Monday, March 19, 2012

Jarrett Neal's Bookshelf

For many years, the only books in my grandparents’ home were the Bible, the Yellow Pages, and catalogues from Sears and Montgomery Ward. My grandmother only skimmed the Bible or back issues of Our Daily Bread late in the evening when her favorite television programs bored her, her eyelids drooping despite her best efforts to stay awake. My grandfather was barely literate and always demanded that someone read all of his correspondence to him. 

When I was about eight years old our local grocery store began selling encyclopedias for children. They were long slim volumes about half an inch thick and featured Peanuts characters.  Titled Charlie Brown’s ‘Cyclopedias, each volume focused on topics including animals, transportation, holidays, health and wellness, science, and clothing. The books cost ten dollars each, a small fortune for a family as poor as ours, but whenever Granny and I went to the A & P, she managed to set aside just enough money to purchase a book for me. My mother gave her the money whenever she could spare it, and sometimes one of my aunts would accompany Granny and me on our trips to the grocery store and buy the book for me.

Of the fifteen volumes in the complete set, I managed to collect twelve of them. I kept them stacked in order on the small white desk in my bedroom where I did my homework. I’ve no idea what happened to these books. I assume, as I began to mature, the books started to mean less and less to me, though now, as an adult, I wish I still had them in my possession, if only for sentimental value.

Thinking of those encyclopedias now fills me with tremendous affection and sadness. Maudlin demonstrations aside, those encyclopedias symbolize my early experiences with reading and my grandmother’s intrepid self-sacrificing nature more than any other material possession. 

Granny was wise.  She knew books were as valuable as food and that in order for me to achieve anything worthwhile in life, I had to acquire as much knowledge as I could and remain forever intellectually curious. Poverty has the ability to stomp this feeling out of individuals.  Wealth, I believe, has the same power. Yet my mother, grandmother and school teachers refused to allow me to get caught up in the anti-intellectualism that robbed so many African American boys of their chance to obtain knowledge and success.

Their efforts yielded great results. Today I am a professor, a reader, and a writer. I think of the bookshelves that line the walls of my home library as vaults securing treasure, arsenals housing weapons, future lovers and old flames. I lust for books the way others lust for nubile bodies. I will never read all of the books I own, nor write all of the books carelessly piled in the shadowy realms of my mind. Yet I know wherever there are words there is possibility, hands reaching across the foggy distance as comforting as those of my grandmother.
Jarrett Neal earned a BA in English from Northwestern University and a MFA in Writing from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. His fiction, poetry, and essays have appeared in Q Review, Chelsea Station, Copperfield Review, Nolos, Lucid Moon and other publications. His essay, “Boys’ Dolls,” will appear in the forthcoming anthology, For Colored Boys, edited by Keith Boykin. He lives in Oak Park, Illinois.

Monday, March 12, 2012

A Bookshelf from Eric Norris

Counting down from the top, shelf number two appears to enclose the entire spectrum of literature in the space of three feet.

On the right, toward the kitchen, in an inexpensive glass and brass frame, sits a souvenir sepia-toned postcard portrait of Wilfred Owen I purchased in London in 1996. Wilfred Owen was my first love. He introduced me to poetry, just prior to the passing bell from 1st to 2nd period on Monday, November 4th, 1985. I was seventeen. We had just finished reading ‘Dulce Et Decorum Est’ in AP English. The textbook we were using was Sound and Sense, edited by Laurence Perrine, 4th edition, 1973. When the bell rang, I moved mechanically to Calculus. The rest of the day dissolved in a fog.

On the left, a Kodak print—my boyfriend and me—smiles in an identical frame, at about the height of my pillow. We are sitting on Ayano’s bed in the East 50s on New Year’s Eve in 2006. I am wearing a beer-drinking grin and he has closed his eyes because he hates flash-photos.

Around midnight, maybe just after, we will have a vicious argument involving mochi (a Japanese rice cake, a traditional holiday treat) that will escalate into nuclear war. I will storm out of his apartment and stagger to Grand Central and board a train for Stamford, Connecticut, where I am living at the time.

We will not speak to each other for two months. In early February of 2007, a fever will break out. He will call, coughing up his lungs—sick with bronchitis—having made himself extremely ill over many sleepless nights. Seventy-five minutes later, I will be rising to his apartment in Manhattan with a carton of Minute Maid orange juice.

This trip in the elevator will trigger another memory, of another magical evening, one early in our relationship, the night he told me that his father was a young kamikaze pilot who was saved from suicide by the atomic bomb. I will transform that moment—the exact moment I realized that I loved him—into a poem of 924 lines, 66 sonnets. Takaaki will be my first book of poetry.

Empty as my apartment may feel sometimes—Takaaki had to return to Japan three years ago to care for his elderly father—this is my home. I am more or less happy here. This is where I Skype. This is where I type. This is why I type. When I look up from my laptop, I see myself, I see Takaaki, and I see Wilfred Owen. The reason I have no other pictures on display is that I am a finicky housekeeper and I hate dusting. I can see everyone else in my family when I close my eyes.
I suppose it is no coincidence that exactly in the middle of that shelf, between my two great loves, you will find the spine of Vladimir Nabokov’s memoir, Speak, Memory. Everyman’s Library. Alfred A. Knopf, 1999. 

ERIC NORRIS is the co-author (with Gavin Geoffrey Dillard) of Nocturnal Omissions, available from Sibling Rivalry Press. He is also the author of two books available on Terence, a comic translation of A.E. Housman’s, A Shropshire Lad, and Takaaki, an epic love poem written in the style of Alexander Pushkin. His poems have appeared in: New Walk Magazine, The Raintown Review, Softblow, Q-Review, Umbrella, The Flea, among others. Eric is an occasional contributor of essays, poetry, memoir, and dramatic dialogues to the webzine, The Nervous Breakdown. He is a founding editor of the poetry journal KIN. Eric is the co-host of Carmine Street Metrics at The Bowery Poetry Club in New York City.
Links to Eric's books: