MattAndJojang's Blog

God. Life. Spirituality.

The City

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I have built a city from the books I’ve read. There are thousands of books that go with me everywhere I go. A good book sings a timeless music that is heard in the choir lofts and balconies and theaters that thrive within that secret city inside me. I can walk the pleasure-giving streets of that illuminated, sleepless city anytime the compulsion strikes me, day or night. Some of the streets are flyblown and unsafe, with chamber pots emptied on them by the housewives and butlers whose thankless labors allowed royals to be royal throughout the long reign of the printed word. If you follow me closely, I can guide you to alleyways of quartz, amethyst, and sunbaked rubies. I’ve developed a soft spot for overgrown, ruined gardens that offer safe nesting sites for vireos and orioles and tanagers. Ospreys dive for mullet in palm-lined lagoons, and a Serengeti plain allows the migrations of wildebeests through rivers teeming with crocodiles and hippopotamuses, with lions and warthogs and flamingos gathering at water holes in darkness. My city has bright aquariums, and the harbor linking it to the oceans of the world is heavy with the traffic of ships as a great white whale moves toward the setting sun; as Caesar makes up his mind about crossing the Rubicon; as Jesus of Nazareth blesses the bread and wine of his final seder feast; as an Icelandic poet composes a saga out of the primitive savagery of ice; as a cattle car is loaded in the train yards of Poland; as Rumi enters a trance of ecstatic life in Damascus. The stars whirl above in their ancient scrimmage of light, and everyone in my city notices their astonishing arrangement that lends a note of both order and chaos.

In the writing room of my Fripp Island house, there is a chapel of ease with my library rising in terraces and shelves all around me. For several months I’ve done little but think about the books I’ve read and collected over the years, the ones that have changed and challenged and elated me—along with the ones that disappointed in their execution or in some failure of conception. I require a solid judgment of good books to lead me to those unmarked lairs and secret bonfires that will clear the way to my own path of enlightenment. Ever since I was a child, I have read books to make me savvy and uncommon, and to provide me some moments of sheer divinity where I can approach the interior borderlines of ecstasy itself. Reading and prayer are both acts of worship to me.

My mother promised that reading would make me smart, and I found myself  recruited in Mom’s battle over her own lack of a higher education. She distributed books to me as though they were communion wafers or the tongues of fire that lit up the souls of the disciples with Pentecostal clairvoyance. Mom would point her finger to a wall of books and tell me she was showing me the way out of a shame that was unutterable. I took whatever book she put into my hand and made it part of me. I made it the life of me, the essence of my own tree of knowledge. With each book, I built a city out of what my heart loved, my soul yearned for, and my eyes desired.

Some of us read to ratify our despair about the world; others choose to read because it offers one of the only safety nets where love and hope can find comfort. The subject of all writers is the terrible brightness that wards off the ineffable approach of death. I write a poem in hopes that my name will lie fresh on the tongues of language lovers a hundred years from now; I write a novel in case a poem is not enough. I create a city of fiction because I want to leave an entire, considered world behind me. When I open a window in a town that I’ve made up in my head, I want to make a world that readers can approach in wonder.

Reading great books gave me unlimited access to people I never would have met, cities I couldn’t visit, mountain ranges I would never lay eyes on, or rivers I would never swim. Through books I fought bravely in wars of both attrition and conquest. Before I’d ever asked a girl out, I had fallen in love with Anna Karenina, taken Isabel Archer to high tea at the Grand Hotel in Rome, delivered passionate speeches to Juliet beneath her balcony, abandoned Dido in Carthage, made love to Lara in Zhivago’s Russia, walked beside Lady Brett Ashley in Paris, danced with Madame Bovary—I could form a sweet-smelling corps de ballet composed of the women I have loved in books.

I learned how to be a man through the reading of great books. Give me the courage of Prince Andrei as he dresses for the Battle of Borodino. Let me have one shot glass of the courage that Robert Jordan displays at the end of For Whom the Bell Tolls. Give me the curiosity and resiliency of Garp, and a quest so great that I would ride as a sidekick to Don Quixote. Allow me to deliver the St. Crispin’s Day speech before the battle of Agincourt or secrete myself into the wooden fretwork of the Trojan horse. Give me a father like the one who raised Vladimir Nabokov in Speak, Memory, or one with the integrity of Atticus Finch, or the courage of Colonel Aureliano Buendía as he faced the firing squad in the immemorial first sentence of One Hundred Years of Solitude. Permit me to see the Lake Isle of Innisfree through the eyes of Yeats, or the infinite glories of Fern Hill through the sensibility of Dylan Thomas; the beaches of Chile as Pablo Neruda courted a gorgeous woman with a Spanish language that soared above them on a condor’s wing.

