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This Is a Poem That Heals Fish: An Almost Unbearably Wonderful Picture-Book About How Poetry Works Its Magic

“A poem … is when you are in love and have the sky in your mouth.”

“Poetry can break open locked chambers of possibility, restore numbed zones to feeling, recharge desire,” Adrienne Rich wrote in contemplating the cultural power of poetry. But what is a poem, really, and what exactly is its use?

Every once in a while, you stumble upon something so lovely, so unpretentiously beautiful and quietly profound, that you feel like the lungs of your soul have been pumped with a mighty gasp of Alpine air. This Is a Poem That Heals Fish (public library) is one such vitalizing gasp of loveliness — a lyrical picture-book that offers a playful and penetrating answer to the question of what a poem is and what it does. And as it does that, it shines a sidewise gleam on the larger question of what we most hunger for in life and how we give shape to those deepest longings.

Written by the French poet, novelist, and dramatist Jean-Pierre Simeón, translated into English by Enchanted Lion Books founder Claudia Zoe Bedrick (the feat of translation which the Nobel-winning Polish poet Wisława Szymborska had in mind when she spoke of “that rare miracle when a translation stops being a translation and becomes … a second original”), and illustrated by the inimitable Olivier Tallec, this poetic and philosophical tale follows young Arthur as he tries to salve his beloved red fish Leon’s affliction of boredom.

Arthur’s mommy looks at him.
She closes her eyes,
she opens her eyes…

Then she smiles:

— Hurry, give him a poem!

And she leaves for her tuba lesson.

Puzzled and unsure what a poem is, Arthur goes looking in the pantry, only to hear the noodles sigh that there is no poem there. He searches in the closet and under his bed, but the vacuum cleaner and the dust balls have no poem, either.

Determined, Arthur continues his search.
He runs to Lolo’s bicycle shop.
Lolo knows everything, laughs all the time, and is always in love.
He is repairing a tire and singing.

So begins the wonderful meta-story of how poetry comes into being as a tapestry of images, metaphors, and magpie borrowings. Each person along the way contributes to Arthur’s tapestry a different answer, infused with the singular poetic truth of his or her own life. Lolo offers:

— A poem, Arthur, is when you are in love and have the sky in your mouth.

— Oh…? Okay.

Next, he visits his friend the baker, Mrs. Round, who echoes Thom Gunn’s insistence that “poetry is of many sorts and is all around us,” rather than something reserved for the special formal class of “poets.”

Mrs. Round tells Arthur:

— A poem? I don’t know much about that.
But I know one, and it is hot like fresh bread.
When you eat it, a little is always left over.

— Oh…? Okay.

Arthur turns to his neighbor next, “old Mahmoud who comes from the desert and waters his rhododendrons every morning at 9 o’clock.”

Mahmoud offers his answer with easeful conviction:

— A poem is when you hear the heartbeat of a stone.

— Oh…? All right.

Arthur hastens home to check on poor Leon, who appears to be asleep, “floating gently amidst the seaweed as if thinking.” And because this is the sort of story in which a canary can only be named after an Ancient Greek comic playwright, Arthur next seeks an answer from his canary named Aristophanes, “who is no bird brain.”

Our imagination is left to ponder why, on the next page, the cage contains not the yellow canary but a red-haired woman, who sings Aristophanes’s answer. Perhaps she is a visual allusion to Aristophanes’s play Assemblywomen, or perhaps she represents a muse, whom Tallec invokes to remind us that the muse hides in many guises and reveals herself in the most improbable of places.

— A poem is when words beat their wings.
It is a song sung in a cage.

— Oh…? Okay.

Just then, Arthur’s grandmother arrives and is met with the same question, which she answers after thinking hard, evidenced by the way “she always smiles a silly smile when thinking.”

— When you put your old sweater on backwards or inside out, dear Arthur, you might say that it is new again.
A poem turns words around, upside down, and — suddenly! — the world is new.

But grandma encourages Arthur to ask his grandfather, too, who “often writes poems … instead of repairing pipes.”

— A poem? grandpa says, tugging on his mustache and looking worried. A poem, well… it’s what poets make.

— Oh…? All right.

— Even if the poets do not know it themselves!

Frustrated with the multitude of confounding answers, Arthur returns to Leon’s fishbowl only to find him sound asleep beneath his large stone, enveloped in seaweed.

