John and I still hold dear the memory of seeing poet Allen Grossman give a reading in an old classroom at the University of Washington. His rather staid professorial appearance (right down to the suede elbow patches on his tweed jacket) belied what was to come, as he brought forth poems of incredible majesty and intimacy, their stunning metaphysics threaded through with sharp humor and profound sorrow. Much of his work sings with a biblical richness, and he read it beautifully, with all the power and nuance it deserved. After the reading, John and I were stunned, and Professor Grossman was sweating. In the hallway following, I was so moved I said to him (keep in mind we had already met and talked), “I have to touch you,” and rested my hand on his arm. “That,” I said, “was rock-and-roll.” A crazy compliment, perhaps, but a few weeks earlier I’d attended a concert that lacked all the thrilling risk, intelligence, and lyricism this bespectacled scholar had just offered us as we sat in our narrow wooden seats. It was a transformative experience and an introduction to a poetry I have since turned to again and again and which I know has shaped my own work. Allen Grossman died on June 27 at the age of 82. I’ll share below a poem of his we’ve placed in the typewriter in our window.
“The Caedmon Room”
Upstairs, one floor below the Opera House
on top of the building, was the Caedmon room —
a library of sorts. The Caedmon room
was empty of readers most of the time.
When the last reader left and closed the door,
I locked it and moved in for life. Right now,
I am writing this in the Caedmon room.
Caedmon was an illiterate, 7th century
British peasant to whom one night a lady
appeared in a dream. She said to him, speaking
in her own language, “Caedmon! Sing me something!”
And he did just that. What he sang, in his
own language, was consequential — because
he did not learn the art of poetry
from men, but from God. For that reason,
he could not compose a trivial poem,
but what is right and fitting for a lady
who wants a song. These are the words he sang:
“Now praise the empty sky where no words are.”
This was Caedmon’s song. Caedmon’s voice is sweet.
In the Caedmon room shelves groan under the
weight of eloquent blank pages, histories
of a sweet world in which we are not found.
Caedmon turned each page, page after page
until the last page — on which was written:
“To the one who conquers, I give the morning star.”
– Allen Grossman
Thanks to the kind and helpful folks at New Directions, we were able to receive a shipment of Anne Carson’s new chapbook, The Albertine Workout ($10.95), ahead of its scheduled publication date, which allowed us to offer them at her recent event in Seattle — and to put them on our shelves. We do have a limited number of signed copies available as well. It is a Carsonesque meditation on a character created by Proust, which means it is about much more than that. From “appendix 15 (a) on adjectives” — “Adjectives are the handles of Being. Nouns name the world, adjectives let you get hold of the name and keep it from flying all over your mind like a pre-Socratic explanation of the cosmos.”
These last several weeks brought the difficult news of the deaths of Maxine Kumin, Bill Knott, and Marion Kimes — uniquely compelling poets and personalities. Each wrote out of deep tenderness and remarkable strength. Each was iconoclastic, fierce, loving. We are saddened they have left this world and grateful their words still echo here.
We are delighted and grateful to announce that Alexander has joined the Open Books staff. As you’ll soon find out, he’s a poetry-reader with a bright mind, attentive ear, and warm presence. Expect to see him shelving books, manning the till, and just generally helping to keep this place in some sort of order. Do say hello to him when next you’re in.
Linda Bierds new volume, Roget’s Illusion, has just been published by Penguin Books ($27.95). We’re also delighted to announce that Ms. Bierds will be reading from the collection at Open Books on Thursday, May 15th, at 7:30 PM.
We’re delighted to add our huzzahs to the news that Elizabeth Austen has been named the third Poet Laureate of Washington State, a role we know she will fulfill with her quintessential engaged and engaging grace. Please join us for the passing of the laurel on Sunday, February 16th, at 3 PM!
With inventory behind us (well, almost — the storage room awaits), we’re grateful to begin another year of sharing the deep pleasures of poetry books with you. Our thanks to those of you who chose to make some of your 2013 poetry purchases at Open Books. We know there are many ways for you to put books on your shelves, and we’re grateful you’ve chosen to support this sometimes quirky venture.
Among those quirks is our method for keeping track of sales at the store, the method we’ve used since Open Books began as a general bookstore in 1987: each title sold is written down in a notebook purchased at the Bartell’s drugstore up the street.
The last book sold at Open Books in 2013? Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus translated by Edward Snow and published by North Point Press. The first book of 2014? Pirateria by Calef Brown from Atheneum Books for Young Readers (“we put the ‘arg’ in bargain”). Viva verse in all its variations!
Before 2013 slips too far away, we want to join in the congratulations of Mary Szybist and Graywolf Press, the author and publisher of Incarnadine, which received the prestigious National Book Award in late November. Mary’s reading at Open Books from this quietly powerful, beautifully written collection was one of the highlights of last year for us. We are delighted that her fine work has received this much deserved praise. You can view Mary’s acceptance speech (with an introduction by Nikky Finney) here.