Odes are songs of praise, to a person or an event or an object—a wedding poem, or epithalmium, is a kind of ode, as are a lot of nature poems. Often, an ode can be a way to meditate on what makes the subject worth praising, so the topic can be less direct than the title implies. For example, the way I read John Keats’ “Ode to a Nightingale,” the real subject of praise is how we lose ourselves (briefly, fleetingly) when encountering something truly beautiful. You could say the nightingale is a vehicle for the poet’s praise of that feeling of losing oneself.
The great 20th-century Chilean poet Pablo Neruda wrote a series of odes in the early 1950s that are some of his most plain-spoken and accessible poems. If you’ve had trouble getting past the lush surrealism of Neruda’s love sonnets or the more epic scope of his Canto General, the odes are a great place to start. Partly motivated by a political desire to speak to (and on behalf of) common people, Neruda wrote odes to mundane things like “Ode to My Socks,” “Ode to Broken Things,” and “Ode to the Tomato,” praising their usefulness and lack of pretention but also elevating their commonness by focusing his lyrical attention on them. The poems are also full of whimsy and joy and often a bit of nostalgia. He expresses regret that we have to “assassinate” the tomato to enjoy its freshness, and wonders at how his clothes “make me what I am” and vice versa. A teacher of mine once remarked that Neruda wanted to eat the world, and there’s something boldly loving in these poems that is only matched in my reading experience by Walt Whitman.
I mention Neruda because he’s clearly one of the presiding spirits for Ross Gay’s Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, the book from which this poem is drawn, and which contains a number of odes and praise-songs. The impulse to praise the simple and straightforward, even perhaps a socio-political desire to elevate the mundane by focusing poetic attention on it, is similar in both poets. But there are also some interesting points of departure. For one thing, Gay’s odes are mostly about actions rather than things. Neruda’s tomato, clothes, and yellow bird become Gay’s “Ode to Sleeping in My Clothes,” “Ode to Buttoning and Unbuttoning My Shirt,” and here, drinking water with his hands. I want to explore this difference, but first here’s the poem:
Ode to Drinking Water from My Hands
which today, in the garden,
I’d known and more
I’d learned and was taught this
by my grandfather
who, in the midst of arranging
the small bouquets
on mostly the freshest graves
saw my thirst
and cranked the rusty red pump
from what sounded like the gravelly throat
of an animal
a frigid torrent
and with his hands made a lagoon
from which he drank
and then I drank
before he cranked again
making of my hands, now,
a fountain in which I can see
the silty bottom
drifting while I drink
and drink and
my grandfather waters the flowers
on the graves
among which are his
and his wife’s
unfinished and patient, glistening
after he rinses the bird shit
from his wife’s
and the pump exhales
and I drink
to the bottom of my fountain
and join him
in his work.
— from Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude
(University of Pittsburgh Press, 2015)
If you’ve perused any of Neruda’s odes, you can see right away that the form here is a direct imitation/homage—the short lines, the straightforward language. The form forces us to slow down, but not in a way that feels pretentious. To me it reads more like the deliberate, present-tense wandering of the imagination as it connects back to memory. The act of drinking from his hands, which the speaker does “today, in the garden,” reminds him of his childhood when he first learned this skill from his grandfather.
A little side note about those first few lines: he’s telling us he’s forgotten these things (drinking from his hands, being taught how) as a way of telling us that he’s now remembered them. Just a neat little reversal as we go along, especially because it’s not only the skill that he’s now remembering.By focusing on an activity that is meaningful in his individual way, Gay’s efforts feel welcoming, open to participation by us as readers.
So back to the question of actions versus things. In this poem, and in the other odes I’ve seen by Gay, the action being praised isn’t significant in and of itself. This is in contrast to Neruda, who seems to want to elevate the subjects of his attention, in part just by virtue of his attention. This is a little unfair to Neruda, but I get a vision when reading his odes of all the little items of the world—marbles, pieces of string, dead mice—waiting outside his study hoping for him to bestow his poetic attention upon them. And that he would make time for them all if he could. Neruda’s vision (like Whitman’s) is all-embracing, and a little self-important.
