Book Club

Lilacs + Poetics.

By: Jen Shoop

There is a wonderful poem by Amy Lowell on lilacs–only, it’s not about lilacs at all.  As with much poetry, the subject matter is evocative, coincidental, suggestive rather than mimetic.  I was reminded of this while walking Tilly along the northernmost edge of Sheep’s Meadow the other day, down a dirt path lined with fragrant lilacs.  I stopped to take a photograph — how could I not? — and I found myself thinking about the Lowell poem, about its languid elegance and its oddly poignant personification:

“Lilacs in dooryards
Holding quiet conversations with an early moon;
Lilacs watching a deserted house
Settling sideways into the grass of an old road;
Lilacs, wind-beaten, staggering under a lopsided shock of bloom
Above a cellar dug into a hill.
You are everywhere.
You were everywhere.
You tapped the window when the preacher preached his sermon,
And ran along the road beside the boy going to school.”
I dwelt on the narrator’s gradual internalization of the lilac, the unhurried blurring of the lines between her description of the flower and her description of herself, the ultimate conflation of the external with the internal.  It’s a thing of beauty to watch, as though the poem unfolds in a sort of time lapse, until she crescendos in this rousing final stanza:
“Heart-leaves of lilac all over New England,
Roots of lilac under all the soil of New England,
Lilac in me because I am New England,
Because my roots are in it,
Because my leaves are of it,
Because my flowers are for it,
Because it is my country
And I speak to it of itself
And sing of it with my own voice
Since certainly it is mine.”

I love this personal anthem, this Whitman-esque song-of-myself.  The mapping of the natural world onto the complex inner workings of the speaker’s soul call to mind the book we’re reading for Magpie book club, a different medium and different tone altogether, but one that carefully interrogates this relationship between man and nature in many of its constituent short stories.

As I hopscotched from the lilacs in Central Park to the Lowell poem to the Sachdeva book and then paused to glance back over my shoulder, something inside me swelled.  Was it gratitude?  Was it that hazy romanticism I often feel when an author manages to evoke something precise, something I have felt but maybe forgotten, with just the right turn of phrase?  (I have felt that way many times while reading Sachdeva, and many times, too, while re-reading the Lowell poem.  Why do I feel tears prick my eyes when I read: “You are the smell of all Summers, / The love of wives and children, / The recollection of gardens of little children, / You are State Houses and Charters / And the familiar treading of the foot to and fro on a road it knows.”  There is something deeply intimate and familiar about Lowell’s writing here.  I nod; I know what she means by feel rather than intellect.)

But there was a doubling that afternoon, a mirroring, as if the books and poems I was reading and the natural world I was traipsing through were connected to one another like a paper garland that has just been unfolded, the delicate edges accordioning into something far more elaborate than anticipated.

I should read more poetry, I thought.  But poetry is a tough genre.  It’s out of vogue, out of favor.  It seems to mandate a quiet room and a level of attention out of sync with the pace of modern life.  There are also the problems of format and discovery: I don’t want to sit down and read a string of poems — one or two here and there are just enough — but poems are so often sold in collections meant to be consumed together, or daunting, academic-looking volumes that have nary a place in a home library.  Stand-alone poems are singularly difficult to ferret out, come to think of it — they’re more like buried treasure, presenting themselves in excerpt form in an epigraph in a book I’m reading, or in a flash of memory (as happened above), or in an oddball blogpost (ahem, hello!)

But I should read more poetry.  Poetry is a distillation of emotion; its format invites a focus and frugality wholly absent in ramblings like mine here.*  It can open me up, serve as a gateway to some as-yet-unaccessed memory or feeling or connection.  And it can send me deep into the lilac-laden heart of a May afternoon in Central Park, where nothing in particular happened, and yet I crossed some invisible intellectual threshold I can’t quite manage to explain.

So, I will read more poetry.

Who is with me?  Who reads poetry, and how do you come by it?

(*My academic training foists the following caveat: much of it is anyway.  Also, ICYMI and in case you were wondering what the hell poetics means…)

Post-Script: What to Read Next.

Looking for your next book?

First, please consider reading the our first book club book.  It is EXCELLENT.  Weird, smart, wildly imaginative, pregnant with subtext.  I cannot wait to discuss.

If that’s not your cup of tea, here are three books I’ve been saying “I’ll read next” for the last few weeks: a Reese Witherspoon book club pick, a classic that was apparently written about the jetset Jackie O. palled around with (you know I’m obsessed with all things Jackie), and a parenting book my sister-in-law recommended.

I’m also planning to read this Reese Witherspoon pick when I need a break from heavier things.

For my book club with two of my dearest girlfriends, I’m reading this.  Don’t scoff — it’s supposed to be EXCELLENT.   (And Roxane Gay approved!)

If you need something lighter, here’s my current fluffy sidecar, or check out my list of my top 10 favorite beach reads.

For heartier fare — these books changed my life.

