While perusing for books in the library, I spotted a large volume entitled The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath, 1950-1962. In the few moments I took to scan the 700-plus-page book, I felt like I peered into the troubled soul of the confessional poet and author of the novel The Bell Jar. Plath struggled with depression much of her life and committed suicide in 1963.
The intensity of the language in one of the passages from a section dated 22 November 1955 – 18 April 1956 captivated me, and I thought if you rearranged the sentences in verse form, they would construct a splendid poem. I had no sense of context from where Plath’s agitated emotions sprang, and standing in the library stacks, I felt a great sense of loss about Plath’s life and sadness that she took her unique voice with her to the grave.
Here’s an image of the passage I read:
Plath, Sylvia. The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath, 1950-1962. New York: Anchor Books, 2000.
Today I roamed through Bird Library at Syracuse University while searching for some summer reading. I took home five books, including Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White and Bag of Bones by Stephen King. And as I am wont to do, I pulled a book off a shelf at random, flipped it open to the middle and began reading the first text I saw.
The book had a light green cover with the title The 1916 Poets (edited by Desmond Ryan). It contains a selection of poems from Irish authors. My eyes settled on the poem “Litany of Beauty” by Thomas MacDonagh, and I found the words inspiring, particularly the lines:
Beauty of dawn and dew,
Beauty of morning peace
Ever ancient and ever new,
Ever renewed till waking cease …
I recently stumbled upon a short collection of poems by D.H. Lawrence when I went to Syracuse University’s Bird Library to borrow his famous novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Amid the works penned by Lawrence, I found the slim volume of verse and pulled it off the shelf.
I thought the worn book might disintegrate as I held it in my hands and turned the pages, and with an original copyright of 1918, its title amused me: New Poems by D.H. Lawrence. The last stamp on the checkout slip is dated December of 1999, so it appears no one else has picked up the book in nearly 20 years.
Lawrence’s poems display sophisticated language with an “Old English” quality to them, and as I read the book, I had to stop several times to write down words that I would later look up on Dictionary.com. Many of the poems were short and possessed a timelessness, as they focused on nature and emotions, which cannot be bracketed by date or era.
Here are a few selections I liked:
I, the man with the red scarf,
Will give thee what I have, this last week’s earnings.
Take them, and buy thee a silver ring
And wed me, to ease my yearnings.
For the rest, when thou art wedded
I’ll wet my brow for thee
With sweat, I’ll enter a house for thy sake,
Thou shalt shut doors on me.
Softly, in the dusk, a woman is singing to me;
Taking me back down the vista of years, till I see
A child sitting under the piano, in the boom of the tingling strings
And pressing the small, poised feet of a mother who smiles as she sings.
In spite of myself, the insidious mastery of song
Betrays me back, till the heart of me weeps to belong
To the old Sunday evenings at home, with winter outside
And hymns in the cosy parlour, the tinkling piano our guide.
So now it is vain for the singer to burst into clamour
With the great black piano appassionato. The glamour
Of childish days is upon me, my manhood is cast
Down in the flood of remembrance, I weep like a child for the past.
These final two poems are ideal for summer reading, and I needed to look up the definitions of the two “p” words that stand out in the verses—primula and palimpsest. According to Dictionary.com, primula is a primrose, while palimpsest is a noun, meaning “a parchment or the like from which writing has been partially or completely erased to make room for another text.” The reference to twilight as a palimpsest suggests night overtaking day.
WHEN I woke, the lake-lights were quivering on the wall,
The sunshine swam in a shoal across and across,
And a hairy, big bee hung over the primulas
In the window, his body black fur, and the sound of him cross.
There was something I ought to remember: and yet
I did not remember. Why should I? The running lights
And the airy primulas, oblivious
Of the impending bee—they were fair enough sights.
Palimpsest of Twilight
Darkness comes out of the earth
And swallows dip into the pallor of the west;
From the hay comes the clamour of children’s mirth;
Wanes the old palimpsest.
The night-stock oozes scent,
And a moon-blue moth goes flittering by:
All that the worldly day has meant
Wastes like a lie.
