My Brother's Book
Maurice Sendak's posthumously published My Brother's Book is a poetic send off from a profound artist. It feels like a final love letter to the world, to a beloved brother, and also to his partner of fifty years. It pulls together all the themes that populate his vast body of work into a slender volume of prose and stunning illustrations that bring William Blake to mind.
The story is very much informed by the perspective of someone coming to the end of things, ready to be reunited with loved ones lost. In a final 2011 interview with Terry Gross, Sendak reflected on his fleeting mortality and mentions a current project: "I'm writing a poem right now about a nose. I've always wanted to write a poem about a nose. But it's a ludicrous subject. That's why when I was younger, I was afraid of [writing] something that didn't make a lot of sense. But now I'm not. I have nothing to worry about. It doesn't matter."
In this story, Jack and Guy are two brothers dreaming the same dream. They become separated by en explosion of light when a new star is born, and heaves the earth in two –
"Catapulting Jack to continents of ice -
A snow image stuck fast in water like stone.
His poor nose froze."
Meanwhile Guy is dropped down
"on soft Bohemia...
Into the lair of a bear
Who hugged Guy tight
To kill his breath
And eat him - bite by bite."
Guy tells the bear a riddle which seems to reference Sendak's text from Chicken Soup with Rice:
"In February it will be my snowman's anniversary
With cake for him and soup for me!"
Here Guy tells the polar bear,
"In February it will be
My snowghost's anniversary,
Jack's nose adrift in polar air,
Five years in iced eternity."
Guy eventually finds Jack again five years later, though he has grown into a tree:
"Guy saw Jack's nose and rooted toes
Deep-buried in veiled blossoms
And he bit that nose - to be sure.
"Just lost - when I am saved!" Jack sighed.
And his arms, as branches will,
Wound round his noble-hearted brother,
Who he loves more than his own self.
And Jack slept safe,
Enfolded in his brother's arms.
And Guy whispered,
"Good night and you will dream of me."
Sendak once stated, "I write, and somebody says, 'That's for children.' I didn't set out to make children happy." His books often deal in fear, loss, flight from danger, and are loaded with profound depth of feeling. I believe they resonate strongly with children because children are serious little people who understand their position of vulnerability in the world. Their minds are open to wondrous possibilities. They do not practice the critical rejection of storyline and motive that adults do. They can be cruel, angry and complex. Add in how very little control or power they have in the world, and it's easy to see why they connect with stories like Where the Wild Things Are, In The Night Kitchen, Outside Over There, Pierre, or Dear Mili. They are fascinated the dark side of things - they know that the darkness is interesting. This particular book does seem more suited for adults. Adults still able to slip back into the frame of reference of childhood's wonder and openness, but armed with the comprehension of the value of precious time. It will be most beloved by Sendaks fans who wish to celebrate his life's purpose and meaning.
Yesterday was Thanksgiving. Reflecting on My Brother's Book during the holiday, it reminds me be to be thankful not only for all the wonder and beauty in the world, but for the time I have left in it to enjoy the people I love. It makes me thankful I still have time to complete the work I want to create. Sendak's words inspire us to appreciate our time fully, "I have nothing now but praise for my life. I'm not unhappy. I cry a lot because I miss people. They die and I can't stop them. They leave me and I love them more...What I dread is the isolation ... There are so many beautiful things in the world which I will have to leave when I die, but I'm ready, I'm ready, I'm ready."