Wednesday, October 05, 2022

'The Living Context of Some Scribbled Note'

The book I’ve owned longest – since September 25, 1960, a month before my eighth birthday – is The Bible (RSV). My mother wrote my name and date on the flyleaf. The book’s edges are red fading to pink and the black faux-leather cover is peeling off the spine. Twelve years later while I was a junior in college, my mother slipped me a rather cryptic note on a small square of paper: “Romans – 8:29.” I was, indeed, her first born. I have no idea what she intended by the scriptural reference and we never talked about it. We were not churchgoers and I couldn’t tell you what my mother believed. The slip of paper, turning brown and brittle, remains between pages 890 and 891. 

I find that I’ve underlined many verses but otherwise left no marginalia, which suggests an unconscious reverence for the text. Psalms 19:12, for instance, is underlined: “But who can discern his errors? / Clear thou me from hidden faults.” That seems apropos though I’m surprised my younger self was able to recognize such a defect of character within himself. And then there's Isaiah 41:29: “Behold, they are all a delusion; their works are nothing; their molten images are empty wind.” Again, that’s pertinent to my understanding of the world, but when and why I marked it I have no idea.


In her poem “Marginalia” (Dream with Flowers and Bowl of Fruit, 2008), Deborah Warren opens an old book and in the scrawled notes meets her “former, unfamiliar, self.” Like me, she finds more mystery than revelation:


“. . . though I tried, I couldn't get (behind  

this gloss or that) back to the time she wrote  

to guess what experiences she had in mind,  

the living context of some scribbled note.”


I recognize some continuity with the younger man who marked these passages of scripture. Nothing underlined come as a surprise: “I agreed / with the young annotator’s every thought: / A clever girl.” None of the marked verses suggest a stupid, disrespectful, argumentative person, which is a relief. In her final stanza, Warren wonders what she and her former self would make of each other. The young man I see reflected in the Bible comes off much better than he and I know he truly was. I think of the closing lines of another Warren poem, “Absences”:


“Make us alive to what does not exist—

our sufferance to live so unaware

of all that we have missed.”

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