Tuesday, February 12, 2008

A wintry mix--

--is forecast for late tonight. We've had snow all day: a fine, steady powder; the sleet and freezing rain are due in the early hours. I let my students know yesterday that I don't plan to go fishtailing over the mountain if conditions deteriorate; they're e-mailing their homework in. (See, I can handle myself in this brave new cyber-world.)

So we'll see in the morning.
* * *
Last week, I sorted about 150 poetry books from (half of) the shelves in the dining room and set them all aside to donate. In observing my own "thinning" process, I've noticed that some of the books I'm parting with now are the same ones I couldn't give away just two years ago. For example, I'm willing to part with four or five volumes of Seamus Heaney, but that's mainly because I have his selected poems (Opened Ground). Conversely, I'm completely unwilling to donate my Marvin Bell collection (I have every book, and yes, I still read them).

I started donating books to the poetry library at the Stadler Center back in 1994, just after my fellowship in the Younger Poets Seminar. I had a pretty good job at the University of Houston, and the one thing I loved to spend money on was books. In Houston, there were two Half Price Books stores--in Montrose and in the Rice Village. I scoured the poetry sections a few times a month. Ended up with double copies of a few books, or good hardcover copies of titles I already had in paperback.

I don't know why having my own poetry "library" was so important, but it was a very specific goal: I wanted to be completely surrounded by these books, to have at hand all my favorite poets. There wasn't a room in the house without bookcases. One year, for my birthday, David had custom bookcases installed along one whole wall of my study.

I didn't shun traditional libraries: the Montrose branch, the Carnegie library just south of our neighborhood, the downtown public library, and especially the campus library at UH, where I loved to browse the stacks, pull down books at random, and discover new writers. In my classes this week, we've been talking about technology: how our growing dependence on (or fascination with) so many tools (toys) is changing the way we think, interact, communicate. It's sad to note that students rarely show interest in books. (We talked, for example, about dictionary-browsing; I was trying to describe the pleasure of being distracted during the search for a particular word by random others along the path. They felt that such activity was a colossal waste of time: why meander when you can take a virtual superhighway to a quick "answer"?)

When I left Bucknell, the hardest part was turning over my keys to the Stadler Center, because it meant I'd no longer have access to the poetry library I'd worked for over a decade to expand. I still miss it.

The poetry selection in the Lycoming College library is spotty at best. Naturally, I felt compelled to do something about it. I've already donated 100 books. But what to do with the present culling? They're good books: Brodsky, Frost, Heaney, Levine, Amichai, Levertov, Gerstler, and dozens of others. The ideal destination is still the Stadler Center: I know that, if nothing else, the June Poets will ransack the shelves and read, read, read; they always do. Problem is, I feel like such an exile from Bucknell. I'd keep donating to Lycoming, but I've yet to meet one student there who reads poetry. On the other hand, it's such a small campus; a couple hundred poetry books make a significant impact on the library's holdings. But what's the point of putting them on the shelves if they're never read?

I love books. Love them. But the obsession I pursued in my 20s and 30s--of having them--feels more like hoarding.

In one of Marge Piercy's early books, To Be of Use, the title poem speaks of the longing of everyday objects. I'm trying to remember the exact line (I could look it up if--ha!--I hadn't donated the book), something like "The pitcher calls out for water": the sense is that we honor everyday things when we put them into service. What's the use of unread books?
* * *
One of the books I'm "voting off the island" is a 1987 omnibus volume from Five Fingers Press, titled Three West Coast Women. It features poems from (duh) three writers: Laurie Duesing, Kim Addonizio and Dorianne Laux. We've pretty much all read work by two of these poets--Addonizio and Laux have had good success (Dorianne has, incidentally, signed this copy "For Jim" and "MacDowell '88")--but I never saw another poem by Laurie Duesing. (I could, like my students, simply Google her, but that's not the point: in all my book shopping, we've never again crossed paths.)

So. Here's a poem by Laurie Duesing:

Faux Pas

The cardiac patient waves his flaccid cock
at every nurse. The hysterectomy victim
flashes her visitors. When you are ill,
you are allowed everything.
My father has been dying for 15 years,
an unspeakable violation of etiquette.
Even my mother notices because he keeps trying
to kiss me on the mouth.
He thinks now he can get away with it.
Her lips were always thin
but this is not my problem.
If I move closer to him, she stiffens.
I can be trusted though it’s not for her
I keep my distance—his mouth
is too late and it’s the lesson they taught me
years ago: how to behave myself,
inhibitions they think catastrophe exempts
them from. This is why I will never have children,
why dying is no excuse.

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