The best book I ever received for Christmas is a first edition of W. S. Merwin's THE FOLDING CLIFFS, "a narrative of 19th-century Hawaii"--in other words, one of the great epic poems written in our time. In elegant, urgent verses Merwin tells the story of a family determined to stay together as they flee government capture during a quarantine effort on Kauai. Woven in amidst the action is an appreciation of the native culture, mythology, and landscape of this gorgeous island. The book is dedicated to Olivia Breitha (1916-2006); Breitha was known as an outspoken advocate of those discriminated against for leprosy, and her firsthand experience resonated with later generations affected by the AIDS epidemic.
It would be enough to appreciate this gift in terms of its literary merit...but the real reason I share it with you is because of the spirit in which it was given. It was the first Christmas that I had chosen to spend away from home to be with a love, and I was on the eve of making a trip to Kauai myself--without him. He was a huge Merwin fan. The day after Christmas, after all the "official" gifts had been opened, I was packing to make the 15-hour drive back to see my family for a day and catch a plane to Hawaii. That was when took his own copy of this book, signed it to me, and told me I must read it. I carried this spontaneous gesture to Kauai's beaches....And exclusive to the blog, here is a snapshot of the book with a second inscription--from Merwin himself. Read the full essay here to get that half of the story. For regular blog readers, you might recognize an intersection with this May entry, "Swoon.")