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Caroline Rayner's Favorite Books

Happy 2022! For this year's first installment of Favorite Books, Sebastian invites Caroline Rayner to tell us about her favorite books. Caroline is a writer and teacher from Richmond, VA. She’s the author of calorie world (Sad Spell, 2017), and her work can be found in b l u s h, KEITH LLC, jubilat, Black Warrior Review, Shabby Doll House, and elsewhere. She currently lives in Western Massachusetts. Below are her favorite books.


Dear Jo,

I just put on Nebraska.

How could I write this to anyone but you, and I know I need to call you, but listen. I never feel more understood than when you tell me not to read a book you love.

That isn’t what I want to do, but it could be in the same area code. Like, at the diner, I might say, baby, you know what you want to order, and I trust what you know, so go ahead, but let me tell you everything I know about what you would never choose, what you might even hate once you get to see how it moves ever so slightly in the light. I don’t intend to tell you what to read. This is about narrative. Remember how we used to endlessly yell at each other about narrative? I would be storming around a parking lot on the phone with you, and we would yell, about anything, “the narrative!” I don’t know about you, but I think I meant it as a kind of prayer, specifically, a Hail Mary, because I could not bear to take a hard look at whatever was happening in my life. I could not bear to make a hard call.

I want to tell you how I got here. I want to tell you how I ended up with Deepstep Come Shining, The Weather, Agua Viva, The Feel Trio, and Actual Air among the books I would call my favorites. I want to tell you how I got going on the road I have been going down for as long as we’ve known each other, for as long as, I have no idea.

I just thought, I could choose books that immediately lend themselves, because of how often I let their pages fall open and lead me where I need to be, or I could choose books that ask me to work for it, because they also ask me to haul ass into the mess of the past.

You know that I will always take the long way, and if I happen to look the devil in the face, good. You know that I always want to tell you about it.

Plus, Joy was there. When I read most of these books, I mean. We were having a moment with dad rock and beach floral. Do you know how hard I laugh whenever I think about the time you asked Joy if one of those metal bands she loved was actually a band or if they were just instruments draped in cloaks? Love just needs teeth, sometimes. Is it love without teeth? I have this picture on my refrigerator. Joy and me, at Pitchfork, the summer we would yell at anyone who would listen about our radio show.

Adrenaline Nightshift.

11 at night to 1 in the morning

Every Monday on WTJU. 91.1 FM.

“The sound choice in central Virginia.”

This is what we do on the phone, talk about everything other than what we came to discuss.


I was still on the radio with Joy in the fall, while I was taking Contemporary Lyric Sequence, and until I went to look at Random Symmetries by Tom Andrews, I had forgotten. What I remembered was a sunken classroom made of windows with chairs in a circle. I remembered Lisa Russ Spaar at the top of the circle. I remembered everyone being hot. I want to tell you that I underlined, “When I was falling in love with Carrie, I wanted to astonish her with some simple devastating gesture, like the harmonica line in Neil Young’s ‘Heart of Gold,’” and that in the margin, I wrote, “OH MY GOD YES.” I had no idea that a poem could hold such a fragment of desire, or that a poem could make a gift out of what might play on the radio, which you might miss with the windows down and wind whipping, and I had no idea that a poem could say it like that. You know just as well as I do that what is simple, even partial, can be more devastating than what is planned, and everything about that sentence, that love hinged on devastation, that devastation hinged on attention, sent me.

I remember wanting to know how a poem might behave less like a poem, and reading “Codeine Diary” in Random Symmetries, I began to understand. Language felt normal in a way that felt shocking, as it arrived through time to gather in the room. Body happening, “I would like to feel a stirring in my knee, calf, and ankle: a signal that the blood pooled there is being absorbed at last and the joints are opening again, like a fist or a jonquil.” Weather happening, “outside, snow’s falling again. The loyal and fragmented snow.” Everything happening, in its own time, at the same time, and what the poem does is open, because it has to, perhaps as a challenge to the setting, which is a hospital, or to the body, which is in crisis. I took notes on process and repetition. I want to say that I began to learn the poetics of the present, which sounds insufferable, but what I mean is that I began to learn how to pay attention to whatever the hell was going on around me and understand that it could be worth it, or that I could take it, simply for what it is.

When wires cross out a little blue to frame a scrap of light that, I realize while standing beside a statue of an angel, is Venus. I go back across the street, crying, maybe while listening to Judee Sill, or Fiona Apple.

Blood red across the road. I mean a tree, and I wish I could tell you what kind, but I have yet to learn. Deep, then deeper still, red, then more red, which I write down while eating toast at the table. Leaving for the weekend, I miss it.


I keep thinking about driving back to Charlottesville after seeing James Blake, riding in the backseat, tripping in the backseat, with Andrew, and I keep thinking about the moment he rolled down the window as we drove past Target, or Staples, or Home Depot, and screamed into the dark, “Even you, weird world!”

