“A Great Book can be read again and again…” by Suzanne Buffam

A Great Book can be read again and again, inexhaustibly, with great benefit to great minds, wrote Mortimer Adler, co-founder of the Great Books Foundation and the Great Books of the Western World program at the university where my husband will be going up for tenure next fall, and where I sometimes teach as well, albeit in a lesser, “non-ladder” position. Not only must a Great Book still matter today, Adler insisted, it must touch upon at least twenty- five of the one hundred and two Great Ideas that have occupied Great Minds for the last twenty-five centuries. Ranging from Angel to World, a comprehensive list of these concepts can be found in Adler’s two-volume Syntopicon: an Index to the Great Ideas, which was published with Great Fanfare, if not Great Financial Success, by Encyclopedia Britannica in 1952. Although the index includes many Great Ideas, including Art, Beauty, Change, Desire, Eternity, Family, Fate, Happiness, History, Pain, Sin, Slavery, Soul, Space, Time, and Truth, it does not, alas, include an entry on Pillows, which often strike me, as I sink into mine at the end of long day of anything, these days, as at the very least worthy of note. Among the five hundred and eleven Great Books on Adler’s list, updated in 1990 to appease his quibbling critics, moreover, only four, I can’t help counting, were written by women—Virginia, Willa, Jane, and George—none of whom, as far as I can discover, were anyone’s mother.

Not in stock, says the campus bookstore clerk looking up from his screen with a smile when I inquire, incognito, after my books which are nowhere to be found on the shelves. We used to have two copies of the first one, he says, but no one bought them, so we sent them back last June. We never carried the second one, he adds, but we could order it for you. What’s your name? I glance up, above his head, at a shelf of Staff Picks. Between a history of disgust and a guide for saving the planet, I spot my husband’s last book, gleaming in the day’s dying light. Forget it, I mutter into my muffler, I can get it from Amazon by Friday. I go home and order an ivory satin pillowcase instead, guaranteed to reduce hair loss due to breakage and soften fine lines.

No Use

Wet cigarettes.
A babysitter whose babysitter is sick.
Nunchucks at a gunfight.
Stiletto heels at the beach.
Last year’s flu shot.
Next year’s peace talks.

All day I lie sprawled across my pillow watching a light crust of  snow retract across the lawn into a thin band of shade along the  fence. I watch the sun fail to rise above the Japanese maple and  drop like a coin into a slot in the wall.

Therapies A to Z

Primal scream.
Quantum touch.

Suzanne Buffam, “A Great Book can be read again and again…” from A Pillow Book (Canarium Books, 2016). Copyright © 2016 by Suzanne Buffam.

So it may be a stretch, but I’m pairing this with an acoustic cover of one of my favorite songs, “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)” by a new to me artist Darryl Green. A nice haunting version in-between Annie Lennox and Marilyn Manson.

“Gift” by Rabindranath Tagore (repost)

O my love, what gift of mine
Shall I give you this dawn?
A morning song?
But morning does not last long—
The heat of the sun
Wilts like a flower
And songs that tire
Are done.

O friend, when you come to my gate.
At dusk
What is it you ask?
What shall I bring you?
A light?

A lamp from a secret corner of my silent house?
But will you want to take it with you
Down the crowded street?
The wind will blow it out.

Whatever gifts are in my power to give you,
Be they flowers,
Be they gems for your neck
How can they please you
If in time they must surely wither,
Lose lustre?
All that my hands can place in yours
Will slip through your fingers
And fall forgotten to the dust
To turn into dust.

When you have leisure,
Wander idly through my garden in spring
And let an unknown, hidden flower’s scent startle you
Into sudden wondering—
Let that displaced moment
Be my gift.
Or if, as you peer your way down a shady avenue,
Suddenly, spilled
From the thick gathered tresses of evening
A single shivering fleck of sunset-light stops you,
Turns your daydreams to gold,
Let that light be an innocent

Truest treasure is fleeting;
It sparkles for a moment, then goes.
It does not tell its name; its tune
Stops us in our tracks, its dance disappears
At the toss of an anklet
I know no way to it—
No hand, nor word can reach it.
Friend, whatever you take of it,
On your own,
Without asking, without knowing, let that
Be yours.
Anything I can give you is trifling—
Be it a flower, or a song.

