Saturday, September 5, 2020

My Bookshelves, My Life

Books shoved upon my open metal shelves
In gracious disarray, half-ordered pride,
From garden wisdom to long tales of elves
And men. Here lays of long ago collide
With knitter’s charts and histories of Spain,
While dictionary takes its half a foot
Of space laid crosswise and against the grain,
Its pages outward and the contest moot
Between red Webster’s and the OED
“Concise” and used, the spoils of a sale
And watchful eye, delighted, quick to see
The treasure for five dollars, secret grail
Of my collection. On the top a bowl
Of antique painted violets commands
A stack of brightly pictured books, a whole
Array of brilliant rooms from far-off lands.
I think of all the worlds and knowledge mine,
Bright spine against bright spine, from roses’ care,
Equations for ceramic glaze design,
To bitter histories we scarcely dare
Remember and must yet more surely not
Forget. How strange to think that all these things
Are simply printed, ink on paper, bought
From libraries for pennies for the wings
They bring us (riding through the dangerous night
With d’Artagnan or slaying Grendel’s dam
Beneath the sea or simply digging bright
Egyptian treasures; how to knit a tam
Stacked just above whole histories of rhymes.)
Within their pages half my memories
Reside: escape from pain through distant times
As much as through courageous certainties
Of those who’ve faced down horror and stood straight.
Within these pages all my heroes rest
And ancient gardens flourish, while the greats
Paint still lives or write songs. Old books are best.


I was musing during a sleepless dawn this morning, looking across the room at my shelves of books. It’s such a compact space to contain so much, so many worlds of thought and fact and wonder.

For those interested, here is a list of some of the less-obvious titles I have referred to in my poem.

Colour Schemes for the Flower Garden by Gertrude Jekyll, a recent acquisition

The Complete Rosarian by Norman Young

Roses by Wilhelm Kordes, long-sought and finally located online for a reasonable sum

“tales of elves and men”, not only those of J. R. R. Tolkein, but an assortment of favorite legends ranging from the old Norse tales to those of Edmund Spenser

A History of Imperial Spain, which proved not to be on the shelf at the moment after all

Nefertiti Lived Here by Mary Chubb, an account of early archaeological work at Tel el-Amarna

A Treasury of Irish Poetry in the English Tongue

Alice Starmore’s Book of Fair Isle Knitting

Clay and Glazes for the Potter by Daniel Rhodes

Casa Yucatan by Wytinski and Carr

What We Knew by Johnson and Reuband, subtitled Terror, Mass Murder, and Everyday Life in Nazi Germany

Stories and Prose Poems by Alexander Solzhenitsyn

The Poetic Works of Sir Walter Scott

and, of course, many more…

It’s a curious collection, and its contents say much about me, I suppose, while saying almost as much about the various sources of my library: online purchases new but more often used, library sales from an assortment of “Friends of the Library” in three different states and across perhaps twenty years. Actual bookstore purchases have been sadly rare; but some of my best ceramics books have come directly from ceramic supply stores, which often seem to stock quite good titles in their field. Then there is the occasional gift book, while gardening books arrive from anywhere and everywhere, slipping into my “shopping carts” online by simply whispering to me that they need a good second home.

Ah well, the sun is now high and I must go on to other work today. I hope you have enjoyed this little tour.

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