Even you, weird world, come on.

More than anything, that kind of invitation is what I mean.

Someone came up to me on the porch at a party to ask what I thought of Pinion by Claudia Emerson and turned around to leave without explaining when I said I liked it. I stand by what I said, which, honestly, was nothing, really. This might have been the night that Joy and I took turns wearing a skeleton mask, but that is another story, and Jo, you already know that it might have been the same night Joy and I followed through on our threat to put on Liturgy and Death Grips in the middle of a party and scream along.

What kind of demonic is that?

It feels obvious to say that Pinion reminded me of As I Lay Dying, but of course it did, as more than one person gets to speak. In Pinion, it’s Preacher, and it’s Sister. What got me about Pinion was that ricochet, plus the sensuality of memory that made it sing. Everything is alive, or might be, which is like magic, also like a horror movie, everything caught in the interstices of time. What happened, where it went, and everything we can never know but still comes back to sit at the table with us. “How did it know there was / no distance here? Only these fields, cedar- / bourne, only this creek, rising and sagging / in its bed,” and then, “I had a dream once / of leaving, but in it the road burned,” and then, “I covered / your ears with my hands so that you could not hear it––or me, so that you heard only your / own heart’s refrain revised.” Jesus. I should say that I also read Pinion for Contemporary Lyric Sequence, and as I go back through the pages now, I realize how brutally these poems need one another, and I love it for that reason. Talking to each other, over each other, with each other, because how else will what happened see the goddamn light of day.

Maybe another reason has to do with truth, because when more than one person does the telling, what everyone has to say can hold a little bit of water. Having learned, my whole life, that there could only ever be one way of doing anything, I was shocked, and still am.

Remember the conversation we had about emotion and how we talk about it with the same language but we want to experience it differently? You want it laid out, and I want it in the atmosphere, and we both love Waxahatchee because the way Katie Crutchfield lays it out is the atmosphere. You described it as “the confessional as a weather system.”

You, more than anyone, know that I could not, that I would not, write about books I’ve loved without writing about Cerulean Salt. I always want to describe it by saying, listen, a collection of bottles hanging from a tree in the yard. Blue on blue, everything has to be, even the glass. I could, and still do, hear the stories on the undersides of those songs, because of the words she chooses. “Makeup sets on your face like tar,” having held the peace you could have said when everyone was asked. “The radio counts your thoughts,” the desire, and the need, to sleep in the car, but not being able, because somewhere, trust you would have required got lost. “Come right back, buy all that they have,” kids in trouble but still, drinking honeysuckle. When Katie talks about these songs, she talks about being direct in the way she tells these stories, which, goddamn. I never want to say anything any other way.

I think I will always be trying to find a way to be able to say, like Katie does in “Swan Dive,” “won’t you sleep with me every night for a week.” I’ve promised myself that I would try harder to ask for what I want and say what I mean without waiting to be noticed.

Emotion is where we find each other, and where we don’t. When I hear the sound of a microwave going off in a song by Grouper, I lose it, and you don’t. I get it.

“I dream of an incandescent space,” a line from “Composition in Grey and Pink” by Charles Wright that used to come back to me, haunt me, and I loved it, because it felt like what I desired more than anything. The sound of this line still amazes me, with the clear shot of “dream” rising to meet the electricity of “incandescent” which settles into the field of “space.” Unrolling into the sky, morning, forever. Light through mist coming to save me, or collect me. Another line from the same book, which I forgot to mention is The World of Ten Thousand Things, from a poem called “Yard Journal,” “––Deep dusk and lightning bugs / alphabetize on the east wall.” Alphabetize! I know how this will sound, but this word in this poem changed everything, for me, about looking out the goddamn window. Obviously lightning bugs do not alphabetize but, at the same time, they do, because it’s less about the lightning bugs by themselves and more about the entire evening, the way it coalesces into something to behold and write home about. When everything you can see feels ordered like a song feels ordered, and it’s beautiful.

Oh God, what else, so much else!

The only way I could write about these books was to scream!

I could go on and on and on and goddamn, I wish you could come over, because my house is full of light! I want you to see it!

Maybe this will be the year we finally get to spend another day storming around New York, screaming like headless animals. Maybe I will do again what I inexplicably did that one night, which is leave to buy wine and return with several candles. Maybe this will be the year we do what we used to threaten, which is a 24 hour reading. But, even more, this will be the year we do what we have yet to scheme, or what we have only begun to scheme. Demonic love plus ten years of American Weekend plus who knows what else.

You know I would do anything.

Love, love, love,



"Favorite Books with Sebastian Castillo" is our monthly column in which previous contributors and friends of Peach Mag are invited to share the works of literature that have made the biggest impacts on their reading and writing lives. Sebastian is the author of Not I and 49 Venezuelan Novels. Read previous installments of Favorite Books here.


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