Reading outdoors in Houston this time of year invites melanoma, heat stroke and, of late, the Zika virus. According to the semi-mythological heat-index, the temperature at noon Thursday was 110° F. Even skinny people in repose were sweating. A woman I know was waiting for the campus shuttle bus, in the sparse shade of a live oak. Normally proper and demure, she whispered, “Even my underwear’s dripping,” which was far more than I wanted to know. But I was returning to my office from the library and found a bench in the shade of a building, and decided to defer the afternoon’s work for a few minutes. I’d felt an urge to read L.E. Sissman again. He was a favorite of mine and of my late friend D.G. Myers, who, like Sissman, died of cancer, though I haven’t been able to read his poems since David’s death almost two years ago. In Sissman’s first collection, Dying: An Introduction (1968), I read “Dear George Orwell, 1950-1965 [Sissman was well aware that Orwell died in 1950],” including these lines:
“But always in the chinks
Of my time (or the bank’s),
I read your books again.
In Schrafft’s or on the run
To my demanding clients,
I read you in the silence
Of the spell you spun.
My dearest Englishman,
My stubborn unmet friend.”
That’s how we read certain writers, just as we seek the company of certain friends for reasons we may not understand. Few human capacities are more important than friendship, with its mingling of intimacy and trust, reliance and autonomy, and I know from experience that writers frequently grow into unmet friends. Reading Sissman again felt like the impulse to renew a friendship that had grown a little stale from disuse. As Johnson told Boswell: “A man, Sir, should keep his friendship in constant repair.” Another book I had with me was Robert Melançon’s For as Far as the Eye Can See (trans. Judith Cowan, Biblioasis, 2013), one of my favorite recent poetry collections. Here is 120 from that collection:
“The reader who’s lifted his eyes from his book
perceives the sky above as the true ocean,
the immense expanse of blue enclosing
“the whole earth, at whose end we might tumble
out of everything, should we ever find that end.
An enormous white cloud appears as
“the crest of foam on a wave; it breaks and
streams in tatters while a pair of gulls fly through
the hollow space where blue ebbs and flows.
“Before picking up the thread of the sentence
Where he left off, this reader will have scanned
A summer afternoon’s supreme iambic.”
Melançon identifies that magical moment when, after being lost in a book, consciousness returns to our immediate surroundings and everything looks a little different, at once familiar and strange. The power of a book to induce self-forgetting ought to frighten us.