and what is the use of a book,” thought Alice, “without pictures or conversations”
Books have led me and followed me all my life. The ones that led sometimes encouraged unexpected consequences. The Doors of Perception by Aldous Huxley provided my first-year University roommate and I with the courage and curiosity one fine spring morning to each swallow a large brownish capsule that proved to be nothing at all like a vitamin. The books that followed me almost always did so jammed together in taped cardboard boxes, often in the trunk of a second-hand car heading west across America to the very upper edge of Idaho and later, across the seas to other places. But always they came with me. One in particular—The Catcher in The Rye.
Before I was old enough to know that stories were easiest found in books, there was a song, recorded on vinyl and played on a massive stereo in the living room of our tall gabled house in West Hartford, Connecticut. The vocalist was Vaughn Monroe, and the song was ‘Ghost Riders in the Sky’, written by an unknown Nashville musician named Johnny Cash. The words ignited my five-year old soul. Days later a hurricane warning was posted for Northern New England, and my parents panicked when they counted up the children and realized I was missing. They found me rocking away in a backyard swing hung from an ancient apple tree, searching the rumbling clouds for the Riders.
Choosing to become an English major at University required almost no thought. What could be so hard about books? Then came The Faerie Queen, Beowulf, and every play Shakespeare ever wrote, taught by people who knew what they were talking about; poetry by Donne, Blake, Dryden, Keats. There was structure there, and layers of meaning that required concentration and commitment. I realized for the first time that I only knew how to dog paddle in this ocean of words, that real swimming would take muscle and grit.
I did not mean to become a poet. The dream of emerging as the next Great American Novelist tasted so sweet in my imagination. But it was time to pursue a Masters Degree, and I found myself in a poetry course taught by Cleopatra Mathis, a wild-haired, fiery poet who expected genuine effort and critical thought. The very first text was Diving Into the Wreck by Adrienne Rich. I was ten years older than everyone else in the class, and the only male.
I learned. A lot.
One of the best lessons was that a book of poetry is like a buffet; you don’t have to eat everything on the table, but if you take your time and choose carefully, you will be well fed. That is how I found the poem ‘Rain’ from a book of the same name by William Carpenter, a work of profound and simple joy. I discovered ‘How to Like It’ from Cemetery Nights by Stephen Dobyns, about—well, you read it and figure what it is about. And as long as you are there, read ‘Pony Express’.
I was starting to get it, finished that degree with a fine grade. My thesis was a chapbook, Fishing With the Dead. I spent several weeks over the next two summers at the Frost Festival of Poetry in Franconia, New Hampshire. I won a writing prize. A small one, but, you know…
Then came the Beats—Ginsberg, McClure, Ferlinghetti and, especially, Kerouac. I jumped in, and it was like kissing electricity. But there was sadness, as well. If you read Big Sur with kindness, you will see Kerouac understanding that his great ambition to be considered a major literary figure of his time was slipping past him, that no amount of drink or love from a woman could change that cold and ultimate reality.
I left America and moved to Scotland for a job at the University. There is nowhere else in the world like Edinburgh. Close your eyes and imagine Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. That is exactly what it looks like.
I confess my genre of choice is crime fiction, and I do not apologize. In my earliest days I learned the streets of this new city by reading Ian Rankin and following Rebus in his dark struggles with crime and his own nature.
I met a shy young woman from the Outer Hebrides. She came to my flat one evening for a drink, saw the boxes of books piled up in a back room, and looked at me. She said she might consider spending the night once they were unpacked and up on shelves.
We got married on the High Street in a law library. Our son came along 18 months later. The midwife laughed when she came in four days after he was born to find me reading to him from a soft cloth book.
The writing community in Scotland is rich and generous. Ian Rankin, Sandy McCall Smith, Jo Rowling—they are each of them lovely and genuine people. The poets are legend—Liz Lochhead, Jenny Lindsay, Kevin Cadwallender, Claire Askew‚ they are worth seeking out. StAnza, held in St. Andrews each March, may well be the best poetry celebration in the world.
We moved to Tasmania just ten months ago, so everything here is still very new. I started my quest to understand my new Hobart home with works by David Owen and Poppy Gee. Peter Temple is genius. I moved on to Gould’s Book of Fish by Richard Flanagan, Nicholas Shakespeare’s In Tasmania, the Griffith Review #39 Tasmania—The Tipping Point and The Aurora Chaser’s Handbook by Margaret Sonnemann.
On the bedside table now are two novels that will bring me in deeper: The Doubleman by Christopher Koch, and The Alphabet of Light and Dark by Danielle Wood. I am starting to read some Tasmanian poetry, beginning with Adrienne Eberhard. That last bit is challenging, because we poets are acutely aware of our own inadequacies and always find writing in others we wish was ours.
No matter. There is plenty of time here at the edge of the world. No cowboys in the clouds yet, but lots and lots of rainbows.
Young Dawkins is a prize-winning poet living in Tasmania with his wife and son. He has competed in various Slam Poetry competitions throughout the world and was a central figure in the New Hampshire beat revival movement.