Mariner Books, 1978; 165 pages. Translated by William Weaver.
Background: I bought this little book on a whim, because I had heard a few people mention it as one of their favorites from Calvino’s body of work. I knew nothing about it when I opened it up, but as I started to read, I became utterly engrossed and could hardly draw my attention away from it. I walked up to Guion, Invisible Cities in hand, and said, “OK, you have to read this book with me RIGHT NOW.” So we sat together on the couch and read the entire thing out loud to each other in the course of a day. That’s how good this strange little book is.
Premise: Marco Polo has returned from his many travels around the unknown world and he has come back to tell Kubla Khan about his adventures, particularly about all of the peculiar and wonderful cities he visited. The 55 cities are all given women’s names; they are all beautiful and bizarre and yet they are all strangely similar. The length of each section (memory, desire, signs, eyes, the dead, names, the sky) graphically presents an oscillating sine wave or perhaps the shape of a skyline. The cities are everywhere and nowhere.
Impressions: This is a true poet’s novel. It is beautiful, thoughtful, fun, and wild. Its images will stick with you for a long, long time. We find ourselves referencing the cities while we sit around a bonfire with friends, while we eat breakfast together, while we walk along a shady path.
Trivia: We named our dog Pyrrha after one of the cities in this book. Now you know where that un-spell-able moniker came from.
Injunction: Go read it right now. You will be perpetually grateful that you did.
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What happened is, we grew lonely
living among the things,
so we gave the clock a face,
the chair a back,
the table four stout legs
which will never suffer fatigue.
We fitted our shoes with tongues
as smooth as our own
and hung tongues inside bells
so we could listen
to their emotional language,
and because we loved graceful profiles
the pitcher received a lip,
the bottle a long, slender neck.
Even what was beyond us
was recast in our image;
we gave the country a heart,
the storm an eye,
the cave a mouth
so we could pass into safety.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Happy Friday! Things I am looking forward to this weekend: Attending the greatest event in this town, the annual JMRL Friends Book Sale; arranging a play-date with Pyrrha and Roland; reading; practicing ballet; cleaning the house; resting.
Angela and Marshall are coming for the weekend! We are going to laze about, drink tea, take walks, and reminisce. They are taking the train down from Brooklyn, which is very romantic of them.
Fall brings changes in various ways: The maple trees on the street look like they’ve gone up in a brilliant array of flames; Pyrrha has started barking, even though it’s not intimidating at all; our little hovel is no longer as damp; I am reading poetry again; I am writing again; Guion is… OK, Guion is the same, blessedly the same.
I am reading American Primitive, by Mary Oliver, right now. I don’t know if Oliver is a critically acclaimed poet, I don’t know if I should be embarrassed to mention her in the company of the MFA community, but I love her. I don’t care who knows it! She’s like Annie Dillard, if Annie Dillard wrote Pulitzer Prize-winning poetry. She makes me want to go outside and sit in the leaves and carry on conversations with woodland creatures. As you do in the fall, when you are reading poetry.
Started “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men” in the park; words by James Agee, photos by Walker Evans.
Grace asked me for recommendations of poems to memorize and recite for class. I started throwing out suggestions—Elizabeth Bishop! Maxine Kumin! Auden! Everything by Robert Hass and Marie Howe, OMG, Marie Howe!—and I realized: Wow, I do really love poetry. I never thought I did. I always thought poetry eluded my intellect; poems never presented themselves to me in that bold, friendly way like novels did. Poems hid behind veils and shadows; poems could be capricious, malicious. I have never believed that I ever “got” poetry, and I have certainly never believed that I could ever write it (that much has not changed).
Being married to a poet makes you realize how very difficult writing is, and how very miraculous it is when everything comes out well. Poetry is a different animal to me, often alien and shy, but I respect it. I imagine I will always be reading poems, remaining continually and happily mystified by them. I will always love them in the way that you love a humpback whale, because it is so far from being you.
“I have been standing all my life in the/direct path of a battery of signals”
I memorized and recited various poems in my career as an English major, but the one I most remember is “Planetarium,” by Adrienne Rich. It was a difficult, dizzying experience. I mispronounced “Tycho” and only guessed at “Uranusborg.” And those middling couplets were so hard to remember, but that last, fast stanza—it was a delight to proclaim; it made my little sophomore body feel strong, unconquerable, distinct.
We like to talk about the things that “our children” will do, things that we sort of did as children but that we want to elevate to a virtue, to distinguish our offspring from the mundane, materialistic masses. Our children will never watch TV. Our children will play outside every day. Our children will not be pacified with iPhones and iPads. Our children will play with sticks and string. Our children will study Asian languages from birth. All of these things will surely fall by the wayside when and if we actually have babies, but one thing is for sure: Our children WILL memorize poems.
Click for source.
“Learn the psalms and ponder the ways of the early church. Know what must be known. Ancient fathers taught their ancient children, who taught their ancient children, these very things. Puritan Milton with his pagan muses. It is like a voice heard from another room, singing for the pleasure of the song, and then you know it, too, and through you it moves by accident and necessity down generations. Then, why singing? Why pleasure in it? And why the blessing of the moment when another voice is heard, dreaming to itself?”
