Illustration: Thomas Allen
Once a year the Earth holds a season-long party—more of a ball, really, in honor of the sun. There are barbecues, heaps of fresh produce, ice cream cones and costumes constructed of flowing, featherweight material in blues and whites and yellows—all evidence of summer's infinite joys, among them the sun's warmth. Even the tiniest of creatures seem to partake, at least according to one of my favorite Emily Dickinson poems, "The Fingers of the Light": "Gnat / Held up His Cup for Light." There is a bittersweetness to even the headiest days of summer—once we have drunk our fill from our cups of light, we must set them aside. There are other seasons to taste.
If you're reading this in summer, there's a good chance you're reluctant to be reminded of how quickly it passes. Even now it is playing its games with your senses. These are the months when daylight lingers longest, creating the illusion that we have more time than we really do. And so for me summer is for short stories, long poems, novellas, writing with a brief and powerful span, pages I can reach the end of without time disappearing. Like Christina Rossetti's "Goblin Market," a poem that is in part about girls held captive by the delights of summer: "Plump unpeck'd cherries, / Melons and raspberries, / Bloom-down-cheek'd peaches." This is fruit more delicious than any human farmer could offer, for it's grown in lands where summer lasts forever. Faced with all this plenty, Laura chants to Lizzie: "We must not look at goblin men, / We must not buy their fruits...." The fruit is poisonous to humans, awakening an impossible longing to exist outside time. But in the end, nothing can change the simple fact that girls grow into women, that summer always ends.
Photo: Frank Bauer/Contour By Getty Images
Books in short episodes also suit the season: The Pillow Book of Sei Shōnagon thrills me with Shōnagon's wit and lively mind. Maggie Nelson's Bluets is a hybrid of poetry and essays, opening with the confession that the narrator has fallen in love with the color blue. Toward the end of this book composed of numbered statements and references to the many shades of blue found in nature, art, and literature, the narrator tells us: "I am writing all this down in blue ink, so as to remember that all words, not just some, are written in water." This is a work I appreciate in all seasons, but I wonder whether Nelson finished writing it in summer, when the only way to prevent time (and words) from evaporating is by keeping both in casual but thoughtful view.
Helen Oyeyemi is the author of five novels, most recently Boy, Snow, Bird. She lives in Prague.