Tag Archives: poetry

Five Little Lists of Five

Dear Blog,

Last week I wrote a scoldy sort of post about how book-lovers should stop bemoaning the fact that there are (a lot of) people who like to do different stuff and don’t care about reading. Because, after all, what are you gonna do about it? Other than wildly and enthusiastically recommend all your favorite books to Everybody, that is!

Book lists are hard. It’s painful to leave off anything you’ve really loved and if you are a big reader, a list of books you’ve really loved is going to end up being a ridiculously long list. So in the interests of not just posting a Really Long List, I’m going to share five mini-lists, and limit each one to five books. Not my Top Five, because that’s impossible. Just… five. And yes, I would like to see your list(s) too!


Winnie-the-pooh by A.A. Milne
This is a family favorite. We all adore Winnie-the-pooh and it is a frequent suppertime read. The only book that has actually caused both my kids to fall off their chairs laughing.

Watch out, Big Bro’s Coming! By Jez Alborough
The jungle animals are terrified of Big Bro, whose size and strength grows with each telling, but he turns out to be a (tough) mouse. This book is useful for quelling tantrums, because most of the time K would actually rather listen to it for the billionth time than continue with his oh-so-exquisite tantrum. The size-is-relative joke just never seems to get old.

The Nightmare in My Closet, by Mercer Mayer
A boy turns the tables on the nightmare-monster in his closet, who really just wants to cuddle with him in bed. K is not the least bit afraid of monsters; he has total faith in his own powers of terror and destruction, and rightly so.

The Wolf of Gubbio – by Michael Bedard and Murray Kimber
This is the story of St. Francis of Assisi taming a giant wolf that is terrorizing a town. It has big, beautiful illustrations and K is fascinated by it. He is drawn to stories about big scary wolves – three little pigs is another favorite – and for a long time he had us all convinced that there was a wolf in our closet (we still don’t open that door, ever). He growls through the early parts and gets very calm by the end. It’s a good bedtime book.

Frog and Toad by Arnold Lobel
These are funny, odd, superficially simple stories that often feel really profound. Again, a family favorite. We are all happy to hang with Frog and Toad.


Tashi, by Anna and Barbara Fienberg
I go around recommending these books to everybody I know with kids. They are charming, clever, and really beautifully written. Tashi is Jack’s new friend from Somewhere Far Off and is full of wild tales about dragons, warlords, ghosts, and such. Funny and just a little bit scary. I recommend getting the big collections with lots of stories in them – your kids will want more and it will save you money.

My Father’s Dragon by Ruth Stiles Gannett
This trilogy from the 40s had J totally enraptured. We read all three books over and over and over again. The first is by far the best, in my opinion. A young boy rescues a captive dragon, and they go on to have adventures together in the sequels.

The Magic Treehouse by Mary Pope Osborne
This series is awful. I hate it. It is formulaic and the writing is horrible. Unfortunately for me, J loves them. In each story, the cardboard protagonists Jack and Annie go to a different point in history and have a really lame adventure, while the Young Reader learns, I suppose, about castles or Vikings or dinosaurs or what-have-you. They are, I think, supposed to be educational, and appealing to “reluctant readers.” I cannot tell you how I loathe them. But J asks for them over and over, keeps a notebook of observations like Jack (I mean, he can’t actually write, but he pretends to), and the stories inspire hours of play with his little brother along for the ride.

The Fantastic Mr. Fox, by Roald Dahl
Roald Dahl is the antidote to crap like The Magic Treehouse. His sentences are a pleasure to read out loud, and of course, he is gruesome and hilarious.

A Child’s Introduction to Greek Mythology, by Heather Alexander
I feel like a lot of this stuff is really quite gory for a 4-year-old, but That Guy and J ignore me. Nice illustrations by Meredith Hamilton, introductions to the various gods, heroes, and beasts, and 16 myths. J can’t get enough. Particular favorites are “Odysseus Escapes the Cyclops,” “Greedy King Midas,” “Perseus and Medusa,” “Theseus and the Minotaur,” and of course, “The Twelve Labors of Heracles.” He was so taken with the idea of Achilles being invincible, except for his ankle, and for weeks went around unsettling people by asking them WHAT IS YOUR WEAKNESS??


