The Splendor of Letters

by Susan Kelly-DeWitt

I’ve been reading The Splendor of Letters by Nicholas Basbane, absorbed by his stories of poets and writers connecting through time—of literature saved from obscurity or rescued from oblivion by translators, by booklovers, by fellow writers.

I’ve also been inhabiting all those terrible times he details, when an entire culture’s writings have been obliterated—deliberate attempts like the Romans’ against the Carthaginians, the Conquistadors’ against the Mayans, the Nazis’ against the Jews; campaigns of destruction by individuals like Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot; natural disasters like Pompeii and Herculaneum.

As I was planning this blog, the earthquake in Haiti struck, the decimation unfolded and hopes ran out. The Chilean quake followed so soon after it seemed like the world was coming unglued. In fact, the earth’s axis did shift as a result of the Chilean quake, shortening our day by 1.26 microseconds.

Here I look around the rooms of my house, at the books, the people, the art. I walk through the streets and imagine it all collapsed, broken, crumbled. Things blur and reel. For I too live in earthquake country—in fact, Words in Earthquake Country was the title of an early manuscript I discarded along the way. I’d written it after the 8.1 Mexico City earthquake in 1985. The title poem (published in Nimrod as “In the Tradition of the Drinking Song,” and since revised) begins:

 

In Mexico City, Danillo Cabrera

clings to a lintel as the doorframe falls

four floors down, “like an elevator.”

 

He says the Our Father wedged

among the dead.

 

In the earthquake country of my living room

none of the old prayers work

though whenever I write “God”

I still use a capital letter.

 

A few weeks ago we had a 6.9 temblor three hundred miles north of here, along the California coast. We didn’t feel it much in Sacramento, though several people reported seeing the water in their backyard swimming pools spiking. This connected for me because during the 7.1 Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989, (shortly after I started a Stegner fellowship at Stanford ) I was having dinner with my new Stegner clan in an apartment shared by two fellows in Palo Alto. We heard what sounded like the roaring of a locomotive bearing down on us and the world came unglued; as we ran single-file outside we saw exactly what the Sacramento folks described—the water in the apartment complex pool leaping up in wild spikes, sloshing out over the edges. I drove home the next day, trying to avoid every bridge, every overpass, and holding my breath each time I couldn’t. I veered south around the bay before heading north to where my children—who I managed to speak with before the phones went dead—had clung to each other in a doorway as the floors shook and windowpanes clattered.

But, back to Basbane:  Even though so much of his book recounts destruction, it’s finally about preservation, about the friendships forged between authors and readers. It’s both humbling and restoring to learn how hard so many have worked to save a single poem, a few lines of a psalm or a treatise on gothic architecture, a few words from a guide for decorating Etruscan pots.

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