The children have forsaken their play;
A single star in a veil of light
Glimmers: litter of day
Is gone from sight.
Lawrence, D.H. (David Herbert), New Poems. London: Martin Seeker, 1918.
Have you ever gone into a store with the intention of buying one thing but end up selecting another? You want a black belt, but you decide the brown leather one looks and feels better encircling your waist? Or you crave pancakes, but when the waitress comes around, you order a Denver omelet with home fries and wheat toast?
This happens to me frequently when I go to the library in search of a particular book. I write down the call number and head off in the direction of its location. But when I roam through the rows of the repository, my attention gets diverted, I discover a different book, and I choose that one instead.
Here’s an example. On a recent Sunday afternoon I climbed the steps of Carnegie Library at Syracuse University, walked through the grand Reading Room, filled with students studying, and went into the upper level stacks in search of a nonfiction book, The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression by Andrew Solomon (with a call number in the range of RC537).
I had scribbled the call number on a scrap of paper, and perhaps serendipity led me in a different direction because I went to the wrong row, as I had transposed the call number in my head. I started scanning the shelves in the area of RC357, and there, amid a plethora of books about amnesia and other medical problems, a title jumped out at me and seized my attention. Its name: Be Glad You’re Neurotic.
“Wow, was this battered blue and gray hardcover placed in this exact spot just for my eyes?” I wondered. “Am I the intended audience?”
I grabbed it and flipped through the book, and my cursory glance indicated it offered some self-help advice, which, with all of my odd predilections, proclivities, and obsessive-compulsive tendencies, I am willing to accept.
Be Glad You’re Neurotic was written by Louis E. Bisch, M.D., Ph.D., and published in 1936 by Whittlesey House, a division of the McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc. Its earliest library check-out date was January 6, 1965; and the last stamp is dated October 7, 1997.
I’m hoping the book will do me some good. A sentence in the preface reads, “Neurotic states are more common than the common cold.”
And some of the chapter headings inspire me and make me feel better about myself. Chapter I: I’m a Neurotic Myself and Delighted. Chapter II: To Be Normal Is Nothing to Brag About. And Chapter IV: Your Neurotic Development Was Inevitable.
I haven’t read any further yet, and that’s because I have a stack of books I am still waiting to tackle; currently I have five books checked out from the library, while also reading two others via Kindle.
And this experience at the library made me realize two things. One—how sad it is that I’ll never have the time to read all of the books I want to. Many titles on my “to-read” list will remain unread. I consider it a metaphor for how there are certain things in life you’ll never achieve or get to do. My dream trip to Ireland and Italy—well, keep dreaming.
The second revelation is that I’m fed up with always seeking out the next book instead of thoroughly enjoying the one I’m currently reading. As a voracious reader, this book lust is a real problem for me. All it takes is a New York Times review or an interview with an author on Fresh Air with Terry Gross to set me off in search of the title in question. My Amazon “wish list” has hundreds of books sitting in the queue.
So after I plow through the pile of books sitting on top of my bedroom dresser, I will try to limit myself to reading only one novel and one nonfiction book at a time—a two-book limit. But I am not sure if I will be successful. I don’t know if I can stop myself from going to the library before I finish reading them both. And I still need to check out a copy of The Noonday Demon.
Editor’s note: I forgot to write down the page number and then was unable to find the passage while skimming through the book.
Book 7:Music of the Mill by Luis J. Rodriguez
“Eventually it wasn’t a fantasy. I often walked home from school, which was hard at first since I got so many stares and whistles, especially from the paisas, the Mexicanos, freshly wet from over the Rio Grande. There were run-down motellike apartments on Florence Avenue that I had to pass by every day. Nothing but newly arrived men lived in them. They worked in local construction and factory jobs. By the afternoon, many of them were hanging out, already drinking beer, with the shirts off, wearing Mexican vaquero hats, a type of cowboy hat. They always yelled and whistled at me.”
Rodriguez, Luis J. Music of the Mill. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2005. 216. Print.
Book 8:These Are Not Sweet Girls: Poetry by Latin American Women. Edited by Marjorie Agosin.
