What I Spent My Birthday Money On

“Sacred Heart” oil on board by Casey Lynch

From the YouTube Music Video Archives: The Sun In My Mouth by Björk

I just finished reading that interview with Potter Noster linked to below, and as I wrote in the comment box, the interview itself strikes me as kind of extended prose poem. I enjoyed his take on e.e. cummings and Wallace Stevens in particular, which resonates with a lot of poet converts, I think. Regarding the teenager’s sense of vocation, poets and aeronautical engineers are more or less kind of the same sort of profession, it seems to me. When you squint.

So here is the not-so-anemic Björk singing “The Sun In My Mouth” in a performance from just a few months ago. It’s a great song set to a fantastic poem by e.e. cummings; when I first heard it some ten years ago, the lyrics struck me as remarkably Catholic (“She’s referring to the eucharist!” I said to myself), and certainly the lines “Will i complete the mystery / of my flesh” would seem difficult for any Catholic to read without being reminded of the Corporis Christi Mysticum. Lo, after listening to the Vespertine album a few hundred times and studying up on Björk herself, I had to admit that that for her they were nothing of the kind. Likewise for Cummings. As far as I know. Which, really, isn’t all that much at all. I, for one, will continue to read “silver of the moon” as a metaphor for the semi-circle of the accepted chalice, and hope that neither Cummings nor Björk or even the Corporis Christi Mysticum will mind.

Anyway here’s the poem “I Will Wade Out,” unfortunately without the wonderfully ideosyncratic line breaks so characteristic of cummings:

i will wade out
till my thighs are steeped in burning flowers
I will take the sun in my mouth
and leap into the ripe air
with closed eyes
to dash against darkness
in the sleeping curves of my body
Shall enter fingers of smooth mastery
with chasteness of sea-girls
Will i complete the mystery
of my flesh
I will rise
After a thousand years
And set my teeth in the silver of the moon

Booked Into Custody

Korrektiv got memed by Lickona, that prolific pond-walloper. Thanks, Matthew. I’ll post posthaste and let my band of merry co-bloggers post their own responses as they see fit.

First of all, I could answer any of these questions with pretty much anything by Walker Percy. As a sophomore in college, I came across a review of Lost in the Cosmos while avoiding studying one evening, found it on the shelf in the college library, proceeded to read a good chunk of it that night, blown away, amazed, knocked silly. I recall finding a friend in the library and reading out loud the section on being an ex-suicide. “You go to work because you don’t have to.”

Soon thereafter, I got my hands on Percy’s collection of essays, The Message in the Bottle, and read it over Christmas break, along with M. Scott Peck’s The Road Less Traveled. I recall staying up all night, on successive nights, reading both books, one after another, freaked out with readerly joy. Then it was on to Percy’s six published novels, one after another over the next few years, in chronological order: The Moviegoer, The Last Gentleman, Love in the Ruins, Lancelot, The Second Coming, The Thanatos Syndrome — savoring each one, feeling more at home in Percy’s world than anywhere else I’d ever been. In college, I reread The Moviegoer and Love in the Ruins for classes with the great Percy scholar, John Desmond, wrote one college paper comparing The Moviegoer with Eudora Welty’s Optimist’s Daughter and another one comparing The Moviegoer with Dostoevsky’s Brother’s Karamazov.

Without consulting me, my dad sent the latter essay to Percy and got a letter back which read, in part: “Jonathan’s piece is quite superior. I enjoyed it. Needless to say, any writer enjoys getting classed with Dostoevsky — but apart from this, it still is a very sharp paper.” Holy shit! That was a great birthday present; thanks, Dad! That led to a five-minute encounter with Percy at the Covington Shell station in 1989, an account of which appears here.

After that, I fell into grad school, reread everything again, plus all the Percy criticism extant at the time, and wrote an M.A. essay entitled, “The Needle’s Eye: Walker Percy’s Conception of Language, Limitation and Sacrament.”

A few year’s later, after much hemming and hawing, I became a Catholic — and I guess it was that the Holy Spirit used Percy to kick my ass in that direction, if ass-kicking can be properly distinguished from edification (to quote a memorable line from The Moviegoer).

