Wednesday, 24 October 2012

And Yet the Books

Philip Harvey
This is the fifth in a series of pieces about the book in poetry released at this blogspot.

Davis McCaughey once said, “As we become more technically competent, perhaps to deal with means, the threat to our coherence is in the definition of ends and how to get there. Librarians must constantly remind the rest of us that not all communication is of the same kind. What is appropriate for the commercial world may be utterly confusing for the humanities, to which the skill of librarianship fundamentally belongs.” His words were delivered to the Australian and New Zealand Theological Library Association in Melbourne in 2000 at a joint session of librarians, biblical scholars, and theologians. Given at a time when silicon first seemed a serious threat to wood pulp, McCaughey’s appeal to the book struck a note of warning not just about our need to value the printed book, but to value it in the face of technological change. Over ten years later, his words have not lost any of their prescient effect.

At the session Davis McCaughey read poems by T. S. Eliot and the Polish-American poet Czeslaw Milosz (1911-2004), saying their words remind us that “what is at stake is humanity, or if you like, members of the human race, thinking, talking, writing in the presence of God, and on the way doing so in the presence of their fellow members of the human race. To be aware of this they need libraries.” Our understanding of the world as a finite place is constantly being challenged by the seemingly infinite publication of books, past, present, and future, that extend our imaginations outside the finite. Theological librarians, perhaps more than most, are brought into a regular awareness of the most important conversation we can have, the conversation about God. The Eliot poem was one of the choruses from ‘The Rock’. The Milosz poem was ‘And Yet the Books’:

And yet the books will be there on the shelves, separate beings,
That appeared once, still wet
As shining chestnuts under a tree in autumn,
And touched, coddled, began to live
In spite of fires on the horizon, castles blown up,
Tribes on the march, planets in motion.
“We are,” they said, even as their pages
were being torn out, or a buzzing flame
licked away their letters. So much more durable
than we are, whose frail warmth
cools down, with memory, disperses, perishes.
I imagine the earth when I am no more:
Nothing happens, no loss, it’s still a strange pageant,
Women’s dresses, dewy lilacs, a song in the valley,
Yet the books will be there on the shelves, well born,
Derived from people, but also from radiance, heights.

The opening words speak for the rest, in miniature, like a summary, as happens in some poems. “And yet the books …” They say that whatever happens in this life, there will be books on the shelf still, to recall what has passed and to recollect what was said. Milosz even calls books “separate beings”, i.e. separate from us in our lives and from the authors who wrote them. The books exist to tell us their story, which come to us as existences in their own right. Even the authors are separated from the books they create once the words are complete. They go out into the world with their own meanings and messages. “We are”, they assert, beings that deliver their own experience into the present of the reader.

When I read this poem I wonder about the connotations of the Polish word for ‘chestnuts’.  How unusual in a poem of such spare, forceful claims to find a beauteous analogy in which books are “still wet as shining chestnuts under a tree in autumn.”  While we picture old bound books in brown leather and admire their copious quantities, Milosz seems also to be connecting the trees themselves with books. This shouldn’t be a surprise. The word ‘book’ in English derives from the word for ‘beech’, linking it directly to the tree from which the paper products were made. (Theories even circulate that the letters of the alphabet in some cultures are a mnemonic for the sequence of the trees as they flower through the year.) I think the poet is reminding us of the book’s connection with the earth from whence it sprang, and of human relationship with the very wood of the physical books we read. The books themselves have come alive through nurture.

The boldest claim in the poem is that books are “so much more durable than we are.” Not only will books outlive their creators and readers, they will outlive all of us. There are those who say that everything is subject to mutability, animate and inanimate, but we know what Milosz is saying: the book will be read when we are no longer walking the Earth. This is a reason why people write books in the first place, some even think they bestow immortality. It is unquestionably a reason for libraries. This is especially so in theological libraries, where books are not discarded but remain there to be rediscovered, witnesses to the thoughts and revelations of those who have gone before.

Witness, in fact, is a theme of this poem. The catastrophe described in the centre of the poem is part of the experience of the poet, who grew up in Lithuania but lived through the Second World War in that aggrieved city, Warsaw. Virtually everything perished before his eyes. He became a Roman Catholic and lived the second half of his life mainly in the United States, escaping the cultural control of the Soviet Bloc. It is worth noting in the context of this poem that as well as writing poetry and essays, Milosz translated the Psalms into Polish. He himself is a witness, so it is explicable that he identifies this role also in the books that he sees on the shelves of libraries. Their survival is as much a matter of amazement as his own human survival, as worthy of respect and wonder. Life itself will always be deserving of wonder (“it’s still a strange pageant”) even if we will never make sense of it all, and we have the books. He even calls them “well born”, as though individual beings brought into the world with their own lives to lead.

The closing words place the poem in the realm of the Psalmist. They open new possibilities, arrest our desire for closure. Books for Milosz are “derived from people”, to be sure, but are also derived from “radiance” and “heights”. We can make many things of these two impressive words, standing there like towers or gates or roads at the end of the poem. For me, “radiance” is the light that fills us with insight and leads us toward truth; “heights” are those possibilities we can see and may go towards, even if we may never reach the mountains, or need to. They stand there too, I would suggest, for what Davis McCaughey means in his talk in 2000 by “the presence of God.”

Davis McCaughey’s address to ANZTLA (‘The library and theological studies: an indivisible marriage’) can be read in full in The ANZTLA Newsletter, No. 41, August 2000, pp. 21-24. ‘And Yet the Books’ is found in Czeslaw Milosz, ‘The Collected Poems 1931-1987’ (Penguin, 1988, p. 485).


  1. Good thoughts. I like what you had to say, especially about nature and the connection between it all. Very insightful!

  2. Leaving Cert unseen poem 2016 HL.....did not understand. Now reading this I think that I might just have scraped some marks. THanks