The Other Walk: Essaysby Sven Birkerts
Other Walk is a series of autobiographical pieces by the master of reflection and slow time
Throughout his life, Sven Birkerts, one of the country's foremost literary critics, has carved out time for himselfto walk, to swim, to read, to contemplate. Now in his late fifties, he has clocked up many thousands of hours of reflection. It shows in his prose,
Other Walk is a series of autobiographical pieces by the master of reflection and slow time
Throughout his life, Sven Birkerts, one of the country's foremost literary critics, has carved out time for himselfto walk, to swim, to read, to contemplate. Now in his late fifties, he has clocked up many thousands of hours of reflection. It shows in his prose, which proceeds at a refreshingly deliberative pace as it draws the reader into his patterns and rhythms.
In this deeply appealing and engaging collection of essays, Birkerts looks back through his own life, as well as at the generations before him, and ahead at the lives of his children. We read how the writer witnesses his son's frightening sailing accident, how he feels when he encounters his own prose from many years ago, how finding a cigarette lighter or a lost ring releases a cascade of memories. The objects he sees around himold friends, remembered placesare excavated, their layers exposed.
But most winning of all is the emerging character of Birkerts himself. We come to have great respect for this competitive but deeply loyal friend, the caring father who respects his children's independence even as he tries to connect with them, the traveler, the onetime bookseller, the writer at all stages of his writing life, and throughout it all, the attentive, passionate reader.
“More than revealing the insights he obtains through contemplation, Birkerts sheds light on the process of allowing connections to fuel ruminations that lead to a greater understanding of self. Readers will delight in the humor and insights conveyed in these enchanting and well-crafted essays.” Publishers Weekly, starred review
“Like a modern-day Proust, though at blessedly shorter length, Birkerts's keen eye and sinuous prose are triggered time and again by the humblest of objects. . . . [The Other Walk] should be picked up, reread and savored for its expressive beauty and its gentle reminder that we can find life's fullness amid its most inconsequential moments.” Shelf Awareness
“One of America's finest literary critics brings us 45 short autobiographical pieces meditating on the necessity and delight of quiet contemplation in a busy existence. . . . Sven Birkerts's thoughtful and elegant pensées reveal the enchantment awaiting anyone who slows down long enough to look.” The Barnes & Noble Review
“Birkerts' essays, many of them about fatherhood, some about his Latvian heritage, are full of the passage of time--nostalgia, regret, melancholy. . . . In each essay, he looks for 'the prompt, the sliver, the bit of grit that grows the pearl.' He looks for the 'smallest detail in the heart of the day.'” Newsday
“[Birkerts] is one of the foremost essayists working today. He doesn't care about seeming cool or sounding smart; he writes what he thinks. In this new gathering, he combines his typically astute literary criticism with personal essays about his first post-college job at Borders Books in Ann Arbor, Michigan; the night he learned to play chess; and his reflections on Saul Bellow.” Chicago Tribune
“In his latest collection of [essays], Birkerts remains astute, witty and surprisingly sentimental. . . . It's impossible to read these close-to-the-ground essays without reminiscing on one's own past, connecting the dots between possessions and emotions, say, or reconciling memories of old lovers and friends with the way things turned out.” Kirkus Reviews
“Critic, memoirist, and all-around man of letters Birkerts is a virtuoso of the short essay. Each of the 45 concentrated, autobiographical meditations in this evocative volume offers a glimpse into the evolution of a writer's sensibility, both in the memories and the vignettes they preserve and in Birkerts' caressing of language and the pursuit of meaning. . . . Birkerts' poetic dispatches portray a life of fruitful steadfastness and inevitable change.” Booklist
“Very much about making connections between the vast details of life, time becomes as central a character across these essays as Birkerts himself. His voice is one marked--for the better--by time. . . . This is not a voice of lamentation or complaint. [Birkerts] is honest and straightforward, at times humorous and at others surprisingly sentimental, but always unapologetic.” Ploughshares
“The Other Walk comprises 45 short pieces . . . and with each, Birkerts considers his route with a keen eye, wit, and spare, elegant prose. . . . He succeeds in guiding us into his head, allows us to take his measure, then leaves us feeling as if we have traveled somewhere new.” NewPages
“Birkerts doesn't overwhelm with nostalgia but invites us into that part of his past to observe and slowly begin to understand our author and the events that have shaped him. . . . It is easy to settle into these stories and feel at home.” San Francisco Book Review
Intellectualized personal remembrances of things past.
