Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Library poetry

The campus library is small: a few floors occupying one wing of the academic building which I almost never need to leave. I drive to Williamsport in early morning fog--sometimes the mountains and the other side of the river are completely obscured in mist--and, at the end of the day, I take the stairs (or elevator, depending on how late, how tired) and exit the building, breathe the outside air for the first time in ten hours. People do this everywhere, of course, but working in a windowless office has me looking up at the sky more frequently of late: late sky, early sky, sunrise and sunset, but almost never the sky in between. To get out of my office, I've been scoping out the library for comfortable niches, out-of-the-way tables with cozy chairs, hiding places where I can grade papers for an hour or two before my official office hours begin.

Last week, as I was leaving the library, I asked the young girl at the circulation desk where the poetry books were shelved. PS3569? I asked. Which floor? Feeling not a little ashamed that I'd been on campus for well over a month yet hadn't checked out a single book, I went back upstairs in search of poetry.

Many of the volumes in the poetry section are old. Incredibly old. Beautiful old embossed covers with hand-inked numbers on their spines, leaning together like old men dozing on park benches, untouched for decades. I saw few contemporary volumes. Gathered up a William Stafford, a James Wright, a Richard Hugo--Come on, boys, let's get some air--and a slender book, Like Wings by Philip Schultz, a poet I really know nothing about. I took the Schultz because of two lines: the first, from a poem I opened randomly to, "The Elevator":

This elevator lugged Teddy Roosevelt
when they both were new.

The second was a line by Whitman, set as an epigraph to the section of the book titled "Main Streets":

These are the days that must happen to you.

Downstairs again at the circulation desk, I watched a young man sorting oversized art books on a wheeled cart. Though he was facing me, he didn't look up from his task for at least two minutes. I could have cleared my throat. I didn't mind waiting. When he finally noticed me, he rushed over, apologizing profusely. He took my faculty card, scanned the bar code from it and from the inside covers of my books. The Philip Schultz still has a card pocket inside the back cover, and the original check-out card is still in the pocket. The book was published in 1978. The card is stamped only once, DEC 7 '79, and the borrower's name, written in ink in the topmost blue-lined space, is Pam Mazzotta. I like that Pam's signature is still tucked into the book. I thought of writing a small poem on the back of the card (the blank side), and wondered how many years might pass before anyone noticed it. I go to the public library, the boy said.

(? )

They have a lot more poetry than we do, he stammered. It's just over there--he gestured vaguely toward the river--across from, ahh, across--it's just maybe a block that way.

I thanked him, wondering if I'd ever set foot on a Williamsport sidewalk, or whether this one-year gig would consist entirely of time spent commuting to and from this one campus building. * * * * *
Derek Walcott is being paid a large sum of money to give a talk at Bucknell tonight. He should be launching into it right about now.
* * * * *
I met my new physician yesterday morning. Had to change health plans because Williamsport, where I work, is outside the range of my previous health plan. I was fortunate, both last year and this, to get health insurance as part of my contract. For most of our time in Pennsylvania, I've had to go without.

Dr. H seems nice: a good listener, proficient at posing nicely open-ended questions and gleaning (presumably) useful data from my babble. He strikes me as more assertively diagnostic than my previous physician (who I liked well enough): he wants, for instance, to have a good look at my brain, and so I'm scheduled for a cranial MRI on Thursday afternoon. It would be a relief to find the cause of my headaches. Or at least the source of the voices. (Kidding.)
* * * * *
Here's a poem from the Philip Schultz book that reminds me of something I read recently by a young poet (I'll try to find the latter poem):

What I Don’t Want

Die slouched & undecided in a girlie show
watching her lambs eat the wolves.
Sit talking Kafka this Kafka that
(that bugfaced sword-swallower!).
Play deaf & dumb in Chicago.
Chew the fat of the land while looking
up somebody’s left leg for the right word, ever again.
Cross the Golden Gate Bridge on a bus
listening to the guy ahead say: Doesn’t it look
like a G-string all lit up, Fran!
Die in the house where I was born,
a happy man.

I want, Lord, to die with Neruda & Chaplin
naked & sinful
eating cheese so old it sings on my tongue.

* * * * *
Oh. Found it: a poem by Aaron Anstett, from No Accident (2005). No wonder I was reminded of Aaron's poem--look at the similiarities in rhetoric, voice & setting:

Prayer Against Dying on Camera

Lord, not shot in liquor store stick-up,
jugular uncorked and finely misting or

splatter-patterning display case plate glass
and me so many pixels collapsing

at the feet of bikini’d cardboard
cutout models, purchase a puddle,

last words of my kind, “Oh, shit,”
lip-readable. Jesus not suddenly

in latex novelty emporium or slam-
bang stroke on jumbotron in a coliseum

screaming, not tumbling
from the burning building in a series

of photographs, speed increasing,
one frame famous because I look so calm.

* * * * *
In my poetry class this morning, we did erasures of pages I'd copied, as randomly as possible, from my books at home. We had a marvelous time. The undercurrents, the astonishing shifts in tone from the original texts (which each student read a sample of before reading her erasure), the "rescuing" of words that slipped right past our ears in the initial texts but felt so apt in the re-visions that we could hardly believe they'd been right there on the pages--all great fun. I'm enjoying my LC students, but the 8 AM poetry class (say it!) nurtures my soul.

[photo: Laurel, 9/1/07, R B Winter State Park]

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