My friend Helen at the books, books, books blog wrote recently about books as objects, her point being that there is more to a book than text. I’m sure Helen would not disagree that for those of us who love books, many various aspects—physical, literary, aesthetic and incidental—go into the object we love, and I bring this up because Helen originally wrote of old books, and then she and I and other readers subsequently made the segue, in the comments section following her post, into a discussion of new books as objects and what various people still find valuable in bound, printed volumes. And now this week I have in hand the latest volume of poetry by Jim Harrison, Songs of Unreason. It’s a new book, fresh from the warehouse, and I hold it like some sacred object saturated with meaning that begins but does not end with the printed words inside.
Most books of poetry are “slim” volumes. The last poem in this book is on page 141. The dust jacket is shiny and smooth, except for the top half of the front cover, with its reproduction of the painting “Summer Storm” by Russell Chatham. Fingers slip and glide on the smooth area and are slowed by the texture of the illustrated portion.
Opening any physical book, a codex, one sees two pages at once. An editorial decision was made with Songs of Unreason to present one long poem, “Suite of Unreason,” in small stanzas on the lefthand pages. Thus turning each page takes the reader on the one hand (left) further into “Suite of Unreason” and on the other hand (right) presents a separate new poem.
Text. Words. Would they be the same to me if I read them on a screen? I don’t even know if the words on the paper leaves I turn in this printed book are the “same” when read by anyone else. Someone in Montana who has never known northern Michigan? Someone in Paris who knows America only by reputation? None of that matters to me. I hold the book and turn the pages and read the poems and catch my breath and am carried me far beyond the present moment, outside the small indoor space I occupy as I read.
This book is not one gift but many. Every poem, every page, every line is a gift from the poet to us. How can I express my gratitude except to acknowledge the gift and to close with a stanza from “Suite of Unreason,” one near the end of the book:
The body wins another little argument
with doom. You wake to a crisp, clear morning
and you’re definitely not dead. The golden light
flows down the mountain across the creek. A little vodka
and twelve hours of sleep. Nature detonates your mind
with the incalculable freshness of the new day.
Thank you, Jim. The rest of you, go buy yourself a copy of this book, and that way you will have it to re-read—and to hold!--for the rest of your life.