Birkerts (Art of Time in Memoir: Time, Again, 2007) is best known as a literary critic and author of the prescientGutenberg Elegies, wherein he predicted, in 1995, that the Internet as a widely popular source for information would be detrimental to our interest in language and sustained serious analysis. In his latest collection of lighter but no less considered essays, Birkerts remains astute, witty and surprisingly sentimental. The engaging pieces are varyingly spare and drawn-out, several as brief as one page and most covering two or three. With subjects including a landscape painting of his grandfather's, a reflection on the word "plunge" and how, upon a friend's death, he inherited a very fine pair of Italian leather loafers, there's no necessary order to the pieces. Though short, many bear more similarity to poems than to works of prose. "Consciousness," he writes, in an essay about a German poet, "is not for nothing, even if it is clearly bracketed by the moments of our birth and our death." Birkerts moves back and forth between his memories and the present, weaving them together in a dreamlike manner. They're not funny like those of David Sedaris or Ian Frazier, or in possession of any particular angle, but the real value and appeal of these pieces is the way they ripple out. Reading one after the other has the effect of skipping a stone across a pond; they're not long enough to delve too deeply for long.
It's impossible to read these close-to-the-ground essays without reminiscing on one's own past, connecting the dots between possessions and emotions, say, or reconciling memories of old lovers and friends with the way things turned out.
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The Other WalkEssays
By SVEN BIRKERTS
Graywolf PressCopyright © 2011 Sven Birkerts
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe Other Walk
This morning, going against all convention, I turned right instead of left and took my circuit—one of my circuits—in reverse. Why hadn't I thought of this before, given that the familiarity of the other loop has become so oppressive, even to one who swears by the zen of familiarity, the main tenet being that if you are bored with what you're seeing, you're not seeing clearly enough, not looking? Still, going against the grain of my usual track, seeing every single thing from the other side, was suddenly welcome. It also helped that it felt like the first real spring day, the birds more liquid in their vowels, and the waft of that elusive something added to the usual air. Habit and repetition. It's not as if I don't know this other walk intimately, too—not as if I haven't taken it hundreds of times over what are now becoming these years of walking. How is it I haven't written more on this topic? It's been a big part of the day's business for years. I don't remember when I started. Easily seven or eight years ago, maybe more. For a long time walking vied with swimming—walking was what I did when I couldn't get myself into a pool or pond in the early morning. Then swimming gradually waned, and this took over. Five, six mornings a week, year-round. And so many phases. The edgy, anxious midlife walks that for so long were my only recourse to sleeplessness. I would wake in the dark all wired up and needing to push against myself, to burn off the gnawing, no choice but to get out. In those days the circuits were vast, miles and miles, all of them covered at a clip, the point being not to see anything but to get into the day in a way I could stand, that was not intolerable. And the walking would eventually bring me around—after the up and down of the neighborhood streets, down along the edge of the playing fields, onto the bike path, which I would follow for a good mile or so, before hooking up with the long road winding back past the Busa farm stand, though it was really only in that last stretch, coming up to Busa, that I would feel my body and breath get into sync....
Psychic news travels. After some months of this solo morning mania, my daughter, Mara, started asking if she could walk with me. She would make me promise to get her up, even though it was still dark outside, even though she had school to get ready for, and she would join me. Morning after morning she would bundle up in her sweatshirt and the two of us would head out. Sometimes I felt sorry for her and we made a modified loop, but other mornings she insisted that we go the distance. And we did. We talked, or not. There were many days when we moved in our separate worlds, I walking ahead, she trailing. She was having anxieties of her own—she was in love and it was unrequited. And then it was requited. But she kept on with our ritual. She would always leave the same little sticky note at the top of the stairs: "Wake me if you walk, Dad." She was very much afraid that I would go without her. I wondered about this, her determination, and only much later did I learn that she was worried about me. She hated to think of me by myself in the early morning, didn't want me to be sad. This went on for many seasons. It never stopped abruptly, but there were more and more mornings when it was hard for her to get up, when I would touch her shoulder and assure her that I was fine, that she could join me the next day. And sometimes she did. Now more time has passed. Mara is away at college, and I still go out, almost every morning. But the loops are smaller. I don't go the great distances anymore, and I don't go to calm myself. Now I go from habit, and to start the day. If I didn't look at things so much before, now I do. I start down the street and let my gaze swing this way and that, taking in the sky, the outlines of branches, the crazing of the pavement. I feel myself stretching, working my way into a rhythm. Around the local bends and onto the path that goes around the Reed's Brook Park Reservation, which is not much of a reservation, but has tall hardy grasses on the left, which fill me with a boyhood sense of the Midwest, and the swampy area on the other side, high with bamboo weeds, and in the spring and summer full of red- winged blackbirds. Then I round the bend to the left where the water stretches out—suspect, contaminated, but still taking the light, and home to ducks and geese and, at certain times, a single heron. Last year that heron became my goal: as soon as I followed the bend I would begin my careful perusing of the reedy indentations, looking for the distinctive silhouette, that long beak protruding at a forty-five- degree angle, the exciting stillness that gathers around creatures that are poised for the hunt. When people ask about these walks I say that I use them to set up the writing day, to start my thinking. And it's true. Usually by the time I get back I have some basic sequences worked out; I think about projects. I'll get hooked on some thought, and I'll go over it repeatedly, as if inscribing it into my muscles, but also testing its basic hardiness against the rhythms of walking. The wispier thoughts tend to dissolve and float away; the more durable ones settle in and then start thudding in my head. This morning—did I think this morning? Or did I just try to get a sense of the day? I was out just a short while back, but I can't remember, and maybe that's another thing about these hours: that they are unto themselves, not an aspect of the day, but a prelude to it. I planned, I thought, and I honestly don't think I can recover much of either plans or thoughts. All I get right now, thinking back, is an impression I had coming down the hill, heading toward the other gate, of clouds looking soft and mussed up around the edges, red gray. And yes, I did think, right then, that spring does have its own special character, unlike any other time, and that part of what happens in spring is remembering we have it in us to surprise ourselves—things do come fresh again.
