Five or six months after moving to Boston, I got a job in an underground bookshop in Kenmore Square. The bookshop was next door to the Rathskeller, a gritty music joint everyone called the Rat. Inside the Rat was a jukebox, beer signs, a stage on crates for the bands, and picnic tables where you could eat BBQ from Hoodoos. Next to the Rat were nightclubs, pizza joints, a record store. There was a head shop, a packie, and a karate store too, along with junkies and homeless guys and hookers. This was a totally new work environment for me. When I was in high school in Houston I had worked in an upscale toy shop in the Galleria on Westheimer Road. It was a dull job in a swank shopping mall. Going to work felt like living on the set of a soap opera—something out of Port Charles or Oakdale— with so many patrons dressed up in slacks and ascots and alligator boots, or nylons and heels and clanky jewelry.
Some nights the toy store traffic would all but stop before we’d close up, and I could steal time reading out of a little poetry anthology I’d taken from my mother’s library. It was Oscar Williams’s A Little Treasury of Modern Poetry: English and American that had been published in the 1950s and probably my mother used it at the University of Michigan when she was an undergraduate there. Oscar Williams’s name wasn’t his real name though. His real name was Oscar Kaplan. In 1907, at the age of seven, Oscar Kaplan arrived to New York City with his parents from a Ukrainian shtetl, Letychiv, which is only a hundred miles north of Chorny Ostrov where my great-grandparents had been born. Robert Frost was one of my favorite poets in the the Little Treasury anthology, and I would memorize lines of his and then distort them under my breath for the right occasion. Asked to sweep the backroom of the toy shop, I’d murmur, “Some say the world will end in fire. / Some say in ice. / But from what I’ve tasted of desire / Sweeping the backroom is just as nice / And would suffice.” For awhile there I had “Directive” memorized. It was reassuring to know that poets were reinventing the world for us, and that I could drop in and out of that world whenever I wanted.
Until the era of buying a typewriter for everyday use came to an end, I would test out storeroom models by typing the first two sentences from Frost’s “Birches”—
When I see birches lean from left to right
Across the lines of straighter darker trees,
I like to think some boy’s been swinging them.
But swinging doesn’t bend them down to stay
as ice storms do.
I liked thinking I was always in the market for a typewriter then. I preferred manuals to electrics and favored cast-iron Royals. The first word processor I ever typed on was a 1983 Apple Macintosh that a friend of mine at Boston University owned. Her boyfriend also sold pot, so there were pressing reasons to visit her group house on Boulevard Terrace in Allston. Before I took up rooms on Glenville Ave., I lived in that house with her and a reporter and her novelist boyfriend who’d just graduated from the Iowa Writers Workshop, and with various other BU transients.
Most of my work at the bookshop in Kenmore Square was loading and unloading boxes, stripping covers off mass market paperbacks to return for credit from the publishers, and working the register weekend nights when the manager went home early. In his late twenties the manager wasn’t much older than me. But to a college kid not yet twenty, he seemed wise beyond my imaginings. We called him Pete, but that wasn’t his name. His girlfriend, who was the assistant manager, we called her Madame X. Everyone in the store had a nickname. Mine was the Kid. “Madame X,” Pete would call out, “get the Kid to bring up the new shipment of books.” Then I’d murmur, “bringing up the new shipment of books is just as nice / And would suffice.”
Working in a bookshop nearly perfected the romance of myself as a liberal intellectual in Boston. The whole concept was enchanting, this combination of passion and the poetic. It was what riding the boxcars across the country must have been like. The 1980s had a lot of secondhand bookshops in Boston. I’d never known anything like them in Houston. Wandering into the Boston Book Annex on Beacon Street or the downtown Brattle Book Shop, or even cruising the shelves of some of the seedy basement bookshops in Brookline or Cambridge, long gone now and whose names escape me, was like entering the hidden rooms of secret relatives. Then to have those used books stacked up on the floor in your own bedroom back at your apartment, books that weren’t assigned to you for courses but that you felt you had to have, was to display who your people were, your idealized family of intimates. It was to show your mind and heart to the world, and your mind and heart were bound up with yellowed pages and dried glue and old ink.
Anatole Broyard says finding books is like “a reunion, like meeting old friends or lovers.” Wandering Boston’s used bookshops, strolling for hours like a pilgrim among the undisturbed dust, I would look for a life I had not yet known. Handling a 1937 Dell Book paperback edition of William Faulkner’s Mosquitoes, for instance, with its bodice-ripper cover and bright letters hailing the book as “A Brilliant Novel of Bohemian Life” was like picking the lock to a world of love teeming with artists and writers. The boatloads of bohemians in those books really owned the bookstores anyway rather than the other way around. They would run wild in the pages of novels and in my hands. All the blots and dog-ears made the books even more desirable. The scribbled notes in the margins were like traces of archeological bones, and you’d know that someone had read this one copy before and probably did so while sipping tea and waiting for the toast to pop up or the Red Sox game to come on the radio while outside through an opened window there’d be a humid Boston summer wind and aroma of green trees. These dim rooms of books were a sanctuary even if, and maybe because, thousands of pages in there remained untouched. The possibilities were eternal.
