Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Pass it on

It all begins when someone recommends a book, when I read a book review or fall prey to one that tugs at me at the bookstore. Or, someone gives me a book. (I love it when that happens.)

I take it home and put it on my “unread books” bookcase. After a while, it’s promoted to my bedside table or near my comfy chair. An unequivocal indication that I intend to read it in the short term.

Once I’ve finished the book the rule is this: no matter how much I loved it, I have to let it go.

I was born in the midst of a family of serial library creators. This savage dictum - give your books away - is vexing to parents and siblings alike and has been shunned in the past.

I’m sticking to it, people.

Yes. the reason behind this is in part due to my aversion to hoarding things. But more importantly, I believe it's a sad destiny for a book that's meant to be read to sit forlorn on a bookcase, collecting dust, getting old without anyone cracking open its pages.

Books should be held, opened, their sentences traced, passages bookmarked. So, in order to fulfill its destiny, once I’m done reading a book, I give it to a pre-designated recipient. In turn, they have to pass it on.

Take what happened with my book by Wislawa Szymborska.

The first time I heard of her was from my father, who placed an urgent long distance call and said I absolutely needed to read her poems. “Must” is one of his favorite words. You certainly don’t want someone you love missing out on something you loved.

He in turn learned about Szymborska through my brother Pedro.

Wait. I wouldn’t want to give you the wrong impression. We are not like a book club, which would be too forced, too stale for our fiercely independent sensitivities. We are, instead, accidentally inclusive. Every recommendation in our family is unintentionally elliptical.

And so it was that Szymborska found its way into my evergreen “list of books to buy”. In time, I dutifully bought one of her books, brought it home, took it out of its crinkly brown bag, and left it on you know which bookcase in my room, where it sat, waiting patiently for its turn, for several months.

About six weeks ago, I noticed it, thin, pale, unassuming, sandwiched between other more flashy things that had caught my eye. I took it, patted it, felt its reassuring weight, and set it down near my favorite chair.

I intended to start it that very evening, but other more insistent books got in the way.

On a recent Sunday morning I finally opened it up and read one poem chosen at random. And, well, I just wasn’t taken in.

Never underestimate the sneaky, smoldering kind of love that grows on you slowly.

The very next day I saw a poem my sister Isabel had generously posted on her blog. I felt a new brand of indignance - indignant kinship - towards whoever had dared write it. Each sentence I wanted to say “Heeey! I’ve felt that! I wanted to write that!”

I looked for the author down at the bottom. You guessed it. Wislawa Szymborska.

I’ve finished her book (incidentally, I’m giving it to a friend tomorrow. I sent him a couple of poems via email to test if he’d be a worthwhile recipient. He passed.)

Now I’ve become somewhat of a Wislawa Szymborska groupie. I've gone online to find out more about her. To my surprise, she was born in 1923. It grates on me that I’m reading poems that have been translated, from Polish to English. (Part of what initially turned me off.) Less surprising is that she won the Nobel Prize of literature in 1996.

I present you with a sample, so you can see for yourself. Granted: disturbed as I am by recent world events, I gravitated towards something appropriately chilling. But make no mistake. She makes light of nothing, and you need to be prepared.

Wislawa – I apologize to you for leaving you on the shelf, unattended.

The End and the Beginning

After every war
someone has to clean up.
Things won't
straighten themselves up, after all.
Someone has to push the rubble
to the sides of the road,
so the corpse-laden wagons
can pass.
Someone has to get mired
in scum and ashes,
sofa springs,
splintered glass,
and bloody rags.
Someone must drag in a girder
to prop up a wall,
Someone must glaze a window,
rehang a door.
Photogenic it's not,
and takes years.
All the cameras have left
for another war.
Again we'll need bridges
and new railway stations.
Sleeves will go ragged
from rolling them up.
Someone, broom in hand,
still recalls how it was.
Someone listens
and nods with an unsevered head.
Yet others milling about
already find it dull.
From behind the bush
sometimes someone still unearths
rust-eaten arguments
and carries them to the garbage pile.
Those who knew
what was going on here
must give way to
those who know little.
And less than little.
And finally as little as nothing.
In the grass which has overgrown
reasons and causes,
someone must be stretched out,
blade of grass in his mouth
gazing at the clouds.

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