From the poem Rosa/Fili by Maria Arrillaga:
“He did not leave
You left, Rosa, Rosario, Rosina, Rosaura/Fili
Your name grows
In that new path
Furrows flee your face
Your features are refined
In the contour of precise strokes
Calm you are
The towering heights of the past
Become the happy landscape
Of your big waist
Your hair undulates defying
He who will appreciate your body
You are intelligent, Fili
You have your life
You have yourself
It’s no small thing.”
Agosin, Marjorie. These Are Not Sweet Girls: Poetry by Latin American Women. Fredonia, New York: White Pine Press, 1994. 194. Print.
Book 9:The Tartar Steppe by Dino Buzzati
“One September morning, Giovanni Drogo, being newly commissioned, set out from the city for Fort Bastiani; it was his first posting.
He had himself called while it was still dark and for the first time put on his lieutenant’s uniform. When he had done, he looked at himself in the mirror by the light of an oil lamp but failed to find there the expected joy. There was a great silence in the house but from a neighbouring room low voices could be heard; his mother was rising to bid him farewell.
This was the day he had looked forward to for years—the beginning of his real life.”
Buzzati, Dino. The Tartar Steppe. New York: Carcanet Press, 1987. 1. Print.
Book 10:Strindberg: A Life by Sue Prideaux
“When they had left for France, Siri was pregnant again. She knew when they reached their destination she could not hope for a career on the French stage. They stood on the platform, smartly dressed as always, with their children, their nanny Eva, their trunks and cases of books and the blue and white pram with its milk-stained top. Siri’s career as an actress, apart from her creation of the role of Miss Julie in Denmark in 1888, was over.”
Prideaux, Sue. Strindberg: A Life. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2012. 104. Print.
Several years ago I worked as an editor at a national broadcast news wire service in Arizona. My roommate Dave and I worked the same 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. shift, and we would commute together, one of us taking turns driving each week. Often in the morning, after our shift ended, we would go grocery shopping, eat breakfast at a Denny’s or a Village Inn or search for some other activity to do to help us wind down before heading home, closing the Venetian blinds and trying to fall asleep in the Arizona sunlight. Such is the dilemma of night shift workers, struggling to sleep in daylight in opposition to your body’s circadian rhythm.
One morning Dave and I went to a bookstore near Indian School Road in Phoenix. The place offered a hodgepodge of entertainment-related merchandise: books, CDs (this was around 2001), board games, video games and porn (both magazines and video).
I remember buying used copies of Jack Kerouac’s The Town and the City and Frank Conroe’s Body and Soul. Both remain two of my all-time favorite books.
Dave and I wandered through the store and then we decided to play a game. We each went into a row in the used paperback section. Dave would pull out a book and a read a paragraph aloud. And then it was my turn and I would do the same thing. As the game progressed, I recall Dave stretching out on the floor of his row, surrounded by a stack of books.
Our selected passages included excerpts from spy thrillers, Dick Francis mysteries and Harlequin romance novels emblazoned with cover art images of men with bulging biceps and ripped pectorals.
Something about the incongruity, the verbal juxtaposition of the different passages, struck me as satisfying. These were books I never would have opened if I was browsing in the bookstore alone. The random act of pulling any volume and reading it aloud was like walking into a movie theater and knowing only the title of a film or buying a CD based solely on the artist’s name or the cover art.
I thought it would be fun to try to duplicate the exhilarating feeling of making a literary discovery. I decided to create an adapted research experiment by going to the fifth floor of Syracuse University’s Bird Library on a recent Saturday afternoon and pulling ten books off the shelves at random.
I spread the books on a table and for each book, I wrote down the author, title and publisher. I then opened the book to any page and read the first passage or paragraph that my eyes traveled to.
At first I wanted to replicate the work of a collage artist by compiling the sentences to form a textual conglomerate—to see the various passages edited into one composition. However, after I transcribed the paragraphs from the ten books, I realized they should each stand alone as a completed work of art. To me each book signifies a surprise that is worth exploring.
And, as a result, my “to-do” reading list has grown by ten titles.
I also wanted to make this a two-part blog post. So here are the selections from the first five books I grabbed off the shelves. I will add books six through ten later in the week.
