The Benefits of Re-reading: Poetry

I am a huge fan of rereading.

I used to think it was lame. Why waste time reading a book I had already read? There are so many new ones to read! Much like my theory that I can’t travel to the same place twice, I would not read the same book twice. But then I had to retract my read one time only credo.

The one book that made me rethink rereading was The Catcher in the Rye. When I first moved here at the ripe age of 25, I packed my Yoda (Toyota) full of the bare necessities needed to live in an unfurnished apartment, my clothes, and my most beloved books and drove to New York City. I worked at the Children’s Museum of Manhattan on the Upper West Side next to Central Park and began to learn the city. One night when I was sweating in my unfurnished crash pad in Brooklyn Heights (swank ‘hood, empty apt.), I was rereading Catcher and suddenly the entire setting of New York City was then real and relevant. Holy crap! I knew those places! The entire book shifted for me as I imagined the pond with the ducks in Central Park, the seedy motel in a Times Square of yesteryear, and Holden’s rich family on the Upper East Side. I. got. it. And that was amazing.

There’s a great passage from Catcher in which Holden Caufield talks about the American Museum of Natural History, his repeat visits there, and how no matter how many times he has gone, each time is different because he is a different person. Holden explains,

You could go there a hundred thousand times, and that Eskimo would still be just finished catching those two fish, the birds would still be on their way south, the deers would still be drinking out of that water hole, with their pretty antlers and their pretty, skinny legs, and that squaw with the naked bosom would still be weaving that same blanket. Nobody’d be different. The only thing that would be different would be you. Not that you’d be so much older or anything. It wouldn’t be that exactly. You’d just be different, that’s all (p. 121).

So that’s my argument when students whine about reading a book they’ve already read. I hand them that argument. It usually works.

As much as I had great intentions to read a different poet every day of National Poetry month, I have not. But I did read an entire book of poems, cover to cover, which I don’t think I have ever done. Poetry is like a snack to me. I open a book, read a poem or two, feel satisfied, close the book, the end. But I had the Sharon Olds book in my backpack for a few days and read every word. And, not surprisingly, the poems I had dog-eared in my 20’s did nothing for me now (They were all about sex–I must have found them very titillating!), and a whole different set of poems resonated in me. One about race and the subway and one about motherhood, both subjects I would never have understood when I got the book at age 19.

Here they are. Bold parts are my favorite lines:

On the Subway

The boy and I face each other.

His feet are huge, in black sneakers

laced with white in a complex pattern like a

set of intentional scars. We are stuck on

opposite sides of the car, a couple of

molecules stuck in a rod of light

rapidly moving through darkless. He has the

casual cold look of a mugger,

alert under hooded lids. He is wearing

red, like the inside of his body

exposed. I am wearing dark fur, the

whole skin of an animal taken and

used. I look at his raw face,

he looks at my fur coat, and I don’t

know if I am in his power–

he could take my coat so easily, my

briefcase, my life–

or if he is in my power, the way I am

living off his life, eating the steak

he does not eat, as if I am taking the food from his mouth. And he is black

and I am white, and without meaning or

trying to I must profit from his darkness,

the way he absorbs the murderous beams of the

nation’s heart, as black cotton

absorbs the heat of the sun and holds it. There is

no way to know how easy this

white skin makes my life, this

life he could take so easily and

break across his knee like a stick the way his

own back is being broken, the

rod of his soul that at birth was dark and

fluid and rich as the heart of a seedling ready to thrust up into any available light.

I never would have understood that poem back when I first got that book.


Looking at Them Asleep

When I come home late at night and go in to kiss the children,

I see my girl with her arm curled around her head,

her face deep in unconsciousness–so

deeply centered she is in her dark self,

her mouth slightly puffed like one sated but

slightly pouted like one who hasn’t had enough,

her eyes so closed you would think they have rolled the

iris around to face the back of her head,

the eyeball marble-naked under that

thick satisfied desiring lid,

she lies on her back in abandon and sealed in completion,

and the son in his room, oh the son he is sideways in his bed,

one knee up as if he is climbing

sharp stairs up into the night,

and under his thin quivering eyelids you

know his eyes are wide open and

staring and glazed, the blue in them so

anxious and crystally in all this darkness, and his

mouth is open, he is breathing hard from the climb

and panting a bit, his brow is crumpled

and pale, his long fingers curved,

his hand open, and in the center of each hand

the dry dirty boyish palm

resting like a cookie. I look at him in his

quest, the thin muscles of his arms

passionate and tense, I look at her with her

face like the face of a snake who swallowed a deer,

content, content–and I know if I wake her she’ll

smile and turn her face toward me through

half sleep and open her eyes and I

know if I wake him he’ll jerk and say Don’t and sit

up and stare about him in blue

unrecognition, oh my Lord how I

know these two. When love comes to me and says

What do you know, I say This girl, this boy.

Man, these poems blew my mind this month. Beautiful.