living words: ‘all hues in his controlling’
By Greg Gerke.
I live in a city. The City. I go from one room of books to another. This isn’t good for the flowers or the trees. Don’t laugh—they want to be looked at. In these rooms full of books I endure a terrible longing to return to such natural preserves. Before growing up and into a paper and print man, the earth was so near to me. Because I could not read and thankfully cared little for TV, nature (along with toys) made up most of my reality. Grass, the soft grass of city parks. The dirt of gardens, the dirt of dirt—the way water made it soggy, more appetizing. In our small backyard there were three trees until they became too big and one had to be cut down. Its uneven stump remained. I stared at that stump for hours, trying to remake its presence—imagination enlivened by ruin. Other extravaganzas of organics influenced. The tyrannical primary colors of spring as opposed to the gray slate skies of Midwest winter. The blaze of autumn. Nature taught me motion—turn and counter-turn—she taught me color.
Words conjure. Crack a novel or poem at random and most will have a tiny shout about the outdoors. Even in JR, William Gaddis’ novel of 98% dialogue, nature bursts into the rooms where the speakers speak: “Sunlight, pocketed in a cloud spilled suddenly broken across the floor through the leaves of the trees outside.” One can’t keep it out and nature can’t keep away—it is the leveler of literature: Just want to make sure you know I’m still here, it says, and we say, Just want to make sure you are still there. With this understanding we live, banking on the picture of the earth to always be in its place. Is this a happy arrangement?
I turn to Wallace Stevens and the last canto of the Auroras of Autumn for help:
An unhappy people in a happy world—
Read, rabbi, the phases of this difference.
An unhappy people in an unhappy world—
Here are too many mirrors for misery.
A happy people in an unhappy world—
It cannot be.
What are we that a poet can take three of the most used words in English and mix and match them in such easily understandable and memorable lines of verse? We have to be magic, and why I read is to feel who we are, to apprise myself of the distinguished enterprise of being.
This is me—the child trying to be father to the man—who has read Ulysses but has not made a son, who has been under Lowry’s Volcano but never under a car to understand its underbelly or twist on an oil filter to save money while hording the bragging rights, so my love could speak of her man. I continue reading—I am adding and addled by those ideas, those bristling feelings enjambed in sentences and lines of verse, but is this filler for what is truly desired?
I often go into bookstores in New York City. Mercer Street Books, The Housing Works, The Strand, Unnameable Books, and Barnes and Noble (though that is more of a social mecca). One cool night I go to the West 82nd branch of this behemoth, not to browse but to observe. Many people sit or stand in these stores and read. And though some frustrated friends have bellowed the clarion call, “People don’t read!” this ugly edict is obviously false. I espy a demure woman in her forties with a brown leather purse and a stoic face (despite her tight cowgirl jeans to accentuate her already extravagant ass) reach into the Christianity section and pull out a thin volume from the bottom shelf—Prodigal God. In the next instant a mother hands her daughter a copy of I Am Number Four before the young girl promptly reads the back, returns it, and continues with her oversize paperback, Sarah’s Key.
People are reading. Men finger newspapers and one flicks through a Visual C++ handbook. There goes a young mixed couple with a puppy-care guide, and how about that Upper-West-sider with The Dance of Anger, no dance on that female face stricken by the hard lines of living beneath sixty-year hair dyed henna. There’s a gray-shirted man and his pile of mysteries.
Oh, they are reading. Why, though, are these people at Barnes and Noble reading? Do the many diverse subjects thin out what is possible for our civilization? We are a million people reading a million different books, yet our little lives are rounded by the same sleep.
If I wanted to talk to persons about books and book culture, shouldn’t I be talking to these men and women? The inelegant paradox of life as I see it is how reading is a solitary activity, but doing so yields an understanding of the world and the many people populating it. Or is E.M. Cioran correct when he says, “We must read not to understand others but to understand ourselves”? Reading can be shared—going to readings, participating in books clubs, and certainly embarking on a course of study in school. Over the years I’ve selfishly given friends, family, and lovers books I like in hopes they would read them and we could talk shop. Some did, most didn’t—out of the ignored books given as gifts, one could build thousands of libraries.
My ways and means favor the reading out loud of texts as the most direct route to shared experience. In the previous decade I read three of Cormac McCarthy’s novels (Blood Meridian, The Crossing, and The Road) to three different lovers, yet my output has not been confined to the continent’s most feted author outside of Franzen. I also cast out The Emigrants, Disgrace, Desperate Characters, Stanley Elkin’s novella “The Condominium,” a bevy of short stories, mostly by Anton Chekov and Alice Munro, and poems aplenty, many to myself. I had read all these books before deeming them worthy of taking hours and hours from others’ lives. I was then, as now, learning how to write and desired to hear the music of the sentences, particularly Blood Meridian. That this particular armful of tomes bathe themselves in the dark side of life is true. They carried the stink of tragedy in their steely words and stark stories, moving myself to think worse of the world and better of me—I was a little fucked up, but I didn’t have such problems. I wasn’t ready to end my life—how could I ever have as a good a reason as Sebald’s three crestfallen Jewish emigrants?
