Saturday, October 07, 2017

`I Tuned My Ears to the Quires'

It’s no surprise I find myself in libraries and bookstores in my dreams. Sometimes I’m lost in the stacks and mildly anxious, but more often the sensation is reassuring. I feel at home. The dreams are realistic, without banal surrealistic touches. Recently I found myself in the basement of Kay’s Books, where I worked in 1975. I was fetching a copy of John Cheever’s The World of Apples, something I actually did forty-two years ago. I found it, realized I wanted it, and then, on the cusp of a moral lapse, woke.       

I’m late in catching up with Elise Partridge (1958-2015), a poet born in the U.S. who had dual citizenship with Canada. Cancer killed her at age fifty-six, and New York Review Books has published The If Borderlands: Collected Poems (2017). She is a gently bookish poet, a reader. The fourth of the five sections of “Odysseys” is titled “College Library,” and it kindles pleasant memories:

“I never lingered in the reading room
on cracked leather chairs, under varnished portraits,
but rapeled [sic] directly into the stacks’ ravines.
Batlike I tuned my ears to the quires,
Alighted here and there in ambrosial must.
I parted folios that had not been flicked
By reading fingers in a hundred years,
Made my way up at midnight clutching
A week’s worth of trophies, fistfuls of sheaves.”

Partridge’s reader is no dilettante. She says “ravines.” I’ve always thought canyons, visited by reader-explorers. Quires comes with an irresistible, built-in pun. The OED’s entry is unusually lengthy: “Originally: a small book or pamphlet, esp. one consisting of a set of four sheets of parchment or paper folded in two so as to form eight leaves; (also) a short poem, treatise, etc., which is or could be contained in such a book. Later more generally: any book (containing literary work).” Of course, Partridge tunes her ear to the “choirs.” Like Partridge, I find the scent of old books pleasant and comforting – “ambrosial must.” At the end, she’s bringing in the sheaves. In the final line of the final stanza of “Odysseys,” Partridge hears “truths calling among the leaves.”

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