Saturday, June 30, 2007

Books at Auction

As promised in an earlier post, when we were discussing the various merits of the hard copy book compared to the e-book or internet text, here is the full text of my poem Books at Auction. The poem is a nostalgic look back at my sadly short-lived career as a secondhand bookseller in Cornwall, as well as a celebration of all that is miraculous and emotionally significant about the book as a physical object.


Books at Auction
i.m. The Little Camel Bookshop


I used to arrive early, wander through the clutter:
tables, chairs, a walnut desk
from the nineteenth century, lampstands
and dolls’ houses, the usual array of paintings
by artists no one has ever heard of,
bric-a-brac, porcelain dolls with real hair,
a rocking-horse. There was always something odd
to see there, hold upside-down, poke around in
or sit on. I remember polysterene cups,
cheap coffee from the kiosk.
They called me ‘love’ or ‘pet’, those men
who humped furniture for a living (in
and out), their stained brown coats
that stank of linseed oil, their cheeky offers
of a cigarette. I grew muscles
like weeds that year, hefting boxes to the car,
bending my knees. Books, books,
the musty smell of them, like old perfume,
like history — ‘To H.B. from Lily, 1904’,
‘To Mother from your Beloved Son George’ —
their marbled end-papers foxed, spotted
like trout, the maps and diagrams
that folded out — the entire midship of a schooner
once, in immaculate condition —
the tiny wormholes and the worms themselves
(killed off by freezing overnight).

Though those paper-thin silences
before bidding began
were often like the silences
of our first nights together — eyes meeting briefly,
then lips — love
is not like bidding for books at an auction
(except for the tension
and never being quite sure what
you’ll end up with
or how much it might cost you).


Books can be like love though,
a high dark dream of love, a secret only you and I
can know this
So I’d bid more steeply than intended,
burnt up with lust
for some T.S. Eliot First,
then slip outside for a cigarette
and smoke there in the rain. Like Barbara in Brest,
epanouie ravie ruisselante . . .
Yet it was always worth it, at the auction,
buying books in competition. Even
the hours spent on my knees afterwards, bent
over those boxes, sorting out
and cataloguing, pricing up, my hands
book-black by the end of it,
dancing and singing over the covers:

Ha! Ha! Among the Trumpets, Alun Lewis;
Loch Derg from Patrick Kavanagh;
Nil Nil, by Don Paterson, faded blue cloth,
signed by the author, good condition;
Milton’s Paradise Lost, calf-bound and gilt
in three volumes, 1795;
the Complete Poems of Alice Meynell
on hand-made paper, limited numbered edition;
an early Crow, slightly foxed,
with marginalia; Vita Sackville-West,
her modest Selected from the Hogarth Press;
Betjeman’s Summoned by Bells, green cloth
minus jacket, a First Edition.


Why buy them, to preserve them? Better
to let cyber-space have them, let them be words
on screen, seen and unseen, corruptible.
That page will fade, data disappear, no safer there
than between hard covers,
yet never so beautiful nor dangerous, something real
to hand on, like a name or a sword.

Say that under our fingers, our eyes
or here on the tongue, a book of light is rising:
the word that we made to be heard — dignified
godhead, salt-washed,
bound bone and blood in it,
went to the stake for it, then lost or discarded —
has been hidden from fire, riddled
with worms, pressed and spotted
by browned wild flowers,
over-written by notes scribbled
in margins, recipes
laid down on blank versos and these ghosts
on the flyleaf, the names and dates
of the faithful — when bought, when handed on,
where kept, by whom (though rarely why,
the hidden purposes of readers
blown like dust from gilt-edged spines).

Or rather say, look, this is what we achieved
in our age. This is a book.
Open it to the first page and read.

'Books at Auction' first appeared in Poetry Review.
Published in Boudicca & Co. from Salt Publishing, 2006.


Background Artist said...

She used to arrive early, wander through the clutter:
tables, chairs, a walnut desk
Victorian lampstand
and dolls’ house, an array of paintings,
bric-a-brac, porcelain doll with real hair,
a rocking-horse, always rrom
for something more, held upside-down, or sat on. She remembers polysterene cups,
cheap coffee from the kiosk
they called ‘love’ or ‘pet’,
those men
who humped in furniture

living in stained brown coats
that stank of linseed, their cheeky offers of an oily cigarette. She grew muscles that year, hefting boxes to the car,
bent her knee to books.

The smell, musty old perfume of vellum, history — ‘To H.B. from Lily, 1904’,
‘To Mother from your Beloved Son George’ — marbled end-papers foxed, spotted like trout, maps, diagrams
that folded out and the entire midship of a schooner, its immaculate wormholes, tiny
freezing overnight

Deathly thin silence
before bidding began
the silence of her first night meeting his eyes briefly,
then lips.

Love is not like bidding
for books at an auction
(except for the tension
and not being quite sure what
she'd end up with
or how much it might cost.

Just been having a fiddle wiv yer lingo mein doctress

Jane Holland said...

I prefer my version, Desmondo, though I appreciate the effort.


Background Artist said...

Jane, one did nea slash to improve your version, but to learn by jumping straight in and attemtping to inhabit the authorial mind of another poet, understanding how it weights compared to ones own.

What their methods and rules of engagement yield in the hack, hack and bleddy keep goingness of it, the process i undertook, a two minute dabble abd a major lesson learnt, the eventual and fundamental window of writing flung open, slowly but surely, as long as we blather in print in our own voice, the "truth twining timeless within ones spirit.."