Witchlanders, by Lena Coakley
The perfect fantasy novel, if you ask me, with the loveliest and most original vision of magic I’ve ever read. Gorgeously written, stunning world-building, very clever plotting – it is gripping and profound and beautiful.

Imaginary Girls, by Nova Ren Suma
A wonderful, creepy, riveting read about a younger sister who should have drowned but didn’t and her charismatic older sister, who seems to be able to make the world as she wills it to be within the boundaries of their little town.

Code Name Verity, by Elizabeth Wein
This book gutted me. Characters to deeply fall for, plot twisty in ways I didn’t see coming, totally satisfying and totally devastating. I gasped! I laughed! I cried! I reread!

How I Live Now, by Meg Rosoff
I knew from the first paragraph that this book was something extraordinary. Strange tale of Daisy, sharp and funny narrator who ends up with her cousins in the English countryside while the country is under occupation (by whom is unclear – this is possibly the near-future). One of my favorite books in any genre, for any age. I don’t know what to say about it, except that everybody should read it.

I Capture The Castle, by Dodie Smith
I read this when I was thirteen, and kept reading it through my early teens. I read it again in my thirties, and yes, it holds up. A beautiful coming-of-age story narrated by my all-time favorite YA heroine, Cassandra Mortmain, about her eccentric family and her own first experience of falling in love. Never sappy, never anything less than brilliant and moving and profound. It is definitely slower and wordier than most YA nowadays, but if you are finding it too slow then you have fried your brain and you need to slap yourself and fucking read it.


Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, by Susanna Clarke
If somebody forced me to pick my favorite novel, this is probably what I would choose, and that’s all I’m going to say about it.

The Baroque Cycle, by Neal Stephenson
I’m cheating because it’s three books, and really the equivalent of about 10 books. A huge cast of vivid characters charging about through Baroque-era Europe. Philosophical but fun, science-fictiony and historical, wonderful writing, and bizarre but compelling storytelling. The kind of thing that “tour-de-force” really applies to.

Wide Sargasso Sea, by Jean Rhys
A “prequel” to Jane Eyre, in which Bertha Mason (the mad wife in the attic who burns down Thornfield) meets (and ends up marrying) Rochester in the Caribbean. This is an odd, feverish little book, poetic, excruciating, exquisite.

Teach Us To Outgrow Our Madness, by Kenzaburo Oe
This is a collection of long stories or novellas. They are horrible and disturbing but very, very powerful. This book gave me nightmares when I read it and has haunted me for years.

The Towers of Trebizond, by Rose Macauley
This is my desert island pick, because if I had to read one book over and over again for the rest of my life, I think it would satisfy. It is (superficially) the story of a wonderful cast of characters traveling from Istanbul to Trebizond in the early 50s (I guess that’s when it’s set?). It manages so easily to be hilarious and profound and entertaining and tragic all at once. Rose Macauley captures All Of Life, the way Virginia Woolf does, but in a crisper and funnier way, almost casually.


The Book of Light, by Lucille Clifton
Really, anything by her. Her poems are usually short and simple, often painful, always beautiful. A punch to the heart.

The Sensual World Re-Emerges, by Eleanor Lerman
Again, I’m choosing a collection at random, I like all her stuff. She makes me notice the world differently. This might sound a bit sketchy, but I really think that reading Eleanor Lerman is a bit like getting high. When I was a teen, I used to drop acid just so the world would look different. Eleanor Lerman’s poetry has a similar affect, but without making you actually hallucinate or freak out or fail grade 9 math. Disaffected teens should probably read more poetry.

A Nun’s Diary, by Anne McLean
A surreal series of prose poems set, kind of, in a village convent, and sadly out of print, detailing what the back cover calls “one woman’s fix on God” – disturbing stuff but really remarkable.

Birthday Letters, by Ted Hughes
I know, I know… I feel like I am supposed to be Team Sylvia, but I can’t get over this collection, it is just so stunning. I’m not crazy about his other stuff, just this book.

Collected Sonnets, by Edna St. Vincent Millay
I think it is her I am in love with, really, but she shines through in her poems. She is so funny and light but then writes about pain and loss with total brilliant savagery.

