In Port Angeles, Washington, it was Tess Gallagher.
I had stopped for a lunch of yogurt and fresh figs on the way to the coast, and, as so often happens, I wound up wandering into a local bookstore. This one was Port Book & News on First Street, and by the time I’d left, about five minutes later, the frayed strap of my shoulder bag was straining with the weight of three extra volumes: Gallagher’s Amplitude: New and Selected Poems, Moon Crossing Bridge, and Instructions to the Double.
Two days later, at the Elliott Bay Book Company in Seattle, it was Kim Addonizio’s What Is This Thing Called Love and Yusef Komunyakaa’s Dien Cai Dau. I had a flight back to New York the next morning, and by now my carry-on bag had become an instrument of vertebrae-crunching torture. I could tell that the march through the Delta terminal at Sea-Tac was going to be brutal. But that’s how it is when I travel, and I travel a lot.
See, I can’t seem to stop myself. The other day I left Baby Grand Books in Warwick, New York, with John Keats. Last spring, somewhere between Phoenix and the Grand Canyon, I stumbled into a boxcar-shaped used-book outpost next to a taco stand and ended up riding northward with Tom Clark and Nikki Giovanni in the backseat of my rental car. In Manhattan I pass through Grand Central Terminal nearly every weekday; there, I have been known to drift into Posman Books and drift out three minutes later, dashing toward track 42 with Marie Ponsot or Leonard Cohen or Robin Robertson or Ada Limón under my arm. There are times when my purchases are random; there are times when they’re linked to some curious mental impulse—even pity. At Book Soup in West Hollywood I picked up Adam Zagajewski’s Eternal Enemies simply because the poet’s last name begins with Z, which meant that Eternal Enemies (which is brilliant, by the way) was the very last book on the bottom shelf of a poetry section on Sunset Boulevard. I felt sorry for that book. I wanted to rescue it.
It has crossed my mind that I’m the one in need of rescuing. A compulsion to feed my poetry fix as soon as I hit town—any town, every town—seems, at least on the surface, like a safe indulgence. It’s much healthier, for instance, than scoring little baggies of white powder. But there can be a commensurate drain on my cash flow, and that’s distressing, especially at a time when we’re all supposed to be practicing fiscal austerity. An economic downswing (which we might or might not be crawling out of in these waning days of 2009) calls for pragmatism, and the only thing less pragmatic than buying a random book of poetry is buying, say, five of them.
We all agree that reading poetry won’t make you rich, but can it make you poor? That’s what worries me. I am not normally a profligate person—I save, I invest, I understand the sedimentary ecstasies of compound interest—but when set loose in the poetry section of any bookstore on the planet I seem to encounter a version of myself that is thoroughly stripped of restraint. If I want it, I buy it. I become something that I seem to become nowhere else: a shopaholic.
A paperback isn’t that expensive, but trust me, all those impulse buys add up. Over the past few months A.R. Ammons and Alice Oswald have joined my bulging home library. So have Patricia Smith and Don Paterson. And let’s not forget Dan Chiasson, Dean Young, Karl Shapiro, C.D. Wright, Emily Fragos, Stanley Kunitz, Joseph Brodsky, J.D. McClatchy, Alison Pick, Li-Young Lee, Richard Brautigan, Frederick Seidel, and the remarkable and much-missed Craig Arnold. Probably a few others, too. I’ve lost track. Gulp.
Clearly I have a problem. As the recovery merchants are always eager to remind us, we take the first of the 12 steps by admitting our own powerlessness in the face of addiction. Maybe I need help. Am I putting my family’s retirement fund in peril for the sake of enjambment and interior rhyme? If the ax falls and I find myself joining the laid-off throngs—I did not know that downsizing had undone so many—will I look at that alpine range of piled-up volumes next to my bed and wince, thinking of all the money I could have saved? (It’s not like this treasure trove is going to bring in a fortune on eBay.) If I wake up in the gutter, can I blame the “Ode on Indolence”?
Yes, I’ve considered these questions—not that that has stopped me. I justify my poetry slush fund in a variety of ways. I tell myself, for example, that buying a book of poetry constitutes a gesture of resistance. Gargantuan corporations can now cull, measure, and parse every move that we make in the global marketplace, but picking up a collection of verse is still so minuscule and arbitrary an act that it must surely defy all their algorithms—it feels as commercially untraceable as slipping an apple into your bag at an orchard. (For one thing, you’re not coerced into buying poetry because of, like, ads. You have to make a deliberate effort. You have to seek it out. And even in bookstores that do offer a diverse selection of poetry, merely finding it can pose a challenge: Invariably the poetry aisle is located way, way in the back—“yeah, just turn left at the Sasquatch section and it should be right across from Occult Interpretations of High School Musical.”) The publishing business relies on the massiveness of authors like Stephenie Meyer and Dan Brown to such a degree that a stray underdog purchase of, say, Dean Young’s Embryoyo barely even registers on their Reader Tracking Devices, and that’s what I love about it. It’s a tiny push in the opposite direction—a pipsqueak of peaceful defiance.
I also tell myself that if the economy threatens to turn me into a fresh slab of recessionary roadkill, poetry just might be the thing that keeps me on an even keel. Maybe there’s truth in this. The upside of my literary spending spree is that I’ve got a stockpile of great books to flip through whenever I want, and they might just come in handy: The consolations of poetry are perfectly suited to a time of economic woe. It’s often when the frenzy of a boom dies down that we start to pay attention to the undercurrents of life that had previously gone by in a blur. Poetry is, among so many other things, a chronicle of those undercurrents—sort of a Twitter feed from a neglected realm.
Of course, it’s never as simple as saying that poetry makes you “feel better” when you’re down. (Reading Philip Larkin might just make you feel worse.) But it can, in my experience, make you feel less alone, less trapped, possibly even less freaked out about your credit-card debt—it has a way of stilling the storms of panic. A few weeks ago my book binge led me to “Play,” by A.R. Ammons, a poem that offers a quiet chime of reassurance:
drill imagination right through necessity:
it's all right:
it's been taken care of. . . .
And my rash spending habits on Amazon.com have introduced me to Li-Young Lee’s “From Blossoms,” a deceptively simple reverie about the pleasures of buying a bag of summer peaches by the side of the road:
There are days we live
as if death were nowhere
in the background; from joy
to joy to joy, from wing to wing,
from blossom to blossom to
impossible blossom, to sweet impossible blossom.
And were it not for that quick detour of mine in Port Angeles, I might never have encountered Tess Gallagher’s “Refusing Silence,” a poem that’s rousing enough to serve as a personal credo:
I delayed. I was the Empress
of Delay. But it can’t be
put off now. . . .
There are messages to send.
Gatherings and songs.
Because we need
to insist. Else what are we
for? What use
I know I need to be frugal, but I’m not sure a recession can stop me from seeking out poems like that. For an accountant drawing up a budget, I suppose they’d qualify as ancillaries, but to me they’re absolute necessities. I insist.