Gay’s odes, on the other hand, don’t presume any kind of universalism. When he praises “drinking water with my hands,” there’s no presumption that this activity is as meaningful for everyone else as it is for him. (Notice how all of the titles of the Ross Gay odes I mentioned above include the word “my.” They are intended, without apology, to be specific to his own experience.) Drinking water with his hands today, in his own garden, reminds the speaker of his own grandfather watering graves—“mostly the freshest,” but also his own—and it’s that reminder that makes the action worthy of praise. The action calls forth a whole host of feelings of grief and love, not to mention the sensual memories that get brought up with it—the sound of water coming up the pipe “like the gravelly throat / of an animal,” or the “lagoon” that appears in his grandfather’s hands. I love that word “lagoon,” how it evokes the massive size (in the speaker’s childhood memory) of his grandfather’s hands. These memories and feelings are what’s really being praised.
Weirdly, by focusing on an activity that is meaningful in his individual way, Gay’s efforts feel welcoming, open to participation by us as readers. Instead of a line of little items waiting for Neruda’s attention, I get an invitation: “This is how drinking water from my hands is meaningful for me; what simple actions are meaningful in this way for you?” I don’t personally have any strong memories connected to drinking water out of my hands, but reading this poem I’m reminded of cracking my knuckles with my own grandfather, holding up my hand to his to measure its size, and am tempted to write my own “Ode to Cracking My Knuckles,” to participate in a dialogue with Ross Gay. So the poem evokes not just his own memories, but summons similar ones in a total stranger—no small feat for a praise song. What might your memory be?
Excerpted from How A Poem Moves: A Field Guide for Readers of Poetry by Adam Sol. © 2019 by Adam Sol. All rights reserved. Published by ECW Press Ltd. “Ode to Drinking Water from My Hands” from Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, by Ross Gay, © 2015. Reprinted by permission of the University of Pittsburgh Press.
Kate Colby’s Dream of the Trenches is the book I never knew I needed. I wrote last week about my love for fiction about women interacting with art, and Colby’s unique blend of poetry, essay, and autofiction offers yet another angle on that conversation. She considers works by writers such as Ben Lerner and Virginia Woolf while incorporating her meandering thoughts into the ongoing narrative of “Driving to Margaret’s Mother’s Memorial Service.” In a stream of consciousness that roves I-195, Colby contrasts her literary critique with truisms and memories that careen the reader into questions about the nature of language. At the beginning of these musings, Colby notes that “writers tend to be preoccupied with what makes everything unique, but I get hung up on the countless ways they clump.” Language and life congeal throughout Dream of the Trenches, spanning topics from motherhood and middle age to metaphysical literature. Colby makes tongue twisters out of her inquiries, with exquisite turns of phrase such as “time let go and oblivious to dog hair.” She’s the kind of writer who notices both the windshield and the speck of dust on it, and Dream of the Trenches is the kind of book that places them side by side and says, Look. —Nikki Shaner-Bradford
Like loving difficult people, loving a difficult book is hard to justify, not because you’re wrong but because what you love about it often eludes articulation. Carlo Levi’s memoir Christ Stopped at Eboli—based on his time as a political exile in Aliano (“Gagliano” in these pages, a nod to the local dialect, Alianese) from 1935 to 1936—is one such book. It is dense with despair and thick, like the hot air of malaria country, with hopelessness. The claustrophobic narrative begins with Levi’s arrival in Gagliano and ends with his leaving, and while we are meant to understand that Levi’s anti-fascist activity landed him in this position, he barely references it. This is not a political book. In the endless, empty days, there is only the whisper of a plot. What is it in this depressing book that offers enchantment? Maybe it’s that the characters are thrown into sharp relief against the squalid setting. Levi renders his ensemble cast with empathy and precision: As a doctor and artist, Levi’s presence is welcomed by the gentry, who are bitter at their parochial situation and seek his friendship as a way of elevating their lowborn citizenship by proxy; as an exile, he earns kinship with the peasants, who recognize in him something of their own oppressed situation. The calculating Donna Caterina has both her husband and brother on strings (and designs on marrying her daughters to Levi); Giulia, the sturdy peasant woman Levi employs as a housekeeper, practices mysticism and is a loyal companion. Maybe I was won over by the vicarious escape from political turmoil I felt. In his introduction, Levi writes that his exiled self was “so free of his own era as to be almost exiled from time.” Maybe the appeal of a difficult book can be found in its relentless difficulty, its uncut intensity, which demands our fullest engagement as readers. —Lauren Kane
