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The library I frequented when I was a little girl still looks much like it did in the 1970s and 80s. I’d like to revisit it someday, browsing the children’s stacks where I found and lost so many stories. I say lost because, though no one ever speaks of it (would it be unjust or disloyal to my favorite institution?), the books one borrows and returns are only half-remembered at best. Those children’s books are the foundation of my imagination, but they’ve taken on the hue of furtive dreams.
I’ve been giving this some thought because I recently stumbled on a repository of “juvenile” books in my university library, carved out of some surplus stacks in an unlikely spot—engineering books encircle it. Unlike the sunny central branch of the Houston public library, where I usually take my sons, this place is shadowy and labyrinthine. It’s here I find Randall Jarrell’s The Bat-Poet, appropriately enough. As an allegory of the poet’s genesis, it is too uncomfortably close to the bone. I read it, I return it to the shelf. I relegate it to one of the half-remembered, haunting books. The books I own I love, but they can’t be regretted.
Because these books lie in the shadows, they seem older than they are; more neglected; their shelf life is indefinite, and none feels like a new acquisition. Maybe this is why I sense I could find here some of those nameless books I devoured thirty years ago and more. I spend too much time scouring the shelves in my slow way, but the books I gather are not magical portals, just interesting older books I think my children would like. (Am I thus perpetuating the taste for lost things in them?) There are treasures here that bookstores—and, increasingly, public libraries—just can’t afford to keep around.
This is a story about language acquisition. Not at beginning stages, but later; and not in the classroom, but peripheral to it. I wrote much of my book Shoulder Season while listening to my kids acquire language, and inadvertently it became a subject of the poems. It’s only in retrospect that I realize how much of my own poetry obsessively recapitulates and recasts my earliest experience with language—especially language I didn’t understand. There had been four languages spoken almost daily in my presence, and two of them were opaque to me except for the nuances of prosody, tone, and body language. Rabelais’ Gargantua—born from the wrong orifice, the (labyrinthine) ear—is the patron saint of carnivalesque language, so no wonder he figures in this poem, which seems less now about my second baby than it does about some shady alter ego. (Incidentally, it’s also an Easter poem!)
All this to say—I wound, I wormed my way into this mazy section of children’s books to luxuriate in, what, nostalgia? Self-indulgence? No; the hope of joy, the satisfaction of delight. (But these are paltry rewards, aren’t they, in the face of budget “realities” that are shuttering public libraries, or slashing their acquisitions?) The bat-poet, in Jarrell’s allegory, actually leaves the comfort of the colony to discover the beauty of daytime—that is, enlightenment. Which brings me to what I really want to talk about, another kind of labyrinthine cave, “In Praise of Limestone” by W.H. Auden (per Martin’s call for more talk about poems). To be continued….