Monday, November 13, 2017

A Little Ditty 'Bout Joe & Rachel

It has been a long time since my hometown of Lewiston, Maine has had a bookstore, so when Quiet City Books opened a few years ago, I was extremely excited. Lewiston is one of those New England mill towns that has been rebuilding and redeveloping and still struggling for decades and the ability to support a bookstore would at least imply that some of that long process of transitioning from a factory economy into whatever comes next is beginning to take. (Lewiston also now has great craft beer. Maybe a “craft beer and local bookstores are the pioneer plants for a local economy” post should be in the works.)

It took me a couple of years, but I was finally able to get to Quiet City. It sells almost exclusively used books, though it also sells books by local authors on consignment. Wanting Lewiston to have a bookstore, I did some shopping there. I bought a book of poetry by a friend of mine, The Keep by Jennifer Egan, a mystery by Rex Stout (that I left in Maine for my mom), The House of Suns by Alistair Reynolds (because there is something fun about buying mass market sci fi at a used bookstore) and then a book I had never heard of by a someone I had never heard of but it was poetry and it was in translation. So, you know, by internet law I had to buy it.

It was Le Contre-Ciel by Rene Daumal. Daumal was a French poet roughly contemporary with the Surrealists who experimented with radical negation (including intense experimentation with drugs) as a kind of course through non-being into true being. Daumal also became a staunch critic of Breton and the Surrealists, seeing them as unwilling (or unable) to actually produce works drawn from experimentation with their principles, which makes him A-OK in my book. (Dada or GFTO.) It was also, as I discovered later, inscribed on the inside of the front cover.

Think, for a second, what it would mean to give a book of radical, experimental self-negation to your boyfriend, to say to him “You are my heart,” and to sign it “Love.” There are many reasons to give a book to someone you love and many messages you can convey. You can use a book to describe your feelings about them or your feelings about the relationship. You can reference a shared experience or memory. You can encapsulate your hopes. But you can also open yourself up and say to someone “This is important to me, this is a part of who I am, this is something you need to know in order to know me.” Sharing a part of yourself in this way puts you in a very vulnerable position. It is a risk even when you've been with someone for a while and no matter what the book is. A powerful, beautiful risk. And Rachel took it. Daumal died young, probably in part because of his experiments with drugs, and he wrote formally experimental poetry that sought to erase the self and the self of being to reach some grander truth in a new verdant void, and he didn't abide Breton's bullshit and Rachel wrote “You are my heart,” in it and gave it to Joe. She had to be telling him something important about her.

There are some other possibilities of course. Rachel and Joe could have talked about the book prior to the gifting. They could have talked about poetry. Maybe Joe was really into Breton and the Surrealists and Rachel wanted to show him what else was happening in and around that movement. Or perhaps he was really into Rimbaud or Genet and Rachel wanted to show him a lesser known French poet who also lived an extreme life. But do you inscribe “You are my heart,” when you are continuing a conversation about poetry? I supposes it's possible, but, most likely, to my schmaltzy book-heart, only after you've inscribed several other books with "You are my heart" in English and this had become something of a standard inscription from Rachel to Joe.

Regardless, this leads us to the next big question: How much of a piece of shit is Joe, right? Unless he's dead. If he's dead and the book was sold off as part of his estate then he's not a piece of shit. (Or, rather, this particular bit of his personal narrative doesn't prove he is a piece of shit.) Sure, they probably broke up, and maybe even the break up was Rachel's fault, and maybe he got rid of the book with everything else that reminded him of her as we sometimes must purge ourselves of the ephemera of painful relationships, but, I don't know. Something about the phrasing and the book itself suggests to me, at least, that Joe is, at best, a piece of shit who just didn't understand how beautiful and powerful this gift was and, at worst, a piece of shit who was intimidated that his girlfriend knew more obscure French poetry than he did and rather than using it as an opportunity to grow, he read a handful of pages, dismissed Daumal as derivative of the poets he assumes he introduced to Rachel, (Trust me, Joe, Rachel heard of Artaud and Cesaire, she just choose not to interrupt you.) and got rid of the book on the sly.

Of course, there is no way for me to know for sure what went down between Joe and Rachel, but they still left traces of their story on this book. Rachel imbued the book with her love and gave it to Joe and then something happened. If nothing else, we know Rachel loved this book. There is something about holding a book you know someone else loved. As much as we spend our time and attention on screens we are still bodies interacting with space and objects and those interactions leave traces. For all of the other advances made by the book as technology, its ability to retain and transmit these interactions will be the hardest (if it's possible at all) to replicate digitally. Gift inscriptions. Notes in the margins. Underlined passages. Receipts, postcards, pictures, notes used as bookmarks and left behind. The discoloration the oils from skin causes on the paper. Setting an old book down on its spine and seeing where it opens. And even if the traces don't provide anything close to a full story, they still tell you that someone else held this book before you did, they still ground you in a past, and connect you to other readers and other people in the future.

And not only that, but these traces are then scattered throughout the book world to be stumbled into randomly. And that randomness becomes part of the story. Maybe this connects to our time as hunter/gatherers when any good fortune was treated as a gift from the gods because it was the difference between life and death or maybe this doesn't have any psychological or rational explanation but there is something to seeing a book cover that “just grabs you,” and there is something about a song coming on the radio at the right moment and there is something about buying a book for some reason you don't quite remember and discovering it has information you need to know or tells a story you need to hear. We are storytelling animals and odds are pretty fucking good that not a single one of us is living a life that fits into the storytelling structures we prefer, but then there are these moments when it finally does feel like a narrator taking control and putting the right thing in front of you. These moments of connection can be motivation for the next chapter in your life.

A new chapter in the story of Joe and Rachel is now, "Josh randomly found the book in Quiet City and spent way too fucking long trying to figure out the shit that went down between Joe and Rachel." And just to add another level, the first poem in the book features short stanzas in verse followed by a kind of tangential exegesis in italicized prose, which (again randomly) speaks to one of my current poetic projects. At this point, it's too early in my reading of the book and in my work on this project to know what, if anything, is transferred from one to the other, but, through this book, at this moment, it feels like I fell through the floor but landed in the secret chamber like a hero in a story. And then some day, I'll die, and this book will go somewhere, with the inscription and, at the very least, the bookmark I've added to it and through this object the saga of Joe and Rachel will continue.

No comments:

Post a Comment