KR BlogReading

Multiple-Copy, Burning-House, and First-Grab Books & First-Bought Books Revisited

Last week, I wrote about the first book I remember buying, a copy of Dylan Thomas’s Collected Poems, which accompanied me in my stutter-step from student of architecture to student of poetry, and I speculated on what a poet’s first-bought book might mean.

While a number of KR readers responded to the post (thank you), I invited a number of friends to think about their own experiences and send me, if it struck them, their accounts. One friend joked on Facebook that he might have a clearer memory of the first book he shoplifted, but then didn’t offer any specifics. A student of mine supplied her own pilfering haiku, remembering finding a slim book of Neruda among the well-fingered art titles in a big-name bookstore here in Denver: she liberated it and thus began her life with poetry.

I received one particularly thoughtful response from Justin Evans, poet and editor of Hobble Creek Review.

He wrote:

In the house I grew up in, there were exactly three books of poetry: A 19th Century edition of Robert Burns, the complete works of William Wordsworth, and a book called Heart Throbs: America’s Most Beloved Poems. I read the last two, unable to get into the collection of Burns. It’s strange that the very first book of poems I bought for myself was Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s, Endless Life. Although I can’t even say where I bought it or under what circumstances, I remember buying it when I was in high school and not knowing exactly what to tell people about having bought a book of poems. I ran around with a few different groups and none were the type one just volunteers that sort of information to on a regular basis. I read the book and immediately fell in love with almost every poem inside. My biggest problem was that I didn’t have too many people with whom I could talk about poetry. I had been met with ridicule when I started to give my crude attempts at writing poetry to a girl I had a crush on, and I was not going to make that mistake ever again.

I kept the book in my room, buried beneath my perpetual mess, making certain I was never seem in public with it. As I read, I realized poetry was much more than the arrangement of words. It was the arrangement of ideas and emotions. Because of that book I started to leave behind a lot of my sing-song rhymes and started to explore for a context I could happily manipulate. I started to confess, to talk instead of worry about verse, which I think was very healthy for me.

When I was able, I sent for my things to take with me in the army. I [had] carried that book with me to Texas, where it was stolen right before I departed for Germany. I have my suspicions as to who took the book, but I don’t have any real evidence. I was heartbroken. I had yet to really start writing poetry with any seriousness, but I had started collecting books, and I took it as a serious loss. This was before online shopping, so getting another copy was not an easy thing. What made matters worse was that not too many bookstores ever carried poetry books and I had to take my shots when I could. It took me years to replace the book, and when I did, the book felt (and still does at times) like a counterfeit. It just isn’t my book.

I don’t know why I chose that particular book, but I can tell you that it was the one which first set me on a much larger, broader understanding of poetry. I don’t write like Ferlinghetti, nor would I want to, but I love that Endless Life was the first book of poetry I bought for myself and I know a lesser book wouldn’t have had the same impact upon me and how perceived myself.

This I love about physical books–how the particular feel, weight, color of everything become not just delivery conduits but as well signatures of the moments of our reading and of ourselves as we grew through and with those books. So I feel strongly Justin’s sense of loss in the disappearance of a particular copy. For whatever reason the almost marginless paperback Modern Library version of Absalom, Absalom! which was my first encounter with Faulkner’s masterpiece remains far more powerful than the easier-on-the-eyes Vintage International editions one can come by these days. Even the sudden need for a book–remembering a note you’ve written in the margin of a book you’ve packed away several states distant–can’t be answered by a new copy; reading the replacement is, indeed, reading a new book.

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Perhaps for this reason, perhaps because a few years ago I started commuting to work by bicycle and don’t like to carry a lot on my back, I acquired duplicate copies of a few books I was reading and re-reading, including Larry Levis’s Elegy and Joshua Poteat’s Ornithologies, a book that owes something to Levis’s. These are among my first-grab books, the titles I would quickly bag if I knew I was leaving the house for the entire day or rushing to get to the airport.

Elegy has been recommended to me, directly and indirectly, repeatedly over the last decade. The first recommendation I clearly remember was by Craig Arnold, who was giving me advice on the work that would become my first book of poems, Murder Ballads. I bought the book, but didn’t dig into it for several years, until I was, for two weeks, an assistant for a documentary film that involved interviewing Philip Levine at his home in Fresno, California. As I packed for my film-crew trip, I stacked Elegy with my Levine books–thinking about the relationship between those two poets and hungry, too, for poetry of the California landscape the film crew would drive across. I was reading Levis’s “Photograph: Migrant Worker, Parlier, California, 1967” as we drove into Fresno:

I’m going to put Johnny Dominguez right here
In front of you on this page so that
You won’t mistake him for something else,
An idea, for example, of how oppressed
He was, rising with his pan of Thompson Seedless
Grapes from a row of vines. The band
On his white straw hat darkened by sweat, is,
He would remind you, just a hatband.
His hatband

A few hours later, when asked to talk about his work, Levine refused, saying instead he wanted to talk about Levis, in whom we should be more interested.

Levine’s, and Levis’s, forwardness stuck with me, but over the years since Levis’s capacity, especially in the poems of Elegy, to dwell in the complications of thought that haunt any desire to be forward or any act of forwardness–this capacity captivated me so thoroughly with a kind of magic that seemed about to fall apart at the moment you started looking at it (also something I still like in Dylan Thomas’s work), that I felt I had to keep the book with or near me at all times, as if there would be one moment at which I could look at the poems with the just the right nonchalance and see what held them together. Later, I would find ways to study Levis’s work more thoroughly and carefully, learning–and still learning–a great deal.

I knew, I know, if I lost my first copy of Elegy–which I ordered from Amazon, nothing special–I’d feel a loss, but I keep shuffling my copies with one another so they’ll get mixed up and a copy of a book will be just that, a copy, not the book itself.

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Still, Elegy is one of my burning-house books, one I’d grab if things were going up but I had the time to get a handful of favorites.

On that short shelf with Elegy are Brigit Pegeen Kelly’s Song, Larissa Szporluk’s Isolato (four copies), Yusef Komunyakaa’s Magic City (bought it after the best reading I have ever heard), Robert Hayden’s Collected Poems (cracked binding), A. R. Ammons’s Sphere (four copies), among others–all books I could keep reading and from which I could always learn.

Whenever someone asks me what my desert-island books would be, I go in memory to this short shelf and pull a handful, though the truth is I’d be sad without a few hundred or so.

And when someone asks me What is your most favorite book? or What single book would you recommend? I just smile. I might offer up the book I have in my bag that day (today: Erika Meitner’s Makeshift Instructions for Vigilant Girls), the book that’s packed for the next trip (Terrance Hayes’s Lighthead), or the book I’ve slated for a long vacation’s re-read (Frank Stanford’s The Battlefield Where The Moon Says I Love Youwhich is also my I-weep-quietly-for-you-if-you-don’t-already-own-this book).

And may angels help whoever asks me simply Which poets should I read?

My answer: All of them.