I’ve always wanted to write a letter to the boy I once was, lost and dismayed in the plainsong of a childhood he found all but unbearable. But I soon discovered that I’ve been writing voluptuous hymns to that boy my whole life, because somewhere along the line—in the midst of breakdowns, disorder, and a malignant attraction to mayhem that’s a home place for the beaten child—I fell in love with that kid. I saw the many disguises that boy used to ward off solitude, hallucination, madness itself. I believe that the reading of great books saved his life. At any time, I could take a sudden departure from the fighter pilot’s house and find myself drifting through the tumult of Paris described in a book by Balzac. I could find myself on Whitman’s river-shaped Manhattan or be in Daisy Buchanan’s arms when I woke up with a hangover in The Great Gatsby. I’ve used books to take me on journeys all over the world, to outer space, and to forbidden planets beyond. I’ve crossed the Arabian Desert with T. E. Lawrence; refreshed myself on an oasis in Morocco with Paul Bowles; gone up a treacherous African river with Joseph Conrad; lived deeply in Atlanta’s Peachtree Road with Anne Rivers Siddons. I’ve traveled through Iraq with Freya Stark and … I could write like this forever. My city of books seems immeasurable and inexhaustible, and I can feel the others jumping up and down with their hands raised, demanding my attention, insisting that their voices be heard and their ballots counted.

When I lived in the heart of ancient Rome for three years in the 1980s, I would often go up to sit on the top step of Santa Maria in Aracoeli. Because I had read The Education of Henry Adams, I was well aware that Mr. Adams had sat in the same spot in silent homage to Edward Gibbon. Gibbon had lingered there as he took in the city’s vast majesties while deciding to write The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. When I walked to the church after I had finished my writing for the day, I’d read from one of the five volumes of Gibbon’s masterpiece, knowing that I was occupying the same spot that sparked the great journey of Gibbon’s life. I was then in the middle of writing The Prince of Tides, and I’d always take the time to pass through the grand entryway of the Palazzo dei Conservatori to stare at a piece of broken marble embedded in the wall across from the colossal head of Constantine. Earlier, two Englishwomen had pointed out the word “BRIT” in the surviving fragment; they informed me that this was the first mention of the island of Britain in world history. They reminded me that the language that was our common heritage was forming on the tongues of illiterate savages who had fallen before the implacable surge of the Roman legions. It remains a sacred moment in my life. That same week, the great American writer Gore Vidal showed me the exact spot where Julius Caesar fell after his assassination. For two years I paid the maintenance fees for the grave of Richard Henry Dana, the author of Two Years Before the Mast. He is buried in the Protestant cemetery along with John Keats, whose epitaph reads, “Here lies one whose name was writ in water.”

Often at night I find myself drifting through my library of thousands of books and feel the lamps of wisdom light up the candelabras of my city of books. Deep within me, I’ve constructed elaborate museums and labyrinths from those writers whose complete works I have read over the years. Before I was twenty-five I had read every book that Charles Dickens wrote. Jane Austen came next, then Balzac, though I surrendered after I read half of his voluminous production. Wolfe, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, and Hemingway joined the reception line. When I bought a collection of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, I returned home with a bright enthusiasm to begin the long march into the Russian soul. Though I’ve failed to read either man to completion, they both helped me to imagine that my fictional South Carolina was as vast a literary acreage as their Russia. Then I entered my Henry James period, and I polished off The Golden Bowl to complete my study of his work. When Gene Norris lay dying in Newberry I spent the summer reading Anthony Powell’s splendid collection A Dance to the Music of Time. Flannery O’Connor and Eudora Welty and Toni Morrison signed my dance card when the orchestra began to tune up in the main ballroom.

When I fell in love with a Dominican woman, she opened up to me a showy convention of Latin American writers from Márquez to Borges to Vargas Llosa, and I read everything of those writers that had been translated into English. My attraction to Latin American literature led me to explore the rich literature of other countries, and I discovered the amazing world of Australian writers, which led me on a direct path to the teeming cities of India and the astonishing work of the Israeli writers, who then pointed me in the direction of Cairo, where I encountered the Egyptian world of the Nobel Prize winner Naguib Mahfouz.

