A Jewel in the Stacks

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.)

I found an online story about Glenn Hughes, or at least I believe it’s the same Glenn Hughes who penned Broken Lights.

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.

You can read Broken Lights online for free.


Collage Postscript

Since I made the first collage piece in 2009, I have tried my hand a few more times, with varying results. I made two library-themed collage works called Archive and Checkout, seen here.

Digital image of mixed media work, 2011.

Digital image of collage, 2011.

The idea for the pieces came to me because over the years my mother had purchased several used books from Jervis Public Library in Rome; most sold for one dollar or less. Flipping through some of the books, I noticed they were all stamped with the phrase “Discarded From Jervis Public Library” in red ink on one of the inside covers or pages.

Many of the books were in good condition, and some of the titles came from popular authors like James Patterson, Scott Turow, Anne Rice and Dick Francis. Even so, whether a title was a Harlequin romance or a prize-winning literary novel, I felt sadness because books that seemed to be still readable were being pulled from the stacks and deposited on cluttered shelves in a dark hallway of the library near the men’s and women’s bathrooms. I’m sure there’s a good reason why the books needed to be moved out of circulation, but on a visceral level I felt empathy for the discarded inanimate works.  

As a result, I went to the library, bought several of the used books and cut out the stamped pages. I then gathered the pages and some old library cards that I found for sale online and pasted them together on two painted canvases.

This fun project in the summer of 2011 led to another unrelated work. My father had passed away in 2007 and I still had some of his old clothes and other personal items. So I thought I would try to make a collage tribute to him using materials left over from his life. Here is the finished product.

Digital image of mixed media work, 2011.

In hindsight, I should have painted the surface before I added the collage materials to give it some color. I also think I should have limited the number of buttons from my dad’s shirts.

Still, what I like most about these three collage works is I had no expectations when I started working on them. As stated in my last post, I am a collage novice, but an idea came to me and I said to myself, “OK, give it a try.”

And I think it’s a good lesson for me to learn, as artistic experimentation is vital to keeping work fresh. It helps to shake up the juices and allow new paths of creation to flow. This philosophy of taking risks and following your instincts applies to practitioners of all art forms and is also relevant in other areas of life, such as learning, career, dating, cooking and social experiences.

On a personal note, the three collages hold special meaning for me because they pay tribute to my late parents. I mentioned my father’s collage, but the two library-themed pictures also honor my mother, even if that was not the intention when I made them. My mom, who died last November after a long battle with cancer, was a bibliophile who researched and compiled detailed biographies and booklists for her favorite authors, including Danielle Steel and Nora Roberts. When I would mock her for taking a hobby to such a fanatical level, she would just say, “I’m very organized.”

She also gave me permission to rip out all of the “Discarded From Jervis Public Library” stamps from the used books she had finished reading. She piled the books in a wicker basket placed near the fireplace in the living room, with yellow Post-it notes on the covers indicating they had been “read.”

And I’m glad she had a chance to see the finished library collages since she contributed to the making of them. Right now all three collages are wrapped in brown paper and tucked under the bed in one of the spare bedrooms in my stepfather’s house in Rome. But if a day comes when I have some wall space in a future apartment—not the furnished studio I currently rent—I’ll hang up the collages and look upon the images with satisfaction, knowing a little bit of my parents’ spirit lives on underneath the glass frames.

Digital photograph of collage, 2011.

Digital photograph of mixed media piece, 2011.