For the past four months, my wife and I have been reading Rebecca West’s 1941 Black Lamb and Grey Falcon together, ten pages per day. If I had to give one final reading suggestion for 2020, it would be West’s account of her 1937 journey through Yugoslavia. The book has a sprawl—geographical, theological, aesthetic, political—that is matched by the sharpness of its character sketches. (For example: “She was one of those widows whose majesty makes their husbands seem specially dead.”) For pages she’ll concern herself with the minutiae of travel—how to elude that pushy tour guide; where to stay and what to eat—before pivoting to a grand proclamation about our species’ bent towards self-sabotage: “Only part of us is sane: only part of us loves pleasure and the longer day of happiness, wants to live to our nineties and die in peace, in a house that we built, that shall shelter those who come after us. The other half of us is nearly mad.” There are many things I’d prefer to forget about 2020. I know I’ll remember the pleasures of Black Lamb and Grey Falcon.
Here are some of my other favorite books of the year—books that I didn’t get a chance to write about but that delighted me in one way or another. With the Nazis advancing and the Yugoslavia she so loved crumbling, Rebecca West observed that “these days have given us a chance to test the artistic process, and judge whether it is a tool that does honest work or whether it simply makes toys for the childish.” The following books did honest work in bad times, offering, again in West’s words, “the small white star of the song, which is correct, permanent, important.”
Vijay Seshadri, That Was Now, This Is Then: Poems (Graywolf, $24)
It’s hard to think of a shiftier, more polytropic poet than Seshadri. He does abstraction and pointillism; he’s an ironist and a prophet; he can be demotic and he can be filigreed. That Was Now, This Is Then takes it all on: violence (“The roof collapsing in Aleppo. / The beam slamming the frontal lobe. / The drone, the terror by night and day”), death (a beautiful elegy for the poet’s father), and love (“There is the other compassion, the one / felt by those who see agony in themselves”). The book’s title signals its interest in temporal complexity: how time, both personal and historical, switchbacks this way and that, distorted and made new by technologies modern (cellphones) and ancient (memory). “I don’t even have time to write this text,” the speaker complains in “Meeting (Thick)”—a poem whose double, “Meeting (Thin),” uses the same words (but for one) with different lineation in order to change the speed of our reading. In an interview, Seshadri described these two poems as existing “in a state of quantum flux.” Quantum physics makes an appearance in the final poem, too, where Seshadri describes the connection between text and reader by which form becomes meaning: “Just now, though, you’re stupefied at this / spooky action at a distance. / So would I be, and I am.”
Alexandra Harris, Time and Place: A Pocket Book on the Art of Calendars (Little Toller Books, $18)
Another book on time, though in an altogether different key. Alexandra Harris, a cultural historian who has written previously about literary modernism and the shaping effects of English skies on English artists, offers here a history and poetics of calendars. She begins with a consideration of Robinson Crusoe, whose titular character makes notches on a post at the center of his island to mark time. In short, elegant essays accompanied by images worth pausing over (thirteenth-century psalters; calendrical baptismal fonts), Harris then examines medieval church calendars, calendrical architecture, court masques, and more modern examples of keeping time. Calendars reveal “the geography of time, in the meeting points between the largest scales [and] the smallest...and all the life that moves between them,” Harris writes. Time and Place offers a lovely map of our temporal geography.
Two great essayists, two distinct approaches to the essay collection. In a 2002 interview, Eliot Weinberger remarked that he “dropped out of college after (barely) one year to follow the Ezra Pound course in everything (except economics) that one needs to know to be a poet.” His essays read like modernist collage, working via tonal, imagistic, and musical juxtaposition. In his latest book, he considers the hosts of angels and saints, reveling in arcana (do angels remember? How can they speak? How many are there, exactly?) and offering playful flash-biographies. Of Frederick of Regensburg, he summarizes, “Although not a monk, he chopped wood at the monastery.” Of John Soreth: “He reformed the Carmelites to admit nuns; he was mistaken for Ethiopian; he died from eating unripe mulberries.” Illustrated with the illuminated grid-poems of a ninth-century Benedictine monk, Angels & Saints pairs nicely with Time and Place. More experimental in form, it’s just as beautiful to look at.
Phil Christman, a Commonweal contributor, writes a more traditional, down-home kind of essay—appropriate, given that he often writes about the traditional, down-home region of the American imagination, the Midwest. But part of Christman’s point is that the region is stranger, more radically dark and more radically utopian, than it appears: it is, he writes, “a conceptual magpie’s nest, made from scraps of everything.” And his book, resonant with metaphor and scorched by jeremiads on political economy, is stranger than it seems, too. Borrowing from the six-by-six-mile grids of the Midwest, Christman includes six chapters of six sections each, a structural constraint that helps corral his exploration of a region that is “massively there, constantly eluding our grasp.”