There & Back Again

Skinny Volumes for Savvy Travelers
This story is included in these collections
Augustus Leopold Egg, The Travelling Companions, 1862, Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery

This year I acquired both a husband and a commute. Jared is a PhD candidate at Yale, and Commonweal’s offices are in Manhattan. Stamford, Connecticut, is our compromise. Coveted seats on the train and bus allow for about an hour of reading each way. I’m all for epics and heavy hardbacks. But this Christmas season, here are some suggestions for slender volumes: stocking stuffers for a commuter you love.

Mornings are for essays—assertions and evidence to go with my coffee. Perhaps Elaine Scarry’s On Beauty and Being Just (Princeton University Press, $17.95, 144 pp.), a pocket-sized treatise of aesthetic philosophy. Scarry prepares me to think about sentences. She insists that there is something world-bettering about precise language: that its beauty is not distracting, irrelevant, or irresponsible, but points its creators and observers toward justice. She works methodically through definitions and case studies, illustrating how we identify and respond (at times mistakenly) to beauty; for visual examples, she employs fine-grained sketches of palm trees. Such a book could be tedious and dry. But Scarry has a way of repeating her claims just often enough, ensuring that her readers are tracking, and, in good humor, anticipating what our “real-world” questions might be.

So too does Kristen Dombek in The Selfishness of Others: An Essay on the Fear of Narcissism (FSG Originals, $13, 150 pp.). The essay begins with a cultural commonplace: this is a narcissistic age, swarmed with psychopathic bosses, sanguine boyfriends, and vapid millennials. But Dombek picks apart that diagnosis, showing the cracks and contradictions in the social-psychology literature, psychoanalytic theory, and philosophic assumptions underlying who we believe the narcissist is, and who we believe we are in relation to him: empathetic and good as opposed to empty and evil. Is it really so simple? Spoiler alert: no. The book is absolutely engrossing, and convinces me of the danger of using pop psychology as a tool for casually analyzing others. But as I prepare for a day of copyediting, I study not what Dombek says, but how she says it: how she employs sources (assiduously, but not as a crutch), how she enters and exits digressions. She spreads out evidence, then goes in for the argumentative kill.

When we cross over the Harlem River, I fold a page corner and disembark for the last leg of my journey to work.

On the M60, a river of iced coffee flows under my feet. The bus stops at the bottom of a hill (Out of Service, no explanation, everybody out).

On the M60 bus, I switch to fiction: Icelandic writer Sjón’s novella The Whispering Muse (FSG, $8.52, 160 pp.). Set in the aftermath of World War II, these pages are narrated by a possibly fascist, certainly self-satisfied academic named Valdimar Haraldsson, who studies the relationship between fish consumption and Nordic ethnic superiority. Through an academic journal connection, the scholar joins a seafaring voyage that, by magical chance, includes Caeneus, one of Jason’s Argonauts from Greek mythology. Haraldsson passes his days watching the ship load its cargo (paper) and fishing for cod. Evenings are spent eating sumptuous meals and listening to Caeneus’s tales of romance, battle, and metamorphosis. Every passenger (other than jealous Haraldsson) is enraptured.

When Caeneus speaks, Sjón’s prose, translated from Icelandic by Victoria Cribb, inhabits the description-thick, digressive register of fairy tales and myths. Not only a novelist but also a poet, Sjón relies on classical sources, Euripides and Ovid among them. But the sections that Haraldsson narrates are something else entirely: wry, witty, subtle, an unwitting window onto postwar politics, sexual trauma, labor relations, and growing old. The book is a lovely, lilting fable about what happens when the quotidian collides with the epic—how magic might be resisted or embraced.

On the M60, a river of iced coffee flows under my feet. The bus stops at the bottom of a hill (Out of Service, no explanation, everybody out). A young woman sings under her breath; another woman picks a fight with her. The rest of us are disappointed—it was enchanting to hear live music in the middle of an ordinary morning. The bus pitches toward its destination.

Poetry is for the journey home; after a day of copyediting prose, my tired eyes need space on the page. Katie Ford’s new collection If You Have To Go (Graywolf Press, $16, 80 pp.) reckons with the poet’s divorce in forty-seven poems. Ford studied at Harvard Divinity School, and this collection is dedicated to the theologian Gordon D. Kaufman. In the collection’s first poem, the poet’s “body is gripped stiff at length / by a smith I cannot see”; she crumples “like corners / of a fabric sack / bearing the very most of the stones.” Perhaps this is all God shaping and strengthening her, giving her the kind of “...dying that breaks forth, can break open, / can break your life, it will break you / until you remain.” Throughout the verses, she falls to her knees against her bed, asking a hoped-for divinity (“Do you think I don’t know that when I say Lord / I might be singing into the silo where nothing is stored”) when the kingdom might come. The kingdom Ford imagines seems necessarily tied up with suffering, “a fine barb of pain / I’ve pinned into my hair for safekeeping.” After all, we become capable of love through grief, “something that keeps the lamp on at strange hours.”

The heart of the collection is a “corona” of sonnets, the last line of one informing the first line of the next. Ford has said she needed rigid forms to “bear theological complexity and unrest.” This is a challenge for me on the train; the sonnets, opaque and self-referential, are best read slowly and all at once. A pair of drinking horses carved on an ivory comb appear and reappear, a picture of lasting companionship. Desire for such a relationship nags at the poet like a “zealous” Victorian servant. Ford also grapples with old Christian images, the promises of ancestral faith that she can no longer take for granted. She writes of shoeing an ox; one thinks of Jesus promising easy yokes and light burdens. In one of my favorite passages, she recalls Jesus’ injunction against anxiety: “Ah child-in-me, remember the birds, they neither sow / nor store. Remember yes, I remember the verse. / That’s love? To remember I’m remembered?” This isn’t quite satisfying: “But I wish someone wanted to have me. / There’s a difference, and the difference bears the wish.”

“Psalm 130” is a poem I read again and again.

I am content because before me looms the hope of love.
I do not have it; I do not yet have it.

 

It is a bird strong enough to lead me by the rope it bites;
unless I pull, it is strong enough for me.

 

I do worry the end of my days might come
and I will not yet have it. But even then I will be brave

 

upon my deathbed, and why shouldn’t I be?
I held things here, and I felt them.

 

And to all I felt I will whisper hosanna for goodbye.
It is sweet to think of myself, alone at that very moment,

 

able to say such a thing
to all that was my life,

 

to all that was not.

When I see sailboats in the Long Island Sound, I know I’m almost home.

Katherine Lucky is the Managing Editor at Commonweal. Follow her on Twitter @katherinejlucky.

Also by this author
Consider Me Lucky
This story is included in these collections:

Please email comments to letters@commonwealmagazine.org and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Must Reads

Politics
Religion