And, finally, this book has major buzz right now because a show has just been released based on it!  Heads up — it’s pretty dark for best-seller status.

I have also been adding books on my radar to the books section of Le Shop.

P.S.  Does anyone know anything about area rug cleaning?  Tilly has been housebroken for years and then she peed on our carpet TWICE in the last week.  TWICE?!  What the hell.  I’m having a service come out to clean it on site because I’m terrified of having an apartment with a dog pee smell (sick), but I’m also contemplating buying one of these, which gets good reviews, for future spot cleans.  Any thoughts/recs?  I’m mainly concerned about the odor…

P.P.S.  Cute as a button.

P.P.P.S.  I just restocked some beauty essentials — my favorite brow gel and my must-have mascara — and am about to test two newbies: Chanel’s nourishing mascara base and Bobbi Brown’s extra lip tint.





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11 thoughts on “Lilacs + Poetics.

  1. I have never been a big poetry reader — I mostly engaged with poetry during college — but I did keep a poetry journal during that time that I refer back to on occasion. Actually, come to think of it, I think it’s at my parents’ house with most of my old journals! I enjoy poetry but I’m in line with what you said — a poem or two at a time is all I need to feel satisfied.

    Books, on the other hand … !!

    I am starting the Sachdeva tonight (finally!) and the Sittenfeld is #2 in my to-read queue. It’s so funny that you posted about Cinderella Ate My Daughter, as I’ve wanted to read that for some time now! I’m also into the idea of reading Girls & Sex by the same author — the adolescent psychology genre has been a favorite since, well, adolescence. (Am I the only one who read Reviving Ophelia five times by the age of 18?)

    And Sweetbitter! I bought it when it came out in paperback but haven’t read it yet. My boyfriend wanted to watch the show the other night and I resisted since I haven’t read the book (I’m one of those…I STILL haven’t seen Call Me By Your Name because I’ve yet to read the book and have heard that it’s life changing-ly good!) … but I ended up watching the first two episodes. The first one was good enough to keep me invested for the second, but at the end of the second episode, I felt kind of “meh” about the show. We’ll see if I ever get around to reading the book! I’d like to, but I own so many others that I’m more excited to read. Haha!

    P.S. Good luck with Tilly … hope she doesn’t have an infection! I love that your Magpie tribe rallied with possible answers.

    1. Ooh – so much to read! It’s weird how sometimes I feel overwhelmed by how many books I want to read, and other times, I’m like, “Ehhh I have nothing to read!” (The latter usually when I’m mired in the middle of a book I’m forcing myself to finish and I’m generally smeh about reading.)

      Haven’t read Call Me By Your Name, or seen the movie — keep me posted on your reactions!


    2. Yes! Agreed.

      I started the Sachdeva … so good and so unique! What a great pick for your first book club!

      I’ll definitely keep you posted about CMBYN — I think I’m going to read it after the Sittenfeld short stories. 🙂 xx

  2. I have a dog who pees a lot out of anger (if only she could spell, she could really tell me how she feels) and I am a fan of Nature’s Miracle, which is a cleaning product specifically for these kinds of pet stains (you can buy it on Amazon, inexpensive even if you buy in a gallon drum like me). It seems to really break down the stains so you don’ t end up with a lingering unpleasant scent. I would try that before investing in a gadget that is going to take up valuable real estate in the closet.

    But agree with the other poster that it sounds like something might be going on with Tilly — UTI is a very common cause of sudden indoor peeing for a housebroken dog. That has actually happened with my pup, I realized something was wrong when she had an accident in her bed (she’s fine peeing all over my stuff but she usually keeps her own little bed nice and dry 🙂 ).

  3. Definitely have Tilly checked out if you haven’t already! I work in veterinary medicine and unprompted accidents are a sign we watch for that could be UTI, kidneys, bladder, etc.
    As for cleaning, I swear by the Woolite Pet cleaner. It’s the best I’ve found on the market after years of dogs and horses!

  4. Tilly may have a UTI! This happened with our dog (it was so weird that he couldn’t seem to hold it) and someone suggested we get him tested for a UTI, and sure enough. He went on antibiotics and problem solved. Read your P.S. and just had to pass along the tip, from one dog owner to another. The dog pee odor is a question for someone else to tackle… 🙂

    1. Thanks, Elisabeth! Wow – I had no clue, and am so grateful for the several of you who have suggested this. xoxo

  5. Ahh poetry! I love how you share your knowledge with us about it— for me, although I love reading, I just can’t get into poetry (aside from The Romantics and Dickensin, both holdovers from my dreamy eyed youth).
    I had to write in on a cautionary note: Answered Prayers IS NOT. I am almost fanatical about capote, swans, Jackie, and finishing books in general. I couldn’t stomach it. Couldn’t read more than 1/3 of the book. It’s incredibly graphic and crass, so much so that I couldn’t look beyond for any further merit. With you, and your literary training, you may do better, but just a warning!!

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