Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Why I'm Reading Gilead Slowly

I think I'm figuring it out.

This week, as I neared the halfway point of  Gilead, I pondered as to why it was taking me so long to read this book. I have already reckoned with the fact that I need to read fiction more slowly than non-fiction, but still. I was able to zip through, and appreciate Chaim Potok's, The Chosen, in a matter of days. Gilead is taking weeks, okay, months. It's not that I don't like the book; Marilynne Robinson's writing is exquisite; I so admire her intellect and her easy, graceful expression of the human condition. (If you like Marilynne Robinson, do follow these links!)

I sensed Gilead isn't a book I can read well just before bed, when my mind either fades or runs too quickly. I should read this book when my pace of living is relaxed (not so often) and I have time to read and savor. I had such an opportunity the other day, and so decided to spend some time with Reverend Ames and his memiors. I didn't get very far. I read the passage below and then stopped:

"I was speaking of visions. I remember once when I was a young child my father helped to pull down a church that had burned. Lightning struck the steeple, and then the steeple fell into the building. It rained the day we came to pull it down. The pulpit was left intact, standing there in the rain, but the pews were mostly kindling. There was a lot of praising the Lord that it happened at midnight on a Tuesday. It was a warm day, a warm rain, and there was no real shelter, so everybody ignored it, more or less. All kinds of people came to help. It was like a camp meeting and a picnic. They unhitched the horses  and we younger children lay on an old quilt under the wagon out of the way and talked and played marbles, and watched the older boys and the men clamber over the ruins, searching out Bibles and hymnals. They would sing, we would all sing, "Blessed Jesus" and "The Old Rugged Cross," and the wind would blow the rain in gusts and the spray would reach us where we were. It was cooler than the rain was. The rain falling on the wagon bed sounded the way it does in an attic eave. It never rains, but I remember that day. And when they had gathered up all the books that were ruined, they made two graves for them, and put the Bibles in one and the hymnals in the other, and then the minister whose church it was--a Baptist, as I recall--said a prayer over them. I was always amazed watching grownups, at the way they seemed to know what was to be done in any situation, to know what was the decent thing.

The women put the pies and cakes they had brought and the books that would still be used into our wagon and then covered the bed with planks and tarps and lap robes. The rood was pretty damp. No one seems to have thought there might be rain. And harvest was coming, so they'd have been too busy to come back again for a good while. They put the pulpit under a tree and covered it with a horse blanket, and they salvaged whatever they could, which amounted mainly to shingles and nails, and then they pulled down everything that was still standing, to make a bonfire when it all dried out. The ashes turned liquid in the rain and the men who were working in the ruins got entirely black and filthy, till you could hardly know one from another. My father brought me some biscuit that had soot on it from his hands. "Never mind," he said  "there's nothing cleaner than ash." But it affected the taste of that biscuit, which I thought might resemble the bread of affliction, which was often mentioned in those days, though it's rather forgotten now.

"Strange are the uses of adversity." That's a fact. When I'm up here in my study with the radio on and some old book in my hands and it's nighttime and the wind blows and the house creaks, I forget where I am, and it's as though I'm back in hard times for a minute or two, and there's a sweetness in the experience which I don't understand. But that only enhances the value of it. My point here is that you never know the actual nature even of your own experience. Or perhaps it has no fixed and certain nature. I remember my father down on his heels in the rain, water dripping from his hat, feeding me biscuit from his scorched hand  with the old blackened wreck of a church behind him and steam rising where the rain fell on embers, the rain falling in gusts and the women singing, "The Old Rugged Cross" while they saw to things, moving so gently as if they were dancing to the hymn, almost. In those days no grown woman ever let herself be seen with her hair undone, but that day even the grand old women had their hair falling down their backs like schoolgirls. It was so joyful and sad. I mention it again because it seems to me much of my life was comprehended in that moment. Grief itself has often returned me to that morning, when I took communion from my father's hand. I remember it as communion, and I believe that's what it was."

It didn't seem right to keep reading. This short narrative needed to be savored, pondered. Though prose, it had the feel of a poem to me, and though I had the time, I couldn't make myself read on.

On Sunday night, Dear Husband, Artist Son and I had a brief discussion about abstract art and how to approach it. We are tempted to ask, "What does it mean?" Artist Son, recalling insights gained from poet John Ciardi's book, How Does a Poem Mean?,  proposed we should instead ask, "How does it mean?" Form and content are inextricably bound.

John Ciardi says it well, but then he would because he is a poet, and I think his insight extends beyond poetry to prose, music, and visual art:

"For What Does The Poem Mean? is too often a self-destroying approach to poetry. A more useful way of asking the question is: How Does a Poem Mean? Why does it build itself into a form out of images, ideas, rhythms? How do these elements become the meaning? How are they inseparable from the meaning. As Yeats wrote:

O body swayed to music, o quickening glance,

How shall I tell the dancer from the dance?

What the poem is, is inseparble from its own performance of itself. The dance is in the dancer and the dance is in the dance. Or put in another way: where is the "dance" when no one is dancing it? and what man is a "dancer" except when he is dancing?

