by Dana Delibovi
July in New York City is mercilessly hot. Street-buckling, garbage-rotting, sweat-drenching hot. No place is hotter than the subway. Not long ago, most New York subway cars lacked air-conditioning. Riders opened windows, letting in a subterranean wind when the train sped through the dark tunnels. It wasn’t much help.
On one of those July days, I sat on the 2-train as it idled in Times Square station, taking on passengers. A window was wide open above my head. A bell rang, and over the scratchy PA came the conductor’s voice, “Watch-a closing doors.” The train began to pull from the station.
Suddenly, I heard a fluttering, a susurrus of wings, the sound that rises when a flock of starlings takes off. Something flew through the window and landed in my lap. A little orange book, stamped with gold letters: New Testament. The woman sitting next to me gasped, then turned to me and said, “Honey, you betta’ read that.”
Books that fly or leap, and books accompanied by a command to read, have been with us a long time. The most famous is the Bible of the 4th century Catholic saint, Augustine. Sitting in a garden, vexed by his sinfulness, Augustine prayed for help and heard the imperative, “Tolle, lege” (Take up, read). He grabbed his Bible, then flipped it open at random. As Augustine reports in his Confessions, the words of St. Paul in Romans 13:13 jumped off the page, reminding him to lay off the booze, orgies, and jealous rages. Pretty good start on tackling the sin problem.
Ancient deities like Egyptian Thoth, Grecian Hermes, and Chinese Fu Xi reign over writing and also have the power of flight—Thoth as an ibis, Hermes with winged sandals, and Fu Xi by assuming the form of a dragon. Monks of the Middle Ages and artists of the Italian Renaissance and Mannerist periods often depicted angels with books or scrolls. All of these images emphasize an important aspect of the flying book in earlier phases of civilization: the book does not fly of its own accord, but is powered by a spiritual being who carries or even heaves the book to its landing site. One particular work that stands out for sheer force is Angel Holding a Book (~1583), a chalk drawing by the Mannnerist Cristoforo Roncalli. The angel—a muscular, winged male at a trot—swings an open book as if preparing to give it a sideways fling, with some heat on it.
Despite the pressure of history and the words of the woman on the 2-train, I did not immediately take up and read my orange New Testament. Right after the book pelted me, I pushed it deep into my totebag. Fear prickled my skin, and I launched into foxhole philosophy. Hit with a Bible? What would be the necessary and sufficient conditions for that? Since the train moved too slowly to vacuum up the book, it had to be thrown. Was the motive anger, or a wish to a snag a convert with a haphazard strike? Does the causal chain extend back to that good old, unfashionable, all-purpose necessary condition—a God who intervenes in human lives?
My philosophical questions about the book faded as the day wore on. They were no match for the vehement self-criticism that went with me everywhere. My inner monologue incessantly vocalized worry and dread, proclaiming my inability to create, achieve, love, and triumph. When I got home from work, I no doubt followed the usual routine to quiet my self-brutalization. I drank some Budweisers, running up and down the stairs all night, to buy two beers at a time from the corner bodega. (Buying a twelve-pack might indicate a problem.) But somehow, the orange book made it out of my bag onto my bookshelf. There it stayed, unread but whispering to me, for quite a few years.
The flight of books is not always a job for an angel. Demons may have wings, too, and make mischief by transporting a book. The demonology of Japan is a fruitful source of monsters that wield books, scrolls, and placards. Taiso Yoshitoshi depicted one of these fiends in the woodcut, Manosan yowa no tsuki (Night Moon Over Mount Manno, ~1880). Under a darkened moon, a woman with very long hair listens to a wide-winged demon that holds up a page of writing.
I wasn’t sure whether a devil, a deity, or dumb luck threw the book at me. I noticed, though, that the book exposed an uncomfortable conflict at my very core: reason versus superstition. Some days, when reason held sway, I thought the New Testament came into my possession through benign coincidence in a synchronous and logical universe. Other days, I thought the book was either a devilish omen or the hand of heaven, two different manifestations of the superstition that some phantasmal meddler, good or evil, relentlessly tinkers with individual lives.
After the book bombarded me, subway riding changed, or rather, I changed while riding the subway. I started crying a lot on the train. On the weekends, I would ride alone to destinations around the city, maybe a museum, maybe window-shopping at designer boutiques, maybe a café. The tears flowed as the train clattered on. What was I going to do about my failed life? Sometimes, kind strangers would ask me if I were all right. I waved them off, put my head down, and kept on crying. I muttered the name of God and the word “help” under my breath.
Flying books didn’t sprout their own pinions until late in the 20th century. Then, little glyphs of winged books began to appear, with thousands now posted for download. In Anselm Kiefer’s Book With Wings (1992–1994) and Uraeus (2017–2018), books fly on thickly feathered wings sculpted of lead and steel. Kiefer said that that “the book, the idea of a book or the image of a book, is a symbol of learning, or transmitting knowledge.” But Kiefer’s massive, leaden wings suggest that the transmission isn’t always easy. Flight can take a lot of energy—sometimes enough to pull a plane out of a nose dive.
So, I finally read my book of wings. I was just that desperate. Nose-diving.
The New Testament did not convert me to piety. It did not make me certain that God can get me a better seat on the subway if I pray rightly. It did not convince me that demons were at work in my life. But the book carried me aloft, out of a canyon of loneliness and self-hatred. It contributed to a pleasantly promiscuous spirituality, a practice of mediation and prayer that I draw from many of the world’s religions. Nowadays, because of this practice, I delight in the oscillation between reason and superstition; the book helped resolve the very conflict it revealed.
There are passages in New Testament I never knew. They surprised me when I read them. I bookmarked this one, from Luke 12:24—flap those wings and quit worrying.
Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds! And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? If then you are not able to do so small a thing as that, why do you worry about the rest?
My flying book showed me that world is an astonishing place. Religion, poetry, nature, and human love bestow a trove of metaphors, all with the power to lift us up. Every moment brims with images we elevate into meaning. That is what creativity is. It is also how we come to dwell with other people in enriching ways. It is how we live well.
When a metaphor flies into your life, take it up and read it. It will give you wings.
Dana Delibovi is a poet, essayist, and translator. Her work has recently appeared in Arkansan Review, Bluestem, Ezra Translations, and Zingara Poetry Review. She is Consulting Poetry Editor at Witty Partition, and a recipient of the 2019 James Haba Award for poetry and a 2020 Pushcart Prize nomination.