Archive for June, 2011

Wild Libraries

I just did a guest post over at Pickle Me This about my fond memories of visits to the West Vancouver Memorial Library. Thanks to Kerry Clare for including me in her Wild Libraries series.

Whittling (and Alice Oswald’s “Dart”)

Underneath that fern, not so convincingly or fetchingly concealed by an old cotton blanket, are four egg boxes full of books that, after a year and half, still don’t have a home in this apartment, despite there being shelves in every room but the bathroom. Every few months I attack the boxes looking for something and in the process try to whittle the contents back. Rereading this passage from Lawrence Clark Powell‘s Islands of Books, I was inspired to take a slightly different approach:

Somewhere in his notebooks Leonardo observed that small rooms are best because they discipline the mind. I have proved for myself the truth of his dictum. My study measures 9 by 9…. When we lived in the canyon my study measured 9 by 12. It was almost completely lined with shelves which held my total private library of 1500 volumes. Now I own twice as many in spite of constant discarding (to my college library), and the smaller room will hold only part of my books. This compels me to discipline my tastes and to choose for roommates only those volumes which I feel that I must see every day. (p. 9)

Roommates. Every day. Okay. Fiction I find fairly easy. If I loved it, I’ll keep it. If I think I might get something more from it the next time, I’ll keep it. But poetry I find trickier. There are poets I don’t take to until a fourth or fifth reading when for whatever reason, they finally get through. They don’t do their dishes, they hog the newspaper and then chastise you for not knowing what’s going on. But one day they make you the best cup of coffee you’ve ever had in your life and none of the rest matters. My tastes have also changed somewhat in the last decade or so, and some of the poets I used to blather on about now seem either glib or sentimental. There’s a fondness still, but I don’t go back to their work anymore. How to choose.

In the process of all the hemming and hawing, I thought I’d share some of the collections that I know I am definitely going to keep for roommates. The first is Dart by Alice Oswald (Faber & Faber, 2002). Concept collections can be deceiving. They sound good on jacket copy, and in grant proposals, but they don’t always hold up in the reading. Dart is a great example of how satisfying it is when they do. Alice Oswald spent three years interviewing people who lived and worked along the river Dart, in Devon, England, and transposed it into a long poem that captures the sounds of populations connected by their dependence on the same body of water. There are the voices of fishermen, oyster gatherers, a stone wall builder, a boat builder, swimmers, boaters, a ferryman, a sewage worker, a milk bottler. Parts are recorded more or less verbatim, and others are spun into mythologies almost. By the time I finished it (the first and the second time) I truly did feel as though I’d meandered my way down a river, hovering along the surface and being submerged at times. So, Dart, please stay on. You can steal whatever you want from my closet.

“Sailing Alone Around the World”

There has been a lot of talk of sailing at my house in the last couple of years, but so far very little action. We hope to remedy that this summer, and so to get into a suitably, or perhaps overly, ambitious mindset, I’ve been reading Joshua Slocum’s Sailing Alone Around the World, his account of the journey (24 April 1895 to 27 June 1898) that made him the first to circumnavigate the world single-handedly, by sail.

Slocum’s story begins quite near here, actually, as he was born on the Annapolis Valley’s North Mountain. The journey itself begins at Fairhaven, Massachusetts, and from there north toward Sable Island and across the Atlantic to Gibraltar. But at this point he was warned that he should avoid the Mediterranean, which was then teeming with pirates, so he crossed back across the Atlantic to South America, through the Strait of Magellan, across the Pacific to Australia, to Africa, around the Cape of Good Hope, and then northward, eventually tying up at the same “cedar spile” in Fairhaven again three years later.

Although he does give several lectures along the way, in order to fund his trip, Slocum also seems to have had to do very little to publicize, and his arrival on new continents is generally preceded by newspaper reports of his progress and invitations to visit heads of state, self-appointed and otherwise. Among the people he encounters is President Kruger, of what is now South Africa, a believer in the Flat Earth theory:

Had this good but misguided fanatic been armed with a real weapon, the crew of the Spray would have died a martyr there and then. The next day, seeing him across the street, I bowed and made curves with my hands. He responded with a level, swimming movement of his hands, meaning “the world is flat.” (Chapter XVII)

And in Samoa, Slocum spends time with Robert Louis Stevenson’s widow, Fanny, who gives him her husband’s sailing directories for the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean.

But it’s Slocum’s relationship with himself as crew of one, and with his ship, the Spray, that I found most entertaining. He gets a lot of pleasure out of little references to himself in his different responsibilities as “part” of the crew:

But the turtle-steak was good. I found no fault with the cook, and it was the rule of the voyage that the cook found no fault with me. There was never a ship’s crew so well agreed. (Chapter IV)

That said, he also confesses fairly early on to occasionally needing someone outside the crew to talk to:

Then I turned my face eastward, and there, apparently at the very end of the bowsprit, was the smiling full moon rising out of the sea. Neptune himself coming over the bows could not have startled me more. “Good evening, sir,” I cried; “I’m glad to see you.” Many a long talk since then I have had with the man in the moon; he had my confidence on the voyage. (Chapter III)

About his trusty ship:

The Spray struggled and tossed for ten days, making only three hundred miles on her course in all that time. I didn’t say anything! (Chapter V)

Many of the incidents were ludicrous. When I found myself, for instance, disentangling the sloop’s mast from the branches of a tree after she had drifted three times around a small island, against my will, it seemed more than one’s nerves could bear, and I had to speak about it, so I thought, or die of lockjaw, and I apostrophized the Spray as an impatient farmer might his horse or his ox. “Didn’t you know,” cried I—“didn’t you know that you couldn’t climb a tree?” But the poor old Spray had essayed, and successfully too, nearly everything else in the Strait of Magellan, and my heart softened toward her when I thought of what she had gone through. (Chapter X)

Reading Slocum has reminded me that most of the travel literature I read is fairly recent in vintage, not more than three or four decades old in most cases, and I’d like to add some more of the ur-travelogues. Here are a few I’d like to track down:

Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Amateur Emigrant (In three parts, it details the journey Stevenson made from Scotland to California to reunite with his future wife Fanny–whom Slocum later met in Samoa–once she’d determined to divorce her first husband.)
Basho’s The Narrow Road to the Interior and The Narrow Road to the Deep North (These are haibun, part prose and part poetry.)
Charles Darwin’s The Voyage of the Beagle
Freya Stark’s accounts of her travels in the Middle East (There is an interesting article about Stark in The New Yorker‘s April 18th issue.)
J. Smeaton Chase’s California Coast Trails and Yosemite Trails
William Morris’s Icelandic Journals

Other recommendations?