July 20, 2017KR BlogBlogEnthusiamsLiteratureReading

Eating the World

Parenting literature says that we should read to our newborns from the very beginning. Exposure to music is also supposed to support cognitive development, even in the womb, but I admit that I could never get myself in the habit of reading or singing to my belly, and I wasn’t going to shell out for one of THESE either. When I mentioned to my husband that I already felt like I was shirking my maternal responsibilities by not reading Goodnight Moon at my uterus, he reminded me that (especially this spring, when I was at the Amy Clampitt Residency), I spent plenty of time reading drafts of my poems out loud to myself. It didn’t particularly matter whether I was “intentionally” reading to the baby; for better or for worse, the kid had been attending a poetry reading for one from the very beginning.

Before the days of her life started to blur together for me, as days do, each little moment seemed momentous, and I thought I’d be able to keep track of her “firsts” endlessly. One “first” that has stuck with me, however, is the first thing I ever read to her outside of the womb. It was our first day home from the hospital, and I had just finished nursing her. We were alone. I didn’t have any baby books on hand, but some of my own books sat on a shelf within reach, and I picked one somewhat at random, thinking I’d read for a minute as she fell asleep. The book was Edward Hirsch’s How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love with Poetry, and I made it as far as the epigraph, not because she started crying, but because I did. Yes, there were hormones and sleep deprivation at play, but the words themselves felt like a benediction, and I read them over and over to her. Hirsch begins his book with this moment from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s journals:

I dreamed that I floated at will in the great Ether, and I saw this world floating also not far off, but diminished to the size of an apple. Then an angel took it in his hand and brought it to me and said, “This must thou eat.” And I ate the world.

In First We Read, Then We Write: Emerson on the Creative Process, Robert D. Richardson writes:

Emerson’s non-Calvinist, Rousseau-like belief that we are born not just good, but open–to the world and to others–led him to prize first thoughts, hints, glimmers, premonitions, first-formings, harbingers, and he took extraordinary care all his life to capture in writing his first impressions. He told Elizabeth Peabody to write down her thoughts as they came to her, and in the imagery in which they first appeared. He did this himself, and he was even careful to write down what he could remember of his dreams when he awoke. Some of Emerson’s best things come from his dreams and from his hunger to capture them. In 1840 . . . Emerson, now in his late thirties, was full of energy and confidence in what he called ‘these flying days.’ ‘I dreamed,’ he wrote in his journal, ‘that I floated at will in the great ether, and I saw this world floating also not far off, but diminished to the size of an apple. Then an angel took it in his hand and brought it to me and said, ‘this must thou eat.’ And I ate the world.’

And here I think of Ilya Kaminsky’s poem “Between Arrests,” in which he writes the following line:

A child learns the world by putting it in his mouth.