eating an elephant in small bites

I had the privelege of going to Rita Dove's (U.S. Poet Laureate 1993-1995) poetry reading at a local college last night. I was very excited when I heard that she was coming--having written, for my undergrad thesis, a comparison between Rita Dove's "Thomas and Beulah" poems and a smattering of Elizabeth Bishops' poems. It's funny how you forget those things, I'm not sure how, since I spent an entire half a semester working on that paper. It's funny too that when you are writing those monstrous papers it seems like the material will never be applicable in your life, and I guess in some ways it hasn't been, other than that I still think about those poems and tonight had a better appreciation for the poet herself!

I think my favorite poem that Rita Dove read tonight was "Maple Valley Branch Library, 1967," which Ms. Dove said is her, "love poem to librarians." (Yes, being a librarian might be part of the reason why...) I will share it now and hope that after reading this more people discover one of the joys of my undergrad days.

For a fifteen-year-old there was plenty
to do: Browse the magazines,
slip into the Adult Section to see
what vast tristesse was born of rush-hour traffic,
décolletés, and the plague of too much money.
There was so much to discover---how to
lay out a road, the language of flowers,
and the place of women in the tribe of Moost.
There were equations elegant as a French twist,
fractal geometry's unwinding maple leaf;

I could follow, step-by-step, the slow disclosure
of a pineapple Jell-O mold---or take
the path of Harold's purple crayon through
the bedroom window and onto a lavender
spill of stars. Oh, I could walk any aisle
and smell wisdom, put a hand out to touch
the rough curve of bound leather,
the harsh parchment of dreams.

As for the improbable librarian
with her salt and paprika upsweep,
her British accent and sweater clip
(mom of a kid I knew from school)---
I'd go up to her desk and ask for help
on bareback rodeo or binary codes,
phonics, Gestalt theory,
lead poisoning in the Late Roman Empire,
the play of light in Dutch Renaissance painting;
I would claim to be researching
pre-Columbian pottery or Chinese foot-binding,

but all I wanted to know was:
Tell me what you've read that keeps
that half smile afloat
above the collar of your impeccable blouse .

So I read Gone with the Wind because
it was big, and haiku because they were small.
I studied history for its rhapsody of dates,
lingered over Cubist art for the way
it showed all sides of a guitar at once.
All the time in the world was there, and sometimes
all the world on a single page.
As much as I could hold
on my plastic card's imprint I took,

greedily: six books, six volumes of bliss,
the stuff we humans are made of:
words and sighs and silence,
ink and whips, Brahma and cosine,
corsets and poetry and blood sugar levels---
I carried it home, past five blocks of aluminum siding
and the old garage where, on its boarded-up doors,
someone had scrawled:

I can eat an elephant
if I take small bites.

Yes , I said, to no one in particular: That's
what I'm gonna do!

Dove, Rita. : Maple Valley Branch Library, 1967 [from On The Bus With Rosa Parks (1999) ,
W. W. Norton & Company ]


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