the language of flowers and more

A million years ago, in what now seems another life, I worked full-time at the Farm, but also worked part-time at a little, liberal arts school nearby called Simons Rock. Though I don't have many fond memories of my short time there--I worked a shift once a week that consisted of me working a full day at the Farm, taking an hour nap, wolfing down dinner, then working a 6p.m.-1a.m. shift--what was I thinking?!--I did have the pleasure of seeing poet Rita Dove's poetry reading there.

Not just because I'm a librarian, but because this is the kid I was in some ways, my favorite poem that Dove read that night, which Dove said is her, "love poem to librarians." The poem has crept back to me and I am reading it again and smiling.

"Maple Valley Branch Library, 1967"

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 ]


Jenny O said…
Oh, I loved that! I want to make a huge vinyl letter graphic of it to put in an imaginary huge children's library.

Also loved finding a fellow (part-time? former?) Berkshires resident :D I work for a library system in coastal Georgia now but grew up in Egremont and took some classes at Simon's Rock in middle school.
Jenny O,

When you do that, please make me one too. ;)

Small world, eh! I lived in Monterey and worked at Simons Rock and also at a couple of the public libraries in the Berks. I definitely miss it...sometimes stil dream about getting back out there. :)

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