July 20, 2011KR BlogKRReading

Self-Portrait as Library

This week, in the course of blogging for Best American Poetry, I stumbled into the self-portrait again, proposing that one’s books–one’s bookshelf, one’s library–create a kind of self-portrait.

Of course, this is true, just as one’s patterns of acquisition–of all things–form a graph of one’s movements, activities, interests. Every thing is an element in a life story, however interesting or banal. I visit a friend in her office, another in his home, I am looking at every thing, the books on the shelf to see what she is reading, what I may have missed, the pictures on his wall, the curiosities on the coffee table, trying to piece together the story.

Why, one might ask, do I have a small vaguely anthropomorphic figure that appears to be made out of bone? A graduate school professor, who was Canadian and interested in celebrating all things Canadian (even as I was in celebrating all things American) with a special interest in Inuit art and craft, gave it to me. I keep it at hand, and it makes me think of Wallace Stevens’ “The Snow Man” – “One must have a mind of winter“” – because I’ve Americanized and personalized it where it sits, too, in my memory theater.

Let’s take a stretch of books from my shelf.

To my right, just above my shoulder is this run: Karl Popper’s The Logic of Scientific Discovery, Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, Jorge Luis Borges’ Collected Fictions, an anthology entitled Do You Know What It Means To Miss New Orleans, aaron a. abeyta’s Rise, Do Not Be Afraid, Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, Ken Gonzales-Day’s Lynching in the West, James Goodman’s Stories of Scottsboro, Albert Murray’s The Hero and the Blues, and Nicole Cooley’s Breach. (The shelf actually spans the width of the room, so it goes on“)

Anyone who’s known me for a while knows my offices are always messes. No one would be able to find anything in my offices. There is no apparent scheme of organization. But that doesn’t mean things aren’t logical, in some way. My offices are, in their arrangements, graphs of time and attention. The books I’ve just named may have hit this particular shelf in some sort of accidental or peculiar way, but each title says something about my life, and the arrangement of them something else.

Why do I own these books? What, in my life, do they represent?

Popper’s The Logic of Scientific Discovery is, in some ways, a result of my having been an undergraduate at Auburn University, which was heavily invested (fiscally and culturally) in science and technology (it used to be called Alabama Polytechnic, and I used to want to be an astronaut) and which had a Liberal Arts curriculum that went into that culture–so I read part of this book in my Advanced Composition course. I later bought the book as part of my “day job” as director of Creative Writing at the University of Colorado, Denver, when I was trying to build a broad-based curriculum on creativity and thought.

Whether or not it’s accidental, it seems appropriate to me that this book should live next to Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, because I look to and teach Kafka’s novella as an example of the intuitive leap. Why should Gregor Samsa wake up to find himself turned into a cockroach? The story eventually suggests the lines of relation within the family and the world that are brought into focus by Samsa’s transformation, but, taken as a plot, The Metamorphosis shows very evocatively the process of making a leap and following where it leads. Popper’s concerned with method–but I think Kafka is, too.

Borges and Kafka definitely go together, and they’re also clearly creatures of kind of literary life that’s been led not only in Alabama but, imaginatively and sympathetically, in Prague and South America and so many other elsewheres. The New Orleans anthology brings one of those elsewheres into focus, this city where (you wouldn’t know this) I spent part of almost every summer of childhood and adolescence, where I spent a weekend with my closest friends just after our college graduation, where I return every year or two, and about which I’ve written (see my poem “Shore” in Persons Unknown, for example), and for which I was utterly heartbroken following Katrina. This anthology offers a number of different takes on the city and the storm, and it takes its title from a Louis Armstrong song, which also points to my deep investment in jazz–and so looks down the shelf to Albert Murray’s The Hero and The Blues.

abeyta’s and Capote’s books, besides being dazzling stylistically, are also indexes of place. abeyta’s an author of the San Luis Valley here in Colorado and justly celebrated throughout the state. Capote we claim in Alabama, so he stays with me as a tie to my home.

Maybe Ken Gonzales-Day’s book is also an indication of my life in the west, but as it sits next to Goodman’s Stories of Scottsboro, it ties my Southern root to the western landscape. Gonzales-Day’s book investigates the history of lynching in California and shows the ways in which racial identity and racial policing developed there, and it includes a good deal of lynching iconography–which also indicates Gonzales-Day’s work as a photographer and conceptual artist. Gonzales-Day has a series of photographs in which he’s taken a historical lynching image and erased the body, leaving only the image of the angry mob. Before I discovered Gonzales-Day’s work in a show at LACMA, I was already thinking about many of the same issues, which continue to run throughout my work (see, see, see). So, this book, while not a book of poetry keeps pointing me back to my poetry, even as Goodman’s Stories of Scottsboro, an investigation of what’s been called a legal lynching, testifies to the same interest, while tying that interest explicitly back to my home state.

Albert Murray is here in part because Murray is everywhere among my books. He’s one of the most unjustly under-celebrated writers. He’s a wonderful and poetic novelist–Train Whistle Guitar is high on my list of favorite and personally-most-important books–and an insightful commentator–read his The Omni-Americans and I guarantee you will realize his writing, like Ralph Ellison’s, is at the root of a great deal of analysis that seeks to understand the ecologies of race and culture in America. Murray is here, too, like Capote, because he’s an Alabama writer and we Alabamians need our heroes, since we have so many villains, too. This book is here, too, because the blues suggests a strategy for living with the histories explored by Gonzales-Day and Goodman and the absurdities explored by Kafka (and so, too, suggests that Borges and Kafka wrote a kind of blue)–it helps me, quite literally, live while I write.

As Murray’s book calls back–call and response style–to the New Orleans anthology, it also holds hands with Cooley’s book, which returns to New Orleans during the flood and chronicles the loss and calamity but also the love so many Orleanians (true and oblique) have, however difficult it is to explain or offer to others.

Nine books out of the six or seven thousand I own that form a kind of self-portrait. Any other nine might tell the same story.


I’ve gone through this, in part, to continue to develop this thread of posts about the self-portrait, which is more generally concerned with the way one relates to the world. But I’m also concerned with the ways in which specific works are records of a particular time–which is to linger over a question about the literary journal. The word journal, of course, signals the “day” (jour in French), and we know part of the worth of a journal comes in the way it records a moment in time, our time in literature. But, I’m also thinking about the way selections, like those in journals or anthologies, record the engagements of the editor, a particular personality, in that time.

So, dear readers of the Kenyon Review blog, consider this, too, a post-script to the “Why We Chose It” series, and an invitation to think about how you’d record your own engagements, your own movements in the world and time.