Girl in a Library

By Gail Mazur b. 1937 Gail Mazur

“ . . . But my mind, gone out in tenderness,
Shrinks from its object . . .”
—Randall Jarrell

I want to find my way back to her,
to help her, to grab her hand, pull her   
up from the wooden floor of the stacks   
where she’s reading accounts of the hatchet   
murders of Lizzie Borden’s harsh parents   
as if she could learn something about   
life if she knew all the cuts and slashes;

her essay on Wordsworth or Keats   
only a knot in her belly, a faint pressure   
at her temples. She’s pale, it’s five years   
before the first migraine, but the dreamy   
flush has already drained from her face.   
I want to lead her out of the library,   
to sit with her on a bench under a still

living elm tree, be one who understands,   
but even today I don’t understand,
I want to shake her and want to assure her,   
to hold her—but love’s not safe for her,   
although she craves what she knows   
of it, love’s a snare, a closed door,
a dank cell. Maybe she should just leave

the campus, take a train to Fall River,
inspect Lizzie’s room, the rigid corsets   
and buttoned shoes, the horsehair sofas,   
the kitchen’s rank stew. Hell. Bleak
loyal judgmental journals of a next-door   
neighbor—not a friend, Lizzie had no friend.   
If only she could follow one trajectory

of thought, a plan, invent a journey   
out of this place, a vocation—
but without me to guide her, where   
would she go? And what did I ever offer,   
what stiffening of spine? What goal?   
Rather, stiffening of soul, her soul   
cocooned in the library’s trivia.

Soul circling its lessons. What can I say   
before she walks like a ghost in white lace   
carrying her bouquet of stephanotis,
her father beaming innocently at her side,   
a boy waiting, trembling, to shape her?   
He’s innocent, too, we are all innocent,   
even Lizzie Borden who surely did take

the axe. It was so hot that summer morning.   
The hard-hearted stepmother, heavy hand   
of the father. There was another daughter   
they favored, and Lizzie, stewing at home,   
heavy smell of mutton in the pores
of history. But this girl, her story’s
still a mystery—I tell myself she’s a quick

study, a survivor. There’s still time.   
Soon she’ll close the bloody book,   
slink past the lit carrels, through
the library’s heavy door to the world.   
Is it too late to try to touch her,
kneel beside her on the dusty floor   
where we’re avoiding her assignment?

Gail Mazur, “Girl in a Library” from Zeppo's First Wife: New & Selected Poems (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2005). Copyright © 2001 by Gail Mazur. Reprinted with the permission of the author.

Source: They Can't Take That Away from Me (The University of Chicago Press, 2001)

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Poet Gail Mazur b. 1937

POET’S REGION U.S., New England

Subjects Relationships, Living, Reading & Books, Coming of Age

 Gail  Mazur


After nearly 13 years of apprenticing herself to poetry, during which she studied with Robert Lowell and immersed herself in the Boston/Cambridge literary scene, Mazur published her first collection, Nightfire (1978), at age 40. Other books include The Pose of Happiness (1986); They Can’t Take That Away from Me (2001); and Zeppo’s First Wife: New & Selected Poems (2006). Tess Taylor, interviewing Mazur for the Atlantic Monthly . . .

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Poem Categorization

SUBJECT Relationships, Living, Reading & Books, Coming of Age

POET’S REGION U.S., New England

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