What Sparks Poetry

Books We’ve Loved

What Sparks Poetry is a serialized feature in which we invite poets to explore experiences and ideas that spark new poems.

In Books We’ve Loved, we’ve asked our editorial board members and select guest editors to reflect on a book that has been particularly meaningful to them in the last year, with the intention of creating a list of book recommendations for our valued readers.

Dong Li on Evan S. Connell’s Notes From a Bottle Found on the Beach at Carmel

Notes from a Bottle Found on the Beach at Carmel: A Poem by Evan S. Connell was published half a century ago. I came to it more than a decade ago, when I decided to serve poems and my literary curiosities. A timely revelation. Now my own first poetry collection is out in a bottle at sea, I pick up Connell’s poem again and revisit the initial awe. This poem gleans materials from the oblivion of history and gathers accumulative force, as facts become allusive and feelings illusively labyrinthine. Connell is frank about his method:

    I arrange and interpret memorable items
    as vipers out of necessity, by immense labor
    and with difficulty, draw themselves free
    from the confines of their early, narrow sac.

Vestigial shards of old legend and lore dart in and out of vertiginous fragments of human folly and futility, now like lightning on a clear day, now like fireflies on a talkative night. The “I” slyly travails through historical significance and triviality until the tribulations of fear, faith, and ferocity surface in a dizzying dream state, hauling history into the prophetic present, where associative meanings are distilled into a crude and cruel illumination. “In the confluence of hand, head, eye, and brow,” the metamorphosing “I” remains intactly resolute in its unsatiable quest for the hidden truth.

    Every prayer I unite with some other,
    that in such a way countless voices
    raised in a multitude of accents
    may join, creating a single invocation.

The distance of time does not obliterate but intensifies, “through the gates of memory,” the awe from my first reading. As I grow out of my younger self and the experiment of my first book, this poem welcomes a new reading that awaits infinite variations of translation. Connell’s poetic invocation has no parallel in our time. A moral compass of any time, this vatic poem is “words for today.”

Writing Prompt

Make a photocopy in an archive of a local newspaper published on the day or during the week of your birth. Cut out things that seem interesting. Search for the meaning of every cutout and transcribe it on a Post-it. Arrange the cutouts and your Post-its separately into two series of scrapbook notes in an order that makes some sense. Then free the two series “from the confines of their early, narrow sac” into one typed poem.

Dong Li

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Dong Li

Dong Li is a multilingual author who translates from Chinese, English, French, and German. Born and raised in China, he was educated at Deep Springs College and Brown University. His poems have been published by Conjunctions, Fence, Kenyon Review, POETRY, and elsewhere. He has served as the Olive B. O’Connor Fellow in creative writing at Colgate University and is a recipient of fellowships from Akademie Schloss Solitude, Camargo and Humboldt Foundations, MacDowell, PEN/Heim Translation Fund, Yaddo, and others. His debut poetry collection, The Orange Tree (University of Chicago Press, March 2023), was the inaugural winner of the Phoenix Emerging Poet Book Prize.