Archive for December, 2014


Moving to the new home: Unpacking the books

Books, libraries, printed matter of all descriptions: newspapers, magazines, pamphlets, clippings. I accumulate print, in any and all forms. I live in print, in old yellowed newspapers saved for articles I can barely remember reading, but am pleased and engaged to rediscover.

You learn something about yourself from having to pack and then unpack a lifetime’s accumulation of books. I don’t mean you learn about your own reading preferences; there were no surprises there. But you learn truths, things about yourself that you never knew, or never admitted.

Poets, beloved poets. My books vote by their presence, and wornness. I have every book of poems Denise Levertov published except her very first, have many of her essays and critical pieces as well. And I have read the covers off some. I return to her often. When I find myself needing the jolt into a new thinking that poetry provides, yet can’t settle on one particular poet, it’s often her I default to. And though I’ve read and re read her countless times, I can still find that jolt, that surprising movement, that instant clarification of thought, in her poems.

I also have nearly everything Charles Olson published. But apparently I have only read them once. Bindings are still tight; I don’t remember most of the poems ( I read and re read the ones in Allen’s anthology, tho). I tend to read the same ones over and over: The Kingfisher. I Maximus of Dogtown. I’m busy making up for this neglect, digging back into the poems. And it’s rewarding and stimulating, since it’s like, and in many cases is, reading them for the first time.

Who do I go back to? In instant need: Doc Williams above all. Also Creeley. Max Jacob. Gerard de Nerval. Hayden Carruth. Levertov, as above. Often Philip Lamantia, his first book. Gael
Turnbull. These are the first responders to my poetic emergencies.

Like many readers, I make piles of books-being-read, or intended to be read. And these accidental anthologies can be revealing. Looking over a book-henge by my reading chair once, I found poems by Pam Rehm, Fanny Howe, Peter O’Leary, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and, at the very bottom, The Seven Story Mountain by Thomas Merton. Uh-oh, I thought, is there a late life conversion waiting in the wings? Unconscious mind, I said, we need to have a talk. After close and careful self interrogation, tho, the many things that have always kept me from Catholicism—its pervasive authoritarianism, an obsession with the psychodrama of the Passion, etc.—are still there and still salient. And at base I can’t believe in absurdities. (Rexroth said the same thing, somewhere). Yet in these writers I find a spiritual insight, struggle and questing not to be found anywhere else (in English, anyway).

The books come out of the boxes, and the order I once had them in, which had its own meaning, is torn apart and atomized, further ripped apart by taking books out in yet a different order. Yet this stripping away of former nets of relation allows each book to be seen by itself, freshly. As I take them out and put them on the floor, forming accidental new orders there in unsteady towers, I plan new arrangements, new orderings, new relations, perhaps never to be realized. I could spend all my time arrangeing and re arranging my library, and never read an individual book again. but I know them all so well, each individual book is like a word in a vocabulary of reading stretching back to my very first books.

And I still have those, or some of them, anyway. A sturdy red binding on a book of farm animal stories, never my most favorite, but loved, and seemingly undamaged by time. My first book of fairy tales, missing its picture of the witch from Hansel and Gretel, which I made my mother tear out. That picture terrified me. She would read these stories to me, and as we got closer and closer to Hansel and Gretel I could feel my anxiety mounting. I wouldn’t let her turn that page. And finally it had to be removed so that we could read the rest of the book.

Whatever happened to the Littles? Doll-sized beings, I think perhaps the denizens of someone’s doll house, who came alive when unobserved. They had a strange, rubbery, insistent presence for me, somehow disturbing, ultimately sexual but I can’t think why. Tiny sex toys? Incarnation of suppressed desires? At that age I cannot have had many (tho sexuality starts younger than most people like to admit).

Some books of course have vanished in time, blown away like dandelion heads (does anyone actually throw a book into the garbage? Shouldn’t they at least be burned or buried or given some means of dignified disposal?)

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