Lately I’ve been starting to take more time sorting through, dipping into, wandering around in, my poetry library—a lifetime’s collection of poetry books filling a half-dozen huge bookcases and a dozen cartons, and this the more interesting half that remains after weeding out about half of the collection over the last several years. It’s amazing what washes up.
The other day, for example, tucked in the front of my 1838 copy of Miss Landon’s Poetical Works (the poetry of Letitia Landon, also known as L.E.L.), I found the receipt pictured above from the Mathom Bookshop, dated July 17, 1997 (the other side has an exuberant pencil scrawl of mine, praising some dactylic phrase of Landon’s).
Layers of memories trail around this slip of paper. Mathom Bookshop was a bookshop the poet Lewis Turco ran out of his barn in Dresden, Maine for a while during the summers (I believe it has now been out of business for some time; Lew can correct me if he sees this post). It was a relatively small collection compared to our very favorite, the Book Barn in Ellsworth, but it was a special little bookshop and a truly excellent one, of course, for poetry. I recall that there was no door, which gave the place an exotic quality, and then of course you’d get to see the poet himself, a curmudgeonly fellow my courtly father treated with the utmost respect, as he did all poets. Even sometimes me.
Driving the long trek to Dresden to stop there with my parents was a highlight of the summer when I was young. We did so a number of times, though it was quite out of the way on our annual trek from New Rochelle, New York up to our off-the-grid camp in northern Maine. The collection of poetry books Lew was selling was one of two poets’ libraries I knew as a child that made me feel less alone about my own obsession with amassing poetry books (the other belonged to friends of my parents through Sarah Lawrence, where my father taught philosophy: the poets Horace Gregory and Marya Zaturenska). Each of Lew’s volumes was inscribed with his confident signature. I remember picking up a copy of a collection of PreRaphealite poets and marveling how he could ever bear to part with such a thing. Now, 30 years later, I understand. Time changes things.
The summer I bought Landon’s book, I couldn’t have been there with my parents, because my father was on his deathbed. He would die on August 11, 1997. On July 17 he didn’t want me to leave, I remember. “Don’t go,” he said. But I did. I had to. With the help of this receipt, I can piece together that summer and realize that that could have been the exact day I leftt with my husband and son for the lake cabin, stopping on the way to visit friends in Dresden and to purchase this beautiful book of Landon’s poetry. We cleaned out the cabin, which had been sitting unused for 8 years, and I made peace with some things from the past. Then we returned to New Rochelle where my father was waiting to say goodbye to me. He died that same night.
Just now, writing about all this, I opened this heavy, stained book of Miss Landon’s poetry like an oracle. And here is the poem it gave me.
Mark you not yon sad procession,
‘Mid the ruin’d abbey’s gloom.
Hastening to the worm’s possession,
To the dark and silent tomb!
See the velvet pall hangs over
Poor mortality’s remains;
We should shudder to discover
What that coffin’s space contains.
Death itself is lovely—wearing
But the colder shape of sleep;
Or the solemn statue bearing
Beauty that forbids to weep.
But decay—the pulses tremble
When its livid signs appear:
When the once-loved lips resemble
All we loathe, and all we fear.
Is it not a ghastly ending
For the body’s godlike form,
Thus to the damp earth descending,
Food and triumph to the worm!
Better far the red pile blazing
With the spicy Indian wood,
Incense unto heaven raising
From the sandal oil’s sweet flood.
In the bright pyre’s kindling flashes,
Let my yielded soul ascend;
Fling to the wild winds my ashes
‘Till with mother earth they blend.
Not so,—let the pale urn keep them;
Touch’d with spices, oil, and wine;
Let there be some one to weep them;
Wilt thou keep that urn? Love mine!