Rabindranath Tagore

*Originally shared 5/29/15.

(I found this poem via the internet, but there is a Complete Works currently available at Amazon for Kindle for only $1.99.)

“Ithaca” by C. P. Cavafy

As you set out for Ithaka
hope your road is a long one,
full of adventure, full of discovery.
Laistrygonians, Cyclops,
angry Poseidon—don’t be afraid of them:
you’ll never find things like that on your way
as long as you keep your thoughts raised high,
as long as a rare excitement
stirs your spirit and your body.
Laistrygonians, Cyclops,
wild Poseidon—you won’t encounter them
unless you bring them along inside your soul,
unless your soul sets them up in front of you.

Hope your road is a long one.
May there be many summer mornings when,
with what pleasure, what joy,
you enter harbors you’re seeing for the first time;
may you stop at Phoenician trading stations
to buy fine things,
mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
sensual perfume of every kind—
as many sensual perfumes as you can;
and may you visit many Egyptian cities
to learn and go on learning from their scholars.

Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you’re destined for.
But don’t hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so you’re old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you’ve gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.

Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey.
Without her you wouldn’t have set out.
She has nothing left to give you now.

And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
you’ll have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.

C. P. Cavafy, “Ithaca” from C.P. Cavafy: Collected Poems  (Princeton University Press, 1975). Translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard. Translation Copyright © 1975, 1992 by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard.

* Thanks to reader Belkis for suggesting this piece as a favorite poem.

I thought it paired nicely with Glen Hansard’s “Song of Good Hope.”

And take your time babe
It’s not as bad as it seems, you’ll be fine babe
It’s just some rivers and streams in between
You and where you wanna be
And watch the signs now
You’ll know what they mean, you’ll be fine now
Just stay close to me and make good hope
Walk with you through everything

“Blessing in the Chaos” by Jan Richardson (repost)

To all that is chaotic
in you,
let there come silence.

Let there be
a calming
of the clamoring,
a stilling
of the voices that
have laid their claim
on you,
that have made their
home in you,

that go with you
even to the
holy places
but will not
let you rest,
will not let you
hear your life
with wholeness
or feel the grace
that fashioned you.

Let what distracts you
Let what divides you
Let there come an end
to what diminishes
and demeans,
and let depart
all that keeps you
in its cage.

Let there be
an opening
into the quiet
that lies beneath
the chaos,
where you find
the peace
you did not think
and see what shimmers
within the storm.

~ Jan Richardson, from paintedprayerbook.com

© Jan Richardson, from her book The Cure for Sorrow


* Originally shared here on 7/21/15

“Blessing of the Animals” by Faith Shearin

At my daughter’s Catholic school there is
a blessing of the animals at which
the children line up with their fat hamsters
and gauzy goldfish, their dogs so old

they can barely climb the hill. They bring
their cats with bald patches
and their lizards sleeping in cages
under a fake sun. In the line
to the priest there are snakes

with white eyes and birds without songs.
There are ant farms and worms and rats
with long, exposed tails. The children
wait hours for their animals
to be blessed: for the priest’s hand

to hover over the weight they carry.
They bring shoe boxes full of turtles,
hairy spiders, frogs with dry skin.
I like watching my daughter

among the other children: her dog
small in her arms, her gaze protective.
Children believe in the power
of animals, tucked into their feathers
and shells; they believe

in blessings: the sprinkle
of holy water, each tiny
unexplained life.

“Blessing of the Animals” by Faith Shearin from Telling the Bees. © Stephen Austin State University Press, 2015.