When I was younger, I read greedily, starting books the moment I pulled them from their wrappings, devouring them in gulps. Sometimes I’d buy a book and read the whole thing in the parking lot of the bookstore, not willing even to wait until I got home. But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned how to savor a book, how to wait for the right moment, the right place and time.
For weeks now, the book Carta Marina, the newest collection of poetry from Ann Fisher-Wirth, has been sitting on the edge of my desk. I’d glance down at it as I grabbed the yellow legal pad that serves as my to-do list; a few times, I’d even picked it up to look more closely at the lovely, puzzling map on the purple cover. I’d taken a moment to open the pages at random and read a few lines, enough to know that the book was going to resonate with me.
The Swedish doctor said,
The pain is not your heart,
but in the cartilage and bone, the cage around the heart.
Or another time, I opened the book to these lines:
a boy who will blame his body
that warm midnight and never
tell her, never
tell her why he vanished.
I wanted to read more. I had glimpsed a narrative woven into the rich imagery of an ancient map: a married woman exploring the landscape of her past when the boyfriend she had at eighteen appears back in her life 37 years later, the ghost of a stillborn daughter still binding them together. I’d read some of the poems so I knew what to expect: a story of grief, of heart wrench, of steadfast love, and the puzzling ways those can be twisted together. I’d gotten a glimpse of the rhythm of the language: lyrical descriptions brought down to earth with expressions like, “before I fuck it up again.”
But my living room — filled with college guys and high school kids, tossing frisbees and insults freely to each other — didn’t seem the right place to read this book. When I packed for my trip to the monastery, I slid the thin volume of poetry into my bag with the pile of books I always bring.
That morning, I drove to the monastery, listening to music and drinking apple juice as I passed farms and towns and cornfields. I pulled into the little guest cottage, unpacked my stuff, stopped at the bookstore to let the guest brother know I’d arrived. I walked over to the chapel to light a candle in the crypt, to sit for a few moment on the stone floor, cross-legged near the warmth of votive candles. I wandered into the sheep barn to admire the newest baby lambs, to take photos and feel the rough wool against my hands.
When rain began drumming on the metal roof, I pulled up my hood and went back to the cottage, put water on for tea. I drank hot raspberry tea, heated up some broccoli with garlic sauce over rice. I could hear the chapel bell ringing: that meant that the monks were gathering for prayer.
And then, lying on a handmade quilt stitched by a monastery guest, near the big window that overlooks the sheep pasture, I pulled Carta Marina from my bag, and opened to the first page.