Anyone who knows me knows I admire books to distraction. I admire what they hold inside and I admire that we can hold them in our hands--their good-natured portability. My copy of Invisible Cities, for instance--dog-eared, coffee-stained and scribbled in--has seen as many cities as Italo Calvino dreamed of. And you can read it in the bathtub, which I don't recommend for laptops and palm computers.
Thus wedded to the tangibility of the book object itself, I was a little resistant as I sampled my first book on tape. But I was hooked. You can do things while listening to recorded books--things like binding books or driving to other places. I find this very pleasing.
I won't go into a discussion of the quality and importance of listening now. Listening, like almost anything else in the world, can be used or abused. Whole chunks of a 12-cassette Larry McMurtry novel were left muttering in the dust by the side of the road on my way to Albuquerque in favor of thinking about whatever other important things I had to think about. The danger of recorded text is that it can become background music.
Poetry is even more challenging, and rewarding. Usually, poems are about the length of certain songs, the language is more dense and weighted, there's often no realistic narrative to ride out--you have to listen harder. And sometimes, you have to think harder. Poems are not potato chips, and it's not in your best reader's interest to move on to the next one too quickly.
Which is why I like the CD format. It's easier to hit replay and hear a poem several times than it is with cassettes or LPs--remember trying to set the needle down on that thin, dark line between tracks?
Poetry was designed to be heard aloud, so in a weird way we've come full circle and can now shake Homer's hand as he sets down the lyre. The question is, beyond the work itself: does the poet have the performing presence, and do we have the attention spans to make the meeting worthwhile?
Local publisher Kore Press takes up the challenge again with Alison Deming's The Monarchs: A Poem Sequence on CD. Recipient of numerous literary awards and scholarly distinctions, Deming is the author of six books and editor of an exhaustive anthology of Southwestern poetry. The Monarchs was originally published in 1997 by Louisiana State University Press, and the 60 poems recorded on this CD are the result of two sessions at our own community radio KXCI. With additional sound editing and cover designs by book artists Lisa Bowden and Nancy Solomon, Kore has managed another tour de force of local literary talent.
And Deming's poems may well be a tour de force of the extended metaphorical possibilities of scientific fact and the literary sensibility. The Monarchs is about the migratory butterfly--because Deming is true to her research. Also, because Deming is both insightful and a consummate craftsperson, The Monarchs is about finding a way along the circuitous paths of our lives and back to ourselves as human beings. And, yes, sometimes that's not a pretty journey. Deming's poems use what is uniquely not human as a foil to explore what is most wonderful, regrettable and, thus, most marvelous about our lives.
In other words, what is most uniquely human.