Bookshelf: Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping

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This summer, I finally found the courage to re-read Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping. I first read Housekeeping in the middle of a difficult summer, and the hermetic intensity of Robinson’s language mirrored my psyche.

All summer—and well into the fall—I could not bear to be in my own skin. I house-sat for a generous professor and spent most of my days working in the university library. Over a series of long nights, alone in the professor’s house—from whose kitchen I watched fireflies dance over beds of hostas (striped and puckered like men’s summer suiting)—I read Housekeeping. I felt at home nowhere, eager to shed my own skin. But that is another story.

Some books never lose their emotional intensity. To open them is to touch fire. Housekeeping is one of those books. Even on re-reading, there are passages that still struck me with a visceral force, leaving me blinking and unsteady, like walking out of a dark room into the white heat of the noon day sun. The book is full of lines that sink me with their beauty, while filling me with a desperate, gasping anxiety. “Imagine a Carthage sown with salt,” Robinson writes, directing attention first towards the dance of the sower and the salt, and then at the crystalline flowering of “leaves and trees of rime and brine.” Rolled into the sound of Robinson’s language is the sensation of plucking salt crystals and placing them on the tongue, all sharpness and angles. But then the moment morphs again: “Light would force each salt calyx to open in prisms, and to fruit heavily with bright globes of water–peaches and grapes are little more than that, and where the world was salt there would be greater need of slaking. For need can blossom into all the compensations it requires.” The experience dilates.  “To crave and to have are as like as a thing and its shadow. For when does a berry break upon the tongue as sweetly as when one longs to taste it…” Consonant against vowel, vowel against consonant. Hold time open for me.

But time rolls on. The experience must end. I will soon come to the end of these lines—and how can I bear it, except to turn back and read them once more? And through it all, the memory of that first swoon into language, that second fall, again, into Robinson’s synesthesia of sound and image— I can still hear the night sounds in that old house — the boards and beams settling, the tree branches tapping and scratching at the walls, little unnamed feet scrambling over the roof — flashes and memories of a self no longer present, now engaged in a ghost dance with the self who remains.

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