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John Wilson

Nothing to Read

How many books do you have?" The visitor's tone was friendly, if slightly incredulous—nothing like What kind of freak do we have here, anyway?—and I answered as I usually do: "I don't really know. A few thousand, I guess."

Enough for several lifetimes, anyway. Yet there are moments when all those books seem closed to me, collections of dead words. Ridiculous? Yes, the deadness is in me, of course, but it can't be overcome by force of will.

At such moments, I feel an overwhelming desire for connection—to find a book that will speak to me, draw me across its threshold. "We are not content to be Leibnitzian monads," C.S. Lewis wrote in An Experiment in Criticism. "We demand windows. Literature as Logos is a series of windows, even of doors. One of the things we feel after reading a great work is 'I have got out.' Or from another point of view, 'I have got in'; pierced the shell of some other monad and discovered what it is like inside."

What Lewis says is true not only of "great works" but of any books that take us outside the prison of the self, however small or great their ambition. ("Literary experience," Lewis adds, "heals the wound, without undermining the privilege, of individuality.") And I feel a special affection for books I first encountered at a time when—for whatever reason—that routine miracle of escape and discovery that we experience when we read had suddenly seemed impossible.

One such book, recently read, is a collection of poems, The Fall, by D. Nurske, published a year ago by Knopf. The book is divided into three sections, the first centered on childhood and the death of the speaker's father, the second on a marriage that goes awry, the third on a serious illness.

Like several of the poets Otto Selles wrote about not long ago in these pages ["Faith in Poetry," May/June], Nurske is steeped in the language of Scripture and childhood faith, which he appears to hold at a distance even as he exploits its resonance. Here is one among many poems from the book I would quote if space permitted; it comes from the third section, where several of the poems are set in various hospitals. (The ellipses are in the original.)

Saint Anthony's Grounds

I'd like to give the sparrow
a gift—but what? A crumb?

Let it memorize me
and fly over the wall
into the free poplar.

Bright sidelong glance
and a puffed-up strut
as if it were a doctor,
the chief doctor …

Soon a flash of wings
and a thread dangling
for a moment in midair …

Anoint me in your house
that has no roof or wall—
a patient lost in thought
patting the seam of a white gown
for a ball of lint, a poppy seed,

something small enough, broken enough
to be acceptable in your sight.

I thank D. Nurske for the gift of these poems—allowing me, for the space of this book, to see the world through his eyes.

—John Wilson

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