So this was a breakthrough period in my life as a reader. And since then, Percy’s modest canon has become for me something like the loveliest little pond on the cherished family farm, the place I, as a reader, return to continually for respite and reflection. That little pond is, for me, connected by rivers and streams to crystalline sources in high holy mountains and to the wide ocean of literature and thought, where readers sail the high seas in their various vessels. I venture out there, too, but I always come home to the pond.

So that’s where I stand as a reader. For the sake of variety, however, I’ll exclude Percy from my answers to the meme.

One book that changed your life: e.e. cummings: a selection of poems, with an introduction by Horace Gregory. I still have this little paperback on my shelf, tattered, split in two at the spine, falling apart. Purchased at the age of sixteen after reading a few cummings poems in Mrs. Hue’s Literary Forms class, turned my head around with the craziness and loveliness of language, started me down the path of words, words, words. Before cummings, I thought I wanted to be an aerospace engineer; after cummings, I knew I wanted to be a poet. Damn you, cummings!

Paris; this April sunset completely utters
utters serenely silently a cathedral
before whose upward lean magnificent face
the streets turn young with rain …

One book you’ve read more than once: Fear and Trembling by Johannes de Silentio (or Søren Kierkegaard, if you please). Read this the first time while taking a year off college at the age of 20 or so. Proceeded to read as much Kierkegaard as I could manage while living with my aunt and uncle and working swing shift as a pipefitter. Rode the Kierkegaardian wave back to college and read it again as my optional book for a college course called Religion and Philosophy at the age of 22 or so. Reread it at least once or twice again over the following decade and am probably due to read it again sometime soon now that I’ve got Stages out of my hair. If you read nothing else by Kierkegaard, read Fear and Trembling. It is a poetic and highly charged encapsulation of his thought. In a journal entry somewhere, he noted that this book alone would ensure his place in the philosopher’s hall of fame, and I would tend to agree.

One book you’d want on a desert island: The World Book Encyclopedia. This was the encyclopedia of my youth. My grandma peddled these, along with Avon products and the Christian Science religion. An indispensable reference. [On second thought, of course: The Bible, New Revised Standard Version, Catholic Edition.]

One book that made you laugh: Fuck, Yes by Reverend Wing F. Fing, M.D., Ph.D., D.D.S., L.L.D., D.V.D., and much, much, more! This is a laugh-your-ass-off sort of book. Very sophomoric, of questionable philosophical merit, and right down my alley. Some folks used to think it was written by Tom Robbins (one of my favorite heretics) but that rumor was squelched when the real author sued Robbins for signing copies of it (along with the Bible and anything else people asked him to sign).

One book that made you cry: The end of The Lord of the Rings trilogy. I finished this while riding the train through the Deep South, after meeting Walker Percy. Had a good, cathartic cry, cried like a baby, cried like a man, cried like a woman, cried like a child, while the Louisiana swampland rolled by.

One book that you wish had been written: The Great American Novel by Jonathan Potter.

One book that you wish had not been written: Of the making of many books there is no end…. There have been books I’ve hated, that I’ve thrown across the room, that I’ve shot holes in and driven over, and there are probably many books that shouldn’t have been written, that should have been drowned at birth like misbegotten kittens, but I can’t bring myself to wish oblivion upon any of them. Even a bad book can serve as an agent for good if it stirs up a protest in the mind of the reader. [On second thought: The NAB. American Catholics deserve better than this.]

One book you’re currently reading: Citizen Vince by Jess Walter. I’m about halfway through this and it is a great hardboiled/literary page turner. I described the author, whom I met recently in a coffeshop in Spokane, as “scrawny” — but that was a poor choice of words which I hereby retract and apologize for. Now that I’ve met Mr. Walter a second time, I think “sinewy” would be a more apt description — and his prose is sinewy, too, and powerful. Highly recommended.

One book you’ve been meaning to read: The Summa Theologica by St. Thomas Aquinas. I’ve read Peter Kreeft’s Summa of the Summa and poked around variously in other musty volumes of Aquinas’ greatest hits, but I want to get the whole thing and read it from beginning to end, at bedtime like Flannery O’Connor used to do.

Update: Ironic Catholic is herewith tagged.

Second update: My wife made me revise the first sentence. She didn’t think it was nice to call Matt L. a scumsucking toad, even in jest. And as usual she’s right.