Friends have occasionally charged that I regard Christmas chiefly as an occasion for giving and receiving books as presents. This is monstrously unfair. But it is true that, when I read an appealing new book, I begin to wonder who in my circle of loved ones might also enjoy it. I was only a few pages into Robert Hudson's The Poet and the Fly when several candidates came to mind.
I know Bob Hudson, though not well. In days of yore, when he was an editor for Zondervan and I was editing Books & Culture, he and I appeared on panels together more than once, and our paths have crossed on other bookish occasions. I know him also as the generous benefactor (along with his wife, Shelley) of Calvin University’s Center for Faith & Writing.
Hudson’s new book has one of the most enticing titles I’ve encountered this year. I wish he had omitted the subtitle—“Art, Nature, God, Mortality, and Other Elusive Mysteries”—and left the main title, at once straightforward and enigmatic, to stand alone. Each of Hudson’s seven main chapters (bracketed by a prologue and epilogue) is devoted to a single poet, as eclectic a selection as you’re likely to find: Thomas Traherne, William Oldys, William Blake, Kobayashi Issa, Emily Dickinson, Guillaume Apollinaire, and Robert Farren. (Two of these, Oldys and Farren, I knew nothing about until reading Hudson’s account, though I’ve seen passing references to Oldys a handful of times.) What they have in common is that they all wrote a noteworthy poem about a fly or “the fly.” (Issa wrote a number of haikus in which flies appear; the chapter on him is one of my favorites.)
Each of these chapters has a theme: Existence, Mortality, Imagination, Compassion, The Soul, Things, Story. That may sound heavy-handed, but Hudson has a light touch. The fly, after all, is a wonderfully improbable prompt for such reflections, and that tension—between, on the one hand, a creature that often provokes disgust and seems emblematic of insignificance, and, on the other hand, the metaphysical flights it inspires—is witty, humorous, suggestive of the deep incongruity of human life. As Blake wrote,
Am not I
A fly like thee?
Or art not thou
A man like me?
For I dance
And drink and sing,
Till some blind hand
Shall brush my wing.
Hudson not only handles his existential themes with savoir faire; he wears his great learning lightly. The notes and bibliography hint at the prodigious reading that went into the writing of this unpretentious book. Indeed, at times, Hudson is too unpretentious, too solicitous of his readers. On page 2, he notes that “James Joyce twice quotes a phrase from [Traherne’s] Centuries in his seminal 1922 novel, Ulysses.” Bits of boilerplate like this (“his seminal 1922 novel”) may be defended as a courtesy to readers entirely unfamiliar with one of the most famous books of the twentieth century, but they will irritate the vast majority of readers drawn to a book such as The Poet and the Fly.
In an appendix, Hudson includes a number of poems on flies in addition to the ones he’s discussed earlier, plus a brief excerpt from Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus. I’ll be keeping an eye out for more examples as I read.
One final note on The Poet and the Fly: It’s a beautifully made little volume, as befits an author who has himself worked as a book designer and “has certificates in hand bookbinding and hand printing.” All the more reason to consider giving it as a gift this Christmas, or for another special occasion, or simply because you want to gladden the heart of someone close to you.
John Wilson is a contributing editor for The Englewood Review of Books.
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