In a reading life, one thing leads to another in a circle of accident and chance. When I found a copy of Italo Calvino’s The Baron in the Trees on a bench in Central Park, I remembered meeting him at a coffee bar in Rome, but the encounter was so low-key that I didn’t rush out to find his work. Once I did, he became one of my favorite writers. His Invisible Cities strikes me as a masterpiece of the first order. The book is a long epic poem, a glittering tour de force, an extinct volcano that comes roaring back to explosive life, a code of conduct into the mind’s interior realms, a delight and a paradox. I can’t pass a bookstore without slipping inside, looking for the next book that will burn my hand when I touch its jacket, or hand me over a promissory note of such immense power that it contains the formula that will change everything about me. Here is all I ask of a book—give me everything. Everything, and don’t leave out a single word.

The poets of the world occupy a place of high honor in my city of books. Those wizards of language draw me into the vast acreage of their talent. A book of poetry is made up of threads that coil around the soft bodies of sound. Stealing the linens of the spoken word, poets are not shy about displaying the rose windows and altar cloths of their prodigious art. When they arrive at my city gates, they clamor for entrance and scream out their poems to me from outside the city walls. I go to the poets often for their comfort in the maelstrom of their imaginations. Some of them write with a monastic clarity and simplicity that reduces art to its very essence. I prefer the poets who roll up their sleeves to show me intricate tattoos of peacocks and dragon-ravaged towns and clowns playing glockenspiels. Each day before I begin to write, I choose a poet to keep on my desk. Poets candle the pilot light where language hides from itself.

In other moods and other hours, I carry a keen desire for those poets who know how to trim the fat with blades turned deadly with whetstone. These are the poets who use language so sparingly they can nail your hand to a doorway. Each word comes to you hard-earned and deboned, flayed and boiled down to its essence. These astringent poets keep their tool belts full of instruments that carve and cut and sort. Cavafy writes poems of this nature and doesn’t clear his throat or raise his voice as he spreads his whole world on the table for inspection. William Carlos Williams became famous for his championing of a poem being as simple and lovely as a string of pearls. With all poets, it comes down to how they put words together and the effect those words have. Though they struggle to make a living, poets will always have the last word about how the language is shifting as we move into a distraught, rustled future. I like poets to light their fires, granting me permission to begin my own work for the day.

Across from where I write, I keep a strong-shouldered squad of poets at my beck and call. Though there is a frequent changing of the guard, I try to find the clearest, most mesmerizing voices to jump-start me into creation. These poets wink at me, knowing that I am praising them. It begins with The Beauty Wars, my sister Carol’s lyrical collection. Rumi, red-jacketed and whirling, follows my sister in his trancelike devotion to the dance of language. The next marksman in my squad is the sad-faced Federico García Lorca, shouldered against Wallace Stevens and Geoffrey Hill. Lisel Mueller is dancing with Eugenio Montale while Dylan Thomas is offering James Dickey a whiskey at the White Horse Tavern. Executing an about-face, I come up to inspect the tricorn hat of Marianne Moore, who is dressing herself for a windswept walk across the Brooklyn Bridge with her drinking buddy, Hart Crane. Three poetry books form a strong line of defense at the end of the squad: an anthology of Latin American poetry, the complete poems of Borges, and the collected works of Pablo Neruda. A young man or woman could take that string of books, study them with no small degree of fanaticism, and spend a far richer year than they ever did at a university.

Each day of my life begins with a poem that will unloose the avalanche of words inside me, that secret ore that, once polished, will sit before me disguised as the earth’s jewelry. I’ll select from its garnets, its milky-eyed opals, its insect-killing amber—it’s the language I revere above all. I cheer when a writer stops me in my tracks, forces me to go back and read a sentence again and again, and I find myself thunderstruck, grateful the way readers always are when a writer takes the time to put them on the floor. That’s what a good book does—it puts readers on their knees. It makes you want to believe in a world you just read about—the one that will make you feel different about the world you thought you lived in, the world that will never be the same.

