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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

BP

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.

BP

Be Still, Life: A Songlike Illustrated Invitation to Living with Presence

“Be still, life, be still at the break of dawn, and you’ll feel the sun’s light when you hear the morning’s song.”

Be Still, Life: A Songlike Illustrated Invitation to Living with Presence

“Life goes headlong,” Emerson lamented in contemplating how to live with presence in a culture of busyness, offering the antidote to our civilizational haste: “Now pause, now possession is required, and the power to swell the moment from the resources of our own heart until it supersedes sun & moon & solar system in its expanding immensity.” Half a century later, writing about the most important habit for living with presence, Hermann Hesse cautioned: “The high value put upon every minute of time, the idea of hurry-hurry as the most important objective of living, is unquestionably the most dangerous enemy of joy.” Another century later, in the midst of an ever-accelerating cultural trance of busyness, Annie Dillard distilled the heart of the paradox in her sublime insistence on choosing presence over productivity: “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”

An uncommonly tenderhearted, wide-eyed invitation to fill our days with lively presence comes in Be Still, Life (public library) — a splendid illustrated poem of a picture-book by Ohara Hale, whose work I have long cherished and who has the loveliest back-flap author bio I have ever encountered:

Ohara Hale is a self-taught artist who works with many different forms and materials. She sings, writes, draws, and performs sounds, words, colors, and movements that are questions and ideas about love, life, nature, and all the unseen, unknown, and dreamed in between. Hale lives on planet Earth with her rescue dog, Banana.

From the slumbering snail to the purposeful gentleness of the honeybees at work to the dance of the leaves in the whispering breeze, Hale beckons eye, heart, and mind to drink in the glorious aliveness of the world with a generous curiosity, evocative of Simone Weil’s assertion that “attention is the rarest and purest kind of generosity.” What emerges is a mirthful modern-day counterpart to Thoreau’s celebration of nature as a form of prayer. Playful levity and vibrancy carry the deeper soulfulness of the message, which unfolds with a songlike quality — a sort of hymn in word and image. (Perhaps it cannot be otherwise, for Hale is also a gifted musician, and we bring everything we are, our whole selves and all of our multitudes, to any one thing we do.)

The ending calls to mind Denise Levertov’s wonderful poem about our odd tendency to see the rest of nature as a separate world parallel to our own. “You are also a part of the wonderfulness of life,” Hale exults on the final page, inviting the reader — who can be any one of us, child or adult, nursed on a chronic civilizational delusion — to unlearn the artificial severance from the natural world that modern life has inflicted upon us and relearn the creaturely presence with life that radiates from our most elemental humanity.

Be Still, Life comes from the largehearted and singularly imaginative Enchanted Lion Books, publisher of such uncommon treasures as Cry, Heart, But Never Break, Big Wolf & Little Wolf, The Lion and the Bird, This Is a Poem That Heals Fish, and Bertolt. Complement it with Sidewalk Flowers — another illustrated invitation to living with wakefulness to the world — and Margaret Wise Brown’s little-known, kindred-spirited Quiet Noisy Book, then revisit Alan Watts on how to live with presence and cognitive scientist Alexandra Horowitz on learning to see the wonder in our everyday reality.

Illustrations courtesy of Enchanted Lion Books © Ohara Hale; photographs by Maria Popova

BP

Erich Fromm on Spontaneity as the Wellspring of Individuality, Creativity, and Love

“Spontaneous activity is the one way in which man can overcome the terror of aloneness… for in the spontaneous realization of the self man unites himself anew with the world — with man, nature, and himself.”

Erich Fromm on Spontaneity as the Wellspring of Individuality, Creativity, and Love

Those of us accustomed to making life livable by superimposing over its inherent chaos various control mechanisms — habit, routine, structure, discipline — are always haunted by the disquieting awareness that something essential is lost in the clutch of control, some effervescent liveliness and loveliness elemental to what makes life not merely livable but worth living. Perhaps the most succinct shorthand for that counterpoint and counterpart to control is spontaneity. Ancient Eastern philosophy held it at the center of the enlightened life through the concept of wu wei, loosely translated as “spontaneous action.” The Transcendentalists of the nineteenth century recognized its vital antidote to the self-limiting compulsion for control in Emerson’s assertion that “people wish to be settled [but] only as far as they are unsettled is there any hope for them.”

In my own push-pull struggle with spontaneity — the longing for its unloosing of joy, the terror of its loss of control — I was reminded of some immensely insightful and encouraging passages by the German humanistic philosopher and psychologist Erich Fromm (March 23, 1900–March 18, 1980) from his first major work, Escape from Freedom (public library) — his classic 1941 inquiry into how to cope with our moral aloneness.