Every couple months, I turn, like a dog in the straw, and bed down with a title from the last century—or the century before that one. I knew that the reward of reading Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s The Leopard would unfold in every direction. “Reading and rereading it,” writes E. M. Forster, an early admirer, “has made me realize how many ways there are of being alive, how many doors there are, close to one, which someone else’s touch may open.” The novel, written in the fifties, is about a titled family in nineteenth-century Sicily, opens after the hour of the evening Rosary. Under the silk of the women’s dresses and the priest’s soutane, in a room bedecked with Roman gods, there is the stirring of the next tectonic shift on the Italian Peninsula. The book is about Lampedusa’s own ancestors, the Salina family, with whom a certain blessedness had died. Every blazing summer is the same for the House of the Leopard, but the coming revolution means a dozen small humiliations before eventually there are “horses bought with an eye more to price than to quality,” which I suppose signals the real end of the line. The joy is in the hunting in the hills and in the arguments for social niceties and in guessing Lampedusa’s more painful nostalgia from his perch in the middle of the twentieth century. The fun is also in speaking to friends and colleagues about the book now, another sixty years on, as the art of the letter fades underfoot and the arguments of social stratification echo as loud as ever. The Salinas are tempting not just because of their freedom from want—that quality is plenty on display in our own era. They are tempting because of their freedom from time and change and fad, which, in the 1850s, the 1950s, or 2019, is a bedtime story for all ages. —Julia Berick
In Dear Scarlet, Teresa Wong writes and illustrates her experience with postpartum depression. Intrusive thoughts are blown up in large text, subtracted from blacked-out bubbles: “I FEEL LIKE A MONSTER.” Elsewhere we see quiet but similarly daunting images: simple bird’s-eye views of her baby surrounded by white space, tiny arms stretching out of her swaddle. The rendering’s variance in tone feels true to life. It’s sometimes quiet, sometimes deafening, and always complex. Whatever the volume, there are always possibilities for suffocation but also for beauty and hope. Near the end, Wong tells her daughter: “I hope you never go through depression, postpartum or otherwise. But if you do, please know that I know what it’s like.” To name and acknowledge depression is already a gift. But within these pages, too, lie both a visual guide and a map of “what it’s like.” It is a wide view. Living with depression is like this, and this, and this. —Spencer Quong
When I lived in Palestine, I started listening to Mashrou’ Leila as part of an overly optimistic project: improving my Arabic. That undertaking went the way of all good intentions. A poor grasp of the language, though, shouldn’t keep anyone away from this band. Their latest album, The Beirut School, includes only three new songs, but the propulsive, hypnotic “Radio Romance” alone is worth the price of admission, and more importantly, seeing all these songs collected together reminded me of why I listen to them in the first place. Coverage of Mashrou’ Leila in the U.S. has tended to focus on the political, on what the band “represents,” and has neglected to emphasize that, honestly, the music is just a lot of fun. Maybe they’ve grown up—and a decade in, they’re certainly well aware of what they “represent”—but there is still humor here and joy; they seem to take as much pleasure as kids in making this music together. Even in the saddest songs, like “Shim El Yasmine” and “Inni Mnih,” something is being celebrated or appreciated: friendship or camaraderie or brotherhood, having someone to sing not to but with, which can be even more vital. For those who insist on seeing a band from “the Arab world” as political, though, I would point to Mashrou’ Leila’s cover of Britney Spears’s “Toxic,” which for some inexplicable reason did not make it onto this album but can be found in all its glory on YouTube. The video is among the most purely joyful things I have seen, and a good reminder that politically and personally, sometimes the best revenge is just living well. —Hasan Altaf
Manhattan and the Bronx, circa 1946
When I was ten my grandmother and I went to the city—that’s what we called Manhattan—to pick up a cake from De Robertis Pasticceria, between Tenth and Eleventh on First Avenue. My mother had ordered the cake for my aunt Sadie’s birthday. There were many Italian pastry shops on Arthur Avenue, a swift 20-minute bus ride from where we lived, but none, in my family’s judgment, was as good as DeRobertis, where they would stop for baba au rhum or a cannoli when they lived on East Twelfth.
We got off at Union Square, as usual, but instead of walking across Fourteenth Street as always, we took a turn and found ourselves on Fourth Avenue, where we had never been. It took us along Book Row, the area between Eighth and Fourteenth Streets, packed with used-book stores with their outdoor stalls. I knew right away that I would go back when I was old enough to travel alone.
I seldom left my neighborhood or traveled to Manhattan, but after I turned thirteen I started taking the subway down to Book Row. The ride from Pelham Parkway to Union Square Fourteenth Street was direct, no changes or transfers, so I was not too afraid of getting lost. On early Saturday afternoons it was easy to find an empty seat and be left quietly to read a book during the hour-long ride. The subway cost a dime each way, and for another dollar or even less I could find wonderful books to haul back to the Bronx. My mother complained, “Where are we going to keep all these books?” My one bookcase made of boards held up on bricks was already overpacked and verging on collapse.
