Basking in the shadow of Humboldt

I've just finished a terrific book by Andrea Wulf, The Invention of Nature: Alexander Von Humboldt's New World. 


Wulf does a phenomenal job of I've described to friends as "Humboldting, Humboldt," which is to suggest she does a wonderful job of contextualizing the famed naturalist within a broader and bigger picture. Weaving together figures from all over the world, she explores the way the Humboldt's worldview developed in various political climates. Certainly in many ways he does appear to be a bit anachronistic, his way of viewing the world is so thoroughly modern.


The overall structure of the book works well and I liked the way she grouped different sections of his travels together. Humboldt's relationship with Goethe was a stark reminder that I need to revisit works I have not touched since undergrad (more than a decade ago). Want I love most about Goethe is the way he was able to show Humboldt the beauty of poetry when combined with science. 

 Wulf quotes Darwin in the last paragraph of Origin of Species  to demonstrate the influence of Humboldt by comparing it with a passage from Personal Narrative : 

"The beasts of the forest retire to the thickets; the birds hide themselves beneath foliage of the trees, or in the crevices of rocks. Yet, amid this apparent silence, when we lend an attentive ear to the most feeble sounds transmitted by the air, we hear a dull vibration, a continual murmur, a hum of insects, that fill, if we may use the expression, all the lower strata of the air. Nothing is better fitted to make man feel the extent and power of organic life. Myriads of insects creep upon the soil, and flutter round the plants parched by the ardor of the Sun. A confused noise issues from every bush, from the decayed trunks of trees, from the clefts of the rock, and from the ground undermined by the lizards, millipedes, and cecilias. There are so many voices proclaiming to us, that all nature breathes; and that, under a thousand different forms, life is diffused throughout the cracked and dusty soil, as well as in the bosom of the waters, and in the air that circulates around us."

With our return to Iceland coming up in the not so distant future, I feel like I'm going to see the country I love so much with a new Humboldtian perspective, fresh eyes. I am eager to work on my writing while we're there and to take the time to really reflect on the beauty that is this little pile of dust we travel upon around the universe.

It wasn't a match, I say. It was a lesson.


Claudia Rankine's Citizen: An American Lyric  is unforgettable, unsettling, and unapologetic. It answers questions of what it means to be a person of color in America—she presents quite clearly what traumas, including those fatal moments where in a situation things occurred specifically because of racial aggression.  

It's heartbreaking. It's honest. It's brutal. 

Rankine's prose poems collectively show from a smaller personal scale, to national headlines, to celebrity athletic stages—there's a shared experience that exists as a person of color.  

On Hurricane Katrina, she writes:  

He said, I don't know what the water wanted. It wanted to
show you no one would come. 
He said, I don't know what the water wanted. As if then
and now were not the same moment.

From her poem "Making Room," Rankine recounts her experiences in public transit, her awareness to the way men of color are mistreated. It's this level of awareness, that beyond being a black woman, there are the difficulties of being a black man that she pens so beautifully. 

You sit next to the man on the train, bus, in the plane, wait- 
ing room, anywhere he could be forsaken. You put your
body there in proximity to, adjacent to, alongside within. 

There's a solidarity in her understanding. The experiences outlined in these prose poems are infuriating and collectively make me wonder, how does one deal with this? Perhaps, as the final lines suggest, not as matches, but rather as opportunity for lessons. 



What I've Been Reading: Mini Reviews

Lately I've spent a lot of time with my nose buried in a book or two or three and it has been a mostly pleasant experience. I have a longer piece on Roxane Gay's Bad Feminist in the works that I'll be posting in the next week or so but until then I thought I'd share some of the other things I've read lately. 


It was some time during in the summer of 2015, I think, that I heard Ta-Nehisi Coates doing an interview on Fresh Air, discussing his book Between The World and Me. I knew immediately I needed to read it. Written as a long letter to his son, Coates heartbreakingly describes his own struggles as a black man in America. It's raw, emotional, and honest. As stated on the cover by Toni Morrison—This is required reading. 

