'Thoughts about Possible Thoughts'

Christmas Critics

Amy Leach’s debut collection of nature essays, Things That Are (Milkweed, $18, 192 pp.), imagines how constellations like Ursa Major and creatures like apple-green caterpillars might perceive their experiences. To some readers, such philosophical flights may come across as oppressive impositions on the cosmos. Can’t we let the stars have their privacy? But I enjoy her almost-too-clever writing, filled with lyrical puns, and I found these thoughts about possible thoughts anything but presumptuous.

Grounded in sometimes unreal-sounding science and history, Leach’s “guessing games” seamlessly combine basic lessons in biology, botany, and astronomy with nimble imaginative leaps. Like the eponymous patent clerk in Alan Lightman’s Einstein’s Dreams, many of these essays depict alternate worlds. In this collection, sirens and green dragons share a universe with jellyfish and whirligig beetles. Postulating a world where sound waves don’t decay, she writes, “The world, full of past sound, would be like the sky, full of past light. The world would be like the mind, for which there is no once.” She makes good on her offer to exchange a “mad currency” with her readers: “I’ll buy you rain, you buy me snow, and we’ll go in together for sunshine for the grass and the clover and the delicious prickly thistles.” Gleeful lapses into absurdity abound in Things That Are.

Leach’s invented words in particular create a delightful effect. “Is beauty not a form of philanthropy,” she writes, “and are the stars not the most beautiful fireflakes?” The reader thinks she knows what this word, beginning with a familiar “firef-,” will be, and is pleasurably startled by its unexpected end. Fireflies, buzzing in the air, seem oddly weighty in comparison to delicate, swirling snowflakes. Both are bright, evocative, and strangely beautiful together, joined by Leach as an uncanny way to describe the stars. Expect many similarly powerful and playful constructions in these pages.

Monologue of a Dog (Harcourt, $22, 112 pp.), by the Nobel Prize–winning poet Wislawa Szymborska, also provides artful combinations of fact and fantasy. An apt introduction to an unmatched contemporary poet who died last year, Szymborska’s accessible free-verse poems combine whimsy with metaphysical depth. In one, she wonders why she is who she is and not someone else: “I might have been myself minus amazement, / that is, / someone completely different.” Later, she posits that the soul is an entity that comes and goes of its own accord: “We have a soul at times. / No one’s got it nonstop, / for keeps. [...] We need it / but apparently / it needs us / for some reason too.” The poem “ABC” explores human relationships at their ultimate close: “I’ll never find out now / what A. thought of me. / If B. ever forgave me in the end. / Why C. pretended everything was fine.”

Many of Szymborska’s best poems manage to convey the weight and mystery of human suffering. One such poem looks at a photograph of people who died on September 11; another takes us walking through a cemetery with graves for children. Devastation and awe are explored in this collection with raw honesty and reverence. Translations are side by side with her original words, so you can test your Polish—or as I did, simply marvel at the sounds. Don’t skip Billy Collins’s introduction, either. It’s as good a description of Szymborska’s poems as there can be.

Another book that effectively mixes earth and ether is the graphic memoir Marbles: Mania, Depression, Michelangelo, and Me (Gotham, $20, 256 pp.) in which cartoonist Ellen Forney explores her experience of bipolar disorder. Placing herself in a tradition of “crazy artists,” Forney finds solace in good company, and wrestles with concerns about medication and its potential effects on her creative output—that is, her livelihood and identity. The results are hilarious and intimate. But be warned, graphic-novel newbies: Marbles makes for a wild first experience of the genre. While many graphic novels maintain a stable artistic style throughout, Forney’s assumes a wide range of styles—from Sunday-funnies exuberance to minimalist depictions of depressive moods—to match the author’s experience of her own highs and lows. This book’s inconsistency is part of its mercurial magic. If you are interested in the intersection of autobiography and sequential art, give Marbles a try. Forney’s fortitude and hope left me feeling refreshed.

 

Published in the December 6, 2013 issue: 
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Sarah Rich is a graduate of Harvard Divinity School. She works in the sociology department at Yale University.

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