When I talked to Aimee Bender, author of The Color Master, for this series, she mentioned a recent article in the journal Science that suggested reading fiction changes one’s orientation towards the world. When it compared popular fiction, literary fiction, nonfiction, and reading nothing at all, the Science study found that literary fiction temporarily increases what researches call “theory of mind”: emotional intelligence, essentially. It’s not hyperbole, then, to say “This book changed my life”—literature demonstrably boosts one’s ability to understand, relate to, and empathize with others.
How strange—and yet how unsurprising, to people who love novels—that reading causes perceptible changes to our brains and bodies. (It sounds like something out of an Aimee Bender story, actually—like the dessert served in The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake that briefly allows the narrator to hold the full psychic weight of her mother’s secret history.) In her conversation for this series, Bender shared the story of her own such transformation. Memorizing a mysterious Wallace Stevens poem, Bender experienced much more than the pleasure of learning words by heart—the poem worked a real, physiological magic that surprises her to this day.
The Color Master blends psychological realism and fairytale fabulism in the balance she is known for: Women marry child-eating ogres, tigers have their stripes sewn on, girls learn to make dye just the color of the moon. Aimee Bender teaches creative writing at the University of Southern California. She spoke to me by phone from her home in Los Angeles.
Light the first light of evening, as in a room
In which we rest and, for small reason, think
The world imagined is the ultimate good.
This is, therefore, the intensest rendezvous.
It is in that thought that we collect ourselves,
Out of all the indifferences, into one thing:
Within a single thing, a single shawl
Wrapped tightly round us, since we are poor, a warmth,
A light, a power, the miraculous influence.
Here, now, we forget each other and ourselves.
We feel the obscurity of an order, a whole,
A knowledge, that which arranged the rendezvous.
Within its vital boundary, in the mind.
We say God and the imagination are one...
How high that highest candle lights the dark.
Out of this same light, out of the central mind,
We make a dwelling in the evening air,
In which being there together is enough.
Aimee Bender: I first heard “The Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour” at a funeral. A large funeral, and a very sad one. A poet read it to the people gathered, and I found it moving, and helpful, but in a kind of inexplicable way. It’s something of an oblique poem. It concerns mystery, and its language is itself mysterious. Yet there was something in it that I sensed, even listening for the first time, about a community coming together to support this family and pay tribute to this life.
The poet knew Stevens’s poem very well—it was like it had metabolized in her. She’d absorbed it fully in a way that helped us absorb it, too. I felt that magical alchemy of poetry, the way it acknowledges things we can’t fully understand. I felt very sad about the death that had happened, but there a healing line from this poet to the people sitting around.
Right away, I knew I’d want to look that poem up and spend more time with it. One line—“We say God and the imagination are one”—stuck with me especially. There’s something beautifully enigmatic about that line: It contains what feels so expansive and mysterious about the imagination to me. I love the way it treats the imagination with an almost-religious reverence.
A friend of mine, the Tin House editor Cheston Knapp, wrote an essay once where he recalled memorizing a Frost poem as a younger man—he was making fun of himself, calling out the pretentiousness of this. And it’s funny, because I found myself thinking: I want to do that. Not in a showy way. I don’t want to perform a poem. I just like the idea of having the words accessible in my mind. I love poetry, and I wanted to carry Stevens’s poem with me. To live with it. I’d never been required to memorize anything before—the days of learning poems by heart in school are gone—and suddenly, I wanted to.
It took a while for me to learn the words, which I’d repeat to myself while driving in L. A. Trying to speak a poem over and over, you learn to pay attention to all its nooks and crannies: I had to ask myself, is it “a” or “the?” Is the phrase “miraculous influence,” or something else? You have to slow down so intensely to read a poem and take it all in. As I tried to digest it, chew over all its details, I started to feel the way the lines flowed into one another. I started to understand it through its shape.
Here’s what surprised me: When I had it all memorized, I felt elated. I had a physical response to holding all those words in my mind together. A real buzz—that was shocking to me. But it also makes sense because it was the same thing that happened to me at the funeral: Hearing the poem aloud, it had this certain physical magic that I recognized. Speaking it aloud, the same powerful feeling came through. When I spoke the poem, just as when I heard it, I could feel something happening within.
The poem’s meaning shifted for me, too. The line I’d liked so much at first, “We say God and the imagination are one,” began to seem darker. I started to feel it was acknowledging human limitation, addressing the way we invent things to comfort ourselves. That’s when the next line rose up, a line I’d completely overlooked when reading on the page: “How high that highest candle lights the dark.”
This image is expansion and limit all at once. Stevens has just told us that our largest, most expansive thoughts are still contained within us, that our sense of God or something larger exists only within our minds. We feel there’s something larger but, no—that’s in our minds. Yet this idea turns again with “how high that highest candle lights the dark”: Even within our human limitations, how beautiful we can be. It’s still just a little candle, but how high: our beauty, our capacity for thought and feeling, for togetherness. Our humanness is vast and ripe and gorgeous, and, as Stevens says at the end of the poem, “being there together is enough.” Even though he’s struggling with the nature of what we imagine, the poem ultimately enters a place where connection is possible between people. Ultimately, I think it’s a hopeful poem in that way.