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Start off with something old, something new

bookWith the new year now upon us, it strikes me that “something old” and “something new” is appropriate for this column.

Last week a student gave me as a Christmas gift an old copy of C.S. Lewis’s Letters To An American Lady, and I have spent some enjoyable minutes perusing this collection. I have read many of Lewis’ other books: the Narnia Chronicles to my children, Mere Christianity, The Great Divorce, The Screwtape Letters, and several essays. (My favorite of his books is the somewhat neglected Till We Have Faces, a brilliant retelling of the tale of Cupid and Psyche. I teach this book every year, and every year I mine new ideas from the story). 

Letters, however, was new to me. Though I have not finished the book, which is very short, it has already left two impressions. First, Letters is unintentionally humorous. None of the letters from the American woman, who is identified only as Mary, are included in the book, but it quickly becomes apparent that she was either queen regnant of hypochondriacs or was a walking medical disaster. In nearly every reply to her, Lewis, who by this time was himself not in good health, is offering her consolation to ailments ranging from cancer to toothache, from depression to rheumatism. 

And yet, faced by such an ongoing litany of complaints, Lewis  reveals himself as a sensitive, gentle, and wise counselor. Here in these letters we hear the voice of the man who wrote Mere Christianity: calm, compassionate, logical, witty. Here, for example, are the words he wrote after his wife Joy died from bone cancer:

“As to how I take sorrow, the answer is ‘In nearly all the possible ways.’ Because, as you probably know, it isn’t a state but a process. It keeps on changing — like a winding road with quite a new landscape at each bend. Two curious discoveries I have made. The moments at which you call most desperately and clamorously to God for help are precisely those when you seem to get none. And the moments at which I feel nearest to Joy are precisely those when I mourn her least. Very queer. In both cases a clamorous need seems to shut one off from the thing needed. No one ever told me this. It is almost like ‘Don’t knock and it shall be opened to you.’ I must think it over.”

We live right now in clamorous times. Letters To An American Lady brought me a comforting reminder that rationality, compassion, and the ability to listen still have a place in the world.

Related Items

The tone and mood of What About This: Collected Poems of Frank Stanford (Copper Canyon Press, 2015, 750 pages, $40) stands in sharp contrast to Letters.

One reviewer of this book described Frank Stanford, who died at age 29 after shooting himself three times in the chest, as “a legendary badass from Arkansas.” The poems and Stanford’s own life certainly bear out this assessment. Stanford lived a wild, rambling life, failing at love and unable to make a living, yet in his short life 10 poetry books and one prose collection found publishers, and he left behind hundreds of pages of unpublished poems and short stories. 

Stanford was a son of the Deep South, and his poems reflect the harsh, gritty landscape and people of this place. Interlaced with this rural setting are his dreams, a frustrated quest for home and love, and his dirt farmer grasp of reality. Stanford is the poet of the bayou, of shanty porches abuzz with wasps on sweltering August afternoons, of murder done for love and revenge, of convicts, boat hands, shirtless farmers in overalls, of women who smoke cigarettes and cheat on their husbands and boyfriends.

Here is Stanford’s “The Last Boat:”

An exile 

happens to be passing by 

the winds he loved 

leave him cold 

as lines 

recited in the name of the lord 

and the notorious earth of his country 

lying in wait 

like a woman  

an ambush

Here is another titled “What Luck:”

A man at the end of his rope 

and dead broke 

runs into a couple 

of his former mistresses 

having drinks together 

in a dark café 

they’re fit to be tied 

they’re so glad to see him again 

in the same shape 

they left him

Two warnings: there is no traditional verse here. Though some of us prefer rhyme and meter to free verse, Stanford is worthwhile because of his vivid imagery and his evocation of the rural South. Second: the photo of Stanford on the book’s cover is off-putting. He looks too Byronic, as if he is playing the role of enfant terrible. Compare that picture to the one at the back of the book

May 2016 bring you all many gifts and blessings, including good books.

(Jeff Minick is a writer and teacher. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

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