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 love.
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
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.