Michelle Bailat-Jones

Writer, Translator, Reader

This week I’m reading three books, moving from one to the other and back again. The books are: David Carl’s Heraclitus in Sacramento, Jane Hirshfield’s Nine Gates and Herta Müller’s The Appointment. What an odd and wonderful conversation these books are having. All so different, all turning over similar questions about how language works to make meaning.

The Appointment is fiction, obviously, but it’s running a careful hand along the idea of individual identity in a system which wants to forbid (destroy might be a better word) individual thought. The novel covers a single day as a young woman rides the tram to an interrogation session. She’s being watched because she was caught sewing notes (‘Marry me’, with her name and address) into the lining of the men’s suits bound for Italy from the clothing factory where she works. This is life under Ceaușescu.

The worst thing is this feeling that my brain is slipping down into my face. It’s humiliating, there’s no other word for it, when your whole body feels like it’s barefoot. But what if there aren’t any words at all, what if even the best word isn’t enough?

It’s really hard to categorize David Carl’s book Heraclitus in Sacramento. It’s a study, really. A collection of writings and thoughts around the acts of reading and writing. There is a fictional or personal thread as well, which draws it all together. But not tightly. Although it’s a bound book it feels more like a bursting folder collecting notes scribbled and torn from the margins of other books; these notes are in dialogue with so many other works, as is the elusive narrator. It’s a slow and curious read, and I’m really enjoying it. The first section is called “Lucubrations” and here is some of what it looks like:

Is he still at liberty to believe that the reading of words might improve him; might go some distance in making him a better person?

He still believes in such things as better and worse; if not in perfection, then at least in perfectibility. He believes there are things he can do that will make him better than he is, as surely as he believes that there are things he can do that will bring him pleasure.

But what do words have to do with this?

That is a question for him to live with a bit longer.

According to Aristotle, “Poetry is the product either of a man of great natural ability or of one not wholly sane.”

Poetry is the liberation of language, and language the very possibility of poetry.

Nine Gates is Jane Hirshfield’s collection of essays on understanding poetry. It is more classically academic in tone than the other two, but Hirshfield’s language remains lavish and alive even when she’s in an explaining mode. The first essay of the book is about concentration and it reminded me of Jan Zwicky’s interview printed at the back of her collection Chamber Music, in which she talked about “that wordless configuration in the world which lit up, arrested my attention” and the idea of “lyric availability.” Hirshfield gets at this from a number of different directions, using other poets’ ideas as well as her own descriptions. Everyone trying to describe the state of heightened attention involved in artistic creation.

In a passage about how poetry connects the poet with the reader, or the poet with his or her own past, there is this marvelous line:

Shaped language is strangely immortal, living in a meadowy freshness outside of time.

She is writing about the intimacy of repeating words—one’s own or someone else’s. Giving them form in the mind or aloud. How this formulation/formation works through the reader or the thinker. This sentence speaks to both The Appointment and Heraclitus in Sacramento, bringing my reading into a little conversation that will keep me company as I continue through all three books.


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