— I’m sorry, Leon, I have not found a poem. All I know is this:

A poem
is when you have the sky in your mouth.
It is hot like fresh bread,
when you eat it,
a little is always left over.

A poem
is when you hear
the heartbeat of a stone,
when words beat their wings.
It is a song sung in a cage.

A poem
is words turned upside down
and suddenly!
the world is new.

Leon opens one eye, then the other, and for the first time in his life he speaks.

— Then I am a poet, Arthur.

— Oh…?

Complement the almost unbearably wonderful This Is a Poem That Heals Fish with other poetic and profound Enchanted Lion treasures: Cry, Heart, But Never Break, a Danish illustrated meditation on loss and life, What Color Is the Wind?, a French serenade to the senses inspired by a blind child, and Pinocchio: The Origin Story, an Italian inquiry into the grandest questions of existence, then revisit poet Elizabeth Alexander on what poetry does for the human spirit.

Illustrations courtesy of Enchanted Lion Books


The Gold Leaf: An Enchanting Modern Fable About Possessiveness Redeemed by Unselfish Appreciation of Life’s Shared Wonder

A gentle reminder that the most beautiful things in life belong to no one and to everyone.

The Gold Leaf: An Enchanting Modern Fable About Possessiveness Redeemed by Unselfish Appreciation of Life’s Shared Wonder

Wellbeing, argued the great humanistic philosopher and psychologist Erich Fromm in his treatise on having vs. being and how to master the art of living, requires “breaking through one’s narcissism and breaking through the property structure of one’s existence.” Indeed, few things limit our wellbeing more than the compulsion toward ownership, from our conquest of material possessions as a metric of self-actualization to our relationship with time, which becomes another good to “save” or “waste.” But the most joyous things in life, as Hermann Hesse hinted a century ago, are best beheld rather than held in the grip of possession; best appreciated rather than appropriated.

That’s what Brooklyn-based writer Kirsten Hall and Canadian illustrator Matthew Forsythe explore with great gentleness in The Gold Leaf (public library) — an enchanting modern fable about covetous possessiveness redeemed by the unselfish appreciation of life’s unownable wonder.

The story begins on an ordinary day in a forest just awakening from winter’s slumber, awash in spring’s “jungle green, laurel green, moss green, mint green, pine green, avocado green, and, of course, sap green.”

At first, bustling with the thrill of the changing season, none of the creatures notices a most unusual visitation — a gold leaf, shimmering in the canopy.

But one by one, they see it, and one by one, they seek to possess it. “Each wanted it more than anything else in the world,” writes Hall, whose grandfather was a gold leaf artist responsible for embellishing some of New York City’s most iconic buildings, including Rockefeller Center, Lincoln Center, and Carnegie Hall.

Suddenly, the harmony of the forest turns into chaotic competition for the gold leaf, which leaps from the page in actual gold ink against the textured vibrancy of Forsythe’s gorgeous illustrations, echoing a Bambi-era vintage Disney aesthetic.

A warbler plucks it first, but a chipmunk snatches it away, then a mouse steals it, then a deer, then a fox.

With each wily heist, we see little flecks of gold fly off from the leaf as it grows more and more tattered by the rapacity of its captors.

At last, no one has the leaf — its countless pieces scatter at the animals’ feet in a state of unbelonging. Hall writes:

The forest grew still. The only sound was the wind rustling the leaves, which sent bits of gold swirling in every direction.

With sorrow, the animals realized that their precious leaf was gone.

And so the seasons turn again — summer swelters in, the animals begin to forget about the gold life, and life in the forest slowly returns to normal.

Autumn comes, with its kaleidoscopic foliage of yellows — “waxberry yellow, bumblebee yellow, mustard yellow, candle-glow yellow, maize yellow, harvest-moon yellow, even yellow ochre.” And yet, no gold.

Another winter comes, then another spring rejuvenates the forest.

And then, once again, the miracle grows aspark in the forest — the gold leaf has returned. Hall writes:

The forest was alive with wonder. But this time, no one wanted the gold leaf.

We see the creatures leaping in jubilation, some now golden themselves, for they have learned that their satisfaction lies in the shared glee of bearing witness to beauty that belongs to no one and therefore to everyone.

The Gold Leaf, which follows Hall’s The Jacket, comes from Brooklyn-based independent powerhouse Enchanted Lion Books, publisher of such imaginative treasures as Cry, Heart, But Never Break, a Danish illustrated meditation on loss and life; What Color Is the Wind?, a French serenade to the senses inspired by a blind child; Pinocchio: The Origin Story, an Italian inquiry into the grandest questions of existence; and This Is a Poem That Heals Fish, possibly the loveliest picture-book since The Little Prince.


