Wednesday, 18 September 2013

A reading of 'In the Library' by Charles Simic

Philip Harvey
For the first time in many years the Library is having a light cull of books, completely unusable books, that is. The jargon word is taken from museum practice, a deaccession. This cull has been approved by Committee and prompted mainly by space considerations, not because of their replacement with e-versions, or any other IT-induced reduction of the standing collection. In fact, you couldn’t find e-versions of most of these culled books, or even want them if you did. The titles come elsewhere in better versions, better typefaces and better everything. They are superseded textbooks, theology manuals in Latin from the 1950s that only someone in Rome could read today, reference works that due to time and advances in knowledge contain dangerous and misleading information. There are ratty copies of existentialist novels and pamphlets on obscure byways of doctrinaire Catholicism that haven’t been looked at for fifty years. Some of them put me in mind of the book identified in this poem by the Serbian-American Charles Simic, ‘In the Library’ (dedicated to Octavio Paz) though the book in the poem would remain firmly on the shelf of the Carmelite Library.
There's a book called
"A Dictionary of Angels."
No one has opened it in fifty years,
I know, because when I did,
The covers creaked, the pages
Crumbled. There I discovered
The angels were once as plentiful
As species of flies.
The sky at dusk
Used to be thick with them.
You had to wave both arms
Just to keep them away.
Now the sun is shining
Through the tall windows.
The library is a quiet place.
Angels and gods huddled
In dark unopened books.
The great secret lies
On some shelf Miss Jones
Passes every day on her rounds.
She's very tall, so she keeps
Her head tipped as if listening.
The books are whispering.
I hear nothing, but she does.

Once we have forgiven Charles Simic for his stereotyping of librarians we consider some of the better implications of his poem. We have all come across books that we gaze at with puzzled wonder. What kind of book is this? Who would have read this book? Why was it written? Who would take the time to write it? The very existence of the book in hand tells us that a whole range of real people worked carefully to prepare the text, set the type, produce the item, distribute and promote it. A librarian with sensitivities will occasionally have pangs of guilt or second thoughts about culling such books. Their rarity stops us in our tracks, the purpose of their very existence is not to be denied. “A Dictionary of Angels” would stay where it was parked because angelology is a genuine if under-attended subject of theology. Books on angels have a permanent shelf life in this Library. To have records of named angels is essential in getting to know the minds of other generations, whatever our own definition of an angel. Scripture and Talmud would be missing something were angels to be deleted. Students of angels would probably take exception to the second verse of the poem, where Simic wishes to relegate angels to the past: this is not something that makes sense if they are part of the heavenly realm. He also indulges in comic or far-fetched descriptions of angels that bear really no resemblance to their appearances in Scripture and elsewhere in Judaic, Christian and Muslim tradition.  More riskily, in fact it’s heretical methinks, the poet seems to imply that angels only exist today in books. The rabbis would have had something to say about this strange idea, not to mention the shepherds watching over their flocks by night. As it is, we should leave encounters with angels to those who have something to say. The poem’s purpose, however, is not to deny angels, rather to get us to listen to the ‘whispering’ in the books, and even if we cannot hear anything, to pay attention to those who can hear the ‘whispering’. The materiality of the book itself may fall apart yet there are presences everywhere. Their own existence in time is telling us of other existences and other experiences than our own. We must cull with a discerning eye, but also with extra senses of the kind possessed by Miss Jones.   

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