I don’t know if any of the women were so interested—one disclosed her hatred of The Road in retrospect, along with me—but we were spending time together, I was reading to them, they had my voice in their ears. What is so powerful about the antique image of a paramour speaking his verses to the high-bosomed lady he loves is that the practice still exists and bolsters seduction—a word not as dirty as the paltry Romance novelists who’ve never read Rilke think. With book love a main component of my affection and even compassion for another, how much of myself still sat in the real world? Enormously interested in their reactions, I wanted them to emote right along with me—cry, like me, when Professor Lurie kills the dog at the end of Disgrace or at the woman’s welcoming words to the fatherless boy at the finish of The Road. It didn’t happen the way I envisioned it. A sad clown throughout those years, I had more expectations than was healthy to harbor a happy relationship.
Nowadays, I might call my dearest into the alcove of her room and share a late Stevens poem, say “The Novel,” or “Farewell without a Guitar.” I’ll read it, we’ll remark about such a term as “routemarche,” she’ll take the book in hand and read it again, as I finger the sad edge around the quaggy longing to make us two people we actually aren’t. Susan Sontag doesn’t sleep next to me ready to spout a sportive and Spartan interpretation of my choice of art. It’s cowardly to think I have something more than a bowdlerized conception of myself to offer the world and those closest to me. I’m giving you something that probably doesn’t interest you, but I know you will look at it because you love me I insist like the ham I am—the barest way I can describe the contract as it plays itself out in my years. Art has taken precedence. I’ve fallen deeply into it and can barely return to life.
On a featureless Thursday I come to the petite library near City Hall Park where the homeless sleep and the mentally ill chortle and upbraid those who dare to chortle near them. On their exit two vivacious ladies laugh, causing the Jamaican woman at my table to stare her computer down and voice a mantra: Who are you a dunce to try and make me laugh? She says it five times, stops, ten times more—a stream few pretend to notice.
Libraries used to be different—I have this on my authority. If you want silence stay in your house, the furies cry. Nay, but I’ve written in public libraries for twenty years—I can’t just stop. The disenfranchised are my familiars. I’m used to these people, this vituperative and smelly still broken jet set. All of my better ideas were born with someone on the cusp of magnificent breakdown only a few feet away. Their mouths have produced numerous titles for me, their odors haunting my nose even after a second shower.
There are still books in libraries, but what happens when they stop carrying those meaty chunks of paper? Libraries won’t be the correct term. If personal libraries used to stand for or typify an intelligence, a place for showing off, especially since hardcover books were a status symbol and not so affordable, what has taken their place today? Giant TV’s? An exercise room? The video-game study? The term Arts and Leisure is bloody wrong.
Life in a chair is the life of the mind. Is this a shuttered life? Is this how I thought it would be at age three, legos in hand, food on my face? I have a stormy idea that what I make and what I do is foolish and futile but I will never know. Is that why I read Stevens—the highest art attained? I seek cause before satisfaction and to hold my head over a bowl, a golden bowl, a chalice, a stone—something beautiful.
But there’s only cold comfort at Brooklyn’s Central Library by Grand Army Plaza on a Sunday afternoon. It’s open only four hours and I will get just forty minutes of that. Mudwoman. A new book, reviewed by the NY Times. That’s where I recently read about it, the librarian barks officiously to a small woman. I’ve known this particular man for ten years. In my patented autobiographical novel I describe him thus: “One effeminate man in his fifties with thick glasses, silver hair and often plaid, pastel, or beige striped shirts spoke loudly to patrons and other co-workers in a finishing school voice that pronounced every syllable like an all powerful king at court.”
Will he sue me for libel when the novel gets published? Will the library order a copy? No, the question is, will the NY Times review my bitchy ass? Mudwoman. There are many books in a big library. Most all the greatest work ever written—that should be read. Imagine trying to catch up in 1877 when Walter Pater taught Oscar Wilde, and Henry James had only written three of his twenty-one novels and less than a fifth of the Library of America’s 4700 pages of his tales. Then imagine what the anxiety is like 140 years later. Flaubert finally finished out, there was Modernism, Post-Modernism plus a whole host of bunkum I wouldn’t read if you paid me. Then add all the new translations of works before 1877.
Mudwoman. What can be accomplished in forty minutes? Yes, that can. Poetry as well. The reading and writing of it. Something as small as Emperor Hadrian’s only known verse, “Little Soul,” goes a long way:
Little soul little stray
now where will you stay
all pale and all alone
after the way
you used to make fun of things
I came to the library to find the quiet nest of myself that goes missing when I’m not able to dictate the words I carry ringed up in garbles, botched rhythms, and frozen streams like overgrown tumors. I constantly find what is outside me more interesting, but not more explicable. This is a sign more simple than I think, but utterly unfollowable—a cyanide to my sham-hearted thought of the writer as more than zero.
What have I done? I answer: I have read the words. Maybe someday I will live up to Howard Nemerov’s self-epitaph:
Of the Great World he knew not much.
But his Muse let little in language escape her.
Friends sigh and say of him, poor wretch,
He was a good writer, on paper.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Greg Gerke‘s fiction and non-fiction has appeared in Tin House, Film Quarterly, The Kenyon Review Online, and others. A book of stories, My Brooklyn Writer Friend, is available from Queens Ferry Press.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, May 2nd, 2016.