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  • Gail Wilson Kenna

Words from an Infrared Sauna on St. Patrick’s Day

Earlier on my way downstairs, an impulse diverted me to a pine cabinet with glass doors. Inside this protected space is a book collection of male writers I admire. Some of them are Graham Green, Hemingway, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, James Salter, and more. On one pine shelf I removed six books by the brilliant, beautiful, quixotic… Bruce Chatwin.

In Patagonia, The Songlines, Utz, On the Black Hills, a hefty Nicholas Shakespeare biography, and What Are We Doing Here? This collection with its provocative title was published in 1989, the year Bruce died at 49.

I set all six books beside me on the cedar bench in the pre-heated sauna. I’d sat awhile and begun to sweat before I understood the impulse: a conjunction between Chatwin and what a technician in an eye clinic told me recently. She said “they” were seeing a new problem related to cell phone usage and its effect on long distance vision, especially in youth.

Ah, yes, and not unlike the young Chatwin and his work for Sotheby's in London. Hour after hour of his meticulous examination of small art objects, with each object held close to his eyes in small spaces. This until one day, after seeing an eye specialist, he up and fled Sotheby's. The note he left behind (so the story goes) had three words. “Gone to Patagonia.”

The result of this decision? Bruce Chatwin became a writer: a wanderer in search of distance, travel as his way of “sloughing off” one world, discovering himself anew through movement. In Patagonia gave him a name and fame.

“Settled persons,” he described as “protected by a stuffing of possessions.” (Books, a voice whispers in my ear.) Things… with their way of riveting themselves onto the soul and telling the soul what to do. And modern technology to ensure we are never, ever alone, especially now with a cell phone close to eyes and ears.

Two contrary impulses arise. To pack the six books in a box and send them to someone who could be a double for Chatwin in appearance and would love these books among his collection. Or continue to teach after next fall and stay around in 2024 to do a class on Bruce. I don’t know.

But today I celebrate Irish literature and writers who have shown me so much about life. Poets like William Butler Yeats, novelists like James Joyce & Edna O’Brien, the short-story writer, Frank O’Connor, and many others. Thank you Ireland… for what you’ve given the world in fine literature.

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