Books Bought and Souled
In a lane that runs between the rising
cemetery and the setting sun, I come
upon the peeling paint and neglected
brick of a bookshop; the sign is long worn
and the name is lost. Beneath its glass
lie dead spiders, dead books, and thick grey dust.
I remember this place when it lived. Here
the song of ink pumped blood-and-wine-strong
as book called to heart, and chattered on
through the night; new born from the press
where life was printed in bold type and flowed
from the page in a river as broad as the sea.
Now crowded inside are a ghostly throng
of casual bibliophiles.
They lay their fingers on tatty jackets,
leave ghost-prints on the second-hand spines;
a bookseller limps through on tired, dead feet,
passes from shelf to shelf like the fingers
of a witch through the leaves of a grimoire.
Imprinted, so he cannot be erased,
his papery breath lingers and faintly
haunts the first editions. ‘Beckett,’ he moans
as he rustles his bindings and doubles
the price with a silvery pencil-smudge.
Saturday late-on the air turns to cold tea,
fag-ash, and whiskey as the manager
materializes and opens a ledger
that creaks like the legs of an old priest, creaks
like the hinge of an un-oiled coffin, creaks
like a dead poet’s jaw bone…
I am of them. I can tell other ghosts
even when they are not haunting
cramped stalls, tuning their ears
to old spines cracking, smoothing
their fingers along subtle curves
of ancient typeset, like a nurse
touches a handsome young man in a coma
who she swears she’s seen on the bus.
They feed on the smell of musty paper,
the sight of pages browned at the edges.
I recognize the way they walk
through the city, not knowing
the price of milk or socks or love,
bothered by reality, as if all the
space that has no papery smell is no
space at all, a bothersome void
traversed en route to the lair.
We are subversive monsters,
harmlessly scattered into ourselves.
We just want the power to stop time
so that we can read the manual
on fly fishing, the history of fighting
forest fires, the collection of personal
essays from arrangers of department
store windows. We just want to turn all
the pages and take every last thing in.
And in the end, if only we could pause
long enough, we could then step out
armed and spry into the strangesmelling
dream, face the onset of love, the boy,
whatever is to come of this life.
–>Michael J. Galko
The white-haired doddering gentle old man
in the crushing silence of the public library
blinking through spectacles
writes with shaking hands
in a pocket notebook
unaware that he is muttering to himself
Her breasts… her breasts…
Eyes peer over books. Pencils pause
except the old man’s. Fingers
mark pages. We await,
expectant, puzzled. He has pulled a dusty volume
from the shelf of his memory
and, still writing, whispers, hissing
I want to know: was it in moonlight?
Dear woman, do you know that after half a century
not only your lover but a whole reading room
of men and women are sharing—are in awe of—
your stunning warmth:
Her breasts! Her breasts!
In the Library with Norma Jeane, June 1, 2002
“It’s my seventy-sixth birthday today, June first, Gemini,”
a woman in the library says to me.
I look up from my reading, research for a new play,
wish the elderly stranger a most happy birthday, light irony,
see a faded beauty,
wonder if she is suffering from dementia,
smell a young woman’s perfume,
and continue to read my book about Inca mythology.
“I haven’t made love since 1962,” the woman says boldly,
as if informing me of the last time
she had a bad cold or a traffic violation.
I haven’t made love since yesterday, I think,
would say, with strong irony,
if this weren’t an elderly stranger
needing something from another library patron.
“Are you Jewish?” the woman asks,
comfortable in her dementia,
her voice vaguely familiar,
and I decide it is not dementia
merely loneliness, harsh loneliness.
I look to see what the woman is reading
and it is Death of a Salesman
one of my favourite plays.
She taps the book, open to the end of Act One,
“Arthur Miller is Jewish,” she declares.
“Yes, I know,” I say,
thinking that maybe she has
a supernatural talent for detecting Jews in libraries.
“You like Miller’s plays?” I ask,
and the woman sighs, as if Miller is nearby
and she is struck by his intellect and handsomeness.
