Deep Reading “On the Wing”

Tam Lin Neville is the author of the full-length book of poems, Journey Cake (BkMk Press, l998).  Her second collection, Triage, is forthcoming from Cervena Barva Press.  Her poems and reviews have appeared in Harvard Review, Mademoiselle, American Poetry Review, Ironwood, and Threepenny Review.  Co-editor of Off The Grid Press, she also works for Changing Lives Through Literature as teacher and administrative assistant.


I know that my title is an oxymoron, but I wrote it this way because many of my most memorable reading experiences have come when I was traveling, free of all daily encumbrances.  Here is one particular scene:  The month was December; I was traveling by bus from NYC to a small town in upstate NY where my family lived.  The bus, luckily, was actually three hours late due to snow that began in Albany.  I was rereading one of my favorite childhood books, The Secret Garden by Francis Hodgson Burnett.


Because of the delay, I was able to read the whole story in one sitting, turning the last page just as the bus pulled into Keene Valley’s one gas station, the local Greyhound stop in that small Adirondack town.


On that bus ride, while reading The Secret Garden, I was able to exchange one world for another.  Instead of the musty, lived-in air of the bus, I found myself in an enclosed, overgrown garden, where the air was fresh and cool in early spring.


“It was the sweetest, most mysterious-looking place anyone could imagine.  The high walls which shut it in were covered with the leafless stems of roses which were so thick that they matted together . . . .No wonder it’s still, Mary whispered, I am the first person who has spoken in here for ten years.



I fell headlong into the garden’s dark history and then slowly, the brighter story that comes to replace it.   This is what I call “deep reading.”  For reasons too mysterious to analyze, you find yourself lost for hours, deeply embedded in another time and place. My particular experience of deep reading, “on the wing,” is like travel within travel.


In the seventies I was able to visit the great Buddhist statues (now destroyed) in Bamian, Afghanistan.  The only way to go there was by jeep.  For this we had to wait half a day in a funky wayfarer’s hotel where I sat and read a huge chunk of The Magic Mountain, not actually in motion but definitely in transit. More in the middle of nowhere than I’d ever been before (or since), I went from an infinite desert landscape to Thomas Mann’s enclosed world of a TB sanitarium, crowded with eccentric invalids who reacted to each other in intricate and fascinating ways.


Many years before this trip, I had been an exchange student in Japan. In the sixties, Tokyo had a subway, the Chuosen, that circled the city.  You could get on and go for hours, until your book was finished.  At the time I was reading Katherine Mansfield’s letters and I was completely caught up in the romance between Mansfield and John Middleton Murry. Rocked by the train, I read for hours.


I found as I got older the experience of being totally sewed into these deep “out of time” pockets came less and less.  But I want to mention one more.  This one is in the present and very different from all the rest because it was one I shared with my husband, and because it’s happening in our house, one we are very settled into.  This winter has been particularly long for us and in the evenings we’ve taken refuge in reading War and Peace out loud to each other.


I had recently reread the novel, in the new translation by Pevear and Volokhonsky.  I then passed it on to Bert and he is now three quarters of the way through.  When we read together, we just pick up wherever his bookmark is, after a brief review to establish context.


One night the wind was howling our house and the red bud tree out front was begin lashed again and again, scraping and knocking against our 2nd storey window.  But in the pages of War and Peace Prince Andrei and his troops were on the march, traveling a long, dusty high road through countryside sunk in drought.  This is described in detail, but then the narrative opens up.


Prince Andrei comes to a stopping place with his regiment, a dam on a small pond.  Though the water smelled slimy, his men had wasted no time getting in.  The pond was “filled with the naked human bodies of soldiers flopping about . . . , white with brick-red hands, faces, and necks.  All that naked, white human flesh, with whoops and guffaws, was flopping about in the dirt puddle like carp in a bucket.”


Isaac Babel said, “ If the world could write by itself, it would write like Tolstoy.”  Exactly.  Tolstoy’s prose is so straightforward and transparent that when I was reading on my own, I tore through the book at a great clip . . . and missed a good deal.  But reading out loud we came upon so many details we’d missed before and also, were better able to comprehend the larger surround of the novel.  Though the storm raged outside we both fell into Tolstoy’s pond. We would gladly have spent the night there.

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2 thoughts on “Deep Reading “On the Wing”

  1. Tam: Exactly right. I like the way you weave your own story together with the other stories. We travel through the leaves of books and the leaves of nature, in a sense. Deep reading is far out and deep within–and it’s always worth the trip. Let us know all about your next flight, too.

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