Erica Goss is the Poet Laureate of Los Gatos, CA, and the host of Word to Word, a show about poetry. She is the author of Wild Place (Finishing Line Press 2012) and Vibrant Words: Ideas and Inspirations for Poets (PushPen Press 2014). She won the 2011 Many Mountains Moving Poetry Contest and was nominated for the Pushcart Prize in 2010 and 2013. She writes The Third Form, a column about video poetry, for Connotation Press. Recent work appears in Lake Effect, The Red Wheelbarrow, Passager, Main Street Rag, Pearl, Rattle, Wild Violet, and Comstock Review, among others.
Whenever my husband is away, I put books on his side of the bed. It makes me feel less lonely. Recently, Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam filled that empty place next to me. This is the third in her series that started with Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood.
Atwood creates a world in these three books that is like ours, but tragically skewed. In the first book, the world she describes is off by a few inches; those inches become miles by the second book. The distance humanity—–or what’s left of humanity–—travels by MaddAddam is full circle, back to the starting point, but with a few leftover oddities from the near past such as pigs with human brains and fluorescent butterflies. A couple of memorable quotes: “In dreams there is no irony” and “His smile had that Botox look, as if it was a product of nerve damage.”
I’m a poet, and I read fiction and non-fiction when I need a break from poetry. I’m re-reading Dakota: A Spiritual Geography by Kathleen Norris. This is the second time I’ve re-read this book. Not many books hold up to this many re-readings, but Dakota is one of them. Here’s a quote from the chapter titled “Cana:” “Living in a town so small that, as one friend puts it, the poets and ministers have to hang out together has its advantages.” And: “It’s hard to talk about western Dakota without mentioning Jell-O. A salad, in local parlance, is a dish made with Jell-O.” I have clear, colorful memories from childhood of picnic tables loaded with Jell-O “salads”–—marshmallows, sliced fruit, and God knows what else suspended in artificially flavored gelatin. Norris makes the great empty land of South Dakota—–she calls it the “outback of America”—–seem as interesting and relevant as our cities. “What does status mean in a place so at odds with American society?” she asks.
I’ve had Ursula Hegi’s Stones from the River by my bed for months. I’m re-reading it slowly; sometimes a week goes by and I’ve only consumed half a chapter. When I read this book, I feel like I’m reading my history: my grandfather was born in Düsseldorf, the same town as Hegi. The river of the title is the Rhine; a few years ago I stood with my feet in the cold water of that river and thought about the suffering of the war years, which my mother and her family endured. As I stood there deep in thought, some people rushed up from the shore and told me not to get too close. “The Rhine is not safe,” they said. “The water runs fast. Just last week a man drowned here.” The Rhine is where Trudi, the main character, goes to be alone, to get some peace from the terrible things that happen in her village. Something terrible happens to her there too, something that has nothing to with the war, but symbolizes dominance of the strong over the weak. Trudi, a dwarf, knows that she is considered “unfit to live,” “weak,” and “deformed,” yet she is one of the few people in her village who sees things as they really are.
The Book of Jonah by Joshua Max Feldman is next to my bed in the waiting-to-read category. I’m eager to dive into a book that asks the question: “How can we explain the unexplainable?” The book is a modern re-telling of the biblical story of Jonah. I enjoyed The Red Tent by Anita Diamant, a re-telling of the story of Jacob through the eyes of his daughter, Dinah, so I’m looking forward to this version of Jonah. Bible stories, re-told and re-imagined, interest me, as do new renditions of Greek mythologies, Shakespeare’s plays, Grimm’s fairy tales and other classics from the past. They deserve new audiences and new interpretations.
I reach into Adrienne Rich’s last book, Tonight No Poetry Will Serve, when my brain craves the zing that only poetry delivers. I keep forgetting to re-shelve it with my other books; hence, it sits under the big, heavy novels on my nightstand, modest and slim. I love that quality about poetry books: their size belies their power. Rich’s “Axel” poems mystify and intrigue: Axel Avakar is a “fictive poet, counter-muse, brother,” according to the title page. I like the idea of an imaginary person to address in poetry, an alter ego perhaps, a “counter-muse” who is the opposite gender. Here is “Axel, darkly seen, in a glass house:”
And could it be I saw you
under a roof of glass
could it be was passing
by and would translate
too late the strained flicker
of your pupils your
inert gait the dark
garb of your reflection
in that translucent place
could be I might have
saved you still
could or would ?
Any Jello-O salad in your bedside stash?