written for my poetry workshop in the style of Nick Thran’s ‘A Working Reader’
In second grade at Ladner Elementary School, my teacher had a bookshelf of books arranged according to reading levels. There were the simple phonetic books that had more pictures than words, and then there were the chapter books that more advanced readers were encouraged to take home to read. It was 2001 and my family had just migrated to Canada. I was in ESL and I was put in the picture-book reading group.
The Junie B Jones chapter books were all the rage back in second grade. They had colourful covers and hardly stayed on the shelf. There was so much text on the pages. They felt so grownup.
I saw one of the books on the shelf—finally available. I picked it up. Mrs. Suki swooped in and looked at the book disapprovingly. “I don’t think you’re ready for those books”, she said. I put it back on the shelf. She directed me towards a picture book, humiliatingly simple. I felt small, and confused and wondered if I should be angry.
Few days later at the school library, I check out my first Junie B Jones chapter book. I like to think of it as an act of rebellion. There was a satisfying amount of text on the pages. Within months I had finished the entire collection of Junie B Jones in the library.
Take that Mrs. Suki.
The books I always return to are books in the Anne of Green Gables series. My cousin lent the first three in the series to me. The first time I read the first book, I understood perhaps half of it. Anne Shirley had a wild imagination and I liked her instantly. I was eight and still in ESL when I read them. They were a challenge, but somehow that didn’t matter. I didn’t feel like I needed to understand everything. I instantly liked the concept of kindred spirits. Lucy Maud Montgomery became a kindred spirit and her books had an almost religious appeal to me. The delicious appetite for beauty and nature in her books cultivated my own appetite and appreciation for beauty. I rejoice when I meet a kindred spirit and can recognize trees as friends. I discover that part of myself when I go back to these books. It feels like I’m surrounded by the beauty of wilderness, of the starry sky, of moonlit ocean waves, dewy forests, and branches budding with spring.
And this our life, exempt from human haunt,
Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,
Sermons in stones, and good in everything.
A week before my first day of university, I re-read Anne of the Island, in which Anne Shirley goes off to university. It fit.
It’s like that feeling when you’re searching for that poem that you really need to read, to satisfy this certain gnawing in your chest, and you can’t find that poem that puts it into the words you need, so you write that poem. Except, I often would find that poem. I would find that “poem” that I needed in the Anne of Green Gables series and the Emily of New Moon books.
I read Oliver Twist by Charles Dicken when I was eleven. It was extremely painful, yet I couldn’t put it down. It was dull and there were too many characters and the dialogue was difficult to follow. But for some reason I finished it. I think it has to do with continuing to rebel against Mrs. Suki. I eagerly took on books that looked difficult and suffered through them. I don’t remember ever abandoning books as a child, even if I didn’t like them or if didn’t understand them. I wonder why that is.
I don’t have the patience or the time to read what doesn’t interest me. This realization makes me kind of sad, but it is also a relief. I no longer feel like I have to read War and Peace. As if I have something to prove. I think I’ve already proven it.
Three Day Road by Joseph Boyden is the most recent book I’ve abandoned. I intend to go back to it. I also abandoned Anna Karenina. I also intend to read it. I don’t think I ever really abandon books fully.
I abandoned Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway during my first year of university. I had him has my creative writing 200 professor. Then last summer on a coach ride from Bristol to London I finished it. It was winter and the London streets were decked with lights and holiday fervor. Took me a year to read it. I think of cellists, Sarajevo and grief when I think of pulling into Victoria station my second time in London. My partner was reading Harry Potter and Philosopher’s Stone, which I had given him. That look on his face as he flipped through the pages intently. The story, the characters, that world, he was discovering it for the first time. There are books I wish I could forget and read all over again for the first time.
It’s interesting how memory can sort of meld everything together like the colours of the sun and sky burning together at sunset. Kind of like how a perfume can stir a specific memory of childhood, and you can’t really separate the childhood from the smell, and it’s all beautifully blended together, part of each other. That’s how I feel when I read Beverly Cleary to my little brother. He’s seven and he sees patterns everywhere. I want to have children and take them to the library and let them pick any book, no matter how fat and thick and pictureless it is, and watch them read it for the first time. I read Great Expectation a few weeks ago for a class. To my surprise I liked it. Robert Munsch and Roald Dahl are also kindred spirits.
I always feel like writing after reading a book or a poem. Because I have more to say. I feel like the world on the pages has blended with my world, and what I’ve read is now a part of me, and if I close the book, I won’t be separated from it. I have more to express because of this new growth in my world.
Rilke is another kindred spirit. He also gets it. Have a look at this excerpt from the Eight Elegy:
With all its eyes the natural world looks out
into the Open. Only our eyes are turned
backward, and surround plant, animal, child
like traps, as they emerge into their freedom.
We know what is really out there only from
the animal’s gaze; for we take the very young
child and force it around, so that it sees
objects—not the Open, which is so
deep on animals’ faces. Free from death.
I want to read more poems about the Open. I used to write a lot about the Open, trying to understand it, to access the thrill and mystery of it. It was easier when I was younger. I guess there’s been some sort of a movement against that type of exploration that has affected me—maybe not. But sometimes I feel embarrassed to share my fascination with spirituality—as someone who is fond of it, finds it very useful, and is not necessary critical of it. Being not critical of spiritualty feels like a fault somehow and it shouldn’t. I want to ACCEPT the Open rather than tear everything apart and criticize it and analyze it, which after two years of university education, I feel I ought to. I needn’t be suspicious of my own truths. Cynicism is exhausting and it makes me grumpy.
I like that Rilke is unflinchingly open about exploring the Open in his poetry. I would like to read more modern poets who are. I have a collection of poems called Nonexistent Poem & Songs of Love written in the style of Sufi poetry. Sometimes I find phrases that make the whole poem it for me.
Many of Kamila Shamsie’s books take place in Karachi. When I discovered her books, I felt that relief—the momentary fulfillment of hunger for stories of Karachi, of my stories. A quote from Broken Verses:
“Don’t you know how much I hero-worshiped you when I was a kid? You were Marie Curie crossed with Emily Bronte crossed with Joan of Arc to me when I was ten. And when I told you that, you said my cultural references were the sign of a colonized mind.”
What often makes a poem great is that one line that just perfectly says it, exactly how you could never had said it and you feel so excited and relieved to have it recognized by another, and pinned down so perfectly on the page for you to marvel at. That one line can make the poem.
Reading feels like an exercise in accepting what is before me. Writing feels like a search to give it a name. Writing feels like a prayer. A prayer and a memory and words and a childhood rebellion and smell of chai in Karachi and holiday lights in London streets and eating apples as Jo March wrote her novel and Price Edward Island and looking out from Green Gables and Hafiz and Ghalib and listening to ghazals and finding kindred spirits in coffee shops and all of it melding together into one till you can’t separate them any longer.