The other day my friend Gene asked what poetry I was reading. I wasn’t. I wasn’t reading anything at all. Nothing since the juicy Anne Sexton biography, the one that served as an introduction for us.
I asked him to make a suggestion. He didn’t hesitate.
“Disgusting, filthy, transcendent, delicious.” His words not mine. I was immediately hooked.
A few days later, I am at the Harold Washington Public Library, looking for Neruda – Artist Date 35.
I saw this place for the first time just a few months ago, on the way to a party in the South Loop. Driving down State Street, I asked my friend Liz what the building was with the great green gargoyles on top. She told me it was the library. I made a mental note and kept driving.
The gargoyles are calling me as I approach it. I feel giddy and excited to be here, in this place I’ve never been before.
Disgusting, filthy, transcendent, delicious. Seemingly homeless men are sitting on the low wall outside of the library. I take a photograph of the El train sign and am hit by the stench of sewer. I suddenly realize this is the Library stop. The only time I pass it is on my way to Midway airport, when I have to travel the whole of the Loop before heading south. I feel silly. Like I should have known.
I walk in a side door and follow the marble hallway to the main entrance. I have never been in a library this grand. The one at Michigan State University may have been larger, but it looked like post-Cold War “throw-up architecture.” Like the kind I saw in Dresden. Utilitarian.
I don’t recall visiting “the main library” in any city. I have tended toward community branches in Oakland, Seattle, the suburbs of Detroit, and here in Chicago. I am shocked and a little horrified. In fact, I don’t want to admit it here.
I think of George Peppard slipping his book into the stacks at the New York Public Library, Audrey Hepburn at his side. Genius.
Kids are playing ping-pong in the room to my left – some sort of summer program. Ping-pong. It feels almost quaint.
I climb the stairs to the third floor – circulation. I look up Neruda on the research computer that has replaced the card catalog. Seventh floor. On my way up, I read the quotes painted on to the walls.
“My Alma Mater is the Chicago Public Library,” David Mamet. “Wisdom begins in wonder,” Socrates.
I look at the sculptural art. Twisted wood. Women leaning against the wall. They look so serene. So comfortable. I want to lean in like that. Feel that safe.
I stop at the post highlighting today’s activities. “Inside the Whale,” a dance performance. The story of a woman swallowed by a whale, and how she learns to live in her own skin. Too bad I missed it. I could use a few tips.
I am looking for PQ8097.N428713. I wander into the language section. Books and magazines in Japanese, Russian, Arabic. I like how the characters look, neatly lined up in rows.
Continuing on, I am face to spine with a slew of books on publishing. How Fiction Works. Writing Erotic Romance. How to Grow a Novel.
I pull So You Want to Write: How to Master the Craft of Writing Fiction and Memoir by Marge Piercy and Ira Wood from the shelf. It does not seem like a mistake. I tuck in under my arm and keep walking until I find Neruda … waiting for me.
He is sloppy. His books are not lined up neatly, orderly. Some are lying on their sides. Others are upside down. I randomly pull a few and find a table.
Odes to Opposites. “Ode to the present.”
“This/moment/as smooth/as a board,/and fresh,/this hour/this day/as clean/as an untouched glass/ – not a single/spiderweb/from the past:…
“This is our/creation,/it’s growing/this very/instant,/kicking up/sand or eating/out of our hand./Catch it,/don’t let it slip away!/Keep it from vanishing into dreams/or words!/Grab it,/pin it down,/make it/obey!/Make it a road/or a bell,/a machine,/a kiss, a book/ or a caress.”
Yes. Make it into a kiss. Or a caress. Please do.
“…try a ladder!/Yes,/a ladder:/rise/out of the moment…Up and/up/but not too much – just high enough/to/patch the holes/in the roof./Not too far;/ you don’t want to reach heaven…You/are/your own moment,/your own apple:/pluck it/from your apple tree./Hold it up/in your/hand:/it shines/like a star./Stroke it,/sink your teeth into it – now off you go/whistling on your way.”
And I do. With this. With Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair. With Marge Piercy and Ira Wood.
Later that evening I receive an email from Gene. He wants to know if Neruda showed up for our date. I tell him that he did. That he was a total gentleman. But that I kind of wish he wasn’t…being divorced for nearly a year and all. I laugh at my own joke…and sink my teeth into this present.