In this month’s installment of our book club series, we decided to follow the theme of “spring.” If you’re looking for stories and poems that focus on rebirth, renewal, and new beginnings, read on!
When I think of spring, I think about gardening as a child with my grandmother. It’s a peaceful, relaxing time. I was lucky enough to stumble across Roald Dahl’s “The Sound Machine,” which explored the exact opposite feeling. Klausner, a small old man, builds a machine which he claims will allow him to hear sounds far too high- or low-pitched for the human ear to register, takes it out into the garden, and begins to hear screaming from the garden next door.
It’s safe to say that Dahl’s work was a hit with everyone in the group. Some of us grew up reading his stories, and some of us had only been exposed to his adult fiction, but we all agreed that his experience in writing children’s stories came to his aid when writing “The Sound Machine.” His to-the-point writing style made us laugh out loud and created an access point for all of us to dive right into the story. An excellent balance between humor and horror, “The Sound Machine” is perfect for any group who wants an easy, delightful, and thought-provoking read.
Five Prose Poems by Alexandr Solzhenitsyn
For our spring-themed round of book club, I chose five крохотки (translated as “little ones”) from Stories and Prose Poems by Nobel-Prize in Literature winner Alexsandr Solzhenitsyn: “Freedom to Breathe” (Дыхание); “The Duckling” (Утёнок); “The Elm Log” (Вязовое бревно); “Reflections” (Отраженье в воде); “A Storm in the Mountains” (Гроза в горах).
Having spent time in Soviet prison and much of his life in exile, Solzhenitsyn’s poems are tinged with melancholy, with the notion that life’s joys are temporary. Yet, we all found that each expresses a quiet optimism, a resilience in spite of hardship. Whether observing the movements of a duckling or watching a thunderstorm in the mountains, elements of creation, renewal, and freedom abound in his poems. The group favorite was “Freedom to Breath,” the last line of which we felt most accurately conveys the experience of reading Solzhenitsyn’s poetry:
As long as there is fresh air to breath under an apple tree after a shower, we may survive a little longer.
Selections from English Renaissance Poets
For our spring-themed round of readings, I selected a sestet of poems from the English Renaissance. The spring theme finds a threefold reflection in these verses: The Renaissance—literally “rebirth”—marked a cultural and intellectual replenishment after the comparative winter of the Middle Ages; the English Renaissance stands as the springtime of Modern English, when the language we speak today was first coming into bloom; and, finally, the great subject of English Renaissance poetry is courtship and romance, those most vernal of concerns.
All six of the poems we read are love poems. Each takes up the topic of love or addresses a lover—or both. Sir Thomas Wyatt’s “Whoso List to Hount” is the first sonnet in the English language. The poem’s speaker tells of his failed attempts to capture a precious deer, a metaphor for a woman he cannot have. Lady Mary Wroth’s “Sonnet 23” depicts the all-consuming state of lovesickness through elegant metaphors of the restless mind at “hunt” and “hauke.” Sir John Suckling’s “I prithee spare me gentle boy” describes an experienced lover’s “sullen and wise” heart, which “like old hawks pursues that still / That makes least sport.” Katherine Philips’s “Against Love” excoriates the madness of men possessed by love: “raptures which are joys diseas’d.” Philips’s “Wiston Vault” broods on the tragedy of the human condition—“alike we must / Put off Distinction and put on Dust”—but finds some solace in love and friendship. Fulke Greville’s “Caelica: Sonnet VII” is a metaphysical musing on the nature of change and the ever-changing quality of nature. To return to the English Renaissance is to find an astonishment of poetic riches.
“After Silence” and “The Mushroom Hunters” by Neil Gaiman
When I think of spring in a literary sense, I first think of earthy, mossy tonal language—the words should taste like your first deep inhale on a crisp morning hike. I chose two poems by one of my favorite authors, Neil Gaiman, after coming across them on Brain Pickings, which were recommended to be read together as a set. They orbited my sought-after spring tone and, bonus, feminist and science themes. “After Science” celebrates the life of Rachel Carson (1907–1964), marine biologist and poet laureate of science, whose famous book Silent Spring helped spark today’s environmental movement. The poem’s opening stanza starts us out right on theme:
Seasons on seasons. The spring is signaled by birdsong
coyotes screech and yammer in the moonlight
and the first flowers open. I saw two owls today
in the daylight, on silent wings.
“The Mushroom Hunters” pays homage the first, according to the poem, “scientists,” who were the gatherers and foragers (who were, of course, women). Its closing stanza summarizes the entire work well:
The scientists walk more slowly, over to the brow of the hill
and down to the water’s edge and past the place where the red clay runs.
They are carrying their babies in the slings they made,
freeing their hands to pick the mushrooms.
While both poems are widely beloved, they split our reading group into a few camps of thought—some raved while others just didn’t “get it.” All this tension can sometimes generate good discussion, though, and bring about interesting threads and perspectives to pull on and unravel.
“The Breeze” by Joshua Ferris
Spring is about beginnings, new life, a sense of possibility—freedom stretching before you after “the sentence of a long winter.” For the protagonist of “The Breeze,” that freedom is both necessary and terrifying: a touching reminder of her humanity in the dull plod of daily routine and a fleeting moment that must be experienced to its absolute fullest extent in order to validate her choices.
“The Breeze” is written as a series of moments in various timelines, deviating from a common start: Sarah asks her husband, Jay, to come home early so that they can “do something.” From there, variations of circumstance and choice—whether or not a table is available at a restaurant, whether or not to board a crowded subway car, and so on—split the story into divergent timelines with wildly different outcomes. It isn’t readily apparent which sections belong with which timeline, so that the varied narratives can’t all be clearly mapped as they bob and weave through the story.
This sounds complicated, but the story’s anxious, indecisive structure forced us into the state of relaxed acceptance that we all wished for Sarah. “Night after night she was anxious not to miss out on . . . what? She didn’t know,” but she strives for it all the same, “trying to engineer spontaneity,” as Sam put it. Of course, this is an impossible task, but it’s one we all empathized with. As unlikeable as both Sarah and Jay are—recurrent across the timelines are the sort of passive aggressive “what do you want to do” exchanges that made some cringe and some furious—they are sympathetic. Engaging, relevant, and painfully relatable, this is a great story for talking over with some friends—as long as you don’t stress too much about how it’ll all turn out.
“Easter Weekend” by Richard Duggin
Springtime in Virginia, the air is “laced with a fragrance of magnolia and cherry”…and sometimes a burning body. Richard Duggin’s “Easter Weekend” may be packed with allusions to Easter, but there are no chocolate bunnies in this selection. This short read follows a young man’s visit to a crematorium where he observes the cremation of a human body. While this selection does not necessarily scream “Spring,” Duggin’s narrative comments on the cyclical nature of life to which we often associate with the season of rebirth and renewal.
The description of the narrator’s experience is enhanced by his vivid details of the cremation process that makes readers feel as though they are witnessing the event alongside him. As the narrator pushes the coffin into the furnace, his initial childlike curiosity disintegrates into a numbing study of a burning corpse.
To some, “Easter Weekend” may raise questions about the human rituals of death. To others, it may spark interest in visiting a crematorium. Regardless of how you interpret this selection, the narrative is a reminder of the ephemeral nature of life.