Rasma Says

Musings, deliberations, flashes of unaccounted for brilliance…

Words at Year’s End


On the last day of the year I learn about a poet named Judith Ortiz Cofer who died yesterday. Someone on the women’s poetry (WOMPO) yahoo list sent out a notice with a link, so I read about Judith on the Poetry Foundation’s website. She was not much older than I am. Like me she lived much of her life in the south and came from a mixed immigrant background. Her background, however, was Puerto Rican.

I must confess here my prejudice against all things Spanish. I can’t account for it, but it was already present at age six when Mason Elementary in Detroit ran an experimental language immersion program in Spanish. When halfway through first grade we switched to an identical immersion in French I rejoiced. I knew already then that I would love French, that French belong to me, to my life and future ( indeed this turned out to be true). Bonjour Line! I recited French sentences to my mother at home (Maman ouvre la porte! the method was to learn sentences, not words) which I remember as clearly as I remember Line’s neat dress and flip out hair, but I didn’t retain a word or an image of Spanish. From day one Spanish, and by association all things Spanish, grated against me aesthetically.

I am not saying this is fine, or even reasonable – it isn’t – yet the many lovely Spanish speaking people I have met through the years, including my many Spanish teaching colleagues, have not erased this basic prejudice from my core. So, for example, when opening mini-Lego figures on Christmas and assembling our collections I said NO when my daughter – the source of mini-Lego figures in our family – asked if I wanted the little man with the Spanish guitar and sombrero. I wanted the werewolf with the bone.

Normally, when discovering that Judith’s mixed background involved Puerto Rico I might have yawned and moved on. Luckily I didn’t (god only knows how many wonderful poets I have overlooked over the years). The first poem I read told me she was writing the poetry I needed to read.

El Olvido

It is a dangerous thing
to forget the climate of your birthplace,
to choke out the voices of dead relatives
when in dreams they call you
by your secret name.
It is dangerous
to spurn the clothes you were born to wear
for the sake of fashion; dangerous
to use weapons and sharp instruments
you are not familiar with; dangerous
to disdain the plaster saints
before which your mother kneels
praying with embarrassing fervor
that you survive in the place you have chosen to live:
a bare, cold room with no pictures on the walls,
a forgetting place where she fears you will die
of loneliness and exposure.
Jesús, María, y José, she says,
el olvido is a dangerous thing.

Judith Ortiz Cofer

I went immediately to Adlibris, my local online bookstore. It’s Norwegian, but has an amazingly good selection of English books, and what it doesn’t have it will acquire (most recently for me Cooking With the Muse, a cookbook based on poems, published by a small literary press in the USA – I really doubted Adlibris would carry it, but they did). Sure enough, there was a large assortment of Judith’s books. The one I was most interested in was The Latin Deli. It was nominated for a Pulitzer, but what really convinces me I will like it – no, correction – that I need to read it – is that it mixes genres: poetry, short fiction, personal narrative. Just what I am studying and experimenting with. More than form or style though, it is Judith’s voice that captures me. It was Sister-poet-recognition at first sight. I just contributed a few words of condolence to her family on the funeral home guestbook. They don’t know me and it doesn’t matter that they do. What matters is that Judith wrote her poetry. Her legacy to readers is the impact of that writing, and they will like to hear about that. One thing I have learned about death and bereavement, never hesitate to reach out to survivors.

I almost didn’t buy the books because, well, I buy what you might call too many books. Sometimes I wonder if I should save the money I spend on books toward something useful, like early retirement. I end up buying books while feeling guilty about it. But Judith gave me a gift here too, because I realized (you will probably think, well, d’uh!) that one buys books to read and not to keep. This was an important small distinction for me to consciously make. I own literally hundreds of books, thousands I’m sure when reckoning Veronica’s and mine together. Where will it all end? Well, here’s the thing I realized late in the year 2016, if not also late in life: we buy books to read, not to have. (Yes, I know – d’uh!) They don’t have to pile up. They can be tossed away. They are paper after all. I wasn’t buying Judith’s books because I “wanted to have them” but because “I wanted to read them” and that was all that mattered. Eureka!

Here let me put in a plug for buying books in general. My suggested New Years Resolution for anyone who needs this attitude adjustment is: stop expecting to find everything online for free. FREE is not the goal in life. FREE is the beginning of the end of good journalism, publishing, editorship, art, literature… Get over it! Spend money when you can to help PAY writers and other artists for their work. When you find out about a poet like Judith and have read the four poems the Poetry Foundation offers (paid for, thank you very much, by the millions given to poetry.org by the Ruth Lilly Foundation, and donors like moi) and it will not take food from your children or the roof from your head, go ahead and BUY THE BOOK! It will help make the circle go around – the circle of contribution and reward that is healthy human enterprise, the circle that FREE is intent on destroying by making of us pirating misers. Here I remind myself to take a lesson from Reiki (of which I am a practitioner): money is just another form of energy, let it do its work.

So when Judith’s books arrive (I only bought four) I may do away with a few to make room. Some books want to be reread, some don’t; some merit keeping, some can be let go of. They have served their purpose. The fact that there is no one immediately available who wants you to pass a book on to them, does not mean it must stay in your possession. It is paper after all. It is not the only copy. Let people buy new copies. It will help that writer write again.

As 2016 draws to a close, a year that in many ways has darkened the world’s hope and prosperity, I will cast a small light upon it with the flame of a burning book. This particular burning book was not censorship, it was a sort of phoenix that became a poem. This happened many years ago. The girl in the poem is now a bookseller, making her living reading, publishing, passing on books to new readers. Could it be that the trauma she endured in the book burning incident contributed to her making a contribution today to the world of books? One thing for sure: It is not in the paper, the consumable and ephemeral, that books live. It is in the reading, and the lasting effect of that reading on your life.

May the New Year bring you much reading, writing and joy.

                  for Silje

Without shame I throw them into the fire.
New Yorkers, APR journals, Esquire,
after each is taken from the knee-high pile in my closet
and read. Still more arrive each week

and the pile increases: magazines, journals,
catalogs of new books, Daedalus remainders,
free offers from QPB, BOM, humble Spring Church selections.
They fill my bookcases and I buy more,

more books, more cases, the library
spilling into all the house. My daughter’s collection
forcing her toys into drawers under the bed.
Books are recycled friend to friend,

mother to daughter, new store to used,
read and reread until ultimately they perish.
Like the small paperback I placed
on the grate last night. Snug and trim as a log,

it took flame. Sucked smoke through curling pages.
My daughter stopped short and wailed –
But I haven’t read that book yet!
No matter that it has no pictures,

no matter that she is five and this
a fitting end for a 1970 marriage manual
called Strike The Original Match.
I take her weeping into my arms,

the moment palpable – how she believed
she would read every book ever written.
Small love, there are so many.
Read, and more will be written.

Consume, and more will be brought forth –
in you, and by ones like you
who love the written word
and would reach for it through fire.

(Prairie Schooner, 1998)



One comment on “Words at Year’s End

  1. Veronica Preiss

    Dear Rasma, have you ever thought about why bookshelves are so deep? Keep the books; let them keep each other snug inside and underneath. There is always room.

Comments are closed.


This entry was posted on 31/12/2016 by in Books, Poetry, Writing and tagged , , , , , , , , , .
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