Francisco de Quevedo
I chose each book, held it in my hands for
one last time, then placed it peacefully in
its cardboard coffin. Old friends, they were
but I broke that friendship and set them
free to fulfill their promised after-me-life
on another person’s shelves. I used to love
to listen to their lilting speech, to hear sage
thoughts with open eyes and mind. I replied
to their wisdom: words penned on each page.
Mind to mind, though they had lived five
hundred years ago, I strove to engage them
in a lively conversation, Bakhtinian dialogues
within our shared time and space, and
that space my basement library with its books.
One day, a man from the university drove up
in a hearse and bore them all away. Released
to a wider world beyond my walls, they will
nourish younger minds than mine. I hope their
new owners will bless them, welcome them,
cherish them, as I have done throughout my life.
Blind now, with tears, my eyes that devoured
their words. Deaf now, these ears of mine that
heard dead men’s words, for I can listen no more.
Comment: “Escucho con mis ojos a los Muertos / I listen with my eyes to the words of the dead.” Francisco de Quevedo (1580-1645). It was a hard thing to do, that disemboweling of my library, but it had to be done. I am grateful to the Harriet Irving Library at the University of New Brunswick for taking pity on my plight and redeeming my books. Hopefully they will have all gone on to a better life. It was sad to walk past them, to watch them slowly gathering dust, like a book on a shelf, as Elvis used to sing. It was even sadder to know that I would ever be able to peruse them all again, let alone read them from from cover to cover, certainly not in this life time.
And is that my own fate, to be reduced to words on a page, to become a dusty book lying forgotten on a shelf? Pobre poetas de hoy, wrote my friend and fellow academic poet, José María Valverde, destinados a ser polvo seco de tesis doctoral / Poor poets of today, destined to become the dry dust of doctoral theses. So: my thought for today … rise up and resist. Take an old friend off the shelf. Dust him or her off. Open the pages. Settle down for a moment or two. Breathe deep. Begin your conversation with your long lost friend. We may not be close in the flesh, distanced as we are by lock downs and separation, but we can become closer in our minds. Pick up one of my books. Dust me down. Read me. Begin that conversation. Now. Before we too are gone, swept down stream by time’s river and lost in the mists that curtain the sea.
And, just in case you thought that last line was very good and very unique and original, here’s the conversation it came from: Nuestras vidas son los ríos / que van a dar en la mar, / que es el morir / our lives are the rivers that will flow down to the sea, which is death (Jorge Manrique, 1440-1479). I had that conversation with Jorge Manrique in Santander in the summer of 1963. His Coplas was on the pre-university reading list at Bristol University, placed there, I believe by Salvador Bacarisse who was related to a long line of Spanish musicians and poets. If memory serves me well, our first essay, in our first week, in our first year of Spanish, entailed writing a commentary on the Coplas and how to read and understand them.
Si jeunesse savait, si vieillesse pouvait / If youth knew how, if old age was able to (Voltaire). I wish I knew then what I know now. And I wish I could do now, some of the things I could do back then. Meanwhile, do not despair: pick up one of my books or browse my blog for a poem, and have a short and hopefully profitable conversation with me as you listen to my failing voice with your younger eyes.