Above all else, poetry is a performance...What for example does a dance "mean"? Or what does music "mean"? Or what does a juggler "mean" when we watch him with such admiration of his skill? All of these forms--and poetry with them--have meaning only as they succeed in being good performances."

And what then, makes a good performance? That is a point to be pondered further, but the first idea that comes to mind is a favorite point of mine made by author Dorothy Sayers in her writing on aesthetics:

"A poet is a man who not only suffers the impact of external events but also experiences them (You only experience a thing when you can express it--however haltingly--to your own mind--also Sayers) He puts the experience into words in his own mind, and in so doing recognizes the experience for what it is. To the extent that we can do that, we are all poets. A poet so-called is simply a man like ourselves with an exceptional power of revealing his experience by expressing it (me: not only in words, perhaps, but also in music or visual art) , so that not only he, but we ourselves, recognize that experience as our own."

And to add to my ponderings, as if that were needed, Tatya is working on writing narratives in her composition course this week. We are considering: point of view, purpose, subject, characteristic trait, movement, and order. I've been thinking in particular of the movement of the details in Gilead--slow. And so, I am reading Gilead slowly.


Susan said...

I have had this book for a long time, waiting on my shelf, because I always felt I didn't have the proper time to devote to it. After reading this post, I realize I was on the right track.

But I've also had a taste, so now I need to make the time.

Thanks for blogging. not sure how I found you.

Holly Newman said...

I have had a very similar experience. I listened to Gilead on my iPod and often stopped it after such a passage, feeling I could not continue without thinking about it for a bit. I wanted to let it sink in, have its impact, make a difference. When I finally finished the book, I felt I should just begin all over again. And I will, at just the right time.

Quotidian Life said...

Thank you, Susan and Holly, for sharing your experiences of Gilead. I also enjoyed Robinson's Home, though I found I was able to read it a little faster than Gilead. I don't often listen to books (except those I read aloud to my children) but I think Gilead would be a good book to enjoy that way.

Laura A said...

Wow, this is fantastic! I read Gilead a while ago, but this was just the right amount and sort of passage to read again. It occurs to me, and probably to you as well, especially since we're both "expats," that this is a particularly American scene, and one that captures much of the best of American culture.

But what I really like in your analysis that follows is the phrase "How does a poem mean?" and the lines from Yeats. Poetry is a sort of lesser incarnation. And yes, I agree that this passage is really more poetry than anything else. Thanks for sharing!

Quotidian Life said...

Laura, you might like this article that I read today. The author expresses the "how" rather than "what" question in a slightly different way, and in relationship to art:

Cindy Marsch said...

Thanks for the beautiful reminder of a beautiful book. I find all my favorite books have this feel to them--I call it lyrical. Leif Enger does it, and Eudora Welty sometimes, and Mark Helprin, and Mary Doria Russell sometimes, and several short story writers I enjoy.

Quotidian Life said...

Cindy, I read my first Eudora Welty short story this year: A Worn Path. I'm familiar with Leif Enger (in the queue, Tom is reading it now) and I'll have to look for Mark Helprin--I've heard that name but I've not read him before. Thanks for the ideas.

Jodi said...

Happy belated birthday, Melissa! And thank you for this beautiful post. I'm going to hunt down the book Gilead and the author, both of which I've never heard of before. When I was a teenager, I read everything by Chaim Potok, my favorite being "My Name is Asher Lev."

Quotidian Life said...

Thank you for the birthday greetings, Jodi, and for the book recommendation. "The Chosen" was the first book I read by Potok but I would like to read more. "My Name is Asher Lev" will be the next. I think you will like Marilynne Robinson and Gilead.

Laura A said...

I really liked the article, Melissa. Thanks!

Laura A said...

I really liked the article, Melissa. Thanks!

Holly Newman said...

I highly recommend the audio book of Gilead on, the narrator is perfect, and this is one of the few books that is in a single voice, so it really fits. I could literally picture him. I could also back it up to hear certain passages again.
I never listened to books before I began a weekly 2 hour round trip commute to a part time job, it makes is so much easier!
I am starting Home soon.

Peter Gerhardt said...
I thought you might enjoy the profound beauty and truth of this woman's work.

What an awesome opportunity for your daughter and son and Danny. I wish my son, who is also a musician, could do something like that some day. He is 19 and is hoping to attend dental school. Music, the universal language, has a way of reaching the heart, just as your daughter spoke of. Their music will certainly do that, so beautiful!

Quotidian Life said...

Holly, I'd love to hear what you think about Home after you listen to it. There were passages in that book that touched me deeply and at times I has to stop reading a just cry a bit.

Peter(though I think this is his wife and I'm sorry, I've forgotten your name and can't find it on my blog. Is it Sarah?), thank you for your comments and for the link to Allison Streett's work. It is lovely. If Lauren and Danny's vision goes forward, I hope there will someday be some sort of program or infrastructure for musicians like your son to join in with so as to share their music with others.

Quotidian Life said...

PS I just shared the link to the World Magazine Article with Artist Son. Thanks again!