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Some 2011 Encounters

December 29, 2011 by Reader's Connection

small_redwindowI came across these quotations in 2011. Most of them are from works published earlier, so this isn’t anything like a year´s best list.

The quotes reflect only the opinions of their authors. The inclusion of the first one, for example, in no way suggests that the Indianapolis Public Library is in favor of daydreaming. 

Hans, originally from Holland, has landed in New York City. His wife and son have left him, and he’s miserable. One of his few pleasures is playing cricket on Staten Island, and he sometimes daydreams about being a cricket star.




How many of us are completely free of such scenarios? Who hasn’t known, a little shamefully, the joys they bring? I suspect that what keeps us harmless from them is not, as many seem to believe, the maintenance of a strict frontier between the kingdoms of the fanciful and the actual, but the contrary: the permitting of a benign annexation of the latter by the former, so that our daily motions always cast a secondary otherworldly shadow and, at those moments when we feel inclined to turn from the more plausible and hurtful meanings of things, we soothingly find ourselves attached to a companion far-fetched sense of the world and our place in it. — from Netherland by Joseph O’Neill





James Atlas published a biography of Saul Bellow in 2000. The reviews available in our catalog were quite favorable, but poet/critic Charles Simic had problems with Atlas’s psychoanalyzing and standing in judgment.



The Metaphysician in the DarkUnfortunately, he comes to a conclusion. No biographer simply throws up his hands and says, I have no idea what to make of this fellow. I myself often wish they would do that. Instead, Atlas psychoanalyzes Bellow . . . [and lists many failings].
For me, the question is not whether Atlas is right or wrong about any of this, but rather whether there is a human being anywhere who would come off very well after a close scrutiny of every aspect of his or her life. The Catholic Church is careful when it comes to bestowing sainthood on anyone, at times taking centuries to sort out all the evidence. Its message is clear. Most of us are sinners; we differ only in degree. When that truth is lost on a biographer, who to his surprise and shock repeatedly discovers that the man he is writing about is flawed, much of his narrative becomes an exercise in futililty. In the end, the failures of the subject make the biographer feel morally superior, which is a ridiculous position to find oneself in. — from Simic’s collection The Metaphysician in the Dark


small_redwindowI listened to a CD audiobook recording of Annie Dillard’s For the Time Being a couple of months ago, and I thought Tavia Gilbert did a wonderful job of reading.

Dillard loops around and around in the book,  from China to Israel to cloud formations to the nature of sand to moments in the life of paleontologist Teilhard de Chardin; and she spends time with a book called Smith’s Recognizable Patterns of Human Malformation, which our library doesn’t own. For the Time Being begins with Dillard’s moving description of the fate of kids classified as “bird-headed dwarves.”

Somewhere in the second chapter, she experiences an aural illusion.


For the Time BeingOne morning I walked from a kibbutz to the edge of the Sea of Galilee. On the shore beyond me I saw a man splitting wood. He was a distant figure in silhouette across the water. I heard a wrong ring. He raised his maul and it clanged at the top of its rise. He drove it down. I could see the wood divide and drop in silence. The figure bent, straightened, raised the maul with both arms, and again I heard it ring just as its head knocked the sky. Metal banged metal as a clapper bangs its bell. Then the figure brought down the maul in silence. Absorbed on the ground, skilled and sure, the stick figure was clobbering the heavens.
I saw a beached red dory. I could take the red dory, row out to the guy, and say: Sir: You have found a place where the sky dips close. May I borrow your maul? Your maul and your wedge? Because, I thought, I too could hammer the sky–crack it at one blow, split it at the next–and inquire, hollering at God the compassionate, the all-merciful, WHAT’S with the bird-headed dwarves?



 small_redwindowIt was believed in some places that by eating a loaf of bread and drinking a bowl of beer over a corpse, and by accepting a six-pence, a man was able to take unto himself the sins of the deceased, whose ghost thereafter would no longer wander — from The History of American Funeral Directing by Robert Habenstein and William Lamers

Poet-undertaker Thomas Lynch quotes Habenstein and Lamers in the introduction to The Sin-Eater: A Breviary, his 2011 book of poems about a character called Argyle, who makes a sort of living by absorbing the sins of the recently dead, in the manner described above. 

I bought a copy when Lynch was in town for Spirit & Place, and I’m only now reading the introduction, in which Lynch talks about his grandmother who had been a Protestant and had converted when she married into his Irish Catholic family. She opened Lynch to new ways of thinking.


The Sin-EaterShe took a kind of dark glee in explaining the conversion experience to her grandchildren, to wit: “Ah, the priest splashed a little water on me and said, “Geraldine, you were born a Methodist, raised a Methodist . . . Thanks be to God, now you’re a Catholic.'” Some weeks after the eventual nuptials, she was out in the backyard, grilling sirloins for my grandfather on the first Friday in Lent, when one of the brother knights of the [Knights of Columbus] leapt over the back fence to upbraid her for the smell of beef rising over a Catholic household during the holy season. And she listened to your man, nodded and smiled, walked over to the garden hose, splashed water on the grill and said, “You were born cows, raised cows, thanks be to God, now you are fish.” Then sent the nosy neighbor on his way. “Surely we are all God’s children,” she would append to her telling this, “the same but different.”
Her telling me of this filled me with doubts and wonders, which seem these years since like elements of faith. To be awestruck was better than certainty.




In case that last quote, and some of the others, strike you as too all-embracing and inclusive, I’ll close with something more divisive.

I understand that many people don’t like to read poetry, so we’re lucky that Linda Kunhardt’s poem “Clifton Webb” has only one line, even if that line is repeated.

And lucky also that the poem appeared in the December issue of Poetry, which was a Q&A issue. If you’re not sure what Ms. Kunhardt means by “low-definition attorney,” you can go to the source.

Click here for the poem.

Click here for the Q&A. 



Best wishes for the new year to you and yours from the library’s never-daydreaming staff.

Except for me. I mean about the daydreaming. I certainly wish you a Happy New Year.


1 comment »

  1. Anonymous says:

    The story about the Protestant womn turned Catholic made me laugh out loud. Especially how she ‘prophecied’ over the cows – quite hilarious. On a more serious note, I ponder the personal struggles, challenges and triumphs of that decision.

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