That is the late Brett Foster’s metaphor for reading in “Poet of the People” (Arion: A Journal of Humanities and the Classics, winter 2013). Seldom have I seen the way I read described so precisely. “Flashes” is the proper word. I’m reading along passively, page after page of inert words, not bored but not ardently engaged, when a passage turns into neon. That calls for rereading, probably several times, and then reaching for the notebook. Foster tells us it’s a Loeb in front of him, whether red or green he doesn’t say, which suggests he likes to keep the original language handy. Perhaps he has a little Greek or Latin and enjoys the calisthenics. Here is Foster’s poem. Don’t be put off by the title, which brings to mind Carl Sandburg or some Soviet hack.
“If someone’s looking for me, they’ll find me
working at my verses at this or that table
in the public library’s back right corner.
“I’m still trying to make them durable enough
to be heard among the snoring and murmuring
of the assembled homeless regulars here.
“We’ve become used to passing our time together.
We thoughtfully make room for one another.
I have much to learn. That much remains clear.
“The labors I busy myself with are obscure
but noble: scanning centuries for flashes
of ghostly wisdom, struggling to lift the bulk
“as in a grain elevator, or sometimes simply
marveling at the Loeb on the table, as if just for me
all of Atlantis had surfaced from deep seas.”
Books are miraculous, time-defying gifts easy to take for granted. Serious readers maintain a mental card catalogue of essential titles, the ones around which we organize a life. Some of us grow fetishistic about certain books. When young, we carry them like talismans, warding off the stupid, mundane and dangerous. Nadezhda Mandelstam writes of her husband in Hope against Hope (trans. Max Hayward, 1970):
“M. obtained an edition of the Divine Comedy in small format and always had it with him in his pocket, just in case he was arrested not at home but in the street. You could be arrested anywhere -- sometimes they came for you at your place of work, and sometimes you were lured out to another place on a false pretext and no one ever heard of you again. When M. went to Samatikha (the place where he was arrested the second time), he left his pocket Dante in Moscow and took another, rather more bulky edition. I do not know whether he managed to keep it until he reached the transit camp at Vtoraya Rechka, near Vladivostok, where he died. I somehow doubt it: in the camps under Yezhov and Stalin, nobody could give any thought to books.”
Beckett was a lifelong reader of Dante. So was Montale. The last time I read Daniel Deronda, I was surprised how often Eliot quotes or alludes to Dante. In “Conversation About Dante” (trans. Jane Gray Harris and Constance Link, Mandelstam: The Complete Critical Prose and Letters, 1979), Mandelstam writes: “It is inconceivable to read Dante's cantos without directing them toward contemporaneity. They were created for that purpose. They are missiles for capturing the future. They demand commentary in the futurum.”