Book 1: Evading Class in Contemporary British Literature by Lawrence Driscoll; an excerpt from The Book of Dave by Will Self.
“Dave keeps walking and soon we have the kitchen-sink drama moment when the protagonist looks back at his home town, as Dave looks down on London from the height of Essex:
Towards evening Dave found himself mounting up a hill. Up he went…Dave turned back to see the city he had lost spreading to the far hills of the south in brick peak after tarmac trough…In the mid distance a river streaked silver and beside it a mighty wheel revolved so slowly.”
Driscoll, Lawrence. Evading Class in Contemporary British Literature. New York: Palmgrave Macmillan, 2009. 89-90. Print.
Book 2: Blake, Kierkegaard, and the Spectre of the Dialectic by Lorraine Clark
“Kierkegaard’s attack on the spectre of negation that dissolves the ethical contraries once again focuses on the “phantom” of the Hegelian negative:
Leaving logic to go on to ethics, one encounters here again the negative, which is indefatigably active in the whole Hegelian philosophy. Here too a man discovers to his amazement that the negative is the evil. Now the confusion is in full swing; there is no bound to brilliancy.”
Clark, Lorraine. Blake, Kierkegaard, and the Spectre of the Dialectic. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991. 134. Print.
Book 3: The Solitude of Surabhi by Deepa Shah
“Twelve-year-old Nimish looked sullenly out of the open window behind his father. Why was Papa so nervous of life and if it was a matter of assuming a role he could become a pilot, a soldier, an actor—well anything, Nimish thought. And then he noticed with surprise the fuzz on the tree outside which had softened the starkness of the branches of a fortnight ago.”
Shah, Deepa. The Solitude of Surabhi. New Delhi: Penguin Books India, 1997. 106. Print.
Book 4: Black Order by James Rollins
“Keep a historical perspective, Mr. Crowe. The Nazis were convinced that they would give rise to the next superrace. And here was a tool to do it in a generation. Morality held no benefit. There was a larger imperative.”
“To create a master race. To rule the world.”
Rollins, James. Black Order. New York: William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, 2006. 190. Print.
Book 5: Bird Cloud by Annie Proulx
“I had to go to Germany and while I was gone the James Gang and the tile setter handled the enormous job of moving all the furniture and the full bookcases, of closing off and filling in the unwanted floor outlets, of measuring, cutting and laying the tile. The floor was almost the floor of my dreams, clean, smooth, elegant and a ravishing color. I swore always to have tiled floors wherever I lived. The bookcases were perfectly in place. How had they done all this in two weeks? I will never know.”
Proulx, Annie. Bird Cloud. New York: Scribner, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc., 2011. 137. Print.
Until recently, three telephone booths—with wooden frames, glass doors and their electronic “guts” removed—stood idle on the fifth floor of E.S. Bird Library at Syracuse University, appearing like obsolete artifacts from the past.
I spotted them a few years ago when I first started taking out books at Bird Library, after being hired as a staff member at SU. It’s one of the best perks, along with being able to work out for free at the university’s fitness centers.
I had noticed identical phone booths on other floors of the building, and they seemed out of place amid the countless volumes of books in a 21st Century university library. According to library officials, the phone booths were part of the original construction and were in place when the building opened in 1972. One booth on each floor was a campus phone and the others were pay phones.
But although they were installed in the early 1970s, the pay phones made me think of an earlier time period in cinema—from the 1940s to the 1960s.
The image of Cary Grant’s character (Roger Thornhill) using a pay phone in Grand Central Station to call his mother in Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest(1959) jumped into my mind. Here’s the scene, courtesy of YouTube.
I also thought about scenes in film noir movies where a reporter would use a pay phone to call his editor to offer an update on a trial or a murder investigation.
One of the most dramatic phone booth scenes from the time period involves Burt Lancaster and Barbara Stanwyck in the 1948 movie Sorry, Wrong Number.
I’ve never seen the film, but it’s about a woman, Leona Stevenson (played by Stanwyck), who overhears a murder plot. Her husband, Henry, played by Lancaster, is talking to her on the phone, and the drama intensifies as the conversation unfolds. Here’s the scene.
