Saturday, March 18, 2006

That Other Internet

The Internet, of course, is nothing new. The late Guy Davenport believed every book was created by its author, often unknowingly, as a response, one half of a virtual dialogue, sometimes disguised, to an already existing book. If we accept this highly ecological premise, and I do, then every book is linked inevitably to every other book in a vast Borgesian weave of overt and occult connections.

I thought of this as I was rereading W. Jackson Bate’s Samuel Johnson, my favorite among all biographies. Not long ago, in the New York Sun, Eric Orsmby reviewed the latest installment in “The Yale Edition of the Works of Samuel Johnson” and Henry Hitchings’ Defining the World, a chronicle of Johnson and his great dictionary. Ormsby is a fine poet somewhat in the manner of Wallace Stevens, one of our best book critics and a professor in McGill University’s Institute of Islamic Studies in Montreal.

In the course of his review, Ormsby cited a poem by Ben Downing, a poet I did not know. The poem bears the Keatsian title “On First Looking into Bates’ Life of Johnson.” The lines Ormsby quoted sounded intriguing, so I ordered Downing's book, The Calligraphy Shop, and was not disappointed. The poem is written in four sections of four stanzas each, and is that rarest of works: Each line is temptingly quotable. Here is a two-stanza sample:

“And from your perusal of your own work I
had already come to venerate the high
gloss you put on things, your peerless prose
with its lapidary dominoes

augustly toppling, clause after clause
unspooling like the costliest kilim
to welcome us in. Your full avoirdupois
I had presumed to feel, Gruff Pachyderm.”

I, too, had to look up “kilim.” It’s a Turkish word, Webster’s Third tells us, and refers to “a pileless tapestry; woven carpet, mat, or spread made in Turkey, Kurdistan, the Caucasus, Iran and western Turkestan.” Ormsby and Downing, like Davenport, Johnson, Bate, Stevens (whom Davenport called “a philosophical landscapist”) and Keats (whose biography Bate also wrote), are unafraid to use a seemingly exotic but in fact precisely useful word. For, if all is connected, if every book is a knot in a vast golden net, then nothing is truly exotic, everything is familiar, and all of it is ours.

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