This was supposed to be an entirely different post, about my goal number 3: Read Good / Great Books.
But something happened on Saturday…
I picked up my latest library reservations and started to read The Professor of Poetry by Grace McCleen. After a few minutes I realised that this was indeed a very good book.
I put it down quickly, before I got sucked in too far, and built a cosy nest on the sofa: blanket, Seraphine shawl, mug of coffee, slice of cake. FL was asleep on his chair so I was fairly sure I would have enough time to immerse myself to the point of no return.
And I read and I read and I read some more.
I read with excitement and anger and frustration and joy and a great many painful tears.
I struggled with some of the literary references, because there are significant gaps in my knowledge despite a First in English. (I can give you a treatise on Caribbean Poetry but I have never read Milton.) But I am on solid ground when it comes to TS Eliot, and that is important background reading for The Professor of Poetry. You ought to know that if you are considering reading it. (There’s a fair old whack of Virginia Woolf here too.)
What is the book about?
Deep breath… I promise not to spoil it for you.
In the very first page, Elizabeth Stone receives the news that her brain tumour has been successfully removed, and that although she should take it easy, she is probably to all intents and purposes “cured”.
Come back – don’t be scared! Keep reading!
So she decides to pick up her life where she left it before treatment began and re-engage with literature, because she is a Professor of Poetry. That is her identity. She has no other.
Apparently by chance, she finds herself back at her alma mater, tracking down a reference in the archives… but of course, this is literature and nothing happens by chance. The reader is then confronted by Elizabeth’s past, by her dreams, by her nightmares, her story.
Isn’t it fascinating how we construct the story of our lives? There is the public “Real Life” version of where we were brought up and went to school and perhaps University and the headline relationships: husbands / wives / partners / children. But what about the subtext? The ones that got away, the experiences that shaped you, the painful stuff you try to forget about?
Elizabeth does not have what other people would recognise as a “Real Life”. She lives inside her books. So when the subtext starts to bubble up through the pages, she doesn’t have anything to hang onto, here and now, in the present. All she has is her past, and more importantly her denial of the past.
This is not a book about a cancer patient who decides to “seize the day”, so much as her coming to the awful realisation that she has missed out on life. Her fear of attachment has left her entirely alone.
And there, right there, is the life-changing lesson I have learned from this novel: you can’t change the past, and you can’t live in it either. You can’t rewind and try again: what’s done is done. And it is equally wrong to live in a constant state of longing for the future, full of wist and dreams. There is no “once upon a time” there is only NOW.
A state of perpetual detachment and observation is not living. It is necessary to engage with life, because otherwise… what is the point?
Live in the present.
P.S. And read this book.