For the February installment of Favorite Books, Sebastian invites Jordan Davis to tell us about his top reads. Jordan is a former poetry editor of The Nation. His poems have appeared in Poetry and The New Yorker and were recently featured in a cashmere sweater collection from Last Poets Florence. His third collection, Red Mark, will be published in 2022. Below are his favorite books.
The first book of poems I remember having any feeling for at all, that I am pretty sure I chose for myself, was a little hardcover published by Golden Books, not in their usual squarish short format with the gold and black patterned tape on the spine, but a yellow thickish thing, edited by journeyman anthologist Louis Untermeyer, illustrated by Joan Walsh Anglund. It was published in 1968, the price right at the top of the cover (75¢), and I must have seen it one day in 1975 on a spinning wire rack at the drug store and insisted in my exhausting way on an advance on my allowance (75¢). The only poem I remember for sure reading, and rereading, with burning cheeks and a pounding in my chest, was Longfellow’s “There was a little girl,” a poem also known as “Jemima”:
There was a little girl, And she had a little curl Right in the middle of her forehead. When she was good She was very, very good, And when she was bad she was horrid.
One day she went upstairs, When her parents, unawares, In the kitchen were occupied with meals, And she stood upon her head In her little trundle-bed, And then began hooraying with her heels.
Her mother heard the noise, And she thought it was the boys A-playing at a combat in the attic; But when she climbed the stair, And found Jemima there, She took and she did spank her most emphatic.
The music of the last three lines of the first stanza shocked me, not to mention the libidinal economy. I think I knew from the start that “hooraying with her heels” was both appallingly bad writing, and also forgivable for being very, very accurate about polymorphous perversity. Oh and the word “spank” in the last line, I suppose. I ignored the absurd last rhyme—I certainly didn’t understand it.
The next book I know I chose, and that changed me, was Roald Dahl’s short story collection for readers who had outgrown his children’s books, The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar. In the title story, the title character discovers a yogic practice, involving staring at the separate blue, orange and black parts of a candle flame, that allows him to see through thin things, such as playing cards. I think around the same time that I read this, the television movie starring Robert Hays and Pam Dawber, The Girl, the Gold Watch & Everything, had just aired. The idea of personal difference and special powers, whether learned or borrowed through a magic object, was appealing—think of the time it could save! And Henry Sugar uses his extrasensory gains to fund orphanages. Unimpeachable. I want to say I wrote a dozen short stories under the influence of this book, all on the theme of studying mystic texts and developing a special power which the main character (a funny, smart, good looking guy) then uses for the good of humanity, but I haven’t found any evidence in the boxes of school papers I still save for some reason. I am pretty sure this is the book that did start me writing, and not, as has been suggested to me, Stephen Dunning’s anthology Reflections on the Gift of a Watermelon Pickle, which was possibly put in front of me to get the Untermeyer/Anglund book away from me.
Several unbearably great books of poems crossed my path in high school unassigned—Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s Coney Island of the Mind, Seamus Heaney’s Death of a Naturalist, the New Directions Selected Writings of Charles Olson, Andrei Codrescu’s underground anthology, Up Late—and our French curriculum included an anthology with the poems of Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Mallarme, Apollinaire, Eluard, and Ponge. Fighting my way to understanding those poems, memorizing, explicating, was like finding out I could run. I didn’t know what it was for, I didn’t even really know that I loved it, but I couldn’t stop. And then, in the poetry section of Books and Things, the independent bookstore in town the name of which my French teacher joked spun off a mortuary called Death ’n’ Things—I found The Complete Poems of Edwin Denby, ed. Ron Padgett. This book changed my life twice.
To get into Kenneth Koch’s Imaginative Writing class, a seminar open to twelve students each year, you had to interview with the professor. I studied up for the interview by reading uncomprehendingly the first canto of Koch’s long poem Ko, or a Season on Earth, and, struck by the intense likeness of his protagonist to George Plimpton’s hoax Sidd Finch, the Met prospect who, like Ko, threw fastballs so hard they destroyed stadium seating, I decided I would present myself as an extraordinary baseball fan. About one minute into the interview I realized my error, and mercifully, so did Koch. Looking at my William Carlos Williams-esque poems about baseball and changing the subject, he asked me who else I read. I mentioned Charles Olson. He raised an eyebrow and asked who else. “Edwin Denby?” He smiled a smile of surprise and recognition. “Edwin would be pleased to hear young men in 1988 are reading his poems. You’re in the class.” I didn’t write a page in that class worth anything, and discovered furthermore that I had no taste for the hand-to-hand combat of writing workshops. I did find that I was as good a reader of poetry as anybody who called themselves a writer, though.
The following spring, in the third class I took with Koch in four semesters, while waiting for class to begin I made a glib remark to a friend that something or other was like “a line from an Edwin Denby poem,” prompting a woman in the row in front of me, whom I had noticed previously as being a) very cute and b) on the opposite side from me in every aesthetic debate in the class for a year, turned around and said, “Edwin Denby! My father was in a movie with him. I did a report on him in high school and his poem, do you know it, ‘The shoulder of a man is shaped like a baby pig…’” at which point Professor Koch arrived and the conversation was temporarily suspended. My son with her is now twenty.
"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.