One of my favorite books when I was little was e. e. cummings’ Fairy Tales, which I didn’t realize he had written until my family moved when I was 16 and I found it god knows where. At the time I was obsessed with e. e. cummings’ poetry, having had no idea that I’d read him over a decade before, memory quiet.
I remembered this earlier and it got me thinking—along with the many blog posts and articles about National Poetry Month and Poem in Your Pocket day, especially two beautiful ones from Harriet, the Poetry Foundation blog (1, 2)—how much words form who you turn out to be.
I was lucky: I grew up in a shy, bookish family, in which spending time together meant reading quietly in adjacent rooms. Home to me is silent sunning trees and dark wood bookshelves lining walls; the only sounds my mother’s tea spoon stirring in sugar, the cat chewing, wind, coffee continually bubbling from the filter.
Here, then, I wanted to write about books I distinctly remember finding, from childhood to present, to roll in the serendipity of finding what you need precisely when it’s needed.
My father brought Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone home in paperback. I remember thinking the cover looked dumb but he read it out loud to my brother and me and we loved it. When the movies came out we figured out that we’d been mispronouncing Hagrid and Hermione for years.
I found Emily Dickinson in the school library, stone and sticky with murals, in the sixth grade. A white cover with a bland cluster of pink roses—an image I now associate inexorably with Dickinson despite its incongruence to the intensity of her feeling, her fierce quiet. I memorized “I heard a fly buzz—when I died—” from reading it too often in the hard-cushioned, waxy-sterile armchairs that seem unique to school libraries.
In my first week of college my mother sent me a card with a Rainer Maria Rilke quote, and I had read before in Plath’s diaries that Rilke’s poetry was fantastic, so I bought his Letters to a Young Poet and, just when life was weird and very alone, I had someone to tell me: “You must realize that something is happening to you, that life has not forgotten you, that it holds you in its hand and will not let you fall.” I put the card on my desk every time I go somewhere different, to remind me.
Last semester I posted a Jack Gilbert poem I’d found randomly online—“The Forgotten Dialect of the Heart”—on the online discussion board for my poetry workshop. That night, without having read my post, my professor got up and began a reading of his poetry with the same poem. I borrowed his copy of The Great Fires, from which the poem comes, read it that night with a coffee mug of wine, and bought a used copy which arrived in my mailbox pre-annotated by a person I’ll never know who writes in black-inked block letters.