My tastes are eclectic; they must move with my short attention span. Reading encounters are brief bursts—if I’m not satisfied I will drop a book in the middle of my lounge room and there it will stay, long enough to attract hair-weeds and dust. Books must move me, keep me moving.
I am currently writing a poetic biography of George Balanchine. For that, I have been reading a lot of material on Balanchine (no surprises there), including books about the ballet master, memoirs and autobiographies by dancers, manuals on dance technique and more, all as a supplement to archival research I undertook a while back in the US. At this moment I’m deep in I Remember Balanchine, edited by Francis Mason—a 600+-page collection of anecdotes about the choreographer by those who knew him as ballet master, friend and/or colleague. I love reading contrary perspectives—a collection of reverences about any historical figure is doomed to become a dry hagiography. Who wants to know nothing but the facets of one man’s genius? Not me. Give me dirty secrets, pill popping, the steely shoulder. I collect these and put them in a jar.
Brevity hurled me through Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts and Bluets. The former begins with a bang, let me be crude, and proceeds to explore transforming bodies in love. Real love. I’ve never read it expressed so well that it could be identified: that is love, I want that! Bluets is ‘about’ the colour blue; it is also about an ill friend, a failed relationship, desire and … Nelson is a master-craftswoman of elastic boundaries.
I am about to read Susan Howe’s latest book Debths, which she says may be her last. I wrote my PhD on Susan Howe’s wide-ranging oeuvre, so everything new that she writes brings a nervous excitement to my stomach; nervous because of the residual trauma of undertaking a PhD, excitement because Susan Howe is my literary idol. I don’t say this lightly—what is impressive about her extensive body of work is that each new output is conceptually different. If one book seems to break apart the iconography of the lineated poem by setting out a mapwork of lines, the next reverts to couplets. More recently, she has been engaged in poem-collages and personal, lyric essays. I open the book at random and am presented with these lines:
Closed book who stole
who away do brackets
signify emptiness was
it a rift in experience
—a ghostly premonition of my waning attention? What narcissism directs the author’s gaze at me?
In London for research, I find a new Anne Carson, another writer to whom I am persistently drawn. Book is too reductive for Carson. Artefact is perhaps more appropriate. Float is a collection of pamphlets housed in a transparent sleeve—poetry, essay, theatre script, critique, list; they can be read in any order. ‘And you have a one in three hundred chance of hanging on to the surprise in your ruin.’
After reading Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home—a graphic memoir about her father—I had to read her follow-up memoir Are You My Mother? I’m not a very good ‘reader’ of graphic texts, as I tend to want to power through the words. Bechdel’s graphics are beautifully drawn and sometimes shocking; her skill with facial expressions and key detail has taught me to ‘read’ differently, graphically. But both of these books are more than both ‘graphic’ and ‘memoir’; Bechdel is well-read and finds sense in her life through a collocation of textual discourses, literary and theoretical.
Briohny Doyle’s The Island Will Sink was a wild surprise. At first I wasn’t sure I could keep up with the narrative, which rockets from the start into the busy life of the protagonist, a filmmaker living in a believable future world on the brink of mass-ecological disaster. But I settled into its rhythms and was hooked.
I never liked cats but since I took one home, and then a year later, a second, I’ve received that brain parasite that makes you love cats. Someone told me that was a myth, but I like to believe that an insurmountable affliction conquered my stubbornness, rather than my temperament being easily changeable. Anyway, it also explains why I bought The Guest Cat in London, a story by Takashi Hiraide about a Japanese couple, about my age, and both writers, who open their house to a wandering cat that doesn’t belong to them. It is simply and beautifully written, but the cat dies about halfway through (spoiler, sorry) and that annoyed and upset me.
Elastic boundaries, elastic bodies and cats. That’s my reading in a nutshell. All of this makes me think of George Balanchine’s beloved cat Mourka; there are many photographs of the two together, the choreographer observing the cat who flips and leaps and performs. Balanchine said ‘I don’t teach him to dance, he teaches me.’ Eclectic reading can function similarly—it teaches you to be light-footed, to learn new steps from a wide field, to maintain elasticity in your writerly body. It teaches you to shake off the dust.
Jessica L. Wilkinson is the author of two poetic biographies–marionette: a biography of miss marion davies (Vagabond Press, 2012) and Suite for Percy Grainger (Vagabond Press, 2014). She is completing a third, on choreographer George Balanchine. She is the founding editor of Rabbit: a journal for nonfiction poetry, and teaches Creative Writing at RMIT University.