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Wednesday, 01 February 2006 00:00

Cupid’s reading list

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Valentine’s Day is just around the bend, and for anyone with even a breath of romance in the heart — whether you’re madly in love or you’ve just gotten your heart ripped apart by some human version of Hurricane Katrina — it’s time to look at a few books that might help make romantics out of all of us.

First up on our list is Patti Smith’s Auguries of Innocence (ISBN 0-06-083266-5, $22.95), the first book of poetry from this author and performer in more than a decade. Described on the book’s dust jacket as “intimate” and “searing,” this collection of poems apparently — again according to the dust jacket — was influenced by Black, Rimbaud, Picasso, Arbus, and Johnny Appleseed.

I admit that I read most of this short collection over the course of several evenings while riding on a step machine at our local gym, a place and an activity not necessarily conducive to poetic harmony, but I would nonetheless contend that Auguries of Innocence is one more of those books of “poetry” that reflect the dismal state of the craft in our time. It is turgid, overly personal and private, and weaves its images the way a drunkard weaves his way across the yard.

Oddly enough, the confusion and wild imagery of the book make it perfect Valentine’s Day fare for that sentimental lover who wants to whisper sweet nothings into his beloved’s ear. Suppose, for example, that you are a shy young man who finds himself at a bar around 11 o’clock at night. It’s that time in your period of drinking when all the women — even that large lady who needs two bar stools to remain aloft — look sweet as roses in a sunlit garden. You glide — or think you glide — across the beer-glazed floor to your chosen honey, lean close, and quote some Patti Smith:

Beauty alone is not immortal.

It is the response, a language of ciphers,

notes, and strokes riding off on a cloud charger— the bruised humps of magnificent whales.

Clouds of my childhood, clouds of God

awash in rose, violet, and gold.

That part about the “bruised humps of magnificent whales” will, I am absolutely certain, bring you the girl of your dreams.

If the spoken word is not your thing, then try writing a letter. In this crazy age of e-mail, text messaging, and cell phones, the person who receives a letter feels as if some mystical gift has arrived with the seed catalogs, credit card offers, and auction announcements. One book that may help you inspire your missive to your lover is The 50 Greatest Love Letters of All Time (ISBN 0-8129-3277-3, $20). Edited by David H. Lowenherz, this collection includes an astonishing range of writers/lovers, including a letter from U.S. President Harry S. Truman to his wife, Bess. There is an impassioned plea from Zelda Fitzgerald to her husband, the novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald: “ — if you ran away with another woman and starved me and beat me — I still would want you. I know — Lover, Lover, Darling — Your wife.” There’s an insane, angry letter from James Thurber to Eva Prout that ends with Thurber’s declaration that “Whom the gods destroy they first make madly in love with a girl.” There are letters from Hemingway, from George Bush Sr., from Michelangelo, from Kerouac and Jack London. In many cases, the words burn and steam from the pages, fire waiting to illuminate the soul and will of the most recalcitrant lover.

Some of us seem to burnish our romantic natures by reading fiction. For women there are a plethora of novels regarding the affairs of the heart, ranging from romance novels to serious works of fiction. Men may have more difficulty finding something to read that isn’t considered chick lit. Guys, let me suggest Mark Helprin’s 1991 novel, A Soldier of the Great War. This sprawling account of the 20th century, told by an Italian professor named Alessandro Giuliani, is a beautifully rendered tale about life and love, war and death, about the things that really matter. We meet Alessandro when he is an old man and is telling the story of his life to a young Italian factory worker in 1964. As he recounts all the terrible and wonderful events of that life, Alessandro makes us see how magical, how wonderful, how beautiful life is for those with the eyes to see it. Just to give a small taste of this book, let me recount part of a letter Alessandro receives from his wife near the end of the book. She writes:

As long as you have life and breath, believe. Believe for those who cannot. Believe even if you have stopped believing. Believe for the sake of the dead, for love, to keep your heart beating, believe. Never give up, never despair, let no mystery confound you into the conclusion that mystery cannot be yours.

A Soldier of the Great War is filled not only with thoughts such as these, but with high adventure, tragedy, and profound insight into the human condition and particularly into the male heart. If you know of a young man — or even an old man — in need of inspiration, and if you can persuade him to read this long book, the results may well be profound.

Finally, if your heart seems dry as a pile of October leaves, if you’re suffering, if love seems to have flown away south for the winter, then do as I have done. Go to the library or your local bookshop, and peruse the travel section. Pick a place to go next summer, a place to take you anywhere but where you are. In my own case I picked up Insider’s Guide: North Carolina’s Outer Banks (ISBN 0-7627-3689-5, $18.95). For me, broken hearts begin to heal a little faster when you’re looking at two weeks of camping on a wild beach. All you have to do is imagine the sunrise, the great wide beaches, the gnarled pines around the tent, the taste of surf, fish, and the beverage of your choice.

Happy Valentine’s Day, kind readers.

Auguries of Innocence by Patti Smith. Ecco, 2005. $22.95 — 80 pages.

The 50 Greatest Love Letters of All Time edited by David H. Lowenherz. Gramercy Books, 2002. $20 — 224.

A Soldier of the Great War by Mark Helprin. Harvest, 2005. 880 pages.

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