It wasn’t that books were an escape from my own life or family, but they were a new manifestation and embodiment of my existence. Their archetypes and exemplars were palpable. I’d learned in Margaret Kennedy’s high school Latin classes at Bellaire High School that this phenomenon was called prosopopoeia by the Latin and Greek writers. The term means more than just personification. The term means the speech of the imaginary. Literally, it means to make an eye or to make a face, a mask, through which—I would later think of it—a poet speaks. I realize that people implicitly understand this idea when reading books. But I took this concept to the level of love, I really did. This speaking mask was where a book began and ended for me. The masks were more than just the human variety. The settings and geographies and plots, the metaphors and stanzas, the clothing and histories and voices—all of it became something embodied. And then I became embodied by all of that, too. The books seem to get inside my own blood. The words escaped into me. And then I would try to see or re-see—revise—the world with this new blood inside my body. It was like a drug, and only taking magic mushrooms came close to the experience. Wallace Stevens’s “The Snow Man” was the pinnacle of this re-embodiment for me when I used to troll the used bookshops of Boston:
One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;
And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter
Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,
Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place
For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.
Sometimes I wasn’t sure what I’d have done without books when I was an undergraduate. Think about sex more, I guess. The distraction was shuddering. My earliest favorites came out of the blue Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry. Whitman, Dickinson, Hopkins, Yeats, Stevens, Lawrence, Owen, Bogan, Crane, Cavanaugh, Penn Warren, Kunitz, Auden, and Roethke dominated my reading of the early half of modern poetry in England and America. I’d studied Pound and Eliot and Williams in one of my courses but seldom brought them home. My reading instead was a kind of hysterical pleasure-seeking of what Yeats calls “what is past, or passing, or to come.” I had imagined myself like Doctor Doolittle studying, not animals, but books. And not books exactly but individual lines of poems. Lines and phrases and even physical letters—I was obsessed then with the magic of assonance and consonance. I was reading, not even the words exactly even, but the letters of words. The English alphabet left me afire and itchy and wild-eyed. The letter “I,” I mean, it’s just a single vertical scratch and straight line on the page. But the concepts we earnestly apply to that vertical bone of “I”—the self, individuality, the imagination, the mind, the sensual body—could topple a government.
My mother’s mother was known in our family for having recited portions of Beowulf from memory, as well as the opening lines of Paradise Lost and passages of Shakespeare. My father’s mother used to read to me when I was small, and like a lot of children I enjoyed touching the books as she read The Gingerbread Man or Peter Rabbit. My mother’s library at home was a mix of political science, Jewish history (the red letters on the binding of The Rise and Fall of Third Reich would shine down at you from the highest shelf like the Fuhrer himself), and a sprinkling of drama. She’d studied Ibsen in college and had a tender, heartbroken affection for A Doll’s House and Hedda Gabler. My father had kept his childhood paperback editions of Tarzan and Agatha Christie mysteries and Sherlock Holmes, and these were available to me as boy, as were hand-me-down editions of Companion Library books that had two collections back-to-back and then reversed in a single volume. We had—
Huckleberry Finn | The Adventures of Tom Sawyer
The Swiss Family Robinson | Robinson Crusoe
The Jungle Book | The Wizard of Oz
The Little Lame Prince | The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood
Just So Stories | Prince and the Pauper
Little Men | Little Women
Gulliver’s Travels | Treasure Island
A Dog of Flanders | Tom Sawyer Abroad
Kidnapped | Tom Sawyer, Detective
Anderson’s Fairy Tales | Grimms’ Fairy Tales
Heidi | Hans Brinker
Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass | Five Little Peppers and How They Grew
Aesop’s Fables | Arabian Nights
And then there was the siddur, the Jewish prayer book, I held in my lap Friday nights or Saturday mornings at Beth Yeshurun on Beechnut Street in southwest Houston. The rough, hardbound cover always felt like a rugged block of black stone from a destroyed cemetery—a stone that had been passed around, hand to hand, for decades. Nothing in the siddur led me to radical amazement, not once, but the shapes of the Hebrew letters and the translations in English offered me a route into a pilgrimage of language that I gladly took. The wonder I was expected to express toward God I found myself showing toward words alone. While those around me were engaged in prayer and song and praise to God, I usually—especially as a teenager—was aware that the words were inviting me into something unutterable, into something beyond the limits of language. Abraham Joshua Heschel says, “in our own lives the voice of God speaks slowly, a syllable at a time.” But I wasn’t hearing the words as God’s. Instead, I was hearing them as human creations. I was becoming awed by the wide horizon of the speech that arose out of an individual life lived in a single era and generation. I was becoming attracted to the writer’s creativity. Somewhere off in the horizon of the inner life of words, I felt, were things of common significance and complex meanings.
In the bookshop in Kenmore Square, especially late at night on the weekends when I usually worked, I took an interest in each of the customers who came in and wondered what particular motivation brought them into the shop at that hour. You could hear the music from the Rat next door blaring through the thin walls. I watched how the customers touched the books or kept their hands to their sides. I wondered what brought anyone to pull down How To Win Friends and Influence People from one aisle and Homer’s The Iliad from the next. I wanted to understand what kind of person they were through the books they held and bought and took home. Sometimes one would stand at the counter after paying at the cash register and talk about the books they were about to depart with, as if they were talking about a new child or pet. I had no trouble listening to them. On and on they came into the store, roaming the little aisles, choosing their little books, returning to the ordinariness of their lives. They were so like me, trading their daily lives for the new inner lives of words.
“Old Friends or Lovers” is the fourth in a sequence of autobiographical portraits to be published on Poetry Wire on the subject of my early education as a writer.