Lucille Clifton 1965-2010, is published in hardcover with a beautiful color photo of the author on the jacket. It has a sewn binding and a ribbon, and weighs in at a stunning 700-plus pages. It also includes — and this is somehow not surprising considering the weight that Clifton had in the poetry community — a foreword by Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison.
Clifton was not afraid of tackling hard things. She dealt with abuse, with cancer, with religion, with being Black in a racist world. None of her poems, none of her s
by Chris Faatz, December 14, 2012 10:00 AM
Well, the season's upon us, and I feel compelled to write about two of my favorite religious books of the last year. They are two deceptively small titles published by one of my all-time favorite presses, New Directions
. The books are collections of related work by that 20th-century religious titan, the Trappist monk Thomas Merton. The first is On Eastern Meditation
; the second, On Christian Contemplation
. Needless to say, they're published in uniform editions with French flaps and are nothing less than exquisite — just like anything you see from New Directions. Of course, there's nothing really new in these little books, outside of the editors' introductions, but the way they've been assembled and presented offers up a challenge and a source of solace and inspiration to seekers of whatever flavor.
The introductory material in each book is fabulous: learned, astute, and informative. On Eastern Meditation is edited by Bonnie Thurston, a founding member and past president of the Thomas Merton Society, and On Christian Contemplation is edited by Dr. Paul M. Pearson, the director and archivist at Bellarmine University's Thomas Merton Center in Louisville, Kentucky.
Both books, it appears to me, can be approached in several ways. For example, one might randomly dip in and out, reading here and there, adopting them as guides to mining more depth out of one's life. Another means is, of course, to read them cover to cover as an introduction to Merton's thought on both subjects (I find this the least satisfying of the options). And then, in the end, they can easily and profitably be approached as an aid to prayer and discernment, to engaging, as it were, with the Mystery that surrounds us.
Bear in mind, these are very different books. The selections in the Christian volume are, for the most part, much longer and demand more focus; those in the Eastern Meditation book, on the other hand, are brief and radical, capturing an idea or a thought or a sudden insight that describes a Way of Being in relationship with the world.
This is from On Eastern Meditation (it's originally drawn from Merton's Asian Journal):
Our real journey in life is interior; it is a matter of growth, deepening, and of an ever greater surrender to the creative action of love and grace in our hearts. Never was it more necessary for us to respond to that action. I pray that we may all do so.
One might think that such an insight would leave any other book in the dust. But I feel like this quote, originally issued in perhaps my favorite Merton book of all time, The Wisdom of the Desert, more than rises to the challenge:
Abbot Lot came to Abbot Joseph and said: Father, according as I am able, I keep my little rule, and my little fast, my prayer, meditation and contemplative silence; and according as I am able I strive to cleanse my heart of thoughts: now what more should I do? The elder rose up in reply and stretched out his hands to heaven and his fingers became like ten lamps of fire. He said: Why not be totally changed into fire?
Ah. There you have it. I'm at a complete loss as to which I'd choose to take to the proverbial desert island with me; they both feed such different parts of my Self. But then, who, in the Spirit, could ever ask for