Things Found in Books

Alongside the tables and booths at Crestwood Coffee runs a row of old and donated books, with a “take a book, leave a book” policy. Yesterday I picked up this one, from 1939: Ted Malone Presents The American Album of Poetry. Ted Malone (I’ve since learned) hosted a popular CBS radio show, “Between the Bookends” for more than thirty years, and on it he championed the everyday poetry of everyday people. “This Album,” the intro to his book begins, “is made up of poems written by poets—but these are the poets who in daily life are housewives, business men, professional people, teachers and students, and their poems are composed wholly for the joy of self-expression.”

The coffee shop copy also bears a handwritten inscription, dated May 10, 1941: How about going poetic, it says—From Your Brother & Sister, Alonzo & Alma. And stuck between the pages of the book are a few typewritten pages of poetry, each signed L. C. Steiner, Jr. Whoever Steiner was, he seems to have been just the sort of poet Ted Malone would have loved: neatly typing his poems on the backs of business stationery (Alexander Motors, Mobile, Alabama), numbering them in pencil, and folding them up and sticking them inside The American Album of Poetry. My favorite of the batch, “Tribute to King Booze,” begins:

       A man does strange things when he gets himself drunk.
       His legs go to shaking and his mind’s full of junk.

Here’s the whole thing. You can barely make out the Alexander Motors letterhead through the paper.

Jesse James inside cover

*

I’m always on the lookout for inscriptions, marginalia, and things stuffed between the pages of old books; they let us glimpse the ghosts of readers past. We get through these artifacts only a cryptic fraction of a larger story and are left to wonder at the rest. What about L. C. Steiner? If he’s the brother to whom the book was inscribed, did the gift inspire him to “go poetic” as challenged—or was he a secret poet already?

Who else got to read his poems?

*

Several years ago in a Chapel Hill bookstore I bought an old biography of Jesse James for fifty cents. My copy of The Rise and Fall of Jesse James was published in 1926, its author Robertus Love, and it belonged at one point to the Sondley Reference Library in Asheville, North Carolina. I haven’t read it and don’t expect to; I laid down my fifty cents for the sake of this lengthy tirade written on the book’s first blank page:

Version 2

Here’s what it says, in case you find that hard to read:

The Yankees who, unprovoked, murdered thousands of Southern people, men and women and children, and stole millions of dollars worth of Southern property and deprived Southern survivors of their liberties and burned their homes and ever since have continued to rob them and slander them with the most nefarious lies and have attempted to deify an atrocious murderer and thief named John Brown and an equally vile beast named Abe Lincoln (or something else) are horrified when a few of the robbed men turned the tables and robbed the robbers.

The writer of this book is a dirty Yankee liar and his statements are entitled to no credit.

If that were not enough, there’s a rejoinder underneath, from another, more modern hand: And the critique above, it announces, was written by an ignoramous!

This, I suppose, is what lately we’ve come to call “trolling”; it’s the Youtube comments before there was Youtube.

And there’s more, too: finally, a third voice weighs in at the top of the page, rendering a final judgment on the entire affair—book, notes, and all.

50¢, it says. A steal!

*

What’s the most interesting thing you’ve found inside an old book? I invite you to describe your favorite finds in the comments below. But first, here’s a poem by Billy Collins, another lover of poetry in the everyday .

It’s called “Marginalia.”

Sometimes the notes are ferocious,
skirmishes against the author
raging along the borders of every page
in tiny black script.
If I could just get my hands on you,
Kierkegaard, or Conor Cruise O’Brien,
they seem to say,
I would bolt the door and beat some logic into your head.

Other comments are more offhand, dismissive –
“Nonsense.” “Please!” “HA!!” –
that kind of thing.
I remember once looking up from my reading,
my thumb as a bookmark,
trying to imagine what the person must look like
who wrote “Don’t be a ninny”
alongside a paragraph in The Life of Emily Dickinson.

Students are more modest
needing to leave only their splayed footprints
along the shore of the page.
One scrawls “Metaphor” next to a stanza of Eliot’s.
Another notes the presence of “Irony”
fifty times outside the paragraphs of A Modest Proposal.