A snippet of verse from an elegy one composed to Leanne O'Sullivan, the most naturally gifted teenage voice of a generation. Have you read her book?

The major lesson i learnt with this poem (and you should bear in mind that you are but one part in a binary editing process i have been conductiong with another poet simultaeneoulsy as with your work)

is the flab of too many words that take us "there" through rather than directly to, what poetry i detected in them as a critic. Neither version is "right" or "wrong" but "is," as in the music of what "happens,"

Poetic valency, as Sziertes concurs, fluxes with most intesity, when detached from conversational speech modes. One should not confuse the "lyric" eye for the "I" of conversational poetry, merthinks mein furhess..

Most of my poems ar shit, much worse than this excellant piece, maybe stretching it a bit, but we all learn our own unique way, some alone, some in the hectic throe of full time familial control, both will sing differently...

Jane Holland said...

I've never read anything by Leanne O'Sullivan, I'm afraid. No doubt I will in time.

There's some irony to be found in your comment above, Desperando, when you talk of the 'flab of too many words' in my poem and yet seem unable to edit your own exaggeratedly lavish prose style.

And for the second time, it's Szirtes. Not Sziertes.

Yours, patiently,

Background Artist said...

Sorry George, maurice scully awaits in cork with mairead byrne over from the states. Amazing live, as is maurice, all them mob, trevor joyce and the irish modernists, all lyrically sound.

You are utterley correct herr goddess, my own hugely unhugley mass of lardy utterance, in prose is unforgivable, but as Sweary says, here is a "nation of windbags" all waiting to but in and seize the limelight, the "ism" that just is the music of what happens, coz here everyone's at it, and will seriously charge you with the theft of a dream, i kid not, faeries and paul farley's cordrouy jacket, what does it tell us of the modern urge to blather?

But learning am i only mesen jane, i am entering the compositional zone, learning when and what to hold back, the outpour, deposits, honing the splurge, getting poetic, a virtual moleskin notebook, swoon in my iambic, blogorrah wharra palava innit, modernity and mimesis ms jane..

Jane Holland: Editor said...

The impact of the word depends on the silence that surrounds it. Take this to heart and spare us an excess of scrolling.


Background Artist said...

Seeing that you are censoring my speech at dictatorshio HQ, where you are talking excess blather, in word count comparison to myself, easily five to one, probably eight to one, i will pathetically attempt to engage with you, thank you for reading, this is a poem one would take from emory to my deserted isle, the one you and your pals have been dreaming of, the one i am excluded from by your refusal to publish my utterance. Fair enough, i'm not complaining, this is my telly poem, just in case an open mic was in operation on the island onto which i washed to, when my dream became an aisling and Tir na Og home, the memory you so lauighably seem to be claiming as your own. I was lucky where my instinct led, apprehending the importance of memory, amd know all ture poems are a prayer, a succour and stay against hatred and insensitivity, i aint a bad performer, and rank myself closer to the source than some, others not, but the bleddy telly lot, soap addicts trying to foist there mediatised world view down our gobs as being of high cultural valnecy, i mean, bleddy c'mon..

The day begins at dawn
just before a rush of pure
Cut chit cit chatting gets
the surround sound switch
On boiling into life.

They're talking on the sofa
whipping up celebritelly voices
And whupping out instructions
that are pointing all directions
sending out to the brainwave
central place behold no loss
nor trace in space, because TV
told us so, to listen watch
and have a go, at knocking up
some cupboards and cooking
back to back on the milk spilled
chilled out chow mien show
with the real life Zen presenters
hooking up to gods above,
below, and "there," beyond
Tir na Og, that place we'll never
go, so ho ho ho, Santa Claus
is coming skating through
the stars on invisible rain dear
dancing, prancing, dancing out
touching cool dudes in a jungle
and selling souls by bagloads
down the tube, chip chimney

squeezing tight the hard core
stack of good good goodies
right bang on for year round
always primetime Christmas
floor show; with aunty Joan
Uncle Pat, brother Ken and
chimin in, alzeim’ old timer
Grandpa, givin in to loose talk
on long gone no more yester
days, before cutting straight
to chat chase, choosin who
he’s letting in the livin’ room
because; it’s gotta be here
to spark in now and raise
the roof to cloud burst
shoutin loud, comin at yer
comin in yer, comin straight
right through to lose what’s
left before the goins getting
good and gone

whistlin’ up the wishin’ slippy
image, flickin ‘n frolerkin’
fast paced, livin in the corner
box space, drippin’ intravenous
and suckin’ leccy like there’s no
tommorow, only this, only now
never then - coz - hows that
gonna work?

Aint no chance of pullin’ round
the sun before the settin’s
settled down and done today;
switched dates. pumpin up the
numbers, stretchin them to
time, one by one, bye bye, go
bye another one, two three
for one left off what’s not no
longer on the outside, coz
insides livin’ lifesize, spending
daily bit by bit by byte wise
striking up the magic onscreen
constant two four seven three
six five, forever - till TV trip
out buckle up the wheel goin’
round down town; and blowin
in litter, so’s looking like a lotta
trash’s gonna be goin’ head
to head, thrashin’ out whose
best by pollin’ mobile textin’
vote, LO CALL
cheap beep beatin’ numbers
breakin’ down the door spoken
in the voice of god.

Crafty Green Poet said...

I enjoyed this poem and how it explored book shops, auctions and the physicality of books and the history they carry, which are all so important in making books so precious compared to e-books.