Shelf Reading

A poet-critic dusts off a small library’s poetry section—and turns up a gem or two 
by Danny Jacobs

THE PETITCODIAC PUBLIC Library’s Canadian poetry section spans 19 inches of shelf space: the 819.1s in Melvil Dewey’s decimal system. When I started as Library Manager in this New Brunswick village three years ago, I was curious; I write poems myself so I wanted to see what verse was stocked in my new home-away-from-home. 

The library’s in the basement of the Masonic Lodge, off Main and beside the Legion. You go downstairs to a single room of packed square footage, shelves sardined with collections born of necessity, whim, demand, and chance. Before we took it over, the space was used for community auctions and sock-hops. We came from the old bank in the early aughts, the books brought over in the municipal backhoe’s front loader.

The poetry books take up a lower shelf in Nonfiction, ensconced in a plastic adhesive the library biz calls Tacky-Back (value death for collectors). There’s a fair sample from Canadian poetry’s doldrums—garish covers spanning the ‘70s to the ‘90s, each chock-full of mostly low-watt free verse. There’s a good chunk of early Atwoods, one called, You Are Happy (Oxford University Press, 1974), the title writ large in a hippie’s chubby VW Bus font. There’s Bursting Into Song: An Al Purdy Omnibus (Black Moss Press, 1982), a Gary Geddes called, The Acid Test (Turnstone Press, 1981). There’s a Ken Norris called, To Sleep, To Love (Guernica Editions, 1982), the author pensive and shaggy on the cover. Here’s some positively head-spinning stuff from the opener:

            When you are gone
            I am alone, there is
            no one here beside me.  
                      —from “The Differences”

There are unexpected gems that haven’t been dusted in decades. We have Irving Layton’s The Darkening Fire: Selected Poems 1945-1968 (M&S, 1975), the card last date-stamped when I was a toddler. It could’ve gone out after our library system went digital, but I have my doubts. There’s a 1995 chapbook from West Coast poet and editor John Barton (Destinations, Leaving the Map, above/ground press, one of 100). How did it get here? 

We also have News and Weather: Seven Canadian Poets (Brick, 1982), edited by August Kleinzahler, from his days north of the 49th. Only seven poets! Imagine the flame war such flintiness would spark today: the incredulity at who was overlooked! The accusations of favouritism! Of cliqueishness! Kleinzahler’s half-page forward is refreshing in its bluntness, its refusal to polemicize. No 30-page clarion call here, just a humble offering: “Here are 7 poets I read and listen to with delight. And envy.” Kleinzahler includes early A. F. Moritz, his dense metaphysics there even then, though less apocalyptic than erotic: 

            A black orchid convokes bees
            at your body’s centre,
            a stem of urine
            connects it to the ground.
            Beside where you stand, the fishes
            leap up an arc of light
            and hang in a rainbow
            over the disgorging cleft.
                      —from “Black Orchid”

My circ system says we once had David Solway’s Selected (Vehcule, 1982). I like to think it was thieved by some disgruntled high school English teacher, done with slogging through the backwoods of the CanLit unit and ready to preach the undervalued. Solway, a poet with no time for the shallow regionalism and civic-mindedness of most Canadian verse, would have appealed to my imagined educator. I picture a passionate recitation of “Lampman Among the Moderns” to a classroom of beleaguered AP students:

            Canadian poets, learn your craft
            and celebrate the hundredth draft.
            Scorn the sort who stumble into print
            and excel by grace or accident,
            or ply their patriotic pens
            to show they are good citizens….

But I romanticize. A likely end: Solway’s book boxed with Harlequins and driveway-bound on spring cleaning, its plain and sow-pink cover curling in the rain. 

Must I tell you they never go out? That they’re passed daily by patrons on the way to Knitting or True Crime? Unsurprising, if library lending habits are at all a microcosm of the wider book-buying public’s habits. 

But I try. I do. Every April I air out the choice bits; I fan them on my display table above a poster advertising Poetry Month. Alas, this doesn’t help much. They remain stationary and unthumbed through throughout this cruellest of months, their cheap paper’s lignin breaking down to a deeper yellow. 

On first encounter, there’s something inherently diminutive about a row of shelved poetry. Unlike the pure tonnage of bestsellers standing at military attention, their thick spines projecting shiny caps, poetry books from a distance compress to a wash of pancaked indistinctness. They’re wisps, quarter-inch spectrum bands of dull colour, loathe to call attention to themselves. To the idle browser, they promise little. 

The locals know Petitcodiac as “The Village of Fire,” the downtown core razed and rebuilt multiple times throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This summer, kids lit up an old Saturn next door; they left the four doors open, interior sopping with accelerant. The heat blew out a window in the library’s kitchen. I came in on Monday to charred curtains and glass crystalling the shag on our stacked institutional chairs. The perps are still unknown, the town left to its own theories: a tryst, a drug deal gone wrong. 

If one day my block catches again, and I see smoke, I’ll take what I can. After the tatty banker’s box housing the village archival material, I guess I’d go for the poetry. I’d fill my arms and run through the flames, a cavalcade of slim volumes cartwheeling behind me. I’d bring them upstairs and out into the light.


DANNY JACOBS is the author of Songs that Remind Us of Factories (2013). He lives with his wife in Riverview, New Brunswick, and works as the librarian in the village of Petitcodiac.