A Stunning Illustrated Celebration of the Wilderness and the Human Role in Nature Not as Conqueror but as Humble Witness

“It is said that the forest has a certain limit if you look straight ahead, but the sides are boundless.”

A Stunning Illustrated Celebration of the Wilderness and the Human Role in Nature Not as Conqueror but as Humble Witness

“When we have learned how to listen to trees,” Hermann Hesse wrote in his lyrical love letter to our arboreal companions, “then the brevity and the quickness and the childlike hastiness of our thoughts achieve an incomparable joy.” When Walt Whitman beheld the singular wisdom of trees, he saw in them qualities “almost emotional, palpably artistic, heroic.” Philosopher Martin Buber insisted that trees can teach us to see others as they truly are.

Indeed, whatever the splendor, wisdom, and heroism of trees may be, it stems from the individual’s orientation to the whole — not only as an existential metaphor, but as a biological reality as science is uncovering the remarkable communication system via which trees feel and communicate with one another. Biologist David George Haskell recognized this in his poetic expedition to a dozen of the world’s most unusual trees: “The forest is not a collection of entities [but] a place entirely made from strands of relationship.”

That relational, existential mesmerism is what Italian author Riccardo Bozzi explores in The Forest (public library), illustrated by Violeta Lopíz and Valerio Vidali, and translated from the Italian by Debbie Bibo. Less a book than a tactile expedition into the existential wilderness, the journey unfolds across time and space, in “an enormous, ancient forest that has not yet been fully explored.”

The illustrations, minimalist yet luscious, peek through die-cuts and stretch across gatefolds, emulating the way one lovely thing becomes another when you look closely at nature with generous attentiveness to life at all scales.

Constructed in the tradition of Japanese binding, the book is wrapped in translucent velum that gives the lush cover illustration the aura of a mist-enveloped forest early in the morning.

The story begins when the forest is young — little more than a grove of small trees. With each page, it grows thicker and thicker, more impenetrable and more fascinating at the same time. We see the silhouettes of the explorers — white shadows cast of negative space against the vibrant forest — trek and kneel “to investigate its beauties and its dangers.”

It is said that the forest has a certain limit if you look straight ahead, but the sides are boundless. Here is where the explorers can venture with enjoyment and curiosity.

As the forest grows, so does the explorer: Rising out of the crisp-white page are the subtly embossed faces of different genders and races, also progressing along the way of life — an infant, an adolescent boy, a young woman, an old man.

The vibrant forest and its creatures peeking through the die-cut eyes of the barely visible faces remind us that the human role in nature is not that of conqueror or king but of humble witness and passing visitor — an awareness that calls to mind the founding ethos of the landmark 1964 Wilderness Act, poetically phrased by the naturalist and conservationist Mardy Murie: “A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”

Complement The Forest, which comes from Brooklyn-based independent powerhouse Enchanted Lion Books, with I Saw a Peacock with a Fiery Tail — a very different die-cut masterpiece, reimagining a 17th-century British poem in Indian tribal art — and Annie Dillard on what mangrove trees can teach us about the human search for meaning, then revisit other Enchanted Lion treasures: Cry, Heart, But Never Break, Big Wolf & Little Wolf, The Lion and the Bird, This Is a Poem That Heals Fish, Bertolt, and Be Still, Life.

Illustrations courtesy of Enchanted Lion Books; photographs by Maria Popova


George Eliot on Form, Poetry, and How Art Reveals the Interrelated Parts of the Whole

“Form, as an element of human experience, must begin with the perception of separateness.”

George Eliot on Form, Poetry, and How Art Reveals the Interrelated Parts of the Whole

Art alone gives shape to the plasma of our experience, to our most amorphous emotional realities — rage in a Beethoven symphony, rapture in a Rothko painting, the redemption of loss in a Dickinson poem. Art reconciles us to our fundamental incompleteness and the cacophony of our conflicted inner factions. “To harmonize the whole is the task of art,” the great Russian painter Wassily Kandinsky wrote in contemplating the spiritual element in art and the three responsibilities of the artist.

Unquestionable though the power of art is, how exactly it works us over is among the most elemental unanswerable questions that mark our humanity. But any attempt at an answer ought to begin with the question of form — the container in which art cradles the uncontainable and the fragmentary, and makes it — makes us — whole.

