1. Could you tell us the name of a book you love, and why?
David Ray, Not Far from the River: Poems from the Gāthā Saptaśati, Copper Canyon Press: 1990.
This book basically fucked me up for life. What it is is 350 erotic epigrams, all of ’em four lines long in the translation (couplets in the original). To give you some idea:
Out of ten million or more gathas
King Hala has chosen a mere seven hundred.
The reason for this is quite simple—
he preferred those that caught life in their nets.
Rare sight, a woman lost in the trance,
making love. Beautiful—so long as her eyes
remain open, like blue of the lotus.
Then her pleasure gets ugly, too busy, intent.
The way of love is crooked and fragile
like the hair on a crab or a cucumber.
Therefore you fail to impress me, weeping
with your too perfect face, round as the moon.
Love dies if you can’t get to see her
or if you see her too much,
also from the gossip of vile men.
Or from no cause at all.
Now that I see these dancers
I recall how much I enjoyed
you gave me with your feet.
Only virtue, my boy, will win over
these ladies who cast oblique glances,
who talk with allusions, walk
in sly circles, smile before you do.
She listened and smiled
till his words became sharp with desire.
That’s when she sent him away,
wishing lust had not ruined him.
O clever and affectionate poverty,
how you love to cling to those
who are accomplished, liberal,
possessed of subtle, unbearable knowledge.
2. Where were you when you first read, or saw, or heard of this book?
Ian told me about it, maybe ten years ago. I was here in Chicago, studying for my Orals exams.
3. Did this book influence your own writing, thinking, sense of the world, or work?
I’ll say. I been running from place to place for years on end, going off to people about this book and others like it.
’Cuz I’ll tell ya something, those old boys had their heads screwed on straight about poetry. Descriptions of graces, body parts, gestures. Poets should do this!
I remember one time Thom Gunn saying something about being into arms or something? I forget what his exact expression was. Something like: “I had never fully appreciated how an arm can fill a sleeve.” And I was like, Yessss! I know just what you mean! That way a densely packed male arm tightly fills a sleeve, there’s a beauty to that, and you almost have to have it pointed out to you to see it. Gunn pointed it out and I instantly flashed pleasurably on what it’s like to be gay and savor looking at a dude. I was like, Thank you!!
Anyway: that. Not Far from the River is full of just exactly that kind of thing.
And I wanna do a book like that. I want whoever’s reading this to do a book like that. There should be books and books and books like that.
4. Give us a line or excerpt from the text that intrigues, engages, mystifies, inspires, disgusts, or transforms you. Discuss…
5. Whom did you send this book to, why?
I did see a copy of this thing one time in a usedbookstore up in Evanston, and I did buy it and give it to somebody. I don’t remember who, though. Might’ve been Robbins. Don’t remember.
Oh, wait. I know exactly who’s gotta have a copy of this. My friend Nicola. Boom: no-brainer. I’ll order it right now.