Or they are fans who cheer from the empty bleachers,
hands cupped around their mouths.
“Absolutely,” they shout
to Duns Scotus and James Baldwin.
“Yes.” “Bull’s-eye.” “My man!”
Check marks, asterisks, and exclamation points
rain down along the sidelines.

And if you have managed to graduate from college
without ever having written “Man vs. Nature”
in a margin, perhaps now
is the time to take one step forward.

We have all seized the white perimeter as our own
and reached for a pen if only to show
we did not just laze in an armchair turning pages;
we pressed a thought into the wayside,
planted an impression along the verge.

Even Irish monks in their cold scriptoria
jotted along the borders of the Gospels
brief asides about the pains of copying,
a bird singing near their window,
or the sunlight that illuminated their page–
anonymous men catching a ride into the future
on a vessel more lasting than themselves.

And you have not read Joshua Reynolds,
they say, until you have read him
enwreathed with Blake’s furious scribbling.

Yet the one I think of most often,
the one that dangles from me like a locket,
was written in the copy of Catcher in the Rye
I borrowed from the local library
one slow, hot summer.
I was just beginning high school then,
reading books on a davenport in my parents’ living room,
and I cannot tell you
how vastly my loneliness was deepened,
how poignant and amplified the world before me seemed,
when I found on one page

a few greasy looking smears
and next to them, written in soft pencil–
by a beautiful girl, I could tell,
whom I would never meet–
“Pardon the egg salad stains, but I’m in love.”

 

How to be a poet (drawing)

Wendell Berry

A few years ago I drew this picture of Wendell Berry for my friend Daniel on his birthday. Daniels wife Lucy commissioned the drawing and gave me one of Wendell Berrys books as payment. She also suggested the text, “How to Be a Poet.”

A few weeks ago, while I was moving, I came across my copy of the drawing, which I’d mostly forgotten. Now I’ve put it where I see it every day. I’m not a poet exactly, but I find Berrys reminders a comfort and encouragement. Heres the full poem. Maybe it will be useful, also, to you.

Don’t forget to breathe.

How to Be a Poet
By Wendell Berry
(to remind myself)
i
Make a place to sit down.
Sit down. Be quiet.
You must depend upon
affection, reading, knowledge,
skill—more of each
than you have—inspiration,
work, growing older, patience,
for patience joins time
to eternity. Any readers
who like your poems,
doubt their judgment.
ii
Breathe with unconditional breath
the unconditioned air.
Shun electric wire.
Communicate slowly. Live
a three-dimensioned life;
stay away from screens.
Stay away from anything
that obscures the place it is in.
There are no unsacred places;
there are only sacred places
and desecrated places.
iii
Accept what comes from silence.
Make the best you can of it.
Of the little words that come
out of the silence, like prayers
prayed back to the one who prays,
make a poem that does not disturb
the silence from which it came.

Hail, Hail! Viva, Viva!

I.

Chuck Berry, the great poet-hero of rock and roll, died yesterday at the age of 90.

In one of his music’s definitive anthems, “School Day,” he gave us this little couplet:

   Hail, hail, rock and roll
   Deliver me from the days of old

Those lyrics, I think, are rock and roll’s most perfect poem.

II.

But then, too, there’s this, from “Viva Viva Rock ‘n’ Roll,” a raucous highlight of the extraordinary album, San Francisco Dues:

   Rock on!
   Go ahead and jerk it, child, work it
   Rock on!
   Go ahead and shake it, I can take it
   Rock on!
   Oh, my soul—
   Viva, viva, rock and roll.

If you haven’t heard that song, plug into some good speakers and play it now, loud. A few times. I’ll post it below.

A purer, more joyous celebration of rock and roll you can’t hope to find.

III.

There’s much more to be said about this man and his music, but for now I’ll leave it at that, and at this:

Thank God for Chuck Berry.

Hail, hail.

Viva, viva.

Rock on.

Amen.

P.S. This Saturday I’ll play an hour of Chuck Berry songs on the radio. I hope you’ll tune in 9 to 10 a.m. on Birmingham Mountain Radio, roll down or throw open your windows, and (again) play it loud.