Erich Fromm

A capacity and willingness for spontaneity, Fromm argues, is the railroad switch that shifts our life-track away from what he terms negative freedom — our impulse to escape from freedom rather than to it, overwhelmed by the tyranny of possibility — and toward its opposite, positive freedom. He writes:

The realization of the self is accomplished not only by an act of thinking but also by the realization of man’s total personality, by the active expression of his emotional and intellectual potentialities. These potentialities are present in everybody; they become real only to the extent to which they are expressed. In other words, positive freedom consists in the spontaneous activity of the total, integrated personality.

In a sentiment that has only swelled in relevance in the near-century since, Fromm observes that ours is a culture so predicated on control and the compulsions of achievement that it has rendered spontaneity a rarity. And yet among spontaneity’s scarce practitioners we find the model for the life most worth achieving:

While spontaneity is a relatively rare phenomenon in our culture, we are not entirely devoid of it… We know of individuals who are — or have been — spontaneous, whose thinking, feeling, and acting were the expression of their selves and not of an automaton. These individuals are mostly known to us as artists. As a matter of fact, the artist can be defined as an individual who can express himself spontaneously. If this were the definition of an artist — Balzac defined him just in that way — then certain philosophers and scientists have to be called artists too, while others are as different from them as an old-fashioned photographer from a creative painter. There are other individuals who, though lacking the ability — or perhaps merely the training — for expressing themselves in an objective medium as the artist does, possess the same spontaneity. The position of the artist is vulnerable, though, for it is really only the successful artist whose individuality or spontaneity is respected; if he does not succeed in selling the art, he remains to his contemporaries a crank, a “neurotic.” The artist in this matter is in a similar position to that of the revolutionary throughout history. The successful revolutionary is a statesman, the unsuccessful one a criminal.

Art by Jacqueline Ayer from The Paper-Flower Tree

Fromm argues that we recognize spontaneity as a supreme existential art and are drawn to its electric allure on some primal level, beneath the surface of our culturally conditioned evaluations:

There is nothing more attractive and convincing than spontaneity whether it is to be found in a child, in an artist, or in those individuals who cannot thus be grouped according to age or profession.

[…]

Most of us can observe at least moments of our own spontaneity which are at the same time moments of genuine happiness. Whether it be the fresh and spontaneous perception of a landscape, or the dawning of some truth as the result of our thinking, or a sensuous pleasure that is not stereotyped, or the welling up of love for another person — in these moments we all know what a spontaneous act is and may have some vision of what human life could be if these experiences were not such rare and uncultivated occurrences.

In this spontaneous activity, Fromm insists, lies the answer to the paradox of freedom — our longing for it and our terror of it, expressed in his dichotomy of positive and negative freedom. Decades before contemporary chronopsychologists uncovered how the interplay between spontaneity and self-control mediates our psychological experience of time and our capacity for presence, he writes:

Negative freedom by itself makes the individual an isolated being, whose relationship to the world is distant and distrustful and whose self is weak and constantly threatened. Spontaneous activity is the one way in which man can overcome the terror of aloneness without sacrificing the integrity of his self; for in the spontaneous realization of the self man unites himself anew with the world — with man, nature, and himself.

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

Spontaneity, Fromm suggests, is both the prerequisite and the proof of the most universal yearning of the human heart — the yearning for meaning, manifested in the two core experiences of love and work:

Love is the foremost component of such spontaneity; not love as the dissolution of the self in another person, not love as the possession of another person, but love as spontaneous affirmation of others, as the union of the individual with others on the basis of the preservation of the individual self. The dynamic quality of love lies in this very polarity: that it springs from the need of overcoming separateness, that it leads to oneness — and yet that individuality is not eliminated. Work is the other component; not work as a compulsive activity in order to escape aloneness, not work as a relationship to nature which is partly one of dominating her, partly one of worship of and enslavement by the very products of man’s hands, but work as creation in which man becomes one with nature in the act of creation. What holds true of love and work holds true of all spontaneous action, whether it be the realization of sensuous pleasure or participation in the political life of the community. It affirms the individuality of the self and at the same time it unites the self with man and nature. The basic dichotomy that is inherent in freedom — the birth of individuality and the pain of aloneness — is dissolved on a higher plane by man’s spontaneous action.

[…]

Ours is only that to which we are genuinely related by our creative activity, be it a person or an inanimate object. Only those qualities that result from our spontaneous activity give strength to the self and thereby form the basis of its integrity.

Escape from Freedom remains a superb read in its totality. For more of Fromm’s uncommon and enduring insight into the human experience, revisit his wisdom on the art of living, the art of loving, the superior alternative to the laziness of optimism and pessimism, the six rules of listening and unselfish understanding, and the key to a sane society.

BP

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