Tuesday, April 14, 2015

THE LIBRARY - April Poem #14

As I've mentioned in other posts, I like prompts, but nothing on the three sites I've been looking at this month really did it for me today. The closest was Robert Lee Brewer's from Poetic Asides http://www.writersdigest.com/editor-blogs/poetic-asides , but what he suggests - to write an honest poem or write a dishonest poem - applies to creative writing in general, I think. We try to be honest; we allow ourselves the freedom to be what some might call dishonest in service of our own particular creative purpose at the moment. Oh, yeah, creative license. I was feeling really blocked until some angel (in the form of my husband) said, "Why don't you write something about a library?" I could write sooooo much about libraries! In fact, other library pieces are currently flooding my brain, but this is the one that got there first, partly because it was so very important in shaping the person I have become. It's set in Weiser, Idaho, the small rural town where I grew up, though I suspect the rather ugly, squat buildings on the block the old library was on have all been razed, and I couldn't find a picture of it. The poem is honest, in that everything in it is factually true as well as emotionally and other kinds of true. It's a bit dishonest, in that I quit before the end of the story, because it seemed like a good place to stop before going off into another long tangent, which would be necessary if I were to complete the story of the book report I wrote for my high school government class. And what I have here is quite long enough. Maybe too long, if I'm honest.
This is not the old library (which was not in the building on the left, but one that looked a lot like it) but rather the Pythian Castle, one of the more interesting buildings in downtown Weiser, Idaho. I hope it's still there!

I always went alone, without parent, without friends,
and no one questioned or bothered me.
I never asked the librarian for help, just wandered
until I found something and then checked it out.
The rule was two books at a time, for two weeks,
with a penny a day late fine, though that soon doubled.
The librarian wore her salt-and-pepper hair
in a bun with a pencil stuck in it, which
she took out from time to time to write with.
I never saw her stand up, so I always
imagined she was child-sized, like me, but thicker.
Over time, she got smaller. At first she looked
straight across into my eyes, but by high school
she had to peer up over the tops of her glasses.

There was a card catalogue, of course, a small one,
small wooden drawers filled with small cards,
small like the library itself in our small town.
I don't remember using it. I was more of a grazer then
than a focused searcher. Despite its limitations,
the library's somewhat random collection did
include all the Oz books, even the one
where Dorothy's captured by a princess
who wants to add her head to the collection
she keeps in a closet, deciding which to wear
on a particular day
according to whim, or maybe the weather.

I chose my reading matter on whim as well,
wandering through the children's and adult
sections equally, with no guidance whatsoever.
One week it might be Harry Black hunting his tiger,
another the Lambs' Tales from Shakespeare.
I would have enjoyed that even more if I'd known
Charles Lamb's sister and co-author killed their mother.
At twelve I devoured everything there by Daphne
du Maurier, then regressed to Tales of a Chinese Grandmother,
followed by other tales by other grandmothers -
Korean, Russian, Swiss, Turkish, Basque -
before plunging into bodice-rippers about the Tudors.
I read Peyton Place before my mother did
and told her with eleven-year-old gravity
that I didn't think it was suitable for her.
(It wasn't.)

The last time I went to that library
I was a senior in high school, looking
for a topic for a book report for government class.
Mrs. D, a pillar of the local John Birch Society,
had suggested something by J. Edgar Hoover.
But since she'd been denouncing Marx the way
a preacher might denounce the devil, I thought
I'd check him out. I found him in the library,
at the end of the shelf with dust in his beard.
He'd arrived in 1935 and no one
had taken him out since. I set him on the librarian's desk.
She frowned up at me over her glasses, took
the pencil out of her hair, and said,
"I'll have to call your mother." As she held
the receiver to her ear, her lips pursed and tightened.
She date-stamped the two cards,
mine and the one in the book, and handed it to me
without another word.

                    - Victoria Stefani
Hooker Hall, the main building of the old high school in Weiser, Idaho. The government class in the poem would have been in a room on the second floor, in the front, just left of center. That's a geographic description only; I'm sure Mrs. D would have had apoplexy if she'd heard anyone describe her class as being to the left of anything (though aside from her politics, she was really quite nice).

It occurs to me as I get ready to post this that I don't think I ever told any of my high school friends about that incident at the library, or about my government book report and what transpired later, though in retrospect it would be much more important in my life than the kinds of things we did talk about (boys, cars, boys and their cars, dances, dancing with boys . . . etc.).


  1. You did the anecdote justice here! Dave and Lizzie and I really enjoyed the ending (the sequel?). I like the idea of books as living people on shelves, with dust in their beards, waiting for us to check them out and invite them into our minds.

  2. Thanks! and yes, I expect eventually the sequel will follow.