Tuesday, December 28, 2010

A Poetry Break

My husband, who is a librarian at a public library, recently gave me a poem to read. Entitled "Library Days," it is part of Philip Levine's new collection, News of the World. The poem is copyrighted, but the most of the text, including this poem, is available at Google Books. The poem is set in Detroit during the Korean War, and the narrator is a beer delivery truck driver who plays hooky from his job to "sit for hours with the sunlight streaming in the high windows" of the library. The library is treated with the same reverence as a house of worship. Some of the narrator's favorite authors are Melville, Balzac, and Walt Whitman, "my old hero." The books have "the aura of used tea bags." He also favors the great Russian writers--Dostoyevsky, Turgenev, Chekhov, Tolstoy; reading The Idiot confirms that "life was irrational." What particularly caught my attention was the depiction of the librarian, one of the most negative I have ever seen. The librarian has "gone gray though young," and sits "by the phone that never rang, assembling the frown reserved exclusively for me ..." Her voice was full of "pure malice" when a patron made the mistake of asking for Jane's Fighting Ships instead of literature. She never exchanges a smile with the narrator despite his tentative attempts at engaging her. Ultimately, however, the librarian is just an annoyance, if a malignant one. Reading is the narrator's real job, and his actual job takes a back seat to it. It did not matter to him that the beer he was supposed to deliver "could sit for ages in the boiling van slowly morphing into shampoo ..." The poem concludes, "it mattered not at all to me, I had work to do."

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