P.S. also: I promised Part Two of my Ethel Harper biography this week, and got a little slowed down. If not tonight, it will be up tomorrow. Meanwhile, if you missed it, here’s Part One.

A message for desolate hearts

For today’s post I mostly want to share a poem I learned today, by Pablo Neruda, the Chilean poet. First, a quick backstory. (Skip the story and scroll straight to the poem if you like—I don’t mind!)

Last semester I had in my Creative Writing class an exchange student from Chile—for the sake of this blog, we’ll call him “Nico”—the sweetest, kindest kid you could hope to teach. It was a one-semester deal. His summer just started with the new year, and Friday he goes home; this week he unenrolled from our school. He stopped by today to say goodbye.

It’s one thing when a great kid graduates; you’ll still probably see that kid around, or at least you know it’s a possibility. But when that kid disappears to another hemisphere—that’s a real bummer. It was an emotional goodbye.

My other students are as brokenhearted about it as I am. Once last semester Nico was absent for just one day, and a student insisted we couldn’t go on without him. “He’s the backbone of this class!” she cried. I laughed but demurred. “You’re all the backbone of this class,” I said lamely, and I repeated it and hoped it sounded sincere: “This class has twenty backbones!” I did mean it, mostly. It really is a great group of students, and it’s an appealing metaphor, too—the class as a single freakish organism, made up of many backbones. But we all knew she was right. The day just wasn’t the same.

As it turned out, Nico and I got each other parting gifts. I gave him a copy of Ziggy Stardust; he was really into Bowie’s Blackstar album this year but hadn’t yet heard the stuff that made Bowie famous.

He gave me a Pablo Neruda book, one he had his mom send up from Chile. We’d read some Neruda in class last semester and watched the Italian movie about him, Il Postino. I’d shared with the class, among other things, Neruda’s poem, “Tonight I can write the saddest lines…,” and it made the whole room wonderfully miserable—a triumph for poetry. (I challenged the class to find a better break-up poem or break-up song than that one, anywhere. So far no one has.) We read Neruda’s “Ode to the Tomato” and wrote our own giddy odes to ordinary things. Whenever we’d read Neruda poems in class I’d asked Nico, since he was game, to read the originals out loud in Spanish, and the whole class would sit in attention; then someone would read a translation. I teach Neruda in Creative Writing most years. This year we did more than usual.

The book Nico gave me today was a Chilean edition of a book I’ve never heard of, 20 Poemas al Arbol y un Cactus de la Costa (20 Poems to Trees and a Cactus of the Coast). The poems are printed in Spanish and English, with beautiful illustrations opening each poem, every poem a different tree.

“Those who do not know the Chilean woods,” Neruda writes in a sort of preface, “do not know the planet. From those lands, from that soil and that mud, from that stillness, I have come out to walk, to sing throughout the world.”

*

After Nico left today I skipped to the last poem in the book, the “Ode to the Cactus of the Coast.” This is why I’m writing this post, to share a chunk of that poem.

It’s a good poem for any January—and, I think, for this January especially. The year opens not just with a sense of uncertainty but for a lot of us with anxiety and despair and, perhaps, a dangerous sense of depletion. At any rate, I know it was helpful for me to read these lines today. Maybe you’ll find help in them too, for reasons of your own. I plan to reread these words often, whenever I can use them.

The translation is by Mónica Cumar. The poem is a few pages longer than this, but this is how it ends, and how the book ends:

… Thus is the story,

and this

is the moral

of my poem:

wherever

you are, wherever you live,

in the last

solitude in this world,

in the scourge

of the earth’s fury,

in the corner

of humiliations,

brother,

sister,

wait, work

hard

with your little being and your roots.

 

One day

for you,

for all of us

from

your heart a red ray will burst forth,

you’ll also bloom one morning; the Spring

has not forgotten you, brother,

sister,

no,

it has not forgotten you:

I say it to you

I assure you of that,

because the terrible cactus,

the bristly

son of the sands,

conversing

with me

entrusted me with this message

for your desolate heart.

 

And now

I tell you

and I tell myself:

brother, sister,

wait,

I am certain:

Spring shall not forget us.

neruda-cover