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Summer Books

Want to travel this summer? Open a book and let imagination fly


Not everyone knows the poet Daniel Wilson, 21, yet he could teach the academic fuddy-duddies a thing or two about poetry. For one thing, few academics even know about the South Pacific island nation of Kiribati, but Wilson could tell them. Wilson's is an inspirational story about the creative imagination, and even, if we stretch things a little, about how to give life on earth a fresh new start.

Daunted by the prospect of a boring summer job, Wilson perused an atlas until he found the little Micronesian island group. At about that moment the Muse hit him. He wrote to President Ieremia Tabai and, though unversed in verse, offered himself as the national poet of Kiribati. All he asked in return was a hut on the beach.

To Wilson's surprise, the president responded from Bairiki on Tarawa, biggest of 33 islands, once a British territory known as the Gilbert Islands. President Tabai promised to build him a hut on the beach. No money was mentioned, but somewhere in the exchange Wilson received a poster of one of the lovelier female inhabitants of Kiribati. The weather is obviously benign and the inhabitants dress accordingly -- so salary became less a priority.

The poem Wilson sent to wow and woo the Kiribati folks was, to say the least, a rush job -- took him about five minutes, he said. Here's part of it:

I'd like to live in Kiribati,
I feel it's the country for me,
Writing poems for all the people
Underneath a coconut tree. ...
I'd make them smile with words of verse
About all the things they see,
Which makes them feel so fortunate
To live in Kiribati.

The Kiribati folks congratulated him on the poem. Their enthusiasm probably reflects the fact that their republic ranks 181 out of 191 in the world literacy ranking.

"There's not a lot there. I'll probably just write about palm trees and coconuts and the local girls," Wilson said with poetic pragmatism.

Sure, national poet is not the job for everyone. Yet many may read about Wilson and say: Why didn't I think of that? The youthful imagination responds to the call of faraway places. Not only to the destination but the journey. Not only to the pragmatic but the poetic. Because, as St. Augustine said, our hearts are restless.

In Wallace Stevens: A Spiritual Poet in a Secular Age (Paulist Press, 129 pages, $9.95 paper), author Charles M. Murphy describes another poet lured by faraway places: "Wallace Stevens led a nomadic life, wide-ranging and forever exploratory of unknown lands and exotic destinations." His heart, like Wilson's, was restless. But, Murphy goes on, "all these significant journeys were within."

Far from being a globetrotter, Stevens worked for an insurance company from 1916 until his death in 1955; he even rose to be vice president. But he was no regular executive either: He walked the two miles to work and two miles back each day. This walking created the rhythm for his poetry. And during vacations he walked on the beach, composed poems and, as he said, meditated.

The point of it all, he wrote, was to "find God." He wanted to learn "how to live, what to do." Yet he was no pious fellow either. His was a determined, self-conscious search of the secular for the sacred. Writes Murphy: "What amazes us now is the extent to which Stevens actually transcended his world, how he escaped the prejudices and patriotisms of his time and wrote a poetry of universal reference." And down-to-earth. Stevens himself had said, "The great poems of heaven and hell have been written and the great poem of earth remains to be written."

The poems or novels we read, the innocent verses we all scrawl in our youth, the trips we take and the bigger, more adventuresome journeys we aspire to -- all these are us, trying to break loose from our banality, from the boredom or pain -- restless hearts searching for the "universal reference."

This NCR fiction supplement has, strictly speaking, no poetry in it. But novelists and other dabblers in fiction are, like Wilson and Stevens, looking for their own ends of the rainbow. Aristotle would have called them all poets. The reviews that follow do not pretend to offer the profoundest or most poetic or holiest works written recently. For one thing, that's all relative. Authors and themes come to favor and fade again, following tastes capricious as life itself. All one can hope for is an occasional taste of the "universal reference."

There is a rich heritage of cliches to remind us that hills are green far away. For Wilson, far away is in the South Pacific; for Stevens it's deep within and equally elusive. In a 1936 paper, "The Figure of the Youth as Virile Poet" (young Wilson would love that), Stevens expresses his preference for poetry over philosophy. Poetry "gives the world something more precious than clear ideas: the imagination of life," as Murphy explains it.

Perhaps some of the works that follow will help spark readers' imaginations and send them packing down their particular road to places far out or deep within.

National Catholic Reporter, May 23, 1997