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This Is Not My Beautiful Wife

I’m back in my hometown, Baltimore, for the first time in a year, and I can’t stop looking at my old bookshelves. All the reasons I decided to become a poet are here: James Baldwin, Raymond Chandler, Richard Wright, Ayn Rand, Isabelle Allende, Monopoly strategy books, Natasha Saje, Daniel Defoe, Angela Ball–strange reasons, maybe, now. But back in the day I swallowed these books whole, finding in them exactly what I needed. They thrilled me with their bright light, their syntax, their unembarassed pain amid confident similes. I’ve used my memory of their language so many times to find my way out of dead ends in my own poems.

For a while I carried around some of these books as I moved to other cities, thinking I should reread them to get at that kernel again, but I never did. Last month I finally did try to return to Julia, the child preacher in one of James Baldwin’s novellas whose voice I’ve borrowed in several poems over the years. When I requested what I thought was the novel in which she’s featured recently at a Seattle library, the book that arrived a week later was so unfamiliar that after paging through it in vain, I returned it and enlisted a librarian, only to find that I’d had the right book, in which Julia’s child-sermons played only a small part in the middle.

I had referenced these books so often, each remembered sentence a revelation or at least a strut, but now that I’m actually looking at them they seem weaker. I can’t make it through a page without feeling like I’m reading a mistranslation. Over the years I’ve returned to each of them in my mind, asked for their help with problems I’ve faced in my own writing, and gotten it–but now that I hold these books in my hand the words are all wrong. What I learned from them is not there.

In Alice Munro’s “View From Castle Rock,” she speaks enviously of her father’s late-life autobigraphical writing:

In the car I sit beside him holding the can ansd we follow slowly that old, usual route–Spencer Street, Church Street, Wexford Street, Ladysmith Street–to the hospital. The town, unlike the house, stays very much the same–nobody is renovating or changing it. Nevertheless it has changed for me. I have written about it and used it up. Here are more or less the same banks and hardware and grocery stores and the barbershop and the Town Hall tower, but all their secret,. plentiful messages for me have drained away.

Not for my father. He has lived here and nowhere else. He has not escaped things by such use.

I haven’t written much about my hometown, but I wonder if I could have used my books as a hometown, drained them of use and meaning through overuse, the way Munro describes. If by returning so often to so short a shelf (though returning is wrong, as it was my memory I kept retracing, not the actual pages until now), I leached the miracles from the page. Petted them to death. And if that’s what happened, was the process sped up because these books aren’t the greatest of literature? If I’d loved Yeats and Keats like I was supposed to, would it have lasted longer?

I can remember the sesame sweets I portioned out to myself as I soldiered through Rand crosslegged on the anty lawn, one bite for every ten pages, and the shelf at the Enoch Pratt Free Library where I pulled out a lightweight copy “Giovanni’s Room,” stooping to reach, halfway through my glorious run of James Baldwin’s fiction. And I can remember the rush I felt reading these books, how critical they felt to me at the time. What if it doesn’t matter what books I read? I remember buying copy after copy of Alma Luz Villanueva’s “The Ultraviolet Sky” for friends, none of whom liked it a bit, and now I wonder if they were right. I’m scared to take a second look.

At first I felt betrayed to misremember (as it felt to me) so deeply my own foundation. And it was embarassing, the way it is when I’m back in Baltimore and can’t remember how to find my way to the all-night diner. But is that all it is? Or does this misremembering serve some purpose, does it get me somewhere? I get the sense I’m not asking the right questions. Or maybe I’m asking too many. Back home I also caught up on my cable TV. On “Arrested Development” a blind character–kind of a jerk, unattractive, boring, self-centered–shows off his girlfriend. This sweet, patient woman helps him around all day, every day, describing sculptures, tapping cantaloupes, shoe shopping, reading aloud every historical marker they pass, and along the way she’s told her blind boyfriend that she’s a fashion model. The guy’s friend can see that she’s no model, but rather jowly and short, and when his blind friend asks, in kind of a competitive way, if she’s the most beautiful woman he’s ever seen, the friend tells him she’s just average. A week later, the blind guy has dumped his longtime girlfriend, because he can’t stand not to be with a beautiful woman.