Hello spring chickadees! Welcome back to BOOKMARKS, a monthly series in which I ask writers and artists to reflect on the moments where words, and what words can do, entered their lives, i.e. made a mark. This month we’ve got magic, we’ve got ghosts, and we’ve got Christmas, and we’re traveling back together to look again at those books which sparked imaginations for years to come… join us, won’t you?
Throughout my teen-girl years, I collected a stack of those black-and-white City Lights beat-poet books–scavenged one at a time from local bookstores in Philly and the Barnes and Noble where I worked during high school. Of those I’ve managed to save a decade and change later, it’s Ginsberg’s Kaddish that I open most now, that’s followed me into my adult writing life.
When I find myself writing too neatly, or reading too much neat or precious poetry, this slim book reminds me that we’re tasked with wildness in our work as poets–that we must answer the call to risk in our work. Has anyone rendered life as filthily, bodily, worshipfully (that is, truly, entirely, wholly) as Ginsberg since Ginsberg? Even in its messy prosody–where the work might be too reckless or unconceived–its vivid, brutal honesty captures me.
My teen-girl self loved lines like “Magnificent, mourned no more, marred of heart, mind behind, married dreamed, mortal changed—Ass and face done with murder–” and today, perhaps hungrier, I read it in one long pull, then let it run wild within me.
The book for me was Piers Anthony’s A Spell for Chameleon and really, his entire Xanth collection, which I discovered when I was nine. It’s a fantasy series about a world (Xanth) where every citizen has a unique talent or magical ability, some useful (illusion! transformation!) and some less so (conjure the odor of sour milk! make a leaf die by looking at it!).
I had just moved to a new town where I knew nobody. For whatever reason, I think maybe because someone’s dad had the whole set, the Xanth series was huge among the kids in my new school community (a gifted classroom filled with book-loving nerds like myself). I wanted desperately to fit in, to have some common language with my classmates, so I threw myself into Xanth. Much to my delight, the books provided a playful world rich with its own distinctive vernacular—people, potions, places, and puns—for me to use as currency in my burgeoning friendships. We’d trade Xanth jokes, imagine what our own unique powers might be, and tease each other with the worst possible abilities (“you can turn any food into plain oatmeal!” “you can instantly grow all your hair by an inch!”).
I had read and loved books before, some I still love to this day, but until discovering Xanth I had never understood that literature was a social thing. Reading had always been a series of intensely private conversations between authors and me. I never imagined any real people would want to talk to me about those conversations, much less add to them. Now I’ve built a life where most of what I do is talk to people about things I’ve read. That skill, taking my reading outside of my own head, began in Xanth.
Death Be Not Proud, by John Gunther. I read this book when I was ten years old. It was the first book I bought out of the adult section of the bookstore, and picked it because the title sounded sad (melancholy since birth). I cannot recall much about this book except that it was written by the father of a boy who had a brain tumor, a memoir about death and pain and suffering and grieving and loss. I don’t remember if it was good writing or bad writing. I don’t know if I remember this correctly, but I remember it like this nonetheless: it felt like I was reading someone’s diary, the saddest diary, that I had been let in on a secret, that secrets could be told, that you could write your secrets down and give permission for them to be read. This was a revelation to my ten year old self. I had only read fiction up to this point, maybe not even realizing that one’s Real Life could be worthy enough to be told. As sad as the book made me (I wept as I read the last pages, sloppy choking child crying), I felt a great hope, a great Possibility: writing about the imagined was not the only choice. There was a world full of real smells, real objects, real feelings, and they could be just as captivating as the life of the mind. This book also made me feel real for the first time, which pushed aside thunderstorms and kidnappers as my child mind’s greatest terror. I was haunted by this book then, and am haunted by its vague ghost still. Sometimes being haunted is the greatest company for a sad, shy girl (me).
On the title page of my very worn, hard-cover version of The Minpins sits a note in navy ink:
Merry Christmas. I can’t wait to read this with you.
I love you,
My in-laws have a tradition of inscribing every book that is gifted – be it a cook book, travel guide, or beautiful hardcover novel – with a date, sentiment, and signature. It’s something that always struck me as so thoughtful and stirred up a tiny jealousy, too. Why didn’t the grown ups in my family think of this for those years when each birthday, Christmas, and great report card was celebrated with a new paperback? I’m not sure what made my dad write in that particular book, at that particular Christmas when I was six years old, but something about that note in his fountain pen (I mean, come on, a fountain pen!) magically sealed the deal for me. My dad had (and still has) a great, theatrical, moving reading voice. It’s not over the top, though; just enough drama to keep you interested and just enough baritone to keep you in a trance. I loved bed-time-reading-time way beyond when I’d grown old enough to read to myself, because there was something so magical and comforting about my dad reading to me on my bottom bunk, nodding off to the waves of his voice.
The Minpins deserved that special spot in the pile of books next to my bed. For one thing, the story introduced me to Roald Dahl, whose quartet of The BFG, Matilda, James and the Giant Peach, and The Witches, later became the most-read, most-loved books in my room and in my backpack for the duration of elementary school. But this book, practically written for the six-year-old I was, starred tiny forest creatures, the Devil, riding to freedom on the back of a swan, and beasts like the Terrible Bloodsuckling Toothpluckling Stonechuckling Spittler. The illustrations were so lush and the idea of befriending (and riding) birds with tiny people in the forest – who coincidentally could really use your help – fueled my daydreams and, I think, still sneak into songs as an adult.
Tune in next month for more Bookmarks! Happy writing.
– Sophie Klahr (contributing editor, poetry editor 2010-2014)