Yusef Komunyakaa has been one of my favorite poets for the nearly 15 years now. Admittedly, I've kept myself rooted mostly in his Vietnam War poetry. What a disservice to myself! Picking up his newest collection, The Emperor of Water Clocks, it quickly became apparent why this won the Pulitzer Prize. As I took this around town with me, reading and sending bits of it to friends, I fell deeper in love with his jazz-influenced prose. 

The President of the United States of America
thumbs the pages slowly, moving from reverie
to reverie, learning why one envies the octopus
for its ink, how a man's skin becomes the final page.

from "The Day I Saw Barack Obama Reading Derek Walcott's Collected Poems"

There were so many pieces I loved in this collection, but I think "The Gold Pistol" is the one that really made an impression. It's one of the historical moment things, remembering where you were in finding out that Gaddafi had been found and murdered.  I think the day I read that one I sent it on to seven or eight different friends. It made such an impression. 

Terry Galloway's memoir, Mean Little deaf Queer, was a delightful find at Half Price Books one Saturday morning. I have a former professor and friend  who works within the intersection of Queer Theory and Disability studies. Since she's moved far away finding this on the shelf made me feel a little sentimental in my missing a scholar whose work I really admire. 

Galloway's memoir is an interesting one and coming off some earlier reading this year of Brown and Gilbert and concepts of identity and owning our own story. What I particularly enjoyed is, while memoir, Galloway has presented a very honest and at many times self-deprecating account. 

"I had a real shot at becoming, at the very least, the hero of my own story."

There was a really great passage toward the end of the book where Galloway is discussing the importance of stories and our owning our own and telling it. 

"In every sentence, every word of stories told I feel the presence of something still unspoken or as yet unheard, and I feel it as an emptiness akin to hope. There are so many more of us out here who don't know how to tell our own stories or make our own small triumphs compelling or simply convince others that we have souls as complex (or perhaps more so) as any movie star, politico, or prince of the realm. If we don't or won't or simply can't tell our own stories, does that mean we matter less or not at all?"



I started reading Helen Macdonald's H is for Hawk one morning and got some surprising news that one of the professors I taught under in my grad school stint had passed away. It was serendipitous, I guess. Working through her work, her grieving process over the loss of her father and her struggle and resolve to raise a hawk was really intriguing. She writes absolutely lovely lines. 

"There was nothing that was such a salve to my grieving heart as the hawk returning."
"There is a time in life when you expect the world to be always full of new things. And then comes a day when you realise that is not how it will be at all. You can see that life will become a thing made of holes. Absences. Losses. Thins that were there and no longer. And you realise, too, that you have to grow around and between the gaps, tho you can put your hand out to where things were and feel that tense, shining dullness of the space where memories are." 
"How can you love something, how can you fight to protect it, if all it means is loss?"

It was a difficult book to finish and in a lot of ways, I do not think I am finished with it. I think I'll return continually, flying back to her perch just as Mabel did. 

Lastly in this series of mini (or not so mini) reviews was the first book of the #hliðstæðu book club as I'm calling it wherein Patrick and I read books together, just the two of us. All The Light We Cannot See was the first book we tackled and it was incredible. The structure was interesting and the way that disparate characters were woven together and the utter and total pointlessness of war as written by Doerr was as entertaining as it was devastating. We still talk about the characters, as if they are old friends who we miss dearly and that kind of companionship I truly treasure. For our next #hliðstæðu book we're going to read a book that I've already read once, but so good it is worth a reread, especially since we will work our way through the trilogy so we need to start with book one. We're going to delve into the world of Eoin Miller at the hands of our friend and author Jay Stringer. It's a bit for nostalgia purposes, I finished Old Gold, the first book, right before our first trek to Iceland. It feels a little full circle to return to it (and introduce Patrick) here shortly before our return trip.