For the first twenty years of my life I believed that we were the only Birkertses in the world, our little family of four (only much later, five)—no relatives, no outliers, just us. But then one day when I was already on my own, home on a visit, my father passed a photograph across the table to me. It was a casual gesture, offered in the spirit of "here, look what we saw." He and my mother were just back from a trip to Europe. They had been in Germany, in Stuttgart, where my father went to school after the war. The photo showed a storefront: simple, no frills, with the lettered sign birkerts prominently over the door. It took me a moment to get what I was looking at, but as soon as I did I registered a nervous tremor in my deepest core. The idea that there were other people moving through the world with my name, signing documents, maybe answering classroom roll calls, unsettled me. So much for my longstanding myth of singularity. Not that I needed to think of myself as unique, one of a kind. But I always had. There was just the little group of us all that time. Identity crystallizes subtly around just such assumptions. But no more. What did the people look like? What did they sell there? Did locals say things like, "If you go past Birkerts's ..." I thought about this for a time, and then I forgot, and the old assumptions more or less settled back into place.
Birkerts is a German name, but both sides of my family are Latvian all the way back. For a good part of its history, though, and presumably at the time of what I used to imagine was the great conferring of names, Latvia was ruled by German land barons, and some of us, mainly those who served, were tagged by the local powers that be. Who knows how it worked, why this name or that? Birkerts. I was always told that it meant "of the birch," and from childhood on I've considered that stippled white-barked tree one of my two totems. When I see birches, anywhere, at any time—it's automatic now—I feel a reaffirming sort of vibration.
My other totem is the sparrow. This one has to do with Latvians and their ancient pagan culture, and the animistic tendency to assign people surnames according to creaturely associations. A great many Latvians carry these original identifiers, surnames like Balodis (pigeon) or Vilks (wolf) or—on my mother's side of the family—Zvirbulis, meaning "sparrow." My mother was Sylvia Zvirbulis, and to look at her, or at any photograph of my grandfather, is to understand the logic of bestowal. Even now, when he is in the mood to prod her a bit, my father will address her as spitze Nase, meaning "sharp nose" or "pointy nose." To which she responds as she has for years—with a funny little sparrowish movement, shaking her head and making a few quick beaky stabs at the air in front of her.
Literal physical association is one thing, fairly quickly exhausted as a quirk, but I wonder about the deeper business. For I don't believe that such coinages were undertaken in a spirit of pure whimsy—these are family names after all. Nor do I think any attribution would have stuck if there hadn't been some genuine felt congruence—just like I don't believe that the words of any language were created by simple fiat. I want it to be that they survived and entered the repertoire because of their essential poetic fitness. Emerson wrote that every word is at root a poem, by which he meant an incarnation of some deeply felt reality into a sound. Language mysticism, yes—but I do subscribe. And then, subscribed, I have to wonder not only whether there was something beyond a conspicuous pointi ness of nose but also—more interesting to me—if the deeper family soul didn't in some subtle way keep faith, align itself, italicize in itself some essential sparrowness.
You would think that if I were so intrigued by this I would have long since done some research on my namesake bird, but I haven't, not a bit. This is evidence of my laziness, to be sure. But it's also part of a larger self- consistency—I don't seek information if it's not in my natural path of action to seek it. I resist researching even the things that interest me—at least if that research requires a deliberated step to the side of whatever I think I'm doing. So I have no real facts about sparrows to conjure with, nothing beyond my ordinary observations, which are, I'll concede, not much. Still, if I had to make a list based just on these incidental noticings I would propose as follows: sparrows are small, brownish and grayish, winged, built for short fluttery flights, watchful, on the lookout for seeds and crumbs, bits of things; they like to perch, singly or with one or two others of their kind; their heartbeats or pulses are on a permanent high-speed setting. Probably they quickly burn whatever they consume.
