Sunday, January 20, 2013

Aimless Reading: The Z's, Part 1.5 (Louis Zukofsky)

Complete Short Poetry
Zukofsky, Louis
Complete Short Poetry

Purchased at Talking Leaves...Books for $19.95. The price is written in the upper righthand corner of the first page, in pencil, without a dollar sign or decimal point. One might reasonably conclude it cost $1,995 or that the purchaser wanted to commemorate the hypothetical year of its purchase, 1995. Maybe "reasonably" is too strong. One could conclude, playfully, that this was the case. But enough of hypotheticals.

One thing I regret as I look over this project is not tagging each entry with the name of the bookstore where I bought the book. I suppose I could search by name, but it would have been interesting to have a head count of all the books I remembered buying.

It's not hard to guess which stores would top the list. Most of my books were purchased at Talking Leaves...Books. The second most were purchased at the Niagara Falls outlet mall discount bookstore. Online stores, usually,  come in third. St. Mark's Books or Rust Belt Books would follow that, with the Fordham University Bookstore coming in behind them. Then there is East Village Books, the Strand, Seventh St. Books, Borders in Cheektowaga. Those are all bookstores I have patronized over the years. I wish I could say they'd been replaced by something here, but alas. I do occasionally go to the B&N that is the Yale Bookstore just to be around books, but it's not much fun.

Fortunately, I work in a literal cathedral to the written word, so I am surrounded by books all day long. One of the great things about working at the Beinecke is that I am regularly surprised to the point of emotion by objects that appear in boxes, display cases, or simply on the desks or walls of the various curators. Friday evening Nancy Kuhl took me around the current exhibit, "By Hand." It's the opening exhibit of the 50th Anniversary of the library and features handwritten manuscripts from throughout the collection.

She showed me some postcards by Joe Brainard and a stunning manuscript by Jonathan Edwards on oval paper. She showed me H.D.'s notes on her sessions with Freud. But the thing that moved me unexpectedly was a notebook that belonged to John Donne. A small, landscape-oriented leather book, it contained handwritten poems penned by Donne himself. On display was his famous poem, "The Flea," which was a poem that I studied closely in college.

It's not that I am a huge John Donne fan, but there was something about the singularity of the object that moved me. It's one thing to encounter manuscripts from twentieth century writers, who are much more important to me than Donne. It's quite another to see the original manuscript of a poem that is nearly 400 years old and which has since become a significant entry in the canon of western poetry.

I had a similar feeling when I stepped into a curator's office a few months back and saw, tossed among a hundred other books on a table, an original of El Lissitzky and Vladimir Mayakovsky's stunning collaboration, For the Voice (in Russian, of course). I had seen this book reproduced, but it was a powerful experience to hold it in my hands.

I am remembering now one of the first days of class in a course with Susan Howe. She took us to the poetry collection at UB to look at various first editions and manuscripts. When she took out the handwritten manuscript of Stevens' "The Man With The Blue Guitar" she was moved almost to tears.

What is it about nearness to the singular object that moves a person so? Is it perhaps the sense that the past is present, that some fragment of a time we never experienced has survived, as if to speak directly to us in the present? Or is it that we are not only close to "the past" in a general sense, but are witness to the evidence of the moment of creation -- the single page on which a poem came into being and the moment itself, as if the past did not exist at all, was simply a part of the present we hadn't yet encountered?

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