Monday, June 19, 2017

`Long Shelves Brim'

All reading is personal, sometimes explicitly so. I’ve stumbled on references to Cleveland, my home town, in Thoreau, Dreiser, Sherwood Anderson, Edward Dahlberg and Herbert Gold (another native). I knew Adam Zagajewski taught for several years at the University of Houston, but how much can a Polish poet wrapped in an academic cocoon observe of his alien surroundings? What is Houston compared to Kraków, Zagajewski’s birthplace and home to Jagiellonian University, founded in 1364? His first impression of Houston, as described in Slight Exaggeration (trans. Clare Cavanagh, 2017), is identical to mine (during my first visit, in 2004):

“. . . I saw gigantic trees, evergreen oaks overgrown with Spanish moss, like ancient bison. I quickly realized that Houston was a very green city, and that those evergreen oaks were its claim to fame. And that little prefix ever! Azaleas began blooming in February, larger than in Europe, but even the word spring didn’t make much sense in this climate. The evergreen oaks [primarily live oaks and water oaks] behaved like cautious rentiers: they never lost all their leaves even for an instant, they renewed them systematically, new leaves grew beneath the previous year’s leaves and after a moment mercilessly pushed the old ones out – the battle of the generations crystalized in pure, clinical, horrifying form – so that the trees were never naked.”

As a fellow Northerner, I shared Zagajewski’s wonder at the Texas autumn, which is little more than a rumor by Northern standards. Next, Zagajewski gets even more personal:

“I also discovered the Rice University campus, located near my apartment, and above all its wonderful library, in which I spent blissful hours, hours borrowed from life when I forgot about Texas; only after leaving did I rediscover the old oaks’ arabesques and remember where I was. Rice University is better known for engineering than the humanities, it’s true, but its library has splendid holdings in the European literatures. Long shelves brim with books of largely forgotten authors, who labored their whole lives.”

Zagajewski’s description is vividly precise. I work for the George R. Brown School of Engineering at Rice, and almost every day I visit the Fondren Library. The poet says he “spent a great deal of time in the comfortable, nearly empty library at Rice.” He also learned to deal with Eastern prejudice about living in Houston. Whenever he would meet Roger Straus, the publisher would “ask jokingly if we were certain that Texas was in fact part of the United States of North America. On the East Coast they see Houston as a kind of black hole, antimatter. My East Coast friends treated me with sympathy—I had to return to the Southern jungles.” I hear the same lame jokes. But Zagajewski respects more than just Texas and its superb libraries. It’s good to hear a European express qualified admiration for America and its culture:

“American libraries are far better than their European counterparts, perhaps because memory infiltrates the structure of European cities, urban development, even rural fields and meadows, are shaped by archaic models, layers of memory shape the light, under naked skies, laid open to the rain and wind, they’re inscribed in the layout of streets, in the architectural details of old houses, whereas in the United States memory is preserved chiefly in libraries and museums, since the cities mostly suffer from amnesia, old buildings are laid waste and gleaming new buildings  take their place every couple of decades.”

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