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ELIZABETH SMITHER

 

The foxy young man on the escalator caught my eye when I was on a desk shift on the information desk. It was Library Week and I’d been given carte blanche to project quotations in large type on the white wall that rose two storeys behind the escalator. The quotations were set on a timer and the young man, gliding up on the escalator, was in time to linger on this one from Monty Python, which was one of my favourites. There were others, more mundane, ‘People can lose their lives in libraries. They ought to be warned’ (Saul Bellow) and, blunter, ‘Rule number one: Don’t fuck with librarians’ (Neil Gaiman); but the thought of being a wild animal was infinitely appealing to me. Librarians and panthers pace a lot: I thought, in my black uniform, I could be a panther.
What starts a poem? In this case it was this young man’s foxy grin and the way he half-turned his head and looked back towards the desk, shrinking in size, as he rose. The shrug and lowering of his shoulders, the sense of enjoyment in the mundane. We (the panthers and lions, leopards and chimpanzees) had photocopied stacks of poems to force on borrowers; we had filled a space on the stairs with all the waiting-to-be-chosen books in the poetry section. Hardly anyone turned away a poem.
An old, half-forgotten memory is a very useful thing in a poem, in the same way that soil is useful to the roots of a plant. Something that is still working away in the mind, though the occasion is long gone. The foxy young man may have a paunch now, or twins; he might buy all his books on Amazon. But the grin, which I caught, lingers like the Cheshire cat, fading into the darkness but still hanging on the air. Why did it come up again? Who can tell? But I found myself going in search of the ‘Gorilla Librarians’ script.
Perhaps part of it is to do with liking wildness – the wildness that Flaubert recommended: ‘Be regular and orderly in your life like a bourgeois, so that you may be violent and original in your work.’ Libraries, seemingly bourgeois with their book groups, visiting writers, book launches, are revolutionary in the way they undermine the idea of class or worth. Which tiger librarian hasn’t forced a life-changing book into the hands of a borrower? Or rejoiced when a family of six took out the whole allowance of books per person (40 × 6 = 240).
Of course a smile may be enough to begin a poem and set one seeking for the source but it is not enough. The poem then must go on, refreshed by the image, in stanza after stanza seeking something more than ‘meaning’, whatever that is. Are librarians, given the quotation, really animals? Is the animal nature present in libraries and in books? You could ask, ‘What is the nature of civilisation?’ if we are all animals underneath. How thin are its trappings if the librarians are transformed and their true natures show through. (A quieter species of animal obviously occupies the children’s library: Bambi and gazelles, harmless mad scientists). Should we move like pacing animals to keep fit?
Book titles, of course, can be invented. Someone is supposed to have done this: created impeccable catalogue cards with all the trimmings for books that did not exist and inserted them surreptitiously into a card catalogue of the old-fashioned sort with rods that slide out and where withdrawing a book meant simply and satisfyingly tugging the card out. I’ve no idea if there is a book entitled: Thoughts of Primates about Humans. Unlikely, I think, because it would have to be written by a gorilla, though Our Animal Natures sounds plausible. As the foxy young man reaches the top of the escalator and dismounts I imagine ways animal librarians could revitalise the profession. A monkey junior librarian could swing down the steps to the stack room, a giraffe librarian could pluck down a high book.
One of my favourite books when I worked as a librarian was Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose with its labyrinthine medieval library at the heart of which resides a book by Aristotle that encourages comedy and laughter. There are images of a great library at night when the titles of the books and their dead authors commune. I loved the idea of a book waiting for its borrower, sometimes for years, and then, one day, a hand reaches out for it and it finds a soul mate.
The last stanza was meant to be three lines, like the others, but I miscounted. Then I couldn’t reduce it to three – I think the autumn leaves come from the first pages of Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s The Shadow of the Wind where the leaves falling on Barcelona have the appearance of silvery scales. And, of course, books have leaves. In the end I decided to leave it: its four-square shape seemed to have something to do with the four sides of a book.

 

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