Offhandedly, apropos of nothing but the acuteness of his eye, Steven Millhauser noticed the small, rectangular aluminum plates riveted about chest-high to telephone and power poles. The utility companies stamp them with numbers. Millhauser cites this commonplace of the landscape without comment in his novella Enchanted Night (1999). One of literature’s little-appreciated purposes, surely, is cataloging the world. Millhauser noticed something this reader had often seen but never understood or appreciated. Now I’m happy whenever I see one of these mysterious mundane things.
My friend Melissa Kean, the university historian, is a great admirer of manhole covers, an admiration I share. She photographs them and records their inscriptions. We talked about manhole covers on Friday – humble, sturdy, ignorable, beautiful objects with a glow of wonder about them. I like to think G. K. Chesterton would have shared our enthusiasm. In “Lamp-posts” (The Uses of Diversity, 1921), he writes:
“The mere fact that we have seen a lamp-post very often, and that it generally looked very much the same as before, would not of itself prevent us from appreciating its elfin fire, any more than it prevents the child.”
I sent Melissa a copy of “Manhole Covers” by Karl Shapiro:
“The beauty of manhole covers--what of that?
Like medals struck by a great savage khan,
Like Mayan calendar stones, unliftable, indecipherable,
Not like the old electrum, chased and scored,
Mottoed and sculptured to a turn,
But notched and whelked and pocked and smashed
With the great company names
(Gentle Bethlehem, smiling United States).
This rustproof artifact of my street,
Long after roads are melted away will lie
Sidewise in the grave of the iron-old world,
Bitten at the edges,
Strong with its cryptic American,
Its dated beauty.”