– Home, Marilynne Robinson
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Guion’s final poetry reading.
On Wednesday night, Guion–who is extremely sexy–gave his final poetry reading at UVA. It is hard to believe that we’ve been here two years and that he’s already finished his coursework for his MFA. He did a wonderful job, as always, and we had a beautiful evening in the gardens celebrating these five great poets:
The graduating poetry MFAs: Melissa, Guion, Marielle, Juliana, and Austin.
I am so very proud of him!
With my accomplished husband.
Saturday afternoon, we celebrated Leah’s 1st birthday at the park! Watching a baby have her first taste of chocolate is a glorious, intense experience.
The Montgomery family at Leah’s 1st birthday party.
More photos from the MFA readings and Leah’s birthday on my Flickr.
This is our last full week in our beloved Belmontonia, so I will be thoroughly consumed by the task of packing and preparing to move. My posting here will be a little more sparse than usual. But I still love you. If you’re looking for something sweet to read, you should check out Granddad’s memories of his mother’s German shepherd. OK. Talk to you again soon.
Thursday night: Tiny Nettles concert in honor of Lulu and her birthday.
Friday night: The sisters arrived! (Plus Eva and Alex, not featured here.)
Saturday morning: Post-race malaise.
Saturday night: Dinner at Monsoon with the fam. Brothers Pratt here.
This past week I:
- Attended a surprise birthday show for Lulu, in which Tiny Nettles played; ate the best (and longest? Most intestinal?) baked ziti ever, by Greg.
- Turned 24; received tulips, chocolate, and a beautiful leather leash (for the dog, not me) from my dear husband.
- Welcomed my sisters, Alex, and Eva for the weekend.
- Ran the Charlottesville 10-miler, didn’t die.
- Ate a celebratory dinner at Monsoon with family and friends.
- Enjoyed the company of many friends at The Local for drinks; felt so very blessed by each one of them.
- Went to the Gordon Avenue book sale, the best bi-annual book sale ever.
- Met a new calligraphy client to start on another job.
- Observed Palm Sunday; was reminded of that feeling during the Passion reading, “Wait, why do I have to be the crowd? I don’t want this part; it’s the bad guy’s part… Oh, wait. Right.”
- Watched Guion finish his master’s thesis, provided some opinions on last lines and em dashes; felt so proud of him.
- Felt very happy.
Love you all very much. There’s a complete set of the weekend’s photos on my Flickr and Grace also published a very nice weekend re-cap, if you’re hankering for more.
Dinner with Stephanie (+ Baby Fishwick) at Monsoon.
Girl time = so good. Stephanie and I grabbed dinner on Wednesday night at Monsoon and talked about many things over our virgin strawberry daiquiris, including but not limited to street harassment, babies, and conflicts of etiquette. She is so lovely and bright.
Downtown at dusk.
It’s not exactly a gorgeous skyline, but I always like walking over the bridge toward downtown. The view always makes me remember, “Oh, I live here now, in this town where we once arrived as strangers.”
The photo is from Friday night, taken on our way to meet Guion’s beloved professor and mentor Alan Shapiro at South Street to watch the UNC vs. Ohio game. He is delightful company–so brilliant and kind and warm–and we talked of many things. I bonded with him particularly on our mutual love of Marilynne Robinson* and Wei Tchou. (*Somewhat out of the blue, Shapiro announced, “Housekeeping is probably one of the greatest novels in the English language.” And then I felt really justified in my unmitigated praise of that book. It is the greatest. Shapiro says so.)
"Mad Men" party at Colin and Rita's. (Mary Boyce + G)
Last night, Colin and Rita hosted a “Mad Men” season premiere party, in which we were supposed to wear our best “Mad Men”-esque outfits. For men, this just meant wearing a tie (or parting your hair with lots of pomade, as Colin displayed); for women, pearls + dress + pumps seemed to be the easy formula.
Rita, industrious housewife.
In our "Mad Men" best.
Very fun gathering (with great cocktails), but did anyone else think the premiere was kind of… boring? It was funnier and lighter than the closing episodes of last season (Stan always helps with that. And we were all humming zou bizou bizou afterward), but I felt like it was lacking some spark, some solid Draper broody moments. Or maybe the episodes will necessarily be duller in the absence of the incarnation of maternal evil.
(Yeah, I know, everyone’s read it, but read it again! It’s worth it!)
"Landscape with the Fall of Icarus," by Brueghel.
Musée des Beaux Arts
About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.
In Brueghel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Happy Friday. Maybe this beautiful little poem is grim, but it’s also such a gentle and compassionate way to think about people, to remember that suffering is happening all around us, “while someone is eating or opening a window or just dully walking along.” Hope your weekend is filled with those kinds of realizations.
Wadi Bani Khalid. Source: Flickr user Alun W
From “After an Absence”
I had even forgotten how married love
is a territory more mysterious
the more it is explored, like one of those terrains
you read about, a garden in the desert
where you stoop to drink, never knowing
if your mouth will fill with water or sand.
. . . . . . . . . . . . .
For Guion. Thanks for taking me to poetry readings, for getting our new car fixed after an anonymous idiot plowed into it, for listening to me, for taking me on dates, for helping me with whatever I need. Happy Friday.