The nature and importance of that container is what Mary Ann Evans, better known as George Eliot (November 22, 1819–December 22, 1880), explored in an 1868 essay titled “Notes on Form in Art,” composed a decade after she received fan mail from Charles Dickens and shortly before she began writing Middlemarch. Found in Eliot’s notebooks and never published in her lifetime, the piece was eventually included in her Selected Essays, Poems and Other Writings (public library).

George Eliot by Alexandre Louis François d'Albert Durade
George Eliot by Alexandre Louis François d’Albert Durade

Aware that the question of form has been with us for as long as humans have been making art, Eliot prefaces her subject with a broader meta-meditation on originality of thought:

Abstract words and phrases which have an excellent genealogy are apt to live a little too much on their reputation and even to sink into dangerous impostors that should be made to show how they get their living. For this reason it is often good to consider an old subject as if nothing had yet been said about it; to suspend one’s attention even to revered authorities and simply ask what in the present state of our knowledge are the facts which can with any congruity be tied together and labelled by a given abstraction.

She considers the meaning and purpose of form in creative work:

Form, as an element of human experience, must begin with the perception of separateness, derived principally from touch of which the other senses are modifications; and that things must be recognized as separate wholes before they can be recognized as wholes composed of parts, or before these wholes again can be regarded as relatively parts of a larger whole.

Form, then, as distinguished from merely massive impression, must first depend on the discrimination of wholes and then on the discrimination of parts. Fundamentally, form is unlikeness, as is seen in the philosophic use of the word ‘Form’ in distinction from ‘Matter’; and in consistency with this fundamental meaning, every difference is Form. Thus, sweetness is a form of sensibility, rage is a form of passion, green is a form both of light and of sensibility. But with this fundamental discrimination is born in necessary antithesis the sense of wholeness or unbroken connexion in space and time: a flash of light is a whole compared with the darkness which precedes and follows it; the taste of sourness is a whole and includes parts or degrees as it subsides. And as knowledge continues to grow by its alternating processes of distinction and combination, seeing smaller and smaller unlikenesses and grouping or associating these under a common likeness, it arrives at the conception of wholes composed of parts more and more multiplied and highly differenced, yet more and more absolutely bound together by various conditions of common likeness or mutual dependence. And the fullest example of such a whole is the highest example of Form: in other words, the relation of multiplex interdependent parts to a whole which is itself in the most varied and therefore the fullest relation to other wholes.

In a sentiment that calls to mind Nietzsche’s insight into the purpose and power of metaphor — for abstract language is the vessel that gives form to our thoughts — Eliot adds:

What is Form but the limit of that difference by which we discriminate one object from another? — a limit determined partly by the intrinsic relations or composition of the object, and partly by the extrinsic action of other bodies upon it.

Art by Olivier Tallec from This Is a Poem That Heals Fish

A century before Leonard Cohen extolled poetry as “the Constitution of the inner country,” Eliot — who had just finished her narrative poem The Spanish Gypsy — examines the question of form through the lens of the art she ranks above all the others:

Poetry… has this superiority over all the other arts, that its medium, language, is the least imitative, and is in the most complex relation with what it expresses… Poetry begins when passion weds thought by finding expression in an image; but Poetic Form begins with a choice of elements, however meagre, as the accordant expression of emotional states. The most monotonous burthen chanted by an Arab boatman on the Nile is still a beginning of poetic form.

Radiating from her insight into this particular art form are broader truths about any medium or platform of creative expression:

Poetic Form was not begotten by thinking it out or framing it as a shell which should hold emotional expression, any more than the shell of an animal arises before the living creature; but emotion, by its tendency to repetition, i.e., rhythmic persistence in proportion as diversifying thought is absent, creates a form by the recurrence of its elements in adjustment with certain given conditions of sound, language, action, or environment. Just as the beautiful expanding curves of a bivalve shell are not first made for the reception of the unstable inhabitant, but grow and are limited by the simple rhythmic conditions of its growing life.


Poetry, from being the fullest expression of the human soul, is starved into an ingenious pattern-work, in which tricks with vocables take the place of living words fed with the blood of relevant meaning, and made musical by the continual intercommunication of sensibility and thought.

Couple with Jane Hirshfield on poetry as a revolution of being and how art transforms us, then revisit Eliot on the life-cycle of happiness and our greatest source of restlessness.


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