Of course there are several other memorable cinematic phone booth scenes. I’m sure you’ll think of some. The obvious one is Clark Kent using a phone booth to “change into Superman.” Another is the gas station sequence in Hitchcock’s The Birds from 1963, with Tippi Hedren’s character seeking shelter in a glass phone booth as violent gulls attack.
But back to reality . . .
A facilities coordinator for Syracuse University Libraries says all of the phone booths at Bird have now been dismantled and will be replaced by recycling stations.
I’m a little disappointed that I will no longer see them when I visit Bird. I think it would have been fun to try to re-create a film noir-style scene using the library’s phone booths. I could imagine a cool “DOLLY IN” move to one of the booths as our protagonist slides the glass door shut, scrambles to find a coin and hurries to make a call—a call that could save his or her life.
I did, however, preserve my memory of the library phone booths, through a short poem I wrote that appeared in my 2010 poetry chapbook, Outskirts of Intimacy, published by Flutter Press.
Here it is:
Three phone booths stand
Idle and unnoticed on the fifth floor
Of Syracuse University’s Bird Library.
And in this repository of knowledge,
They present themselves
With sliding glass doors ajar
And phone units ripped out—
Relics from the pre-digital age,
No longer able to make or receive calls.
My latest stumbled-upon literary discovery at Syracuse University’s Bird Library revealed a clue to a mystery I will never solve. But I was thrilled to find it pressed between the pages of William Saroyan’s The Assyrian and Other Stories.
I was searching through the stacks on the fifth floor one morning last week, before heading to work. I wanted to pick up ‘Tis by Frank McCourt and The Human Comedy by Saroyan. After I grabbed The Human Comedy I decided to peruse the large selection of other Saroyan books resting on the shelves nearby.
I flipped through The Assyrian and decided to check it out as well because the book contains an essay written by W.S. called The Writer on the Writing. In it he talks about his writing philosophy and the prolific short story work he produced in the mid to late 1930s.
I found his words to be inspiring.
He writes: “Anxiety at work is what tires a writer most. Writing without anxiety is certain to do the writer himself good; which takes me back to what it was I had hoped to achieve for myself when I wrote so many short stories in 1934-1939. I felt that it was right to just write them and turn them loose and not take myself or the stories too seriously. I had hoped to achieve an easier way for a man to write: that is, a more natural way.”
(Saroyan, William. The Assyrian and Other Stories. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1949. Print.)
He goes on to say the writer should have “implicit faith in himself, in his character, and in what he is apt to write. He must believe that it is possible for him to achieve writing as good as he might ever achieve by writing easily, swiftly and with gladness.”
However, the sage advice from Saroyan was not the only thing the book divulged.
Inside I found a 3×5 index card dated 9/30/03. A shopping list was written vertically in blue ballpoint ink on the unlined side of the card. The list was divided into two areas; one section had the word “CVS” next to it and listed the following items numerically:
The second section mentioned “Carousel Saturday?”—pointing to a possible trip to the mall. Carousel Center was the former name of the Destiny USA mall in Syracuse. For this part the list read:
1. black turtleneck
2. penny loafers
4. handerchief (misspelled for handkerchief).
I tried to imagine the person who made out this list. Was it a man or a woman? I narrowed my hunches to either a young professor or a graduate student (both male) picking up some needed supplies and clothes at the beginning of a fall semester. Maybe this student was pursuing his MFA in creative writing. I pictured him with brown hair, a tall, thin frame and wearing his black turtleneck, beret and penny loafers while reciting a manuscript at a cafe poetry reading.
Finding the list made me think that in another life I would have made a good library detective, sort of like Mr. Bookman (Philip Baker Hall) in that popular Seinfeld episode.
I’m not sure why these little discoveries inside books amuse me so much, but they do. Maybe my life is so boring I need to live vicariously through other people. Or maybe it’s just the element of surprise that excites me. It’s fun to uncover something that has been hidden in between the pages of a book for many years.
The only due-date stamp for The Assyrian and Other Stories is Oct. 24, 2003, so I wondered if I was the only person to open this book since then.
