the straying butterfly

in his introduction of w.g. sebald during the german author’s appearance at the jewish community center in new york city in december, 2001, andre aciman spoke about the uncanny nature of our encounters with texts. that is, free from a direct recommendation or directive, what determines whether we select one book or another to read? how do we stumble upon those texts whose encounters with becoming defining moments in our lives. in my experience, texts have held significance not only for what they were or said, but for when they were —

  • “happy families are all alike. every unhappy is unhappy in its own way.” these words were an awakening for a still relatively timid seventeen-year-old.
  • “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” was an invitation that transported an even shier fifteen-year-old to fanciful worlds.
  • “…on top of Mount Katahdin in Maine where each morning the sun first strikes United States territory.” because of these words i developed mythical fascination with the mountain that i eventually climbed for the first time ten years ago and then again last year.

given the uncanny ways we encounter the texts of our world, it is perhaps not at all a coincidence the link that caught my eye on my facebook wall, which i visit with decreasing frequency as the weeks wear on, was a link to an article critiquing — actually, more criticizing than the nuanced critique i would have preferred, but nevertheless… the article took issue with the common core standards movement sweeping the US. the author, susan o’hanian, takes umbrage with what is euphemistically identified elsewhere as text complexity or what david coleman — who is cited as the lead author of the common core standards, including the definitions of reading implicit throughout — describes as “informational literacy.” were this my other, researchy blog, i might go into a meandering set of pontifications about the disservice american schools are doing to kids when they insist on standardizing how we read and from where we might glean information and which texts are suppliers of a more aesthetic experience… but in this space i’ll simply offer my lamentations as a reader and wonder aloud what woeful paths await the toddler who is beginning to recognize particular shapes as letter that make up words and who sits on the precipice of untold wonders, and yet who will soon be told that she must learn to read in order to: answer questions, take a test, get good grades, take a test, do well in school, take many more tests, get a good job. perhaps it is hypocritical of me to gaze upon these goals with great skepticism as someone who fit the prototype of a “good student” (at least through the end of high school…), but these are not merely among the objectives of schools, rather they are objectives that all-but-obliterate any other potential educational/inspirational/exploratory/playful purpose of schooling — and certainly when i went to school, the former was true. so perhaps we might ask, instead, what do we wish as a global society of one another, of our citizens? among whom do we want to live? an uncanny pedagogy is what i’d like to see…

my re-immersion into my once-dormant and now re-activated practice of voracious reading has certainly taken me on an outcome-free, non-instrumental, accidentally-philosophical, intellectually-playful ride; among the fruits of these glorious labors is an introduction to the writing of tomas transtromer whose name and words, just before they found their way to the nobel laureate announcement, reached me from two distinct sources. i share below a poem sent to me by a friend — a poem whose opening stanza found its way into a reference letter i recently wrote, whose evocation of the image of a butterfly flickering and straying amidst a stone and concrete forest is not entirely foreign in the unnecessarily treacherous topography of learning to read in america.

Air Mail

On the hunt for a letter-box
I took the letter through the city.
In the big forest of stone and concrete
the straying butterfly flickered.

The flying carpet of the stamp
the staggering lines of the address
plus my own sealed truth
soaring now over the ocean.

The Atlantic’s creeping silver.
The cloud-banks. The fishing-boat
like a spat-out olive stone.
And the pale scars of the wakes.

Down here work goes slowly.
I ogle the clock often.
The tree-shadows are black ciphers
in the greedy silence.

The truth’s there, on the ground
but no one dares to take it.
The truth’s there, on the street.
No one makes it his own.

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