Outwardly it's obvious that I don't share all that much with the sparrow. I am large, for starters. Brownish and grayish, OK, that fits. But I don't have wings—and generally think of myself as a distance man, a long hauler: long swims, long walks. I do fancy myself as watchful—vigilant—but only in certain respects (about shifts in people's moods, about words, spoken and written or printed), while remaining famously oblivious (obtuse is an adjective that gets used) to appearances, niceties, the accepted value of things ... Crumbs and seeds don't often pique me, but I do enjoy perching, fixing myself in places so that I can watch. For example, I don't mind waiting at airports or bus stations, provided I can set up to slowly survey whatever is around me. This is the opposite of research, a kind of relenting to circumstance that allows for a focus otherwise not available to me. But my perching has to be solo. I don't like to have others, even others of my kind, anywhere near. I'm a solitary creature. And my pulse and heartbeat are not at all on high—quite the reverse. I can only dream of burning off what I consume. I'm hardly like a sparrow in most ways, but I would be lying if I said I didn't feel a sweet, almost secret- seeming bond with the little creatures whenever they cross my path. And they cross my path almost every day.
I see them when I go out walking, which I do every morning, pretty much without exception. Either I go in the direction of town, in which case they are up there on the wires or flustering around in hedges and bushes; or else I follow a track through the little preserve area down the street, where they always find themselves outnumbered and outgunned by the red-winged blackbirds. These flashier birds are a direct circuit back to my Michigan childhood—the swamps that were my stalking grounds—and I can't resist following their flights. In fact, I get so distracted by the sudden flares of bright red that if I want to see my namesakes I have to forcibly redirect my attention. This is not what attention is ultimately about—it's like telling yourself to be impulsive—but it works well enough to give me that flicker of connection.
My picture of Latvia—my postcard—is a place of lakes and fields and birches, another of the idealized figments by which I live. But I got my impression early on and very clearly. Certainly the Latvian landscape paintings I grew up looking at—including those done by my grandfather—convey that basic essence. I love the world depicted in these paintings with a sentimental force that is stronger than anything I feel from having been there.
Though I've visited Latvia three times in my life, I was always in the city, in Riga; I have spent almost no time in the countryside. If that countryside seems more vivid to me, it's partly from staring at these paintings, but also because my father used to speak so fondly of his summers growing up when he joined the large gangs of young people who were sent to work on the farms. I must have been at a susceptible age when he first told me his stories, for I've taken the feeling of that life all the way in. Never underestimate the power of a child's fantasies, or, from the parent's side, the impact of what is said, and how it is said, the tone of voice. I'm back to the words and the sounds again, the nouns: upe (river), mezhi (forests), lauki (fields) ... I absorbed these things with my whole listening self. So much so that even now when I say those words, and a small handful of others, I feel something inside the language open up. Remember, every word was once a poem. Maybe this is why my childhood language has a thickness and density that I hardly ever get with English, though my English overran my Latvian fifty years ago. The first spell is the strongest.
The last time I traveled to Latvia I went alone. This was before the collapse of communism, so my whole experience had a more than slightly nervous glancing-over-the-shoulder feeling about it. Walking out of the hotel a visitor would be followed—this was confirmed a dozen times. It seems so long ago. People tell me now that I wouldn't believe how Riga has changed—so alive and stylish, nothing like the old place I remember. But, appealing as their descriptions are, I have no real desire to update my Soviet- era images. Nor do I really believe that any update would change much for me. Riga was for me long ago plucked from time and sprayed over with some kind of metaphysical fixative. It is, and will remain, an utterly illogical jumble of medieval cobblestones and German baroque detailing and Khrushchev- era pre fab, with a beautiful park of bridges, flowers and rolling green dropped into the very center, nothing following as it should on a mere map because every important corner and stretch of sidewalk have been tagged with one or another of my mother's or father's reminiscences—to the point where my walking segues were finally more about time than space, and that the little embankment where someone and someone once sat together abutted directly, maybe even overlapped, the coffee and cake shop where my grandmother met with her friends.
My Riga also contains one sparrow- related anecdote, which I hope can be fitted here like a keystone to join the American and Latvian sides of the story, if "story" is not too grand a term for my extraterritorial meandering.
Excerpted from The Other Walk by SVEN BIRKERTS Copyright © 2011 by Sven Birkerts . Excerpted by permission of Graywolf Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Sven Birkerts is the author of eight books, including The Art of Time in Memoir, Reading Life, Readings, and The Gutenberg Elegies. He has taught at Harvard University and currently directs the Bennington Writing Seminars and is the editor of AGNI. He lives in Massachusetts.
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