I return a final time to my city of literature, my honored city of books, and the glittering city of words that greets me as I walk through my library. On my desk lies a treasure sent to me by the bookseller Chan Gordon, who runs an excellent bookshop in Asheville, North Carolina. From his desk at the Captain’s Bookshelf, Chan has presented me with an exquisitely printed elegy by Thomas Meyer mourning the death of the poet Jonathan Williams. The pages are handmade, and the slender volume looks as though it might have been milled with butterfly wings and the armored enamel of ladybugs. The title of the poem is taken from an obscure yet enchanted Japanese word, kintsugi. When I read the title, I thought I’d been reading my whole life waiting to stumble upon this spellbound word camouflaged in the bonsai ferneries of a foreign language. “Kintsugi” is “the Japanese practice of repairing ceramics with gold-laced lacquer to illuminate the breakage.” Ah, I thought, there is no attempt to hide the breakage—that golden, beautiful lacquer emphasizes the harm to the crockery or stemware. As Thomas Meyer bids farewell to the poet, he turns his words into a gold fluid that hardens along the fault lines that are ending the poet’s life. Because I love to read, Thomas Meyer comforts me over the loss of Jonathan Williams and offers me a deep shell of metaphor that I can use to help explain my own writing to myself. Though I have always known that pain was a ham-fisted player in my novels, I didn’t understand that I had used the radiant lacquers of the language to mark the wounds and fissures I had forced upon my characters. Though I was aware I hurt and damaged many of the characters I’d grown to love in my books, I never knew I practiced the subtle art of kintsugi until Thomas Meyer let me in on the secret.

In Vienna in 1982, I was met at the train station by the American novelist Jonathan Carroll. Someone had sent him a copy of The Lords of Discipline, and he’d liked it enough to invite me to visit him. He’d also sent me an inscribed copy of his book The Land of Laughs, and I received it with much excitement. His penmanship was lush and wondrous, and he drew pictures of bull terriers next to his autograph. When I read the book, I entered into such a strange and oddball country of the spirit that I was thrown off. Then the magic happened, the feeling I always wait for, as the book began to launch itself into orbit. I found myself in perfect congruity with the navigator and started trusting the narrator’s insistent voice. Since that first book, I’ve read every book that Jonathan Carroll has published, from Bones of the Moon and A Child Across the Sky to White Apples. I’ve read no other writer like him, because there is no other even remotely similar. Anything goes in his books. In America, I once called him a cult waiting to be born. In Poland, thousands line up for his autograph. He’s the kind of guy who wins the Nobel Prize at the end of his life when no one in his native land even knows his name.

On my first night in Vienna, Jonathan walked me down to the Danube, where we sat on a flight of steps leading down to the river. The dog walkers were out in force. Greetings were exchanged with small movements of the eyes, and the dogs sniffed one another fondly. Handsome and imperial, Jonathan looked every inch the American expatriate. He exuded a serenity and a seriousness that I lack. But he kept his eye on a woman at the next bridge. She was moving so slowly I thought she might be leading a dogsled pulled by escargots. After an hour, the woman walked in front of us, and she bowed her head in acknowledgment of Jonathan. With great dignity, he returned the gesture. To my surprise, she was walking two enormous tortoises, displaced natives from an Ethiopian desert. The woman walked them every night, and Jonathan was always there to admire their passage.

“That’s what writers do, Conroy,” he said. “We wait for the tortoises to come. We wait for that lady who walks them. That’s how art works. It’s never a jackrabbit, or a racehorse. It’s the tortoises that hold all the secrets. We’ve got to be patient enough to wait for them.”

~ Pat Conroy

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Written by MattAndJojang

August 20, 2012 at 8:21 am

2 Responses

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  1. This is just marvelous. I still haven’t read it completely, because I get through a paragraph, start thinking, and drift off. But I did stick with a first skim long enough to get to the woman with the tortoises, and just laughed. It’s such a perfect story – a cautionary tale, really – and I know I can find a place or two for the retelling of it.

    Do you happen to have a link for where you found it? I tried to do a search to see if I could surface it, but there are so many entries for Conroy I haven’t found it yet. It’s just wonderful – so evocative and inspiring. Thanks!

    shoreacres

    August 20, 2012 at 8:48 pm

  2. This is actually the last chapter of Conroy’s book “My Reading Life.” As the title implies, the book is a poetic and lyrical tribute to the power of books to change a person’s life. In his case, reading literally saved his life!

    I never heard of Conroy before I read this book. But after reading “My Reading Life,” I’m now a fan. I just love the way he writes. In my opinion, the book is a literary feast for anyone who loves to read or write.

    I’m glad you liked it, Linda. If you liked reading this excerpt, you’ll probably enjoy reading the entire book…

    ~ Matt

    MattAndJojang

    August 21, 2012 at 9:10 am


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