Yours, thinking-about-the-books-I’ve-left-off,


I Only Am Escaped Alone To Tell Thee

Dear Blog,

I used to love New Year’s Resolutions. I made loads of them, and sometimes I even kept them. Having kids changed things, though. Last year I was realistic in my expectations. It was nice to let go and tell myself that I was going to accept the chaos and my own faults and just kind of get through it all. Now my boys are a year older. I sleep more, I have more time to myself, we have said goodbye to naps and diapers, we can basically reason with the older kid, and the boys have their own world of play that is more and more independent (of me). And so now I wonder, where is the line between healthy self-acceptance and a pessimistic sort of giving up on oneself? Am I ready to try and carve out a bit more of a life for myself, besides the mama thing? Do I have the energy to challenge myself a little more?

I haven’t decided yet if I am going to make any resolutions this year. I’d sort of like a small and achievable goal, just to show myself that it is in fact possible for me to achieve small goals, but I can’t think of anything plausible. I’m in a good groove with writing already. I know that resolutions about exercise are not realistic, and becoming a better, kinder, more patient person is an ongoing project but doesn’t count as small (or particularly achievable at the moment). If anyone has suggestions for me, go ahead, because ignoring advice is one of my favorite things.

One thing I thought about was reading a poem every day, because I sometimes forget about poetry. But I hate to give myself a “task,” and I don’t want to think, at the end of a hectic or difficult day, “crap, I forgot to read a damn poem!” because that’s not how I want to feel about poetry. So I’m not going to make a resolution along those lines, but thinking about it, I thought about a poem I haven’t read in a long time, but which I still count among my favorite poems.

It was assigned to me as part of my oral exams when I was finishing up at university. I loved but didn’t understand the title – “I Only Am Escaped Alone To Tell Thee.” I hadn’t read Moby Dick, and I didn’t remember the Book of Job. I tried to talk about the poem and while I doubt I had anything insightful to say, I think my grade was fine, so they must not have expected much. I went out and bought a Howard Nemerov collection afterwards. I have read that poem a hundred times or more and I still can’t say that I know exactly what he’s on about, but somehow I love it still as much as ever – unusual for me because I am one of those people who really isn’t very keen on poetry that I can’t understand. Except this poem, which means more to me now, even, than it did then – when I was leaving university with such grand plans to see the world, just beginning that period of my life that was and will likely remain the most free. I had been in school forever, it seemed, and now I could do whatever I wanted, as long as I could earn some money at the same time. Everything is different now and the poem hits me somewhere different: dropping sails in the long lanes, the uncertain reflection, the shadow that might be ominous, or might not.

In my oral exam, I fumbled around. Maybe he is writing about the oppression of women, or maybe he is writing about cruelty to whales, or maybe he is connecting those things, or…? I left a lot of sentences hanging, and the two professors smiled at me and nodded as if I was making any kind of sense (which I knew I wasn’t) and when it was over I was so relieved that I didn’t ask, well, what is the poem about? (And if you have any ideas, please let me know!). But anyway, it’s a wonderful poem. At least, I think it is. So here it is, with happy wishes to all for the New Year:

I Only Am Escaped Alone To Tell Thee (by Howard Nemerov)

I tell you that I see her still
At the dark entrance of the hall.
One gas lamp burning near her shoulder
Shone also from her other side
Where hung the long inaccurate glass
Whose pictures were as troubled water.
An immense shadow had its hand
Between us on the floor, and seemed
To hump the knuckles nervously,
A giant crab readying to walk,
Or a blanket moving in its sleep.

You will remember, with a smile
Instructed by movies to reminisce,
How strict her corsets must have been,
How the huge arrangements of her hair
Would certainly betray the least
Impassionate displacement there.
It was no rig for dallying,
And maybe only marriage could
Derange that queenly scaffolding –
As when a great ship, coming home,
Coasts in the harbor, dropping sail
And loosing all the tackle that had laced
Her in the long lanes….
I know
We need not draw this figure out.
But all that whalebone came from whales.
And all the whales lived in the sea,
In calm beneath the troubled glass,
Until the needle drew their blood.

I see her standing in the hall,
Where the mirror’s lashed to blood and foam,
And the black flukes of agony
Beat at the air till the light blows out.

Yours, irresolutely,