Years ago, I went into Malaprops Bookstore in Asheville, North Carolina. I selected a copy of Ariel by Sylvia Plath and headed to the register. As I placed my book down on the counter, the saleswoman asked, “Are you a poet?”
“Yes,” I responded, “how did you know?”
“Oh,” she answered in a blasé tone, “because only poets buy books of poetry.”
Aw man, and here I thought my face may have given me away as a scribbler of verse. Foiled again!
Bookstores are my favorite stores. I especially like used bookstores, because you can time travel in them and delight in unique treasures.
In a roadside bookstore in Maine, I walked under a cat who was drooped over the top shelves as lazily as the Cheshire on his branch in Alice In Wonderland. This kitty was scrappy. She hissed at me, and the proprietor said, “Ah, don’t mind her. She hisses at everybody.” I gave Ms. Bitchy a wink. I like it when cats let you know to stay away, and I wish I could hiss at people sometimes.
In another bookstore, not too far from our home, Benjamin, our friends Allen and Nick, and I enjoyed some elaborate signage. Most people observe brevity with signs. Not the owner of this store. One sign read something like: If you’re the type of person who picks up a book, and then doesn’t put it back in the same place, please know you’re not necessarily welcome here.
Ok, I may have taken some liberty with the last part of that paraphrase, but you get the tone. I thought it was hilarious.
Maybe there is something about being a bookstore owner that makes you a bit uppity (think Women and Women First from Portlandia). Or maybe it’s just that when you own a bookstore, it’s your home, your turf, so guests best play by the rules.
In Provincetown, there was a simple sign as you entered Tim’s Used Books that asked shoppers to turn off their cell phones and spend some quality time with the books. It was ironic then to see the owner on his cell phone, but as Emerson said, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds…and to be great is to be misunderstood.” I suppose if you’re the king of the bookstore castle, you can be the only one tastefully on your cell phone.
Tim’s is a lovely store. I found a copy of Billy Collins’s Sailing Alone Around the Room and Carolyn Forche’s The Country Between Us for a total of $12. Score! Tim did not ask about my poetic status, and I was grateful he didn’t. I also have to credit him for persuading me to buy Billy’s work. I don’t know exactly what made me avoid Sir Collins for this long. Maybe because he was so popular, like a poetry pop music star, I didn’t give him a fair chance, but wow, do I love him now! Poems in this collection that I particularly love are:
Walking Across the Atlantic- This poem resonates with me on a personal level, because I have my own poem-song where I talk to the Atlantic and ask it to be my road.
Winter Syntax- I love the imagery in this poem…the “yellow pencil in a sparkling blue vase” and the “tiny sentences” as “devoted ants” following the writer in from the woods.
Advice to Writers- I love the line “bare branches in winter are a form of writing.”
Introduction to Poetry- I love how Billy tells his students to “drop a mouse” into their poems.
Schoolsville- Again, this one has a personal resonance because of the opening stanza…I too have had enough students to populate a small town.
Lines Among Lost Trees
-Both of these capture what it feels like to almost have a poem, to have it just within your reach, and then it disappears.
Passengers-Billy describes the surreal feeling of being on an airplane exactly how I feel.
Taking Off Emily Dickinson’s Clothes-This poem is sexy and respectful, and I want to read it a thousand times.
Japan-In this poem, Billy makes you feel a haiku, feel it linger throughout an entire day.
Nightclub- The last line of this poem is “we have become beautiful without even knowing it.” This poem is about jazz, staying late listening to music in a club, love, beauty, and a perfect moment.
Reading Carolyn’s work floored me, just like it did when I first read this collection, back in the early 90’s. She has a way of capturing a particular point in time while still making it timeless. Both Denise Levertov and Margaret Atwood describe this better. Denise says her work has “no seam between the personal and political” and Margaret says it is “ achingly sensual and political at the same time.”
Among the most powerful poems for me in The Country Between Us are:
The Island-The imagery in the beginning of this poem catches me right away… mist rising from an ocean and being torn like bread. Carolyn also uses the image of tiny mirrors stitched to a dress. And here I have a confession. Somehow this must have gotten into my subconscious, because I have actually glued tiny mirrors to a dress, and I’ve written a couple of poems with this image too. Carolyn, if you ever read this, wherever you are, I swear I will cite your poem as inspiration for my work from now on. How very haunting to know that a poem stays with you so deep you don’t remember until you read it again.
As Children Together-This poem has the tone of the Nancy Griffith song, “There’s a Light Beyond These Woods.” Both the song and Carolyn’s words speak to girlhood friendship and the dreams that we have when we are young of getting out of our small towns.
-Both of these are poems to men and soldiers. They are heartbreaking, and this is all I can really say about them.
For a Stranger-This poem accurately describes what it’s like to meet someone on a train, share an intense conversation, and know you may never see them again. Joe Degenhardt, Casey Smith, Ginny and Fran, and Dan Mason, wherever you are, may you be well, and may we meet again someday.
Finding poetry in a used bookstore…this is all right by me! Thank you, Tim!