“Under my cot, Mom.” Where I had stashed the books my shelves could not hold.
One afternoon, drawn by the title, I bought George Moore’s Confessions of a Young Man from a bookstall for a dime. It had a worn, leathery green cover and distinguished gold title impressed on the spine. I read the opening pages out there in the street, and in moments I knew the book was addressed to me. It was about a young man (like me) who wanted to be an artist (like me) and yearned (like me) to find his way to become one.I promised myself that one day I would follow him to Paris, where art and beauty counted for everything.
On the subway back to the Bronx, I continued reading, and as we ascended from the underground to the elevated tracks after 149th Street, passing the littered streets below and the brown rows of sullen apartment buildings, I felt I had met myself in a past life. Not only because young Moore had wanted to be an artist, but because he wanted to live the life of one. His Confessions teemed with names of famous Impressionist painters, of mysterious narrow streets and smoke-filled cafés, under a Paris sky thick with artistic aspiration.
I promised myself that one day I would follow him to Paris, where art and beauty counted for everything, and where extraordinary women—as I found in a book of artists photographed in their studios and on their picnics and in sexy cafés—also came with the freedom of bohemian life.
My friend Arthur, the expert who had explained to me the mysteries of sex, came over to me in the school cafeteria and said, “This is the book for you.” Arthur was the one who had passed around his copy of Mickey Spillane’s I, the Jury, dog-eared to the famous scene of a woman walking into the hero’s room and slowly unbuttoning her blouse—the scene that had inflamed a generation of Bronx youth. Arthur’s parents drove around in a Cadillac and parked it in a garage at night and they never seemed to have to go to work. They had recently returned from Paris and had sneaked through customs Henry Miller’s banned book Tropic of Cancer. Arthur filched it from their bedroom bureau and turned it over to me. “This will make you cream all night,” he said. “But you got to give it back before they find it missing.” I was thrilled to have this mysterious, forbidden book.
The edges of the pages were folded at the supposedly hot passages. The rest of the book seemed untouched. I read the whole book from first sentence to last, and a day after I finished I started over again. It was a key to the cell I lived in and offered a view of the exciting world outside the prison of ordinary life. The book sang the joy of living unshackled by social norms, conventions, the everyday lies; it was a manifesto for my liberty. Nowhere did I find the supposed sexy filth for which it was banned. There was plenty of sex, but none of it pornographic, and even if it had been, so what? What was all the fuss about? Wasn’t sex the stuff of life we lived in and lived for?I thought it was wonderful to be spiritually lost, especially in Bowles’s world, so far away.
Tropic of Cancer tells the story of Henry, the author himself, who, at 35 and with just a few dollars to his name, sailed from New York to Paris, knowing no one there, speaking not a phrase of French. In Paris he scrounged money from fellow Americans, went hungry, and yet none of that mattered, because he walked the city like a man crazy in love. A single day wandering in Paris was a day richer, deeper, than his whole previous life in New York working at shitty jobs and starved for a woman’s caress that did not require a marriage license. Could I not one day soon do the same as Henry—and young George Moore—and live in Paris a free man?
But first I had to escape from prison. I was bored with my high school classes, with the well-meaning teachers, the students with passion for nothing—except for sex, the only passion we shared. There was nothing in school that opened me to greater poetry or fiction than I had already been reading. I was then in the world of Paul Bowles’s The Sheltering Sky, with its spiritually lost expatriates wandering through Morocco and its desert outposts.
I thought it was wonderful to be spiritually lost, especially in Bowles’s world, so far away from school, from the butcher shop and even Louie’s Luncheonette, from my crumbling apartment and my sad mother. But better than Bowles’s soulless desert was the glamorous writer’s life in Paris that I had discovered in Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. Like its protagonist, Jake Barnes, I, too, would sit with other artists and writer friends—and worldly women—in a café where I could linger for hours drawing and reading at a table sur la terrasse, which sounded more heroic than just a table on the sidewalk.
I reread Moore’s Confessions, searching this time for practical information on how young George was able to pay his way to the city of art and light. I soon discovered the answer. He wrote: “Then my father died, and I suddenly found myself heir to considerable property . . . I was free to enjoy life as I pleased. Eighteen, with life and France before me.”
Expecting no estates to be left to me, I was bitter at my bad luck and chastised myself for being such a dreamy fool. I would have to discover my own way to Paris.
From My Young Life. Used with permission of Simon & Schuster. Copyright © 2019 by Frederic Tuten.