“I auditioned for the role of Biff many years ago
but I didn’t get it,” I confess, humility in the recollection.
“I was an actress once, ever so long ago,
more like a dream in the remembering—
time is like that, friend and foe,” she says,
I hearing and seeing that long-ago actress.
“My acting career was short-lived
but I have continued to write
stories and plays and poems,” I say,
defining myself to the stranger.
“I wrote a poem about a writer and a ballplayer
when I was younger, still the actress,” she says,
her look as wistful as an afternoon would allow.
“I loved me a living legend, a record setter, a graceful man,
I loved me a playwright, a word star, a thoughtful man,” she recites.
We discuss the nature of home run hitting and playwriting
like two old friends discovering a new playground.
“Have you ever thought about suicide?” she asks,
demanding an intimacy I sidestep.
As I stand to leave, the woman smiles and says,
“She was born on June first,
both a blessed and cursed day, wouldn’t you say?”
I gather up my books, notebooks, pens,
and wonder how my life would have been different
had I gotten the role of Biff all those years ago.
“She would have been seventy-six today?”
“Who?” I ask, sensing that eventually I would
make this seventy-six-year-old stranger
a character in a play or a poem or a story,
a lost, lonely character.
“Norma Jeane Mortenson, of course.
Isn’t that a lovelier name than Norma Jean Baker?”
I sit back down, next to the woman
inhale her perfume
and say, “Happy Birthday, Marilyn,”
caught in someone else’s play.
Someone Read This Book Before
Not this book as someone read
the Odyssey or The Idiot before
but this book in my hands,
the one that just arrived on my porch,
the anthology I chose from 174 new or used offers
beginning at $2.99, the one I bought
new for $4.96 plus $3.99 shipping,
the one that I did not imagine opened
until I opened it. Oh, dear readers,
how could I foresee as I began,
that I would have this strange feeling
that someone had opened this book
and read the poem on page 11.
Not the nauseous feeling I get
when I find breadcrumbs and coffee stains
and bits of snort and sneeze
or the odd slice of Velveeta cheese
in a library book. No.
It was a foreign feeling that made me understand
those young adults from Oberlin
and Antioch who demand
I ask permission before I invade their territory,
ask before I tap them on the shoulder to say,
Excuse me, looks like your book’s burning.
It was the creepy feeling that made me understand
Christ himself when he began yelling
someone touched me,
someone touched me
though, as his disciples pointed out to him,
he was caught in a large crowd—
I became the woman with the issue
and the woman whose purchase was violated.
I imagined some newbie scofflaw
at Thrift Books Green Earth, some guy
whose mission was to flout social norms,
to be as radically un-PC as he could be,
opening my book and reading one poem,
the one on page 11, before mailing it off.
An unsettling feeling . . .
spooky and sinister.
And why that poem of page 11?
Why not mine on 67?
–>Lois Marie Harrod
 Luke 8: 43-45
43 And a woman having an issue of blood twelve years, which had spent all her living upon physicians,
neither could be healed of any,
44 Came behind him, and touched the border of his garment: and immediately her issue of
45 And Jesus said, Who touched me? When all denied, Peter and they that were with him said, Master,
the multitude throng thee and press thee, and sayest thou, Who touched me?
I NEVER PLAY BOB DYLAN
I still feel guilty about stealing
that book of Bob Dylan lyrics
from my Catholic high school library.
Like Claudius unable to repent
with the usurped crown still on his head,
I know no act of contrition will absolve me
while that book’s still there on my shelf.
I have busked and played
in coffee shops for nothing more than tips,
made strangers cry singing Townes Van Zandt,
made friends and lovers with Prine and Cash,
but I never play Bob Dylan. Karma
or penance won’t let me remember the words.
In some small ways, this purgatory of others’ songs
might be making my way clean–
or maybe it’s the nuns who live inside me
warning that some day Bob,
his Nobel Prize unholstered,
in the jingle jangle morning will come following me.