How can I say no to a dying friend? I can’t really. Nor can I reinvent my public image in this community of poets who have known me since I came to the city — the city that has granted me refuge, an identity and a sense of forward momentum. Who else but this community of aging poets would look beyond this sorry shell of a body and crude accumulation of tics and bad jokes that I call me and see the real person underneath? The person I projected so clearly thirty maybe forty years ago when I rolled into town a cocky Dean Moriarty type high on amphetamines (my old drug of choice) and drunk on words.
These old friends who have clung to me and each other, oysters in a wild gale, are aging poorly. In the greatest city in the world, with top medical complexes occupying whole chunks of blocks and neighborhoods, this community of friends is blinking away one by one. Always marginal. they slip through the formidable health net and end up in the emergency room being told bad news at four am by a resident who mispronounces their name .
What they do leave behind are mountains of books. Great books. Poetry collections. A first edition Mask of Janus by WS Merwin, El Cid by Pablo Neruda, Harmonium and Ideas of Order by Wallace Stevens.
I see the look in their eyes. The desperation. What’s to happen to all their books when they pass? Will it just end up at the corner of some dusty bin at The Strand or worse in the dumpster out back? And so I’ve become known as the friend who will care for their books. Give them a home. A space on my shelf. And from time to time I pluck one from the shelf, open a bottle of a fine Chianti, not too chewy and read it aloud and think of him/her.
It brings my friends comfort. It allows them to rest easy, surrounded by their books as they leave this earthly plane. And the spines of the books, cloth, paper, leather in some rare cases, wink back and whisper words of comfort.
Who am I kidding? This is a fools errand. I’ve been frittering away a small fortune, a fortune I can barely afford, buying book shelves at a breakneck speed. The good news is that for the most part, book shelves seem to be permanently on sale. Whereas when I was young, the buying of books, the collecting of autographs, the collection itself, spoke volumes about you and gave guests an easy access to who you are. But now the world has gone digital. And for some reason this seems to be cause for celebration.
And while, yes it’s sad that our lives must continue to evolve, change, and roll through trends with the self-awareness and control of seaweed washing up on shore, I accept it. I feel loyal to my friends poetry collections. They now occupy half my bed because my funds have dipped to a new low. I could for instance, cherry-pick through these collections and bring the first editions to a rare book dealer. That would certainly help my bleak financial picture. And the truth is when I walk back into my apartment it takes me a moment or two to reorient myself to my shifting circumstances, my new cave-like home. The few remaining house plants struggle towards the dwindling rays of light that cut through the mountains of books now strewn everywhere.
But here’s why I won’t sell off these books.
A friend of mine told me a story. Not a story really, more like an anecdote. He was at a church bizarre and saw a run-down chest of drawers, that was being offered for free. And while the knobs where attractive, the wood was delaminating. He thought briefly about simply taking the knobs but recognized that by stripping the knobs off the chest of drawers he would render this piece of furniture useless and unattractive and so he walked away.
A collection of books traces a person’s progress through their life. The whims. The ambition. The exalted higher self.
And so I cling to these collections in their whole. As a mass. Scanning the titles I’m struck by the memory of how one friend always steeped her tea until it was beyond black and another friend made the best bread pudding without raisins because I like it that way and a third, the one who owns all those first editions, took me through the drama of Wagner’s intent so that I could listen to The Ring Cycle and be moved to tears.
So much silence.
So much dust.