I also consider the index card a timeline marker for its owner. It proves he was here; this was a snapshot of his life on Sept. 30, 2003. He existed in a fixed place at a set time. He bought candy and tea and Advil and probably looked stylish in his black turtleneck, beret and penny loafers. He was alive and had dreams.
Our shopping list author is not the same person today. He is older and may have a wife and kids. Perhaps he applied the advice of Saroyan in his own creative work. Maybe he completed his MFA and now teaches creative writing at SU. Maybe he published his own short story collection or a couple of novels. Maybe I will find his books in circulation in this same library.
Unfortunately, maybe is as far as my investigation will take me. I’m left with only suppositions, as answers to the mystery of the index card and its owner elude me.
I finished the 1920 poetry book Broken Lights: A Book of Verse by Glenn Hughes, which I mentioned in my last post.
In spending some time with the book, I inspected the library checkout card and was amazed to discover it was first taken out of Syracuse University Library on September 2, 1926. I find it exciting to think that more than 85 years ago someone else was flipping through the same pages and reading the same poems. The last date stamped on the card is June 7, 1932. And another stamp on the first inside page reads, “STORAGE 28 JUL ’65 J F.”
There are several beautiful poems in the collection, but three short works that appear on consecutive pages (56-58), a literary triptych if you will, struck me the most. The first two seem dark at first but both end on a positive note. They also employ an alternating rhyming pattern. Here are the three poems:
God knows what dreary stretches lie
In the vast regions of my heart—
Bleak places where all flowers die,
And birds flee from wind’s keen smart.
But this I know: though desolate
Such of my heart’s dark spaces be,
Fair fields there are, inviolate,
Glowing and warm with love of thee.
“Life—what is life?” I asked the world,
The world did not reply;
Its bitter lip with scorn was curled,
And mocking was its eye.
But then you came, and now I stand
From the grim world apart;
For life was in the soft white hand
You laid upon my heart.
SONG OF SORROW
The songs I made for you are dead,
For the aching of my heart has drowned their melody,
It is the winter of our love,
And the rose leaves that were scattered in the summer
Lie black and scentless on forgotten paths.
Ah, desolate, desolate with nameless yearning
In my heart that was so light in other days,
And somewhere in a garden,
Where a bird is singing in the sunshine
I can see you sitting, weeping,
With your gold hair all about you,
And a beautiful, deep sorrow in your eyes.
(Hughes, Glenn. Broken Lights: A Book of Verse. Seattle: Department of Printing, University of Washington, 1920. Print.)
I went to Syracuse University’s Bird Library to pick up two novels I hope to read over the summer: Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House and The Killing Man by Mickey Spillane. But as is often the case when I am roaming through the aisles on the fifth floor of the library, another book caught my attention. It’s a slim volume of poetry titled Broken Lights: A Book of Verse by Glenn Hughes, published in 1920. I pulled the rust-colored book off the shelf and flipped it open randomly, stopping on page 68, where I found the poem Dakota Night. As I read the poem, the words stirred my imagination, making me feel like I was standing in a knee-high field of grass surrounded by a bowl of stars.
Was ever such a night for stars
Above this silent prairie land,
Where lonely years have left their scars
In rocky buttes that darkly stand
Against the liquid film of night
So richly flecked with golden light!
There is a peace here, native, strong,
That lies upon this rolling waste
As though the gods had labored long
And, wearying, had turned to taste
The joy of dreamless sleep. No breath
Is heard. It is a peace like death.
Yet hark! A murmur on the hill!
The wind among the grasses wakes;
A cricket strums and then is still.
How sweet the music that night makes!
Starlight and quiet once again
On lonely butte and barren plain.
(Hughes, Glenn. Broken Lights: A Book of Verse. Seattle: Department of Printing, University of Washington, 1920. Print.)
And this incident proves why books on paper will always possess more allure to me than e-books. Bound volumes hold tactile power; the way they look, feel and smell invite the reader to explore the space sandwiched between the front and back covers. My literary find also makes me wonder how many other interesting books are just waiting to be discovered on the library stacks.