Aimless Reading

Michael Kelleher

A few days ago, Michael Kelleher celebrated the one-year anniversary of his “Aimless Reading” project, which he’s been writing in daily increments and posting on his blog, Pearlblossom Highway. The idea is brilliant: an A to Z working through of his library, by way of brief notes that are as much autobiography as commentary (and the commentaries are nearly always based on memory; Kelleher’s rereading is minimal). I love the literalness with which Kelleher enacts a basic principle of autobiography — looking outward to see inward, inward to see outward — and I also love the charming way he equates autobiography with a display of possessions. These two qualities place “Aimless Reading” in the tradition of Joe Brainard’s I Remember, which was also written in small increments. The smallness, I think, is essential to the charm, partly because the equation of a life with its possessions would become unbearable if the text belabored their weight with its own weight, partly because it makes you want to write a book like that yourself — it makes autobiography seem like child’s play, like a version of show and tell.

One year in, Kelleher has written some 400 entries, and gotten as far as William Faulkner, about 20% of his library. He expects to be working on the project until 2013.

Several of his entries touch on authors dear to the NPF (Basil Bunting, Robert Creeley, H.D.), and a few reference the NPF directly, most recently “The E’s, Part 11 (Theodore Enslin),” which is keyed to Theodore Enslin‘s Nine and refers to our 2004 conference on Poetries of the 1940s, where Enslin was one of the featured poets. Here’s an excerpt:

On the second to last day of the conference, Jonathan Skinner suggested that Matthew Cooperman and I skip out of the conference to go visit Ted at his farm in rural Maine, a suggestion to which we happily agreed. We drove up the coast about an hour and then inland slightly to arrive a ways down a very secluded roaded at his house, which is about 250 years old, if not older.

Ted came downstairs and welcomed us and we all sat in his living room talking about poetry and so forth. He then took us out for a walk and showed us his property. As we walked toward the woods he pointed to a small house, which he said was his wife’s potting shed. Further on into the woods we came upon a clearing, in which were planted, quite a ways apart from one another, 8-10 different varieties of young trees. He explained that this was a kind of literary arbor he had been cultivating, meaning that each variety of tree was chosen because it had made an appearance in some literary work that was important to him — for example, he had planted a lotus blossom in honor of William Carlos Williams.

As befits an autobiography written in catalog form, this anecdote is continued in another entry that the alphabet placed first. In “The C’s, Part 34 (Matthew Cooperman),” Kelleher had this:

One afternoon, Matthew, Jonathan Skinner and myself skipped out of the conference for an afternoon to visit Ted Enslin’s farm deep in the Maine Woods. Enslin entertained us in the living room of his 200-year old farmhouse and then took us on a walk through a clearing in the woods to his writing cabin, a little A-frame filled with books and cd’s and trunks full of manuscripts. (I’ll write more about this visit when I get to Enslin’s books).

After visiting Ted, the three of us drove back toward Orono. I recall we stopped at a lobster shack by the side of the road and ate a very messy dinner while talking about Enslin, Creeley, Mac Low and many of the other old poets that had made their way to the conference — Creeley and Mac Low for the last time. In fact, I am pretty sure Mac Low’s reading at the conference was his final reading, period.

The 1940s Conference took place in the summer of 2004, when Mac Low was just short of his 82nd birthday. He passed away in December of that year.